September 29, 2006

Libraries & Librarians

Chet Raymo in his excellent Science Musings blog quotes the inscription on the facade of one of the Boston Public Library buildings:"The commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." A nice sentiment, highlighting our roles as educators and also of education itself as a fundamental requirement for a free and open society. Raymo goes on to say, "So hopeful, so liberal, was the generous spirit evinced by the embellishments of the building that I was almost moved to tears. How proud to be part of that tradition, even as a spectator." Now, as a Professor Emeritus at Stonehill College, Raymo is probably being a bit modest counting himself as a mere spectator in that tradition, and I hope that we as librarians see ourselves as more that just spectators in the educational process. We must make sure we continue to work in that tradition and to find our role as the traditional means and methods of education change. At the same time, we must always put our values of public service to the forefront of what we do.

In that spirit, I was struck by a job ad brought to my attention by one of my colleagues at York, Mark Robertson. Chief Librarian, Detainee Library, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

In managing the Detainee Library, the Chief Librarian is responsible for providing, maintaining and developing library services and operations using reading, recreational games and puzzles, music, or electronic media. The Chief Librarian is responsible for selecting and maintaining a range of reading and recreational materials to reflect the needs of the patrons in terms of languages and appropriate/approved topics.


To be successful in this job, the Chief Librarian will need to be creative, adaptable, ambitious and resourceful.
I guess librarians end up in a lot of different places, doing a lot of different jobs. Given the current situation, I find myself at a complete loss to form any rational thought about the posting. Doing a librarian's job in such a situation seems impossible, yet the detainees certainly deserve to have the service available.

It's also worth noting that it's ALA's Banned Books Week. Libraries, of course, have a roll in making sure that their patrons have free and open access to their collections, without outside interference.
BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.
Google, of course, was quite active in promoting BBW, quite ironic considering their China policies. We should all try and watch out for our own biases, wrong-headed compromises and hypocracies and remember that our primary mission is to serve our patrons.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room

It's hard to deny that Google is the Colossus bestriding the info world these days (in fact, I just used it to make sure Colossus has 1 L & 2 Ss). As such it behoves all of us to make sure that we know where they stand on various issues, such as censorship (generally not good) and copyright. When you're a mouse sleeping beside and elephant, it pays to monitor the elephant's nocturnal rustlings. Thankfully Google has usually been rather upfront about where they stand on issues.

From a recent post in their official blog, Our Approach to Content:

The Internet has broken down many of the barriers that exist between people and information –- effectively democratizing access to human knowledge. By typing just a few keywords into a computer you can learn about almost any subject. Google is one of many organizations that work to make this possible.

But today only a fraction of the world’s information is available online. Our aim to help organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful means working with a lot of information – newspaper articles (many written over a century ago), books (of which there are millions), images, videos (including all of the new footage users are creating), websites, important financial information and much, much more.

Because we don’t own this content, over the years we’ve come up with three primary principles to ensure that we respect content owners and protect their rights:
  • we respect copyright;
  • we let owners choose whether we index their content in our products;
  • we try to bring benefit back to content owners by partnering with them.
The much more detail in the post on each of the principles, so I won't go into it here in detail. I'm just glad we know.

Communications of the ACM, October 2006

A couple worth checking out from v49i10:

September 26, 2006

The one size fits all approach to computer science just isn’t working anymore

This is a quote by Richard A. DeMillo, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, from today's Inside Higher Ed story New 'Threads' for Computer Science by Scott Jaschik. The idea is that with declining enrollments in CS, something has to be done. Well, what Greorgia Tech has done is completely revision their computing curriculum, removing the mandatory core courses and replacing them with two main components. First of all, is an application area component, such as intelligence or media. The second component is the role component, for example programmer, entrepreneur or innovator. Students pick two application areas and one role. This is a very interesting idea, which has already seen an increase in Georgia Tech's enrollments. The relevant GT site is here.

To give a bit of the flavour of the program, I'll list the applications areas (Threads, as they call them) and the roles.


