February 27, 2007

Laurence Musgrove is cranky

And he does have a few good points, but not on everything.

InsideHigherEd a week or so ago published Musgrove's essay iCranky and it really hit a nerve for me. It touches on a lot of things that are changing about higher ed that are really important to keep track of, most especially how to deal with students that have a lot more options than they used to. And I mean options in terms of how to do research for assignments, how to waste time and tune out in class, how to procrastinate and plagiarize, how to get even with profs who annoy them. They also have options to collaborate and direct their own learning as never before. The trick is how to balance the good and evil of the multitude of possibilities that new technology offers us. Just because there are new possibilities doesn't mean that they're automatically either good or bad, what we should be aiming for is to find what works in different circumstances and for different student groups. We should be open to try new things but at the same time we should resist the temptation to brand something as a miraculous cure for all that ails us just because it's new. The other extreme is to put our heads in the sand and say that only old-school teaching methods are good and that nothing positive can come from new technolgies.

I'm going to exerpt the last few paragraphs of the essay and comment on them.

Another reason I’m cranky today is that I detest these facile characterizations of our students. At some point, I expect the next newest generation to be labeled “USBs” or “ScanDisks” or “Intels” or “iLearners.” These names and framing metaphors, of course, support all sorts of false notions of knowledge and learning and teaching and success and most frightening: humanity.

Kids today are just the same as always -- cool, lazy, hardworking, procrastinating, social, sullen, passive, overcontrolled, aggressive, bullying -- the whole gammut. Something I think we tend to forget is that not every kid is as plugged in or connected as the rest. There's a digital divide even within the net generation. Some aren't as interest or have the same aptitudes, some have had bad experiences with cyber bullying, or any other reason. I think we have to resist the temptation to assume all the kids in the current generation are the same.

And I’m cranky because this attempt to equate pedagogy with technology confuses ends with means. “Student engagement” has become the latest assessment buzzphrase, and thus, the newest once-and-for-all measure of and purpose for learning. In other words, any desire to understand the value of learning to individual students is replaced with the desire to promote the most efficient and engaging mode of learning by as many students as possible. And faculty better get in line to be online.

Hmmm. I'm torn on this one. On one hand, it is important to recognize that all students are different and have different learning styles and needs. On the other hand, there's really no reason why the technology can't serve those diverse needs just as well, if not better, than older methods. Especially if we find a way to let students mix old and new in a way that works best for them.

Techno-teaching and ilearning are also best because that’s what our students expect from us. They are the current experts on learning, they know how they best prefer to learn, and we should deliver unto them what they want in the way they want it. Thus I’m cranky because in between the government money pouring into institutional assessment and the tuition pouring in from 18 year old students, faculty members get shortchanged.

Letting students decide how we should teach them is like letting the inmates run the asylum. Very true. If most students could decide what and how they could learn, if would be "nothing" and on the beach to boot. On the other hand, we run asylums quite a bit differently now than we did in the 1800s. We don't even call them asylums any more. The university learning experience hasn't changed that much in the same time period. Maybe we should listen a bit more to what our students are telling us about ourselves and spend a bit less time proclaiming our authority. We should do what works, not because it's what students think we should do but because between us we should be able to find some solutions.

Finally, I’m cranky because I have to confront all of this professional development ruckus to claim my own professional authority, to say that I am smart enough to keep track of my own discipline and the latest pedagogical advancements without having to be lectured to two or three times a year about what college students need.

Most annoying part to me. Something as a librarian I sometimes encounter from students is the attitude, "Hey, I'm a millennial and you're an old fart librarian. There's nothing you can possibly teach me that's worth knowing." Or, "Hey, I'm a faculty member,and you're an old fart librarian. There's nothing you can possibly teach me or my students that's worth knowing." Ok, more than a little exageration for effect, but we've all seen that dismissive look on people's faces or the polite refusal of help. I think we all need to admit that we don't know everything, that other people can help us, that they have something to offer if only we'd just take a minute to listen. And I include myself in that category of needing to listen more.

What our students need is not more of what they come in the door with. They don’t need more of the same in the same way they got it before. They need to be confronted with people who talk about ideas that matter. They need to become people who can confront and talk to other people about ideas that matter. They need to sit in a room of people and learn about humanity.

This one I agree with totally. This is what education is about and we risk loosing this kind of interaction at the deadly peril of irrelevance. And students of all times and places have resisted getting their minds expanded. But shouldn't we expand the definition of door a bit? And doesn't he realize he accused himself of the same narrow-mindedness in the previous paragraph?

Also, not more Facebook, but more faces in books, extended periods of silent and sustained reading and writing, developing intellectual stamina and the ability to ask questions that don’t lead to easy answers or a quick and final Wikisearch.

Another good point. A lot of learning is more than just multitasking, more than just surface skimming, it's sustained, narrow focus on important texts and ideas until they begin to make sense. But again, I would submit that we should expand the definition of "book" until it might even include, well, FaceBook. You can learn through intense, narrow, focused conversation, interaction and collaboration too. I think students might be more receptive to reading books if they saw them as integrated with a much wider information landscape, the landscape they are more intimately familiar with.

February 26, 2007

Comment moderation turned on

I've been getting a few of those new-fangled spam comments recently where they are able to bypass the word verification feature, a least 2 or 3 a day. So, I'll be trying comment moderation for a little while to see if it just peters out after a while. Thanks for your understanding.

The life of a CS grad student

Lance Fortnow at Computational Complexity brings together a bunch of posts where he's given some advice on thriving and surviving the grad student experience from choosing a school to apply to all the way to negotiating the first job offer. The emphasis is on CS, but most of what he says is relevant to other fields. As well, he gives lots of insights into what all those grad students skulking around campus are going through. Many of the posts also have lively conversations going on in the comments sections.

Here they are:

February 23, 2007

It's National Engineering Week

Here in Canada it's National Engineering Week from February 24 to March 4 (I guess making NEW 9 days is a kludge?). The national site is mostly aimed at younger kids and includes some cool profiles. It's sponsored by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers and various other associations.

The Ontario site seems targeted for a slightly older audience, maybe middle school and high school. The list of Ontario sponsors is here. There was an insert in the Globe and Mail yesterday, which you can view here. The insert has a bunch of good articles, including "Engineering is all around us: Across our country's vast expanse, Canadians are connected by a legacy of engineering acheivements" and "Eastern Canadian robotics games inspire Ontario youth."

There are also some inserts from previous years here. Every year I email the organizers to complain that the current newspaper insert isn't online right away, and they finally seem to have listened; I'm sure they got a lot of requests asking for the current insert to be online.

