We are moments away from closing for the Christmas holdays. I want to take a few lines to thank all our readers for their kind attention, and to apologize for the various fits and starts our blog has suffered during the past twelve-month. Alas, what seem to be good ideas don’t often turn out that way in execution. What is that line from Burns: “and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy”. Yet, the trolls in the engine room have promised a new look, and I hope to re-launch our little ship in a sturdier version after the turn of the year.
In the meantime, please have a safe, restful and happy holiday season. Try to relax a bit, do some walking, and get some reading in, pretty much what Monty Python said in that movie.
Today is the anniversary of the discovery of radium. Marie and Pierre Curie worked on the project together, and after a greuling amount of intense and tedious application, out popped element 88, which they named Radium. The late 1890s were a fruitful time for physicists. Becquerel and Roentgen had made interesting discoveries about what we now call radiation, and there was a great deal of experimentation under way to understand this phenomenon better. So the research of the husband and wife team was in tune with the times, in a way, and in a way not. Some of the theoretical implications of the discoveries were upsetting, and nobody had much idea about the possible ill effects of the new stuff. I guess they just tossed it around and did what they felt like with it. In fact, Marie may have semi-deliberately down-played the risk because she didn’t want to discourage research. They shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, with Becquerel, in 1903. But Pierre was struck down in a Paris street by a team of horses and killed. Marie went on to win another Nobel in chemistry, in 1911. During WWI, Marie toured the French Army’s hospitals with a truck carrying X-ray equipment which she used to help surgeons determine the best treatment for wounded soldiers. And that wasn’t all. After the war, she continued her work, dying in 1934. Her health doubtlessly suffered a great deal from here exposure to ionizing radiation.
Check the link for a little stroll down Memory Lane…back to the first launch of the minicomputer. Actually, it was more like the launch of something that would turn into the microcomputer. It was pricey, had almost none of what we consider essentials today, with a teeny bit of memory, and you really had to spend a lot of time getting it to do anything. Talk about user unfriendly! But, there it was: the first step. It was actually rather popular, and digitheads bought it and tinkered with this and that and before you could say Bill Gates or Jobs/Wozniak, things were rolling. All hail the Altair 8800!
After a long struggle with esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens succumbed to his illness today in Houston, TX. Hitchens won many loyal readers with this perceptive critiques of English and American literature, his abrasive political critiques, and toward the end of his life, his campaign against religion. He was a very good stylist, a suave and witty debater and a fierce polemicist. He made enemies on both sides of the Atlantic, and his choice of targets included the Royal Family, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa, to name only some. In an age of Twitter and “Yeah, whatever”, he offered something quite different: the right words, chosen with care and arranged in impressive order, to build an argument. He was no sloganizer. His work required attention. He was impolite, disrespectful of fads, conventions, “celebrities” and politicians. A two-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, intellectual bar-room brawler, he had few equals and no betters. The only American who can remotely claim to be in the same set with him was H.L. Mencken, and that’s very good company.
Need to have a tumor removed? An ovarian tumor, weighing about 22 pounds? Just zip off to Mass general or Cleveland Clinic or someplace. Well not if you are living in the year 1809, and in backwoods Kentucky, you don’t. Nobody zips anyplace. And the local sawbones is one Dr. Ephraim McDowell. Dr. Mac decides that the patient can be sent home to die or he can try to remove the tumor. Either way, the odds are very, very long. But the lady is game enough and figures, well, one way is sure death, and soon. The other way, I have a chance. So, medical history is made on a table in a cabin in Kentucky. McDowell must have been either extremely lucky or an operator of unusual skill. He was probably both lucky and skilled. The patient, Jane Todd Crawford, underwent torments on the table. Remember the use of anesthesia is about another 30 years away, depending on who’s counting what. And, while we talking about luck, Mrs. Crawford probably used up a couple dozen rabbits’ feet. To everyone’s surprise, including McDowell’s, she recovered completely and lived to be 78, which was a very advanced age in early America, as it was everywhere else. McDowell wrote up his achievement and the reports of this operation caused a sensation. Nobody we know of had done anything like that before, and the risks were enormous, including hemorrhage and infection. The germ theory of disease was another 50 years in the future, and operations were frequently conducted with skill but ended in death from sepsis or shock or both.
