Category Archives: Learning

Searching Source of Canonical Landscape Reference

I remember once reading an article that if you ask people across cultures to draw their ideal landscape they all prefer the same elements: a woodland, bordering on a grass land, in which some large animal is visible. Water flowing. And a man-made structure.

Based on conversations earlier this week I am trying to find a reference to it. But I can’t find it. I think after initial searches, the right search term is canonical landscapes.

Do you have some notion as to where I should look?

What Do You Automate?

Over the years there have been several things I’ve automated in my workflow. This week it was posting from Evernote to WordPress, saving me over 60 minutes per week. Years ago I automated starting a project, which saves me about 20 minutes each time I start a new project (of whatever type), by populating my various workflow tools with the right things for it. I use Android on my phone, and my ToDo application Things is Mac only, so at some point I wrote a little script that allows me to jot down tasks on my phone that then got send to Things. As Things now can process email that has become obsolete. I have also written tiny scripts that allow me to link to Evernote notes and Things items from inside other applications.

I’m still working to create a chat based script in my terminal that takes me through my daily starting routine, as well as my daily closing routine. This to take the ‘bookkeeping’ character away, and make it easier for me to for instance track a range of lead-indicators.

I know many others, like Peter Rukavina or Frank Meeuwsen also automate stuff for themselves, and if you search online the sheer range of examples you can find is enormous. Yet, I find there is much to learn from hearing directly from others what they automate, how and why it is important to them, as the context of where something fits in their workflow is crucial information.

What are the things you automate? Apart from the the full-on techie things, like to start a new virtual server on Amazon, I mean. The more mundane day to day things in your workflow, above key board shortcuts? And have you published how you do that somewhere online?

AppleScript Tinkering Pt 2

I’ve finished building an AppleScript for automatically creating a Suggested Reading blogpost from my Evernote bookmarks quicker than I thought.

Mostly because in my previous posting on this I, in an example of blogging as thinking out loud, had already created a list of steps I wanted to take. That made it easier to build the step by step solution in AppleScript and find online examples where needed.

Other key ingredients were the AppleScript Language Guide, the Evernote dictionary for AppleScript (which contains the objects from Evernote available to AppleScript), the Evernote query language (for retrieving material from Evernote), and the Postie plugin documentation (which I use to mail to WordPress).

In the end I spent most time on getting the syntax right of talking to the WordPress plugin Postie. By testing it multiple times I ultimately got the sequence of elements right.

The resulting script is on duty from now on. I automatically call the script every Monday afternoon. The result is automatically mailed to my WordPress installation which saves it as a posting with a publication date set for Tuesday afternoon. This allows me time to review or edit the posting if I want, but if I don’t WordPress will go ahead and post it.

There is still some room for improvement. First, I currently use Apple Mail to send the posting to WordPress. My default mail tool is Thunderbird, so I had to configure Mail for this, which I had rather not. Second, the tags from Evernote that I use in the title of the posting aren’t capitalised yet, which I would prefer. Good enough for now though.

I’ve posted the code to my GitHub account, where it is available under an open license. For my own reference I also posted it in the wiki pages of this blog.

The bookmarks to use as listed in Evernote..

…and the resulting posting scheduled in WordPress

(Re-)Learning Apple Script to Automate Some Work

For a few things I use Apple Script to automate tasks. For instance if I start a new project, I run a script that creates basic things like folders, standard to-do’s and notes on my hard drive and in my Things and Evernote applications. They save me time and let me avoid a lot of repetitive work. I wrote those scripts years ago, and meanwhile I have forgotten what little I knew about Apple Script.

Now I’m trying to build a new script. I had thought about this already, then Frank Meeuwsen’s similar steps (in Dutch) triggered me to start.

During my reading online I save articles and documents into Evernote, which I tag and store.
I’d like to automatically create a Suggested Reading posting weekly based on what I save in Evernote. I imagine adding a specific tag for this to the things I save, so I can also save things without them showing up in such a posting. The articles I save usually have a short sentence about why it’s relevant to me.

