Archive for March, 2009

Stop Intellectual Apartheid

March 30th, 2009

A call to action from BYU English professor Gideon Burton: Stop intellectual apartheid!

Let me illustrate how academic institutions enforce Intellectual Apartheid through a simple experiment you can perform right now. Let’s say that you are researching lingering effects of South Africa’s apartheid and you discovered (as I did using Google Scholar) a recent article, “Fantasmatic Transactions: On the Persistence of Apartheid Ideology” (published in Subjectivity in July, 2008 by D. Hook). Now for the experiment: click on this link to the full text of the article.

One of two things just occurred. Either you just gained immediate access to a PDF version of the full article; or, more likely, an authentication window popped up requesting your login credentials. It turns out that Palgrave-Macmillan publishes Subjectivity, and through their website one can get access to this article for a mere $30. Alternatively, one may subscribe to the journal for $503 per year.

You really don’t need to go to the developing world to recognize that advanced knowledge is a big club with stiff entrance fees. Even middle class Americans will think twice before throwing down $30 for a scholarly article. How likely will this knowledge ever reach scholars in Mexico or India? And just how broadly can the editors of Subjectivity expect it to reach when subscribing costs $503/year?

Gideon also gives suggestions for scholars, librarians, and administrators.

via Cameron Neylon on friendfeed

Posted in future of publishing, higher education, information ecosystem, library and information science | Comments (1)

Horizon scanning and the digital underbelly

March 29th, 2009

Gaynor Backhouse writes a great post about libraries, holding out for “a guided tour of the library’s digital underbelly”. My favorite part is her metaphor about horizon-scanning:

Horizon scanning is a bit like doing a jigsaw you’ve bought from a car boot sale: first of all, it comes in a plastic bag, so there’s no picture to guide you. Secondly, you can see from the myriad sizes of the different pieces that there’s more than one puzzle in there and, thirdly, you know, even as you are handing over your money, that you won’t have all the pieces to complete any one, particular puzzle. [JISC Libraries of the Future | Holding out for a hero: technology, the future and the renaissance of the university librarian.]

Gaynor manages JISC’s TechWatch, keeping up with tech trends for libraries.

I’m not quite sure what the library’s “digital underbelly” is. But this sampling of news art strikes me as one possible example.

Graphics section of the Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1938

Graphics section of the Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1938

The Art the Message: The Story Behind the Chicago Tribune Collection has the same feel of the behind-the-scenes tour Gaynor Backhouse described: “secret stuff” that only the curators know about. This collection was saved by Janet A. Ginsburg, who edits news aggregator and curates a collection of news retrospectives, hosted at her personal site.

For access to the physical collection (now known as the Janet A. Ginsburg Chicago Tribune Collection of the Michigan State University News Archive) contact MSU Communication professor Lucinda Davenport. Images from Janet’s news art exhibit can also be seen at Brainpickings and (with Portuguese commentary) at Segunda Língua. Found via Janet’s comment on Steven Berlin Johnson’s SXSW talk, Old Growth Media And The Future Of News.

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March 28th, 2009
sms by amf on flickr

sms by flickr:amf

Web acceptance letters are now old hat: Newly admitted students at Baylor can get a text message acceptance note.

Since 2006, Creighton University has texted acceptance letters (via SMS bulk sender Dynmark), with messages like “Katie, congratulations. You’ve been admitted to Creighton!”.

Princeton’s acceptance notes made news a while back:

Source: Howard Wainer, “Clear Thinking Made Visible: Redesigning Score Reports for Students,” Chance 15 (Winter 2002), pp. 56-58. via Tufte. Wainer is also the author of Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures, a very readable classic in statistics and information visualization. If you’ve meant to read Tufte but keep putting it off, this is the book for you.

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Place versus location

March 27th, 2009

What’s the difference between place and location? My tentative answer:
A location has coordinates. A place has coordinates plus something more (culture, politics, maybe time).

