Blake's blog

CLOBBERED

The headline from the Buffalo News on Friday was simply "CLOBBERED." More like we got our asses kicked. Pile a few feet of snow on trees with leaves and you get one helluva mess. Somewhere I read it described as Arbogeddon.

Western New York is still busy digging out from a few feet of snow that pretty much leveled every deciduous tree around. We were one of about 300,000 houses without power at home, and that's no fun with 2 infants. It took 5 days for us to get power, and there are still several people I k now who are powerless. We managed to find people with power for the past 3 of the 5 nights, but spent Thursday and Friday powerless. The phones went down, and we were even without water for a bit. I took some pictures of what it looks like I'll upload sometime later this week once I've caught up with everything else. Every store within a couple hundred miles ran out of batteries, water, chain saws, flashlights and generators. We actually bought a generator off the back of a truck in a boarded up Arby's parking lot. Overall it could've been far worse. It wasn't that cold, no trees fell on the house, the basement didn't flood, and no one got hurt.

One interesting thing I learned is that most intersections function better as 4 way stops than when they have a functioning stop light. Even during times when I would've assumed long lines of traffic the lines were actually shorter than what I normally see when the lights were functioning,especially out in suburban sprawl land.

I've been forced to use a few computers that weren't mine this past week and I always feel like I'm getting my hands dirty when I use other computers, especially if it's been used by kids. I can just see them sitting there clicking "OK" to any damn thing that pops up on the screen and infecting it with all manner of scumware. I feel like it's one big security compromise, one big germy mess. I've since changed all the passwords I used elsewhere, just in case.

So, we're back to *almost* normal now. I have ALLOTA trees to cut and yard clean up to do, and we need to return everything to normal down in the basement, but all things considered there's not much work to do. Carrie heads back to work Monday, maternity leave is ending. No one is happy about that. I haven't had time to post to LISNews in ages, everyone should thank Birdie for doing so much work recently, LISNews has become very much her show because no one else seems to have any time either. Maybe it's time to send out another call for authors?

The Travel Gods Are Not With Me

Last week's trip home was bad, though I did end up spending a few hours in Washington DC, which is never a bad thing. This week, it's worse. I'm still stuck in LaGuardia, it's been 5 hours since I left White Plains. I actually paid the $8 so I could see what's going on in the WWW. That plane that crashed in Manhattan made a bad situation worse here, and I'm hoping to be home by 11pm at this point. I really hate it in LaGuardia now, I think from now on I'll fly JetBlue out of JFK... but I'm so damn close to having a free ticket on US Air thanks to the frequent flier miles.... maybe I'll try going right to White Plains from now on.

Blah. In any case, I shouldn't need to travel anytime soon, which is a good thing, it long ago lost any bit of excitement it once had.

I didn't get to see anyone I had hoped to see, Birdie had offered a home cooked meal that I couldn't make it to, and I was supposed to have dinner with Steven M. Cohen, that didn't work out. I almost managed to make it to see Stephen Francouer, but not quite. Well, atleast I learned a thing or two for work, which was the point of this painful trip.

NYC Bound

I'll be down in the NYC area starting tonite for much of the next 2 weeks. Other than Birdie and Steven M. Cohen I'm not sure who might be lurking about the area. I'll be staying out in White Plains but hope to get into the city at least one night. If nothing else I really need to get a burrito from Chipotle.

Let me know if you happen to be free!

The RadioShark

I've been using my RadioShark for a few months now to listen to the radio at work. I can't stream radio at work due to bandwidth issues, nor can I get any stations through the 4 foot thick concrete walls that enclose the tomb I call my library.

Just in case you're unfamiliar with the power of the RadioShark, here's a 3 word summery: TiVo for Radio. It's a small white thing that looks like a glowing shark fin that plugs into my computer via a USB port. The hardware has a radio built in, and records to .wma files on my computer. The software allows me to record programs whenever they might be in the air here in the WNY area. The hardware looks quite nice, but has only a marginally functional antenna. Something in my house also interferes with it a few hours a week, and I have yet to track it down. I suspect something in the kitchen. The software is rather buggy and poorly designed, but luckily it doesn't require much regular work. The other downside is my computer must be on all the time. But none of that really matters, because I can finally listen to the radio at work! I can also listen to radio shows I'd never be able to listen to without the recordings.

I'm lucky here in Western New York because I'm also able to record most of the stations from Southern Ontario & Toronto as well. This means I keep finding new shows to add, and I'm having problems figuring out what to remove. I've managed to find nearly 14 hours worth of programming each weekday and another 12 or so on the weekend, and unfortunately I can only fit in 2 hours a day of half-listening a day at work (if I'm lucky) now, which means the files are really piling up. I have a USB flash drive that makes transporting my radio shows easy. I can squeeze in far more radio into my schedule that I could any other way.

The regular weekday shows I'm currently recording include To The Point, On Point, NBR, Market Place, Mid-Day Forum, Day To Day, Rush Limbaugh, Don & Mike, Ed Schultz, As It Happens, Coast To Coast AM. When there's no talk radio recording I also have a couple hours of music so I can see what's new on the music front. There's a few other shows I fit in a few times a week and several that are on once a week, usually on the weekend like This American Life and The Splendid Table.

We get a few of the Air America folks here now, and I had them on the record list for a few weeks but I gave up. I can't listen to Al Franken. He's completely talent-less hack as a DJ, and while he had some interesting guests, he's an even worse interviewer. It's actually painful for me to listen to all his constant "uuuhhhmm, uuuuhhhh" and stuttering all the time. The first time I listened I thought maybe I caught him on a bad day, but no, he's always like that. I'm truly amazed that anyone thought he would make a good Limbaugh antidote. Speaking of Rush, I hadn't listened in years, and now I can see why. Rush Limbaugh is a truly awful human being, a reprehensible, disgusting, brain dead, junky. Ed Shultz is about the only political dude I can stand listening to more than a few minutes a week. He seems to cover some original things regularly. But, I'm not really listening for narrow political view points, but rather looking to learn more about as many different things I can soak up in the limited time I have to pay attention. Most of the time it's just good to have some background noise in an otherwise silent library. I can also listen at home while I'm doing my LISHost work in the evening.

