Return to Windows

There’s a Windows machine back in my house. That’s right, after 14 years of Mac OS, I’ve shifted my OS back to Windows…on my primary computer!

Windows? WTF?

So, Mac OSX is still a superior operating system. But the gap between Windows and OSX has shrunk considerably with the launch of Windows 10, but that’s hardly a good reason to leave behind the most simple, well-designed and usable OS out there.

But Apple is steadily closing the noose on what computer users can do with their machines and this has really rubbed me the wrong way.

Besides, I had a dream. A dream to build a dream machine, that is. I wanted to build my own ‘Adobe Machine’ for home use and also be able to swap out hardware over time. In Apple’s ultra-controlled ecosystem, building such a device would be very, very costly and also fail to really expand over time. And for very practical reasons, relying on a finicky Hacitosh was out of the picture.

So, fed up with the self-imposed limitations of Mac, I went back to Windows…and this is my experience.

First Impressions

desktopSo, the design of Windows 10 is actually quite pleasant. The modern ‘Metro’ UI is very pleasant (I only wish it was applied uniformly across the OS–more on that later).

The Start (menu) is actually a great way to tuck all of your most important apps out of sight. And I love that it’s flexible, allowing you to organize apps and folders however you want. There are even ways to label and group apps however you wish. The librarian in me sings with these kind of organizational features.

I’ve found that I actually use the Start Menu as a replacement for not only my Desktop but also the Task Bar, which I only keep visible so I have the clock visible.

Maybe it’s the OSXer in me, but there are parts of Windows 10 that feel like redundant re-thinks of more familiar features. For example, the Action Center has quick access icons for things like VPN and creating Notes, all of which, one would expect would be handled by the Start Menu. There’s also the little arrow-thingy on the task bar where certain background apps live. Why?

An Unfinished OS?

As I began customizing and exploring Windows 10, I began to realize that Microsoft must have pushed Windows 10 out the door before the pain was dry. There are odd discontinuities you the pleasantly designed Metro aesthetic ends and you’re suddenly thrown into some god-awful old-school Windows environment. This happens in the Settings panel often, for example, once you get a couple levels down.

Uh, guys, the Metro thing really works. Did you not have time to reskin the old Windows 7/XP UI sections? Please do this soon. It’s like you drove up in a super sweet ride, with designer shades on your face and then you get out of the car and you’re not wearing pants! Actually, you’re wearing tighty-whities.

Also, what’s up with the VPN workflow? As it currently works, it takes no less than four clicks to connect to my VPN. This should be one or two clicks, really. Please fix.

There’s a very nice dark theme, but, alas, it only applies to certain top-level sections of the OS. The File Explorer (a heavily used part of the UI), actually does not inherit the dark theme. There are hacks out there, but seriously, this should be as universal as setting your color scheme.

Can’t wait for Windows 10 to get all grow’d up.

Privacy

I’m going to write an entire blog on this, but Privacy is the biggest issue with this OS. Readers of my blog will know my personal feelings on this issue run strong. So I spent considerable time fighting Microsoft’s defaults, configuring privacy settings, messing with the registry (really?) and even doing a few hacks to lock this computer down.

Microsoft is really doing a number on its users. Windows 10 users are handing over unconscionable amounts of personal information over to Microsoft’s servers, their advertising partners and, if this info ever gets hacked (won’t happen, right?), to whoever wants to do a number on Windows 10 users.

Anyway, needless to say, I had to forgo using Cortana, which is sad because I’m very interested in these kinds of proto-AI tools. But as long as their phoning home, I just unplug them. Did the same to all the “Modern Apps” like Maps, News, etc.

Bottom Line

Breaking up with OSX was actually not as painful as I had expected. And I’m really enjoying Windows 10, save for a few frustration points as outlined above. Overall, it’s well worth the trade offs.

And my Dream Machine, which I christened Sith Lord (because it’s a big, dark beast), is running Adobe CC, rendering at light speed and could probably do the Kessel Run in less than 12 Parsecs.

Rewrite of the Jedi

swHi all, please indulge my inner geek as I take a little break from the normal discussion and have some fun re-imagining Star Wars.

If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars as the new film debuts this weekend. Perhaps you even sat down and started watching the old films in preparation for the next installment.

Did you feel Lucas and Co. called it in with Return of the Jedi?

While not the galactic-scale train wreck of the Prequels, ROTJ always felt like a poor way to wrap up the Skywalker family tragedy.

Here’s my take on what was wrong and how I’d fix Return of the Jedi…and I’m not talking cosmetic fixes. I think to really do justice to Episodes IV and V, a new story line with whole new reveals and twists would have been in order.

