Monday, March 31, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Good to know

How many cannibals could your body feed?
My (potential) contribution to fighting world hunger. Don't delay though - I'm biodegradable (that means I rot).

[Via Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)]

Saturday, March 29, 2008

On the training of minds

I've been meaning to comment on this video of a tour through a natural history museum, led by creationist brainwashers. "Suffer the little children to come unto me," because a grownup will see through this crap in an instant (although we know that not everyone is going to become a grownup).

I really like the part where the curator says, "Regardless of what the tour director says, some of those kids are going to start thinking for themselves." And it's true. Today the kids will all say what they're told to say, but the only way to maintain this is to totally control the information they receive. The difference between these two outlooks can't be overstated. Too many Christian parents remove their children from school because they see the child's mind as something to be programmed.* Any contradictory data can only corrupt the proper functioning of the mind. The curator here, on the other hand, trusts the kids' minds to work on their own, if they're just given scope to operate. Who respects these children more - the man who tells them what to say, or the one who's happy that they'll encounter a variety of information?

[James also has some commentary on this video]

*As further evidence, I might offer the evangelical sport of Bible Quizzing, where the participants are asked theological questions and recite the prescribed Bible verse by rote. Given a sufficiently fine memory, one could be an ace Bible Quizzer in a completely unfamiliar language.

Unity through common enemies

I have to agree with Ed Brayton that bringing religions together may not be so delightful as we'd like to think. In the US, Catholics and Protestants have found they can cooperate just fine, thank you, if they both want to hurt the same people ("You hate gays, too? I thought I was the only one!"). Nothing unites people like having a common enemy and the vision of Christians and Muslims uniting in jihad/crusade against everyone else should give us nightmares. Serious, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-shaking-in-
horror-and-the-sheets-soaked-with-sweat nightmares.

Friday, March 28, 2008

No point - just humor

As someone who's never dated in his own age range (plus or minus eight to fourteen years - it might average out to zero, now that I think about it), I just found this amusing. I like the crack on Canada, too.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Your average, sensible person, when faced with a title such as "Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century," will probably do the wise thing and just slo-o-wly ba-a-ck awa-ay. But this address from Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago was actually pretty interesting. Okay, it was interesting to me, since I have a professional interest in the organization of information.

Abbott was wondering when and why it came about that researchers rarely use librarians' bibliographic tools as heavily as we think they should. By now we are well aware of the glut of information that the internet provides to us; Google's huge failing is that it finds too much stuff, very little of which is relevant to my search. Likewise with card catalogues and other indexes. Researchers had to devise strategies to make sure they were tracking only quality sources, not everything that touched on the topic. Abbott guessed that this development took place in the 1970s, when the number of graduate students exploded. Instead, he traced it back to the interwar period, when centralized libraries began to replace the dedicated departmental libraries.

What happened in the 1920s was that the professors had lost control of the books to the librarians. More important, unlike the scientists whose laboratories were subject to all the same arguments for centralization, the humanists and humanistic social scientists had their research and instructional worlds broken apart. No longer would faculty and graduate students rub shoulders daily in departmental offices and seminar rooms immediately adjacent to a departmental research library with both basic and specialized reference tools as well as a substantial monographic collection. From henceforth, for the faculty, doing research meant going to another building, in which they might or might not have an office or research space; it meant working with general and specialized reference tools now mixed in with all the other reference collections; it meant seeking monographic material interspersed throughout an immense main stack. The days of running down the hall and quickly bringing an important reference tool to one's desk were over.

This then is the crashingly obvious discovery I promised you twenty minutes ago: academics developed new research practices to deal with the centralized, massified libraries forced on them in the 1920s.

Civil disobedience

A couple of protesters from the Buffalo Field Campaign got themselves arrested in the Mammoth visitor center. I've always thought the BFC to be unnecessarily shrill, even though I also find the brucellosis-control measures distasteful.

What jumped out at me in this report was the Park spokesman actually using the words civil disobedience. That's not a phrase I usually hear from the authorities (or even news reporters). I have to respect someone who can be inconvenienced, but still maintain perspective like that.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Negative evidence

Astronomers have detected indirect evidence for a spectacular supernova explosion in the Larger Magellanic Cloud long ago. The puzzle is that they're picking up the echoes, but we have no records of anyone seeing the direct event 400 years ago, when it should have become visible. The astronomers seem pretty sure that it would have been hard to miss.

