In Praise of Librarians

The last time I spoke to a group of librarians, at the APLA conference several years ago in Charlottetown, I spent 45 minutes tearing a strip out of them for creating poorly designed, poorly conceived, poorly connected websites. I fear that what I intended as a rallying cry came off sounding smarmy and more like “you guys are really jerks” and there was a palpable chill in the room when I was done.

Not being able to face the cold wrath of disgruntled librarians again, I opted to end on a cheerier note in my talk to the systems librarians at Access 2002 yesterday:

You are the caretakers of a set of fragile and brilliant ideas about information and how it should be stored and organized and made accessible to all.

And you live in a world that is increasingly telling you that you are nuts.

Reading between the lines of Access this week, I picked up a subtle chord of exasperation — a sense that constant battling with evil vendors and stupid governments and misguided funding agencies and the power hungry jerks in the computer room is starting to wear you down.

Please don’t let it.

Please know that your work is valued by those on the outside.

Please know that at least some of us are ready to go to the baricades with you on issues of freedom of information, access, and equity.

Please know that in the group that yesterday was dismissed as tatooed, nose-ringed Pringles can collectors are people who share many of your ideals, and if you can find ways of letting them inside the castle, the will glady come, create, spread, innovate, program, and perhaps even entertain.

I will leave you today with some words from the The Committee on Cooperative Principles from 1965:

Cooperation at its best aims at something beyond promotion of interests of individual members (…) Its object is rather to promote the progress and welfare of the humanity.”

That is your business too. I laud you for it. Keep up the good fight.”

Needless to say, I was somewhat better received.

Preparing a talk is an all-consuming process for me. The carefully crafted “just in time” preparation methods I inherited from my father, while saving me from the travails of advance preparation, do result in a sort of surreal extended low-level panic for the days and hours leading up to the event. It’s somewhat agonizing, but ultimately helpful and probably worth it.

Driving to Dallas

In some state of confusion last month, I arranged to fly from Windsor to Boston at 6:15 a.m. This meant getting up this morning at 4:30 a.m. to catch a cab to the airport.

I read an article recently about hotel air conditioning and heating. Apparently it’s much more expensive to hotels to have quiet, central heating and cooling, which is why most hotel rooms have a combination heater and air conditioner under the window. The quieter units cost a lot more, and so the older and cheaper the hotel, the more likely you are to have a very loud and annoying machine in your room. The Radisson Windsor obviously opted for the very cheapest model, and as a result my sleep for the past three nights has been punctuated every 45 minutes by a loud clunk, followed by some noisy heating, followed by silence.

Which is all to say that as I type this at Gate Two in the Windsor Airport, I am not particularly well rested.

However much unrest I might feel, I will never match the adventures of the cabbie who drove me to the airport this morning. Last week he received word that his cousin, who he hadn’t seen for 26 years, was going to be in Dallas, Texas for several hours. So my cabbie, his wife, children and parents rented a car in Windsor, drove to Dallas (stopping only for 5 hours in a hotel halfway there), spent 3 hours with his cousin, and then drove back.

The closest I’ve ever come to matching this feat was driving from Vancouver to Peterborough, and although I pushed hard, I did stop every night, and did it in four days. At the end of my journey my hands were glued to the steering wheel, and I had nightmares about driving for several weeks thereafter.

My cabbie said that in this fast-paced hectic world, people have to stop and slow down once in a while. That his example of this was driving 2,500 km at 150 km/hour to see his cousin for 3 hours is somewhat odd, but still, somehow, rings true.

6 o’clock is very early

I am sitting in a very weird position, here at 7:37 a.m. on a Monday morning.

First, I have been up since 5:30 a.m., which is one of the few times that I’ve been up at 5:30 a.m. in the last decade. Well, actually, ever. I was up that early to get here to the Cleary Centre to set up the wireless Internet for the Access 2002 conference. Unfortunately nobody else was up that early, including the engineering staff who were supposed to be here at 6 a.m. So I wandered around the bowels of the hall looking for a missing cable modem. People started to show up around 6:30 a.m., though, and we’re in action here.

Second, I am sitting at the back of the main hall, and directly ahead of me is the Detroit skyline, which seems close enough to be able to see the workers in the GM Tower at their desks. The sun is just coming up over Detroit, and I’ll soon find out whether it looks better in the day or the night. My taxi driver from the airport claimed I would be let down in the morning when I got to see Detroit in all its gritty glory.

