March 31, 2006

Supporting exploratory search

That's the title of the special section in the most recent Communications of the ACM (v49i4). From the Introduction by Ryen W. White, Bill Kules, Steven M. Drucker and m.c. schraefel:

Defining what constitutes an exploratory search is challenging. Indeed, almost all searches are in some way exploratory. As many of the examples in this section illustrate, an exploratory search may be characterized by the presence of some search technology and information objects that are inherently meaningful to users (for example, their images, email messages, and music files). Although there may be circumstances where exploratory strategies are used continually to allow people to discover new associations and kinds of knowledge, they are often motivated by a complex information problem, and a poor understanding of terminology and information space structure.

In some respects, exploratory search can be seen as a specialization of information exploration—a broader class of activities where new information is sought in a defined conceptual area; exploratory data analysis is another example of an information exploration activity. In exploratory search, users generally combine querying and browsing strategies to foster learning and investigation. Although the exploration of information to reduce uncertainty is addressed in many fields, we focus on three areas: information retrieval (how information is found), information studies (how needs are described and information is used), and information visualization (how information is presented). The articles do not discuss fields such as knowledge management and cognitive psychology. Although both fields contain relevant research, they are beyond the scope of this editorial project.

Some highlights of the section:
And one other article from the issue I would like to highlight:

Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education

There's so much here that's so interesting in the 2005 Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, that I'll just post some of the section headings rather than even scratch the surface of the articles themselves:

  • Security
  • Gender issues
  • Classroom management
  • Recentering computer science
  • Communication skills
  • Active learning in introductory CS courses
  • Interdisciplinary curriculum
  • Undergraduate research
  • CS education research
  • Recruitment and retention
  • Computer games in the curriculum
  • Ethics in CS education

Friday Fun

The web is a very weird place:

March 28, 2006

Numerical Analysis Review Article

A good review article by Lloyd N. Trefethen is here. It's slated to appear in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics. You can find numerous other preprints of chapters that are forthcoming just by googling the title. In any case, the Trefethen article is well worth checking out for anyone interested in what NA is all about these days.

Also on Trefethen's site are a number of other good reads:

Via NA-Digest.

March 27, 2006

CAUT 2006 Almanac of Post-Secondary Education

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has just released their 2006 Almanac of Post-Secondary Education, a treasure trove of statistics about higher ed in Canada in 2006: finances, academic staff (including librarians), libraries, students, research and a bunch of other categories.

March 24, 2006

What's up with that?

I'm sitting at the ref desk as I type this. I was just helping someone with a PubMed question. His cellphone rings while I'm explaining something. He answers it and starts talking to his buddy on the other end. I wish that this didn't happen so often.

Recent reading

  • The Applied Mathematics and Computer Science Schism by Kowalik, J. in Computer v39i3. So, do computer scientists know enough math? You'd think so, but Janusz Kowalik begs to differ, and makes some very good points. His idea is that the basis of computing is applied math and that the most important scientific, commercial and other appplications for computing on the horizon are highly mathematically. So, it would make a lot of sense if CS programs give their graduates a very strong background in mathematical techniques. A bit rough and cynical too, Kowalik doesn't mince words, when talking about the average North American Joe:
    Yes, contemporary America has great inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, but the average Joe is increasingly illiterate and numerically challenged. Joe likes to have fun, and he leaves the hard thinking to the young immigrants who win spelling bees, play chess, and use the Internet to find proofs of the 2,000-year-old Pythagorean theorem.

  • Portrayals of engineers in "science times" by Clark, F.; Illman, D.L. in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine v25i1. One of the factors influencing declining enrollments in engineering and other scitech fields is the generally non-existent-to-negative portrayal of engineers and engineering in the popular media. This article describes a study of the New York Times's Science Times feature to guage the popular perception of engineers and engineering. Not surprising, it's pretty bad, mostly just that engineers (and in particular, women engineers) are invisible.

Mi Lab Es Su Lab

From InsideHigherEd, an article on how MIT has set up some of their electrical engineering labs so that they can be controled remotely, and how students from all over the world are able to take advantage of their facilities.

