March 31, 2008

Is computer science a science?

It's been a long time since I last posted on this topic but it's not a subject I'm any less interested in. It's just that good stuff hasn't really popped up for me to post about.

Until now.

Jane is starting a series of posts on the subject with parts I and Ia already up. Normally, in this type of situation, I'd wait until Jane was finished the series or at least had a few more posts up. However, the Seed blog, Page 3.14, has a new poll up asking if readers think computer science is really a science. I've voted (Yes, natch) and I think you all should head over and cast your ballot. The poll was posted today but only 17 people have voted so far.

But first, a couple of tastes of the first two parts of Jane's series:

Is computer science a science? (part 1)

Computer science is in many respects a tool. It's a discipline that has its reach into many other disciplines. And that's one of the coolest, most interesting things about it. But that's also what makes it so hard to classify, to quantify. Computer science doesn't have to neatly fit anywhere, of course. But classifying it as something could make it a bit easier for non-computer scientists, and even computer scientists, to begin to understand just what it is and what its purpose should be. Having this strong sense of "self", of identity as a field, is, I believe, crucial to the survival of computer science as a field.

Is computer science a science? (part 1a: what do computer scientists do?)
I then spend the next 30-60 minutes working on my most important project. If there's a deadline approaching, this means writing/editing a conference or journal article or grant proposal. If there are no deadlines coming up, I'll tackle my most difficult research problem. Often I'll choose one that requires some thinking/planning/analysis. So I'll sketch out, on paper or on my board, a system design, or some coding diagrams or outlines, or an algorithm (a recipe for solving a problem). I'll occasionally work through some equations or work on mathematically modeling some aspect of a system. If I'm in the midst of some really tricky data analysis, I'll fire up Matlab and slice and dice the data in various ways to see if I can find some pattern I missed before. Whatever requires the most brain power and attention.

March 28, 2008

Friday Fun: Most & Least Annoying People @ Your Bookstore

Bookgasm has a couple of funny posts on the kind of people you see hanging around in book stores. They're kinda rude but definately funny. Of course, both lists have lots of resonance for library people. You will surely recognize some of your own patrons in these lists.

The 9 Most Annoying People I Always See at the Bookstore

Didn’t you hear me? I said this isn’t a library! How can you study any way when all you’re doing is talking? Shouldn’t you buy something to make nice for that free wifi you’re using and all the space you’re taking up for hours and hours?

The next list is also pretty funny, 'cause you know "Least annoying" is meant in an ironic way --

The 9 Least Annoying People I Occasionally See at the Bookstore
Is there anything that makes a person feel better about themselves than being served by someone who’s clearly lost all will to live? No matter how hopeless or suicidal I may feel when I walk into my neighborhood Chapters (a Canadian chain for those of you who like to learn something new every day), I know that by the time I walk out, the sight of dozens of poor, pasty bastards whose lives are clearly much, much, much worse than my own never fails to reinvigorate my soul!

So, what amusingly odd people do you encounter in your library? I'll start it off with a couple of groups that I find particularly amusing.

Hello? People on cell phones often talk a lot louder than normally and some people have naturally booming voices. Combine the two with a tendency of some to pace and wander while talking on their cells makes for a very annoying phenomenon. Fortunately this group is almost always understanding when you point out to them that they might be disturbing others.

Ok. we have study tables with power outlets. We have soft seating that can be moved around. Combine the two and you get the phenomenon of people stringing their laptop powercords from the tables to the chairs three or four feet away creating a pretty obvious tripping hazard for anyone walking around the library. Sometimes, for those sitting further away from the tables, the cable is swinging a foot or two off the ground. A couple of times, people have managed to situate themselves so that the cable swinging in the air is also blocking access to the emergency exit. Laptop powercord stringers are also usually fairly understanding but tend to include a fair number of repeat offenders.

March 27, 2008

State of the Computer Book Market

Mike Hendrikson reviews the state of the computer book market twice a year on the O'Reilly Radar blog (using Bookscan data). The most recent set of posts finished a couple of weeks ago. It's always a very helpful analysis, one that I use to inform my book (and ebook) buying habits. All four parts (1, 2, 3, 4) are well worth reading in their entirety but I'll just exerpt a telling remark or two from each.

Part 1: The Market

So what's was news in 2007? The year got off to slow start and by mid-year it looked like results were going end below the prior years. But around the middle of July, which is typically a slow time in computer books, the market climbed above the most recent years. Not only did the market climb above of the prior years, but it did not dip below any of the prior years until the third week in December [Christmas week]. That being said, the market ended up at 1%, or 4,089 units above 2006 - on a base of over 7.4 million units. That is truly a small increase but mostly realized in the second half of the year...

In the fourth quarter of 2006, new interest in web development associated with Web 2.0 and strong performance of books on digital media applications like Photoshop helped to drive the market.

Some categories to watch include Collaboration & Office Suites while declining categories include web programming and digital photography.

Part 2: The Technologies

In response to previous State of the Computer Book market posts, there have been reader comments indicating that part of the decline in the market is due to a lack of anything that new in the Tech world to sustain lots of books selling lots of copies. It begs the question -- will we ever see another Java-like phenomena similar to what we experienced 12 years ago? (And yes, we understand it was much more than just a Java event, but Java skyrocketed more than all others - it was truly astronomical...) However, we believe that one reason why programming and administration topics are suffering more than consumer topics is that sophisticated users are the first to show the preference shift from books to online content consumption. (emphasis mine. -- jd)

Part 3 -- The Publishers
o what is notable from this data? First that these large publishers are down about 165k units from 2006 to 2007. So that means that in 2007 we experienced our modest market growth from the middle-to-small publishers even though the large houses published nearly 100 more titles and had slightly better efficiency. Wiley gained market share while getting more titles into the top 3000 and with slightly better efficiency. Pearson lost market share and had 159 fewer titles make the top 3000 and experienced a very slight drop in efficiency. O'Reilly had about 100k fewer units on 11 more titles making the top 3000; our efficiency took a hit as a result but remained well above the efficiency average. (We actually published about 60 fewer titles than in 2006, so the fact that we had 11 more in the top 3000 was a surprise to us.)

The top three publishers are Pearson, Wiley and they O'Reilly. It's also very interesting to see everything broken down by category and to see the top books in each category. For example the top books in Web Design and Development are:
  1. Peachpit's HTML, XHTML, and CSS: Visual Quickstart
  2. New Rider's Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
  3. O'Reilly's Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML
  4. Wiley's Building Web Sites All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies
  5. Pragmatic's Agile Web Development with Rails
  6. O'Reilly's JavaScript: The Definitive Guide

Part 4 - The Languages
Overall the 2007 market for programming languages was down (1.67%) in 2007 when compared with 2006. There were 1,809,695 units sold in 2006 versus 1,779,523 units sold in 2007 which is (30,172) fewer units in 2007. So the modest 1% growth in the Overall Computer Book Market must have been fueled by non-programming oriented books. You don't need a programming language to learn to use MacOsX, Vista or Office and that is where the growth was in 2007...

Before we dive in, let's look at the high level picture for the grouping of languages. As you can see in the table below, the MidMinor and Minor languages experienced growth in 2007 while the rest experienced a decline. The languages driving the growth in the Minor category are Groovy, SAS, Erlang, Matlab, and Processing. For the sake of grouping and presenting this information in a more readable format, we have classified the categories for the languages in this way:

It's extremely interesting to see the language breakdown in the major to minor categories, inlcuding the top books. For major, the top languages, in order, are java, c#, php, javascript, c/c++ and .net languages. The top books are:
  1. O'Reilly: Head First Design Patterns
  2. Peachpit: JavaScript and Ajax for the Web
  3. Peachpit: CSS, DHTML, and Ajax
  4. Sams: Sams Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL and Apache All in One
  5. O'Reilly: JavaScript: The Definitive Guide

In the minor category, it's interesting to note that Basic still has 1% market share. Who knew? Matlab, latex and SAS are all less than 1% market share. Cobol, fortran, ada and alice are all categorized as immmaterial. Inactive languages, those with barely detectable sales: labview, lingo, ml, mumps, net languages, oopic, opl, pascal, pda languages, pl/1, qbasic, rexx, s, smalltalk, spark, squeak, unrealscript, windows script.