Friday Fun: Anthony Bourdain edition

Michael Ruhlman's blog has a guest post from famed TV/celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (Wikipedia). Now Bourdain is sort of the General Patton of TV chefs and takes no prisoners when he goes after various Food Network personalities. Some excerpts:

EMERIL: I’m actually grateful when I channel surf across his show. He’s STILL there--the original Behemoth. And I STILL find him unwatchable.


RACHAEL: Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So...what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough.


SANDRA LEE: Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained.

Ouch. But funny in a vicious sort of way. He actually has some nice things to say about people like Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and even Giada De Laurentiis.

There's an astounding 559 comments on the post.

February 22, 2007

New carnival on the block: Scientiae

Skookumchick of Rants of a Feminist Engineer is starting up a new carnival, Scientiae: Stories of and from women in science, engineering, technology and math. She'll also be hosting the first one, due out on March 1st. Submissions are due February 27th.

This is a terrific idea for a new carnival, one that's probably overdue. And yes, I've already submitted the Jane interview.

February 21, 2007

Recently in Communications of the ACM

So, you think your institution is change-resistant?

There are institutions where legacy systems can be literally measured in millennia! Imagine being in charge of the Vatican's web sites...and take a look at a video interview with Sister Judith Zoebelein who has that very job. A terrific interview, it really gives a sense of what it's like to bring such an ancient institution into the modern era -- actually, not as hard as it might sound, it seems. I'm really happy I discovered Robert Schoble's show recently; there's lots of cool stuff there.

And while we're on interesting stories with a religious angle, I suggest you read The Story of Sergey Brin: How the Moscow-born entrepreneur cofounded and changed the way the world searches by Mark Malseed. Brin being, of course, co-founder of Google with Larry Page. The story is very interesting in the way it interweaves Brin's Russian-Jewish heritage, his experiences as an immigrant in the US and his drive to build Google from the ground-up. (Via SearchEngineLand.) And speaking of Larry Page, Retrospectacle neatly demolishes his arrogance in trying to tell scientists to be more like toothpaste salespeople. Both these guys have chutzpah to spare, which makes sense when you think about it.

And finally, I'd also like to mention that Frances E. Allen Wins ACM’s Turing Award, the first woman to do so. The Turing Award is the highest honour in the computing field.

From the press release:

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, has named Frances E. Allen the recipient of the 2006 A.M. Turing Award for contributions that fundamentally improved the performance of computer programs in solving problems, and accelerated the use of high performance computing. This award marks the first time that a woman has received this honor. The Turing Award, first presented in 1966, and named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing, is widely considered the "Nobel Prize in Computing." It carries a $100,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation.

Allen, an IBM Fellow Emerita at the T.J. Watson Research Center, made fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of program optimization, which translates the users' problem-solving language statements into more efficient sequences of computer instructions. Her contributions also greatly extended earlier work in automatic program parallelization, which enables programs to use multiple processors simultaneously in order to obtain faster results. These techniques have made it possible to achieve high performance from computers while programming them in languages suitable to applications. They have contributed to advances in the use of high performance computers for solving problems such as weather forecasting, DNA matching, and national security functions.

February 20, 2007

Interview with Jane of See Jane Compute

I proud and pleased to inaugurate my occasional interview series with one of my all-time favourite bloggers, Jane of See Jane Compute. Her running commentary on computer science, teaching, women in science and general life in academia are an inspiration -- and lots of fun to boot.

Her best known posts are likely the Teaching: The Miniseries set of posts:

I hope to continue this series of interviews on an approximately monthly basis, featuring scitech bloggers (including librarians) and people in the publishing industry. Mostly I would really like to thank Jane for agreeing to help me jump-start this little project, proving what a fine person she is. But enough of me. On with the interview!

Q0. I would normally ask a "tell me something about yourself" question but it's hard to know what to ask without probing too deeply into your anonymity. If there are some details you wouldn't mind sharing about your professional & educational history, consider yourself asked.

Yeah, this one is tricky to answer with the whole anonymity thing, isn't it? Well, I'll start with the obvious: I'm an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, in my 4th year on the tenure track and currently fortunate enough to be on a pre-tenure sabbatical. I'm currently expecting my first child. I'm not sure which freaks me out more at this point: going up for tenure or becoming a parent. :) My background is quite varied; without getting into too many details, my research interests overlap quite a few subfields, so I've done a lot of moving around within that space. I've also worked a teeny bit in (and with) industry, which I think lends an extra richness and understanding to my research and to my teaching.

Q1. How did you get into blogging? What role has it played in your life?

I've been blogging since December of 2004. I started reading blogs in the summer of 2004--I believe Bitch, Ph.D and Barely Tenured were the first blogs I found and read. I decided to finally take the plunge and start blogging myself because (a) this new medium was really compelling and interesting to me; (b) I felt like I might just have something to say, and wanted to experiment with my own non-academic writing voice; and (c) I hadn't found many CS or scientific women bloggers, and felt that the blogosphere needed to hear more of those voices. I've never, ever been successful with journalling or any other kind of sustained personal writing, and frankly have always somewhat feared writing, so the fact that I've continued on with this for so long still amazes me.

Blogging, more than anything else, has helped me to find my voice and to realize that my experiences are relevant and shared by others. It is so easy, as a woman academic, to start doubting all the little and big things you're experiencing--"is it all in my head"? Blogging helps me voice some of those experiences, positive and negative, and thus work through them. Blogging has also helped me become fearless about my work. After all, I write all these really intimate things about my life and my fears and shortcomings for total strangers, on a regular basis! If I can do that, then heck, sending in a paper for review or trying a new line of questioning/experiments is a piece of cake. It has helped me become a much better, quicker, and more prolific writer. And finally, it has allowed me to find an incredible community of technical and scientific women bloggers who also fearlessly share their experiences.

Q2. Why do you blog anonymously? Do you think you'll "come out" once you get tenure?

To be honest, I really struggled with the anonymity issue before I started blogging. I knew that anonymity would be both freeing and limiting. Ultimately, though, I decided that I wanted the freedom to talk about my real experiences as a woman in CS: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wanted to be able to talk about my students, my struggles, my triumphs, and frivolous things without worrying that my colleagues and/or students could Google me and find these things. I also wanted to be able to talk about things without people filtering them through preconceived notions about me, my research area, or the type of institution at which I work. I think I can reach more people, and be more authentic, as an anonymous blogger at this point; I consider my blog to be somewhat of a "safe space" for discussing the life of a woman in CS, and anonymity better allows me to do this.

