The World Economic Forum is meeting at Davos in Switzerland. WEF is a gathering of about 3000 moneyed people in business and politics. Politicians are going there on the public’s dime, probably. The moneyed are either paying their own freight or being comped by some entity or other. Once arrived on the mountain, these worthies will consider the rather frightening array of Things That Could Go Wrong, or Things About Which We Should Worry. As far as I can see, not much comes from the WEF, at least not in the form of practical solutions. There may be some hortatory document, released at the end, that will urge a “spirit of shared sacrifice” or ‘redoubling of efforts’ or some other bromide. But one thing you can count on is that the Davos crowd won’t be joining in any shared sacrifice. That’s for The Little People. When you think about it, this whole business is quite an exercise in logistics. Imagine all the planning, the meetings, the lists and agendas, that have to take place. How many menials does it take to pull this thing off? A lot I would guess. That’s good for the tourist industry and the people who work in it. As far as the rest of us are concerned, I think the Davosians should have sat on their kiesters and not used up all that jet fuel, to come to the Land of the Matterhorn in order to tell us to be worried about global climate change. Stay home and spin, like Gandhi.
The folks at Pew Research have released the results of a survey on the use of libraries in the USA. Use is up and people go to libraries for access to the world on Internet services and connections which they may not be able to afford, or may simply not want to bother with at home. That’s a perfectly legitimate response, and there are probably more of these folks than one might think. We have become too used to Young Demographic in thinking about Internet use. As long as people are employed, their occupational setting gives them access, and can be used as a kind of electronic tether to the Job. Once the connection to the Job is broken for any reason, people look around for substitutes. American public libraries have a splendid tradition of service to their communities. They are continuing that dedication to service even as the accustomed instruments and agents of information undergo enormous change. Keep it up, Pls!
The Medical Library subscribes to an online service called Exam Master, which allows prospective test-takers to review the structure and content of examinations similar to those required by the various accrediting agencies and specialty boards. Quite popular with our student users, Exam Master has been enhanced with a new module which cover the USMLE Step 1 test, which is called the USMLEStep 1 Premium. UTMB students can reach the new offering by:
1. Going to the Medical Libray home page, and in FIND A DATABASE, clicking on the letter E
2. Select EXAM MASTER from the E array and login in with your id/password. If you don’t already have one, create one for yourself
3.From the menu, select New Practice exam and look for USMLE Step ! Practice Exam Premium
Britain’s Guardian newspaper analyzed a body of user comments on the articles published there, and the results were rather disappointing. In the first place, the number of commentators was very, very small compared to the number of subscribers. Then, it seems that a very large potion of the people who do comment are ‘habituals’. That is, they have time and leisure sufficient to write lots and lots of comments. Some wrote hundreds. So it seems that at least for the Guardian, most of the material it publishes remains uncommented on, and that a large slice of the comments are traceable to very few people. Why is this important here? It’s important because one of the elements that the altmetrics proponents have suggested for inclusion in new methods of estimating an article’s scientific influence is comments by the readership. Now the Guardian is a general interest newspaper, and the altmetrics people are concerned about scholarly materials, so beware apples and the other thing, maybe. But these results should make us aware of the need to be cautious.
So says a story in the Business section of the Times, and who would want to quarrel with that? But seriously folks, the article has a point in stressing that the rapid changes in the capabilities of mobile, hand-held devices is putting the dominance of traditional giants at risk, to some degree anyway. Some people are see a chance to overthrow the current leaders and open the field to other interests than those now ruling. The move to hand-helds and tablets is obvious; you can’t turn a page in tech lit on any level without encountering another story about some product, device, feature or combination thereof that enhances what people can do with their phones. Why, soon you’ll be able to make a call with them, and actually talk to someone! Whether all this froth will turn into anything is impossible to say. That very phrase ‘turn into anything’ implies a certain maturity and permanence, if I may use that word, which has not been evident in the market so far. In fact, it’s starting to look something like the tech version of Mussolini’s Permanent Revolution. Nothing will last long, not on the scale of institutions like Western Union, or Bell Telephone, or the motion picture studios of the 1920s-1950s. I don’t know if, and how long, a society can endure that. Somethings have to slow down and even stop long enough to be absorbed and their true benefits and limitations worked out. So I wouldn’t dump Google quite yet, but the situation may be changing in ways that other outfits can take advantage of more rapidly than the established ‘empires’. We’ll see.
I mean the phrase. I am not qualified to opine on matters cosmological. A scholar at Cornell has spent some time tracing the origin of that phrase and has released the results on the arXiv preprint server. It certainly is one of the best examples of successful name-giving in science. Everybody who watches PBS or the Discovery Channel must have heard the term a thousand times. We all take it for granted. But there was a time when there were no words to describe this phenomenon, which, I think exists because it’s pointed to by other evidence. Observations don’t make sense unless you posit the BB at the beginning. But there I go, violating my own rules again. OK. I’ll be quiet.
