Sunday, March 31, 2013

Getting a Library Card at the Library of Congress

Library of Congress Main Reading Room (LoC file photo)
Last weekend, I took a trip to the Library of Congress to get a library card and checkout a book. While this might sound impressive, it's really a fast and simple process. It only took about 10 minutes from walking in the door until I had my library card in hand. The best part is that I didn't need any reservations, etc. – most any American citizen would have the same experience.

My newly issued Library of Congress library card.
Getting my library card only required three quick steps. After signing in and showing my driver's license I was given a single page paper form which I filled out by hand and then entered the same info into a computer. The final step was to have my photo taken and my card issued. 

Once I had my card in hand, I proceeded to the Main Reading Room to find some books on Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. A very helpful librarian looked up RDML Hopper and told me that books about her were in the Adams Building. She said that I could request the books to be delivered to me in the Main Reading Room, which would take about 90 minutes, or I could just walk over the the Adams building, across the street, and check them out there.

Adams Reading Room: Checkout slip and book in hand.
I chose to walk over to the Adams building, but not before taking a gander through the Main Reading Room. Throughout most of high school, I worked as a page in my local public library which I really enjoyed, especially since the Web hadn't been invented then.

At the Adams Reading Room, I simply filled out a slip of paper and I had my book in hand within 10 minutes.

Since it was a Saturday morning, the Library was fairly empty, so keep that in mind if you ever intend to pay a visit. I probably gained 10 to 15 IQ points just by visiting.

Everyone's a Leader

At the top of the list of leadership traits is, "set the example." This was drilled into us at the Naval Academy and in the Marines. While no one is perfect, how often someone sets a proper example is a good indicator of their character. This applies to both good and bad examples.

Every person sets an example that others will follow. Think of it as a meme. It usually happens without us realizing it. This is one reason most of us speed on the highway, even when we're not in a rush. Since most everyone else is speeding, we just follow their example and hope we don't get caught.

Case in Point
One personal example of bad leadership I once set, which could have seriously injured or killed two kids, happened when I went for a run with a friend. We stopped at a red light in a crosswalk of a six lane road with a 55 MPH speed limit and a center divide. We looked to our left and noticed that no traffic was coming so we started to cross with the intention of waiting on the center divide until it was safe to go the rest of the way. Unbeknownst to us, there were two kids, about eight or ten years old, on bicycles, just behind us. As we started to run in the crosswalk against the red light, the two kids followed our lead not knowing that we intended to stop at the center divide. Since they were on bikes, they overtook us and continued beyond the center divide into traffic where a couple cars had to jam on their breaks to avoid hitting the kids. One of those vehicles was a police car. While the kids ended up not being struck, my friend and I received an appropriate tongue lashing from the police officer about setting a bad example which has stuck with me to this day.

Even though I was no longer on active duty in the Marines when crossing that six lane road, I still should have set a good example. Actions will always speak louder than words.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Better TV UX

At this very moment, I should be watching March Madness. Instead, I'm blogging because I can't figure out how to operate my former college roommate's TV. There's nothing special about his TV other than the fact that it's not my own and I'm a guest in his house. All TV systems, nowadays, have a learning curve and I am stuck with "Channel not available," because I pressed the wrong button on one of the remote controls.

There's been much speculation about Apple entering the TV set and broadcasting market. Apple doesn't like to enter a new market unless they can put a serious dent in the universe. This was true for the Apple ][, Macintosh, iTunes Store, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Apple likes to start with nearly 100% market share and then, as competitors copy to keep up, they move into new areas.

One year ago, I speculated how an Apple TV broadcasting system might work by giving consumers the choice of subscribing only to the stations they wanted instead of paying for package deals. But that's just the broadcasting side of the equation. TVs could use some simplification now that they've become so complex.

After just a couple minutes of fiddling with my buddy's TV I gave up for fear of doing some undoable damage. But, it really shouldn't be this difficult when it comes to turning on and tuning in a TV. There has to be a simple and intuitive way, at least when it comes to the basics.

It took my buddy less than 30 seconds to fix the problem as he remarked, "You got into cable hell since it's not your TV."

Monday, March 18, 2013

Data vs. Information

Binary representation of this blog post title.
I recently heard someone ask, "What's the difference between data and information?"

I immediately recalled when this question was answered for me in a computer science textbook for a course I was taking at prep school:

"Information is processed data."

Simple! I wish Wikipedia could summarize it like that.

Record the outside temperature for a year and you have data. Analyze the data to conclude that summers are hot and winters are cold and you now have information.

In business, the trick is to take technical data and process it into salient marketing points.

The first iPod had 5 GBs of storage (data) which is 1,000 songs (information) in your pocket.