That said, there are things I really wish I could discuss that I can't because of my anonymity. Things like my research (which I think is really, really cool and fascinating), or things related to the type of institution that I work at, or even things related to the rhythm of the school year. And I find that even with anonymity, I feel the need to hide information, alter details, or just avoid discussing certain things altogether.

The "coming out" question is the million dollar question for me right now. I'm toying with the idea of being a bit freer with the information I give out about my field, my work, and my institution type once I get tenure, but that's probably as far as I'll go.

Q3. You share a lot about the joys and frustrations of teaching in your blog. Does this help you work through problems and issues in your teaching, helping you evolve your teaching practice? Or is just a way to blow off steam?

Both, actually. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my own teaching, because I'd obviously like to be the most effective teacher I can (without letting teaching stuff completely take over my life...it's a delicate balance). Teaching is something that I love doing, that I feel "called to do" in a sense, but at the same time still struggle with. I've found that blogging about teaching helps me to see things--patterns and such--that are either helping my teaching or holding me back from being an effective teacher. In fact, blogging about teaching inspired me to start a teaching journal last fall, which I also found immensely useful in figuring out what works and what doesn't work (and identifying good and bad patterns). Plus, I get so much inspiration about teaching from other bloggers--I've plucked things from completely different fields and tried them out in my own classroom, some successfully, others not so much. So I also view blogging about teaching as a give-and-take: "Here's what works/doesn't work for me; what works/doesn't work for you?"

But sometimes, you just have a bad class and need to get it off your chest, so being able to just vent every once in a while is great! And often, these venting posts will result in fabulous advice from my readers--particularly when the source of my frustration is classroom management issues (disruptive/disrespectful students, etc.).

Q4. You blog a lot about women's experiences in an academic computing environment. How do you think those experiences are similar or different from women in other science/engineering/medicine disclines? Or even non-science fields like law or business?

Great question! I imagine that there are universal threads that run through the experiences of strong women in any field, whether it's a more gender-equitable field like law or medicine or a field like CS or engineering that's still struggling to achieve anywhere near respectable gender numbers. Things like not being listened to, or stereotyped because of the way one dresses or speaks, or not given a chance because "you'll just run off and have babies"--these are universal parts of the experience of being a woman in our society. I think what makes the computing fields different, and from what I understand some of the "less enlightened" engineering and science fields (electrical engineering, physics), is the whole "macho culture". Women are still made to feel like they just don't belong in these fields, whether it's because of the media images (the antisocial hacker, the almost total absence of women and their contributions in discussions of technical innovations and innovators) or the things we emphasize in the CS classroom and lab (bogging our students down in details and syntax, rather than focusing on the benefits and applications of computing) or even what we focus on to praise ("my code is faster/bigger/better than yours"). And it's not just women--men who don't fit the mold experience feelings of not belonging, too, although to a lesser extent. And that's unhealthy for everyone. What I try to do through my blog is expose this culture, in all its unhealthiness, as a way of adding to the dialogue (hopefully) of how we can start to change this. I want to highlight, through my own experiences, why we should all be invested in changing the computing culture to something way more inclusive than it is now.

Q5. What's the best thing about your job? The worst?

I love the freedom that my job brings me. I can work on whatever research problem I find interesting, dabble in other subfields, even propose new classes on topics I find interesting. I also love working with students. College students are so energetic (sometimes too much so!), and a lot of them are doing amazing and remarkable things with their lives. I get a real kick out of getting to know them--their energy and passion is contagious.

The worst is definitely being the only woman in my department, and all of the stuff that goes along with that. Some days, I feel like I'm shouting into a vacuum, that it's impossible to make a difference as The Token Woman, that my colleagues just don't get it and don't want to get it. And that's really, really frustrating. But then again, I knew that's what I was getting into when I took this job, and I do think that my presence here is slowly improving the culture in our department....but progress is painfully slow, and I'm an impatient person!

Q6. What's your hope for the future, both for the field of computing and those who toil away in it?

My first and greatest hope is that we change, really and truly and fundamentally change, the culture of CS. The future of our field, I believe, depends more than anything on opening ourselves up to a wider set of ideas and perspectives. To do this, we have to have more people in general, and a more diverse set of people in particular, at that metaphorical table. We need to get rid of the macho hacker culture and replace it with the (truer) image that computing is something that is and will continue to fundamentally change society, and that we all can and should take a role in shaping this future society. My second hope is that we continue to strive towards universal access: making development and content creation tools easier to use, providing more opportunities for underserved populations to cross over that digital divide, removing restrictions on content consumption and content development, etc. Computing has the potential to be the great societal unifier, and we as practitioners should never, ever lose sight of that.

February 19, 2007

Science Matters: If I were Prime Minister

David Suzuki's February 16th Science Matters column is called Internet Can Bring Communities Together.

There are now hundreds of "If I were Prime Minister" videos up on the tour website (www.davidsuzuki.org). Some are silly. Some are inspiring. Some are familiar faces and others complete strangers. But they are all Canadians who have ideas on what our politicians can do to make Canada a world leader in sustainability.


The videos are one way to do that. At each event, young Simon, our videographer, is there ready to record clips of people expressing the kinds of changes they would make if they were prime minister. Sometimes people are shy, but more often than not, Simon is practically mobbed by people wanting to express their opinions. That's especially true of the realityTV generation, who has been raised under the blinking light of a camcorder and has few reservations about talking to one.


What we need now is to rationalize our economy with ecological reality. This means we need to shift our economy to be cleaner and smarter. We need to stop subsidizing polluting industries. We need to create targets and timelines to reduce pollution to levels that do not jeopardize our natural systems. It means our environment, not our economy must be the real bottom line.

You can catch the tour blog, podcasts, celebrity videos, with the tour home page here. There are an astonishing 268 videos on the YouTube group.

Winter ISTL

The theme for the winter Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship (i49) is Reference & More.

Some hightlights from the ToC:

February 18, 2007

More videos -- CERN, Google & anti-ID

I just love these science-y videos:

February 16, 2007

Friday Fun Part 2: Disney Demon Spawn edition

This one contrasts nicely with the previous post, a sync of the Black Sabbath song Black Sabbath with the Night on Bald Mountain segment from the Disney film Fantasia. IMHO, this is almost as good as the original -- the combo works very well together.

This video is only the first half. The other half uses the songs Children of the Grave and Hand of Doom for the rest of the Bald Mountain segment but isn't as good as the first half.