What needs fixing

  • Leia should not have been Luke’s sister. We all agree: the suggestions (and actual acts) of romantic intrigue between Luke and Leia should have disqualified this plot twist from the start.
  • Ewoks were some of the least interesting, and one of the most annoying alien species of the entire story line.
  • The Han Rescue Mission was overly complicated, took up too much of the film and did nothing to move the story along
  • A New Death Star was a boring setting. Seriously, they couldn’t think of anything else?

Rewriting Jedi

There are two cliff hangers that need resolving in ROTJ left over from Empire:
1.    Han needs rescuing
2.    Luke needs to verify if Vader is truly his father or not

But before we handle Han’s rescue, since this obviously needs to get resolved so we can get back to the Skywalker family story, we need to set up the finale of the film with an opening scene. In the new opening crawl, we learn that Vader has been granted his wish to pursue his son, while the Emperor focuses on a new super weapon that will spell certain peril for the Rebellion. We also learn about how the Rebellion plans to retrieve Solo so that they can get back to fighting the Empire.

The story opens with the Emperor arriving on his personal Star Destroyer, scaring the crap out of everyone on board. He announces to the captain, “We have a new weapon that will be housed aboard this ship. Your crew will be expected to follow strict protocols of secrecy. Any deviation from them will call for extreme disciplinary action, captain.”

“As you command, my Lord.” Gulp!

dagobahWe then transition to Luke back on Dagobah confronting Yoda and Obi Wan over the reveal from Empire that Vader is his father. As in the original, Yoda will be dying and confirm Vader is Luke’s father and finishes his last breath with: “There is another Skywalker.” Only this time, he adds: “Heed the lesson in the cave…” Also as in the original film Obi Wan’s ghost explains the reasons for withholding the information and explains that the other Skywalker was Luke’s twin sister. But Obi Wan does not know who she is or where she is since, for security reasons, that information was not provided to him, but he felt that she was likely raised on Alderaan. So she may be dead.

After Yoda passes, Luke darkly departs for the Han Rescue operation.

And now on to Han’s rescue. First off, if you’re Leia and in command of a kickass Rebel Alliance who owes much to Han Solo, you certainly aren’t going to waste time with a ragtag, risky, undersized rescue effort. You’re gonna use an army to get your man.

And, of course, the Empire is gonna know this is what you’re going to do. Ah, the plot thickens.

So, in my revision, the rescue effort quickly returns us to the Rebel vs. Empire battle but also shows off how far Luke has come in his training (and then some). The plan goes as follows: Luke, Lando and Chewbacca will lead a ninja-like raid into Jabba’s palace with massive backup led by Leia poised to support him if things go south. Luke leads the stealth incursion into the palace, past a sleeping Jabba, neutralizes Jabba’s palace guard and locates Solo (who is no longer encased in carbonite but in prison and perfectly ready to fight his way out with Luke’s help). Solo quips something incredulous like: “Kid, this ain’t no Imperial base. You think you can just waltz in and waltz out?” Luke: “I’ve learned a few new tricks.”

Luke, Lando and Chewie nearly free Han, but then at the last minute as they’re nearing the exit, out walks Vader, Boba Fett and a battalion of storm troopers. Vader is holding Jabba’s head in his hands and flings it into the room: “You forgot to bid farewell to your host.”

Outside, Leia is realizing something is wrong just as Imperial troops engage the rebel position outside the palace.

Back inside, Luke and Vader duel while they continue their conversation about that little Father thingy Vader dropped last time they met.

Meanwhile, Chewie is badly wounded by Boba Fett. Lando and Han do a good job fighting back against the storm troopers but Lando is cut off from Han and Luke when Han blasts the door blocking off the storm troopers. “Sorry, old buddy,” Han says comically. Han then goes after Boba Fett. The two tussle hand-to-hand with Boba pulling out all kinds of nasty surprises from his suit. But Han anticipates them all: “Boba, don’t you have nothin’ I didn’t teach you first?” Eventually, Han kills Boba and then checks on Chewie who is bad off but alive. They call Leia and let her know Vader is inside the palace.

The Rebels are now aware that they have an opportunity to kill Vader and move aggressively to cut off the palace.

Back in the fight, Vader then shows us the power of the Dark Side once more and uses his strangulation technique on Han with one hand, while fighting off Luke with the other. “Only through the Dark Side can you save him,” Vader insists. Luke is enraged as Chewie cries out for Han. Vader snaps Han’s neck and lets his body fall to the floor. Luke begins to let his anger take control.

Leia’s forces sweep into Jabba’s palace, but are quickly matched by the Imperial forces hiding within. It’s a pitched battle and in the end, Leia is also captured and Vader threatens to kill her too if Luke does not surrender to him.

Defeatedly: “Very well, but I will never turn,” he says to Vader.

“Perhaps you already have,” Vader asserts.

There is a tense standoff as Luke and Vader leave the planet, leaving Chewie and Leia to mourn over Han’s body.

