Reading Diary: Your hate mail will be graded: A decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John Scalzi

Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 is a collection of John Scalzi's favourite posts from the first decade of his blog's existence. And it's quite a collection too -- of course one that is best taken in short doses, one or two posts per day over a longish period of time. Just like you you consume a blog.

Scalzi started Whatever way back in 1998 and since then it's become one of the most popular science fiction author blogs out there. His mixture of humour, politics and just general zaniness is hard to resist. Most of all, Scalzi is passionate, he has a strong sense of fairness and a basic decency that comes through in every post. He's a good guy, a guy you trust, a guy you'd want to have a beer with at a sf convention sometime. He's a guy whose funny stories you constantly repeat to your friends.

Because, oh yes, he can be funny. Even better, he can be viciously funny.

Here's a bit from his epic takedown of the Creation Museum:

Here's how to understand the Creation Museum:

Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we're not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we're talking colossal load of horseshit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

Yes, that's John Scalzi at his finest. And this book is full of John Scalzi at his finest. Wthat that devil Scalzi has done, see, is select his favourite blog posts from the first decade and print them on paper and bound the paper up between two covers. And then, oh yes, he then sells the darn thing to you. For money. Selling printed blog posts for money. From a major US science fiction publisher, to boot.

Whoa.

Let's take a step back for a moment.

So, why would I want to even read this stuff in the first place.

Because humour and outrage aren't the only note Scalzi hits. He's passionate in his defense of gay marriage (p. 51, 55 & 189), heartbreaking talking about his wife's miscarriage (p.33), hilarious on Scooby Doo or clones (p. 83 & 49), furious taking down the greedy (125), amazingly satirical when it comes to politics (181), fair but tough-minded on religion (85), scathing on Star Wars (119) and gentle but firm encouraging young writers (213).

A terrific range.

Now, you'll notice that I reference the book's page numbers above rather than linking to the original blog posts. Two reasons, really. First of all, I'm too lazy to look up the blog posts. Second, I think you should buy the book.

After all, why pay to read a book if all the content is available to read for free on the Internet?

  • I'm an idiot. I certainly don't get this "new media" thing, do I. I'm probably one of those people that still buys CDs. Sucker.
  • I would never plow through a long list of links if Scalzi had just posted his "Best Of" list on his blog.
  • There's also a value to reading Scalzi's own curated selection of his favourite posts. It gives me an insight into his though processes and values than a more random slice of his blogging output.
  • I like the idea of sending a chunk of change Mr. Scalzi's way and this is a perfectly good way of doing it. I also get to send a chunk of change to various publishing and bookstore people, whose place in the literary ecosystem I value similarly to the way I value authors.
  • And if I was just reading the original blog posts, I would probably just skim them for the funny bits and skip to the flame wars in the comments.
  • I actually have a signed copy of the book. That's cool. We still haven't figured out how authors to sign their blog posts to individual readers as keepsakes.

In these reviews, I usually make an effort to recommend what kinds of libraries I would suggest acquire the book in question. In this case, it probably won't fit in too many academic collections except perhaps as an example of how a blog can be turned into a book. On the other hand, this book would be a great acquisition for just about any decent sized public library.

Scalzi, John. Your hate mail will be graded: A decade of Whatever, 1998-2008. New York: Tor, 2010. 368pp.

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Friday Fun: A syllabus and book list for novice students of science fiction literature

I'm a life-long fan of science fiction, mostly as a reader but occasionally as a book reviewer. Way back, when dinosaurs walked the earth, I even took a couple of science fiction literature classes.

And, as readers of this blog well know, I love nothing better than a good list of books.

So combining all those passions is a big win for me.

Take a look at this, from io9, A syllabus and book list for novice students of science fiction literature.

I'll list the books here, but please head over to the io9 post for the rationales for chosing each book.

WHAT THIS LIST IS AND ISN'T

There are a few things to keep in mind about this syllabus for SF 101: Introduction to Literature.

It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day). So you'll find a mix of old and new here, as well as fan favorites tucked in among more literary authors.

Back in the mists of time, I used to teach literature and American Studies at UC Berkeley, so I have some experience putting together course materials for university classes very much like one. (In fact, there are a few books on here that I used to teach.) What educators aim to do in overview courses is expose students to the broadest possible set of examples of a genre, not just the "canon." It is in this spirit that I chose the books on this list.