Anyways, here goes:

Via BoingBoing, where there are links to a bunch of other Sabbath goodies.

Friday Fun: And god said, let there be strings

Another from xkcd, this one titled Lisp.

February 15, 2007

Science Librarian -- York University Libraries

This is a posting for a new tenure stream librarian at my library, the Steacie Science & Engineering Library. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to contact me via email at jdupuis at yorku dot ca. I'm not on the search committee, but it is at the library I work at every day so I can answer both fairly specific questions about Steacie as well as general questions about working at York. Like I said, this is a brand new position and a terrific opportunity to work at a great institution. The ad is online here as some other library postings at York here.

Science Librarian

York University Libraries seek a self-directed and public service-oriented Science Librarian based in the Steacie Science & Engineering Library.

The Science Librarian will be responsible for faculty liaison, collection development and the delivery of library programs for assigned disciplines and will participate in research consultations and outreach activities to departments and research centres. Responsibilities include selection of information resources, collection management and evaluation in such fields as kinesiology, neuroscience and mathematics. He/she will work individually and as part of a team to develop and provide reference services and information literacy programs to York’s community of users taking full advantage of the online learning and web environments. She/he will also participate in project and committee work for York University Libraries and the University. Some evening and weekend work is required.

York University offers a world-class, modern, interdisciplinary academic experience in Toronto, Canada’s most multicultural city. York is at the centre of innovation, with a thriving community of almost 60,000 students, faculty and staff, who challenge the ordinary and deliver the unexpected.

Steacie Science and Engineering Library is one of four libraries within York University Libraries. The Steacie Science and Engineering Library attracts a half million visitors a year and provides specialized resources, and reference and instructional services to the science, engineering, and health programs of York University. Three full-time librarians and seven full-time support staff are currently based in the Steacie Library.

Qualifications: An ALA-accredited MLIS or equivalent with up to two years’ post-MLIS experience. Educational background relating to science, technology, health, or kinesiology. Knowledge of science and technology literature and reference resources, and awareness of emerging trends in scholarly communication. Experience with Web authoring software and Web support technologies; familiarity with Web 2.0 technologies preferred. Strong client-centred service philosophy and evidence of professional initiative and leadership. Ability to handle multiple responsibilities and projects concurrently. Strong written and oral communication skills, including demonstrated skills in teaching and public communications. Ability to work effectively and collegially with a diversity of colleagues and clients. Interest in research, professional development, and university committee work.

The Science Librarian position is a tenure-track appointment to be filled at the Assistant Librarian level and is appropriate for a librarian with up to two years’ post-MLIS experience. Librarians at York University have academic status and are members of the York University Faculty Association bargaining unit (http://www.yufa.org/). Salary is commensurate with qualifications. The position is available May 1, 2007. All York University positions are subject to budgetary approval.

York University is an Affirmative Action Employer. The Affirmative Action Program can be found on York's website at www.yorku.ca/acadjobs or a copy can be obtained by calling the affirmative action office at 416-736-5713. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and Permanent Residents will be given priority.

Campus resources include an on-site daycare centre and centres relating to gender equity, race and ethnic relations, sexual harassment, human rights, and wellness. York University encourages attitudes of respect and non-discrimination toward persons of all ethnic and religious groups, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The deadline for applications is March 12, 2007. Applications, including a cover letter relating applicant qualifications to the requirements of the position, a current curriculum vitae, a link to online examples of work where relevant, and the names of three referees, should be sent to:

Chair, Science Librarian Appointment Committee
York University Libraries, 310 Scott Library
York University, 4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3
Fax: 416-736-5451

Applications should be sent by mail or by fax with a mail copy following. Applications sent by e-mail will not be accepted.

Is computer science science?

Knowing and Doing has a post on Computer Science as Science which has a lot of interesting insights:

Computer science is grounded in a deep sense of empiricism, where the scientific method plays an essential role in the process of doing computer science. It's just that the entities or systems that we study don't always spring from the "natural world" without man's intervention. But they are complex systems that we don't understand thoroughly yet -- systems created by technological processes and by social processes.


As Bertrand Russell wrote a century ago, science is about description, not logic or causation or any other naive notion we have about necessity. Scientists describe things. This being the case, computer science is in many ways the ultimate scientific endeavor -- or at least a foundational one -- because computer science is the science of description. In computing we learn how to describe thing and process better, more accurately and more usefully. Some of our findings have been surprising, like the unity of data and program. We've learned that process descriptions whose behavior we can observe will teach us more than static descriptions of the same processes left to the limited interpretative powers of the human mind. The study of how to write descriptions -- programs -- has taught us more about language and expressiveness and complexity than our previous mathematics could ever have taught us. And we've only begun to scratch the surface.

February 13, 2007

New science carnivals

Two newish science carnivals for your attention:

  • Philosophia Naturalis is a monthly carnival that's been going since September 2006. Here's the story:
    Philosophia Naturalis will take the physical sciences and technology as its focus. The physical sciences include physics, astronomy, cosmology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and Earth sciences. And just as medicine is applied life science, technology is applied physical science, including such topics as nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, alternative energy, and quantum computing. We also intend to be generous about considering "borderline" topics for inclusion.

    As they mention, this is really the first carnival to cover the non-life sciences. The most recent is #6 at Science and Reason.

  • The Carnival of Mathematics also is filling a gap in carnival coverage, as there hasn't been one covering math exclusively before. The story:
    Biology bloggers have Tangled Bank. Medical bloggers have Grand Rounds. Neuroscience bloggers have Encephalon. And now math bloggers have the Carnival of Mathematics. If you have anything to blog about that’s related to math, it belongs here. Possible topics include,

    - Proofs of theorems and formulas, whether in pure or applied math;
    - Explanations of mathematical concepts, as basic as those on ScienceBlogs’ basic concepts series;
    - Anything related to math education, from complaints about innumerate students to long-winded theories of how to teach math;
    - Debunking bad math, especially when used to bolster bad science, bad economics, or bad politics;
    - How to apply good math to other fields like physics, economics, computer science, and ;
    - Math in popular culture: the TV series Numb3rs, the movies Pi and Proof, any book by Simon Singh, and so on.

    Despite the mathematical inclination of the carnival, theoretical computer scientists and theoretical physicists are welcome to submit posts about their fields. Both disciplines are highly mathematized, and when it comes to such subfields as Lie theory, logic, and complexity theory, it’s hard to pinpoint where one discipline ends and other begins.

    This one's planned for every two weeks. The first one is up at Abstract Nonsense.

