The super e-book reader launched recently by Amazon, the Kindle DX, is not just another horse in the stable, sharing hay with the first two versions of the Kindle platform. DX is gunning for the academic market, and Amazon is not just sitting around waiting for somebody to come to the door. They company has lined up and apparently sealed a number of service agreements with some textbook publishers, and also has inked deals with a number of US universities to make DX units available at institutions such as Arizona State, Case Western, Princeton, Pace (in NYC, I think) and several others. I’m not sure if the machines will be given away, rented, sold at a discount or what, but the idea is to turn the things loose and see what students make of them. Amazon is insuring itself against having a machine but no software by making the agreements previously mentioned with the publishers. This seems to me to be a perfect “razor and blades” situation; the money is in the ‘blades’, that is, the books, mags, newspapers or whatever the users order. But, they sell the ‘razor’, the reader, too. DX is retailing at close to $500, so it’s not cheap. But it has all those yummy little exras, such as an onboard dictionary, improved navigation, lotsa books and other stuff to download, the ability to make notes, etc. I think that Amazon may be competing against itself, in a way. Why buy a Kindle2, when you can go up market some and get 2.5 times the screen area and still have access to the latest Alan Furst or whatever? I know nothing about business, but maybe DX is the HMS Dreadnaught of ebook readers. The battleship when launched in 1906 made all other battleships obsolete, including all of Britain’s own. The DX, simply by virtue of its size scuppers the market for the smaller readers, including all the Kindles. On the other hand, small is beautiful, as the fella said. Maybe a lot of people want a reader that’s not as big as a dinner plate, one they can stuff into a purse or tote or pack. We’ll be watching.
Lately we have seen more than a few reports about serious conflicts of interest on the part of medical researchers, who have not disclosed fully the extent of their financial ties to the companies producing the drugs or devices the investigators study, and about which they publish in the professional literature. There have been some rather extreme examples, and we are not talking about a few bucks here and there. So, there has been a good deal of brow-furrrowing and hand-wringing about the best way to handle this problem, and the New England Journal of Medicine recently published a summary of a report issued by the respected Institute of Medicine concerning conflict of interest. In general, they’re agin it. but they want to minimize and fumigate, rather than eliminate, researcher-industry contacts, human nature being what it is, and support for medical Continuing Medical Education coming from the sources it does. Some of the recommendations seem rather wimpy to me. It’s hard to believe that ‘education’ about the perils of CoI at this stage in the professional lives of those concerned is something to be taken seriously, without smiling. We are talking, after all, about people who have been educated within an inch of their lives. But, there it is.
This will probably be the final post I write about the aftermath of the September ’08 hurricane and about how people here are or are not coping with things. We are back in our house, after almost eight months of living in an apartment. A number of people on our street have returned, and others are in different stages of rebuilding and re-occupation. Some former residents on our block have sold their homes, or are renting them, as they have moved elsewhere, so there are a number of new faces to be seen. When I say we are back, I don’t want to suggest that we have somehow returned to the status existing before the storm. We don’t have hot water, the new dishwasher doesn’t work, and neither does the garbage disposal unit…apparently the electrician failed to connect them properly. Lighting in the den/kitchen is lopsided. The kitchen side is fine but the den has only the lights attached to the cieling fan, and that’s too dark to read by in comfort. We have no blinds or curtains, so a certain caution is necessary when moving around the house. Little bags and boxes are everywhere, partially opened. Each room has piles of things: towels, blankets, kitchen ware. Some of these we saved from the storm and kept with us in the apartment, and some have just been rescued from the garage. We don’t have much furniture, but we did get a new, bigger television set. We have no pictures on the walls, so far, no spare beds for guests, not much in the way of dressers or bureaus. The living room furniture was rattan and survived the flooding well, apart from the cushions which we had replaced. The yard is in bad shape. I dug up large concentrations of Deadly Nightshade yesterday. Much of the grass has been choked out by abundant patches of sticker burr, a nasty piece of vegetation that seems to grow well in poor or neglected soil. The burrs often have one very sharp and hard spike which can easily penetrate clothing, and once even pierced the tire and tube of a bike I was riding. Astonishingly, we have squash growing in the yard, and some corn too. Apparently seeds for each were washed into our yard from somebody’s garden and the squash are doing well. We had one for supper two nights ago, and it was fine. Cutting the grass while saving the squash will be a nice trick. All the trees are dead and have to come down, which will be a job. We had a big camphor that I transplanted after the Big Freeze of 1983, but it’s quite dead. We lost the maple that my son and I planted as a Mother’s Day gift, and the large Golden Rain Trees at the base of the yard are all leafless and starting to shed their bark. There are dead trees all over the Island, many