Tag Archives: Technology


I read an article in the Star Herald last week about privacy. They discussed Facebook turning over private messages to the government. It seems your Amazon Ring videos can also be turned over without your knowledge. Google, Apple, and Amazon don’t have your best interests (or your privacy) in mind when you use their voice technology.

Shortly after September 11, 2001 Congress signed the Patriot Act into law. Still in shock after the attacks, Congress felt national security was at risk. According to the ACLU’s website,

“The Patriot Act increases the government’s surveillance powers in four areas:

  1. Records searches.  It expands the government’s ability to look at records on an individual’s activity being held by a third party. (Section 215) 
  2. Secret searches.  It expands the government’s ability to search private property without notice to the owner. (Section 213) 
  3. Intelligence searches.  It expands a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment that had been created for the collection of foreign intelligence information (Section 218). 
  4. “Trap and trace” searches.  It expands another Fourth Amendment exception for spying that collects “addressing” information about the origin and destination of communications, as opposed to the content (Section 214).”

The part about third parties applies to libraries. You may not be reading anything to cause suspicion.You may not want the government to know what you are reading regardless of that. In 2005 the federal government asked a Connecticut library to turn over information about who had been using their computers. This data would have endangered the privacy of many patrons, besides the target patron. The librarians refused.

Privacy at libraries is important. The American Library Association (ALA) says this: “All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. When users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists.”

Libraries are not allowed to let their patrons know if they have been contacted by the government. Some libraries have posted a sign that says something like this, “The NSA has not been to the library today.” If the sign is gone, the NSA has requested information from the library.

Gering Library’s computer system allows us to tell our patrons if they have checked out an item before. Many of our avid readers appreciate finding out they have already read a book. They can choose another book while they are at the library if they didn’t intend to re-read the book. 

This is handy, but it has some flaws. If the government should ask us to turn over our records, this patron history would be part of those records. This setting on the accounts is haphazard. Some folks have it, others don’t. You might prefer to have the library not retain your reading information. If this is the case, just let the librarian know. We simply unselect a button and your reading history is…history. You can also set Libby by Overdrive to not retain your search or reading history.

The paper slips patrons use to access our public computers leave no information about who was using the computers. Each night the computers are “wiped” of any lingering cookies. If you take the time to log out of your accounts, nobody will know you were here.

I have heard people say, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what does it hurt?” I think the reply to that is, “my business isn’t anybody else’s business.” The Gering Public Library stands with the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. Every library user has a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library usage. If the government were to request library records, we cannot provide information we do not have.

Algorithms and book groups

January 3, 2023

One of my readers, a book group member, felt the urge to write a guest column after reading my column about algorithms a couple of weeks ago. You may read it below in quotations, followed by my comments.

“Another thing algorithms do is feed you suggestions about more of what you just read. If you read a news article, you will get suggestions about more of what you read. Therefore you are not exposed to a variety of ideas or opinions, only more information that reinforces the opinion you already hold. So much for social media.

Which brings up the idea of book clubs. Many, many members of book clubs, including Food for Thought, at Gering Public Library say, ‘I joined this book club to read books that I wouldn’t ordinarily choose.’ There is a wide variety in the selections. Not everyone enjoys every book. Some admit they didn’t finish the month’s book. But many times people admit they really liked the book and would never have chosen it off the shelf. They are often happy to have found a new author’s works to explore.

Book clubs monthly offerings are usually chosen from lists made up by members who have read or want to read a book, suggestions from the library staff, or books currently being discussed by the public. Some are long (January reading), some are short (maybe during November), some are nonfiction and some are fiction with discussable characters and situations. But there is always something to talk about by people interested in lively discussion. 

An algorithm choosing similar books would not satisfy the intellectual curiosity of this book club.”

On the topic of books people might not choose on their own, I want to share a story. The Food for Thought group read “Far From the Tree: parents, children, and the search for identity” by Andrew Solomon. Solomon discusses how children are different from their parents. He covers topics such as mental illness, deafness and a variety of other physical conditions. Other chapters involve children who become prodigies, or criminals, or were conceived in rape. This book has nearly 700 pages, and each chapter stands alone. I suggested that book group members find a chapter or two that appealed to them and then be prepared to discuss what they read. It was an opportunity to learn about things we were curious about, like transgendered people.

After the discussion one of the book group members discovered that a close relative had been diagnosed with a condition that was covered in the book. She checked out “Far From the Tree” again to read that particular chapter. She would not have selected this book from the shelf for her personal reading. If she hadn’t been in our book group, she would have had no idea that sort of information was available.

Algorithms have made our lives easier, but relying on them too much limits our knowledge, our choices, and ultimately our experiences.


January 24, 2023

I was watching TV the other night and was reminded of a book I read years ago. It was a mystery with a female investigator who I think was a rabbi. I typed some search words into my phone and lo and behold, Wikipedia had a page called “List of female detective characters.” How handy! I narrowed it down to two possibilities. Nowhere else in the world could I find a list like this. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Wikipedia has another side though.While anyone can add a page consisting of a list of female detective characters in popular culture, anyone can edit Wikipedia pages. According to Wikipedia, “Editing most Wikipedia pages is not very difficult at all. Simply click on the “edit this page” tab at the top of a Wikipedia page (or on a section-edit link). This will bring you to a new page with a text box containing the editable text of the original page.”

