February 27, 2006

National Engineering Week

It's National Engineering Week here in Canada this week. The Ontario Engineering Week site is here. There was a snazzy insert in one of the national newspapers (The Globe and Mail) last week with stories on building disaster-proof houses, alternative fuels, women in engineering and others. The insert isn't online yet, but the last two year's editions are completely online here, featuring articles on Engineers Without Borders, accrediting newcomers, Mission to Mars and many others.

Update: The 2006 newspaper supplement is now online. A nice quote from the article on women in engineering: "Engineering is a caring profession, that is very much the reality, but people don't always see that initially."

The Play's the Thing: Games, Gamers and Gaming Cultures

The most recent issue of the ejournal Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture (v6i1) is on gaming. Of course, numerous articles are on video gaming, of which this is a very small selection:

via SFRA-L.

What's math for, yet again

For some reason, my "What's math For" post about the Cohen article in the LA Times has disappeared from the blog. It's still somewhere in the ether, because I can link to it (in the previous post, for example or in Google Cache) but doesn't appear in the main listing. It's kinda scary to think that there may be other posts that I've made over the years that have just vanished. So, in the spirit of putting things right, here's the post again:

As has been reported a fair bit in the scienceblogosphere, The Washington Post's Richard cohen has a rather bizarre post on whether or not everyone needs to know algebra.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a similar column about algebra. Math teachers struck back with a vengeance. They made so many claims for algebra's intrinsic worth that I felt, as I once had in class, like a dummy. Once again, I just didn't get it. Still, in the two decades since, I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used -- or wanted to use -- algebra. I was lucky, though. I had graduated from high school and gone on to college. It's different for you, Gabriela. Algebra ruined many a day for me. Now it could ruin your life.

I always find these mathophobic posts rather interesting. Can anyone think of any other field of intellectual attainment that supposedly educated people would practically brag about being bad at or ignorant of? Literature? History? Film? Geography? Don't think so. Math & science? Hey, ignorance is a badge of honour. Does everyone need to know about math in their everyday lives? Probably not. But the same could be said for all those other subjects too. Knowing who Sir John A. was has never once made my life even a bit easier. Really, the very existence of a whole lot of people who have bothered to learn about those arcane math & science subjects and have built up our very technological society has made it pretty easy for the unknowing to get along pretty well in their ignorance. That's fine, I guess. But at least Mr. Cohen and his ilk could demonstate a little appreciation rather than scorn.

Some other, probably better, fiskings can be found at ScienceBlogs here, here and here, plus some more comments via Technorati.

OK, everybody, let's take the test

If we're going to complaing about the Richard Cohen's of the world, we should put our test scores where our mouths are. See, math is good for taking silly web-based quizzes!

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!
via Pharygula.

February 24, 2006

Lots o' Friday Fun

It's just getting weirder and weirder out there:

February 23, 2006

Free SciTech ebooks/etexts

A round-up of ones I noticed relatively recently, some of current value, some historical:

Textbook Revolution is a good aggregator site (OAN).

Blogga Blogga Song

Check out the absolutely hilarious Blogga Blogga Song at the Laughing Librarian. The logo for this humble blog appears a little over half way, just after a couple of blogs that go by too fast for me to make out clearly. I'm not sure what this honour means, but it sure is fun anyway. Not sure if anyone has actually tried to list all the blogs that make an appearance, but it would be appreciated as there are several I haven't heard of before. Via WaR.

February 15, 2006

Stop the Presses!

I am a librarian, working in an academic library. It's reading week, 6:45 p.m. so the place is generally pretty quiet. Right now I'm in the middle of a 3-hour reference shift which during which I have actually answered about a dozen questions, some simple, some more complex, but I have actually helped some students do their course-related research. What a concept.

Poke in the eye

Over at Science Library Pad, Richard Akerman starts an argument: "To put it more concisely, either your research library becomes part of the E-Science Cyberinfrastructure, or it gets paved over."

The post is here. The end of the article also links to a bunch of his other recent provocative posts. The whole set of posts and the associated comments on the main post are very nteresting, more or less a challenge to academic and research libraries to change or disappear.

