April 30, 2008

Life changing books

Via BoingBoing, New Scientist has posted some recommendations of life-changing books from 17 scientists. They're all very interesting.

  1. Farthest North - Steve Jones, geneticist

  2. The Art of the Soluble - V. S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist

  3. Animal Liberation - Jane Goodall, primatologist

  4. The Foundation trilogy - Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist

  5. Alice in Wonderland - Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist

  6. One, Two, Three... Infinity - Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist

  7. The Idea of a Social Science - Harry Collins, sociologist of science

  8. Handbook of Mathematical Functions - Peter Atkins, chemist

  9. The Mind of a Mnemonist - Oliver Sacks, neurologist

  10. A Mathematician’s Apology - Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician

  11. The Leopard - Susan Greenfield, neurophysiologist

  12. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior - Frans de Waal, psychologist and ethologist

  13. Catch-22 / The First Three Minutes - Lawrence Krauss, physicist

  14. William James, Writings 1878-1910 - Daniel Everett, linguist

  15. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Chris Frith, neuroscientist

  16. The Naked Ape - Elaine Morgan, author of The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

  17. King Solomon's Ring - Marion Stamp Dawkins, Zoologist

An interesting mix of fiction and non-fiction which shows that scientists are certainly not the narrow specialists that the stereotype makes them out to be.

Myself, for me the life-changing book as a software developer has to have been Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers. For a fiction work, it's a lot harder for me to decide on one particular book. However, some particularly important authors to me when I was in the 18 to 22 time frame would have been Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Norman Spinrad, H.P. Lovecraft and Samuel R. Delany.

April 28, 2008

One Big Library Unconference

Announcing the One Big Library Unconference


E-mail: onebig@yorku.ca

When: Friday 27 June 2008, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Where: The Centre for Social Innovation,
215 Spadina Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

"It seems like there are lot of different kinds of libraries: public
libraries, school libraries, university libraries, college libraries,
law libraries, medical libraries, corporate libraries, special
libraries, private libraries. But really there's just One Big Library,
with branches all over the world."

The One Big Library Unconference is a one-day gathering of librarians,
technologists, and other interested people, talking about the present
and future of libraries.

It's organized and sponsored by York University Libraries and members
of the YUL Emerging Technologies Interest Group: Stacy Allison-Cassin,
William Denton, and John Dupuis.

In an interconnected world, all physical and virtual libraries can
really be thought of as branches of One Big Library. We would like to
get together and explore that concept. Areas of interest:
  • The future of libraries
  • Collaboration on building One Big Library collections and services
  • Uses of social software in libraries
  • Tools to support and extend the One Big Library

Our goals are:
  • Bringing people interested in the future of libraries together with the hope of sparking collaboration and cooperation
  • Starting conversations between people in different kinds of libraries, and people inside and outside libraries
  • Intellectual stimulation and fun!

Find out more, sign up, and suggest a topic for a talk, on the wiki:


A couple more on being famous

A Surprise Ending is in store sometimes. Carving out a niche in the reputation economy can really work!

...Meredith Farkas has just published real advice on how to achieve real success, and I suppose I’ve managed to do some of the things she wrote about, though for me it’s mostly been a matter of stumbling uninvited into committee meetings and writing about things that interest me.

Fortunately, that seems to have been enough. While getting your first full-time library job can be tough, other sorts of opportunities seem all but limitless, even for new librarians. I’ve had a chance to meet dozens of people I consider role models, and probably hundreds more I admire. Incredible people have agreed to let me visit their libraries, allowed me to publish and make presentations, invited me to join them on committees and boards, and have agreed to work on thorny, long-term projects with me.

Which is a long way of not writing that a funny thing happened on my way to my first full-time job at an academic library: as of May 1, I’ll be director of the Collingswood (NJ) Public Library.

David Weinberger has a couple of posts on web fame which I think are worth excerpting. Web fame is what building reputation seems to be all about these days. The old methods of building scholarly clout seem to be on the way out, as the immediacy of blogs and other online channels push out the serene contemplation of slower forms of communication like books or journal articles. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Yes.
Outside of the broadcast system, fame looks different. This is a type of do-it-yourself fame, not only in that we often want human fingerprints on the shiny surfaces we’re watching, but also because we create fame through passing around links … occasionally for mean and nasty reasons. Kids sitting around watching YouTubes with one another are like kids telling jokes: That reminds me of this one; if you liked that one, you’ll love this one. And the content itself fuels public conversations in multiple media. This is P2P fame.

