Virtual Realty is Getting Real in the Library

My library just received three Samsung S7 devices with Gear VR goggles. We put them to work right away.

The first thought I had was: Wow, this will change everything. My second thought was: Wow, I can’t wait for Apple to make a VR device!

The Samsung Gear VR experience is grainy and fraught with limitations, but you can see the potential right away. The virtual reality is, after all, working off a smartphone. There is no high-end graphics card working under the hood. Really, the goggles are just a plastic case holding the phone up to your eyes. But still, despite all this, it’s amazing.

Within twenty-four hours, I’d surfed beside the world’s top surfers on giant waves off Hawaii, hung out with the Masai in Africa and shared an intimate moment with a pianist and his dog in their (New York?) apartment. It was all beautiful.

We’ve Been Here Before

Remember when the Internet came online? If you’re old enough, you’ll recall the crude attempts to chat on digital bulletin board systems (BBS) or, much later, the publication of the first colorful (often jarringly so) HTML pages.

It’s the Hello World! moment for VR now. People are just getting started. You can tell the content currently available is just scratching the surface of potentialities for this medium. But once you try VR and consider the ways it can be used, you start to realize nothing will be the same again.

The Internet Will Disappear

So said Google CEO Erik Schmidt in 2015. He was talking about the rise of AI, wearable tech and many other emerging technologies that will transform how we access data. For Schmidt, the Internet will simply fade into these technologies to the point that it will be unrecognizable.

I agree. But being primarily a web librarian, I’m mostly concerned with how new technologies will translate in the library context. What will VR mean for library websites, online catalogs, eBooks, databases and the social networking aspects of libraries.

So after trying out VR, I was already thinking about all this. Here are some brief thoughts:

  • Visiting the library stacks in VR could transform the online catalog experience
  • Library programming could break out of the physical world (virtual speakers, virtual locations)
  • VR book discussions could incorporate virtual tours of topics/locations touched on in books
  • Collections of VR experiences could become a new source for local collections
  • VR maker spaces and tools for creatives to create VR experiences/objects

Year Zero?

Still, VR makes your eyes tired. It’s not perfect. It has a long way to go.

But based on my experience sharing this technology with others, it’s addictive. People love trying it. They can’t stop talking about it afterward.

So, while it may be some time before the VR revolution disrupts the Internet (and virtual library services with it), it sure feels imminent.

W3C’s CSS Framework Review

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 3.19.41 PMI’m a longtime Bootstrap fan, but recently I cheated on my old framework. Now I’m all excited by the W3C’s new framework.

Like Bootstrap, the W3C’s framework comes with lots of nifty utilities and plug and play classes and UI features. Even if you have a good CMS, you’ll find many of their code libraries quite handy.

And if you’re CMS-deficient, this framework will save you time and headaches!

Why a Framework?

Frameworks are great for saving time. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for standard UI chunks like navigation, image positioning, responsive design, etc.

All you need to do is reference the framework in your code and you can start calling the classes to make your site pop.

And this is really great since not all well-meaning web teams have an eye for good design. Most quality frameworks look really nice, and they get updated periodically to keep up with design trends.

And coming from this well-known standards body, you can also be assured that the W3C’s framework complies with all the nitty-gritty standards all websites should aspire to.

Things to Love

Some of the things I fell in love with include:

  • CSS-driven navigation menus. There’s really no good reason to rely on JavaScript for a responsive, interactive navigation menu. The W3C agrees.
  • Icon support. This framework allows you to choose from three popular icon sets to bring icons right into your interface.
  • Image support: Lots of great image styling including circular cropping, shadowing, etc.
  • Cards. Gotta love cards in your websites and this framework has some very nice looking card designs for you to use.
  • Built-in colors. Nuff sed.
  • Animations. There are plenty of other nice touches like buttons that lift off the screen, elements that drop into place and much more.

I give it a big thumbs up!

Check it out at the W3C.org.

 

 

AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

Google Analytics and Privacy

Collecting web usage data through services like Google Analytics is a top priority for any library. But what about user privacy?

Most libraries (and websites for that matter) lean on Google Analytics to measure website usage and learn about how people access their online content. It’s a great tool. You can learn about where people are coming from (the geolocation of their IP addresses anyway), what devices, browsers and operating systems they are using. You can learn about how big their screen is. You can identify your top pages and much much more.

