Thursday, April 17, 2008

This and That

  • Peter Woit informs us that the Journal of Number Theory is planning on introducing video abstracts for papers that they publish. I have previously discussed this question in an earlier post about SciVee.

    To just repeat what I said there: As much as I like watching videos myself, I am afraid this can bias people’s opinions towards those who have the possibilities to come up with great videos. One would expect that the first some videos are low key, but if this becomes an established procedure and gains in importance, researchers and their institutions will try to produce the most convincing videos they can possibly come up with. The analogy to commercials and their influence on the ‘free marketplace’ lies at hand.

    The quality of a video and how well one can sell oneself or the topic does greatly depend on professional support. If the journal doesn’t provide a service that ensures videos can be produced with roughly equal quality, this will just widen the gap between the scientists in institution where there is such a support (e.g. by the public outreach department or by a hired contractor) and where there isn’t.

  • Today's Globe and Mail has a very interesting article on how the Presidential race magnifies Internet's growing role in media. It goes very well with my previous post The Spirits that we Called, in which I argue that the internet does influence our political decision making processes and this poses a challenge for our democratic system that we have to face rather sooner than later.

    "This transformation of the media has transformed many of you, from passive readers to active investigators: researching and digesting information from a variety of sources as you seek your own understanding of what is happening in the world.

    In some ways, this is all very exciting. In other ways, it's frightening. Whatever it is, it's here.


    Today, the role of the Internet in shaping election campaigns is exponentially greater. Ninety per cent of the money Illinois Senator Barack Obama is raising consists of online donations of $100 or less. No doubt many of those donors went to YouTube to listen to the incendiary sermons of Mr. Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. John McCain's supporters can network with each other through Facebook or MySpace.


    The correlation between the decline of printed newspapers and the growth of online news sources is not exact, but it is real. Just as the growth in viewers and profits of 24-hour cable news shows coincides with the steady decline in network news ratings, so too the rise of the Internet presages the demise of the daily broadsheet.


    One thing is clear: As newspapers cut back on staff and budgets, the quality of journalism suffers. Bureaus close, there are fewer investigative reports and fewer reporters covering elections.


    No one knows where this is going. Pessimists believe that the decline of newspapers will lead to an erosion of knowledge, as political spin and Web-fuelled rumour replace objective (well, more objective) journalism."

    Well, the question isn't whether you're a pessimist or an optimist, but what you do to ensure your democratic system doesn't suffer. Information is one of the most important resources in our societies. Sitting around and waiting to see whether knowledge will 'erode' and we'll be left with rumors and gossips isn't helpful.

  • For the German readers: Spiegel Online has an interesting article Wie die Wissensgesellschaft betrogen wird (How the Knowledge-Society is cheated on) that reports on Robert B. Laughlin's contribution to the "Edition Unseld", a collection of essays published by Suhrkamp, in which researcher and writers 'define the relation between men and research' ("definieren Forscher und Schriftsteller das Verhältnis zwischen Mensch und Forschung"). According to the Spiegel article, Laughlin warns we might be facing 'new dark ages of disinformation and ignorance' ("warnt [...] vor einem neuen dunklen Zeitalter der Desinformation und Ignoranz").

    Upon reading the article, his concerns admittedly didn't become so clear to me. But it seems he is worried about patent rights which hinder research, as well as not publicising research results because it can have financial drawbacks, or there is a danger the knowledge will be abused.

  • Picture of the week: bullet shooting four sticks of chalk

    Couldn't find out who made the photo, found it via this site. More photos of things being shot to pieces at BoredStop. See also this video.

  • Quotation of the week:

      "Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge."


  1. Picture of the week: bullet shooting four sticks of chalk

    Fish and Chalks.

    Nice find, and thanks for the links.

  2. Nice chalk pic. It is possible to see perfectly the oblique shock wave


  3. Gloria mundi, Laguna Hills, CA, 17 April 2008.

  4. Dear Bee,

    thanks for the links, and for checking out Spiegel Online before me ;-). After reading the Laughlin essay, I agree, it reads a bit unfocussed? And actually, when worrying about "new dark ages of disinformation and ignorance", it's not patent laws and classified research that come to my mind in the first place...

    Anyway, German readers of Laughlin's new book will have a headstart - for some funny reasons, the English original text will be published only in September.

    Cheers, Stefan

  5. Uncle: a beautiful photo, thanks for sharing!


  6. Hi Bee,

    “Peter Woit informs us that the Journal of Number Theory is planning on introducing video abstracts for papers that they publish.”