of them were graceful oaks that arched over the streets on the east end of the city. Some, few, of the oaks are in leaf and may come back. But I’m afraid that most of them are goners. This will really denude the city, and deprive us of welcome shade in the really hot months. I think many people are in some kind of funk or mild depression. They expected to be “going home”, and that this would mark an end point, at which they could relax. Instead, it’s turning out to be another stage, with other hassles, annoyances and deprivations. It’s anything but “going home”, since the home we knew is gone, and we have to make a new one. I’ve find that it’s too discouraging to think about all of it, so I try to do one or two things a day, and more on the weekend, but I find myself wearing out faster than I would like to admit, taking more breaks that last longer. We have continued in relatively good health. Aches and pains of getting on in years are there aplenty, but so far no real illness, apart from a couple of colds last fall, and my wife’s rather serious injury to her leg. Our animals are getting used to their new circumstances. The cats have found various places in the yard where they can hide, and the dog is being walked around her neighborhood again. They all are sensitive to the presence of workers, but the plumbers who were working on the hot water system were dog people and won her over easily and completely. She loves to go to Home Depot or Loews, where we push her around in a shopping cart and she receives pets and appreciation from other shoppers. Not being allowed out of the apartment was hard for them, but we were afraid the cats would bolt and get lost. We took the dog out for “whiz walks”. It was my job to do it first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. I reckoned that taking the dog out required 440 trips up and down the stairs over the time of our residence there. Now, they all like sitting on the deck, in the sun or stretched out on a plastic chair. The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw two of the cats, and Roxie, sitting in a line, from smaller to larger, one closely behind the other, with their noses raised to the breeze, sensing who knows what. Various businesses are re-opening, and the beaches were crowded for the Memorial Day weekend, despite one evening of rather threatening skies and some rain. There were more storms further up on the mainland, but it did look pretty dark here too, so many visitors decided to leave early. We are hearing all kinds of stories about problems with contractors and suppliers, and we have our share of those also. Many builders are over extended on their commitments, and once the workmen are gone, it’s hard to get them back, even to finish something they should have done. This is one of the few parts of the State where work is abundant, and everybody knows that when this cleanup and rebuilding session is over, there won’t be much activity, so all are trying to profit from the situation as much as they can, but in many cases, there are disuputes and dissatisfactions about quality of work, supplies and payment. It’s all getting rather nasty, with fatigue and short tempers all around, and a strong feeling of having been hard done by. Things at UTMB have picked up considerably. More people are visible on the campus, which takes away that “ghost town” feeling so pervasive immediately after we re-opened. The School of Medicine will graduate the class of 2009 on schedule this weekend. More personnel will be re-hired as departments come back to speed. There are job openings in various areas, and recruiting for these is continuing. The Texas Legislature is in process of approving the UTMB assistance appropriation, but that hasn’t happened so far, and time left in the session is running out. Some suspect a plot to kill the bill by inaction when there is too little time to save it. We have been seeing various schemes to prevent major damage to the Galveston Bay area from another major hurricane. One copies a system already in place in Holland which seems to work very well, but the price tag of $3 billion seems unrealisiticly low to me, for what was proposed anyway. The Bay and the Houston-Galveston area, with the satellite communities and plants, are key facilities in the petroleum and chemical industries. Disruption to them could cost a great deal more than the cost of the dike system, and have national impacts. But, even if we could get away with $3 billion, this won’t be built, for different reasons, most of them bad. It’s hard to build a constituency based on a long view about anything. Resolving jurisdictional and property conflicts would take longer than the actual construction, and, sad to say, once this current crisis has passed, and memories have begun to fade, the feeling of urgency, created by fear, gives way to torpor and lassitude: “Maybe it won’t happen, and if it doesn’t, we’ve disturbed ourselves very greatly for nothing”. So, don’t expect earth to be turned soon. As I wind up this series, I want to thank the numerous readers who have shared their concern about our Island’s circumstances and fate, and who have sent expressions of good will and good cheer. Many lives have been altered in significant ways, some good, but most not. Some families have been separated, some friends have moved away, some of the stressed and the weakened have died. Our comfortable assurances about today and tomorrow were all turned upside down. Loyalties have been tested and not a few people have a strong sense of betrayal at the actions of other persons, groups or agencies. The role of luck, of the merest chance, and the unimportance of personal merit in deciding outcomes have been driven home in a way we won’t soon forget. Over these last eight months we have had plenty of time to ponder the words of the Scripture that, “we have here no lasting City”. Brother, ain’t it da troot.
