Well, I can and very nicely too, thank you. Too hot and too many bugs for me. But Percey Harrison Fawcett couldn’t. In fact, he couldn’t stay away from wild places in general. He got the idea that the El Dorado tales, foisted off on the Spanish conquerors by canny natives, who suckered the newcomers into pushing on someplace else in their quest for gold, were actually based on a core of reality. There were lost cities in the Amazon basin, and while the stories about palaces and temples just plastered with gold may have been devices for getting rid of the pesky Spaniards,( “Oh, THAT El Dorado. Well, sure we know where it is. Just keep to the river for another four or five days, portage round the falls then cross to the other side and you’ll see it. Fella was through here the other day. Said they’re forcing strangers to carry some away, they got so much of it. This guy had four big bracelets,pure gold, a pound apiece and that’s the truth”), the tales themselves had a historical kernal. Fawcett was British, one of the itchy-feet sort, who carved out a rep for himself as fearless and skilled. His achievements were considerable. He worked for the British Secret Service in the Middle East, as part of some scheme of Imperial meddling. South American nations employed him to map their mutual frontiers, on the jungle side, which he did, and he made several expeditions to the Amazon region, coming back just barely alive. Somewhere, somehow down there he got hold of this El Dorado thing and couldn’t let it go. Fawcett became convinced that deep in Amazonia there was what he called The Lost City of Z, the really existing, historically true inspiration for all the stories, and he was determined to find it. The Z business was a code name, sort of, so that he wouldn’t tip his hand to possible competitors, and he didn’t want to stimualte a bunch of amateur adventurers to go larking off into the jungle. He knew what it was like. In April, 1925, he set out with two other men, his son Jack and Jack’s friend. They went up country, kept up their reports for a while via messenger, and disappleared.Then, exactly what Fawcett had feared came about. Other people picked up on the El Dorado, Lost City thing, and went in after him, hoping for a double bonanza: finding what the Conquistadors had missed, and rescuing Fawcet. Many people went on these ventures, and a lot didn’t come back. After a while, there were wars, depressions, and other things, so people lost interest. David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was working on a different story when he stumbled on the Fawcett-Z business, and slowly the old poison began to work. To abbreviate, Gann went to Brazil and tried to find out what befell the Fawcett party, and he tells it all in: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon . Write this one down on you Christmas list for Santa, because it gives every promise of a good read. Gann, by the way, hates the outdoors as befits a good New Yorker, hates bugs, loves air conditioning and gets lost going around the block. His trip to the Amazon has not changed any of his prejudices and the mere fact that he did it shows the power of this obsession. He’s lucky he didn’t wind up another pile of bones someplace in the rain forest, and we’re lucky he lived to write up a really gripping, ripping yarn. We need our stories to get us through, and this one is a corker. Lost City has been picked up by Paramount pictures as a vehicle for Brad Pitt…hmmmmm…. a bit too young for Fawcett, who was 50 something when he vanished. A screenplay is in the works, and then, maybe a movie, and maybe it’ll be good. Maybe.
In the March 26 issue of Nature , in the Commentaries section, there are two articles about the effect of patents and exclusive rights licensing on the availability and price (perhaps another way of saying the same thing) of various diagnostic tests based on patented DNA material. The question is a little bit complicated, and too much so for quick summary in a blog post, but the basic matter is really important. People want the benefits of modern research and one of those benefits is the growing array of diagnostic methods relying on the use of some patented gene, gene sequence, or other biological material. But the costs of research and commercial development and testing are considerable, so there has to be some legitimate protection for the researchers and the investors who are bankrolling the effort in the expectation that they can make some money. The Commentaries report on surveys taken in the USA and in Europe. It’s not easy reading, but researchers and administrators should take a look none the less.
