Tag Archives: books


Paper vs Paperwhite

After the zillionth time being unable to read a book on a crowded tube because I couldn’t read while grasping onto a pole and fighting for a tiny bit of space to stand, I finally got a Kindle. I’d noticed that the Kindle-users were still able to hold their devices up even under the most crowded London tube conditions. I was also planning a two-week trip to the US, and I had no room in my luggage for books, but I could fit an e-reader in there somewhere.

I’d always resisted e-readers, because I love books. I love holding them and stroking the pages, and that was lost in digital form. Now, after three months with a Kindle, I have to admit I still mostly feel the same. I still miss physical books.

I miss flipping back and forth, when you just want to look something up and you remember that it was on a left-side page sort of one-third into the book.  I miss the unique feel and smell of each book. I miss judging books by their cover.

Ebooks don’t take up any shelf space, but sometimes you want your books on a shelf. I already regret reading Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris books on my Kindle, because they’re some of my favourite authors and they deserve to sit on the packed shelves of my bookcase. Even though I paid for their ebooks, it doesn’t feel like I own the books. They’re just ones and zeroes in a small electronic device.

I also immediately forget the books I read on my Kindle, because they’re not lingering around after I’m done, and I can’t even remember all of the titles because I rarely see the front of the book: The Kindle remembers where I was, and shows me that page immediately. I don’t see the covers and titles. All my books look like my Kindle cover now.

But since I got my Kindle, I have read many more books than I did in the months before. It’s small and fits in all my bags, so I can grab a book to read almost everywhere I am, even on a crowded tube. Today I’m packing for another trip, carry-on luggage only, and I’m bringing three unread books with me.

The trade-off between coveting books and reading more often reminds me of the library. When I was a kid I read several books per week, then returned them to the library, and never saw them again. For most books that was fine, but there are a few books from my childhood I would have loved to own. The Kindle is similar: it’s great to make reading books more accessible, but sometimes I just want to hold and own a physical book.





Book review: The Reputation Society

The internet is an interesting place. I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for, but a few weeks ago I was clicking around on the web and discovered that friends of mine had edited a book that was recently published. A few other people I know had written chapters, and yet somehow I hadn’t been paying enough attention and missed it.

I bought the book on Amazon, even though it had no customer reviews yet. I knew it would be good, though, because I was familiar with the work of several people involved in it. That thought process, where my decision to buy a book was based on the reputation of the authors, and where I checked to see whether it had Amazon reviews, is exactly what “The Reputation Society” is about.

Editors Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey gathered contributions by a group of writers and thought leaders who all approach the concept of reputation in a different way. The essays refer each other in places to make the book feel coherent despite a great variety in writing styles. Collectively, they show that there are many ways in which, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, “online opinions are reshaping the offline world.”

The first few chapters introduce the difference between reputation systems (which rate people) and recommendation systems (which rate content), and the many places they are used, both online and offline. Credit ratings are a traditional reputation measurement, but with the emergence of the internet, new ones arise, such as a person’s seller rating on eBay.

The book addresses reputation in politics, law, philantropy and many other fields. But because I manage an online community of scientists, I was particularly interested in the chapters about online communities and about reputation in science. In his chapter about online communities, Cliff Lampe points out that in recent years there has been a trend toward people using their real name online more often, thanks in part to the rise of Facebook and LinkedIn. In a later section of the book, several chapters address metrics and reputation in science, from the traditional h-index to emerging metrics based on article use rather than citation.

I never really think of the (news-y) content that scientists provide to the website I manage with the scientific output of their work, but after reading about those different reputation systems, and noting the increasing use of real names online, it seems like it shouldn’t be hard to find a person’s complete reputation profile. Not just their professional and academic credentials, but also their eBay seller score, how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they have, and how their blog posts were rated.

Indeed, the last few chapters of The Reputation Society address precisely this amalgamation of reputations. Jamais Cascio describes four scenarios, for four possible future reputation systems, and they all involve an amalgamation of ratings from different sources. In the final chapter, Madeline Ashby and Cory Doctorow also look at potential futures for reputation systems, in particular in education systems, and those, too, include different parts of people’s lives.

If you’re interested in various aspects of the internet’s effect on reputation metrics in society, I recommend you read this book. Of course, my recommendation should be viewed in light of me knowing the editors and some authors, but if you’re reading this at all, you probably already considered my reputation – either because you know me, or because you formed an opinion based on reading my blog(s), or because Google ranked this post relatively high on a search you did. If you want to figure out how to interpret those rankings and reputations and decide whether to trust my book recommendation, a good first step would be to read “The Reputation Society”.