This means:

  • Running the script automatically weekly
  • Selecting Evernote notes from the last 7 days with the right tag
  • From each Evernote extract the short descriptive sentence I added, the associated weblink, as well as other tags I added when saving.
  • Then build a bullet list, with the descriptive sentences as text, and the link embedded either at the end, with its title as text, or maybe embedded in the description, based on some sort of indication.
  • Select three random tags that occur at least twice in the list of links
  • Add those three tags as part of the title of the blog post
  • Add all tags used to the tags for the blogpost
  • Set Linklog as the Category
  • Save as draft in my WordPress blog, with a scheduled post date of 16 hours.
  • Send me a message inviting me to review the draft and post. (If I don’t review, the posting will thus automatically appear)

I used to use a bookmarking service like Delicious or Diigo, and there used to be ways, or maybe still are, to blog automatically from their service. However it would necessitate me to save everything twice: As a bookmark and as a full article in Evernote. (Saving the entire article circumvents issues with link rot and paywalls, and allows me local full text search in all my notes)

I’ll likely suffer hours of frustration trying to find out how to do things correctly in AppleScript. Any pointers to useful resources (example libraries for instance) are therefore welcome.

(And yes, I understand the discrepancy between wanting to write a script to work with Evernote, while simultaneously wanting to leave Evernote)

Time for an RSS Revival

Wired is calling for an RSS revival.

RSS is the most important piece of internet plumbing for following new content from a wide range of sources. It allows you to download new updates from your favourite sites automatically and read them at your leisure. Dave Winer, forever dedicated to the open web, created it.

I used to be a very heavy RSS user. I tracked hundreds of sources on a daily basis. Not as news but as a way to stay informed about the activities and thoughts of people I was interested in. At some point, that stopped working. Popular RSS readers were discontinued, most notably Google’s RSS reader, many people migrated to the Facebook timeline, platforms like Twitter stopped providing RSS feeds to make you visit their platform, and many people stopped blogging. But with FB in the spotlight, there is some interest in refocusing on the open web, and with it on RSS.

Currently I am repopulating from scratch my RSS reading ‘antenna’, following around 100 people again.

Wired in its call for an RSS revival suggests a few RSS readers. I, as I always have, use a desktop RSS reader, which currently is ReadKit. The FB timeline presents stuff to you based on their algorithmic decisions. As mentioned I definitely would like to have smarter ways of shaping my own information diet, but then with me in control and not the one being commoditised.

So it’s good to read that RSS Reader builders are looking at precisely that.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control. What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”,says Edwin Khodabakchian cofounder and CEO of RSS reader Feedly (which currently has 14 million users). That is more or less precisely my reasoning as well.

Impact Through Connection – Video Interview

Early last year the Frisian regional library service and I collaborated on a great experiment with a primary school class. Titled ‘Impact through connection’, we worked with a group of 10-year olds. They came up with things they’d like to change in their neighbourhood, and we assisted them in mastering the technologies and methods needed to do that. I designed the process, and guided that first group of pupils through the conversations to get them started on their designs. Since then the Frisian regional library service has used my process design in a series of projects.

Standing in the courtyard of the former prison Blokhuispoort. Photo Jeroen de Boer

Yesterday, as part of a video documenting some of the results, I was interviewed. Standing in the freezing cold wind in the court yard of the former prison in Leeuwarden, now bustling hub of creativity and start-ups, in this year’s European Capital of Culture, I answered questions. I might look to be nervous in the video, but I was actually shivering from the cold.

Being asked questions about a project a year ago was useful, as I heard myself put things into words that made them stand out more to me too.

Asked about a memory from the project that stands out for me, I mentioned the huge cheers and applause I got when I returned to the classroom for the third session. I had guided the group in the first session where I talked with them about the things they might want to do, listened to their ideas and together slowly created the first plans. The second session I could not attend, and then I showed up a bit late for the third, and was loudly cheered. Although it is of course nice to be cheered, what is important here is how it shows what we succeeded in doing that first session: build trust and make sure they realized we indeed listened to them and meant it when we said they were the ones to decide.

