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Unfurling their flag

Posted on 17 March 2009 at 3:45 pm in Musings.

To update my post on social bookmarking, it would seem I reviewed a short-lived service in furl. It has now been absorbed by diigo, which calls itself a web “highlighter”. Such is the nature of the world wild web.

Furl informed me by email that:

The Furl team is very pleased to announce that Furl has become part of Diigo.com. We worked hard to find Furl a home where loyal users like you could continue to benefit from best-of-breed social bookmarking and annotation tools. Hands down, Diigo.com was the winner due to its innovative approach to online research tools and knowledge sharing.

The Diigo team is dedicated to making sure you continue to get top notch features and service. They’ve got a crack team of technologists who love making research and knowledge sharing as easy and efficient as possible. Exporting your data from Furl to Diigo is super easy.

We feel fortunate to have been able to serve as your social bookmarking site provider and can’t thank you enough for your loyal support over the past four years. We’ll miss you and we wish you the best as part of the Diigo community.

I wonder if diigo would get my vote over delicious?

Adding the cornerstones

Posted on 18 February 2009 at 11:59 pm in Coursework.

In the post FOUNDATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE, I discussed the notion of the wiki as an aspect of Asimov’s pyschohistory, a concept born of the faith in humanity’s predictability in numbers.  When discussing wikis, of course, it seems natural to start with Wikipedia, the famous online encyclopedia “anyone can edit”.  It is the first wiki most people become familiar with, and both an epic monument to the value of groupthink and a dangerous loitering place of saboteurs. However, wikis go back well before Jimmy Wales‘ grand experiment.

Reading Meredith Farkas’ explanation of the history of wikis was quite interesting (and verified by no less a source than wikipedia itself). Wikis date back much further than I would have supposed, to the mid-1990s and a programmer named Ward Cunningham. Cunningham was taking the concept of a hypercard program on early Macs that linked different “cards” of information to each other; most, if not all wikis rely on simple, intuitive internal hyperlinks to create a finely woven web of information. He used this idea to create an online “wiki” (from the Hawaiian word for quick, which Cunningham had first seen as the name of a private busline at the Honolulu airport) to share programming ideas (Farkas, pgs. 67-68).

I took three online “wiki” (or wiki-esque) services for a test drive, and found similarities and differences between all of them.  MediaWiki is the software that drives Wikipedia, so it was fairly easy for me to use — I’ve edited a variety of Wikipedia pages over the last couple years, and created new ones. Instead of using html markups, the software uses simple symbols to create bullets, titles, and numbered lists. The theory is that wikis are more intuitive that way, but I’ve never really thought so — I prefer to use html code myself. I’ve always looked at the formatting of pages I’ve admired and mimicked it as well as possible. While uploading the MediaWiki software to the Senna Server was tricky, once online, it was almost identical to editing Wikipedia. Going back to examples on wikipedia, I built a small series of pages and categories built around a simple concept (San Francisco Street Art).

On the other end of the collaborative spectrum is Google Docs. Google Docs is not wiki software per se, but it is a tool for group work. A single google document can be edited by anyone invited to use the page (though they must have a google id), with formatting tools that mimic a skeletal Word Processing program. However, Google Docs isn’t designed to make publicly available web sites (though they can be easily published using Google Pages); it’s best used within a small, finite group.

PBWiki was new to me, but very easy to pick up and run with (as the name implies — PB stands for peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the easiest meal to make!). Instead of feeling like a traditional wiki, it was much more like drafting and editing within Google Documents any other contemporary word processing tool. Buttons for text formatting, auto-formatted links – it was lightyears from the skeletal simplicity of MediaWiki. I only wonder if it has the robust strength and reliability of traditional wikis.

Foundation of knowledge

Posted on 18 February 2009 at 11:54 pm in Coursework.

In the 1951, Gnome Press published a series of Isaac Asimov short stories as the novel Foundation, a work of epic science fiction set in a future universe. As a follow-up to Foundation, Asimov would go on to write three sequels and two prequels over the rest of his long, prodigious writing career in the same setting, creating one of the most enduring and influential visions of the future currently in print. Asimov was a rare creature: not only was a he a successful science fiction writer, he was also a scientist, historian, and raconteur of great renown, and his works go beyond the usual spaceships-and-lasers approach of typical space opera.

The premise of Foundation and the works that followed it is that a new branch of study, psychohistory, allows scholars to anticipate the future of human history based on mathematical analysis of huge populations. Humans as individuals are completely unpredictable, but when massed in large numbers, completely quantifiable.

As an aside for library students, the foundation in the title is one of two organizations designed to preserve all human knowledge after a psychohistorically predicted collapse in civilization; the central hub of the series, therefore, is a great library. It’s a long way from Star Wars, isn’t it?

The notion of the wiki to establish and share information is based in many ways on the same concept. Individual experts may be very knowledgeable, but will always have inherent bias, limited points of view, and a reliance on such individuals will lead to an unevenly curated information source.

So the wiki is predicated on the simple concept that two minds are greater than one, and therefore millions more minds are exponentially greater yet. Wikis allow the greater public to compose, edit and share their insight to the world, and as Asimov foresaw in Foundation, relying on a greater mass of people creates predictability and reliability.

Of course, some subjects are so obscure and little known that it takes a long time for even this system to fulfill its potential.  One such subject — close to my heart — is the life of John Vance Cheney (1848-1922), a poet and librarian and the subject of my ongoing thesis.  He already had a Wikipedia page a long time before I settled on him as a subject of historical inquiry, but it was slight (a stub, in Wiki nomenclature), and had a noteworthy error that shortened his influential tenure at the Newberry Library in Chicago by ten years.