Of course, one person's information is another person's data.

Outliners vs. Hyperlinking


When you and I had lunch at Carnegie Deli I confessed my ignorance about understanding the full benefits of outliners.

Now that I've read your How-To page, I immediately think of news… that is, a list of headlines where the story details can be expanded. But, upon deeper thought, I realize that current news websites will take you to a different page when clicking on a headline (hyperlinking) which seems to be a better user experience.

While I see coding environments, such as Xcode, Eclipse, etc, as a type of outline it seems that this outliner functionality is already built into these tools.

So, my question – rather, my limitation – is in seeing a concrete example of where outliners would be more practical over hyperlinking? Perhaps Disqus or reddit?


PS - BTW, the functionality of your outliner on the How-To page seems to work flawlessly.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Future of RSS

Grace Hopper: Creator of the first compiler.
I can't think of many technologies that need to be saved for technology's sake. Saving a technology for historical purposes is a different thing. But that's not the current debate when it comes to RSS and Google's announcement, this past week, to retire Google Reader. Don't forget that Apple had previously retired RSS, last summer, when the company removed its RSS reader feature from Safari which is something I dearly miss.

In the computer science world the debate about giving up one technology for a newer one has been ongoing for decades. It probably began when Grace Hopper started organizing code algorithms into the first compiler. There was a lot of push back about running inefficiently compiled code on computers, in the 1950s, when the best practice was to write lean machine or assembly code. Nowadays, who would write a commercial consumer GUI app in assembly language other than Steve Gibson? Sure, no language is smaller and faster than assembly, but it just requires too many programmer brain cycles to code. As I mentioned last month, a good chunk of coding is debugging; and code that you don't have to write is code that you don't have to debug. But shifting from one technological process to another (whether it's a protocol or a language, etc) will always be met with criticism. People will resist the change and sometimes it's for good reasons; usually due to a deep investment in the technology.

The simple fact is that new technologies advance to either replace shortfalls in older technologies or bring new features. Let's not forget how RSS lead to podcasting. If you think of technology as anything that was invented after you were born, then, if you wait long enough, any technology that doesn't evolve into something new will no longer be technology.

The Future
RSS began as a consumer facing format. But, as I pointed out earlier this week, older technologies are breathed new life when wrapped with a web front end. That's effectively what Twitter did to RSS. Granted, Twitter is a centralized platform, but it's definitely become more popular than RSS. That might be because it's a push format (as opposed to RSS's polling process) or it might be because consumers can easily see all of their feeds on one website or Twitter client. Regardless of the reasons, there's no denying that Twitter has been in the news much more than RSS these past few years.

The beauty of computer science and software engineering is that it's very easy to build on previous things. More so than in the real world. Flipboard has taken the basic list format of Twitter and RSS one step further as it presents it in a newspaper format. Newspapers printed on paper may be dying as a medium, but it's still a great format to read and discover news since unrelated articles are cleanly presented on a single page.

What seems obvious to me is that RSS will not go away; instead, it will (and already is) being built upon. In the near future, it will no longer be a consumer facing technology anymore than DOS or a Unix shell is today, but RSS will be the glue to tie together publisher and consumer. Could you seriously see a completely different feed standard being developed in the near future, from scratch? Baby steps to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Express Yourself

Many of the best known Internet companies have focused on allowing people to express themselves which is something everyone wants to do, even if we don't admit it. We do it everyday, in its most basic form, through speaking and writing.

It's no coincidence that the founders of Twitter were previously successful in the area of self-expression when they developed Blogger which was sold to Google. After all, Twitter is just a microblogging service. What simpler way to express yourself than in a mere sentence or two?

Photos and videos are commonly used by people to express themselves in art. (As Hugh MacLeod  said, "Art's purpose is to express consciousness.") The key to creating a popular service is obviously to make self-expression as frictionless as possible. Twitter is a leader at doing this. So is Instagram. But with video and podcasting it gets a little more difficult since those media require editing. Apps like Vine, Instagram, and Aviary add quick and simple edit features to refine or spice up the content, but there's a huge drop off in users for anything more involved.

Art vs Engineering

While the self-expression aspect may seem obvious in these web sites, it's interesting to take a look at them from a different perspective. Another way to view Blogger is as a web front-end to FTP. Twitter is just a web interface for RSS. While Hotmail was the first big web interface to another underlying service (SMTP/POP), the king of all web interfaces is Amazon Web Services.

So, if you're not the artistic entrepreneur then find a problem where a web front end would be innovative and eliminate a pain point.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Computing Daylight Saving Time

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year as we begin daylight saving time!

