Today we learned the sad news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer, or with his usual understated manner he is "officially Very Poorly". I first came to the attention of his back in the 1980s - I picked up a copy of the Wasp Factory, and was so taken with the inclusion of all the negative reviews I simply had to read it. Within the first few pages I was completely hooked - I had never read anything quite like it before (or since). It was powerful, macabre, funny and sickening, and it remains one of the best books that I have ever read in my life. I have always looked forward to the new Banksy; science fiction then mainstream and back again.
His science fiction has been epic, in every sense of the word, and shows remarkable vision and story telling powers - he has made space opera his own playground and his work easily puts him on a par with Asimov, Clarke, Wells; any science fiction writer you care to name. His 'mainstream' material has equally been stunning; 'It was the day my grandmother exploded' has surely to be one of the very best opening lines in literature.
Apart from all of that, Iain is just such a nice person. I've been very fortunate to have had the opportunity of sitting with him at science fiction conventions, chatting and having drinks. One of my endearing memories is when he turned up an hour late to give an author reading, and read in a very thick Scottish accent; you had to have read the book to get what he was saying, and lots of people were sitting around entirely confused, while the rest of us were in tears of laughter. I remember how he got hauled down from a hotel scaffolding at 4am by the police - he thought it would be fun to climb it. I recall seeing him striding across a hotel room with a fixed expression on his face, carrying a fire extinguisher, only to be followed a couple of minutes later by several conference 'gofers'. "Where's Banks?" they said. We pointed and said "That way, carrying a fire extinguisher". The reply was lost in their rush for the door, but I believe it contained several profanities.
Iain is a fan's fan. That's to say, he's always turned up at conventions, mingled in with everyone else and has never taken the aloof 'I am a *writer*, kneel to me' that some authors have been inclined to do. He's sat on panels, awarded things, made fun of himself and has generally just been a really nice person. He is one of those people who have left the world a better place than they found it, and we are fortunate enough to have a good body of his work to enjoy. But that of course doesn't make up for the loss we will have.
Iain - it's highly unlikely that you'll read this, but if you do - thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the books, the stories, the fun, the laughter and the pleasure of just being in the same location as you. You're quite simply one of the very best.
Bornglorious is a fun little tool. It simply tells you who was born when. Either search by date or profession. There's also a deaths option as well. Details are sparse, but sufficient to tell you about the individual and there's a link to their Wikipedia entry.
A nice, free and easy alternative to Google Alerts . You can monitor the Web for interesting new content about your name, brand, competitors, events or any favourite topic with Talkwalker Alerts! Talkwalker Alerts are an easy and free alerting service that provides email updates of the latest relevant mentions on the Web directly to your email box or RSS feed reader.Well, that's what they say.
I tried it out, and it looks exactly like a Google alert service.
It will create an account for you, so that you go in and change the alerts whenever you need to. There doesn't seem to be a limit on the alerts that you can create, and it's a free service, so you might want to give it a go. It's different to Mention, which I'm still enjoying using since you can really do a precision search - I'm presuming that it pulls its data from Google.
The long awaited review of e-lending has now been published. The report, written by William Sieghart sets out some interesting recommendations. The announcement is here. and the review itself - available in Word format is here. I've only taken a very quick look through it, but it looks as though it's reasonably positive. Please note that the following are MY PERSONAL VIEWS and not those of any other organisation or body that I am involved with. I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else and should not be quoted as such. Right, having got that out of the way, I'm going to skip straight to the summary of the review's recommendations.
This makes sense to me. The author has written a book, and people have read the book, and the author deserves some recompense for that. It shouldn't matter what format the book is in, because the author has written and the reader has read. Of course, what it doesn't say is how this should be managed. The same sized pot, spread more thinly perhaps? Or more money for authors, and if so, where from exactly?
This makes sense to me - we don't know what model works best - probably because there isn't a best model; if there was, we'd all be using it quite happily already. Consequently it makes sense to trial various different approaches to see what works and what doesn't.
I'm very pleased to see this indeed. I have always argued that libraries should not be charging for access to ebooks - the activity of reading is the important thing, not the container that's being used to facilitate it. Moreover, it reaffirms the important point that reading books in/from a library is, and should remain free. I hope that those libraries that are currently charging for ebooks will now have a very swift rethink! It's also vitally important that books should be available remotely. If this is not the case, the housebound, the shift worker, the carer, the rural user, the disabled are all unfairly discriminated against. A library offering, where people can download what they want, when they want it makes perfect sense to me. Now, this does go directly against what some publishers have argued for, but the review is swings and roundabouts as we'll now see.