Speaking of which, the taxi ride from the Windsor Airport to downtown Windsor was thrilling. Apparently there was some danger of getting “stuck behind the train,” — something that, from the way the taxi driver said it, seems tantamount to getting stuck forever. His solution to this horrible possibility was to drive as fast as his taxi would go, and to weave in and out of traffic constantly. We didn’t get stuck behind the train, and we made the trip in about 10 minutes. And I lived to tell the tale.

Geek librarians converge on Windsor

I spent the day travelling across the country from Charlottetown to Windsor, Ontario. Windsor isn’t “across the country” of course, but with the towering buildings of Detroit looming across the river, it’s certainly at one of the edges.

I am here for Access 2002 a conference that one of the organizers characterized as a gathering of “geek librarians” when I pressed him this evening. Access is, in short, a gathering of those secret librarians that the public nevers sees. These aren’t your regular everyday “let me explain the Dewey Decimal System to you” librarians, but rather the ones who work out of sight in the basements, stoking the giant technological coal furnaces that make libraries work.

I have some familiarity with this class of librarian, having been raised by one (and a wicked smart and creative one at that). And so while I have never been formally tutored in the ways of MARC records and the Bath Profile and Z39.50, I can fake my way through enough of it all to not look like a total fool.

Which raises the question: if I am not myself a geek librarian, why am I spending three days in Windsor, Ontario in the midst of one of their big idea orgies?

And that is, indeed, a good question.

I have mostly my friend Barbara Jean to blame. And also a man named Art.

Barbara Jean and I passed like ships in the night in the late 1980s. She left Peterborough as I was arriving. She knew a lot of the same people I eventually came to know and, in fact, we even lived in the same house, a mere two roommate generations apart. Barbara Jean eventually ended up in Newfoundland and, through a complex series of events, we became friends, and remain so to this day.

Back in 1994, Barbara Jean was working at Memorial University in St. John’s, and somehow finagled me an invitation to speak at Access 1994. One of the people in the audience was a man named Art Rhyno. Four years later, Art invited me to speak at Access 1998 in Guelph. And he asked me back this year for Access 2002.

Which doesn’t really answer the question, but at least explains the circumstances that led to the situation where the question could be asked.

If I have a role to play at Access, I think it is akin to the role that I play everyday in my career, and that is to be a mildly informed outsider. With some broad knowledge about systems and people and the Internet, and lots of experience mushing those altogether in my work, I can offer comment on where my world bumps up against the worlds of the systems librarian. And precisely because I’m an outsider — albeit one who can engage in cocktail conversation about Control Field 007 — perhaps I shed a light on things that can’t be seen from the deep recesses of the basement beside the data furnaces.

The real reason I’m here — the reason I accepted their invitation to speak — is that the my fundamental human value of choice is curiousity (this is where the intellectual lives of my parents join as well, no coincidence), and if you’re in the curiousity business, there’s no more interesting place to be than at a conference of people who design the systems that support curiousity satisfaction.

More notes from the conference as things develop. Up at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning to install wireless connectivity for the conference, which may, in fact, kill me.

Flying to Timmins

According to this news release, the new JetsGo discount airline will soon starting offering service to both Charlottetown and Timmins. Given that my family roots, on both sides, are in Northern Ontario, this means, at least in theory, that I should now cheaply be able to go and visit the old home places if I should ever be moved.

Congratulations to the people in government and at the Charlottetown Airport Authority on this development: it’s great news.

More praise for Trinic

I’ve written here before about a company called Trinic. Indeed I was turned on to the company thanks to a note from a helpful reader. Based in Edmonton, Trinic is a company that, among other things, handles the registration of Internet domain names. So when you start a band called WeirdoBlech, and you want to register, you can pay Trinic $19.49 and they’ll handle the rest.

If you have registered a domain name before, especially if you did it in the 1990s, you probably used a company called Network Solutions to do it, for they had a monopoly on the service for many years. Now a part of the Borg that is Verisign, Network Solutions has never been particularly good at doing what they do, and they have a website that just gets more and more complicated every time I look at it.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve switched all of the domains that I’ve registered, and a good number of those of my clients, to use Trinic’s services. And you know why? Well, they have a simple website and it works. Their prices are good too. But the real reason I’ve stuck with them as a customer is because they tell the truth.

