Archive for: August, 2010

Review of: Makers by Cory Doctorow

I actually read the freely downloadable version of Cory Doctorow's novel Makers on my Kobo ereader, even though I did buy the hardcover when it came out last year. Mostly, I wanted to check out the experience of reading a long text on my reader. Overall, the Kobo reading experience was terrific, not much different from reading a paper book. I tried it on both long inter-city bus rides and my regular commute as well as just sitting around the house. The Kobo is pretty bare bones, as these readers go, but it was good enough to consume fairly simple text. The Makers text was in epub format and that worked out pretty well. I've tried other texts in PDF format on the Kobo and the experience there is actually quite poor as it doesn't reflow the PDFs, requiring a lot of "pan & scan." I still haven't figured out what price I'm willing to pay in real money for a digital text I can't lend, resell, donate or share within my family. I'm still thinking it's not very much. As such, I haven't explored the Kobo store yet.

As for the Makers itself, I'll admit to rather enjoying it. Doctorow tells a cracking good story, fast-paced and exciting with reasonably good characters. If you're interested in a kind of near-future, post-scarcity view of what the capitalist and consumerist economy might evolve into in a 10-20 year time-frame, this is the book for you. Doctorow imagines a world of near-ubiquitous 3D printers and crumbling social structures with big corporations struggling to maintain their economic and political hegemonies. It's also a kind of geeky bromance/buddy picture/Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vibe to it that's feels both incredibly compelling and a bit odd. It's like Judd Apatow grew up and made a movie out of Das Kapital.

On the other hand, I tend to see the "hand of the author" in the story a bit too much. Doctorow has a definite world view, a world view that revolves around openness and sharing and a radical transformation of what work and production are becoming. His world view has black hats and white hats, good guys and bad guys. It's possible for characters to grow, to show shades of grey, to be something other than perfect exemplars for one or the other side in his world view set piece, but it's rare. Because, really, his novels are just parables set in his world view. And really, that's ok. I share a fair number of principles with Doctorow but sometimes I just wish his novels weren't "just so." The plot follows too strongly from the world view.

In his Little Brother, a book explicitly aimed at young adults, the coincidence-driven, gosh-wow, good guys vs. bad guys shtick seems to go down easier. It's also his best book, where audience expectations seem to meet the structure of the work. And frankly, Makers mostly reads like a YA novel too, except for a few obviously R-rated scenes.

And there are a lot of similarities between the two books: eeeevillll apparatchiks, stout-hearted friends who stick by their pals no matter what, even the hero gets pretty well the same fire-breathing, ass-kicking, touch-chick girlfriend in pretty well the same way. Both heroes in Makers, actually, when I think about it.

Anyways, read the damn book. You won't be disappointed -- but you will be challenged.

Doctorow, Cory. Makers. New York: Tor, 2009. 416pp.

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Friday Fun: Calling bullshit on social media

Aug 13 2010 Published by under friday fun, social media

I'm still enjoying my informal, semi-serious, so-funny-it-hurts Friday Fun series on the slings and arrows of online social media/networking practices.

The first three have been:

This entry is probably the most serious and, oddly, the only one that doesn't revolve around the number 5.


Scott Berkun has a though-provoking list of things we should keep in mind when extolling the insane virtues of all that social networking and social media stuff. In other words, he's Calling bullshit on social media.

Here's the list -- and please do read the complete text over at the original post, it's very good.

  • We have always had social networks.
  • There has always been word of mouth, back-channel, "authentic" media tools.
  • The new media does not necessarily destroy the old. TV was supposed to kill radio - this was wrong. TV forced radio to change and in some ways improve. The web forced TV, newspapers and magazines to change, and they will likely survive forever in some form, focusing on things the web can not do well. Its unusual for new thing to completely replace the old ones and when they do it takes years. Anyone who claims social media will eliminate standard PR or mass media is engaging in hype, as odds are better those things will change and learn, but never die. It's wise to ask what each kind of media / marketing is good and bad for and work from there.
  • Social media consultants writing about social media have inherent biases.
  • Signal to Noise is always the problem.
  • All technologies cut both ways and social media will be no different.
  • Be suspicious of technologies claimed to change the world.
  • Always ask "What problem am I trying to solve?"

Berkun also lists some responses and follow up to his post.

