June 28, 2007

Evolution: the Great Tinkerer

This week's Science Times was devoted to evolution and covered some interesting aspects, including a long article on Evo-devo.

Wikipedia provides the most concise definition of Evolutionary developmental biology:

"Evolutionary developmental biology ... compares the developmental processes of different animals and plants in an attempt to determine the ancestral relationship between organisms and how developmental processes evolved. Evo-devo addresses the origin and evolution of embryonic development; how modifications of development and developmental processes lead to the production of novel features; the role of developmental plasticity in evolution; [and more].[citing Hall, below]"

The Times elaborates on how different features develop on similar species -- using Darwin's finches as an easily-understandable example. Dr. Cliff Tabin, a developmental biologist at Harvard Medical School, found that bird beaks "expressed a gene known as BMP4 early in development." This enables Darwin's finches, living on the Galápagos Islands, look very different from each other and from other finches -- particularly in the beak. Some, in fact, "... have evolved taller, broader, more powerful nut-cracking beaks; the most impressive of the big-beaked finches is Geospiza magnirostris." (see McGill University's Hendry Lab finch comparison photos to see some stunning differences)

The article goes on to provide examples of evo-devo in fish (cichlids), marsupials & placental mammals, butterflies, and even flowers.

For More Information
* David Corcoran, a Science Times editor, interviews people associated with these stories in the June 26 Science Times podcast(mp3).
* Evo-Devo - Evolutionary Science - From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, New York Times, June 26, 2007.
* Science of the Soul? 'I Think, Therefore I Am' Is Losing Force by Cornelia Dean, New York Times, June 26, 2007.
* Darwin Still Rules, but Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift by Douglas Erwin,
New York Times, June 26, 2007.
* Guest Editorial: Evo-devo or devo-evo — does it matter? Hall, Brian K. Evolution & Development, Volume 2 Issue 4 Page 177-178, July-August 2000.

June 22, 2007

A New Kind of Concept Map?

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Using Math to Predict Musical Hits. Turns out that before Mike McCready was on ScienceFriday, he was interviewed by Malcolm Gladwell at the 2007 New Yorker Conference.

He was a bit more technical with Gladwell than he was on ScienceFriday, and if you watch the video, you can see his PowerPoint slides showing how hit songs cluster together.

The most interesting part was when McCready demonstrated the ability of his software to recommend music based on stuff you already like. He took a few of Gladwell's favorite songs (which was accompanied by a charming warning that it's socially nerve-wracking to announce one's favorite songs to strangers).

Gladwell first offered Billy Bragg's "A New England." McCready plugged in both social & musical variables and came up with recommendations such as Pete Seeger, the Clash, Woody Guthrie, Morrissey, and Phranc. "Nothing potentially embarrassing in that list," Gladwell commented.

McCready was careful not to indicate whether or not "A New England" would be a commercial hit; instead, in this instance, "A New England" is at the center of its own cluster and other songs are swirling around it. McCready's software is using both social context and musical composition to generate these recommendations.

It's an interesting idea, and it's fascinating to see it in play in this interview.

June 19, 2007

PowerPoint Humor

How NOT to Make a Powerpoint Funny because it`s true.

"Corporate comedian" Don McMillan talks about what not to do in PowerPoint, and shows very effectively what doesn't work, by using ... PowerPoint. Love the part where he says a slide took him 90 minutes; "PowerPoint can suck the life out of you." Also love the part where he does font analysis. (Courier anyone?!)

Watch the video, and don't do as he does.

Found via Stephen's Lighthouse.

June 17, 2007

Another Vendor & Library Partnership

I've been working with the folks at Scopus to promote their fabulous database at my campus. They invited us to participate in their Student Ambassador Program, and it's been a rousing success! I'm going to be speaking about this at ALA next weekend, and here's the gist of what I plan to say:

Some of my colleagues were enthusiastic right away, but some of were concerned that the program would promote one database to the exclusion of similar resources. We were able to reach an internal compromise that seems to work well on all fronts. Rather than teach only Scopus, our program focuses on the topic of citation searching more broadly. Scopus generously agreed to hire 2 graduate students to teach both Scopus and Web of Science (as well as other aspects of the library, like Interlibrary Loan & SFX). The Student Ambassadors explain to their colleagues what citation searching is and how to use both Scopus & Web of Science.

Our two terrific graduate students taught over 100 people in 8 spring sessions, and we are continuing the program this summer. Our 6 sessions in June have reached over 50 students and we plan to offer more classes in July & August (see our online flyer for details).

Scopus is supporting a variety of promotional methods, including traditional print flyers (added to Scopus & Web of Science posters and distributed in departments all over campus) and Facebook flyers. I even created a group in Facebook for citation searching, and tho I'm not persuaded that this has generated any additional business, it can't hurt. The most effective marketing by far has been sending a message to the graduate student list at the university, which costs nothing.

This is a great example of a promotional partnership between vendors & libraries. It's win-win for my university & Scopus: their product sees increased usage, our ambassadors get good work experience, and our graduate students learn useful information from their peers.

