Google Gets a Lot of Attention

16 Aug

The smart folks at On the Media recently produced a radio program all about Google, inspired by several legal/ethical wrangles Google has recently found itself in. It’s a very interesting show, especially the segment on Google maps. The person they interviewed said that Google was producing the “world’s most important map.” I had never thought about it that way, but it makes a certain sense. Have a listen!


Tech Time, August 10

10 Aug

Today’s Tech Time was some hands-on time with several of the gadgets we circulate to students, faculty and staff.

Here’s a link to a PDF “cheat sheet” with all of our items, their check-out periods, and some helpful hints about using these items.

Also, I showed off a cool new feature of 360 Link (our new Open URL link resolver – more training on this to come in September). When students are searching in Google Scholar from a COCC computer, they will see a link beside article citations that will direct them to our subscription resources (e-journals, databases), where they can retrieve the full-text of the article. See the images below for an example of what this looks like. Click on the images for larger views.

Search results in Google Scholar

Search results, showing the "Full Text @ COCC" link

360 Link Screen

The 360 Link screen providing the link to the article

An Ebsco article record, showing the link to the full text


Google Scholar doesn’t support proxy authentication, so it doesn’t work this same way if a student is at home. From what I’ve read, it appears that students can go in and make some settings changes in Google Scholar that would make it work a similar way. I have to investigate this a bit more and, if it tests out, I’ll have to get some directions together.

Tech Time, July 13

13 Jul

RSS Feeds

Someone recently asked me about RSS Feeds, so I thought I’d include it in today’s session.

RSS has been around for a while now. It stands for Real Simple Syndication and it’s basically a tool on a website that lets you subscribe to content updates from your favorite sites (as long as the site gives you the RSS option). The major benefit to you is that, instead of manually checking through sites you like, you can just go to your feed reader and scroll through lists of posts – not unlike an email inbox.

You will need a feed reader to subscribe to and read RSS feeds. My favorite is Google Reader. If you have a Google account, you have a Google Reader account. You’ll find Reader in the “more” menu on Google’s main page (see image):

Google's homepage, showing the reader menu

Accessing Google Reader

When you first access Reader, all that you’ll find in there is some content that Google has pre-populated for you to see how it works. You will want to add things that you like to the Reader. As I mentioned above, the site you want to add has to provide an RSS feed for you to be able to use a feed reader to track it.

Many sites use the RSS icon to denote that a feed is available:

RSS feed icon

Standard RSS Feed Icon

Here’s an example of the icon in use, on Library Journal‘s website (and, yes, sometimes they are tiny and hard to see/find). This feed would subscribe you to all stories that appeared in Library Journal about academic libraries:

A Library Journal web page with an RSS feed icon

If you wanted to subscribe to this feed and clicked on the icon, it would take you to another page. This page will usually give you the opportunity to choose which feed reader you use and want to subscribe with. Sometimes it just gives you an URL that you have to paste into your RSS Reader. Either way will achieve the same outcome.

A feed subscription page

Clicking on the Google Reader button in the example above will reroute you to your Google Reader account, where it will ask you to confirm that you want to subscribe. Once you’ve subscribed to several sites, your Google Reader account will look like this:

Google Reader screenshot

Your subscriptions show up on the bottom left, and it tells you how many items are new for each source, just like your email inbox. Whatever source you have selected on the left, the content from that site will show in the main reading frame. For each item in the feed, you have many options that help you keep track of your reading, organize articles, and share with others.

Below this zoomed image of the individual item is an explanation of the options. (Click on the image to see a larger image – I know it’s small on the screen!)

An individual item in reader

I starred this item (which is why it reads “Remove star” instead of “Add star”). All of your starred items are easily accessible via the Reader menu, so you might choose to star items that are particularly interesting or that seem like they will be of use later on.

You can also “like” items (which I’ve also done for this item). It’s not clear to me that this has any practical purpose; it mostly seems to be a social feature, as are the “share” and “share with note” features. The share features just share the item with other people you might be connected to via Google.

Now, if you want to send the item you’ve read to someone else, you can use the email feature to send them the link and a note.

You can use the “keep unread” feature to keep an item new and to remind you to read it.

The “Add tags” feature is highly useful. You can organize items you want to be able to find later by “tagging” them. This is like putting them in file folders, but they can go in more than one. Later, you could access all items tagged with a certain word – say, “ebooks” – to find all items that you’d marked as related to that topic. This is similar to bookmarking sites with delicious (which I covered in an earlier tech time).

