Review: Plex Media Server


I’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

Using Plex Media Server to manage my movies makes me very happy.  It capably serves up video files to every TV in my house, and is a rare product that just works.  I recently took every DVD I own and copied them to a hard drive.  Plex sits on that computer and automatically organizes those files with correct metadata and thumbnail images (be still my librarian heart).

So that’s great, but how do they get to the TV?  Plex has straightforward apps for just about any platform you can think of.  Every TV in my house has either a Roku or an Android device (see previous review of the iMito MX1) attached, so those devices function as a front end to the server.

As an added bonus I boxed up the DVDs, put them in the closet, and reclaimed a ton of living room space.

Plex is completely free, though I gladly paid for a lifetime plexpass membership (which includes early access to new features) to support future development.

Review: iMito MX1

imitoI’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

The iMito MX1 is one of those pieces of technology that feels like it shouldn’t exist.  This is a full computer packed into a super tiny case.  If it helps with scale in that picture, the thing sticking out the top is an HDMI plug.  Connect it to a TV and you’ve got Android running on the screen.

It sounds a little odd to want to run a phone and tablet operating system on your TV, and admittedly the interface is a little wonky at times when using a keyboard an mouse.  Still, having access to the Android app store means a dead simple way to get Hulu, Netflix, my podcasts, Google Music, Youtube, and Plex (more on this in another post) onto the big screen.  All for less than $60!

Review: 1Password

1password_logo[1]I’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

1Password has changed my digital workflows more than any other product or service since Dropbox.  As a password manager, 1password encrypts all of your passwords behind one master password.  That seems a bit counter-intuitive, but the end result is that I only have to remember that one master password.  It alone gets me access to all my passwords for various sites & programs.  Built-in browser extensions make the process pretty seamless.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that in a previous job I maintained a spreadsheet full of passwords.  But no more!  1password also lets me use stronger and unique passwords for each service, since I don’t need to commit them all to memory.  It feels odd to say that I honestly don’t know what my facebook or gmail passwords are (not to mention my bank), but that’s where I stand today.

With versions for PC, mac, android, and ios I have pretty reliable access to my password list wherever I am.  It’s not free, but it is on sale!  The 5-pack of licenses for $50 is a steal.  (There’s also educational pricing!)


Webinar: Learn how to learn to program

I’m doing a webinar next Wednesday for NCLA all about how you can learn to do a bit of programming.  Here’s the official info – note that it’s free and you don’t have to be an NCLA member to drop in:


Please join the NCLA Technology and Trends Round Table for the next webinar in our series, coming up soon!

Wednesday, March 20, 3-4pm
Teach Yourself How to Program
Leader: Chad Haefele, UNC-Chapel Hill

Programming skills are in demand, but it often seems like an intimidating topic to learn. When we surveyed roundtable members, the number one thing we heard was that you wanted to learn to program. While we can’t quite do that in one short session, we can do the next best thing: teach you how to teach yourself. Many programmers have little or no formal training, and picked it up as they went along instead. You can do that too! We’ll talk about what it’s like to learn to program, provide some guidance on what language to learn, and look at a number of free web-based teaching tools and resources. No prior experience is necessary.

Please RSVP by Wednesday, March 20 at 8am using this link:

All webinars will be conducted using Blackboard Collaborate. A link will be sent out to all participants on the morning of March 20.

If you have any questions, email Kathy Shields at kshields[at] or Jenny Dale at jedale2[at]

Three line menu

I try to keep an eye out for standards in mobile UI. With limited screen space available for the interface, I spend a ton of time thinking about how best to represent actions to our users. Are there standards of how users have come to expect mobile interfaces to behave? Lately I’ve seen this one popping up in a number of places:


The box of three horizontal lines is everywhere. Not too long ago Chrome ditched their wrench icon in favor of the lines:


It’s also in the Facebook app (twice):


And Feedly:


And on Youtube’s desktop site:


and even on my Kindle:


The standard for this icon seems to be that it opens a menu or navigation of some kind. Google Music’s Android app is a notable exception, where the icon opens the current playlist instead. But in the majority of cases, when users see three horizontal lines it leads to a menu.

