Archive for June, 2011

ESRB for the mobile platform

June 30th, 2011

I just took a survey asking for my thoughts on the ESRB starting to rate mobile video games and it got me thinking about just how much I use the ESRB. The ESRB rates video games much like how the Rating Board rates movies. If you’re a parent, check out their site. They do a really good job of describing what’s in a video game. If you’re a gamer, check them out because they usually have the details for a game before even the news sites like IGN can get an update.

But with mobile video games, many apps are coded by small companies and not traditional publishers. That’s the beauty of the self-publishing online game marketplace. There’s a downside, though. The descriptions for the games in the marketplace don’t do the games justice and frequently leave me wondering what in the world the game is about.

Having the ESRB start to rate games would be helpful because that’s what they’re good at. I cringe at some of the summaries game developers put up. I would like a consistent style that gave me information about the game. Some of the proposed information will be whether the game takes your personal information and if the app transmits your location. That’s there in the marketplace, but depending on the store may only show up after you’ve already clicked on the app. A database with the ESRB’s established credibility will be nice.

I’m excited for the ESRB to start helping out. If anything, it shows that mobile gaming is becoming a legitimate platform.

Plague by Michael Grant

June 29th, 2011

Plague is book four in the Gone series. If I’m telling the full truth (which now there is a mutant kid who can tell if you’re lying), I was a little hesitant to read Plague because I thought that Michael Grant had finally sold out by telling a killer virus story. That story has been told before. The flu does go crazy in the FAYZ, but the bigger plague is like “swarm of locusts” plague.

The Darkness (still one of the cooler YA villains) has summoned bugs that breed like parasitic wasps (National Geographic should be labeled as a horror channel). The bugs, conveniently enough, cannot be damaged by Sam’s laser hands and the residents of Perdido Beach must find some way to survive.

What always impresses me is that Grant can keep the story going full-tilt until it explodes in the last 30 pages. I did know going into the book that this was not the end of the series, so I knew there would be huge gaps left, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment.

Amidst all of the superpowers lies a story of teens dealing with tough teen issues. This one is just as edgy as the previous three books. The ironic part is that Grant doesn’t use swearing in the narrative. You’ll see characters say a “rude word” but not read the actual word. I’m glad because the issues that the kids deal with are tough enough without language distracting for some readers. More than one teen battles depression, which is extremely realistic considering how chaotic their world is where life can end unexpectedly. Some have a crisis of faith. The girl running the makeshift hospital has to decide who to treat and who to let die. Tough stuff.

Romance shows up and is used to show the duality theme that runs throughout the course of the series. Sam and Astrid seem to be the perfect couple, but as life hits them hard, they are rocked badly. Caine and Diana are together, but Diana must come to grips with Caine’s true nature (FYI: HE’S CRAZY).

These two relationships are just one example of Michael Grant making comparisons between characters. Computer Jack struggles with his new muscle-bound identity and whether he’s defined by the people around him. Brianna floats between comic book fantasy and grim reality. Astrid has to deal with being the good girl even though she wishes she could ditch her autistic brother. Like I said – tough issues.

My only complaint is the inclusion of throw-away characters. The series has a ton of kids, but that allows Grant to focus on scenes across an entire town. This is more than just Sam and Astrid’s story. Yet the throw-away characters are the ones who Grant names and in the same sentence has a bug eat. “A boy, who people called Buster, oh no – bug eats him.” (My own version of the scene, not Grant’s own words.) Grant was not afraid to kill off characters in the first three books, so I wonder why this book mainly had Red Shirts dying. Not a big complaint, since most authors are afraid to kill off characters they love, but I did notice.

Plague is a very enjoyable read and it always surprises me how quickly the series reads, considering the length of the books. The fourth book sits at 490 pages.

This is a case where you definitely have to read the first three books in order to really get what is going on. Librarians, it is worth the purchase, especially since I know the series is super popular.

Netflix Recommendations: Why a librarian is still needed

June 27th, 2011

I love recommendation algorithms. Algorithms are what programming is all about. You take information and swirl it around and get something new.

I appreciate algorithms daily. Any time Pandora takes my thumbs up of Howard Shore and Danny Elfman and gives me Harry Gregson-Williams, I have a new composer that I wouldn’t normally have discovered.

I really like Netflix’s algorithm for recommending movies, but a pretty funny/bad recommendation happened on two separate occasions, so I thought that it was worth looking into. I have reviewed 1,302 titles in Netflix as of this writing. (I’m a fan of Netflix.) Netflix then gives me 4,342 recommendations (today) that I sift through to find something to watch.

