Archive for: May, 2013

Around the Web: Recognizing the political nature of science, TED woo and more

May 31 2013 Published by under around the web

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Around the Web: Everyone is angsty in higher ed, not just librarians

May 30 2013 Published by under acad lib future, around the web, education

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Around the Web: Cool linky stuff for science undergrads (5)

May 29 2013 Published by under around the web, ugrad links

I have a son who's just finished his first year as a physics undergrad. As you can imagine, I occasionally pass along a link or two to him pointing to stuff on the web I think he might find particularly interesting or useful. Thinking on that fact, I surmised that perhaps other science students might find those links interesting or useful as well. Hence, this series of posts here on the blog.

By necessity and circumstance, the items I've chosen will be influenced by my son's choice of major and my own interest in the usefulness of computational approaches to science and of social media for outreach and professional development.

The previous posts in this series are here, here, here and here.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

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Around the Web: Librarian Angst & Bravery R Us, Open access vs academic freedom and more

May 25 2013 Published by under around the web

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Reading Diary: The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow

May 21 2013 Published by under book review, computer science, science books

Someone shoot me if I ever use the term NP-complete in a sentence. Or at least if I ever use the term in a conversation with "civilians."

Such is the dilemma of reading and reviewing a wonderful book like Lance Fortnow's The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible. I'll be tempted to start throwing around terms that Fortnow has explained so well and so clearly. A temptation I should resist. Instead I should recommend this book.

Anyways, what's the book about? As the title indicates, the purpose is to explain to a popular audience the computer science concept of P vs. NP, in other words is P = NP or is P != NP.

Yeah, not helpful put that way.

A rather nice explanation from the jacket blurb:

The P-NP problem is the most important open problem in computer science, if not all of mathematics. Simply stated, it asks whether every problem whose solution can be quickly checked by computer can also be quickly solved by computer.

And from page ix:

P refers to the problems we can solve quickly using computers. NP refers to the problems to which we would like to find the best solutions. If P = NP, then we can easily find the solution to every problem we would like to solve....If P != NP, by contrast, then there are some problems we cannot hope to solve quickly.

And Fortnow takes it from there, sketching the history of the P vs NP pursuit since it was first formulated in the 1970s up until the present. He also sketches out a bit of a utopian vision of how society would change, how it would become what he calls a beautiful world, if P = NP. If we can know for sure that all problems ultimately have fast solutions, then it's only a matter of time before we discover them. And solve all our problems.

However, Fortnow doesn't think that P = NP. He thinks that there is no possible ultimate beautiful world, but that we will have to strive to find "good enough" solutions to those hard problems. And yes, he does talk about what those hard problems are in theoretical computer science and how they affect our everyday lives. Cryptography is perhaps the most well-known application area for those hard problems. Fortnow doesn't think we are anywhere near to solving P vs NP, that we may even be hundreds of years away. Or that we may never solve it.

Overall a fine book. Comparable in level to a physics book by say, Sean Carroll or Lee Smolin. In other words, you will have to challenge your mind a little to grasp every example and problem description. I would recommend the book for any academic library collection collects popular science. In particular, since there seems to be fewer popular computer science books than other fields, Fortnow's book fills a gap. I would normally not suggest this type of book for smallish public libraries, but again it does fill that gap. As for school libraries, mathematically gifted students at the high school level would find a lot to love about this book.

At the end of the day, it's also wonderful to see a computer science book that thanks the library for its print and digital collections in the Acknowledgements. Thanks for the hat tip, Lance, we appreciate it. And thanks for the nice bibliography of sources worth checking out.

Fortnow, Lance. The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 176pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691156491

(Review copy provided by publisher)

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The Canadian War on Science: A long, unexaggerated, devastating chronological indictment

May 20 2013 Published by under Canada, Canadian war on science, Politics

This is a brief chronology of the current Conservative Canadian government's long campaign to undermine evidence-based scientific, environmental and technical decision-making. It is a government that is beholden to big business, particularly big oil, and that makes every attempt to shape public policy to that end. It is a government that fundamentally doesn't believe in science. It is a government that is more interested in keeping its corporate masters happy than in protecting the environment.