Thanks to software developed and distributed by the institute, students can control MIT’s cutting edge equipment while eating cereal at their laptop in a Cambridge dorm, or from another continent. Students from Singapore to Sweden have logged in to run experiments on MIT’s equipment in the last few years. Now, thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, MIT is getting African universities, which would not otherwise have access to top-of-the-line equipment, into the “iLabs.”

I reviewed a book on this topic, Lab on the Web: Running Real Electronics Experiments via the Internet, edited by Tor A. Fjeldly, Michael S. Shur for E-Streams.

March 21, 2006

Reasons to take math in high school

Via Boing Boing, Reasons to take math in high school:

  • Choose math because it makes you smarter
  • Choose math because you will make more money
  • Choose math because you will lose less money
  • Choose math to get an easier time at college and university
  • Choose math because you will live in a global world
  • Choose math because you will live in a world of constant change
  • Choose math because it doesn't close any doors
  • Choose math because it is interesting in itself
  • Choose math because you will meet it more and more in the future
  • Choose math so you can get through, not just into college
  • Choose math because it is creative

And, my favourite:

  • Choose math because it is cool. You have permission to be smart, you have permission to do what your peers do not. Choose math so you don't have to, for the rest of your life, talk about how math is "hard" or "cold". Choose math so you don't have to joke away your inability to do simple calculations or lack of understanding of what you are doing. Besides, math will get you a job in the cool companies, those that need brains.

Overall, maybe it overstates the case a bit, but it is a useful contrast to the other side of the argument.

Scientists R Us

A couple of interesting threads at ScienceBlogs:

  • The Best and Worst parts of the Scientific Life, by Alex Palazzo in The Daily Transcript. I find this really interesting, first of all, because there are 10 worsts and only 3 bests. The bests revolve around the intellectual rewards of the scientific life: discovery, discussion and creativity. The worsts around the impact of those bests on the emotional and lifestyle health of the scientist: being scooped, begging for money, having a family, tenure and other milestones and other things. I think it's useful to keep some of these things in mind when we do our liaison work, to try and concentrate on making the best things easier for our patrons to accomplish (of all levels -- a lot of the same pressures and joys affect grad & ugrad students too) and to moderate the effects of the worst things where we can.
  • Taxonomies of scientists, first life scientists (with a comment on how real life rarely matches taxonomies exactly) and then physicists, with a overall comment. Two things that attracted me to this thread. First of all, I always appreciate anything that will help me fill in the gaps of my own imperfect understanding of all these various fields. Second, It made me think a bit about how we classify librarians, both externally and amongst ourselves. It seems to me that there are three main classification schemes, one by the institution where we work (public, academic, corporate, etc), one by the subject we support (science, engineering, business, etc) and the other by what we do (collections, reference, cataloguing, systems, etc). We all get slotted in multiple locations in at least two of these domains -- for example I'm an academic science and engineering reference, collections and liaison librarian.

    Update: Afarensis has a couple of posts on anthropologists, although these are more silly than the lighthearted but useful nature of the earlier posts. Just so you know.

March 17, 2006

Friday Fun

From around the web:

Update: I wanted to include a couple of cool videos from Google & YouTube but forgot. Here they are:

Happy St. Patrick's Day

You Are Guinness

You know beer well, and you'll only drink the best beers in the world.
Watered down beers disgust you, as do the people who drink them.
When you drink, you tend to become a bit of a know it all - especially about subjects you don't know well.
But your friends tolerate your drunken ways, because you introduce them to the best beers around.

via Respectful Insolence.

March 15, 2006

Spychips, bluesphere, fabjects, everyware, spime

Essays and speeches by Bruce Sterling (and here)can be surreal, bizarre and stimulating, but never dull. A noted futurist and design prof, check out his speech from the recent O'Reilly Emerging Tech conference here.

