I will be offline for several days, starting this afternoon, as we attend to some important family business which requires travel. Interesting things will happen while I’m away, such as the kick-off of the Ipad and the consequent revolution in human affairs. Other things will be coming along, no doubt. So, I wish all our readers well and ask them not to forget us in this brief absence.
John Wiley is an established American publisher of scientific and technical materials. Baker and Taylor is an established library service company, which happens to have a nifty program for printing hard copies of digital materials in any number, including one. The system is called TextStream and the two firms have joined forces to use TextStream in creating what everyone hopes will be a major advance on the way things were done before. B&T has also signed deals with some major university presses: North Carolina, Penn State and Fordham. Printing on Demand (POD) is just what the name suggests. You print only those books and as many copies of those books as you sell. Observers are hoping the POD option will jolt the moribund university presses back into something like life, because many of the materials and physical problems surrounding hot metal printing, and other industrial processes, are dispensed with. Reduced costs could let editors take a chance on books that would have been too specialized and so too risky to publish. Once the original is set up in digital format, storage costs are low, and any sale is a good sale. Editorial and front-end, set up costs remain, and are not low. But, still. Smaller presses, including the Us, were chary about investing in digital equipment because the costs are very high. But sending the work outside the shop, to some outfit like B&T, makes sense. If this all goes right, there will not be any more “out of print” books. Anything stored digitally can be reduced to hard copy, in as few or as many exemplars as needed. “Many a slip twixt the cup and the lip”, yeah, I know. But, it could be very good.
Technology Review has a good article on the rise of a new browsing standard, HTML5. The focus is on the assumed conflict between this version and the Flash program created and released by Adobe. Flash adds graphics and media capabilities to browsers, but HTML5 makes these inherent in the program, and so obviates the need to add something else. Flash is also not in favor with Apple, which excludes it from the Ipad Wunderwaffe about to break upon the civilized world and Change Everything, because it’s so Insanely Great, starting next week when it goes on sale. Honest. Trust me. So, can we expect a big shoot out between HTML5 and Flash? I can’t tell you, but it seems to me that having capabilities built into a program is better than needing to import or add something else to get done what you want to do. But Flash has a big, big installed base, lots of people are thoroughly familiar with using it, and Adobe keeps adding new versions to meet needs. So, logic to one side, Flash may be around for a long time, by web standards anyway.
Three new books explore clinical trials, with special emphasis on the problems surrounding trials conducted outside the country, which, in practice, often means in Third World nations. One book is an account by a person trying his durndest to get into a trial in this country, and how this is not as easy as one might think. Even though there are many trials listed in the government database, there is a great deal more to it than just showing up and saying: “I’m in.” Outside the Atlantic countries, the situation is both better and worse. Ethical questions arise very quickly. Can one really elicit anything like “informed consent” from people who may have very little idea of what’s involved and who may not be familiar with, or accepting of, principles considered foundational to good trials: a control group, presumably untreated, and blinding. Assuming all difficulties imposed by language difference have been solved somehow, confidence that subjects understand what will happen to them is hard to achieve. The American Scientist has been praised in these lines before as a source of detailed, careful and thoughtful reviews of scientific books, and the reputation is fortified by what you will read here
When you’ve finished this review, go up to the banner and click on the block ON THE BOOKSHELF to see some other goodies.
