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March 8, 2016

Making library miscellaneousness awesome

Sitterwerk Art Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, has 25,000 items on its shelves in no particular order. This video explains why that is a brilliant approach. And then the story just gets better and better.

Werkbank from Astrom / Zimmer on Vimeo.

That the shelves have no persistent order doesn’t mean they have no order. Rather, works are reshelved by users in the clusters the users have created for their research. All the items have RFID tags in them, and the shelves are automatically scanned so that the library can always tell users where items are located.

As a result, if you look up a particular item, you will see it surrounded by works that some other user thought were related to it in some way. This creates a richer browsing experience because it is shaped and reshaped by how its community of users sees the items’ inter-relationships.

The library has now installed Werkbank, which is a plain old table where you can spread out a pile of books and do your research. But, unlike truly plain old tables, this one combines RFID sensors and cameras with recognition software so it knows which works you’ve put on the table and how you’ve organized them. Werkbench notes those associations, and stores them, creating a rich network of related works.

It also lets the individual save a research set, and even compile a booklet documenting those items, with notes. It can be printed on the spot and taken home … or put into the shelves as a user-generated lib guide.

This is awesome.

Here’s a bit more about it:

…the new table sports a grid of 12 an­ten­nas. It also has two cam­eras at­tached: one for scan­ning the tab­letop and through cus­tom image re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware de­term­ine the exact po­s­i­tion and ro­ta­tion of books; one for mak­ing high-res­ol­u­tion scans of pages, notes or ob­jects not yet in the Sit­ter­werk cata­logue. Just like be­fore, the new server and its in­ter­face provides a real-time di­gital ren­der­ing of the table and its con­tents, but in two di­men­sions in­stead of one. It also lets you at­tach scans, pho­tos and texts to in­di­vidual ob­jects, and to the vir­tual table it­self. Once you save your col­lec­tion, it merges with a grow­ing net­work of other col­lec­tions, books, ma­ter­i­als, thoughts and people

Anthon Astrom tells me that the project currently runs against an internal API, and they are planning to create a public API at some point. That way, the world can benefit from what Sitterwerk’s users are teaching it.



At the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, we wanted to do something that touches on some elements of this. With 73 libraries and 13 million items in Harvard Library it never even crossed our minds to install continuous RFID scanners in the stacks. So, our StackLife project and the LibraryCloud platform underneath it wanted simply to record which books were checked out with others, on the grounds that those clusters often have meaning. But, Harvard cyber-security researchers warned that this could be used to identify who took the books out. We thought about ways of smudging the data, and about making it opt-in, but it was not a fight we could win at that point. Werkbank might have the same issues when recording clusters but because it’s an art library, there may be less concern about the government demanding to know who was researching The Scream, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and Guernica because that person is clearly up to no good.

In any case the Sitterwerk library and Werkbank have far exceeded our imagination. More than that: it’s real. Awesomely real.


March 5, 2016

Informed consent for human sensors

In a post at Nature Biotechnology, John Wilbanks (Chief Commons Officer at Sage Bionetworks) and Stephen H. Friend (CEO at that same outfit) write about a project in which users of a health monitoring app have given informed consent to have their data made available to other researchers. It is not open data, as John points out, but it is open to any researchers who make it through the vetting process.

How to get informed consent via an app? It’s an interesting question to which John and Stephen have given a lot of thought. That’s what the post is about. It seems well-designed to me, but I am not qualified to have an opinion.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we want something like this, for the data being generated could well be of use to researchers who do not yet know that the data exists, who might be stimulated to think new thoughts on the basis of this data, or who have not been born yet.

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March 2, 2016

Keep prayers out of public school

I received an email from Rep. Vern Buchanan (Republican from Florida) asking:

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening public high school sporting events with a prayer is unconstitutional. Do you support this decision?

Rep. Buchanan's form

I said yes. In fact, I called his office to tell him why. Had I not been compressing a message for one of his aides, here’s what I would have said:

I grew up in the school district where parents brought the suit, Engel v. Vitale, that resulted in the 1962 Supreme Court decision. I was twelve. I remember the cross-burning down the street from us when the results were announced.

