How to Process Your Own Large Libraries into Thumbnails
When I decided to upgrade my Sweet Tools semantic Web and -related tools listing, I wanted to add some images to make the presentation more attractive. It was also becoming the case that many metadata aggregation service providers were adopting image representations for data (see this Dlib article). Since the focus of my listing is software, I either could install all of the programs and take screenshots (not doable given the numbers involved) or adopt what many others have used as a sort of visual index for content: thumbnails, or, as specifically called when applied to Web pages, thumbshots.
Quick Review of Alternatives
Unless you get all of your Web content via feeds or have been living in a cave, you may have recently contracted a form of popup vertigo. Since its introduction just a few months back, the Snap Preview Anywhere thumbnail popup has become the eggplant that eats Chicago, with more than a half million sites now reported to be using the service. Since I don’t want this service myself for my blog (see below) and I therefore did not want to go through the effort of signing up for SPA nor restricting its use to just this posting (even though the signup appears clean and straightforward), I reproduce below what one of these Snap link-over popups looks like:
The sheer ubiquity of these popup thumbnails is creating its own backlash (check out this sample rant from UNEASYsilence and its comments) and, early promoters, such as TechCrunch, have now gone to the use of a clickable icon [ ] for a preview, rather than automatically popping up the image from the link hover.
Not only had the novelty of these popups worn off for me, but my actual desired use for Sweet Tools was to present a gallery of images for multiple results simultaneously. So, besides its other issues, the Snap service was not suitable for my purpose.
I had earlier used a Firefox add-on called BetterSearch that places thumbnails on results pages when doing searches with Google (including international versions), Amazon, MSN Search, Yahoo!, A9, Answers.com, AllTheWeb, Dogpile.com, del.icio.us and Simpy.com. But, like the Snap service, I personally found this service to be distracting. I also don’t like the fact that my use was potentially being logged and promo messages were inserted on each screen. (There is another Firefox browser extension called GooglePreview that appears less intrusive, but I have not tried it.) As it turns out, both of these services themselves piggyback on a free (for some uses) thumbnail acquisition and server service from Thumbshots.org.
Since my interest in thumbnails was limited and focused to a bounded roster of sites (not the dynamic results from a search query), I decided to cut out the middleman and try the Thumbshots.org source directly myself. However, my candidate sites are mostly obscure academic ones or semantic Web ones not generally in the top rankings, meaning that most of the Sweet Tools Web sites unfortunately had no thumbnails on Thumbshots.org.
Of course, throughout these investigations, I had always had the option of taking physical screen captures myself and converting them manually to thumbnails. This is a very straightforward process with standard graphics packages; I had done so often for other purposes using my standard Paint Shop Pro software. But with the number of the Sweet Tools growing into the hundreds, such a manual approach clearly wouldn’t scale.
Knowing there are literally hundreds of cheap or free graphics and image manipulation programs out there, I thus set out to see if I could find a utility that would provide most, if not all, of the automation required.
My Sweet Tools records don’t change frequently, so I could accept a batch mode approach. I wanted to also size the thumbnails to whatever displayed best in my Exhibit presentation. As well, if I was going to adopt a new utility, I decided I might as well seek other screen capture and display flexibilities for other purposes. I also importantly needed the individual file names created to be unique and readable (not just opaque IDs). Finally, like any tool I ultimately adopt, I wanted quality output and professional design.
Off and on I reviewed options and packages, mostly getting disgusted with the low quality of the dross that mostly exists out there, and appalled at the difficulty in using standard search services to find such candidates. (There truly is becoming whole categories of content such as products of all types, reviews, real data, market info and statistics, that are becoming nearly impossible to effectively find on the Web with current search engines; but those are topics for another day.)
Nonetheless, after much looking and trial runs of perhaps a dozen packages, I finally stumbled across a real gem, WebShot. (Reasons this product was difficult to find included its relatively recent vintage, apparent absence of any promotion, and the mismatch between the product name and Web site name.)
The WebShot Utility
WebShot is a program that allows you to take screenshots and thumbnails of web pages or whole websites. I find its GUI easy to use, but it also comes with a command line interface for advanced users or for high-volume services. WebShot can produce images in the JPG, GIF, PNG, or BMP formats. It was developed in C by Nathan Moinvaziri.
The program is free for use on Windows XP, though PayPal donations are encouraged. Nominal charges are applied to other Windows versions and use the command line. Linux is not supported and Internet Explorer must be installed.