The comments are great two. Given my earlier posts in this "series," I like this one a lot:

Scott, if anyone reads just one thing about social media, let it be this.

Seriously, this could help a lot of people not be douchebags online, because frankly, the things that fall under the title "social media" can be very useful. If they're used well, like you're pointing out here, they can be a good thing.

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Keeping up-to-date with the cool conference scene

Aug 12 2010 Published by under academia, librarianship

I recently had an interesting online exchange with Andrew Colgoni, Science Fluencies Libraries at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. (blog).

He's interested in how I somehow seem up-to-date on all the various cool conferences and happenings in the Science 2.0 space. While I'm not sure I have all the answers on this issue -- and that we all really need to find our own way in our professional development activities -- it is interesting to be able to provide some mid-career advice to an early-career librarian.

Here it is, a slightly edited version of our FriendFeed DM conversation:

Andrew: John, I'm wondering how you keep 'up' on the science-related conferences that also merge with information and librarianship interests (like Science 2.0 or others). I seem to find about them after they've happened. Advice welcome.

John: Hi Andrew. I guess a few things

  • First of all, those conferences have generally found a way to find me. I've definitely had periods where I've written a lot about science 2.0 stuff on my blog so people who are interested in those issues end up finding me through those posts. If people know you're interested and engaged in the issues, they'll put you on lists, send you emails, call you up and visit you at your library, invite you to help organize, whatever. At one point, a certain mover & shaker in the field literally called me up and asked to come visit me at my office because of my blog.
  • Part of it is also figuring out who the significant people are in the movement and make sure you follow them, on FriendFeed, Twitter, Nature Network or or wherever. Cameron Neylon, Bora Zivkovic, Jean-Claude Bradley, Martin Fenner, Eva Amsen are good people to follow internationally and probably Michael Nielsen is a good person to follow locally. If you pay attention to what they're doing, there isn't too much that's going on that you're going to miss. I would definitely recommend following at least as many scientists, science educators & communicators and science publishing and scholarly communications people on Twitter as library people. And the science types that follow you back present an opportunity for dialogue and sharing. After all, most of our job involves dealing with their needs. A cool thing about getting involved directly with the community is that I've met all the people I mention above.
  • Also, just find something and go to it. Science Online London is coming up in a few weeks and that would be a great one to go to (although timing-wise and distance/cost-wise it might not be ideal). Science Online 2011 is coming up in January in North Carolina and that's probably the best single conference to attend annually. Following Bora will definitely keep you up to date on that one. It's a great conference with usually a fair number of librarians in attendance.
  • And I can't emphasize enough the importance of going to non-librarian conferences. This year I also went to and presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association conference in Kingston and that was a great opportunity to meet faculty and get to know what their issues are -- and to talk about our issues/opportunities/programs with them. I've been to four conferences this year and the Ontario Library Association was the only library one -- Science Online, CEEA and Science Foo Camp being the others.

Thanks John. To give myself a *little* credit, I am doing some of those things (like following directly or indirectly many of the people you've named). Even so, just because of sheer information overload, sometimes I miss the critical bit that would clue me in. I suppose I wish there was a central place to see all these kinds of conferences in one place. Having said that, I'm not sure what's stopping me from making that list myself, and posting it somewhere.

The reason I asked you is basically what you said in point 4, above. I agree that we librarians can get a bit insular if we're not careful (as with many professions). I try to get to various university internal conferences, but outside of the Science 2.0 conference in Toronto last summer, I haven't been to any science-related conferences. I have been to the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference twice now, though.

Actually, you're right, you're doing fine. Don't stress it too much. You're at the beginning of your career anyway so the natural tendency will be for you to build up your librarian network, and that's ok. In the long run, if you decide the STLHE conference is the most useful non-library conference for you then go for it. We don't all have to go to the same conferences so if some librarians go to Science Online because that's what interests them and others go to STLHE or ASEE or CEEA then that's actually kind of the ideal situation. The problem is, we all tend to go to the main librarian conferences and mostly just hear ourselves talk in kind of a librarian echo chamber.

Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate going to OLA and I think most everyone should try and attend their local association annual conference to help keep up to date with what's going on in the library world. But we're all pretty well going to have some external interest or link that should take us out of our comfort zone, be it a music conference for music librarians or Infomation Architechture or UX for techies or something like Book Camp TO or JCDL for collections librarians or education/literacy conferences for instructional librarians. Believe it or not, I have a Theory of Conferences.

Any other tips for Andrew?

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Wednesday Fun: Librarians Abandon Dewey Decimal System in Favor of Netflix Categories

Aug 11 2010 Published by under friday fun, librarianship

Consider this a bonus Friday Fun entry for the summer silly season...

Anyways, the Cronk of Higher Ed finally sees fit to subject librarians to the mockery we deserve: Librarians Abandon Dewey Decimal System in Favor of Netflix Categories!

"We found that we were spending an extraordinary amount of time explaining the Dewey Decimal classification system to our students, and they simply weren't retaining the information," explained Janet Poleman, director of the college's library. "Our students will return this fall to find an exciting new system categorizing our literature."

All books in the college's library will now be categorized using familiar Netflix categories.

"There has definitely been some healthy debate as to where some of our books will now live," said Poleman, recounting a particularly heated debate about whether Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights belonged in the "Romantic Comedy" or "Cerebral Drama" section.

There's a hilarious conversion sheet in the Cronk article that you really have to read!

And yes, most academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification system rather than the Dewey Decimal Classification system but I think enough smaller college libraries do use DDC to make the article "realistic."

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Suppose you had a digital simulation of Paris Hilton's brain...

Now that's an attention-getter!

It comes from Ted Chiang's Big Idea post on John Scalzi's blog Whatever. It's a promotional piece for Chiang's latest book, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which is about artificial intelligence.

For those of you that haven't heard of him, Chiang is one of the real breakout science fiction writers of the last two decades or so; his stories have consistently won both awards and the highest praise from reviewers and critics. This is his longest work to date. (His first collection is Stories of Your Life and Others, which has many of his most famous stories.)

A couple of choice quotes from the Big Idea!

It's been over a decade since we built a computer that could defeat the best human chess players, yet we're nowhere near building a robot that can walk into your kitchen and cook you some scrambled eggs. It turns out that, unlike chess, navigating the real world is not a problem that can be solved by simply using faster processors and more memory. There's more and more evidence that if we want an AI to have common sense, it will have to develop it in the same ways that children do: by imitating others, by trying different things and seeing what works, and most of all by accruing experience. This means that creating a useful AI won't just be a matter of programming, although some amazing advances in software will definitely be required; it will also involve many years of training. And the more useful you want it to be, the longer the training will take.


And that's what I was really interested in writing about: the kind of emotional relationship might develop between humans and AIs. I don't mean the affection that people feel for their iPhones or their scrupulously maintained classic cars, because those machines have no desires of their own. It's only when the other party in the relationship has independent desires that you can really gauge how deep a relationship is. Some pet owners ignore their pets whenever they become inconvenient; some parents do as little for their children as they can get away with; some lovers break up with each other the first time they have a big argument. In all of those cases, the people are unwilling to put effort into the relationship. Having a real relationship, whether with a pet or a child or a lover, requires that you be willing to balance someone else's wants and needs with your own.

I really need to get myself a copy of that book!

(And yes, you'll have to head over to Scalzi's blog to see the context of the title quote!)

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Report on the 2010 Computer Science Education conference

Aug 09 2010 Published by under computer science, education

Eugene Wallingford of the blog Knowing and Doing was at the SIGCSE Computer Science Education conference this past spring and as usual he provides a very fine report over a number of posts.

  • SIGCSE DAY 0 -- Media Computation Workshop

    I headed to SIGCSE a day early this year in order to participate in a couple of workshops. The first draw was Mark Guzdial's and Barbara Ericson's workshop using media computation to teach introductory computing to both CS majors and non-majors. I have long been a fan of this work but have never seen them describe it. This seemed like a great chance to learn a little from first principles and also to hear about recent developments in the media comp community.

  • SIGCSE DAY 0 -- New Educators Roundtable

    The new educators themselves came from this range of schools and more (one teaches at Milwaukee Area Technical College up the street) and were otherwise an even more mixed lot, ranging from undergrads to university instructors with several years experience. The one thing they all have in common is a remarkable passion for teaching. They inspired this old-timer with their energy for 100-hour work weeks and their desire to do great things in the classroom.