Patents and Tests
There’s more to Bossie than butter and cheese, much as I like both these comestibles. We posted an item a while back about the putative magnetic sensing abilities of bovines, which leads them to line up in a North-South alignment. Satellite photos of cows in Germany and of deer in the Czech Republic showed consistent patterns of the critters standing in a North-South line up. OK, so if they can somehow detect the earth’s magnetism and line up as they seem to do, the investigators wondered if herds grazing near powerlines would find their North-South alignment disrupted. More photos, more fllights, more deer, only this time, those groups in fields near power transmission lines. And, sure enough. The animals were more scattered in those fields crossed by or close to transmission lines. Here’s the link to the PNAS item:
That was the endling line in most radio broadcasts of the The Lone Ranger. The town Doctor, or the Mayor, or the Schoolmarm or somebody who had been saved from the toils of outlawry and crime would ask the question in wonderment, just before the trademark farewell, High Ho Silver! Away!. Well the same question pops up in lots of places, and scientific publication is one of them. In fact, figuring out who is who, and who wrote what is starting to become a very serious drag on the usefulness of literature retrieval systems. As matters stand, rules for entry for personal names in services such as MEDLINE, or Chem Abs usually wind up “massaging” the author string so that the last name emerges first, followed by two initials, in this fashion: Doaks JP. Usually there is no punctuation apart from the space and usually generational suffixes, military rank, titles of nobility, membership in religious orders and other honorifics are suprressed. Four decades ago, when systems such as MEDLINE were just beginning, computer memory was limited and expensive, so methods like this were used to trim the amount of information that had to be handled and stored, while preserving a reasonable level of retrievability. Today, storage is much cheaper and those same pressures don’t count as heavily, but the practices continue. Rules for name entry were also drawn up before much of the current blossoming of research in nations of the Orient, where first name-last name conventions don’t exist or are weak or were introduced artificially, and where non-Roman alphabets are used in vernacular writing. So, it was possible for Joey Doaks, Joseph P. Doaks, Lord Doaks of Babbington-Woolton to have considerable bodies of publication during a carreer, written by the same person, but not easily retrievable in one search strategy. Journals also had varying rules for author names, and for citations in references. Add to this the problem of authors who have the same name and initials but who are different people working in different fields, and you can see that author searching can be full of pitfalls. The MEDLINE style (last name, space, two initials no punctuation) has achieved a large degree of acceptance, de facto. But nobody is really pleased with this as any more than a faute de mieux. One way out of the thicket might be to assign authors a number, which would be constant throughout a career. This was formerly scorned as distasteful in principle and impracticable in execution, but the inter/Web has changed the dynamics of what can and cannot be done, so the idea of author IDs is being dusted off. In fact, there’s more than a little dusting going on, since there are at least three different initiatives in play to introduce some kind of standardized ID scheme for authors. One has the backing of Thomson/Reuters, a biggie in sci-tech publishing, another stems from the shop of CrossRef, a publishers’ data sharing system for references and a third is cooking on the stove at NCBI, a branch of the NIH, and the one charged with maintaining PubMed’s searching software and the PubMed Central archive of free electronic literature. Many a slip and all that, so, let’s not rush things.One of the biggest problems is: who should do this, and keep it all straight? The current issue of Science has a good summary of what’s going on, and of the pluses and minuses attached to each scheme.
The distinguished and prolific African-American historian John Hope Franklin died Wednesday in Durham, NC, at the Duke University Hospital of congestive heart failure at the age of 94. In addition to his long career in academic life, Franklin was also the friend and advisor of important figures in the Civil Rights movement, such as Thurgood Marshall and Martine Luther King Jr. The author of many path-breaking interpretive studies of African-American historical experience, Franklin was much sought-after as a classroom teacher. He held numerous prestigious guest faculty positions at universities here and abroad. In private life, Franklin was an avid cultivator of orchids.
The New York Times obiturary is here:
John Hope Franklin
I’m sure tomorrow’s Arts and Letters Daily will have several other appreciations.
Today is the launch date for a new journal from the energetic folk at Nature Publishing Group. Nature Chemistry debuts today, and will continue NPG’s expansion into areas beyond the life/health sciences, joining Nature Materials, Nature Geosciences, Nature Physics etc. Click here to take a look at the first number of volume 1.
This e-book thing is turning out to be quite interesting. As I mentioned in an earlier post, AMAZON has launched the second version of its Kindle e-book reader. K2 is quite an advance on the first generation product and is altogether a rather sleek instrument. SONY’s Book Reader is still in the race, but the K series is ahead comfortably. Both devices are “dedicated’. That is, the only thing they do is read e-books. Fictionwise is a company, recently acquired by Barnes and Noble, which makes a package called eReader. Versions of eReader are available for Iphone, Ipod and most recently Blackberry devices. It’s not clear what this means for AMAZON and SONY. Why spend money on a dedicated reader when you can get book downloads on the thing you are carrying around anyway? It seems to me that the small screen size on the Bberry and similar machines would not give much of a reading experience. On the other hand, if you’re waiting for your turn at the barber’s or standing in line at the grocery checkout counter, you could just as well swith on your phone and get something useful done, instead of flipping impatiently through old Sports Illustrated mags, or flipping, equally impatiently, through the latest National Enquirer It could happen. I think the point is that about a decade ago, the ebook option was lofted but was a flopolla because of limited user choice and quite restrictive terms imposed on downloaded content by the sellers. This time around, things on that score are better.