The graphical UI on Windows XP has a standard tabbed design. Single thumbnails or ones in batch driven from a text file may be used. Output files can be flexibly sized via the above formats. The screen capture itself can be based on mandatory or max and min browser display parameters. There are a variety of file naming parameters and system settings allow WebShot to work in Web-friendly ways. Here’s an example of the Image tab for the GUI:
The command-liine version accepts about 20 different parameters.
Depending on settings, you can get a large variety of outputs. The long banner image to the left, for example, is a “complete” Web page dump of my Web site at the time of this posting, with about 8 consecutive posts shown (160 x ~2300). The system automatically stitches together the multiple long page screenshots, with the resolution in this case being set by the input width parameter of 160 pixels.
Another option is this sample “cropped” one (440 x 257) where I’m actually cutting the standard screen display to about 50% of its normal vertical (height) dimension:
And, then, the next example shows what I have chosen as my “standard” thumbnail size (160 x 120) (I added the image borders, not the program):
In batch mode, I set the destination parameter such that I got both a logical domain portion in the file name (%d) and a hashed portion (%m) since there were a few occasions of multiple, but different Web pages, from the same host domain.
As noted, download re-tries, delays and timeouts are all settable to be a good Web citizen while getting acceptable results. With more-or-less standard settings, I was able to complete the 400 thumbnail downloads (without error, I should mention) in just a few minutes for the Sweet Tools dataset.
How I Do Bulk Thumbnails for Sweet Tools
Your use will obviously vary, but I kept notes for myself so that I could easily repeat or update this batch process (in fact, I have done so already a couple of times with the incremental updates to Sweet Tools). This general work flow is:
dir/o:d > listing.txtcommand.) Then, copy the file names in the resulting text file back into the spreadsheet for the record < --> image correspondence
Some Other Tips
Like many such tools, there is insufficient documentation for the WebShot package. But, with some experimentation, it is in fact quite easy to accomplish a number of management or display options. Some of the ones I discovered are:
|An AI3 Jewels & Doubloon Winner|
An update to the Sweet Tools semantic Web and -related tools listing has been posted. Forty-two tools were added, bringing the running total to 420. As always, please provide any corrections or additions here.
When I first read Roy Fielding’s 2000 Ph.D. thesis a few months back, Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures, which coined the REpresentational State Transfer (REST) acronym, I was mostly trying to understand what I dimly perceived as one side in an argument between the WS* brand of Web services crowd and a passionate group of “simpler” HTTP-oriented advocates. (Tim Bray’s 2004 piece helps draw the distinction, mostly related to complexity, but also the use of messaging and states with resulting server dependencies.) I found Fielding’s thesis to be very interesting and historically informative about the standards development in the early Web (yes, I read the whole thing), but it was also frankly above my sophistication level and pay grade at the time.
I’ve come to learn much more about these differences and debates in the intervening months. Recently, one of the best sources I’ve discovered that explicates the RESTful approach in a way I find very understandable and approachable is Bill Higgins’ two-part Ajax and REST series on IBM’s developerWorks.
In Part I, Advantages of the Ajax/REST Architectural Style for Immersive Web Applications, Bill talks about the evolution to “immersive” Web applications and how by slipping into server-side architectural dependencies reliablity and scalability are compromised. He also talks about dynamic content and its particular challenges to cacheability and performance. He notes how highly interactive (“immersive”) applications practically forced a server-side approach during the Web’s early development, but that Ajax now allows the return to more stateless server-side and scalable architectures.
“The fact that Ajax lets you interact with a server without a full refresh puts the option of a stateful client back on the table. This has profound implications for the architectural possibilities for dynamic immersive Web applications: Because application resource and data resource binding is shifted to the client side, these applications can enjoy the best of both worlds — the dynamic, personalized user experience we expect of immersive Web applications and the simple, scalable architecture we expect from RESTful applications.”
And, of course, screen refreshes are also reduced, improving the user’s experience. As someone directly responsible for how a very large, individualized app moved in the direction of server-side dominance, these observations loudly resonate.
In Part II, Meeting the Challenges of Ajax Software Development, Bill goes on to discuss how to evaluate and, if warranted, adopt Ajax-style development within organizations that have traditionally used server-side Web applications. His logical recommendations to move forward include starting small, use frameworks and use tools. He perhaps most importantly observes that new team members may need to be recruited, since RESTful mindsets, technologies, architectures and paradigms differ from traditional enterprise development.