Back among the main Rebel fleet, Leia interrogates captured Imperial officers from the fight on Tattoine and learns about some ominous new weapon the Emperor is prepping in orbit above Couroscant. They fear a new Death Star is in the works and decide that an all out attack on the Emperor is their only hope. Leia is accused of letting her anger cloud her judgement and that perhaps she is putting her personal friendships before wise strategy. But in the end, she convinces the rebels that it’s all or nothing.

Aboard Vader’s Star Destroyer, Luke communes with Obi Wan and Yoda. They warn him that the Emperor should not be underestimated. Luke must remember his training and resist. Luke says: “The Dark Side seems impossible to resist,” To this Yoda says: “Your friends. Remember the strength of the bonds you have to them. You will not find such bonds on the Dark Side. Only servitude and sorrow. Remember this, you must!”

The rebel fleet prepares for their final assault. A wounded Chewbacca with a robotic leg growls angrily as Leia details the plan. The Rebels have learned that the Emperor himself is overseeing the construction of the super weapon, which their intelligence tells them is housed on a specially outfitted Star Destroyer to avoid detection. They have also learned that Luke Skywalker is being held aboard that ship.

The goal is to attack the Emperor’s palace on the Capital to divert Imperial forces from their real target: the super weapon on the Star Destroyer. Leia and a smaller force will take two large cruisers, one attached to the other piggyback fashion. The lower cruiser will collide into the Star Destroyer and begin driving it into the atmosphere. X-wing fighters will take out any escape pods that might hold the Emperor. When the Star Destroyer is hopelessly falling into the atmosphere, the reard Rebel Cruiser will detach from the other and take the rebel crew to safety. During this, Leia has a secret mission with the droids, Chewbacca, Lando and herself to get Luke. If they fail in time, they will perish with the Star Destroyer.

The Emperor finally makes an appearance as Vader brings Luke to the throne room of the Star Destroyer. We are treated to much the same dialogue of the original script. But this is interrupted when it is announced that a Rebel fleet has just come out of hyperspace above the Capital.

battleThe rebel fleet bursts just above the atmosphere and begins firing large ion cannon weapons onto the surface while also engaging Star Destroyers and (what the hell) orbital battle stations that look like miniature Death Stars intended for taking out large spacecraft.

The Emperor mocks the attack as “pitiful” (with a little spittle shooting out of his maw) and cackles in delight. “Soon, you will turn and join us in executing the final destruction of the Rebel Alliance.”

Luke replies: “The only thing I will destroy is you, your Highness!” and uses the Force to retrieve his light saber from the Emperor’s chair. As in the original film, Vader and Luke then go at it. I really liked this part of the film and I wouldn’t change much here. Except as Luke grows angrier and angrier and ultimately defeats Vader, he turns on the Emperor.

The Emperor: “You foolish boy. Nothing can stop the inevitable rise of the Dark Side over the Galaxy. Your friends’ assault on the capital is misguided as is your faith in them. And yourself.” The Emperor rises from his chair menacingly. “The Empire is now in possession of the ultimate power in the Universe and I intend to use it to wipe out the Rebel Alliance in short order.” A door opens and out walks a young woman in black Sith clothes.

“Darth Tera, meet your brother.”

The two fight in a dead even match with the Emperor clearly enjoying the fight. Luke does his best to convince Tera to join him and destroy the Emperor, talking about how the Dark Side nearly seduced him too. But that it doesn’t have to be that way. “There is good in our family. I can feel it.”

Tera is clearly troubled by this, but these mixed feelings just make her go wild with rage.

Vader, at the Emperor’s feet is clearly surprised. “You never told me there was another.”

“You have failed, Lord Vader. Now observe the true power of the Dark Side as it conquers the Light.”

teraSuddenly, an alarm sounds and the ship rocks as Leia’s ship strikes dead center into the Star Destroyer, it’s engine blasting the ship into the atmosphere.

Leia, Lando, Chewie and the droids blast their way between the ships and begin their rescue mission of Luke.

Luke senses this and begins using telepathy with Leia like he did on Cloud City in Episode V. She follows his directions, fighting their way against impossible odds. Fortunately, most of the crew are abandoning ship in life pods and shuttles which are picked off by the Rebel fighters.

Now knowing that Leia and the others are on the way, Luke’s confidence grows. “I can save you,” he says to Tera. And then to Vader: “I can save both of you. You can be free of the Emperor. You can return as Jedi.” This clearly has an effect on the Sith Skywalkers.

The ship growns as it begins hitting the atmosphere. The Emperor has had enough.

“You are both pathetic,” he scorns. Then, he goes after Luke with his lightning power lecturing all of them on the power of the Dark Side.