  • SIGCSE Day One -- Computation and The Sciences

    In the second paper, Craig Struble described a three-day workshop for introducing computer science to high school science teachers. Struble and his colleagues at Marquette offered the workshop primarily for high school science teachers in southeast Wisconsin, building on the ideas described in A Novel Approach to K-12 CS Education: Linking Mathematics and Computer Science. The workshop had four kinds of sessions:

    • tools: science, simulation, probability, Python, and VPython
    • content: mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology
    • outreach: computing careers, lesson planning
    • fun: CS unplugged activities, meals and other personal interaction with the HS teachers
  • SIGCSE Day One -- What Should Everyone Know about Computation?

    In a way unlike many other disciplines, writing programs can affect how we think in other areas. A member of the audience pointed out CS also fundamentally changes other disciplines by creating new methodologies that are unlike anything that had been practical before. His example was the way in which Google processes and translates language. Big data and parallel processing have turned the world of linguistics away from Chomskian approach and toward statistical models of understanding and generating language.

  • SIGCSE Day One -- The Most Influential CS Ed Papers

    You can see the list of papers, books, and websites offered by the panelists on this page. The most impassioned proposal was Eric Roberts's tale of how much Rich Pattis's Karel the Robot affects Stanford's intro programming classes to this day, over thirty years after Rich first created Karel.

  • SIGCSE This and That, Volume 1

    People, listen to me: problem-solve is not a verb. It is not a word at all. Just say solve problems. It works just fine. Trust me.

  • SIGCSE -- What's the Buzz?

    The real buzz this year was CS, and CS ed, looking outward. Consistent with recent workshops like SECANT, SIGCSE 2010 was full of talk about computer science interacting with other disciplines, especially science but also the arts. Some of this talk was about how CS can affect science education, and some was about how other disciplines can affect CS education.

  • SIGCSE Day 2 -- Reimagining the First Course

    What's up? A large and influential committee of folks from high schools, universities, and groups such as the ACM and NSF are designing a new course. It is intended as an alternative to the traditional CS1 course, not as a replacement. Rather than starting with programming or mathematics as the foundation, of the the course, the committee is first identifying a set of principles of computing and then designing a course to teach these principles. Panel leader Owen Astrachan said that the are engineering a course, given the national scale of the project and the complexity of creating something that works at lots of schools and for lots of students.

  • SIGCSE Day 2 -- Al Aho on Teaching Compiler Construction

    So, what should we teach? Syntax and semantics are fairly well settled as matter of theory. We can thus devote time to the less mathematical parts of the job, such as the art of writing grammars. Aho noted that in the 2000s, parsing natural languages is mostly a statistical process, not a grammatical one, thanks to massive databases of text and easy search. I wonder if parsing programming languages will ever move in this direction... What would that mean in terms of freer grammar, greater productivity, or confusion?

  • SIGCSE Day 3 -- Interdisciplinary Research

    Three ideas stayed with me as my conference closed:

    • One panelist made a great comment in the spirit of looking outward. Paraphrase: While we in CS argue about what "computational thinking" means, we should embrace the diversity of computational thinking done out in the world and reach out to work with partners in many disciplines.
    • Another panelist commented on the essential role that computing plays in other disciplines. He used biology as his example. Paraphrase: To be a biologist these days requires that you understand simulation, modeling, and how to work with large databases. Working with large databases is the defining characteristic of social science these days.
    • Many of the issues that challenge computer scientists who want to engage in interdisciplinary research of this sort are ones we have encountered for a long time. For instance, how can a computer scientist find the time to gain all of the domain knowledge she needs?
  • This and That, Volume 2

    How many professors throw busy slides full of words and bullet points up on the projector, apologize for doing so, and then plow ahead anyway? Judging from SIGCSE, too many.

    How many professors go on and on about importance of active learning, then give straight lectures for 15, 45, or even 90 minutes? Judging from SIGCSE, too many.

    Mismatches like these are signals that it's time to change what we say, or what we do. Old habits die hard, if at all.

    Finally, anyone who thinks professors are that much different than students, take note. In several sessions, including Aho's talk on teaching compilers, I saw multiple faculty members in the audience using their cell phones to read e-mail, surf the web, and play games. Come on... We sometimes say, "So-and-so wrote the book on that", as a way to emphasize the person's contribution. Aho really did write the book on compilers. And you'd rather read e-mail?

