Ten Years of the OpenBook plugin for WordPress

Ten years ago I was writing book reviews online and liked to insert a book cover image in the webpage. I would download a cover image from Amazon and link back to the Amazon page. This practice was encouraged by Amazon; it was good for sales. Amazon was quickly becoming the central repository of book data. One could see a time when all online book catalogs became advertising for Amazon.

I decided to create an easy way for people to link to an alternate source of book cover images and data. I built the OpenBook plugin. The Open Library repository of the Internet Archive was selected as a data source because it was a non-profit that used open source practices including open data. WordPress was the content management platform. I published a technical article in the Code4Lib journal. The article generated a lot of interest in the library community. At the time, libraries were paying to insert book data into their online catalogs, even though it promoted the sales of books.

Three major version upgrades were performed, adding features such as automatic links to related book websites, HTML templates and a stylesheet to standardize the appearance, a WordPress ‘wizard’ to preview the display, and COinS to integrate with external book services like Zotero and OpenURL resolver. I published a second article (pdf) in NISO.

As an open source product, OpenBook enjoyed lively growth in new directions. A Drupal version was created. I was contracted by BookNet Canada to develop a similar plugin for their book repository; BNC BookShare continues to be maintained today. The OpenBook code was posted to GitHub and has been branched for enhancement.

OpenBook has had influence outside the technical sphere. In my initial design I considered using OCLC’s WorldCat as a data source. OCLC is a non-profit serving the library community, so it seemed a good fit. I hesitated because only librarians could add or edit records. As I dug further, I found the OCLC business model appeared to own the data, i.e., not an open data source like Open Library. My assessment was correct. In 2009 OCLC updated its data license to tighten its ownership. The library community exploded. An article in the Guardian asked why you cannot find a library book in your search engine, and explained that it had much to do with OCLC’s closed approach with library records. The article contrasted the closed approach of OCLC with the open approach of Open Library, and mentioned “a plug-in for WordPress that lets bloggers automatically integrate a link to the Open Library page of any book.” <blush>

An online search shows that OpenBook has been cited in three books for librarians:

  • Jones and Farrington (2013). Learning from Libraries that Use WordPress: Content-Management System Best Practices and Case Studies.
  • Jones and Farrington (2011). Using WordPress as a Library Content Management System.
  • Stuart (2011). Facilitating Access to the Web of Data: A Guide for Librarians.

In a moment of inspiration a few years ago I envisioned a cloud service evolution of OpenBook, with adapters to multiple content management platforms and data sources. This new OpenBook cloud service would remove the tight coupling with WordPress and Open Library, truly liberating book data. There was an immediate positive response when I blogged about the idea. Alas, time.

I decided to sunset OpenBook. After two years of inactivity, the plugin was automatically dropped from the WordPress search index. Recently I have been writing on the subject of book covers and peeked at OpenBook’s status. WordPress reports 600+ active installs. Nice. I took a few minutes to test the plugin’s compatibility with the current version of WordPress. Everything tested positive. I updated the plugin’s version numbers and republished the code. OpenBook is again available in the WordPress plugin search index.

 

What would your book’s cover look like?

What would your book’s cover look like? Set aside that you have not written a book, there is a book in everyone. You must choose a cover. What does it look like? I suppose this question is like asking what your face would look like if you could pick it.

The book cover, like the face, serves so many purposes: recognition, attraction, communication, all in an instant. A cover is also part of the binding that holds a book together, to give it form, just like a face. A book’s cover is its identity or soul. We see it at a glance.

Cover images took off in the twentieth century with mass publication. The primary purpose of cover images is to sell books, though readers continue to linger on the cover long after a purchase. To publish again with a different cover is a face-lift at best, but more often feels like a betrayal, a weird clone. Dust jackets are worse, a lesser sibling, serving similar purposes but eerily removable. To remove a cover is to remove a book’s face, to leave it vulnerable to some other title’s face. If you buy a book without a cover it was stolen, stripped for destruction but trafficked back into sale, book slavery.

Then came digital books. At first digital cover images served to sell print books at online bookstores. The cover blurred into images of content in lieu of physical browsing. With e-books the physicality disappeared altogether. Slap on a template cover from an online artist. If sales are bad this month replace it with another cover. A book can have a dozen covers, distributed to differences market niches. As many covers as we have profile pics on Facebook and online I suppose.

Reading Belongs to the Eyes

Reading is a lamp of knowledge, illuminating the darkness of ignorance. Reading belongs to the eyes. Visual processing takes up about a third of our cortex. Reading braille also requires activating the visual area.

It begins with the book cover in the bookshop or online. I browse the table of contents and the illustrations. Is this book worth my purchase or time?

