About Jonathan Frater

Do We Still Need RSS?

William Vambenepe says that “If the lords of the Internet have their way, the days of RSS are numbered.” He then points to the facts that Apple, Twitter, Firefox, and Google are all slowly but surely de-coupling RSS access from the functionality of their products.

Before I got the chance to work with RSS personally, I had categorized this post as a bit of a rant and kept it in my drafts folder, wondering if I would have the chance to take a closer look at it. For the past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to push this blog’s new material into my existing FeedBurner RSS account. I have no idea how to make it work. Our Emerging Technology Librarian, Emma, has no idea how to make it work (and looked sort of freaked out when I told her about my project.)

At the moment, I’m ready to start cheering for Team Lords.

The process of building a new website after importing the old posts was the easy part. Typepad has decent export options and WordPress is much the same with importing new material. What it doesn’t have–what nobody in the world apparently has–is a way of seamlessly switching an existing RSS feed for a new one. There is the added consideration of where the new stream of traffic comes from: so far, most of the action on the new website has come out of shared posts, tweets, and URL transfers, not RSS click-throughs. Even on the old blog, RSS click-throughs constituted less than 10% of the total activity.

I have tinkered with the guts of FeedBurner’s forms, tried splicing new feed URLs into existing feeds addresses, and played with the idea of using third party plugins to push new posts to the old feed. Nothing has worked very well. There are plenty of ways to squeeze traffic into the new feed but no way to transfer the new stuff into an old RSS URL.  (If you know of a way to do this, don’t keep it to yourself. Drop me a comment and let’s talk about it.) Old blog = old feed,  new blog= new feed, and there is no crossing the lines between the two. At least that’s how it seems right now.

I can burn new feeds all I want. I can combine them into one gigantic master feed through applications like Yahoo Pipes and Google Feed. I can redirect existing feeds from one blog to the other if I can figure out how to create a 301 permanent redirect through cPanel (or convince an exceptionally helpful tech support person at my ISP to do it for me). I can build an XML redirect and send it into the old feed in the hope that the current subscribers take advantage of it and migrate.

Or, I can abandon the current subscribers. For obvious reasons, that’s my least favorite option. Sadly, it seems to also be the most efficient option unless I can muster the additional time and energy to Franken-feed something together. Regardless of FeedBurner’s relative ease of use, modifying an existing feed is considerably more difficult than just burning a new feed and assigning it to a syndication page.

I’ll be honest. After three days of this, I’m ready to give up. RSS is unquestionably useful tech, but if it’s not portable, then other more portable options will leave it in the dust.

I burned a new feed for the WP blog, and I hope that at least some of the existing RSS subscribers have the patience, energy or motivation to click on the new feed when they get to the new website.

Which brings me back to the original critique of Vambenepe’s point . . . maybe the reason that the big players are abandoning RSS is the fact that you can’t really do anything with it. Except, of course, create more RSS feeds.

Again, if there is a way of making RSS portable, then I’d love to hear about it.


10 Things Forbes Wants You to Know About Knowledge Management

Posting has been a challenge lately. We are 4,000 or so volumes into our grand mission to RFID tag, weed, and inventory a 37,000 volume physical collection all at once, and it’s been a struggle. We’ve managed after three weeks to get the entire staff trained (the younger ones are more relaxed with the equipment than the older staff, which is not that big of a surprise. Not because the older ones are older–read: near retirement–but none of them are very relaxed around PCs.) I’ll post more about the details of this project at some point in the future. (Promise!)

Anyway, I clipped this column entitled Ten Things You Need to Know About Knowledge Management from Steve Denning at Forbes.com a few weeks ago in the expectation that I’d be able to poke some vague fun at it at some point. And so I am. But the truth is it’s not bad advice as far as general principles go. It’s long winded, however, so I’m going to just sum up the bullet points.

The essentials are these:

1. Knowledge is infinite, money is not. (Duh!)

2. Knowledge has no intrinsic value. (Of what use is the knowledge of fishing to a man who wants to build a camp fire?)

3. Money spent on non-utilized knowledge is gone. (That’s a bit of a fallacy. The money is gone no matter what the outcome, but you get the idea.)

4. An institutional knowledge base may become a set of blinders. (Remember to look outside the box now and then.)

5. The really interesting stuff is not going to be from your organization. (Diversify!)

6. Effective use of a knowledge base may require exceptional expertise . . .

7.  . . .  and that expertise may evaporate. (Sometimes very suddenly.)

8. The value of knowledge lies in improved outcomes. (See my campfire example on number 2.)

9. What constitutes an improved outcome depends on the organizations’ strategy. (A rod and reel company that intends to develop a client base of fishermen should not try to reach them buy selling fireplaces.)

