Talk to CUNY Librarians: Trip Report

I gave a presentation to some of the CUNY (City University of New York) Librarians at the Cohen Library on the Uptown Campus on November 16, 2007. I wrote several posts in preparation for the talk, and a list of them can be found at Promoting Open Technologies in Libraries

I had the more fun giving this presentation than any other I have given in the past few years.

What could be better than talking about computing, open-source, writing, books, libraries, to an audience of … librarians; moreover, giving that talk in a library. It doesn’t get much better, at least for me.

Here are some pictures:

Dave and Tuxers Talk to Cuny Librarians
Dave and The Tuxers Talk to Cuny Librarians

(Note the screen shows the video of Eben’s recent talk at IBM Research. I brought it up to make sure I put the Tuxers in the same orientation, providing an example of how you can answer questions using the web.)
Dave with Cuny Librarians
Daisy Dominguez, CCNY Cohen Library, Dave; Steve Ovadia, LaGuardia College

 Cuny LibrariansLisa Ellis, Baruch College; Steve Ovadia, LaGuardia College; Daisy Dominguez, CCNY Cohen Library

Daisy gave us a tour of the Cohen Library after the talk. In the background can be seen part of an exhibit on Women and Medicine. I took some pictures of it for use in the Women In Technology Project. I asked Daisy to take this picture so you could see Lisa, who took the picture displayed above this one.

I selected a subset of these posts for use during the presentation and they can be found below listed under “Talk Notes.”

Here is a short report on the presentation itself and some of the lessons I learned giving it.

There were about twenty librarians in the audience, as well as two geeky types who knew their way around computers. I say this as a “geek” myself, and mean no disrespect.

I used my T41 Laptop running Ubuntu 7.10 for the presentation. I put up Firefox in full-screen mode and kept it there for the entire presentation.

This was by design, as I wanted to demonstrate that you only need to have Firefox to use WordPress, and also that if you can do so much via the browser, then why should you care what operating system delivers the browser? Put another way, an operating system is just the “thing” that lets you run the browser. It is the browser that counts, not the operating system. (Bad news for Microsoft, but that is how things have evolved.)

I also spent a fair of time showing how I actually use the computer. For example, how I edit and review changes to my blog on the fly, using one tabbed window to do the edits, and another to view the effect (exactly as the reader will see them too). I also brought up many windows from places such as, technorati, and so forth; all to point out that, for the most part, the browser is the key piece of software today.

For example, at the start I had a list of some of my blog posts, originally written as an unordered list. I then changed this to an ordered list by changing “ul” to “ol” in the beginning and ending tags, displaying the result in the review window. I then stripped out the “ul” and “li” tags to all the links appeared on a single line.

I then asked if anyone knew what language I was using to write my blog. A few knew it was HTML. I then pointed out it was “almost” HTML, in that WordPress recognizes line breaks while strict HTML ignores whitespace.

I then spent a few minutes trying to make the following points:

  • HTML is very simple. It is a core piece of the Web, especially the links. Yet few people appreciate this, as most just work with large programs with lots of buttons and options, which have the effect of making a simple thing look very complicated.
  • I then gave as an example of button/menu mania my experience a few months back observing a group of fifth-grade students trying to use Microsoft Word. While watching many of them raise their hands asking for help, I opened up a blank document, and then noted that if you visited the various actions and suboptions there were over 150 possibilities immediately at hand.
  • I also related a conversation with one of the teachers, who said that, since some of the buttons could have global effects, he had had to threaten his students if they made changes in the setup/conventions in such a way that a student who came after them might be affected.
  • I then gave an example of some of the key standards of the Internet/Web: Bind, Sendmail, Apache, and so forth.
  • I remarked that a key reason for the success of the Internet was that it was not monetized. For example, people may have to pay their cable company access, but they don’t have to pay a fee for each email they write, or web page they compose.
  • Key to this success was that the standards were implemented in open-source.
  • I also pointed out that just as the internet was based on open standards and open-source, then growth of the internet enabled the global collaboration that has allowed so much open-source to be created. There has been a synergistic effect here.
  • I also gave some examples from my experience, dealing with open-source issues all the way from the BIOS level up to BlueGene/p (peta) supercomputers, noting there is a near-complete software stack worth at least $5B available for the asking, at no charge