Picking my favorites, I think On Point stands out quite a bit. Tom Ashbrook is a fantastic interviewer and a few times a month he has fantastic topics and he really seems to know his stuff. I've been listening to Don & Mike for well over a decade now, and they still make me laugh. They've come and gone a few times in the WNY area market, and now they're on a southern Ontario station. They're probably an acquired taste, but they keep me entertained. Ed Schultz is the only political talk show that is listenable for more than a few minutes. Coast To Coast AM has a good topic about once a week, there's nothing like a good Bigfoot or conspiracy theory story to distract me from a mind numbing task. Did you know the Earth is hollow? Me neither. I also really enjoy As It Happens for the Canadian perspective. They ran an interview with Musharf the other day that was over 20 minutes long. They seem to be able to spend more time on a single subject than anyone else on the radio. Marketplace and NBR are good for the business angle, and This American Life has a story that blows me away about once a month. Unfortunately they also have David Sedaris with yet another story I find pointless and boring about once a month as well. I just don't get him. The Splendid Table helps me with my cooking and Zorba Pastor reminds me I need to cook foods that are better for me as well.

I'm probably able to listen to compress about 10 hours of radio into 2 hours each day and I feel like I'm really in touch with what's going on in the world. Bigfoot, UFOs, Canadian Politics, The Middle East, Balsamic Vinegar and just about everything in between, I've got it covered, thanks to my RadioShark.

Any More New LISNews Topics?

Birdie had a few ideas for some new story topics, so I thought I'd check to see if anyone else has some bright ideas.

Do we need some new topics to add to our stories?

Politics Thursday: Deleterious Biases

Caught an interesting quote the other day:

"To me, the two main biases that affect television news are a bias toward simplicity -- stripping a story of its necessary nuance -- and toward sensationalism, making a story that really isn't that important seem as if it is. Those are the two primary and most deleterious biases operating in television news today."

Made In Canada?

Having a New Baby means lots of new stuff. There's piles of new clothes, some new bottles, a bunch of new toys, new furniture and about a million new diapers. Other than the diapers, almost every single things is made in China. I have a mountain of stuff here, 99.99% of it is made in China. There's 3 expections, the bottles were made in England, one person bought us 2 shirts made in the USA, and one other person bought one little outfit made in Canada! Canada would be down near the bottom of the list if I had to guess where any baby clothing was made. Nothing against Canada, I just never thought there was much of a textile industry up there.

I don't have great patriotic urges to "Buy American" these days, because it's impossible most of the time. But I do always look to see where something is made, mostly out of curiosity. It amazes me that damn near every single thing in every single mass-retailer is made in one country now.

Take That Juneau!

Daniel has been bragging about Alaska, so I'll brag about Buffalo now!

It's currently 3 degrees colder here, and the forecasted high for today is about 20 degrees cooler in Buffalo than Juneau. Last night it got down to 48 here, only 50 in Juneau. I've heard people call Buffalo the Miami of the North, but this year we've been the Juneau of the south.

I'm expecting polar bears and a blizzard any day now. I think I'll move to Juneau to warm up this summer.

I Just Need A Few More Hours In The Day

I've survived my first few months back to work (after taking 3 months off to play Mr. Mom), and I've been spending more time reading my Bloglines account. A couple months ago I spent some time writing about what I do all day. So, I've been at work, I've been reading what others are doing, and I've been keeping track of what I've been doing... All this has me thinking about what I do with my time again. My day job isn't particularly stressful, I'm blessed with (so far) a really happy and well behaved baby, and I really don't feel like I'm overwhelmed with the other things I have to do each day. One of the best things about Bloglines is I get to see what everyone else is doing with their time. I see some incredibly interesting things being done by some really smart people, which has lead me to give some thought to what I do with LISNews, LISHost, and all the other stuff in my life.


The LIS triplets (LISNews, LISHost, LISFeeds) take up pretty much all my "free" time. Not that I really have free time any more, they just soak up all the pauses I take between all the other things going on. I have all the usual suburban middle class things to do, plus the added 24/7 responsibilities of LISHost, and I chose to spend some time on LISNews & LISFeeds. A while back I read about someone "unplugging" for a week, and it was then I realized I can never unplug. I can't just leave my computer turned off for a few days if I get sick of it. I suppose this just means I've made choices that have resulted in part time job that can never be ignored. (eek, LISHost is just like my baby!) I suppose could chose to unplug the server tomorrow and just walk away, but I'd have a helluva lotta angry librarians at my door with torches and pitchforks calling my name. LISHost doesn't pay well (just did my taxes last month), but I enjoy it, and I currently have the time it takes to run a small web hosting business. If I ever get overwhelmed with life LISNews will be the first thing I walk away from, but I'm not even thinking about that, yet.