  1. Computation modelling (computational science)
  2. Embodiment (embedded systems)
  3. Foundations (theoretical CS)
  4. Information internetworks
  5. Intelligence
  6. Media (multimedia, interactive systems)
  7. People (HCI)
  8. Platforms (hardware)

  1. Master Practitioner (programmer)
  2. Entrepreneur
  3. Innovator (research)
  4. Communicator (tech writer)

This is a very exciting way to approach computer science education, one which is probably transferable to most other disciplines as well. When you think about it, the roles are fairly universal, with on the content of "master practitioner" changing with the field. The application areas are also relevant to most fields where people can study different sub-areas.

September 25, 2006

Review of Bill Bryson's A short history of nearly everything

Over on the other blog.

I'm a bit of two minds on this book. Really, I almost consider it two different books that I could review separately. The first, a book I really like, that I think is an important contribution to efforts to improve scientific literacy amongst the general population. The second, a book that subtly undermines efforts to improve scientific literacy among the general public by essentially portraying most scientists as lying, egocentric freakazoids...

September 23, 2006

2007 Triangle Science Blogging Conference

Announced by coturnix on Blog Around the Clock, this looks incredibly cool. Aimed at the North Carolina science blogging community (but I assume everyone is welcome), its aim is to

address a variety of issues and perspectives on science communication, including science literacy, the popularization of science, science in classrooms and in homes, debunking pseudoscience, using blogs as tools for presenting scientific research, writing about science, and health and medicine.
The date is Saturday January 20, 2007 in Chapel, North Carolina. The conference wiki is here, with the program here and list of currently registered attendees here. Registration is free of charge. I'm really tempted to hop on a plane to NC for this one and fly the flag for science librarian blogging.

September 22, 2006

Friday Fun

Back by popular demand (ok, so maybe not so popular demand):

September 21, 2006

On Computer Science

It's been a while since I did a CS-related round-up (and still more catching up on stuff that came out while I was on vacation.):

So, you wanna be a teacher?

Looking at my referrer logs this morning, I'm struck by the following google search that led someone here: Most Inexpensive Fastest way get Master's Degree Education from an Accredited school Pennsylvania Quickest Be Teacher.

Would you want this person teaching your children? Let me count the ways.

September 20, 2006

Women in Science

A few recent interesting items on this issue:

  • The Real Barriers for Women in Science by Doug Lederman covers a recent report by the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, the reportt being Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The gist of the report is that women face a lot of unintention (as well as intentional) biases in trying to forge a scientific career. From the report:
    The fact that women are capable of contributing to the nation’s scientific and engineering enterprise but are impeded in doing so because of gender and racial/ethnic bias and outmoded ‘rules’ governing academic success is deeply troubling and embarrassing,” the report concludes. “It is also a call to action."

  • Bias or Interest? by Scott Jaschik in today's IHE follows up in the same vein. Apparently, most profs in science are still clueless on the issue and place most of the blame for the lack of women on women's choices not the inflluence of biases (both intentional and unintentional).

  • And to round it all up, I point to a case study in the above theories -- the recent dust-up between Chad Orzel and Zuska on the ScienceBlogs site. The discussion revolved around the pipeline issue in physics -- why do so few women end of studying physics at the university level and where do they drop out of the pipeline. Orzel starts it here, Zuska continues here, here and here while Janet Stemwedel separates the combatants here. All the various posts have lots of stimulating discussion in the comments, including quite a bit by Zuska and Chad.

September 19, 2006

Chris Mooney: The Republican War on Science

A couple of videos on YouTube featuring Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, talking about the use & abuse of science for political purposes. An interesting commentary on the current situation in the USA and a cautionary tale for those of us in Canada. I've watched the first one, below. The second one is here; I haven't watched all of that one yet. They're both about 30 minutes.

I haven't read the book yet either but plan to read and review it on the other blog fairly soon. For some reason the book isn't on the shelves yet in Canadian bookstores. via The Intesection.

September 18, 2006

Who benefits from science blogging? Everybody!

Via Tara C. Smith at Aetiology, a great article describing the science blogosphere by Eva Amsen (of the fine science blog EasternBlot) published in the most recent Hypothesis: Journal for the discussion of science. The article is titled Who Benefits from Science Blogging and features interviews with several notable science bloggers, inlcuding The above mentioned Smith as well as PZ Myers of Pharyngula. A nice quote from the end:

So who benefits from science blogging? As the above would suggest...everyone!