10. Measure outcomes against the organizational strategy. (Apples to apples.)

Of these tidbits, I’d pay particular attention to the first half of the list. We all want as much as possible to be available for our patrons but can rarely afford more than a few choice subscriptions. But subscriptions from expensive vendors are not useful merely because they’re expensive; they’re important because our patrons need them for their work. If not, then you’re out twenty grand and you won’t get to redeploy those funds until a year from now. Do not be afraid to look to non-traditional vendors for useful additions to your collections.


“Five Elements That Make A Book Good To Me”

The biggest problem with a full time librarian job: no time to write. Not a huge amount of time to read, either. It’s the greatest existential problem of working with books for a living: you are literally surrounded by tens of thousands of tomes for the taking and instead of picking one (or two, or twenty) up, cracking the cover, and letting the rush of prose engulf you over the course of an afternoon, you’re stuck having to remain at a respectful distance. Time is the enemy.

In my case, I have other writing projects on the table, too, and often the opportunity to finish everything in a concentrated wave of activity just isn’t there. One effect of this situation is no time to write.  And, as I said, perilously little time to read. With so little reading time, what do you read? Non-fiction is simpler than fiction in that the subject matter determines the need and then personal interests–a favorite author, a notable organization of the material, a book jacket that catches your eye–take over to help you make that final determination. There are many things to agonize over if you don’t want to take a gamble on wasting your time.

Andrea Cumbo over at Andilit.com picked five elements that rang true with me. Those five are:

1. Characters That Feel Real I don’t care if it’s fiction or nonfiction; if the characters seem too perfect or too one-sided (too “flat” to use the writing teacher term), I get bored or annoyed very quickly. I love characters who are flawed and who make mistakes, and I also love characters who seem to mostly get it wrong but also get it right in just brilliant, profound, sparkly ways.

2. Beautiful Language I adore sentences that move like water, trickling through and around or rushing over and easing off the edges. I also adore sentences that sound authentic, as if the character or narrator really said them (and hopefully, the writer actually did – there’s so much to be gained from reading our work out loud.) I love the opening lines of Lolita for their consonance and lulling sound, but I also love how James Baldwin’s words get all choppy and sharp when he speaks of anger.

3. Complex Relationships In a piece of writing, if two characters show some complexity in their relationship, I’m hooked. I’ve never had a relationship where everything was easy, so when I see that played out on the page, I watch closely, partially to see I”m not alone in this experience and partially to get some tips on how to do better in my own friendships. In nonfiction, if a writer can do this, I find it masterful – see Anne Lamott, who manages to show us the complexities of her relationships without having to give us much beyond her own thinking about them.

4. A Good Sense of Time One of the things that’s most difficult for me in some writing, particularly by newer writers, is that it loses a sense of time. I don’t know how much time has passed between actions, or I’m not sure what time period the story is set in. Maybe it’s just that I”m typically hyper-aware of time, but when I don’t know where in a day or year I am, I get frustrated. Good example – The Lord of the Rings; we always know how long Frodo and the boys have been on the road.

5. Honesty For me, all good writing comes down to this – is the writer willing to be honest? This is one of the reasons I love Denis Johnson and Kathleen Norris. It’s why I adore Thomas Merton and so appreciate Chaim Potok. They are able to be honest on the page, even if their characters are not. In fiction, this honesty is complex because it may mean creating a dishonest character but signalling to the reader that the character isn’t trustworthy (a la The Great Gatsby). In nonfiction, my favorite moments are when the narrator admits something we don’t usually speak to anyone but, perhaps, our closest friends. I find there’s a great strength and freedom in those moments.

It’s not the most complete list of this type I’ve ever seen but it is the most concise and well-defined. You can read the whole thing here, and I’d suggest setting a few minutes of your Friday aside to do so. Enjoy!

R.I.P Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

You've heard by now that author Ray Bradbury passed on yesterday. There's not much more to say beyond the fact that he will be missed. I choose to think of the fact that he published a short piece in the New Yorker a few days before his death titled "Take me Home" in which he discusses the inspiration for "The Fire Balloons" a beautiful short story that appeared in The Illustrated Man and some editions of The Martian Chronicles as a bit of vaguely supernatural nifty. It explores the intersection of religion and science fiction, as a priest from Earth seeks to evangelize alien entities on Mars, only to discover that he has things to learn from them.


Books: Proof of Magic


University of Minnesota Pays Professors to Use Open-Source Textbooks

The University of Minnesota wants to save money for their students by making open-source textbooks available to the student body by way of its Open Access textbook catalog. As textbooks are obscenely overpriced already, this is a good thing.