The original list is divided up into themes/sections, but I'm just doing a raw listing here. Another reason to head over to io9!

  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
  • A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • "At the Mountains of Madness," H.P. Lovecraft
  • Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Man In the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • The Female Man, Joanna Russ
  • I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
  • Neuromancer, by William Gibson
  • Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross
  • "Who Goes There," John W. Campbell
  • Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler
  • The Secret City, by Carol Emschwiller
  • Triplanetary, E.E. "Doc" Smith
  • Downbelow Station, C.J. Cherryh
  • The Sparrow, Maria Doria Russell
  • Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks
  • Orlando, Virgina Woolf
  • Stranger In A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  • Dhalgren, Samuel Delaney
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuin
  • Anathem, Neal Stephenson

I've read 16/24. How about you?

Also, really do check out the comments on the post -- any list like this is sure to generate some debate and this one is no exception.

Thomson's Nobel predictions...Yes, it's that time of year again!

It's time for the annual Mocking of the Thomson Reuters session.

They're at it again.

Can the winners of the Nobel Prize be correctly predicted? Since 1989, Thomson Reuters has developed a list of likely winners in medicine, chemistry, physics, and economics. Those chosen are named Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates -- researchers likely to be in contention for Nobel honors based on the citation impact of their published research.

Check out my previous iterations of this amusing pastime: 2002, 2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009.

From a recent Globe and Mail article:

"We choose our citation laureates by assessing citation counts and the number of high-impact papers while identifying discoveries or themes that may be considered worthy of recognition by the Nobel committee," said David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters.

"A strong correlation exists between citations in literature and peer esteem. Professional awards, like the Nobel Prize, are a reflection of this peer esteem."

And Pendlebury again from a comment in my blog post last year:

Many in our lists rank much higher than the top .1%

The reason others suggested the same names we have, in blogs and news stories, is that they have studied our selections in this and past years.

By the way, Blackburn, Greider and Szostak won this morning, and were picked by us this year. Through citation analysis we focused on Blackburn as long ago as 1993: http://archive.sciencewatch.com/interviews/elizabeth_blackburn1.htm

Note that this was before the receipt of the Gairdner Award (1998) and Lasker (2006).

Again, not causality, just a strong correlation between citations and peer esteem.

We don't disagree that Nobel Prizes are not chosen on the basis of citation counts.

From Toronto's Dr. James Till, one of the citation laureates that Thomson chose (from the G&M article):

Dr. Till, reached Tuesday at his Toronto home, said he was told by Thomson Reuters that he and Dr. McCulloch are among the top picks for a Nobel. But Dr. Till, known for his scientific rigour, was reluctant to say much about the prediction.

"I'm skeptical," he said. "This is just speculation based on data that Thomson Reuters gathers, citation data."

"This kind of speculation is not something I'd like to comment on."

I'm skeptical too, but I'm more than happy to comment.

I have to say, that based on what I'm reading from Thomson the last year or so about the way they approach their predictions, my mockery isn't quite as venomous as in the past. They appropriately give an emphasis on correlation rather than causation.

That being said, however, I'm still not a fan of the exercise. Citation counts aren't what's important in science and aren't the best way to measure impact. Cameron Neylon is proposing a project to find a better way and in my mind that's a better way to spend our time and effort than making rather meaningless predictions.

It's also worth noting that the prediction home page doesn't really make an effort to be clear about the correlation/causation distinction and people reading the phrase, "likely to be in contention for Nobel honors based on the citation impact of their published research," would be justified in feeling that they are drawing a stronger link than their other statements imply. You really have to read and pay close attention to the Process and Method essays for clarification on that point.

So, let's see who they've predicted for this year:

Chemistry

  • Patrick O. Brown
  • Susumu Kitagawa
  • Stephen J. Lippard
  • Omar M. Yaghi

Physics

  • Charles L. Bennett
  • Thomas W. Ebbesen
  • Lyman A. Page
  • Saul Perlmutter
  • Adam G. Riess
  • Brian P. Schmidt
  • David N. Spergel

Physiology or Medicine

  • Douglas L. Coleman
  • Jeffrey M. Friedman
  • Ernest A. McCulloch
  • Ralph M. Steinman
  • James E. Till
  • Shinya Yamanaka

Economics

  • Alberto Alesina
  • Nobuhiro Kiyotaki
  • John H. Moore
  • Kevin M. Murphy

That's 21 guesses for four prizes.