I find this interesting because it raises that little point of "negative evidence." We hear often enough that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," but that's just not true. It depends on how hard it is to explain the absence. If I insist there's a pink elephant in the room, and you don't see it, you're likely to find negative evidence pretty darned convincing. You might even decide it's more reasonable to speculate upon the reliability of my neural functioning rather than try to explain invisible elephants in exotic colors.

How plausible is it that, in 1600, an eye-popping supernova could appear in the Southern Hemisphere and no navigators' accounts made it into the records that we have? I should think it's surprising enough that I would want to redo some calculations, just to be sure that I really do have such a mystery on my hands.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On self-inflicted wounds

I was once admonished to "avoid the cliche of your age." And if irony isn't the cliche of my age, I sure don't know what is. But I can't help it. I love irony. Which makes this the funniest fucking thing I've ever heard:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!

Just when you think the IDiots can't look any more pathetic ....

Learning on the job, continued

The aforementioned papers are out of my hands now. Our Director has decided we should have no truck with a collection that has arrived through irregular channels, we don't clearly own, needs attention of a sort librarians aren't trained for, and eats into our budget nonetheless. I completely agree with the decision, but I'll miss working with the stuff. You start to bond with a collection.


On a college campus, you can waste time, money, and even the best years of your life. But you don't waste parking space.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I do not think it means what you think it means

From the Lafayette Journal & Courier:

When [coach Scott] Drew left Valparaiso five years ago to take the Baylor job, the program had been ravished by NCAA violations and the murder of a former player.

A fate worse than the death penalty.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cool finds

Paleolithic axes have been recovered from the bottom of the North Sea. Of course, it wasn't the North Sea when people dropped these tools; the natives probably referred to it as "this nifty grassland that looks ripe for flooding if those mountains of ice happen to melt, but who can even imagine such a thing ever happening?" Unfortunately, the axes are seriously decontextualized by having been dredged up and deposited on shore before discovery. But cool stuff nonetheless.

The flooding of previously-dry land also helps leave open the mystery of North American settlement. Did the new Americans travel inland, or did they move down the Pacific coast? Since the previous coast is now far offshore and deep under water, it may be a long time before any knows.

Monday, March 17, 2008


It turns out there are white-tailed rabbits in Wonderland after all.

BILLINGS, Mont. -- A Montana biologist has withdrawn his claim in a recent study that a rabbit species has disappeared from the Yellowstone area.

Joel Berger, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said Thursday that he has been contacted by at least six biologists and naturalists refuting his conclusions about the white-tailed jackrabbit. He said they provided photos and anecdotal evidence the rabbit still lives in the area.

"Yes, there were some left," Berger said. "I've got egg on the face, absolutely."

So straightforward. Now, a politician would have said something like, "If I have inadvertently said anything that might be construed as erroneous, then I apologize to anyone who might have felt they were being mislead."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On becoming a sniffle-wimp

I have a cold this weekend - not an unusually harsh cold, but enough to make me grumpy and unenthused about, oh, everything. Friday I went home a few hours early so that I could get an early start on resting up all weekend.

I rarely do that. I never go home sick. Mom didn't keep us home from school over every sniffle, didn't take us to the doctor for every scrape and cough, and we just learned that runny noses and owies were par for the course. It wasn't about bravery; trips to the doctor cost money.

One of my projects at work revolves around the smallpox eradication program in India from the 1970's, a feat which was achieved by intensive surveillance and quick containment. A program of widespread vaccination had failed to do the job, but door to door visits, rewards for reporting cases, follow-up visits, and rapid vaccinations in affected villages did the job in just a few years. It's a truly remarkable success story for an international agency.

If (some say when) a flu or SARS outbreak occurs, this is the same strategy that is hoped to bring a pandemic under control before the damage is catastrophic. It's tougher than in 1919, because people travel around the world faster and more frequently than they did then. You have a short window available to try to isolate the virus before hot spots have flared up all over the world.

Which brings me back to my cold. If I were ever be infected in the early stages of a pandemic, I'm afraid I might not help the cause very well. I would have to be very sick for very many days before it ever crossed my mind that I should see a doctor, nor would I likely have stayed home while symptoms were still mild. Unless the public health officials had identified me as being in contact with another infected person, my role might go undetected altogether. The odds are long, of course, but it nags me a bit that my suck-it-up habits could make me a public menace some day.

