Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tagging - People Powered Metadata for the Social Web (review)

Tagging book cover

In the year 2001, I read a modest review in the New York Times about a Windows-only bookmark manager called PowerMarks. This software permitted you to save bookmarks, and then to add a number of "keywords" — now known as "tags". Five minutes after testing it, I was convinced: this multiple tagging system was, by leaps and bounds, the best way to manage website bookmarks.

The system intrigued me. The fact that I could add multiple tags meant that one chunk of information could be virtually placed into many different categories — categories of my choice. Think how simple it would be to find your real-world books, if you could place one book on many different bookshelves: Thoreau's Walden could be placed on an "Author" shelf, on a "Non-fiction" shelf, on a "Favorites" shelf, on a "Read-soon" shelf, on a "Nature" shelf, on a "Transcendental" shelf, and so on. With tidbits of electronic information (not real-world stuff), tagging makes this miracle of organization happen.

Seven years after PowerMarks, tagging is now immensely popular, and used all over the Net. You can tag your website bookmarks using Delicious.com (or its alternative, Ma.gnolia). You can add labels to your Gmail emails. Tag your Flickr photos and YouTube videos and SlideShare PowerPoint presentations. For your made-of-paper books, you can sort your book titles using tags on Library Thing. Everybody is getting into the act: Facebook has a tagging system; and Photobucket; and even Mac computers (with the Leopard operating system) let you tag individual files on your computer using colored labels.

Tagging is popular for four reasons: it is simple to do; it helps you to find information; and it connects you with other tagged media — and with other people who tag.

There's more to tagging than you might imagine; and the big picture about this flourishing practice is all explained in a very readable book, Tagging, by Gene Smith.

People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web
Published by New Riders, 2008; Paperback, 208 pages

Information professionals should certainly devour a copy; as should anyone involved in developing tagging systems. My interests were simpler and more self-centered: I wanted to create my own personal tagging technique to survive the boundless chaos comprising the text documents, photos, audio files, videos, bookmarks and ebooks, all strewn randomly inside my one-terabyte hard drive.

Bookmarking your favorite websites does not solve your problem: it simply creates a different problem. After your first 1,000 bookmarks, sorting these bookmarks into folders becomes a silly exercise, and finding what you need becomes a hopeless chore.

The solution — the way to find your needed information — is by intelligent use of tagging. Smith's book explains how tagging works; why it is important; how to manage your information with tags; and how tagging develops online communities. The book competently describes the meaning of metadata, tag clouds, geotagging, machine tags, Cory Doctorow's metacrap problem, pace layering, "the stream", and other essential concepts in the tagging galaxy. I was especially impressed with the theme, running throughout the book, of "tagging's tension points" — different aspects of tagging systems that pull in opposite directions. (For example: should users be able to create their own tags, or should we be restricted to using the tags built-in to the system?).

The book concludes with three "Case Studies" as Appendixes. Editorially speaking, I would have shuttled them out of the Appendix region and made three additional chapters; in any case, these three chapters are interesting studies of social bookmarking, media sharing, and personal information management. I had to laugh when I learned that the Delicious.com bookmarks were invented by the programmer Joshua Schachter, which he created in order to track and tag his "20,000 bookmarks." (And you thought that you suffered from information overload …) Another light moment in the book is the paragraph about the tag "defective by design":

"Activists have also used tags as their means of express, creating a new kind of metadata-driven political speech. The Free Software Foundation, for example, launched a tagging campaign on Amazon.com that encouraged people to tag products that used digital rights-management software with "defectivebydesign." More than 1,000 people have used the tag on a variety of products, including MP3 players, DVDs, and video game systems. It remains one of the more popular tags on Amazon."
Smith's new book, Tagging, will help you to understand this valuable practice, and help you to think about how you might organize and label your personal information with greater efficiency. And it may do for you what it did for me: it opened my eyes and expanded my range of interests. Before reading the book I was thinking only about tagging my own data. After reading it, I am newly interested in the benefits of media sharing, and tagging's social dimensions.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hadron Collider Kaleidoscope: Is Humanity At Risk?

On September 10, 2008, the Hadron Collider (located in an underground tunnel in France and Switzerland) fired two protons that traveled 27 kilometers (17 miles). The protons were traveling clockwise; in a few months additional protons will be sent counterclockwise. The goal is to re-create the conditions immediately after the "Big Bang", an enormous explosion that created the Universe. If successful, scientists will see the astronomical equivalent of the missing link, the "god particle."

"Just be very careful that you do not misspell 'Hadron', by reversing the inner letters."

This project could be a miracle of friendly collaboration between international scientists, and the greatest technological experiment in human history. Or, it could be a playtoy for intellectuals, a vain exercise to swell the egos of researchers. Is there any proof of the latter theory? Just be very careful that you do not misspell "Hadron", by reversing the inner letters.

