Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Firefox 10 and Web Browsers in General

For those of you playing along at home, Firefox has updated to a brand new version number this morning: 10.0. Of course, as I've noted before, those new version numbers seem to mean less and less these days than they used to. Case in point? The first (FIRST) listed "new feature" for Firefox 10? They've hidden the "Forward" button until you hit the "Back" button.


Firefox, you just blew my mind. All this time, that's been the one thing that I've been hating most about browsers. That pesky Forward button. Thank goodness it's gone now. I'm so happy we have a brand new version of your browser. Totally worth the wait.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but isn't it a tad ridiculous? I'm not using Firefox these days--still going with Google Chrome, mainly for the following reasons:
  • It seems to me to be less buggy than Firefox on my machine. Chrome boots up faster and responds more quickly than Firefox. I haven't scientifically tested this, but that's how it feels to me, at any rate.
  • Chrome handles Google's software and web programs more capably--and I use a lot of Google stuff. I love how easy it is to search with Chrome--just type the query into the address bar, and you're off and running. It even autopopulates web addresses with commonly visited sites. In contrast, Firefox feels stone aged.
And it appears I'm not alone in my preference. Internet Explorer is now at a 20% market share--it peaked back in March 2003, when it was at 88%. (Good riddance, I say. I never liked Explorer. Way too clunky and prone to bugs.) Firefox is now at 38%. It peaked in July 2007, when it was at 48%. Chrome is now at 35%--it's highest share ever. (For exact breakdown of numbers, look here.)

Of course, I'd rather see three, four, or more major players in the browser arena. Any time you have multiple companies competing for the same users, the users win--there's more innovation, more features. It's a good thing. Much worse than the days of IE or else--it was Microsoft's way or the highway, and that's not a good place to be in.

So while it's nice that Chrome is seeing as much attention as it is, I do hope that someone (Firefox or someone else) steps up the game significantly to challenge them.

Eliminating the Forward button ain't gonna do that, Firefox.

To download the latest versions of these browsers, go to

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mantor Monday - The Writing Contest

Hey, did you know we're sponsoring a writing contest?  As one of our "On Our Minds" programming events, we're teaming up with the English Department to bring you The Great Outdoors Writing Contest.  Prompted by this year's On Our Minds selection, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, we're looking for nature inspired entries from UMF students. Entries can be academic papers or creative prose, fiction or nonfiction - but they must relate to our theme of The Great Outdoors.

Prizes? But of course! There will be two prizes in each category (Academic and Creative works).  The top prize is $40 for first place. Runner-ups in each category will win $20.

The contest will run from January 17, 2012 to Wednesday, April 11.

For more information on the contest or how to submit an entry, contact Bryce Cundick. (778-7224 or bryce.cundick@maine.edu.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Yak Trax

Yes, I know it's Technology Tuesday, and yes, I realize this post is a bit of a departure from the norm, but I'm typing this with only one hand, since I broke my left elbow a week ago today. That makes typing a slow, painful process--so this post will be short.

I just want to put in a plug for a piece of modern engineering that would have helped me avoid slipping last week: Yak Trax. They slip over your sneakers and give your shoes extra traction. I even own a pair--I just wasn't wearing them

The lesson? Modern technology will only help you if you let it.

Stay safe out there, folks!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Technology Tuesday: Website blackouts and SOPA

Tomorrow, you may see some of your favorite websites going black for 24 hours to protest the bill known as SOPA in the Senate and PIPA in the House. (Both bills are currently stalled in discussion, but this is an important issue, and many sites are going ahead with the blackout in order to help provide information and encourage conversation.)

The law is primarily aimed at digital piracy issues (things like people posting entire movies, etc.) but as it currently stands, it is very vague, and likely won't help much with its actual goal. And, as a side effect, would have massive freedom-of-access issues for many legitimate users of these and many other sites.

There's no doubt that this is a complicated issue, so there have been some excellent explanations of what's going on.

Briefly, the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) covers sites in the United States, but is focused on a single user. If Johnny posts something on a site that is under copyright, and the copyright owner files a formal complaint, then the site is supposed to take specific actions (and sometimes, everything moves into a legal suit.) It's a pain for the content creator, and not much fun for Johnny - but everyone else can continue using that site without trouble.

SOPA and PIPA, though, are aimed in part at sites outside the United States (where a lot of pirated work is hosted) but are written so vaguely they can also apply to sites within the US, or sites (like YouTube, Wikipedia, and all sorts of other places) where there's a bunch of awesome user-created material, but also some material that is posted without the copyright holder's permission. In these cases, if the law passes, the US government could choose to shut the entire site down - no access for anyone in the US.

See why people are calling it vague? The best analogy I've been able to come up with is that it's like teachers who say "Just because one of you has been bad, none of you get to go to recess." Ever. And then they enforce it by putting padlocks on the playground, so no one else can get in either, even before or after school.

That didn't work terribly well when we were kids - and it certainly doesn't work very well when you're talking about thousands or millions of people. (And especially when many people are deeply confused about copyright, as lots of people are, and a lot of things like exactly what a derivative work are up in the air still, in terms of legal precedent.)

The basic intention's reasonable enough. But don't we deserve a better designed law? 