Smashing Magazine spotted it before I did, and has a great analysis of how this icon can be used.   Personally I think using it is a win/win.  It makes it easier for me to design a page, and as an emerging standard helps users know what behavior to expect.

Web services I use, 2012 edition

Since I last posted this list, a few things have changed. First, here’s the things I used last year but don’t anymore:

For two weeks in October, Simplenote’s syncing service stopped working entirely. None of my notes propogated across devices, making it entirely useless to me. Even worse, their support was entirely silent on the issue. Syncing eventually returned, but I’m sufficiently spooked and don’t trust the service anymore. I spent some time exporting my notes, and moved on to greener pastures.

Spool’s killer feature was the ability to cache youtube videos for offline viewing. That put it above all other text-saving services for me. But in February, Youtube asked Spool to disable that feature. Then Spool shut down entirely in July. But by that time I’d already moved to another service.

Last year I questioned Flickr’s future usefulness for me. And when it came time for me to renew my Pro account in March, I let it lapse for the first time since 2005. It hurt my soul a little bit to do that, but the community I once valued so much on Flickr is dead silent now.

Other things have stayed the same. I still use Pinboard, Tripit, Dropbox, ifttt and Google Reader extensively. I still don’t really like Google Reader now that the social features are gone, but I haven’t found a better replacement yet either. Dropbox added an automatic photo upload feature in their mobile app that makes me feel much more secure about my phone’s photos. Ifttt was forced to remove some of their twitter-related features, but it’s still a ton of fun to play with.

Lastly, there’s a few new tools I’ve picked up:

This has entirely replaced Simplenote for me. While I sometimes still miss Simplenote’s, well, simplicity, Evernote is undeniably powerful. I splurged on a one year pro subscription and haven’t looked back. It’s become a crucial part of my day to day workflow, keeping all my project notes and brainstorming in one place.

Formerly known as ReadItLater, the now better-named Pocket is my text time-shifter of choice. Whenever I find an interesting article during the day I add it to my Pocket queue for later reading. I load up the Android app when I’ve got time and catch up. My queue is never-ending, but I get to a bunch more articles this way than I would have otherwise.

I’m of two minds here. Picasa’s desktop version is an amazing photo manager & organizer, but I just can’t make their online photo sharing component work for me. It’s confusing, buggy, and has even less of a community than Flickr. With a baby on the way, I need to find a good way to share photos with distant family. Picasa isn’t it, and I still don’t know what service I’ll end up using for it. But back to the positive: Thanks to the desktop version of Picasa my photos are better organized than ever before.

While I don’t technically use Feedly as a service of it’s own, the Feedly Android app has become the way I most frequently access Google Reader. It has a wonderful gesture-based interface that makes it easy to quickly flip through articles and mark them as read.

Defining what I do: What makes a technology emerging or disruptive?

Up the Hatch!

“I’m the Emerging Technologies Librarian at UNC.”

“So what does that mean?”

Every time I meet someone new at work, that’s how the conversation goes.

My response usually consists of arm flailing and a disjointed summary of my duties. I’m working on that. But I think people mostly don’t know what my job defines as an “emerging technology”.

To be honest, as the years go by I’m less a fan of that term. “Emerging” is too broad. Any new technology emerges, just by virtue of being new. Solar power is an emerging technology, and even something as simple as seatbelts once was too. I can’t keep an eye on everything. Instead, I find myself looking at a new technology and asking: Is it disruptive to libraries? “Disruptive” does a better job of defining what I deal with on a day to day basis. The technologies I look at tend to be new and emerging, but as they emerge they also disrupt that context and the way we do things.

I tend to define things by removing what they’re aren’t, plus there’s a lot more tech that doesn’t disrupt libraries than that which does. Xbox Kinect is interesting and definitely emerging, but I don’t see a lot of immediate disruption coming from it in my academic library corner of the world. I also don’t see a lot of relevance for 3D printers in the core parts of my particular work environment, but they’re definitely emerging as technology. As sci-fi author Neal Stephenson recently noted in Arc 1.3, “…[3D printing] isn’t a disruptive idea on its own. It becomes disruptive when people find their own uses for it.”  It’s when an actual or likely use impacts libraries that I pay more attention.

So now I have to define what makes a technology disruptive for my purposes. My definition is a bit hard to nail down, but I think I’ve settled on something close to “a technology that could change the way academic libraries deliver services and information.”