There’s a long tail of fame, although I suspect the elbow isn’t quite as sharp as in the classic Shirky power law curve for links to blogs. At the top of the head of the curve, fame operates much as it does in the broadcast media, although frequently there’s some postmodern irony involved. In the long tail, though, you can be famous to a few people. Sure, much of it’s crap, but the point about an age of abundance is that we get an abundance of crap and of goodness. We get fame in every variety, including anonymous fame, fame that mimics broadcast fame, fame that mocks, fame that does both, fame for what is stupid, brilliant, nonce, eternal, clever, ignorant, blunt, nuanced, amateur, professional, mean, noble … just like us. It’s more of everything.


One of the differences between broadcast and Web fame is that in making someone famous on the Web, we are putting a little bit of our social standing at risk. We’ve got a stake in it.

For example, during the wonderful, impromptu videofest blogged by (and, to a large degree, led by) the wonderful and impromptu Ethan Zuckerman, during Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center last week, everyone was pointing to the next great video to play. In the midst of this, I lost the thread and pointed to a video that, when projected to the group, was out of place and not even very interesting. People shuffled uncomfortably, trying to figure out why I would suggest such a clunker. I was embarrassed. (At least the video was short.)

April 25, 2008

Wishlist for a cool website for scientists

A very interesting conversation going on in the Nature Network SciBarCamp forum. Corie Lok asked the question:

[W]at kind of website do you wish there was that would help you with your work? What sorts of tools and features would it have? What parts of your work/job would be greatly helped by a well designed website?

So far there have been quite a few interesting comments and suggestions. A consensus is forming that the ideal would be a platform where scientists could pick and choose a bunch of interoperable services and mash up all the resulting data and results. Oddly, a vision of grafting those types of services on the Nature Network platform would be sort of like the way FaceBook applications are grafted on Fb. (Obviously, with a vastly higher "useful to junk ratio" that those damn Facebook apps. And without the constant crashing too.)

To recap my own comment on the thread, it would be interesting to see Nature integrate their own peripheral services into NN more tightly -- such as Connotea, Precedings, PostGenomic/Scintilla and Second Life. Added to that, some other services I'd like to see added/made interoperable would be citation-oriented (ie. Zotero or CiteULike) and document preparation (ie. Zoho or Google Docs) and data analysis (ie. Mathematica web services). Some other services would be data repositories, multimedia authoring and wiki lab notebooks tools.

Check it out. If you're not already a member of NN, join up and put in your own 2 cents worth.

April 24, 2008

Rockstardom, notoriety, influence

In a reputation economy, our personal levels of fame and influence are extremely important. It's what gets us jobs, in the front of the line for plum speaking gigs, interesting/influential committee appointments and the best freebies and perqs. It's how you know who the opinion leaders and gatekeepers are. In other words, it opens doors that wouldn't otherwise be open to us. Go to a conference for the first time and you should be able to tell with some certainty who plays those roles in the community you're dropping in to. Go to the same conference several times, and the names of the gatekeepers will scream out at you -- because those are the ones you'll see in the best speaking spots and on all the right committees year after year. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it's just how these types of communities form.

Academia is a reputation economy, as are most professions. They always have been. More and more, every economy is becoming a reputation economy as the emphasis goes from selling stuff to selling performance, experience and lifestyle.

It seems that a lot of people are thinking about what it means to be an Important Person these days, two examples from within the library world and one from outside.

First of all, I guess everyone wants to know how to become an important person, from Meredith Farkas:

Every few months, I get an email from someone in library school or a new librarian basically asking me how I’ve accomplished all that I have in this profession in three years and how they can do the same...

And time is what all this takes. Read the profiles of Movers and Shakers in Library Journal and read about a lot of the big name librarian bloggers and you will see a lot of people who are really passionate about what they do. Many of us spend lots of time outside of work on these projects. We spend our free time writing, speaking, and networking online with folks who have similar professional interests. We often spend our own money to go to conferences in our areas of interest. The woman who wrote me last week mentioned that she doesn’t get many opportunities to publish or contribute to the profession. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve mostly made my own opportunities and I’ve done all of it on my own time. Sometimes you just need to do something and hope for the best; you can’t sit around waiting for someone to drop opportunities into your lap.

Of course, sometimes we can even undervalue our own fame quite seriously, thinking ourselves to be a American Idol dropout when in fact we're just a step or two off the Rolling Stones, maybe like the Doobie Brothers. Rockstardom isn't everything, after all. Dorothea Salo makes a good point.
Look, folks, rockstardom isn’t the only face of success. In spite of my bulldog’s face, in spite of my snark, in spite of everything, I am quite as successful as I need or want to be. I found work in my heart’s home. When I need to say something serious about what I do, I can get it said and hearkened to, here or even (to my own surprise) in The Literature. (I could do considerably more, even, if I were a more fluent writer than I am.) In spite of the people I’ve alienated (and they are not few), I have my own network of well-loved colleagues and friends; I’ve never been lonely in this marvelous profession. If rockstardom got dumped in my lap, I’m honestly not entirely sure what I would do, but I lean toward “running and hiding,” because I have serious being-around-hordes and travel-hassle limits, and rockstardom would stomp all over them....