March 25, 2008

Wright, Alex. Glut: Mastering: Mastering information through the ages. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 286pp.

This book should have been called Everything is not Miscellaneous. In fact, this book could be imagined as Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous as written by a slightly old-fashioned librarian.

Book-jacket blurb descriptions aside, Alex Wright's Glut is a fascinating look at the history and methods human culture has used to organized and categorize knowledge and information. More Academic in tone than Weinberger's book, it's a bit dryer and more serious and, of course, a little less prone to unsubstantiated hype. This very clearly not a book aimed at the business audience; you will find no strategies within to make your customers buy more virtual widgets.

Let's have a taste (p. 3-4):

My aim in writing this book is to resist the tug of mystical techno-futurism and approach the story of the information age by looking squarely backward. This is a story we are only just beginning to understand...[W]e are just starting to recognize the contours of a broader information ecology that has always surrounded us. Just as human being had no concept of oral culture until they learned how to write, so the arrival of digital culture has given us a new reference point for understanding the analog age.

Overall, Wright has quite a strong humanities focus in the book with lots about religion, philosophy and literature as well as the history of writing, printing, libraries and how people deal with information. Books and libraries are the main focus. Not so much about biology, physics, chemistry and astronomy. Even the biology chapter is more a mythological or sociological treatment of taxonomy rather than an emphasis of the scientific systems. It really gives the impression that scientists don't classify or organize, only humanists. The second half of the book is better, but a general treatment of the organization of information is missing a lot if it doesn't include the periodic table or the various number systems. Astronomical tables, navigational charts, fossils, chemical names and descriptions, genomic data, all are extensive systems of organized scientific data. Wright also doesn't pay too much attention to non-Western systems of organization.

So, let's do a quick drive-by series of impressions to get the main points. We start with a brief introduction of information networks and hierarchies in both the natural and human information space and then into some discussion of folk taxonomies and the relationship of categorizations to family structures. We then get into the measn of transfering information symbolically in pre-literate cultures and the development of written cultures through alphabets. The role of classical Greek culture is stressed and the Library of Alexandria is name-checked.

Next up, Irish monks save civilization and the role of books and libraries in those efforts during the dark ages. The printing press arrives, increasing the distribution of books and fixing texts in time and space. Next we explore Bacon, wilkins, memory and the role of philosophers. The enlightenment and the development of the scientific methods follows, as does the popularity of encyclopedic projects. Lineaus versus buffon and taxonomy.

As book production grows and libraries expand, librarians must systematise the ordering of the collections and we see Dewey and Cutter make their entrances. Here we really do see that in a library, everything is not miscellaneous. Now the true here of the book makes his appearance -- Paul Otlet! His amazing accomplishments during World War II are examined and explored, followed by the contributions of Vanevar Bush and his Memex. Eugene Garfield, Ted Nelson, some Andrew Keen-like gnashing of teeth (p. 227-229). Jumping to the modern internet era the web is a place to talk, we see almost the re-emergence of old fashioned oral patterns of communication and increasing tensions between oral and literary cultures.

So, on the whole, what do I think? Wright's book is a pretty good summary of what libraries and librarians have done over the years. It's not so good at looking at what's been done outside the humanities. In fact, in the final chapter I sense a bit of a disdain for computer science people and technologists in general.

Also a bit of obliviousness (p. 201):
Web browsers are ultimately unidirectional programs, designed primarily to let users consume information from a remote source. To the extent that users can create information through a web browser, they must do so through the mediation of that remote source. As an authoring too, the web browser is all but impotent.

It's hard to imagine three sentences that could destroy the credibility of a book on web and information culture more in 2008 than those three.
Today most of us experience personal computers as fixed entities, with hierarchical folders adn a familiar set of programs. Our computers are not so far removed from the dumb terminals of the mainframe era. The know very little about us. [Vanevar] Bush's vision suggests the possibility of smarter machines that could anticipate our needs and adapt themselves to our behaviours, like good servants. (p. 202-203)

Of course, this vision has been around for quite a while in the form of the data mining technologies so widely used by Google, Amazon and others to actually find out so much about our wants and needs.

Even so, Wright's efforts do repay close attention, with lots of good analysis and history if perhaps a bit limited in scope and reach. I would certainly suggest that anyone interested in where the information landscape has been and where it's going read this book. You may not agree with it, but it will get you thinking.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

Urgent Computing!

That's the theme of the latest issue of CTWatch Quarterly, v4i1. I have a strange little soft spot for this journal and will read just about anything it publishes, even if it's only very vaguely related to my main concerns here.

Anyways, here goes the TOC from the Urgent Computing: Exploring Supercomputing's New Role issue of CTWatch Quarterly!

March 24, 2008

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His life and universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 674pp.

Walter Issacson's 2007 biography of Albert Einstein was one of the best reviewed books of that year, appearing on nearly all the year end lists of favourite science books. Humane, magisterial, accessible, comprehensive, engrossing, all words used to describe this book. And each of them is very well deserved. So, as you can imagine, I was delighted when I found the book under the christmas tree this past December. I started reading it almost immediately, amid the genial chaos of my sister's Ottawa home during the holiday, reading it slowly but surely over the next couple of months. This is a perfect book to read and savour over a leisurely read. As with most biographies, you know how it ends. As well, Isaacson goes into quite a bit of detail, so parts of it can be a bit slow.

Oddly, this happens to be the first real Einstein biography I've ever read. I've had the Clark biography knocking around the house for years but have never actually started it. Reading Isaacson's book also felt somewhat like a gap in my knowledge and reading history had been closed. It's a nice feeling.

Like I said, this book is a lot of things.

Engrossing. Now I mentioned a bit slow. That's true, a detailed biography can sometimes drag a bit and this was no different. However, for the most part I found the story quite fast paced, especially the section when Einstein's fame started to grow right through the start of WWII. As well, I found the last section, Einstein's final years in Princeton, hard to put down.

Comprehensive. Isaacson covers Einstein's youth, his important years as a Swiss patent examiner, a lot of detail about his miracle year of 1905, his struggles to land a secure academic job, his marital woes, his political views, his life in Berlin up until the Nazis took over, the war years as well as his post war life in Princeton.

Accessible. Isaacson hits the right balance when it comes to actually explaining Einstein's scientific ideas and the overall context of the scientific times. Since Einstein himself relied on very visual thought experiments to frame his theories, Isaacson takes advantage of those thought experiments to explain the theories to us.

Humane. This is a warts and all portrait of Einstein. His infidelity, absent mindedness, emotionally distant relationships with his familty, stubbornness, scientific mistakes, his resistance to quantum theory, all are covered. Granted, in many ways these failings are presented as quirky rather than damning, but we do get a pretty fair presentation of the human side of Einstein.

Magisterial. Human side, yes. But this is clearly in the "Great Man" tradition of scientific biography. We really finish the book feeling we know Einstein the genius. While still covering the all-too-human nature of Einstein, Isaacson still treats Einstein with kid gloves, glossing over some pretty significant controversies. Overall, it's a very gentle, respectful and even sentimental account of Einstein's life.

Borrow this book, buy it for yourself, get someone to buy it for you, buy it for your library's collection, recommend it for your local library's collection, but read it. It's a great book, a great introduction to the life of one the most interesting and important people of the last 100 or so years. It's rare to read a great big biography of a person and want to read more. This isn't the last Einstein book I'll read. It's only the first. I would heartily recommend it to any library that collects any scientific or general biography. It might be a bit weighty for high school libraries, but any level beyond that would be fine.

