Maybe, just maybe. There have been some intriguing experiments in which various documents have been encoded in DNA sequences and then recovered by appropriate means. I admit to a certain difficulty in visualizing this. By that I mean, it’s hard for me to form a mental picture of how that would work, even if the Boffins and smart guys tell me that it would, and has. But, that’s enough about me. This is all interesting news because the problem of data storage is a very serious one. People are casting about for new ideas on how to accomplish high-density storage of large files, and how to recover them when needed, in some reasonably timely fashion. The existing methods are starting to bump up against their practical limits, so something else has to be made available and fairly soon. DNA as a storage medium may just be the ticket. It’s not the only pony in the race. Other, more ‘physical’ methods are being researched as well, and perhaps a lot depends on who comes up with a good method, if not a perfect method, most quickly.
Dell Computers is a publicly traded company which fact the outfit’s owner, Michael Dell, wants to change. He wants to take it private: that means, he wants to get out of the whole stock, stockholder, forecast, quarterly earning reporting rat race. There are reasons to do this, and not the least of them is to gain freedom to do what you think is needed to put the company where it ought to be, at least in your estimate. This is all a rather complicated process, with lots of hoops and loops and a large number of people to placate. Essentially, Dell would buy back all its stock and pay its investors off in real money. Raising that much cash requires more that passing the hat at Yankee Stadium. Dell has to find some folks with big dough who agree this is a good idea.They, of course, would want something. One of the “Theys” mentioned by name recently as a possible source for financial cavalry at this crucial time in the struggle is Microsoft, which has indicated that it might be willing to go along for, oh, say, 2-3 Bil. The crowd at Redmond are not noted for corporate open-handedness, so people are starting to ask “what’s the catch?” The analysts have been pondering this move since the announcement and some see it as a strong bid to keep MS products alive somewhat longer. Helping Dell might mean helping MS keep a strong field of WIndows-based machines, which means more software licenses which means more money for that deserving company in Redmond, yes, Microsoft, that’s the one. MS is a little concerned over all this talk about a ‘post-PC’ computing era. PCs, desktop war horses and the programs they run are a major element in the MS revenue stream, so the company wants to keep the stream running along as merrily as it can. It could be that. At any rate, 3 Bil ain’t hay. All will be revealed.
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 annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas has come and gone. Much of the luster has worn off the CES, since it is no longer the venue for blockbuster product releases on the part of the tech biggies. Apple and the others have decided that it makes a lot more marketing sense to stage their own roll-outs, in which they are the Beginning, Middle and End. And why risk the possibility of an awkward comparisons between YourCo’s newly rolled-out gadget and the OtherGuyCo’s really much better piece of gear being shown two doors down. David Pogue is the tech writer for the New York Times and is generally well-informed and sensible in what he writes. His view of this year’s CES is that it was really not very exciting. It was a big show; it always is. But it seems to have been a lot of More of the Same, a lot more and really, really the same. Maybe tech is on its way to become a “mature business”. That is one in which the early phases of innovation and the sense of break-through give way to More of the Same, which is good, because that’s what the business is about, reliably selling the Same.
Elsevier is in the view of some that ‘roaring lion, seeking whom he devour; as the Scripture puts it. The tender gazelle being stalked is Mendeley, described as a science sharing social network. A number of these have sprung up over the years, but some of the earlier offerings are being wound up or incorporated into other packages. CONNOTEA and UNIphy have already shuttered or are about to. One of the hottest tickets in this market is a package called Mendeley, which claims to have a very large number of associated scientist members, and its representatives have been very active in calling on scientists to join up. All these scientific social networks offer the opportunity to ‘share’ materials with others. In some cases, publishers have watching with slitted eyes as this sharing seems to have skated close to the line of unauthorized distribution of copyrighted documents. A scribe for The Scholarly Kitchen notes these and other points about science social networks in general and Mendeley in particular as part of a longer post on what has come as a kind of mini bombshell, if you can have one of those. Earlier in the week, there was an announcement that Elsevier and Mendeley were deep in discussion about an acquisition. Elsevier was said to be offering 100 million USD for the company, which would become part of the publishing giant’s stable of products and services. It’s not entirely clear how the announcement came about and even whether it’s accurate. Some comments in the Kitchen post express doubts about the price, for one thing, which is considered much too high by some, but not so very high by others. More interesting is the series of observations about what could happen afterwards. If Mendeley is acquired by a billion dollar company, possible legal actions for infringement look more enticing. Then too, the service, once absorbed into the corporate umbrella becomes JAC Just Another Company, and loses its edgy, outsider image. Way too soon to pontificate, but as is usually the case, a post on the Kitchen is worth reading and thinking about.
I’m going at this rear-end on, so to speak, in that I’m inverting the order in which the pieces I’m talking about originally appeared. The Scholarly Kitchen features among its contributing staff a number of very savvy people who have been in the STM biz for a couple of centuries, when you lump their experience together. The Kitchen started with a long post on what the industry is doing wrong, and more on that later. That seemed a little unfair, so I waited until the companion piece, about what’s going right, appeared and figured I would launch that one out first. The cooks, as they call themselves (or maybe it’s chefs) came up with a goodly list of things that the industry is doing well. And there was a fair degree of overlap. One of the elements commented on quite frequently was the fact that STM publishing had switched to a digital ‘economy’ swiftly and well. A number of industries have not. Photography, the recording industry, newspaper and magazine publication are examples of industries that have not weathered the shift to digital production and distribution at all well. But, STM did,after some initial hesitation. Other factors include: the existence of standards, a certain enthusiasm and even dedication to the task of scholarly publication, flexibility in dealing with developing sciences, a well-educated work force and so on. One person commented that the best thing about STM publication is that it exists at all. “In a world” as the guy in the movie trailer voice overs used to say, where STM did not exist, how would the work of validating and disseminating scientific knowledge get done? OK, there is certainly room for improvement and no room for preening or complacency. But, the cooks want to ask the whole STM industry to “stand up now and take a bow”. As I was reading the contributions, I found myself nodding and saying ‘yes’. I hadn’t come up with much beyond the ‘standards’ part, which is the result of a couple centuries of people trying to figure out things: are there to be references? If yes, where should they go? What should they look like? Units of measure? Spelling? Language of submission(any? English? German?) None of this stuff is immediately obvious and a lot of it can be argued in more than one way. Today when you send your manuscript off to PNAS, you know that it will appear very nicely, with everything just so. We don’t even advert to this rather wonderful thing, so accustomed to it are we now. And the shift to a digital basis was a triumph. OK, OK, next week we’ll look at the other side.
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
Yes, if you believe the result of a recent review, published in the Annals of Oncology recently. The authors surveyed a large number of clinical trial reports and found out that researchers tended to downplay the seriousness of side effects, even omitting any mention of them in some instances. Investigators also tended to exaggerate secondary findings, which were not part of the study design and could be traced to chance.
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.