Archive for: June, 2010

Frederik Pohl on Alan Turing

Following up on my post from a few days ago, a short appreciation of Alan Turing by noted sf author Frederik Pohl:

The close of Pride Month seems an apt time to talk about Alan Turing, inventor of the famed Turing Test for identifying independent intelligence in computers, worked for the British code breakers in World War II, and was one of the leading figures who successfully cracked the secret German messages, a feat which played a considerable part in the victory over Hitler.

Pohl is one of my all-time favourite sf authors and his blog The Way the Future Blogs is an excellent updating of his classic memoir The Way the Future Was.

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Friday Fun: Suffering Blue Whales Plead With Environmentalists To Let Them Go Extinct Already

Jun 25 2010 Published by under environment, friday fun

Sometimes it's only through humour that we can understand just how serious an issue is. This is one of those cases. Heartbreakingly sad yet somehow ringing very true, this one is from The Onion: Suffering Blue Whales Plead With Environmentalists To Let Them Go Extinct Already.

NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN--Claiming that their miserable lives had become too depressing to endure, the world's remaining blue whales surfaced Monday and desperately pleaded with environmentalists to immediately cease all conservation efforts so the species could "just be done with it and finally go extinct."

The planet's last few thousand blue whales gathered around the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in the Bering Sea at approximately 9:45 a.m., thanking the activists on board for their good intentions, but also stating that the oceans had become so polluted, they had decided it was simply not worth going on.

"We really appreciate all you've done for us, but now you need to let us die," intoned a 170-ton blue whale through a series of deep and mournful vocalizations. "I swallowed two plastic coolers, a tire, and about a hundred gallons of oil this morning. Is that any way to live?"

And from an article and report that's not meant to be funny:

"I don't see any future for whale species except extinction," Payne said. "This is not on anybody's radar, no government's radar anywhere, and I think it should be."

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Canadian Engineering Education Association Inaugural Conference recap

First of all, the conference program is here. All the paper versions of the presentations will eventually be deposited in Queen's IR, QSpace, but don't seem to be there yet. I posted about my presentation here: Using a Blog to Engage Students in Literature Search Skills Sessions.

Now, If there can be said to be a theme to a conference which has no official theme, then the CEEA conference's theme was nicely summed up by a question from the audience during one of the sessions:

"How do you teach humbleness?"

Again and again it came up -- the challenge of teaching young, confident and accomplished engineering students to stop and think. To see social context, the big picture, to see their own blindspots, to engage lifelong learning, to focus on the uncertainties rather than certainties. Most of all, to be humble and open minded when set the talk of solving hard technical problems.

Perhaps it was my own selection of sessions to attend that gave this theme its shape and other's wouldn't see it the same way. Perhaps it was the shadow of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But I don't think so, basically due to the selection of keynote speakers. Of course, many of the presentations were of a purely technical nature, talking about the best way to get across hard core engineering information to students, so it's completely possible that another attendee would have a different view.

In any case, since the papers will be posted eventually, I'm not going to go into a detailed summary of the presentations. However, I will try and draw a "humbleness" line, however tenuous, through many of the various talks I attended.

It started with the Graduate Attribute Assessment Workshop on Monday morning where a lot of the talk was about the place of lifelong learning into the CEAB's set of graduate attributes. And it continued with Queen's librarian Michael White's talk Back to the Future: Teaching Students How to Search Patent Databases which was basically about teaching students to search as widely as possible and as thoroughly as possible -- basically to use the esp@cenet tool instead of some of the more commonly used ones.

Queen's librarian Nasser Saleh and David Strong's Students' Conceptions of Life-Long Learning: An exploratory study was also very strongly about engendering strong communications stills, humbleness and intellectual curiously among engineering students.

Doug Reeve, Greg Evans and Annie Simpson's The Leader-Engineer - Capabilities, Competencies, and Attributes brought leadership into the equation. Leadership is something that can be taught and that every engineer must do at some point.

Next up was plenary speaker, former local politician Sean Conway was basically about engineering getting beyond the stereotypical image of "The Iron Ring Crowd" who talk down to and at non-technical people and engaging more authentically and honestly as peers with the people that are affected by technical decisions.

I'll now mention a few presentations together: Medhat Moussa and William David Lubitz' Enhanced transfer of Design skills using Professor of the Loop structured Meetings, Medhat Moussa, William David Lubitz and Antony Savich's Publishing undergraduate engineering designs, a case study and Margaret Hundleby, Medhat Moussa, William David Lubitz and Peggy A. Pritchard's A Writing Kit for Engineering Design Reports. These papers described an amazing University of Guelph program of mentoring and guiding students through all the phases of design projects with intense involvement of professors, writing instructors and librarians.

Kadra Branker, Jacqueline Corbett, Jane Webster, Koray Sayili, Ivana Zelenika-Zovko and Joshua Pearce's Engineering Service Learning with Green Information Technology and Systems Projects described a project to involve engineering students in real-world sustainability projects.

The Tuesday evening keynote was by George Roter, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Engineers Without Borders Canada. In a truly wonderful talk, Roter really emphasized the value of uncertainty and humbleness when teaching engineers -- teaching them about what they don't know as much as about what they do know.

John Phillips, Christian Giroux and Warren Stiver's The Collaboration of Fine Art & Engineering at the University of Guelph described a really amazing collaboration between the engineering labs and fine arts students -- expanding the horizons of both. Vicki Remenda's The Great Debate: A Vehicle for Inquiry and Critical Assessment of Knowledge was about using formal public debates as a way of showing students the reality of different sides of an issue, that there's passion on all sides and a validity to exploring that.

Overall, it was a terrific conference. The size was just right, with a total attendance of around 125 or so. It was very intimate, with a real community feeling. It was great to reconnect with several library colleagues (Sharon Murphy, Nasser Saleh, Morag Coyne, Michael White, Randy Reichardt) and meet a few new ones too (Tara Mawhinney, Leanne Morrow) as well as getting a chance to meet and talk to a number of engineering faculty. As it happens, there were only two of us from York, the Associate Dean for Engineering Spiros Pagiatakis and me, and I was the only one presenting.

I continue to think that it's incredibly important for us as librarians to get out of the library conference rut and start going to the intellectual spaces where our patrons -- faculty, staff and students -- live and work. Get to know them and we get to know ourselves, to understand what we should be doing. Similarly, if they get to know us and what we can offer, it just makes our lives easier. Attending an engineering education conference is part of that.

One thing that was a bit unfortunate was all but one of the the librarian presentations (and there were six in total) were segregated into two Information Research and Management sessions. Pretty well all our presentations could have easily fit into one of the other categories. As a result, the two sessions were mostly other librarians and a few brave faculty souls; from the comments I heard from those faculty that did attend the librarian sessions (both about my presentation and about the others), I think all our sessions had a broader interest and both we and the conference as a whole would have benefited from a slightly different setup. But that's just a quibble.

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Stephen Wolfram on Alan Turing

Jun 23 2010 Published by under computer science, history

Nice post by Stephen Wolfram on the Wolfram|Alpha blog, Happy Birthday, Alan Turing:

He was in some respects a quintessential British amateur, dipping his intellect into different areas. He achieved a high level of competence in pure mathematics, and used that as his professional base. His contributions in traditional mathematics were certainly perfectly respectable, though not spectacular. But in every area he touched, there was a certain crispness to the ideas he developed--even if their technical implementation was sometimes shrouded in arcane notation and masses of detail.

In some ways he was fortunate to live when he did. For he was at the right time to be able take the formalism of mathematics as it had been developed, and to combine it with the emerging engineering of his day, to see for the first time the general concept of computation.

It is perhaps a shame that he died 25 years before computer experiments became widely feasible. I certainly wonder what he would have discovered tinkering with Mathematica. I don't doubt that he would have pushed it to its limits, writing code that would horrify me. But I fully expect that long before I did, he would have discovered the main elements of NKS, and begun to understand their significance.

More on Alan Turing here.

(Via Jennifer Peterson of Wolfram Research.)

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Music Mondays: David Gilmour on Chopping up Albums

Jun 21 2010 Published by under kids today, music mondays, social media

Yes, that David Gilmour.

Anyways, there was a post on Gilmour's blog a few months ago that provoked quite a little storm: Chopping up albums.

Basically, the point Gilmour makes is that many albums are really meant to be listened to as a whole and shouldn't be split into individual tracks at record companies' whims. Read the whole thing to get the full sense of his argument, but I think the excerpt below gives a good sense:

I'll go first: Blood on the Tracks' frenetic 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' by Bob Dylan. There, I said it. (Forgive me, Bob.) More often than not, it gives me an instant headache. As does Don Henley's 'Man With a Mission' (from Building the Perfect Beast). But I can skip these songs when my head is feeling particularly delicate and they remain part of two of my favourite albums regardless. Granted, when purchased, there was no option to pick and choose each song, nor to preview them freely at leisure. However, I still feel that today's wider choice is mostly irrelevant to me when it comes to downloading music, and surely this should be all the more true when it comes to concept albums.