Based on that, eBooks are an obvious disruptive technology in libraries. And in a general sense the web continues to disrupt everything in our core mission.

Now I’ve established criteria for which disruptive technologies I deal with in my job. But how do I spot disruptive technologies for evaluation in the first place? Disruptive technology arrives in two different flavors. The first kind does something new and interesting well, but misses a basic feature of an existing technology. The second kind creates an entirely new niche for itself, carving out existence without an obvious analogue anywhere else.


Google Voice is a prime example of the first kind of disruptive tech. It adds a number of very useful features to our venerable old phone numbers, but also doesn’t support MMS messaging or certain types of SMS shortcodes at all. I don’t use either of those features on my phone often, but it’s enough that I’d miss them if I moved over to Google Voice.

Later, the disruptive tech might fill in those gaps and be more fully emerged as a replacement. But I have real trouble coming up with examples of tech that successfully made this transition. Google Voice is still plugging right along, but shows no signs of fixing my dealbreakers. Other examples have been less fortunate; their feature gaps were important enough that they eventually faded away. Netbooks took off on their amazing portability and battery life, but their tiny keyboards and often limited processing power meant they peaked early and are now fading. Google Wave tried to reinvent email with a treasure trove of added features, but had an impenetrable UI and lacked a clear use case. It lasted 15 months. Uber’s car service is heavily disrupting the taxi industry, but is so far outside the box that it’s meeting significant legal pushback and sabotage there. Look at 3D printers again: they provide all kinds of disruptive challenges to traditional manufacturing. But the technology is also extremely fiddly and requires a lot of customization, expertise and constant adjustment to use. It’s future will depend on whether the printers can overcome those gaps and more fully emerge into everyday use.

In the academic library world, this first type of disruptive technology describes ebooks perfectly. They add new functionality to the traditional task of consuming text, but thanks to DRM and licensing we can’t share them as easily and have questions about long-term viability of the titles in our collection. Ebook readers fit too, for similar reasons. I’m obviously keeping a close eye on them and am involved with a number of ebook-related projects and programs on campus. The recent trend of massively online courses like Udacity and Coursera qualifies as this type of disruption as well, though for higher ed in general. Instant messaging continues to disrupt the way we provide service at the reference desk.  So those are three areas I’m focusing on lately.


Not all emerging technologies fit that first model. Instead of changing something we already have, the disruption a technology creates may carve out a whole new space for itself. The iPad is the obvious example here; Apple pretty much created the modern tablet market. But despite being a new market, tablets still disrupt laptops, ebook readers and smartphones. Cell phones in a general sense fit this second model of disruption too, incidentally. I have a harder time coming up with more examples here, especially ones relevant to academic libraries. Most of our disruptions come from modifications to existing technologies or systems, and very few spring forth into an entirely new niche. Still, iPads and other tablets have huge implications for desktop computing facilities in my library and on my campus. Even if the disruption isn’t obvious, it’s still important to recognize the difference in how it comes about. Libraries need to keep an eye on changes to both current niches and the emergence of entirely new ones.


No matter which type of disruption a technology fits, all of them go through early, middle and late phases of disruption. Early on, they’re pretty experimental with notable feature gaps. Google Wallet and their system of NFC payments fits the early bill right now. I think Google Voice seems to be stuck in this early phase too, and shows no indication of advancing beyond it. Before the release of the Kindle I’d also have put ebooks at this point. They were a niche interest at best.

By the middle phase, a technology has a foothold in the general public – not just among early adopters. In April we learned that 21% of American adults read an ebook last year, and 45% now own a smartphone. They’re not anywhere near universal adoption yet, but it’s significant and trending upward.

Eventually some of these technologies close in on finishing their disruption. By that point they’re into the late phase. I classify MP3s as a late phase disruption, for example. In many demographics they’ve completely replaced CDs, the technology they disrupted. Of course CDs, vinyl, and other music distribution methods do still exist. Not everyone has the technical literacy to make the change in their personal music collection, though an increasing majority do.