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Friday Fun: 5 Things Serious Tech People Need To Stop Tweeting

Aug 06 2010 Published by under friday fun, social media

Today's Friday Fun continues the curious informal summer series of light-hearted takes on social media/network etiquette, begun two weeks ago with 5 signs you're talking with a social media douchebag and last week with 5 terms social media douchebags need to stop using.

This time around it's 5 Things Serious Tech People Need To Stop Tweeting.

Look technology friends, Twitter is a lovely thing, but when we tweet certain things we make our followers cringe and twitch towards the unfollow button. Do whatever you will, but after reading literally millions of tweets I think that if we cut out the following Tweets we would all be better off.

And of course, I am just as guilty as you are.

And the five things, with complete (and humourous) text at the original link:

  • Tweeting Every Damn Place You Go
  • Vague Victory Tweets
  • Whiny Lame Complaints
  • The New Apple Product You Just Purchased
  • Retweeting People We All Follow

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Scientists: What do librarians need to know about how you communicate?

Dorothea Salo asks the question over on The Book of Trogool.

What do you, scientists, want librarians to know about how you communicate with other scientists? Where do you feel uncertain about the process? Where do you think it's coming up short? Do you think the process should change, and if so, how and how not?

I'm aware that librarians get stuck in our own thought-bubbles just like everybody else--I myself am certainly no exception. Here's a stab at bursting the bubble.

Head on over and let her know!

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A blog of substance...

Aug 05 2010 Published by under blogging, culture of science, librarianship

Thanks to Mike the Mad Biologist for tagging me with this meme. Like Mike, I'm not much of a memer, but this one looks interesting (and simple) enough to give a try.

The idea is to "Sum up your blogging motivation, philosophy and experience in exactly 10 words" and then to tag 10 further blogs.

So, here goes:

Bring the world of scientists to librarians and vice versa.

That was strangely easy to formulate and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Similarly, I think it's an overall mission statement rather than something that needs to be implemented with each post I make. Over the long view, nearly eight years of blogging, I think it's going pretty well.

And in that spirit, I'll tag 10 more blogs, five librarian and 5 scientist. Apologies to those that have already been tagged. Also, please consider responding to the tagging completely optional.

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Scientopia: A new kind of online science blogging community

Aug 04 2010 Published by under blogging, culture of science, librarianship

This past Monday morning a new science blogging community came online: Scientopia! From their Vision:

Scientopia is a collective of people who write about science because they love to do so. It is a community, held together by mutual respect and operated by consensus, in which people can write, educate, discuss, and learn about science and the process of doing science. In this we explore the interplay between scientific issues and other parts of our lives with the shared goal of making science more accessible.

As a community, we strive to be welcoming of anyone with an interest in science and its place in our world, regardless of any feature, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, which may act or have historically acted as a barrier to full participation in science or discourses about science

It's made up of 30 bloggers on 24 blogs, many of which are ones that have recently left science blogs or that are additional blogs by current SciBlings.

Here's a list of the bloggers:

Check out the Scientopia Code for more details on how this self-organizing community will be governing itself.

It's a fantastic opening line-up of great bloggers, one that would be the envy of any blogging network. Most were familiar to me but it's also great that there were a few that were unfamiliar. I don't hesitate to predict that within a year of so of this auspicious launch that their aggregated traffic will quite respectably compare with any science blogging network around (at least excluding a few traffic elephants in the ScienceBlogs room).

Those with eagle eyes will have noticed that both Christina's LIS Rant and Book of Trogool have left science blogs for Scientopia, leaving me as the sole remaining librarian blog here at ScienceBlogs. I'll admit to feeling a bit strange about the situation, but I also really want to wish Christina, Dorothea, Beth and Sarah all the best in their new home. We all need to do what makes the most sense for our own goals and for now staying here is what makes sense for me just like moving made sense for them. On the other hand, it also means that my posts will stick around longer on the Information Science feed on the home page 😉

Wecome, Scitopia!

(BTW, how geeky do you have to be to immediately think Stephen Wolfram when you see the slogan, "A new kind of online science...")

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