More thinking outside the box, please!

June 16, 2007

Do Animals Feel?

Interesting article at New Scientist about whether or not animals have emotions. Marc Bekoff, professor of biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, writes about animals and their possible feelings. He gives examples of several emotions he claims to have seen / heard animals feeling, such as empathy, grief, gratitude, and love.

Those of us who share our lives with animals would surely be able to come up with our own examples; Emma seems to be grateful when I clean her litterbox, and it is conceivable that Boomer stayed alive with a huge tumor as long as he did out of love for me. But I also hear Ray Coppinger in my head scoffing at this notion.

Following his examples of animal emotions, Bekoff does an nice job of arguing the case for and against animal emotions.

"... it is bad biology to argue that humans are the only emotional beings. Emotions serve as a 'social glue' to bond individuals with one another and to catalyse and regulate their social encounters.
"A decade ago, neurobiologists identified specific nerve cells that are associated with empathy - the bedrock of social emotions. These so-called mirror neurons have been identified in non-human primates, and it is likely that they exist in humans and other mammals, and perhaps even in birds."

... transition discourse on anthropomorphising ...
"... careful anthropomorphism is not a way of foisting human attributes onto animals, but rather a means of identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe."

"if unchecked, [anthropomorphism] leads to a complete absence of scientific rigour in the way we look at animals. Using anecdotes as data only makes matters worse, because this allows anyone to speculate on what a given animal is experiencing, without any standard for what counts as evidence."

Bekoff concludes by urging for scientific, evidence-based analysis of what it's like to be a cat, dog, bird, horse, or your animal of choice. A little anthropomorphism is good; too much is unscientifc.

Can't wait to read more about animal emotions!

For More Info
* Bekoff, Marc. "Are You Feeling What I'm Feeling?" New Scientist, 194: May 26, 2007, pp. 42-47. Full-text available in LexisNexis & possible on ScienceDirect.

June 15, 2007

Google & Ill-formed Searches

Great article in the online journal Library Philosophy and Practice (LPP) ("a peer-reviewed electronic journal that publishes articles exploring the connection between library practice and the philosophy and theory behind it.") about using Google in the reference interview. I'm probably going to use this article in my reference class this year, even though I don't want to recommend Google as a substitute for good reference services & sources. However, Jill Cirasella's article makes some excellent arguments on Google's behalf.

Cirasella lists three ways that Google is useful at the reference desk:
1. Completing incomplete citations (especially those missing a journal name!)
2. Correcting incorrect citations
3. Checking spelling with Google's "did you mean" feature

She also recommends using two elements in Google Labs to help at the desk:
Google Suggest and Google Sets.

Lots of things to think about!

For More Info
* Cirasella, Jill. You and Me and Google Makes Three: Welcoming Google into the Reference Interview, Library Philosophy and Practice, 2007.
* Library Philosophy and Practice current issue, on Shape Shifters: Librarians Evolve Yet Again in the Age of Google.

The Adjunct Life

Woo! My article for Library Journal, The Adjunct Life, was published today.

Read what it's like for me and several other information professionals to teach library school as an adjunct. I spoke with public, school, and special librarians, as well as some other academic librarians. It was fun to write, and it's fun to see it in print, too.

For More Info
Brown, Stephanie Willen. The Adjunct Life Library Journal, June 15, 2007.

June 14, 2007

LIS Books

Over on facebook, some librarians are having a discussion of favorite LIS books. I can't think of a dedicated LIS book that I like, but here are two that have shaped my view of design and users:

* Krug, Steve. Don't Make Me Think! : A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. 2d ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Que, 2006.
Explains in very clear language how to design for users in a way that they will understand. Emphasizes the value of simplicity. My favorite graphic is in the chapter "Street Signs and Breadcrumbs", in which he shows a street sign in Los Angeles and another in Boston. The LA street sign spans the entire street and is easy to read while you're driving around, possibly lost. The Boston street sign, when it exists (speaking as an infrequent Boston driver), is tiny and very difficult to read. Essential, and easy, reading for any web designer.

* Norman, Donald A. The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Norman's classic is not specifically written for web site design, but it can easily be applied to web design, and Norman's engaging style makes for another easy read. I think about this book EVERY TIME I open a door that is not clearly marked. Essentially, he says "if I have to think when I open a door, the door is badly designed." (I'm looking at you, entrance to Hampshire College Library Center). I also think of this book when I try to turn off my iHome radio in the morning; Norman talks about how difficult it is to design something complex and keep it simple. Highly recommended.

June 12, 2007

Three Beautiful Librarian Things

Ok, this is a meme I can get behind: Three Beautiful Things, in which Clare says "[e]very day I want to record three things that have given me pleasure. This 3BT site is the original Three Beautiful Things."

How about Three Beautiful Librarian Things?

1. SFX. I'm still thinking about what a great thing OpenURL / link resolvers are. Reference life is so much better with their help.
2. Academic Search Premier and other full-text databases. Reference life is so much easier with good quality, full-text databases.
3. Library school students. I see the library's future, and it's very cool.

