Science Commons - Openness and Sharing, but what about Trust?

In a fascinating interview preliminary to the upcoming ETech conference, John Wilbanks of Science Commons expounds on some of his ideas on the future of scientific information. Science Commons is an offshoot of Larry Lessig's Creative Commons, where Wilbanks works (as VP for Science). As such, part of their focus is on the legal barriers (copyright in particular) to sharing of scientific information - both publications and data. They are big fans of the existing open-access journals like Public Library of Science, but they have a much grander vision than that. Some of my favorite quotes from the interview follow.

Wilbanks on why science will naturally move in this direction:

High Speed Rail in stimulus bill

large_Oct18FRAmap.jpg Somehow or other the stimulus bill that came out of the House/Senate conference and was passed and signed by the president included $8 billion for high-speed rail, among many other transportation and energy-related measures. This is, in principle, a very good thing: rail, as long as the train cars are sufficiently occupied, is far more efficient than any other mode of transportation. Rail also lends itself particularly well to shifting from oil to electricity, the primary form of new energy from renewables. As the Energize America summary I was involved in putting together says:

Ben Mabey on ruby integration testing

At work we've been trying to learn how to do Behavior-Driven Development (BDD), which seems to be greatly encouraged in the ruby world. We've just gotten down to installing Cucumber (mostly Lenny's doing) and getting into the question of at what level we actually want to write the features and scenarios it expects. The choice under discussion is whether to put a lot of detail into the scenario definitions and drive the development from there, or to make them closer to something the users would understand - but in that case the detail has to be somewhere, and so it gets a bit hidden in custom step definitions. Which may be a good thing - anyway, we were pointed to this nice analysis of what is useful in writing scenarios, strongly favoring the "declarative" style, i.e.

Bye-bye Dept. of Commerce, Hello Dept. of Industry and Trade

Former Commerce Department Deputy Under-Secretary Derek Shearer has an interesting solution for problems (including finding a secretary) with his former department - get rid of it! The commerce department as it stands doesn't fit together well at all - there's the Patent Office, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST - formerly National Bureau of Standards), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Census Bureau, and more bits and pieces.

Good news for solar prices?

SolarBuzz PV module prices 2001 to 2009 The sustainable energy transition blog has a brief summary of prospects for solar photovoltaic prices over the next couple of years - basically that they're headed down. As this graph from SolarBuzz shows, prices have been pretty much stagnant in the $4 to $5/watt range for about the last 6 years, in spite of exponential growth in production.

Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes - Needed, or just a work-around?

It looks like we'll have the huge stimulus package passed very shortly, and it appears to include $400 million for the new ARPA-E program at the Department of Energy, for advanced energy projects, among many other good energy-related programs in the stimulus bill. I find the ARPA-E piece of interest because the other day I happened to run into this report from the Brookings Institution, part of their Blueprint for American Prosperity project.

Exploratory vs production quality software

large_jmp_92.gifOver at RealClimate I was prompted to add a comment in the discussion on software and data archiving:

Open Access: Looking Back

Eli Rabett writes some thoughts on open access for the scientific literature, presumably spurred by the RealClimate discussion on making data and code available. Eli's comments center around the 2004 Wellcome Trust report on costs of academic publishing.

This spurred my own recollections of old discussions on the topic at the still-running American Scientist Forum on Open Access, going back 10 years now. Not much has really changed...

Denialism defined

Thanks to a link (twice removed) from Tim Lambert, I just discovered a wonderfully cogent summary of the common characteristics of (professional?) anti-evolutionists, global warming "skeptics", medical cranks, and many of the other purveyors of anti-science or unhistorical illogic in our modern world. The Hoofnagle's and co-writers for the past couple of years have been pointing out the foibles particularly of medical cranks. As they write on some of the latest examples:

Cranks believe in something contrary to observable reality. They will do anything to prove it. When reality gets in their way, they ignore, subvert, lie, cheat, or obfuscate to create confusion. And when it's proven beyond all doubt they're wrong? That's when the conspiracies come out.

