Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nothing to Read Here, Move Along

I love how Bad Science neatly explains statistical concepts. Here, a nice breakdown of why false positives make useful terrorist-detection data mining programs fairly impossible.

Briefly, given the ratio of non-terrorists to terrorists, you couldn't make such programs accurate enough to catch actual terrorists without also catching so many non-terrorists (say, millions) as to render the whole thing pointless.

Which is unfortunate in a way, because it sounds nice to just say that if we set the computers loose on all of our phone records and internet activity and credit card purchases and travel history and library use, they'd be able to handily separate the nasty, plotting wheat from the inoffensive, law-abiding chaff.*

But if we give up all that privacy and get in exchange a decent chance of winning the Next Sack of Terror Flour lottery, it no longer seems like such a good deal. The numbers do not appear friendly towards the national surveillance idea. 

Of course, there's already a lot of surveillance and data collection going on in all kinds of organizations, as noted in a post from Schneier on Security, where the concept of "data pollution" is introduced. 

The author suggests that the vast quantities of data collected and stored on anyone who does much of anything in the digital world has the danger of becoming the pollution issue of the time. He argues that the casual conversations and exchanges we all have every day are not intended to be preserved and analyzed: we're used to being able to toss off comments or ideas without having others examine them and bring them back to haunt us later, but anyone who puts anything out there in public can't really rely on this.

This is obviously a concern for famous people, many of whom do and say really stupid stuff that amuses or horrifies us as viewers--but if someone followed me around all the time filming me and making note of everything I said, I'd undoubtedly look like an inconsistent, absent-minded, babbling loon. 

Also, my makeup and fashion sense would be revealed as dreadful; who dresses me? Half-trained monkeys?

As Schneier says,

Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a BlackBerry, are not official correspondence. A data pattern indicating "terrorist tendencies" is no substitute for a real investigation. Being constantly scrutinized undermines our social norms; furthermore, it's creepy. Privacy isn't just about having something to hide; it's a basic right that has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our humanity.

Well, these days, with our social networking and the wide array of cameras and video, we can all look like babbling loons!

I guess we can take comfort in the fact that there are a lot of us.

*This analogy presented as a shout out to the gluten-intolerant. Rock on, you noble spelt-eaters!

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Little Things

My students had an assignment to complete before class today, and they all did it in a timely fashion.

I tell you, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Which makes up for the fact that I was thinking my tea was unusally weak, and was halfway through the day before I realized I'd filled my mug with hot water but not included a teabag. 

On the upside, it was good for making my instant oatmeal.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tables and Charts and Graphs, Oh My!

A student at the reference desk was asking about medical image resources the other day. 

I'm not sure this is what she was after, but will try to keep this interesting tool in mind another time: the Yale Image Finder

It searches the images in articles from open access journals available through PubMed Central, retrieving illustrations, tables and pictures based on captions, image text, titles and abstracts.

It's extremely simple to use -- enter some terms, select where in the article you want to search for them -- and retrieved results for most of my randomly chosen terms (nothing for 'freckles,' I'm sad to say).

I imagine it could be quite handy if you're looking to check out depictions of gene distributions or what not. It does only search 34,000 articles, which in the grand scheme of biomedical literature is not that many, but presumably it will grow dramatically along with PubMed Central in the future.

I salute SHR Medical Library for this discovery.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Passing Notes

Recall that I said Twitter was like the in-class chat screen in online education? 

This nifty post, How to Present While People are Twittering, strengthens my conviction. I imagine it must have been something like that for my professors (and it certainly was an interesting/distracting element when I did class presentations myself).

If people are going to be doing something, how do you take advantage of it? How do you play to that interest, and incorporate that activity into your presentation? The post has some timely tips.

As far as I know, none of my current students blog or Twitter about the library classes...but then, how far do I know? Not very.

iLibrarian discovered this for me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Mexico News

From Cogitamus, news of my one-time home state: New Mexico has approved the National Popular Vote

So if enough other states also approve it, NM (and those other states) will pledge to their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. I think this is an interesting idea, and I'm all for having votes count for something. 

I confess, though, that I am not all that well-versed in the arguments for and against the Electoral College. 

Also, apparently Val Kilmer is considering a run for governor of New Mexico. I swear, I go away for 14 years and somehow completely lose touch with the goings-on out there.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Library Funding on a Plate

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is trying to get library license plates approved. If 3,000 people commit to spending $40 for the plate, it will go into production and a percentage of the fee will go to support libraries.

I'm inclined to bow out on account of I don't own a car, but it seems like a good idea. People who like to buy special license plates might be inclined to show support for their libraries this way.