I read the black and white text, the ink on a page, or the pixels on a screen. I imagine pictures, sounds and feels too. I think I read left to right, but my eyes bounce all over the text. Eye movement is the true factor in reading speed. I read about 400 words per minute, but flash me text a word at a time and my speed is tripled. Speed reading and skimming use visual cues to accelerate reading, but as long as we use sentences and pages we can only read so fast. Not to worry, thinking needs time.

The codex was built for human reflection. I hold my book at a distance. I judge the thickness of the remaining content. I scan what comes next. Is it making sense? Shall I continue? I cross-reference by peering into the index. I build my own table of contents in my mind’s eye. I remember a passage by its place halfway down a page on the left, midway through the book. Reading belongs to the eyes.

Face to face, that’s knowledge.

Sit around a dinner table and share a meal. Draw chairs near the fire to speak slow and long into the night. Gaze into each other’s eyes cuddled under blankets. Face to face, that’s knowledge.

◊◊◊

Prima facie is Latin for at first face or at first appearance. In law and philosophy, prima facie means that a statement or position has merit at first examination, and deserves deeper investigation.

Face validity is the extent to which a test appears to measure a concept. A personality test should ask questions about our personality traits, though a psychologist knows to look beyond a Facebook quiz.

Face to face is the foundation of ethics. In the face of another we see our self. Please, it’s me, it’s you, do not hurt me.

◊◊◊

What is the face of knowledge? Is it shaped like a book? What can you tell about a book from its cover? A picture says a thousand words. A picture also denies answers to a thousand questions.

What can you tell about an e-book from its jpeg? You cannot feel the weight or tell the thickness of its body. Break the back of a book, break its binding, and splay it across the earth. The sixteen page book is networked to a million more.

What can you tell about a cover from its book? Your book is reading you: your title, your name, your place. Where do you skip? Where do you linger? Will it sell? Eyes watching yours, face to face.

Lila 0.2 – Compute word counts for WordPress posts and corpus

I promised code. After Reading is an assembly of many content types, including essays, memoir, book reviews, images, and … code. Lila is the concept that I am coding in steps. Lila will take on an increasing role as this series progresses. I have just coded Lila 0.2, as shown in the figure. The code is PHP and Javascript and uses the lovely Google Charts library. The code is available at my Github Gist site.

In the chart,

  • The blue line shows the count of words in each After Reading post, ordered in sequence. For example, post 21 has 1370 words.
  • The grey line shows a linear trend — the word count per post is increasing as the series progresses.
  • The red is a constant, the average words per post. The word count for post 21 is larger than both the trend and the average.

The code is just a beginning. Many more metrics will be added to analyze the text of After Reading. I want to be analyze the style of the posts, and several word measures can be calculated: frequency, feeling, concreteness, complexity, etc. Together they profile the style of posts and can be used to compare to the corpus. Even more interesting, it builds a platform for computational understanding of a text. More to come.

“NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman (2015)

Neurotribes : The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of Neurodiversity Neurotribes : The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of NeurodiversitySilberman, Steve; Avery 2015WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I had just became comfortable with calling myself an introvert when I discovered Steve Silberman’s book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. What started as an article on the increasing frequency of autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley evolved into a comprehensive investigation that became his book. I wonder if I might have been identified as autistic as a child. I shared the traits: literal thinking, shortness of expression, dysfunction in processing social information, problems with affection, anti-authoritarianism, bookishness, self-soothing behaviors, unusual sensory interests. The label might have fit, at times. Many of us have these traits to some degree — that is why autism is understood as a spectrum, fitting more or less. It is often said, if you meet once person with autism then you have met once person with autism. Still, labels are sometimes useful, e.g., getting special provisions for a child’s education. If I were to pick a label, I would choose “neurodiverse” over “autistic.” I prefer the positive connotation.

Autism is misunderstood, says Silberman. Leo Kanner is the scientist who coined the term, autism, from the Greek word for self, autos, “because they seemed happiest in isolation.” Kanner is a villain in NeuroTribes for blaming parents about their children’s condition, and for failing to acknowledge Hans Asperger’s original and more positive research. Asperger believed that success in science and art required a “dash of autism.” Silberman tells the story of Temple Grandin, an accomplished scientist and one of the first adults to publicly identify as autistic. She might have been institutionalized as a young person. She credits mentors who believed in her and helped liberate her creative gifts. Silberman tells more stories of other brilliant scientists with autism, Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac. Not everyone with autism is a genius, but many are high functioning, endowed with unique insight and cognitive abilities.

Casting autism as one type of neurodiversity puts the subject in a new light. I share Silberman’s positive view that autism and other disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD may represent natural variations in the human genome, often useful for adapting to the complexity of life.