Most of all, I have the luxury of defining success for myself. I fully and freely acknowledge that non-tenure-track academic librarianship has its discontents, but they pale to insignificance beside the phenomenal freedom of picking my own goalposts.

But again, it can be hard to judge just where we are on the totem poll.
Several kindly librarians of my acquaintance tried to convince me yesterday that indeed I am a rockstar. Evidence clearly shows otherwise, but thanks to them anyway.

One told me (paraphrased), “I wouldn’t know anything much about open access if not for you.”

But clearly, a reputation economy also has potential for inequalities just like any other. What if people who deserve to get fame and influence are denied it just because of their gender? What if you were a physicist and all the men were given the plum assignments when they clearly don't deserve it? It seems that the gatekeepers of a community can use their influence unfairly.
I think the essence of what determines your long-term success as a scientist is your ability to influence the scientific discussion. When you’re at a point in your career when people pay attention to your work, and want to know “What does think about this?”, you are on a near certain path to a stable position as a research scientist. Instead, if no one is reading your papers (to the extent that you’ve published them at all), or wants to hear what you say at conferences, or calls you up to ask you about your area of expertise, then you’re in danger of drifting out of the field....

A former particle-physics postdoc (and current grad student in statistics) carried out a very detailed analysis of the productivity of postdocs on the Run II Dzero experiment, and how that translated into giving conference presentations, and being hired into faculty positions. The paper found that the postdocs’ success in eventually landing faculty jobs were highly correlated to productivity (as measured by internal papers), to conference presentations (which were awarded by the leadership of the project), and to the degree of “physics socialization”....

The jaw-dropping aspect of the paper is that the awarding of conference presentations was grossly gender biased (as was the fraction of service work assigned to the women). The female postdocs had drastically higher levels of productivity (indeed, half the men were less productive than the least productive woman), but were allocated far fewer conference presentations than men with comparable productivity....

In this exercise, we see the influence game writ large. You need to be productive and visible. If some sort of bias (against women, or shy people, or people from state schools, or whomever) is present that conspires to make you less visible, you’re going to have to be even more productive. It’s not fair, and people in positions to fight against the bias in their institution should do so. But, at least it’s something that you have a chance of controlling.

Read Sherry Towers's jaw-dropping paper A Case Study of Gender Bias at the Postdoctoral Level in Physics, and its Resulting Impact on the Academic Career Advancement of Females. Oddly, it seems that reputation can acrue to someone for being discriminated against, hopefully to raise awareness and make things better.

Me? I've no illusions about being in the Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones category of rock star, or even mid-range like Genesis or The Doobie Brothers. It's fine for me having a niche, a small core audience, like Walter Rossi or Frank Marino. I'm afraid I'm just not that interested in (or necessarily good at) the kind of driven self-promotion it takes. And I think what modest level of fame I do have is split between the science and library domains, giving me more modest levels in two communities rather than a larger share in one (ie. Rossi + Marino = Bob Seger), which I actually think is pretty cool and which suits my interests just fine.

April 21, 2008

Books I'd like to read

A bunch more, this time some of them in paperback reprint:

The Canon by Natalie Angier

THE CANON is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the great issues of our time—from stem cells and bird flu to evolution and global warming. And it's for every parent who has ever panicked when a child asked how the earth was formed or how electricity works. Angier's sparkling prose and memorable metaphors bring the science to life, reigniting our own childhood delight in discovering how the world works. "Of course you should know about science," writes Angier, "for the same reason Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun and fun is good."

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler
With the radical changes in information production that the Internet has introduced, we stand at an important moment of transition, says Yochai Benkler in this thought-provoking book. The phenomenon he describes as social production is reshaping markets, while at the same time offering new opportunities to enhance individual freedom, cultural diversity, political discourse, and justice. But these results are by no means inevitable: a systematic campaign to protect the entrenched industrial information economy of the last century threatens the promise of today’s emerging networked information environment.

In this comprehensive social theory of the Internet and the networked information economy, Benkler describes how patterns of information, knowledge, and cultural production are changing—and shows that the way information and knowledge are made available can either limit or enlarge the ways people can create and express themselves. He describes the range of legal and policy choices that confront us and maintains that there is much to be gained—or lost—by the decisions we make today.