That paragraph may have sounded negative, hopefully it didn't. I think the most important word I've used so far is "choice." I have made these choices, based on all the options I have available to me. I remember having a great conversation with Andrea last year at CIL on the Metro about the choices we made and how it lead us to our chosen profession. I have made these choices, and I stick with what I do because it's, for the most part, enjoyable. I dread getting up in the morning and dragging my ass to work, not because I don't like work, but rather because it's just not really all that enjoyable most days. I never dread going home and checking the email, or spending a few hours doing server work. I really enjoy the support work I do for LISHost, it's more like reference work than you would imagine. There are days I dread LISNews, so I just ignore it, but I have yet to feel that way about LISHost. That being said, LISHost takes up quite a bit of time. Having done my taxes last month I also see that it doesn't pay very well. Since I spend all my time being sysadmin, I have very little time to write, and though I ain't not a good writer, I do enjoy it. I have little time to work on creative projects like LISFeeds. And I have little time to think about cool topics like OPML, Library 2.0, Tag Clouds and Ruby on Rails, and all the other sexy projects I read about on Bloglines and elsewhere. Every time I see someone writing about some cool new project I get a twinge of jealousy. For a few seconds I think about how I want to work on that... and then reality sets in:

I have to update a Drupal install, figure out if mod_security is over blocking, install the new httpd-devel rpm from source, work on getting new hard drives on the server, see if I can figure out if the new logging system is working, think about how I'd ever move email off the server, how do I handle all those new security logs, why isn't that Wordpress plugin working, add a new name to DNS, check the security lists, figure out what function I killed wikis with in the php.ini file, is the server too full?

That list is just my to-do list off the top of my head. I have a written list next to my computer at home about a mile long of things I'll get around to some day, and an inbox waiting for replies. Luckily, I've long since given up on getting everything done, I'll get there though. Letting go of the fear of not getting everything done every day helped me survive this life I've built for myself. I have quite a bit to do on good days, and the bad days just make things a million times worse. Some days I just can't get to everything I feel I should've, but most days I get everything done that needed to be finished that day. Most days I don't feel overwhelmed, I just can't get everything done that I'd like to. I'd love to work on LISFeeds more, I'd love to do more real programming on LISNews, and there's always a million things I can do on LISHost. The most challenging part of LISHost is the constant battles with the bad guys. We're constantly being scanned, probed and attacked. Spammers, hackers, crackers, phishers, script kiddies and the rest are always on the prowl for easy targets. There is no shortage of smart, determined bad people on the internet. Unfortunately, some of them are smarter, more determined and have more time on their hands than I do, so bad things happen. It's no fun (to say the least) feeling like I just let a hundred people down because the server just got cracked.


Much of what I do isn't sexy like Library 2.0 or trendy like OPML or even interesting like Tagging. It's just super arcane geeky minutia that perplexes me some of the time, and might just bore normal people to death. There's nothing I can write about that would impress people, there's nothing to brag about, it's just typical Linux stuff, but I enjoy it. I don't want to make it seem like I'm complaining. All this stuff is still interesting and fun, it's always a challenge, I'm always learning some new trick, and it's all very librarian (really)! I regularly get super interesting and challenging "reference" questions, they just happen to be about computers all the time.


All this has also got me thinking about how I use the web now vs. how I used it a decade ago. Never mind the shock of realizing I've been using web browsers for over a decade now, I think my interaction with the internet has change drastically over the past several years. Specifically, I think I've become an old man. I know I've already come out of the closet as an old coot, but I may be even older and crankier than I first suspected. This past week I paid attention to what I'm actually doing when interacting with my computer, and the 'net, I wanted to see just what I'm spending all, my time doing, how I'm using the amazing technologies we now have. I think I may be in a rut, though I'm not sure it's entirely a bad thing or not.


I generally spend most of my online time focusing on LISNews, LISHost, and a few other sites I'm responsible for. Beyond that my usual haunts include Slashdot, Metafilter, Boingboing, various news sites, and several security sites. I probably visit Google more than any other single site. I check the echo chamber to see what's bouncing around, and that's about it. I never just "surf" any more. I can remember spending hours just looking for new sites and fun things to read.


As much as it feels completely natural and mundane, I am still continually amazed and the things my computer allows me to do, it still all has a sense of wonder for me. Though it's lost much of it's magic, using the web is still a magical experience many days. I can't imagine my life without computers and everything they bring. What the heck did I do with all my time before I had a computer & a baby?

Paying Much, Receiving Little

A few more thoughts on FOSS in libraries. Even though I've been beating this dead horse for years now, I've found others writing on the same topic so I'm going to push a little harder and see where we can go with it. Just a few more thoughts this time. First, a couple quotes from my last 2 columns on this:

Eric Schnell:

"They need to begin viewing open source products as commercial alternatives. They need to begin reallocating human and fiscal resources into the development of new systems that can change and adapt as fast as our environment. They need to rethink the services they have and how they are delivered. ""

Nicole C. Engard :

"Where does III fit? I'd say it's a like the crazy cousin you have to deal with because he's family! It doesn't fit, we are a very open IT environment, we have applications all over that need to talk to each other nicely and the III system is a brick wall preventing us from getting the information we need and sending the information we'd like."

Since last week I noticed Jessamyn Pointed To a post by Casey Bisson:

"When something sucks I will say so. When vendors spout crap I will call them on it. My staff deserve good tools, my users need good tools, and I can't afford to buy stuff that sucks. Together, we'll fix the world one product at a time."

Some of us have issues with our ILS/OPACs or whatever you wanna call them:

1. They're made for librarians. From what I can see, librarians talk to vendors, who tell them what they want, or what they think their users want. If their users want something that goes against what the librarians want, it doesn't get passed along.

2. Many of them are web front ends on telnet based systems. There's no small number of librarians (those who use the system most ofter) who still use the old telnet interface. It's a bad thing when the people who use the system most don't use the same system the most important users (patrons) use.

3. They're up against Google, Yahoo and Amazon. It's impossible for vendors or librarians to compete, and yet when it comes to web services we are. We (and our vendors) can't possibley attract the talent it takes to code systems that will compete. Even AOL can't compete:

"But even if AOL manages to surprise Wall Street this week by doing better than analysts expect, it will remain the gilded punching bag of the so-called Internet age. There are several reasons for this, and all appear to stem from one fundamental problem beyond expected declines in revenue, earnings and subscribers: AOL's inability to attract its share of the best talent in its industry, and hence to demonstrate that it has the technological chops to compete with its fiercest rivals."