March 20, 2008

Uncomfortable Question: LIS Education

Thanks to Graham Lavender for this question:

What is your biggest criticism of MLIS programs in North America, and what do you think library schools should be doing to fix this?

I guess one of the dangers of asking for open-ended uncomfortable questions is that somebody could ask a penetrating question on an issue I haven't really thought a lot about.

Such is the case here. But I'll give it my best shot.

First of all, Graham is a MLIS student at McGill, where I graduated in 2000. Obviously I'm not going to comment directly on McGill too much except to say that the program has changed dramatically (vastly for the better, from what I can tell) since my time there.

I'll address this post to a hypothetical student and/or LIS faculty member. I'll mostly concentrate on the librarianish aspects of Info-schools and not so much on the "how much overlap can we manage with computer science, business and information technology programs at our institutions before those programs get annoyed at us for trying to poach their students"-type programs. I didn't do one of those programs, wasn't interested in one and really don't know much about them.

I'll come at this from a couple of different directions. I was recently on a search committee here at York and our experience I think was quite illuminating. I can say quite safely that for this search (and all the others I've been involved in here) where you went to school, what courses you took and what marks you got were all nearly totally irrelevant in getting you the job. The only place might have been as a four or fifth tie break to get on the short list. What really matters is experience. Have you worked in a similar environment to the one being advertised? If so, can the people you worked with articulate your contribution in a reference letter and can you effectively describe what you did during the interview. Even very basic entry level positions have so many applicants that we can be picky.

From this perspective, I would say that a very important part of the MLIS experience has to be the facilitation of solid work experience. Be it work in the institution's libraries or via a practicum/co-op placement elsewhere, this is vital. The value in getting you the opportunity to have a practical learning experience as part of your education can not be underestimated. The practicum should replace two courses and could be two one-term placements or one two-term placement.

The other angle that I'd like to approach this from is how I think MLIS-like programs should be structured. The first year or so is mostly going to be core courses and I think this is probably where most programs are doing ok. An introductory course to the profession, it's history, themes, significant personages, etc. is inevitable. Everyone should take at least one cataloguing/metadata course (even if Everything is Miscellaneous is the text -- how cool would that be?) because as unglamourous as it can seem, the organization of information is the core of what we do. Everyone should also take at least one course on collections, broadly defined to include books, databases, indexes, digital collections and a variety of formats. Reference sources and services also deserve solid treatment, although in the modern era I imagine the course would be very different from what I took 9 years ago; many would also find it interesting to take a subject oriented reference/collections course, such as the scitech & business ones I took. As a final part of a core, I would also think that a organizational context course (or two) covering management, marketing and budgets would be very useful.

One interesting thing that always comes up is the technology course. How many courses should be part of the core and what should they cover. Well, I'm pretty minimalistic on this, surprisingly. You often see on blogs long laundry lists of stuff every librarian should know about technology, as if we're not allowed to have colleagues whose talents and interests compliment our own. Everybody should take one (maybe two) courses that establishes a basic common vocabulary and knowledge base as well as some experience with a few key tools, like a basic web development tool, a CMS, blogs, wikis or databases. Beyond that, students can explore more in depth in their electives, reading courses or practicum placements. The idea that everyone should be able to program or even have a deep understanding of what programming is to be a librarian is absurd. Students can also explore new tools or solidify their experience with basic ones while working on assignments for other courses.

The second year should concentrate a couple of electives (archives, specific subject area collections/reference courses, some advance tech stuff, etc.) and the practicum placement I mention above. Most importantly, I think the second year should replace at least two courses with a thesis option (three or four course equivalent) or two directed reading courses, one per term.

I think the reason that I'd really emphasize a directed reading course or thesis option is because I think we really need to learn to think like librarians. To take an issue and explore it deeply and critically, to formulate ideas and to express them coherently. It is a graduate program, after all.

Does the output take the form of one big paper or a series of blog posts? That's not really that important. The important thing is that a significant part of the program should be to grapple with the past, present and/or future of the profession. Can it have an active component like building a wiki, programming an OPAC widget or some other web site? Sure, why not. But the important part of this should be analyzing why the wiki, widget, web or whatever are important contributions to/aspects of the profession not the details of the construction.

It's interesting that in my vision, combining a thesis option and a two course practicum could replace 5 or 6 of 8 second year courses, probably nearly all the non-core courses. That's ok. If someone knows what they want to explore, turn them loose and let them learn on thier own. It is a graduate program, after all. In my second year, I did two one-course reading course -- one on information architecture and one on digital libraries -- as well as a practicum placement at the McGill Physical Sciences & Engineering Library. Not surprisingly, all three of those were very important aspects and indicators for my future career. I followed what interested me and it got me where I could apply that knowledge. At the risk of repeating myself, that's what a graduate program should be about.

The above rantings are really just off-the-top-of-the-head thoughts and musings about a complex and important issue. I'm sure there's lots of stuff I've left out that I'd mention in I thought about the issue for a week instead of a day before answering, or if I'd actually done some reading up on the issues or researched the state of various existing programs. As well, my answers could be totally different next week, month or year.

(Don't forget, if you have more Uncomfortable Questions for me, just leave a comment here or on the original post.)

March 19, 2008

SciBarCamp summary & impressions: Sunday

So, on to Sunday! I have to admit, that getting to the conference for 9am on a Sunday, given that the TTC only starts running at 9am was just more trouble that it was worth. So, I aimed to get there by 10am and I was still able to enjoy a full day of discussion and enjoyment.

(Link to Participants list. Link to Sunday's program, which was emailed on Saturday night. It's also worth noting that sessions changed, combined, morphed during the conference, so if I've got participants wrong below, I apologize.)

Like I mentioned, I only arrived at 10am, just in time to catch Part Two of Eva Amsen's "Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science." This time she enlisted 3 panelists to help her narrow down the suggestions that people wrote down on her poster the previous day. And narrow they did. Ultimately, they came up with a very short list of 3 really important things. Which I can't remember any more. Fortunately, Eva is a lot younger than I am so if you're reading this Eva, please drop a comment! Anyways, the session worked really well, with a lot of great input from the panelists and the audience.

Next up was the "Art vs. Science" panel with a whole cast of characters: Roberta Buiani, Bill Leeming, Dave Kemp, Scott Menary and Enrico Lappano. Good wide ranging discussion here about various projects. Very interesting was the film clip of a documentary currently in post-production about science, art and science in society.

Wendy Banks (of the Toronto Public Library) and I moderated a session on the future of libraries. With Wendy coming from the public library perspective and me from academia, the session covered a lot of ground. Mostly, people wanted to know what libraries were for in the digital age. Peter Watts may have amiably yanked my chain a bit, but I think (hope?) I was able to make a case for libraries having a role in mentoring and helping students navigate an increasingly complex information environment. We also discussed the digital divide, digitizing collections and the fact that sometimes your institution may already have what you need, you just don't know it yet. I'd definitely like to thank Wendy (whom I'd never met before Friday!) for co-moderating this session with me.

After my session ended I headed for the Jen Dodd's session on the conference itself. A lot of the minor glitches or issues I've mentioned already were brought up, but nothing major at all. Certainly the huge consensus in the room was, "Same time next year!" Unfortunately, it also seems that the conference ran a not-insignificant deficit, so any attendees that are reading this can feel free to contact the organizers if they want to send a little cash their way.

Finally, the closing session was Lee Smolin on "What is Mathematics?" Opening up with Rick Sacks talking about how he used math to create his 10 Planets percussion album was a stroke of genius. Rick's discussion and demo was fascinating and weird, enough to make me want to check out his music some more. Smolin was, not surprisingly, mystifying in a compelling and provocative way. What is math? Well, what is "What?" What is "is?" Food for thought, for sure.