Today’s business section of the New York Times has a long story about customer dissatisfaction with the Kindle Fire. Some folks are so disappointed that they are repacking their gadgets and sending them back to Amazon. Jacob Nielsen is the reigning guru of web design and related matters. He was quoted in the article as suspecting that the Fire would be a failure. That’s not the kind of press Bezos and Friends need to have, from a guy who commands a lot of respect in the propeller-head community. Not at all. I am not entirely surprised, since I think many people may have bought the Fire thinking they were getting a highly capable tablet-type devce, very much like the Ipad, at much less than Ipad prices. But, t’aint so. All the Kindle line machines are optimized for helping the user buy content from Amazon. Whatever else it’s supposed to do is add-on or after thought. And the company didn’t try very hard with those features. The suits upstairs are getting the message and are promising upgrades and improvements. And there will even be a Fire2 somewhere in the mix, to be released soon. Amazon doesn’t usually stumble this badly, but they really are not a company that manufactures gear. They sell things. The success of the basic Kindles was a surprise, so maybe they got cocky, figuring they could rely on the old Show Biz dictum: If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice… Not so. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/technology/personaltech/amazons-fire-some-say-may-become-the-edsel-of-tablets.html?ref=business
Dec.12 is an important date in the life and work of Guglielmo Marconi. On this date in 1896, he dmonstrated wireless telegraphy, what we call radio in a salon in England. And on this date in 1912, he demonstrated radio’s literally intercontinental possibilities by sending a signal across the Atlantic Ocean, from a transmitter in England to a receiver in New Foundland, in Canada. The rest, as they say… Marconi came from wealth. His father was an aristocrate and his mother an heiress. So, he was not hurting. He had space in the attic of his villa for his experiments. Marconi was no drone, sipping champagne idly and swatting dust motes off his trousers with kid gloves. He got in there and worked. And he succeeded, apart from Mommy’s money. He was an ardent supporter of Mussolini, and served in the Duce’s cabinet. When he died in 1937, Benito gave him a gangster send-off: a really big funeral. I guess you can’t be right about everything.
A piece on the WIRED blog named Cloudline talks about the economics of cloud services, or better on the particular economics of particular classes of cloud services. The writer invokes Moore’s Law, which famously describes the regular decline in costs of new transistor types versus their power. Linking this to the cost of cloud servicing, the writer says that the commonly heard notion that all cloud computing services save money isn’t and can’t be true. For some types of users, those, for example with unpredictable work load demands arising in ‘eruptive’ situations, cloud computing can be cheaper. For those with steady and predictable demand, the cost situation can be more complicated. What is really both saving and costing companies money is not the increased storage or processing capacity of cloud services. The savings come from not having to hire persons with expertise. But the border between the two is not a fixed and fortified one. Some types of users will actually be better off with in-houses capacity and local talent. The phrases “private cloud” and “hybrid cloud” occur as well, which indicates a taxonomic subdivision of all cloud-dom. The big plus for smaller businesses in using cloud servicing is that rapid scale-up of storage and processing capacity is possible. Moreover, the cloud company is that one hiring and paying the engineering talent, not the user. So the previous division between in-house and cloud-based services is starting to get less crisp, as variants arise which are a little of both.
Hmmmmmm…The Feds are bestirring themselves to look at possible collusive practices or other anti-competitive no-nos on the part of publishers with regard to the way they price e-books. It’s about time too. The DOJ should have been after publishers, especially STEM publishers, long before this and they seem to be skipping the whole bloody business of journal pricing. And then there is that little matter of concentration of STEM publishers into the hands of a few mega-firms that own all the marbles. So on the one hand, hooray! Make ‘em sweat! On the other: where have you guys been all this time? But now that you’re here, get busy and get us some indictments, or consent decrees or whatever. Make ‘em sweat even more.
Here’s the story:
The chefs in the Scholarly Kitchen are an interesting lot. They all are in the biz in some form or other, and they commonly step back to take a look at things in slightly different ways. Today there is a good post on why peer review is not a lottery, written by someone who is in fact an editor of a scienfic journal. The lottery ‘model’ works out very poorly in practice for a number of reasons well stated and defended. Quality of a submission is the deciding factor: good papers are accepted and bad ones sent back. Authors should spend less time worrying about the acceptance rate at a journal and more time on making sure that their submissions are appropriate for that publication and contain high quality work. On the other hand, the pressure to publish is so great that authors feel very pressed and may think themselves unable to follow the suggestions offered here.