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit
At what point does theory depart the realm of testable hypothesis and come to resemble something like aesthetic speculation, or even theology? The legendary physicist Wolfgang Pauli had a phrase for such ideas: He would describe them as "not even wrong," meaning that they were so incomplete that they could not even be used to make predictions to compare with observations to see whether they were wrong or not. In Peter Woit's view, superstring theory is just such an idea. In Not Even Wrong, he shows that what many physicists call superstring "theory" is not a theory at all. It makes no predictions, even wrong ones, and this very lack of falsifiability is what has allowed the subject to survive and flourish. Not Even Wrong explains why the mathematical conditions for progress in physics are entirely absent from superstring theory today and shows that judgments about scientific statements, which should be based on the logical consistency of argument and experimental evidence, are instead based on the eminence of those claiming to know the truth. In the face of many books from enthusiasts for string theory, this book presents the other side of the story.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins
Boasting almost one hundred pieces, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a breathtaking celebration of the finest writing by scientists--the best such collection in print--packed with scintillating essays on everything from "the discovery of Lucy" to "the terror and vastness of the universe." Edited by best-selling author and renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, this sterling collection brings together exhilarating pieces by a who's who of scientists and science writers, including Stephen Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Martin Gardner, Albert Einstein, Julian Huxley, and many dozens more.

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society
by Farhad Manjoo
In True Enough, Manjoo presents findings from psychology, sociology, political science, and economics to show how new technologies are prompting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact. In an age of talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet—the blog- and YouTube-addled million-channel media universe—it is no longer necessary for any of us to confront notions that contradict what we "know" to be true. Stephen Colbert calls this "truthiness"—when something feels true without any evidence that it is. Here Manjoo probes the cognitive basis of truthiness, exploring how biases push both liberals and conservatives to select and interpret news in a way that accords with their personal versions of "reality."

Why has punditry lately overtaken news, with so many media outlets pushing partisan agendas instead of information? Why do lies seem to linger so long in the cultural subconscious even after they've been thoroughly discredited? And why, when more people than ever before are documenting the truth with laptops and digital cameras, does fact-free spin and propaganda seem to work so well? True Enough explores leading controversies of national politics, foreign affairs, science, and business, explaining how Americans have begun to organize themselves into echo chambers that harbor diametrically different facts—not merely opinions—from those of the larger culture. We meet people who espouse far-out interpretations of reality—about everything from the history of John Kerry's time in Vietnam to the integrity of the 2004 election to the truth about 9/11—and dig into the mechanism by which they came to hold those beliefs.

(Why, you ask, do I list far more books that I'd like to read that I would ever possibly get a chance to actually read? Well, you know the old saying, "He who dies with the most books wins!"

FWIW, I try and read one science/net culture book per month, aiming for about 15 per year.)

April 20, 2008

Most valuable and unlauded investigative resource

A great quote from James Lee Burke's novel The Tin Roof Blowdown:

Then I used the most valuable and unlauded investigative resource in the United States, the lowly reference librarian. Their salaries are wretched and they receive credit for nothing. Their desks are usually tucked away in the stacks or in a remote corner where they have to shush noisy high school students or put up with street people blowing wine in their faces or snoring in in the stuffed chairs. But their ability to find obscure information is remarkable and they persevere like Spartans.

The Tin Roof Blowdown is one of Burke's Dave Robicheaux Louisiana detective novels, this one set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I've read about a dozen of the Robicheaux novels and this is definitely one of the best; it's well worth reading even for those not normally mystery fans. It's also worth noting that Burke was named the 10th best all time crime writer by the Times ahead of people like Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James and Jim Thompson.

April 18, 2008

Getting on board for SCOAP3

What is SCOAP3, you ask? One of the most interesting Open Access projects out there these days and perhaps one pathway into the future of scholarly publishing.

To quote myself:

And look at what's happening in the High Energy Physics field with the SCOAP3 project! Imagine a world where libraries could band together to pay publishers to make their journals all Open Access. It's almost a utopian dream.

Ah yes, a utopian dream. So, here's the story in a nutshell: The HEP field is fairly small, with only a handful of core journals (at both commercial and society publishers) and another handful of journals that publish some HEP content. There's already a great tradition of open access using, for example, the arXiv repository. But, the journals in the field and still valued for their peer review/gatekeeping function. But how to get all the peer reviewed content freely available to everyone?

The SCOAP3 idea is for all the libraries and institutions that subscribe to the journals to band together and form their own consortium. That way, all the money can be collected and negotiations can be started with publishers for the best price. Aha! Here's the trick. Instead of all those subscribers paying their money for exclusive access to the publisher's content, they would use that money to pay for open access for everyone to the content. Basically, all the same funders pay more-or-less the same money to the same publishers but instead of for their own good, it's for the common good.

Now, there's a lot more to the details of this and the best source is the SCOAP3 website itself.

Some more info from other sources:

CERN is one the driving forces behind SCOAP3 and in general they've had really good success in Europe. They're also beginning to make real headway among US libraries. Check out who's involved.

For whatever reason, Canada isn't on board yet. I don't know why. If you're reading this and you're a Canadian science (esp. physics) librarian, bring it up to your administration or to your consortium. Talk about it, explain why it's so important to look to the future of scholarly publishing, to look beyond locking us in to the whims of the commercial publishers. At the Open Access session hosted here at York this past Wednesday, one of the speakers bought up SCOAP3 and wondered aloud why Canada wasn't involved. I wished I had an answer for him.