According to the NY Times. AOL is set to have revenue of $45 billion this year. How can III or OhioLINK possibly compete with that?

4. We have precious little control over anything in these systems. Vendors are jealously guarding far too much and it works against us. An open source system would give us all the control we want.

5. This all adds up to: Paying For A Lot, Receiving So Little. Big libraries pay tens of thousands of dollars for a system that is sealed shut and for customer service that from my experience I can only describe as "user hostile".

What's Your Stupid Human Trick?

The Freakonomics Guys say expert performers - whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming - are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.

Librarianship is certainly a profession where practice does make perfect, no one is born knowing what reference books are in ready reference. I don't care if you think you're the best librarian in the world, I'm curious about what else you're good at. Can you juggle chain saws, or create world class ice sculptures, or maybe you're an expert marksmen. Is this talent something you had to work at, or are you a natural? Can you ride a unicycle on a tight rope? Your talent need not be so ridiculous, I'm just thinking of amusing and impressive skills that might get you hired at Disney World.

I have but one useless, not very amusing, and apparently natural talent, I can almost always remember where I've been, and find my way back. As long as I can remember I've been amazingly good at not getting lost. I can still remember my way around places I've only been once, and haven't been back in years. The only thing that "sticks" in my head with no effort are these maps I build of where I've been.

Everything else I have some degree of proficiency at (Seems to be computer related mostly) I've had to work really hard for years. Plus everything else is really useful and rather mundane. But the ability to remember where the mall is in St. George Utah is just a stupid human trick.

More On Open Source In Libraries

I'd like to revisit my post from a while back and hopefully spark some conversation on Open Source in libraries. Tomeboy was the sole commentator last time, but I think he raised some good questions.
I think the time has come for all of us to start evangelizing open source. We just need to make sure important people fully understands how open source development works. This includes the ALA, ACRL library directors, and everyone else in the position to make decisions on future development directions. We need to make sure that people who make decisions on what systems are used have all the facts, and aren't basing their decisions on sales pitches.
I believe I'm approaching open source based partially on an economic perspective, but also based on other things, mainly the desire to give better products to patrons, and make collections more accessible. There certainly are many, many, issues that need to be worked through, but keep in mind I'm not advocating a "home grown open source" project, I'm advocating for exactly the opposite, something developed collaboratively by as many libraries as possible. Open Source != Home Grown. Having an Open Source ILS developed by a team of programmers at a number of different libraries is a completely different mindset that any home-grown system developed at a single university
One great example of road blocks we'll hit was Tomeboy's "turf protecting". I've seen reactions to this perceived autonomy loss, and it's not pretty. But this idea that some how patrons and services are so different from library to library should actually work for Open Source, since anyone would have the ability to change the code. Though, of course I'm not even sure that smaller libraries would have the staff or resources to join in such an effort, but maybe there are ways they could through local consortiums.
Tomeboy mentioned consortium pricing and the economies of scale. I'm not sure economies of scale can continue to drive prices down. Is that a sustainable model? I don't know the answer. Comparing and contrasting Tomeboy's idea that consortia require concessions, trust and working together is interesting because certainly open source would demand the same thing. I'd like to believe it would require fewer concessions, increase trust, and show that working together solves our problems.
I'm not an open source purist who believes all code wants to be free and no one wants to get paid. But I have been a part of several open source projects, and I know how the systems works. A good team of developers with strong leadership and an active user base can build incredible systems in a short amount of time, and with lower cost. I'm also a big user of open source products, and I can say that the end result can often be as good as or better than propriety systems. Having an open source system will us allow to serve our patrons better.
The idea that one or two programmers toiling away in the darkness of their basement offices can develop anything useful for a large number of libraries isn't what this is about. I'm saying we need libraries that have the resources to commit an FTE or 2 to a project that will be developed, used and shared by as many libraries as possible. Building an open source ILS that can be used by the largest libraries is within reach if we can convince the right people that it's possible, it'll be better for our patrons, and it might even save money.
Having a few geeks on staff is never a bad thing. For those libraries that can afford it, I think they'll find everyone is happier with the web presence with the proper staff
But, like Eric pointed out, this will require library administrators to refocus their vision. "They need to begin viewing open source products as commercial alternatives. They need to begin reallocating human and fiscal resources into the development of new systems that can change and adapt as fast as our environment. They need to rethink the services they have and how they are delivered."

Check Out what Nicole C. Engard has to say about her OPAC. Here's just one good quote:

"Where does III fit? I'd say it's a like the crazy cousin you have to deal with because he's family! It doesn't fit, we are a very open IT environment, we have applications all over that need to talk to each other nicely and the III system is a brick wall preventing us from getting the information we need and sending the information we'd like."

I've dealt with III and she's being far too kind. I'd say it's like the sociopathic uncle that escaped from jail and is holding you kids hostage.. What she's saying here is we have no control over the primary way our patrons interact with our collection. To make matters worse, we pay dearly for this. To make matters worse is there is no shortage of people who will just shrug their shoulders and say there's nothing we can do

Politics Thursday: The Subjectivity of Humor

I'm reminded of the subjectivity of humor every time I watch The Simpson's or Family Guy with my wife. I regularly laugh out loud at the ridiculous and childish jokes, while she sits stone faced wondering why we're wasting our time watching something that is so clearly not funny. While we both find Friends and Seinfeld funny, I laugh alone when I laugh at evil monkeys and flaming moes. But, this being Politics Thursday, I'm here to write about Political Humor, not cartoons.

It's been interesting reading all the different reactions to Stephen Colbert's closing remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner last week. Most interestingly is how completely convinced everyone is that Colbert was either funny, or he wasn't funny, as if one person gets to decide what's funny. People are 100% sure Colbert was either hilarious, or a total idiot. Was he funny? I don't know, but I think it's the wrong question to ask. I'd rather ask, did he make you laugh?