Most of all, I like to extend hearty congratulations on a job well done to the organizers/advisors: Jen Dodd, Eva Amsen, Jamie McQuay, Michael Nielson, Karl Schroeder and Lee Smolin. I met a lot of great people at the conference, did a lot of cool networking, presented twice when I was only expecting to present once (on the Future of Libraries), watched my son have a blast on Saturday, seeing how at ease he felt among the attendees. It was open and friendly, not intimidating at all even though there were clearly some scarily accomplished people there. Here's to another edition of SciBarCamp next year!

Ask Me Uncomfortable Questions

Ok, trying this on a blog with a fraction of the traffic or Uncertain Principles might be a bit risky (ie. what if nobody asks any questions?). But, I think it's an interesting idea and worth trying at least once. I'm really enjoying Orzel's responses as they give insight into the inner workings of one of my favourite bloggers.

So, the rules. Ask me any uncomfortable question about any topic: life, books, work, libraries, science, web 2.0 culture, free stuff, whatever, and I'll answer it here on the blog. Only restrictions: I reserve the right not to answer any question that might be too personal concerning me or my family. I also won't answer any question that basically asks me to trash somebody.

You can leave your questions in the comments. Ask away!

March 17, 2008

SciBarCamp tshirt

Had there been a SciBarCamp tshirt, this would have been perfect:

SciBarCamp summary & impressions: Saturday

Getting up for a conference on a Saturday is always tough. When it's in you home city and you have to get somewhere downtown for 9am, well, that counts as cruel and unusual punishment. But, for SciBarCamp, it was well worth the pain and anguish. It was even worth the pain and anguish of dragging my 15-year-old son Sam out of bed and onto the Subway with me. Organizers Michael Nielson and Jen Dodd know that I have a teen aged son who's interested in science so they suggested I bring him along as a way of judging if this kind of even might be interesting to high schoolers. As it turned out, Sam had a great time, and even asked a few really great questions (it makes a Dad proud!). He was a bit tired and ready to leave by about 3.30, but he really enjoyed the experience.

So, on to Saturday! (Link to Participants list. It's also worth noting that sessions changed, combined, morphed during the conference, so if I've got participants wrong below, I apologize.)

Like I said in the previous post, the Saturday program was mailed to us during the night.

Corie Lok of Nature Network was scheduled to speak about Science 2.0 first thing on Saturday. As it happened, while Corie and I were talking on Friday night, she asked me if I wouldn't mind joining her up on the stage and helping moderate the discussion. Of course, I said yes. And it went extremely well, too. Corie and I only talked for about 5-8 minutes, with Corie setting the stage and me briefly mentioning some specific tools and trends. After that, in true unconference spirit, the rest of the 40 minute slot was filled with a lively discussion about the impact of these new tools on the practice of science. At first, we talked a bit about JoVE and then we drifted into talking about lab wikis and electronic lab notebooks.

There was only one programming track in the morning. The other items from the morning were Daniel Gottesman's mind expanding talk on quantum mechanics and computing which I think had a few people scratching their heads -- but in a good way. Thinking about hard stuff is good for our brains and this was certainly the hardest stuff of the weekend. That was followed by a provocative session by Andrew Hessel and Jim Thomas about the pros and cons of synthetic biology; lots of issues to think about, for sure. Eva Amsen next gave the first half of her two-part talk on "Ten Thinks Everyone Should Know about Science!" where she talked about what she hoped to accomplish with the project and invited everyone to make suggestions on a poster board during the rest of the day. She promised to come back and Sunday and talk again about the results.

Lunch was included in the conference; on Saturday is was sandwiches, coffee and juice and lots of opportunity to talk. During lunch, some EE students from UofT demoed their solar car outside.

The afternoon was a bit of a dog's breakfast. The scheduling broke down and the four function rooms quickly got out of phase. With a variety of session lengths (20 or 40 minutes) and no time alloted between sessions, the best plan was probably just to pick a room and stay in it! It's worth noting that this aspect was vastly better on Sunday as the organizers more strictly enforced sessions lengths.

In the afternoon, I caught only bits and pieces of a couple of the sessions so I'll only mention the ones I saw in their entirety. Diane Nalini and Lee Smolen talked about "Can Technology Make Us Happy?" and, not surprisingly, there was no consensus. Like some of the sessions, a lot of the discussion ranged around definition. What is "technology", what does "make" mean, what is "happy," and who are "us." Old vs. young, techie vs. luddite, these were some of the issues that came up.

Rob Sawyer took the opportunity of the conference to workshop some of the plot points in his upcoming trilogy on the WWW gaining consciousness to ask some questions of us, like what is consciousness? And how would we know if the web had it? Good discussion with, again, no firm outcome.

Diane Nalini's "Physics through Music" was a great session as she talked about some of the pedagogical tools she uses in her classes to teach physics using an extra sense -- hearing! Springs, software, singing, sine waves. Compelling stuff.

The last item on Saturday's agenda was deciding the program for Sunday. I ended up proposing a session on the Future of Libraries with Wendy Banks of the Toronto Public Library. But more on that tomorrow. It's worth noting that the fluid nature of the unconference format meant that I presented twice -- both times with people I had never met before the conference.

After all the sessions were done, we broke for dinner. I ended up at a Ethiopian restaurant with a bunch of people and then walking to the Duke of York with Mark Tovey. Another organizing glitch was that the 5pm ending didn't flow naturally into dinner or meeting up at the pub at 8pm.

SciBarCamp summary & impressions: Friday

I was at the inaugural of the SciBarCamp all this past weekend and I have to admit that I'm just starting to recover from all the fun, networking and stimulation! The conference ran from 7pm Friday until about 5pm Sunday, with the attendance peaking at around 100 on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

Overall, it was a great event with a couple of minor growing pains-type issues with scheduling.

It was an unconference, so the program was collaboratively set by all the participants, starting on Friday evening.

Actually, before going much further, I should probably just summarize the conference starting on Friday. We all arrived at the conference venue (Hart House at the University of Toronto) Friday evening with a cash bar and some snack ready for us. Once we had a chance to mingle a bit, the organizers introduced the event and told us how we would proceed with setting the program. First of all, every one gathered in a large 100-person circle and introduced themselves for 30 seconds or so, saying who they were and what they were interested in (this went surprisingly well, BTW, with almost no one rambling uncontrollably). Then, everyone that wanted to present on Saturday was invited to get one of the Session Description forms lying around and fill in some details about what they wanted to talk about.

Once that was done, people needed to paste their forms on one of the easels dotted around the hall. After a while, we were told to vote on the sessions that we wanted to see by filling in little circles on the forms. As opposed to trying to judge "quality," this gave an indications of what people wanted to see and an idea of which room to assign to which session. The organizers promised that they would try to let everyone that wanted to present to have a chance during the weekend. After the voting, the organizers did take a minute to try and figure out what the first session would be at 9am Saturday so a) the presenters would know and b) people could judge if they were interested enough to come in that early. They also emailed the complete Saturday schedule at some point early Saturday morning so we could check it out and print it off before coming in.

This whole process worked relatively well. It may have been a bit more involved than it needed to be but the plus side was that the session building exercise also worked great as a way to get people to mingle and discuss.

So, that's Friday.

March 13, 2008

Interview with Bora Zivkovic, Crazy Uncle of the Science Blogging Community

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Bora Zivkovic, Online Community Manager for the open access journal PLoS ONE. Bora is also well know as a prolific science blogger at his blog A Blog Around the Clock. In yet another persona, Bora has organized two science blogging conferences and edited two anthologies of the best of the science blogs.

One of the great things Bora did in association with the most recent North Carolina Science Blogging Conference was host a series of interviews with various attendees on his blog (myself included), all of which are well worth reading. So, I thought I'd turn the tables a little bit and get Bora to answer many of the same questions he posed to his various subjects.

I'd like to thank Bora for his enthusiastic, insightful and fun responses. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Confessions of a Science Librarian. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background?

I grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), reading books and riding horses since an early age. I majored in biochemistry and molecular biology in high school, then went to vet school with the intent to specialize in equine medicine. In 1991, I sold my horse and saddle and bought a ticket -- train to London, then plane to JFK. The war started a week later, breaking the country into several smaller pieces.