Vader is the first to rise up to Luke’s defense. At first Tera tries to stop her father, but Vader pushes her aside and she hesitates. The emperor blasts Vader and they tumble together over the precipice in a more revealing struggle that is terribly violent and makes you sympathetic for Vader. We do see them crash on the floor of the tunnel, with Luke and Tera looking over the side at their bodies.

Leia and company blast their way into the room with Luke and Tera standing over the precipice. “Luke!” she screams. “There’s still time to escape! Come on!”

Luke looks at Tera. “Come with me.”

“It’s too late for me.”

“That is the Dark Side speaking. But the Light offers hope.”

The heroes all run out of the room and make their escape to the rebel ship, which detaches from the front cruiser and joins the rebel forces at their rendezvous point. There is discussion about the victory over the Emperor and hints that Planets are putting their fear aside to join the alliance. “We will build a New Republic,” Luke says.

“It is time for the Galaxy to heal,” he adds, turning to his sister, now in white robes.

THE END

ProtonMail: A Survivors Tale

Beginning November 3rd, encrypted email service provider, ProtonMail, came under a DDOS attack by blackmailers. Here is my experience, as a supporter and subscriber, watching from the sidelines. It’s a survival story with many heroes that reads like a Mr. Robot script.

Why Encrypt Your Email?

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that I just love. It overcomes the problems with email providers’ harvesting your personal data for resale, the pitfalls of these databases falling into criminal hands and just plain weirdness you feel when every word, attachment and contact is shared to whomever.

To make my point on why everyone should use encrypted email, like ProtonMail, consider this experience: I recently had to fill out an affidavit confirming my identity but did not have all the particulars with me, such as past addresses, etc. No problem, I just logged into my 12 year old Gmail account and did some searching. In no time, I had all the personal info the affidavit required to prove my identity.

It’s not that I purposely saved all this information in there. It just accumulates over the years organically.

Imagine if that data fell into the wrong hands.

ProtonMail is a crowd-funded, free email service that comes out of the CERN laboratories in Switzerland and MIT. The engineers at these research facilities were inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowdon about back doors into email servers and the general collection of data by governments, so they built ProtonMail.

The service is simple, elegant and super secure. The encryption happens through the use of a client-side password, so theoretically, nobody, not even ProtonMail, can decrypt your emails and read them.

ProtonMail Taken Down

The recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack began on November 3rd when a group held for ransom access to ProtonMail’s email service. This was a very sophisticated attack that flooded their servers with requests, but also their ISP. The result was that ProtonMail and several other sites, including e-commerce and banking sites, were unreachable. After failing to successfully fight back, the ISP and other firms put enormous pressure on ProtonMail to pay off the cyber gang. They did so and the attack stopped…momentarily.

Less than half a day later, the attack re-commenced. This time it was even more sophisticated and destructive. And, things got even weirder. The original blackmailers actually contacted ProtonMail to let them know they were not involved in the new attack. ProtonMail is pretty certain that the second attack was likely a state entity.

You can read all the details on their blog post on the incident.

Over this past weekend, November 7-8th, ProtonMail launched a response to the ongoing attack, deploying new defensive technologies used by large Internet firms, funded through a GoFundeMe campaign. As of this writing nearly 1,500 individuals donated $50,000 in just 3 days to help in this regard.

Those would be the first, rather large, set of heroes. Thanks to you guys!

Click here to add to the fund.

Social Networks Get the Word Out

The media was really late to this story. It was not until the end of the week that the first news reports came out about the blackmail story made sexier by the fact that the ransom was paid with bitcoins.

Most of the breaking news, however, was only available on ProtonMail’s Twitter feed and their Sub-Reddit.

It was on their Twitter page that they first disclosed the moment-by-moment details of their fight to restore access and their ultimate attempt to fund new defensive technologies. It was on Reddit that the controversy and pain was aired such as reactions to their payment of the ransom and frustration of everyday users at not being able to access their email.

People really gave them a lot of credit, however. And it was heartening that, despite some rather single-minded rants, most people rallied around ProtonMail.

Lessons Learned

One thing I was surprised about were some of the complaints from business people that were using ProtonMail as their exclusive business email. They were losing money during the attack so they were often the most irate. But you have to wonder about someone using an emerging tool like ProtonMail for something so critical as company email. Obviously, new Internet services take time, especially when they are not backed by seasoned VCs who are risk adverse.

I personally had not made the switch to ProtonMail entirely. Part of this was because they don’t have an iPhone app yet, which is where I do about 50% of my emailing. But I was getting close.

So, yes, I had a few important emails get bounced back to the senders. And perhaps one or two have been lost permanently (I may never know). But it does go to show that, for the foreseeable future, ProtonMail is not a reliable sole-email solution. However, given the work they are doing in response to the latest attack, this event may be the turning point that makes them a truly stable email service.

Just this morning, they came under another attack, but unlike previous days over the past week, they were back online very quickly. Hopefully this means their new defenses are paying off.

