Don’t dig the grave of the printed book. At least,don’t dig it yet. An item in the Wall St Journal reviews the recent sales figures of ebooks and finds that the initial enthusiasms may have run their course. Muti-purpose table type devices seem to be cutting into the sales of e-readers, and the sales of printed books are still pretty good, especially for a medium that was supposed to be on its last legs. One perhaps more sensible prediction than the “all or nothing” cry of the enthusiasts is a rather prosaic wisdom dollop: the two forms will continue to exist, in parallel, for a while, perhaps a long while, to come. Ebooks may become the preferred format for “things I read on the Subway or the El to distract me from the depressing, gritty scenes surrounding me on my ride to work/home”. Printed books may continue as the preferred format for serious works of exposition on difficult topics. That sounds snobbish,on re-reading, but, just as people have different ‘linguistic registers’ in their speech, depending on whether they’re at dinner with four Nobel laureates and an Archbishop or yelling at their kids, so they may have different format registers, depending on whether they’re reading a Regency Romance or a history of the Crusades.
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.
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?
Email was the second “killer App”, a feature so obviously superior, useful or even necessary that the need to get hold of it and make it work for you drives the further adoption of the parent technology. Using email was the force behind the rapid expansion of access to the Internet once the National Science Foundation turned it over to the public at large. And the thing just grew and grew to the point at which it is now a fixture, something taken for granted, which gains notice only when it’s not available for some reason. A number of start-up operations are seeking to get email off the dime on which it now reposes. Their arguments are not inconsiderable one: the available systems are all based on old technology…in terms of the subjective digital calendar, it’s ancient technology.There is too much traffic from sources you don’t know and don’t want to hear from. It’s hard to do certain things with email. And so on and so on. There’s plenty wrong with email as we know it. So, some bright sparks are doing a re-think of email, and the various little companies are thrashing out various techniques they feel might re-invigorate email and give the old tub a good shot of wind in the sails. And it’s not an easy task. The new versions have to offer something dramatically new and better, without allowing any degradation of existing performance or loss of capabilities. It may be turn out to be a case similar to that of the QWERTY keyboard. There is plenty wrong with the QWERTY layout. And some interesting and definitely superior keyboard layout designs have been suggested over the years, almost all of them better than what we have. But the old pattern is so widely displaced that the momentum for changing it is very hard to generate and keep up. So,Burn on, Bright Sparks and good luck to you!
Way, way back boys and girls, there was a man named Newton Minnow. He was an official of the Federal Communications Commission, a regulatory body charged by Congress to do various things. Mr. Minnow made a speech to some association of TV producers, at one of their meetings. He was pretty critical of it all. In fact he called American TV, with a very few glorious exceptions, ’a vast wasteland’. This phrase went into general language and was applied in other contexts by people who wanted to get a dig in at somebody else’s operation by calling whatever it was ‘a vast wasteland’. TV folks were not happy with the indictment, because by their standards American TV was phenomenally successful. Mr. Minnow meant that US broadcasting was vapid, dull, insipid, uninspired, at times frankly boring and at other times close to degrading. What is that song? “If they could see me now!” Poor Minnow, were he to re-appear, would find every one of his strictures raised to the power of ten. Now a new book examines one aspect of the Waseland: the amount and kind of broadcasting devoted to explaining science to the public. It sounds quite interesting. One of the themes explored is the tendency to include Zap! and Bang! into science programming,either in the form of Things That Go, well, Bang, or as speedy, colorful graphics which end in a big explosion. There is quite clearly a tendency to go with explorations of erupting volcanoes, potential mega-disasters, asteroid impacts, tsunamis, earthquakes and similar spectacular events. The science often gets reduced to a commentary on how, why or when the spectacular event can unfold. OK, maybe. But I think making scienceTV, is very difficult. And the surprising thing is that so much of it is so good. Finding analogies in our macro world for processes on the molecular or quantum levels must be pretty tough. It’s almost as tough as translating that analogy into a program, without doing violence to the facts or creating a parade of equations and talking heads.If anybody asks me, the main thing wrong with science on TV is that there is too little of it and too much Pseudo-Science. Ancient astronauts? Mayan Death Calendar? No, sorry. I sometimes watch one of those while fixing supper but I almost always lose my temper and start shouting at the TV set. You’d think I’d learn. So, keep it up the real science TV, fellas. It’s tough, but you’re getting better. And shoot down an Ancient Astronaut for me, preferably into the Bermuda Triangle.
