Category Archives: Life

Informatic Engineering

[Warning: this post is far too lengthy and boring. I thought about segmenting it into separate posts and decided not to, on the grounds that, well, that would be long. Just skim through and note the salient points. Or just look at the pictures. Either way, if you’re reading this, you’re probably extremely bored anyway, in which case, this post is doing you a favour by filling time- approx. 30 seconds of listless scrolling…]

Why don’t we just scrap Search Engines and ask a Librarian instead?

This question was surmised by my learned colleague Oli, during a discussion on the merits (or lack thereof) of the most popular search engines currently available online. Of course, the workload would be unbearable, and stress levels would elevate to such an extent that the average life-span of a Librarian would decrease exponentially. I imagine waiting times for information retrieval would also surpass that of trying to book an appointment with your local GP.

But it is an interesting point to consider- the role of Librarians in a Googley World.

Effectively, Library workers are human search engines. Visitors to the Library pose us questions; we interpret their inquiry, sometimes offering alternatives to aid their search; we then instantly compute all of the avenues and possibilities available, based on our personal database of knowledge and experience; then we present an array of results and strategies, which the inquirer can choose to utilise, pursue or ignore.

However, despite the odd alter-egoes here & there (not to mention a penchant for dressing up) Librarians aren’t superheroes. They don’t have special powers. They need help too. Like everyone else, Librarians use search engines. And, like everyone else, I suspect most of them use Google.

Google has become common parlance for searching the internet. “Why don’t you Google it?” “I’ve just Googled…” etc. But is Google’s dominance of the search engine market justified? Are there any realistic alternatives?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, there are alternatives. But am I realistically going to use them? No, probably not. Like most people, I’m lazy.

Certainly, there are specialised search engines which undoubtedly suit the needs of niche groups better. But for general day-to-day internet searches (at least until the backlash comes) Google will remain the default choice. Which sadly reflects on the information society we live in. Can you imagine suggesting to a student that they go and browse the Encyclopaedia Britannica to answer their question? People want things instantly, and for most queries, search engines meet this need. And once you’ve discovered Google, why are you going to experiment with other sites? Information professionals undoubtedly find the science of information (and subsequent comparisons between search engines) fascinating/interesting/mildly diverting; but I suspect very few ordinary internet users are actually bothered by such matters.

Thankfully for the disinterested, when it comes to needing assistance with more detailed information searches, Librarians are at hand to step-in and offer valued wisdom. Libraries are houses of guidance for knowledge seekers. Worship us! (Or, at the very least, keep us open and staffed by professionals).

Anyway, muddled ranting over, now on to the week’s Things.

For my Search Engine Comparison, I entered Walthamstow into each of the big four’s boxes of truth, and then assessed the outcome:

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To be fair, each search engine brought back much of the same results- the key differences being in aesthetics and quirks. All of them highlighted key information sources about the town and local area, and a couple found this amazing news story about Brian Harvey.

For all you stats fans (geeks) out there, Google unsurprisingly won in terms of nominal retrievals:

  1. Google: 4.8m
  2. Yahoo: 611,000
  3. Bing: 595,000
  4. Ask Jeeves: n/a*

Google: Winner on stats, and winner on appearance for me- clear, tidy and refreshingly lacking in advertisements. Though, when you think about it, what does Google seriously expect me to do with 4.8 million results? There are good options to further your search, and the image gallery was substantial. However, as expressed before, I have a real problem with Google’s interface and interaction with keyboard controls. I hate the predictor as I type; it’s annoying and symptomatic of a world where nobody is required to think for themselves. I don’t like the way using the arrow keys renders you stuck in the list of results rather than scrolling the page. And I do get frustrated with the way Google identifies results based on popularity.

I’m also unhappy with the way Google is stalking me. It seems that exploiting my personal information isn’t enough to satisfy their own nefarious needs; now they seem determined to track my location and to let me know that they’re doing so. 6 weeks ago Big Brother Google told me I was in Camden. Today, it told me I’m in Tottenham. Am I the only person freaked out by this?

