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Digitize the world of books March 26, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Books, physics life.
4 comments

Those of you watching would have noticed that a judge threw a spanner in the plans of Google to digitize the world’s book collection:

The company’s plan to digitize every book ever published and make them widely available was derailed on Tuesday when a federal judge in New York rejected a sweeping $125 million legal settlement the company had worked out with groups representing authors and publishers.

I am a huge fan of the basic idea. Every book online and digital and accessible from your computer. I’m already almost living the life professionally: all the journal articles I use are online. The physics preprint archive, arivx.org, started this model and as a result has spawned new types of conversation – papers that are never submitted to journals. Pretty much the only time I walk over to the library is to look at some textbook up there. The idea of doing the same thing to all the books – well I’m a huge fan.

However, I do not like the idea of one company being the gateway to something like that. Most of the world’s knowledge is written down in one form or another – it should not be locked away behind some wall that is controlled by one company.

I’d rather see a model where we expect, in the long term, that all books and copyrighted materials will eventually enter the public domain. At that point they should be easily accessible online. When you think of the problem like this it seems like there is an obvious answer: the Library of Congress.

Copyrighted books are a tougher nut to crack. There publishers and authors presumably will still want to make money off this. And making out-of-print books available will offer some income (though not much – there is usually a reason those books are out of print). In this case the Google plan isn’t too bad – but having watched journals price gouge because they can, I’m very leery of seeing this happen again here. I’d rather see an independent entity setup that will act as a clearing house. Perhaps they aren’t consumer facing – rather they sell access and charge for books to various companies that then make the material available to us end users. This model is similar to what is done in the music business. I purchase (or rent) my music through Zune – I don’t deal directly with any of the record labels. The only problem is this model doesn’t have competition to keep prices down (i.e. nothing stops this one entity from price gouging).

Lastly, I think having all this data available will open a number of opportunities for things we can think of now. But I think that we need to make sure the data is also available in a raw form so that people can innovate.

Print books are dying. Some forms will take longer than others – I would expect the coffee table picture book to take longer before it converts to all digital than a paper-back novel. But I’m pretty confident that the switch is well underway now. What we do with all the print books is a crucial question. I do think we should be spending money on moving these books into the digital age. Not only are they the sum of our knowledge, but they are also a record of our society.

Under Attack March 23, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, university, University of Washington.
7 comments

I’ve been trying not to make a comment on the budget situation in the USA. Or on the current discussion about teacher pay and benefits. Or about the state of science funding in this budget atmosphere. Or the drive to eliminate the Department of Education. Or the revival of the teach the controversy push. Others have made the case much more eloquently than I could have. This is more of a personal take on some of this: I’ve never felt under attack quite the way I do right now.

There seems to be a concerted attack on science funding in the US at the federal level. The feds fund most research that is too long term for a company to fund – which is becoming more and more as the stock market forces companies to think more and more short term. A healthy research program in a country needs to contain a balance for the sake of the long-term health of the economy. And a healthy economy is the only way to make jobs. The large cuts that are reputed to befall the Office of Science, which funds most of the national labs, will force lab closures. Facilities where we do science – gone! 1000’s of people layed off. Heck, if you are trying to cut out 60 billion you can take a guess as to how many jobs that is worth. At $100,000 per person per year – so really nice jobs! – that is another .6 million added to the unemployment roles. Right. That’s going to turn out well!

Second is this constant discussion about teacher pay. I’ve seen comments on newspaper articles with statements like “we are just paying them to babysit our kids.” Seriously?? Maybe we should just eliminate the schools and have the kids all at home. No formalized education system. Now, that has never been done before! And so obviously it must be better! Oh… wait. I guess it has been done before. I think it was called the middle ages… Arrgh! Yes, our K-12 system needs some real work. But beating the crap out of teachers in newspapers is not the way to get good people into the classroom! And the idea that teachers are overpaid paid? Seriously? [I’m not trying to channel Grey’s Anatomy here] I find that hard to believe. Perhaps they are getting better retirement plans for what they are paid – but I suspect that is because when the unions couldn’t negotiate a pay raise – so they went for an increase in the pension. I wonder if you paid teachers a more fair wage, but kept their pension plans the same size, if the rate would be more in line with normal?