The hand is quicker than the eye

And more accurate, too. A researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has found that fingers correctly anticipate the length of a line, even when presented as an illusion that misleads the brain. Their is a hypothesis that the brain actually has two parallel visual systems, one for perception and one for coordinating movement and action.

However it arises, I'm not all that surprised at the result of the study. I have noted that, when playing the piano, I usually play more accurately when I can anticipate the feel of the chord I am about to play, imagining the position of the hand and fingers before they actually hit the keys. Looking at the keyboard is much less helpful, except when first learning unusual passages.

Who needs information?

The General Accounting Office has noted that it is very difficult for experts to do their jobs without access to relevant information. No surprise there, least of all to the current Administration. Maintaining an information monopoly has been the bedrock of their governing strategy for seven years now. "If only you knew what we know!" was the line when they were pushing the Iraq invasion. "But, of course, then we'd have to kill you, so you're better off if you just trust us. Trust us on that."

And here was the justification for closing down a series of EPA libraries:

“Our vision is to be the premier model for the next generation of federal libraries by enhancing our electronic tools to complement our traditional library services,” Molly O’Neill, the EPA assistant administrator who oversees the libraries, wrote in testimony submitted to the subcommittee.

But the GAO found that, because of copyright issues, only 51,000 of the system’s more than 500,000 hard copies of books, reports, journals and maps are expected to be transferred to digital format. That means users in areas where libraries have closed must obtain materials through interlibrary loans, delaying access for as long as 20 days.

The universal e-world is still quite a ways off. Unless you have Google paying for it, no one can afford to digitize everything and even then you may not be able to make it freely available. Looks like we aren't ready to see libraries vanish after all.


Hah, I beat James to this.

Happy Birthday, James Madison!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Word of the day

From Stedman's Medical Dictionary:


Relating to drugs or chemicals having an action resembling that caused by stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. SEE ALSO: cholinomimetic. [para- + G. sympatheia, sympathy, + mimetikos, imitative]

Now that I know that, what am I supposed to do?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Learning on the job

As the Archives product here at my library, I've been entrusted with a manuscript collection that was donated by a former professor. Unfortunately, there are complications:

1) the donation was made through a channel that doesn't deal with archival materials and so there is no donor agreement;
2) some of the documents may not properly belong to the donor, but rather to a certain international health organization;
3) some of the most interesting documents contain private information which will probably require them to be kept sealed;
4) they were given to a library with no special collections and therefore no permanent expertise;
5) I have a nagging fear that there will turn out to be an uncomfortable relationship between the donor and his former organization and I will have blundered into the center of it.

Did I say "unfortunately?" Not really - this is going to be the most educational thing I could have done right out of school.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A-hole of the week

What is it about these Republicans from especially-conservative states? They don't seem to know how to behave among the non-rabid.

King, a three-term Republican, made the remarks to a radio station Friday as he announced his bid for another term in the House of Representatives.

"I don't want to disparage anyone because of their race," King told listeners of KICD, "their ethnicity, their name - whatever their religion their father might have been. I'll just say this: When you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States -- I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to the world of Islam?"

King then said "I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaeda, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror."

This isn't about color. It's just ... um ... optics. Yeah, optics.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Those religionists again ....

The Director of Michigan Atheists is in a lather about a bill in Congress to designate the first week of May as "American Religious History Week."

This heinous resolution is designed to establish a Christian theocracy in America. It is preceded by seventy-five
whereas's, many of which overtly distort American history or are obvious lies. To get the full story please see

This all sounded rather over-the-top, so I decided I did want to read those 75 "whereases" to get a proper perspective. As a result, here is the letter I am sending to the Honorable John D. Dingell, my representative in the House:
I have just read through H. RES. 888, establishing a religious history week, and there’s something a little strange about it. The stated goal is to “affirm the rich spiritual and diverse religious history of our Nation's founding and subsequent history, including up to the current day.” A laudable goal, but that word diverse seems dreadfully out of place here. You see, that interminable list of justifications preceding the resolution points solely at the Christian god and doesn’t include a single statement that reflects any but an evangelical Protestant’s point of view. Not one.