Yahoo: I’ve decided not to comment on Yahoo as a matter of principle, after noticing on the bottom of the results page that Yahoo is powered by Bing.

Bing: What a stupid name. Visually awful, with far too much blue text. Lots of advertising, including one titled: Walthamstow Cheap. That might well be the case, by I’m not happy with those connotations being so immediate. Good image selection.

Ask Jeeves: No thank you, I’d rather not. Two things attracted my attention with Ask. The first was “Might Jeeves suggest the Hackney Gazette”- erm, no, thank you. That would be in Hackney; clue’s in the search term, moron. Secondly, the link offering me search results from Excite, which proved a complete waste of time and clicking.

[*Jeeves wouldn’t tell me how many search results he generated. Whatever.]

In other Things:

  • I found a really good explanation of how search engines work on the Berkley guide (I admit it, I didn’t really understand the finer points of this issue).
  • Having perused the Search Engine List, I urge you to click on this to see Goo. Amazing.
  • I immediately assumed that Wolfram Alpha was evil, based solely on an irrational desire to add “& Hart” to the name. (Ok, so it wasn’t Buffy, but it was a good show and I enjoyed it, even though I never saw the final season, don’t tell me what happened!) I actually really like WA, particularly as I adore useless trivia. I rather self-indulgently searched for the 5th August 1983, and found that I was born on a Friday during a Waning Crescent Moon. Says it all really.
  • Have I missed the point of Dogpile & the Meta Search Engines? Okay, so it tells me some results were found exclusively on specific search engines. But so what? If I was carrying out research, I wouldn’t only use the list of results garnered from 1 search as the entire basis for my work. That would be dumb. Or maybe I’m being dumb? I suppose if Zuula and other Meta Engines are searching across a variety of search engines, some of which focus on material unobtainable by Google (such as social network sites) then I could potentially carry out my research all in one place in 1 go = easier for me? I think my brain is struggling to cope with all this information about finding information.
  • Google A Day was fun, but I became extremely frustrated with the answer input recognition; basically, unless you word your answer EXACTLY as needed, it tells you you’re wrong.
  • Lastly, here is my Search Story:
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Questions That Need Asking: The Results

From the title, you might be forgiven for expecting this follow-up post to be hosted by my cheaper and slightly prettier co-host: but no! I’ve still got it baby, yeah. Or at least, enough of it. Whatever it is. (And I should point out that for personal reasons, this portion of the blog has been pre-recorded; transparency at all times…)

Anyway, enough of this embarrassing song & tap-dance of a preamble- let’s get on with the show!

The results.

Firstly, I need to state that this is in no way scientific, or conclusive, in terms of establishing the opinions and personal preferences of Library staff. Secondly, in terms of the number of participants in the survey, to call this a ‘snapshot’ of Library thinking would be overselling it. Thank you, though, to all 3 of you who responded.

So, here we go.

The tension mounts.

Nails are chewed.

Edges of seats are occupied.

What will the recriminations be? Let the debating commence!

Finally, I couldn’t end this results post without giving in to public demand. Remember- you voted for it. It’s your own fault:

(All I’m saying is- the hair and the keyboard player…)

And They All Lived Happily After Evernote…

Once upon a time, in a library far, far away, there worked a sad Information Assistant named Christopher.

Christopher was sad because on Saturday, having sat in the sunshine sipping coffee and eating cake till 5, he returned home to discover that he was horribly sunburnt! This made poor unsuspecting Christopher sad.

Furious at his own stupidity, and aghast at looking like a cross between ‘White Van Man’ and Peter Schmeichel, Christopher didn’t know what to do?!

“My nose hurts, and my face hurts, and my arms hurt!” cried Christopher.

“Who’s been a silly little Information Assistant?” retorted Christopher’s patronising & distinctly unhelpful parent, wallowing in her son’s solar demise.

“What am I going to do?” asked Christopher.

