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All articles in Education

Getting things done?
Hehe, our internet is down at work and all PCs in the library are occupied by students doing actual work. Loads of spreadsheets, pie charts, reports etc. are being worked on. Normally about half the screens show MSN windiws, social networking sites and that kind of thing.
Maybe we should have this as standard once a week, if only for a morning.

I'm taking the time to catch up on my library journals and posting this from my iPhone.
I am getting a bit shakey though. Is the rest of the world still out there?

Going crazy
Gaaaaaaah, I'm going completely crazy.

Got word yesterday that the site of the institution I work at would be switching to a new CMS today. None of the sites I maintain and manage are going over till december (or at all, in case of marginal, low-volume, sites).
This transition has been announced before for various dates and times but this time it looked to be really definite. And so it was.

Mailed colleagues yesterday not to report problems to me or anyone else as they were expected and should be fixed asap once the ramifications were known, yet today I've been fielding many many phonecalls, emails and walk-ins from people who somehow seem to think that this mail doesn't apply to them, which leads to lots of frustration on my side, hence the Gaaaaaaah.

If you'll excuse me I'll go lie down in a corner and scream some more.

I should be done in a minute and then it's time for a beer!

I like my job, I really do, but not all the time.

I do like beer though. Hmmmmmmmm......

Periodic Elements
Kottke links to a fearsomely difficult quiz on the elements in the periodic table. Whilst you have a generous 15 minutes I scored only 30 out of a possible 118. In my defence I must admit that doing such a quiz in English is quite hard, as many of the elements' names are known to me in Dutch, whereas a lot of the abbreviations are from the Latin or Greek.
Take the quiz before reading further as there's spoilers ahead.

For instance I took about 5 minutes to remember that element 19 (K) is called Potassium in English. In Dutch it's Kalium, which makes a lot more sense. Na (11) is called Natrium in Dutch but Sodium in English. It also took me ages to get to the correct spelling for Fluorine (F, 9) as I kept trying Fluoride (it's simply Fluor in Dutch).

Don't even get me started on Tungsten (W, 74) which is Wolfraam in Dutch, or Mercury (Hg, 80) which is Kwik in Dutch, so that makes no sense in either language, although Kwikzilver and Quicksilver are phonetically similar.

Having said all that I am decidedly rusty: I missed out on quite a few obvious ones: Calcium, Silver, Gold, Arsenic, Cesium, Argon, Krypton to name a few. I did know Ununhexium, Ununseptium and a few of their close brothers but that's because their names are rather silly and once you know one chances are you know a few more.

I wonder if the quiz would be significantly easier if you just had to name the short periodic element name. But that might be a bit too easy perhaps. Although remembering Ag for Silver and Au for Gold would test your brain in a different direction.

Back in the days when I was still studying I read a book by John Allen Paulos called Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. I have since tried to find this book again but Amazon lists it as being out of stock and gives me an estimate of 6 week delivery so I haven't bought it yet. I was reminded of that when I came across a link to this article about scratch cards and temperatures.
On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won

Should we allow people like this to breed?

The humanity!
You know your career is taking a dangerous path when you're being asked to take a seat in an interdepartmental Web 2.0 thinktank.

It's beyond belief. They want me to think about possible Web 2.0 ventures for the library. This from an institution that firmly believes in not hiring developers. This is not just a belief, it's a goddamned policy! I have a mildly amusing saying about policies btw: is this policy or has someone actually thought about this? The two seem mutually exclusive to me.

Anyway, what can I tell them? That I really like the Ann Arbor LIbrary Catalog? Try it out, it contains some fun stuff. This would mean ditching our ILS of course. And hiring a developer after getting an extensible platform. And would our librarians be able to come to terms with having people add "tags" to our materials? I have serious doubts on this but that's neither here nor there, maybe I'll expand on that in a later post.

I am decidedly sceptic on corporate blogs and wikis and stuff. In a sense they're rather boring, possibly because they don't contain any cats or cephalopods to spice up fridays. I've already added numerous RSS feeds of new acquisitions to our site but they're rather dependant on a homebaked system (I hacked some stuff together in Perl, despite us not having developers, naughty me) which may or may not collapse at any moment as our top information manager want to pull the plug on the server that houses the script, presumably on the thought that it will save us about 10 euros a year on electricity or something dumb.

Anyway, I thought I'd share this with you to spread the pain. If you want to engage your customers for gods sake don't follow the trendy hip things happening in the web. Think about areas that need improving and make it happen. Don't create a thinktank to ponder stuff. Get coding!

What next: a virtual library in the greatest of failures: Second LIfe? A world populated by furries, journos and marketeers, yet devoid of actual real-life customers?

Web 2.0. Good Grief!

Rediscovering the past
The Royal Society has made their complete archives public, for a limited time. There's some absolute gems in there that are well worth it if you have a spare hour or so.

You can read such amazing things as Antony van Leeuwenhoek's articles on his experiments and observations with the newfangled microscope. After 2 months the archive closes again so be quick and relive the start of modern science, when men were interested in just about anything.

I'm not sure if the next link will continue to work so I'll post a screenshot of a small excerpt as well which shows the dedication to science a man like van Leeuwenhoek had.

An Extract of a Letter from Mr. Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, to the R. S. Containing His Obseruations on the Seeds of Cotton, Palm, or Date-Stones, Cloves, Nutmegs, Goose-Berries, Currans, Tulips, Cassia, Lime-Tree: On the Skin of the Hand, and Pores, of Sweat, the Crystalline Humour, Optic Nerues, Gall, and Scales of Fish: and the Figures of Seueral Salt Particles, etc.
This is from 1693 by the way.

The art of not telling
Communication is a wondrous thing sometimes.

