Tinkering Day 1

As I couldn’t go to Dev8D and I probably won’t get to go to the next library mash event ūüė¶ I thought I’d have my own day of tinkering. I probably gave myself a bit of a long list of things to try, but I managed a fair bit.

(1) Made a bit of progress on the Literary Twist project – Scraped a list of commonly used words, worked out phrases to replace them and put them into all into a Yahoo Pipe. Need to tinker with it though, to make sure it comes up with consistent and accurate output all the time, no matter what user puts in. I think I could do a bit more with regex too, but that might be another stage on. Also learnt trick for avoiding problem of pipe not running properly. Also realised on another pipe that Yahoo pipes can be overloaded and might not be great for lots of feeds going into one pipe.

(2) I also tried to work out if you can pass query to flash player. You can, but not with the one I wanted to do it to – might try to find a paste and run script, if such a thing exists.

(3) Basic programming – My first programming language was Basic and I still love it. I know some programmers look down their nose at it, but I don’t care. It’s easy for me to remember. I think my head is still in BASIC mode and that’s why I’ve struggled to suss out Java. I’ve made progress on Java, but it’s taken me a bit of time. Anyway, I got a yearning to tinker with my old MSX (still in cupboard) and decided to download an MSX emulator. I could still program in BASIC on it after so many years of not bothering, but I couldn’t save files on the hard drive. I wiped it of my computer in frustration and looked for a browser based basic instead – just out of curiosity.

I found runbasic ūüôā , which looks straight-forward, but will allow me to develop interactive websites in a language I’m familiar with. So, I’ll be tinkering with that, even though I’ll still be using Java too.

(4) I also tried to get to grips with Gamemaker. I’ve had a bit of success in putting very very simple games together on it in the past. However, even though you don’t need to know how to program to use it, I think if you do know how to program you might as well program, as it’ll be just as quick. It’s not as straightforward as pointing and clicking. So, I think my tinkering time will be better spent somewhere else.

(5) I also had a scout around for free Java and php hosting – just as a way to test out some programming on a live site. I found a couple of sites via Free-web-hosting. They don’t get massively high scores, but I just need somewhere to tinker on a live system, rather than on my home test system (Apache server).

I’m quite pleased with what I achieved in my first full day of tinkering – sorting out some of ‘Literary Twist’, flash player queries and tinkering with runbasic. Even where I didn’t make any progress (MSX emulator, Gamemaker) it meant I could wipe them off my list of things I want to get to grips with and move on.

Knobbling the Winter Olympic Catalogue Results

In my role of ‘Keeper of the Keys to the Catalogue (once removed)’ for a public library service and ‘Man with Access to Official Twitter Account’, I thought it would be a good idea to promote some of our books around the Winter Olympics. This included trying to get a few more loans out of the curling books we bought after Team GB did so well some time ago. ūüôā

I wanted to point our Twitter followers to a few handpicked books on our library catalogue, rather than a huge wodge of titles and I wanted to do it as simply and quickly as possible. However, as I tried to pull out a few relevant skiing books I knew it wasn’t going to work using any of the search methods available, despite working out different combinations of words.

In the end I realised I was trying to make the search methods work for me, when the catalogue records should be doing the work instead. As a cataloguer/classifier I’d always been taught that cataloguing/classification should be consistent. The sacred laws of UKMARC should be obeyed. I can’t complain with this as a general principle, but in some cases if you want to achieve something different, you need to do something different to make it work. As long as it doesn’t affect the end user, as far as I’m concerned it’s fine to do it. In fact, in this case, it was for the benefit of the end user that I decided to take a different angle with this.

I decided to hashtag the catalogue entries I thought would be of interest. I know cataloguers and classifiers commonly tag records anyway, but the difference in this case was that I only tagged a handful of records, rather than tagging the entire stock with these new hashtags. Using the hashtag format would indicate that these tags had a unique purpose. It’s the same idea as giving a Twitter message a hashtag only if it’s related to a particular event ( eg ‘#van2010‘ for the Winter Olympics). You don’t need to tag all of your Twitter messages and, in the same way, you don’t always need to tag all of the records on your catalogue.

Winter Olympic Catalogue Search Results

I suppose it’s like partial/filtered indexing, where you limit the results to a subset of items, based on rules you define, rather than retrieving the full set of records. If I’d just searched for ‘skiing’ for example it would have given me 208 records. I didn’t want our users to have to trawl through all of these records. Using my method I limited the results to a single page of 7 items. Anyone searching the catalogue could still retrieve the 208 skiing records if they wanted to, but my tags pointed our Twitter followers to this limited set, as a sort of mini promotion. In fact, as I only tagged about 35 titles out of the thousands of titles on our catalogue you could say it was almost micro-indexing.