While researching this column, I came across several Wikipedia pages about articles Wikipedia themselves believes might be hoaxes and those that have been proven to be hoaxes. You can follow links to the decision-making process editors used, for example, “Strong delete – Not only is this not notable, but I have strong suspicions that this may be a hoax (and who knows why the article has been in existence for 12 years!)”

 In 2009 a couple of college students made a handful of edits to the Amelia Bedelia Wikipedia page after a night of partying. They mentioned that the character was based on a maid from Cameroon and that the author, Peggy Parish, had an extensive hat collection. Those changes remained on the Amelia Bedelia page until the author found it quoted in 2014. The amateur editor admitted what he had done on social media.Wikipedia swiftly banned him from editing pages. By then the fake facts had been cited in everything from social media, to lesson plans, to book reports. 

Nobody claims that a published encyclopedia is error free. The difference between these two sources of information is the motives of the editors making the mistakes. Encyclopedia errors tend to be oversights that fact checkers missed in the editing process. Wikipedia errors are often meant to be either funny or malicious.

I found a “Bored Panda” article about 64 noteworthy Wikipedia edits. At one point, the Thermodynamics page stated, “The first law of thermodynamics is do not talk about thermodynamics.”

Malicious editing is sometimes called revenge editing. Several years ago Wikipedia changed its editing policies for the pages of people who are still alive to prevent malicious editing. In the past, actor Jeremy Renner has been listed as a velociraptor. Actor Karen Gillen, of Dr Who fame, was said to have had 68 children, and Singer Solange was listed as Jay Z’s 100th problem. Many people have been listed as dead on their pages when they were still alive.

The temptation to edit Wikipedia remains though. At one point some local high school students edited the Gering, Nebraska Wikipedia page. When the school administration found out the changes were deleted.

Rather than using Wikipedia as a source, you can scroll to the bottom where the original sources are located. Click on them to find links to the original information. However, it’s wise to keep in mind that nobody maintains the links, or regularly updates Wikipedia pages. Just because it’s posted on Wikipedia doesn’t mean the information is still current. I found outdated information and broken source links on some of the author pages I recently viewed.

It took me several weeks to write this article because I kept going down Wikipedia wormholes. All those links to more information! Please use Wikipedia responsibly. Think of it as amateurs providing information to amateurs, or like a Yelp review. Fun to read, but not necessarily reliable. Wikipedia is useful to a point, but you can often find better online resources, some are even available through your local library. 

Chat GPT

March 28, 2023

Nothing puts a pit in my stomach like someone asking me to sign a card for a coworker. I hated writing in yearbooks. These days I am finding retirement cards are no better. A friend of mine has six sons, and when the oldest was in the army, a younger brother signed a birthday card to him, “Anything I put here would be awkward.” (Picture me doing Katniss Everdeen’s three finger salute here) Solidarity, my wise friend, solidarity.

Facing yet another retirement card last week, I consulted the internet for something to say. Elbert Hubbard’s “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive,” seemed inappropriate, as did Dr. Seuss’s advice, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” What to write?

Chat GPT is making the news. It seems that somebody decided computers can write better than, or at least as well as, people can. They developed “Chat GPT” to prove it. Chat GPT- and soon to be many other similar programs use AI or Artificial Intelligence to mimic human behavior and choices. In this case, it is being used to write, but AI is also being used to create visual art.

I logged in and asked “What should I write in a retirement card?” The program spit out 10 generic responses. Here are three: “1. Congratulations on your retirement! Enjoy this new chapter of your life. 2. Wishing you all the best in your retirement. May it be filled with joy, relaxation, and new adventures. 3. Your dedication and hard work have inspired us all. Enjoy your retirement, and know that your legacy will live on.” 

It seems you can ask Chat GPT to write anything for you, including term papers. In fact this has already happened. A professor thought the writing seemed off in one of his student’s essays, so he investigated and discovered Chat GPT had written the paper. The student admitted to plagiarism and was subsequently expelled from the university. As the technology improves, and you can be sure it will, plagiarism will be more difficult to detect.

Accuracy is another problem Chat GPT users are encountering. The program is learning from the internet, which isn’t always accurate. If the program finds conflicting information, it can’t determine which pieces are correct, so it guesses.

While I was logged in, I asked Chat GPT to compose a vision statement for the library. It came up with this:

“The Gering Library is a vibrant hub of community engagement, where people of all backgrounds and ages come together to learn, create, and connect. We strive to provide innovative and responsive services that meet the changing needs of our patrons. Our goal is to foster a culture of lifelong learning and civic participation, and to promote equity and inclusion through the power of knowledge and information. Through our efforts, we hope to inspire a sense of curiosity and wonder in all who enter our doors, and to be a catalyst for positive social change in our community and beyond.”

I liked it a lot. So did everyone else on staff. It doesn’t feel bland like the retirement suggestions, and it covers what I think is our vision for the Gering Library.

I will play with Chat GPT more, but I don’t see an algorithm replacing interesting writing. Could it write a library column for me? I promise, if I experiment, I will let you know.  I write because I enjoy putting my thoughts together. An algorithm will never replace a personal touch, either in writing or in visual artworks.

In the end I avoided both the bland and the inappropriate notes. I reminded my friend to come visit us, now that he has free time. My response made me sad, because he wrote the most thoughtful and funny note in the card he sent for my wedding. I let him down. I should have done better, but I drew a blank. I can write on paper, but faced with a greeting card I am useless.