After the final stage of disruption, that ’emerged’ term pops up again. Emerging technologies go through phases of disruption, but ultimately must become fully emerged or at some point fade away. Blogs disrupted traditional web publishing (if there can be said to be such a thing), but are now a fact of online life. They’re emerged. Digital cameras and (non-smartphone) cell phones are emerged too.


We’ve come back around to dealing with emerging technologies. But on a day to day basis, I’m more concerned with following their progress through phases of disruption. If we can figure out which technologies with potential implications for libraries will make it through the phases, we can get ahead of the game. Or at least keep pace and stop anything from blowing up in our faces.

And that’s why I flail my arms when someone asks me what my job title means: I haven’t found a way to distill all this into a soundbyte yet. But as a collective institution, libraries are ripe for disruption. In my job I try to keep a practical focus on the horizon and do my part to keep us a bit ahead of the curve.

R.I.P Fictionwise

On Friday morning I received a sad email: Fictionwise is shutting down.

Back in the early 2000s (does that decade have a pronounceable name yet?) I took my trusty Rocket eBook Reader everywhere. There weren’t a lot of options to legitimately buy ebooks back then, but Fictionwise was among the first. They specialized in sci-fi, and I bought tons of short stories from them by moderately well known authors. Usually they cost less than $1, and were often DRM-free. Yes, Fictionwise was ahead of it’s time in some interesting ways. I looked forward to buying a digital version of the sci-fi magazine Analog every month, and grabbed an occasional novel too.

As I shifted more of my reading to ebooks, Fictionwise didn’t really meet my needs anymore. Their selection was never the greatest, though I knew that if they had what I wanted it was almost always at the cheapest price around. And in a move unheard of at other ebook retailers, they offered regular coupons. I bought something there as recently as October 2011, by which point the site was a shell of it’s former self.

Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise in early 2009, and left the site largely untouched ever since. I’m not sure what they did with the store, but I’d guess it was a staff acquisition. Whatever happened, Fictionwise’s customer support dropped off a cliff. They took more than two weeks to get back to me when that 2011 ebook purchase had major issues in the text. Time pretty much stopped for their site – it still has the exact same design I remember from 2003.

While my good memories outweigh the bad, it’s time for Fictionwise to go. B&N is shutting them down, and allowing users to transfer most of their Fictionwise purchases to a Nook library. Only one of my dozens of titles have made the transition so far, but I’m assured more will follow. And I’ve got backups of them all, so I’m not worried. Still, there’s a lengthy list of Fictionwise titles which won’t be transferred to a Nook library. If you owned one of those, they’ll just be gone.

This is the first semi-major ebook store shutdown that I’ve personally experienced as a customer. Despite the backup and transfer options available, I still find it disturbing that my library can up and disappear.

I do salute B&N for handling the shutdown relatively well, and wish them the best.

Format rot in ebook preservation

Electronic text is hard to preserve. This might seem counter-intuitive – isn’t it trivially easy to make backup copies? Yes, but accessing those copies is another matter.

I’ve been cleaning out the darker recesses of my office lately, digging through things accumulated by previous occupants back to the mid 80s. I knew I was playing host to a large quantity of floppy discs (both 3.5″ and 5.25″), but this is the first time I looked at what’s actually on them.

I found seven ebooks (the labels call some “Hypercard novels”) in that pile of 3.5″ floppies. Most were published by a company called Eastgate. Eastgate still sells copies of these titles ebooks to this day, but I’m not clear how they’re supposed to be read.

I’ve run into 4 barriers in trying to read these ebooks:

  1. They’re on floppy disks. Floppy drives are a dying breed. Luckily these are 3.5″ disks, because if they’d been 5.25″ I wouldn’t have access to the right-sized drive. Still, in another five years any floppy drive at all will be considered specialized legacy equipment.
  2. The disks are mac-only. No PC that I’ve found has been able to read them.
  3. Even on modern macs, they can’t be read. I haven’t had time to fully figure out why, but some preliminary research pointed out that they might be a special kind of floppy disk that only older mac drives can read. Modern ones won’t work.
  4. Even if I had the right kind of drive – what software will they need to be read? I have no idea, but I’d bet money that it’s nothing still in common use today.