Now, a lot of what he says I agree with and have published views on over the years. Online is the way to go, it's inevitable, it's what everyone wants, but to say that libraries and librarians have, over the years, been nothing but glorified storage closets for print journals is to me a little insulting. I'm not sure why he feels the need to use a phrase so guaranteed to raise hackles and piss people off as "paved over." I just wonder. These posts scream the "I don't use libraries, everyone must be just like me, so no needs to use libraries, pave'em over" type of attitude that is so prevalent among the less subtle posters on places like /. and other factions of the hardcore techie community (I know, remember, I grew up there) which can be so off-putting. It speaks of a massive chip on the shoulder.

Not sure if Akerman is a librarian or if he's ever actually been in one (as far as I know, neither is a prerequisite for working at CISTI), but he seems to have a very narrow definition of what libraries can and should do. He also seems to be a bit unaware that, yes, academic and research libraries are facing a huge challenge to redefine ourselves but we're trying and we think we're going to succeed. And oddly enough, our "brand" as a place (physical and, in the future, virual) to facilate conversation and collaboration is going to be it.

Google book search

And speaking of BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow has a very long post on why Google Book Search is a very good thing for both books and publishers. Now, I often don't agree with many of Doctorow's pollyannaish posts on the great technogeekrapture that awaits us all if only we were smart like him, but on this issue he is dead on. It mystifies me why publishers and authors wouldn't beg to be indexed by google as much as humanly possible. If you want to sell your books, the very best way to do that is if people can find them. Only then can they decide to buy the darn thing. If a little snippet of the text can help them to make the purchase decision, so be it. Is there some possibility that Google's system could be hacked and some people could get access to the full text? Could Google's corporate status change and the full text fall into the hands of owners that weren't as concerned about copyright? Sure, both these could happen but that's no reason to prevent something terrific from happening. As Doctorow and many others proclaim, obscurity not piracy is the author's real enemy.

History of Supercomputers

Via Make Blog, a nice little photo spread of supercomputers. On the same general topic, BoingBoing has a link to an interview with J. Presper Eckert, co-inventor of the ENIAC where he debunks a bunch of commonly held misconceptions about the ENIAC.

February 14, 2006

Carnival of the Infosciences #24

My recent Confessions of a Science Librarian post was featured at the latest Carnival, #24:

Confessions of a Science Librarian details the path to the dark side of science librarianship from a mild-mannered software developer. Science Fiction leads to Fortran which leads to doing bonus assignments of matrix multiplication! You have to read it to believe it!

Thanks, Grumpator! The next Carnival is at …the thoughts are broken…

February 10, 2006

SciAm podcast

Like everyone else these days, Scientific American has a new podcast. I listened to the first one and it was pretty good, with items on the Korean stem cell controversy, the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, Eugenie Scott on the Dover case and a funny little bit on the "reality" of the CSI series. I hope they maintain the humourous bits, as that distinguishes them from a lot of the other scitech podcasts out there.

Friday Fun

A bunch of vaguely science-related fun items from around the blogosphere:

February 9, 2006

Confessions of a Science Librarian

Inspired by Adventures in Ethics and Science and Stranger Fruit...

So, how does a person go from being a software developer to being a science librarian?

