This is the day when in 1989 two scientists announced at a press conference that they had succeeded in fusing atoms, using only chem lab benchtop equipment and normal temperatures. Of course, nuclear fusion has been the goal pursued by battalions of physicists working on super-mega-devices, costing you don’t really want to know how much money.Whoever achieves it, if it can be achieved in places other than, oh, say the sun, will have glory, immortality as one of the great Greats and wheelbarrows of cash. The “discoverers”, Pons and Fleischmann, caused a tumult and they enjoyed instant celebrity. Their work couldn’t be replicated and before long people were feeling rather foolish. Hope just got way ahead of the evidence. Their parent institution may have pushed matters along, sensing a tremendous coup and a PR bonanza, without the caution, even skepticism needed in a matter like this. The episode was far from a coup and brought two essentially decent men into disrepute and ridicule. It also added fodder to the anti-science crowd’s maw. Frederick the Great may have urged boldnesss on his generals, ‘l’audace toujours l’audace’, but caution works better in science.
In a decision that will have immediate and wide-ranging impact, Judge Denny Chen rejected the settlement agreement presented by Google and the associations of authors and publishers that had crafted it as an alternative to a trial. The judge was sympathetic to the idea of making millions of books available on the web, but was also of the opinion that the deal would give Google a de facto monopoly on the sale of such items. Copyright concerns were also raised in the judge’s opinion. There will be plenty of commentary on this, both informed and not. It’s a blow to Google, which is suffering from Bigness syndrome. The Anti-Trust division of the DOJ watches Google when it goes to the bathroom. Any deal, in fact any trial outcome, will have winners and losers. This is not the end of the story, unless Google wants to write off that investment. And, something has to be done about copyright law. The extension of copyright granted in the last legislative go-round was excessive, and there has to be a revision. Congress has no stomach for that, right now above all, but it’s what has to happen.
A while ago, it was said that one of the really big advantages of digital publication would be the capability of including supplementary materials to support and enhance a particular article. In the print world, this was not easily possible. Several experiments were tried using microfiche appearing in a separate volume for example. But no one of these was really successful. With the advent of e-publishing, the constraints of the print form were broken and it became possible to add more graphs, slides, motion media, sound and so on. Well, it seems that some journal editors are of the opinion that this has gone too far. Authors have been larding their submissions with more and more supplementary materials, to the point that reviewers are spending as much time or more in looking at these than they are with the paper. So, some journals have decided to nix the supplementals, period. Other publishers (eg CELL Press) are limiting what the authors can supply with the manuscript. The referees are the weakest link in the whole review process. Most review work is unpaid, and uncredited, and is done out of a kind of noblesse oblige conviction that scholars have to contribute something to the discipline apart from their own work. But demands on the time of skilled reviewes are increasing and the conviction at work here is that reviewers need to worry about the article, not get lost in minutiae of the supplemental material.
Well, the Grey Lady will soon join her namesakes in assessing a charge to those viewers of the web site who read more than a certain number of articles. The New York Times will launch its for pay option on March 28. The paper thus joins the London Times and the Financial Times in efforts to get more money from the people who use the web site at no charge to themselves. FT did this a while ago and the general expectation was that the measure would flop. The idea of free content was too deeply ingrained in webonauts, it was said, and the FT wouldn’t make a nickel. Well, the paper is still around and it’s still influential and lots of people in the money and commerce and gummint biz read it, and they pay. The London paper did the same, last year I think, and now the NYT has decided to join the group. Print subscribers will have unlimited access to the stories, and the terms seem rather generous to me, at least to start out with. We’ll see. Maybe things will be different on this side of the Ocean.
Has there ever been a monarch more written-about, filmed, TVed or generally talked over than Henry, Eighth of That Name? His life has been pawed through by serious historians and Hollywood moguls, to take both extremes of the intellectual spectrum, and turned into a flood of novels, TV series, movies, plays, and so on. I don’t think there has been a Henry VIII comic book, but that can’t be long in coming. So, one would think that we would be quite well versed on the man and the history. I wouldn’t bet a month’s pay on that, especially if you ask Americans. They don’t know their own history, much less any other country’s. But an image of Henry is immediately indentifiable, just as an image of Boris Karloff in his monster make-up will make school kids yell “Frankenstein” and run away, laughing and giggling. So, it comes as a surprise that some researchers are still scraping around in the Henry midden. The results this time are rather interesting, if historically unproveable. The claim is that Henry belonged to the Kell positive blood group. In a match between a K+ father and a K-mother, there is a one in two chance of an immune response by the mother’s body. First born kids are generally OK, but subsequent pregnancies often miscarry. Hank’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, had a healthy daughter, Mary Tudor. And Anne Boleyn, wife no. 2 gave birth to the girl who would become Elizabeth I. But subsequently both women had troubled pregnancies. Hardly conclusive, I guess we have to say, but still intriguing. Oh, and if that were not enough to worry His Majesty, another theory claims that Numero Otto suffered from a rare disorder called McLeod Syndrome, which accounts for his obesity, depression and paranoia in later life. On the other hand, in the 1500s infant deaths were common, and other medicos have come up with putative diagnoses to cover the King’s ailments. None, however, explain the miscarriages, which is a hole the Kell blood group suggestion plugs.
Allbert Einstein was born on this day in the year 1879 in the city of Ulm, a nice little town in southern Germany. I was only there once, to change trains, and I walked around the city center for a few minutes, but that was about it for me and Ulm. It’s probably polntless to say anything about Einstein or his work. What more is there to say? Accolades were heaped upon him in his lifetime and people still struggle to understand his work. Calling him the greatest physicist of all time is probably not hyperbole in the least. One odd thing, that would have amused and annoyed him in equal measure, is the emergence of various Einsteins: Einstein the Homey Philosopher, Einstein the Pacifist, Einstein This and That. Maybe the best thing to say is that he never took himself as seriously as some of his followers seem to take him. And, he aways liked a good joke.