(Note of trivia: it's actually "saving" as in we're saving daylight, not "savings" like a savings account. I called into Rich Lederer on A Way with Words, about a decade ago, before Wikipedia was mainstream, to get clarification. Yet, even though I know this, it's still hard as hell to say "saving" instead of "savings.")

Tomorrow will only be 23 hours long as the ground beneath our feet literally changes time zones. Spring is just around the corner! Even in places like San Diego, where tomorrow will have two minutes and three seconds more daylight, it's still a time to celebrate as the days get "longer" even if it's just an illusion. Personally, nothing seems as gloomy as December's days when the sun sets before 5 p.m.

Tomorrow's task will be to set all of our clocks ahead an hour. Actually, most of us will adjust our manual clocks tonight, before going to sleep. However, for our smart clocks, like those in our computers and cell phones, it will happen automagically.

But, just how much magic does it take for computers to figure this out is more than meets the eye since daylight saving time is arbitrary. Even though my 2004 Honda Accord has the ability to set its clock via GPS, I'll still need to manually "spring ahead" because its software hasn't been updated since 2007, when the U.S. changed the beginning and ending dates for daylight saving time.

Over the past 15 years, I've done more than my fair share of coding to deal with date and time calculations. A common bug that I've discovered, on more than one occasion, is when programmers assume that there are 24 hours in a day. For example, to calculate when tomorrow is just add 24 hours to midnight, right? Obviously that's wrong. Add 24 hours to midnight when "falling back" and you'll still be on the same day.

Time is tricker than you'd think. While we all know the difference between noon and midnight, we have to stop and think about the difference between 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. A fool proof way to eliminate this mistake is to, instead, say 11:59 p.m. or 12:01 a.m.

Computers, on the other hand, don't have too much trouble keeping track of time. All it takes is a software update to handle changes to when daylight saving time is observed. Internally, computers simply keep track of Greenwich Mean Time and then just apply an offset, plus or minus hours and minutes, to figure out local time. Actually, the time offset is usually measured in seconds, but that's probably overkill. Most timezones in the world are at the top of the hour when GMT is at the top of the hour. But, there are a some outliers where it's the bottom of the hour or the quarter of the hour when GMT is at the top of the hour. I'm not aware of any funkier timezones other than a quarter of the hour difference.

A gotcha that I learned, probably since I've never observed daylight saving time in London, is that the local time in London doesn't always correspond to GMT since London also observes daylight saving time better known as British Summer Time.

One question that popped in my mind, today, was, why don't we invoke daylight saving time on Saturday mornings instead of Sunday? It seems that we can pick and choose when we want to observe it.

When I was in the Marines, embarked aboard ship and sailing due east or west for days or weeks at a time, we observed timezone changes every other day. In all my experiences while sailing the seven seas we always sprang ahead or fell back at 7 p.m. ship's time. So, when we were traveling to the west, we'd have two 7 p.m.'s (AKA 19:00 military time) which was always a treat as long as you weren't on duty or standing watch during the evening.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Don't I Own My Stuff?

Do we really own the stuff that we buy?
This is an interesting question, regardless if we're talking about atoms or bits.

When we purchase content like a movie (DVD, VHS, etc), we can resell that product. This ability lead to a huge movie rental business beginning in the 1980s. So, why didn't the same thing happen with software when it used be distributed on cassettes, floppy disks, CDs, or DVDs? The answer is simple - you never really owned the software. Rather it was licensed to you. (After all, who's never noticed the EULA we all click on, usually without reading it, when installing new software?). Part of the license agreement is that the software is nontransferable. 

Although we purchased the software we're installing, we never really owned it anymore than paying for a driver's license gives us the right to own a car. A license only gives us the privilege of using, not owning.

One nice thing about the old days of buying movies or music on disc or tape is that we'd at least have our own copy. We owned the medium, not the content. But, in today's world of downloading content, we don't even own the medium anymore. Throw in digital rights management, better known as DRM, and now access to our purchased content can be impossible if the seller's servers shut down. Imagine if Amazon or Apple went out of business? We'd no longer be able to download our content or authenticate against those servers to enjoy our movies, music, or books. (Realistically, the U.S. Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, does, from time to time, allow copyright exceptions but it's still a hassle.)

I ran into the problem of no longer having access to my content earlier this week when I tried to download a movie that I had purchased less than a year ago which was stored in the cloud. At first I thought it was a bug, but, in the end, it turned out that the movie was no longer available because its license had been revoked. Now, I no longer had access to, or a copy of, my movie. Live and learn.

Yet, even in the real world, we sometimes don't truly own everything we think we do. Even if you own your home, outright, stop paying your taxes and see who will then own your home.