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August 30, 2010

Federal Learning Registry

This morning the Library Lab had a very productive conference call (yes, there are such things, you cynics!) with Steve Midgley about the federal Learning Registry.

The Learning Registry is a new project coming out of the Dept. of Education and the Defense Department, intended to provide easier, smarter access to federal content. The LR will list sources and provide ways to subscribe to metadata about the content at those sources. (There’s more in this blog post.)

It’s a fascinating project, and seems headed in the right directions. Unlike what we usually think of when we think of federal metadata projects, Steve is trying to keep the LR as lightweight as possible, providing transportation and subscription services, but not trying to come up with new standards and specs for metadata. This is purely a back-end effort, with no plan to build a data.gov-ish portal.

Very interesting. Meta Web 2.0-ish. Very cool that our government is thinking this way.

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August 29, 2010

Lewis Hyde’s plea for the commons, reviewed

The Boston Globe’s Ideas section — by far my favorite section of the paper — today reviews Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air. (Lewis is a fellow at the Berkman Center.) It’s an excellent review in both senses (until a last paragraph that assumes we all agree that gene sequences obviously ought to be patentable). (Here’s live-bloggery of a talk Lewis gave at the Berkman Center.) Last week, Robert Darnton reviewed the book in the NY Times. And Salon did a review in the form of a comic book.

There’s also an interview with Andrew Pettegree about what it took to get printed books to catch on. Apparently it wasn’t the big books but the proliferation of smaller books that created the market that sustained the printing of books.

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[2b2k] Open Access articles accelerate science?

A study by Gunther Eysenbach in PLoS Biology suggests that open access articles “are more immediately recognized and cited by peers than non-OA articles published in the same journal.” Therefore, he concludes, “OA is likely to benefit science by accelerating dissemination and uptake of research findings.”

The study consisted of comparing citations among OA and non-OA articles published June 8, 2004 – December 20, 2004, in PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Thanks to Don Marti for the link.)

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[2b2k] Nature Mag. vs. Univ of California

Nature and the University of California are in a negotiation that at the moment looks more like a game of chicken. Norman Oder has a very interesting post about it at Library Journal. “UC says it currently pays $4,465 per NPG [Nature Publishing Group] journal, while the proposed cost for 2011 is $17,479. Nature responds that the proposed cost per download represents a very good value.” Nature contends that the current pricing represents and overly-generous discount. Further, Nature points to a per-download cost of $0.56 under the new prices. Keith Yamamoto, a professor and executive vice dean at the University of California San Francisco, is threatening to organize a UC boycott of Nature titles.

It’s all very complex and I don’t claim to understand it. But it is yet one more indication that this system is very broken.

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A building becomes a toon

Awesome Ukrainian 3d lightshow. Watch at 480p

(Via empath at Metafilter)

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August 28, 2010

[2b2k] Scientific transparency vs. trust

Last January, Jean-Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel, posted about an assignment he gave his students: He asked them to find five different sources for the properties of a chemicals of their choosing. The results were sobering.

For example, in one case a paper that had spent five months undergoing peer review before being accepted by Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering got the water solubility of the chemical extract of green tea (EGCG) wrong. The source of the information had it right — caffeine is 21.7 grams per liter and EGCG is 5g/l — but likely through a transcription error, the number for caffeine got appended to the number for EGCG, resulting in EGCG’s solubility being reported in the paper not as 5 but as 521.7. That number is off by two orders of magnitude, and is so high that you’d think one of the peer reviewers or editors would have caught it. The chain of data in this case goes back through several more sources to a published experiment that, unfortunately, does not contain enough information to enable us (well, chemists like Jean-Claude) to fully judge its accuracy.

Jean-Claude’s point is not that all scientific data is wrong. Rather, it is that “trust should have no part in science.” Instead we should be able to check the sources of data, preferably all the way back to the lab notebooks and the raw instrument readings. That’s the impetus behind Jean-Claude’s open notebook science initiative.

Note that in this case, the correction to the published error is likely to come via a blog, but our ecology does not have an obvious or routine way in which good bloggy information can drive out bad published data. But, no nostalgia here, please! As Jean-Claude’s post shows, for all its peer reviewers and expert editors, the old ecology gave errors a stubborn rootedness.

If you accept that humans are more fallible than we’d like, then you build systems that accommodate change. Paper is not very accommodating in this regard. Worse, its fixity has contributed to our false confidence that we can get things right and know when we’ve done so.