Friday Fun: Student emails

Call me cruel, but I love this stuff:

Dear Mr. ———,

This letter is just my opinion, but I think many of the other students will agree. I want you to know that I enjoy your class, and actually look forward to coming. However, I think that 3 hrs is way too long. I know that it is the time given to you, but I am sure that by the last hour of class most or all of the studens are in a different zone.

Three batches of posts on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's Wired Campus blog here, here and here. More on the associate Chronicle forum.

The comments on the posts are great too, even if there is the occasional spoilsport:
How smug and mean-spirited to drag out these emails in public and sneer at them. We shouldn’t throw stones in our academic glass house. Yes, some students make lame excuses and some lie. But we also have to remember that our students are people, and not objects to ridicule. As for the second e-mail in this article, it may have been poorly written, but we must remember that technology does occasionally fail even the most cautious of students. I say this as both an IT professional and an educator.This student may have been making up an excuse, but s/he also just may have been frustrated and anxious to the point of tears. One never knows.

And just to prove I'm an equal opportunity mocker, here's a link to Ellen Degeneres's post on librarians.

April 15, 2008

Open Access in Canada

Dean Giustini posted recently a first part of the history of Canadian involvement in OA, with a promise of further installments to come. Well, he's done us all a huge service by incorporating part I and his additional information on the UBC Health Library wiki as part of the overall entry on Open Access. (via OAN.)

A lot of interesting information included, of course. And the best thing is that if you know more about the subject you can add it yourself!

This is also a good opportunity to remind everyone that the York Scholarly Communications event on Open Access is tomorrow! It should be a great event with Jean-Claude Guedon and Leslie Chan as the featured speakers.

April 14, 2008

Two more books I'd like to read

First of all, Clifford Pickover emailed me about his most recent book and it looks pretty cool:

Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them

Throughout this fascinating book, Clifford Pickover invites us to share in the amazing adventures of brilliant, quirky, and passionate people after whom these laws are named. These lawgivers turn out to be a fascinating, diverse, and sometimes eccentric group of people. Many were extremely versatile polymaths--human dynamos with a seemingly infinite supply of curiosity and energy and who worked in many different areas in science. Others had non-conventional educations and displayed their unusual talents from an early age. Some experienced resistance to their ideas, causing significant personal anguish.

Pickover examines more than 40 great laws, providing brief and cogent introductions to the science behind the laws as well as engaging biographies of such scientists as Newton, Faraday, Ohm, Curie, and Planck. Throughout, he includes fascinating, little-known tidbits relating to the law or lawgiver, and he provides cross-references to other laws or equations mentioned in the book. For several entries, he includes simple numerical examples and solved problems so that readers can have a hands-on understanding of the application of the law.

Next up is one of the big buzz books from the last month or so, this one by Jonathan Zittrain:

The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It
This extraordinary book explains the engine that has catapulted the Internet from backwater to ubiquity—and reveals that it is sputtering precisely because of its runaway success. With the unwitting help of its users, the generative Internet is on a path to a lockdown, ending its cycle of innovation—and facilitating unsettling new kinds of control.

IPods, iPhones, Xboxes, and TiVos represent the first wave of Internet-centered products that can’t be easily modified by anyone except their vendors or selected partners. These “tethered appliances” have already been used in remarkable but little-known ways: car GPS systems have been reconfigured at the demand of law enforcement to eavesdrop on the occupants at all times, and digital video recorders have been ordered to self-destruct thanks to a lawsuit against the manufacturer thousands of miles away. New Web 2.0 platforms like Google mash-ups and Facebook are rightly touted—but their applications can be similarly monitored and eliminated from a central source. As tethered appliances and applications eclipse the PC, the very nature of the Internet—its “generativity,” or innovative character—is at risk.

The Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity. Its salvation, Zittrain argues, lies in the hands of its millions of users. Drawing on generative technologies like Wikipedia that have so far survived their own successes, this book shows how to develop new technologies and social structures that allow users to work creatively and collaboratively, participate in solutions, and become true “netizens.”

April 12, 2008

Ayres, Ian. Super Crunchers: Why thinking-by-numbers is the new way to be smart. New York: Bantan, 2007. 260pp.

You know how I'm always complaining about business-y buzz/hype books & articles? How they're 1/3 repetition, 1/3 hype and 1/3 real ideas?

Like I commented to Michael not too long ago: "I find these tendencies very true of a lot of cases where I look to the business literature to understand something important about the way our culture is changing."

