Years ago there was a John Wayne movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a cowboy picture, or rather a Pony Soldier picture. After a lot of hoo-hah and riding around in the desert, the US cavalry detachment led by Henry Fonda, a dumb, rigid Easterner who won’t listen to anybody, gets penned up by about 200,000 Apaches, and is wiped out. But the last few minutes are great “last stand” shots. Yesterday’s Times had a long article in the Business section about Barnes and Noble as the Publishers’ Last Stand. Outnumbered, outgunned, no water, little ammo and not a very good chance of getting a life insurance policy at this juncture, the B&N chain is the publishers’ last stand against Amazon. The Nook reader was B&N’s somewhat belated entry into the e-reader market, and much of the story is taken up with a review of its development. It may be that all this is a bit too much on the dramatic side. Publishing is undergoing very significant changes. There’s more involved and at stake than a gadget, and some of this last stand stuff may be over-dramatic. Whether traditional publishing can survive, and whether it should, are really more important questions than the role and fate of one gadget. But, it’s an interesting piece. We have to remember that technology doesn’t solve problems. It merely lets us exchange one set of problems for another, with their various ramifications.
It was the start of a major chapter in US history. The California Gold Rush began with the discovery of gold on this day in 1848. A guy named James Marshall found gold in Sutter’s Creek, by Sutter’s Mill I guess. We learned that the strike was at Sutter’s mill. Anyway, it was the opening gun so to speak. Between 1848 and 1855 about 300,000 people arrived in California, each one sure of getting rich. There was a kind of gold fever running through the world, not just the USA. Men abandoned perfectly respectable jobs and took off for the West coast. Getting to California though was not easy. Overland travel was possible, but slow and dangerous. Going by sea was the fastest method, but you had to choose. You could take a ship to Panama, and then proceed slowly over the isthmus by horse or mule or on your own two leggos. This cut weeks off the passage around South America, but it had its own dangers. Many gold seekers got no farther than a grave in Panama, because yellow fever or malaria cut them down while crossing the narrow waist of the isthmus to board another ship. Sailing around Cape Horn and up the western coast of South America avoided the disease ridden pest holes, but was longer and dangerous too, because of the storms that beset the tip on the continent. But, despite all this, people made it. There are pictures of ships sitting idle in San Francisco Bay because the crews bolted to shore,looking for gold. It was hard for skippers to raise crews for return voyages. A number of people opened restaurants, saloons, and other emporia. If you had a skill, like smithing, or carpentry or watchmaking, or if you had merchandise of almost any kind to sell, and took the long view, California was a good place to be.
The year just past was a pretty good one for scientific investigation. And Science has a list of the discoveries which the editors there think are significant enough for Top Ten status. It seems like a good list to me:n Aids treatment as prevention, some more light shed on human origins (although this in turn raises more questions), the launch and recovery of a nifty Japanese mission to gather dust from an asteroid. You could do worse.
Every Tuesday the New York Times publishes its Science section, and your blog master is in the habit of looking at the sheets rather carefully, because there often is something interesting for our readers. Today, we have a long article on the topic of Open Science. Now before we go any further, I want to put my temperamental cards on the table. I am impatient and distrustful of ‘movements’. The guiding spirits of causes and revolutions are often, very often, unwilling to tolerate the facts of human nature. Okay, that said, let’s go on. Today’s piece in the Times describes the efforts of a number of researchers to change the way science gets done and the ways in which those results are made available, published, if you please. Current methods are slow, cumbersome, and expensive and managed by an elitist gatekeeper mechanism that stifles breakthrough thinking and doesn’t make sufficient use of the virtually unlimited and almost instantaneous communications capabilities of the Web/internet. The Open Science folks want to break out of that and do the opposite, such as make intensive use of the aforementioned capabilities to move problems along to resolution by getting more keen minds in on the task. Several examples of how that actually happened are advanced, and several important figures in the OS scene are mentioned and quoted. It’s hard to quarrel with a lot of this. So, why the hesitation? Well, some of it seems to be a ‘twice-told tale’. People inside the SciBiz structure have been saying something like this for a while. It may work. It should be tried. But, a lot of this seems like Robespierre’s ‘Republic of Virtue”. Everybody will do the right thing all the time. See what you think:
I’m sure that the practice of clicking on one of those Ten Best/Worst/Fastest/Coolest…you name the next one… web sites is a sign of mental deterioration. Still, once in a while it can pay off at least in the sense of a visual treat. The HuffPo site has such a teaser this morning, labeled colleges with the best libraries. It’s just a slide show, or a set of pictures taken maybe from the camera of an eccentric librarian on a field trip. The write-ups say nothing about collection size, special strengths, staff or anything really useful in determining why this one library is so great. A lot, apparently, rested on some kind of survey, but most pictures is pictures. And you have to take away the feeling that a great-looking building was no small element in the ratings. Not many surprises to be found: Harvard was first, Columbia second and then on down. Brigham Young was no. 3 with an absolutely stunning building. West Point has a fine structure too. But my favorite for Eye-Popping Libraries is the shot from Yale. I think that shot may be of the Rare Books library, and not the undergrad structure, but I could be wrong. Librarian eye candy at:
The annual Tech Fest in Vegas continues, and the geek blogs and filter services are posting lists of favorites, mini-reviews, analysis, speculation and the usual mish-mash of wishful thinking and corporate manipulation. Here is a take on some new products that the editors of Technology Review liked. Well, maybe not the editors so much as the guy who was out there at the show looking at the stuff. I think the waterproofing measure is interesting, having doused my keyboard once with coffe. And the thing that turns your cell phone into a satellite phone has possibilities, especially in the event of natural disasters.
