Archive for: May, 2011

Friday Fun: We Are the Engineers!

May 13 2011 Published by under education, engineering, friday fun

This past Saturday I spent the afternoon at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival at the Toronto Reference Library. It was a blast, I met a ton of great comics people, spent way too much money and supported a lot of great artists and writers.

The highlight was discovering the new collection We Are the Engineers by former University of British Columbia engineering student Angela Melick. The book is an expanded collection of strips from her webcomic Wasted Talent.

Here's a bit from the Info page:

Welcome to the site! Basically, this is all you need to know: JamJAM, or Angela, is a mechanical engineer who draws comics (including this one). She lives in Vancouver. Likes cats, silly hats, coffee. She recently graduated from UBC and now works for "energyWise".

These comics are silly true stories from Jam's life. ... that's it! There's no ongoing "plot", but obviously, you learn more about the characters the more you read. Jump in wherever you like, and enjoy!

The book is terrific. Very funny and very true to life. A great slice of what it's like to be an engineering student. The webcomic has evolved into being about the life of a working engineer.

And here's a taste, a strip originally here in the webcomic and reprinted on page 54 of the book. (posted with permission)


Oh yeah, and buy the book. You won't be disappointed.

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Computer Science, Web of Science, Scopus, conferences, citations, oh my!

The standard commercial library citation tools, Web of Science (including their newish Proceedings product) and Scopus, have always been a bit iffy for computer science. That's mostly because computer science scholarship is largely conference-based rather than journal-based and those tools are tended to massively privilege the journal literature rather than conferences.

Of course, these citation tools are problematic at best for judging scholarly impact in any field, using them for CS is even more so. The flaws are really amplified.

A recent article in the Communications of the ACM goes through the problems in a bit more detail: Invisible Work in Standard Bibliometric Evaluation of Computer Science by Jacques Wainer, Cleo Billa and Siome Goldenstein.

A bit about why they did the research:

Multidisciplinary committees routinely make strategic decisions, rule on subjects ranging from faculty promotion to grant awards, and rank and compare scientists. Though they may use different criteria for evaluations in subjects as disparate as history and medicine, it seems logical for academic institutions to group together mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering for comparative evaluation by these committees.


Computer scientists have an intuitive understanding that these assessment criteria are unfair to CS as a whole. Here, we provide some quantitative evidence of such unfairness.

A bit about what they did:

We define researchers' invisible work as an estimation of all their scientific publications not indexed by WoS or Scopus. Thus, the work is not counted as part of scientists' standard bibliometric evaluations. To compare CS invisible work to that of physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering, we generated a controlled sample of 50 scientists from each of these fields from top U.S. universities and focused on the distribution of invisible work rate for each of them using statistical tests.

We defined invisible work as the difference between number of publications scientists themselves list on their personal Web pages and/or publicly available curriculum vitae (we call their "listed production") and number of publications listed for the same scientists in WoS and Scopus. The invisible work rate is the invisible work divided by number of listed production. Note that our evaluation of invisible work rate is an approximation of the true invisible work rate because the listed production of particular scientists may not include all of their publications.

A bit about what they found:

When CS is classified as a science (as it was in the U.S. News & World Report survey), the standard bibliometric evaluations are unfair to CS as a whole. On average, 66% of the published work of a computer scientist is not accounted for in the standard WoS indexing service, a much higher rate than for scientists in math and physics. Using the new conference-proceedings service from WoS, the average invisible work rate for CS is 46%, which is higher than for the other areas of scientific research. Using Scopus, the average rate is 33%, which is higher than for both EE and physics.

CS researchers' practice of publishing in conference proceedings is an important aspect of the invisible work rate of CS. On average, 82% of conference publications are not indexed in WoS compared to 47% not indexed in WoS-P and 32% not indexed in Scopus.

And a bit about what they suggest:

Faced with multidisciplinary evaluation criteria, computer scientists should lobby for WoS-P, or better, Scopus. Understanding the limitations of the bibliometric services will help a multidisciplinary committee better evaluate CS researchers.