Let's see how they do this year. I predict about the same as previous years, in other words, some right and most wrong. Some of the people they pick based on citation counts will be picked in the year Thomson guesses, some won't. Some will get picked in a later year. Over time, they nominate so many people for the awards that every year their odds improve of picking someone that gets the Nobel in a later year.

Once again, I would like to emphasize that I have nothing against the scholars whom Thomson has "nominated" and wish them well. I certainly don't mean to cast a negative light on their contributions to their fields at all. My beef is not with them, but with Thomson's misuse of their citation data.

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Friday Fun: Epic failures: 11 infamous software bugs

Having started my working life as a software developer, I know a bit about epic bugs. Let's just say I've had my share and leave it at that. At very least, I can say I never caused any vehicles to crash or any companies to fail.

So, from ComputerWorld, Epic failures: 11 infamous software bugs.

Instead, this story is about outright programming errors that caused key failures in their own right.

Have I missed anything important? Consider this a call for nominations for the biggest bugs of all time. These are my suggestions; if you have any honorable mentions, bring 'em on. The worst anyone can do is swat them.

The list includes:

  • The Mars Climate Orbiter doesn't orbit
  • Mariner 1's five-minute flight
  • Forty seconds of Ariane-5
  • Pentium chips fail math
  • Call waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting
  • Windows Genuine Disadvantage
  • Patriot missile mistiming
  • Therac-25 Medical Accelerator disaster
  • Multidata Systems/Cobalt-60 overdoses
  • Osprey aircraft crash
  • End-of-the-world bugs

Here's one with details:

Pentium chips fail math

In 1994, an entire line of CPUs by market leader Intel simply couldn't do their math. The Pentium floating-point flaw ensured that no matter what software you used, your results stood a chance of being inaccurate past the eighth decimal point. The problem lay in a faulty math coprocessor, also known as a floating-point unit. The result was a small possibility of tiny errors in hardcore calculations, but it was a costly PR debacle for Intel.

How did the first generation of Pentiums go wrong? Intel's laudable idea was to triple the execution speed of floating-point calculations by ditching the previous-generation 486 processor's clunky shift-and-subtract algorithm and substituting a lookup-table approach in the Pentium. So far, so smart. The lookup table consisted of 1,066 table entries, downloaded into the programmable logic array of the chip. But only 1,061 entries made it onto the first-generation Pentiums; five got lost on the way.

When the floating-point unit accessed any of the empty cells, it would get a zero response instead of the real answer. A zero response from one cell didn't actually return an answer of zero: A few obscure calculations returned slight errors typically around the tenth decimal digit, so the error passed by quality control and into production.

What did that mean for the lay user? Not much. With this kind of bug, there's a 1-in-360 billion chance that miscalculations could reach as high as the fourth decimal place. More likely, with odds of 1-to-9 billion against, was that any errors would happen in the 9th or 10th decimal digit.

Around the Web: Academic administration, Facebook privacy, Neil Gaiman on cities and more

So, who the heck is still on ScienceBlogs anyways!?

I know I'm sure as hell having a hard time keeping up with all the comings and goings. If anything, the impression is probably that the lights are practically out and we're all singing Old Lang Syne. This, of course, is far from the case. The lights are still on, we're most of us blogging away.

Here's a list compiled from the Blog Index page and from the drop down on every page. I'm also only including reasonably active blogs, ones with posts since January 1, 2010.

WCG Common Sense has also provided a nice graphical representation of some of the recent science blogospheric ebbs and flows.

Of course, please let me know if I've made any errors compiling the list. My eyes crossed and blurred a couple of times fiddling with and switching between the lists.

I'll note again that there are a few blogs that are still here but haven't posted since the beginning of 2010. I haven't included those on my list here since to me they probably represent fairly dormant blogs. There are also a couple of blogs listed above that just came in under my dormancy cut-off.

But, no matter how you look at it, it's still a pretty impressive and pretty vital line-up.

Scott Rosenberg's criteria for evaluating web pages

From this day forward, Scott Rosenberg is an honorary librarian.

One of the things that librarians talk about a lot is how to evaluate a random web page -- what signs and signals to look for that will give the unsuspecting student a clue as to whether or not they might want to use a particular web page in an assignment.

We talk a lot about the various W's -- who, what, why, when and all the rest. Who created the page, what does it say, does their appear to be any bias, is it current. There has been tons of literature on the subject and a very large number of online tutorials.