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August 27, 2010

Google buys fourth social medium company in a month

Google has bought Angstro. Nancy Gohring at PC World says:

Angstro marks the fourth company that Google has acquired this month. It bought Slide, a social games developer; Jambool, a company that makes a platform for managing online payment for virtual goods sold on gaming and social-networking sites; andLike.com, a visual shopping engine.

Angstro’s Rohit Khare (who I know from conferences) in his blogging about the acquisition wrote: “”While our work here may be done, the struggle for open, interoperable social networks is still only just beginning, and I’m looking forward to working on that in my new role at Google.” I don’t know what Rohit’s role is going to be at Google, but he’s a good person to have anywhere, and especially if he’s going to push Google toward the goodness of a single, open, non-discriminatory Internet.

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August 26, 2010

A machine gun from the knee down

Rob Spence, a film maker, lost an eye. Rob Spence and Kosta Grammatis are working on replacing the eye with a wireless video camera, an invention that Time magazine called one of the 50 best of the year.

Now Rob is looking for a Rose McGowan wannabe (as in Grindhouse) with an amputated leg who would like a machine gun as a prosthetic.

The requirements for applicants:

Hereʼs the basics for the real Cherry Darling.

(1) You can be from anywhere but preferably close to Toronto, where I am from. If you truly kick ass it doesn’t matter where you are, we will find a way.

(2) We are going to help build you a paint ball machine gun leg and video document the process.

(3) When it’s all over you are going to take out dozens of dudes in a paintball gun match filmed Robert Rodriguez style.

(4) Your missing leg should be machine gun appropriate.

Send a photo, your height, and your story to:rob@eyeborgblog.com

But with only a paintballer, how will she do the Quake-style rocket jump like in the movie??? Without that, what’s the point?

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August 25, 2010

[2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing

I’ve been struggling with a section of my book that maintains that science is a form of publishing. It’s a useful lens, I think, for understanding some of the ways the Net is changing science.

This morning, I went for a book to read on the bus and came across Richard Rorty‘s Consequences of Pragmatism, a collection of essays that I had read half of and put aside about six months ago. And what’s the very next essay I was up to in it? “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Here is one way to look at physics: there are some invisible things which are parts of everything else and whose behavior determines the way everything else works. Physics is the search for an accurate description of those invisible things, and it proceeds by finding better and better explanations of the visible. …

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model …. and then they announce that the true meaning of the Book has been discovered. But, of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are someow “talking about the same thing,” the same invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.

Rorty’s essay applies the same distinction to philosophy as a way of explicating Derrida … and it is one of the clearest, most sympathetic, and most delightful explanations I’ve encountered.

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August 24, 2010

The sudden good that courts can do

I choked up this morning at the quote at the very end of this editorial from the Boston Globe:

It may never be a day off for state workers, but it is an increasingly important holiday for Massachusetts residents who take their state’s history seriously: Aug. 21. On that day in 1781, a young woman from Sheffield was the first slave to use the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, with its stirring language of “all men are born free and equal,’’ to win freedom in court. Her case was a precursor to a 1783 decision by the state’s highest court that ended slavery in Massachusetts.

Last Saturday, more than 100 people gathered in Sheffield to honor that woman, Mumbet, who took the name Elizabeth Freeman after her emancipation. The event was at the Ashley House, the home of Mumbet’s owner, Colonel John Ashley. To help in her case, Mumbet had enlisted a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. Once free, she worked as a midwife, nurse, healer, and employee of the Sedgwick family.

The Ashley House and Mumbet’s grave, in Stockbridge with the rest of the Sedgwicks, are stops on the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail. Other trail high points include the site of black historian W.E.B. DuBois’s childhood home in Great Barrington and the Pittsfield house of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, a chaplain in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War.

“Any time while I was a slave,’’ Mumbet once said, “if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I was told I would die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it, just to stand on God’s green earth a free woman.’’ The heritage trail and Aug. 21 holiday keep that spirit alive.

I think there are two reasons why Mumbet’s words make me well up, besides the fact that I feel a personal connection to that beautiful part of my freedom-loving state.

First, slavery is so unimaginably, grindingly, persistently evil yet it failed to crush her hope. How can that be?.

Second, it took so little to end that massive evil. It took a judge and a pen.

Of course, the judge could have that effect because he was part of a state constitutional system that put courts between laws and the people they govern. Our imperfect system is structured to allow the sudden assertion of human good.

Then and now when that happens – and we look mainly to the courts for it – rejoicing and tears run together.

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