After a summer in Hendersonville, NC, working in a summer camp, and about a month in Boston and New Hampshire, I came back to North Carolina, to Raleigh, to work in a horse barn while dealing with the Immigration bureaucracy. On my first day in Raleigh I met Catharine who, a year later, became my wife. We have two kids -- a son and a daughter -- as well as a dog and three cats. We moved to Chapel Hill five years ago and love it here.

My transcripts from the vet school in Belgrade did not count for anything here, so instead of just finishing up in a year or so I would have had to start all over again. Instead, and after talking to horse vets at the barn for a couple of years, I decided that the situation here is quite different than in Yugoslavia. On one hand, the equine veterinary field is quite competitive, leaving little choice as to the location where one has to move to. On the other hand, one can actually do top science in the USA and biology was always my first love.

My interest was always in evolutionary biology, but I was often dismayed with some of the theoretical stuff that seemed to ignore the way the organisms actually work. My vet-school background, heavy on physiology, made it pretty easy for me to get into the NCSU Zoology program where I could integrate physiology, behavioral biology and evolutionary thinking into a single project. I did my MS on the physiology of circadian rhythms and photoperiodism in Japanese quail with Dr. Herbert Underwood, one of the pioneers of chronobiology, and continued with my PhD work in the same lab expanding both down to the level of the molecules and up to the evolutionary context. As you know, I have not defended my Dissertation or published any of that work yet...

After almost ten years in grad school (and after three deaths in the family in succession) I became depressed. The political situation in the USA was depressing as well. I spent more and more time online, reading and commenting on political blogs (including on the Edwards campaign blog), and less and less time writing my thesis. After the 2004 election, I got tired of political blogging and started blogging about science on a new blog instead, with immediate success (my very first post on the science blog got many thousands of hits from BoingBoing and others within the first day of the blog's existence!). In 2006, I got invited to move my blog to Seed The rest is history.

What do you want to do/be when you grow up?

When I was a kid I had this great idea to be the first person to win both an Olympic medal and a Nobel prize. I am older and wiser now. Four years out of the lab, and fifteen years off the horse, the childhood dreams are over. And last time I checked, dealing with comment trolls does not qualify for the Peace prize. Jobs come and go. Passions come and go. But passion for making the world a better place for our children never goes away. I want to do whatever I can toward that goal. And, of course, be happy with my family and have lots of friends.

If Janet Stemwedel is the Cool Aunt of the science blogging community, you have to be the Crazy Uncle (only in the best way, of course). No one is a bigger supporter and cheerleader for the science blogging community. Can you explain a little the inspiration that's led you to edit an anthology series and organize a couple of conferences around this community? And what's next!?

I guess I am a gregarious type. Also, while blogging for a few years I have looked at the ways by which blogs get recognized and become popular, how top groups get entrenched and how much more difficult it is to make a break now than it was just a couple of years ago. So I feel an obligation to find and promote good new blogs as much as I can.

I have also quickly realized that I have made many good friends online and in many cases their own writing resulted in me knowing them better than many people I know in the meatspace. Meeting an online friend in person is like meeting an old childhood friend after a long break. No need to go through the rituals of "getting to know each other", you just hug and continue -- off line -- the conversation that started online. And having met in the real world, we understand each other better online afterwards (and are likely to be nicer to each other). One reinforces the other. There is something particularly strong about friendships that happen both online and off line. And this is something that Anton Zuiker has recognized a long time ago and showed us all, through meet-ups and conferences, how cool and powerful this idea is.

Thus, wanting to get my online friends, the science bloggers, together was a natural next step. And the way to do it was to organize a conference. And then another one. And we are working on the next one already. The idea is not just to have a giant meet-up where science bloggers get to share a beer, but to do something productive at the time as well -- put together people who probably would never meet otherwise: scientists, students, science bloggers, web developers, science journalists, science writers, science librarians, publishers, teachers and let the cross-fertilization of ideas produce magic!

There are still many people, scientists included, who are not very Internet savvy. Blogs have received quite a lot of bad press from threatened op-ed writers over the years as well, making people even more reluctant to check blogs out. We thought that one way to break this vicious cycle would be to present the best writing on science blogs in a medium that such people are comfortable with -- a book. The first anthology was a big hit and we hope that the second one will get even broader coverage and readership. And of course, we are already planning the third one.

Your real life job is Online Community Manager for PLoS ONE. Could you tell my readers the amazing story of how you go that job and what it consists of? Is herding cats a too gentle phrase to describe it?

My cats are marching in a perfect formation! Scientists....not yet... ;-)

When PLoS ONE was launched a year ago, on the new TOPAZ platform that incorporates readers' commentary, PLoS decided to hire a manager for the online community. Liz Allen was doing the search and, among other things, she sent e-mails to people who could potentially help identifying the right person, i.e., someone with both a scientific background and an experience online. One of the recipients of her e-mail was Anton Zuiker, my friend and co-conspirator in various local blogging activities, including the Science Blogging Conference and the anthology. Anton immediately forwarded the e-mail to me insisting I apply right then and there. Well, it was Friday night, so I thought I'd spend a weekend thinking about it, talking to my wife, fixing my CV, then applying on Monday morning. But, being a blogger, I could not resist posting the job description on the blog and asking my readers to let me know if this job was right for me or if I was just fooling myself. The readers started piling up in the comments, urging me to apply and urging PLoS to hire me. One of the comments, on Saturday morning, was from Chris Surridge, the Managing Editor of PLoS ONE, who wrote: "So should we take this blog post as a formal application?" The rest, as they say is history. So yes, I got the job in the comment thread of my own blog. Who said blogging is bad for your career?

So, my job is primarily to try to get people to post comments, notes and ratings on PLoS ONE articles. This means I have to keep making friends -- online and offline -- in the scientific community, to educate about Open Access, about PLoS, about TOPAZ, etc. I also manage the PLoS Blog, use my own blog to inform my readers about news from PLoS, and I sometimes evangelize OA at meetings.

When, how and why did you become a believer in Open Access publishing? In discussions of Open Access on science blogs, at meetings, between scientists and publishers, most people talk about Gold, while sometimes we librarians seem to prefer the Green approach to Open Access. Given the recent Harvard announcements about the Green approach, what's your current feeling about the balance between Green and Gold?

Back in grad school I was a fanatical downloader and reader of scientific papers. I read papers old and new in my field, in several related fields, and in some unrelated but interesting fields. I read, carefully, several papers per day. Then, a few months after I left grad school and started science blogging, my password expired for the school library and suddenly I realized what I never thought of before -- papers are actually NOT free and available for everyone to read. And I needed my daily dose of papers, both for blogging and for my, at the time, illusion of writing a Dissertation. I had to resort to begging friends for PDFs. When I look back, even to the early days of my science blogging, more and more of my blog posts were about papers in OA journals, mainly PLoS Biology (to which e-mail I was subscribed from the very beginning of the journal's existence).

I have mixed feelings about Green approach to Open Access. On one hand, it is a Good Thing -- papers previously unavailable become available for everyone to read. This is definitely an improvement over Toll Access. On the other hand, I have two main problems with it. First one is technical/practical: papers deposited in many places are more difficult to find and papers deposited with different formats are hard to machine-mine for data. I think all the papers should be in the same format, searchable from a single place and interconnected. Second problem I have is tactical/psychological. Settling for a semi-Good solution will slow down the movement towards the Good solution. Many people will be smugly satisfied with Green and will be hard to recruit to fight for Gold.

How do science blogs fit in the entire ecosystem of scientific publishing, communication and education?

Ah, we had two conferences on this question and we are not sure we have the answer yet! Every now and then, the science bloggers do a round of navel-gazing: what is science blogging (see the discussions from 2006 and the 2008). I could probably make this interview really long by writing a treatise on this, but let me try to point just at a couple of main functions, keeping in mind that every blogger has somewhat different motivations, methods and goals for blogging.

