We posted a story here yesterday about some difficulties Microsoft is encountering, and in so doing, I forgot to include an item from the New York Times for May 24, noting that the company had decided to stop its work on a rather large project to digitize the content of many books and scholarly articles, and distribute these on the web. According to the Times piece, the announcement about the end of the book digitization project came on a company blog. The article states that Microsoft had already completed work on 750,000 books and 80 million journal articles. One of the entities most seriously affected by the action is the Internet Archive, a non profit digital archiving service that Microsoft was using to conduct the actual work. Some academic libraries, such as that of the University of Toronto, were also affected, and will seek support elsewhere for the continuation of the digitization effort. In all, it seems that Microsoft is throwing overboard those projects it considers marginal in its fight to finish with Google. It’s still too early to tell, but we may be about to watch a major shift take place in the computer and information technology arenas. Microsoft seems to be punching hard, but not hitting, and the departure of Chairman Bill only adds another element of uncertainty to the brew. Watch the stock price.
All empires come to a point at which there’s no place to go but down. Rome, Persia, Spain, Microsoft….Microsoft? Well, look at it this way. Things have not been going so well for the Behemoth from Redmond. The attempt to buy or otherwise take over Yahoo! didn’t go anywhere. The VISTA operating system was a flopperoo of Broadway proportions. Despite a very high pressure PR campaign that nattered on about VISTA, the the reviewers were harsh because of compatability problems, and sales pretty poor, as users decided it was prudent to hang on to their money and wish Mr. Gates and associates a hearty Better Luck Next Time. Now the newest release of Windows, labeled SEVEN, was vetted at the All Things Digital trade show and conference, without generating more enthusiasm than common polliteness would require.
We try to follow Info Tech in these pages, but, to be frank, we have our limitations and have to recognize them. So, I’ll pass the reader on to a report that appeared in the techie blog Ars Technica and let that reader decide. I think the writer is seized mainly by the emotion of disappointment. It’s not the case that SEVEN is a bad product.(Or for that matter, neither is VISTA). The feeling seems to be that a lot of what was demonstrated had been shown before and apart from some “Ooh Ah” about touch screen manipulations and finger painting, the show didn’t make the case. In the 1920s Oswald Spengler wrote a long and gloomy meditation called The Decline of the West, and the title pretty much tips the author’s hand. Maybe Herr Professor Doktor Spengler’s lucubrations extend to the software giant also.
The British are nuts about gardening, right? It’s risky to generalize but probably safe to say that very many of the inhabitants of the British Isles are enthusiastic gardeners, and always were. Well, no. Not that last part anyway. The root (pun not intended, but it came out rather nicely) of the enthusiasm for gardening over there in Albion can be found rather late in history, in the Eighteenth Century in fact, and we colonials played a big part in it. Three men were pivotal in getting the whole thing going, and their lives and work are detailed in a new book by Andea Wulf, a German national living in the UK: The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession. One of the three was Sir Joseph Banks, who has come up in these pages before. The other two were Phillip Miller and Peter Collinson. Miller was the guy who litterally did the “spade work”, planting, arranging, preserving. Collinson was a business type who had a partner in America, John Bartram. Bartram did a lot of botanical tramping around the colonies and gathered numerous plant species to interested enthusiasts in the Olde Countrie. The sum total of their work established gardening first as a past time for aristocrats, and then for the lesser orders. They were all interesting guys in their own way, but it’s hard to edge out Banks as an object of study. Rich, handsome, famous after his voyage around the world with Captain Cook, he was a mainspring of scientific study in Britain, lashed on constantly by his own immense curiosity. He backed it all up with his money, which he spent generously, even lavishly on research and in helping out other investigators. Wulf contrasts his character to that of Linnaeus, who comes out as dictatorial and mean-spirited. She reports that a favorite trick of his was to find a plant with an unpleasant smell or other ugly feature and name it after a rival. The whole Eighteenth Century thing can make your head swim; so much going on, so many fascinating people, such wealth, such misery, such brilliance, such degradation. This study seems like a good way to get a strong dose of Eighteenth Century. The review in The Guardian is at:
The NIH has issued an updated FAQ on the policy mandating deposit in PubMed Central of final manuscripts reporting on research funded by NIH grants. The FAQ document itself is rather lengthy and contains links to the text of the policy statement and to supporting resources, such as the list of those journals which automatically deposit the manuscript without further action by the author(s).
