Thursday, May 31, 2007

Semantic Search

This article (available here) on semantic search is an interesting reading.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is "computer science" a dated term?

This short article in the Chronicle is interesting:
As enrollment numbers in college computer-science departments continue to dwindle, professors are contemplating ever-more-elaborate strategies to keep the United States from slipping further in the international engineering sweepstakes. One particularly popular idea: rebranding computer-science programs to broaden their appeal.

According to the Associated Press, more than a dozen universities have created “media computation” programs, which hope to introduce students to computer science through digital art and Web design, not traditional programming.

Other institutions are shifting away from the big tent of computer science, choosing instead to focus on more specific fields, like bioengineering and robotics. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, robotics students have spent the semester teaching robots to draw shapes, to chirp on command, and to navigate obstacle courses.

Tucker Balch, a computer-science professor at Georgia Tech, told the AP that the course is an attempt to combat “prime number” syndrome. That disease, he says, afflicts computer-science departments that typically ask newcomers to write dull programs performing mathematical algorithms.

For more on Georgia Tech’s embrace of robotics, see an article from The Chronicle by Josh Fischman

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Web Science or Informatioin Science?

If you subscribe to Communications of the ACM, check Ben Shneiderman's viewpoint article on Web Science (2007, No.6, p. 25). I hope, it will appear in the ACM DL shortly. The author follows Tim Bernes-Lee and his colleagues, who recently declared the new Science of the Web (Science, 2006, No.11). Ben's point is to contrast Computer Science and new Web Science. He offers a number of good arguments in favor of Web Science. The author encourages other school to consider Web Science and provides Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina as examples of the new breed of programs. I completely agree with most of the statements. The only problem is that Ben's interpretation makes it quite clear to me that Web Science is basically the same as Information Science, as the I-Schools now understand it. Of course, all three provided program examples are I-Schools. So, we are essentially preaching the same thing under other (I would say more appropriate) name. I think, Web Science and Information Science movements should not compete, but can reinforce each other - since they focus mostly on the same socially motivated field. From our side, we probably should consider stressing the Web more in our programs and advertisings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Narrowing the digital divide

As reported in this article, the recent Pew Internet and American Life report. From the article:

Speedy internet connections once were considered perks for the privileged. Robust Net access was enjoyed by 30% of U.S. households as late as 2005, mostly in white homes. Meanwhile, so-called broadband adoption by blacks was a mere 14%, according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The resulting "digital divide" between white and black was considered a lasting socioeconomic problem--like the protracted disparity between black and white unemployment.

Surprise. In the past two years, African Americans have been devouring broadband technology--and the digital divide has shrunk significantly, at least for this group. The share of black households with a cable modem, DSL, or satellite Internet connection climbed to 40% this year, Pew says. That's almost twice as fast as the growth of broadband penetration for the general population, which grew to 47%. The income gap has narrowed, too, but not as much: Households making less than $30,000 a year doubled their broadband participation, to 30%. That still pales next to 76% for households that have incomes of at least $75,000.

Some of the closing of the racial divide can be traced to falling prices and rising availability of new technology. When telecom and cable companies first offered broadband, they naturally started with the toniest neighborhoods. Since 2002, broadband prices have fallen, by more than half in some cases. "Almost all technologies start as something only available to a privileged group, whether it's refrigerators or Net access," says Omar Wasow, strategic adviser to ethnic Internet portal provider Community Connect and co-founder of its site

Losing the Digital Heritage

Saving Our Digital Heritage

By Jim Barksdale and Francine Berman
Washington Post
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; A15

It is commonly agreed that the destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt was one of the most devastating losses of knowledge in all of civilization. Today, however, the digital information that drives our world and powers our economy is in many ways more susceptible to loss than the papyrus and parchment at Alexandria.

An estimated 44 percent of Web sites that existed in 1998 vanished without a trace within just one year. The average life span of a Web site is only 44 to 75 days. The gadgets that inform our lives -- cellphones, computers, iPods, DVDs, memory cards -- are filled with digital content. Yet the lifetime of these media is discouragingly short. Data on 5 1/4 -inch floppies may already be lost forever; this format, so pervasive only a decade ago, can't be read by the latest generation of computers. Changing file and hardware formats, or computer viruses and hard-drive crashes, can render years of creativity inaccessible.

By contrast, the Library of Congress has in its care millions of printed works, some on stone or animal skin that have survived for centuries. The challenges underlying digital preservation led Congress in 2000 to appropriate $100 million for the Library of Congress to lead the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, a growing partnership of 67 organizations charged with preserving and making accessible "born digital" information for current and future generations.

Some of the crucial programs funded by NDIIPP include the archiving of important Web sites such as those covering federal elections and Hurricane Katrina; public health, geospatial and map data; public television and foreign news broadcasts; and other vital born-digital content.

Unfortunately, the program is threatened. In February, Congress passed and the president signed legislation rescinding $47 million of the program's approved funding. This jeopardizes an additional $37 million in matching, non-federal funds that partners would contribute as in-kind donations.

