Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why $20 for a paper?

Last week's post about physics papers available without subscription lead to the issue of the typical price tag for a single paper download from a journal server - something between $19 and $30, depending on the publisher, but generally neither on the paper content, age, nor extent. Phil, one of our most constant readers and commentators, was wondering why he had to pay $25 for the download of more the than 70-year old, five-pages EPR paper (which is, actually, "Free to Read" in the meantime).

Essentially the same question was asked in a letter by a reader in the current issue of Physics Today. Thomas E. Phipps Jr. writes

Recently I had wanted to consult a one-page comment that had appeared in the American Journal of Physics 18 years ago. I could have gone to my local university's physics department library and copied the page for 10 cents. However, being 82 and lazy, I preferred to go online to the AIP website, where I discovered that the page I wanted was available for downloading at a price of $19. Oddly enough, I paid this. [...] But I wonder how such a pricing policy squares with some of the declaratory words emanating from AIP. [...] Simply put, what is not-for-profit about charging $19 for a one-page download of 18-year-old material?

He refers to the mission statement of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the publishers of both Physics Today and the American Journal of Physics, which says that AIP "serves physics and related fields [...] by serving [...] individual scientists, educators, students, R&D leaders, and the general public with programs, services and publications - information that matters."

Physics Today invited Fred Dylla, executive director and CEO of the AIP, to respond to Thomas Phipps, and here is part of his answer, which gives some insight in the prices involved in publishing papers in scientific journals:

It does seem inappropriate to pay $19 for a one-page download of an 18-year-old article. But one has to dig below the surface to understand the economics of scientific journal publishing as a context for the pricing of such journal products by nonprofit publishers. [...] Producing a high-quality, peer-reviewed archival journal such as AJP involves significant costs, including those for a reliable online platform that has made AJP and other member-society journals available to a much wider audience than did the former print-only subscriptions. AIP has also made major investments to digitize and make available electronically journal issues that were published in print long before the industry made the transition to digital. Those real costs are recovered, by and large, through institutional subscriptions paid by libraries and research institutions. The cost of producing one typical article is between $1500 and $3000. Considering the average journal subscriber base, a $20 price for a nonsubscriber to download an article is not out of line.

He further emphasises that AIP's journal server provides free access to online search and abstracts, that its prices are lower than those of commercial publishers, and that AIP invests its return in outreach services subsidised membership subscriptions.

Fred Dylla has an important point: producing scientific journals, making accessible back issues, and running index database and repository servers creates costs that are easy to overlook. Moreover, it's definitely true that access to scientific papers is much easier now than just 15 years ago: Back then, the only way to read a paper would have been a visit at the next university library that has a subscription - compared to that effort, spending $20 may be not that expensive. And the prize of a single paper download probably has to be balanced with the typical total number of downloads a library "buys" by its subscription fee.

But I there are two points that don't not quite convince me about this argument:

First, the "one size fits all" prizing is a bit odd: While $20 might be an understandable prize for a 100+ page review article that compares to a book, it's not straight-forward to see why a one-page short note should cost the same. Actually, this may be due to technical reasons and the capacity of current online payment systems, and could change in the future.

But second, the price tag at online papers is relevant only for potential readers without institutional affiliation providing access. There could be a substantial group of highly trained and qualified people outside universities willing to pay for the download of papers, because they want to read first-hand about scientific developments. Could it not even be profitable for publishers to grant access at a lower prize, a prize that invites to pay instead of saying "we don't want our papers being bought"?

I do not know if there are any market research studies related to this point, and if lowering the prize could indeed be more than compensated for by increased sales. I know that I would actually have already bought quite a few papers if the prize was lower. What about you? Did you ever consider buying a paper, but were discouraged because the prize tag said $20, instead of, say, $5.00 ?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Astronomical Observatories on Google Maps

A short while ago I've started reading an interesting book about early astronomical tests of the theory of relativity, Einstein's Jury by Jeffrey Crelinsten. I don't want to say more about the book right now - just that I became a bit confused with all the names of US astronomers and observatories mentioned in the text. I thought it may be helpful to put them on a map.

There are web sites and wikipedia entries about all the observatories mentioend, so I decided to play around a bit with Google Maps. There is an "application programming interface", Google Maps API, which can be used to embed customised google maps in web pages, and to add flags and comments to the map. It's actually not so diffcult to use: I registered to get my "API Key", looked at same of the examples and demos (and in the source file of this nice interactive map I had come across by chance a while ago), and after some tinkering, I ended up with this result:

A map of some historical astronomical observatories in the US, ordered from East to West:

I have used the example icon-custom.html from the Google Maps API Examples page. Since the Google Maps API involves JavaScript, which can not be used with the blogger software, I have stored the HTML page with the map and the list of observatories on a separate web server (in case you do not see anything, the server is down, as it happens from time to time), and then used the iframe tag to embedded the page into the blog post.

This API is a fascinating gadget! There are probably hundred times more applications than I can think of right now.

The only thing what still is missing now is a time line ;-)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Backreaction!

Two years ago, I received a very short email from Sabine: She invited me to join her new blog, and to have a look at her first post about "Risky Black Holes". This was the birthday of "backreaction"!

I didn't expect at all what has followed: Over the next few months, we've somehow found our own way to run the blog, and in the two years since February 2006, we - mostly Sabine, actually - have written a bit more than 500 posts. We have won a few regular readers, received thousands of interesting comments, and had lots of enlightening discussions. Thank you to all of you who appreciate our writing and contribute your insights! I highly appreciate this feedback, even more so because I usually invest quite some time in the preparation of my posts, and every so often wonder why I am actually doing all this.

The really rewarding thing is that you get to know very interesting people for all over the world you never would have met otherwise. And, I should add, running a blog is a great thing you can do together when for some reason, your spouse is living on the other side of the ocean!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Random Browsing: Online Access to Physics Journals

Over the last weekend, I had tried to check out a few papers online from home, without any institutional access. All but a few research papers on physics or astrophysics are available to everyone from the arxiv, of course, but for peripheral topics, say, history of physics or geophysics, this cannot be taken for granted. Browsing around a bit, out of curiosity, I realised that publishers use a big range of different models about what they agree to give away for free to non-subscribers. Here is kind of an inexhaustive overview of what I have encountered:

  • Elsevier, on its ScienceDirect Server, offers a single "sample issues" of each of its journals from the last year. That's of no real interest for Phys.Lett. B, but in the case of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, with just four issues per year, you may by chance come across some interesting stuff, for example about Scalar Gravity and Whitehead Gravity - once considered, but now disproved relativistic theories of gravitation (OK, in this case, both papers are also on the arxiv ...).