"Funny" is incredibly subjective, and yet there's no shortage of people lining up to declare Colbert the most or least funny guy in the country right now. e.g., Richard Cohen: "He wasn't funny." 750 words on how and why Colbert was not funny. Cohen and everyone else who decided Colbert wasn't (or was) funny got it wrong. Either Colbert made you laugh, or he didn't. If you laughed you probably thought he was funny, and if you didn't then you probably didn't think he was funny, and you're probably a neocon and dead inside. (See, there, now I'm being funny.)

If I was to make a list of why Colbert was funny I'd use most everything Cohen listed as well. While Cohen says Colbert was being "rude", a "bully" and using "mixed metaphors" and "lame and insulting jokes" and was therefore not funny, I'd say that's exactly what made me laugh. He was rude, he was insulting, and some of the jokes were lame, but that's exactly what made me laugh.

I can't say if he was funny, or not, but only that he made me laugh.

LISNews Numbers For April 2006

Suprisingly the Stats didn't drop much from Last Month even with the slow server, etc...
Total Sessions 287,747.00
Total Pageviews 1,051,565.00
Total Hits 1,482,364.00
Total Bytes Transferred 14.34 GB
Average Sessions Per Day 9,591.57
Average Pageviews Per Day 35,052.17
Average Hits Per Day 49,412.13
Average Bytes Transferred Per Day 489.32 MB
Average Pageviews Per Session 3.65
Average Hits Per Session 5.15
Average Bytes Per Session 52.24 KB
Average Length of Session 00:11:27

The Need For Speed

It looks like the speed issues we've been suffering through for the past couple months have been cleared up. Slashcode needed some tweaking and it took awhile for our hosts to figure out why the index page was taking almost 10 seconds to load. It's now dropped to under 2 seconds most of the time, which is pleanty fast for me. So say thanks to Shane for busting his ass to get things going.

I do have a few other bugs on my list of things to do that I hope to get to sooner than later.

My Email Is Not Conversational

[Let me preface this by saying I really do like quite a bit about Gmail. I think they've put a lot of thought into the system they've built, and most of it turned out very nice. It's just some of that thought was completely different than the way I think. Of course that means it's wrong, because everyone should think like me, anyone who doesn't is wrong, and probably ugly too.]

Walt's comment on my post yesterday about Gmail got me thinking about how I use email (not Gmail) and why it doesn't fit with how the Gmail programmers think about email. Allow me to explain exactly how I think about and use email, and why Gmail doesn't work well with the way I communicate.

At work I use Outlook, at home for the past 5 or 10 years I've been using Outlook Express. They get the job done, are reliable and don't seem to have any noticeable problems that get in the way. I've also used a few other programs and they all seem to do pretty much the same thing. That is they all handle email in the same way. I use them to arrange my mail in a way that makes it easy to get things done.

My main folder is my inbox. Anything that ends up in my inbox should be addressed to me and me alone, and should require a reply or be an action item. Support requests end up there, LISNews help ends up there, email from people who have a question about something ends up in my inbox. The inbox is sacrosanct and should never have email sitting in it for no reason. Right now I have just 6 messages in there. None of them are conversations, if they are the entire conversation I need to know about is in the message, or if I really need to dig I look in my sent items folder for it. Currently, I need to set up MySQL backups for 2 people, set up a MySQL account for one person, get back to someone about LISFeeds, remove an email from the LISNews list, and get back to shoe about a new web site. In Outlook that's 6 messages to reply to and then delete. So, as soon as I set up that database I'll delete the message, mission accomplished and I move on. My work account is the same way. My inbox has 2 reference requests, 3 things I need to do for my boss, 2 documents that got scanned and sent to me, a FedEX notice I need to watch, and a schedule I need to add to my calendar. Again, anything in the inbox needs to be acted upon somehow. Everything that is important is in one nice, neat, organized and minimized space. The inbox is important, and kept clean. My primary goal is to empty my inbox as often as possible, essentially crossing out all the things on my to-do list. If there's nothing in the inbox, there's nothing that I need to do right now. I don't need to label things or worry about reading down into a conversation or put in any effort, I just hit delete when I'm done and move on.

I have a big ol' pile of other folders for various other stuff. Most of the other folders are for lists, each list gets it's own folder. I don't need to read every single post to every list I'm on, so they can just settle in different folders, and if I have time I'll see what's going on. There's also a "stuff" folder that's full of random email from the past decade or so that I just want to keep. There's hate mail, praise mail, email from my sister, funny rants from random psychos, and assorted other stuff. It's like a memories collection. Some stuff is important, other stuff I just like to keep around for the helluvit. It's like a inbox from the past.

This system works very well. I don't need to label any mail that comes in. Everything knows where it's supposed to go. It's all very self organizing. The important stuff is right where I can see it, everything else is a click away when I want to see it. Conversations (if there are any) end up being part of each message, I don't ever need 12 different files to follow along, it's just there. I don't need to organize it most days, I don't need to click 12 times to see what's going on, it's very automated.

Now, compare that to how gmail works. Looking at my inbox on Gmail should look the exact same way. 6 messages. Instead, it says I have at total of 17 messages, but to confuse things just a bit, only 4 are showing. Even within those 4, I can only immediately see 7 messages, 2 under 3 groups, and one under the other. The other 10 messages that Gmail claims I have on each "conversation" are actually in the trash. To make it even more confusing, I look at those messages as well, they're from 4 more people and are on completely different topics. Sounds confusing doesn't it? My deleted items have suddenly come back from the dead and are being counted as part of the conversation. To make things even worse, the "RE:" disappears from the email subjects so I can't tell if it's a reply or just a new email. So email from different people on different topics from different days are being combined, even after I delete them, and sometimes the subject is changed. Also add to this the fact that not all email with the same subject is grouped together.