I started thinking about this because of Paul David Erb’s twitter coverage of a talk at the Scholars’ Lab. I didn’t understand this tweet:

Places, not locations, provide the backdrop for historical events. The key idea is to map events and tie them to locations.

and Paul didn’t have a quick answer, either. After some unsuccessful searching for the original paper (which took me to several databases) and scanning citations from speaker Ian Johnson’s university bio page and “long bio [DOC]“, I started thinking about the problem more generally. Googling for “ian johnson” gis places locations led me to an interesting source: papers and presentations for Harvard’s China Historical GIS group. Lex Berman gave a concise explanation in one of his papers: [1]

If we are to take the sum of the information about what transpired at a
particular geographic location over the course of time, we must realize that
what we are not observing a single persistent identity, but a series of
historical instances. Each instance of an historical place, although it may
indeed be seen as occupying a certain temporal extent and geographic
extent, actually makes more sense in a political and cultural context which
expands and contracts.

He also says:

We have extensive historical documentation about the administrative units that were
established, abolished, re-named, or re-established in roughly the same
geographic space as today’s Beijing.

Those are all the same location. But they’re different places. Suddenly I understood (at least some small part of) the difference Ian Johnson must have been articulating.

My database searches, on the other hand, were a rich source of follow-up reading about space and place, on a variety of topics from computer science, to history of the book, to social science, to geopolitics. For me, database searching is great for keeping my fingers busy while engaging my head. And for turning up lots of things I’d like to read. However, I didn’t have enough data to figure out what paper Ian Johnson was referring to (something he wrote about places, locations, mapping events). In retrospect, writing him would have been most reasonable. Failing that, his profile might have been a better place to start. Other search strategies you’d suggest?

Lex Berman on Finding Places in the Past: What's in a Name?

Lex Berman on Finding Places in the Past: What's in a Name?

Lex Berman has some beautiful slides (ZIP). [2]

[1] Berman, Merrick Lex. (2006 February). Persistence or Transience? Tracking the evolution of places over time with historical Geographic Information Systems [GIS]. Presented at Hist2006 – Geschichte im Netz Conference, Berlin.

[2] Berman, Merrick Lex. (2005 December). Places in the Past: What’s in a Name? Presented at PACSL GeoHistory Network Conference, Philadelphia.

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Posted in books and reading, information ecosystem, library and information science | Comments (1)

Remembering Sarah Seastone

March 24th, 2009
Sarah Seastone circa 2003

Sarah Seastone circa 2003

I never met her, but she was part of my life for almost a decade.

Sarah Seastone was the editor, archivist, and Web designer for the Math Forum. She helped numerous teachers create early webpages about topics like tessellations and fractals, and taught many of them about the Web. Here’s a definition she gave of the Web.

Sarah was a great encouragement to me when I started answering questions for Dr. Math, as an undergraduate in the mid 90’s. She always knew lots of resources, and was always happy to share them. A thread about women in math is typical. While I pressed “send”, Sarah contributed ideas. She knew and kept track of resources throughout the world.

Sarah was one of the first people I knew who really knew how to search the Web. Just about everything in the Dr. Math archives of that era was culled by Sarah as worth saving. As Dr. Math’s archivist, she must have read through a lot of the email sent by the project.

She also wrote many, many archived Dr. Math answers herself.

I knew her through email,, and am sad to say I never met her in person.

Sarah Seastone Fought, circa 1965

Sarah Seastone circa 1965

Images from and

Part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009. Read about more women in technology.

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Newspapers in an Age of Revolution (aka The Internet as an Agent of Change)

March 15th, 2009

Clay Shirky writes of newspapers in an age of revolution: 15 years of anticipated problems* viewed optimistically, patched with one-size-fits-all solutions. Those solutions don’t attack the main issue: “the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.” It’s a revolution, he says, drawing on the print revolution of the early 1400s, and no one knows what will happen.

The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

Shirky sees the future of journalism as “overlapping special cases” with a variety of funding and business models. It’s a time for experimentation, and while he sees failure and risk, he has hope, too:

Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

Society needs reporting, not newspapers. That need is real, and worth restating:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

Go read the whole essay, then let it stew with other thoughts on the future of publishing.

*Circa 1993: “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

Via John Dupuis’ post in Confessions of a Science Librarian.

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The News Ecosystem

March 14th, 2009

Yesterday, Steven Berlin Johnson spoke at SXSW about the information ecosystem and the future of news. Fortunately, for those of us playing at home, he blogged a transcript.