This strikes me as an example of where a human librarian would be a great asset. It’s all about the algorithm.

Amazon makes recommendations based on what previous users bought mixed in with sponsored searches paid for by advertising firms. In one Amazon purchase, I bought a textbook during my Masters program, a Dragonball manga for my brother, and a travel guide of Nigeria for my sister-in-law. You should have seen Amazon strain its mechanical brain trying to figure out what in the world I was doing.

Pandora is called the music genome project because it breaks down each song into its most basic elements and recommends other songs based on similar characteristics. But just because one song has a good bass line doesn’t mean that I will like another, although it’s a good start.

Songs are much more than elements – there are nostalgic feelings that make me like a song even if it is some cheezy Boys II Men song I danced to at my own 8th grade promotion that Pandora has no clue about. I could do a search for more songs from that time period and hope to find more results, but it’s different describing that song to a person and connecting with them.

So how does Netflix’s algorithm work? Netflix had a contest in 2009 for programmers to write a better recommendation algorithm. If you read some of the papers found there, you’ll see that Netflix gave the teams 100 million ratings done by users. That’s a lot of data and my applause to the teams that tackled 4.2 million users’ worth of information. Netflix gave teams a probe set, a quiz set, and a test set. The probe set of information is a full list of a user’s ratings of shows. On this day, this user said this movie was this many stars. The quiz set was a list of movies that the programmers had to predict the user ratings for. They would post those predictions and Netflix would say how close they got. The test set was the final copy of the algorithm, where programmers didn’t know how well they did until the winner was announced.

BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos won the contest. Their program took into account ratings on specific days and chunks of weeks at a time. They looked at how a movie may share the same elements (like Pandora’s model) as another movie of the same genre, and matches the genre requirements perfectly, but is just a bad movie. That’s a tough thing to write into a program. The programs I write always use brute force through conditional statements. If I wrote the Netflix algorithm, it would be:

If movie == “Troll 2″ then RunAway();

I am in awe of BellKor’s team. (They are a part of AT&T’s research team, though, so they’re not just some random college kids who were bored one summer and decided to write ubercode.)

All that being said, how does this relate to librarians? Netflix has one of the most sophisticated algorithms for recommendations that I have ever seen. It’s a thing of coding beauty.

And yet…

  1. How come, when I rated a Brian Regan stand-up comedy routine highly, it instantly recommended a documentary about monks who live in isolation in the mountains?
  2. How come it said, “Based on your rating of Inception, we recommend Back at the Barnyard“? What about a Chris Nolan thought-crime movie makes you think that I want to see dancing cows?

Those recommendations were made months apart, so it’s not like Netflix just decided to be wacky this weekend.

Rating predictions are great, but there are still some flaws. Good librarians help you sift through that data, analyze what previous users have done, evaluate elements of genres, and make decisions filtering trends over time. That and most provide a listening ear when you ramble about Boyz II Men, even if they think you’re crazy.

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

June 24th, 2011

Waiting ’til 2012 is what I hates!

Check out the first image from The Hobbit movie, provided by Entertainment Weekly. It’s actually being made after long debate.

Rendering Spanish Versions of Animated Movies

June 22nd, 2011

I love DVDs.

When they first came out, the big push in my neighborhood came from Hollywood Video, a video store franchise that has long since gone out of business. Their main argument was that DVDs offered so much more content for movie fans. When I bought my first DVD, the only bonus feature it had was the original theatrical trailer. Big let-down. Now, they have tons. Most Disney animated features include some sort of game. I’m sure people play them, but that’s not how we spend our free time.

One thing that I noticed today, though, was an awesome feature for those who enjoy other languages. If you’re like me and have a preschooler at home, I’m willing to bet that Tangled is in your rotation of Movies the Kids Can Watch that Won’t Drive Me Bonkers but May Very Well If We Watch It One More Time.

Having watched it a bajillion times, I was looking for some variety. Before the main menu, the DVD gives you three options: English, Descriptive English, and Spanish. Descriptive English is like VoiceOver on the Mac. It narrates everything that’s going on, which is especially fun during Tinkerbell’s flyover of the Disney logo. “There’s a burst of light and then pixie dust.” I visited with my friend at Accessibility Insights one day and that’s his entire computer experience. Every little detail on the Internet is read off at super-human speed. “Page load at 40%. Page load at 45%”. Crazy-making.

It was one subtle feature of the Spanish version that made me pause today. A character is holding up a wanted poster and I realized that every piece of text in the Spanish version is in Spanish. I know that sounds obvious, but it wasn’t always the case.