In the “survey of computing technology” I tried to make these points:

  • Good computers can now be had for $200, of which the XO is the most recent example
  • I spoke of my excitement about the XO and said I would be blogging about mine when I got it. After the talk one of the librarians came up and said she had bought one for use with her child; that is the reason the previous post is about
  • XOBytes, as I then realized I couldn’t wait any longer to start up this new project.
  • Windows+Office now costs the same, $200, and the hardware needed to run it, while ten years ago that software cost was a fraction (about one-tenth) of the cost of the hardware.
  • The browser is key; you want the cheapest platform that will give you one (though I didn’t say this using these words)

I also spent some time on the importance of open standards and open document formats, drawing in part of some of the material from my K12 presentation this past May. I used the “Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint” example as a starting point, and then asked how librarians a century from now will deal with the issue of archiving, cataloging, and retrieving the vast volume of information we are now creating in digital form. I point out that dealing with the vast volume of documents in Microsoft’s proprietary formats will post a particular challenge.

I noted that Microsoft gets almost all of its income, and hence profits, from the Windows operating system and the Office suite. This is extraordinarily profitable business. For example, it made Bill Gates the world’s richest man. Much of the profits come from a special form of tax that is levied on anyone who writes a document using Microsoft Office. The author has to pay Microsoft to get a copy of Office. Then, after composing a document and making it available to someone else, either by mailing it or posting it on the web, anyone who wants to read the document has to by a copy of Office. One document, all the work of a single author, yet Microsoft gets a double payment!

I also spoke at length about my recent work on Authority, Power and what I call “Unexpected Authority.” To see an example of that, go to, select “The Web,” and search on “authoritative opinions.” You will learn I am the author of the two most authoritative opinions known to, both of which were written as part of preparing my talk to the librarians!

By the way, not all my authority is unexpected. By a series of artfully crafted blog posts I have become a recognized authority on “JE Sux.” Though obscure, the topic is, I think, important to a full understanding of Yale’s pre-eminent position in American higher education , arachnids, dances named after arachnids, and the Harvard-Yale football game. For example, I get a surge of views each year about this time as folks search for “Harvard Yale football”. Also, , do the folks at Harvard know that when my daughter Jen, JE ’06, went to Cambridge a few years back to watch a Harvard-Yale, she stayed in Eliot House, named after on of Harvard’s greatest leader?

She was accompanied by a fellow JE ’06 friend and roommate. Her friend has the surname Eliot, and she is a direct descendant of the same famed Eliot of Harvard, yet she is an Eliot who went to Yale, not Harvard, demonstrating that at least some of Eliot’s descendants have come to appreciate Yale’s ascendency. Ponder that bitter news, Harvard wannabe’s.

I also realized that my blog is itself a library of my writings, and then asked myself, “where is the catalog.” I noted that I have created several pages to assist others in finding and perusing my writings, including most of the pages that are linked to at the top of my blog page: Posts, Topics, Trivia, and Ubuntu, for example. I will soon combine them all into a single page, Catalog.

Returning to unexpected authority, I think I see how this is so. I have for some time maintained a page called “Trivia,” in which I have recording sum of the surprising results of Google search strings that have led people to my blog. Try for example two of the most profoundly meaningful words to Jews in the last half-century are “Sabbath” and “Kristallnacht.” Do a search on both of them, “Sabbath Kristallnacht,” and you will be directed by my blog, by ANY of the first five results returned by Google.

I conjecture this is due to two aspects of Google’s search algorithm:

  • Google lends much more weight to the words in the title of a blog post than in the body;
  • Google lends more weight to recent posts and articles than older ones, preferring timeliness to number of references.

If both these observations hold, and I expect they do for it is hard otherwise to see why I should have achieved so much Unexpected Authority, then it is possible to game Google not to sell merchandise, but to sell ideas, in the form of your writing.

I have also come to appreciate that the greatest library assembled in human history is the Internet/Web.

The question then is, “Who is the librarian of mankind’s greatest library?”

That would be Google, a company that is based on seolling ads, primarily to make oodles and oodles of boodle, so much so they the company’s senior executives share their own jumbo jet.

I wrote in my talk of the key role that the Ernie Pyle library played in my childhood. That library was Albuquerque’s first branch library.