There's quite a bit more in the original article, about what their sample biases might be, some other potential citation services and other issues.

What do I take away from this? Using citation metrics as a measure of scientific impact is suspect at best. In particular (and the authors make this point), trying to use one measure or kind of measure across different disciplines is even more problematic.

Let's just start from scratch. But more on that in another post.

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Around the Web: The college bookstore of the future, College isn't a bubble, Future of media and more

May 12 2011 Published by under around the web

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Music Mondays: Trent Reznor = Astor Piazzolla

May 09 2011 Published by under music, music mondays

Ok, not really.

It's hard to directly compare the industrial disco-metal stylings of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails with the tango nuevo of Argentina's Astor Piazzolla. The music itself is very different.

Or is it? Both of them -- Piazzolla and Reznor -- certainly create music that has a propulsive, relentless almost narrative drive to it, also music that appeals to both the head and the heart and the feet.

It's really all about the passion and intensity. You don't listen to either Reznor or Piazzolla and come away from it with "eh."

You see, I listen to music on my commute. I have about 40 minutes on bus and subway each way and I read, surf the net on my iPhone, but mostly I listen to music.

And right now, my music player has somehow ended up full of both Piazzolla and NIN. And strangely the last week or so it seems to be alternating them quite often.

And it struck me.

They're the same. That passion, drive, intensity, that crazy insane mad relentless focus. They both have it in spades. I somehow have come to see them as artistic siblings or at very least cousins.

But listen for yourself.

A few NIN tunes from their official Youbube channel here:

And a few Astor Piazzolla pieces as well, although he's not that well represented on Youtube:

And yeah, catholic music tastes for sure.

So what are you listening to that's surprising these days?

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From the Archives: Natural acts: A sidelong view of science and nature by David Quammen

May 08 2011 Published by under book review, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature, is from February 24, 2008.


Just so you all know I don't just read the brightest, shiniest, newest books. I also read some old classics too. And classic is just how I would describe this charming, wonderful book by well-known science writer David Quammen.

This is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in Outside Magazine and they fall squarely in the realm of nature writing. They're mostly short and to the point, a little on the sentimental side sometimes. Sometimes very pointed in their environmentalism, notable these days that environmentalists were active as far back as 1985, that it didn't start with Al Gore. Some of the creatures profiled are bats and cockroaches, the octopus and the crow, bison and grayling. Nice profile of paleontologist Jack Horner and Tycho Brahe. Fishing and swimming and travelling, all the things that make up good nature writing.

This is a great book to slowly meander through, either as a bedside book or an essay here and there riding on the bus to work (as it was for me). A good addition to the collection for any public library or for any academic science library that maintains a leisure reading collection.

Quammen, David. Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. New York: Avon, 1985. 221pp.

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Why bother having a resume?

I'm not usually a big fan of Seth Godin's guruish pronouncements, but I thought this one was a pretty good encapsulation of what it means to be a public professional or a public academic in the 21st century.

In other words, Why bother having a resume?

If you don't have a resume, what do you have?

How about three extraordinary letters of recommendation from people the employer knows or respects?

Or a sophisticated project they can see or touch?

Or a reputation that precedes you?

Or a blog that is so compelling and insightful that they have no choice but to follow

And we shouldn't kid ourselves that we aren't all public professionals these days. Even if the public we're focusing on isn't the whole world but rather the public of our communities or our institutions.

Sure, you still really do have to have a resume of some sort, but online reputation and presence more important than ever -- and that includes things like project portfolios, blogs, Twitter feeds and all the rest.

And no, this isn't a call to "watch what you say."

It's a call to authenticity.

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Friday Fun: Neurologists Paint Grim Picture Of 'Madden' Football's Long-Term Effect On Players' Brains

May 06 2011 Published by under around the web

I guess it's not just the physical hits to the head that leave a lasting effect on people's brains, but the long-term effects of bad video games also can cause your brains to leak out your ears.

From The Onion, Neurologists Paint Grim Picture Of 'Madden' Football's Long-Term Effect On Players' Brains.