I went to Las Vegas once. We were driving back from our son’s wedding in California. On a whim, hey we’re this close, so let’s go see what all the fuss is about. Well sir, once is enough for this buckaroo. I know people who love Vegas. A couple down the street from us went every year and so on. Anyway, I wanted to talk about the Consumer Electronics Show which is held there every year and is going on right now. It’s not for ordinary folk. You have to be industry or press to get in. During the CES, reporters and commentators share impressions of new products on offer. David Pogue, the NY Times, tech writer, had a long story in today’s edition about some things he found: lots of TV and related products. There were also a lot of tablets…many tablets…waves of tablets. You get the idea. You can read the piece at the link below. One of the more off-beat items is a mult-tool from Victorinox, the Swiss army knife people. It’s a, well, knife, with other accessories built in, such as a clipper or file or something. But, it also has a terabyte storage drive and costs three grand. I guess it’s kind of a joke, or envelope-pushing feat, like the thousand horse power engine some auto company was working on recently. We can do this, see? That means we’re good at this, right? So buy our cars. I sat for a while and tried to envision a case in which a guy would need BOTH a knife or screwdriver or something like that AND a terabyte flash drive. I couldn’t think of one
You can also get a review of the new Acer laptop and tablet, or rather, you can get some specs and an overview. I’ll be posting more on the Wonders of the 2012 CES. But, I have to tell you, the initial buzz is “more of the same”. Nothing so far seems to be a bolt from Heaven. Oh, wait. The writer from WIRED liked the Nokia/Microsoft phone.
OK, will somebody please tell me what’s going on in medical publication? I thought I knew a little bit about it, but it seems that I don’t know anything. For example:there was an article in the BMJ last week, in which it was asserted that conclusions from fewer than half of the clinical trials funded by the NIH were published in peer reviewed journals indexed in MEDLINe within 30 months of trial conclusion. And a third of the trial results remained unpublished within 51 months of trial completion. If this is the best the system can do, maybe it’s time to listen to the Libertarian argument and say this research funding business is a wasteful government intrusion. It’s just a midddle-class welfare project. It keeps scientists and assorted staffers associated with the projects working and busy, but there doesn’t seem to be much pay-off, and certainly very little sense that the trial results are either interesting or important. Why does it take so long to get the putatively important results out to the suffering public? Several explanations pop into mind; to wit: the studies are of middling quality at best,and won’t affect practice so there is no hurry, because no diagnostic or therapeutic bombshells are being held back or concealed. In fact, there is a discincentive to hurry: getting the results out too soon might expose research teams to scrutiny about the mediocre, facing both ways, results. Perhaps, the journal publishing pipeline is the problem. It’s hard to see how, since we have electronics all over the place: wordproceesors, online submission and review, and the whole menagerie. Electrons are flying all over the place and we wind up with 51 months? Time for some cold water and plain speaking. If these results are important, they must be released faster. If it makes no difference if they’re released or not, well…..
Well, the business section writer in today’s New York Times seems to think so. The CES is the mammoth, super-colossal, gigantic, marathon Mega-gear fest, held each year in Las Vegas, and I don’t mean New Mexico. Where else but Vegas could you find space and rooms and drawing power to get geeks out of their basements or labs long enough to show other folks what they have been working on? The writer thinks that the bloom is off the peach for CES, as far as the industry biggies are concerned. Apple and Amazon are staging product releases at other shows or at custom dog and ponies. Microsoft will no longer exhibit and Microsoft execs will no longer deliver keynote addresses at the event. The CES is a mob scene. It’s really big with lots of events scheduled and large crowds surging through the halls. So, companies may be thinking that it’s better to have something that centers on them and the product, rather than fight for the mob’s attention. Or maybe it’s just time for a change. The CES will continue to be important, and who knows, maybe the prodigals will think this over and decided they need to be there. The consumer electronics industry is one of the most volatile on the plant…and “volatile” means here today and gone tomorrow. Read more here:
Wired has a post this am on what has been learned from the various product launches and crashes in the tablet market. It’s an interesting read, because the author summarizes high and low points in the parade and retreat of devices offered as competitors to the Ipad, and searches for some common theme or thread that could serve as a warning finger to those who want to try again this year. In brief, the post states that there are two messages from the consumer: price is very important. People are watching their dollars. So one very big area for improvement by tablet manufactures would be an effort to keep the price low. Then, quality matters. None of this is very strange. Price vs. quality is the calculation people have been balancing in their minds since the first proto-human tried trading some thing for some other thing held by some other proto-human. Tablet makers pushed out immature products that just didn’t match up to the Ipad’s polished performance, which was based on some years’ experience with iOS. And they put champagne price tags on them. Consumers said: “nothin’ doin’” and that was that. Stuck with a lot of dust-catchers on the shelves, stores cut prices and then the buyers whisked the units away. A lower, much lower, price for a so-so unit was acceptable commerce. So, there it is, boys and girls. There is no mystery. Build a good machine and price it as low as you can. Simple.