Harvard University Provost Steven Hyman commissioned a study group composed of faculty and other stakeholders to examine the way HU libraries go about their business. Recently, the group’s report was released and, it seems that if its conclusions are followed, the place will have to change, and I don’t mean maybe. When I first heard about this report, I was skeptical. I hear about something being “brought into the 21st century”, and I grab my hat and leave. Some of the other points in the summary also got my back up a little, for no very good reason really, when I think about it. I’m just crabby after a cold. But, I took the extra step and went the HUL web site and retrieved the report. But, I was wrong, and there’s no other way to put it. It seems that the Task Force went at the matter very thoroughly and the recommendations it issued seem prudent and sound, if at times a bit light on details, but that wasn’t the job. An implementation group will worry about the next part. HUL has 73 separate libraries, rather loosely coordinated, with a lot of differences in how each one is run and even in the kind of management systems and collection control technologies it buys. All this grew up over the years, by little and little. Harvard has trouble realizing its buying clout because individual libraries are considered separate units by publishers and vendors, so it doesn’t get the deals it might. Technologies should be standardized throughout the institution to the degree that is possible. Emphasis should be placed on a â€œuniversity wideâ€ collection policy, with less emphasis on acquisition and more on providing access. Here I will raise my hand. A major strength of HUL is the richness and variety of the collections, and de-emphasizing collection building to reinforce something else is not wise, in my opinion. But, theyâ€™re a long way from anywhere right now, and the implementation board will have to grapple with the specifics. I give them an A+
It doesn’t have one, if Noah Shachtman has his way. The commentator on matters military and high-techy is concerned that Google went to the Sooper Sooper Secret Agency to get help in unpicking the trail of log traffic that revealed how badly its operations had been hacked by Person or Persons Unknown, but residing in China. His point is that the Agency has two divisions. One is surveillance, cypher making and breaking, while the other is ensuring that our systems are secure. The surveillance side is, in the author’s mind, a little too free with privacy and very anxious to have access to everybody’s stuff all the time. According to Schachtman, the NSA faces an in-house tension between these two conflicting roles and the only way to makie it all go away would be to split the functions into two separate and autonomous divisions. I don’t know, myself. He may have a point. But it would be a hard struggle to get this done,even if it is a good idea. When was the last time you heard of a powerful, no, an immensely powerful, government agency dividing itself up? Me neither. But, anyway, read for yourself:
Your correspondent is back from the tomb, or at least that’s what it feels like. I caught a humdinger of a cold and am just starting to believe I’m human again. While home for two days, I blearily looked through the New York Times and noted that Apple has signed deals with two more publishers. One is Perseus, which is also a distributor for smaller shops such as Harvard Business Review Press and the Zagat guides. The other is Workman, which sells the “What to Expect When…” series and a variety of of other titles. So it goes. Everybody realizes that even the niftiest gadget needs a large, and growing, inventory of titles. Cool technology on its own is not going to win the game. Since people are very picky about what they will and won’t buy and read, the range of available choices has to be pretty large.
Supersizing portions may not be something that has come along recently in our fast food and junk food economy. Two scholars, brothers,one a scripture scholar and one a nutritional scientist, have taken an unusual approach to documenting the growth of portions over the last millenium or so, using as their guide depictions of The Last Supper. We all know Leonardo’s version. It’s a cliche by this time. But many other artists have had a shot at painting the same story, and the investigators have concluded that there has been a steady growth in both plate size and portion size over the centuries, largely, they conclude, because food has steadily become more available and cheaper. This is certainly one of the few unambiguously positive results of “modernity”, since the previous situation was one of general scarcity. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to eat ourselves sick, which many of us seem to be doing, not only here but abroad as well.
Scanning a book just by flipping the pages in front of a camera sounds rather far- fetched. But, the same WIRED blog referred to below also has a story, and a link to an IEEE pub, describing a new machine that is said to do pretty much that. According to the story, the new hardware can work at speeds up to 5oo images per second, which is really smoking when you consider how things are done now. The prospect of so much speed could turn digitization projects that now seem Herculean in their size and complexity into completely do-able activities. It will be a while before we see the machine in action, and I don’t know about the prospects for a “domestic” versus an “industrial” version, since that’s not really discussed. But, the prospects are intriguing.
I know, I know! I said I would lay off the e-readers thing for a while and talk about other stuff, but, it’s getting to the point where you can’t turn around without running into somebody telling you about them. And, I think it might be a real service to our readers who, I’m sure, are thinking about getting one of these gadgets, or at least, getting an app for their Iphone or whatever gizmo they use to annoy people in public.
So, I’ll post the link to this review which appears on the page of WIRED magazine and then, I promise, I’ll try to find a good book to yak about or something.