As is occasionally my habit, I have pulled together a chronology of sorts. It is a chronology of all the various cuts, insults, muzzlings and cancellations that I've been able to dig up. Each of them represents a single shot in the Canadian Conservative war on science. It should be noted that not every item in this chronology, if taken in isolation, is necessarily the end of the world. It's the accumulated evidence that is so damning.

Most of the items come from various links I've saved over the years as well as various other media articles I've dug up over the last week or so. This series at The Huffington Post has been particularly useful as has this article at the Wastershed Sentinal.

A long list of various environmental programs that the Harper government has discontinued or slashed funding to is here. I haven't found individual media stories about all of them, so they aren't in the list below. If you can help me find stories about some of those programs, etc, please let me know. As well, some stories are treated multiple times, with perhaps an initial story telling the big picture or introducing a large series of cuts and later stories fleshing out details.

Update 2013.05.27: Undated list of science or environmental libraries closed is here: Natural Resources Canada is set to close six of fourteen libraries in 2012-2013, Parks Canada will consolidate 5 libraries into one, Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. Undated list of women's programs cut since 2006, including many science or health-related, including: Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health

 

This list is no doubt incomplete. There may also be link errors or duplications.

In particular, if you have updates on any of the stories, including reversals or reprieves, I want to hear those too.

Please feel free to make suggestions and corrections in the comments or to me at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

Update 2013.05.23. I've noticed the large number of posts linking to this one and even a few basically republishing my list, links and all. Since a number of people seem to be finding the spreading of the information in this post useful, please consider it CC0. To the extent possible under law, I am waiving all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this post, The Canadian War on Science: A long, unexaggerated, devastating chronological indictment. This work is published from Canada.

Update 2013.05.27. Over thirty new items added to the list. Thanks to everyone who made suggestions either in the comments or via email.

Additionally, two quick points.

First, as to why this extended series of posts is named the way it is. I am mindful that this blog is hosted on a US-based site so my main aim is to make "The Canadian War on Science" both catchy and mostly meaningful to a broad audience. In that spirit, something like "The Canadian Conservative Government's War on ..." at least initially seemed to me to be too wordy. It's also fairly common parlance to refer to the government of a foreign country, no matter the internal situation, just by that country's name. When I say that "France is doing this" or "Japan is doing that," I of course mean the French or Japanese governments. It's a kind of shorthand, if you will, that makes more sense on a non-Canadian site where I'm talking about Canada. So, I'm sort of accepting that while this usage will be somewhat annoying to Canadians, it's both a useful shorthand and the precedent I've set for myself.

Second, on scope. I've mostly stuck to the natural sciences, environment and some public health topics here rather than looking more broadly at how the Conservative government treats the humanities, social sciences, memory and heritage institutions and just generally any sort of evidence-based policy- or decision-making. That's purely for reasons of focus and time. It was quite time-consuming to compile this list initially so I was quite aware of just getting it finished. I've also received a huge number of suggestions both in the comments and by email and checking and adding those has also been a significant task. While I have in the past blogged about the challenges at, say, Library and Archives Canada, I decided that that would be out of focus for the purposes of this list. I would definitely encourage anyone out there to tackle creating a broader or a differently focused one. I have put this list under a CC0 licences so please feel free to take what I've done as a starting point.

Update 2013.10.06. Fifty-two new items added to the list, as detailed here. If I've missed anything or there are any errors or if I've duplicated some items, please let me know.

Update 2014.10.24. Update with 140 new items, as detailed here. Please let me know if there are any errors or omissions.

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Friday Fun: Neil deGrasse Tyson on why Star Trek OWNS Star Wars

May 17 2013 Published by under friday fun, science fiction

I have to admit -- I've always been more of Star Trek fan rather than Star Wars. The Star Trek universe has always seemed more open, more diverse, with a lot more opportunities for telling different stories not just about the rebels versus the empire.

It seems that Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees.

"I'm old-school with the big traditional TV and movie series, so I'm old-school Star Trek. I'm partial to the old crew, Captain Kirk,"

*snip*

"I never got into Star Wars," Tyson said. "Maybe because they made no attempt to portray real physics. At all."