There are no branch libraries on the internet, just one library. After the talk, in which I had spoken often of my renewed appreciation for the important role librarians play in our culture, one of them remarked that librarians are the “gatekeepers” to knowledge.

Indeed they are, and now we have as that gatekeeper not a friendly, trained person in our neighborhood, but a commercial company, that while it proclaims it will not “Do Evil,” has due to its skills and good fortune found itself to be the world’s librarian.

There were a few personal moments worthy of mention.

I had listed as an example of a “life changing” post my first post on SSgt. Kyu Hyuk Chay, written this past Memorial Day. When I brought up the picture of the Chappaqua War Memorial, tears started to come to my eyes. I had to turn my back to the audience and collect my thoughts before I could continue. (This was the first time I had discussed this event publicly, and I should have foreseen that this might happen.)

After the talk I had a few conversations with the librarians.

I had mentioned that two of my grandparents were medical missionaries in China a century ago. One of the librarians said that here great-grandparents had also been medical missionaries in China about that time, as part of a special mission set up by Yale’s School of Medicine. (She also said that this effort still continues in some form today.)

I had said that I had ordered an XO Laptop and that I planned to blog about it extensively as soon as I got my hands on it.

She said she had also ordered one, as she wanted to use it with her children.

That comment become another moment of change in my life, or at least my blogging life, as I expect you will soon note.

Though I had planned to postpone blogging about the XO Laptop until I got mine, learning that educators and librarians had also ordered some for their families made me appreciate that I can’t wait.

This work is so important that I will begin on it soon, very soon — starting with my next post.

Talk Notes


On Libraries: The Ernie Pyle Memorial Home/Library

The Loss of Innocence




First Post Personal Post Most Popular Post Life-Changing Post Chappaqua Girl Scouts Veterans Project (coming)

Demonstrate Use of WordPress.

Fallen Soldiers

Goodnight Windows, Goodnight Mush

A Sabbath Kristallnacht in the Temple Beth El Library

Current Computer Technology

The Two Hundred Dollar Computer

Visit Newegg: Show ASUS Barebones, 1TB Hard Drive for Under $300

(Commercial) Software cost now equals hardware cost

Open-Source Software

What is Open Source?

Locate video; position friends, take group picture.

Linux: Meet the Tuxers


OSD: Open-Software Cost Equals Zero

Annus Horribilis, Annus Mirabilis

History / Remembrance

Within a decade no more authoritative opinions will be available from Holocaust Survivors. See An authoritative opinion on the accuracy of the Holocaust movie Fateless

Within twenty years no more authoritative opinions will be available from WWII Veterans. See Lou Colangelo and Swanson Shields.

Half of IBM’s employees have been with IBM less than five years

Brief History of Operating Systems

Fallen Soldiers

The Titfield Thunderbolt

Wikipedia entry for Chaim Stern

Rabbi Chaim Stern Project


Why is Dave Shields the Authoritative Expert on Authoritative Opinions?

An Authoritative Opinion on Libraries and Authoritative Opinions

Web 2.0 / Social Networking

Demonstrate flickr, technorati, twitter,

Software Status Report

What To Do?

Libraries And Librarians

Thin Clients

Open Document Formats

What is Open Source?

Open Data/Document Formats

Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint

What Do Librarians Need To Know About Technology?

Technology and the Library

Promoting Open Technologies in Libraries (Full Presentation)

What Do Technologists Need To Know About Librarians? TO BE DONE

Software cost now equals hardware cost

What Next?

A Library You Should Visit Soon: Thomas J. Watson Library: The Gates of Paradise

2 Trackbacks

  1. By history of the internet on November 22, 2007 at 13:26

    […] Talk to CUNY Librarians: Trip Report […]

  2. […] Talk to CUNY Librarians: Trip Report […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Pages

  • November 2007
    M T W T F S S
  • RSS The Wayward Word Press

  • Recent Comments

    daveshields on SPITBOL for OSX is now av…
    Russ Urquhart on SPITBOL for OSX is now av…
    Sahana’s Respo… on A brief history of Sahana by S…
    Sahana’s Respo… on A brief history of Sahana by S…
    James Murray on On being the maintainer, sole…
  • Archives

  • Blog Stats

  • Top Posts

  • Top Rated

  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Top Rated

  • %d bloggers like this: