Transitions in information technology

I recently finished reading Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (i.e. the Hunchback of Notre Dame). Among his many long asides and discussions setting the tone for the time (it is set in Paris of the late 1400's, well over 300 years before he wrote) I particularly noticed his remarks on the remarkable transition just beginning at the time. As he put it: "The invention of printing is the greatest event in history." The copy of his book that I read was, however, not printed on paper, but electronically downloaded from Project Gutenberg - donated to the world through a scan of the public domain 1880 version translated by Isabel F. Hapgood. If the invention of printing was clearly the greatest historical event by the 1830's when Hugo first wrote those words, the 20th century revolution in information technologies is at least the start of something far greater.

$9.50 - and just who was "Party B"?

Last night, as a holder of a few hundred shares in Sun Microsystems (JAVA is their stock symbol), I finally received voting instructions and an explanation of the proposed merger with Oracle. This is actually the second time I've had the opportunity to vote on a company's proposal to end itself through merger - the first was just last fall, when SpaceDev (SPDV stock symbol) was acquired by Sierra Nevada Corporation. In both cases it's been a somewhat mixed experience emotionally. The acquisition price has been a significant improvement on the recent market price for their shares (for Sun, the $9.50 price is significantly above the roughly $5 it was trading at a few months ago), so that's nice on the money side. On the other hand the reason I was holding the shares in the first place was because I believed the company had great potential for the future.

Some basic climate references

I recently corresponded with a colleague who has acquired a degree of "skepticism" regarding global warming. His comments to me specifically cited Freeman Dyson and Will Happer, distinguished physicists who are also well-known global-warming skeptics, and he contrasted their credentials with those of John Holdren (Obama's new science advisor) and Al Gore. The following is a lightly edited version of my response, which I'm posting here mainly as a place for some useful links on the subject.

On the dimensions of the noosphere

This will necessarily be a somewhat rambling collection of my thoughts as I don't feel I've settled down to any solid conclusions on the matter. Perhaps just writing this down will clarify some of my thinking, or perhaps the ideas here will fetch some comments from others that will help point me in better directions. This is the development of some of the thinking from my earlier comments on measuring wrongness - the science I'm familiar with centers on measurement and quantification, and it certainly seems potentially fruitful to consider ways in which one could impose measures (of "wrongness" or "rightness" or just "uncertainty") on the world of ideas. In a sense that kind of measurement is what we impose under the banner of peer review, though the visible outcome is more a binary (publish/don't publish) than continuous measure.

Whither Scientific Datasets?

Recently at work we've been making some minor changes to the handling of "auxiliary files" - movies, additional information, or data sets provided by the authors that go beyond the normal article text, figures and tables (all XML or PDF format) that we usually publish. The issue of archiving datasets in particular has been on my mind. One motivation is my own past experiences wondering what to do with large collections of (in my case computer-simulated) data generated in the process of doing research. I probably still have some of it, what I thought most significant, stored somewhere on the laptop I'm writing from now. Though I'm not sure what I would do with it after 20 or more years of neglect. Would it even be worth anything to myself or anybody else, to make it available? Recently advocates of scientific openness, for example Michael Nielsen's Physics World article, have made a strong case for sharing with the world.

Measuring Wrongness

One of the great puzzles I feel up against these days in several different contexts is finding a clear way to express how wrong certain expressed views are. This is not (at least usually not) an issue of moral wrongness, but in most cases just simple inconsistency of logic, disagreement with basic scientific understanding of issues, or perhaps abuse of the English language in ways that make no sense whatsoever. Last fall I spent an inordinate amount of time documenting the errors in an article by a climate-change "skeptic", but even then the simple count of the problems doesn't feel like it gives a true picture of the enormity of the misrepresentation of the facts provided by the article in question.

Quotes on Unity

In keeping with the un-theme of this blog, I now present something completely different...

Belonging to a church with a lay clergy, it's my turn to speak once in a while to our ward, a congregation of about 130 on an average week. I seem to get called on every couple of years (more than I would like, but less than some!) Last Sunday (before Memorial Day) was my turn again, under the general topic of "unity". Following are some notes and quotes I gathered for the talk, for anybody interested. No, I did not use all this stuff in the talk... there's only so much you can say in 20 minutes!

New Congressional Budget Office Report on Climate Change

temperature projections 1850 to 2100
Thanks to Michael Tobis I discovered a new report this week from the Congressional Budget Office that has the most dramatic illustration I've seen of projections of temperature for the remainder of this century (right - figure 1 in the report). The PDF of the 33-page report is available for download from CBO.


When I was young I naturally had plenty of exercise. It helped that my parents didn't bother to drive me most of the time and there were no buses to my junior high or high school, so I did a lot of walking (high school was well over a mile each way). That included walking through the blinding snow-storms we regularly got in Newfoundland. Even in college and grad school I was mostly car-less; I'd get occasional rides from strangers when they saw me walking home with bags of groceries (in the rain I looked particularly pathetic, I guess), but mostly it was walk, walk walk. Or sometimes take a city bus. I'd occasionally take my bike out for long rides in the hills around Ithaca.

Author identity

The main project I'm focused on at work right now relates to uniquely identifying the people who write and referee articles for our journals. Our referee database is pretty good, but even that has a number of duplicate entries, as I've been finding. In one case the name was the same but with last and first name's switched; in another somehow we'd created a record with a slightly modified version of the surname (and a note that the name was wrong). It's a lot trickier than one might at first imagine, but an open public solution for researcher identification could be a big help. There seem to be several projects in the works in that regard:

Middle school band concert

Rather than say much about it, I'll just let you listen. I thought it was pretty good for a 6th grade band - it's a big band too; Elizabeth loves her teacher. If you listen closely, you can here occasional exclamations from her almost-4 year-old little brother, who loves to hear her play the flute.

Why are some people so easily confused?

Apparently this article of mine on the basic physics and mathematics of radiation on a planet relating to the Greenhouse effect, became somewhat the subject of discussion on a German climate science thread. Given the language difference, I didn't quite follow what they were on about, and so asked for a summary in a related discussion. Note that my article has been discussed at length previously and Google shows lots more references around the 'net.

Hot Spot Redux: analysis of tropical tropospheric amplification

It's been over a month since I completed most of the following analysis, which I've been planning to write up more concretely. This post is intended as a summary of the basic questions I've been trying to address, although there are some mathematical issues I've worked out that I won't cover here. First, a few basic facts and some terminology regarding Earth's atmosphere. If you're already familiar with lapse rate discussions you can skip the next few paragraphs.

Trust, credibility, and the demise of brands

This essay by Rory O'Connor provides an important perspective on the future of media, in particular with some insights on the question of trust. I think the trust and credibility issue is really central to understand for the future of our information world - and particularly the future of scientific publishing where my interests lie. Rather than looking into who actually wrote something they read, people online have come to trust based on how they reach the information - via search engines, or through their social networks, for example. This article mentions the concept of "'credibility heuristics' -- a kind of information Verisign" - up to now, media "brand" (the names of major newspapers, TV networks, etc) has been a central shortcut for many people's perspective on the world - they knew they could trust certain brands to mostly provide them with important, reliable information.

Spaghetti and the financial crisis

chapter1 has a fun post this morning with a guess at what's behind our continuing financial woes - people who (deliberately?) engineer complexity into systems for job security reasons... The idea is that Credit Default Swap and other derivative contracts are so complicated that only the people who created the problem can help fix it, and they set things up that way on purpose. The enlightening analogy is to the software engineer who creates "spaghetti code" essential to a company's systems that only he can understand, ensuring he can demand whatever he wants. I think I have met some people like that...

Some choice quotes:

When the whole buggy mess finally crashed, the nation's management didn't want to take the time or lose face to build a new payroll system, so once again, Spaghetti Code Guy and his pals could name their price.

Signs of Spring

Purple crocusesIt's definitely showing signs of spring here; Saturday was pure sun, and almost warm. The crocuses (right) were wide open and beautiful. I spent a while in a seemingly futile battle with my pitchfork against our huge non-composting pile of leaves. Then decided to switch to digging a garden bed, which yielded slightly more easily.

Paths forward on energy - ARPA-E and e-DII's

In testimony to congress this past week, new energy secretary Steven Chu made the case for the administration's energy plans which include considerable increases in spending in a number of areas, and several new programs. Among the things they appear to be really trying to push is getting ARPA-E off the ground - there's $415 million allocated, but apparently a lot of resistance within the department to actually making it happen. In a companion handout for the hearing, the case for and priority areas for ARPA-E were highlighted. The handout perhaps explains why DOE bureaucrats may be resisting:

Why are we still not regulating credit default swaps?

In the news this weekend, among many other (some related) topics, has been AIG's revelation that much of the "bailout" money they received from the US government has gone to a small collection of banks, foreign and domestic. I am no expert on the various derivative contracts at issue - nor apparently are most of the financial press. However two rather interesting, perhaps disturbing, issues occur to me from reading the actual statements involved:

  • These don't appear to be actually payments to the banks in question, but rather "collateral postings" by AIG, at the request of the banks.
  • These contracts were purchased after the date of the initial government rescue in September 2008!

Physics publishing's electronic past - and future?

My friend and colleague Peter Adams just posted a nice essay on the early history of computing in our office. Some day I'll have to write my own version with the more recent history! Peter mentions the early use of the UNIX OS (troff was used for many years for typesetting the journals). This was originally run on Digital VAX hardware, then a series of Sequent machines, then (when I started) we began to replace those servers with Suns, and more recently everything's migrated to Linux. But still essentially UNIX at heart. A lot of what our editors do is still on the command line, and the referee and manuscript data in particular (going all the way back to 1974, plus a small number back-filled from before then to handle later errata) is pretty much completely accessible from a variety of command-line-oriented programs and scripts.

Notes on the stimulus package

I've been meaning to say something about the energy/climate provisions in Obama's stimulus package, but just hadn't gotten around to it. I also have a post I've been working on that gets into the whole tropical troposphere mess - yeah, I'll get that out some day too.

Anyway, on the stimulus, this post by Jesse Jenkins at Huffington Post does an excellent job of summarizing the key points in the $80 billion that went to energy projects. I agree pretty much with his analysis of the good and the bad there. Some highlights:

A+: The act provides a much-needed, long-term extension of the critical Production Tax Credit that has spurred the booming wind industry, and makes tax credits for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources fully refundable for the next two years.

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