While it would be wonderful to buy a book and have it available for all time for library users, this isn't going to help the publishers, nor will it do much for authors. Of course, there's no real indication here as to exactly what the friction is going to be like - is the deterioration going to be after 2 loans, 26 loans, 260 loans? Is it going to be the same for all books alike, or different according to type of book? Without knowing, it's difficult to say much more than I understand where the review is coming from, but more meat on the bones would help here. It's also nice to see reference to bookshops as well, and a closer integration between library and local bookshop would not go amiss.
It's interesting to note that there's no reference at all to Amazon, and the various things that they are engaged with at the moment; while I think it shows good sense not to refer to specific eReading devices, which are only a transitory technology at best, it's quite clear that Amazon is a long term player.
In summary, the review provides something for everyone; authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries and readers. It's a positive document, embracing the power of digitisation, and not shying away from it. It views it as a force for good, rather than as a threat. Finally, it's looking forward practically, encouraging exploration and new models.
Well, that's what *I* think anyway.
This is an engine that checks patient symptoms against rare or unusual conditions and is apparently only to be used by medical professionals. This is stressed quite often, and given that there's already a condition 'cybercondriac' this is an engine that should be left well alone if you worry about having some weird disease. It's called FindZebra because the term "zebra" is a medical slang for a surprising diagnosis. Physicians are taught since medical school to concentrate on the more common diseases: "when you hear a gallop, you should think about a horse, not a zebra".
The engine indexes about 30,000 medical articles on rare and genetic diseases which are freely available on the internet, from obvious sources such as Wikipedia to Health on the Net Foundation and the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. The project website is at the Technical University of Denmark, Rare Disease Information Retrieval Project.
Once again, since they stress it so much: "FindZebra should only be used by medical professionals. Although the articles indexed by the system have been written by medical professionals or reviewed by medical associations, it is strongly recommended that, as a patient, you consult you local health care provider. FindZebra does not replace professional health care, and cannot be held responsible for erroneous use of the information provided through the system." Does that make you less, or more likely to try it out? Yes... thought so!
I'd heard that Google had been experimenting with reducing the number of results to a page, but I hadn't actually seen it for myself. Now however I have - and rather wish that I hadn't. I was looking for a particular software game that was produced years ago, and the graphic shows you the search and the results:
Now, there's a fair amount to be said about this. I'm only getting 4 results that match my query. Actually, it's less than that, because the last result from the 4; 'Green battleground' didn't include the word Talon. Actually, it's less than that, because the third result doesn't contain the word 'battleground'. So out of the 4 results, 50% are incorrect. We then have a line break, with "Results for similar searches" listed for me. Why does Google assume that I'm interested in similar searches? Particularly since the searches they've run for me are not accurate. 'Wargames Empire' and 'Empire war games' are totally different, despite a vague semantic similarity.
What's really annoying is that if I go onto page 2 of the results, I carry on with organic results from my first search, and I do get the information that I was after. So, not only does Google know what I wanted, it retrieves what I wanted, then insists on showing me results that it knows are inaccurate! I am therefore forced onto the second page - where I get shown more adverts!
Now, you might well say 'Use the Verbatim tool'. For those not familiar with it, the verbatim tool tells Google to stop trying to think for itself and do as it's told, by finding all the words on the pages it returns. That doesn't actually work though, because the results that I'm getting back don't include all 3 terms - several pages are missing one of the 3 terms! So that's not something that works either.
This is really the absolute worst that I've seen Google do myself, though I'm familiar with other examples of Google totally messing up a search - who can forget Karen Blakeman's Coots and lions post! I really am almost entirely lost for words - just when you think Google can't get any worse - it does! Well, I shall go back to sensible search engines, and leave this one to fester some more.
If we haven't had enough bad news from Google recently, here's a bit more for you. Google has discontinued the ability searchers had of blocking sites. I quote "The Blocked Sites feature is no longer available. To block particular sites from your search results, we recommend the Personal Blocklist Chrome extension from Google. You may also download your existing blocked sites list as a text file."This is from support.google.com so it's official.