The system completely failed during the series of unfortunate events on LISHost. Last week on Thursday and Friday I must've send and received a couple hundred emails (I'd go back and count, but looking in my sent items folder in Gmail is even more confusing) many that had the same subject, but were to/from different people about completely different things. Gmail was a disaster, I had to click on every single message in every single conversation to make sure I didn't miss anything. I still missed at least 2 that I know of.
Just last night what should've been a quick and easy email exchange went bad. Last night the LISHost "billing department" (aka my wife) sent me 6 or 8 emails within a few minutes to check up on some accounts. Many of them had the same subject, but were again on completely different topics. Gmail grouped some of them together, but separated others. I actually completely missed 2 messages because they didn't show up as new and I had assumed I'd answered everything in a group and I didn't.

"Gmail is an experiment in a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that you should never have to delete mail and you should always be able to find the message you want"

I guess the problem is someone at Google decided email was broken and needed to be almost completely rebuilt. Email wasn't broken, at least it wasn't for me. It seems like I should at least have the option to turn all that stuff off and use a standard email interface. It doesn't matter that I don't have to delete my email, I never had to delete mail that I wanted to keep before. And I really could always find the old messages I want. Putting things in context actually makes me more confused, I never needed context, trying to add it just adds noise.

Open Up And Say Aaahhhhh

I just got done reading Eric Schnell's problem with libraries and open source software. I think his comparison of library networks and open source projects (like information system solutions) is right on the money. I've been asking the same question since I first started working at Ohio State almost 4 years ago now: With the significant costs involved in the purchasing and maintenance commercial information systems why haven't more libraries banded together to build library systems?

He points out the newer/better/faster open source of software development is fundamentally different (new and improved!) from past efforts to build old school (homegrown) systems. The open source method of development combines resources (including people and computing power) working on similar projects to save time and money. Eric wrote: "While a single library may lack the resources, a group of libraries working together has a greater chance of assembling a development team with a full complement of these skills."

The open source model is peer review at its best. Everything from usability to security can be greatly enhanced with a good team of open source programmers. A well organized open source librarian community focused on developing a few key systems can break the expensive stranglehold vendors currently have on most libraries.

While some of us have been talking about this for years, it's refreshing to see someone in Schnell's position extolling the virtues of open source. Maybe the time has come for all of us to start evangelizing our systems to upper management. Large academic libraries with larger staff are natural leaders in this area. But, like Eric points out, this will require library administrators to refocus their vision. "They need to begin viewing open source products as commercial alternatives. They need to begin reallocating human and fiscal resources into the development of new systems that can change and adapt as fast as our environment. They need to rethink the services they have and how they are delivered."

We need to make sure everyone fully understands how open source development works. This includes the ALA and ACRL library directors. It's important the ALA understands why it's wrong to purchase a closed source CMS, or why the ACRL could build an ILS without being charged 10 thousands of dollars a month to beta test new features.

One Month With Gmail Hosted Email

I've been using the gmail interface as my main email client for about a month now, so I thought I'd share my experiences.

First, why I'm using Gmail now. I've used BTCarver at LISNews as my primary email address for about 7 years now, and I really didn't want to change addresses, but I did want to change email servers. Until recently LISHost was two servers, one ran LISNews (and my email) and a few other sites, the other server ran all the other LIShosted sites. Dealing with two servers can be overwhelming, so I decided to cut costs and my work load, and dump the LISNews server. While this was a big time/money saver, it meant my primary method of contact (email) with all 100+ LISHostees was on the same server. So this meant any trouble with the LISHost server would mean I'd be unable to communicate with anyone! This was a bad idea, and I quickly started searching for a new email host for my LISNews (I also didn't want to put LISNews email on the same server LISNews uses currently, but that's another story) email accounts.

Coincidentally at about the same time, I got an invite from Google to help beta test Google Hosted email. I could outsource my email to Google, and best of all, it was free! Free if you don't count the ads served up with each and every email. This would mean a big change for me a couple different ways. I'd be moving to a primarily web based email system (though they do offer POP) and I'd have no control over my email server. For years I've happily used Outlook Express as my primary email client. I've switched back and for between POP and IMAP, but I've stuck with Outlook Express. It's easy to use, does everything I want it to, and has very few features that get in the way. Along the way I did try Thunderbird and found it to be super buggy and unacceptably unstable. So changing to gmail meant some big changes in my world of communications, and it turns out the hardest part was just going to be relearning email the Google way, "email as conversation."

It's been one month and overall I'm happy with what I've seen. I can't beat the price, and most of what they have to offer is good, though they have an approach to email I don't entirely agree with, I can't help but think they have a decent product. It's primary goal my be to server me more ads, I think I'll stick with it for the foreseeable future. Below is what I've found to be good and bad with gmail Hosted email from Google.

First, while it's great they think they've found a revolutionary new way to work with email, it makes little sense (to me) to not at least provide an option to use folders and NOT group things by subject. I can only assume this decision was made because it was too hard to program, or it uses too much space on the server. This labels thing may be great for some people, but it really doesn't work for me. It could be that I'm just not used to it, or it could be I use email differently than most people, or it could just be that it's a solution in search of a problem. So, here's what Google says:

"A conversation can have more than one label"
vs.
"You can only put a message in one folder"

I can't understand why this is a problem, and I'm a librarian who loves to put labels on things. I put labels on things for a living. I've never felt the need to put an email into more than one folder. An email is just that. It's a file that needs to be dropped into a folder so that I can handle all that email better. E.g. All my old logwatch emails go into the logwatch folder. All my web4lib messages go into the web4lib folder. All my sent items go into… well you get my point.