Of course, I would be remiss in having a carnival post without mentioning our own revitalized Carnival of the Inforsciences. The most recent is at Libraryola, the next is scheduled for February 19th at Innovate .

The Joy of Science

Zuska of Thus Spake Zuska has started an informal, online course in the feminist philosophy of science that she's calling Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science or just The Joy of Science for short.

It's based on a real-world course she wanted to run at one point. Here's her course description:

This course explores the existence of pleasure, intellectual excitement, and desire as an important component of theorizing and doing science and engineering. We will examine the presence and/or absence of accounts of pleasure/desire in feminist theories of science, and in mainstream science and engineering texts and pedagogy. We will also examine feminist accounts of what might be termed the diversity challenge in engineering, and how feminist theories of science and pleasure can inform this issue. The implications for an adequate feminist theory of science, and for attracting members of underrepresented groups to science and engineering, will be a focus of the course.

And the syllabus, again based on a real-world course:
  • There are two videos listed on the syllabus to which I don't have access. I won't be discussing them, unless by chance I find I way to get hold of them in time.
  • Since I only have one student (me), I won't be having the group presentations each week. However, I do have readers - that's you! And we do have a comments section. If you've done the readings and the theoretical analysis, you may have some insights you want to share with the world at large. Even if you haven't, you may read my take on the week's readings, and decide you have something to say about that. The comments section will, I hope, function as a sort of class discussion.
  • I won't be assigning final papers - though I may write one myself.
  • The course was designed assuming that mostly non-scientists and non-engineers would be taking it. The final project, taking apart a hand mixer and describing its workings and their experience in taking it apart, was intended to let them encounter a simple, everyday, technological object from a new viewpoint. I wanted students to explore how well the feminist theory they'd been reading about applied - or did not - to their experience. Perhaps at the end I'll ask you, the reader, to talk about your encounters with simple, everyday technology. I'll have to do some more thinking on this one.
  • Oh, and no grades! THAT ought to get me a good rating on RateMyProfessor.com!

It's a very cool idea, running a course for blog readers to follow along with. Of course, like any course there's a reading list, some introductory material, as well as lectures and discussion for week one.

The various posts are all linked via Zuska's Joy of Science tag, with links to the initial posts at the bottom of the list. There are aleady 11 posts in the series, most of which I've already linked. It seems like it's going to be a very worthwhile exercise to follow along with the course, even if you don't get around to doing the actual readings. I know I probably won't do most of the readings myself, since being on sabbatical means not having quick access to the books in our collections.

February 9, 2007

Friday Fun: The Problem with Wikipedia

I love the xkcd web comic and this is one of the funniest I've seen in a while. Doesn't every single Wikipedia search start and end this way? Doesn't Raymond Chandler end up at Matt Helm? Isaac Asimov at Pinky and the Brain?

February 8, 2007

SLACer videos (and a CERN one too)

Via Chris Leonard, a series of three videos produced by Robert Scoble's Scoble Show: A Videoblog about
Geeks, Technology and Developers
featuring his visit to SLAC. There's a total of nearly 2 hours of video. I haven't watched it all yet, but what I have watched is very good.

There's lots of cool looking stuff in the Scoble Show, include a couple of Cooking with Geeks videos.

Also via Chris, a short video from the PhysMathCentral featuring an interview with Jens Vigen, librarian at CERN. He talks quite a bit about open access, preprints, eprints and how that all plays out in the world of particle physics. A great quick introduction to scholarly communication patterns in that branch of physics.

Kim Stanley Robinson interview at LabLit

One of my favourite science fiction authors is Kim Stanley Robinson. His novels are always deep and interesting on many levels -- if not always incredibly compelling plot-wize. Well, his new global warming series of thrillers seems to be a bit of an exception to the plot problems and are getting glowing reviews. The first of the novels is coming up soon on my to-be-read pile.

LabLit just posted a terrific interview with Robinson where he touches on science, politics, science and politics, science fiction, global warming and the intersection of all of the above. A couple of tastes:

How important is the perception of genre – do you ever feel that being labelled as a ‘science fiction’ writer has held you back or restricted your readership?

This is a complicated issue, not easy to characterize. I believe in science fiction as being the genre of novels best able to capture the feel of our times, especially in the developed and industrialized West. So I am comfortable with my basically instinctive choice of what kind of method to take in writing novels.

“Perception of genre” is a different thing however, and it speaks to assumptions and attitudes that are outside of my control and also hard to be really accurate about. I can see that there is a part of our book culture that still looks down on science fiction, and there are readers out there who won’t read it on principle or by habit, but I feel that this attitude is their problem and not mine, and that they are missing out on some of the greatest novels of our time, and also not understanding our culture as well as they could if they did read science fiction. So, there is little I can do about this but to write novels that are relatively transparent to anyone used to reading novels of any kind, focusing on a kind of “realism of the near future,” which means people used to historical or contemporary novels ought to find mine easy to read. And then also to talk about these matters openly, and with the idea of emphasizing always that we in the West, and maybe everywhere now, are already living in a science fiction novel that we are all writing together; that history is now a science fiction story; so that reading science fiction (and I always include “novels about science” (or lab lit) as a particular kind of science fiction) is a way of orienting oneself and examining questions of meaning in the contemporary world, as well as getting a lot of artistic pleasure as a reader.


In your novels, what are your favorite strategies to transmit any necessary science without losing or boring the reader?

Well, I will do anything, including the person who needs things explained, which after all can be anyone, for instance an expert in a slightly different field; and I kind of like lectures too. This is an issue in the aesthetics of science fiction, because it became the fashion for a while to disparage exposition as a kind of literary faux pas, with writing workshops calling them “infodumps”. But I feel this can be taken too far, and often results in an end product that says nothing new and has no way of really speaking about science, because of the perceived need for unrelenting action at all times. But life is not like that, so this is not a realism. When I started my Mars books I decided consciously to take the time to write about anything I wanted, including all scientific topics necessary, with the idea that anything is interesting if you make it interesting, and that the surface of Mars was at least as interesting as yet another car chase across same. It resulted in a strange-reading text, compared to much of the science fiction out there at that time, and it scared me quite a bit, but the response to those books encouraged me to think that I had judged correctly, and that readers of novels were open to all kinds of different modes, including exposition.

February 7, 2007

Mamdouh Shoukri chosen as next president of York

I wouldn't normally post on a local announcement like this, but I couldn't resist mentioning that an engineer has been named president of my institution, York University.