Scott Rosenberg's latest blog post, In the context of web context: How to check out any Web page, is a great addition to the genre. It's more geared towards journalistic uses of a page rather than scholarly or educational and as such I might quibble a bit with some of the details or emphasize some different criteria in my own sessions, but in general it's very good.

He really concentrates on some nitty-gritty stuff that can be very handy to know. While many of his suggestions are standard in the librarian web evaluation toolbox, there are a few that I've always known I could do but had rarely thought of in terms of teaching to students. An example of this is his suggestion to check a domain's entry in the Whois database to see who owns it.

Without further ado, here's Rosenberg's suggestions, with more details at the original post.

  • What's the top-level domain?
  • Look the domain name up with whois
  • How old or new is the registration?
  • Look up the site in the Internet Archive
  • Look at the source code
  • Check out the ads
  • Does the site tell you who runs it
  • Is there a feedback option?
  • What shape are the comments in?
  • Is the content original and unique?
  • Does the article make reference to many specific sources or just a few?
  • Links in are as important a clue as links out
  • Google the URL. Google the domain. Google the company name. Poke around if you have any doubts or questions. Then, of course, remember that every single question we've been applying here can be asked about every page Google points you to, as well.

Welcome to YASBC: Wired Science Blogs

Yet another science blogging community: Wired Science Blogs.

From Meet the New Wired Science All-Star Bloggers:

At Wired Science we are always looking for new ways to deliver you more science and more awesome. Starting today, we are bringing on a group of hand-picked, superstar science bloggers to help us do just that.

*snip*

We hope Wired will give these bloggers the platform and attention they deserve and help bring quality science blogging to the forefront of science discussion across the web. In recent weeks, several science blogging networks have sprung up, including PLoS blogs, LabSpaces and Science 3.0, and we plan to be an active and collaborative member of the broader science blogging community. And we've brought on expert community manager Arikia Millikan to help with that effort.

Meet Our Bloggers [edited descriptions, fuller descriptions and links at original post]

Brian Switek has been blogging about natural science for four years. His blog Laelaps, named after one of the first dinosaurs discovered in North America, started as a a small spot on the web to geek out about weird fossils and quirks of nature. Since then, he has written about science for newspapers, magazines and recently finished his first book, Written in Stone, due out Nov. 1.

Rhett Allain is a physics professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and started blogging as a way to show his students examples of potential lab projects. And then he couldn't stop. As he puts it, "When I am not blogging or teaching, I like to blog." He sees ideas for his blog Dot Physics everywhere and caught our attention with posts that describe the physics behind everyday things like basketball shots, car commercials and DIY lightning detectors.

Maryn McKenna started blogging in 2007 to field-test ideas for her second book, about the international epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Today, her blog Superbug covers news and new research about diseases in humans and animals, treatments and the lack of them, and the unintended consequences of decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time. She is especially interested in the cultural conditions that prompt infectious diseases to emerge, return or get worse.

Brian Romans is a research geologist whose latest work is focused on deep-sea geology. He began blogging four years ago, while working toward his Ph.D. at Stanford University, as a way to release pent up dissertation-writing stress and share what he thought was interesting in geoscience.

Since then, his blog Clastic Detritus has grown into a fantastic collection of posts on exciting Earth science research...

David Dobbs is an award-winning science writer who came to love blogging because of the freedom it gives him to work through ideas about neuroscience, genetics and life, and expand bits that in former times he would have left forever on the cutting room floor. His blog Neuron Culture has become invaluable to him as a way to stay connected to a larger community of writers, and to readers.

Jonah Lehrer brought his blog The Frontal Cortex to Wired Science in July. He's already won many of our readers over with his insights about the brain and human behavior including a look at the neuroscience of Inception and a post on why alcohol is good for you. Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and award-winning author of books on neuroscience, including his latest, How We Decide.

Daniel MacArthur will be joining the team in the coming weeks with his blog Genetic Future. Currently he's is in the early stages of rearing his own genetic future, and has taken a blogging hiatus to welcome his first born into the world. MacArthur is an Australian researcher whose work revolves around making use of large data-sets of human DNA sequences to learn about the genetic and evolutionary basis of human disease. When he returns, we know you'll be intrigued with his personal take on what recent studies in genomics mean for those of us interested in our own DNA.

Welcome!