A caring and sympathetic response proved too much for the evil old woman*, so Christopher decided to turn to his trusty, reliable friend- the Internet.

Firstly, Christopher logged-on to SlideShare, and found some helpful (and scary) presentations on the dangers of sunburn and possible remedies; including a fascinating slideshow concerning Ultimate Frisbee:

Christopher also came across a presentation entitled: 101 Ways To Cook Lost Children by the Candy Cottage Witch. Knowing that his friends, Hansel and Gretel, have had a problem recently with their parents ‘accidentally abandoning them in the woods’, Christopher decided to share this presentation with them via Twitter.

Secondly, Christopher came across this neat page on Wikipedia: Sunburn. Reading about the dangers of sunburn frightened Christopher so much, that he decided to spend time registering with UK Library Blogs in order to take his mind off things. Christopher also came across WikiPiggy, a specialised Wiki detailing construction techniques for building houses to withstand Wolf attacks.

Thirdly, Christopher decided that it might be helpful to bookmark the websites containing information about sunburn. So, he wondered if Delicious could be a helpful option, and who else might be using it already. Christopher discovered that Birkbeck Library had a small list of bookmarks, but none on sunburn. Then he discovered that one of his former lecturers had a medium-sized bookmark collection online, but with nothing about sunburn. Finally, Christopher searched for the term Sunburn on the Delicious website, generating a large amount of results, and found some information about treatment which was just right.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, thought Christopher, if I could store all of this information in one handy notebook, which I could access anytime, anywhere.

“Well,” said Granny, “my grand-daughter uses Evernote.”

“What’s Evernote?” asked Christopher.

“Evernote’s amazing,” said Granny. “It allows her to store loads of stuff, like websites, text and images in one place. She can access this information from home and on the go, using her Smartphone.”

“Wow,” said Christopher, “do you think she’d mind showing me how it works?”

“Not at all,” replied Granny. “In fact, she’s on her way through the woods to visit me now- said something about bringing me a basket of food.”

Ding-dong.

“That must be her now,” said Granny. “Early too, which makes a change.”

Christopher was curious as to why Granny’s grand-daughter had so many whiskers, really sharp teeth, and seemed desperate to get him out of the house as quickly as possible. Still, one mustn’t judge, he thought.

That night, Christopher slept peacefully; safe in the knowledge that, thanks to the wonders of Web 2.0, he need never worry about sunburn ever again.

The End.

(*Approval to use the term “Evil old woman” was agreed prior to publication.)

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“Okay, Let’s Have A Threesome!”

Who knew impromptu Irish dancing could be so much fun?!

On Friday I went to a closure party which, on the face of it, sounds like some sort of dreadful post-break-up group therapy meeting. In fact, it was the closure party for the building where I used to work before joining City: the Whipps Cross Campus of London South Bank University. LSBU decided to axe the site prior to Christmas, leaving all of my former colleagues facing redundancy (so, I suppose you could call it a bad break-up of sorts…)

I first joined LSBU in 2001, when I decided to work for a year after leaving college. I rejoined again in 2004 after dropping out of university (don’t ask) and at the time, the plan was to go back to uni within a couple of years; instead, I worked there until May 2010.

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I loved my job at WX. Working at the site, which was little more than a glorified shed, was like being part of an intimate community. Everyone pulled together in the face of the unique challenges faced by an external campus. We were able to build relationships with the students and nursing staff, many of whom became ‘regulars’ over the years. And, I’m happy to say, I’ve made some lasting friendships with the people I worked with too.

It was because of these friendships that I went on Friday, to share in the experience of saying goodbye.

I was less than thrilled when I realised that I’d arrived just in time for the speeches… but, listening to staff members recounting tales from the 1970s (when the building was the local Nursing School), and recalling memories from the days when the PCs were BBC and not Dell, was fun; and hearing from students was especially touching, to know that they valued the support and experience they’d received/had. There were some special mentions, parting gifts (including for the site cleaner) and even a surprise vocal solo from one lecturer (just the right side of embarrassing), before the buffet was opened, the booze poured, and the music kicked into gear.