Egyptian-born Shoukri, 59, is currently the vice-president (research & international affairs) at McMaster University in Hamilton and a professor of mechanical engineering. A member of the Ontario Research & Innovation Council (ORIC), Shoukri previously worked in various capacities with the Research Division of Ontario Hydro, before becoming a faculty member at McMaster and, later, dean of engineering.

I certainly wish Dr. Shoukri all the best in his new postion (he's starting in July) and I hope to get a chance to meet him and show him around my library.

February 6, 2007

Ontario Library Association Conference, Day 4

Saturday, February 4th, another good day at the conference for me. One hightlight was definately meeting vonjobi (Vernon Totanes) of Filipino Librarian. He's in Toronto doing a PhD at the University of Toronto. It's always a lot of fun meeting bloggers face-to-face after only ever reading their words.

Another hightlight was the Ontario Engineering Librarians meeting. This informal meeting looks like it's going to grow into a more structure for Ontario Engineering librarians to meet regularly and share our experiences. Looks like there's even going to be a blog. I'll post more here as things develope.

The last bit I want to mention is the closing luncheon. The rubber chicken was decent, but I really had to pass on the mushroom sauce (I hate mushrooms) and the salad was about 50% mushrooms too. Just bad luck. At least the carrot cake for dessert was extremely good -- Carrot cake is one of my favourites. The entertainment was Canadian comedian Jessica Holmes of Air Farce fame. She was pretty good, doing some of her signiture impressions like Liza Minelli, Belinda Stronach and Celine Dion.

The only real session that I attended was the Top Tech Trends panel with John Blyberg, Amanda Etches-Johnson and Michael Stephens. This was a good panel with lots of excellent ideas, a great way to condense a lot of trendwatching into a very short period of time. All three panelists took very different takes on the subject, which was interesting.

Amanda Etches-Johnson was up first, and was brave enough to speak without slides; something I wish a lot more of us would do. She identified three main trends we should be watching. First, the growing importance of RSS as a delivery mechanism for all kinds of content. Related to this was the increasing amount of browser integration of RSS amongst the various options. She pointed to the standardization on the little rss icon we all see on blogs and the lower right corner of our browsers. The next trend is a new focus on library websites. She noted that library websites are in trouble and not much real progress has been made on a lot of them since the early days of the web. If we're getting more web traffic than foot traffic in our libraries, then maybe we should think of ourselves as virtual branch managers. We should concentrate of facilitating access to all the great tools that are buried deep in our websites. Finally, Etches-Johnson pointed to the "mindful application of social software" as a trend to watch. By this she meant that we should use social software to be useful in those online social spaces that our patrons inhabit. This involves not having a blog that tries to be everything to everyone, but to target a specific audience and to make sure our social presences have a human rather than institutional feel.

John Blyberg was next. He emphasised the trend towards openness and cooperation: open access, open souce, open spaces, open processes. Libraries are comfortable in our old niche but how to we know we are successful in a new world of collaboration and cooperation. Are we collaborating and cooperating in our own organization. He pointed to Linux as an example of a successful project in the new reality. A world class operating system that was created completely by volunteer effort that has no licensing cost. But, will all this openness lead to something? How about a layer of artificial intelligence on top of all the data on the web, giving us the semantic web where the web can just figure out what we want from what we tell it. We need to check our priorities, open our organizations, initiate content, offer help, cooperate and share.

Last was Michael Stephens. We live in the social web, people live part of their lives online now. Mass collaboration will change everything, people want to talk to each other. Old and new media are converging. The first trend is content: youtube, generate your own Absolut bottle, all these things mean we can generate our own content. Trend: redefine the LIS job, train people to be user experience librarians, web librarians, gaming librarians. Trend: citizen journalism, everyone can be a news reporter or photographer and what does this mean for libraries. Trend: openness and sharing, but remember that open source software is free as in kittens not free as in beer. Trend: participatory culture like tag clouds and library thing, everything is tagable. Trend: experience and play and the new world, like what we can do in Second Life.

There were also quite a few questions, on libraries sharing the content their patrons create; sharing vs. protection; net neutrality; how to trendspot on your own; why there aren`t any open ontologies and what we`re doing now that we can stop doing in order to free up resources to do cool new stuff. One question in particular was kind of telling. A member of the audience suggested that since all aspects of librarianship seem to be permeated with technology these days, to just call this session Top Trends and be done with it. This suggestion prompted some uncomfortable applause. It sounds like a good idea, but seems a bit presumptuous. After all, there are still a lot of areas of librarianship that aren`t dominated by technology issues, like IL, like services for young children and a lot of others too.

Hey there Nerac, Revisited

You may recall from mid-December I mentioned that I was getting a lot of hits from an organization called Nerac. I asked if someone from Nerac might be interested in dropping me an email or making a comment to let me know what had piqued their interest. Well, I didn't hear anything for a while and the whole thing sort of slipped to the back of my mind. A couple of weeks ago I did get an email from Michael Mahoney, Business Development Manager of Nerac, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Nerac and their interest in my post on the future of A&I databases.

Thanks, Mike!

Q. Would you mind describing Nerac a little bit and how it relates to the scitech world? Do you have mostly corporate clients or also academic institutions & research groups?

Nerac, Inc. is an innovative research advisory partner for industry and consumer goods organizations. Our clients turn to us for scientific, technical intellectual property and business decisions. The majority of our clients are corporate, however we do service many university technology transfer departments.

Q. Do you employ and people with library backgrounds as researchers or customer liaisons? How about people with science & engineering backgrounds?

Nerac employs over 100 analysts with a variety of backgrounds in science, technology and business. Many have advanced degrees including several with MLS degrees. We also have patent attorneys and licensed patent agents on staff.

Q. What kind of research tools do you use? Obviously Google, USPTO and other free search engines, but how about Dialog, patent databases, Scopus, Web of Science and other for fee products?

Nerac uses whatever resources it needs to find the information needed to fit the research needs of our clients. The resources listed below are just a few that the staff uses regularly:

A&I and full text patent databases that are load on our in-house proprietary search engine.

Aggregated hosts - STN, Questel, Newsbank and Westlaw.

Value add resources – Knovel, ADIS, Hoover’s and BioPharm Insight.

Free resources – Google Scholar, Google Books, Web search engines, and content found on the invisible web.

Our own direct experiences in research fields.

Telephone networking with experts in the field.

Q. How about journals and other scholarly content -- IEEE, ACM and other scitech publishers? Or mostly on the trade journal side of things?

We do have corporate agreements with a few of the major publishers of Sci-Tech journals for in-house use of their content. If we need papers from the other publishers we order them on behalf of our clients.