That was the first element I corrected — some weeks ago — and in the last day I’ve revised and expanded his page in a couple more ways and added him to the category “American Librarians”.  However, in so doing, I was very wary of not crossing the “original research” line that Wikipedia insists upon; I only used information available in a published biographical entry on his life (a source I added as a citation to the page), rather than the more extensive information I have in my research that cannot be easily cited.

My edits (four) appear as “dsronline” on February 19th in the 0:00 hour (though it was the 18th Pacific Time).

Printing Press 2.0

Posted on 3 February 2009 at 9:44 pm in Coursework.

There are few analogies more overplayed than the “internet-is-the-new-printing-press” metaphor. But there is a reason for its popularity.

A slim recap of the history: the advent of the printing press is widely credited as one of the most profound shifts in all history, not just the history of information.  Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, developed a movable type press that within a generation or two had largely replaced the centuries old tradition of hand-scribed codices.

The earliest books, or incunabula, were designed to look like handwritten books: typefaces resembled the calligraphic curves of monks and scriveners, and featured large, hand-colored “rubricated” letters to signal paragraph shifts. In time printers began to shift away from the traditions of hand-written books — traditions simply uneccessary in printed books — and started to develop simpler, easier to read typefaces and layouts. This made printing less expensive, more replicable, and soon presses existed in every major European city. In addition to German printers, the Venetian and Parisian press had substantial influences (the term italic is derived from an obvious source … Italy).

Books and other printed materials exploded in production and popularity, and literacy began to rise as a result. The course of history, faith (the press played a major role in the Reformation) and industry all changed, and centuries later the notions of the free press and pamphleteers would be essential to the birth of democracy. A direct line can be drawn.

It is quite obvious — more now than ever — that the internet is not merely a medium for words or even just information. It is a mechanism for communication, for commerce, distribution — there is at least some form of every intellectual human activity represented in online technology. Just as the domino effect of the printing press altered world history, so to has the internet.

Self-publishing

We each have a Johannes Gutenberg waiting at the tips of our fingers. Anyone can create a blog or simple webpage using free, online tools with little to no knowledge or undertstanding of HTML or programming language. Because of cloud computing, a computerless person can sign-up for a blog at an internet terminal in the San Francisco Public Library, then post and publish from a beachside internet café while traveling in Koh Lanta. A password is all they would need to pack.

For the initiate blogger, there are a few competing services that offer one-click publishing. Here are three of the most popular:

  • Google’s blogger — free and easy-to-use, blogger offers a couple dozen templates (although html savvy users can design their own or tweak the basic models). Anyone with a google account (such as gmail) already has a blogger login.
  • San Francisco-based LiveJournal operates on a platform called “Movable Type” (a tip of the cap, of course, to Herr Gutenberg and his movable type printing press). LiveJournal stands out for its excellent friends or “flist”  feature that promotes community blogging. A user can cultivate a group of friends, and by clicking on their “friends” button, read an automated RSS feed of all of their friends’ blogs from within their own blog’s template.
  • WordPress differs from these two competitors in that, like the Firefox internet browser, it is developed with Open Source, not proprietary, software. The WordPress user has two options: using WordPress.com to host their blog and accept some limitations on the software and usage, or go to WordPress.org and download the software and host it via a third party. The differences are explained here.

The Pinakes is part of an educational project and therefore hosted by the San José State’s School of Library and Information Science. It was designed using WordPress.org technology.

Using the downloadable WordPress service confers some definite advantages over the WordPress.com offerings: hundreds more highly customizable templates, plugins and extensions that allow for a more powerful, robust website or blog. For instance, The Pinakes makes use of the Sun City theme, not available on WordPress.com.

I chose Sun City because the distinctive header echoes the transitional arc of civilization I hope to invoke in the blog — discussing “papyrus to pdf”. I also appreciate the dark contrasting colors and bold design.  Hundreds of templates are free to browse at WordPress.org’s theme directory. Once a theme is downloaded from WordPress and uploaded to your server, you can switch one in and another out with a few simple clicks — though some themes support features that others don’t, so be wary if you’re trying this yourself.

Take a look at what The Pinakes might look like under different skins: Less is Less, Random Background, or WordPress Classic.

Buzz

Publishing? Via blogger, LiveJournal or Wordpress it is relatively easy. Gutenberg’s ghost is satisfied. The true challenge in blogging is dissemination. Sure — anyone can look at your blog, but will they? Amidst the clutter and noise of five million blogs (Farkas, pg. 11) and assorted websites, who will read your offerings? The majority of search engine queries are one word long. Is there any one word that will lead a reader to your blog off of a search engine? Unlikely.

So the real trick isn’t getting “published”. It’s getting noticed. Every blog has its own target audience — not everyone is angling for thousands of readers — but even then your niché can be hard to find. If search engines aren’t the answer, promotion is. A push. Developing buzz. To experiment with the “buzz” tools of the day, I’ve installed the Sociable Plugin. This is a tool that creates a set of buttons at the bottom of each post’s page that allows a reader to import that post or page into facebook, delicious or other networking websites seamlessly (for instance, anything I post on facebook is immediately exposed to 209 other people.  What happens if 2-3 of them post it as well?). The so-called “viral marketing” that can result from an endless chain of individuals forwarding a link (at no cost to the original source) is the holy grail of online promotions.

To install Sociable, I downloaded the plugin from the WordPress site and, much like the templates, uploaded it through SJSU’s Senna server. Now my task is to write posts that inspire you to share them.

Reference: Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

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