Science blogs are an educational resource. Some are actually used as teaching tools in the classrooms, while others are open to everyone (see, for instance, the series of Basic Concepts). Google loves blogs and many science blogs have high traffic and high ranking in search engines. This brings students (and teachers and other interested people) to science blogs when they search for scientific terms and concepts. My posts with the greatest longevity (and total traffic over time) are my educational posts, e.g., my BIO101 lecture notes.

Science blogs remove filters. A scientific paper is usually dry, dense and difficult to read. Most people outside of the particular field need some level of translation from Scientese into English (or whichever other language). Traditionally, this is the job of the Press Officer at the researchers' institution, often a person who does not have the requisite background in that scientific discipline and may thus make mistakes. The press releases are then picked up by journalists who write their articles based on these. They also usually do not have scientific background and find it difficult to read and understand the actual scientific papers. Thus, they add another step in translation which may, and often does, distort the meaning of the published research. Science bloggers are scientists and they tend to write about the research in their area of expertise (as I would write about chronobiology papers and leave physics to others). They read the actual papers. They tend not to make mistakes. And, as only a small proportion of scientists write blogs, the science bloggers are self-selected for love of writing -- so, at least after a few months of doing it, they become very, very good writers, often as good (or better) as the professional science journalists. And, as they tend to point out the mistakes in press releases and media articles, they keep the journalists' feet to the fire, making journalists better at their job in the process.

Science blogs protect science. Most working scientists do not have the time, energy and inclination to actively fight against various pseudoscience and anti-science movements. Many science bloggers do. And, as blogs tend to have high search-engine rankings, their responses to such attacks on science usually show up higher than the original attacks. Every time someone says something stupid or pernicious (for personal, financial, religious or political reasons), a chorus of science blogs dissects the quasi-argument and replaces it with correct information. This is what people will find if they search the relevant terms.

Science blogs are starting to change the way science is done. The examples are few for now, but Open Notebook Science, i.e., the publication of daily lab notes on a blog or a wiki (the way, for instance, Jean-Claude Bradley does it), is slowly gaining adherents. Sooner or later, hypotheses and data published on blogs will routinely get cited -- I have published both hypotheses and data on my blog before, and I had a blog post cited as a reference in a paper. In the other direction, scientific papers (like those published in PLoS journals) enable bloggers to leave trackbacks. This will become more and more frequent in the future.

How is a scientific paper going to look in 20 years from now? How is that going to affect the way scientific research (and teaching) is done?

It is hard to make predictions (although I did before), especially with such temporal precision -- things may happen much faster or slower than I think. It depends on the state of science in 20 years -- its global size and power, its global distribution (will the US science, with its US-specific culture, still be dominant in 20 years?), the technological breakthroughs and societal/political environment.

Most scientific disciplines go through cycles. A new technology (microscope, telescope, computer, gene-sequencing machines) suddenly allows people to gather previously intractable data. A whole industry develops around this new technology and over some years or decades, mountains of data are produced, yet the analysis and understanding of data is still quite superficial and preliminary. So the field swings to the other part of the cycle -- data analysis and interpretation and construction of new theoretical scaffolds, also a time for bitter theoretical battles within the discipline...until it is settled, by which time usually there is a new technological invention that allows for collection of new kinds of data and the cycle moves on again.

Right now, some fields, e.g., astronomy and genomics, are in the data-producing phase. Much money and manpower is dedicated to the production of enormous amounts of new data, with little time to stop and think about them. So, it is in the interest of researchers to make the data available to others for analysis. Thus, they are dumped online (where else? reams of printer paper?). Is publication of a new genome a scientific paper? It is just a lot of raw data, after all, with minimal and highly formalized Introduction, Methods and Discussion sections.

My prediction, probably false, but I'll go out on the limb here, is that a scientific paper of the future will be a work in progress -- with different people with different skills and talents contributing to a body of work sequentially: one has the idea, another turns it into a hypothesis, another designs the experiments, another runs them, another analyzes the data, another visualizes them, another interprets them, another places several such pieces of work together into a historical and philosophical context and finishes writing the "paper". The bits and pieces of it are independently searchable and citable and they are all interconnected by links until the final version is put all together in one place. After all, science as the work of a lonely genius is pretty much a myth -- it has been, for the most part, a very collective endeavor. The readers of the paper then keep adding their commentary, links to subsequent "papers," etc. The unity of the paper -- a single date, journal, volume, issue, page -- will be gone. All of science will become interdisciplinary and interconnected.

Bora -- the question that everyone wants to know the answer to: how do you manage to be such a prolific blogger and still hold down a job, edit anthologies, organize conference and maintain a life outside all that stuff.

It helps that most of it is a part of my job. I love my job, I love blogging, I love learning, and I love making friends -- and all of it is interconnected in my life right now. I do not sleep enough (but I do, every night, despite rumors to the contrary), I do not go out to commune with nature enough, and, unfortunately (and that HAS to change), I do not find enough time any more to read books as much as I used to.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

Since I started as a political blogger, it is no surprise that the first blog I encountered was The Intersection, at the time when Chris Mooney was starting to write his material for The Republican War On Science. His blogroll then led me to Pharyngula, Deltoid and a few other science blogs. After that, by jumping from blogroll to blogroll, as well as through blog carnivals, I discovered hundreds of others.

It is impossible any more (for at least a year now) to keep up with all of them, so I tend to rotate them -- some I check daily for a few months, then move to others, while checking the others only sporadically. I'd love to have a thousand Favourites (just check my blogroll!), but it is just physically impossible. I read all of my SciBlings pretty regularly (it is easy by checking The Last 24 Hours page), visit my old friend Archy just to say Hello every morning, check Peter Suber for professional reasons, and enjoy the fresh new young voices, e.g,. that of Pondering Pikaia or Laelaps. Like most of my interviewees, I encountered the delightful Inverse Square Blog at the Conference, as well as The INFO Project blog, the OpenHelix blog and will keep an eye to see how Space Cadet develops over time.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference -- a session, something someone said or did or wrote -- that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

It's hard, when you are the organizer, to quit worrying about the organization, choose a session and settle down with a full focus on the conversation. I actually had to watch the videos and read the blog posts afterwards for most of the sessions. In my mind, the most important development is the realization, reached by both sides I think, that former adversaries, the professional science journalists on one side and the science bloggers on the other, are really on the same side and need to find ways to collaborate.

Another focus for me, during the entire year of organization as well as during the meeting, was finding the ways to fully include people who traditionally were not invited to the table when scientists talk -- not only concerning gender and race, which are important, but also age and formal qualifications, e.g., undergraduate and high school students, writers, journalists, amateur naturalists, middle school teachers, elected officials and parents. I think that the Conference was quite successful in those goals, but I am already concocting plans for making the ScienceOnline09 even more inclusive if I can.

It was so nice to finally meet you and thank you for the interview.

It was great meeting you, too. It was a pleasure. See you next year at the conference.

March 11, 2008

Head exploding

Sometimes it's hard to believe all the stuff you find on the Web. I like to think of my self as a cautious utopian, but some people just go a bit too far in either direction for me.

Is the Web Different? by David Weinberger

The question "Is the Web different?" is actually not so much a question as a shibboleth in the original sense: The answer determines which tribe you're in.
The Web utopians point to the ways in which the Web has changed some of the basic assumptions about how we live together, removing old obstacles and enabling shiny new possibilities.
The Web dystopians agree that the Web is having a major effect on our lives. They, however, think that effect is detrimental.
The Web realists say the Web hasn't had nearly as much effect as the utopians and dystopians proclaim. The Web carries with it certain possibilities and limitations, but (the realists say) not many more than other major communications medium.

I think that this is a pretty useful analysis, one that lets us analyse where people are coming from, including ourselves. Like I said, I tend to be a cautious utopian, but perhaps a better description is a contrarian utopian. I tend to try and present the utopian perspective to dystopians and the dystopian perspective to utopians.