The school had adopted what it considered to be a non-denominational prayer. There is no such thing. Even if there were, how one prays varies in different religions. Jews don’t kneel, clasp their hands, and bow. In fact, Jews don’t pray together in public places as part of their usual ritual. (Exception: Part of the Yom Kippur service entails kneeling.)

Not to mention that I’m an agnostic atheist, so I don’t pray. I remember availing myself of the option to sit quietly while the rest of the class said the prayer. Why would anyone think that that’s an acceptable option to give a kid? My school was half Christian and half Jewish, and it was a very tolerant place, so I didn’t feel ostracized. But I was lucky. “Starting a class with prayer tells a kid what’s normal.”Starting a class with prayer, and understanding that this is a school policy, tells a kid what’s normal. If you don’t pray, or don’t pray that way, how could a child not draw the conclusion that she or he is not a full-fledged member of the class?

I’ll be happy to reconsider these views when I hear about the first public school where the kids are mainly or entirely Christian that mandates starting the day by saying a “non-denominational” prayer that refers to G-d as “Allah,” and that requires the children to kneel while facing Mecca. Then maybe I’ll believe that the push for school prayer isn’t based on Christian assumptions.


March 1, 2016

Wooden pliers

The surprise ending to this is that he makes wooden pliers. But, trust me, it’s a surprise.


February 29, 2016

Republicans for Hillary

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee, running against Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was from what was then the furthest acceptable edge of the right wing. He was so effectively presented as an extremist that famously in his nomination acceptance speech he responded, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

In one of the most famous political ads of all time, LBJ successfully painted him as too irresponsible to trust with nuclear weapons:

Nate Silver now has dug up another ad from that campaign: “Confessions of a Republican” voting for LBJ. Silver calls it “strange and kind of amazing.” I’d add “mesmerizing.”

Silver wonders if Hillary Clinton is studying it. She should.

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February 14, 2016

How a dot invaded dweinberger’s privacy

Yesterday I started getting a stream of receipts from Amazon for goods I had not purchased. Mainly they were free games and apps so I only freaked out to 70% of maximum.

I changed my Amazon password and checked my credit cards just in case one of the purchases — there were dozens — was not free. All seemed in order.

The receipts cheerily exposed the person’s name to me, thanking “Dixxon Weinberger” for the $0.00 purchase. (I have changed Dixxon’s name because judging from the receipts and from the Facebook page I found under that name, he’s probably a minor.)

Because Dixxon’s name is spelled in an unusual way, I think I found the right Facebook page for him. It looks like an account he doesn’t check. But just in case, I left him a carefully written, friendly note suggesting that he clear up his email address at Amazon. The first thing I said in the message is that he should probably show this note to his parents. I did my best not to sound like an Internet creep, but it turns out that the harder you try, the creepier you sound. So I kept it to a minimum.

Then my son figured out what happened.

I own the email address I use it as my backup email in case my primary one ( breaks. It turns out that Gmail ignores dots in your name. So, will reach me, as will I’m sure there’s a good reason for this but I don’t really get why Gmail would so restrict its namespace. Anyway.

Dixxon apparently signed up at Amazon under, so all his mail from Amazon (and now from other places he’s signed up at) are coming to me. I am filing them without reading them because I don’t want to know what this kid is downloading, but it seems like a pretty big flaw that Amazon let someone sign up without sending an email requiring confirmation.

Let me now put this in the past tense: I just spent 20 mins on the phone with Amazon support. The support person was very patient. They have closed the d.weinberger account. The poor kid isn’t going to know why because the explanation will go to an address that ends up in my inbox.

Sorry, Dixxon! It’s better this way. And, Amazon, maybe do better at sending confirmation emails.

Of course it’s likely that I mistakenly/absently clicked some confirmation email, although I have no record or recollection of doing so. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that 97% of the mysteries in my life can be resolved by assuming I did something wrong.


February 3, 2016

Trump’s "linguistic killshot"

Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy, writes perceptively about Trump’s skill verbally assassinating his opponents with what Scott kills a “linguistic killshot.” His example is Trump labeling Jeb! as “low-energy.” It’s the type of description that cannot be countered and cannot be unheard. Adams notes that Trump is both very calculating and very smart about this.

