50 years ago Doug Engelbart invented our world

Great article from the WSJ, worth reading. I met Doug Engelbart 24 years ago in Scotland. He was the most modest, well-mannered genius I’ve ever met (impossible to imagine him ever self-promoting on social media hoping for attention and likes), the epitome of a scholar and a gentleman. He really did invent the world we live in but is almost forgotten by today’s ‘designers’ (the term is becoming so irritating in current use that I’ve to put it in quotation marks….ooops, Doug would never have been sarcastic either).

Here’s the opening para, full link below.

On Dec. 9, 1968, Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute presented what’s now known as “The Mother of All Demos.” Using a homemade modem, a video feed from Menlo Park, and a quirky hand-operated device, Engelbart gave a 90-minute demonstration of hypertext, videoconferencing, teleconferencing and a networked operating system. Oh, and graphical user interface, display editing, multiple windows, shared documents, context-sensitive help and a digital library. Mother of all demos is right. That quirky device later became known as the computer mouse. The audience felt as if it had stepped into Oz, watching the world transform from black-and-white to color. But it was no hallucination.


Researcher arrested for asking the wrong questions

UPDATE 11/26 — Today, Matthew was released and ‘pardoned’ though apparently still labelled a high level spy. Leaving the original post here for posterity.

Matthew Hedges, a doctoral student at Durham University in the UK must have been happy to secure funding for a field trip to UAE to conduct interviews for his dissertation on civil-military issues in the context of the Arab Spring. This is how significant research data is gathered, it takes time, effort and no little disruption to one’s normal life. Imagine then his horror when, at the airport to return to the UK, he is arrested and thrown in jail. Allegedly, an informer reported that he asked suspicious questions and the suspicion was enough to flout all rules of legal and civic propriety. He was arrested in May this year. He’s been in jail since, in solitary confinement, accused of espionage.

You might think this is punishment enough, but the horror is really only getting started. This week, in a five minute court ‘trial’ where he had no legal representation, Matthew Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Do you really need to know more?  Read the response from the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies  and write a letter/email to the addresses provided. You can read a Guardian article too. This is no time for shyness — speak up.

What’s the point of open science, really?

We had an excellent colloquium speaker today as Dan Sholler, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, presented results from his work on open science initiatives and the challenges involved in ensuring reproducibility and replicability in practice. His work involved interviews with key players in journals and research programs and raised in my mind some serious questions about the almost blind rush to adopt open practices.

I think we can all accept that it is important for science to justify claims and allow appropriate data to be shared, especially where public funds have enabled the research, but I have to ask what exactly is it that we are trying to ensure?  Outside of the very real concern about the narrowness of what constitutes ‘science’ in this movement (clue – it has to involved lots of numbers), and the effort involved in adding another layer of effort to support the further checking of results and data sharing, what would we gain here?

Many (most?) research studies are dull and let’s be honest, don’t make strong claims at advancing our knowledge. Should we insist that their data be provided anyway? Where claims are major, there’s already a process within normal science practice to require replications and further studies to support the claims. For such work, I think the values of reproducibility and replication are high and normally expected. But such work is not the norm. Applying the same standards for all work that we require for strong claims is likely more a burden than an enhancement.

More pernicious to me is the problem of fraud. I can engineer data to fit results if I want, and then sharing that data with another researcher who replicates my analysis will only add confirmation to a lie. I’d like open science to shine a light here. Right now, offering badges for good practice and letting the workload fall on reviewers and coders to check data deposits is likely to result only in slowing down all science.

Food for thought today, definitely, and another reminder that an ‘obviously good thing’ often comes with a price. Now, where can I find a good measure for data quality?


Fakery and reviewing

I often feel the lowest place on the totem pole of academic life is occupied by reviewers (well, maybe letter writers sometimes co-habit that rung too but I’ll stick with reviewers for today).  Among the endless, repetitive but largely invisible tasks that faculty perform, reviewing articles is one that we feel obliged to do but secretly wish we were asked less to complete.

The main problem is the task is thankless. We all claim to believe that peer-review is important, we hang recruitment and promotion decisions on the outcomes, and smugly dismiss venues that don’t enact it properly, yet we give little or any incentive or reward to those who provide this apparently essential service.

In this light, is it any wonder we have fake news and poor research outputs? Investing the time to thoroughly and fairly evaluate a paper takes you away from other work. In most reputable journals, at least two, often three, external reviewers are sought for each paper. Given the fact that only some proportion of papers will prove acceptable for publication and you can start to see the problem here. For every author, we require three reviewers and an editor to make a decision, and yet it is usually only the successful author who gains any credit in this transaction.

Personally I am tired of receiving papers that require me to put more time into reviewing than the authors apparently put into writing them. Given a rational cost-benefit analysis, I can’t really blame an author for trying, but I do expect the editor to at least do some first-level culling to make sure the reviewing request is warranted. I learned this week that the term for this is ‘desk reject’, the process of declining a paper before a reviewer sees it on the grounds that it’s not a good fit or perhaps is just crap.  We need more of this.

Every week I get requests to review, edit, write letters of support (but so few requests for letters of rejection, sadly) or increasingly, offers to submit my own  crap  paper, for quick review in a new journal coming out next week. This is what we’ve become, an industry that extracts profit from the output of scholars who trade in the currency of repute. At such times, differentiation through quality is all that matters, but the best arbiters, the reviewers who ensure the separation of the wheat from the worthless, are working thanklessly, backstage and below minimum wage. No wonder scholarly publishing is in a mess.

Getting chipped – it’s an option

A couple of years back I gave a keynote at the PPR conference and joked that the days of us all being chipped would happen soon. Well, of course, ‘soon’ is a a nice word, sufficiently elastic not to be held to account for a prediction that does not transpire. But in today’s news from the weird and wacky world of users, NPR reports that Swedes are volunteering to get chipped so as to take advantage of the world of devices requiring their ID to operate. Doors, cars, payment systems, legal forms, you name it. Why sign it or use a key if you can embed the means of identification within yourself and trigger the device with a swipe, a touch or your very nearness. Oh darling. It’s come to pass. Full story here

Facebook violations continue

Oh, those wacky folks at Facebook just can’t help themselves can they?  The Guardian reports that after investigations by the  Information Commissioners Office, the company has been found guilty of allowing over a million users’ personal data to be harvested by third-parties. And sadly, under current UK law, they can only be fined this amount, when new regulations would enable a far more severe level of punishment. Drop in the ocean to FB though, who I am sure will sing their favorite song again about how sorry they are and intend to do better….time for a new tune Marky. Full story here

Museum says its Dead Sea Scroll fragments are fake

If you ever wondered about the importance of provenance and the big dollar value of historical artifacts, you might find this interesting. Forgers tend to be clever, mediators have a profit margin, and buyers tend to be over-enthusiastic if the item is in demand. In the end, the science is hard to deny.  Stay tuned for the blame, excuses, and other justifications.

Read more here