The company was never really out of the search game; their product is Live Search, but its share of the total traffic is pretty low. Still, the arena is potentially so lucurative due to ad sales, and the technical challenges so interesting that it was really not to be expected that Microsoft would drop out of the contest entirely. There is story in Wired about the latest effort by the Seattle firm to launch a product that will help it subtract some of the total search traffic from Google, and help Microsoft’s coffers and self-esteem while doing it. MS has been working in-house on a system dubbed Kumo, and it plans to boot a working version out the front flap of the tent quite soon, perhaps this week. The for-real product will debut under the name Bing, and the denizens at Redmond have tried to do their homework on this one, by analyzing search traffic on Live Search and then trying to tie the results of their research to features in Bling that people will like to use. I don’t think any librarian would be surprised about the results of the analysis, which show that lots of searches fail, that the back-click button is the most frequently used feature, stuff like that. MS is not tipping its hand in any detail about how they plan to implement these findings in Bing , but they are planning a lot of promo efforts to bring the product out in style. Humans are funny animals, in both senses, and achieving behavioral changes is not easy, so Microsoft has a tough selling job in going up against the enormous inertia of Google’s size and the sheer force of habit which makes so many of us use the tool that’s ready to hand instead of extending ourselves a bit to go get the right one. Still, there may be something in the air driving these development efforts at producing new search engines. Librarians have been telling people for ages that subject searching is hard, not easy, and it’s interesting to see that others are catching on also, especially some who thought we were mystifiying the matter needlessly. We shall see.
Note: It’s official. The thing is out and Bing is the name. There was a piece in the NYTimes about it, very short on operational details and very long on how the marketing consultants came up with the name. Apparently, they worried a lot about getting a handle that could be “verbed-up”…you know, I Googled his name, like that. MS wants people to say “well, when I Binged that, there were only a few links”. Balmer and Co. are going to spend big bucks on a promo-marketing campaign for Bing. I hope they leave some money over for the product’s development.
