Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future…so said the wag. The wag in question may have been the great John Von Neumann, in a light moment. Nature, nothing daunted, went out on a limb to do a little prognosticating about the state of computational art and science in third decade of our century, and how the changes we can expect will influence, and be influenced by, the progress of scientific research. Nanoscale circuits can almost surely be expected well before 2020, it says, and the elusive quantum computer may well be up and running. “Smart Dust”…extremely small sensors scattered all over to monitor a large number of signatures should be around too. All this will produce data, data, data in stupifying amounts. What will we do with it all, and how shall we do it? There are five separate signed contributions, plus editorial comments. Some of it is pretty blue-sky, and that makes this writer’s brow furrow. Surely, we have heard a lot of this before, if not in reference to computing, than in some other connection. And you can be sure that for every advance there will be at least one unpleasant little problem. But, qui sait?, as the French put it. Read the essays:
Computing in 2020
We are celebrating..da dah!!! …the 150th anniversary of the synthesis of analine mauve dye by a young British chemist named William Perkin. Not much to yell about, you say? Au contraire. It was a very big deal indeed. Perkin was only 18 when he discovered the process that yielded a bright purplish dye from coal tar. Since Britain was then the textile capital of the world, there was intense interest in discovering new dyes that could be produced more cheaply than those derived from plants or animals, which were then the staples off the dyer’s craft. Britain was also producing a lot of coal tar, and there was a search for ways to make something useful out of this unpromising-looking yukky stuff. Perkin’s youth and his vision about the commercial applications of his discovery, plus his ability to persuade his father and brother to back a factory to produce mauve dye on a large scale are the facts commonly stressed in reviewing his success. And, he didn’t quit there. The Perkin group went on to discover, along with chemists in Germany, a whole range of analine dyes, setting the stage for the emergence of the modern chemical industry. Bayer, Hoechst and BASF all got going by researching and then manufacturing analine dyes on a large scale. Companies, big companies, got used to the notion of having a bunch of smart chemists working in-house, and looking for ways to improve current products, or develop new ones. A lot of modern life is traceable to the skill and persistence of little Billy P.
It’s good news, I guess, to hear that others areas of science are having trouble with their publications too, not just medicine. Table top fusion research, with its glittering promise of abundant energy, never really went away after the Cold Fusion fiasco. Some studies suggested that the formation and collapse of bubbles in certain viscous fluids could in theory at least generate enough energy to allow fusion. In 2002, one investigator claimed he had done it, and managed to get a good deal of mileage and an 800K grant from the DOD out of it. But corroboration has been elusive, as Nature puts it with British understatement. Research team members assert that the investigator claimed positive results on equipment they found to yield only negative ones, and that he has removed the test equipment from the team lab.
The New York Times reports that a chemistry professor at Columbia has withdrawn two papers, and part of a third, which appeared in leading journals. Experiments conducted by a doctoral candidate who has since left the school with the degree have been impossible to replicate, and a committee has been formed to investigate why key features of the results reported cannot be obtained. The subject, according to the Times, was manipulation and transformation of simple molecules such as methane into more complex ones, which might be more useful and interesting, a process said to very difficult to conduct with precision.
OK, it’s corny, but even Homer nodded now and then. Lets start at the top; LOCKSS is an acronym describing a program designed to help ensure the longer term survival of digital materials, particularly academic journals. Translated: Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe…LOCKSS. Libraries both concentrate and disperse materials. Any one library concentrates a great variety of material, much more than any one researcher could manage to acquire by private effort. And, the fact that the same item is held in more that one library disperses the risk of damage or loss across the entire network of libraries. The LOCKKS program builds on that function, allowing libraries to make and preserve copies of local content on generally available desktop computers. Publisher approval is required, some special software is necessary, and libraries have to be serious about their commitment to the demands of the program. LOCKSS is the brainchild of the smart folks at Stanford University, and the program has grown impressively, as a number of major academic publishers and research libraries have joined the alliance. One incentive prompting publishers to join up is the possibility of easing their own preservation burden. Electronic publication has forced publishers into the preservation business. The digital archive is their major business asset and they have to provide long term access, a mission they dislike and are unfamiliar with, so any hope of a way out from under is welcome. The Controlled LOCKSS ( CLOCKSS) initiative can best be thought of as a emergency LOCKSS. The archive would be “dark” ( a darchive?), that is, it would be maintained but not used unless some “trigger event” made it necessary to open it so that users could access the content. Trigger events could be natural disasters, or a publisher’s business failure or some similar happening which would “orphan” the content. The concept is the object of a two year study by librarians and publishers’ representatives. As the amount of digital content increases, better ways have to be found to ensure that it is available beyond the here and now. LOCKSS and CLOCKSS may not be the whole answer, but we have to start someplace and see what happens.
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an anti-totalitarian polemic, and it’s a very effective one too. The simple fable about a bunch of barnyard animals who run off their cruel human masters and try to build a new, free and just society of animals, only to be betrayed and reduced to an even greater servitude can be read as a kind of minatory fairy tale, or as a profound critique of the Leninist-Stalinist swindle foisted on the Russian people, and on millions of others as well. The parallels to actual events in the history of the Soviet Union (the split with Trotsky, the creation of the Cheka and all its alphabetical descendents…NKVD, MVD, KGB, the purges, the embrace of the demon Hitler) were too obvious for anyone but children to miss, and Stalinists everywhere hated the book. There is a story that the French Communist party ordered its members to buy up all copies of the French edition and destroy them. In the age of mass culture, it was only to be expected that somebody would try to make a movie out of it, but the surprise comes in learning that the Somebody was the CIA. Yep. In the heydey of the “hearts and minds” effort against Communism, a lot of money got sluiced around on various cultural projects designed to combat what was thought to be Communist influence in the arts. The CIA contacted Orwell’s widow and bought motion picture rights to Animal Farm which appeared as a super cartoon in 1955. (Those below a certain age need to be reminded that full-length animated motion pictures were a comparative rarity then.) The ending of the film version was changed to make it more decisively anti-Communist, and somebody wrote a catchy little march for the animals’ anthem ‘Beasts of England’. There is an article in the NYTimes which talks about this and other spooky ventures into art and literature. It sounds weird, and even a bit laughable now, but in the Fifties things were different, and how. It may be unlikely today for any country’s Intelligence Service to concern itself overly about the influence of books and ideas, but is that a sign of progress, or decline?
CIA, Books, Movies, etc.
Note to self: Reread Animal Farm
Acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations are all around us. Some language purists deplore their use, or rather, overuse, especially in “official speak”, that of business or that of government. The ACRONYM FINDER lets you work either in expanding the acronym into its full meaningful parts or in checking for a recognized and established version for some context you might to compress.
We did some quick testing and the results were OK. The usual suspects turned up…FBI, NASA, DNA. There are filters the searcher can select to confine results to one field…Militiary, Science, Eudcation. The “unpackings” of the alphabetic sting are referred to as “definitions”, but that doesn’t seem to be strictly correct. SHAEF is fleshed out to : Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionay Force, but thats’ all you get. Context, history and any fuller meaning are up to the searcher to uncover. Some the scientifiic strings tested were not found…iRNA for inhibitory RNA, a very hot topic in biology recently, but AF just found Iranian News Agency. A general tool is a general tool. Try it. You may like it.
Digitization projects abound. In fact, they’re all over the place, like flies. Some are really big scale and seem, so far, to involve a lot of talk and not much product. Others are more modest, don’t talk so much, but seem to be getting some things done. Take Carnegie Mellon University, for instance. Technology Review has a story about a digitization initiative that’s been running for about 7 years. They have a project to digitize a million books, called, well, The Million Book Project. The folks at CMU are pretty free with information about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. One tip is that they are using off-the-shelf hardware, based at scanning stations in India and China. Each page has to be turned manually before exposure to the scanner. About 100,000 pages each day are added to the archive, totalling about 600,000 books so far. Most of the books are in the public domain, thereby avoiding copyright hassles. The chief scientist for the CMU project says that OTS equipment works fine with English language printed books. Problems arise with non-Roman writing systems, and the calligraphic “hands” traditional in many languages. But, these problems are being attacked by researchers at other institutions. Optical character reading (OCR) technology is a hot button research topic today, spurred by projects such as the CMU’s effort. Google, in contrast, is very zip-lipped, but say they are making all kinds of progress on everything, which of course may be true. Another part of the CMU effort, of interest to librarians in particular, is the realization that big digital archives require effective methods of searching, and a lot of attention is being given to this point.
