Think Big

You may very well, and with good reason, mistrust how much and what Google wants to know about you in order, from its point of view, to customize your user experience and/or, from your point of view, sell you to advertisers, but you cannot doubt that members of its organization have the capability to think big: after delivering fiber to cities that otherwise left wanting, Google wants to build better airports, better cities, and defeat death, and they’ve started a new part of the company to make that happen, Google Y. There’s not much information on this new facet of Google, but I found the following description of Google X Labs by Ricardo Prada really insightful, and inspiring:

Google X is a wonderland, not a utopia. We’re dealing with real-world, messy, awesome and occasionally mundane problems. We need creative people whose hands are stained with whiteboard ink, but who don’t take themselves too seriously. This stuff is fun. Don’t feel limited by the tools you used last. Be open to looking at new problems, and trying or learning new tools.

That’s the kind of place I want to work in/at/for. But, more importantly (and, sigh, perhaps more realistically), we should aim to make this happen more places. Really, the humanities need to get themselves out of a funk and begin thinking about themselves more as a lab, a skunk works, where you can both do pie-in-the-sky work but also how what you do can make a difference in the world, solve a problem, open up opportunities. My own work in the realm of small text processing of real world texts seems to be gaining traction in various corners of the internet, and, I think folklore studies itself could become part of a more interesting conversation extending/revising things like natural language processing. I think Jason Jackson has been thinking big for a while when it comes to building a new infrastructure and a new way of looking at the world. Jason and I will be talking at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society: look for the session on Thursday morning on Open Folklore.

Plain Text Commenting

One of the reasons to continue to use Word is that it makes it easy to add comments and/or mark up a document, in the editorial sense and not in the HTML/XML/TEI sense. Critic Markup is not likely to solve the issue such that those of use who prefer plain text over Word are going to have a breakthrough moment with our colleagues and collaborators, but if you are lucky enough to work with like-minded folks, then Critic Markup may just do what you need.

USDA Economic Research Service

One of the readers for The Makers of Things asked for a chapter on rice: I had written a draft of one, but pitched it before submitting the manuscript. As it turns out, the 5500 words I wrote over 5 days and wrapped up this past Friday is a much better chapter. I could write that quickly because I had ridden in enough tractors, boats, and combines and spent enough time walking fields, but I also needed the occasional bit of statistical information, and the USDA’s Economic Research Service was a real boon. While I wish, for my purposes, they had a greater historical coverage, the fact that so many of their reports were downloadable as Excel spreadsheets made the work of grabbing facts, compiling numbers, or, occasionally, creating graphs a really joy. (None of the graphs are likely to make their way into the book at this point, but it was nice to be able to use them for analysis.)

A Laudable Failed Replication

Two scientists who previously had published about the possible cuing of memory by the presence of a partner have failed to replicate their own original results, which they had previously shared (data and all), and published their own failure to do so. This is science at its best.:

In an earlier study, coauthor Horton reported that the presence an individual who was associated with a previously learned object increased the speed at which the object was named. In other words, the partner’s presence served as an associative memory cue to enhance lexical processing. In a follow-up paper published this month in PLOS ONE, the researchers aimed to replicate these findings as a foundation upon which to further explore the mechanisms by which associative cuing facilitates naming. But to their surprise, a series of experiments modeled after the originals failed to replicate their prior results – the presence of the partner from the learning phase did not influence the speed of object naming.

Thank you, PLoS.

This Is What Happens

The Guardian has a translation of the Der Spiegel interview with Peter Piot who was a researcher at a lab in Antwerp when a pilot brought him a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had fallen mysteriously ill in Zaire. The title of the interview is misleading: Piot doesn’t claim to have discovered Ebola, only to have been part of a team, as well as a larger international effort, to understand what in fact the virus was.

The misleading title, misunderstanding the nature of science and scientific inquire, underlines something that Piot himself when asked Why did WHO [the World Health Organization] react so late?:

On the one hand, it was because their African regional office isn’t staffed with the most capable people but with political appointees. And the headquarters in Geneva suffered large budget cuts that had been agreed to by member states. The department for haemorrhagic fever and the one responsible for the management of epidemic emergencies were hit hard.

This is what happens when you politicize science, something usually accompanied by undermining science through de-funding the agencies that have made so much basic and applied research possible.

Working Abroad

I occasionally bring up the idea of working abroad, whether it be some place in Europe or in China, with my wife. The reasons for wanting to leave here in order to go there vary:

  • Here in the current moment is sometimes our current employment, at a regional public university which is increasingly run “by the numbers” by increasingly cynical administrators: that is, they are happy to check off mandates given to them by the state, or sometimes even by themselves, in order to claim success, without really engaging the matter at hand. Classic example: State – “Our students need exposure to international culture because business is increasingly global.” University – “Um, if we require students in freshman English to read something written by a foreigner … that counts! (And we’ll ignore the fact that freshman English is already responsible for retention efforts, despite the fact we cram two dozen or more kids into each and every class.)”
  • Here is also the South, and sometimes that just feels limiting. There are ways in which girls are socialized that we simply find unappealing if not downright appalling.
  • Here is also a small city in the South, which loves all its big fish in its small pond: we don’t want to live in such a constrained world, and we certainly don’t want our daughter to grow up under such constraints.

There of course is always subject to being the other side of the hill. I am sure that there has its share of problems, but those problems will not be ours, unless of course we plan on staying there. For now, our conversation is usually about a semester or year abroad. Enough to scratch the itch, as they say, and then to return to here, perhaps with a renewed appreciation for here or perhaps with a kind of worldly detachment.

All of this was prompted by a terrific article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Faculty Life Abroad in Unusual Places” which is accompanied by some really thought-provoking comments.