You used to be able to block up to 500 sites, and it was a very useful little tool, particularly if there were two very similar versions of a site with confusing names or domains (a common trick that the pornographic sites use), so you could block the results appearing in your results. Now it's gone. No good reason for it either, which is irritating.To be fair, after they introduced it in March 2011 it's never really worked properly, and I think that they've given up trying to make it work properly. Clearly they don't think that it's a feature that is worth spending time and effort on, even if it is a very helpful function that a lot of users liked. Unfortunately it's another example of Google ignoring users; I can't put a positive spin on it for them at all, no matter how hard I try and be fair and even handed about it.
However, I can give you a reason for it, and it's from their own press release; use a feature that works in Chrome. Hey - isn't that a browser that Google owns? Why yes Phil, it is. So by reducing functionality in the search engine, and introducing it in their own browser, is it just possible do you think that Google is trying to put pressure on people to change to that, rather than stick with any opposition browsers, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer and so on? While that's not directly going to make money for them, it's certainly in that ballpark. But maybe I'm just cynical.
Thanks to ResearchBuzz News for the headsup on this one.
There's much concern running around at the moment relating to the inability of Google Alerts to 'do their thing' properly, and people are worrying that they might be on the kill list. It's a reasonable fear, and something that Google is going to have to get used to - with the speed they kill things, plus the fact that it doesn't matter how many people like or rely on something, we've got to get used to alternatives. Ideally, move to them as well I think. Anyway, if you're looking for an alternative to Google Alerts, you could do worse than try Mention. It's a really good tool that comes in a variety of flavours - you can download it and use as a standalone outside of the browser (which quite frankly just feels weird to me), you can run it from within your browser, or you can use it on a smartphone.
The concept is pretty basic - just tell it what you're interested in being kept up to date on. Add words, exclude words, and choose where you want Mention to look - everywhere that it can, or limit it in some way to websites, twitter, comments and so on. Everything is updated in real time - I'm getting used to a little popup appearing on the screen which is very helpful. You can mark stuff as favorites, you can assign a task to any user with whom you've shared this alert. Ask them to read, share or comment on a mention and keep a track of these actions with the task list. You can share your alert with anyone, whether or not they are a user of mention. You can connect any Facebook or Twitter account to an alert and manage multiple accounts. You can also search within your mentions as well, which is very helpful.
The page looks a bit like this - sorry, it's an alert for my name, but it could be a company name, event, conference - anything you like.
It's very simple to use, and I'm really enjoying it. There are both free and paid accounts, with the freebie limiting you to 500 mentions. If you find that you're running through those quite quickly, simply change what you ask Mention to look for - and cut out maybe something heavy, like Twitter, which you can monitor differently anyway. Give it a go, if you have time - it may change the way that you consider alerts.If you want to try it out, here's an invitation! (It doesn't get you anything extra, but in the interests of transparency, gets me an extra 100 mentions on my free account.)
This is really something of a shame. I like Netvibes, and have done for years; it's a good stable platform and a really good home/start page. I've encouraged people to try it out on just about all of my courses, and recently suggested that it would make a good replacement for Google Reader. I like to think that I've done more than my fair share of championing a good product. However, they have made a change to one of their really popular widgets recently; a bookmarking one, and it wasn't a change for the better. It was bigger, clunkier and well - pretty awful. I didn't like it, and more to the point a lot of other users didn't like it either. We took to Twitter to complain and see if we could get it rolled back, and we also asked on their Facebook page - again in quite large numbers.
Hidden in a reply to one of the complaints was a reply from a Netvibes staffer who said that there wouldn't be a rollback, and that the new design was here to stay. I posted a couple of times, the last being to try and helpfully point unhappy users to other resources. I checked back a few minutes ago, and my post had been deleted, most of the other complaints had gone, and I'm now unable to post to the Facebook Netvibes page.
Clearly someone at Netvibes has made the decision that they don't want to talk to their users. This is a great shame, particularly as a lot of people are looking around for alternative RSS readers now that Google Reader is no more. Instead of being welcoming and helpful they have instead chosen to make life difficult, block and ban comments and treat their users with contempt. This isn't going to get them more users - it's going to end up with a lot less. I'll certainly have to think about going elsewhere now, and I'll have to rethink my stance on teaching Netvibes in my classes.
I really hope that someone from Netvibes is checking social media, since I am still hoping that they'll prove to be a better company than they currently are.