Delicious Library

Posted in books, programming, reviews at 12:25 am by danvk

Delicious LibraryEarlier today, Ars linked over to a great list of Mac applications that make switching worthwhile. I’ve used plenty of them, (Adium, Transmit, VLC, Firefox, Thunderbird) but there was one app I’d never heard of that especially stood out to me. It’s one of those brilliantly simple ideas that I wish I’d thought of first.

Delicious Library turns your MacBook’s iSight camera into a barcode scanner. Just put wave a book in front of the screen and DL fills in all the details. This is so spectacularly cool that it just must be tried. The scanning was accurate whenever it worked, which was about 90% of the time. Some books have smaller-than-normal ISBN barcodes, and these gave it trouble. The only downside is that it’s a limited demo, and the full application costs an outrageous $40.

Before I discovered the San Jose library, I had an idea for a 20% project at Google. Wouldn’t it be cool if every Google employee made a list of the books they owned and were willing to share? I doubt there’s any library that could beat the Google workforce in sci-fi or CS literature. The problem with this idea is that data entry is painful. I can’t imagine typing every single ISBN of all my hundreds of books onto a computer, let alone convincing other people to do it. Delicious Library turns this problem completely on its head. Not only does it make entering ISBNs easy, it makes it exciting. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible before discovering this program.

I really wish Delicious Library was open source. If it were, I’d implement that Google Book share. But as it is, I’d be stuck learning Apple’s iSight API, the intricacies of barcodes, and probably Objective-C/Cocoa. I’m sure it would all be very interesting, but not when I’m already developing software fifty hours a week…


Excited about a Library

Posted in books, personal at 11:35 pm by danvk

One of the biggest things I miss about not being in school anymore is 24-hour access to a research library. Even though not everyone at Rice sang Fondren’s praises while we were there, we’re realizing that, in retrospect, it was pretty great. Not every university library is open 24 hours. A friend of mine recommended The Leviathan and the Air-Pump recently, and I set out to get a copy.

Fortunately for me, I discovered the MLK Jr. branch of the San Jose library system. (does anyone have more stuff named after him than that guy?) It’s a research library associated w/ San Jose State University, but it’s also open to the public. It had my book, and it also had the greatest math book ever. I don’t know how I’d feel about the public access if I were a SJSU student, but it’s perfect for me.

The library is brand-new and must have been designed by the same people that redid the first floor of Fondren, aka Spaceship Fondren. My favorite “feature” of the library: a giant ticker counting off the number of books that had been checked out from the library. It was up to about 46 million after three years of operation. I told the circulation people that they were ambitious: there was room for at least four more digits. At 15M books/year, it’ll take them 64 years to get to a billion, and just over ten times that to use all the digits. 660 years? I can think of some university libraries that have probably been around that long…


Code Reads and RSS

Posted in books, programming at 11:26 pm by danvk

I stubmled across “Code Reads”, an interesting new series on famous essays/books in programming. The first was on the most famous of all programming books, The Mythical Man-Month. I heard the book’s title many times before I understood it. The key was finding out that it was about software management. Then it clicked that “man-month” was a unit that implied a doubling of men meant a halving of development time. That the unit is “mythical” is an interesting statement about the dynamics of software development. So there you go.

I wanted to subscribe to the feed, but I couldn’t get the Code Reads without getting all of Scott Rosenyard’s ramblings about the Iraq War and Mark Foley. There was no clear way to subscribe to the just the “Code Reads” category. Google Reader had no options to filter out the articles I wanted. Neither did Feed Burner. I came up with two solutions:

  • Google Blog Search I searched for “Code Reads” on Scott’s site and subscribed to an RSS feed of the search results. This worked great, except that the feed only contained short snippets for each article, whereas the site’s RSS contained nearly-full reviews. Workable, but not ideal.
  • Ask dsandler, resident RSS guru. Through ways I don’t fully understand, he found http://www.wordyard.com/category/code-reads/feed/, which works perfectly.

I guess Scott disabled some category-specific feeds from his blog, but didn’t do a completely thorough job. Here’s hoping it stays that way!


The Panda’s Thumb

Posted in books, reviews, science at 12:12 am by danvk

pandasthumb.jpgI just finished Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb, so I figured I’d write a bit about it. I’ve been a fan of SJG since reading Wonderful Life, with its theory of punctuated equilibrium and Ever Since Darwin, which introduced me to the cool concept of Neoteny. But then again, Richard Dawkins once wrote in a review, “If only Stephen Gould could think as clearly as he writes! This is a beautifully written and deeply muddled book.”

The Panda’s Thumb is a collection of essays which generally follow the same format. SJG finds some interesting tidbit of history, like Mickey Mouse or the Piltdown Man. He tells a great story with heroes, usually Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, and villains. Then he wraps it up with an attempt to connect to the contemporary world. I think this last step is just silly.

Gould is in his best form when he talks about the History of Science, a subject that he clearly relishes. Rather than summarizing our common perceptions of the past, Gould delves into the primary documents In The Panda’s Thumb. The results are incredibly interesting. In “Flaws in a Victorian Veil,” Wew learn why a racial theorist hold’s the views he does, in his own words. (a visceral reaction to black people when he first encountered them as an adult) In “Crazy Old Randolph Kirkpatrick,” we hear the familiar story about a scientist with a bold idea who sticks to his guns… but who’s completely wrong.

Then there’s “Dr. Down’s Syndrome,” which I found far and away the most interesting. Everyone has heard of Down’s syndrome, and it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that it was named this because it was first described by a Dr. Down. But according to Gould, almost nobody has ever gone back to read Dr. Down’s original 1866 work, and there’s good reason for this. The work “embodies an interesting tale in the history of scientific racism.” Obviously, Dr. Down didn’t name the disorder after himself. He called it “Mongolian idiocy.” I had never heard it called this before, but apparently the term was still in use 25 years ago.

The idea was that there was a hierarchy to the human races. Whites were obviously on top, followed by the “great Mongolian family.” These were also the days of recapitulation, which held that each organism, while developing, would go through the forms of its evolutionary forebears. So it seemed completely reasonable that a white European might get stuck at the Mongolian stage of his or her development and never quite make it to the top of the ladder. From this perspective, the name makes perfect sense!

The primary insight I get out a story like this is what a strange an interesting thing it is to interact directly with history, to see the prejudices and beliefs of a bygone era unfiltered. More so than any of the science, that’s the message I take out of The Panda’s Thumb.

Next on the reading list: Alexandre Koyre’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. I’m going to try and get a review of the new Google Reader up as well.

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