Some of the projects that were to be funded include preservation of important government records at the state level, such as legislative data and court records. Another new project at risk, "Preserving Creative America," is an initiative with commercial producers of creative content, such as digital film, music, photography, other forms of pictorial art and even video games.

We have seen what happens when valuable public data are inadequately preserved, lost or not available when needed. For example, the original, raw data from the 1960 Census were stored on a state-of-the-art UNIVAC computer. When the Census Bureau turned the data over to the National Archives in the mid-1970s, UNIVAC computers were long obsolete. Much of the information was eventually recovered, but at a huge cost. Raw data from early satellite probes, including the Viking mission to Mars, pre-1979 Landsat images of Earth and high-resolution images of the moon, have been lost for similar reasons.

Current estimates are that in 2006, 161 billion trillion bytes -- 161 exabytes -- of digital data were generated in the world -- equivalent to 12 stacks of books reaching from the Earth to the sun. In just 15 minutes, the world produces an amount of data equal to all the information held at the Library of Congress. While it is unrealistic to think that we will be able to preserve all the data produced solely in digital form, NDIIPP convenes top experts to help decide which at-risk content is most critical and how to go about saving it.

Responsible preservation of our most valued digital data requires answers to key questions: Which data should we keep and how should we keep it? How can we ensure that we can access it in five years, 100 years or 1,000 years? And, who will pay for it?

The importance of developing sensible plans to preserve our digital heritage cannot be minimized. We can't save it all, nor do we want to. It's also critical that we agree on how to save this data. In the next 100 years, we will go through dozens of generations of computers and storage media, and our digital data will need to be transferred from one generation to the next, and by someone we trust to do it.

The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program provides a good start, and Congress has an opportunity to restore $21.5 million requested by the Library of Congress to continue the program and sustain the partnerships needed to fulfill the critical task of preserving our nation's important born-digital information.

It would be a national and a global shame if our most valuable born-digital knowledge, like the ancient holdings at Alexandria, were lost forever.

Jim Barksdale is the former chief executive of Netscape Communications Corp. and is an executive member of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program Advisory Council. Francine Berman is director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego. She holds the High Performance Computing Endowed Chair at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Another view on Open Source

There is a sizeable literature and advocacy for open source software -- it has come up earlier on this blog. I thought this contrarian view would be worth bringing up. Quoting from the article:

How about if you are a user? Your real goal is to drive down the cost per transaction each year. Theoretically you love the idea, but in actuality it scares the crap out of you.

There are nonstrategic potential uses, but what you really want is for your vendors to reduce the cost of their proprietary systems. Your entire plan is to commoditize your vendor; his entire plan is not to let his product or operating system be commoditized.

Academic Recordkeeping

I thought this essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education was interesting. . . .
Monday, May 14, 2007
Thanks for the Memory
By John Lemuel

First PersonPersonal experiences on the job market
"Make a file for everything," a graduate-school professor admonished me as I sat in her office. My request for a recommendation letter had prompted her to whip out a new manila folder, inscribe my name on the tab, and cram the folder into an already overflowing file cabinet. "Because you're going to forget, but then whenever you need it, right there it is."

A row of three file cabinets created a tall metal embankment on one side of her desk. She's not that far along in her career, I thought. At what point would she be forced to quit filing things or get a bigger office?

The fear of forgetting makes many academics file our memories in those ubiquitous metal boxes -- as well as in piles of papers stacked in front of, on top of, and all around the cabinets. The erudite term for such documentary accretions is "ephemera." But despite the fleeting, here-and-gone connotations of the term, those accumulations of memorabilia can have a considerable half-life.

Long ago, during a stint as a visiting professor, I showed up for a midsummer departmental work session to discover that the main tasks would be physical in nature -- hauling the contents of overflowing antique file cabinets from a basement storage area to a special dumpster waiting outside. Apparently, the academic corollary to the laws of physics states that matter, neither created nor destroyed, can only be refiled: from office to basement to landfill.

Through my first few jobs in academe, a paper record had proved most reliable. I couldn't count on having computer access, but a photocopier was always within reach. A clean master copy will get you pretty far as an adjunct -- any semester, any campus.

After I acquired a tenure-track job, my first real office was located in a recently remodeled building with clean walls, industrial carpet, and spare furnishings. The paper files I had accumulated overwhelmed the storage space allocated to me -- a single desk drawer designed for hanging files.

Upon request, the secretary checked the supplies budget, consulted the department head, and obligingly ordered a full-size file cabinet for me. Silly as it sounds, I felt legitimized, bumped up from the card table to sit with the grown-ups.

While I was waiting for my file cabinet to arrive, fall classes started, and I generated lots of new documents in digital files on my laptop -- my laptop. For a change, I would have the same employer-assigned computer for more than half a semester, not facing the constant threat of losing it to someone higher up the food chain. I could merge minds with this machine, creating separate digital folders for each of my classes, research projects, student advisees, conference proposals, job applications, downloaded documents, outside projects, and personal business.

By the time the file cabinet arrived, my laptop was already full of folders that would never be filed in print version. Some years later, that cabinet is still two-thirds empty.

