Monthly Archives: March 2008

Death of the information fixer

If you ever watched the Killing Fields, you know about Dith Pran, even if you forgot his name. He died this weekend and his story is being retold by most major western newspapers. The Independent in England ran a great article that outlines his role as an infomediary, a fixer who enabled journalists from the west to function in the hostile world of 1970s Cambodia. There are many others playing that role now around the world and they are perhaps even more overlooked now by a news media intent on presenting stories through photogenic, white-toothed, personalities impersonating journalists. What Dith Pran provided was literally a life or death service and we would all do well to remember the power of information and the reliance of this power on a series of human links who rarely, if ever, get the attention their role deserves.

Another school to change its name?

A motion from the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto proposes to drop ‘studies’ from their name so as to create the more elegant Faculty of Information. If approved, as seems likely, this will create another information school, joining Texas, Washington, Berkeley, Michigan, and FSU as having names representing the broad field. As noted in the motion, there will come a time when one wonders why we were ever called anything else (info studies, info science etc.). That day is getting nearer. Curiously, the old argument was about dropping the L word, but the Toronto naming indicates that the naming issue has evolved from those heated debates and now more accurately reflects the increased meaningfulness of information as a term for a field.

The end of print encyclopedia? Not quite but…..

the sunday New York Times carried an interesting article on the end of paper encyclopedia, noting that Brockhaus in Germany announced it would electronically publish all 300,000 of its articles, which have been reviewed and refined through two centuries of print editions. A spokesperson noted that they may never again release a paper version (though you know as soon as someone says this, there’s a boutique edition just waiting to be snapped up). Strikingly, the NYT piece stated that as extensive as the Brockhaus content is, it is dwarfed by the nearly 2 million entries in English on Wikipedia. Even Encyclopedia Brittannica, with its 32 volumes, cannot compare in sheer size to this.

Naturally people complain that the content is not as reliable or that it’s easy to spoof Wikipedia but people forget that the collective effort of the majority of Wikipedia contributors is amazingly adept at monitoring and correcting problems. That two million articles can be created and maintained so rapidly, and satisfy millions of users who are not all gullible, term-paper copying high-schoolers, is the real miracle here. If we can get here in a decade, imagine how good it might be in two more? And Wikipedia is just one example, there are others such as Citizendium, whose tag line is “we are creating the world’s most trusted encyclopedia and knowledge base” and involves greater editorial control than Wikipedia, or The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where entries are updated by a team of experts. The information world is being shaped as we live, get involved (or alternatively, sit on the sidelines and complain, someone might mistake you for an ‘expert’).

Computer Science seeks (and gets?) sex appeal (again)

Yes, the word is that the trauma has ended – CS is the sexy once more. Well maybe it’s not quite as unappealing as it was…….but is it really a case of ‘geek chic‘? Oh well, the numbers of grads, if you look at them, are still half of where they stood a decade ago. Part of the attraction seems to be the embracing of new areas under the CS heading (forensics, security etc.) so one can hope for change, especially if TV shows can start presenting computer scientists as action heroes. Is it churlish of me to note that applications to our program are through the roof? But we are not graduating more, we are just graduating better. Now that’s sexy!