After the protons completed their journey, project leader Lyn Evans said: "My first thought was relief. This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning has been a great start."

Asked whether this experiment could create any hazard to humanity, the chief spokesman for the project replied: "It's nonsense."

Yet, this is a machine of "enormous complexity." Projects of this scale should be coordinated and approved by an international body of scientists who are trained in a branch of philosophy that might be called "Technology Ethics." The goal would be to ensure that the technology is safe and humanizing, that the new technology has far more potential for good than harm.

There is no governing body, of course. But there are voices crying in the techno-wilderness. These voices (the saner among them) do not question progress (which is essential), they question the goals of scientific progress. Not everything that can be done, should be done. Not everything new is an improvement. We must make every reasonable effort to ensure that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the beam of an oncoming train.

One highly-regarded scientist who has asked us to pause and to reflect, is the Royal Astronomer of Great Britan, Martin Rees. His book (published in 2005 and reviewed below) advises us to be aware of dangers, consequences, and unintended effects.

Our Final Hour
A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century -- on Earth and Beyond
by Martin Rees
Published by Basic Books, Paperback, $ 15; Hardcover, $ 25

Reviewed by Michael Pastore

In the heart of his Journals, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote these anxious words:

"Thank God men cannot yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that. some do not care for these things [the natural world] that we need to combine to protect all from the vandalism of a few."

Even the prescient genius of Thoreau could not imagine how briefly we would saunter on that safe side. Had he lived to the age of 86, Thoreau would have seen the first manned flight in a power airplane, in 1903, by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Twelve years later, the German engineer Hugo Junkers constructed the first gas-engine airplane designed for war.

Technology advances breathlessly, with unexpected speed, never pausing to consider how the exciting discoveries of today will impact the quality of human life tomorrow. A new book that tackles this issue with balance, integrity and insight is Martin Rees's Our Final Hour.

If the author's name rings a bell, it might be for his one his earlier books, or it might be that you've been following the future on a website named Longbets. Check in to that site -- at http://www.longbets.org/predictions -- and you will see that Rees has made a prediction which tops the list, because it has generated the most response. Rees is willing to bet one thousand dollars that by the year 2020, "bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event."

Before reading Rees's book, I had five main areas concerns for the world's future: nuclear war; global warming and the resultant species extinction; overpopulation; the spread of AIDS; and the growing wealth gap between the very rich and the very poor.

"Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high ... "

Our Final Hour explains and explores threats to survival which are less publicized and potentially more hazardous. The first threat -- which astonished me completely -- is the danger of experiments in particle physics. Scientists enjoy watching heavy atoms crash against each other, which breaks these atoms into smaller particles, and releases energy. Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high: physicists have discussed that there is a possibility that these experiments could "rip the fabric of space itself" -- and create a vacuum that would suck in and destroy not only the Earth, but the entire galaxy. This explains the book's subtitle, how our technology threatens not only all Earthly life, but things beyond the Earth.

Another promising but perilous development -- the benefits of which have received loads of mawkish praise -- is known as nanotechnology. Atoms will be assembled into complex machines smaller than molecules, machines that might build things, replicate themselves, or travel inside the human body to perform microsurgery. Rees states that these devices "could have disastrous or even uncontrollable consequences if misapplied." Nanobots might replicate themselves unendingly, and devour everything in their paths. Something akin to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."

In the next decades, the most pressing of all dangers will be the threat of bioterror and bioerror. Rees argues that these threats are imminent because -- unlike detonating a nuclear warhead -- it takes only one deranged or incompetent person -- one person alone -- to create and release the lethal weapon (bio-organisms) that could kill millions.

The everyday news is providing even more strength for Rees's claims. After the book was published, an envelope containing ricin was found in the U.S. Senate, which closed the Senate for a day on February 4, 2004. Ricin can be concocted easily from castor oil seeds, with a recipe located on the Internet. Ingesting a mere ten micrograms of ricin is fatal.

Just six days later, on February 10, the New York Times printed a story about the U.S. government plans to spend 1.7 billion dollars to develop high-security "hot labs," to study and find antidotes for the world's deadliest germs and bio-weapons. Today, February 18, the news brings yet another example of technology gone awry. At an event designed to boast about Russia's military prowess -- a ballistic missile self-destructed a few seconds after being launched from a Russian submarine.

"The theme of this book," writes Rees, "is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history." And the heart of the work is the author's plea to create intelligent discussions about these issues, to question how to manage this new age abounding in knowledge, and rife with crackpots who would unthinkingly apply this knowledge to murder their enemies. Rees states that scientists alone should not be the ones to decide whether or not to pursue dangerous experiments: the general public must be educated to make informed decisions.

Our Final Hour is far more than another trumpet of approaching Doomsday, it is a wise and sane call for science and technology to serve humanity, not to enslave us. Science must advance not recklessly, but with the utmost caution, planning, and responsibility.