This is huge for me, someone who bought Spanish VHS tapes all through college. VHS never gave me the option to watch it in English if I felt like it. I’d have to buy another copy, which I was too cheap to do.

Rendering text in another language means that Disney re-did a scene. That costs time and money, albeit not as much time since the words are just a texture map applied to a 3D model. But Disney could have gone the easy route and put the Spanish translation of the wanted poster in subtitles like many movie companies have done. I know that Disney hired big-time voices from Latin America for the Spanish audio track on the DVD. The soundtrack is great. They re-wrote all of the songs so that the lyrics rhymed/flowed well. I’m just impressed that, if I didn’t know the original movie was in English, I could watch the entire thing in Spanish seamlessly.

Me on the Web

June 16th, 2011

Admit it. You’ve Googled yourself.

If I were to say that to my grandparents when they were alive, they would have called me crazy. Google used to mean a ‘1’ followed by a hundred zeroes. (It also was a book in 1913 about crazy creatures.)

But now people Google themselves to see what others are saying about them on the Internet. When I search ‘brian griggs’, this site is the first result, which is cool. The first YouTube video, though, is about a double homicide. Yeah, that’s not me. Hopefully people don’t assume it’s connected to me.

And that’s what Me on the Web, released today by Google, is all about. It’s a new feature for your Google dashboard that tracks all of your different online presences (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and whatever other social networks you belong to (a cupcake ning, perhaps?)) You can now see when people are looking at your online posts and even get notified when people mention you. Check out more here.

Now, Google doesn’t run the Internet, contrary to some students’ beliefs. When I ask them to cite their sources, they put down “Google”. Google is the search engine. It points you towards information. (Complicating this is all the stuff that Google does own, like Google Pages and YouTube.) If you find bad stuff about you online, Google can’t just go into someone’s site and remove the content. There is a URL removal request form that you can use to have Google take results out of a Google search, but if other sites have grabbed the unwanted stuff, it’s already too late.

At the start of the year, Google was ordered by the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) to take down outdated information from search results. The AEPD is calling it the Right to Forget. A man had been charged with a crime and was then acquitted, yet only the articles about him being accused of the crime came up in results. Google argued that their product only points to stuff and that it’s the responsibility of the content publishers to take down the unwanted data.

I write book reviews. Usually I stay pretty polite, since I understand that book enjoyment has a subjective element to it (and the whole “if you don’t have something nice to say” thing my mom always lectured me on). Also, books that I pick up to read will generally be worth a review. I’ve been in the business long enough to spot a completely blah book before I get too far in the book.

Let’s say that I have a huge criticism of a book in a review.

J. K. Rowling is going to make a huge announcement here. Let’s say it’s a book I don’t like and I wrote a review about how there are too many owls in the story and the whole thing is old hat. Rowling gets mad and asks Google to take away my search results. No matter what, I’m the one that put the information on the Internet and since I didn’t break any laws, it stays online. It just gets a little tougher to find if someone Googles it.

Me on the Web is a good tool to keep yourself informed about what other people are saying about you, if only to automate Googling yourself, but, like always, the key concept is to be careful because whatever goes online usually stays online in one form or another.

Veezzle for Free Stock Photos

June 14th, 2011

I know that every time we make a flyer at school, we don’t use student photos and we don’t use copyrighted images. (The stock photo watermark does not add to professionalism. Trust me.)

So what if you’re tired of the Microsoft fist pump guy?

Try searching Veezzle.

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

June 10th, 2011

I received a package in the mail that contained Uncommon Criminals on Wednesday. Since the book doesn’t come out until June 21, I can only assume that this package was connected to a certain con involving a mouse, my library, and large amounts of Italian food.

On Wednesday, I had to put aside reading The Help to read Uncommon Criminals. I had to set down the recently-received book in order to go watch Les Mis performed live at Gammage.

I know. Tough life.

So now I have just completed Uncommon Criminals two days later and can assure you that it’s a great book. That should go without saying, much like any review I could try and give for Les Mis, but it’s nice to know.

This is book two in Heist Society, although I do believe that students could check out this one having not read the first one. (What happens many times with popular novels is that book one always has a huge wait list in my library. Book one definitely is needed for greater depth, but book two can stand on its own unlike some YA series.) Kat is not a thief, despite what her criminal family and resume of heists say. She is approached by an elderly woman who claims to be the rightful heir of the Cleopatra Emerald who wants it brought back to her. Not only is it supposed to be a rare gem, but it also carries with it an ancient curse.