SAN JOSE, CA--In an alarming report that sheds new light on the dangers of the game, the Institute for Brain Injury Research published Wednesday the results of a five-year investigation into the long-term neurological consequences of playing Madden football.

"The situation is far more serious than we had previously thought," said Vincent Wu, head of neuropathology at the IBIR. "Playing Madden football increases one's risk for a wide range of cognitive impairments, from difficulty focusing, to a decreased awareness of one's surroundings, to a generalized inability to engage with society at large."


"Among current top-level Madden players, the vast majority suffered from profound personality and mood disorders," said Annette Crowley, an IBIR research fellow. "Our participants displayed irritability when presented with even the simplest commands--for example, to stand up from the couch or to interact with their own children for a while."


"Today's brand of Madden football is far different from the game of 20 years ago," said 34-year-old Dan Doyle, a former player turned safety advocate. "The style of play is much faster and far more aggressive. After 16 weeks of punishing games, you can see it in the dazed, glassy looks in the players' eyes. It's like they're not even there."

"These men--boys, really--have no idea what they're doing to themselves," he added.

Very funny. Read the whole thing.

On a more serious note, it's also worth reading a bit about former CFL QB Matt Dunigan's story with real football-related concussion injuries and the effect it's had on his life.

From The Toronto Star, CFL legend Dunigan faced tough choice in concussion crusade.

Matt Dunigan calls it the hardest thing he's ever had to do.

Harder than flinging his body at opposing linebackers for 14 years. Harder than leading the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup victory with a fractured collarbone. Harder than facing the fact that after 12 diagnosed concussions, his stellar football career was over.

For the Canadian Football League legend, those tasks pale in comparison to making the painful decision to take his son Dolan out of football, while believing he had the potential to be even better than his father.

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Around the Web: Tech companies & real-time crisis response, Fake acheivement, Dead reference and more

May 04 2011 Published by under around the web

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More thoughts on a workable library ebook business model

A while back I posted some semi-coherent ramblings inspired by the HarperCollins/Overdrive mess concerning how libraries were able to license ebook collections for their patrons.

I'm not sure my ideas have changed or solidified or evolved or what, but I've certainly come to a slightly different way of articulating them.

Here goes.

At a certain level, libraries -- public, academic, institutional, special, whatever -- lending ebooks makes no sense at all.

If a library acquires a digital copy of a book there is no good reason why every person in that library's community (school, town, city, province, country, planet) couldn't all read that book at the exact same time. Bandwidth is really the only limitation.

That's what makes sense. Any attempt to limit that access is really just an attempt to impose an artificial scarcity on an abundant digital object.

And we all know how well it works when you try and impose an artificial scarcity on abundant digital objects. Just ask the music business. And it's something I think the nascent ebook business is starting to get a handle on.

As Aaron Saenz says,

Which brings us to the 600 pound gorilla in the room - why are people going to pay for something that is free to copy?

If people really don't want to pay for ebooks, ultimately, they won't. Just like if people really don't want to pay for recorded music, they won't.

But that doesn't mean it's free to the creators to record that music or write those books. Far from it. And those creators have bills to pay, both incurred in the act of creation and just in living life.

Libraries always have been and always will be willing to pay a fair price for access or ownership of quality content. But why should we pay scarcity prices for stuff that should be abundant? The whole structure is artificial, isn't it?

The incremental cost of each person in a large community getting access to a digital object is effectively zero.

The cost of getting that first copy to the first person in that first community isn't zero, of course, far from it. The creator wants to be paid as do publicists, editors, copy editors, technical support and HR and finance to look after making sure everyone gets paid and hired and such.

But how do you bridge the one to the million? How do you convince the millionth to chip in a little, just like the first? Publishers (and authors?) certainly would like to monetize each reading transaction but libraries would greatly resist that plan. We want something that's predictable from a budgetary point of view.

Cory Doctorow's recent Guardian article, In the digital era free is easy, so how do you persuade people to pay?, gives some insights into motivations for paying scarcity prices for abundant digital content, and some of those motivations that might just apply to libraries more than individuals.