--Michael Pastore

== Story Links: Hadron Collider News (after this post was written) ==

Collider halted until next year

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

William Shatner autobiography - Up Till Now

Up Till Now — The Autobiography
by William Shatner (with David Fisher)
Hardcover, 358 pages, $ 25.95
Published by St. Martin's Press, 2008

William Shatner, best known as Captain James Tiberius Kirk on Star Trek, has written a hilarious autobiography, the funniest show-biz tell-all since Act One by the legendary Moss Hart. Much of Shatner's book features anecdotes from his 50-year career on stage, screen and television. Between the funny stories you'll find glimpses of Shatner's personal lives, his four marriages, his friendship with Leonard Nimoy, tips about the art and craft of acting, and his long struggle to make a living in the acting profession. The sixteen pages of photos (near the middle of the book) show Shatner in some of his classic and classiest moments: as Alexei in The Brothers Karamazov; gaping at a monster destroying a plane's wing in a popular episode of The Twilight Zone; on the deck of the Starship Enterprise with the enterprising crew members; and dressed as a pink flamingo in Boston Legal, where he portrayed the brash attorney, Denny Crane.

If you like Shatner the actor, you'll love Shatner the man. Inspired by a collaboration with author-filmmaker Michael Tobias, Shatner experienced a transformative moment at the foot of Mt. Everest, and then became a dedicated environmentalist. His nonprofit work ranges from contributions to a summer camp for needy Los Angeles children, to funding Friendly House, a treatment center for alcoholic women. His energy and efforts, preparing for his day's work, were peerless; his commitment to quality was rare. He writes:
"And I treated each of those parts as if they were equally significant; my work ethic is such that I never made a distinction between an important job and an unimportant job."

Hold on to your chair -- or you may exit laughing -- when Shatner describes his meeting with Koko, an unusually large and surprisingly amorous female gorilla. Humor pervades the book, yet there is no shortage of tender moments. Shatner's description of the death by drowning of his third wife, Nerine, is thoroughly heart-breaking.

Shatner has the courage and good sense to laugh at himself. Again and again, he does. He even laughs at his critics, including one who had the bad judgment to describe an early performance of Captain Kirk as "wooden." (There can be no greater insult than calling a performance "wooden", unless the character being played is named Pinocchio.) Always, Shatner is passionately driven: nothing can stop this determined man from working: his inner fire is undimmed by failures, by fiascoes, by advancing age. The spirit of the book reminded me of some words by Hokusai, from a work titled, The Art Crazy Old Man:

"When I reach [the age of] a hundred my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained at the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life."

Shatner's acting has always been light years away from "wooden". And his superb autobiography is far more than a good comedy. The book reveals the whole man, a man imbued with warmth and sincerity, compassion and playfulness.

Michael Pastore

== Story Links ==

William Shatner's Website


Hollywood Charity Horseshow


Friendly House (Shelter for Women Alcoholics)


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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Secret Guide to Computers by Russ Walter - 30th Edition

cover of Secret Guide to Computers

If writing computer books were an Olympic sport, then Russ Walter would have earned 30 gold medals. The latest edition of his perennial gem — The Secret Guide to Computers, 30th edition — is still clear and comprehensive, priced to sell, and delightfully fun to read.

The Secret Guide to Computers, 30th edition for 2008
by Russ Walter
Paperback, 575 pages, $ 20
ISBN: 978-0-939151-30-1
Available from http://www.SecretFun.com

This book is really eight books in one. You’ll learn all the essentials from chapters titled: Buyer’s Guide; Operating Systems; Internet; Fixes; Word Processing; Tricky Applications; Programming; and Management.

This 2008 Secret Guide contains more than 30,000 improvements compared with the previous edition. New topics include sections about Windows Vista, blogging, editing photos and videos, websites worth visiting, and the latest advice on buying hardware.

Russ Walter is crazy about computers: he loves them. His passion is contagious and his teaching-skills are unsurpassed. Even his chapters about programming, typically a complex subject for beginners, are made interesting and easy to understand. When I read a typical computer book I am grimacing and wiping the sweat from my brow; when I read the Secret Guide I am laughing as I learn.

Recently, Russ has added another member to his publishing family: a book called Tricky Living. (We hope to review that book in an upcoming issue of Epublishers Weekly.) More information about both books can be found on the website: http://www.SecretFun.com. Here at this website you can read parts of The Secret Guide online. The book is also available as a series of PDF documents on a CD that can be purchased from the site.

Technological literacy, in these changing hi-tech times, is as important as Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Everyone, young and old, should take a bit of time to learn the new worlds of technology. With a basic knowledge, you will accomplish more work — and do better work — in less time. Most importantly, computer technology will help you to learn just about anything you need to learn.

Russ Walter has worked very hard to make life easy for the rest of us. He has put all the fundamentals about computing inside the covers of one extraordinary book.

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