Today is the feast of St. Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland, in the calendar of the Liturgical Year. Scots are famed for their courage in battle, their deep attachment to the homeland, and their love of poetry, music and song. Less well-known is the brainy side of the Scottish temper, but it has been very important in the development of what have come to call the Modern World. A small army of thinkers, writers and inventors called Caledonia home. Adam Smith was a Scot, as was David Hume. Robert Louis Stevenson departed the family tradition of civil engineering to become an author, but two generations of Stevensons before him had studded the coast of Scotland with lighthouses, often built at great risk on almost unreachable places, to improve the safety of mariners. Let’s see, who else we got? James Watt, James Boswell, and if you have ever called up to order a pizzza, you can thank a Scot named Alexander Graham Bell. The crew at WIREDnews have done the inventor part anyway, and the (long)list of memorable Scots and their innovations is there in a post on honor of the Saint of the Day.
A while ago, I had a post on the notion of “liquid journals”. That is the name given to a kind of dissemination model which, really, is not a journal at all, except in a rather restricted sense. The idea is that researchers would gather from various sites whatever papers, comments, models, datasets or whatever other kind of animal is crawling around in the scientific underbrush and arrange these captured items into some new and personally conducive and agreeable format. This would be a journal in the the sense that people talk about keeping a journal of their own experiences, observations, drawings, sketches, items pasted in and other whatnots. Years ago, people kept what were then called “commonplace books”. These were notebook like volumes into which people copied sayings that they had come upon or texts from their readings that they wanted to have close at hand for future reference or to think about some more when they had time. I think the “liquid journal” would be something along those lines. Everything old is new again, or some other wise saying, should come to mind, but it does seem that a lot of what we are calling progress is simply the rediscovery of an older idea, which is then given some vague but modish sounding name, like “cloud computing”. The article I was given recently appears in the IEEE mag Internet/Computing. The Nov/Dec issue is devoted to the matter of information overload and the Liquid journal items is only one of the articles there.
This years is the 125th anniversary of the appearance of Huckleberry Finn. It is also the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, and is, finally, the centennary of his death. A number of claims have been made for Huck, many of which seem extravagant to me. But, it is no doubt a seminal or even a foundational work in American literature. Twain wrote in the speech of ordinary people, making it acceptable to do so. American writers had dithered about this for a while, in an attitude that the art critic Robert Hughes would later describe as the “colonial cringe”… a sort of half-apologetic, half-confessional statement that,whatever the product was, it couldn’t really be any good, especially when measured against the standards of the Mother Country’s Oh-so-much-loftier productions. Twain thought all that was bunk, although some times I think his rejection was taken too deep roots here, so that now many accept that Real America is gross, backward, ignorant and studid. Huck went through any number of massages at the hands of Hollywood and even, for some reason, wound up being classed a book for kids. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read it, but may year 125 is a good time to do it.
These lines will not appear for several days, as the crew around here will, in the current idiom, “split” to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. I want to wish all our readers a very happy Thanksgiving Day. I urge everyone to uncouple: shut off the messaging gear, turn off the laptop, go to bed a little earlier and sleep a little later, find a quiet spot in which you can sit and watch the trees swaying in the wind, for a while anyway. Oh, and try to read something and get in a good walk. All the best.
It’s threshing old straw in a way, but the story of the discovery DNA’s structure has been made into a rather successful stage play, running now in an off-Broadway theater. The Title is Photograph 51. All the usual you know whats are on hand: Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. James Watson wrote up his version of the the discovery of the DNA molecule in The Double Helix which a number of professional colleagues didn’t like at all. They felt it had shown the human side of science and scientists much too graphically for their tast. All that talk about rivalry and priority and such grubby sentiments. Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer working on elucidating the DNA molecule at Kings College. Many readers felt that Watson’s portrayal of her was brutally unfair, turning her into some kind of frumpy harridan, unreasonably reluctant to share her work with, well, young Yank biochemists. It’s all a bit tangled now and there has been a lot of what Tennesse folk call “who shot John” back and forth. But Watson and Crick got a look at the famous photograph of the molecule in section and they had it. The play manages to preserve a lot of the dramatic tension and personal interplay, and it doesn’t soften Franklin who was a tough cookie and knew how to take care of herself. Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin contracted ovarian cancer and died of it at age 37. She didn’t share in the Nobel award which went to Watson, Crick and Wilkins in 1962, since she was already dead and the Foundation’s rules don’t allow postmortem nominations. Her contributions are now more generally valued than they were at first, and her work in other areas would have marked her as a major investigator without any reference to the DNA molecule. It’s all sad, because more might have been accomplished, and sooner, if personalities hadn’t intruded.
This link goes to a story in Scientific American about reactions to the play
The Economist , the weekly news and business mag that insists on calling itself a newspaper, has a number of blogs. I’ve already referred to the Babbage blog, on technology matters, which commemorates Charles Babbage, the Victorian genius who almost but not quite got something very like a computer going in the mid 19th century. I want to add another one today, and bring our readers’ attention to Johnson, the blog on language. Dr. Samuel Johnson is the namesake, he of the English Dictionary, The Lives of the English Poets, a very great number of essays, poems and occasional pieces, and the author, real or attributed, of an even greater number of wise sayings, proverbs, slams and put-downs. Of course, they were all elegantly but clearly phrased. The language blog is a mix. There are stories from the news about language matters, linguistic science, translation and similar topics. But every now and again the blogger discusses some point of usage or style and refers to The Economist’s style manual for guidance. The entries from the Book of Isms are another favorite of mine. You’d be surprised. Do yourself a favor and take a walk over there every once in awhile.