Like I said Eastgate still exists, and sells copies of these ebooks. They were evidently were migrated to CD-ROM at some point. But even with those more modern copies, the Eastgate website says some of their titles require Hypercard to be read. Hypercard was mac-only software, and stopped working with current versions of OSX in 2005. And even if I was somehow able to get Hypercard to run, I’d still be forced to re-buy the content on CD-ROM.

I have no idea if these ebooks are any good, or hold any value at all beyond being curiosities of early ebook publishing. I’m not going to put any more effort into getting them running unless I’m given a compelling reason. But this is a real issue, and one that will only become more important in time. I think of the huge quantities of CD & DVD resources we still have at work, and I shudder a bit. Apple removed the CD-ROM drive from the latest imac, and other manufacturers can’t be far behind.

If anything, this experience has drilled into my head that I need to keep an eye out for mission critical resources on old formats. I’ll migrate them forward when I can, but that won’t always be possible. I’m bullish on ebooks in general, but when it comes to preservation paper still wins.

Side note: Here’s a list of the titles I have on floppy. Maybe these are crucially important to someone else. If you’ve got the means, I’ve got the media:

  • Ambulance: An Electronic Novel, by Monica Moran
  • King of Space – by Sarah Smith
  • The Perfect Couple – by Clark Humphrey
  • Quibbling – by Carolyn Guyer
  • Afternoon, a Story – by Joyce Michael
  • Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse – by John McDald
  • Its name was Penelope – by Judy Malloy (this disk appears to be signed)

Review: Kindle Paperwhite

Based on shipping time alone, the Kindle Paperwhite seems to be a huge success.  There’s currently a 5-7 week lead time on ordering one, which makes it already iffy even for a Christmas gift.  But if you’re shopping for an ebook reader this season, the Paperwhite is the one to get.This is my third Kindle, after leaving #2 on a plane (which I still kick myself for), and the paperwhite has a series of refinements that have been a long time coming.

The most visible addition is the lit screen.  Previous Kindles offered add-on cases which included a light, but this is right in the device itself.  It’s bright enough to read in the dark, but also dim enough to let my wife sleep next to me while I read.  There’s a slight shadowing effect at the bottom of the screen, but it only bugged me for a minute or two before I learned to ignore it.

Less visible but equally welcome is the capacitive touchscreen.  Previous models used IR to detect taps, which was sometimes inaccurate or frustrating to use.  The difference is subtle, but the results are much more responsive.  And while I don’t pretend to know the technical reasons behind this, the Paperwhite’s screen also seems to repel smudges and dust better than the previous model’s did.

The Kindle home screen & menus received their first overhaul ever, and it’s a welcome arrival.  Cover images now feature prominently instead of just text, and overall it’s a easier to navigate around.  That said, I’m annoyed that roughly 1/3 of the home screen is taken up by a display of popular books available for purchase.  And this is on the model that supposedly has no ads.

Now the smaller improvements:

One of my pet peeves about the Kindle line up until now is that I never felt connected to my location in a book.  While it was easy to see my progress through the book as a percentage, it was harder to know how long it’ll be until I finish a chapter and reach a good stopping point.  The Paperwhite fixes that with math!  It watches my reading pace, then predicts how many minutes it’ll be until I finish a chapter.  And so far it’s been pretty accurate.

I still wish the Paperwhite had physical page-turn buttons in the same way the Nook has preserved that option.  But when placed in the optional Kindle case, the Paperwhite’s bezel is very slightly wider than the case on older models.  It’s a small difference, but it makes it much more comfortable to rest my thumb there while reading.

The Paperwhite’s case has a smartcover-style wake feature.  Open it up, and the device unlocks.  Close it, and it re-locks.  This is again a small bonus, but an appreciated one.

Lastly, the negatives:

The Paperwhite has no audio output.  It can’t read the book to you like other models can, and you can’t listen to mp3s on it either.  I don’t think I ever used either of those features, so I don’t mind the loss. But if either are critical to your use, keep it in mind.

The new capacitive screen is great, but it doesn’t work with gloves.  I read at the bus stop every morning, and in the winter this makes it trickier to turn pages.  The older IR touchscreens could be poked with anything, gloved or not.

In conclusion, I feel like the lit screen will be the last major innovation in e-ink readers for a while.  I could be wrong about that, but the Kindle paperwhite feels like a device with the feature list I’ve always wanted.