Another question was about the impact we achieved. Two things are important indicators I think. One of the children I met again during the summer on an Austrian campground by coincidence. The energy and inspiration was still there, six months on, so that seems a lasting effect. An effect also apparent from other feedback we got from the group. The other thing was that in the very first session several children talked about how they weren’t really good at anything or that something they were good at wasn’t useful. I found it quite shocking to hear that from these 10 year olds. One of the children said liking to make things beautiful, but that it wouldn’t be of use. We talked with the group about how in designing things, structure, function and look & feel are equally important. If an object isn’t well shaped it won’t be used, just as much as when it isn’t functional. We succeeded in counteracting some of those assumptions, I feel, and that’s a good lasting result. Making things beautiful was an important part of the project. Other kids, including one who said having no particular skill, came up with an important role in the project we had overlooked ourselves: reporting and documenting.

Of Maps and Landscapes, of Relics and Geo-Data

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.

Crap Detection is a Critical Digital Literacy

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.


Playing With Q-GIS

Most of my open data work is with government entities to help change their processes, routines and perceptions to ensure steps towards open by design. I almost never really work with open data itself during those activities. So I decided to accept the challenge we ourselves issued with the launch of the Frisian Open Data Platform.

The challenge was to “find out what the planting year was of the monumental tree that is nearest the street light with the provincial ID number 696502”. Finding that out needed to be done by using data from the Frisian Open Data Platform.

Figuring out which data to use was easy. There is a provincial data set that contains the position and ID’s of all street lights for roads where the province is responsible (other roads can be the responsibility of a municipality, or the national government). There is another data set of the city of Leeuwarden that contains all trees of interest within the city limits. If the street light with the right ID is within city limits, it should be possible to answer the question with the tree data set of Leeuwarden.

So what I did was first look in the provincial data set for the right ID. I copied the coordinates that data set gives for that ID into Google Maps, to see where it is on the map, and it turned out to indeed be within Leeuwarden city limits. So the Leeuwarden tree list contains the answer I’m looking for.

Then I started up Q-GIS, which is an open source geo-data viewer (and in fact, a very capable open source GIS *editor* too, as Peter says in the comments). It is possible to connect a CKAN data portal, such as the Frisian platform is, to Q-GIS. Under the menu-option Plugins in Q-GIS one can install a CKAN plugin, which gives you a CKAN logo button in Q-GIS. Pressing that prompts a dialog in which you can specify the right address for the CKAN server you want to use. This was specified on the Frisian platform as I also needed to add a default folder that can be used to keep necessary files.

Now I could search within all the Frisian open data platform data sets right within Q-GIS, using that plugin. I first loaded a map of the Netherlands (the TOP10NL map, which is the most detailed map the Dutch Cadastre provides, as a zipfile of 2GB). I used the PDOK Dutch open geoportal for this, for which I had already previously installed the PDOK plugin, in similar ways as the CKAN plugin). Then I added the Provincial street light list, and the Leeuwarden tree list as layers on the map. I then scrolled the map to the location I had previously checked out in Google Maps.

In the screenshot below you see green dots on the red road. Those are provincial street lights. The rightmost green dot is the one we’re looking for. A bit further to the right you see a row of purple dots. Those are the trees, and one of these is nearest our green dot. Now, I visually judged which purple dot is the nearest, although you could calculate it from the coordinates in the data. Also there is some room for error, as most of the trees in that row were planted at the same time as it turns out. By clicking on one of the dots in Q-GIS you can see the data fields and labels attached to it, and that gave me the year of planting.

The map of Leeuwarden, with the street lights as green dots on the red road in the middle, and the monumental trees as purple dots.

At the top you see the depicted map layers (Dutch map top10nl, trees in ‘bomen’, street lights in ‘provfriesland’), below that, when you highlight a specific purple dot, under identification results (‘identificatieresultaten’), PLANTJAAR is the field with the year of planting.

Unexpected Great Feedback

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.