Saturday, December 22, 2007

O'Reilly reads its blogs to you

OMG this is cool. Looks like most of O'Reilly's blogs have a reader built in (through the ReadSpeaker service). The voice is understandable, and if you don't like the embedded player, you can download MP3s for portability. Apparently this has been online since at least April 2007, and it's still being perfected; O'Reilly has a clearly linked feedback form every time you listen. Here are a few bugs I noticed:

  • It reads some graphic alt-text to me. Accessibility maybe, but irritating to me.
  • There seems to be a word or time limit on the length. I could only get it to read me short articles.
  • It resizes my Firefox browser window every time I click the "listen" link.
O'Reilly is a great source of blogs, and I have a terrible time keeping up with them. Sounds like a playlist in the making. Check out this entry on .htaccess, or for you bohemian types, here's a article on Dave Byrne. Click on "listen" in the upper right.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Google Maps doesn't know Israel?

I was surprised when I tried locating some Israeli cities for a history course and noticed that Google Maps is noticeably lacking any info on Israel. Both Google Maps and Microsoft Live Maps know that Jaffa (formerly an ancient city and battle site of the Crusades) is now a neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

What Google Maps fails to display are the many roads and other towns in Israel. I kept zooming out, looking for any detail, until I eventually saw the national border. Funny that surrounding countries have highways and cities marked, but Israel has absolutely nothing.

I did another search and found various theories regarding Google and the Israeli government. In fact, there is a 1997 US law specifically forbidding US operators from make hi-res aerial images of Israel (and only Israel) available. Apparently there have been issues with hi-res (>2m resolution) images of Israel for 2 years or so, but this is the first time I've noticed regular map features missing. Curious that Google chose to block information that is freely available at other online locations and any map store or atlas.

I guess my biggest concern is the transparency or rather lack of it. It makes me wonder about the motives and reliability of other Google resources. Bottom line: check multiple sources to verify your data.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Online references for written sources

Here's the dilemma: you've got a paper due, and you waited longer than you should have to gather sources. You need some additional resources but don't have time to wait for library holds to come in. Sometimes having a source to cite is all you need. This works really well if you have a quote from somewhere else, i.e. a web page or Wikipedia (which instructors are beginning to hate as references).

Here are two options: Google Books and

Google Books and Amazon allow you a limited preview of some titles. Both sites allow you to search inside these previews. Do a search for the text string you're looking for. You can note the page number of your quote, pull up the publication info from the copyright page and voila, you have your source.

For example, I found a web page with an excerpt from The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul. I checked the local library, and they have the book, but it's in their maintenance facility. Argh. So I search for the title on Google Books and Amazon. Both services allow you to search inside. Both sites give you limited access to the text (Amazon more generously so) and page number.

By the way, I did pick up this book from a local college library, and it looks very promising. Anyone who feels like a slave to technology - a maintainer of tools rather than a user of them - will immediately see the implications of this work. It was written years ago and then translated from French, but Ellul's prescience is amazing.