Google Analytics is really indispensable for any organization with an online presence.

But then there’s the privacy issue.

Is Google Analytics a Privacy Concern?

The question is often asked, what personal information is Google Analytics actually collecting? And then, how does this data collection jive with our organization’s privacy policies.

It turns out, as a user of Google Analytics, you’ve already agreed to publish a privacy document on your site outlining the why and what of your analytics program. So if you haven’t done so, you probably should if only for the sake of transparency.

Personally Identifiable Data

Fact is, if someone really wanted to learn about a particular person, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that they could glean a limited set of personal attributes from the generally anonymized data Google Analytics collects. IP addresses can be loosely linked to people. If you wanted to, you could set up filters in Google Analytics that look at a single IP.

Of course, on the Google side, any user that is logged into their Gmail, YouTube or other Google account, is already being tracked and identified by Google. This is a broadly underappreciated fact. And it’s a critical one when it comes to how approach the question of dealing with the privacy issue.

In both the case of what your organization collects with Google Analytics and what all those web trackers, including Google’s trackers, collect, the onus falls entirely on the user.

The Internet is Public

Over the years, the Internet has become a public space and users of the Web should understand it as such. Everything you do, is recorded and seen. Companies like Google, Facebook, Mircosoft, Yahoo! and many, many others are all in the data mining business. Carriers and Internet Service Providers are also in this game. They deploy technologies in websites that identify you and then sell what your interests, shopping habits, web searches and other activities are to companies interested in selling to you. They’ve made billions on selling your data.

Ever done a search on Google and then seen ads all over the Web trying to sell you that thing you searched last week? That’s the tracking at work.

Only You Can Prevent Data Fires

The good news is that with little effort, individuals can stop most (but not all) of the data collection. Browsers like Chrome and Firefox have plugins like Ghostery, Avast and many others that will block trackers.

Google Analytics can be stopped cold by these plugins. But it won’t solve all the problems. Users also need to set up their browsers to delete cookies websites save to their browsers. And moving off of accounts provided from data mining companies “for free” like Facebook accounts, Gmail and Google.com can also help.

But you’ll never be completely anonymous. Super cookies are a thing and are very difficult to stop without breaking websites. And some trackers are required in order to load content. So sometimes you need to pay with your data to play.

Policies for Privacy Conscious Libraries

All of this means that libraries wishing to be transparent and honest about their data collection, need to also contextualize the information in the broader data mining debate.

First and foremost, we need to educate our users on what it means to go online. We need to let them know its their responsibility alone to control their own data. And we need to provide instructions on doing so.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an opt-in model. That’s too bad. It actually would be great if the world worked that way. But don’t expect the moneyed interests involved in data mining to allow the US Congress to pass anything that cuts into their bottom line. This ain’t Germany, after all.

There are ways with a little javascript to create a temporary opt-in/opt-out feature to your site. This will toggle tags added by Google Tag Manager on and off with a single click. But let’s be honest. Most people will ignore it. And if they do opt-out, it will be very easy for them to overlook everytime without a much more robust opt-in/opt-out functionality baked in to your site. But for most sites and users, this is asking alot. Meanwhile, it diverts attention from the real solution: users concerned about privacy need to protect themselves and not take a given websites word for it.

We actually do our users a service by going with the opt-out model. This underlines the larger privacy problems on the Wild Wild Web, which our sites are a part of.

The L Word

I’ve been working with my team on a vision document for what we want our future digital library platform to look like. This exercise keeps bringing us back to defining the library of the future. And that means addressing the very use of the term, ‘Library.’

When I first exited my library (and information science) program, I was hired by Adobe Systems to work in a team of other librarians. My manager warned us against using the word ‘Librarian’ among our non-librarian colleagues. I think the gist was: too much baggage there.

So, we used the word ‘Information Specialist.’

Fast forward a few years to my time in an academic environment at DePaul University Library and this topic came up in the context of services the library provided. Faculty and students associated the library in very traditional ways: a quiet, book-filled space. But the way they used the library was changing despite the lag in their semantic understanding.

The space and the virtual tools we put in place online helped users not only find and evaluate information, but also create, organize and share information. A case in point was our adoption of digital publishing tools like Bepress and Omeka, but also the Scholar’s Lab.

I’m seeing a similar contradiction in the public library space. Say library and people think books. Walk into a public library and people do games, meetings, trainings and any number of online tasks.