    I guess you know where I stand on all this and that is from Marshall McLuhan'sThe medium is the message” viewpoint where video serves to both totally absorb the viewer and at the same time lessens his ability to imagine for themselves and further to diminish ones ability in questioning the truth of what’s being presented. Combine this with Ray Bradbury's factoid concerns and you have a formula for dumbing down the populous at large as to have them more easily lead and be fearful. As far as I’m concerned the direction that the Journal is taking is counter to what they are attempting to instill.



  7. Hi Bee.

    I think you are right. An video abstract is not such a good idea, since as you mentioned it would deflect from the real issue.

    Moreover what is also true: What is the difference between a book and a movie ? Visual imagination always simplifies as I believe, although I know this is is an issue what could be discussed further.

    Kind regards

    Kay zum Felde

  8. Rehashing old stuff, but the effect of videos on presentation of research is going to really depend on the culture set up by the early adopters. After all, research papers use titles and pictures, and yet do not look like typical newspaper pages. If the video is geared to helping the reader understand the paper better, faster, etc., then it may be a good thing.

  9. I'm fascinated by the idea of how to make interesting videos (especially considering the process element) about a stodgy-seeming subject like number theory.

  10. Arun and Neil, I agree.

    The videos should perhaps themselves be peer reviewed, separately to the article. Already the editors say they are going to check that a video is not offensive.

    Another possibility might be a startup, The Journal of Video Introductions, which would invite videos for any paper that has been accepted by designated and/or participating journals, with links from the journal abstract page, although I'm not sure what the revenue stream might be. PI might consider that, as an adjunct to their existing lecture videos?

    Established research groups already have an advantage, but I don't see a professional video, perhaps produced by a university for a cost similar to submitting a letter to PRL, giving as much of a boost to them as a well-conceived but otherwise amateurish video might give to a graduate student or postdoc.

    I wouldn't expect a video introduction often to make a better job of persuading me to read a paper than a non-mathematical text abstract, however. I can imagine only bothering to take the time to watch videos produced by friends and famous, unless a friend or a blog points one out (one that is made by their friends, presumably). Scanning article title in a long journal contents list, 3 seconds, scanning an abstract, 30 seconds, watching video abstract, 4 minutes. Probably not so much.

  11. As much as I like watching videos myself, I am afraid this can bias people’s opinions....

    Pretty soon, only beautiful people will be able to get jobs as physicists, and the ugly people will bring them coffee.

  12. Hi Bee,

    “a rather furry fish :-)”

    On a more serious note, have you noticed what appears to be a Backreaction as what forms to be the tail of your furry fish? Makes one wonder if our universe is the result of the collision (pass through) of one brane with another what was the corresponding result in the brane that passed through. Perhaps this is where all the ant-matter is that is so puzzling to be missing from our side of the looking glass? The again it’s more likely I read too much into my observation of this etwas behaart Fisch :-)



  13. :-)

    'behaarter Fisch'

    (der Fisch, male noun)

  14. Hi Bee,

    “(der Fisch, male noun)”

    Well what can one expect from an embarrassed to admit primarily unilingual Canuk? So German fish in the generic sense have gender? To be truthful this necessity for gender formed to be one of my stumbling blocks in comprehending other languages; not to mention the capacity of the block attempting to fathom it :-)



  15. I appreciate the courage ;-) True, nouns with gender are an additional complication, you just have to learn them together. I sometimes forget though to drop the gender in English. E.g. I recall that I had a plant in my office some years ago, and I used to refer to it as 'she' since the German word for plant is female (die Pflanze).

  16. Hi Bee,

    “I sometimes forget though to drop the gender in English. E.g. I recall that I had a plant in my office some years ago, and I used to refer to it as 'she' since the German word for plant is female (die Pflanze).”

    This you realize only serves to deepen my confusion for most plants carry both genders. That is a stamen and a pistil. It’s one thing to insist “viva la difference!” and another to ask “Warum der Unterschied?” Then again when observing whales as they surface to breath one does say “there she blows” without considering if it be a he or a she :-) This is why I prefer the language of science over that of the everyday, for it is more objective and thereby less arbitrary. Of course J.S. Bell would have reminded that this also must be something to be mindful of when physical theory is being considered.



    P.S. Also thanks for letting me off the hook, so to speak:-)

  17. Hi Bee,

    I was reading your blog when Ilaria came by, and she likes the picture of the fish!


    Ps now I translated what I wrote above to her, and she says she knows it's not a fish but a bullet...

  18. Well, one reason we may be headed for 'new dark ages of disinformation and ignorance' is the tendency of most of the public (and I suspect, intellectuals as well) to seek out confirmation of their existing prejudices rather than to give fair hearings to opposing opinions:


    The book exploring this effect is "The Age of American Unreason" by Susan Jacoby, but I am sure the same problem is growing worldwide.


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