The university however, is also willing to pay its faculty to "review and adopt" the new open access books:

“High textbook costs are one of the many factors that are contributing to the increasing financial burden that students are facing,” said Lizzy Shay, U of M undergraduate student body president. “Affordable open textbooks would go a long way in relieving that burden.”

The catalog currently lists 84 open textbooks that are in use in classrooms across the country. Over the next year, CEHD will work with U of M faculty to review the texts in this collection, making it easier for users to judge textbook quality. CEHD will support faculty who choose to review and adopt open textbooks with $500-$1,000 stipends.

I share a problem with all academic librarians, namely, the promise of new technology if only the faculty would embrace it. Not all faculty do for a number of reasons. The younger ones tend to be adjuncts and even if they like the new tech, don't have the pull with the Deans or full-time faculty to advocate for it. The faculty are frequently nervous about any change to the status quo, and many don't even understand how the library works or why we develop technology policies. And the Deans are administrators more often than not. A given technology's promise to them is how much money it can bring into the corporate coffers and how quickly. Obviously, free on-line textbooks don't measure up to that ideal, at least, not yet.

So, in that context, I can see why providing a stipend for the review and use of such things would be warranted. Nothing opens the eyes and loosens the tongue like silver in one's palm. At the same time, I would expect that once the University of Minnesota completes its catalog, it will stop paying out to promote its electronic wares. What happens then?

We shall see.


Tech-Terrified Teachers

Marisa Kaplan writes a little about the subtle (and not so subtle) bouts of technophobia some teachers feel from time to time, and offers these five workarounds:

  1. Remember, it’s not about you! Your discomfort with technology impacts your students’ futures. Teachers need to be preparing students for the world we live in today. So many jobs are dependent on a basic understanding of technology. Always ask yourself, “am I teaching something that is obsolete, or something that will help my students in the future that lies ahead?”
  2. Don’t resist your tech guru teacher-friend: It is difficult to ask for help but partnering up with a tech guru teacher-friend can provide a support system that can help ease your transition from tech terrified to tech curious.
  3. Realize it’s okay if you are not in control: In reflection, I realize that a major reason that I resisted tech for so long is because I feared what would happen if I was no longer in control…but it is okay if the tech malfunctions. In fact it can lead to some pretty teachable moments.
  4. Let your students teach you something: Newsflash – if you think you are the omnipotent force in your classroom, think again! Kids know a lot these days and it can boost their confidence and engagement if you call on students for support.
  5. If you find a product you like, ask someone from the company to come visit – Tech startups want you to use their products so most likely if you send an email, they will answer any questions you have or maybe even come visit your school to teach you how to use their product.

It’s good advice, and it’s worth it to read the entire article.






Google Docs Research Tool Needs Work

Amanda French wrote a guest post for the Prof. Hacker column in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing her experience with Google Doc's new research tool, subtly and accurately called Research Tool.

I'm not going to rehash what she wrote as the whole thing is very much worth reading in its entirety, but one bit about the tool's apparently schizophrenic treatment of citations caught my eye:

Anything that encourages people to cite their sources properly is inarguably a Good Thing, in my professorial opinion, so I’m a fan of this feature and plan to make sure that all my students know about it. Users of Zotero or other bibliographic software (and every single student or faculty member who writes research papers should be a user of some kind of bibliographic software) will know the insane glee that comes from being able to insert a properly formatted citation with just a click or two instead of having to type the whole thing in, so I do think that having this feature in Google Docs will increase students’ willingness to cite.

However, there are a few equally inarguable limitations on this Good Thing. By far the most worrying such limitation is that what Google calls “Research” is what we professors call “a Google search.” Not the same thing, from our point of view. The search will bring up maps and images, but, if you’ll pardon my French, big freaking deal: many of the results are not good sources for “research” at all. I wish very much that Google had seen fit to allow users to choose to confine their search to Google Scholar and/or Google Books results — so much do I wish it that I asked for this feature on the Google Docs forums. The only ways to “narrow your search” currently available are to “Everything,” “Images,” and “Quotes,” none of which are very useful for academic purposes.

I like citations; we all do. Hell, librarians, writers, and researches need their citations if they expect to be taken seriously. Including a citation feature is therefore (as she notes) A Very Big Deal. It's rather less of one when those citations can't conform to any recognizable style. You'd do just as well to type the whole thing out, a slog that this feature is clearly meant to alleviate the need for. 

I think French's criticism of Google's non-differentiation between scholarly (or at least academic) sources in Google Books and Google Scholar and everything else is a good one. If Google's wizards can't figure out that academics make use of their product and point millions of students all over the world to it, then, sorry, Google, but what is the point of us using you? None.

