Camera Lucida

July 3, 2007

Tech tip

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 3:49 pm

The next time you travel by air, take along a small 5- or 6-plug adapter strip (the grounded kind, with three prongs) with you. (Best choice: the Power Squid.) Power supply is an extremely scarce resource at most airports. If you find an outlet with someone already plugged in, you should be able to persuade him to let you plug this device in so that both of you (and three additional people as well) can use the power.

January 6, 2007

Printing Acrobat bookmarks

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:45 am

Although one commentator estimates that 90% of PDF files available online do not incorporate any of the available navigational tools, knowledgeable users are familiar with the bookmarks that can be created under Acrobat to mark pages of interest for later use and reference.

One regular gripe among those users is that Adobe did not think to include the ability to print the list of bookmarks, or to allow it to be selected as text and copied for pasting elsewhere. For such a sophisticated product, how did it allow this rather basic user need to be ignored?

There have been some suggestions as to a workaround. For a truly cumbersome approach, see the suggestion at the PDF for Lawyers site. There are vendors who, for a hundred bucks or more, will sell a plug-in to do much the same thing.

HyperSnap, an inexpensive screen capture utility, now has (with version 6) a TextSnap feature which comes to the rescue. Select “TextSnap | Text from a region”. Switch to Acrobat and draw the rectangle around the bookmark panel. If the list of bookmarks is long, repeat as needed. Each block of text is copied to HyperSnap, where it can be later copied and combined as needed.

June 10, 2006

Misunderstanding metadata

Filed under: Law practice, Tech — CL @ 7:41 am

We keep hearing this mistake: "metadata is data about data". This is a wrong formulation.

In general, “data” describes that which is contained in a document. Data may include words, ideas, arguments, conclusions, opinions, analyses, numbers, or any other kind of information. The document is nothing more than a container in which the data is found.

Metadata is data about the document, not data about the data. The commonly-created metadata includes the identifying information, such as:

  • author
  • date and time
  • subject
  • keywords

This is all data about the document. It is independent of the data contained in the document. It is also usually innocent and will not spring traps for the unwary, although there have been reported instances where the inadvertent inclusion of this information has tripped up a user.

"Data about the data" would be such things as total word count, or the total number of occurrences of a certain word or phrase. It is usually findable but is not usually recorded within the document.

The word is also commonly used to refer to

  • hidden information – text that is deliberately hidden but intended by the user to remain within the document, such as hidden text, hidden rows or columns in a spreadsheet, or hidden comments;
  • unintended remnants of information – i.e. text that is inadvertently left within the document after a deletion.

In this sense, metadata is neither data about the document or data about the data. It is simply additional data, tucked away in a place not immediately visible or accessible.

April 2, 2006

Combining two useful tools

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 2:56 pm

pbWiki is a free hosted wiki service which allows a user to create one or many wiki sites for personal or shared use. QuickTopic is a free service which allows a user to set up one or many web-hosted discussion pages, with optional e-mail integration and without requiring people who want to add a comment to register first.  

Combining the two provides a very flexible set of interrelated tools. A new wiki site and a new QuickTopic page can be created, with each linking to the other. The QT page can be used for comments (beyond the three comments per page allowed with pbWiki) about entries on the wiki site, by visitors for suggestions for additions to the wiki (if general public editing is not allowed), or by the wiki author as a temporary storage site for items before they are added to the wiki site.

March 26, 2006

Lessons from the field

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:26 am

The City of Tuttle, Oklahoma has a website, and its ISP uses CentOS, a free open-source version of Linux, as the operating system for its servers. The ISP made some configuration changes, and this resulted in a generic error page (a "no index" page) being displayed instead of the city's home page. Jerry Taylor, the city's manager, wrote a series of e-mail messages to CentOS, demanding that its "software" be removed from the city's servers, accusing it of hacking the city's system, and threatening to report CentOS to the FBI. The CentOS administrators responded by asking Taylor to contact his IT people, and trying to explain why this error page appeared.

CentOS has posted the entire exchange of e-mail messages on its web site, for the amusement of all. The lesson to be learned, however, comes from this perceptive comment posted by a visitor:

Yeah, this is a great idiot user story. I think it's also an excellent demonstration of a big reason why many businesses are nervous about using open-source software. Allow me to enumerate some differences between the response here and what a company or city would normally expect from its vendors.