The book under consideration in this review, Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres, is a business book. It says something important about the way our culture is changing. On the other hand, it is also very profoundly a popular science book about the mathematical and statistical analysis of large datasets. Yes, indeed -- this is a popular math book about data mining. And it is a very good to boot. Thankfully, not so much plagued by the repetition and hype of many of the pure business books. I suspect it may have originally been aimed at a popular science audience as much as a business audience, accounting for a slightly different emphasis.

So, what is super crunching? (p.10)

It is statistical analysis that impacts real-world decisions. Super Crunching decisions usually bring together some combination of size, speed and scale. the sizes of the datasets are really big -- both in the number of observations and in the number of variables...And the scale of the impact is sometimes truly huge. this isn't a bunch of egghead academics cranking out provocative journal articles. Supter Crunching is done by or for decision makers who are looking for a better way to do things.

In other words, data mining. To it's credit the book doesn't really talk about the hows and whys of the actual mathematical analysis; it mostly concentrates on the applications and implications of these powerful tools. The core theme of the book is how do you make decisions in the data mining (I've decided to to not bother with Ayres's cutsie term and just say data mining) world: evidence or intuition? Evidence wins every time.

Some interesting points to consider: the rise of data mining tools is in large part to the drastic decrease in storage costs the last number of years, far more than any increase in processing power. On the other hand, the use of neural network technology has also contributed to better and better techniques.

The book basically goes through a bunch of applications areas and shows how each are affected by data mining -- basically showing that the evidence provided by statistical evidence beats out human intuition every time. It's an interesting examination of the nature of expertise: what does it really mean to be a human expert when math wizards can transform large data sets into much more accurate predictions about human behaviour. What's left for us to do? Of course, the human role is to decide what data to collect, what questions to ask in the analysis and how to apply the results.

Ayres looks at recommendation systems (like Amazon), data mining application in the entertainment industry (yes, scripts and box office data are data mined, resulting in, apparently, Will Farrell), economics and government policy and evidence-based medicine (perhaps the best chapter).

To his credit, Ayres doesn't duck the hard questions all this brings up. He deals with privacy concerns, the dangers of over-reliance on programmed creativity and other interesting areas. It's a powerful technology, and while balance is needed in some respects, understanding is a far preferable reaction to change.
Instead of a Luddite rejection of this powerful new technology, it is better to become a knowledgeable participant in the revolution. Instead of sticking your head in the sands of innumeracy, I recommend filling your head with the basic tools of Super Crunching. (p.191)

A good reaction to any new technology. And I like the way he ties it in with the general innumeracy of our times, especially the media and chattering classes. A tool can be used for many purposes. Let's all be
Passionate about the need to inculcate a basic understanding of statistics in the general public. "We have to get students to learn this stuff...We have to get over this phobia and we have to get over this view that somehow statistics is illiberal. There is this crazy view out there that statistics are right-wing"...One can crunch numbers and still have a passionate and caring soul. You can still be creative. You just have to be willing to put your creativity and your passions to the test to see if they really work. (p. 215)

I recommend this book without reservation. Any library that collects math or popular math books would find it a terrific addition to their collection. Business libraries would also find it appropriate. Collections that are looking at the way technology is changing our culture would find that Super Crunchers belongs alongside books like Wikinomics or Everything is Miscellaneous.

April 11, 2008

Friday Fun: Greatest comedy sketches of all time!

After that last post, I need to take a bit of a mental shower.

The perfect thing is to check out the fifty greatest comedy sketches of all time. I can't believe Who's on First only made it to 2nd place! Anyways, a perfect list to argue with and dispute and, especially, brighted up you day.

via BoingBoing.

Fear the library

By turns ugly and amusing, check out this post: The 5 People Who Make Me Hate the Public Library.

It if were a bit more amusing and correspondingly less ugly, I might have put it under Friday Fun like a couple of posts from the same blog a couple of weeks ago. Honestly, I'm having trouble even reading the post all the way through.

Are there 5 (or more) kinds of people that keep students out of academic libraries?

April 10, 2008

Open Access: what it means for research, teaching, and one's career

If you're in the Toronto area next Wednesday, please drop by York for a talk on Open Access.

Scholarly Publication Speaker Series: Open Access: what it means for research, teaching, and one's career.

with Jean-Claude Guedon and Leslie Chan
Apr 16, 2008, 12:00 -- 1:30 pm,
Accolade Building East - Lecture Hall 001, York University
Lunch Provided

More information (including speaker bios) here. Facebook event here.

It's being sponsored by the York University Scholarly Communications Initiative.

April 8, 2008

An update on my Computer Science & Engineering blog

Way back in September I posted about an experiment I was running with a new blog directed at Computer Science & Engineering students here at York.