So, Google's Research Tool has promise, but like all works in progress needs  . . . work.


Google Getting Smarter or Merely Bigger?

According to Frederic Lardinois at TechCrunch, Google is getting "smarter":

Here is what this will look like in practice. Google is currently pretty good at understanding general search queries, but some terms are just too ambiguous. When you search for ‘andromeda,’ for example, it just can’t know if you are searching for the TV series, galaxy, or this Swedish progressive metal band. Now, whenever you type in one of these queries, Google will show you a box on the right side of the screen that lets you tell it which one of these topics you were really looking for. Once you pick the topic, the search result page will reload and show you the results related to what you were really looking for.

So if you were looking for the TV show Kings, the search result page will show you images related to the show, the right Wikipedia entry and links to episodes that are available for online streaming. If you were looking for the Sacramento Kings, though, you will get the latest box scores and other information related to the basketball team.

That’s only one part of what the Knowledge Graph now allows Google to do. The second part involves Google’s new automatically created topic summaries that will appear when you look for a topic that’s well defined by the Knowledge Graph. Say you search for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for example. Instead of having to click through to Wikipedia to find out when he was born, you will now see his biographical data right there on the search result page. As Gomes told me, Google, of course, knows what kind of facts around a certain person, place or event people usually search for, so it these summaries will also highlight these topics.

According to Gomes, you will see these summaries about as often as you currently see Google Maps in your search results. To put this into perspective (and sadly we couldn’t get Google to give us more concrete numbers), this launch is significantly bigger than the entire launch of Universal Search combined – and that was one of the company’s largest launches in this field.

I am forced to ask whether this sort of contextual sub-searching is too much of a good thing. There's a bit of personal angst in there: it seems to me that every time Google gets "smarter" another handful of librarians/information professionals/people who know where to find the stuff that Google can't, lose their jobs in the name of institutions being made more efficient. Meanwhile, those of us who remain need to re-think what the boundaries of privacy stand. Convince every MBA in the world of information science that Google can replace a knowledgeable information professional, and well, that's that. Technology to the rescue yet again. While I'm all for change and technical advancement, killing the pros' ability to earn a living at what they do best seems like another case of ultra-short term thinking.

Google would probably be happy as a pig in shit if nobody ever left its web pages, ever. It certainly looks as if they're worming their way into every digital nook and cranny they can find (YouTube social functions, anyone?) But, hey, it might work out better than that. Personal feelings of anxiety are not, after all, good reasons to trash talk new technologies which may very well make Google easier to use while providing better results for its users. Maybe this will herald an era of "better, smarter Googling" that librarians have been alternately pining for and loathing.

Or maybe not.

A New Project

I’m writing a science fiction book. Actually, I’ve written the book already. Actually, I’ve shown the manuscript to an editor, and she likes it. She liked earlier versions of the script, made some suggestions, and now she likes it even more. She wants to see it in print, and so do I. So that’s good news.

The bad news is the sheer tedium of the process of turning a manuscript (idea) into a book (product). There are meetings: with the editor, with the editor’s boss, another with the editor, then with the editor’s other boss.  There are conversations: with the editor, then between the editor and the agent, then between the editor, the editor’s other boss, and the other boss’s lawyer, then with the editor, the editor’s boss’s lawyer and the boss’s agent—then with the new agent—then with the new new agent—and you get the idea. It’s a process. A slow, ugly, infuriating process, that reminds one of why we rarely enjoy finding out how the sausages are made. But at the end is a book on a shelf in a book store with my name on it. That’s the plan. More news as it happens, but this is a long-term project.

In the mean time, I decided to take on a few other tasks. First, I'm planning on moving this blog from its current Typepad account to a self-hosted WordPress.org one. I had a few reasons for that: first, I needed a reason to improve my coding skills. Having my own sandbox forces me to improve my HTML, CSS, and PHP. If all goes according to schedule, I'll have the new site up and running by the end of June. I'll keep you informed as new things happen.

If you want to take a look at what's already there, be my guest. Just be aware that it's a work in progress, and there's a lot more work to do. I haven't transferred the link lists over yet, or set up menu bars. I need a better looking banner. The end result will look different but have the same essential functionality. (Comments and suggestions are welcome.)

Beyond that, I'm supposed to send an article about stress management to a different editor within two weeks, so that's taking my time. Oh, and Lara and I have decided to try our hand at e-publishing. That will be a blast, especially considering that her brother's small press, Ig Publishing, just celebrated its tenth anniversary.

And in the immediate future, I'm going to do my best to keep to this new posting schedule: new posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays at a minimum. It keeps me focused. I need that.

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