The whole event was sweet and parochial, which was about right. 

It was good to catch up with everybody, and hopefully there’s going to be a meal at some point in the near future, when we can properly reminisce about all of the fun, weird & crazy times we had. And oh yes, there were crazy times. It’s impossible for me to adequately cover everything in one mere blog post; however…

Here are my Top Ten WX moments:

  • TeaspoonGate
  • Cupboard of Doom
  • Mouse in the House
  • The Dead Body
  • Snowpocalypse
  • AppraisalGate
  • Making a Meal of it.
  • J’Accuse!
  • The Case of the Disappearing Librarian
  • To Catch a Thief (and let him go again)

Some people may have heard a few of these before. From my perspective, my experiences at WX, both good and bad, are framed and viewed with a huge dose of ironic satisfaction.

Even the bad times were good- particularly as they’ve kept me in a surplus of anecdotes for years!

Finally, I should explain- for some reason, the live entertainment was provided by an Irish folk band. At the end of the evening, I found myself roped in to taking part in the ‘last dance’, which turned out to be some sort of group Hoedown. First we formed a circle; then various characteristics were beckoned forwards to the middle (“All those wearing skirts” [clap] etc.); then we were ordered to “Swing with a partner”; then “Promenade with your partner”; and then, after several circuits to a jaunty Irish beat, for some inexplicable reason, the woman on the microphone shouted, “Okay, now let’s have a threesome!”.

Needless to say, it took some of us somewhat by surprise. I laughed so hard my sides hurt. Oh the havoc ignorance and Cava can wreak…

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Why Don’t You Come Up Sometime And CC Me?

Creative Commons: Sensible solution, or accidental antithesis?

I’ve spent some time trying to understand Creative Commons and the arguments in favour of its usage. As a traditionalist, I believe in paying for access to creative product: I use iTunes, feel uncomfortable borrowing dodgy DVDs and, despite encouragement from friends (and an increasing resentment for all my favourite TV shows being gobbled up by SKY) have no intention of going Torrenting. I don’t understand why it’s seen as acceptable for artists to be devalued and their talent undermined simply because we have the Internet. Why should a writer be denied financial security and profitable recognition for their work, merely because technology makes it possible?

We appear to live in a society where an obsession with cost has overtaken an understanding of value.

I also (and this probably flies in the face of both modern thinking and the information industry as a whole) have some reservations towards the concept of open access- be it information or software- as a panacea of learning and progressive educational advancement. I’m probably coming across as a 21st Century King Cnut, waving my sword in pitiful defiance at the waves of reality crashing into my feet.

Sigh.

Anyway, my point is, I’m supportive of the notion of trying to safeguard the rights of an individual in regards to their intellectual property and artistic integrity; therefore, I think Creative Commons is a potentially meritorious project.

However, like my Cnut-esque protestations about the modern world, Creative Commons is an extremely idealistic concept, raising all kinds of questions in terms of its legality and practical enforcement. And, let’s be honest, we’ve all borrowed a CD from a friend, a book from a colleague and, in our darker moments, taped stuff off the radio (ah, the days of cassettes and pressing pause/record at the same time…). The fact is, if people are going to illegally share/copy/download, then they’re not going to pay much attention to a little symbol on the corner of a website, especially when the full force of the law has proved so clumsily inadequate as a deterrent.

I actually feel that the concept of Creative Commons contradicts itself in its own terms. Creative Commons seems to have been setup in order to encourage responsible free sharing of content online. Yet CC admits that it only works in concert with existing regulations. Rather than opening up content and information sharing, Creative Commons is actually helping to reinforce the established (flawed) boundaries between those who generate original work, and those who take advantage of the work of others. Copyright law is already floundering under the weight of the Internet, and yet Creative Commons wants to add another layer of, frankly, inept restrictions, on top of the problem.