I just got a invitation to attend an opening of something or other here at work. Not particularly interesting so I won't attend for that reason alone, but it gets better. The university I work for is spread out across multiple locations and buildings within the city. Heck, we even have some locations outside of the city.
So you'd think they would include an actual adress with the invitation no? Well, you'd be wrong.

The opening is for something called CUBE by the way. There is a horror movie called Cube too, and it's about puzzles. Almost everyone dies. I won't be attending this opening.

Library systems are finally entering the 21st century
Via Librarian in Black: Sirsi will add RSS to its ILS.

A year ago when we were implementing our new library system I pestered the marketing drones people of GEAC, our ILS provider, about RSS and XML integration. They looked at me like I was crazy. They looked at me like they'd never heard of XML, let alone RSS.

Now that another provider has added RSS, expect to see a large number of OPACs jumping on the bandwagon. Which is a good thing in a major way. Even if hardly anyone uses RSS at the moment, the technology has proven itself useful and more and more people will get their news this way. Pretty soon people will come to expect RSS feeds from catalogs and related databases.

Truth be told: there are a couple of serials databases out there that recently started providing RSS feeds, but these are niche products. Expensive and used only by academic libraries. When RSS is added to library catalogs the amount of exposure to the general public will rise exponentially.

I realise this is probably of little to no concern for my regular readers, but this is a big thing. Believe me. It means that solutions providers are starting to take these kinds of notifications seriously and that the realisation that e-mail is becoming more and more unusable is growing rapidly.
It also proves that RSS is usable for more than just blogs with the obligatory friday selection of cat pictures. [Insert witty cat-allergy note here.]

Hear hear!
Users Trump Library Vendors Again!

I hereby add Geac (with it's Vubis catalogue) to the list of companies that just don't get it.

Adding this should not take a vendor more than 30 minutes.

Peter Rukavina says Hey, librarians, it's your own damn fault!

He suggests that vendors don't want to add features like RSS because it would be possible to do interesting things with it. He further contends that it's out own fault for choosing a propietary lock-in.
He may be partly right in this, however it is missing an important point. Out of all the librarians in the world how many do you think can read the program Peter created? How many could modify it for their own OPAC?

The answer is probably more depressing than he thinks. Yes there are a lot of smart people out there that are creating nifty stuff using open source tools, but the reality of the matter is that stuff like Library Lookup is probably way above the heads of most people, including librarians. Most of these people have never looked at a single line of source code and they don't want to.

If vendors add small modules, like RSS syndication/notification of new books, people will use it. They will do so because it makes sense and simplifies their life, not because it's written in programming language X or because it cost Y amount of money.

I was recently accused of leading a comfortably-paced life as a web developer that leaves plenty of time for gaming and metal by Jim.

While this may be true by American standards, for the last few months I've actually felt that my work has become quite hectic leaving me exhausted and empty at the end of the day. So this week I went to my boss and told him I'd like to take a step back and work less hours. At the moment I'm working 36 hours (four and a half days) a week and would like to bring this back to 32, leaving me an entire day free to do with as I please.

I'd like to spend this day doing some coding (I really should start on a new language like Python and release a few of those PHP scripts I have lying around), reading a book and generally having more time for myself.

The details have still got to be worked out but I'm looking forward to this. Of course it'll mean a reduction in pay but then perhaps I could talk my boss into giving me a raise? Well... one can dream.

Make my day
One of the nice things about working in education is that sometimes unexpected things happen that make your day.

I've been asked to take part in a think-tank kinda group that looks at the security mechanisms that are being rolled out this year and assess them from the perspective of the common people (students/faculty). This group consists of some pretty high level executives and me, your humble webmaster.

Late yesterday I was plowing through some reports on the roll-out of wireless accesspoints in our institution using the 802.1X protocol to ensure that only authorised people make use of our network facilities. I was reading about the various cards and clients that support X1.

I was not having the best of times as previously I had also been struggling with that holy grail of webdesign: finding a perfect three column layout using only XHTML and CSS.

Then in walks this student who was referred to me from the helldesk.
She had a report on her laptop and was unable to get this onto a floppy to submit to her teacher for grading as her floppydrive had failed. Why send someone like this to me, you ask? Good question. What I didn't mention was that she came in with a Powerbook 1400c/166 and this being a Mac the helldesk was way out of their depth, after all it's a Mac, and Macs are hard.

After some confusion (I thought her report was on a macformatted floppy at first) I took a look at the machine. How to get this report off the harddrive and into the hands of her teacher? By golly, this machine is ancient, I thought. I put it next to my iBook G4 and lo and behold, not only was it at least twice as thick as my iBook it also had an ethernet card. We plugged in the cable from the wall and after a quick look at the TCP/IP settings (the machine was set up perfectly and already had a DHCP lease) fired up Netscape 4.0 to access her Yahoo! mailaccount to send the file via webmail. Everything worked flawlessly, though the bronze-age processor and browser took a while to do things.
It's amazing to see machines like this still in use and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, marvelling at the 40 megs of RAM, the interface of Netscape 4 and the molasses-like speed of a 166 MHz 603e processor running Mac OS 8.1.

Things like this make my day. To see an ancient machine still in perfect condition (apart from the floppydrive) and doing an honest days' work.

It dawned on me that there's a fundamental flaw in our proposed system of rolling out X1 based wireless. If students still carry around such ancient machines we have to find a way to give them access. For security reasons we can't just let them plug in their machine in the wall, if they spread viri, spam or sell stolen goods online we are accountable. Our institution is working on a way to sell or lease modern laptops with wireless cards to students and this may be the way forward but of course Dutch education is scared of Macs (they're hard right?) and this means that only PC's are offered. This means that students wanting a Mac will be turned down: get a PC or nothing at all. This saddens me.
But using an old Powerbook for a few minutes made my day anyway.

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