Weinberg obviously falls on the side of the most starry-eyed utopians.

But I don't want to leave it at that happy, liberal conclusion because it is, I believe, incomplete. The fuller statement of the conclusion should include: It is vital to have realists in the discussion, but they are essentially wrong.


And we need lots and lots of them. There is so much to invent, and the new forms of association that emerge often only succeed if there are enough people to embrace them.

Web realists perform the vital function of keeping us from running down dead ends longer than we need to, and from getting into feedback loops that distort the innovation process. For those services, we should thank and encourage the realists. But we should also recognize that beyond the particulars, they are essentially wrong.

The contention among dystopians, realists and utopians is is a struggle among the past, the present and the future. The present is always right about itself but — in times of disruption — essentially wrong about the future. That's why we need to flood the field with utopians so we can be right often enough that we build the best future we can.

Needless to say, as a pure contrarian I find Weinberger needlessly dismissive and antagonistic here. I firmly believe that utopians should see realists as their natural allies, not their implacable enemies. Calling people that are mostly on your side wrong all the time does nothing to build the kinds of social networks and collaborative webs these utopians seem to want us to think that they're all about. A little humility can go a long way.

We've Got a Monster on the Loose: It's Called the Internet by Dan Greenberg.

Greenberg is the science policy writer on The Chronicle's group blog Brainstorm
Has there been an uptick in bizarre and pathological behavior since the Internet became a common household implement over, say, the past 10 years? There’s no way of untangling the Internet from the many other elements of society. But one might speculate about the soaring consumption of antidepressants, a reported increase in suicides among middle-aged men, and several spectacular mass murders at universities. Violent online games, pornography, and detachment and isolation from human contact come easily to the Internet user. Is there a connection? No one can say for sure, but the possibility can’t be dismissed.

Like all technologies, the Internet is employable for good and bad, and where it is applicable to benign purposes, it can be uniquely useful. But it is easily adaptable to mischief and worse. By many accounts, it has spawned an epidemic of plagiarism among college students — and an ensuing cat-and-mouse game with professors sifting their prose online. Identity theft is another gift to online malefactors. And sheer confusion — deliberate or inadvertent — on important public matters easily flourishes on the Internet.

Holy crap. What codswallop. It's a shame that Greenberg is the closest they have to a science gal/guy. He doesn't generally seem to like science or scientists or the internet or technology of any kind. Couldn't they find, like, a scientist to contribute? Science is part of Higher Education, after all.

The Ultimate Conference Attendee by Will Richardson.
It's great that this new-fangled web can let us share our thoughts and follow the thoughts of other so easily even though they may be georgraphically very far from us. I know that there's very little I enjoy more that audio or video from some far flung conference or meeting that I couldn't attend. I do conference summaries on my blog because I think others might find them useful and appreciate it when others do the same for sessions I couldn't attend.

Now, Will Richardson is a noted thinker in edcational technology, especially in the pedagogical uses of the read/write web. I often find his highly utopian musings provocative and instructive. But...
Wondering what future conference organizer is gonna get smart and only allow attendees who:

  • Have their own Ustream channels and broadcast live facial reactions of attendees as the session is in progress
  • Can Tweet out the best quotes, engage in lively back channel repartee, and live blog the session to their own sites at the same time
  • Create a VoiceThread story of the presentation within 10 minutes of finish by incorporating photos taken during the session and uploaded to Flickr, adding voice over narration to contextualize the event, and soliciting video comments from virtual attendees
  • Put together a wiki page for the session that collects dozens of various RSS feeds compiled from keyword and tag searches on the presenter’s name, the general topic, bookmarks, YouTube videos and more
  • Create a Google Map that identifies where all of the virtual attendees live and helps them upload photos of themselves watching the UStreamed, Tweeted, VoiceThreaded, wikied presentation in progress.
  • Conduct a live Skype call with other experts who challenge the ideas being presented and scream out provocative and borderline insulting questions
  • Have their own conference space in Second Life where live video and audio of presentation is being streamed and where they have organized a post session social featuring virtual local microbrews and coffees

Notice how he says "only allow attendees who..." What, so my money isn't good if I'm not on Twitter? Weinberger meet Richardson, Richardson meet Weinberger.

A Call for Slow Writing by Lindsay Waters.
I sort of have the impression I should be agreeing with Waters on this one, but ironically this is one of the most scrambled and unfocused "essays" I've read in a while.
What I’m saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes — and here I’m going global — a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand. The humanists of the Renaissance knew the Romans had the ability to put sentences that had concinnitas, but that their ancestors in what we call the Middle Ages had lost that ability. When the Ancients constructed the Arch of Constantine, it stayed together for centuries, even though neglected. Concinnity — what a splendid word!


What an outrage! I remember the would-be contributor whom we were demanding more of who said “But I’ve written the perfect New Historicist, feminist, deconstructionist essay. You dare not tamper with my very self and voice. And we dared not tell Professor Polonius that he did not have any writing voice at all. You cannot be comical-pastoral-tragical (I am playing on what Polonius says at Hamlet 2.2.397.) and speak in any tongue in which humans have spoken. We nearly turned down an entry by one of the chief editors of that book. With the Marcus/Sollors I confess to having stacked things towards readability by making one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone be one of the two editors-in-chief of the volume. Guilty as charged. The way I have set up the Marcus/Sollors is all around the essay. The book is a collection of 220 essays that resonate in surprising ways so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, but each individual part is a free-standing essay.In the making of this book I have pursued the essay so strongly that I have made it function in a new way like an individual instrument in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

I know I'm only a simple science type, but, Huh?

My apologies for the crankiness of today's post. The snow must be getting to me.

March 8, 2008

Edvard Munch: The Canadian Years

Today's Globe and Mail editorial cartoon:

A sentiment that I'm sure is shared by many a Canadian on this snowy Saturday morning. The boys and I will be heading out for the first round of shovelling after lunch.

March 7, 2008

Friday Fun: Transylvania 6-5000 Edition

Transylvania 6-5000 is one of my all-time favourite Bugs Bunny cartoons. It's hysterical, especially the part where Bugs keeps transforming Drac into various permutations and combinations of vampire & bat.

Watch it here on YouTube and LOL!

March 6, 2008

See Jane Compute on ScienceBlogs

Complain and ye shall be rewarded...immediately.

Just yesterday I was mentioning that I didn't think computer science and engineering were particularly well represented on the ScienceBlogs and what happens? Today one of my all-time favourite computer science bloggers has made her debut on the science blogs!

A hearty congratulations to Jane of See Jane Compute!

I'm especially pleased, of course, because I've been following Jane's adventures for a very long time. I was particularly pleased and proud that she agreed to be my very first interview subject.

March 5, 2008

ScienceBlogs, science blogs, blogs about science, blogs with some science

So which one am I?

Late to the party as usual, this post is a response to the recent kerfuffle over at ScienceBlogs about a post at the BayBlab blog that was highly critical of the effect the Seed sponsored ScienceBlogs platform is having on science blogging in general.

The original post brought up a lot of issues, like being traffic whores, insularity, cliquishness, lack of focus on science and the influence being paid has on the ScienceBloggers.

If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That's right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I'm afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

As you can imagine, this provoked a storm of protest, with 70+ comments on the post itself and a lot of commentary on other blogs, especially from the ScienceBloggers themselves.

Ultimately embarrassed by the silliness and pettiness of their post, the BayBlabers recanted and said it was all just a experiment in provoking a reaction. Or something.

Two of the most reasoned commentaries on the ScienceBlogs site were, not surprisingly, from Adventures in Ethics and Science and A Blog around the Clock.

Now, I'm not going to comment too directly on the whole thing -- there's been enough spleen vented and rants ranted already. I do want to say, however, that I found the Bayblabs posts themselves to be rather juvenile and self-serving -- a pathetic attempt to garner traffic and get some notice while actually pretending to criticize those impulses in others. Not too surprisingly, the author of the posts is calls him/herself Anonymous Coward. Also not too surprising that the site is a written by a bunch of grad students. Kind of embarrassing that they're Canadian grad students, though.