"A conversation can be in several locations (Inbox, All Mail, Sent Mail, etc.) at once, making it easier to find later"
vs.
"You have to remember where you filed a message to retrieve it"

I've never ever found this to be a problem. I have 29 folders in my work email account, and 37 at home and I've never once had a problem remembering where to search, and even if I did, I can just search all the folders at once.

"You can search conversations by label"
vs.
"You can't always do folder-specific searches"

I really don't understand where they're coming from on this one. What email program doesn't allow folder searches?

I guess the problem here is the Google programmers assume that email is conversation. While my email is sometimes conversational, it's not always a conversation. Actually, more often than not, it's not a conversion, but simply a file. Everyday I get 4 or 5 emails from the LISHost server, and another 4 from the LISNews code. These are not conversations, they are my projects telling me something. So is assuming that all email is conversation a mistake? I'm not sure.

Looking at my lists email account is a great example of where it doesn't work. There's no conversation there, just a bunch of posts to listservs. Some of the threads get grouped nicely, but many do not. No matter what I do to label those messages I am still left with a huge list of absolutely unrelated emails in one place. Nothing I can do with gmail changes that because they assume that this is somehow a conversation I am having with others. In order to view just emails that are from certain lists I have to browse by label, which is essentially just a folder. I can "star" a message ("Stars let you give messages a special status to make them easier to find") which leads me to believe they know having one folder sucks.

The worst part is emails are grouped by subject, which means any email with the same subject, no matter when or who it comes from, is now part of the same conversation. I get a TON of email with the same subject and Gmail clearly doesn't know how to handle it. Last week when LISHost suffered it's series of unfortunate events Gmail confused the hell out of me and caused to me to miss at least one email. Just last night when I was dealing with LISHost billing issues I ran across 2 emails buried within a group I completely missed. If anything drives me away from gmail, this is it. Grouping email by subject simply does not work for me.

Applying labels as a way of sorting messages seems backwards. It feels like it requires too much effort on my part. And when I do add a label, the check box doesn't go away, so I need to check, and then uncheck items. Plus I want to be able to look at one screen and sell ALL my email, I want to see that I have 30 new messages from web4lib, 2 from collib, 3 in my inbox, and 12 new support requests.

Overall it just feels like a solution in search of a problem. My email is normally not a conversation, and treating it as such confuses the helloutta me.

Some random things that I've had troubles with:

It's down a lot more than I'd expect from a product built by Google. I've noticed short but regular periods where I can't get my email.

They show ads on spam. I understand the logic behind putting ads everywhere possible, it's how they make money, but putting ads on spam messages seems wrong for some reason I can't really put into words.

I have to scroll all the way to the bottom of a message to hit reply.

The only option for my signature is "appended at the end of all outgoing messages" I chose to put my signature after what I write, which is often before the quoted text.

After I hit send, it just sits there and doesn't go back to the inbox.

I have 3 or 4 different signins @google.com that are all essentially the same thing, but they all seem to need different passwords and require different sign ins. I don't know if this is a security thing or not, but it seems to be redundant.

I can't delete just one email if it's part of a "conversation" here we go again with the assumption that I'm having a single cohesive conversation with one person again. And here's another reason why this analogy fails. If I delete anything it also disappears from my sent items. So I guess the "proper" way I can delete mail is to "archive" it. There doesn't seem to be a way to detach a message from a conversation. It's hard for me to get in the habit of archiving a mail rather than deleting it. It just doesn't make sense.

I don't have any control over how lists of messages are displayed. I can't add more fields, or change the date options.

I can't reorder all those things on the left side.

I can't change the subject of an email I reply to without clicking the edit subject link. I'm not sure why they want to make it hard to change the subject.

They leave the logo on the print screen.

The ads that do show up seem to be much less relevant than the ads I see on web sites. An email from my brother inlaw on web hosting showed me these:
"Contact Hyderabad Girls: Marry A Telugu Bride Or Groom Register Free! To Contact & Marrywww.BharatMatrimony.com"
"Free Indian Matrimonials: Find Hyderabad Girls Contact 600000+ Profiles, Join FreeJeevanSathi.com"

They're tracking my clicks. It looks like, at least part of the time, links from within the message body or redirects to some kind of tracking script.

It took me awhile to figure out which messages I've replied to by looking at my inbox.

The grouping of emails by subject just fails when I have multiple messages from multiple people with the same subject. It's very easy to loose one in the group and forget to reply to it. This happens to me every day.

It would be nice if I could build a rule based on the message I'm viewing while I'm viewing it "create rule based on this message" The rules are very powerful.

No "delete all" in spam box.

The login page needs an "onfocus" so I don't need to click on in the login box.

I've never overly impressed with the "web clips" I can't figure out how they decide what shows up in that space. It seems almost random.

Going from the email into the control panel requires me to sign in again. This time it seems un necessary because I'm also signed in with the same exact account. Security again? I'll take security over convenience any day.

It took me a little while to figure out why I kept accidentally moving message to spam, or deleting messages I didn't mean to delete. The delete button moves when I'm in the spam folder, it changes places and tricks me into clicking the wrong button. A little bit of bad UI design.

The email lists are weak at best. The only way to add recipients is via the browser, and you can only add addresses @ your domain. I can't imagine what can of worms they'd be opening by offering more though.

It would be great if I could see my email, email admin, reader, adsense, and google ads, book marks, and personalized Google home page all with one login. Is this really safe? I don't know.

Some random things I'm happy with:

It seems to keep my logged in damn near forever. I checked my email on the laptop 2 days ago, put it to sleep, and came back to the laptop and didn't need to sign back in.

The keyboard shortcuts are nice.

Showing snippets of messages is quite handy. It's interesting to see how some of the spam is formatted in the snippet vs how it looks in the message itself.

It's nice they offer forwarding and POP access.