The more I look, the more I find. Wired magazine’s web site has a story about the release of yet another ebook reader, from Samsung, called Papyrus. The story surveys a number of current and projected readers, with comments on pros and cons. The niftiest one to my mind is the product Plastic Logic says it will field soon, but by the time PL gets through the testing phase, the game may be over, or largely so.
Probably everyone has sent off at least one email message which became a matter for subsequent regret, for various reasons. Well, Google is working on something called Unsend, and has a version of it up for testing. The idea is simple: when the writer clicks the Send button, a screen message pops up with option to cancel the command, effectively “unsending” it. The option lasts about five seconds, which may be too short for some and way too long for others. We blogged about this awhile back, and at the time I suggested that the Send button should be treated like the Fire button on a fighter or something. It should be covered by a cap or plug that the sender must deliberately remove before even touching the Send key. That would save a lot of grief and embarrassment. Maybe the Unsend idea is a good second choice, but both together should help all but the most self-destructive among us to avoid serious booboos in messaging. Here’s the link to the Google site:
PS I also found out that AOL had a version of the Unsend, or rather, it was more like a “Recall it” option. You could get the message back if the addressee had not yet opened it.
I was reading a post today on a library discussion list, making the point that at one time the release of a new browser version would provoke a lot of comments, but that the recent arrival of four new versions produced hardly a ripple. Beta releases for Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer v.8 all came within a relatively short period of time, but nobody seems to care very much. The author of the post asked why, and the replies varied. Some said that the whole browser thing has become over-familiar and a bit boring. One is as good as the next, since the important thing is getting to the content. Some readers considered this relative indifference as a sign of growing up; we are past the “gee whiz” stage, in which everything related to the web causes open-mouthed astonishment. And others suggested that most places have to put up with whatever their IT sections decides is good for them, and have little choice, no matter what the virtues and defects of the browser package might be. Maybe it’s the sum of all three.
Is nothng sacred? Can anybody really say it’s not a good idea to set goals? Well, yes. A couple of somebodys are saying exactly that. But the answer is more nuanced than a simple up/down. It’s not the goal setting that is the problem, so much as paying attention to the circumstances, or even better, not paying attention to the circumstances, and not setting the right goals. People and organizations need to have disciplined plans for getting through the set of problems we refer to as “Life”, and that implies some goal setting. What happens, however, is that pursuit of the goal takes on an existence of its own, and achieving the goal becomes the focus of action, so people have no time, attention or resources left to notice that things aren’t going the way they should be. This is the rather unsettling view of a couple of managment theorists who are beginning to wonder about the whole goal thing, on the basis of some bad outcomes in fiascos such as the Enron collapse and the decline of GM, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac train wreck, and others. The auto giant set a goal: clear, quantitative, time bound and all the rest. The goal was to re-conquer 29% of the lost car market. “29″ became some kind of corporate obsession, and everybody was busting kiesters to hit the magic number. In trying to do so, however, GM adopted very odd tactics: money-losing promos and discounts and no-interest loans to car buyers. All these contributed further to the erosion of the company’s position. Sears introduced quantitative goals for auto service workers and found that mechanics were over-billing or doing unneeded work, to make their numbers. Customers were outraged and backlash was severe. There are other examples and you can read them in the story from the Boston Globe, which summarizes some of the recent management lit. on the question. The authors ran into some heavy fire on this from colleagues in the profession, because if there is one thing enshrined in management theory, it’s the importance of goals. But, there are goals and then there are goals. It all depends on time, place and circumstance. GM clearly needed something more than simply recapturing the lost “29″, and bending everybody’s effort to hit the number masked the need to get some fundamental rethinking and reworking done, which, when accomplished, might have solved the market share problem. If not done properly, goal setting can over-simplify complex situations and substitute second-order concerns for the really important ones, simply because these are easier to isolate and quantify. You can’t get away from the axiom of the ancient Greeks: “Nothing too much”.