Blogging researchers have a chance to expand their casual science-related conversations world-wide, possibly meet other scientists and enhance their teaching skills, while blog-reading scientists can informally communicate with their peers through comments. Blog reading non-scientists have access to science stories they might otherwise have missed. Blogging science writers and journalists can use their blogs as a playpen for new ideas, meanwhile giving the rest of the world a well-written piece on an interesting topic. Finally, blogging journal editors can get reader feedback on articles, and read other articles for ideas.

I couldn't have said it better myself. A nod to blogging science librarians would have been nice, but that's probably asking too much. I'm happy enough that a journal aimed at scientists will let them all know about what the possibilities are out there.

Hypothesis is a new journal to me. Published at the University of Toronto, it's mostly original science articles aimed at working scientists, but there is quite a bit of commentary that's interesting to a wider community including librarians and Science Studies. Some examples:
And lots more. A very interesting journal that I look forward to seeing a lot more from.

September 15, 2006

Carnival of the InfoScience #53: Naked Reference

As usual, lots of good stuff at this week's Carnival.

The link that caught my eye this time around was a from Steve Backs from Blog about Libraries about a new thing that his institution is trying: Naked reference. Not reference with no clothes on, but reference with no distractions. The idea is that when someone sits at the ref desk they are not to bring any other work with them: no journals, no documents to touch up, no emails to send. A very interesting idea on a topic that has long interested me. How to maximize the our perceived availability at the desk. We've all had students come to the desk while we're doing something and saying, "Sorry to bother you, but..." How many potential reference transactions are never started because the students are too shy to bother us? On the other hand, there are certainly times of the day and periods of the school year when there just isn't a whole lot of interacting going on; it seems a bit of a waste of time to sit there and just be bored waiting for the 2 or 3 questions you're going to get in an hour.

No doubt, a controversial project and I look forward to hearing more about the results. To get an idea of the controversy, I quote the first two comments from the post:

This is an excellent initiative, Steve! Have you also thought about asking staff to jot down a few thoughts/observations/notes after each shift that you could talk about as a group after the end of "Naked Reference"? I wonder if by writing thoughts down so they're not forgotten, you'll uncover some interesting service opportunities. Sounds like great marketing research of sorts and I look forward to reading about your results (oh, and I'm going to participate too!) :-)
# posted by Jill : 5:06 PM

this idea is anti-intellectual, managerial crap. steve, you sit at the desk doing nothing, but with some dumbass smile on your face, waiting for the next blessed patron. i'm not selling tickets to the show. i'm an information provider. i'm a librarian. i develop my skills by reading and poking around, and doing whatever work i believe i need to do. the reference desk is the perfect place for this activity. i will never work for or with you.
# posted by Anonymous : 1:32 PM
Diametrically opposed, yet both have valid points. It would be an interesting experiment to try. (Once again, easy for me to muse about interesting public service experiments while on sabbatical.)

September 14, 2006

We are programmers, and this is our manifesto

So, wanna know what it's like to be a real programmer? Check out Peter Wright's Strange new worlds, and programming languages...!

I love this post:

In a handful of bedrooms, dens, studies, and coffee shops binary artists created computer code with the depth, intricacy, subtlety and elegance of a DaVinci masterpiece. Tens of lines of code are reduced to one with an ornate refactoring built out of experience and experimentation. Like a small army of ground breaking scientists we discover new solutions to old problems, better solutions, faster solutions and better ways of working.
It really captures the mindset of the headsdown, no-holds-barred, hardcore coder to a tea. I know, I aspired to be this guy, and I certainly knew a lot of them during my university and industry career. And certainly, my institution is filled with them. These are the kids that check out all the books and drive up the Safari usage numbers. (Or are they? Do the keenest use the library the most or the least? Maybe these are the kids we need to reach?) Read the whole post, it's worth it! This is one of Blogger's current Notable Blogs.

The State of Science & Technology in Canada

Via The Star, a new report from The Council of Canadian Academies entitled The State of Science & Technology in Canada. From the press release:

Overall, Canada is strong in research, generally well-equipped technologically, but lagging in translation of research strength to innovation strength, according to a new study released today by the Council of Canadian Academies.