Thus, both of Higgin’s articles address the questions of network efficiencies raised by Fielding in his thesis (p. 32):
“An interesting observation about network-based applications is that the best application performance is obtained by not using the network. This essentially means that the most efficient architectural styles for a network-based application are those that can effectively minimize use of the network when it is possible to do so, through reuse of prior interactions (caching), reduction of the frequency of network interactions in relation to user actions (replicated data and disconnected operation), or by removing the need for some interactions by moving the processing of data closer to the source of the data (mobile code [or Ajax!; comment added]).”
The more fundamental point is whether time to market and development time can co-exist with a start-small, incrementalist approach. Another problem with traditional enterprise development is that the languages and their IDEs and supporting infrastructure have not been designed from the ground up to support RESTful designs and architectures. Ruby on Rails, for example, may be a far superior choice, but it is difficult for existing incumbents with market share to junk their prior investments. One option for existing Java shops could be to carefully re-factor the existing code base and segregate out the Web interaction layer to use JRuby.
As Fielding succinctly states: “Semantics are a by-product of the act of assigning resource identifiers and populating those resources with representations.” Like the mediations of representational states within the Web itself, the interoperability of the semantic Web lends itself to simple conceptual design (though, of course, potentially complex implementation).
Collex is the Next Example in a Line of Innovative Tools from the Humanities
I seem to be on a string of discovery of new tools from unusual sources — that is, at least, unusual for me. For some months now I have been attempting to discover the “universe” of semantic Web tools, beginning obviously with efforts that self-label in that category. (See my ongoing Sweet Tools comprehensive listing of semantic Web and related tools.) Then, it was clear that many “Web 2.0″ tools potentially contribute to this category via tagging, folksonomies, mashups and the like. I’ve also been focused on language processing tools that relate to this category in other ways (a topic for another day.) Most recently, however, I have discovered a rich vein of tools in areas that take pragmatic approaches to managing structure and metadata, but often with little mention of the semantic Web or Web 2.0. And in that vein, I continue to encounter impressive technology developed within the humanities and library science (see, for example, the recent post on Zotero).
To many of you, the contributions from these disciplines have likely been obvious for years. I admit I’m a slow learner. But I also suspect there is much that goes on in fields outside our normal ken. My own mini-epiphany is that I also need to be looking at the pragmatists within many different communities — some of whom eschew the current Sem Web and Web 2.0 hype — yet are actually doing relevant and directly transferable things within their own orbits. I have written elsewhere about the leadership of physicists and biologists in prior Internet innovations. I guess the thing that has really surprised me most recently is the emerging prominence of the humanities (I feel like the Geico caveman saying that).
Collex is the Next in A Fine Legacy
The latest discovery is Collex, a set of tools for COLLecting and EXhibiting information in the humanities. According to Bethany Nowviskie, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Virginia, and a lead designer of the effort in her introduction, COLLEX: Semantic Collections & Exhibits for the Remixable Web:
Collex is a set of tools designed to aid students and scholars working in networked archives and federated repositories of humanities materials: a sophisticated collections and exhibits mechanism for the semantic web. It allows users to collect, annotate, and tag online objects and to repurpose them in illustrated, interlinked essays or exhibits. Collex functions within any modern web browser without recourse to plugins or downloads and is fully networked as a server-side application. By saving information about user activity (the construction of annotated collections and exhibits) as “remixable” metadata, the Collex system writes current practice into the scholarly record and permits knowledge discovery based not only on the characteristics or “facets” of digital objects, but also on the contexts in which they are placed by a community of scholars. Collex builds on the same semantic web technologies that drive MIT’s SIMILE project and it brings folksonomy tagging to trusted, peer-reviewed scholarly archives. Its exhibits-builder is analogous to high-end digital curation tools currently affordable only to large institutions like the Smithsonian. Collex is free, generalizable, and open source and is presently being implemented in a large-scale pilot project under the auspices of NINES.
(BTW, NINES stands for the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, a trans-Atlantic federation of scholars.)