Alice’s Adventures in Animal Experimentation

In 1875 Lewis Carroll wrote Some Popular Fallacies About Vivisection for the publication Fortnightly Review. Carroll was strongly opposed to vivisection, but I think that if he were alive today, he would not have so much of a problem with current animal research procedures.
In “Some Popular Fallacies About Vivisection” Carroll takes several statements used by 19th century pro-vivisectionists and argues against them. Interestingly, he starts out by saying that the golden mean is somewhere between the statement that vivisection is justifiable and the statement that it is never okay. So already he admits to not being entirely opposed to animal research. What he takes issue with is purposely inflicting pain on animals, not so much killing itself. He gives some examples of cases which he considers over the top examples of avoiding animal deaths, and the first example nicely illustrates how far animal rights have come in the past century. Carroll, who was obviously a fervent supporter of animal rights, believed in 1875 that it was a bit over the top to not kill some puppies if the litter is too big:
“Never may we destroy, for our convenience, some of a litter of puppies—or open a score of oysters when nineteen would have sufficed—or light a candle in a summer evening for mere pleasure, lest some hapless moth should rush to an untimely end! Nay, we must not even take a walk, with the certainty of crushing many an insect in our path, unless for really important business ! Surely all this is childish.”

Several fallacies that Carroll argues against involve the morality of the scientists doing the research. He points out that while they say that it’s necessary to use animals to advance medical research, many scientists actually just do the research to satisfy their own curiosity.
“As one who has himself devoted much time and labour to scientific investigations, I desire to offer the strongest possible protest against this falsely coloured picture [that science is unselfish]. I believe that any branch of science, when taken up by one who has a natural turn for it, will soon become as fascinating as sport to the most ardent sportsman, or as any form of pleasure to the most refined sensualist. “
He does have a point here: curing diseases might be the goal of the research, or at least that is what you write in your grant application, but in the end scientists do the work because they want to do research. But Carroll extends this to wanting to hurt animals, and that’s not the same thing. Maybe “doing research” is a goal in itself rather than a means for the goal of “curing diseases”, but “animal experimentation” is still only a means for the goals of “doing research” or “curing diseases” and not a pursuable goal in itself. Carroll would probably agree that if a scientist had a choice between animal research and non-animal research resulting in the same information, they should choose the option without animals. He also mentions that, despite not supporting vivisection, he is not opposed to legislating it either. (“(…) the risk of legislation increasing the evil is not enough to make all legislation undesirable.”)
If Carroll knew that more than a century later scientists have to go through rigorously monitored procedures to get permission to do anything involving animals, that there are alternatives involving cell cultures, fake animals, or computer modelling to reduce the need for animals in research or teaching to the absolute minumum, that any animals used are better cared for than many pets, and not purposely hurt, would he approve?
I think he would. I think all of his concerns are dealt with, and what’s more: nobody would even dare kill part of litter of puppies for convenience!

Alice through the Looking Glass exhibit in Bristol

I’m working on a blog post about an essay on vivisection that Lewis Carroll wrote in 1875, and while doing research I came across this:
The Explore-At-Bristol science centre in Bristol (UK) is currently hosting an exhibit called Alice Through the Looking Glass. It runs until November, and is mostly meant for children, but I know that if I was anywhere in the UK right now I would personally go and check it out all by my adult self.
The exhibit uses events from both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass to explain some basic concepts. The themes seem to be mainly related to perception and physics. (I assume the obvious hallucinogen references (the caterpillar) are left out of this family friendly exhibit.)

If anyone has been here or is planning on going, let me know!

Harry Potter Science (part 3) – Bezoars

(Also on easternblot )
Hogwarts students learn about bezoars in their first year potions class. They’re stones from the stomach of a goat that work as an antidote to most poisons. In book 6, Harry saves Ron’s life by giving him a bezoar after he accidentally drinks poisoned mead in Slughorn’s office.

J.K .Rowling did not make this up: bezoars really exist !. They can be found in the stomach or intestines of various animals (including goats, but also humans , elephants , or llamas [pictured above]), and are composed of undigested hairs (trichobezoar) or nondigestible food material such as cellulose (phytobezoar).
In the 16th century, bezoars (especially from goats and cows) were believed to be universal antidotes. They were also quite rare, and heavily sought after by the rich. King Charles IX of France (1550-1574) was excited when he acquired a bezoar from Spain. He showed it to court physician Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), asking if there was any antidote quite as good as a bezoar like that. Paré told the king that he did not believe there was such a thing as a universal antidote, because there are so many different types of poisons. He suggested an experiment to prove that the bezoar would not work.

