Good quote

“What I do now seems adequate,” she reasons. “It must be. I keep getting world records.”

On very old athletes and aging.


Words do come easy

Speaking of the joy of archives, here’s a real nugget from the team behind the Google Books digitalising effort: the first report on a wealth of themes that was previously simply impossible because the information was not available electronically. Using simple quantitative techniques they have looked at the occurrence of certain phenomena in books from the 1700s to the present. The findings are crude, and not really subject to any stringent analysis, but just the thought of what can be gleaned from the database in the future is exciting. The dataset is currently 500 billion words large.

So what have they found so far? Well, for example, verbs are becoming more regular. Rationality prevails! Is there hope for an esperanto-speaking world? Not really.

The most interesting finding is for me the one about how we discuss the past and new technology. Check this out:

“’1951’ was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for three years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next fifteen years.” But the shape of these graphs is changing. The peak gets higher with every year and we are forgetting our past with greater speed. The half-life of ‘1880’ was 32 years, but that of ‘1973’ was a mere 10 years.
The future, however, is becoming ever more easily ingrained. The team found that new technology permeates through our culture with growing speed. By scanning the corpus for 154 inventions created between 1800-1960, from microwave ovens to electroencephalographs, they found that more recent ones took far less time to become widely discussed.

Amazing stuff. Once they get beyond simple word frequencies, this should be really exciting. The future is a wonderful place to live. But will we remember?

Write when hot – submit when not

According to this paper in Learned Publishing, it’s better to submit papers to journals in the cold months. Journals receive a lot more submissions during summer but don’t accept correspondingly more. Here’s the abstract:

At a top psychology journal, Psychological Science (PS), submissions peak during the summer months. We tested whether this seasonal submission bias decreases the likelihood of a paper being accepted in that period. Month of submission data was obtained for all 575 publications in PS for the period 2003-2006. Whereas submissions to PS were higher in the summer, there was no evidence that most accepted publications were originally submitted in the summer. Thus, contributors submit to PS when the likelihood of acceptance is the lowest – creating their own entrance barrier. A similar seasonal pattern was not identified for Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, another top psychology journal. Using the Web of Knowledge database, we further assessed whether overcoming the seasonal entrance barrier influences the number of citations a paper receives in subsequent years. We discuss the possibility that the different rejections policies in the two journals, employing desk rejections or not, may explain this discrepancy, and explore a range of alternative hypotheses.

Good thing I just submitted something, then!

All I want for X-mas is living specimens

Skulls in the stars has a post about “scientifically minded” Christmas advertisements from 1903. Lots of good stuff here. Controversy of origin, modern companies with humble beginnings, scientific popularization. I think my favorite is the ad asking for tubes of living specimens for the microscope:

1903 scientific ad

Hooray for archives!

The Metrics Reloaded

Speaking of metrics, Peter Lawrence has a sharp analysis of the problems of trying to quantize science. His main point is that common measures of scientific excellence are simply misguided: it is nigh impossible to identify great science through metrics. Most truly exciting discoveries are not realised until several years later.

At the same time, more energy is spent on the politics of scientific publication:

It has become vital to get papers into high impact-factor journals; just one such paper can change the prospects of a postdoc from nonexistent to substantial (because of the weight put on such papers by grant-awarding bodies). Two or three such papers can make the difference between unemployment and tenure. These facts have cut a swathe through scientific thinking like a forest fire, turning our thoughts and efforts away from scientific problems and solutions, and towards the process of submission, reviewing and publication.

I’m not saying this is true (I think the case is overstated), but since I am trying to finalize some work to send to journals these days, these questions do enter the equation.

Cables and their consequences

Speaking of Amazon, their decision to kick out WikiLeaks says something sobering about the nature of the Internet:

The truth is, the web is almost entirely privately held. So what happens here is that we have a normative understanding that we should treat this like public space—that you should have rights to speak, that no one should constrain your rights—but then you discover that, basically, you’re holding a political rally in a shopping mall. This is commercial speech, controlled by commercial rules.

Somewhere, deep in the Amazon

Boston Review have an interesting piece on the effect Amazon’s large market share and aggressive business politics (they’re almost mafia-like) have had on the publishing business. Here’s a quote:

When Johnson returned from the convention, he discovered that the entire catalogue of Melville House books had disappeared from “I just didn’t believe they were going to play hardball like that,” he told me. Even a search for ISBNs failed to bring up Melville House’s books. Johnson gave in and agreed to the new plan. Soon after, his books reappeared. In a recent article in The Nation, Johnson says that when he refused to sign onto the new program, Amazon reps told him they were keeping an eye on him and advised him to “get in line.”

As a regular customer of the service and happy owner of a Kindle such articles are sobering stuff. What am I condoning here? Yet, one must not forget that Amazon is not the only business interest in this, and that the days of publishers being humble middlemen between author and readership were long gone before internet retailing. Thankfully, the article is conscious of this, mentioning that large chain bookstores cornered the market in the eighties. But Borders and Barnes & Noble are nothing. Consider this sentence: “Many in the publishing community mock Amazon as the “Wal-Mart of books,” but it’s important to remember that Wal-Mart is also the Wal-Mart of books.”

The question is where distribution of culture will be in ten years’ time. Will we be mourning the loss of small, interesting books to market pitched bestsellers? Or will the low cost of electronic distribution mean even more fringe stuff will get funding? These are interesting times.