“The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney (2002)

The Introvert Advantage The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert WorldMarti Olsen Laney; Workman Publishing Company 2002WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

”I’m not an introvert. I like people.” It is a common misconception. We are all social beings, but introverts process information differently. It can be a challenge. Introverts are typically outnumbered by three times as many extroverts. It is no wonder if introverts feel out of place. It can also be an advantage, as shown by Marti Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage.

Introverts have increased blood flow in the brain and it follows a different pathway, engaging memory, problem solving, and planning. The pathway is long and complex, activated by the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which stimulates a good feeling when thinking or feeling. The extrovert path is activated by dopamine, fired by adrenaline – they need external stimulation to feel good. Extroverts like to experience a lot, and introverts like to know a lot about what they experience. Introverts find that outside activity raises their intensity quickly. It is like being tickled – the sensation goes from feeling good and fun to ’too much’ and uncomfortable in a split second. Their brain may shut down – brain freeze, ’vapour lock’. Social encounters are rich in stimulation and introverts process them deeply, sometimes needing to limit the encounter, ”It’s time to go now.”

The introvert and the extrovert are the tortoise and the hare. Introverts tend to be slower and stead-ier, while extroverts are faster and take bigger risks. The tortoise strategy tends to work better in the long run. Introverts have the ability to focus deeply, and to understand how a change will affect everyone. They have a propensity for thinking outside the box, and the strength to make unpopular decisions. They help slow down the world a notch.

A hundred light bulbs went on when I read Laney’s book. At the time of the reading, I identified my-self as an introvert off the scale, but I have since met people who are much more introverted. Laney’s book recommends several excellent coping strategies. Wake early and gently to let the brain engage. The introvert’s nervous system causes food to metabolize quickly, so graze through the day. Avoid rewinding and replaying words after social encounters (I do this). Speak to extroverts in short, clear sentences (hilarious but true). Introverts tend to have fewer, deeper relationships, which is great, but the best of advice I received from this book was to accept that relationships can be light as well as deep. It makes the world a friendlier place.

 [originally published at this site on 2011-02-03]

“Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents” by Ellen Ullman (1997)

Close to the machine Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its DiscontentsEllen Ullman; City Lights Books 1997WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

Ten years ago I took my first real job as a computer programmer. Perhaps three weeks later I picked up a book, The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski. Title notwithstanding, it is not a very philosophical book. Today I work as an IT Architect for a multinational corporation. There is still something that draws me toward technology, just as there is still discontent which I seek to understand. In 2002, I read a better book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Written in 1997, it is a better book because Ullman tells a personal story of her seduction to technology, the swoon of power, the impact on her relationships, and her eventual disillusionment.

Computers offer a cool alternate reality. Programming takes one into a transcendental zone like mathematics, where reality is symbolic and gritty human particulars don’t matter. Programmers are seduced by complete creative control of their little worlds. Others admire and reward their activity. Occupying this virtual reality is not just tempting but probable since software systems require constant attention. A system is never finished.

When I first started programming, I worried that it was putting people out of jobs. I was wrong. It changes their jobs. It is equally worrisome. Everyone winds up making concessions to the bugs and the system. Soon it becomes tautological — a new bigger system is required. The logic of the system is self-sustaining, sucking everyone in, changing them to suit its needs. “Our accommodations begin simply with small workarounds, just to avoid the bugs: ‘We just don’t put in those dates!’ … We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.”

It is in Ullman’s account of users that I know she gets my angst. “The world as humans understand it and the world as it must be explained to computers come together in the programmer in a strange state of disjunction.” Every twist a user’s mind might invent must be anticipated. Other kinds of design, e.g., elevator design, must also anticipate user actions, but not for the purpose of replacing human thought. People want software so they don’t have to think through data processing tasks. The coder is building technology to replace human thought, and with little to no room for uncertainty. Where a user might generalize a concept or fudge the numbers, the code is exacting and demands precise resolution. Design analysis forces users to understand their thinking, perhaps for the first time. It is a painstaking process. Most often, the design documents blur over the difficult ideas, and it is finally up to the programmer to resolve human thought.

Computer programming in a standard business application context has about five years of juice in it. There are many interesting nuances, but in the end it just comes down to data and rules for processing it. The technology keeps getting repackaged in new forms, and it is not a trivial matter to keep up with it. “It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears — the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism — there was no reason to think I could escape it forever.” The fact that I cannot write code forever brings a smile to my face. To stay in the business one has to find new juice: the intellectual challenge of the problems, the intimacy of analyzing thought, the desire to make life genuinely better for others. As always, human relations trump the thrills of technology.

[Originally posted on this site on 2011-01-15]