    The free sample issue policy is also used by the Taylor and Francis Group (Contemporary Physics, Annals of Science) on its informaworld server, but a registration is required.

  • Springer, on its SpringerLink server, offers some papers via an open access model which they call OpenChoice. In this case, the author, or her/his institution, has to pay a fee of $3000, and the paper will then be given away for free. According to the recent agreement by the German research organisation Max Planck Society and Springer, all Max Planck authors can now publish at Springer under this model. So far, open access articles are rare at SpringerLink (and there is no list of recent open access articles), but that may change in the future.

  • A similar model to Springer's OpenChoice is offered by the American Physical Society. APS's Physical Review papers are usually subscriber-only, unless offered to open access under the FREE TO READ scheme. Here, the fee is less than at Springer, $975 for articles in PR A-E and $1300 for a PRL. However, I have the impression that there are only very few open access articles at the APS journals. That's of course no wonder, since I guess all the papers are on the arxiv anyway. The Physical Review Letters will celebrate its its 50th anniversary in July 2008, and for that reason the APS presents for free a series of selected highlight papers, the Milestone Letters (see the Update).

  • As for the professional societies, the British Institute of Physics (IOP) on its Electronic Journal server offers for free all papers published within the last 30 days. There are a few journals whose papers usually don't make it to the arxiv, for example Metrologia, so that may be a way to effectively read these journals without formal subscription. The SISSA-owned Journal of High Energy Physics, founded as an alternative channel to over-prized commercial journals, is now published by IOP, but with no special conditions of access. And, of course, IOP runs the first general-scope peer-reviewed open access physics journal, the now ten years old New Journal of Physics (article charge: $1280).

  • Other professional societies offer for free their backlist of old journal issues. This seems to be quite common for astronomy and astrophysics and in the Earth sciences:

    There is, of course, the fabulous NASA ADS server with its bibliographic database and links to a huge amount of scanned astronomical papers. The European Geosciences Union allows free access to past articles of its journal Annales Geophysicae (ANGEO) and the proceedings series Advances in Geosciences, the Mineralogical Society of America grants free access to older issues of the American Mineralogist, and the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland offers the back issues of their Mineralogical Magazine for free. Even the American Geophysical Union, whose journals seem to be so elitist that the Frankfurt University has not subscribed to a single one of them, grants unrestricted access to the 1963-2002 issues of Reviews of Geophysics, so that everyone can learn about Geological Constraints on the Precambrian History of Earth's Rotation and the Moon's Orbit, for example.

  • Speaking about back issues, some science journals rely on the service of JSTOR, a "not-for-profit organization with a dual mission to create and maintain a trusted archive of important scholarly journals, and to provide access to these journals as widely as possible." Papers stored at JSTOR have a high chance to show up in google searches, and one can have a look at the first page, but what really annoys me about JSTOR is that it is not even possible to search or browse tables of contents without subscription.

  • Such a displeasure is of course not a problem with peer-reviewed open access journals.

    Founded at the same time as the NJP, the Living Reviews in Relativity, published by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Golm near Potsdam, Germany, offer free access to review articles on General Relativity. The Living Reviews derive their name from the feature that published articles can be edited to keep them up-to-date. SISSA runs Proceedings of Science (PoS), an open access collection of conference proceedings, mostly in physics.

    Then, there is PLoS ONE (with a publication fee of $1250), the general science open access journal of PLoS, the Public Library of Science. But even after running for more than one year, there are just 20 articles classified as "physics" - and, well, most of them are about physics-related life science topics. And a quite recent peer-reviewed open access venture is PhysMath Central, with the journals PMC Physics A on high-energy/nuclear/astroparticle physics, cosmology and gravity, and PMC Physics B on condensed matter, atomic, molecular and optical physics. Currently, PMC Physics A levies a charge of $1,320 for articles accepted for publication, while "waiving charges for authors from low-income countries". I am not sure if PMC Physics A/B will have a bigger impact for physics than PLoS One, but it seems that they offer the option to comment on papers online, which might be a bonus.

    Publishing comments and replies by the authors could become something quite exciting, and it is of course easier to organise for newly founded electronic journals. The most striking case in point I have come across is Climate of the Past, an "Interactive Open Access Journal of the European Geosciences Union". At this journal, it is even possible to access referee reports and the author's replies - that's transparency in publishing papers.

Open access to peer-reviewed scientific literature is for sure gaining momentum, but it seems to me that "traditional" publishing models might still persist, or coexist, for quite a while. I was quite surprised to find a very large diversity of access models used in different communities and disciplines. But that's a good thing, I guess: It could allow for the evolution of solutions that best fit the needs of authors and their readers.

And in the meanwhile, there is already plenty of interesting stuff freely available to you, in case you have some time to waste.

Update (Feb 22): Originally, I had complained that the Milestone Letters from the PRL's fifty years' history are hidden behind the subscription wall of the PROLA server. I have learned from Gene Sprouse of the APS that the PDF files are freely available when clicking the "Read Letter" link on the "Letters from the Past" page. There seems to be a temporary problem with the most recently added links to the Letters of 1964, which still ask for the PROLA authentification, and somhow my Safari browser does not like to show up the other PDF files, although I can download them using lynx, as I have checked in the meantime. That was the reason for my quibble. Sorry about the confusion!

Declaration of competing interests: I am currently on the payroll of a big commercial scientific publisher.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Last week. I was sitting in my office. And started to wonder whether somebody would name an award after me if I'd jump out the window. That is to say, the snow mountains in the parking lots as well as my mental exhaustion have crossed a critical threshold, and I'll be away for an undetermined amount of time. Should you encounter withdrawal symptoms, responsibility for the substitute program is with my husband. For general complaints about the source of all evil and sadness in the world, please contact your favourite God/Goddess or Member of Parliament depending on your personal taste and religious conviction.

It occurred to me office windows that can't be opened might be purposeful intelligent design.

Related, I was wondering whether somebody yet asked to be buried with his BlackBerry. Given mankind's long history of burial objects to make the deceased's transition into afterlife as smooth and pleasant as possible, I thought the BlackBerry might come in handy.