Maybe I can put a license plate on my bag?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hospital Gowns Optional

Rebirth had an interesting point about nakedness in health care, specifically in the delivery room. 

The post describes a labor nurse's complaint about a woman who wanted to be naked during her labor and after the birth. It made the nurse a little uncomfortable. 

And yes, I can imagine that one feels a little weird having a completely naked person there. We're used to there being a certain level of concealment between doctors and nurses and their patients. They see a lot, but not all at once...I imagine it's easier to deal with the sort of compartmentalization you have to do in healthcare, if you only look at the parts of people that you're interested in right then.

But does it really matter if women in labor want to take off all their clothes? I mean, they're pretty darn exposed anyway--if they're more comfortable without barely-concealing hospital gowns flapping around them in this intense time, shouldn't they be able to go with that, without having to worry about bothering the nurses?

I'm with the post's author: let it go.

Of course, if a woman had rather not be completely naked in front of strangers, I totally understand and support that too. Give her some draperies! It may not be much, but a little fabric provides the idea of clothing, meaning that you don't have to feel completely exposed.

I think I can understand both preferences. So if you're looking to me for validation of your choices, you have it. Go forth, my legions of followers, and give birth in the state of nudity with which you are most comfortable!

Come to think of it, one could make a similer argument for health care in general. Well, maybe not otorhinolaryngology. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

More on the Killer Robots

Remember the killer robots I concluded we should indeed fear?

Well, Nicholas Carr has an interesting post about how they might be made slightly less fearsome (at least to some people), if we could program them to be able to tell people they're supposed to kill from people they're not supposed to kill. 

Made into 'ethical warriors,' rather than simply injury-and-death machines.

The need for this arises from the fact that there is potential for extreme fearsomeness as these machines are developed, since it is likely that they will in the foreseeable future be sent into situations in which they will have to act without human oversight. 

Can we program them to make distinctions, seek out targets designated as legitimate, and avoid burning women, kids, houses and villages, after being litterbugs?

Despite my inevitable flippant tone, this is not actually that funny. Interesting, though.

Like nature, technology is full of the simultaneously horrifying and cool.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cut Budgets Like Grass

Tiny budget cut at my work:
We used to have a service that would send someone to water the plants and replace the tall bristly ones on a regular basis before they started to look old. That service is gone.

Resulting challenge:
By the time we noticed the plant maintenance people hadn't come in a while, the plants in hanging pots were wilting and nearly dead. They were dropping yellow leaves all over the recycle bins and part of a study area. It was not a very attractive addition to the decor. (Message: "Come to the library and wither away while you study".)

Coping mechanism:
We were told we could just throw them out, but instead a colleague and I appointed ourselves Plant Caregivers and have been watering them once a week and trimming off the dead leaves.
After a few weeks, and a return of some healthy green color, I think they're gonna make it! Good old-fashioned plant-watering gumption saves the day.

For a while, at least. I don't know much about plants, so I have no idea of their natural lifespan. The tall bristly ones that used to be replaced every few months are the big question for me. Was there a reason to take them away every so often? Do they topple over dead at 6 months? Do they sprout odiferous blossoms? Grow flytrap maws and start snapping up the students?

Being as I'm a librarian, one would think I could do some research on the subject and attempt to locate answers to these questions, but that feels like work. Maybe I'd rather just twiddle my thumbs and wonder.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ascending the Peaks of Fabulousness

Did you know that there was a television show that "defined a generation"? 

About "the school where America came of age"?

Apparently Beverly Hills 90210 was way more momentous than I ever thought. All those times I wasn't watching it seem kind of wasted now. No wonder I'm so out of touch with my generation.

This really doesn't have anything to do with anything except that despite many years' exposure to advertising, I am still occasionally startled by the grandiose language used to hype things (in this case, the new 90210 show, advising me of its hot new awesomeness by summoning up the generation-defining ghost of the original).

Seriously, "the school where America came of age"? The whole country? All in unison?

And what does it mean to "define a generation" with a TV show, anyway? I suppose by saying "this generation was a group of people who potentially watched this TV show," which might be true, but is not very informative. 

But I imagine they mean to suggest that this show, rather than setting the parameters of the generation, actually says something about the generation: perhaps, as reports, something about how its members dealt with "travails as they tried to maintain their friendship while dealing with romances, family and personal crises, tragedies and countless drug addictions."

This is about who we are as a generation! 

If only we had been watching TV at the time. Some of us were probably too busy struggling with our countless drug addictions. Others of us simply didn't have televisions. In any case, I'm going to define my cohort right now as the Left Out of 90210 Generation. Life has been hard for us in many ways, but we bear up as best we can.

I'm not actually trying to rag on the show, which I never saw but do not claim to be too good for, and which could have been great for all I know. (I could Netflix it!...nah.) 

I just want to quibble with clearly exaggerated descriptions, because I sometimes like to get nitpicky about language.

I would not go far in advertising. 

"Watch this show: it's based on another show of which you may have heard!" would be my kind of tag line. 

Now that's something that could define a generation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Institutionally Reposing Milk Products

I must stress I personally have nothing whatsoever to do with the institutional repository project, but I had to feel a little hometown pride (or whatever) that Boston University was semi-favorably mentioned by the fierce and awesome Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector.

Woo hoo! BU rocks!

OK, I'll subside. As I said, it's nothing to do with me, so I can take no credit (or blame, if it turns out to fail horribly). But it's cool that a noted expert and thinker in this particular field thinks the project has an interesting and possibly workable take on the issue.

In other news, I've said this before, but seem not to have heeded myself, so here it is again: 

Please scald your milk when making yogurt. I don't know why, and sometimes it seems like a waste of time to heat-heat-heat it when you're just going to have to cool it down to the point that the little cultures can survive, but I swear overheating and then cooling makes for thicker, creamier results than just heating to lukewarm to start with.

Maybe the heat breaks down the proteins and makes them easier to culture or something? I dunno, I'm making stuff up here. But go with it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You Could Only Look Like You

Genetics and Health calls our attention to an article from the Irish Times suggesting that it may one day be possible to tell what people look like from their DNA, by mapping correlations of specific gene combinations "with fixed points on the face, for example eye corners and separation, corners of the mouth, nose tip and length and face edges."

A question: can you tell a person's age from DNA? Because otherwise, a depicted face could be way off just because people can look a lot different at 15 than they do at 60, even assuming that eye corners and separation, etc., are consistent.

Let's not even consider such variables as weight, facial hair, features that can be adjusted with cosmetic surgery, and anything else that changes an appearance but that I'm not considering right now because I haven't thought of it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidential Health

In honor of the day, I salute this extensive Medical History of the Presidents of the United States from Doctor Zebra (via Well, which also offers a nice Presidential Health Quiz, on which I got only 3/8 right, meaning that I am not the best person to ask about the ailments of heads of state).

Judging from Dr. Zebra's list, Rutherford Hayes appears to have been one of the healthiest presidents: the only medical issues given for him are poison ivy and snoring (with a notation that the reliability of the latter report is uncertain: he might not even have snored!).

Also, did you know Thomas Jefferson inoculated his own family against smallpox? If you want something done...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What'cha Lookin' At?

Quite a while ago, iLibrarian had a post on this Mashable post on analytics programs, which track traffic to your website: how many visitors, where they came from, what search terms they used to find you, what pages they looked at, etc.

Since Google already owns most of my internet life, I just use Google Analytics, which was able to confirm my hunch that approximately no one looks at this site. 

Aside from my legions of devoted fans, that is.

It is pretty cool to see the little graphs showing traffic from day to day, mapping the location of visitors, and so forth. I bet it's especially interesting if you actually have traffic and visitors!

As far as I can tell, there's no option to bribe Google in order to get the actual names and addresses of your visitors so you can shake them down for candy. Oh well.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Latin: The Language of Fun

Got Medieval brings word that a video game I never played (Zelda II: The Legend of Link, sequel to another video game I never played) has been translated into Latin, a language I never studied.

I'm filled with enthusiasm for this idea, for reasons I cannot completely (or at all) explain. I guess it's just that incongruous juxtaposition is awesome.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mmm, Sparkles

Mother Jones has an amusing post on a new candy bar from Mars called Fling.

It has sparkles on it, apparently. They're made of mica, which is a silicate mineral often enjoyed by me as a child when I found it in rocks or in the road. I liked to find it in big flat flakes; I'd imagine having a really huge sheet that I could use as a window pane in my magic rock house.

But enough about my childhood dreams. Let's talk about how I feel about sparkly candy!

Well, I can't tell you how long I've waited and yearned for sparkly candy. Almost as long as for sparkly vampires.

I can't tell you how long, because is "not" a length of time?

It's not that I'm actually opposed to sparkles on food or drink -- I enjoy the novelty of Goldschl├Ąger as much as the next person -- but I have to say, it simply isn't a really pressing need of mine. Not that I wouldn't take one if you're offering.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

I shall say no more, except that I am ashamed to report that I forgot to make a cake. 

Or, as I have been advised is proper, to prepare an entire hatchling triceratops, with butter. What can I say--they were all out at the store. All they had was some overripe-looking trilobites, which I didn't fancy.

Another time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hang in There, USPS

I like this post on Cogitamus arguing that the coming increase in the price of stamps is not that big a deal. 

Certainly I always kind of whine about it when the price goes up, because it means I have to go get some make-rate stamps, and keep track of how many old ones I have to use up, and when I can get the new ones, and which are which in my desk drawer (since half the time they don't have an actual number on them these days). 

It's sooooooo haaaaaard, people! 

And expensive! The extra two cents means that by the time I've sent 20 letters, I should almost have been able to send 21 for the same price!

But what, in life, is without pain? (Also, isn't the price of stamps tied to inflation, meaning that it's staying essentially stable? Everything else is more expensive too, ya know.)

I have a certain fondness for the post office. There was a time when I thought I might like to deliver mail, because I could be out walking around a lot in the outdoors. Exercise, seeing people, breathing the air.

Then I decided sitting indoors at a desk with a computer and regular internet access sounded like more fun. Mmmm...internet.

Anyway, is a 2-cent increase really enough to make a big dent in my limited letter-mailing and my use of the post office for all my holiday-package-sending needs? Nah.

You still have my love, USPS. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well, Drat

As noted by Well, taking a daily multivitamin does not appear to have any protective effect versus cancer or heart disease. (I was hoping for at least a +1 on my saving throw.)

I guess we have to actually eat vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, then?

So much for my plan to live on chocolate, red wine and vitamin supplements. 

Update: Respectful Insolence is all over this with a careful review of the study referenced. 

What I want to know is, how does this relate to the oft-repeated advice that all women of child-bearing age should be getting supplemental folic acid? Being well-trained, I have been faithfully taking a multi for years, carefully checking the bottle every time I buy to make sure it's got B9. 

From what I see, this study did not address that question, being more interested in cancer and heart disease (both very interesting topics), so I s'pose we should still be taking our folic-acid-containing pills.

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Need This Answer!

I have often had the very problem expressed in this xkcd post. 

How do you properly manage emoticons within parentheses? As one who appreciates proper use of punctuation, the question haunts me. 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pick Your Poison

Rough Type expresses enthusiasm for (or at least takes notice of: the enthusiasm may be mine) an idea-smackdown between seeing the internet as a putting aside of sedatives, or as a taking up of narcotics.

Upper or downer? Hmm....

The first reference is to a Clay Shirky post, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, that suggests that in times rapid social change, people will self-medicate in order to dull their natural inclination to run around shrieking and breaking things. During the Industrial Revolution, they drank a lot of gin: during the latter half of the last century, they watched a lot of television sitcoms.

Sitcoms dulled the anxiety of having so much free time, the argument goes, and only now, as we're getting accustomed to it, are we starting to figure out things to do with our spare mental energy besides zone out in front of the TV. 

Things like the internet, which is an expression of minds newly awakened from TV stupors.

The second reference is a recent post on What to Fix called Technology is Heroin. (I love a good punchy headline like that.) This one argues that we used to pay a lot more attention to things like music, socializing, and having fun in general (we had to, because these things took a lot of effort), and that technology, from phonographs to radios, televisions, video games and computers, has made being entertained easier and easier.

And much the way heroin made it easier to survive pain, but also caused some people to become withdrawn and socially unproductive addicts, technology's enhancement of entertainment, making it incredibly easy to be tapped into fun stuff anytime, means that we're getting sucked into spending more and more (fractured and half-focused) time and attention on it, at the expense of other things.

We're tech addicts, withdrawing from actual human contact in order to multi-task amusements online, on TV, in video games and through our MP3 players.

After thinking about both these well-written and interesting pieces, the choice really seems to be this: 
Do you want to not have gin, or do you want some heroin? 

If I had to pick one of these theories to back, I'd probably waffle and say there's likely to be aspects of truth in both. Things aren't that simple, you know. The internet (and technology) is stimulating and stupefying, depending on who's using it and what they're doing.

Also, I like waffles. Can someone write a piece about how the internet is like maple syrup?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I Can't Even Do This Movie Review: "Push"

So we went to see this movie, which is about people with super powers running around wrecking up the place.

It was entertaining in a flashy way, like a music video or something,, do not look to this movie for sense. 

I can say no more.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Today in News I Like

I am pleased to see in Salon a resurfacing of a story I read somewhere else a bit ago, about a study comparing children's peanut allergies in the U.K. (where pregnant women and young children are advised to avoid peanuts) and Israel (where no such concerns are common).

It turns out that avoiding peanuts is correlated with higher rates of peanut sensitivity, not lower. Of course (say it with me), correlation is not causation, so this doesn't necessarily mean we should all run out and ply pregnant women and small children with peanuts (although that is precisely what I personally intend to do).

Still, it makes sense in a "familiarity breeds desensitization" model of substance-sensitivity. This would also be the model that advises not trying to keep too antiseptic a house, on the theory that the immune system needs something to practice on. 

Eat a little dirt, kids! It's good for you!*

Since I subsist largely on peanut butter and clean the house maybe twice a year, I am highly in favor of this model. 

I am further encouraged by this report from the American Academy of Pediatrics noting that "Current evidence does not support a major role [in protecting against development of allergies] for maternal dietary restrictions during pregnancy or lactation" or delaying the introduction of certain foods for more than 4-6 months.

Pregnant women and small children, come on over to my place for some peanut butter cookies. Don't mind the dust. (This offer is mainly symbolic: you'll have to let me know before you come over, since I don't actually have the cookies right this minute. The dust I've got, though.)

*A PB&D (peanut butter and dirt) sandwich is especially good for you.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Journals? What Journals?

Aunt B. at Tiny Cat Pants brought me the news of Google's GPeerReview: "A tool that enables peers to review and sign each others' works."

This project aims to provide scientific creds for online scholarly publications; why bother submitting to a journal? Just put your awesome paper online and get experts in the field to review it, comment, and generally affirm for others that you know what you're talking about.

This takes the scholarly publishing question even beyond open access journals. As long as you can get someone to critically review your paper. 

I can see it still being pretty tough to get your work reviewed, but I suppose that's not really a huge downside: presumably if your work's good, someone will eventually agree to review it, and if not, busy experts with a lot to do shouldn't be wasting their time on it, so it might all balance out and wind up with peer reviewed work still being made available.

Interesting idea. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Birth Control and Baby Toys

RH Reality Check has news about the progress of the much-hinted, elusive "pill for men." Apparently something along these lines--though it's actually a shot, not a pill--is currently in tests in Australia.

I personally prefer a pill to a shot, but I guess shots have the convenience of not having to be remembered every day. Either way, more options for birth control are good. 

On a completely unrelated matter, my sister alerted me to the TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) awards, now soliciting votes.

It's a project of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to recognize the most obnoxious toy out there. Nominated are Baby Alive Learns to Potty (ew?), the Lego Batman Video Game, Power Wheels Cadillac Escalade, Smart Cycle (a stationary tricyle), and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Barbie.

I myself reserve most of my toy hatred for garish things that make horrible noises, but I won't argue that these five candidates aren't also worthy of scorn.

Go vote for your least favorite!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Read My Writing, Will You?

I think not!

GruntDoc writes about a service called YourFonts that will turn your handwritten script into a formal font for use on all your pretend-handwritten documents.

I'm sure everyone can imagine a million uses for that, right? OK, in my case it's pretty much none, but it still sounds like a fun idea, even if I don't feel a strong need to impose my poor handwriting on anyone. I feel bad enough about the people who have to decipher it when it's actually handwritten, without fake-handwriting things.

I particularly like GruntDoc's amusing post title, "How Docs can continue to have illegible records in an EMR." Yeah, we may think electronic medical records will solve a lot of problems, but we're kidding ourselves. 

Illegible handwriting will triumph over all attempts to tame it. Writing reflects the soul, and the soul will not be caged! Or something.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ghastly Technical Problems

The internet is down in my apartment. 

I cannot sufficiently stress the horror that is this moment, knowing I must go home and face the blank void of non-connection. I'd stay in the office all night, but then I would have to face the grumbling void of an empty stomach, which is slightly more horrifying still.

Is this notebook-like device even good for anything without the web?

We're going to get with Verizon tech support. Wish us luck.

Update: Whew!
The problem was relatively easily solved. The internet lives!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ewwww of the Day

I didn't see the BBC series Planet Earth when it first came out, but have been watching on DVD. 

I was just watching the episode about jungles, which reminded me of the Cordyceps fungus. Which, ewww!

I had heard of it before, but blanked it from my memory due to ickiness. (Or having other things to think about.)

It has a very nice strategy, in which its spores settle on an ant or beetle (different types infect different insects) and get into the body. Then they send out filaments, feed on the soft tissues of the body (mmm, delicious ant tissues), get into the brain, and cause the insect to climb upwards towards the tops of plants.

Eventually, the fungus sprouts out of the ant's head, matures, and releases spores to float downward and settle on other ants below. Seriously, ewww. I am fond of mushrooms, especially on pizza, but this is a little much.

I can't deny that it is also fascinating. Nature is full of the simultaneously gross and cool.

I just hope these fungi don't develop the ability to infect humans. It would be practically as bad as a zombie attack. 

My brain! My precious brain!