We hear so bloody much about global warming. So it’s refreshing to run across a story that goes in the other direction. The BBC web site featured a report suggesting that the Black Death of the late 1300′s in Europe may have helped trigger the myserious Little Ice Age, a 300 year period of exceptionally harsh winters, ending only in the early nineteenth century. Researchers quoted on the Beeb site discuss the results of their investigation into pollen levels in Europe in the later Middle Ages. They suggest that the sudden death of so many people in the various waves of the Black Death’s penetration into Europe caused widespread abandonment of previously cleared agricultural land which reverted to forest. Large scale, sudden reforestation led to a removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and to a drop in temperature, leading to the Little Ice Age. So, it’s not people, but, sort of, the absence of people due to lots of them being dead from plague, that affected climate. Many people doing people things leads to warming, and when people are not around, not so many anyway, thing go the other way. The theory has a certain novelty value, and it postulates some rather significant human effects on the atmosphere long before industrialization, a suggestion that corresponds with new research about human activity in the Americas. Not all the climatologists are convinced. See what you think:
Black Death and the Little Ice Age
Things are happening. Google announced a plan to digitize the holdings of several major research libraries, and to make at least some of this content available generally on one or another of its products. Lots of people reacted in different ways. Many publishers reacted with busloads of lawyers running up courthouse steps, waving various legal documents about copyright infringement. Some other people looked at this scene and decided that, while digitization projects might be a good idea, going about it in a different way from the path Google chose might be a better one still. So, the parents of the Open Content Alliance decided to secure the cooperation of the rights holders first, and then proceed with digitization. Yahoo, HPLabs, UToronto, UCalifornia, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Adobe Systems are among the charter members, but the expectation is that other bodies will join the Alliance shortly. A Creative Commons License option will be available for those copyright holders who want to make use of it. Content will be available originally through YahooSearch, but thereafter any search engine can discover it. The stress is to be upon “openness” and providing access to important academic and scholarly documents, but without the risk of scaring rights holders into thinking they will lose control over their materials. The Grouch thinks that publishers were and are too scared of the new situation, and instead of worrying about infringement they should welcome the opportunity to get their books on the Web. But maybe Google’s approach annoyed them and made them pick a fight in a case where they shouldn’t have. The Alliance’s method seems to be more that of St. Francis de Sales: ” You can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than a hundred barrels of vinegar“. If you want to catch flies, that is. Maybe it works with rounding up digital content too. The best place to start is to look at the OCA’s web page.
Open Content Alliance
LibraryLink has tentatively dipped a toe into the roiling waters of the Great Bird Flu Outbreak, if that’s what it is. But the thought here has been that enough commentary is swirling through cyberspace already. Yet, on the usual sweep through the Net for items of interest, the BG came across a nice story in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which describes how groups of observers, some with medical training and some without, have forged an effective mechanism for information exchange on the Bird Flu threat through the use of blogging techniques. The Bulletin is not something usually scanned for LibraryLink, but this particular piece is really interesting. Bloggers often get marked down as people who waste a lot of time producing very little of value, but the case of the Flu bloggers seems to be one of those few examples in which the promise of web technology and the ability to communicate quickly really yield some practical advantage. The Flu bloggers monitor events worldwide, looking for signs of a serious outbreak. When they find something funny, they alert local agencies, milk their contacts, follow news stories for clues and in short do a lot of information sharing very quickly to establish what’s actually going on, in distinction to what the government in question would like have people think. Part of the story deals with the way the Network functioned during the SARS crisis. One blogger who styles himself REVERE is actually a well know public health specialist, who adopts a persona on the list so that he can speak more freely. Some of the conclusions are pretty dire, but the bloggers are really trying to shoot straight, peddling neither terror nor false reassurance. It’s a good piece.