The annual CES has rolled into Vegas, on the heels of whatever circus was in town just before. Attendance is usually quite high, as the CES has been the place to visit if you want to see the line-up of objects, some of which might turn into the Next Big Thing. WIRED magazine has selected nine of these, and you can take a look. To these jaded old eyes, it looks like The Same Thing, Only in Green. The really, really big tablet is more interesting though. Bigness seems to have been the way the dinosaurs just naturally evolved, so there may be a tendency toward gigantism, just to see what happens. The show will continue for some days yet and there may be more announcements. I think the Smart Fork is a stupid idea. Why would anybody need that?
sBiochemist Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away recently at her home in Rome. She was the Nobelist in Physiology or Medicine for 1986, along with Stanley Cohen. They had isolated and characterized nerve growth factor. Active scientifically will into her 10 decade, Levi-Montalcini came from a background in which a domineering father ruled his wife and daughters completely. She rebelled, and at first in defiance of her father but finally with his consent, began to study medicine. After medical school and an attempt to specialize in neurology which was frustrated when Mussolini’s racial laws barred Jews from professional careers, she went to Belgium than back to Italy and after WWII, to the USA in St. Louis, at Washington University, where she remained for thirty years. In addition to her research contributions to the understanding of neural functioning, she was an ardent partisan of education for women, helping numerous women from Africa enter colleges.
At 100 she claimed she had a better brain than at age 20, because gained experience helped balance any loss. Maybe. I hope so. At any rate, she was a formidable lady.
Sir Isaac, as everyone knows, is the pre-eminent scientist of the Scientific Revolution. That’s the rep since Voltaire and, I guess, Pope: God said ‘Let Newton Be, and all was Light’. So there was shock and astonishment when J.M. Keynes used a part of his not inconsiderable fortune to buy Newton’s papers, examine them and then say that our Isaac was a mystic, a numerologist and an Alchemist! Horrible dictu! No, that! Anything but that! But Keynes persisted. Many, many pages of Newton’s manuscripts were devoted to alchemical pursuits and that was all there was to it. He donated the papers to Cambridge, but the distinct impression was left that much, most in fact of Newton’s active life was devoted, not to real science, but to chasing fables. Because we all know that alchemy was a phonus bolonus operation with no scientific value. Don’t we? Until a few years ago, most researchers, and certainly most scientists, would have said: “absolutely”. But a recent and somewhat subtler understanding of alchemy and its literature has been growing in the past twenty years or SO. Nobody is claiming that the alchemists had it right. But the scholars who have been leading the new investigations suggest that not all of alchemy was baloney. There was, for example, a very strong and enduring body of practical knowledge on how to melt, smelt, isolate, mix, blend, reduce and otherwise manipulate metals. Alchemists devised nifty pieces of laboratory gear, and learned a lot about substances from the craftspeople who worked with them. Then, as now, an offer to buy a drink and listen to what the guy has to say without dismissing him as a cretin or boob could go a long way in helping to find out how things work. Alchemical writings are full of what seem like bizarre and fanciful stories, riddles, puns, maps, charts and other things which are miles away from the terse,direct, unornamented prose of today’s scientific paper. But they were written that way deliberately. Their purpose was NOT to inform, but to conceal, to misdirect (especially competitors or those unworthy). And some alchemical lit has no practical or scientific purpose at all. It’s to be understood as an allegory of transformation of human character into something better than the original ingedients. A new book by one of the leaders in the New Alchemy Studies movement is reviewed in SCIENCE.
Greetings, all! Our blog is open again for business, after a longish break over the winter holidays made possible by the need for construction workers to be in the building doing messy and noisy things. So, let’s take a look around, shall we, and see what all the denizens of the various caves and crannies we poke into have been doing while we were pulling a Rip Van Winckle. So, first. The Mayan apocalypse did not occur, in case you didn’t notice. All the dorks and losers who allowed themselves to be suckered by the hoopla over this came up dead wrong. But, fear not. I’m sure there’s a new circus about to roll into town with another pseudo-scare. I’m betting on the planet Nibiru or Nimubu or whatever. You know, the undiscovered planet that NASA won’t let any astronomer discuss, as if that had ever stopped a talky academic, especially one with a discovery. As if we didn’t have enough real stuff to be scared of. We have to go around dreaming up crap! Well, that’s just the way we are.The usual Year in Review shows went on, and they were all pretty dreadful, largely because the year was pretty much a stinker, truth be told. Wars, disasters, “celebrities” doing foolish or disgraceful things, drought, betrayals, sell-outs, Did I mention “celebrities”? Politicians dressing up in 18th century clothing, wigs, etc and standing around sweating and miserable in DC heat/humidity. The usual antics, only more so.
So we’re at the same old stand. All the best in the coming Twelve. I’m crossing my fingers for us.