A taste:

At the moment, we're eagerly debating the proper terminology for a future internet of things. This is a rather literary, language-centric speech tonight – as tech gigs go, anyway. Very wordy. If you want to talk Web 2.0, you can at least say, you know: "FlickR, " "Wikipedia." You might even meet Jimmy Wales or Caterina Fake, who are not futurists, but actual working web technologists. Web 2.0 is kind of a loose grab-bag of concepts, but Jimmy Wales isn't a loose grab-bag, Jimmy Wales physically exists. In the case of an Internet of Things or ubiquitous computation, the top guru in the field, Marc Weiser of Xerox PARC, has been dead for several years now. In the Internet of Things debate, people are still trying to find the loose verbal grab-bag just to put the concepts into. So I would argue that this work is basically a literary endeavour. When it comes to remote technical eventualities, you don't want to freeze the language too early. Instead, you need some empirical evidence on the ground, some working prototypes, something commercial, governmental, academic or military.... Otherwise you are trying to freeze an emergent technology into the shape of today's verbal descriptions. This prejudices people. It is bad attention economics. It limits their ability to find and understand the intrinsic advantages of the technology.

His novels are pretty good, too. via BoingBoing.

A bit of collection development

A couple of book lists that are worth checking: (via SF Signal)

Peer learning in Science

Great article by David Epstein at InsideHigherEd on how some profs have moved beyond dry lectures and made their classrooms more participatory and, it seems, even more fun for themselves as well.

I was dragged out of my ivory tower,” Mazur said. “The gain [after taking the intro class] was abysmal. It was clear I was not doing a good job teaching physics.” Mazur realized that the students had become quite adept at solving problems by rote, but not at applying concepts. So the next time he taught the course, he took some class time to explain some of the misconceptions exposed by the test.

“I turned and looked at them, 80 students or so, and they looked totally confused,” he said, “as if my explanation had made them more confused. They were silent, so confused they couldn’t even formulate a question.” From the test results, Mazur knew that about half of the students understood the concept he was trying to explain. “On a whim, I said ‘why don’t you turn to your neighbor and convince them of your answer,’ ” he said. “The whole room burst into chaos.”

The students were suddenly so eager to talk physics that Mazur said he figured, “I have to formalize this.” Such was the birth of “peer instruction,” a method of teaching that now has thousands of science faculty members bagging the traditional back-to-the-class lecture.

March 8, 2006

International Women's Day

To mark the occasion, a nice post on women in science from Tara C. Smith at Aetiology.

Update: A few more related posts: Jane, Adventures in Ethics and Science, and Radioactive Banana.

March 7, 2006

Lightman, Alan, ed. The best American science writing 2005. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. 300pp.
Weiner, Jonathan, ed. The best American science and nature writing 2005. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 304pp.

These two book series are definately self-recommending. If you like science, if you like good writing, if you have long boring commutes on busses or trains, you owe it to yourself to buy and read these books. Or, buy/suggest these books for your library and read them. Both these books have basically the same aim: to collect popular science and nature writing and present them to an interested public, hopefully from a wide and varied selection of sources. Also, they can easily function as a current awareness tool in the sciences -- you can use the books to spot trends, to keep abreast of recent developments in important areas, to monitor public reaction scientific controversies, disputes or cutting edge advances. So, good books for scitech librarians.

Do these particular editions of their respective series meet these high expectations? Mostly, yes, with a few reservations.

The Lightman books has a good selection of stories from a good selection of disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, genetics, information technology, medicine, some nature writing, a couple of profiles or memoir-type pieces. The particular hightlights for me are Oliver Sacks' "Greetings from the Island of Stability" on discovering new elements and David Quammen's "Darwin or Not" which looks carefully at the arguments in favour of evolution and darwinism and definately comes out on the side of reason and science. A significant lowlight in this collection? I can't for the life of me figure out what possesed Lightman to inlude the essay "On the Origins of the Mind" by David Berlinski. For those not in the know, Berlinski is a member of the Discovery Institute and therefore a card-carrying creationist. Coming right after the Quammen article in the table of contents, the Berlinski article completely undermines Quammen (and in a sense, the whole book). Where Quammen gives a rational, fact-based account of reality, Berlinski, when faced with unanswered questions about the origin and nature of human consciousness, says, "The rest is darkness, mystery and magic." It doesn't take too much intelligence to figure out that these are code-words for god -- if we don't know the answer, then there is no answer we can know, only supernatural intervention. Alan Lightman, what were you thinking?