Feed-In Tariffs: The Best Way Forward

Mirrors at Spanish solar power tower The NY Times' Green Inc blog highlights several plans to introduce feed-in tariffs in various locations around the US. One of the comments led to an interesting article with a slightly lengthier argument for this policy approach, from the Renewable Energy Policy Project.


large_puzzle_done2.jpg My sister's family gave Ben a 2000-piece puzzle for Christmas, a 1770's map of the world (words in French and Italian). We finally finished it. Some of us are slightly obsessive about such things. Actually this one was quite fun - the colors and rough patterns didn't tell you much about where any given piece would fit in, but the detail (words, detailed pattern) did, if you looked closely at the box and piece. A little different from many such puzzles.


Ezekiel with broccoli, egg roll, and mai fun (spaghetti) So, at the Chinese buffet last night, Zeke (3) points at various dishes saying "I want dat". Then he points to the Chinese noodles labeled "Mai Fun", and says, "I want spaghetti" (taking his time to get the 's' sound at the front right). Dad answers: "It's not spaghetti, it's Chinese noodles". "I say it s...spaghetti!" he insisted. Ok, have it your way. Maybe we will talk about spaghetti on here too, depending on your definition :-)

Executive pay and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Excessive executive salaries are in the news, especially with the moves by the president and congress to limit salaries in companies receiving bail-out money. Devilstower at Daily Kos writes that CEO pay is the problem - echoing comments by Roger Lowenstein in an NPR interview. The basic argument is that, when somebody makes a lifetime's worth of money in a year or two, they have little incentive to do things that are of long-term value. Actions that are high-risk and of short-term benefit are taken regardless of possible long-term calamities they may cause.

Peer Review and the Sphere of Legitimate Debate

Over at Lucia's blog on an essentially open thread, there was some back and forth on peer review, the merits and barriers to formal publication vs blogs, and so forth. My old friend Joel Shore responded to a comment on science journals expanding faster than the speed of light with a possible source, and mentioned the size of the Physical Review journals doubling every decade.

Since I work there, I thought I'd respond with more up to date data, and also added some thoughts on peer review related to some commentary on a simple diagrammatic explanation of journalistic practice, recently posted by Jay Rosen. My comments follow.

For what it’s worth, Physical Review publication statistics are available online here (2007 numbers):

What government should do in space

The Space Studies Board of the National Academies recently posted a call for public comment on the rationale and goals of the US space program, as part of a study they are developing on the topic. The open comment period is now closed, but according to Karen Shea at the NSS blog, Neil deGrasse Tyson at their recent meeting strongly urged that "NASA should get out of Low Earth Orbit". What should they do instead?

Below are the comments I submitted to the SSB on the topic, identifying 3 specific goals for US government-sponsored space activities, some of which certainly would continue to include low earth orbit activities for some period of time into the future.

The Future of Peer Review?

slashdot recently ran an article on a concept for distributed peer review, GPeerReview, hosted at Google ( It still looks rather half-baked (the author decides whether or not to post the reviews?!) but the basic idea seems like a possible foundation for something that could be actually useful.

Software testing

David Chelimsky on the rspec mailing list recommended a bit of a rant by Jay Fields, commenting on a discussion by Joel Spolsky, on the issue of being doctrinaire in software development processes. The specific example they start with is that some shops require "100% test coverage", but that can lead to way too much time spent maintaining the tests, rather than doing something useful.

Entropy flow - more from Kevin Kelly on "Cosmic Genesis"

Kevin Kelly has another post on The Cosmic Genesis of Technology. I sent him the following comments as corrections or perhaps refinements of the ideas. The introduction is quite poetic, and I think close to correct.

Access better than Ownership?

Kevin Kelly is one of the writers I love to read as he has an interesting vision of the dematerializing future. It's already happened where I work - before I started here, our revenue came essentially entirely from libraries subscribing to receive print copies of our journals. Now we sell access to the journals online, and take responsibility for hosting - as does every other scientific publisher still in business. Almost nobody wants the print journals any more.

Spaghetti and not spaghetti

In late summer of 1991, Shelly and I were moving from a beloved little apartment in Bloomington, Indiana, after our first year of wedded bliss, and preparing to relocate to the big city of Chicago. All our belongings were packed up (Argonne paid for the move, even for lowly postdocs such as we were) and we just had to clear out our refrigerator, put our last personal items in our car, and head out. We had participated in a shared community garden, the apartment not really having room for all the plants we wanted to grow. On moving day we had some last peppers and tomatoes from the garden to consume, and also various odds and ends in the fridge: onion, eggs, milk, butter, probably some nuts, together with some spices and other dry goods on the counter.

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