The Blogging Grouch’s relationship with things technical is distant and chilly. He prefers clocks and watches with analog faces and Roman numerals, and fountain pens, with real ink in them. When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like a no. 2 pencil to sketch or chalk on a board to draw a diagram. This is a distinctly minority position, but now and again, light from other outposts of Sanity and Reason flashes through the technomurk, and the heart rejoices at the knowledge that one is not entirely alone. Such a burst emanated recently from the (one hopes) pen of David Cox, writing in The New Statesman, an organ of leftish, “progressive” opinion in the UK. OK, it’s a rant, and some of it will sound familiar. But there are some more serious ideas in the piece, such as the suggestion that the rate of innovation and discovery peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. This involves a calculation about per capita innovation, and the BG is always suspicious when a City Slicker divides one number into another and says the result “proves” something. Maybe, maybe not, but keep your hand on your wallet. Cox is bold enough to make value judgments…such as the impact of the internet is nothing compared to the impact of printing, and that of printing nothing compared to what the development of writing meant. In short, the really important breakthroughs have been made and from now on, real innovation will be very tough, and take a long time, with a lot of people working on the task. Great innovations have typically been the work of youth, but such things seem less likely now, when even small progress depends on the mastery of large masses of material, which takes time…that subtle thief of youth. Read it.
Access is little awkward in this case. Connect to Scitech Daily Review with the link above, and look for the story Technohype bites back, in the column at the right. Read the whole item or print it off right away since the NS allows non subscribers ONE shot at free viewing of ONE article, and they track it efficiently.
On Oct. 18, 2005, LibraryLink carried an item about the Wikipedia(WP), the online encyclopedia being created and maintained by volunteers all over the world, using a type of collaborative authoring and editing software package called a Wiki. Since then, the WP has been in the news, and not just in the propeller-head “community”. Several stories in the national press reported that John Seigenthaller, an offiicial in the Kennedy administration had been the subject of a Wiki article which, in effect, accused him of complicity in the deaths of both Kennedy brothers. It turned out that the writer of the article had meant the whole thing as joke, sort of, since he really couldn’t believe it possible for just anybody to write anything in WP, or alter, re-arrange or otherwise modify somebody else’s contribution. But, alas, it is, and his article about went in to WP. It all got straightened out, and Seigenthaller was rather handsome about it, in my opinion. Then, NATURE carried an article comparing WP and the Britannica articles on various scientific and technical topics, finding that the error rate for WP was slightly greater than that for the EB. This got a lot of ink, with some pieces implying or even stating the WP is “just as good” as the stuffy ole Britannica, with its high prices. Some observers have had ghastly experience when writing for WP. Their work altered for trivial cause, or even vandalized. Others find the organization and composition of the articles to be substandard. There seems to be some vanity publishing and not a little score-settling and axe-grinding, and simple malice. Then again, others reported that WP is accurate, timely, convenient and useful. Maybe it depends on what topic you’re looking up…the ninth century wool trade in Belgium is probably safely in the hands of those who know about it and care to write something. But everybody’s an expert on Microsoft, or stem cells, or the CIA, and when the chance is offered to “correct” the words of those less enlightened, many can’t resist. The last chapter on WP has not been written, but it seems certain that there are a few snags to get past before the vision which sparked it can be realized.
John Allen Paulos is a math professor at Temple U in Philadelphia. Apart from his academic works, he has written a number of books for the interested layperson, and contributes a syndicated column called “Who’s Counting? to ABCnews.com . Recently, he raised his bushy eyebrows in dismay at some of the numbers being tossed around in connection with the possibility of a world wide Bird Flu outbreak. He is particularly concerned about the stated death rates, which are said to be around 50% of those affected, since about half of those humans hospitalized with the virus died. Dr. P says that these numbers constitute an almost texbook example of sample bias, the sample being that of the very, very ill who were hospitalized. Any number of others could have been infected and shrugged the bug off, or got sort of sick and then recovered. The great flu epidemic of 1918 had a mortality rate estimated to lie between 2 and 5%. While the possiblity of another 1918 outbreak is nothing to laugh at, Paulos wants people to keep their hats on straight. We can scare one another to death too, you know.
John Allen Paulos
PS The same article has a section on the the number of Iraqi dead since military operations in the country began in March, 2003. It’s not good news.
Nicholas Basbanes has written a new book, the title of which is Every Book Its Reader. This work follows on others that the worthy Mr. Basbanes has prepared, all of which have as their theme books and the people who deal with them, collect them, love them, steal them…book nuts, in a word. He also has a lot to say about the places where such people and their love objects are concentrated…libraries and bookstores.
In A Gentle Madness, Basbanes explored “bibliophiles, bibliomanes and the eternal passion for books”, a world whose inhabitants include the serious collector and the seriously loopy obsessive. A Splendor of Letters surveyed the labors, often heroic, of those who seek to prevent books from perishing, either through the ordinary wear and tear or through the deliberate action of those want to destroy the culture of a nation or group, as in Bosnia, Cambodia, and the Yiddish literature of pre-Holocaust Europe. The new book’s subtitle is: the power of the printed word to stir the world. If you think Basbanes is out of touch with the digital revolution, you can tell him so, in an email from the contact information on his web site, which is worth a look all on it own.