The initial efforts that became Collex were to establish frameworks and process within this community, not tools. But the group apparently recognized the importance of leverage and enablers (i.e, tools) and hired Erik Hatcher, a key contributor to the Apache open-source Lucene text-indexing engine and co-author of Lucene in Action, to spearhead development of an actually usable tool. Erik proceeded to grab best-of-breed stuff in area such as Ruby and Rails and Solr (a faceted enhancement to Lucene that has just graduated from the Apache incubator), and then to work hard on follow-on efforts such as Flare (a display framework) to create the basics of Collex. A sample screenshot of the application is shown below:
The Collex app is still flying under the radar, but it has sufficient online functionality today to support annotation, faceting, filtering, display, etc. Another interesting aspect of the NINES project (but not apparently a programmatic capability of the Collex software itself) is it only allows “authoritative” community listings, an absolute essential for scaling the semantic Web.
You can play with the impressive online demo of the Collex faceted browser at the NINES Web site today, though clearly the software is still undergoing intense development. I particularly like its clean design and clear functionality. The other aspect of this software that deserves attention is that it is a server-side option with cross-browser Ajax, without requiring any plugins. It works equally within Safari, Firefox and Windows IE. And, like the Zotero research citation tool, this basic framework could easily lend itself to managing structured information in virtually any other domain.
Collex is one of the projects of Applied Research in Patacriticism, a software development research team located at the University of Virginia and funded through an award to professor Jerome McGann from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. (“Shuuu, sheeee. Impressive. Most impressive.” — Darth Vader)
(BTW, forgive my sexist use of “guys” in this post’s title; I just couldn’t get a sex-neutral title to work as well for me!)
|An AI3 Jewels & Doubloon Winner|
or, Why is It Always so Easy to Eat Our Young?
In the last couple of weeks I have observed two of the more exciting open source initiatives around — the bibliographic and research citation plug-in Zotero from George Mason University's Center for History and New Media (CHnM) and the semantic Web efforts from MIT's Simile program — juggle some really interesting problems that result from academic institutions committing to and promoting open source projects. Both cases have caused me to raise my appreciation for the efforts involved. Both cases have caused me to temper my expectations from the programs. And both cases perhaps offer some lessons and cautions for others considering entering the bazaar.
Early Growing Pains
Zotero, though still quite young as a project, is tackling a pragmatic issue of citation and research management of interest to virtually every academic and researcher. While capable commercial bibliographic and citation software has existed for many years, there remains much pent-up interest in the community regarding features, standards and ease-of-use. This common need, plus the laudable initial efforts of the project itself, have led to quick adoption and community scrutiny.
Such promise generates excitement and early evangelists. One of those evangelists, however, frustrated with the pace and degree of responsiveness from the program, went public with a call to better embrace Raymond’s “bazaar” aspects of open source (see this reference and its comments). That, in turn, with its comments, spurred another response from one of the Zotero team leaders speaking unofficially called Cathedrals and Bazaars, also in reference to Raymond’s treatise.
Now, granted, this is not my community and I am a total outsider, but there is, I feel, a dynamic here at work that I believe deserves broader attention. Let me get to that in a moment, after citing another example . . . .
An “Army of Programmers”
As any casual reader of my blog has observed, I have been touting MIT's Simile program for the past couple of weeks (they’ve actually deserved the praise for years, but I just had not been aware of them). As part of my interest and involvement, I took the unusual steps for me of joining the project’s mailing list, downloading code, writing to systems, blogging about it, participating on the mailing list, and other atypical efforts. Because of some recent innovations from the program I have discussed elsewhere (in fact more than once), there has been a real spike of interest in the program and general scrutiny and activity from many others besides me.
Like George Mason, MIT is of course an educational research institution committed to training new intellectual leaders and moving their fields forward. Both institutions are doing so with pragmatic and (at times) cutting-edge tools, all offered in the spirit of open source and community involvement. This is not unusual within the academic community, but, on the other hand, is not common, and most often is not done well with respect to real, usable software. Both of these programs do it well.
Committing to this involvement is not trivial. There are wikis providing documentation; there are forums at which ideas get spun and new users get answers; there are blogs to inform the (growing, burgeoning) community of future plans and directions, and (oh, by the way), there are real jobs like teaching, committee involvement, thesis writing, and the real aspects of being either a professor or student.
Meanwhile, if your project is successful within the broader community, those very same forums and blogs and wikis become the venue for any Internet user to request information, assistance, criticisms or new features. To that point, within the MIT program, the shorthand over the past days in dealing with requests for new features has been a call to a mythical “army of programmers.” Right on . . . . This software has, in fact, been developed largely on graduate assistant time and salaries (if such) from a very few individuals.