What can you do? 
  • Inform yourself - there are great posts from a couple of fellow librarians (Jessamyn West, Brian Herzog) and technology geeks (BoingBoing) as well as a bare bones infographic.
  • Once you've decided what you think, get in touch with your legislators (there's more info at both the first two links) and tell them.
  • Tell other people why they should care - pass this post on to your friends, neighbors, whoever else you know who uses the 'Net.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Technology Tuesday: Amazon Price Tracker

Howdy folks. Today I'm here with just a brief bit of info that might make your life a tad better. Assuming you ever shop at Amazon, that is. Did you know that Amazon has a tendency to mess around with its prices? Not just a little, either. They don't have to have their minions scurry around with stickers to change their prices--they can do it with a click of a button. And they do.

A lot.

I have no idea *why* they change them as much as they do, but who are we to question the ways of the mighty Amazon? And in the end, why they do it doesn't matter. All that matters is to be aware of it and to know how to fight it.

Because if there's one thing any good librarian knows, it's that knowledge is power.

Enter Amazon price watchers, stage right. There are any number of these services online--the one I personally use is myPriceTrack, not because I think it's better than any others. It just happens to be the one that I found first. (If any of you out there have services you like more than this one, please speak up. I have no loyalty to this particular one.)

This handy tool allows you to cut and paste the web address of any Amazon product into its search engine, and it spits out the relevant price data for that item, charted over time. So in action, let's imagine you wanted to buy Adobe CS5. You go to Amazon's page for the item and see that it's selling for $650 (right now), marked down from $700. That seems like a pretty good deal, right? Well, when you go to myPriceTrack, you discover CS5 was on sale for $490 back on November 19th, and then again for $500 on December 17th. Maybe you ought to watch the price of it over the next while and find a better time to buy.

You can do this with anything on Amazon. Books, movies, electronics, music--you name it. It'll also show you the lowest "Buy Used" price on Amazon. The price doesn't fluctuate as wildly for some areas, but you really never can tell where it will and where it won't. When I go to buy something off Amazon these days, I almost always at least make a stop by myPriceTrack first to make sure I'm not getting ripped off.

Any of you have any tips you use for online shopping?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thoughts on Apple TV, False Restrictions, and Changing Technology

One of the Christmas presents unwrapped in my household on Christmas morning this year was a brand new Apple TV. For those of you who might not know what that is, head on over here to find out. Back? Good. I got the Apple TV mainly because I've bought in to so much of the rest of the Apple environment, it finally seemed like a good idea. I can throw my iPad screen on to my TV through it, play my entire music library on my nice surround speakers, look at my photo collection, watch YouTube, Netflix, and Vimeo . . . All for under $100.

My thoughts, now that I've used it some?

Mainly frustration. Don't get me wrong--it does what I thought it would do, and it does that well. It's easy to use, and I think it's been worth the investment. No, what's frustrating is what I feel like it should be able to do, but can't--due to licensing issues in today's entertainment environment.

At this point, there is no real difference between phone, television, and internet. It's all digital. It's all nothing more than a bunch of 0s and 1s transmitted over cables or through the air. You might buy it from your phone company or your cable company, but the actual thing they're selling is identical. Digital bits of information.

What's frustrating is that those companies, in a desperate ploy to remain relevant, are monkeying around with how that content is delivered, enforcing artificial means of restricting it so that our options as consumers are limited.

Decades ago, you got your channels bundled through your cable company because it made sense. There was quality content on them, and you get a discount by getting a bunch of them all at once. These days? That quality content is much more questionable, and the value you get by being forced to select a bundle is middling at best. Sure, you get hundreds of channels, but what use are all those channels if nothing's on them?

As a consumer, I feel like I should be able to subscribe to a select number of channels online, through the internet (and then on to my Apple TV to get it on my television). I would take Turner Classic Movies, Discovery, AMC, ESPN, ESPN2, maybe HBO. Pick and choose the channels I wanted until I ended up with an ideal package just for me. I would even pay more per channel for this option--perhaps channels were as little as .25/channel when they're bundled, but $1 or $2/channel separately. That would be okay. In the end, I'd be paying less, and I'd be getting only what I wanted for channels. Plus, the channels I liked and supported would be getting more of the money, as opposed to MTV8 or The "Learning" Channel.

But I can't do that. Cable companies and satellite companies are terrified that they'll be left doing nothing, so they hold on to those bundles and the licensing agreements associated with them.

Another example: across most of the country, you can get TV signals over the air for free. It costs the consumer nothing. I get lousy TV reception. I feel like I should be able to watch the same content all my fellow citizens get to watch--just online, instead of over the air.

No can do.

Yes, I understand that some of this is due to advertising fees and how that is all structured, but in the end, that again seems like an antiquated way of dealing with today's technology.

With my Apple TV, I should be able to do everything I just described and more. I know it's capable of doing it. But I can't do it yet. Hopefully one day soon . . .

Of course, as this is on a library blog, I feel compelled to bring up a library-specific point in relation to all of this. I hope that we, as librarians, don't fall into the same rut that the cable companies are in right now. Consumers and patrons are getting used to being able to get their books digitally. Quickly, easily. I'd like to think they're okay paying a bit of money to do this in many cases, but there are also people out there who can't afford to pay money, and rely on libraries for their content.

Our job is to navigate the waters to make sure that we stay relevant, but not at the price of placing false restrictions on content. I could easily see libraries becoming more and more local information dealers, distributors, and negotiators--helping each community they serve get access to the information that community needs. I'm worried at times that in our rush to remain relevant, we're too slow to embrace the changes and opportunities offered by new technology.

Then again, perhaps the biggest problem in all this isn't the companies--it's the law that has trouble adapting and changing with the times.

I don't know--thoughts, anyone?