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Librarian Blog

Did a robot write this?

Humans have long been intrigued with robots, most recently as aerial drones but also as substitutes in other fields -- such as writing.

A few years ago, some programmers came up with a robot that they said could write simple sports stories. Give the computer a score and a simple play-by-play, and off it would go sprinting toward making an early deadline.

Most of the work in that direction did not get very far, or had not gotten very far when I left journalism about four years ago. (One crazy prediction: They will never replace Kirk Bohls.)

This past weekend Lisa Granshaw wrote in the Daily Dot online about robots that are working on fiction. One at Georgia Institute of Technology takes plot and action and comes up with something similar to a story line, although it's pretty darn rudimentary and not very interesting and also clunky sounding.

Two other robots she discusses toss out story ideas. To my ear, they sounded like simple machines that matched words from Column A to phrases from Columns B and C and threw those out for us to think about. Not especially ingenious.

If these are the latest and greatest forays into replacing human writers, there is still a long, long way to go.

And, no -- a robot did not write this blog.

Mas MOOCs?

Last weekend I finished all the requirements to get a certificate of accomplishment for completing a massive online only course called "How Things Work" taught by Dr. Lou Bloomfield at The University of Virginia.

It was the first MOOC I have actually gotten all the way through. I started one on guitar basics a year ago, and it was just too basic. I got so bored, I stopped worrying with it.

Bloomfield's course was excellent. And it was challenging. I await my final grade, which should be in the range of 80-85. I'll be happy with that.

Having said all that, I can see why university officials are re-thinking the usefulness of MOOCs in their curricula. The American-Statesman has an article about that in today's edition.

The University of Texas and others have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing MOOCs, and they aren't sure whether they are worth their while in rigorous academic terms.

I think they are a nice supplement, personally. And they also help introduce a particular topic or professor.

I came away from "How Things Work" with a good feel for the University of Virginia and a real affection for Dr. Bloomfield. I'm not sure how that goodwill translates.

Tablets vs. books

For parents of young children who want to give the kids an excellent educational foundation before kindergarten, a key question is whether books are better than tablet-based text.

It's a good question for them to be asking and trying to answer, and one that got some ink in Sunday's The New York Times.

The story looked at the few studies that have been conducted on the subject, and I came away with the conclusion that books are much better to use to engage children in active reading. When children use tablets, they tend to poke and play, not read. They are distracted, not reading.

One study showed that kids who "read" from tablets had far worse comprehension than kids who were read -- and read -- real books.

As I have written here before, there's something about looking at text on a screen that's just physically different from looking at a book, and by physically I mean in the brain.

Having said all of that, here at the library we are getting some iPads for our children's department. We'll download books and games for them. And we'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, we are promoting the heck out of our 1000 Books B4 Kindergarten program, for which we're hoping people will use real books.

Feeling vulnerable

Microsoft's announcement yesterday that it was releasing fixes for 24 glitches to its software did not make me feel any better about having a PC in my office.

And I sure didn't need to hear that Dropbox may have been hacked.

Twice in the last 12 months I have had to replace a credit card because someone got into the customer databases at Target and Home Depot.

Am I wrong to feel a little exposed here?

Seems like there are a whole lot of Russians who have nothing better to do than hack into our computer systems over here. Oh, and drink plenty of vodka.

I'm seriously considering just going with an Apple product. Or I could switch and just use my Google Chrome Samsung laptop, although I am not really fond of it.

And maybe just use cash, which is not particularly convenient.

Or just emulate the Russkies and up my now-zero-level intake of vodka.

Future of the book?

The Economist has just published a long essay on The Future of the Book.

It is five short chapters that cover the history of book-making as well as a best estimate of where books are heading.

My summary statement is this: The future of the book is good, even if it is not necessarily digital.

Printed books are just way too convenient, and they will get cheaper over time because of publish-on-demand technologies.

The Economist predicts that e-readers will go the way of the do-do bird. You can read books on any device, after all.

The reasons for being bullish on the book are many.

Check out what The Economist thinks.

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