Q. Finally, it was my discussion of the future of A&I databases that got this whole thing going. Where do you see that business (and related content businesses like journal publishing) going in the next few years?

Primary content will always be around in some form. There has been some movement toward open access, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the market.

Years ago it was enough to send raw premium A&I to a client. The patron could select and read a few papers and hopefully solve their problem. We detected that a shift in secondary content was going to occur a few years ago due to all the free content. We changed our business model to deliver deeper analysis of the problem at hand and offer an opinion on the solution. Both information professionals and information companies need to be aware that you can’t compete with free and stay in business. Ultimately, the value these professionals and companies offer is analysis, advice, and opinion.

That was fun. I certainly wouldn't mind trying out some more interview-style posts here in the future, perhaps with some fellow scitech librarians, bloggers or people in the publishing world.

February 5, 2007

Recently, on ScienceBlogs

A couple of recent posts from ScienceBlogs on the general culture of science (and science in the culture) that I found interesting:

  • Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal have collaborated on a op-ed piece in the LA Times. Sokal being a noted critic of science abuses by the left and Mooney on abuses by the right, they join together to call for a rational way forward, a place for science in the broader culture that's not distorted or denied by political or cultural biases, but based on the scientific method. Needless to say, they're not too impressed with the current state of affairs.
    In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.

    Such introspection on the academic left has been a heartening sign, and the pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years. This frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank: an unholy (and uneasy) alliance of economically driven attacks on science (on issues such as global climate change, mercury pollution and what constitutes a good diet) and theologically impelled ones (in areas such as evolution, reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research).

    The potency of this combination has become apparent during the six years of the Bush administration, as many if not most scientific agencies of our government have become embroiled in scandals involving the misrepresentation or suppression of scientific information, gag orders on scientist employees, or other interferences with the processes by which science feeds into decision-making. Tracing these intrusions back to their source, we almost always uncover the same pattern: It concerns an issue in which one of the two principal constituencies of the current administration — religious conservatives or big corporations — has a vested interest.


    At the same time, journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us — conservative or liberal, believer or atheist — must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, "nature cannot be fooled."

    To avoid nature's punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.

    This is a great article, full of terrific ideas that are applicable to more than just the USA; it's already generating quite a lot of discussion on the blogosphere. We should all hold our governments to a reality-based agenda.

  • Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science has a post about the impact of blogging on academic scientists' tenure decisions.
    While I am of the opinion that many blogging academics are engaged in serious thinking, educating, communicating (to other academics, students, and the broader public), and even mentoring on their blogs -- all of which does contribute to their profession and to society -- how exactly their "work" and "contribution" should be evaluated is unclear. And the reality is, for an activity to "count" for tenure and promotion, it need to be evaluated. At this stage, academic blogs are new enough that few people on tenure and promotion committees would have a clear view of how to judge their quality or "impact". (Indeed, the list of potential axes for judging them helmut suggests seems like it might miss the point of some of what makes blogging useful.) Also, in the absence of general agreement about how blogging might fit into the range of professional activities, it's hard to believe there wouldn't be a good number of folks on the committees judging blogging time as time one could have been using for real professional activities.

    Personally, I think that blogs should definately count as part of a faculty (or librarian's) tenure profile. What I think is important is that it be evaluated in the proper context the person's entire scholarly and professional output. Blog posts won't generally count as peer-reviewed science articles, they won't count as service to the institution, so what's left? Teaching? Are blog posts, even if not directly delivered to students, part of a profs teaching profile? An interesting possibility -- to the extent that the posts in some way explain scientific concepts, comment on the place of science in the broader culture, advocate for a particular political point of view on scientific issues, and probably a lot of other kinds of posts too then yes, I think a scientists blog should probably count in some way as part of their teaching profile. Just not for their own students, but for the rest of the world. I'm sure that there's a million reasons why this will be very difficult to implement, but at least by starting the conversation on where blogging should fit into a academic's long term career profile we might eventually get to a point where blogging finds its proper place.

February 3, 2007

Ontario Library Association Conference, Day 3

Friday, February 2nd, another busy day, with three sessions and one plenary on the agenda. The plenary was by Glen Murray, former mayor of Winnipeg and now well-known as an urban advocate. His plenary was quite interesting, making a very good point that we have to nurture all our cities, big and small, encouraging artistic and research-based activities which bring jobs and increase the quality of life. In turn, if you increase the jobs and quality of life, you actually bring more jobs and investment as the city becomes a good place to live. He particularly stressed the importance of libraries as centres of culture in any community. You have to make your city unique and worthwhile and avoid the could-be-anywhere syndrome of so many North American cities.

The morning session I attended was Windows of Opportunity: Faculty SDI in the 21st Century by Heather Matheson (slides, reading list). This was a fantastic, inspirational session which was criminally poorly attended, probably due to other 2.0ish speakers at the same time, and a slightly misleading title. For me, what this session was really about was not using an open source content management system to create a subject based portal to engage your faculty and grad students, feeding them content and in turn getting them to return the favour and contribute to the system (although it was that too). I was really about taking control of our online lives from our IT departments and bringing it into the control of subject specialists, letting us control what we show our patrons, on our time, at our pace and giving them what we think they need, not what we can squeeze out of one-size-fits-all opacs and websites. Want to integrate RSS, blogging, wikis, RefWorks, reviews and the whole kit in your subject portal? Take charge and get it done yourself. Heather used Joomla as the CMS for her project, which required using some of her own server space and getting her ISP to install it for her. I'm pretty sure plain old WordPress would get you about 60-75% of what Heather has done without the sneakiness or expense. I'm inspired, check out her presentation and you'll be inspired too.

Next up was Information Literacy: Program or Process? A Reality Check by Karen Hunt (not actually present), M.J. D'Elia, Marilyn McDermott and Melanie Boyd. This was quite an interesting session, with a lot of thought-provoking points raised in our group discussion. We split up in to two groups (about 30 each). Each group met with one of the presenters for 15 minutes. Then the groups switched moderators. Each moderator told a quick story about some of their anxieties surrounding their IL performances in the class room and then asked some questions to get our reactions to their stories. At the end, we all discussed our interpretation and reactions to the stories. It was a good session and we all had a chance to probe our own feelings about various parts of our instructional lives. On the other hand, the whole thing bore almost no resemblance to the advertised abstract.

We will explore the pros and cons inherent in attempting to structure information literacy around a program model, and the pros and cons inherent in a more process-oriented approach. It will unearth pressures steering us towards one path over the other.