My e-mail in box, on the other hand, started filling up faster than I could empty it. I used to take pride in deleting those messages down to zero, savoring the feeling that I had answered or banished every inbound item. A clean in box at the end of the day felt like a clean desk. Too bad neither of them ever stayed that way.

I created folders in my in box and dutifully shuffled certain items into them for future reference, but soon the folders became too numerous to keep straight. Then there were those individual e-mail messages that resisted classification. Creating a folder for one idiosyncratic message seemed to defeat the purpose.

It took too much time to revisit messages, second-guessing whether I would need them again. A few times I faced the embarrassment of asking someone to resend something I had deleted too hastily. When I felt tempted to print an e-mail message just so I could delete the file, I realized I had it completely backward. The clutter belongs on my hard drive, not on my desk.

These days I never delete anything other than spam. At this writing, my in box holds more than 2,500 messages.

Microsoft Outlook archives my in box every 90 days or so, but it's all still there in the laptop's memory. I don't reread e-mail messages unless I need to recall something. Then a quick search typically turns up what I need sooner than my own faulty memory.

Bombarded each day by more information than I could absorb, I simply quit trying. The computer's memory serves just as well as my own. True, the e-mail storage files have swollen to incredible size, too big to back up on a single CD anymore. That's OK; I got just as tired of old backup CDs littering my desk drawers as the loose papers that preceded them.

An external hard drive provides my new "backup plan," in case my computer develops memory problems of its own. The backup drive has 10 times the capacity of my laptop's hard drive, so I don't worry about filling it anytime soon. As far as I know, all my files are safely preserved there. It's like the safety net I hope I will never need.

So far I haven't suffered a crashed hard drive, perhaps because of my precautions. Just as closing the windows on your house before you leave virtually guarantees it won't rain, having a reliable backup device seems to ward off computer crashes. Crash preparedness just adds another ritual to the daily routine.

I first became obsessed with "data hygiene" when I was writing my dissertation. Then, preservation, not tidiness, was my main concern. After completing a couple of chapters, I realized I couldn't afford to lose so much work, or the months of my life it would take to reconstruct it. So besides the files on my hard drive, I saved my work on a floppy disk that stayed on the desk in my library carrel when I took my laptop home.

A couple of chapters later, and the risk of fire in the library began to weigh on my mind. I started saving my work to a second disk that I carried in my bag.

The odds of a simultaneous laptop crash, bag theft, and library fire seemed remote, but I was unwilling to hedge. By the time I had finished the thing, I had copies of my dissertation files squirreled away in my desk at home, my library carrel, my bag, my car, my shed, the neighbor's shed, and my parents' safe-deposit box.

I have recovered from what I now consider my degree-completion mania and live quite recklessly by comparison. Laptops are portable, and I take mine everywhere. In committee meetings, I am the one who can pull up the long-forgotten memo sent out weeks ago and forward it to the others again. While many people bring printed copies of the advance material, I'm reading it off my screen. They also have laptops, back in their offices chained to their desks.

I've allowed a similar accumulation of my electronic course documents -- syllabi, essay questions, PowerPoint presentations, and other sundry items. When one semester ends and the next begins, I drag and drop my course folders into the "Previous Semesters" folder. When I upgrade or replace my computer, that folder migrates and keeps growing.

My metal filing cabinet, meanwhile, sits in my office like a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Recently a department chairwoman from two jobs ago contacted me. A student I had failed now wanted to go to law school and was appealing my grade. The student's behavior was so flaky that I actually documented the progression of missteps leading to the failing grade.

Although the incident was several years ago, it took under a minute to turn up the file and the course syllabus, which I zipped back to my former chairwoman. She was amazed, and, frankly, so was I.

I used to strain my biological memory to keep it all together. Now I rely on computer memory to do that work for me. And when I die or retire, the silicon in my hard drive will take up a lot less space in the landfill than the artifacts in my colleagues' filing cabinets.

For now I'm considered technologically advanced. I should enjoy it while it lasts because surely my colleagues in the not-too-distant future will work from wristwatch devices that funnel voice and data wirelessly to retinal and cochlear implants. "Look at the dinosaur!" I can hear my future colleagues say. "His computer covers his whole lap!"

Well, it will be my turn then. Faculty members, like the latest technologies, start out new and sizzling, then drift more quickly than they are ready for toward obsolescence. When that time comes, I'll just be glad if professors haven't been replaced by downloadable avatars from the textbook companies.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Secret of Apple Design

As the SIS faculty experiments in shared governance, curriculum design, and an end-product that is attractive to students, some elements from this article may be useful to keep in mind. Disclaimer: I use Mac computers :-).

Monday, May 07, 2007

Classroom attendance in higher ed

You might find this item worth reading ... I would put in an excerpt, but it is difficult to do so in a meaningful way. Be sure to read the comments after the article. They're worth it!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Intuitive math stuff

While we are considering SIS 2K, these articles may be of interest to the entire school. The first is titled "Euler's beautiful equation" and the second " An Intuitive Explanation of Bayesian Reasoning".