Ambroise Paré
Paré asked if there were any prisoners scheduled for hanging. As it happened, a cook was just put on death row for stealing some silverware. The king made the cook a proposition: he could be hanged as planned, a quick and sure death, or he could be poisoned, at which time he would also be given a bezoar. If the bezoar successfully blocked the poison, he would be allowed to keep his life. Naturally, the cook happily took this chance and agreed to be experimented on.

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Harry Potter Science (part 2)

During the first five Harry Potter books (or movies) I always felt that the potions class was the most like our muggle science classes. They learned what different potions and materials do, where they come from, how they’re made. There’s a strong hands-on part, like lab work, where method is important.
As a result, I considered Snape to be “the scientist” in the book.
But during book 6 (Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince) I changed my mind. It wasn’t just Snape’s dubious after-school activities, but my own opinion on what makes good science had changed a bit in the mean time, and two of the books’ characters had developed to fit exactly what I now valued in science: Fred and George Weasley!

Even though they couldn’t stand the school environment, they’re hard workers and unlike most of the characters they’re creative. They know what they want to make (eg. something that makes you sick just long enough to cut class and then feel better) but they’re open to different ways of reaching their end goal, and they’re willing to adapt their recipes if things don’t work out.
The potions classes have always leaned on following a given recipe exactly, and as a potions teacher, Snape followed the book and never allowed for alternate solutions. However (spoiler alert!) at the end of book 6 we do find that he is far more creative than we’ve ever given him credit for so far. He improved on all the textbook protocols when he was still a student! We’re probably supposed to conclude that he is a much stronger wizard that we’ve ever thought, but it was at that point that I redeemed Snape as a scientist. He did have the mind for it! Unfortunately, he would be most horrible to work with. He would be the kind of person that will never admit that a hypothesis was wrong.

So, in the end, I’m sticking with the Weasley twins as my choice of “Best Scientists”, but Snape is still a very close second.
I asked people for their comments (here and here)

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Harry Potter science (part 1, with question)

(cross-posted from easternblot.net)
This week Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens in theatres, and later this month, on July 21st, the final book seven comes out. It’s a hype, but is it really a problem? Millions of kids are anxiously waiting to read a book, why complain? And you can even use the Harry Potter books to teach genetics, as a 2005 Letter to Nature showed. The same idea had previously been mentioned in a British newspaper in 2003, and is explained very well in this powerpoint presentation [ppt].

In brief: Wizarding is a recessive allele. All wizards have the genotype mm (I’m adopting the same notation as the slide show linked above, even though I realize upper and lower case m’s are not the best notation). Muggleness (non-wizardness) is dominant, so Muggles can have either MM or Mm. Pureblood wizards have two wizard parents, so both their parents have mm. Halfblood wizards have one muggle parent, so their muggle parent must have Mm and pass on m. Some wizards, like Hermione or Harry’s mother Lily, are “muggle born”, so both their parents have Mm, and they each pass on m to their wizard child. (As a small aside: Harry’s wizard-hating aunt Petunia (Lily’s sister) is therefore twice as likely to have one copy of the recessive wizard gene than to be a homozygote MM muggle.) Squibs are non-wizard children of wizards. they should have mm, but the theory is that a mutation in one of the m genes would be enough to make them incapable of magic. There are quite a lot of squibs, so it seems the gene is susceptible to mutation.
(See also this post I did for Metafilter two years ago. The cartoon above is by Cathy Wilcox.)

Just recently, another Harry Potter paper came out. This time, Harry has been diagnosed with migraines according to a paper in the journal Headache. The abstract contains the sentence “Regrettably we are not privy to the Wizard system of classifying headache disorders and are therefore limited to the Muggle method, the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II).” which naturally led me to do a PubMed search for “muggle”. Score! Other than the headche paper, two other articles came up ! Both are from the same group in Singapore, and concern patient treatment in Hogwarts Infirmary and St Mungo’s Hospital for magical maladies. Here is the full text of one of their “studies” in CMAJ. (Be sure to look at the footnote and references.)
Are there more science (or medical) lessons to be extracted from Harry Potter? I think so! For example, I have a very clear idea of which of the characters would make good scientists and why, and will discuss this later this week. Meanwhile, tell me: which of the HP characters do you think would make the best scientist(s)? And who would be terrible?