*snip*

"I like the double star sunset scene (on Tatooine). Most stars you see in the night sky are double and triple stars, so that's a very common thing we would expect in the universe. But, yeah... [holds up Vulcan hand sign]"

Head over to the link to watch the full video interview.

Great minds think alike!

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Around the Web: OMG still with the librarian angst, Forking the academy and more

May 16 2013 Published by under acad lib future, around the web, librarianship

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Music Mondays: Five songs I really love

May 13 2013 Published by under music mondays

It's been a very long time since I did a Music Monday of any variety, never mind of the Five songs I really love variety. So it's fun to check in again and share what I've been obsessing over on my iPod and on Youtube lately. And oddly, some of these are repeats from earlier lists, probably indicating that my music tastes are pretty consistent.

Anyways, these are all on the blues rock spectrum and every one supremely awesome. These are five songs I just never get tired of.

Enjoy!

  • Midnight in Harlem by The Tedeschi Trucks Band. This is absolutely my favourite song from the last few years. We saw TTB last summer at the Toronto Jazz Festival and they were amazing. This version is pretty representative of the live versions on YouTube. I've highlighted Derek Trucks a bunch of times. The song first appeared on the Revelator album and there's also a great live version on Everybody's Talkin'.
  • Goin' Down South by RL Burnside. This is the live version from the Burnside on Burnside. This is simply one of the most intense live blues recordings ever. A must-listen.
  • Tell the Truth by Eric Clapton. This version of the old Derek & the Dominoes song is from the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks also contribute.
  • How Blue Can You Get by BB King. Simply my favourite blues song by my all time favourite blues performer.
  • Road Runner by Bo Diddley. This is a live version that was used in a car commercial a year or two ago, but it's a great one nevertheless.

And don't be shy. Add some links to songs you really love.

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Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value

May 07 2013 Published by under Canada, Canadian war on science, Politics

Now there's a quote for you! Provocative in it's shortsightedness and fairly ignorant of how the interplay between scientific discovery and commercialization/technology transfer works. Commercial products are engineered and developed out of basic scientific discoveries.

So who said that?

Sadly, it was the John McDougall, President of the National Research Council of Canada talking about the restructuring and refocusing of the NRC.

Here's some more from the Sun News article:

The government of Canada believes there is a place for curiosity-driven, fundamental scientific research, but the National Research Council is not that place.

"Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," John McDougall, president of the NRC, said in announcing the shift in the NRC's research focus away from discovery science solely to research the government deems "commercially viable".

Science Minister Gary Goodyear said: "There is only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost."

*snip*

Citing the NRC's "inability to respond to industry's demands," Goodyear explained that the NRC will now respond exclusively to industry's demands.

"We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development."

The article also includes a quote from David Robinson of The Canadian Association of University Teachers:

"Discovery comes from what scientists think is important, not what industry thinks is important," he said. "Fundamental scientific advancement drives innovation, and that is driven by basic research."

And from the CBC story,

Council president John McDougall said the NRC will become a more attractive partner for business.

"We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development," McDougall said.

"Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn't qualify as innovation until it's been developed into something that has commercial or societal value."

It's a matter of going for concrete results, he added. "We will measure our success by the success of our clients."

*snip*

"By helping Canadian businesses develop and bring technically advanced products to market, the NRC is supporting the creation not only of jobs, but good-quality, high-paying, long-lasting jobs," he said.

"We will continue to support basic research, but the use of that knowledge is the next step," he said.

The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery, Goodyear said.

"The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain."

Industry should fund industrially-relevant research and development, not governments. Or at least not as the sole research that governments fund. Of course, Canadian companies are notoriously stingy on R&D so it's hard to know why the government would want to save them even more on their R&D budgets.

It's important to hit home runs, that's for sure. But there are different kinds of home runs: inside the park, solo, two run, three run, grand slam. And a triple followed by a sacrifice fly or a double followed by a single both also score a run just the same as a solo home run and can just as easily win the game. In just the same way, we shouldn't get too tied to one kind of research or one model for research funding. Putting all your eggs in one short term basket and hoping it works out is just the same as stacking your lineup with big swingers who aim for the fences all the time but also strike out a lot.

 

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Here are some of my recent posts about the Harper government's war on information in general and science in particular:

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