Johnson adds international and war reporting to investigative reporting as the areas at risk due to the implosion of news funding. Johnson envisions a bright future in other areas, citing a well-developed information ecosystem in technology, and comparing coverage of the 2008 and 1992 U.S. Presidential elections.

Extending his ecosystem metaphor, Johnson introduces technology journalism as the “old-growth forest” of web journalism. Ecologists use (real-world) old growth “to research natural ecosystems”, so by extension, Johnson says, “it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism”. While this argument holds no water, it’s certainly suggestive.

in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. … most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We’ve never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn’t report on a deli closing, because it wasn’t even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest.

But of course, that’s what the web can do. … As we get better at organizing all that content – both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically – our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve.

As Johnson envisions, “Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.”.
This is all by way of introduction to his new company,, which provides geographic search and alerting.

Johnson concludes, in part, by examining the filtering problem, and turning it into an opportunity:

Now there’s one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there’s more noise now. For every Ars Technica there are a dozen lame rumor sites that just make things up with no accountability whatsoever. I’m confident that I get far more useful information from the new ecosystem than I did from traditional media along fifteen years ago, but I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator. Can we expect the general public to navigate the new ecosystem with the same skill and discretion?

Johnson expects (future) newspapers to function as filters, aiding the public in getting the news:

Information Ecosystem, as envisioned by Steven Berlin Johnson

Information Ecosystem, as envisioned by Steven Berlin Johnson

Johnson does not address who’s going to pay for the filtering. He’s ready for a new model, but leaves that to the industry to discover for itself. “Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant.” When he acknowledges the short-term pain of the newspaper industry today, he worries:

we’re going to spend so much time trying to figure out how to keep the old model on life support that we won’t be able to help invent a new model that actually might work better for everyone. The old growth forest won’t just magically grow on its own, of course, and no doubt there will be false starts and complications along the way.

The entire transcript is well worth a read.

Via Steven Johnson on twitter.

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Somebody’s Got to Pay (for Investigative Reporting)

March 7th, 2009

Timothy Burke is my new hero. The death* of newspapers, he says, is a problem mainly because somebody’s got to pay for investigative reporting:

We don’t need newspapers to have film criticism or editorial commentary or consumer analysis of automobiles or comic strips or want ads or public records. It might be that existing online provision of those kinds of information could use serious improvement or has issues of its own. It might be that older audiences don’t know where to find some of that information, or have trouble consuming it in its online form. But there’s nothing that makes published newspapers or radio programming inherently superior at providing any of those functions, and arguably many things that make them quite inferior to the potential usefulness of online media. So throw the columnists and the reviewers and the lifestyle reporters off the newspaper liferaft.

So it comes down to independent, sustained investigation of public affairs. The argument that online media cannot provide this function comes down to money

Burke gives more details and examples, and calls for new funding models, including philanthropic and/or foundation money. He concludes that the “The end of the newspaper model of the last century doesn’t have to be the end of independent investigative reporting.”

Go read the whole thing.
*It seems like death and rebirth, to me, especially with some major newspapers reinventing themselves online. But that’s another matter.

Burke first came to my attention last year, from a talk he gave to the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control at March’s meeting on the Users and Uses of Bibliographic Data. Burke represented and reflected upon the user perspective, as an academic who searches catalogs outside his area of expertise.

Via John Dupuis’s friendfeed.

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PARC’s Mr. Taggy uses context from social tags

March 1st, 2009

PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition team is doing really interesting work. From time to time, new projects surface on their blog.

Last week, PARC announced the site, a search engine based on social bookmarking tags:

The problem with using social tags is that they contain a lot of noise, because people often use different words to mean the same thing or the same words to mean different things. The TagSearch algorithm is part of our ongoing research to reduce the noise while amplifying the information signal from social tags.

Mr. Taggy uses “related tags” to reduce the noise.

Filtering makes a difference:

Mr. Taggy results for void

Mr. Taggy results for void

Mr. Taggy search results for void, filtered by semantic web

Mr. Taggy search results for void, filtered by semantic web

Searchers can thumbs-up or thumbs-down each result to provide further context.

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