The report highlights four principal clusters of prominent Canadian S&T strengths as judged against international standards of excellence:
- the natural resource sector
- information and communications technologies
- health and related life sciences and technologies
- environmental science and technology


The view of Canada's strength overall in science and technology is somewhat more pessimistic than the survey respondents' opinion of S&T strengths in specific areas of research, technology application, and infrastructure. Fewer than half of respondents to the opinion survey ranked Canada strong overall in S&T and roughly a quarter believe we are weak relative to the average of other economically-advanced countries. The perception of the overall trend is rather pessimistic - about 40% believe Canada is losing ground. Only 28% see Canada gaining while 32% believe we are holding steady.

Looking ahead, most authorities concur on where the main action in S&T will be in the coming years:

- information and communications technologies
- biosciences and technologies
- materials sciences and technologies
- "nano" technologies applied broadly

Survey respondents identified energy technologies - and particularly 'clean energy' - as the area where Canada was best positioned to develop prominent strength in the future. On the other hand, the survey also contained evidence that Canada is currently not particularly strong in many of the relevant clean energy technologies.


The report identifies infrastructure that supports "knowledge production" as a particular Canadian strength. Survey respondents gave high marks to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, research hospitals, universities and the research granting agencies of the federal government, particularly the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

I'll certainly be taking a closer look at the report itself (it's 228 pages, the "summary" is 51 pages), but it is quite interesting that "pure" research is ranked relatively highly while actually getting around to doing something useful with the research is an area that is lacking. On the other hand, from what I could tell, the committee that prepared the docuement only had 3 of 10 members who were working scientists in Canada. The rest were industry, government or other stakeholders.

September 13, 2006

What's New @ IEEE for Students, September 2006

Some interesting bits from the latest issue:

The current issue of the "IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine" (v. 21, no. 7) explores the evolving field of space education. Papers in this issue discuss the "pioneering role of the International Space University," as well as programs at worldwide university programs which focus on spacecraft design and construction projects by student teams. Abstracts for all articles in the issue can be found through the IEEE Xplore digital library, where subscribers have full-text access to the publication. Visit:

The new issue of the "IEEE Engineering Management Review" (v. 34, no. 2) features five articles by management guru Peter F. Drucker, who is regarded by experts in the business world as the founding father of the study of management. Articles include "Management: The Problems of Success" and "Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge." Abstracts for all articles in the issue can be found in the IEEE Xplore digital library, where subscribers will have full-text access to the publication. Visit:

In an effort to evaluate the social network belief that everyone is separated by only six connections from everyone else, computer scientists have created an experiment that tests standard network theories. To achieve this end, the researchers collected 38 students at the University of Pennsylvania (USA) to play a game of color selection on networked computers. After changing the patterns of the networked connections, the researchers performed a number of trials based on each model, creating a framework they can use to identify how social network structure sways human performance. Read more:

Cory Doctorow on How Copyright Broke

Cory Doctorow gives some sensible commentary on copyright in the latest Locus magazine, reprinted on the Locus website.

If I may quote a largish chunk:

But customers understand property — you bought it, you own it — and they don't understand copyright. Practically no one understands copyright. I know editors at multibillion-dollar publishing houses who don't know the difference between copyright and trademark (if you've ever heard someone say, "You need to defend a copyright or you lose it," you've found one of these people who confuse copyright and trademark; what's more, this statement isn't particularly true of trademark, either). I once got into an argument with a senior Disney TV exec who truly believed that if you re-broadcasted an old program, it was automatically re-copyrighted and got another 95 years of exclusive use (that's wrong).

So this is where copyright breaks: When copyright lawyers try to treat readers and listeners and viewers as if they were (weak and unlucky) corporations who could be strong-armed into license agreements you wouldn't wish on a dog. There's no conceivable world in which people are going to tiptoe around the property they've bought and paid for, re-checking their licenses to make sure that they're abiding by the terms of an agreement they doubtless never read. Why read something if it's non-negotiable, anyway?

The answer is simple: treat your readers' property as property. What readers do with their own equipment, as private, noncommercial actors, is not a fit subject for copyright regulation or oversight. The Securities Exchange Commission doesn't impose rules on you when you loan a friend five bucks for lunch. Anti-gambling laws aren't triggered when you bet your kids an ice-cream cone that you'll bicycle home before them. Copyright shouldn't come between an end-user of a creative work and her property.