I basically pre-weighted the catalogue records so that they give me exactly what I wanted. If it was an Olympic event it might call for a stewards enquiry for knobbling the competitors!

The tags didn’t need to make any sense to anyone, as they’d just be used to query the online catalogue. They just needed to be unique, so the more obscure the tag the better – I didn’t want any unrelated items in the search results. In the end I created tags such as ‘#woski10‘ (skiing), ‘#woiho10‘ (ice-hockey), ‘#wotd10‘ (Torvill and Dean). There were about seven hashtags in the end.

After running each hashtag search, they were saved as bit.ly links (bit.ly shortens long url’s). The links were added to appropriate Twitter messages, which were scheduled to run at various times over the Winter Olympic period.

Twitter Olympic Tweets

I’ll be checking the items a few weeks after the Olympics are over to see if this has increased their use.

I’m also wondering if I could have made extra use of these hashtags via a Yahoo pipe mashup, but I’ve no firm ideas at the moment about what would be useful. Maybe a link between books and related Team GB/ Winter Olympic web pages, Flickr photos, Youtube videos would have been a good idea.

Devil In The Detail

Every Christmas¬†I buy an Advent calendar. It’s part of¬†the Christmas tradition, along with advocaat snowball’s and carol concerts. This year¬†I went for a calendar with a European winter landscape on the front. Called Winterwald, it contained snow-capped mountains, children playing in the snow and skating on a frozen pond amongst fir trees and an old wooden church. There was an old style magic and charm to it.

Every day I’d be eager to see¬†the surprise hidden behind the¬†numbered paper door, rushing into the living room in my Batman ™ pyjamas, squeeling with excitement at the site of a robin or snowman.

Day 22 was certainly a surprise. This little paper door was right on the side of the church and when I opened it there was a drawing of the devil!

Day 22 Advent Calendar

What did it mean? Had someone put it in as a joke? Was there a devil worshiper employed by Korsch-Verlag (the makers of the calendar)? It seemed strange, but knew there must be a sensible explanation behind it.

Maybe if I’d been a different sort of fly-off-the-handle person I could have got all angry about it and written a letter along these lines to the maker…

“Dear Sir or Madam,

I am disgusted, appalled and horrified by your use of Satanic images in a child’s Advent Calendar. Blah Blah Blah. Grumpy words. Harrumph! Hoohaa! Filthy… obscene… I’ve never been so….. In all my life…. I expect ¬£XXXX for the distress this has caused me and my little Arthur…. More grumpitudiness…Failing this monetary remuneration, I will present this non- story to my MP, the BBC and my local newspaper who will pay me handsomely…. Yet more irate language and general blusteringness… Harumph (x2)…

Yours sincerely,

Lord Faltington Bishumgon of Fiddlebury”

But I’m not that sort of person.

Sometimes, you can fall into the trap of¬†looking at something and not really¬†see or understand¬†what is going on. Sometimes¬†you can¬†add your own meaning to what¬†you see, hear or read. It can be easy to misinterpret the information you’re presented with, when you don’t know the full background and context to it.You can take what you want and fill in the gaps with all manner of fiction.

It’s true of information too.¬†It can be too easy to get half the picture and follow a route that leads down a wrong path, just because¬†you’ve taken the first piece of information that comes to you and either haven’t understood it or taken it as gospel truth.¬†One of the keys to making¬†an informed decision is delving a bit deeper¬†and making sure what¬†you’re seeing, hearing or reading is right and then fill in any gaps¬†before making a judgement.

Anyway, as it turns out, the image of the devil was far less sinister than a locally employed satanist playing a wicked joke. According to European folklore the devil is here at Christmas to seek out the bad children and deal with them as he sees fit!

Literary Twist Project

A couple of months ago I came up with a daft idea based on¬†reading ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ (a novel that has since spawned a new genre of classic/horror crossovers). I was really disappointed by the book and smugly thought ‘I could do that!’

It just seemed like the author had chucked in a few ‘unmentionables’ and a bit of martial arts and released the literary monster onto¬†the world. So, in a poor attempt to take the mickey, I set up a Yahoo pipe that would allow people to paste in a title and description and the pipe would do a simple find/replace action and turn the text into a cheesy piece of Hammer horror.

Zombie Librarian, courtesy 'wvs' on Flickr.

It worked on a simple¬†level, but I thought I must be able to improve on it. I haven’t really tinkered with the idea since then, but have felt it’s probably worth pursuing just for fun & as a personal learning exercise.