Actually, it isn’t. I wish it were, but I’m really afraid it’s something else entirely: just the normal fumblings, stupidities, blindnessâ€™s and vices that have marked us since we emerged from the Primordial Ooze. I have never been unhappy with conspiracy theories. In fact, I would really, really like to believe that the Trilateral Commission, the Elders of Zion, the Communists, the Jesuits, the Masons, Wall St, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar or some shaky alliance of these, is in charge of directing things toward a Final Goal. “Oh, that’s all right, then. It’s all a part of achieving the Final Goal!” It can’t be an American conspiracy; we’re too lazy and too sloppy and talk too much. But, I’ll settle for a good, well-ordered, smoothly-running conspiracy. At least it would mean that Somebody is in charge, instead of a bunch of dummies running around trying this, messing it up, trying that, messing that up, and so on. The new movie Angles and Demons dusts off the Illuminati, who actually did exist, having been founded at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, in 1776, by one Adam Weishaupt. The group had an anticlerical, and in particular an anti-Jesuit, inspiration. Weishaupt himself was almost irrational on that subject. It sought to cultivate and propagate the principles of the Enlightenment and discredit traditional authorities. Bavarian authorities at first ignored it, then suspected it of revolutionary activities because of the insistence on rather silly practices of secrecy, and finally outlawed it. The group was never very large and after the ban effectively collapsed, but, “that’s just what they want you to think”, right? In the legend, the Illuminati live on, in super, super secrecy, and amass power, wealth, disciples, and have come to influence or even direct world events. Of course, the same has been said about the Masons, the Jesuits, the Templars, and so on, so who is at the controls? It can’t be all of them. Or do they take turns? There is a new book: Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern HistoryBy David Aaronovitch (Jonathan Cape 368pp), which details the origin, rise, and influence of shadowy groups said to be in charge of what’s going on. Here’s a review
The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arhtur Conan Doyle, would be celebrating his 150th birthday the year. His creation, however, lives on, and in fact seems to take on new vigor, in the sense that modern writers take the Holmes character and turn it in some new direction, or apply some sort of twist, setting the World’s Only Consulting Detective off on a series of adventures, some of which fit nicely with the persona we know from the original stories, and some which don’t at all. Sir Arthur had a testy relationship with his creation. The Holmes stories made him wealthy, but he had literary ambitions beyond this and he felt that the pressure to keep producing Holmes/Watson adventures was keeping him from writing his Great Works. So, in The Final Problem he tried to kill off the pesky detective and golden goose. But the public wouldn’t have it, and Doyle had to backdown and present the apparent death of Holmes at Reichenbach Falls as a ruse. Sherlock was back in the detective game and Doyle was raking in the moola. Doyle was trained as a physician in the Edinburgh school, and his creation is presented as a man of utter rationality and logic. So, people have wondered how Doyle could, in later life, go so off the rails on the topic of Spiritualism, which he championed vigorously, in season and out, against all comers. Well, who knows why anybody does anything, really but some facts might be suggestive. In World War I, Doyle lost a number of family members, including his son who died in 1918 of pneumonia after having been seriously wounded at the great battle of the Somme in 1916. His brother, some brothers-in-law and nephews were either military casualties, or died of illness. All this made Doyle very depressed and maybe just a little unhinged. But, he had plenty of company. The shocking, horrible casualties of the War were a blow to British society’s sense of its place in the world, and the deaths seemed to pile up endlessly and senselessly. A grab at Spiritualism in an effort to reconnect with those so cruelly taken away is really not to be wondered at, and there were Mediums and Adepts lined up around the block to offer the chance. Doyle was a booster of Britains imperial policies and claims, but when the war turned out to be a long, bloody slog rather than a quick triumph, some of his enthusiasm may have changed into, well, maybe guilt. I’m guessing, probably irresponsibly. A new life of the author has appeared and you can read about it here:
I read some of the Holmes stories to my son when he was small, and we all watched the PBS series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in which Jeremy Brett’s interpretation was compelling, so I have a soft spot for the detective, and the author.
“A new kind of search engine”, is the motto of Alpha, the searching gadget launched by entrepreneur Stephen Wolfam. Reviews will be coming in, and I already saw something on the TV news last night at the Gym, but the sound was either off or way down, and I was leaving. I picked up one rather vitriolic review this morning, from a site in the UK. The writer is rather harsh on the product and seems to harbor some sort of animus toward Mr. Wolfram personally. An item in MacWorld is more even-tempered:
Alpha’s strengths lie in factual data, or maybe better, physical data. It doesn’t do very well with some queries, and fails utterly on others. Questions on math, physics, engineering, at least some engineering, are handled much more effectively. If the question can be run through an algorithm in Mathematica , which is the operating kernel of the product, the chances of an answer are good. The creators are at pains to put aside the idea that the new product is out to upset Google. They are appealing to a different market, and in time, those who need Alpha will sort themselves out from those who don’t. And gaps will have to be filled in as user experience discovers them. That’s the idea anyway. How all this is to be paid for is not yet clear. Selling ads? Pay by answer?
The Chronicle of Higher Education in the May 15 issue published a brief summary of the current stir over Kindle DX as a textbook vehicle. The verdict is, as Sam Goldwyn said, a “definite maybe”. Some students polled were not inclined to pick up another device to lug around. The K readers only do b&W, and publishers have paid extra for the creation of full color graphics, so we have a performance degradation problem. There already is a well-stocked source for downloading e-textbooks to laptops, called CourseSmart. It’s not well known and sales have been dinky by comparison with the regular markets. Some small-scale experiments with the SONY Book Reader were not encouraging either. Finally, DX is tagged at almost $500, and to boot, isn’t even available. You have to pre-order, and you’ll get yours when production starts. So, where’s the smart money? Will this be another flop?, or have things come to the point at which a real behavioral switch is possible, in fact, likely? My hunch is that we will see, and are seeing, a reprise of the VHS vs. Betamax face off of twenty years ago. SONY fielded a better machine, technically speaking. But Matsutisha locked up lots of content, so a great deal more was available on the VHS format than on the competing platform, and that was that. SONY struggled for a while, but finally VHS became the standard one-half inch videotape format. The gadget itself is secondary. What counts is available inventory, first, and price second. If there is to be an e-textbook reader, it will be the DX. But, users are ornery and fickle, and if they say no sale, that’s it. DX may find a second home as a platform for papers and magazines, but the price will have to come down a lot. The same issue also featured a story on the Google Book Deal as seen from academia. It’s a pretty fair summary of what we’ve seen thus far, but pitched at the professoriate, who may be getting their first inkling of what has been happening from their reading of the Chronicle. Monopoly, academic freedom and privacy are concerns. The interventions of some library associations were noted and discussed.
I think people would be very surprised to know how many â€™search enginesâ€™ are actually up and running. A lot of them are specialty sites, or new arrivals, trying to break in on the basis of some special feature. Of course, Google still takes the greater part of the search traffic, well over half of it, Yahoo! is a pale no. 2 and the other systems have to be content with divvying up the rest, rather meager pickings, and much reduced ad revenue. Still, developers keep on trying to find that judo hold that will make the giant tumble. Or, come up with something that fills some as yet unoccupied niche, where it can prosper. Itâ€™s worth a look at some of these newcomers, from time to time, just to see what they are pitching. In fact, we should do this more often, and have been a bit remiss. So, letâ€™s look at a couple or three.
Hakia is a product that claims to offer â€œsemantic searchâ€, that is, meaning-based searching. The promo screens knock the â€œpopularity contestâ€ aspect of sorting and ranking search results, as done by Google. Hakia want to offer â€œauthoritativeâ€ results, not merely those that other people have visited a lot. Popular sites are not necessarily authoritative one and authoritative one not necessarily popular. True enough. The Hakia site is clean, results retrieved were interesting and on point, and sites recommended by librarians are especially valued. And who can argue with that? So, yes, Iâ€™ll put Hakia on my list of â€œVerrry interestingâ€ things, and wish them well. Semantic searching, by the way, is easier to talk about than it is to do, in any realistic sense. Bluntly, it requires a mind, and a well furnished one. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m alone in doubting that matters have gotten to this point.
Twine wants to help users gather and assemble material such as text, photos, video, and whatever else may turn up, and tie them together with a â€œtwineâ€, that is, a stated interest which is shared with other members (Twiners?). It seems to be another kind of social networking site. I think I caught them on a bad day, because the site seemed to have many duplications of the same personâ€™s profile, and the thumbnails displayed in a way that covered up the text I was trying to read. So, Iâ€™ll mark this one for a re-visit.
One gadget that is getting a lot of geek buzz is something called Wolfram Alpha, or Alpha for short. We have to back up here a bit. Stephen Wolfram is a very smart guy who made a lot of money designing and selling a computer program called Mathematica, which does pretty much what you would think it should do based on the name alone. He also wrote a very large book, in which he claims to have discovered a new basis for conducting science, and now is launching Alpha. Alpha is not search engine per se, even though we are lumping it into this post. It doesnâ€™t, well, search for anything. You ask it a question, or present a problem, better said, and it does the calculations needed to give you an answer. Yes, itâ€™s heavily math-biased. And so, itâ€™s not likely to do very well on: what were Benjamin Franklinâ€™s major contributions to the discussions on the Articles of Confederation? But asking it to calculate MOMP (mid-ocean meeting point) of two ships, leaving specified harbors on given courses and traveling at identical speeds, neglecting wave action, and it will probably do very well. Thatâ€™s actually a trivial example, but the best I could come up with. Presumable, the tool would store the answer in case another questioner came up with the same question, so it wouldnâ€™t have to redo the problem. The site has a rather spare face, like the original Google page. And the legend identifies Alpha as aâ€ computational knowledge engineâ€.
This is a link to a preview published by The Economist
Kosmix is the last newcomer on the list. This site is interesting especially as an example of the return of browsing functions to search enginery. The first generation of web search devices all featured a category structure to which users could refer as a guide to general topic areas in an effort to find useful materials. Yahoo! original flavor had a very strong category array, and the company was very precise in and proud of its â€œhand-builtâ€ topic structure. As any librarian can tell you, categorizing can be rather problematical at times, and we have lots of experience in this area, so we are cool to the suggestion that organizing information resources is easy. â€œItâ€™s simpleâ€¦just put â€˜em into categoriesâ€ begs questions such as: whose categories, how big, how specific, what shall we call them?â€ Search by direct inquiry, that is, by typing words or phrases, seemed to edge out browsing architectures for operational and economic reasons (my guess). Kosmix is a revival of the browsing approach, with a wrinkle. The machine is supposed to organize useful materials of all kinds: photos, text, video etc in whatâ€™s described as a â€œmagazine formatâ€. It seems that the great increase in the mass and variety of materials on the web make it worthwhile to try a browsing architecture once again. Take it for a ride.
The Economist, in a longish obit, notes the departure from this mortal coil of Herr Professor Doktor Hans Holzer, ghost hunter, medium and explorer and explainer of things beyond The Veil. HH had an interesting life, as well as a long one. Born in Vienna, and greatly influenced by an eccentric uncle, Holzer left the confines of Mitteleuropa in 1938 for the sunnier, more expansive and gullible regions of the Great Republic when his family skipped out of Vienna one skip ahead of the entering Wehrmacht. He wrote many, many books seeking to straighten out the public at large, by telling them the truth about ghosts. He maintained that ghosts in very many cases were people who, at death, simply forgot, or didnâ€™t bother, to push on. When he detailed what was waiting for them on the Other Side, itâ€™s easy to see why they would prefer to stay here, even in diminished condition. It seems that existence â€œover thereâ€ is really rather an uninviting prospect. There is a very large, and quite inefficient, bureaucracy in charge of â€œGhostdomâ€. Spirits have to list, in detail, their reasons for contacting a medium, forms get lost, and the office is under-manned, if thatâ€™s the right word. It all sounds rather like a post office or police station in the old Imperial Beamtentum of the Hapsburg Monarchy, with long lines, testy clerks, arbitrary and exasperating rules. All thatâ€™s needed is a picture of Franz Josef scowling through his mutton chop whiskers. Or think about some office of the Department of Motor Vehicles in any state you chose to name, a conceit carried out in the television show Reaper, I understand. If thatâ€™s the best thing on offer, who wouldnâ€™t stay here? In fact, it’s a wonder anybody Goes Over at all. At least here, youâ€™d get to smell coffee and peer over some humanâ€™s shoulder to see the ball scores and how the market was doing. On the other hand, in the beyond thereâ€™s no email, Twitter, guys on ESPN yelling at the top of their lungs about about football or golf, of all things, nobody promising that he Really Will Save Me Money!, so maybeâ€¦ But, I digress. Holzer was very serious about his work, and claimed to be working on the basis of evidence, not belief. His academic credentials were not all that bad: classics, archaeology and numismatics in the Old Country ( U of Vienna), Japanese and comparative religion at Columbia. He also messed around a little in showbiz, from which he departed and to which he returned, in various forms, throughout his career. He detested Hollywood, but found American publishing and TV much more congenial. Oh, he married a direct descendant of Catherine the Great, but it didn’t last. His was not an ordinary life, by any means.