Here are a couple of stories from the computer tech world, to help feed the geek lust that afflicts some of our readers. The first details some results of benchmarking tests on the new Chrome 10 browser. Remember Chrome? The package Google launched as a direct challenge to Microsoft? Well, that little guy is alive and doing very nicely too. Version 10 is very fast, according to the reports anyway, and today fast is good. Big downloads require a fast browser, and the traffic on the web at present is very data-intense. Changing to Chrome is fine if you run your own shop. But if you are part of bigger organization, it may be harder to make the switch, because of “enterprise” conditions. I remember the first time I heard somebody from IS use the word “enterprise” in a meeting, as in “througout the enterprise”. Was he talking about an aircraft carrier? Or the ship in, what was it again, that TV show? Star Trek, that’s it.
There is this meeting called Pwn2own, and it’s the Hackers’ version of Oktoberfest. Geeks from all over compete against fellow geeks and against selected items, such as browsers or an OS, to get where they aren’t supposed to go. In other words, the contestants try to breach the security systems in place to protect content. If there is a break-in, the organizers document how the successful hacker managed it, and then they tell the company so that the weak spot can be closed. At the most recent event, Apple’s Safari browser didn’t stand up very well. In fact, it was breached rather quickly. This successful attack occurred despite the recent review and upgreade of Safari which is said to have repaired some 64 vulnerabilities. To be fair, the people who show up at this event are very, very good; much more skilled that the run of the mine dork who has some knowledge and plenty of time on his hands. Still, a hole is a hole is a hole, as the fella said.
The contestants did not go up against the absolutely most recent up grade to Safari, because contest rules lock in which version is to be tested, and accept the possibility that a later version might have defeated the attack. Microsoft Explorer rolled over and played dead pretty fast. Chrome is still unbreached.
James Gleick writes books, good ones. His works include a life of Newton, a life of Richard Feynman, a sudy on the apparent acceleration of everything in life, and a thoroughly absorbing account of how chaos theory came to be. Now, we have The Information: a history, a theory, a flood which explores the notion of information and how this has changed over the centuries, gives an account of the life and work of Claude Shannon, the American mathematician who kicked off the whole modern concept of information theory, and concludes with a meditation on what the increasing torrent of information means to us and to our society. It sounds pretty bad, I admit. But, I’m betting on Gleick to bring it off. The reviewers I’ve read so far agree that he has done exactly what he set out to do. Writing something like this is tough. You need to situate matters in the flow of history, but you can’t write just a history. You need to talk about the people, but you can’t just write biographies. No matter how interesting the players are as people, and Shannon was right up there, just a life isn’t enough. And finally, you have to wrap it all up somehow. So, it takes ‘nice judgment’ as Casper Guttman said to Sam Spade, and no little skill. The winter is pretty much over down here, daylight saving time starts this weekend, bringing longer evenings and milder days. Laying up somewhere with a serious work of exposition may seem less attractive that it does in the rains and sleets of late December. Nonetheless, keep this one in mind.
Another review of the book appeared in this morning’s New York Times, and it is both more informative and more enthusiastic than the one I posted earlier. It seems to be the kind of book you read with pencil in hand.
Well, everyone can breathe again. Apple DID unveil a new Ipad, or rather, a somewhat improved version of the current product. Steve Jobs took a break from his convalescent leave to showcase the gadget. He took advantage of his bully pulpit to sneer at the competing tablets, saying that his shop’s gear is more capable, lighter, cheaper and has some 65,000 apps available. No doubt that Apple was first off the mark and that the other manufacturers are playing catch-up. But, some wags are wondering how wise a purchase the version 2 would be, in the face of those rumors about a radically revised version 3 supposedly in the works, and due for release next year, or so. I mean, if the 3 is right around the corner, why buy a 2? The 3 is either a major advance, or it’s another incremental improvement. If the former, you’re a sap for buying the 2. If the latter, you’re still a sap, because you’re not going to get the next set of incremental improvements. There is no guarantee that the 3 is a real product, or that it is as close to release as one hears. The Apple Jabber Machine has to be fed or all those guys with their newsletters and blogs will have to start drawing cartoons on them to fill in the space. Apple is sphinx-like, above all the clamor and just lets them talk. So, there may well be no version 3 at all, or not for a while yet. But when it does appear, it will, of course, change everything.
That worthy publication The Economist has a corps of bloggers, each committed to a specialty. Technical matters are addressed in Babbage which has an item on the recent reaction by Google to the apparently rather wide-spread pollution of its search results by “content farms”. Mr. B looks at the recent announcements by the world’s dominant search engine, and notes some cries of despair on the part of critics who claim that Google has lost the battle to keep spammed messages out, and other approaches to searching for reliable content have to be tried. Others are not so sure that it’s time to throw in the monogramed Google towel. Google is search, and they wanted to make that equation completely convertible…Search is Google. To a large measure, they succeeded. If Google managers didn’t reckon on efforts to dethrone the big G or arrogantly refused to consider the possiblity of a “peer power’s” rise, then they deserve a good caning. But take it from me, and you heard it here first: it’s way too early to sell the stock. Google has a bunch of tricks, traps, techniques and methods it can deploy to counter the spam onset. Expect some court action, too. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap. But the company is in the fight for keeps.