This disconnect between what the word ‘Library’ evokes in the mind’s eye and what it means in practice is telling. We’ve got a problem with our brand.

In fact, we may need a new word.

Taken literally, a library has  been a word for a physical collection of written materials. The Library of Alexandria held scrolls for example. Even code developers rely on ‘libraries’ today, which are collections of materials. In every case, the emphasis is on the collection of things.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we move away from books. Books are vessels for ideas and libraries will always be about ideas.

In fact, this focus on ideas rather than any one mode for transmitting ideas is key. In today’s library’s people not only read about ideas, they meet to discuss ideas, they brainstorm ideas.

I don’t pretend to have the magic word. In fact, maybe it’s taking so long for us to drop ‘Library’ because there is not a good word in existence. Maybe we need create a new one.

One tactic that comes to mind as we navigate this terminological evolution is to retain the library, but subsume it inside of something new. I’ve seen this done to various degrees in other libraries. For example, Loyola University in Chicago built an entirely new building adjacent to the book-filled library. Administratively, the building is run by the library, but it is called the Klarchek Information Commons. In that rather marvelous space looking out over Lake Michigan, you’ll find the modern ‘library’ in all its glory. Computers, Collaboration booths, etc. I like this model for fixing our identity problem and I think it would work without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

However, its done, one thing is for sure. Our users have moved on from ‘the library’ and are left with no accurate way to describe that place that they love to go to when they want to engage with ideas. Let’s put our thinking caps on and puts a word on their lips that does justice to what the old library has become. Let’s get past the L Word.

Locking Down Windows

I’ve recently moved Back to Windows for my desktop computing. But Windows 10 comes with enormous privacy and security issues that people need to take into account…and get under a semblance of control. Here’s how I did it.

There has been much written on this subject, so what I’m including here is more of a digest of what I’ve found elsewhere with perspective on how it worked out for me over time.

Windows Tweaker

This is a pretty good tool that does what Windows should do out of the box: give you one-stop access to all Windows’ settings. As it is, Windows 10 has spread out many settings, including those for Privacy, to the Settings screen as well as Registry Editor and Group Policy Editor.

There are dozens of look and feel tweaks, including an easy way to force Windows to use the hidden Dark Theme.

The Privacy Tab, however, is the single most important. There, you can easily turn of all the nasty privacy holes in Windows 10, such as how the OS sends things like keystrokes (that’s right!) back to Microsoft. The list of holes it will close is long: Telemetry, Biometrics, Advertising ID, Cortana, etc.

Cortana

Speaking of Cortana, I was really excited that this kind of virtual assistant was embedded in Windows 10. I looked forward to trying it out. But then I read the fine print.

Cortana is a privacy nightmare. She can’t be trusted. She’s a blabbermouth and repeats back everything you tell her to not just Microsoft, but indirectly to all of their advertising partners. And who knows where all that data goes and how secure it is in the long run.

Yuck!

Turn her off. Pull the plug. Zero her out.

The easiest way to disable her is to set up a Local Account. But there’s more info out there, including this at PC World.

Local Account

When you first install Windows 10, unplug the ethernet and shut down wifi. Then, when you’re certain that all of MSFT’s listeners can’t communicate with your machine, go through the Installation Set Up process and when asked to create/log in to your Microsoft Account, don’t. Instead, use the Local Account option.

The down sides of going this route are that you can’t sync your experience, accounts and apps across devices. You also won’t be able to use Cortana.

The up sides are that using a Local account means you will be far more secure and private in whatever you do with your computer (as long as you maintain the many other privacy settings).

Reduce Risk and Streamline Your PC

Windows 10 comes crammed with many programs you may not want. Some of these may even be tracking and sharing, so if you don’t actually use it, why not lighten the load on your system and remove them.

You can do this the slow way, one app at a time, or you can use the Powershell nuclear option and kill them all at once.

I did this and haven’t regretted it one bit. So fire away…

Privacy Settings

I won’t go into all of this. There is plenty of solid advise on reducing your exposure on other sites (like at PC World) and some lengthy YouTube videos which you can easily find.

But it is critical that you go into the Settings panel and turn everything off at the very least. That’s my feeling. Some tell you that you even need to set up IP blocks to keep your machine from reporting back to Microsoft and its advertising partners.