On average, the Weiner book is a bit better, with no articles I was really disappointed in. A good selection of topics (anthropology, aerospace, psychology, engineering and technology), if maybe a little heavy on medical reporting and book reviews. Real highlights for me are easy to spot: Natalie Angier's "My God Problem -- and Theirs" on the place of religion in public debate in science, Jared Diamond's "Twilight at Easter" on what we can learn from Easter Island and Jerome Groopman's "The Grief Industry" about how maybe people are a lot more resilient in the face of hardship than we give them credit for. This might be the one must-read from this book. Quibbles -- and really, my problems with this book really are just quibbles. First of all, there really isn't any nature writing, despite the presence of word in the title of the book. The Easter Island story is the closest. The second is that the editor needs to get out more. Of the 25 articles in the book, 13 were from The New Yorker, The New York Times or The New York Review of Books. Not to mention, one more has The New York Times in it's title ("The Homeless Hacker vs. The New York Times") and another has The New York Review of Books in the first sentence ("The Man or the Moment"). Not that it would be easy to choose which articles to leave out, but the narrowness of sources and points of view is a bit problematic for me.

One more thing. Natalie Angier has an article in each of these collections and both are excellent. (From the Lightman book, I didn't mention "Scientist at Work: Jacqueline Barton," a terrific portrait of a female scientist.) To all you giants of the publishing industry out there in blogland, why doesn't this woman have at least a couple of essay collections already? She has to be one of the best science writers working today, probably the best without a published collection. What's taking so long?

(From the Other Blog)

My perfect major...

You scored as Engineering. You should be an Engineering major!





























What is your Perfect Major? (PLEASE RATE ME!!<3)
created with

I guess the combo of math and engineering works out to computer science, but not sure how biology or psychology got in there. via Living the Scientific Life and No Se Nada.

March 6, 2006

My final word on Algebra

Jason Rosenhouse over at EvolutionBlog does a thorough demolishing of the original Richard Cohen article, probably the most complete I've seen.

March 3, 2006

Friday fun, Part Deux: Cthulhu does not pay for anything.

For Lovecraftians only, this is pretty funny. via Bookslut

Recently in CACM

From recent issues, lots of interesting stuff:

March 2006 (v49i3)

February 2006 (v49i2)

January 2006 (v49i1)

Friday Fun: Subway Anagram Maps

Tons more of those subway anagram maps have been created, all documented at BoingBoing. There are two (1, 2) for Montreal: my stop while living in Montreal itself was Down Son or Nods Now, depending. Stops frequented in my youth include Here Lurk Lost Unenvied Bourgeoisie (although the name was shorter back then: Unglue Oil), Bone Vaunter or Be a Overt Nun.

March 1, 2006

Information Literacy: Food for Thought

Via C&I, Marylaine Block has some interesting ideas on questions to pose at the beginning of an IL session to get some discussion going.

Some examples:

  • Who puts information onto the net?
  • What costs are involved in putting it there and keeping it there?
  • What laws might prevent some information from being posted on the net?

As usual, Cites & Insights is well worth checking out, for those that might not know about it. Walt has a number of other good reading suggestions in this issue including 10 ways to make the internet a better place.

Wikipedia vs. Britannica

Another long article comparing Wikipedia to Britannica, this time at Information Today.

In this author’s opinion, the flap over Wikipedia was significantly overblown, but contained a silver lining: People are becoming more aware of the perils of accepting information at face value. They have learned not to consult just one source. They know that authors and editors may be biased and/or harbor hidden agendas. And, because of Wikipedia’s known methodology and vulnerabilities, it provides opportunities to teach (and learn) critical thinking.

... Britannica is a different animal. Flawed, yes. Behind the times with regard to non-Western and minority leadership, sure. Indispensable? You betcha.

Another nice bit on how and why chemists are using Wikipedia at Chemistry World.
The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia could become the main source of chemical information in 5–10 years, according to a professional chemist who contributes to the site.

...‘A general rule on Wikipedia is that an article that has been heavily edited and around for a long time is usually pretty good,’ Walker told Chemistry World, ‘if it hasn’t, it may be flawed.’

The accuracy of Wikipedia’s entries will continue to improve as contributors begin to organise themselves and take responsibility for certain subjects, he said. Chemistry content on the site is coordinated through two so-called ‘wikiprojects’, said Walker: chemistry and chemicals.

both via OAN.

Update: As Eric H points out in the comments, Wikipedia has just added its One Millionth article! Thanks, Eric.