I'll excerpt myself a little to remind everyone what I was hoping to accomplish:

I've created yet another blog, this one I'm aiming at Engineering & Computer Science students at my institution. I have two main ideas for this blog: first, as a place to locate my IL related links and other information. In the past I've used static web pages and was pretty happy with them. However, over time (and mostly over my sabbatical) I thought that I might want something a little easier, a little more flexible, a little more interactive and mashupable. And I saw an example of what could be accomplished at Heather Matheson's OLA presentation.

It took me a while, but I think I've got something I can live with. It uses WordPress instead of Joomla; but it also incorporates some rss feeds like my linkblog and the new book lists from my library. It has Meebo so students can touch base with me directly. Mostly I like that I've been able to move over the old IL instructional pages I did in FrontPage with relatively little fuss and bother. The classes I've used it for so far seem to like it and the reception from faculty too has been positive. It just looks cooler.

Second, as a place where I can highlight York science profs in the news and post some interesting links to engineering/CS stuff I think is neat, useful or interesting. I plan on using the WordPress pages feature to add digested versions of the full blown pathfinders we have. As well I want to create a list of all the different IL pages so anyone can find them without scrolling or searching.

So, how did it the experiment go?

Overall, I have to say that I'm very happy with the experience.

Some things that I thought went really well:

  • Easy to create & maintain. I really like the WordPress interface. It's very easy to create a blog and set up a bunch of cool widgets for RSS feeds or whatever. The array of themes is impressive (although since I am using a local implementation, I only have a few choices). The wysiwyg authoring tool is certainly good enough for what I need. For the most part, I was able to transfer the old FrontPage versions I created a few years ago into WordPress by just copying and pasting the HTML code and altering it to my current needs. I think that there's also something to be said for how cool and "with it" the blog looks compared to a simple web page.

  • The stats. Since September, the blog has received 3,087 visits and 6,851 page views. Both those numbers make me very happy. No need to go into detail, but the posts I expected to be popular were (ie. bigger classes generated more hits than smaller ones), the keywords I expected to lead people to the blog did and the ebb and flow more-or-less matched the assignment due dates for the courses I was doing sessions for. I'm still getting a handful of hits every day.

  • Meebo. I love Meebo! During busy periods, I was averaging two or three IM sessions per week, sometimes more (by session I mean either live chat or a message left by a student). I was even getting students using Meebo to ask about courses that I wasn't doing a session for. Whether they were students who had my session in one of their other classes or not, that I don't know. Either way, it's still pretty cool that they found me and I was able to help. I even ended up chatting with a couple of librarians about using Meebo.

  • Class management. And speaking of Meebo. You know how when you do a lecture-style IL session there's always a bunch of students at the back of the class using laptops, probably doing email or playing poker? You know how hard it is to involve them? As well, we all know that a class can start with good energy then peter out after a while. Well, Meebo helped with both those things, believe it or not. After a few sessions, I got into the habit of starting every IL class by firing up Meebo on the demo PC I was using and inviting the students on the laptops to surf to the blog. Well, of course a whole bunch of beeping and other weird noises resulted as Meebo notified me that people were coming to the blog and starting to chat! Windows opening, weird chat sessions exploding all over the place. Of course, this is all quite amusing to the students. It also gets their undivided attention right at the beginning of the session and also lets them see what the Meebo widget is all about. I'd have to say that this little opening stunt got me at least 20 minutes of really good attention and energy in the class. I usually asked the students if they wanted me to leave Meebo open so they could ask questions during my demo but they always declined because they thought it would be too distracting.

  • Findability. One cool thing -- if you Google the course number for the majority of the sessions I did, my blog posting comes within the first few results. For many of them, it's number one, even before the course web page. A little disconcerting for the profs, I think, but great for the students -- and the profile of the library. In the sessions I would just say, "Hey, don't worry about remembering the url or the page or anything, just Google your course number!" Even a day after first publishing the post it would appear at or near the top of the rankings.

  • Profs Liked it. It looks cool, has all the main resources, is in a format that students can relate to, what's not to like? Just today I had a Prof remark to me that based on my blog he's considering using WordPress for his own course management needs.

Some things I'm still figuring out:

  • Branding. Although the blog is branded for CSE, in the end most of the classes I used it for were Natural Science, STS or other courses. So, I think I need to re-brand the blog, starting with a new name. Initially, my idea was to create a separate blog for the non-CSE areas but that's probably needless duplication. I think I'll end up with a name something like "York University Science Library Blog: Featuring Engineering, Computer Science, Natural Science and STS." Yes, we have other science library blogs for other areas.

  • Clutter. The design is still a bit busy for my liking. I probably need to pare it down a bit, maybe take out a few of the widgets. Way back when, Jane suggested embedding slides in the posts rather than just recording my notes/links as part of the post itself. That idea probably has a lot of merit and I may give it a try next year.