Others say this is somewhat overblown, and not unique to Windows, like over at LifeHacker, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Conclusion

It’s really too bad that operating systems have gone down this road. Our PCs should be tools for us and not the other way around.

Imagine if everything that happened on your device stayed private. Imagine if it was all encrypted and nobody could hack into your PC or Microsoft’s servers or their advertisers’ databases and learn all kinds of things about you, your family, your work, your finances, your secrets. And yet, this is precisely what Microsoft (and iOS, Android and others) did, intentionally.

Frankly, I think its bordering on criminal negligence, but good luck suing when your data gets exploited.

Better safe than sorry…that’s my take. Do a little work and lock down your computer.

Good luck out there…

 

Killer Apps & Hacks for Windows 10

Did the UX people at Microsoft ever test Windows 10? Here are some must have apps and hacks I’ve found to make life on Windows 10 quick and easy.

Set Hotkeys for Apps

Sometimes you just want to launch an app from your keyboard. Using a method on Laptopmag.com, you can do this for most any program.

I use this in combination with macros like those noted below.

Quick Switch to VPN

vpn macro

VPN Macro

If you’re a smart and secure Internet user, you probably already use a VPN service to encrypt the data and web requests you send over the Internet (especially while on public wif-fi networks). But Windows 10 makes connecting to your VPN service a bit of a chore (I use Private Internet Access, by the way).

It’s weird because Windows actually placed the Connect to VPN in the Communications Center, but you still need to click into that, then click the VPN you want and then click Connect…that’s 3 clicks if you’re counting.

I’ve tried two methods to make this at least a little easier.

One caveat on all of this: if you log in with an administrator account (which I don’t because I’m concerned about security after all!), you could have your VPN client launch at start, but you’d still need to click the connect button and anytime you put the machine to sleep, it would disconnect (why they do that is beyond me).

With both methods, you need to manually add a VPN account to Windows built-in VPN feature.

Anyway, here are my two methods:

Macro Method

You can record actions as a “macro” and then save it as an executable program. You can then save the program to your desktop, start or taskbar. It’s a bit of a chore and in the end, the best you get is two-click access to your VPN connection…not the one-click you would get on a Mac. If my memory serves, this method only works if you log-in with an administrator account. Otherwise, you’ll be prompted for an administrator password each time…an who wants that?

Pin the Communicator VPN app to your Start pane.

This is actually how I ended up going in the end. To do this, you need to ‘hack’ a shortcut that points to your VPN settings panel (where the Connect button resides).

  1. On your desktop, right-click and select New > Shortcut
  2. A Shortcut wizard will open
  3. Paste ms-settings:network-vpn into the form
  4. Now pin the shortcut to your Start and you have quick access to the Connect dialog for your VPN

Switch between Audio Devices

Sometimes I want to jump between my speakers and my headphones and because I hate clicking and loath jumping out of Windows 10’s Metro design into the old-school looking Audio Device Controller, I followed the advice from The Windows Club. Their solution uses freeware called Audio Switcher to assign a hotkey to different audio devices.

I added Audio Switcher to my startup to make this a little more automated. Unfortunately, because I normally work in a non-administrator account on Windows 10, I get asked for an Admin password to launch this app at Startup. Egads!

In my case, I can now click the F1 (Headphones) and F2 (Speakers)  keys to switch playback devices for sound.

Overcoming the Windows Education or Windows Pro watermark

Windows embeds a horrible little Windows Education or Windows Pro watermark over the lower right corner of your desktop if you use one of those versions. There are two solutions to removing this remarkably distracting bit of text.

  1. Use a white background to “disappear” the white text
  2. Or, have an app sit over that space. I use MusicBee (recommended by LifeHacker) and set position the mini-version over that spot.
  3. Supposedly there’s a Regex trick where you delete the text but that’s a bit much work for me for such a slight annoyance.

Other Tricks

There are a couple other tricks that I’ve used to clean up Windows.

  1. Removing Metro Apps. This allows you to remove all the built-in apps that are there simply to confound your privacy and peddle your identity to Microsoft’s advertising partners. Remove them.
  2. Removing default folders from Explorer. If you’re like me and want better performance, you use a separate hard disk drive for your music, video and images and another drive (probably an SSD) for your OS and programs. Windows 10 is confusing for people with this kind of set up by placing folders in the File Explorer to your Images, Documents, etc. on your C Drive. In my case, that’s not the right drive. So I used the method linked above to remove those from Explorer.