I was glad to see that Carter stayed away from the temptation to make this a paranormal story and instead kept true to her characters. The curse, though, provides a cool backdrop for the developing love between Kat and Hale. Another great overarching idea is Kat’s conflict with herself. No matter who she has to go against or what system she has to trick, Kat’s biggest enemy is her destiny. She does run into a rival thief who represents one possible future for Kat and it’s great to see her face that head-on at different parts of the book.

There’s an exceptional quote towards the middle of the book in a conversation between Hale and Kat:

“Someone did them first, Kat. Don’t forget that. Someone, somewhere did them first.” He shrugged. “So we’ll do something first. Who knows? Maybe a hundred years from now, two crazy kids will be debating the merits of the Kat in the Hat.”

And this, my friends, is what Young Adult fiction is all about. Faced with a task larger than themselves and adults that are all too fallible, the teens must forge their own path and give the readers hope that they, too, count for something in the world. A Wall Street Journal article recently stereotyped YA fiction by one tiny slice of the genre and this hope is the perfect response to that article. Another memorable line from Kat is when she wonders if it’s true that love is the greatest con. For many YA readers, both teen and otherwise, this is a fear that has creeped in at least once and we cheer her on hoping that it’s not just one big lie.

Granted, the book isn’t all just internal *cough* Matched *cough* conflict. There are enough helicopters, rappel lines, and even a yacht to keep me interested. This series more than Gallagher Girls is great for the Long Con developing well over time in the course of one book.

Do your best to purchase multiple copies of Uncommon Criminals from legitimate booksellers on June 21. And librarians, if you no longer have a budget for books, let’s have a little chat about the benefits of the Paul Bunyan versus the Jack and the Beanstalk. You know what I’m talking about.

The USA! USA! History of the Bell

June 10th, 2011

This is a couple of days old, so by Internet standards, that truly is the equivalent to Paul Revere’s period of history. Stephen Colbert had his viewers edit the Wikipedia page for ‘bell’ as a parody of a statement by Sarah Palin. Much like when he asked them to edit the entry for ‘elephant’, the page went through many revisions.
Here’s one of the results:

This isn’t to prove that Wikipedia is as evil as some people claim, but a reminder to students (and educators) that Wikipedia should not be your only source for information. Some pages get constantly edited and fiction may slide in as fact before someone corrects the page.

Really, you should always get multiple sources, especially ones who were actually there (primary) and not just passing on a story that they heard (secondary). It’s just good research.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

June 8th, 2011

I had not read The Wednesday Wars yet, but after finishing Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt at the end of the school year, I brought the book home in my summer hoard.

Okay for Now does not deal with race issues, but it reminds me of the same style as To Kill a Mockingbird in that the second half of the book tackles some pretty difficult issues.

Okay for Now is set in the late 1960’s like Wednesday Wars. We see the town through Doug Swieteck’s eyes as his family moves because his dad switches jobs. Doug runs into trouble at school and the first part of the book is him dealing with bullying, both by students and staff. In real life, Schmidt tested poorly and was tracked into a lower group at school. He could have stayed in that lower group, but a teacher mentored him and helped him with his academics, especially reading. It makes sense, then, that he draws on this experience when Doug is taken in by a teacher who coaches him in reading.

The second half of the book, though, involves Doug’s older brother coming back from Vietnam. There are some huge surprises there, though, so I don’t to give away too many spoilers. The book has a plot, yet most of the fun is hanging out with the characters. They are very believable and I feel like I know them. It may be obvious for those that know me, but I attached to the awesome librarian who is the first friendly interaction Doug has in town. The guy teaches Doug how to draw from Audobon’s Birds of America. The town is tearing out pages from this rare book and selling them to keep the town running. Doug is on a mission to regain the pages in a great metaphor of his own journey to completeness.

I do have have one complaint about the book, but it is a semi-spoiler, so I will put this picture of a paper bag face here so those that don’t want to continue on won’t accidentally read my complaint.

*SPOILER*
My complaint? The ending. For being a book that delves into spousal abuse, child abuse, veteran trauma, and school corruption, the book resolved way too quickly. Doug’s dad says he’s sorry and then everything’s cool. We just move on, which is really the only option we have, but it seems like a switch was flipped and then everyone decided to get along with each other.

Yes, Schmidt set up some of the changes, but I expected some things to be left unresolved. To my recollection, everything is wrapped up with a nice bow on top. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book; it’s just an observation about style. It’s like how I complain when not enough characters die in a story. The English teacher part of my brain has something wrong with it. Hamlet much?