It wasn't about that at all. The facilitator kept saying the words "program" and "process" but they didn't really have much connection to the stories or any of the discussion that was going on. The session was an interesting idea, but I think the organizers went off track at some point in their preparations and weren't able to get back.

The final session I attended was ILS, The Next Generation: Modularity and Outward Integration by Karen Calhoun. Another outstanding session in what's turning out to be a very enlightening conference. This one focused on what the next generation of Integrated Library Systems are going to look like. They're going to be modular and plug and play, like legos, they're going to decouple the discovery system from inventory control and they definately and are to be standards-based and interoperable. Calhoun talked a little about what users want the most -- to use stuff off campus, to use the library as only one element in their research toolbox, more online resources, seemless linking. Our objectives are integrated access, simplified resource management and to become visible in the user's environment. The tools were going to use to get there include federated searching, reference linking, portals and CMSs.

Next Calhoun talked about federated search and it's weaknesses, including slowness, limits on the number of databases that can be searched, incomplete search results and poor relevance ranking. One option is to just forget federated search and just use Google Scholar, but GS isn't really there yet. She also discussed some of the limitation of reference linking, primarily incomplete or inaccurate metadata. Federated searching and reference linking are fundamentally short term solutions for libraries.

One version of the perfect dream system is a unified library system with a very hierarchical set up with integrated interfaces, metasearch and all the content bound together. This is a difficult dream to realize because all the content to so widely scattered and isolated, many not under the library's control. Another way to look at it is to strive for outward integration, allowing us to use library components in new ways. This vision sees library managed collections found using a wide variety of discovery tools, most not managed by the library in any way. Libraries will concentrate on building the digital special collections that make them unique. Library systems will be interoperable and take advantage of the Amazoogles of the world. External discovery of library based collections.

February 2, 2007

Ontario Library Association Day 2: Me & John Blyberg

The first full day of the conference, day 2 was Thursday and it was a good day overall. Since I was presenting at 10.40, I didn't go to any of the earlier sessions and just decided to relax.

My session, Using Weblogs as a Professional Development Tool, went pretty well, with about 40 people attending. Considering that the time was changed since the original program went out, I'm pretty happy with the turnout. The OpenOffice slides are online here and I've also prepared a pdf version here. This is the first project where I've used an OpenOffice module start to finish and I was very happy with the results. It's just as good as PowerPoint for basic presentation usage.

I also convened John Blyberg's 3.45 session, Not So Confidential: Exposing 2.0 Web Sites. It was a pleasure meeting John and I really enjoyed his session, which was thoughtful and provocative yet full of practical advice and commentary.

It began with a discussion of our love/hate relationship with the opac, with the fundamental questions we ask about our opac: what does it serve and what forms should it take. It's always been the way it is, we don't know where to begin changing it and even if we did, we don't have the resources to really transform it. We have to find a way to use what we already have. So, what are some of the opac's shortcomings? It really hasn't gotten any more effective over time, it's not very customizable or extensible or even very attractive visually. And it can't accomodate user-driven improvements.

And what about our websites? They are also visually unattractive, outdated, static, non-intuitive and basically look like they were made by somebody on their lunch hour in a few weeks. (Ouch! -jd) Now, why should we focus on our web and opac? Because first impressions are important. The opac represents the library to patrons, it's the front line of a lot of patron service and the opac meets people where they are.

How can we make web 2.0 work for us? Hincliffe has a post on "10 ways to take advantage of 2.0" (I'll find it later. -jd). We should encourage social contributions with individual benefit, letting people do something for themselves and the larger community. We should make content editable, encourage unintended uses of content and provide a continuous interactive user experience. We should make sure our site has content feeds, let users establish and build reputations, allow remixing of content -- build small pieces loosly joined. This will allow us to identify our keenest, most active users, people we should engage with to make our systems better. We should also remember not to build systems that deny service to users who are less tech savvy or have older software or hardware.

Some fundamentals. We should have single sign-on, open standards, open source, integrated/seemless opac+website, social software to tag & review opac. We should design for innovation: use APIs, community development, mashups, personal apps, encourage elite and energized users. We should allow and exploit gadgets & IPv6, take advantage of cellphones, PDAs and other devices; we should incorporate other services like Google Books and Maps.

We should also step beyond the opac. We shouldn't get hung up on search but should also encourage serendipity and enjoyable discovery, we should test new technologies, stay aware of new trends and just be creative. We should strive to create excitement in our communities. We need to promote and market ourselves wtth outreach and staff and public education, to retrain ourselves and our patrons to a new set of expectations. We need to foster a culture of innovation and lower the barriers to collaboration.

On the other hand, we also need to make sure our social software is appropriately secure and that it protects the privacy of our patrons. We need to get real -- money, staffing issues, vendor issues and the challenges of ongoing maintenance are all potential challenges. We should do more than complain about our vendors -- we need to open the lines of communication and challenge them as much as we challenge ourselves.

So, what are some first steps? We need to make a committment to change. We need to realize that we, as librarians, are not necessarily professional-quality web designers/developers and hire professionals. We need to use our patron's feedback. We need to get to work.

February 1, 2007

Writing about science

Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily has a nice long post on how to write about scientific research for a general audience.

His points may seem obvious, but they certainly bear explicit mention. It can be a challenge to make science interesting to a mass audience in a culture that doesn't value science very highly compared to "entertainment" and I think he hits a lot of points on how to make science entertaining too.

  1. Find interesting research -- this one's obvious, the subject needs to be compelling and relevant enough to catch people's attention.
  2. Show why it's interesting first
  3. Let the research speak for itself
  4. Don't include details that are only relevant to scientists
  5. Don't use scientific jargon
  6. Tell a story
  7. Visuals need the same treatment as words
  8. Keep it concise
  9. Cite your sources
  10. Don't overstate your case
  11. Have fun

Munger's core idea seems to be to find an interesting, relevant piece of research, show why it's interesting, put the cool details and cool pictures in the story (leaving out the boring stuff). But mostly, tell a good, human story and definately let your enthusiasm for the story shine through. The only thing Munger doesn't mention that I would highlight the suggestion that a good science story will also be a story about good scientists. Their struggles to figure out how nature works, the successes and failures, can also make extremely compelling reading. I always find if I can relate to the struggle of doing a good job, I can get a lot more out of the content of the story.

Good stuff -- go read it. There's certainly a lot of ideas that are relevant to bloggery.

Update 2007.02.08: A bunch more relevant posts from the ScienceBlogs universe, this time on learning to write like a scientist: