Thursday, June 23, 2011

And We're Off!

Getting packed up and ready to head to the airport for something exciting!

Not at the airport, no one wants any excitement of any kind at or involving any airport, but the fact that we're going on a trip that will extend beyond the airport, that's exciting.

I'm not used to flights I don't have to get up at the crack of horrible for, because usually I go west inside the United States (it's hard to go very far east inside the United States when you start in Boston), but when you head across the Atlantic you seem to leave in the evening.

The better to try to get some sleep so you can pretend to your brain that it's totally time for morning 6 hours earlier than usual.

I got up kind of early anyway, in the hope that I'll be tired enough to doze off. I well remember, from past experiences jumping several zones, that dazed, faintly nauseated weariness, and the feeling of really wanting to just sit down somewhere and go to sleep, never mind where the deceitful sun is in the lying sky.

Squinting against the mocking sunlight, trying to make out, through a haze of eyelashes and glare, whether or not that stretch of sidewalk is clear, because it looks mighty comfy.

Can't wait!

But jet lag aside, we'll be in Paris, and I hear that's moderately interesting.

So I'm going to be away from the internet for a few days, and I trust it will behave itself in my absence.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lose No Time

My default approach to vacation is to figure that if I'm not doing anything special, I might as well just go to work. Save the vacation time for when I go away to visit family or something.

It worked so well that I've accumulated all but 15 minutes of the maximum accruable vacation time at my job. After that, it doesn't stack up anymore. You essentially lose time, since you keep working but no more vacation is earned! This cannot be.

It's not a particularly horrifying problem to have, I suppose. But if there's this time that you're supposed to have, as a benefit of your job, to spend not at your job, you should really take it. Time not working is good for life.

So here I was, not doing anything special today, but I might as well just not go to work.

I'll do something special tomorrow though, don't you worry.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Happy Summer!

Or winter, if you're in the southern hemisphere. Does anyone in the southern hemisphere read this blog? I'm going to say yes, lots, because I can.

Lots, and none at all!

I am also on vacation now, so I am extra extra happy. Celebrate with me! Wheeeeee!


Monday, June 20, 2011

Sit Down For This One

I heartily endorse the useful advice of J on A Librarian's Guide to Etiquette:

Librarians should militantly enforce the “pushing in” of recently vacated public chairs in their libraries. As you make your rounds through the library, forcefully bump the chairs against the tables as a passive aggressive warning of your quiet rage for any future potential violators.

I don't really do this in my library, but I may need to start. Anything that warns of my quiet rage for future potential violators is a good thing. The people need to know!

I also endorse the curiosity of Paul Levy at Not Running a Hospital, who wonders "Will books someday be works in progress?" He's referring to the fact that, with ebook purchases, one could theoretically buy a book, and then have it automatically updated on your reader to reflect changes made by the author. He compares this to a software update, something that you get to make sure the content is up to date, and it's easy to see how this could be useful for informational material that loses value over time.

A constantly updating encyclopedia, or a guide to New York City, could be very handy, especially if it involved no or minimal charges. Rather than buy a whole new book, just pay a couple of dollars to have the updates integrated.

On the other hand, theoretically, you could also have your book updated to reflect changes made by editors in response to threats of lawsuits, or something. Let's imagine a truly awe-inspiring scandal that prompts a recall of certain information that you purchased, by that could be removed from your book after the fact.

Nobody likes the idea of paying for something and then getting it taken away.

I guess the crucial thing here would be that you should be able to decide if you want to accept the updates or not. Much like software, they could send you a little message saying "an update is available for your book The Awe-Inspiring Scandal Encyclopedia: New York City Edition. Would you like to accept these changes?"

And then you could review the proposed updates and say yes or no. Maybe even accept some while refusing others ("I liked this part better when it was that dude and the ostrich"). It could become not so much a software update as a collaborative editing process.

Of course, then you would have bunches of people running around with their own slightly different versions of what would in some sense be the same book, since it would have a single uniform title, but would in another sense be a bunch of personalized editions, since the actual text might vary widely.

The Awe-Inspiring Scandal Encyclopedia: New York City, Adeline Hoopstine Edition. Citing these as sources gets really interesting.

Once again we stare into the terrifyingly mutable face of the electronic book. We shiver in trepidation, but we cannot turn away.

So keep shoving those chairs in, everyone. At least they're solid.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overcome by Passion

If you've read some of the same bits of history I have, you may be familiar with the way uncontrollable sexual appetite used to be seen in Western society as a female characteristic rather than a male one (discussed in this NYT opinion piece).

You do kind of get the sense that a lot of times women's uncontrollably lustful nature was being blamed for the corruption of otherwise stolid men who would be spending their time in hard work or prayer or military triumphs or whatever, rather than merely being recognized as a sort of personal quirk. I'm not sure it was a tolerant/apologist "girls will be girls" as much as a "lustful girls will tempt otherwise virtuously nonsexual boys who would never do such horrible and undignified things."

If nothing else, though, it's an interesting reminder that cultural assumptions about who 'naturally' wants sex and who needs to be talked into it change, like lots of other cultural assumptions.

Possibly, in fact, people of both sexes may be interested in having sex from time to time? And possibly shouldn't be either shamed for feeling interest, or excused for acting like a jerk about it?

No, you're right, that's way too easy. I mean impossible.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Unmomentous Discoveries

It's weird the things you don't know about until something comes up.

For example, I always thought my hair was straight, because when it was long it hung straight. Once I got it cut short, it turned out to be rather wavy. Apparently it only hung straight when it was long because it was heavy enough to pull the wave out.

Now I have to actually think about combing it in a particular direction while it's wet, because otherwise it will dry looking all weird.

I never knew!


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nothing of Note

I am weary from nerdly pursuits this evening. Specifically, energetic discussion of game design and conversation trees. Also hooligan children and Wii Bowling, because you have to mix things up. Also pie. Because of pie.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reading and Writing

My favorite post of the day is Aunt B at Tiny Cat Pants musing about possibly mythical Viking torture techniques and fiction writing.

Also of interest is this Sociological Images post compiling a series of posters warning soldiers to stay away from women lest they catch a disease.

I was struck by the number of terms for these women: 'easy' girl-friends, pick-ups (with a hyphen), procurable women, "V-Gals" or victory girls, pickups (one word now, and I wonder if that was just a coexisting variant, or if one form of the term was earlier or later?), loose women...

I don't really have any interesting point to make, just that that's a lot of ways to talk about someone, or some group of people. A lot of words for something the targets of the posters talked about a lot, maybe?


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Just in Case...

Advice on being an effective crime victim, from Swan Tower, whose bike was stolen. Important points: don't touch anything, pay attention to what's going on so you can tell the story clearly, and keep your receipts.

Unfortunately, the bike has not been recovered, and a lot of stolen property never is, but at least in this case the incident provided material for future writing.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Trudging For Better Health

Since I was fretting about my commute killing me the other day, I thought I would note, on the pro-commute side, that I just picked up a nifty STAT!Ref branded pedometer recently (no, it's not a robot in socks, but it's pretty cool), and it indicates that I'm getting just about the recommended 10,000 steps in a workday.

I have to say that this is pretty much entirely because I walk a mile and half on the way to work. I would not be taking that many steps while at work. Mostly at work I sit at one desk or another.

And I would not be taking that many steps at home. Mostly at home I sit in this chair and look at my computer, or sit on the floor and look at the TV screen. I like to imagine that ducking involuntarily when something in my video game attacks me is exercise, but we all know this is unlikely to be true.

Really the thing is, 10,000 is kind of a big number.

So basically I lead a highly sedentary lifestyle other than the regular brisk activity that is forced upon me by my commute. I'm still not totally in love with the commute, mind you, because I'm still a little horrified by the vast amounts of time it consumes, but I reckon it's not all bad.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

People Need to Know

A lingering thought from Librarian Science Camp.

It was interesting to see some of the presenters really give credit to libraries and librarians for making sure that information, articles, etc. that they need are stored, organized and available, while others did not do this so much.

Granted, the ones who gave us mad props may have just been being nice. Or trying to mollify us, out of fear that we would suddenly snap and start tearing people limb from limb if not appeased. Because you never know, with a critical mass of librarians. Behind our helpful, pleasant demeanor, there could easily be hidden a seething blood rage. But it hardly matters: credit is credit, I say.

However, it's evident that some people really do think that "it's all online" so the library isn't really necessary. Even when they just said that what's online is expensive journals that (one would imagine) someone has to subscribe to to make sure they can get them, and it's probably not the department chair, although one never knows.

Clearly it's an ongoing struggle to get the word out that the library is not just that building with the books, but includes a vast online presence dedicated to ensuring that you can actually get full text access to the stuff you want to read.

Vast Online Library Presence is what I'm going to be promoting from here on. So, VOLP, I guess.

It's going to be presented as a lurking force, hovering over, under and below all your online dealings. Looming out of sight just behind your screen. Watching your every click and making sure there's a full text article on the other side of the link, whenever said full text has been lawfully purchased and made available for the current students, faculty and staff of this fine institution.

Not creepy at all.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sober Evaluation is Key

I'm very fond of this post by scicurious on Neurotic Physiology. She really goes to town with a critical reading of a poorly designed study, providing a shining example of how to evaluate research papers and how to not make too much of reported findings.

Truly an inspiring piece of work.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Science Science Science Yay!

Today's first science camp presentation was epidemiology.

Michael Kneeland gave a lively overview of the various types of studies that inform epidemiological research, from randomized controlled trials on through case studies, and stressed the need to read and think carefully, which I'm sure we can all applaud.

Then Joel Ticknor talked about some studies in his area, environmental health, making the point that in this field you're not going to get randomized controlled trials on specific chemical exposures in humans or whatever, so you have to look at narrow slices of the whole like how something is metabolized, genetic mechanisms, etc. However, we can (and sometimes must) act based on evidence that is less than the gold standard RCT--as he pointed out, we don't do randomized trials on parachutes vs. no parachutes to protect against falling damage, either.

We heard a lot about Bisphenol A a few years ago (a compound in hard plastic bottles that is thought to possibly leach into water, with unknown effect), and while the official jury is still out on how dangerous it is, the outcry prompted industry to remove it from a lot of products. This shows that we don't always have to wait for some sort of verdict; companies don't want to lose business, so if there's enough concern, they may just act.

On the other hand, this chemical was replaced with one that we don't know any more about than we initially knew about BPA, so we have no way of knowing if it's actually any safer. A major takeaway from this presentation was that a lot of chemicals have basically not been studied, so as far as anyone knows they're safe, in the sense that they haven't caused any obvious problems to date, but we don't actually know much of anything about them so it's impossible to say if they're actually harmless, or if one is better or worse than another.

Just part of life in the exciting modern world!

My latest theory: when the robots rise up against us, they won't bother to crush us, they'll just poison us with chemicals. As you can imagine, my positive outlook and cheerful attitude is a boon to any gathering. Invite me to your party!

After lunch, Nathan Wilson and Holly Miller talked to us about exciting scientist/librarian projects at the Marine Biological Laboratory/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The Encyclopedia of Life, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and NetiNeti (a program that picks scientific names out of text) are all cool projects that librarians have worked on, to the benefit of scientists as scientific data is organized and made accessible.

Again, I could say so much more about these presentations, which I have no justice whatsoever, but I am weary. Just be filled with pure, sweet happiness at the thought that I got to enjoy them, and let your glee at my good fortune also be salted with your own bitter tears of remorse at not being there yourself.

Sweet happiness plus bitter tears makes a great seasoning for Friday night.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bring on the Science!

I'm having a fine time at Science Camp so far, everyone.

We learned about robotics and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's robotics program this morning, and although we did not get a sock-wearing robot of our own to take home (so, yes, my heart is broken), we did get to see several tournament-winning machines from the WPI Team 190. We also met some of the impressive young men and women who design, build, program and drive these mechanical contraptions, and I must say that my faith in the continued future awesomeness of robots is strong.

Sure, they may one day turn on us and kill us all, but at least it will be a sign of our having been too clever by half. Go out in a blaze of poorly applied intelligence, that's what I say.

If I were younger, I would be so filled with a burning need to go into robotics, I can't even tell you.

Anyway, presenters Mike Gennert and Ken Stafford talked about what a robot is, the many applications of robots in society (medical uses including surgery and rehab, defense/military uses, nanotechnology, manufacturing, entertainment), and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, which draws from computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering.

Also discussed was the need to be aware of the social implications of these technologies: are robots making the world a better place? There are clear ethical issues around some of these things, like the way military drones can make war something like a 9-5 job that someone can do from an office, remotely launching missiles on the other side of the world. Robots can really change the way things are done, as well as the types of things we can do, and we have to think about the implications.

There was a lot more to the presentations, but alas, time is short and I must press on with other notes before I sleep.

After lunch, we had astronomy, which was very cool. I haven't had an astronomy class since college, so it was fun to get a refresher. One presenter, Dr. Stephen Schneider, basically went through everything from my astronomy 101 course in an hour and a half (minus the lab work). I love that stuff. Enormous, cosmic scales! The past and future of the universe! Peering backward through time by focusing into the farthest reaches of space!

Key concepts were the huge differences between studying things within the solar system, where we can see fairly clearly and send probes and cameras (and robots!) to test things out, and studying things outside the solar system, where we can only observe.

In both cases, astronomy, like geology, is a field in which we really can't do controlled experiments to test hypotheses the way we can in other disciplines. There's only the one universe, and things happen on such large scales of space and time that all you can really do is observe, make hypotheses, and then see how well they proves to predict something previously unobserved.

The second speaker, Dr. Alexandra Pope, addressed some specific research into large, dusty galaxies that are colliding. Apparently this situation is a veritable hotbed of star formation, which can be determined through measuring every possible wavelength of radiation coming from said galaxies. We learned about different types of telescope (radio, optical, submillimeter) that measure different wavelengths, and the sorts of things that can interfere with measurements.

In response to a question about whether there's still a role for amateur astronomers, we also learned about Galaxy Zoo, where you too can help astronomers explore the universe, and about the collaborative nature of much of astronomy, where large data sets from one study are often made available for others to use as well.

Again, there was a lot more than that, but no one wants to read all the details of my scrawled notes. Just take my word for it, it was a fun day and you are totally overcome with jealousy because you missed it.

And, in a completely unanticipated turn of events, the fact that I memorized the Robert Frost poem Fire and Ice 20 years ago came in handy. Which just goes to show, you never know. Seriously, you do not know.

That's why you do research.

Science ho!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Camping In

I'm here in lovely Worcester, MA, chilling in a dorm room that is far more fabulous than anyplace I ever got to live when I was in college, waiting for tomorrow's programming.

We start with robotics in the morning, and I'm going to tell you, it will pretty much break my heart if I do not get a robot to take home from the session. Because that would be the best conference swag ever.

And I speak as someone who is extremely fond of swag, including the classic pens, the ever-practical sticky notes, the useful lip balms, the coveted flash drives, the small toys of any description, the hand sanitizers, the buttons, the bags (one can never have too many) and, of course, the candy. If there's anything I missed, don't worry, I'm almost certainly fond of that too.

You know what else would make good swag? Socks. I would wear socks with company logos on them all over the place.

A robot in socks carrying a bag full of pens and candy? Pure awesome.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Let's Go, Let's Go!

Oh, drat. I was just sitting here peacefully reading blogs and then I remembered that I have to pack because I'm going to Science Camp for Librarians* tomorrow.

It's going to be awesome. I hope we toast marshmallows and sing songs around a crackling fire. We probably will, too!

We'll be hearing about robotics (nice!), astronomy (nice and enormous!) and epidemiology (nice and contagious!). It will be a lot different from the last time I had any sleepaway camp experience, which was an aikido camp in 1995 or something.

Well, better go pack my toasting sticks and banjo.

Just kidding. I don't own toasting sticks.

*The official name is Science Boot Camp for Librarians, but I'm less in favor of that because it suggests marching and push-ups, while I prefer handicrafts and bonfires, so I've decided to just go with Science Camp.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

It Was Good Enough for My Grandpappy

I'm intrigued by this limited-copyright/open access argument on Got Medieval:

There really is no better argument against the industrialized world’s continued extension and re-extension of copyrights and the academic tendency to bury everything behind paywalls: it’s dooming us to a world in which the only facts easily marshaled by the masses are those that years and years of critical work has already supplanted, a world where the cutting edge is perpetually the same old rusty edge from 1920-something.

Do we want the masses--all of us out here writing things on the internet--to have access to recent information when publishing our turpentine-fueled rants?

I dunno. That rusty 1920-something edge has been slicing so well for so long. Current information is for suckers.

Unless it's about movies or cell phones or something vital. Then we need to know the very latest.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Strange Ideas

There's a lengthy but interesting post on Respectful Insolence about how easy it is to scornfully dismiss the stupid things the government spends money on, and how sometimes those things turn out to not actually be stupid.

He's talking specifically about the sometimes funny-sounding scientific projects that get funded. Because it's easy to criticize, and say "come on, why on earth do we need to pay good money to research the effects of turpentine on amphibians?"

Fun, too!

Little do we know that in fact, amphibious turpentine could totally cure cancer if we'd only bothered to fund the research.

The point is, everything sounds stupid if you don't know anything about it. And some things are certainly stupid even when you do know something about them. Probably including some scientific research.

But you can't necessarily assume that because you don't understand something, it's not worth anything. Sadly, this means that you have to know at least a little about things before you can scornfully dismiss them, which believe me I know is a huge hassle and eats up a lot of precious time.

This did remind me, though, that I often find that even subjects I assumed were horribly boring (possibly useful, but dull) are actually pretty interesting once you start to understand them.

For example, speaking of research, I really did not think I cared at all about research methods, but then I took a required class in library school, and hey, that stuff is kind of fascinating!

A lot of goofy research projects also turn out to have pretty interesting things going on.

In short, cut stupid ideas some slack, at least to the point of figuring out exactly what is the point of the turpentine and the amphibians. You can always scornfully dismiss it later, and with an extra sense of righteous glee because you looked into it and you know that plan to make frogs fly by scaring them into emitting bursts of anti-gravity energy with paint thinner is just not based on sound reasoning.

Because that would never work. You need toads for anti-gravity energy. Maaaaaaybe a salamander.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Free Ebooks For Everyone!

I received notice on the MEDLIB-L listserv that the National Academies Press is making PDF versions of all their books available for free download.

Is that enough books to care about? Why yes! "This includes a current catalog of more than 4,000 books plus future reports produced by the Press."

Thanks, National Academies Press! This is an excellent resource for science, engineering, and medical topics. If you have any interest in these subjects, or work with library users who do, you should check it out.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reflections on Commuting

I had to notice this Slate piece called, bluntly, Your Commute Is Killing You.

I had to notice, because it happens that I have a reasonably lengthy commute myself, and have sometimes wondered about how awesome that really is. Not very, I have sometimes suspected.

I live about 10 miles from where I work, but it takes me on average an hour and 10 or an hour and 15 minutes to get there, through a combination of walking and taking the train.

In case you wondered, it would certainly take nearly that long to drive, too, plus the additional joys of parking fees and sitting in traffic seething about the precious gasoline that's being quietly burned up to move a couple of feet in a minute. I drove to work for a while years ago and it was maddening. Never again!

I'm not worried about the fact that I take the train. I love the train. At least I can read and not think about traffic. Public transportation! Yay! Woooo! Etc.

Seriously. Public transportation is key. Please use my tax dollars to fund it. Thank you.

Nevertheless, even loving the train, the sheer amount of time I spend getting to and from work is kind of daunting to think about. I mean, that's close to 12 hours a week in travel time. Well over an entire workday. Spent not working, but not not-working. Just getting from place to place.

I'm on salary, but I worked out the hourly rate once, based on my official 8:30-5:00 workday, and it's OK. And then I factored in 2 to 2 1/2 hours per day of commute--which is time that essentially does belong to work, even though I'm not actually accomplishing anything work-related, since I'm also not using it for anything productive in a non-work sense--and that was kind of depressing.

So depressing, in fact, that I immediately forgot it, and am afraid to figure it out again lest I be plunged into despair. All I remember is that apparently it takes better than a librarian's salary to make a 11-hour workday look like a really good deal on an hourly basis.

Especially because I just read this story in the free daily paper--which I now realize is all I can afford on a librarian's salary--saying that the average starting salary for a new college graduate is $50,462 (the figure is in the sidebar). Now I'm going to confess a perhaps shameful secret, given that it's just not nice to talk about money, and divulge that this is only about $1,000 less than I'm making right now, and I've been out of college for 12 years.

So if you want, you can work out my hourly wage yourself, but don't tell me, because I probably don't want to hear about it.

What are new college graduates doing? I don't know. Not studying to become librarians, if they know what's good for them.

Anyway, whatever, I'm not worried about that either. I'll make the big bucks some other way, perhaps with my brilliant novels or my truly excellent cocaine. Or, more to the point, I make big enough bucks to afford housing, food and video games, so I'm good. It's not about the money. And that money is plenty good compared to what plenty of people live on.

But the time, you know. All that time, hundreds of hours a year spent just going from home to work and back. I don't know if I actually even recommend you read that article, because it may just depress you.

Some notes from the piece:

Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. 
...every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer "social connections." in three workers with a 90-minute daily commute has recurrent neck or back problems.

When we spend more time commuting, we spend less time exercising and fixing ourselves meals at home.

Fun, right?

Now I like to put a positive spin on my commute, because I like to not be overwhelmed with the desire to curl up and weep for days, so I think happy thoughts.

For example, my commute involves walking about 15 minutes to the train station, riding the train for about half an hour, and walking for about 15 minutes to work. (The additional 5 to 10 minutes usually come from waiting for or on the train.) That means I'm out and walking for about an hour a day, in 15-minute chunks, and that's good for accumulating some exercise, which all the health-interested people say you should do.

I like getting out and walking, and it's way too easy not to leave the house at all on weekends, what with the video games, or to leave only to get in the car and drive to visit someone (because none of our friends live within walking distance), so it's kind of a good thing I have a commute to get me out and moving around on a regular basis.

Plus, that half an hour each way on the train is nice quiet time to sit (or stand) and read a book. I don't have as much time to read books as I used to, what with the video games and the internet, so it's nice to have some time where there's really nothing else going on and I can delve into that novel I borrowed from the public library. (Public libraries are key. Please use my tax dollars to fund them. Thank you.)

So my commute is not all bad. Not as bad as if I were just getting in the car and driving/sitting in traffic for an hour and 10 minutes. If that's what you're doing, I'm sorry. I guess you can still listen to music or audiobooks, though?

The article talks about how a lot of people make the trade between a larger house and one closer to work, so you basically pay with time for a bigger house farther away from work, but that's not necessarily what's going on for me. Sadly, my gracious spouse and I currently live about midway between our two workplaces, so moving closer for one of us would just make things worse for the other.

We did not play that right, it turns out.

Still, I can think positively that my personal commute is not actively killing me. It gives me exercise and reading time! It's totally awesome!

Around 24 full days a year of awesome.

My best commute ever was the summer in college that I stayed and worked on campus. I stayed in on-campus housing and was about a block from work. It will probably never get better than that.

I've decided you just have to think of the commute time as accomplishing something in addition to travel. Otherwise, you might as well curl up and weep for days.