Probably not. So I will take care of that ante mortem (one never knows whether the plane will arrive at its destination): The Sabine Hossenfelder Award recognizes annually the most courageous postdoc in theoretical physicist. Courage can be shown by stubbornly working on topics where there hasn't been progress for several decades (with or without outcome), changing fields and starting all over again (with or without success), public political involvement (with or without impact), questioning the common sensus, criticising the majority opinion, or disagreeing with established senior researchers. Courage should not be confused with stupidity, in neither category. Applicants can nominate themselves or be nominated by more courageous colleagues. The successful candidate is awarded with the questionable honor of being mentioned on this blog - unless somebody sends me a $120 Mio check I currently lack, in which case the award will be upgraded to a 2 week vacation at a place of your choice. This year's deadline is Sep. 30th 2008.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Of the week

  • Update of the week: I've placed a customized Google-search box in the sidebar. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

  • Question of the week: Why is the cord of the vacuum cleaner always 20 cm too short?

  • Newspaper article of the week: Using quiet diplomacy to reshape women's lives

  • Picture of the week

  • Quotation of the week:

    "Learning about modeling is a lot like learning about sex: despite its importance, most people do not want to discuss it, and no matter how much you read about it, it just doesn't seem the same when you actually get around to doing it."
    ~ John H. Miller and Scott E. Page in Complex Adaptive Systems

Friday, February 15, 2008

Scientific Integrity

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a statement at a press conference during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, calling on the next US president and Congress to end political interference in science and establish conditions that would allow federal science to flourish.

Environmental Protection Agency scientist Bill Hirzy said:

"Scientific integrity is the bedrock on which the federal science establishment must rest. Unfortunately, too many EPA scientists have had to fight interference from political or private sector interests."

The UCS further released a report "Federal Science and the Public Good" that recommends steps the next president can take to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. They report how the current administration has misused science, and lists several examples, ranging from how the Consumer Product Safety Commission manipulated testing procedures, over the Food and Drug Administration citing fabricated industry studies, to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency used faulty testing procedures. They propose a set of steps how to change procedures an policies, and conclude with

"This interference in science threatens our nation’s ability to respond to complex challenges to public health, the environment, and national security. It risks demoralizing the federal scientific workforce and raises the possibility of lasting harm to the federal scientific enterprise. Most important, it betrays public trust in our government and undermines the democratic principles upon which this nation was founded."

Overall, it looks like a very well done statement, pinning down a lot of accumulated concerns and offering potential solutions.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Review: The Ingenuity Gap

The Ingenuity Gap
Can we solve the problems of the future?

By Thomas Homer-Dixon
Knopf Canada (1st edition Sep 2000)

Last year I more or less accidentally bought "The Upside of Down", Thomas Homer-Dixon's most recent book (you find my review here). Wow, I thought, there is somebody who manages to write about politics, sociology, economy and history in a way that my little brain can actually understand something - even though it is challenged with a PhD in physics!

More seriously, I am really picky with books. Given that there are just too many books that I could ever read all of them, it happens frequently that I drop one because it doesn't live up to my expectations (a very bad example of which you find here. I still haven't proceeded one sentence farther than this upsetting paragraph in the preface). "The Upside of Down" wasn't only a great read, it convinced me to also buy Homer-Dixon's previous book "The Ingenuity Gap".

As it turns out, I like "The Ingenuity Gap" better. Mostly because I find the topic more interesting, but also because I find the story better told. It is a very well written narrative that despite several time jumps remains coherent. It uses a number of metaphors that open an area to a closer examination of specific issues, without overusing these metaphors. It tells about a search for understanding, a search by somebody who doesn't stop asking questions, and who tries to fit together pieces of an enormously complex puzzle. 'Complex' is arguably the central word of the book.

Both books, "The Ingenuity Gap" and "The Upside of Down", are on a scientific level equally well founded, and come with a lot of references for further reading. The argumentation is careful and well balanced, points for as well as against a model or a conclusion are mentioned in almost all cases.

The issue under examination in "The Ingenuity Gap" is whether our societies are able to supply the necessary 'ingenuity' to address, in a timely manner, the increasingly complex problems that we are facing.

Homer-Dixon discusses several developments that need to be addressed on global as well as national scales. He covers economical instability, climate change, various other environmental stresses, global politics (terrorism included), info-glut, and 'techno hubris' - changes that are worrisome to varying degrees but have the common feature that they all reflect the human struggle to manage complex systems that have a lot of 'unknown unknowns'. His main argument is that once a problem has been identified, we do not only need the technological knowledge of how to solve it. We also need the appropriate 'social ingenuity' to implement this knowledge. To begin with you have to convince people the problem exists and needs to be solved - a process not without difficulties, the success of which crucially depends on the political and social system and its institutions one has to operate in:

"I soon realized that ingenuity comes in two distinct kinds: the kind used to create new technologies, like irrigation systems that conserve scarce water, or custom-engineered grains that grown in eroded soil, and the more crucial kind used to reform old institution and social arrangements and build new ones, including efficient markets, competent and honest governments, and productive schools and universities. I called these two kinds technical and social ingenuity."

A society that can not provide the sufficient ingenuity of both types to solve its problems, faces an 'Ingenuity Gap'

"If a society develops a serious ingenuity gap - that is, if it loses the race between requirement and supply - prosperity falls falls in the regions already affected by scarcity, and people usually migrate out of those regions in large numbers. Social dissatisfaction rises [...] These changes undermine the government's legitimacy and raise the likelihood of widespread and chronic civil violence. Violence further erodes the society's capacity to supply ingenuity, especially by causing human and financial capital to flee. Such societies risk entering a downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis and decay."

Homer-Dixon provides several examples for this, addressing social, political, economical and environmental problems among others in India and China.

The book draws on a large variety of studies, ranging from economy, over complex system's theory, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology and even a particle physicist makes an appearance in the plot, 1977 in Strasbourg France:
"[I] earned myself a small wage making kitchen cabinets and cooking meals for a local family. The father was a physicist. He worked at a nearby research laboratory that included a particle accelerator designed to pry open the deepest secrets of the atom. One sunny afternoon in August he took me on a tour of the facilities.
Although tiny by comparison with accelerators elsewhere in the world, the Strasbourg machine seemed mammoth to me, stretching through room upon room filled with computers, wiring, tubing, and heavy magnets. I asked my physics guide about one queer looking component after another, and he tried to explain the machine's operation in simple terms. After an hour or so, however, a larger puzzle came to my mind.
"Is there anybody," I asked, "Who understands this thing in its entirety? [...] Is there anyone who has expertise about all the components and who can put those individual bits of knowledge together into a truly complete understanding of the entire machine?"
"No," the physicist answered, with a look that showed he thought the question a bit peculiar. "No, no one understands this machine completely." I felt some discomfort about his answer at the time, but I didn't know exactly why. "

Admittedly, I too found the question a bit peculiar. Gee, just think about the LHC! However, Homer-Dixon uses this episode to make a point on a much more general level that made me think a lot. As a result of increasingly complex demands, people in our society specialize in certain niches, where they can become experts in their areas. A side-effect of this not necessarily bad development though is a fragmentation of our communities, and a lack of people who have an overview on how the pieces work together. Is there anybody who understands the world's economy in its entirety? The politics? Our societies?

"No matter how much we believe in our institutions and in the regularized procedures of our societies, no matter how just, rational, and durable we think them, they are at the best only loosely grounded on some form of bedrock reality or immutable truths that endure beyond human beings. To a considerable degree, they are sustained by collective belief and consensus, by tacit, unquestioned, and often grossly simplistic assumptions about how the world works, and often by mutual and willful self-delusion. Our societies cohere and function in no small part because most of us want them to cohere and function, and because the alternatives are, for most of us, literally unthinkable.
We all eagerly assume there exist people, somewhere, who unlike ourselves do have a grip on the bedrock reality that underlies our societies, who understand how things work and will take care of us if severe problems arise. We also deeply fear the possibility that it isn't true [...]"

That is to say, the book is determined to make you think about what's going on. Admittedly, I found it a bit scary in parts.

Okay, I feel already odd for all the nice words, it's so not me, so here is the criticism: Despite several attempts the actual definition of 'ingenuity' remains somewhat vague throughout the book. It is also interesting that the subtitle on my paperback version is "Can we solve the problems of the future?", whereas looking at the image above the subtitle on the hardcover is "How can we solve the problems of the future?". The book unfortunately doesn't contain very much on the "How" except the general plea that we need to remedy the "dangerous lag between the natural sciences and the social sciences"
"The natural sciences and the technologies they spawn carry us into the future at bewildering speed, in the process remolding our understanding of ourselves and revolutionizing our relationship with each other and the natural world. The social sciences plod along behind, unable to generate fast enough the knowledge we need to build new institutions for our new world."

Essentially, Homer-Dixon warns we might be running into a global ingenuity gap.


The most amazing aspect of "The Ingenuity Gap" is that despite the large variety of topics the book covers it remains throughout coherent and provides a consistent though somehow incomplete picture (some points esp. the role of energy scarcity were further examined in the second book "The Upside of Down").

The book is overall recommendable. If this was an review I'd give five stars. I wish more people would listen to what he's saying.

If you want to listen to Homer-Dixon yourself, check our today's colloquium PIRSA 08020001 (mostly about climate change and energy scarcity, so not directly related to the review above)

An End to Reticence? Natural Scientists and the Politics of Global Change
Speaker: Thomas Homer-Dixon - University of Toronto

Abstract: A convergence of climate, resource, technological, and economic stresses gravely threaten the future of humankind. Scientists have a special role in humankind's response, because only rigorous science can help us understand the complexities and potential consequences of these stresses. Diminishing the threat they pose will require profound social, institutional, and technological changes -- changes that will be opposed by powerful status-quo special interests. Do scientists have a responsibility to articulate the dangers of inaction to a broader public beyond simply publishing their findings in scholarly journals? Should they become more actively involved in the politics of global change?

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Customer Satisfaction

I eventually finished reading The Ingenuity Gap and meant to write a review. But something came in the way. That something being the previously mentioned attempt to close my Bank of America accounts. So instead of learning something worthwhile about the problems our world will be facing in the future (such the subtitle of the book), you get today another therapeutic frustration post about the problems I am facing in the present.

I called the Bank of America customer service hotline on Jan. 22nd, payed off my credit card debt and closed that account, transferred my savings into the checking account, and closed the savings account. After this, nobody was able to tell me the exact balance on the checking account, so I ended up adding and subtracting numbers with a pen on a paper (seriously). I issued my last check to myself. That check was cleared on Jan. 25th and brought the balance on the remaining checking account to exactly zero. That account should then have been closed on Jan. 25th at midnight.

What happened instead was that 2 minutes before midnight I received 8 cents remaining interest rate from the already closed savings account. As a result, the checking account didn't have zero balance, and could not be closed. Since it wasn't closed I was then charged the $ 20 service fee for the month of February. And since that damned account was now undead, another $ 15 automatic payment went off to the no-longer existing credit card account. (After a longer investigation of that interesting event I learned that an account being closed does not mean one can not transfer money in or out of it.) Then I was charged an overdraft fee, and another fee of $1.50 that I couldn't quite figure out where it came from.

[My account statement. Details scraped out for privacy reasons]

I don't want to know where this would have went hadn't I called them yesterday to find out why I hadn't been send a confirmation on the account closure yet. I called the local service hotline, made my way through the automatic menu but was kicked out after 10 minutes or so. Calling again, the line remained busy. I therefore called the national service line, made my way through the automatic menu, hung on hold for 20 minutes and got a 'customer satisfaction accountant' who didn't know nothing about nothing and was very happy to pass me on to another accountant from the credit department.

That women then kept repeating the same useless information about the status for the next hour or so, while I got increasingly upset. Highlights of that conversation include

"Is there ANYBODY in your company who has a clue what the others are doing?" - "No ma'am." ,

"It seems like the remaining option is to jump on a plane to California and just pay the $1.50, is that what you're saying?" - "Yes, ma'am.",

"How I can solve this problem?" - "I don't know."

I have to give it to her she remained very calm and polite. If somebody had yelled at me the way I yelled at her, I'd have hung up. After one hour our so I gave up, banged my head against the wall for a while, and called again. I made my way through the automatic menu, hung on hold for 15 minutes and got connected with another 'customer satisfaction accountant'. The women had a slightly Indian accent and after the identification stuff she asked how she could help me. "Could you please, please, please just help me close my bank accounts," I said. And then the miracle happened: she typed something in her computer, probably brought up my file, and said "Oh, I see you've had some problems, I connect you to somebody who can help you."