Well, I've already rambled a fair bit here, so what was I trying to get at? In the post I mention above at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet Stemwedel asks herself a bunch of questions about being a ScienceBlogger/science blogger/blog about science/blog with some science that I thought would be useful to explore for myself. It's a chance to talk about why I do what I do, what I think the purpose of science blogging is and what I think about the 800 pound gorilla of the science blogging world -- ScienceBlogs. A few of the other ScienceBloggers have done the same thing. I don't navel-gaze all that much here, but some introspection about purpose and intent is always good for the non-supernatural soul.

(Note that a couple of the AiEaS questions aren't really relevant for someone not part of the ScienceBlogs platform.)

1. Why do you consider this blog a science blog?

Hmmm. I don't really consider myself solely a science blogger as I also have one foot firmly in the librarian blogger community. I'm also neither a practicing scientist nor a science journalist or communicator of any kind and as such I don't post much about new developments in science or technology. I don't really post that much about the battle against creationism or global warming denialism.

So why do I so strongly identify with the science blogger community of I'm at best peripheral to the main preoccupations of the mainstream science blogging community? Partly because I love science and enjoy the company of science people. Partly because as a librarian serving a scitech community I think it's part of my job to know what makes scientists and engineers tick and reading their blogs is an important part of that. And partly because I do post quite a bit about resources I find that help me understand the culture of science. And being a recovering software developer, I also post a lot about the culture of computer science and information technology.

When someone says, "I may not be able to define a science blog but I know one when I see it!" I think they could look here and see a science blog.

3. Why do so many bloggers at ScienceBlogs write about stuff besides science?

Because they're human. If you don't like the cat blogging or the political blogging getting in the way of the science blogging, then just ignore those posts or read another blog. Blogs are a lot of different things to a lot of different bloggers and we all just have to do what keeps us going.

Now, I'm not one to talk. I post relatively little on non-science librarian topics on my blog. I post very little on my personal life, nothing on politics or religion and only a handful of posts on popular culture, mostly as part of my Friday Fun series. But very little isn't nothing and I expect that the more personal topics are also interesting to my readers because it allows us to build a more complete and human relationship and for the parts of the community we share to be fuller and deeper.

Speaking for myself, this blog reflects my personality and my passing interests at any given time. That's going to include non-science librarian stuff too. If I tried to cut off the non-science librarian stuff I would be much more likely to lose interest in continuing blogging at all.

4. ...[Do] you make all your blogging decisions on the basis of what will drive traffic?

Only very occasionally. The vast majority of my posts serve my primary purpose -- to explore and report on the life of a science librarian in the 21st century, including trying to understand how scientists communicate.

The only case where I've really been influenced to post based on anticipated traffic was the series of year's best science book posts from this past fall. When I did it spontaneously in fall 2006, it was unexpectedly extremely popular so when fall 2007 came around, it seemed like a good idea to go for it again. And not only for traffic, but it seems that the posts were appreciated by people looking for good science books.

In other cases, I post whether or not I anticipate a huge amount of traffic. My interview series is a good case in point. The big one was the Timo Hannay interview, which has gotten over 1000 page views. But the rest only add to a bit more than that all together, averaging 200-300 page views. But I keep doing them because I think they are extremely valuable both for me and for my core readership who are probably getting them via RSS.

Of course, this question also begs the question of the purpose of popularity amongst bloggers. In other words, why do I want my blog to be popular and get lots of hits? As an academic, I function in a reputation economy. If my blog makes me somewhat more famous than I would be without one, then opportunities will come my way. Now, putting it all in perspective, fame amongst science librarians is extremely relative. But nevertheless, my blog has earned me a number of important invitations and engagements and a couple of free books to boot.

Speaking of perspective, in the 12 months ending February 29, 2008, this blog received 47,547 page views and 33,655 unique visits (according to Google Analytics). My three most popular posts over the 12 months have been only slightly over 1000 page views.

And sometimes you get surprise posts that attract a lot of hits. For example, my recent post on Jeff Healey has attracted a few hundreds hits making it my most popular recent post.

5. Do the bloggers at ScienceBlogs think they're better than all the other people who blog about science? Do they think their traffic or incoming links make them the best?

At 71 blogs and probably 80+ individual bloggers, I'm sure there are a couple who think they're better than the rest of us, who blog for the sole purpose of being famous and raising their profile. I can think of a couple and I'm sure you can too.

On the other hand, who really cares. I read the blogs I like and ignore the ones that annoy me. Not only that, anyone with a lick of sense would have to recognize that the prestige of the ScienceBlogs community has attracted a disproportionate number of the best science bloggers, nurtured them, paid them a few bucks, given them a higher profile and encouraged them to keep on blogging. That's a very good thing.

6. Why so many blogs about biology at ScienceBlogs? Why aren't there more blogs about chemistry, or astronomy, or lepidoptery, or gastroenterology, or ...?

In my mind, this is a legitimate criticism of ScienceBlogs. They are quite overweighted with life science blogs (I include neuroscience loosely under this banner), most probably out of proportion to life science blogs among the whole population of science blogs. Engineering and computer science are among the least well represented areas. I have never been shy about pointing this out to SB either in their surveys or in person (Hi Ginny!).

Does this affect my appreciation for what they are doing? Only slightly. After all, they are a private company and if they think their current mix of blogs is going to drive the most traffic and make the most money, well, so be it. I believe they've also made efforts to balance things out a bit better and are working towards that goal.

7. Why don't ScienceBlogs bloggers ever link to blogs outside ScienceBlogs.

Err. This is absurd. As far as I can tell, most if not all ScienceBloggers make an effort to link to other blogs. I've benefited from some of the linking myself, mostly from Bora but also by being on a couple of blogrolls (274 referrals in the last 12 months). I myself am probably not as diligent in supporting other blogs as they are, on average.

8. Are all the ScienceBlogs bloggers BFFs?

ScienceBlogs is a lively community and disagreements and disputes do arise from time to time. The whole Framing of Science thing is a good example as there is a lot of both light and heat generated whenever it comes up. In fact, I think there are one or two of ScienceBloggers that are roundly despised by many of their associates.

But for me, I see the close knit nature of the community as a plus. I enjoy peeking inside and seeing the interactions amongst this diverse array of colleagues. It's fun and compelling, making the community as a whole more useful and interesting. And since all the blogs allow comments, no one is excluded from participating in the family discussions, if only as cousins rather than siblings.

Have I ever felt excluded or jealous of the interactions or sense of community? Possibly slightly on a very few occasions. There's a fine line between cliquishness and community and I think that they generally stay on the right side. At the conference, I certainly didn't notice any undue amount of cliquishness. People who already know each other (f2f or virtually) will always stick together a bit more than average, but that's normal and understandable.

(Disclosure: Is all this just me sucking up so they'll invite me to join the ScienceBlogs collective? Not at all. I've never been approached to join nor have I ever approached them. I'm not particularly interested in being hosted nor do I think I'd be that great a fit with their current stable. I imagine that if they did approach me, I'd give it serious thought and do what I thought was the best for me and my online presence.)

March 3, 2008

Jeff Healey

A sad day today in the Canadian music world. Blues/Rock/Jazz guitarist Jeff Healey died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was only 41.

I first saw Healey in concert about 18 years ago at the Montreal International Jazz Festival -- he was opening up for a more established blues star. When he was announced, I'd never heard of him before so didn't know what to expect. Needless to say, he lit up the place like never before, one of the most electrifying performances I've ever seen. He totally stole the show from the headliner who set seemed tame and sedate by comparison. After the show, I tried to remember the name of that amazing guy but nobody seemed to remember. I only found out the next day in the review in the paper.

He has a blues rock album coming out in a month or so, the first since 2000. He'd been mostly recording jazz in the last number of years.