On May 2, 2005 the NIH introduced a policy which requested that their funded authors submit to PubMedCentral (PMC) in electronic format the final copy of manuscripts reporting results of their investigations. NIH was striving to encourage greater public access to research reports, while avoiding anything looking too much like a heavy-handed intrusion into publishers’ business practices and property rights. The voluntary character of the policy meant that very few investigators bothered to make the submissions, even though NIH had done quite a bit to make the process easy. Most people won’t do something, if they don’t have to. And, objectively considered, researchers are busy people, who will avoid anything that cuts into their time budgets. That may have been a bad call on the part of the researchers. One thing a lot of people missed in the run-up to the actual policy release was the degree of attention that the original proposal for mandatory deposit had received in Congress, both among staffers, influential in framing legislation, and among Members themselves. The House voted a tough bill, but the Senate was the scene of the compromises which brought about the sissy version introduced on May 2. But, if compulsion is what investigators need, that’s what they’ll get. Four US Senators, two from each party, have sponsored a bill called The American Center for CURES Act. The bill is supposed to help expedite progress toward real cures, and has numerous sections. One of its provisions deals with Open Access to research results. No more voluntary nothin’. Funded researchers MUST deposit the manuscript and do it a lot faster than called for in the current NIH policy. The bill also expands the requirement beyond NIH proper to include all agencies and dependencies of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The bill also shifts the legal basis of the act, which now strongly features government intent over publisher rights and practices. We haven’t heard too much about the measure, because of the Congressional recess and all the troubles affecting the Executive Branch. But, it’s a big bill, with some important provisions, so, watch for news about it.
Maps are among the many things we take for granted, not worrying too much about how they are produced. We use maps of different kinds, all the time, as we try to f ind out where Ypsilanti is, track a hurricane through the Antillies, watch cold fronts, or wet fronts or dry fronts move toward or away from where we are. The ordinary American probably cannot get through the day without seeing at least one map. Their ubiquity conceals the fact that the whole idea of mapping relies on some very impressive mental processing of abstract ideas, expressed through a defined set of largely arbitrary symbols. It’s all quite a trick, really, rather like writing and reading. Maps have a fascinating history both as practical tools and as works of the mind, akin to art. The amount of information they can convey and the variety of techniques used to do this have been increasing steadily, especially since orbiting satellites have made possible very exact measurements and depictions of almost any point on the globe’s surface. A new information explosion, that of geographic or geospatial data, accompanies the progress of ever more exact maps. The big search engines…Yahoo! MSN, the Other One, ( Oh, OK, Google), are all working on new map services, and the state of their efforts is described in a good article in Technology Review. The Grouch confesses to being a “map freak” of at least minor grade, but you don’t have to share the feelling to follow the story and to understand what the Big Three are after as they in their development projects.
Note: This is a somewhat longer read than most of the items referred to here, because the article presents necessary background and discusses the attitudes and business stance of several companies.
The Intenet we have come to know and not quite love has some serious deficiencies. Add to this the fact that control of vital sectors of the national life relies in large part, or even totally, on the Iternet and you have a situation that can give policy planners a serious migraine. A recent article in MIT’s magazine Technology Review surveys some of the major problems with the current Internet and sketches a version of what a more robust Internet would look like and how it could be achieved. The current Internet architecture assumed that it’s users would be so delighted at the power and ease it conferred, that base motives and acts could safely be ignored. But such acts and motives are inseparable from the human crowd, and we are all only too familiar with spam, viruses, denial of service attacks and other headaches. As systems rely more fully on the Internet, the potential damage inflicted by determined and prolonged attack could be very great. There are proposals for a “clean slate” architecture, one that would in effect start over and build a new Internet that paid more attention to security concerns.
A New Internet
Technology Review is also the source for this item on what the folks there consider the really, really big information technology developments in the year just ended. The Blogging Grouch agrees with the list, or at least most of it. The IT Biz is so full of hype and baloney that after a while, the mere fact that something is getting press is almost reason enough to dismiss it as pointless and trivial. But, it does seem the TR people have thought about this and have made some good choices: Silicon photonics, municipal WI/FI, Social Computing, developments in search engine technology and “feed” techniques. Getting silicon to deal with photons in the way it handles electrons seems a real advance, opening doors to all sorts of possibilities. On the other hand, finding more ways for people to get together and yak seems, well, less impressive. Maybe people would be better off if they stayed by themselves a bit more, read something , cleaned up, folded laundry, and let the Blog and the Wiki go for a while, or just sat and did nothing for a half- hour. All that blogging and wiki-ing reminds me of that Monty Python movie, where Death is balling out Americans for talking too much. Maybe the Big Guy had something there.