So I have to suspect one of two things: either this is yet another Trojan horse by the religious right to justify their claim to special status (contrary to Article VI), or the authors of this bill are just pig-ignorant of US History (three attempts to claim that Thomas Jefferson believed in mixing church and state? Oh my). Either way, I hope you will be too properly embarrassed by this tawdry scrap of nonsense to vote for it, unless it undergoes extensive revision so as to support a more honest description of America’s diverse religious history.

Scott Hanley
Ypsilanti, MI

Of course, I actually suspect both of those two things, although with religionists, it's so hard to tell when ignorance leaves off and sheer dishonesty takes over.

Gray wolf in Massachusetts

A rare occurrence of a wolf in Massachusetts, where he promptly runs afoul of local livestock and gets himself killed for his trouble. Still, it will be very interesting, and enlightening, if eastern farmers have to learn to live with predators like western ranchers do.

Bach's face

This is just cool.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

High-handed government actions

The Treasury Dpt. is shutting down web-based businesses that deal in travel to Cuba, even if they do no business in the United States.

Count me in on the hand-wringing over such warrantless actions and the evidence of panic when the g'ment sees enemies in every bush. Even more interesting is the role the US is playing in pushing the planet to one-world government. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's issues like this that undermine localism and strengthen the appeal of international laws and legislative bodies. Communications activity crosses borders more easily than people and goods and, whether we increase or decrease regulation, the world is somehow going to have to get on the same page.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Trading notes v. attending class

Some professors are claiming copyright to their lectures, in hope of stopping the trend toward online note-swapping. Their main objection, of course, is that some students see this as a substitute for attending class.

The money quote:

"Missing a class and relying on notes eliminates the context of the discussion," Lindsay said. "It's easy to spot the students who do this, and it shows in their performance."

Then, what's the problem? It's not like we can eliminate every way of being a poor student.

P2P v. copyright

Does uploading files to a file-sharing website automatically make one complicit in copyright violation? That's the question before a federal court in Arizona. On the surface, it seems like a weak defense: Yes, I uploaded files to a website whose only purpose is to allow other people to copy them for free, but gosh, you can't prove anyone took me up on the offer....

But it also seems to be the case that many file sharers aren't savvy enough to realize that they're contributing files, rather than just downloading them. UM counsel Jack Bernard tells me that students who have been accused of uploading files are always surprised to find that they've been doing so. He doesn't think they're lying, because they readily admit to their illegal downloading. They just didn't realize that, at the same time, they were providing their own music files to the same service.

Math over mumbo jumbo

Yet another example of failed superstition. The British got a lot more for their money when they hired mathematicians and puzzle-solvers to break the Enigma code.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The future (if any) of libraries

I keep seeing references to the Extinction Timeline and its prediction that libraries will be extinct by 2019. Most librarians will argue differently, which is no more than one would expect of people defending their profession. The sheer unlikelihood that "everything" can be digitized in the next eleven years argues for libraries' continued existence.

More to the point, though, is that librarians don't see their profession as just storing books, which is no doubt the image these prognosticators have in mind. Already academic libraries are subscribing to e-journals instead of paper, without much alteration of their function. What many people don't understand is that a library was never just about storing books; it's about making information available. Librarians don't think of libraries as warehouses - they think of them as doorways.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More studies about wolves

A pair of interesting papers about the effects of wolves: 1) killing wolves may be more expensive than just paying the ranchers for losses; and 2) the presence of wolves helps the pronghorn population. The latter article doesn't give the pronghorn numbers for Yellowstone, but I remember that some years back there was a great deal of concern about a pinkeye epidemic in a rather small population.

Assuming these studies hold up to close analysis, I have to say that it's always fun to see how convoluted and counterintuitive the real world can be. If there's anything to be learned from science (!), it's that you should always be suspicious of what you think you know.

Internet control, cont.

A reversal of the ruling to shut down Free speech and privacy are not necessarily amicable companions.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Abuse of the Freedom of Information Act. I really don't care about online gambling, but this is an excellent example of a) why no one believes a word the Bush Administration says anymore, and b) why you should never trust anyone who says, "Trust us."

In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, "Trust, but verify."

Now, is this any way to run a railroad?

Michigan spends more on prisons than on higher education
U.S. imprisons one in one hundred adults

So why don't I feel like I've never been safer?