1. A real business which cares about expanding its customer base does not post conversations with hapless users in order for the world to point and laugh. Not even if said user declares that he is unafraid of the conversation being publicized.

2. "I feel sorry for your city" is an understandable sentiment, but saying it is not going to help fix anything. Especially not if it's the *first* thing you say.

3. Consider the user's state of mind when he first comes to you. He thinks his city's site has been hacked. All the careful work put into building the site may be lost. Maybe the hackers are breaking into city records, too. This is bad! This needs to be fixed yesterday! He may not understand what's going on, but he does understand that powerful people are going to have his head on a platter if he doesn't demonstrate that he is doing everything he can to have this cleared up right this minute.

In this panic, a flat-out "this is not my problem" going to bounce right off the mental filter. You have to use small steps. Start with "Our product is completely legitimate, but perhaps it is causing an error which is blocking your site. Could you please tell me who operates that site…" This allows him to start seeing you as a partner in fixing the problem. As he calms down, you can lead him toward reason.

4. Pick up the phone. If your user thinks it's an emergency, you have to treat it as one to retain credibility in his eyes. Failing that, when he threatens to go to the FBI, consider the cost of a long-distance phone call vs. the potential cost and hassle if he hooks up with an equally clueless FBI agent.

5. Contact his ISP yourself. Okay, this one isn't something the typical tech-support operation would do, but I recommend it because it means you can make sure the problem is reported to them properly, and at the same time it gets you more points with the user for demonstrating that you care about his problem.

6. When he apologizes, don't be a sore winner.

I know a lot of you are exasperated at this point, thinking, "But it *wasn't* CentOS's problem, and the guy *is* an idiot." This is perfectly correct. It's also perfectly irrelevant to dealing with a human being in a state of panic. Saying it won't fix the problem, and it won't make him go away.

Finally, consider this: People who have a good experience with a business or organization can turn into loyal customers. But the *really* loyal customers are the ones who have had a problem and seen it resolved in an efficient and friendly manner. No, I understand the complainer in this case wasn't a CentOS customer. But someday someone is going to suggest that the city check out open-source software, maybe even your software, and this experience is going to be the first thing to come to mind.

This an excellent lesson in public relations.

January 21, 2006

Political activism

Filed under: Society, Tech — CL @ 3:21 pm

boing boing has a post describing the new Digital Content Protection Act of 2006. According to EFF’s analysis, the legislation would limit individuals’ use of any new emerging technology to “customary historic use of broadcast content by consumers to the extent such use is consistent with applicable law.” As it notes,

    “Had that been the law in 1970, there would never have been a VCR. Had it been the law in 1990, no TiVo. In 2000, no iPod.”

But the bill does not impose the limit that EFF decries. Instead, it directs the FCC to develop regulations in this area, and it requires that the regulations “permit customary historic use of broadcast content by consumers to the extent such use is consistent with applicable law”. It does not specify that those are the only uses that the FCC shall allow.

In other words, the new bill would define the minimum, not the maximum level of freedom of action. It would appear that, if this bill passes, efforts to oppose additional restrictions will need to be made when the FCC proposes new rules.

boing boing’s post is similarly misleading. It says that, under this proposal, “digital media technologies would be restricted to using technologies that had been certified by the FCC as being not unduly disruptive to entertainment industry business-models.” That sounds very scary, but I have read the new bill [PDF] (only six pages long) and I see nothing similar to that language in there.

The EFFers should heed one reality of political activism: do not misstate the person or position you oppose. Mischaracterizing what the opposition is up to will likely impair your own credibility in the eyes of the public.

January 20, 2006

Seen on Ask MetaFilter

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:25 pm

“Craigslist is just about the ONLY means of advertising apartments in San Francisco. . . Even [an older advertiser] said ‘No one reads the newspaper anymore!'”

January 8, 2006

Google Pack

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 6:57 pm
Google Pack is a new offering from the King of All Online Media. It is a collection of what Google considers to be the most important items of open source software that are available. Of course, Google’s own Desktop and Picasa are included. 

This is similar to a CD that I put together last year for my college-age daughter, called “Essentials”. Some of the items under Essentials are shareware rather than freeware, but they still represent the software that one should have available if one is to be productive and efficient.

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