I’ve decided to call the project ‘Literary Twist’.

There’s a number of stages I’ll need to go through to get something decent up and running.

(1) Work out a set of words used frequently enough in the English language that would appear a high percentage of the time in any text a user entered into the description, or use term extraction to pull out enough relevant terms in the description that could be replaced.
(2) Decide on appropriate words that could be used to replace the original words and feed them into the replace procedure.
(3) Possibly if someone entered an ISBN, author / title I’d be able to pull in a synopsis from a book catalogue instead of using manual text entry?
(4) Do the process of find/replace
(5) Output the result as a decent looking web page (all nice and purdy)
(6) I’d like to have a nice user-friendly¬†interface (a form) to the pipe as well, which I know I can do via html and javascript, but I’ve never tried.
(7) I’d also like to go beyond the horror genre and allow users to select the genre they want it twisted into (eg romance, western) and I’d want to do it all in the same form/screen.

So, I think I’ll give it a go. I’m not sure how long it’ll take, but I’ll be keeping track of it here.

Linking Markers in Trailmeme

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking at Trailmeme, which allows you to create a map of linked pages, based around a specific topic. So far I’ve covered what it’s about and what it could be used for and choosing and using markers/bookmarks .

Once you’ve selected your markers you link them together to make a path through the markers/pages. You select the trail you are working on (via ‘Follow’, ‘My Trails’). It opens up with a list of markers associated with the trail on the left hand side and a¬† work pane on the right.

Initially the work pane displays a column of flow chart boxes and below them various menu options >> create/delete relationship between links, zoom in and out (trails with lots of markers can appear quite small in this window) and you can add further details (Node name, blurb/description, tags and comments) about the link. These details appear when anyone follows your trail. To link, just click on a marker and drag a line to the marker you want to link to. Each marker can have multiple links to and from it. You can also move the markers around the work pane.

Trailmeme Edit Trail Workpane
Edit Trail Screen

In this ‘Java Trail’ I tried to link things logically. Giving an overview on the left side, different general methods of learning in the middle and specific examples of Java programming classes/methods on the right. Even though you can’t do it at this stage, I think it would be useful to be¬†able to group markers together into these logical groups – possibly into folders/venn¬†sets? It would just help to show the logic to myself and others for future reference.

At this stage you can still add more markers and remove any you don’t want.

On this screen you also get the option to view the xml file of your trail, which is interesting to see how it all works behind the scenes. Maybe in future the developers could offer an option to upload/import trailmeme xml files as a way to create trailmemes, as well as using the graphical interface.

It’s fairly straightforward to use and linking web pages using Trailmeme¬†could provide a logical/structured route through what might otherwise seem like a disjointed list of bookmarks.

(to be continued…)

Mobile Browser Site Design

Having been woken by the neighbours with a bit of crashing and banging at regular intervals, I am now wide awake (1:30am) and have been flicking through the web on my Palm Treo phone. It still surprises me that there are sites that don’t provide decent access via a mobile browser. You can still just about read the information on these mobile incompatible sites if you like scrolling in all directions, you want your text columns to be 1 inch wide, you enjoy wading through the extra bits that make a full size sites snazzy but a mobile site difficult to use and you’re prepared to wait a couple of minutes before the site loads up.

As mobile site access is such a big thing now, major sites should be able to either pick up that I’m using a smart phone to access them and either change the layout accordingly, or divert me to the mobile version of the site. Some sites even seem to go so far as to hide the fact that they have a mobile version of their site, providing no information about the url, despite the fact that you’ll eventually stumble across it by sheer luck.

In some cases I prefer using the mobile site, rather than the full site. Most of the time this is because the clutter is removed and the functions are stripped back to the most useful things.

I do sometimes use sites like Skweezer to view normal sites in my mobile browser. Skweezer strips out the extra bits and bobs and presents you with the web site in a less cluttered way. All you have to do is type in the site url or keywords into Skweezer’s search box and it converts the sites successfully most of the time. When it fails, it is generally due to the over-crowded page it is trying to convert and again you get a load of extra information you don’t want.

I’ve got access to most types of sites that I need on my browser on a regular basis in a decent readable form, without using something like Skweezer. However, in some cases I’m using a site in preference to the one I’d rather use, just because the one I’d rather use doesn’t have a mobile version of their site.

If a company hasn’t got their site set up for mobile browser access they will be, and are, losing out to another site. As mobile browser access expands, that other site will slowly take away web traffic, because I’m sure that if I’m going to another site for my information, I won’t be the only person doing it.