In fact, of Pink Floyd's more obvious concept albums, you'd be hard pressed to find a track that does not segue at either its beginning or end.

Can you imagine 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' not turning into 'With a Little Help from My Friends'? Or 'Overture' from The Who's Tommy not concluding with the joyous announcement that 'It's a Boy'?

I'd enjoy sharing your examples of the perfect song segue, if you care to.

So, lots of questions to end the week with and perhaps to aggravate you well into the weekend, but I have (almost) managed to refrain from asking whether we should condone public flogging as the only punishment befitting the heinous crime of savagely butchering Dark Side of the Moon.

Now, there's a thought... Dare I suggest that maybe EMI got off lightly?

On the other side, is Cory Doctorow:

No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole -- like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through -- they sound like cranky throwbacks.

The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago. There are some anachronisms who love their long-form opera, but the real action is in the more fluid stuff that can slither around on hot wax -- and now the superfluid droplets of MP3s and samples. Opera survives, but it is a tiny sliver of a much bigger, looser music market. The future composts the past: old operas get mounted for living anachronisms; Andrew Lloyd Webber picks up the rest of the business.

Personally, I still buy CDs, I still like albums that have a unified sound. But...you'd have to pry my iPhone/iTunes out of my cold dead hands.

How about you? Gilmour or Doctorow or can they somehow coexist?

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Friday Fun: Great Literature Retitled to Boost Website Traffic

Jun 18 2010 Published by under friday fun

From McSweeney's, a glimpse into the future perhaps...

7 Awesome Ways Barnyard Animals Are Like Communism

The 11 Stupidest Things Phonies Do To Ruin The World

8 Surprising Ways West Egg Is Exemplary Of The Hollowness Of The American Dream

And that's only the first half of them...head on over to the original link for more.

Of course, this is the kind of Friday Fun that really encourages audience participation. Let's see if we can't all take a few of our favourite books and turn them into link bait!

3 Amazing Ways to Turn Mars into an Earth-like Planet!

Want to create a plague that will kill most the people on the planet and pit humanity against eternal evil...Here's how!

11 Simple Ways to Return Cthulhu to His Rightful Place in Our Dimension!

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Best Science Books 2009: Royal Society 2010 Prize for Science Books

Jun 17 2010 Published by under best science books 2009, science books

This list is usually the very, very last of the best books lists of the year. It's a good list, but since it's UK-based there are a number of books that we probably won't be seeing on North American shores for another year or so. I'll probably get around to updating my 2009 summary list later this week or next week.

  • We Need To Talk About Kelvin: What everyday things tell us about the universe by Marcus Chown
  • Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
  • Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne
  • In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin
  • Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic by Frederick Grinnell
  • God's Philosophers: How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science by James Hannam
  • Storms of My Grandchildren:The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen
  • Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England by Steve Jones
  • Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane
  • The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell
  • A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack

Update 2010.07.09: Added Grinnell book which I somehow managed to forget initially.

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CEEA Presentation: Using a Blog to Engage Students in Literature Search Skills Sessions

Jun 16 2010 Published by under academia, blogging, education, engineering, social media

Last week I was at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Inaugural Conference in Kingston. It was a great conference and a very auspicious beginning for this very new organization. I have a summary post in the works which I hope to have up fairly soon.

I presented the above titled paper on Monday afternoon, June 7th. It went pretty well -- I was part of a session with a couple of other librarian presentations so it was mostly just us librarians. However, there were several faculty members present and I did get a couple of nice comments about the presentation later on in the conference, including one faculty member who said she wanted to start her own course blog.

So: presentation slides here, paper version here.

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Librarians vs. Nature

And that's Nature as in Nature Publishing Group rather than the narrative strategy.

I missed the story when it broke earlier this week in The Chronicle -- I was attending the absolutely fantastic Canadian Engineering Education Association conference in Kingston from Monday to Wednesday. And when I got back, Thursday and Friday weren't the types of days that were conducive to blogging. I'm still feeling a bit behind on the whole issue so doing this post is helping to feel a bit more up-to-speed.

The story, from the Chronicle article that more-or-less started it all, U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs.