ENIAC, at Penn, in Philadelphia, right? No, well, maybe. It depends. The plaque at the ENIAC dispaly there is pretty cagily worded: “the first large-scale general purpose computer”. So, was there a smaller predecessor of some kind? Can’t be. We surely would know about by this time. A milestone like that couldn’t just be forgotten, could it? Yes. We have come to think too well of ourselves especially in scientific and technical matters. It’s all progress; no digressions or dead ends, and above all no going backwards. But things get overlooked and then forgotten all the time. And it’s starting to look as though the same thing happened in the history of the computer. It took a novelist, that is, a spinner of fictions, to set the story straight. Jane Smiley is the lady in queston. She’s a professor at the University of Iowa and a writer of considerable reputation. It all goes like this. In the 1930s, physics and engineering and chemistry were confronting the fact that problems were getting harder to solve because they involved so much brute calculation. Consequently, there was a lot of interest in the possiblity of mechanizing some of this routine computation. Two guys at Iowa, John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry started work on the task in the late 1930s and finished it in 1942. It was called the ABC, for Atanasoff Berry Computer. It was desk-sized, and used vacuum tubes for the logic gates (transistors were years in the future) and it worked just fine. Some heavy hitters, such as Von Neumann, knew about it and were impressed. So was the design team from the ENIAC project at Penn. It fact, they liked it so much that they borrowed some of the methods and features. This fact would come out later in the patent trial between Sperry-Rand(ENIAC) and Honeywell which wanted to break the Sperry patents. The borrowings were enough for the judge to toss out the Sperrypatents. But poor little ABC stat in its chilly Iowa basement forgotten. Finally, it was just disassembled and thrown away. Jane Smiley’s book The Man Who Invented The Computer Doubleday 256 pages, is a biography of Atanasoff, and it was released in October. I guess Berry figures in the story somewhere, but he sort of drops out of the picture it seems. Atanasoff went out to do other interesting stuff with computation, founded a company, got rich and enjoyed a good reputation. ABC got junked.
There is still some dispute about this “first computer” business. Several partisans support the claim of COLOSSUS, the top, top secret British computer devised in WWII to help the Bletchley Park group decrypt German radio traffic coded with the ENIGMA machine. It wasn’t a “general purpose” machine, but it was pretty powerful. The secrecy surrounding it never let its claims at “firstdom” get a vetting. The whole Bletchley Park operation was only revealed in the 1970s. Although some historians had smelled a Rodent, they couldn’t prove anything because there were no documents and nobody was talking. BP was a large operation, employing thousands. Most of the people working there had no idea about what was going on, but still.
The Medical Library subscribes to the electronic book library named Stat!Ref. We have been doing so for a number of years. The company has advised us recently that a free add-on service has been added to our subscription. According to the write-up, personnel associated with UTMB can create a password controlled account which will let them view the news feeds, updates and summaries contained in Stat!Ref Medical News Feed, which is itself based on a Reuters product. You can look at the announcement and follow the steps to set up an account if you want to do this.
Google has been kind of a nasty word in France, and in other parts of Europe too. Some of the trouble resulted from Google’s capture of personal information while its little cars and bikes were tooling around various cities to build images for the Street View feature on Google Maps. Even the US DOJ, which has been rather somnolent about privacy considerations, has opened a rather limp investigation of the G’s practices in data gathering over here. We’ll see what comes of that. Google keeps saying it will delete the captured data “soon”, making it sound like building the Panama Canal or something. But, last week, all was Son et Lumiere in Paris as Google CEO Eric Schmidt signed a deal with the big French Publishing house Hachette Livres. The deal will allow the publisher to determine which Hachette books will be scanned, and of those, which will be available for purchase and which can only be searched. Everybody is all smiles about this, despite the fact that in the past Google has been made to appear as the Evil Edge of the Anglo-Saxon plot to de-Frenchify French culture. Yeah, whatever. Hey Pierre, try this: It’s just a big, greedy company out to make a lot of moola. It’s just there to sell something. Big cultural conspiracy is out of the question. They don’t care about culture. After all, they’re Americans, and from California too.They wouldn’t know culture if it reared up and bit them on the tush. Anyway, the troops are all happy-wappy about the agreement, and hope it will serve as a guide for agreements with other publishers. One funny thing about the deal is that it gives the publisher more control over the process and product than does the draft agreement between Big G and American publishers and authors. That deal is hanging fire in the court, but if the US publishers start thinking, they may want to revise the terms to bring them more into line with the French agreement.
More and more of the US research output is coming from fewer schools. This is the conclusion drawn by Thomson-Reuters in what they call a profile of the American research base. In the period 2005-9, 24 institutions accounted for 42% of the research papers produced here. The score has gone up from about 32% in the last profile. Harvard is first, followed by UMich. In the same period, 19 institutions garned 47% of the citations made to American papers. Beyond that, some other interesting facts appeared in the analysis. The European Union countries outpaced the USA in 1995 and have been ahead since. Countries in Asia edged ahead in 2008. US researchers tend to publish more in the life and social sciences. Well, I guess you can slice all this a number of ways. The world is changing and we should have been prepared for this. After all, a lot of the bright sparks that are leading the charge abroad came here for their degrees, and we did a good job for them. It would probably be a good idea to get more physics, chemisty, materials science, and math into the research stream, but it’s a bad time to try doing it. Nobody has any money and the states especially are broke.