In this article, I take a first cut at a taxonomy of "value propositions for the purchase of digital goods" - that is, reasons you should spend money on digital files that you can get for free - and of the market strategies that enhance or undermine each strategy. Different companies and products need different value propositions, but whatever your strategy is, your stated case for buying your products should be supported by those products. And if your sales strategy actively militates against your value proposition, you're doing it wrong.

Although Doctorow is skeptical about how these have played out in the mainstream media business of getting consumers to pay directly for content, a couple of them apply to the business of why libraries would want to pay for content for their communities

  • Buy this because it's the right thing to do. Paying creators for the work that they put into their creations is the right thing to do. And creators is broadly defined here to include not just the artists and scholars who directly create the work but the broader ecosystem that supports their endeavours.
  • Buy this because you're supporting something worthwhile. The artistic, cultural and scholarly discourse ecosystems deserve to exist and it's worthwhile for libraries to support those ecosystems.
  • Buy this because it is convenient. It's a good thing for libraries to mutualize their communities' resources to pay for content because it's not possible or convenient for the members to do so individually.

Which gives us a structure around why libraries should be willing to pay for ebooks: to connect being able to pay for that first community access to not having to pay for the millionth.

But what are some of the nuts and bolts of the situation. How to actually make it work for everybody involved: creators, libraries, publishers, readers. What are some possibilities for the mechanics of the business models we'll all agree on? That'll be for next time, I guess.

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From the Archives: The map that changed the world by Simon Winchester

May 01 2011 Published by under book review, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, is from February 26, 2008.


I try and spread around the disciplinary love in my science book reading. Some physics, some math, some engineering, some biology, a lot of computing and cyberculture. And even some of the earth sciences too. Simon Winchester's The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern Geology is essentially about map making. Map making, of course, partakes of several disciplines -- surveying, geography and, of course, geology. Willilam Smith's claim to fame is that he created the first geological map of England, mapping the different strata of rock and fossils in way that had never been done before.

Since relatively little is known about Smith's life, the book sometimes alternates chapters between the scientific and social context of Smith's era (1769-1939) and the history of his map-making efforts. As well, most chapters also contain a lot of general historical information.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for some of the major tragedies and disappointments in Smith's life, a bit of a recap at the beginning. Winchester begins in earnest in chapter 2 with some of the general ideas and issues at play in the era. Chapter 3 gives the generally accepted ideas of fossils around 1800 and Chapter 4 the significance of canal systems to Britain at the time. Chapter 5 talks about Smith's first experiences with seeing strata while working in coal mines while chapter 6 is about his experiences surveying for the railroads. Chapters 7 and goes into the importance of the surveying work he did for canals in forming his ideas about how strata are formed and how to identify them.

In Chapters 9 and 10 Smith gets the idea for his geological map from agricultural maps of Bath and from work he did for drainage projects. Skipping to Chapter 12, the map is created and Winchester details the main problems Smith had in getting his project off the ground, including, in chapter 13, his betrayal by a colleague and the Royal Society. In chapter 14 Smith has to sell his fossil collection to settle some debts and ultimately, in chapter 15 he ends up in debtor's prison. Chapters 16 and 17 detail his life after prison, his long-awaited welcoming into the scientific establishment and his final years.

Overall, I would say the book lacks a little zip. It can drag in places and sometimes the extra contextual information seems a little too close to padding. A couple of things I really appreciated about the book are, first of all, it has a fine glossary at the back. Also, it is really useful to get the hardcover version of the book as the dust jacket folds out into a fairly large reproduction of Smith's map. As well, the list of sources and recommended readings is a valuable tool for collection development in the history of geology.

While this book might be a bit earnest for small public libraries or high school libraries, I think larger public library systems should have at least one copy of this book floating around their stacks in some branch or other. As well, any academic library that collects anything in the history of the earth sciences is going to find this book a necessary acquisition.

Winchester, Simon. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 329pp.

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