I was then connected to a guy who apologized profoundly for the inconvenience, said he'd waived all my fees and the account would be closed midnight Feb 11th. I didn't even know what to say except for 'Thank You.'

Well, given that I've never in my life overdrawn an account, I find this very annoying indeed. Yes, I am one of these old-fashioned people who Don't buy stuff they can't afford ;-)

PS: And here is the BAC stock. I swear it started dropping yesterday at exactly the time I called in.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


My husband is concerned (again) about my sanity because I have developed a (hopefully temporary) obsession with POTHOLES. How could I not? Living in Waterloo, Ontario - allegedly The World's Top Intelligent Community 2007 - it is hard to get around them. Just look at this crap (crap referring to the quality of the video as well as that of the street)

I took this video yesterday. This street was newly paved 2 months ago. Here some photos (click to enlarge):

I've come to appreciate if there is snow on the ground, because it does at least fill these holes! Thaw is especially bad, because it's hard to tell the depth of a hole filled with water. And that bad shape of the pavement is not a problem confined to the cities. The last time I was courageous enough to take the highway 401 to Toronto, the road condition was worse than that of every highway I've taken in southern Africa, including the Trans-Kalahari highway. (The traffic on the 401 was considerably higher though.) Folks, I usually don't like to let my European genes enter my argumentation [1], but I've never, ever seen the streets in a Germany city in such a pity state.

And now don't give me that crap with the harsh climate. This winter has been very mild here this year, and I've seen winters in Germany where the temperature did drop to a - 20 °C as well.

I've had the Your-Streets-Suck argument previously in various places in the USA. Depending on the state, the excuse then is 'Yeah, but here it gets much warmer than in Germany'. Or, 'Yeah, but we have much heavier rainfalls than in France'. And if it's not that, then the ground is extraordinarily difficult to deal with or the vegetation causes problems, or maybe the potholes are on purpose just to keep the German tourists off speeding on the highways. Okay, I've been driving 240 km/h on the Autobahn, but admittedly I know about nothing about paving a street. Let me instead show you some pictures so you know what I mean.

Types of Damage

The one kind of damage that is caused by frost are lengthwise cracks which look like this (photos probably taken in Austria)

[Picture credits: Oberrat Dipl.-Ing. O. Henögl]

This kind of crack is caused if the water in the ground below the pavement freezes, expands, and pushes up the asphalt. It will typically crack in the middle where the elevation is the highest [2]. The other kind of cracks I have seen often are net cracks which look like this:

[Picture credits: Oberrat Dipl.-Ing. O. Henögl]

And these are caused when the frozen water thaws in the ground under the pavement, can not flow off to the sides, but can only escape to the top through the asphalt. Which, under pressure, causes a net of cracks.

And then of course there are potholes. Some of them can get bad, some get really bad and grow to Waterloonian size, but the ones I remember from my days in Germany most often look somewhat like the pic to the right (photo: Hessische Straßen und Verkehrsverwaltung). What you see there is a hole in the top layer, probably a result of one of the above mentioned net cracks.


Now these mentioned kind of cracks I've seen occurring here as well, but the additional problem is that here these defects seem to grow, and they grow rather rapidly. If water can collect below the pavement in a loose ground, thaw will leave the street surface all brittle and an ideal candidate for huge holes. These defects grow further because once the upper layer has a defect the ground below is mostly loose shoulder. Cars driving through the holes loosen more of the ground which shifts, and the rims of the hole increase, while it also gets deeper. On a busy street it doesn't take long for a crack to grow to a size that will at least ruin your wheel alignment, if not your tires (not to mention the lacquer). And do you know what they do with these holes? They fill them with gravel - a procedure I've seen the first time in Botswana, just that there were usually much faster with that first aid maintenance.

Though I admit that Waterloo can't quite keep up with Detroit, look at this.

To the left is an example, (photo taken here in Waterloo this morning), of how one of these lengthwise cracks develop with a bad underground (larger version). You find these holes in abundance on Weber street towards North. It's hard to tell but it looks to me the newer the pavement, the faster the pothole growth.

A well paved has several in several layers, the lowest one being a division to the soil, upon which 5 other layers go. These layers should further be bonded, so they don't shift towards each other. I have no idea what the guys are doing here. That shit they put on the ground here doesn't even last one winter. German streets aren't great, but at least they last some years. France I hear makes quite an effort with their streets, they allegedly last decades.

Bad underground is especially problematic on highways. If there is constant heavy traffic on the street, unfortified ground tends to shift under pressure which causes lane grooves that are esp. dangerous during rain. Not to mention that it promotes the pothole growth.

Why am I telling you that?

A) Because it pisses me off. There are plenty of reasons to leave Germany. My top three list is: the GEZ, the shop opening hours, and BMW drivers. But at least they know how to pave their streets.

B) Because it gives you an example for system failure. I can see two reasons for that crap (Pfusch am Bau).

    1) One is that a better quality would be more expensive than fixing the road frequently, and providing constant maintenance service during the winters. It could be more expensive because the technique is likely more effort, but it gets increasigly difficult if the machinery/people/expertise is not easily available. That price argument fails to take into account damage caused by these street conditions, cost that has to be carried by drivers. Not to mention that annoyance doesn't have an immediate monetary equivalent. It could also be that the maintenance service runs on different budget (state/city), so doesn't weigh in at the right place.

    2) Second, if that is not the case it could just be they pleasantly ignore there is a huge scope for improvement. Sounds somewhat odd, but look at this video (somewhere Milwaukee) or this video (Boston), in neither of which anybody even attempts to ask whether these bad conditions could be, to some degree, avoidable. Scary in a different way is this video from Montreal where the speaker explains the washed away ground is due to leaking pipes, but I agree with his conclusion to stop the cosmetics and rebuild the roads completely.


If you ask me the most intelligent community of the world should get itself some pavement engineers, pronto. Who needs theoretical physicists?

See also: Berkeley's Pavement Research Center.

[1] The easiest way to annoy an American citizen is to challenge his or her national pride. He will either label you anti-American and therby justify his right to dismiss everything the arrogant Europoean says (because she's of course just jealous her passport has the wrong color). Or the discussion will inevitably approach the big attractor Hitler. And yes, restrictions apply. As always. And you are the one exception.

[2] It is of a certain advantage if the street elevation is the highest in the middle so the water can flow off to the sides. I am mentioning this because typically in Tucson I recall the center of the crossings are the lowest points. Which is great because if it rains, water can stay there half a meter deep. The city is therefore covered with 'do not enter when flooded' signs that you should take really seriously. But hey, that's just because they have so heavy rainfalls.