Thanks to the FeelGoodLibrarian for starting me on this path. I may make this a periodic post.

June 11, 2007

Great explanation of usability / design

SFX / programmer / librarian whiz David Walker has created a simplified "SFX menu" (OpenURL resolver / thingie that gets you from citation to full-text) for Cal State. You can see the simplified menu (note that links aren't live) or ...

watch David's flash presentation about how he came to create the simplified interface. Here's what David says about it: "Do library users find the SFX menu confusing? Here I dissect some problems with the SFX menu and show a simpler interface developed at Cal State. Includes audio (no transcription) and slides. Time: 20 minutes. Also includes files to download." (takes a while to load, but it's worth every second of wait time, and worth the 20 minutes to watch)

It's great to see the default SFX menu morph into the simplified menu -- and it's a wonderful demonstration of usability / design principles.

June 02, 2007

Towards Scientific Literacy

Steven Pinker reviews Natalie Angier's The Canon : A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, using the review to promote general scientific literacy.

Pinker starts with some examples of scientific illiteracy, including a woman who doesn't want to eat tomatoes with genes in them (he reminds us later that "all living things contain genes"). He notes that people take pride in their scientific illiteracy: "Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics."

Further, "[i]t is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse."

Angier's book, Pinker writes, brings non scientists (i.e., me) towards scientific literacy by covering "probability, large and small numbers, physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. Though the material is up-to-date, Angier stays clear of cutting-edge discoveries and in-house controversies." He also suggests a reason why newspaper coverage of sciences does not advance scientific literacy: reporters write about the latest discoveries or controversial topics rather than provide less-newsy explanations of how things work. Pinker has some trouble with Angier's writing, suggesting that in an effort to make science interesting she writes in "a blooming, buzzing profusion of puns, rhymes, wordplay, wisecracks and Erma-Bombeckian quips about the indignities of everyday life." It's too bad; I've seen this before in pop-science.

Nonetheless, Pinker is a strong advocate for scientific literacy. In an editorial preceding the book review, the Times quotes an email from Pinker explaining his interest in writing popular science: " 'One was teaching, which has a similar audience — smart people who are curious about a topic but don’t know the jargon or the busywork of the people who study it.' He also cited a lifetime of science reading, 'beginning with George Gamow's wonderful One, Two, Three ... Infinity when I was a child, and continuing to Richard Dawkins, John McPhee, Stephen Jay Gould and others as an adult.' "

This is an excellent exhortation to libraries of all stripes -- not just the public libraries -- to purchase popular science books. I'll be buying Angier's book for my library, and also for my home collection.

For More Information
Pinker, Steven. "Sunday Book Review: The Known World." New York Times, May 27, 2007. "A refresher course on the fundamentals of science that every person should master."

Angier, Natalie. The Canon : A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

June 01, 2007

Using Math to Predict Musical Hits

Last week's Science Friday asks Can a song's success be predicted?

Ira Flatow speaks with Mike McCready, co-founder and CEO of Platinum Blue; "McCready says he and his colleagues have come up with an algorithm that will predict whether a song will be a hit." I was very skeptical when I heard the topic of the show, but I was also intrigued.

McCready starts by explaining how record labels decide whether or not they'll release a song as a single: "The first criteria is: does the song sound and feel like a hit? They have A and R professionals - artist and repertoire professionals - people with golden ears who - at the labels who listen to music and decide that.

"The second criteria they use is, are we able to promote the song effectively? That ... covers does the artist have an appropriate appeal to the - audience or the target demographic that they're looking for? ... [Does] the song have somewhere to fit in? Is it written within the zeitgeist of the culture?"

McCready is trying to position his services as a third step -- not to replace the first two steps of human intervention on whether or not a song has the potential to be a hit, but to help them improve the odds. Currently, of every 10 songs they promote, only 1 will be a hit, leaving 9 songs (and $1 million worth of promotion each) in the dust. This is the cool part:

"... [W]e have a computer program that can analyze a fully produced CD and isolate things like melody, harmony, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, pitch, chord progression, fullness of sound, cadence, sonic variances - about 30 to 35 of these variables that we look at, and we look at how they fit together in the different kinds of patterns that they make up as they come together." McCready claims the company's success rate is 80-100%, including the terrific Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy."

One reason McCready's software isn't more widely used is that, according to McCready, "... [T]he music industry, in a race to adopt new technology, finishes just ahead of the Amish" -- although he adds that there are many music executives who do appreciate his technology.

McCready is also thinking about new markets for his technology, including offering a reduced version of it to musicians to help them create something "sellable", and also "... a music recommendation system in partnership with other technology companies where someone, you know, can go to a retailer and say, '... I like these two songs; what else am I going to like?' "

* Science Friday show, May 25, 2007, Hour Two; mp3 of Ira's interview
* Transcript available on LexisNexis: "The Math Behind Hit Music," National Public Radio Show: Talk of the Nation: Science Friday 3:00 PM EST , May 25, 2007.
* McCready's software is at Music Xray (tm), and his song-seeker software is described at Platinum Song Seeker™.