Life is a Mystery

29 July 2004 . Comments Off on Online Voting

Online Voting

No, this is not a message about Diebold! I’m meeting with some staff next week who have an interest in automating the library elections we hold periodically. Since these are pretty friendly contests, I don’t think we need quite the audit trail of a government election, but we do need to maintain anonymity and make participation easy. If you have any suggestions of systems that might facilitate our internal governance elections, let me know. If you want to suggest issues that I should keep in mind when approaching this topic, let me know those as well.

One idea I’ve had is to verify identity with X.500 and keep voting records in a back-end database so that voters could change their minds by recalling their own ballot until the election is closed. The problem is that I would not want the database to easily identify the voter or the record of a single voter over multiple elections. But what about this… Have the software hash the userid of the voter and the title of the given election into a value by which you key their vote in the database. If they return, the same hash should be generated resulting in the same vote being modified. But if a sysadmin looks at the database, they just see a bunch of hashes, unique to that election, with no simple way to attribute a particular vote to a particular staff member. Sure, anyone with sufficient tech knowhow and time could crack this system without much trouble, but the motivation for doing so would be very slight, so this is probably not a great threat. Thoughts?

29 July 2004 . Comments Off on C.Y.A.


A colleague passed me this message which echoes my sense that some protective clauses we fight to include in our contracts are nearly worthless in the real world.

About six months ago, [our] University Libraries was faced with a decision about continuing our access to what was formerly called Elsevier’s Academic Freedom Collection. We had subscribed to the package of Academic Ideal e-journal collection since 1998 through our consortium. Elsevier wasn’t willing to work through consortium arrangements and wasn’t willing to provide the group of journals as a package any longer. [Our] Libraries’ acquisitions budget had been cut and we were facing yet another reduction. We could not afford to subscribe individually to all the previously owned journals via ScienceDirect. We renewed 34 titles in print. We also could not afford to pay the annual access fee to maintain ScienceDirect linking to the backfiles. We chose the option of receiving the Ideal/Freedom journal backfile data that we had purchased by our several years of subscriptions. Elsevier sent us 8 DLT tapes about two months after our request for the data. After another frustrating two months of locating the outdated tape drives needed to open and access the tapes, we have discovered that there is duplicated data and that the data does not appear in any kind of rational order.

It will be interesting to see how they fare. I’m afraid that the data in vendor systems will get more and more complex and that a “dump” of this data will be less and less useful to anyone outside that vendor’s shop. To make these clauses meaningful will require that we develop some well known formats and then demand the offloaded data meet these specs. Of course, none of our contracts currently contain such requirements and in any case no such standards currently exist.

I have a similar concern with regard to source code escrow agreements. How much good does it do us to have source code without the suite of compilers, libraries, and tools that it takes to build a given application? Even if we could build it, would we have the skills to do so with confidence? In most cases, wouldn’t we migrate to an alternate vendor’s product before taking on maintenance of a defunct vendor’s product?

29 July 2004 . Comments Off on Tools for Hacking

Tools for Hacking

Dan Debertin has introduced me to Ruby, a prorgramming language cross between Perl & Smalltalk. It has been a fun discovery and resonated last night with an essay by Paul Graham about hackers and their tools. The portions of this essay that discuss what hackers want, why they code, how to care for them if you want them to join your cause are interesting. As some of our programmers have said, doors matter! Paul has a great Ruby quote on his site: “Some may say Ruby is a bad rip-off of Lisp or Smalltalk, and I admit that. But it is nicer to ordinary people.” (attributed to Matz at LL2)

17 July 2004 . Comments Off on Spotlight on Selectivity

Spotlight on Selectivity

I participated in an advisory board meeting of the Documenting Internet2 project this week. As we considered appraisal strategies for collecting electronic documents and records from I2, I wondered whether appraisal would shift into a retrospective task when dealing with the electronic record of organizations. Will it be easier to collect “everything” (or whatever can be easily acquired, anyway) and then become selective later by mining that trove for the important bits. Estimates at this meeting suggested that at least 95% of “everything” is not valuable to researchers, and appraisal has been the traditional tool to ferret out the golden 5% (or even 1% in many cases). In the electronic realm, though, could it be a wiser use of human capital to collect the 100% and then mine out the 5% as needed?

One dash of cold water on this approach has been the dearth of data mining tools. However, the rise of litigation support software may be one place to hunt for useful models. The U is also home to a strong data mining research group in the DTC. Perhaps we could work with them to develop research tools for future archives?

Finally, we are beginning to see this approach emerge on the personal computer desktop. Last week Steve Jobs announced that the next generation of Mac OS X (10.4 or Tiger) will incorporate a technology Apple calls Spotlight. Spotlight will be a very fast search engine for the Mac OS. I wonder if, as search gets fast and easy enough, it replace organization? We all know how difficult it is to create a good filing system and stick to it, even on a computer. As search improves, will we just give up on organization and instead rely on searching to pull together the documents we need as we need them?

17 July 2004 . Comments Off on PC Recycling

PC Recycling

A couple emails hit my inbox today about HP and Dell “going green”. While I think that’s overstating matters a bit, a Mercury News story does describe two new programs: “HP said it will accept old electronics equipment, from PCs to TVs, that are dropped off at Office Depot outlets across the country from July 18 to Sept. 6, free of charge. … And Dell went one further: It will pick up old computers and their accessories at the homes of customers. The catch: You have to buy a new Dell.” Carnegie-Mellon has also had a nice Green Design page about environmentally friendly computer design and recycling.

17 July 2004 . Comments Off on Silence


Sigh. It is easy not to blog, I find. Too much going on day to day to leave much behind. I’ll take yet another stab at it, though. Sorry about the extended silence!

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /