A court in Milan recently convicted three Google execs of violating Italy’s privacy laws, which are quite strict. Some jail time could result, but the verdict has been appealed and it seems that many judgments are reversed by the appeals court, so it’s not over. The European Union has also sent Google a warning about privacy concerns resulting from the use of its Street View feature in Google Maps. Street View gives the Maps user exactly what the name implies: a view of the street, with the houses, businesses, factories etc. on both sides of the street. You can “drive” along a street that has been tagged with SV data and get some idea of what it all would look like from the seat of a car moving along down the roadway. Street View is created by Google teams that drive the various roads, boulevards, avenues and other thoroughfares of the world, taking pictures with a decent quality camera. The images are mapped to the satellite and map data, so that at a certain level, the user can activate Street View and take a peek at the area. Google has a â€œblurâ€ function for the shots, so theyâ€™re not of good enough quality to see much detail. I’ve looked at our house here on SV and at some other places in my past life, and they seem recognizable, but they look a little vague, somehow. A letter to Google from the EU’s privacy commission asked that the G provide plenty of warning about when its camera crews would be shooting in an area, and should reduce the time the images are kept from one year to six months.
A measure nick-named “loppsi-2″ has been approved by France’s National Assembly, the lower house. The act, now under consideration by the Senate, would give the government a rather broad array of powers to monitor and censor internet activities. Loppsi is probably derived from the first letters of a much graver-sounding formal title, but beyond the funny name is some serious business. The link below goes to the English language page of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, and the article traces the legislative effort back to the rather poor standing President Sarkozy’s government in the eyes of many French voters. Elections are coming up, and the thought is that a “tough on crime” policy, particularly creepy crimes such as child pornography will help the government at the polls. Loppsi-2 has a number of measures that are supposedly aimed at suppression of human trafficking and pornography. Magistrates could allow, for instance, the installation of malware on a suspect’s computer. Things of that sort. There is a lot of opposition from civil rights advocates, but it seems a good bet that the bill will clear the Senate
The Economist has a survey of the problems that are arising from the enormous flow of data which is being released by scientific research, commercial activity and government agencies, reacting to the demands of the various enabling laws that set them up in the first place. This is nothing new to the readers of these lines, since I have blogged about it more than once. My comments have mostly been aimed at the research segment of the life sciences, but mention was made of other data intensive activities, such as astronomical observations, ocean surveys, chemical reaction simulations and like that. It all can easily get to the point at which so much data is equivalent to no data at all, since the observations are useless if they cannot be retrieved and re-used. Universities have been daunted by the financial demands of all that storage, and have been giving facing-both-ways answers to their faculties about what to do with it all and how to do it. But, they’re not the only ones in a bind on this score. Big companies are faced with the same problem, and perhaps it’s worse for them, since deciding what portion of their business data can be kept offline, and what part has to be active all the time could be a very dicey decision.
The Resource Shelf is a valuable digest of developments in the info-tech field with special reference to questions pestering library types. Gary Price quarterbacks it, and I’ve found plenty of interesting items in the weekly issues. The llink to the story in The Economist is via Resource Shelf. Take a peek at it some time.
We had a meeting yesterday with some industry reps, and some interesting things came up as tangents to the discussion. One of the reps has a long history with a big academic publisher, and knows the terrain very well. We questioned him about the way University Presses are getting along, or not getting along. And his answer was that he thinks they are doing worse. Since they weren’t doing so well before, “worse” is not good. The UPs are in a very tough spot. The materials they publish are, by definition, not likely to appeal to a mass market. Apart from the specialist or scholar, not too many people are interested in the history of musical notation, or the social organization of religious orders of women in New Spain. But as the prices of journals rose and rose, libraries diverted much of the resources budgets to maintaining the journal collection. So the purchase of scholarly monographs went down. This caused problems at the UPs, since they started losing money on some titles, just at the time that their parent institutions insisted they break even, or better, make money. So, the presses began to screen manuscripts more carefully, hoping to weed out fiscal non-starters, and to include works of more general interest in their lists. Since a UP, even a biggish one, can only publish so many titles a year, the real losers here turned out to be younger scholars who can’t get their first book published. And so it goes. Some presses found a good balance, but the latest downturn is really hurting thus which had achieved a kind of equilibrium. Advances in printing technology might help some presses, but many are marginal operations that they have no cash for investment in the expensive equipment and training moving to take advantage of digital processing would require. The parent institutions are also in trouble, so there’s no help to be looked for there. The water is right at the edge of the gunwale, and if nothing happens, they’ll be OK, but one more ounce of weight and the boat goes under. There’s a lot of head scratching and finger-drumming going on, but it’s not clear what will happen, apart from some vague talk about forming consortia. One very possible effect is a de facto cull of young scholars, who can’t get published and the accompanying elimination of departments and programs that produce them.
The Guardian published some rules gathered from famous writers about what to do and how to do it, if you decide you want to be one, writer that is. Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaman and others list their best advice, although some of it seems pretty tongue in cheek or even a bit testy (“have something to write with”), as if the famous writer was piqued at the question. But, maybe not. I like some of Margaret Atwood’s remarks, to the effect that this is tough work, and nobody forced you to do it; get on with it, and stop whining. You can always tar roofs or catch salmon or whatever on those big boats in the Bering Sea, with all the storms and accidents.
Google has been putting out fires set by the launch of its social networking software BUZZ. A lot of people were very upset when they began to use BUZZ, because the system was revealing a lot more about them to a lot more people than they were aware of. Stung, Google is now back-stroking to get the privacy tools more in evidence, so users can have more say in who sees what.
Macmillan Company is one of the biggest textbook publishers in the US. Recently the company unveiled a new product line called DynamicBooks which is digital in character, but adds an interestig freature. Instructors using one of the offerings on DynamicBooks as a class text will be able to modify or even re-write the text to suit the needs of particular courses or students. So, if a faculty member doesn’t care for the explanation of how the moon causes tides to rise and fall on the earth, then the prof can enter the authoring system of the publisher and suppy an alternative wording, add a drawing, change an equation, etc. The price to students will be a great deal less than would be the price of the printed version. Most of the action on ebooks this year has been on the technology side, and by that I mean the development of readers of different kinds. But this is something different. It may flop. Who knows? Maybe everybody likes things just as they are. But I think we can all remember instances of error, oversights, misinterpretations or places where the authors simply missed saying something important, and we would have corrected the text on the spot, had that been possible. Now, maybe it will be.
Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Chopin, the Polish composer. At that time what we call Poland today was divided among Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia. Chopin was much in demand as a pianist, an instrument that itself was undergoing changes as it developed from the earlier piano-forte. Most of his creative life was spent abroad, largely in Paris. He didn’t live very long, but he accomplished a great deal in the little time he had. The bulk of his work was devoted to compositions for solo piano, but he also wrote in larger forms, including two concertos for piano and orchestra. Celebrations of his bicentennial are planned all over the world, and will showcase both concertos and almost all of his works for piano alone, many of which are the despair of pianists because of their technical difficulty, and need for subtle techniques to sound right. Chopin died from tuberculosis, which was the Great Killer, of the 19th century, and well into the 20th:”the Chief Captain of These Men of Death”. There was no cure until the antibiotic era, but all kinds of treatments were tried, including long periods of rest in sanatoria, usually at higher elevations or warmer climates. I had an uncle who had to do this, and it was no joke for working class people during the Depression. TB even took on a bizarre kind of Romantic aura, as the curse of the greatly gifted artist, cut down in early life by cruel fate. Chopin had a long affair with the novelist Georges Sand, a psuedonym of Aurore Dupin, Baroness Dudevant, who published her novels under a man’s name. Chopn, Sand and her chldren moved around a lot, summering at her estate north of Paris, and looking for a climate that would ease his condition. But he was finally overwhelmed, and died in Paris, surrounded by some friends and family. Oddly, a lot of people claimed to have been at Chopin’s deathbed, many of whom were not even in the city, or even in France, at the time. It was sort of like JFK’s PT-109. If all the people who claimed to have been ‘with’ him on the torpedo boat had actually been there, it would taken a good-sized warship to hold them all.
The course of true love ne’er did run smooth, and neither has Google’s effort to get its book deal approved and out of the court room. At a fairness hearing in New York yesterday, presiding judge Denny Chin listened to arguments from Google and from a number of other interested parties, including the US Dept. of Justice Anti-trust Division. DOJ still doesn’t like some provisions of the Deal, even after Google and the plaintiffs reworked it to meet DOJ objections. Judge Chin said he would hear more from both sides, but he has a rep as the kind of guy who doesn’t like to be hurried, not even by Google. So, he may not rule for a while yet, even for a couple of weeks. Justice still may not be satisfied and may still make trouble. Those guys are really watching every time Google goes to the bathroom. This is a very, very big deal, literally and figuratively, with implications that won’t be worked out fully for a long while yet. So, the Judge wants to be careful.
In other news, as they say, Google also had to deal with some blistering reactions to its Buzz social networking platform. Perhaps taking the notion of user friendliness a bridge too far, Google offered Buzz clients a pre-mixed circle of friends. So when even casual browsers looked at Buzz to perhaps merely check it out, they found a whole list of potential contacts, which Google had culled from, well, from the transaction records of the folks involved. There it all was. They say that technology types have a tin ear when it comes to personalities, and human reactions. They think that if a technology is cool, or if the results were arrived at by some slick approach, everybody will fall down on one knee and say, yea, verily ’tis the coolest. So, there were some puzzled looks when the brickbats started to fly. “Didn’t they see how great this is?”…no, they didn’t. They were just ticked off about the snooping and the hand-forcing, so to speak. The bosses say that they are all feeling much better now, after a therapy session and a good cry, with hugs. They are also fixing Buzz to meet the users’ objections.
Gadget Lab is one of the blogs run by Wired magazine. Today there is a story about five improvements to the current state of e-reader technology which, supposedly, are in the works or even coming soon. Included are: color, better contrast, screen flexibility important in saving weight), better interface design and improved touch response. Maybe, maybe not. The e-reader as a platform has some serious problems and improvement on even one or two of these fronts would be a step forward.
The editors of Nature offer an explanation on how they go about picking research papers for publication. They list some stubborn misconceptions about the editing and refereeing process, such as the rumor that one negative review is enough to kill a paper’s chances. Insisting on their editorial independence, they state that the final call lies with them, and say they have published papers about which all the reviewers were unenthusiastic. And, they deny that they use the same old stable of reviewers, asserting instead that they ask for help from more than 5,000 scientists. The statement isn’t testy or bad tempered, but you do get the feeling that they are tired of hearing the same old things. So, they felt that it was time to speak up.
In the same issue is an Op/ed piece calling for an end to what the writer obviously thinks is the too chummy and easy-going relationship between scientists and science journalists. He wants more confrontation and gut-punching, some independent sleuthing to track a good story and write it up. As matters stand, science reporting is too much like Presidential news conferences, at which the captive reporters are fed morsels, which they may fuss over a little, but in essence take as given and then pass on. Scientists like the current scheme, since it gives them exposure. Media outlets like it because they get a steady stream of copy that makes their publications, otherwise devoted to celebrity caperings, look more serious, and funders like it since the public can see where the money goes. A more at swords-point relationship would be better, the writer thinks.
Dick Francis died recently, at the ripe age of 89. Francis won his spurs, quite literally, as a jockey in Britain. In fact, he rode for the Queen Mother, and was about to win a big race when the horse suddenly dropped dead. That, and the fact that his numerous injuries were starting to plague him, drove Francis to give up the saddle. He became a journalist, and then started a novel, a thriller, making use of his turf smarts and racing lore. Dead Cert was the first, followed by 39 others. He had a loyal, and large, base of enthusiastic readers, who never missed a DF story. Many of his novels center on the world of thorough bred racing, with the money, the risks, the glamour of big-ticket gamblers and the bloody hard work of the ignored trainers, vets, stablehands, and, of course, jockies. I doubt if the Francis corpus will last the Ages, but for the stressed and the harried, the books gave entree to another world, one they probably never would enter in ordinary life.
Ralph McInerney died over the weekend at the age of 80. He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval philosophy and theology at Notre Dame, but branched out beyond the Academy through a series of mystery stories, most of which center on the priest Roger Dowling, a man well acquainted with frailty since his own career in the Church as a canon lawyer and hot-ticket candidate for higer office was derailed by one too many encounters with the bottle. In rehab, Fr. Dowling serves as a parish priest, who keeps tripping over corpses, thefts, and other crimes in what one would think to be a low crime midwestern US city….low crime because it’s usually too damn cold for anybody to go outside to do anything, good or bad. The Father Dowling stories were grabbed for TV and a decent series evolved, starring Tom Bowsley and Tracy Nelson, the daughter of Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard, the Ozzie and Harriet of radio and early TV fame, for you Old Timers out there. As a thinker, Dowley was a traditionalist and didn’t like a lot of the Vatican II reforms. He said so, quite bluntly.
<a href="In rehab, Fr. Dowling serves as a parish priest, who keeps tripping over corpses, thefts, and other crimes in what one would think to be a low crime midwestern US city….low crime because it's usually too damn cold for anybody to go outside to do anything, good or bad. The Father Dowling stories were grabbed for TV and a decent series evolved, starring Tom Bowsley and Tracy Nelson, the daughter of Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard, the Ozzie and Harriet of radio and early TV fame, for you Old Timers out there. As a thinker, McInerney was a traditionalist and didn't like a lot of the Vatican II reforms, and he said so, quite bluntly.