In the image above, you’ll notice the red arrow is pointing to a little yellow icon. That’s a Read It Later icon. I also covered Read It Later in an earlier tech time. Google Reader is integrated with Read It Later so that you could send articles that you wanted to read later to your Read It Later account.

RSS readers seem to have declined in popularity a bit in recent years, with people using Twitter and Facebook in a similar manner, but I think it’s a pretty handy tool for those who don’t want to do the social network thing – and, you just get the site content without all of the other noise on Facebook and Twitter from your “friends” or followers or those whom you follow.


Popplet is a very neat tool that I recently ran across, and I think it could be useful in the academic setting for research and group projects.

I have these really fond memories of writing projects in elementary school, the ones that would start out with a drawing of  a concept map (I can’t remember what we called them then, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it). You’d put your main subject in the center node, and then draw lines to connect the main node to supporting and related ideas. Well, this is what Popplet does.

You can sign up for free, and there is a free iPad app, as well as a paid version.

As an example, pretend you had to do a project on the Columbia River. Well, you could organize your research using a popplet (click on the image to go to the actual popplet):

An example of a popplet

You can put maps, videos, and images into popplets, as well as just text. The maps come from Google maps, the videos from YouTube, and the images can come from your computer or from Internet photo sharing sites, like Flickr. You can also draw on the individual nodes with a little free form cursor tool.

You can work on popplets with other people who also have a popplet account. Each node will display the user name of the person who added it or last edited it, though you can turn this function off if it annoys you.

Using the tools menu (looks like a little gear), you can turn your popplet into a presentation or export it as a PDF. I do think this has some potential for an interesting classroom tool.

Databases, databases, databases

We have some awesome new databases, thanks to Cat.

Our most recent subscriptions include Films on Demand (streaming videos on bunches of subjects), Safari Tech Books (online tech “how-to” books), and Image Quest (rights-cleared images for educational use; hey, a student could use them images in a Popplet for a class presentation!).

When I was recently working on updating the database lists, I was looking around in the databases for descriptions and info and I ran across a few interesting features while I was at it. I thought I’d share.

If you like Google’s Art Project, definitely keep OCLC’s CAMIO (Catalog of Art Museum Images Online) in mind. These high quality images of museum art work from all over the world are cleared for cited educational and research use.

The  Hospitality, Tourism, and Leisure Collection has the full text of about 550 guidebooks, if you’re planning a trip. They are a bit cumbersome to find, if you want to browse the collection instead of searching for a specific title. Click on the “Publication Search” tab and then on the “List All Publications” link. Use the limiters on the left side of the screen and choose “Handbook” under the “Publication Format” heading.

MedlinePlus is a great place to go for consumer health information – much better than a general Google search.

Bowker’s Books In Print (BIP) has an easy-to-use readers’ advisory tool, both for fiction and for non-fiction.

Credo, besides its useful concept map tool, also has a handy “gadget” built in (click on the “Gadgets” link in the menu at the top of the screen). The gadget tool provides conversion calculations and other features like a definition and pronunciation look up. Its topic pages are also good places to start research, generally speaking. Some topic pages are less useful than others, but I’ve found some good stuff there, overall.

Some databases include multimedia in search results. I ran across a link to streaming video (from PBS) via a Gale database and Opposing Viewpoints (also vended by Gale) includes NPR stories in their results.

Bonus for Bike Commuters

This last little bit falls into the “not work but useful enough to share” category. Google Maps has for quite a while now offered different directions for different types of travel: driving, walking, public transit, and biking. I’d never really used the directions for anything other than driving  or trip planning (if I’m going to bike or walk somewhere, it’s generally close enough for me to know how to get there). But, I recently needed to ride my bike directly from work to an appointment, and I realized that I had no idea how long it would take me to get to my appointment. While I have a good frame of reference for driving times, I don’t yet have that knowledge for biking times. So, I used Google Maps – not to get directions, but to get an estimate of the time it would take to get there. It estimated 15 minutes, and I made it to my appointment in 16 minutes; that was close enough for me.