I like the quick contacts and how they show up on the page. Overall the contact list in general is well put together.

Not surprisingly, the search options are quite nice.

There's a handy "report phishing" link hidden in the "more options" Also hidden in there is a "garbled" link that allows you to change the default encoding.

The rules page is very powerful.

Over all the control panel is clean and easy to use. There isn't many options, but I'm not sure that's a problem.

The interface seems to be exactly the same on IE and firefox. I can only assume this was not an easy task to accomplish with all the Ajax tricks they've got in there.

The chat interface is nice, especially nice that I can popup one of the windows, but when I went to look at another site it warned me the chat window would be closed, with no option to cancel.

The image attachment previews are really nice.

The spam filters they run seem to be more effective than spamassasin. I get about 100 messages caught per day, and so far there's been about 1 or 2 a day that sneak past. There was only one false positive I saw, and this was also marked falsely by spamassasin and Outlook. Don't ask why I got this same email at 3 different accounts.

A Public Apology

The problems that plagued LISHost yesterday are about 99% cleared up. I still have 2 databases to restore, one for LISFeeds, and one other that seems to have some serious issues. So I'd like to publicly apologize to everyone for all the problems.

My apologies again if your site was affected and my apologies if a site you regularly read was down yesterday as well. Yesterday was a tough day and before some of the details fade from my already cloudy memory, I thought I'd write just a bit.

I started my day just like any other day around 6am by checking my email. This Thursday was different than most because I had 2 emails from panicked people in Europe saying their sites just went down. Upon further review….. sure enough, MySQL was behaving badly. Last weekend I had moved the MySQL data directories over to a new hard drive on the server to speed things up a bit. During testing I had run across a problem where MySQL moved fine, but Apache would look for MySQL in the old location, causing all database drive sites to lose their databases. It wasn't something that seemed to be very common, but I did eventually figure out what to do. It turned out that MySQL has some special files that help it cache things and by rebuilding those files the problem was taken care of. So I moved MySQL on Easter Sunday and the big move went perfectly. All my planning and testing had paid off, or so I thought.

About 5:00am EST yesterday MySQL had troubles. It decided it needed to restart itself, and when it did, it forgot where it was. Or Apache forgot where it was, or it forgot to tell Apache where it went, but in any case, something went wrong. Either a main MySQL table got corrupted, or one of those special files, or something else got corrupted, and MySQL essentially got lost. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and once I did, the solution turned out to be more of a problem than the problem. After some poking and prodding one of two things happened. Either 1) There was a disc error or 2) the script I ran assumed all was well with MySQL and really screwed things up because of the corrupted tables or files. In any case, within about 3 seconds half of the most important files MySQL needed had either emptied or been deleted. As much as I'd love to go back and try to recreate exactly what happened so I know for sure, that would require breaking everything again, so I'm going to skip that part.

What a feeling that was! Imagine realizing you just lost 3 days of hard work for about 50 people, there isn't a profanity strong enough that I could've used to express what I was feeling. It took a good half hour, or maybe more until I figured out just what it was going to take to get all the backups loaded back into MySQL. It wasn't going to be easy. I couldn't just blow out the entire installation because some databases weren't affected, and the backups wouldn't really allow me to restore things if I did it the easy way. So each database needed to be tested. If it was bad, I needed to delete the files by hand, run CREATE, then DROP, then CREATE again from the MySQL command line, then untar the backup and then run it back in. Then if there were no errors, I could test the database, and move on. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't fully understand, MySQL didn't like some of the backups. Even though they came from the exact same server just a few days earlier, it seemed that some files were written in a way that MySQL no longer liked. This is something I need to explore so I can understand the problem. Because of this some of those backup files needed to be edited by hand, and then loaded.

To make matters even worse, we had one domain come under intense spammer attack, which essentially froze the server on me and required a reboot at a terribly inappropriate time. Luckily no damage was done, and once I fought them off everything was ok.

So finally around 10pm last night almost everything was back in place. I still need to rebuild LISFeeds, and one more database, but I think all is well on the server front now.

Lessons Learned:

More/Better Backups: MySQL should've been backing itself up everyday. I should've changed the schedule as soon as I added the new drives. Joe suggested we do it hourly, and if space and server power allow, I will do that as well. I was reading up on MySQL backup stuff and the options seem surprisingly limited. I also need to do some dumps without data to make the files more manageable.

Don't panic: Like the HG2G says, don't panic. I tried too many things too quickly first thing and lost track of what was working and what wasn't.

Backups need to be designed for quick restore. The user directories are backed up in a different way that I think will make it easy to restore from a failure, and I need to change MySQL to follow something similar. The current backup method I designed so everyone could grab a copy of their files, but overlooked my needs.

People are incredibly forgiving and patient: With only one exception everyone who lost data was very understanding and patient. I had most of the sites restored within a few hours, and everyone back to normal in no more than 15 hours, so it wasn't the worst failure of all time, but it was still pretty bad as far as I'm concerned.

Backup immediately: Had I run a quick back up before I started tinkering I might have avoided some problems. I didn't because I didn't think the problems were serious enough to warrant a fresh backup. I was obviously wrong, and I should've erred on the side of caution.

With Friends Like These: You know who your true friends are because they send you sarcastic nasty ecards when you're busy working your ass off trying to save their databases.

Email is Not Conversation: Gmail fails miserably when faced with what I through at it yesterday. Well over 100 emails from about 80 or 90 people, many with the same subject. Gmail grouped many of them together, but not all. It made finding email I wanted to save a pain, email I wanted to reply to difficult, and browsing through what I've done almost impossible. Email wasn't broken and it didn't need to be fixed with a new interface.

I like what I do: This was a bad day that will live on for a long time on my top 10 bad days list, but I never felt like I wanted to pull the plug even for a second

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