Friday, February 08, 2008

October 26, 2144: Eclipse at Waterloo, ON

Total solar eclipse of August 11, 1999 seen in France (via Wikipedia).
October 26, 2144 will be a special day for Waterloo, Ontario: There will be a total eclipse of the Sun! Around 12:07 at noon, the Moon will cover the Sun for about 4 minutes.

That's one of the many curious facts about solar eclipses you can check out at a web site I came across the other day, the Eclipse page of NASA. Solar Eclipses: Past and Future features a catalogue of eclipses over five thousand years, from 2000 BCE to 3000 CE. And there is a web interface, the Solar Eclipse Explorer, which allows to search for solar eclipses visible between 1500 BCE and 3000 CE from any given location on Earth - that's how I've found the Waterloo eclipse.

Path of the October 26, 2144 Solar Eclipse over Ontario, Pennsylvania, and New York, as seen by Google Maps (Eclipse Map and Predictions by Fred Espenak and Jan Meeus, NASA's GSFC).
One can even have a look at the path of the Moon's shadow: The band of totality runs from Waterloo to the Southeast and ends in the Atlantic ocean - the centrality line just misses the southern tip of Manhattan. Eclipse data are plotted using Google Maps.

I wonder how Theodor Ritter von Oppolzer would feel about this treasure trove of eclipse data. The Austrian astronomer is the author of the Canon der Finsternisse (Canon of Eclipses). This work, which appeared in 1887, one year after Oppolzer's death, contains exact data of 8,000 solar eclipses and about 5,200 lunar eclipses of the period from 1208 BCE to 2161 CE.

To accomplish all the necessary calculations, Oppolzer had enlisted the help of ten "computers", as these assistants were called at the time. Half of them were volunteers, half of them were paid by Oppolzer's private money - the payment for the calculation of one eclipse was about the daily wages of a plumber. Each eclipse was worked out independently by two groups, and only matching results were accepted, in order to minimise computational errors. The Canon was supplemented with maps showing the centrality lines of the solar eclipses. However, these paths were only approximate: A circular arc was fitted through the eclipse locations at sunrise, for the mid-point, and for sunset - it was just way to laborious to calculate more point.

A map from Oppolzer's Canon of Eclipses, showing approximate centrality lines of solar eclipses for the late 20th/early 21st century. [Sheet 153 of Canon der Finsternisse, Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Classe 52 (1887), from "Schwarze Sonne, Roter Mond".]

Oppolzer's Canon, which "stands as one of the greatest accomplishments in computational astronomy of the 19th century", was mainly intended as a reference work for historians. It was the authoritative collection of eclipse data before the advent of electronic computers. A translation into English was prepared as late as 1962, and 1966 saw an extension of the calculation of future solar eclipses up to March 2510, computed this time by an IBM 1620 and printed by photo-offset from the original computer printout to exclude typesetting errors.

The Theodor Oppolzers of today are called Jan Meeus and Fred Espenak - they are the heads behind the NASA eclipse data base. But not only has the speed of computation exploded since Oppolzer's time - there has also been an increase in precision of the formulas used to calculate eclipses. An eclipse calculation requires very precise coordinates of the Moon and Sun on the celestial sphere as a function of time. For Oppolzer, the factor limiting the precision of his Canon was the orbit of the Moon. Today, this is not a problem anymore - instead, the largest remaining uncertainty in the eclipse predictions is caused by tiny fluctuations in the Earth's rotation.

So, I can trust the prediction that on September 7, 2974, at 13:31 in the early afternoon, there will be a total eclipse of the Sun where now is Frankfurt am Main, Germany. But who knows how the place will look like that will be cast in the Moon's shadow for 4 minutes and 21 seconds - and if anyone will be around to be fascinated by this spectacular event?

PS: Concerning the more forseeable future, there will be a total eclipse of the Moon in two weeks, in the night from February 20 to February 21, 2008. It will be visible in Europe, Africa and America; mid-eclipse is at 04:26 Central European Time (in the early morning of Thursday, February 21), or 10:26 Eastern Standard Time (in the evening of Wednesday, February 20). More details (... you guess it) at Fred Espenak's NASA Eclipse site.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

That and This

  • The European Commission is doing a study on European researcher mobility. They are looking for European researchers currently living and working in the US to fill our their survey, you find it here. According to their definition, I am apparently classified as a 'mobile experienced researcher'.

  • Have a look at this. Takes 30 seconds, gives you something to think about the next 30 years.

  • According to a study by the postdoctoral association of the Rockefeller University more than 90% of their postdocs are 'very concerned' or 'somewhat concerned' about their retirement savings (can't find an actual number on the diagram). Somebody wrote in the comments: "Postdoc should not be treated as 'temp' worker. We pour our souls into this university."

  • Quotation of the week:

    “A creation of importance can only be produced when its author isolates himself, it is a child of solitude.”
    ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Help Your Country - Die Young

A group of Dutch scientists has estimated the charges on health systems caused by obesity and smoking:

The outcome was that longlivety eventually turns out to be more expensive than living unhealthy and dying young:
"Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures."

The results were obtained not through data analysis but by modeling three hypothetical groups: Obese non-smokers (BMI > 30), non-obese smokers, and non-obese non-smokers. These were then evaluated with regard to their respective statistical probability for certain illnesses from the age of 20 until the time when the model predicted their death. It turns out, though the highest yearly costs were incurred by the smokers in their older ages they were in total less costly since they died early, whereas the expenses for the non-obese non-smokers in their late years added up and the total lifetime health spending was larger. The researchers estimated the average cost for health treatments for the smokers to 220,000 EUR, for the obese non-smokers to 250,000 EUR and for the the non-obese non-smokers to 281,000 EUR.

If you were looking for a reason to get rid of these New Years resolutions, here it is. I am feeling bad already. It's about time I start being a good citizen, hand me the cigarettes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Peer Review IV

[My weekend post on the recent survey on peer review reminded me I meant to write about a peer review problem that's only rarely mentioned: citations.]

Horizontal and Vertical Citations

Specifically, there seems to be a trend to increasingly cite horizontally instead of mostly vertically. What I mean with horizontal citations are citations of related works that go back to the same initial ideas or concepts, but are neither actually necessary to understand the content of a paper, nor have they investigated a closely related aspect of a problem. Citing horizontally is attached with a lot of politics. People cite others horizontally to be polite, because it seems smart for networking reasons, because they hope the favour will be returned, as a reply to annoying emails, or just because they believe conventions require it.