The not-so-obvious costs of technology

11 Jul

I recently heard an interesting story on Marketplace (an American Public Media economic news radio show) called “The high price of cloud computing.” It is an excellent reminder that all of this technology stuff that we use, as convenient and exciting as it is, does have an energy cost. While we see some of these costs in our electricity, Internet, and cell phone/data plan bills, we don’t always think about the big picture costs. Cloud computing, for example, has led to a huge increase in server farm capacity. Server farms are huge buildings where companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo store the servers that hold all of the data (and sometimes backups of all of the data) that we save into cloud-based services. While many of these companies are looking at ways to build more efficient and more environmentally friendly data centers, it’s still very much worth remembering that all of the technology we have access to has a very real, physical existence, in addition to its virtual cloud space. (Additional proof of this is the fact that California’s Silicon Valley has 29 EPA superfund sites, locations marked for cleanup because they pose a risk to human health and/or the environment. This is the highest concentration of superfund sites in the US and 19 of these sites are the result of electronics manufacturing.)

Google Image Search’s New Trick

27 Jun

Google Image Search has a new feature where you search with an actual image. You enter your search by dragging and dropping an image into the search box, pasting an image URL into the search box, or uploading an image from your files into the search box. With an extension for your Firefox or Chrome browser, a right click on an image will search Google with that image. Pretty neat!

Password Security, To-do Lists, and Summer Reading

10 Jun

Password Security

How secure are your passwords? A site called How Secure Is My Password? will give you an estimate of how much time it would take a desktop PC to crack your password using basic math.

The number one password-creation tip, perhaps, is DON”T use a word that can be found in the dictionary. Passwords that are words from the dictionary are the easiest for computer criminals to break. Same goes for names – either yours, family members or close friends; those are easy to figure out. DO use characters (^ $ % # * !) and numbers (though preferably not your birth date or phone numbers or SSN) and make your password longer than 8 characters.

An obvious tip (though one that is very hard to observe) is not to use the same password for all of your accounts. Yes, it’s easier to remember only one password, but if someone figures out the one password, then they’ve got access to all of your accounts – and potentially to your sensitive private information or money, depending on what accounts you have.

There are many sites, apps, and browser add-ons that will generate strong passwords for you. I like Strong Password Generator, for its attempt to help you memorize the incredibly hard-to-remember password it generates. You can also tell it how many characters you want your password to be and if you want symbols or not.

It is very tempting, with a hard-to-remember password, to write it down somewhere or otherwise save it somewhere. This defeats the purpose of creating secure passwords, especially if you just save your passwords in an unprotected document or in your email (similarly, clicking on “remember password” on webpages usually fatally comprises the security of your password no matter how strong). One option is to create a password-protected Excel file (please protect that spreadsheet with a strong password!). After entering all of your log in data, save your spreadsheet. Then, from the Office button in Excel, click on the arrow by the “Prepare” option, and then choose the “Encrypt Document” option. It will ask you to enter a password. Whenever you try to open this spreadsheet, it will ask for the password.

You can also install a free, open source password manager, like KeePass. KeePass stores all of your passwords in an encrypted database that you access with a password (a strong one!).

If you use web applications a lot (and who doesn’t these days?) and want Firefox to remember your passwords, you can set an encrypted (i.e., harder to crack) Master Password in Firefox (again, make this a strong one!). In Firefox, go to the Tools menu, select Options (bottom of the list) and go into the Security tab and check “Use Master Password.” After you set a (strong) master password, every time you go to a site that remembers your password, you will first be asked to enter your Master Password. Once you’ve entered the Master Password, it’s set for the session. If you go this route, you should also install the Master Password Timeout add-on so that the the password has to be re-entered after a period of inactivity.

To Do Lists

I am an inveterate to-do list maker. While I still use paper to-do lists quite a lot, there are quite a lot of options out there for non-paper ones, as well.

One of the easiest to-do list tools to use at work is the Task list that’s built into our Microsoft Outlook email program. If you use the task list, you can get reminders for tasks, just like you do for calendar events. You can prioritize tasks, keep notes related to tasks, and update progress on the tasks. You can set recurring tasks for things you do regularly, like updating certain lists, renewing yearly subscriptions, or even remembering to water your plants (yes, the plants in my office would be dead if it weren’t for the twice-a-week task that pops up, reminding me to check on them). The possibilities are nearly endless. For me, the reminders are key. I am very good at making paper to-do lists and then sticking them in a pocket or the bottom of a bag and never looking at them again. Sometimes, that’s fine; I often just need to write everything down to get it all sorted out in my head and to start an organization process. But, when I actually need my to-do list to remind me to do things, the reminders, due dates, and prioritization features are very important.