Several times over the past week — a particularly busy week in our relationship with Trinic, as we’ve migrated all of the Yankee domains to use their system — I’ve had a technical question relating to their services. Sometimes it’s been about things they control, other times about things they have no control over. In all cases, they’ve responded to me within a day, and their responses have always been honest and straighforward.

In some cases the problems have been caused by problems that Trinic caused — small glitches in their system, for example. They’ve always been honest about these, and moved to fix them immediately.

That is the kind of customer service I try to offer myself: I can’t promise that things will work all the time — the world’s just too complicated for that now — but I can promise to keep people informed when things do go wrong, and do my best to fix problems as quickly as possible.

So if you’re looking to register a domain name, you can’t go wrong by going with Trinic.

Yann Martel and the Three Bears

It appears as though Yann Martel will be awarded the Booker Prize for his book Life of Pi.

Back in the late 1980s, I lived in a rollicking house of misfits at 640 Reid Street in Peterborough, Ontario. I’d just finished a year in residence at Trent University, and my friend John, who I knew through Trent Radio invited me to let a room in his house.

It was a heady time.

John ran an interesting house: each of we renters were assigned an evening of the week, and on that evening we were responsible for cooking the evening meal. My first attempt at this — reflecting both my lack of culinary imagination, and a strong gulp of newfound freedom — consisted of hamburgers, potato chips, and ice cream with M&M’s on top. I took me a long time to live that down, as the usual fare was more of the “cashew graced rice noodles with asparagus” kind.

In one of the rooms next door, on the second floor of 640 Reid Street, lived a man named Mark. A Trent graduate, Mark was working as a surveyor (I think — it was something outdoors and involved measurement). Of all of us in the house, Mark was the only one with a real job, the only one with cable television, and the only one with a beard. Mark was very affable, but he liked his space, and mostly kept to himself outside of our communal dining.

On the other side was the room of Simon Shields. Simon’s project at the time was a storefront legal clinic called the Community Information Agency, a place where he offered free or low-cost paralegal advice to all takers. We became good friends, and were roommates several other times over the ensuing years.

One weekend Simon had a visit from his friend Yann. Simon and Yann had met at Trent, I think, and Yann was in Peterborough for a brief sojourn amidst an exciting life as an intellectual traveler. As Mark was away for the weekend, Yann stayed in Mark’s room.

Now, as I said, Mark liked his space, but was also affable, and the combination of the two was an invitation for guests to stay in Mark’s room during his absences as long as there was no evidence of the fact when he returned.

Alas at the end of the weekend there was some evidence of Yann’s residence — the specifics escape me — and this caused a minor brouhaha in the house. As anyone who’s lived in a house of unrelated malcontents knows, such episodes can easily fracture the gentle balances needed for happy cohabitation. If I recall correctly, this episode had echos into the following several weeks, but generally blew over quite quickly.

I recollected Yann this morning, in an email to John, as a “mildly interesting, but also somewhat pompous man with his head in the clouds.” His official biography says that he now “divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit.” I conclude that these are all probably qualities that are good to have if you want to write Booker Prize-winning novels.

Those were the days.

Hat’s off to Yann on the Booker.

Sort of instant sort of messaging

Here’s a warning to anyone who’s considering using Island Tel Mobility’s text messaging service as a server monitor alert system (i.e. server goes down, you get a message): it doesn’t work.

Or rather, it does work, but not in any way that will be of help to you. We had a series of server challenges with a Boston-based server today — a combination of power outages and server load problems. I set up the server to send a message to my cell phone if the server load hit a certain threshold.

And it did. Several times.

From about 12:20 to 1:30 this afternoon, the server sent out 20 text messages. When did they arrive? Some arrived instantly. Others arrived 6 hours later. The last one — sent 10 hours ago — arrived just now.

Island Tel Mobility is honest about the shortcomings of their system — if you press them, they will tell you the service is not guaranteed to send messages.

Which has got to make you wonder: what good — for anything — is a text messaging service that may, or may not, send messages now, or at some point in the future. If this vague “maybe messaging” service makes server monitoring difficult, imagine what it would do if you’re trying to flirt with someone, or break up with them, or arrange to meet them on the corner, or ask them to bring home a package of diapers.

I imagine that some of this is related to Island Tel Mobility outsourcing the text messaging service to a Stamford, CT-based company called i3mobile. Maybe if they took the service in-house and got some solid Island techs working on it, they could make it work like it should?