Bottom Line

ProtonMail rocks. I really love it. The recent DDOS attack only confirms that the good team at CERN and MIT are dedicated to doing what it takes to keep this alive. I can think of other such services that have folded when they came under similar pressure. In fact, the user community around ProtonMail is as serious as ever, shelling out the money required to safeguard encrypted email just when it counted.

There will likely be further trouble ahead. The British government has suggested it might ban encrypted email services. And who knows how the US will respond long term. So, there could be more chop ahead. But for the time being, it seems that ProtonMail may have survived a very critical test of its resilience.

Stay tuned!

Private Email to Foil the Snoops – ProtonMail Review

As we’ve been learning over the past few years, privacy has been getting the thousand cuts treatment. Everyone’s been in the act. Et tu Google? You betcha.

Fortunately, you can stop inadvertently BCC’ing Google, the NSA, the Chinese government, hackers, marketers and other creepers of your personal content. That’s thanks to some good people who actually live by the mantra to “Do No Evil” who have created ways for email users everywhere to keep their messages between them and their recipients.

Over the past week, I’ve been exploring one of these, ProtonMail.

The True Cost of Free Email

Most email services are profitable because they sell everything that you type and attach in your emails to marketing companies. Vast profiles about you are generated from this content. Think about it: what diseases you talk to your relatives about, your political and religious beliefs, who you spend your time with, even documents you attach from tax info to intimate photos. It’s all in there, and it’s all for sale.

You might immediately wonder why your email provider is collecting all this. It’s none of their business, right? Well, it is because you made it their business when you agreed to the terms of service. Even down to the attachments, by using services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail, you are granting that company to access and sell the content to ad companies and beyond.

Now imagine that this database on you was to be hacked. Can’t happen? It has. The Chinese government hacked Gmail and has likely gleaned a ton of information on the world’s Gmail users. Most likely, they were interested in what their own citizens were writing, but if you ever wrote anything critical of China or work for a company with exposure to China, they might find that interesting too. Who knows!

The US Government has also hacked into Google (and just about every other Western tech firm) as well.

And if these entities can do it, so can criminals and the mischievous. So, again, why are we letting these firms put our information at risk in the first place?

Good news: you don’t have to anymore…

Private and Secure Email

Alternatives to Gmail and other market intelligence-based email services include:

HushMail and StartMail were early services that took your privacy seriously. Both promised not to ever sell your data, but their business model made up the difference by charging you for the pleasure of living privately and secure.

Tutanota and ProtonMail, on the other hand, are free. Both use similar end-to-end encryption techniques and are quite similar in most respects. When I weighed which one to go with, I ended up choosing ProtonMail, only because their servers are based in Switzerland, a country that has outlawed the seizure of private computer content.

My ProtonMail Experience

ProtonMail was created by developers working at the CERN lab in Switzerland who were inspired by Edward Snowden and who were shocked at how weak online security was becoming, thanks to very aggressive and dangerous actions by global intelligence services.

ProtonMail uses encryption that is unlocked locally, on your machine, so even if anyone broke into ProtonMail’s servers, they would need a few more years than the age of the Universe to decrypt your content. Translation: it’s pretty damn secure, despite claims that the NSA can decrypt encrypted data. They would still need a lot of time and effort to do so, so it’s unlikely they’ll go to such an effort unless you’re an active terrorist (or the leader of Germany).

Best of all, you can send securely encrypted emails even to people using Gmail or Hotmail. You do this by checking a box, creating a password and an optional password hint for the recipient. They then receive an email with a link to ProtonMail. By following that link, they are taken to a secure web page inside ProtonMail where they can read and reply to your message by using the password. Or, if it’s nothing you’re worried about sending, you can just send it as regular, unsecured email to your Gmail friends, in which case it works as normal…but can be gleaned for any info you might have carelessly included.

Here’s how ProtonMail pans out.

UI and Functionality

This is more than just a bare bones email service. ProtonMail comes with a secure Contacts manager, email search and many other features you would expect in a modern email service.

The UI is clean and very straightforward.

Probably the hardest thing about using ProtonMail is the encryption, but not because it’s complicated…it’s drop dead simple…but only because it adds a step to your email creation if you plan on sending encrypted emails to people on Gmail, for example. In this case, you just have to come up with a good password and hint that your friends can figure out. It can actually be a little hard to come up with something that isn’t as easily hacked as “The city we met in.”

The other complication is that you have two passwords. One is used to access your mailbox and the other is used to decrypt the messages. So you have to enter two of these. In my case, I use KeePass password manager, so I just create super crazy, long, gibberish-based passwords for both of these and store them in the manager. Then it’s just a copy and paste action that I need to do twice when I log in…slightly easier, in fact, than using the two-factor authentication I use with Google, compounded by my non-use of cookies.