Typically it looks like this
    "Recently, topic XYZ has been explored by many groups [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15], [16], [17], [18], [19], [20], [21], [22], [23], [24]."

As an example, see 0706.3155 ( "Collider Phenomenology of Unparticle Physics" by Cheung, Keung, & Yuan). In the more advanced version one quotes simply as
    "Many studies have investigated the implications of ... [11]."

    "Various considerations of ... have recently been developed in the literature [8] [9]."

And then clumps together 25 papers in citation [11], see e.g. 0801.1534 ( "Unparticle Self-Interactions and Their Collider Implications" by Feng, Rajaraman, & Tu). For an extreme version, try reference [8] of 0801.0018 ( "Unparticle physics at the photon collider" by Kikuchi, Okada & Takeuchi) which fills more than a whole page, and is probably just a complete list of what an arXiv keyword search brought up.

This kind of citation seems to be especially common in the first some years after a topic received interest, but has a cut-off length that I'd estimate to be somewhere around 50 papers where it simply is no longer feasible. For example in the first years when black holes at the LHC where hip ('01-'04 or so), citations of the sort "in a number of recent papers people have studied..." (e.g. hep-ph/0405054 "SUSY Production From TeV Scale Blackhole at LHC" by Chamblin, Cooper & Nayak) were quite common, but around 2005 references condensed to review articles and the few papers where the idea originated.

Also, in my impression the more established researchers take horizontal citing less seriously (who are you to request I cite your paper?).

In contrast to this I mean with vertical citations the papers that were actually used for a new publication, that are necessary to its understanding (whether they are sufficient to understanding is a different issue), or previous work on the same topic (even if unfortunately unknown to the authors during writing). Of course scientists need to pay proper credit to other people's works, and to back up arguments with references. But should they just group-cite 'various considerations'?


This kind of citation was a very useful feature in the days before one could do a keyword search in a database, or click on 'cited by'. Horizontal citing serves the purpose to let the interested reader know who else has worked on a given topic and what other related studies have already been done. However, this is a good example where one sees how technological improvements together with the increase of our community can result in developments that have unwanted consequences.


Whether we like it or not, the citation index of a researcher matters to his or her career. If many people cite horizontally out of politeness - possible often without even reading all papers themselves - it encourages fast publications on hip topics. These works contain more horizontal citations, which makes the topic look even more like the place to be. Most importantly, researchers have to act fast to be among the earliest papers because then they makes it onto the citation lists if those who come later. A mechanism like this is called positive feedback: interest causes increasing interest. Nowadays, one can literally make a living out of jumping on and off topics with a good timing.

An effect like this can considerably distort scientist's judgement on which areas they regard worth spending their time on.

Another annoying side effect is that people try to get citations, just because it seems possible, and because every single one improves their cite index. As a result, if I put a paper on the arxiv, the following day I will receive several emails of the type
    "Dear Prof. Hossenfelder,
    Today I read your interesting paper on X. I want to draw your attention to my interesting paper(s) on Y. [latex bibitem follows] "

Depending on temper people request more or less bluntly to be mentioned in my reference list. In some cases these references are interesting and might be useful for later papers. In rare cases I did indeed miss a previous publication on the same topic, which is as annoying as embarrassing. In most cases though, people seem to send these emails for no other reasons than that the title or abstract of my paper contains a word that appears also in their paper. I actually knew a guy who wrote a script to check the new arxiv submissions for keywords and to produce emails like the one above.

And you know what? I can't even blame people for doing this. Even if chances are low, if you send out enough annoying emails one or the other recipient will just cite you, and isn't that what matters*? It's one of these cases where the incentives lead people to focus on meeting secondary criteria (high citation index) instead of primary goals (good research). For more on primary goals and secondary criteria, see The Marketplace of Ideas.

Peer Review

Although peer review does to a certain degree ensure relevant previous publications are appropriately mentioned (restrictions apply), it rarely happens that it is pointed out to the author he has plenty of redundant papers on the reference list. What people put on the arXiv is their business, but if it was clear peer reviewed publications wouldn't support the citation of only weakly related papers this trend would calm down considerably. That's why I think peer review would be the place to address the issue.

How to

If you don't want to cite everybody, don't cite anybody. It sounds silly but it seems people get easily pissed off if one cites a colleague who has worked on topic X, but not themselves. If one doesn't cite the colleague either, it doesn't bother them. Just sticking stubbornly to the publications that were actually used and are relevant to a work seems to be acceptable (and if that isn't sufficient blame it on a page limit). It has the drawback however that colleagues are less likely to return the favor and cite you - Science or Sociology?.


In times where keyword searches and 'cited by' queries are possible, horizontal citations are unnecessary. They have however the side-effect of causing a positive feedback on fashionable topics that can distort objectivity.


Nothing of what I've speculated here is backed up by an actual study, it's just my impression. It would be interesting to see an analysis of the citation distribution with regard to the cut-off length of clustered citations. I am not criticising the content of any of the papers I mentioned above (that in fact I didn't even read).

See also: Peer Review II, III and the related posts Science and Democracy I, II, and III.

* Footnote to the younger readers: That's meant in a sarcastic way, please don't take it seriously. You can easily spoil your reputation with that kind of behaviour. Nobody wants to work with somebody who is just incredibly annoying and self-centered.

Monday, February 04, 2008

This and That

  • Amara lets us know that IEEE Spectrum is making all of their articles available for free, online. Apparently they have more online than what is listed on that page, articles which are not indexed yet. Thanks, Amara!

  • SciAm informs us about a study done at the University of Alberta that showed "customers were more enthusiastic about clothing when they saw good-looking people handling the clothes", and they further explain "when a fetching model of the opposite sex was seen to sport the shirt, the shoppers said they were then actually willing to spend more for it.". Alas, another confirmation that it's all about sex...

  • Helau! Carnival in Germany: Time for fools.

  • As I told you on Friday I brought my car to the repair shop where they failed fixing the driver's seat adjustment (among other things). Pissed off, I went into the hardware store, bought aluminium wire for $1.59 and fixed the stupid handle. It's not pretty but it works. They just called to inform me to take care of the issue they would have to take out the seat, replace the [something], and [blabla] comes together to an estimated $ 246.03 (I didn't make this up, I wrote it down while on the phone). I said no, thanks.
    I will go see them later today to complain about last week's disaster.