So, yes, with openness and a successful offering comes the old Chinese curse, and not enough time in the day.
People such as me — not a part of the community but looking globally for answers — jump onto these projects with glee and focus: We’re seeing some really cutting edge stuff being developed by the brightest in their fields! Non-participants from within the community see these efforts and may like (perhaps, even envy) what they see, and may also want to help in the spirit of their communities.
If the project is compelling, the result, of course, is attention, scrutiny and demands. Excitement and interest drives the engine. Promise is now evident, and all who have seen it feel a part of the eventual success of the dream — even though not all (especially all of those on the outside whether academics or not) are in a position to make that dream come real. And most do not truly appreciate what it has taken to get the project to its current point.
So, What’s My Take?
There is a real excitement to goosing the tiger. There is also so much effort to even get close to doing so that few (except those on the inside) can appreciate. The people on the Zotero and Simile projects (and the many like them) know the long hours; are posting answers on forums at 3 am; are patient with the newbies; are struggling with project demands that have nothing at all to do with tenure or getting their degrees; and are juggling a myriad of other demands like families and spouses and other interests.
Yet, that being said, since these fortunate few hold the batons of visible, successful projects at the top of the power curve, I actually don’t truly feel sorry for them. My real point for those of us that constitute the vast majority of outsiders is to be realistic about what we can expect from open source projects run by essentially graduate student labor or, if via paid staff, ones that are likely understaffed and underpaid (though clearly committed) and overworked.
Watching these two exemplary programs has been educational — in the true sense of the word — but also instructive in what it takes to conduct an open source and “open kimono” initiative.
What It Takes to be Successful
I have managed many large-scale, multi-year software projects, but only one in academia and none open source. Any professional software development manager would be amazed at what it now takes to be successful in this arena.
You need, first, of course, to develop the software. That has its standard challenges, but is not so easy within an academic setting since the components themselves need to be best-of-breed, open source, and cutting edge. The project itself may need to be thesis-worthy. Though not imperative, the project choice should be of broad community interest, rightfully anticipating potential job prospects for participating students. Then, the code needs to be magically produced. (I find it truly amazing how many non-coders so cavalierly look to major software projects and apparently dismiss the person-years of efforts already embedded in the code.) Finally, and most difficultly, the resulting software must be posted as open source, with all of the attendant community demands that imposes. In fact, it is this last requirement that is often the hidden, frozen banana.
Obviously, any successful project needs to address a latent need with a sufficient user base. This could be one of thousands of end users or simply dozens of prominent influencers. And, of course, much of open source is tool- or function-based, so that formulation of a successful initiative by no means requires developing an application in the conventional sense. Indeed, successful projects may span from a relatively complete “app” such as Zotero to code libraries or parsers or even standards development. Yet independent of the code base itself, there does seem to need to be some essential moving parts in place to be successful:
And finally, and most importantly, the project participants need:
Why I Like These Two Projects
I am an omnivore for finding new, exciting projects. I have specific aims in mind, and they are (generally) different than what is motivating the specific project developers. Of the many hundreds of projects I have investigated, I think these two are among the best, but for different reasons and with different strengths.
The Zotero project, though early in the process, has all of the traits to be an exemplar in terms of documentation, professionalism, openness and active outreach to its communities. I take the criticisms from some in the community (motivated, I believe, by good will) to be a result of possible frustrations regarding pent-up needs and expectations, rather than the project’s poor execution or arrogance. I think posing the discussion as the dialectic of the cathedral v. the bazaar is silly and does the project and its sponsors a disservice. What looks to be going on is simply the real-world of the open-source sausage factory in the face of constraints.
As for Simile, we are seeing true innovation being conducted in real time in the open. And while some of these innovations have practical applications today, many are still cutting edge and not fully vetted. With the program’s stated aims of addressing emerging computer science challenges, this tension will remain and is healthy. Criticisms of the Simile efforts as “research programming”, I think, miss the boat. If you want to know what is going to be in your browser or influencing your Internet experience a few years hence, look to Simile (among others).
A Final Thought
Now that my spree of global searching for software ideas is somewhat winding down, I am truly taken with the sea change that open source and its spur to innovation is bringing to us. Costs are declining, barriers to entry are lowering, time to completion is shortening, ideas and innovations are blossoming, interoperability is improving, and our world is changing — and for the better. Zotero and Simile are amongst the young that deserve to be nurtured, not eaten.