The Mom Test

I tested the recipient experience with my Mom (very non-technical) and some friends (generally non-technical) to see if any of this would keep people from reading and replying to me. So far, ProtonMail only snagged my mom, because she didn’t think of using caps on a name I was using for the password.

My mom also didn’t understand that she had to reply from within the browser window. Some caveats here: I believe she still thinks of email as something that she has to do in AOL.

My friends fared much better with no reports of trouble. So overall, I’d say there is a small learning curve for some recipients.

The Private Future

The hope here is that most people will gravitate over to ProtonMail or services like them, so that everyone’s on the same, private page. As I mentioned above, there are some extra steps with using ProtonMail with non-ProtonMail recipients. But if you’re communicating with friends that also use ProtonMail, the encryption is already there and you can relax…so obviously, I hope you all join ProtonMail.

Three Emerging Digital Platforms for 2015

‘Twas a world of limited options for digital libraries just a few short years back. Nowadays, however, the options are many more and the features and functionalities are truly groundbreaking.

Before I dive into some of the latest whizzbang technologies that have caught my eye, let me lay out the platforms we currently use and why we use them.

  • Digital Commons for our institutional repository. This is a simple yet powerful hosted repository service. It has customizable workflows built into it for managing and publishing online journals, conferences, e-books, media galleries and much more. And, I’d emphasize the “service” aspect. Included in the subscription comes notable SEO power, robust publishing tools, reporting, stellar customer service and, of course, you don’t have to worry about the technical upkeep of the platform.
  • CONTENTdm for our digital collections. There was a time that OCLC’s digital collections platform appeared to be on a development trajectory that would take out of the clunky mire it was in say in 2010. They’ve made strides, but this has not kept up.
  • LUNA for restricted image reserve services. You and your faculty can build collections in this system popular with museums and libraries alike. Your collection also sits within the LUNA Commons, which means users of LUNA can take advantage of collections outside their institutions.
  • Omeka.net for online exhibits and digital humanities projects. The limited cousin to the self-hosted Omeka, this version is an easy way to launch multiple sites for your campus without having to administer multiple installs. But it has a limited number of plugins and options, so your users will quickly grow out of it.

The Movers and Shakers of 2015

There are some very interesting developments out there and so here is a brief overview of a few of the three most ground-breaking, in my opinion.

PressForward

If you took Blog DNA and spliced it with Journal Publishing, you’d get a critter called PresForward: a WordPress plug-in that allows users to launch publications that approach publishing from a contemporary web publishing perspective.

There are a number of ways you can use PressForward but the most basic publishing model its intended for starts with treating other online publications (RSS feeds from individuals, organizations, other journals) as sources of submissions. Editors can add external content feeds to their submission feed, which bring that content into their PressForward queue for consideration. Editors can then go through all the content that is brought in automatically from outside and then decide to include it in their publication. And of course, locally produced content is also included if you’re so inclined.

Examples of PressForward include:

Islandora

Built on Fedora Commons with a Drupal front-end layer, Islandora is a truly remarkable platform that is growing in popularity at a good clip. A few years back, I worked with a local consortia examining various platforms and we looked at Islandora. At the time, there were no examples of the platform being put into use and it felt more like an interesting concept more than a tool we should recommend for our needs. Had we been looking at this today, I think it would have been our number one choice.

Part of the magic with Islandora is that it uses RDF triples to flatten your collections and items into a simple array of objects that can have unlimited relationships to each other. In other words, a single image can be associated with other objects that all relate as a single object (say a book of images) and that book object can be part of a collection of books object, or, in fact, be connected to multiple other collections. This is a technical way of saying that it’s hyper flexible and yet very simple.

And because Islandora is built on two widely used open source platforms, finding tech staff to help manage it is easy.

But if you don’t have the staff to run a Fedora-Drupal server, Lyrasis now offers hosted options that are just as powerful. In fact, one subscription model they offer allows you to have complete access to the Drupal back end if customization and development are important to you, but you dont’ want to waste staff time on updates and monitoring/testing server performance.

Either way, this looks like a major player in this space and I expect it to continue to grow exponentially. That’s a good thing too, because some aspects of the platform are feeling a little “not ready for prime time.” The Newspaper solution pack, for example, while okay, is no where near as cool as what Veridian currently can do.

ArtStor’s SharedShelf

Rapid development has taken this digital image collection platform to a new level with promises of more to come. SharedShelf integrates the open web, including DPLA and Google Images, with their proprietary image database in novel ways that I think put LUNA on notice.

Like LUNA, SharedShelf allows institutions to build local collections that can contain copyrighted works to be used in classroom and research environments. But what sets it apart is that it allows users to also build beyond their institutions and push that content to the open web (or not depending on the rights to the images they are publishing).