  • Quotation of the last week (sorry for the delay):

    "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand."
    ~ Confucius

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Peer Review III

The Publishing Research Consortium published last week the results of a global survey on the attitudes and behaviour of academics in relation to peer review in journals

3040 scientists filled out the survey, me among them. I am very happy to see the vast majority shares my general opinion on the importance of the peer review process:

"The overwhelming majority (93%) disagree that peer review is unnecessary. The large majority (85%) agreed that peer review greatly helps scientific communication [...]

Researchers overwhelmingly (90%) said the main area of effectiveness of peer review was in improving the quality of the published paper. In their own experience as authors, 89% said that peer review had improved their last published paper, both in terms of the language or presentation but also in terms of correcting scientific errors."

But there is also a desire for improvement:

"While the majority (64%) of academics declared themselves satisfied with the current system of peer review used by journals (and just 12% dissatisfied), they were divided on whether the current system is the best that can be achieved, with 36% disagreeing and 32% agreeing. There was a very similar division on whether peer review needs a complete overhaul. There was evidence that peer review is too slow (38% were dissatisfied with peer review times) and that reviewers are overloaded."

Most people also shared my opinion about double blind review review that I regard `in principle' a good idea just that it is doubtful whether it would work in practice, as I also pointed out in the earlier post Peer Review II:

"[W]hen asked which was their most preferred option, there was a preference for double-blind review, with 56% selecting this, followed by 25% for single-blind, 13% for open and 5% for post-publication review. Open peer review was an active discouragement for many reviewers, with 47% saying that disclosing their name to the author would make them less likely to review.

Double-blind review was seen as the most effective. Double-blind review had the most respondents (71%) who perceived it to be effective, followed (in declining order) by single-blind (52%), post-publication (37%) and open peer review (26%) [...]

Many respondents, including some of those supporting double-blind review, did however point out that there were great difficulties in operating it in practice because it was frequently too easy to identify authors from their references, type of work or other internal clues."

You can download the full suvey results here (PDF ~1.4 MB), or the summary here (PDF ~ 1.6 MB).

Thanks to Stefan for the pointer!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Science in the 21st Century

News! I am organizing a conference (again), and the budget has just been approved. I am really exited about it, since it will cover many of the issues I have been writing about during the last years and that have been on my mind for quite a while:

    Science in the 21st Century
    Science, Society, and Information Technology

I find it - for a change without an irony - really great Perimeter Institute supports this very interdisciplinary topic. The questions that I hope to get a chance to discuss at the meeting you have encountered frequently if you follow this blog: How do the IT developments influence the way we do our research? How do these changes influence the interactions and knowledge growth in our society as a whole? How do they influence our opinion making processes, the way we rate information, and our political systems? Does this change the way science is perceived in the public, the feedback our community receives, and the way we deal with this feedback? How do these trends affect our community, diversity and specialization, the structure of our social and information networks? These topic reside somewhere at the intersection of IT, sociology, politics, the sociology of science, psychology, and of course the scientific community itself. I regard these questions highly relevant to understand how we can use our time and human resources optimally, and to address potential difficulties before they grow to become 'trouble'.

Here is the blurb that I came up with:

Times are changing. In the earlier days, we used to go to the library, today we search and archive our papers online. We have collaborations per email, hold telephone seminars, organize virtual networks, write blogs, and make our seminars available on the internet. Without any doubt, these technological developments influence the way science is done, and they also redefine our relation to the society we live in. Information exchange and management, the scientific community, and the society as a whole can be thought of as a triangle of relationships, the mutual interactions in which are becoming increasingly important.

Which refers to a graphic I had in an earlier post, the Information Triangle that I found a handy way to visualize these interrelations. You find some more information at the conference websites

(that however so far has about no content). Any feedback is highly welcome.

Related: You might want to check out Michael Nielsen's blog, he is a co-organizer of the conference and has a lot of really interesting posts about a large variety of topics (see sidebar).


PPS on Cast Away

Today is another beautiful day in Waterloo, Ontario! Streets are full with snowmud, wind is blowing from the east, and my car is in the repair shop so I have ample opportunity to enjoy the sight of slowly melting snowflakes on my glasses. I've just been told the reason why the horn doesn't work is that some electric device with an impressive name has a broken circuit. The device can not be fixed, just be replaced. The part is $500, plus an estimated $200 service. Besides this it turns out that the whole brake system needs to be replaced (I didn't dare to ask for a price), and that nobody has a clue what to do about the driver's seat adjustment that doesn't work. Oh, and the remote control to open the door which is broken is not 'an original Honda part' and btw one that isn't manufactured anymore (? am I supposed to believe that ?), so it can't be fixed at all (but ductape so far works quite well). Further, they will need to replace at least 2 tires for reasons that eluded my shocked ears. I suggested they keep the steering wheel and replace the rest, it might be easier.

Update 5pm: I just picked up the car. The guy who presented the bill got annoyed because I dared to ask for details. He obviously didn't know what the files said that he was waving around with and 'Rob has already left'. He got more annoyed when I told him an explanation he'd just given me didn't make sense. It didn't improve his mood that his colleague confirmed what he just told me was indeed wrong. Neither did it help that I pointed out from the four problems that I came in for they didn't fix a single one. They did however cause a new one: the mechanic lost the remote control and as a result I can't lock the car. Summa summarum I paid $ 350 for nothing than new trouble, and the knowledge that I've been driving around more than a year with the driver's airbag not working. Should you live in Waterloo, Ontario, I'd give the local Honda dealer a stunning zero stars.

Update Feb. 2nd: I dug out the spare remote from the bottom of an (still not unpacked) moving box. Since the battery was dead and I couldn't even open the tiny screws I went into the next hardware store - on a Saturday afternoon it was full with men in their late fifties investigating scarily looking tools that I have no clue what they possibly could be good for (or why one would spend a Saturday afternoon with them). I replaced the battery, but was stupid enough to drop one of the tiny screws which vanished somewhere under the passenger's seat. Without much hope to ever see it again, I crawled under the seat where I found (among several empty coke bottles and a textbook I had missed for a while) the other remote. While I was already crawling on the floor I fixed the driver's seat adjustment. Turned out all it took was half a meter of wire. That means the next time Stefan comes for a visit, I can get drunk and he has to drive ;-)