  • From a very young age, always read a lot of books, magazines, comic books and whatever else is lying around, mostly science fiction and fantasy but a lot of other stuff too.
  • Also from a young age, related to an interest in science fiction, also read a lot and exhibit a lot of interest in science and math. Math is always the best subject at school, by far.
  • Source of much pocket money during college and university -- tutoring math (especially geometry, always loved geometry) and other subjects at former high school.
  • At middle of college career (college in Quebec where I grew up is a two year pre-university institution, equivalent to grades 12 and 13) in 1982 get a tour of a computing centre where a cousin worked and think, "hey, this is kinda cool."
  • Take Fortran course in second year. Life is changed. Even do bonus extra assignment on matrix multiplications. Using computers to solve mathematical problems is a revelation (although this thread is sorta never followed up on).
  • Apply to Computer Science at Concordia University. Pursue General Business Option and end up taking a lot of accounting, finance, marketing, etc, along with Fortran, Pascal, data structures, operating systems and all the rest. Do really well in stats and numerical analysis courses. Except for this one stats course we won't really talk about.
  • Along with tutoring, get a job as Programmer on Duty at Concordia Computer Centre. Involves sitting at desk or roving around helping students debug their programs or get the systems to work. Challenging but lots of fun. Remarkably like reference desk, but never make the connection.
  • After graduation (1986), get job at multinational insurance broker doing database development in FoxPro, later in Wang Pace and Powerbuilder. Work there for 12+ years. Best part about the job? Working mostly with the finance and accounting functions, helping people find the information they need to get their job done. Remarkably like research consultations, never make the connection. Like working with people and crunching premium and commission numbers.
  • Eventually tire of the constant retraining to new technologies, fed up of unstable mergers/aquisitions situation at company for several years, contemplate leaving job and getting a new one. However, since in the middle of a large, multiyear project, don't want to leave until that is mostly put to bed.
  • Have lots of time to think, "Do I want a new job or a new career?" Examples of librarians among friends and family. Research indicates that libraries seem to be rather computer-oriented these days. This is about 1996-97. Start to make some of those connections. Start to make plans.
  • Quit job and go to Library School full time at McGill. This is fall 1998.
  • Figure I'll end up working at a library vendor until, at the end of the first year, a student in the second year (Thanks, Larry!) recruits me to do a practicum placement at the Physical Sciences and Engineering Library. End up doing some volunteer reference work in the fall of the second year, 144 hour practicum in the winter and 3 week contract in the spring.
  • Get acquainted with serving a scitech clientelle as a science librarian and think, "Hey, this is great! I wouldn't mind doing this!" (Thanks, Darlene, Marika and Liz).
  • Coincidentally, while looking for a job during the spring of second year, see a posting on notice board for a science librarian job at York University. Even though it's in Toronto and I'm in Montreal and we don't really want to move, apply anyway.
  • Get job. Start in August 2000. Rest is history.
  • Much sadness about old place of work.
  • Really like buying books on numerical analysis and scientific computing.

You wouldn't believe how often I get asked why I switched from a techie career to librarianship. Now we all know. I encourage more stories.

Philosophically speaking

A couple of great posts over at ScienceBlogs about how a couple of history/philosophy of science scholars started out on pure science careers but then switched over to the other side.

The first is by Janet D. Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Changing career paths, about her transition from a chemist to a philosopher. A follow-up post with more details is here.

The second is by John Lynch at Stranger Fruit, What a long strange trip ..., about his transition from biology to history.

Interestingly, neither of them has made much of a buzz in the blogosphere that I can tell from Technorati. You often hear about scientists who have made the transition to novelist or artist or whatever, and these are just two more examples of how the training scientists get can be useful in other fields of endeavor (or perhaps something else ;-). It would also be interesting to hear of cases where people start careers in the arts, humanities or social sciences and end up in science or technical careers -- there must be quite a few former artists who make their living as web developers, for example.

Any bloggers out there reading this who have made similar career transitions? I'd be happy to link to posts about your experiences!

February 3, 2006

Make your own fun

A couple of cool things via the Make blog:

  • How Products Are Made is an online version of Gale's 7 volume reference set. It seems to be complete. The print is a great set that I often recommend to engineering and other students who need basic background info on a product or class of products. Having it online is just fantastic -- I hope the publishers can make a go of this based on advertising revenue.
  • Centuri Model Rocket Designers Manual from 1971 and a whole lot of other model rocketry plans too. Basically how to scratch-build model rockets.

For those who don't know, Make is a modern-day do-it-yourself magazine published by the fine folks at O'Reilly. Five issues have come out with more on the way. You can even buy the issues indiviually as monographs.

ACM interactions

interactions (v13i1) has a nice issue on prototyping with lots of interesting looking articles, good stuff for you programmers & developers out there. However, I'd also like to draw attention to a couple of articles about HCI as a field:

February 2, 2006

What is...

There's lots of jargon and acromym-speak out there in the tech world and sometimes it can be hard to wade through it all, especially when something new and hot appears on your radar and you want ot get a handle on it. Well, for the last year or so O'Reilly has been publishing a series of "What is..." articles their web site. They are meaty, substantial and very high quality, especially good at placing the technology or trend in context. Of course, this is to be expected from a company with the reputation of O'Reilly, but it is always nice to see reality match reputation.

There are over 50 of the articles available and needless to say many of them are highly relevant to the library world. So, if you want to do a little catch-up, here are some of the highlights (and another link to the main page):