Gary Marcus, a prof at NYU, has written a book called “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind,” in which he argues that our brains are far from being the cause for self-congratulation that our species often displays. In fact, the ole Bean is a pretty sorry lash-up of compromise and “JGE” (just good enough) solutions to various problems that have arisen in our evolutionary history. The blog 3Quarks Daily has a post about the Marcus book, with a link to a longer precis by a writer for Newsweek. The brain, the mind, consciousness are all hot topics in serious publishing today, with books such as Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works enjoying bestseller status. The more the better, I say. Somebody may actually figure it out someday, although, frankly, it doesn’t seem to me that they are even close. But the point I want to raise here concerns the word “Kluge” (rhymes with Huge). I thought that the word had a “d” sound in it…kludge I remember reading it as a term of abuse among computer types for an inelegant, awkward, unworkmanlike piece of programming or equipment. I looked in the OED, and kludge is there roughly in the meaning I remember, and linked etymologically to the German adjective “kluge”, meaning smart, clever, wise or prudent. But, d or no d, we may be fated to work out our days relying on a unit that’s a mass of compromises and so-so engineering.
The faculty at Harvard Law decided to follow the lead set earlier this year by their other colleagues, and make their publications Open Access. An institutional server will host the publications, which will be searchable through Google Scholar, and other services. The HLS professoriate voted unanimously to adopt OA release of scholarly work conducted there, and this move increases the visibility of OA archiving as a means of disseminating scholarship. By little and little, the notion is gaining ground that personal or institutional archiving of one’s own academic work is a plus for researchers, since the accessibility of these works rises dramatically when they are placed online. There are a number of unanswered questions about all this, and the roles of traditional publication and online archives will, at the least, need to be revised. But the benefits to individual scholars in having their work known are hard to deny.
The Scholar’s Space has a very useful item on this point which you can read at:
Researchers in the life sciences have benefited from the existence of very large biological databanks collecting information on gene structure, taxonomy, protein configuration and similar topics, all available to researchers at little or no cost. By contrast, chemical information, although plentiful and enjoying first-class curation, is expensive to access, since such access depends on subscription to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) services, and this can run into real money, too much money for many researchers and their parent institutions. Chemspider is the brain-child of Antony Williams, a consultant from Wake Forest, NC. Chemspider is exactly that,a spider;that is, a program launched out onto the web to “crawl” it for specific kinds of information. Mr. Williams’ creation looks at publicly available sites of chemical information and reports on what’s been found. There are more than 5,000 hits on the database in the average day. A great deal of information has been gathered so far. The site has some advertising and the revenue from this helps the small force of volunteers who verify the data. Mr. Willliams hope that Chemspider can be improved and that it will help those scientists who are currently unable to afford the ACS systems.
You can also read comments about the Nature piece by Mr. Williams at:
For a long time, researchers have been struggling to keep some kind of useful order in their personal collections of reprints, copies and, more recently, PDF files downloaded from electronic journals. Nature reports on a new software program, called Papers, developed by two scientists from the Netherlands, that is gathering some praise as a highly useful tool in managing PDF files. Papers features an interface similar to that of Itunes, the Internet music site, and allows its users to tag, sort and retrieve PDF files that have been collected by the searcher. A previous offering, iPapers was developed by a researcher in Japan and has gained a considerable number of users. There are several other programs which have the same goal, and it’s too early to tell which of them will emerge as the ‘dominant life form”, if any do. People tend to stick with the system they have, in part because of familarity and in part because the task of switching to a new program does not seem worth the time and effort, if the old one is doing the job reasonably well.
In the bad old days, when medicine really couldn’t do much beyond telling what was wrong and giving a guess at about how much time you had to tell the family, call the priest and the lawyer, physicians used a lot of their spare time in making up classifications of diseases, or nosologies. Some of these sound rather odd to us, but they were all efforts to tidy up and make sense of the welter of direct clinical experience by searching for some common elements that could simplify and “rationalize” the mass of empirical findings into some more comprehensible whole. Much of medical history can be considered as the creation and abandonment of various nosologies, and we like to think that the process has come to an end, and that our classfications are accurate and, in some sense,final. An article in the Science section of today’s New York Times shows that the hunt for a better nosology has in no sense come to an end; in fact, it’s taking on some new and interesting forms. A number of researchers have been tracing the activitiy of genes or gene groups and have found that the same combinations seem to be active in quite different diseases. Duchenne muscular dystrophy and heart attack are apparently quite disparate pathologies, but some evidence suggests a very strong link to the same group of genes in both diseases. A map of putative disease connectivity styled the “diseasome” was published last year in PNAS
The Times piece notes that there are zero drugs available for Duchenne’s but about 40 for various heart conditions, so, if there is some deep similarity, would some or any of the heart drugs work on Duchenne’s? There’s more along these lines, including a little cold water from some in psychiatry who are calling for restraint in expectation. But it all is rather intriquing. It reminds the Grouch of the Cladistics movement in biological systematics, which was effort to re-order the taxonomy of animals and plants by basing it on evolutionary similarities rather than on apparent physical resemblances. There was a good bit of literature on this some time ago, but there seems to be less now.
I can’t supply my link to the Times, since it won’t work for most of our readers, but the curious can find it in the paper issue of May 6, and probably on the Times web site.