I also noticed that on Flickr, many people are using the more restrictive licenses, and actually transferring their licensing controls to a corporate entity (Getty Images) in order to protect their commercial interests. In this instance, Creative Commons is failing to meet the challenge of the Internet; in addition, the Flickr/Getty setup serves as a reminder that the Internet is continuing to be colonised by major commercial stakeholders.

Apologies, I’ve probably mangled my points here. I knew what I wanted to say as I started typing, and then sort of got jumbled up in the argument. Essentially, I like the idea of CC, but don’t think it’s the perfect answer to the online copyright question.

Anyway, enough of this! Let’s get to the fun part:

This week’s first Thing was about Creative Commons, or CC as it’s known. So, I thought I’d present a tribute to some of the other famous CC’s who have gone before (extra prize if you can guess who/what they are without cursor-hovering for the answer!):

(1) Popstar: CeCePeniston3.CPF.WDC.11jun06

(2) Actress*:

(3) Popular music group: 10cc

(4) Motorcycle**: 1973 Triumph Tiger

(5) Religious figure: St Francis of Asisi

(*Actress: CCH Pounder)

(**Motorcycle: It’s 750cc…)

I must admit, I found the CC searching on Flickr awkward- sometimes it was more helpful to use the normal search as it yielded greater options. I found formatting the images on WordPress quite fiddly & time-consuming (maybe I was doing something wrong) and must say a massive Thank You to Library Apocalypse and Twinset & Purls for their discussion about using Flickr; it really helped!

(I spent ages reading the CC explanations, trying to make sure ‘I got it’- seriously, if anyone notices that I’ve applied the license instructions incorrectly: TELL ME, and I’ll remove them immediately. It’s stupidity, not an attempt to infringe anyone’s copyright. I found it a real minefield, particularly when you factor the Getty license into the equation.)

Finally, the Cool Extra Thing. And what a thang. I wish I had a better photo to use, but I had to make do. That’s not to say the results aren’t hysterical (or indeed freaky…)

Thank you for introducing me to PhotoFunia. Love it!

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Would You Like To Feel Our New Carpet?

I’ve not worked a Saturday since April 2010. Weird.

Since my defection from the opposition, I’ve gotten used to the whole, “Working nine-to-five, what a way to make a living” thing; and I must say I rather enjoy it: the routine, the commute (I know, seriously- even falling asleep on the train home and suddenly waking with panic, only to realise we’re still in Clapton…) and the feeling that I’ve made full use of a day. When I worked part-time, I had too much free time on my hands, which I blatantly wasted.

Yet, I’d forgotten how much I valued working on a Saturday: the relationships I built with my colleagues and friends, and the satisfaction of functioning independently.

Helping out at the Undergraduate Open Day today reminded me of those positive feelings.

Weekends are different, they feel different- I became quite territorial about full-timers trespassing on my patch; by the same token, when I covered during the week, I always felt like I had been parachuted in, or brought off the bench like a substitute.

Sometimes, working separately from the rest of the team can be unavoidably problematic, for obvious reasons; but spending time outside of my routine acted like a happy memory trigger this afternoon.

Good times.

So what of the Open Day itself?

A big well done to everyone involved for their efforts, especially TeamLibrary! Despite a few technical hitches, some logistical challenges and several questions outside of the crib-sheet remit*, everything went well and (hopefully) we made a good impression! Let’s face it, our Libraries are happening places- just ask the students who try sneaking their X-Boxes, takeaways, alcoholic beverages and tobacco into the Group Study Rooms! Oh, and football in the Sandpit anyone?

Our message was simple- come to City, because the Library is great. Library win!

(Just a note to any senior colleagues reading this- don’t worry, we did elaborate further than a one sentence soundbite)

It was cool to engage with the potential newbies & their parents, and to try to convey the exciting ways in which the Library services work to support and enhance the student learning experience. We do a lot of good stuff, and we should be proud to tell that to anyone who’ll listen.

Less cool was the harsh realisation that it’s now ten years since I went on my first campus tours- and I am amazed at just how confident and single-minded everyone appears to be these days. Are the financial implications of going to university having an impact? Or am I just getting older? Oh God, next I’ll be typing “In my day…”

Sigh.