Science on American Television: A History
Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette University of Chicago Press: 2012. 296 pp. $45
A publication called The Old Farmers Almanac has been appearing for the last 117 years. The OFA is a compendium of information that might prove useful to an audience largely employed in working the land and anxious to take advantage of any break to be had in that very tough game. One of the OFA’s strong points for its original rural audience and for a large number of modern folks who dig either for fun, for a living or for science’s sake is the publication of “moon signs”. OK, no more smirking. The moon signs are said to clue farmers, gardeners and others of the agra persuasion about when to plant and when to hold off. According to accumulated lore, when certain lunar positions obtain, the weather on earth is mild and good for letting crops get a head start. Conversely, when the signs are of another configuration, the weather will be cooler and more unpleasant. Long range weather forecasts are also a feature of the OFA. These are made by a man with the pleasant title of Prognosticator. What a cool thing to say at a party, when somebody asks what line of work you’re in! Oh, I’m a Prognosticator, you say, and watch the faces. The current Prognosticator at the OFA is a a retired math prof, who uses methods old and new to predict what the weather will be a year from now. So, how does he do? May, he gets mostly right. The winter months are trickiest. I used to love Almanacs when I was a kid. There were about half a dozen on the market. They had everything in them: the Constitution, the names of all the States with capitals, stuff about science, history, politics. I could stretch out on the carpet for hours and just flip through the thing. A lot of them are gone now, casualties of the Web. But the OFA trudges on, in the light of the moon.
Troubled by that infamous ‘third reviewer’? Well, silly, just do it yourself. A clever guy in Korea submitted the email addresses of what he claimed were knowledgeable experts to review his submission. The addresses were dummies, and any traffic to them wound up in the author’s in-box, so he could provide the editors with the necessary incisive and objective review hisownself. In an interesting development, it seems that Elsevier’s editorial system was hacked, and some third party submitted a pretty good review in support of a manuscript under someone else’s name. Nobody caught on and the paper was published. One thing led to another and it came out that clinching review came from an established researcher who didn’t know anything about the manuscript. Elsevier is pretty ticked and has withdrawn the paper which was published in violation of its policy guidelines, with an offer to the authors to re-submit for a legit review. Red faces all around. This seems an interesting but rather pointless hacking exercise. Why, for God’s sake? If you’re clever enough to do this, why both with article reviewing systems? Go steal some real money! It’s like breaking into the Salvation Army old clothing store.
The writer Gore Vidal noted with no little bitterness the changes that had occurred as the USA became more deeply committed to the Cold War. He summed them up in an essay called The National Security State. VIdal traced the emergence and development of practices that would previously never have been allowed, but were now in force on grounds of ‘national security’. Gore Vidal died this year and I’m sure he had plenty of time and occasion to ponder the emergence of the Surveillance Society, an offshoot of the National Security State, in which somebody is watching you, now matter where you are or what you’re doing. A great deal of the watching, however, is not being done by the State, but by commercial enterprises or local metropolitan authorities. Technology to do this is available and relatively cheap, especially when your friendly Homeland Security agency is picking up the check. So, poor slob that you are, your actions online are being tracked by software programs which note how many times you show interest in, say, German Expressionist movies, and then sells that information to Expressionism Are Us, so the company can tailor ads to pester you about whatever it is they’re selling. This non-governmental surveillance online is pervasive, and you, Joe Dolt, are in many databases. The cumulative effect is that a great deal of information is available about a great number of people. And the Organs of State Security can, and do, often, avail themselves of this data whenever it suits them. Two new wrinkles: transit authorities in various cities, from very large ones to burgs that barely maintain service, are installing video and audio surveillance systems in buses. The devices can record rider conversations as well as capture images of the passengers. And the Organs of State Security are paying for the installations. Next, the Federal Trade Commission is bestirring itself to look at the apps installed on kids’ games and similar products. These, too, are capturing data about the little tykes, in depths that range from the casual to the detailed. Names, addresses, GPS location,age, etc. The basis of the FTC’s action is that the companies are not being square with parents about the capture thingy. I hear the old Gestapo man’s justification: “if you have not done anything wrong, you have no reason to worry”. It seems that fewere and fewer Americans are, really, willing to tell the authorities to beat it, if that means some personal inconvenience. Freedom-loving?
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) maintains PubMed Central, an archive of free electronic journal content deposited there by publishers under various conditions ranging from completely open access to time-embargoed materials. Now the Library has devised and released a new feature which will allow users of smaller devices such as tablets and hand-helds to access and read PMC content in a more convenient format. The program is ‘browser-agnostic’ and although designed for small-screen units, can work effectively with laptop and desktop machines. Key-driven screen features allow the reader to go forward, backward, enlarge illustrations from thumbnails, etc. Not every item in the PMC collection will be accessible via PubReader. Only those represented by full HTML coding can be retrieved. ‘Flat’ images such as PDF file formats cannot be recovered with this version of the product.
NLM encourages users of PMC to experiment with PubReader and to share advice and comments on their experience with product developers.
That’s the word coming out of Kansas City. We have been reporting to you on Google’s project to install very, very high speed Internet service in KC, as part of a demo project to spark interest in getting the USA’s somewhat creaky infrastructure zooming along a lot faster. The project is named Google Fiber and it seems that the goal is to make Internet service so zippy in KC that places everywhere will be shamed by their backward status and will push for improved, very greatly improved, service in their own municipalities. Google, I guess, will stand ready to help. We’ll see what comes of this.