But he predicts that Trump’s shot against Hillary Clinton will be that she is not “credible.” I think I disagree. For one thing, that’s been the explicit beef against her for twenty years. For another, I don’t think it will have much traction with the people Trump needs to reach, because independents are just as likely to think that Trump negotiating with allies is more of a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment than a vision of credibility.

Assuming that Hillary is the nominee, I think maybe Trump will go after her as “always flapping her jaws,” as “chatty but no one can understand what she’s saying,” as “blah blah NATO blah blah Excuses blah blah Policy Report #45278 Part A.” But that’s not what America needs, he’ll tell us. We need someone who will stand up to our allies and kill our enemies. “It’s not that hard, folks. And we don’t need a Chatty Cathy for that.”

This has the effect of neutralizing her deep expertise, especially in foreign affairs, thus turning her strength against her. It makes her look weak-willed. There is no effective counter to it. And it’s deeply misogynistic. In short, it’s got Trump in big gold letters all over it.


January 28, 2016

Keep the Web unbroken, with Amber

When sites go down, they don’t take the links to them with them. So, your posts now point to 404s. That’s not just an inconvenience. It’s Web entropy and over time it will render the Web less and less useful and even less intelligible.

Amber fights Web entropy. It’s a plugin for WordPress or Drupal that automatically takes a snapshot of whatever you’re linking to. If the linked site goes down — or is taken down by a government that doesn’t like what it’s saying — your readers will still be able to read what was there when you linked to it.

For example, this is a page that I posted and then took down. It was here: It’s not there now. But if you hover over the link, Amber shows you what you’d otherwise be missing.

Amber’s pedigree literally could not be better. It’s a project from the Berkman Center, from an idea cooked up by Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Berners-Lee. It is a fully distributed system, thus helping to re-decentralize the Web, although you can opt to store the page images at sites like the Internet Archive,, and Amazon AWS.

What are you waiting for?



If you install Amber and it’s not working, make sure that you’ve created a folder called “amber” in your WordPress “uploads” directory: /wp-content/uploads/amber.


January 22, 2016

Open Syllabus Project goes live—Yay for open platforms!

The Open Syllabus Project has just gone live with a terrific beta Web site and a front page article about it by two of the main people on the project. (I’m proud to be an advisor to the group.)

The OSP is an open platform that so far has aggregated over a million syllabi. At the beta version of their search site you can do plain old searches, or filter by a number of factors. Want to see what is the most taught work at Harvard? In the state of Texas? In the field of Biology? Lucky you.

The project is computing what it calls a “Teaching Score” for each work, a number from 1-100. This is along the same lines of the StackScore I’ve been pushing for, a metric we use in Harvard’s LibraryCloud Project and that will be used in the Linked Data for Libraries project. (The OSP used Harvard’s open catalog metadata as a main source for book metadata and disambiguation; that metadata is available through LibraryCloud’s API. It’s an intertwingly world.)

The OSP plans on making its data available through open APIs, which will multiply the good effect it has. Sites will be able to integrate data from the OSP through the API, developers will be able to create apps that use that data, and researchers will find ways to investigate it that we literally cannot imagine.

Now, you’d think someone would have done something like the OSP years ago. In fact, there have certainly been efforts. For example, Dan Cohen (currently head of the DPLA) scoured the Web and aggregated about a million publicly available syllabi. But the sad truth is that most academic institutions don’t make their syllabi openly available. In fact, many institutions and many professors copyright their syllabi. That makes sense to me if they have written little essays in them. But as a listing of topics and works, I can’t imagine why anyone would insist on asserting copyright. What’s the worst that would happen? Some other teacher copies your syllabus perfectly? That teacher has learned from you, and you’re going to teach your course differently anyway. Meanwhile, the potential good from sharing syllabi is enormous: We can learn from one another. We can see unintended patterns that may express wisdom or bias.

The OSP is here. It’s going to make a real difference.


Good luck with the snow, my southern friends

I just got off the phone with a friend in DC where a couple of days ago one inch of snow caused 6-hour tie-ups, causing some people to abandon their cars. Now the city is expecting a record thirty inches (or what we in Boston call, “Oh, it looks like it may have snowed overnight”). Residents are being told to expect power outages.

Best of luck to you all. You have New England’s sympathies. (And you also have an offer of help from Boston’s mayor.)

At least we can look forward to the Republican snowball fight in Congress to prove that global warming is a myth.

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