So, some options:

Google Tasks: If you have a Google account, you have a task feature similar to Outlook’s task feature.
Teux Deux
: Simple, appealing layout; web-based; mobile app integration
Remember the Milk
: Web based; email or text reminders of tasks; mobile app integration; integrates with Gmail
GQueues: For use with Google calendar and Google apps; a much more robust (and complex) task manager

There is an art to using a to-do list well. Check out these 6 tips, very useful for making better use of to-do lists. My advice is to pick one application (even if that’s a paper list) that works well for you and stick with it. Keeping up with a bunch of different to-do lists and to-do list programs is counterproductive. For some more tips on effective to-do list use, the writers at the ProfHacker blog suggest the Getting Things Done (GTD) process.

Summer Reading

I love the idea of summer reading. I have no more time to read in the summer than I do any other time of the year, but every year I think I’m going to do a lot of reading over the summer. To that end, I consume numerous summer reading lists (yes, it does occur to me that if I spent less time looking at summer reading lists, I could probably do more summer reading). The Lifehacker blog recently featured several sites for creating an “awesome” summer reading list, if you’re short on ideas. Personally, I like LibraryThing and it’s recommendations. While I haven’t used it a lot to date, it looks like YourNextRead creates cool book maps. NPR has a summer books series and the NY Times Book Review editors listed their summer readings lists in a recent special edition. And, our own ConXn blog featured a summer reading post. If only I could find as much time as I can find things to read.

Happy summer to all!

The eG8

8 Jun

This year, at the G8 Summit in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a special, additional meeting – the eG8. This was an invitation-only two-day meeting that brought together 800 policy makers, scholars (including one of my favorite Internet experts, Lawrence Lessig), government officials, traditional media/communications bigwigs, and, of course, technology entrepreneurs-turned-CEOs-of-giant transnational-corporations (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google). After the meeting, a delegation of participants relayed the eG8’s conclusions to the world leaders gathered in the regular G8 meeting in Deauville, France.

The meeting has attracted a great deal of attention, especially since many interpreted President Sarkozy’s opening statement as a call for increased governmental control of the Internet. Specifically, Sarkozy said that “governments are the legitimate guardians of society” and suggested “a basic minimum of values and rules agreed at the world level.” These opening statements alarmed some who were at the meeting. Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY and eG8 attendee, suggested in a reflective blog post that somebody tell the mid-Eastern protesters (who have famously used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other Internet or web-based applications in their actions) that “governments are the legitimate guardians of society.” Jarvis also stood up at the meeting and publicly asked Sarkozy and others to take a Hippocratic oath for the Internet, concentrating on the “do no harm” principle embodied in the oath (typically sworn by new doctors). (You can hear a short interview with Jarvis from NPR’s On the Media)

Not to be missed in all of this is the fact that Sarkozy’s meeting was held within the context of the G8, a meeting that includes the leaders of the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the European Union. That leaves out many significant countries (there is a relatively new G20, which deals primarily with matters of international finances) and to many, smacks of the past cultural, military, and industrial imperialism of these western countries. (Neal Stephenson has written convincingly about the analogy between rubber plantations in the British colonies and the development of the Internet – and the infrastructure needed for the Internet to run). Some have speculated that the conversation about governing the Internet is a question about government sovereignty

Of course, there are already laws in individual countries that determine how we use (or don’t use) the Internet. Facebook is difficult (though not impossible) to use in China, where the Internet is heavily censored. In Germany, there are laws regarding Nazi-related content. France has stricter intellectual property laws than most nations. The European Union in general is more sensitive to and likely to impose regulations around privacy-related issues than the United States. And, in the recent uprisings in Egypt, we saw the government attempt to shut down the infrastructure of the Internet all together (again, at a time when many would have vociferously disagreed that the government in question was the “legitimate guardian of society”). Yet, the Internet remains largely uncontrolled, an aspect of its existence that worries plenty of people who see the Internet dispersing control of culture and commerce away from its traditional loci.

While the eG8 didn’t necessarily get a great deal of mainstream attention, it’s well worth paying attention to the conversation that took place there. The eG8 website has video of all of the talks (see especially the first 15 minutes or so of Plenary V for Lawrence Lessig’s talk).