The University of California system has said "enough" to the Nature Publishing Group, one of the leading commercial scientific publishers, over a big proposed jump in the cost of the group's journals.

On Tuesday, a letter went out to all of the university's faculty members from the California Digital Library, which negotiates the system's deals with publishers, and the University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication. The letter said that Nature proposed to raise the cost of California's license for its journals by 400 percent next year. If the publisher won't negotiate, the letter said, the system may have to take "more drastic actions" with the help of the faculty. Those actions could include suspending subscriptions to all of the Nature Group journals the California system buys access to--67 in all, including Nature.

With the money quote at the end, indicating that perhaps Nature doesn't quite get what's really going on in the academy:

"There's a strong feeling that this is an irresponsible action on the part of NPG," he told The Chronicle. That feeling is fueled by what he called "a broad awareness in the scientific community that the world is changing rather rapidly with respect to scholarly publication."

Although researchers still have "a very strong tie to traditional journals" like Nature, he said, scientific publishing has evolved in the seven years since the Elsevier boycott. "In many ways it doesn't matter where the work's published, because scientists will be able to find it," Mr. Yamamoto said.

In the wake of that, Nature responded and the University of California responded back.

For some of the best commentary, check out Scibling Dorothea Salo's following posts: California throws the gauntlet in NPG's face, Musings on worms turning and Gauntlet volleying.

Yet another Scibling, Christina Pikas, has a good summary and context post here, picking up some more recent posts.

Some of the more recent posts (and one editorial cartoon) that I've found interesting are:

And finally, my take.

First of all, it's worth noting that Ontario universities negotiate most of our subscription deals with big publishers on a province-wide basis. Typically, a deal is made and then individual institutions can opt in as desired. The negotiations are obviously high-stakes, locking in a huge amount of money.

So, this kind of thing really resonates with me. I do hope that the UofC system sticks to their guns and negotiates a deal with Nature that is very similar to the one that's expiring. To me that seems only fair. NPG is really reaching on this one -- a clear ploy to pad their bottom line and maintain previous profitability levels in tough times. Guess what? The pain that's going around these days needs to be shared.

The reason that I'm rooting for California is that it will make it much less likely that NPG will try the same trick on the rest of us. And that's a good thing.

What are the long-term implications of this dust-up? Hard to say, but one thing's for sure is that it has once again made it very clear that the commercial publishers really aren't on the side of libraries, researchers, scholarship, science, curing the common cold, putting another person on the moon, apple pie, motherhood or any other of those wonderful things. As is appropriate for their status as for-profit organizations, they're on their own side.

Their primary focus is making money for their owners. This is completely fair and completely justified. And should come as no big surprise. As far as I can tell, they're pretty honest about it for the most part if you look at their actions and financial statements rather than their PR. Speaking for myself, I generally have good working relationships with colleagues in commercial publishers and other for-profit vendors; I really don't have much of a choice. I just try and be realistic with my expectations.

The core question for those of us who do support all those wonderful things I mention above is how we should move forward from this. And I think the answer is clear: we should work towards weaning ourselves, our institutions, our students and our scholars away from a dependence on for-profit publishing and towards a scholarly landscape based on openness.

Easier said than done, of course. But every once in a while it's useful to be reminded why it's so important to work towards that goal. For that timely reminder, we can thank the Nature Publishing Group.

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Friday Fun: Entire Facebook Staff Laughs As Man Tightens Privacy Settings

Jun 11 2010 Published by under Add category, friday fun, kids today, social media

Priceless, just priceless.

PALO ALTO, CA--All 1,472 employees of Facebook, Inc. reportedly burst out in uncontrollable laughter Wednesday following Albuquerque resident Jason Herrick's attempts to protect his personal information from exploitation on the social-networking site. "Look, he's clicking 'Friends Only' for his e-mail address. Like that's going to make a difference!" howled infrastructure manager Evan Hollingsworth, tears streaming down his face, to several of his doubled-over coworkers. "Oh, sure, by all means, Jason, 'delete' that photo. Man, this is so rich." According to internal sources, the entire staff of Facebook was left gasping for air minutes later when the "hilarious" Herrick believed he had actually blocked third-party ads.

My sincere apologies to the Onion for reprinting their entire article here but it was just too damn funny to resist. Please, to show them support and pageviews, click on over there right now!

On a more serious (and hopeful) note, there seems to be some hope for a middle ground: The Tell-All Generation Learns When Not To, at Least Online

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