SharedShelf also integrates with other ArtStor services such as their Curriculum Guides that allow faculty to create instructional narratives using all the resources available from ArtStor.

The management layer is pretty nice and works well with a host of schema.

And, oh, apparently audio and video support is on the way.

Your Job Has Been Robot-sourced

rosie-the-robot

“People are racing against the machine, and many of them are losing that race…Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”

– Erik Brynjolfsson, Innovation Researcher

Libraries are busy making lots of metadata and data networks. But who are we making this for anyway? Answer: The Machines

I spent the last week catching up on what the TED Conference has to say on robots, artificial intelligence and what these portend for the future of humans…all with an eye on the impact on my own profession: librarians.

A digest of the various talks would go as follows:

    • Machine learning and AI capabilities are advancing at an exponential rate, just as forecast
    • Robots are getting smarter and more ubiquitous by the year (Roomba, Siri, Google self-driving cars, drone strikes)

Machines are replacing humans at an increasing rate and impacting unemployment rates

The experts are personally torn on the rise of the machines, noting that there are huge benefits to society, but that we are facing a future where almost every job will be at risk of being taken by a machine. Jeremy Howard used words like “wonderful” and “terrifying” in his talk about how quickly machines are getting smarter (quicker than you think!). Erik Brynjolfsson (quoted above) shared a mixed optimism about the prospects this robotification holds for us, saying that a major retooling of the workforce and even the way society shares wealth is inevitable.

Personally, I’m thinking this is going to be more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution, which stirred up some serious feelings as you may recall: Unionization, Urbanization, Anarchism, Bolshevikism…but also some nice stuff (once we got through the riots, revolutions and Pinkertons): like the majority of the world not having to shovel animal manure and live in sod houses on the prairie. But what a ride!

This got me thinking about the end game the speakers were loosely describing and how it relates to libraries. In their estimation, we will see many, many jobs disappear in our lifetimes, including lots of knowledge worker jobs. Brynjolfsson says the way we need to react is to integrate new human roles into the work of the machines. For example, having AI partners that act as consultants to human workers. In this scenario (already happening in healthcare with IBM Watson), machines scour huge datasets and then give their advice/prognosis to a human, who still gets to make the final call. That might work for some jobs, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that being a little redundant at some point, especially when you’re talking about machines that may even be smarter than their human partner.

But still, let’s take the typical public-facing librarian, already under threat by the likes of an ever-improving Google. As I discussed briefly in Rise of the Machines, services like Google, IBM Watson, Siri and the like are only getting better and will likely, and possibly very soon, put the reference aspect of librarianship out of business altogether. In fact, because these automated information services exist on mobile/online environments with no library required, they will likely exacerbate the library relevance issue, at least as far as traditional library models are concerned.

Of course, we’re quickly re-inventing ourselves (read how in my post Tomorrow’s Tool Library on Steroids), but one thing is clear, the library as the community’s warehouse and service center for information will be replaced by machines. In fact, a more likely model would be one where libraries pool community resources to provide access to cutting-edge AI services with access to expensive data resources, if proprietary data even exists in the future (a big if, IMO).

What is ironic, is that technical service librarians are actually laying the groundwork for this transformation of the library profession. Every time technical service librarians work out a new metadata schema, mark up digital content with micro-data, write a line of RDF, enhance SEO of their collections or connect a record to linked data, they are really setting the stage for machines to not only index knowledge, but understand its semantic and ontological relationships. That is, they’re building the infrastructure for the robot-infused future. Funny that.

As Brynjolfsson suggests, we will have to create new roles where we work side-by-side with the machines, if we are to stay employed.

On this point, I’d add that we very well could see that human creativity still trumps machine logic. It might be that this particular aspect of humanity doesn’t translate into code all that well. So maybe the robots will be a great liberation and we all get to be artists and designers!

Or maybe we’ll all lose our jobs, unite in anguish with the rest of the unemployed 99% and decide it’s time the other 1% share the wealth so we can all, live off the work of our robots, bliss-out in virtual reality and plan our next vacations to Mars.

Or, as Ray Kurzweil would say, we’ll just merge with the machines and trump the whole question of unemployment, let alone mortality.

Or we could just outlaw AI altogether and hold back the tide permanently, like they did in Dune. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely…and the machines probably won’t allow it. LOL

Anyway, food for thought. As Yoda said: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Meanwhile, speaking of movies…

If this subject intrigues you, Hollywood is also jumping into this intellectual meme, pushing out several robot and AI films over the last couple years. If you’re interested, here’s my list of the ones I’ve watched, ordered by my rating (good to less good).