  • Informational Posts. By these I mean newsy posts about York or various profs. I didn't do as many of these as I hoped and I'm still not sure how useful they are. On the other hand, it's been really handy for demonstrating how blogs can be used to institutional outreach. The jury is out on these posts. I'll probably do a few more during the spring and early summer but I'll re-evaluate in the fall.

  • Sidebar content. Not sure how used or useful it was. I like that it gives students a reason to come back to the blog after the course is over but on the other hand it may just add clutter and distraction.

  • Resource Pages. I never did get around to creating mini-pathfinders for the various subject areas on some of the WordPress pages. We'll see how my thinking on that evolves over the summer.

If any of you out there on the Internet have any suggestions, feel free to jump in. If you're a prof or student, especially if you were involved in one of my sessions, I'd also really like to hear what you have to say.

April 6, 2008


Wow, it's been a couple of years since I last did a Blogorama post. Now that I'm around 250 feeds in my Bloglines, I think it's time to update here on some cool new-to-me blogs I've discovered in the last little while. And yes, it's time to trim the subscriptions a little.

  • Whatever by John Scalzi. It's not really about science or libraries but Scalzi often does post about issues that interest me as a participant in the Internet reputation economy. Or lack thereof, in my case. A couple of really good recent posts in that vein are Fame or Lack Thereof and The Problem With 1,000 True Fans. They later is a pretty depressing analysis of how "easy" it is to convert reputation into cash.

  • WoW! Wouter on the Web by Dutch librarian Wouter Gerritsma. Infrequent, but lots of good commentary on the way libraries could be.

  • Digital Curation Blog. "Blog inspired by the Digital Curation Centre to discuss issues relating to the curation and long term preservation of digital science and research data." Excellent new blog on a topic libraries and librarians need to keep on top of.

  • shimenawa by Peter Brantley, Executive Director of the Digital Library Federation. Commentary about where library collections and services are headed.

  • Librarian in Red. "I am a Librarian at a governmental research and development aerospace laboratory. I find topics of information architecture and information usability very exciting. When I'm not being a library geek, I am a World of Warcraft geek/Star Wars geek/Dog lover. I am a geek onion." I am a geek onion. Classic!

  • if:book is supposed to be about the future of the book, but really it's about the future of the transmission of culture. Coincidentally, the most recent post on Tex is dear to the heart of the geek onion in me.

  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. By turns brilliant and frustrating it's well worth reading. Most recent post: Anderson actually thinks newspapers are doing relatively well!

  • apophenia by danah boyd. Wide ranging commentary on the culture of the web. Best of here.

  • Joho the Blog and Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. A bit like Chris Anderson, by turns frustrating and brilliant (though I'll admit, mostly less frustrating) commentary of the miscellaneousness of the culture we live in.

  • Tools of Change for Publishing and O'Reilly FYI. Two blogs from tech publisher O'Reilly. The ToC blog is really interesting because you get to see a forward thinking publisher in the process of rethinking what publishing is.

  • business|bytes|genes|molecules by Deepak Singh. Not too many blogs that cover the escience and science 2.0 bioinformatics scenes better than this one. But is it mmgb, ggmm, mgbm?

  • Science-Based Medicine. A woo-free zone. Great posts on acupuncture and other so-called complimentary and alternative medical treatments.

  • Open Reading Frame by Bill Hooker. Bill Hooker is at the forefront of re-imagining what scientific publishing could be.

  • Science and Religion News by Salman Hameed.

  • Michael Nielson, like Bill Hooker, is thinking hard about how science could be communicated in a reputation economy. Cool recent post on collaboration.

  • Coding Horror by Jeff Atwood. Amusing and insightful commentary on the life of a coder.

  • Shtetl-Optimized by Scott Aaronson. We all need more theoretical computer science blogs in our blogrolls.

  • Scott Rosenberg's Wordyard. Rosenberg is the author of Dreaming in Code, one of my favourite recent books. His next one will be about blogs and bloggers.

And one for the fun of it -- I just love Pulp of the Day!

So, who out there should be blogging but isn't yet? C'mon, you know who you are...Stacy, Jen, Tim?

April 2, 2008

Best Science Books 2007: Library Journal

I only have a few more of these list to get through for 2007. This one is from Library Journal and it's a pretty long one: Best Sci-Tech Books 2007: Beyond the Bounds of Science. I'll only highlight a few titles that I haven't seen in other lists.

  • Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space by Belfiore, Michael
  • The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement by Lytle, Mark Hamilton
  • The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse by Ludlow, Peter & Mark Wallace
  • The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans by Sawyer, G.J & others
  • The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man by Aczel, Amir
  • How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox To Create Mathematics by Byers, William
  • The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology on the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic
  • The New Time Travellers: A Journey to the Frontiers of Physics by Toomey, David
  • Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Weidensaul, Scott

It seems to me that this list would be particularly useful for any library that wants to order a wide range of well-reviewed popular science.