On a more local note, one of our state legislators was heard to say “Higher education is a luxury we no longer can afford.” I don’t even know where to start with that. Washington is like every other state, it has some rich people and some poor people. UW is a state school – the state provides subsidies for the in-state students to make it more affordable. A robust state and federal scholarship program back fill for people really in need. The idea is if you are good and you want to get a higher level education, the federal government, the state government, and the university will do its best to make sure that finances do not get in your way. This has been a bedrock of all higher education in the USA for many years now. Do we go back to a class based system? What are people thinking, really? I get they are trying to cut the budget, but think for a few minutes about the implications of what you are saying!

And to those who say education is radically more expensive than it has been in the past – at the UW that is definitely true that the cost an instate student pays has gone up a lot over the last 10-15 years. Definitely more than inflation(by a bit). But if you look at the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant. Wait. For. It… That is right! State support has dropped dramatically. So the university has to cut expenses and find other sources of income – i.e. raise tuition. Blaming the university for this is misplaced. Last year in the state of Washington after the state legislature cut the UW funding by 26% the university raised tuition by 14% over two years. Legislatures were known to stand up at town halls, etc., and express their displeasure at UW for doing that in hard economic times. I’m happy with them being displeased – I was displeased – but at least be honest and say that the state cut 26% of the university’s funding. It isn’t like that was a capricious raise!

Next is another is the push to increase the teaching load. I currently teach one class a quarter – so three a year (I get paid for only the 9 months that I’m teaching – I have to find my own funding for the rest of the year). That one class is about 3 hours in the class room in front of students. Pretty cushy, eh!? I taught graduate particle physics this year. This is my third year so I’d like to think that I know it by now (not) – but all told during the week it would take about 20 hours of my time. The first time I taught it – when I had to teach myself some field theory – it was taking more like 50 hours a week. When I teach the easier undergraduate courses I tend to have 100’s of students – so it also works out to be about 20 hours a week. Some weeks a lot less, some a lot more. So, it would seem I have at least enough time to take on another course! Except there is one big problem here – my job isn’t just to teach undergraduates. My job is to also teach graduate students, mentor post-docs, and do research. UW is the #1 public institution in the USA when it comes to bringing in $$ from grants. You add another class, then you will effectively change the nature of the University of Washington – make it a teaching institution rather than a research institution. The ramifications of something like that are huge – rankings, desirability, research & undergrads, etc. Do people to say things like this understand how all this is connected?

This last election brought in a lot of new people (at least at the federal level). I remember being elected to a few positions having to do with HEP. I had all sorts of ideas – but I discovered that when I arrived that all the decisions that had been made were all made for a reason! They weren’t arbitrary. You can’t go wrecking around like a bull in a china shop – you have to carefully consider what you are doing and the ramifications. I get the feeling many of these new folks just don’t care. Really just don’t care. Even worse, they don’t know history – which means they are doomed to repeat it. Many of the ideas on the table around America have been tried before – if not here, then other places. I would love them to take a careful look. There is plenty of room for new things to achieve some of the same goals – why not try them rather than closing your eyes and just letting the knife fall where it may? In physics we call this a “prescale” – we just randomly through out data because we have too much. Here we are randomly throwing out programs because we have too little. In both cases this is an implicit admission of defeat: we aren’t smart enough to make a strategic cut.

Ok. Enough. Thank goodness there is a counter balance in most cases to these drives to change things so radically. It won’t be pleasant, but the system is too large and what comes out of it too valuable to actually destroy it in a few short years, despite best efforts of some. Now that I’ve vented, back to working on my classes and my research!

Update: Fixed “under paid” –> “over paid”. Of all the typo’s! Smile

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