Of course, this approach is made even simpler by the fact that practically every customer for copyrighted works already operates on this assumption. Which is not to say that this might make some business-models more difficult to pursue. Obviously, if there was some way to ensure that a given publisher was the only source for a copyrighted work, that publisher could hike up its prices, devote less money to service, and still sell its wares. Having to compete with free copies handed from user to user makes life harder — hasn't it always?
In other words, copyright should balance the needs of creators and consumers, without tipping on the creators' side. If anything, consumers should get the benefit of the doubt. Does this make it harder for creators to earn a living from their works? I guess so, and this is where I may be a little less libertarian than Doctorow, but the reality of the situation is that the tech won't go away. The creators that make the most money on their works in the will be the ones that adapt the fastest and the best. Another area we may diverge: I really do still think that creators should be the ones who choose to make their works freely available. Ethical consumers won't make the choice for them.

September 12, 2006

Wikipedia & John Dupuis, again

So, it seems my little Wikipedia problem is mostly solved. My friend and science-fictional collaborator Mark Shainblum (Wiki) set up an entry for me based on the book we edited together -- I believe totally unrelated to my original posting. For what it's worth, there is now a John Dupuis(Canadian science fiction editor and critic) entry on Wikipedia.

Over the next little while I'll probably add a few things to the entry & re-point some of the links to that other guy that should be to me.

September 7, 2006

Diagrams illustrating scientific communications processes

Coturnix kindly points to a series of diagrams by Rob Loftis, a philosophy prof at St. Lawrence University. These diagrams can be used to explain scientific comminications processes to students, both in terms of scientists communicating among themselves and how scientific information gets communicated to the public.

I use a similar diagram already when I do IL classes, but I find that one is a little too conceptual and detailed for non-science students (ie. when I do IL for students taking a breadth course) but perfect for senior undergrad & grad students who are ready to learn about the scholarly communications processes in their discipline.

(Rob updates his diagram here, but I don't think this version is as useful.)

Update: I think I should be more explicit in my debt to Jim Parrott of the University of Waterloo for the diagram I link to in the second paragraph.

About as nerdy as I thought

Via Scienceblogs:

I am nerdier than 85% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

It's quite interesting, most of the ScienceBloggers have tried it. Pointers to many of them here.

September 6, 2006


It's been a while since I reported on what's newish in my bloglines subs:

It's notable that I haven't added too many new library links in the last several months. Mostly this is because I'm pretty well covered with those and wanted to beef up my scitech blog list. There's a lot of the A-List library blogs I don't read regularly, so I should probably look to adding a few of those. As well, I really haven't taken the time yet to go through Walt's big list of the Great Middle to see what catches my fancy.

Update: Added link to O'Reilly Radar.

September 5, 2006

I Know The Material - I Just Don't Do Well on Exams

In the back-to-school spirit, via John Scalzi, a list of Top Ten No Sympathy Lines (Plus a Few Extra) by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay.

  • This Course Covered Too Much Material...
  • The Expected Grade Just for Coming to Class is a B
  • I Disagreed With the Professor's Stand on ----
  • Some Topics in Class Weren't on the Exams
  • Do You Give Out a Study Guide?
  • I Studied for Hours
  • I Know The Material - I Just Don't Do Well on Exams
  • I Don't Have Time For All This
  • But you don't understand. I have a job
  • Students Are Customers
  • Do I Need to Know This?
  • There Was Too Much Memorization
  • This Course Wasn't Relevant
  • Exams Don't Reflect Real Life
  • I Paid Good Money for This Course and I Deserve a Good Grade
  • All I Want is the Diploma

I'm always torn by these kinds of super-cynical lists. On the one hand, I can chuckle at the cynicism. Really, students haven't changed that much over the years, I don't think. I'm sure profs 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago could have come up with a similar list. But still, human nature (ie. laziness, dishonesty, arrogance of youth) is always a worth a good laugh. And lord knows, I've chuckled at students attitudes & behaviors a few times over the years.

On the other hand, I sort of feel that if we (as librarians and educators) let our cynicism get the best of us, we risk damaging our relationship with our students. Our cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, our sincerity the only weapon to combat it. Smile at a student today! (Of course, it's easy for me to say, being on sabbatical and all.)

To end on a cynical note, I checked my search engine referrers a little while ago and one of them was a Google search for "science fair projects for cheaters."