  1. Her: Wow! Spike Jonze gives his quirky, moody, emotion-driven interpretation of the AI question. Thought provoking and compelling in every regard.
  2. Black Mirror, S02E01 – Be Right Back: Creepy to the max and coming to a bedroom near you soon!
  3. Automata: Bleak but interesting. Be sure NOT to read the expository intro text at the beginning. I kept thinking this was unnecessary to the film and ruined the mystery of the story. But still pretty good.
  4. Transcendence: A play on Ray Kurzwell’s singularity concept, but done with explosions and Hollywood formulas.
  5. The Machine: You can skip it.

Two more are on my must watch list: Chappie and Ex Machina, both of which look like they’ll be quality films that explore human-robot relations. They may be machines, but I love when we dress them up with emotions…I guess that’s what you should expect from a human being. :)

Digital Author Services

The producers of information at our academic institutions are brilliant at what they do, but they need help from experts in sharing their work online. Libraries are uniquely suited for the task.

There are three important areas where we can help our authors:

  1. Copyright and Author Rights Issues
  2. Developing Readership and Recognition
  3. Helping authors overcome technical hurdles to publishing online

Copywhat?

Several libraries are now promoting copyright and author rights information services. These services provide resources (often LibGuides) to scholars who may be sold on the benefits of publishing online, but are unclear what their publishers allow. In fact, in my experience, this is one of the most common problems. Like I said, academics are busy people and focused on their area of specialization, which rarely includes reading the legalese of their publisher agreements, let alone keeping a paper trail handy. This is particularly true for authors that began their careers before the digital revolution.

At any rate, providing online information followed up with face-to-face Q&A is an invaluable service for scholars.

Lucretia McCulley of the University of Richmond and Jonathan Bull of the University of Valpraiso have put together a very concise presentation on the matter, detailing how they’ve solved these issues at their institutions.

Another service, which I’m actually developing at my institution presently, is providing copyright clearance as a service for scholars. In our case, I hope to begin archiving all faculty works in our institutional repository. The problem has been that faculty are busy and relying on individual authors to find the time to do the due diligence of checking their agreements just ain’t gonna happen. In fact, this uncertainty about their rights as authors often stops them cold.

In the service model I’m developing, we would request faculty activity reports or query some other resource on faculty output and then run the checks ourselves (using student labor) on services like SherpaRomeo. When items check out, we publish. When they don’t we post the metadata and link to the appropriate online resource (likely in an online journal).

Developing Readership & Recognition

Another area where library’s can provide critical support is assisting authors in growing their reputations and readership. Skills commonly found in libraries from search engine optimization (SEO) to cataloging play a role in this service offering.

At my institution, we use Digital Commons for our repository, which we selected partly because it has powerful SEO built into it. I’ve seen this at work: where a faculty posts something to the repository and within weeks (and even days), that content is rising to the top of Google search results, beating out even Facebook and LinkedIn for searches on an author’s name.

And of course, while we don’t normally mark up the content with metadata for the authors, we do provide training on using the repository and understanding the implications for adding good keywords and disciplines (subject headings) which also help with SEO.

The final bit, is the reporting. With Digital Commons, reports come out every month via email to the authors, letting them know what their top downloads were and how many they had. This is great and I find the reports help spur word-of-mouth marketing of the repository and enthusiasm for it by authors. This is built into Digital Commons, but no matter what platform you use, I think this is just a basic requirement that helps win author’s hearts, drives growth and is a vital assessment tool.

Walking The Last Mile

MacKenzie Smith of MIT has described the Last Mile Problem (Bringing Research Data into the Library, 2009), which is essentially where technical difficulties, uncertainty about how to get started and basic time constraints keep authors from ever publishing online.

As I touched on above, I’m currently developing a program to help faculty walk the last mile, starting with gathering their CVs and then doing the copyright checks for them. The next step would be uploading the content, adding useful metadata and publishing it for them. A key step before all of this, of course, is setting up policies for how the collection will be structured. This is particularly true for non-textual objects like images, spreadsheets, data files, etc.

So, when we talk about walking the last mile with authors, there’s some significant preparatory work involved. Creating a place for authors to understand your digital publishing services is a good place to start. Some good examples of this include:

Once your policies are in place, you can provide a platform for accepting content. In our case (with Digital Commons), we get stellar customer service from Bepress which includes training users how to use their tools. At institutions where such services is not available, two things will be critical:

  1. Provide a drop-dead easy way to deposit content, which includes simple but logical web forms that guide authors in giving you the metadata and properly-formatted files you require.
  2. Provide personal assistance. If you’re not providing services for adding content, you must have staffing for handling questions. Sorry, an FAQ page is not enough.

Bottom Line

Digital publishing is just such a huge area of potential growth. In fact, as more and more academic content is born digital, preserving it for the future in sustainable and systematic ways is more important than ever.

The Library can be the go-to place on your campus for making this happen. Our buildings are brimming with experts on archives, metadata, subject specialists and web technologies, making us uniquely qualified to help authors of research overcome the challenges they face in getting their stuff out there.