All in all, I think we put in a solid display, and fully deserved the chocolatey treats so generously provided in order to meet our end-of-day, celebratory, sugar-fix needs.

Speaking of needs, I needed to include this somewhere. Trust me, it’s amazing:

*My top 3 curve-ball questions:

  • So, what’s the music scene like around here?
  • How close are we to the ‘cool’ places?
  • How does City compare with Warwick University, in particular in terms of its business courses and institutional history?

(I wont tell you the answers I provided, on the grounds that it may embarrass all parties concerned, i.e. me…)

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A Classy Little Number

I loathe shopping for clothes.

I find it a soul-destroyingly miserable endeavour, punctuated by moments of intense rage and bitter resentment.

Take yesterday as an example:

I decided to hit Oxford Street in an attempt to find something to wear at a family wedding on Saturday. There’s no formal dress code (in fact, quite the reverse) and, given that I wasn’t intending to put that much effort into the outfit (I’m attending out of obligation; frankly, I’d rather stay home and poke my eyes out with acid-laced knitting needles), I felt relaxed and untroubled by circumstance.

I know, I’ll by a jacket. Or a blazer. Something blazery, in a jackety kind of way.

And then it begins.

Ooh, that looks nice. Do they have a Medium? Excellent. Right, let’s see how this fits… oh, bother; the sleeves are a bit short. Oh well, I’ll try another one. Oh, there are no more Mediums. Maybe I’ll try another store.

I quite like that one. I’ll put on the Medium, no wait, too big. Ok, let’s see. Ah, a Large- great. Hmm, it feels comfy, it looks good oh, nope; too short at the back.

Wow, I really like this linen, I think I’ll try one on. Just search for my size… ah, they’ve decided against S/M/L and opted for a number-based system, with multiple fits and length combinations.

Sigh.

Cue the forlorn trudge home, via the overcrowded sweaty delayed train, and the untimely blustery downpour.

As you can see, not fun.

It’s bad enough having to suffer the indignity of walking through TOPMAN being judged, let alone discovering that, as you thought, nothing here fits or is in your size. In fact, you shouldn’t be in here at all. Please leave.

Then, out of nowhere last night, it suddenly occurred to me-

What these shops need is a Cataloguer!

We all know the clothing-size-identification-system is flawed and has been for years; so, why hasn’t anyone tried broadening it out a little?

Let’s Dewey-ify Westfield!

100: Mens casual sweater.

100.1: Mens casual sweater- Small

100.11: Mens casual sweater- Small, but with slightly longer arms.

100.110: Mens casual sweater- Small, with slightly longer arms but shorter in body.

100.2: Mens casual sweater- Medium.

etc.

(Apologies to our Metadata Co-ordinator, who would undoubtedly gasp in horror at my un-educated, slapdash approach to the craft).

The more I thought about it, the more I realised how much High Street fashion could benefit from Higher Education.

For starters, with Dewey (and orderly shelving) you’d actually be able to find what you’re looking for in H&M (seriously folks, it looked like Primark yesterday).

Imagine having self-check returns?! No more agonising queues, crossing three departments of insurance, luggage and lingerie, only to suffer the impertinent faux-cross examination by an accusatory & suspicious Customer Service assistant intent on declaring you a fraud, as the garment has “clearly been worn.”

No it hasn’t; give me my money back.

I’m not saying I’ve entirely thought this one through- I’m sure there are many drawbacks to my idea.

But, just ruminating on the notion stopped me from opening my front door, exploding in an eruption of vitriol and expletives, before collapsing in a heap of tears and self-pity, all because I couldn’t find anything to make me look nice; and, from despairing over having to return the emergency panic purchase which, in hindsight, doesn’t fit, and I hate it anyway.

Basically, I’m imagining ways in which my work could impact on other industries, in order to avoid a cycle of self-perpetuating emotional torment. I’m clearly growing as an individual.

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