Life is a Mystery

30 April 2009 . Comments Off on A day in the life

A day in the life

Nathaniel just played his last basketball of the season today. It is really fun to watch him growing and enjoying games like this.

Then this evening I found this picture on Flickr.

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I guess I’m not the only one who enjoys watching his kid play ball!

29 April 2009 . Comments Off on Coping with shrinking budgets

Coping with shrinking budgets

I am “lucky” enough not to be housed in an institutional setting these days. Institutions are going through painful responses to shrinking resources and I’m sure the leadership of institutions everywhere are suffering sleepless nights as they try to find a humane course through these rapids. I was very impressed, today, when I stumbled on the site the MIT Libraries has created to help its community understand the impact of budget cuts. It is not easy to share information about reductions in service or challenges of budget planning without whining. I wish more institutions would be this up-front about the course they have chosen and the impact of changes. Communicating clearly is leadership. Other examples can be found at some of the other ARL institutions communicating about budget impact.

29 April 2009 . Comments Off on FFR: WolframAlpha

FFR: WolframAlpha

What if a free web site could answer queries like “france fish production” (number of metric tons produced, pounds per second, comparison to NYC trash rate) or “weather princeton, day when kurt godel died”? Would that change your world just a little or be “a stunt that could still end in disaster“? A task that would have been much easier with the semantic web is being carried out in its absence by Wolfram Research. The free WolframAlpha web site is expected next month. Keep an eye out for it. Meanwhile, Joho the Blog provides a liveblog with a few more examples of what WolframAlpha should be able to do. Wolfram explains what’s up at Harvard.

23 April 2009 . Comments Off on OCLC makes a move

OCLC makes a move

OCLC is laying down some big bets on the direction of library automation, and it appears to me that these bets may pay off. Library systems (those “integrated library systems” we buy from vendors like Ex Libris) have long been simultaneously too expensive for libraries and too complicated for the vendors to support. OCLC is now entering the market with a “cloud” service for libraries. Their bet is that libraries will accept a bit less uniqueness for a whole lot more interconntectedness:

“Visits to libraries, focus groups, and over a decade of engagement in the library automation world have convinced me that libraries require less complexity in their management systems,” said Andrew Pace, OCLC Executive Director for Networked Library Services. “To truly deliver network-level services—a platform-as-a-service solution—and not simply Internet-hosted solutions of current library services, new system architectures and workflows must be built that are engineered to support Web-scale transaction rates and Web-scale collaboration.”

I think this could work for OCLC. I think libraries are finding the old model unsustainable and are open to a new approach. But I think that it will be a true shame if OCLC does not build clear API’s to these “web scale” services so that libraries can extend them and reach into them from their own services. Putting services into the cloud can work, as long as the data you build there are accessible in all sorts of ways. Take the Flickr API as an example.

The troubling aspect of this is that OCLC has been much too ready to hold back other players on the data front, insisting that institutions cannot reuse and share the data they have created to further their interests and those of other collaborators around the world. Will they be just as closed on the services front? Will this new initiative help them open up on the data front? It is too early to tell, but well worth recalling some early warnings.

This new direction will take years to play out, but I wish OCLC well in the effort. It represents a significant shift in the library automation marketplace.

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16 April 2009 . Comments Off on A secular prayer

A secular prayer

Yesterday on Midday I heard an unusual prayer. A secular prayer. A prayer in layers of theater and law. But still, it was a prayer. If you have ten minutes or so, give it a listen. Tony Kushner wrote this prayer in memory of 9/11.

I have not listened to the rest of this interview with Kushner, it may well be a great show. But this prayer/play caught my attention.

16 April 2009 . Comments Off on The mirage of a public option

The mirage of a public option

A few days ago I spoke with Matt Entenza, one of the likely DFL (that’s “Democrat” to all you non-Minnesotans) candidates for Governor here in Minnesota in 2010. My main concern was health care. I believe that resolving the growing health care crisis is essential to resolving our economic crisis, and I fear the Obama team is going about it the wrong way. Matt, too, insists that “Medicare for all” is more realistic than a “single payer” plan, and I do have to grant that making something actually happen is more important than tilting at windmills. Still, after some thought I sat down and wrote Matt the following email. I want to share it here for the record.

My fear about “medicare for all” is similar to my fears for the Obama plan. A “public option” which leaves in place the wealth and complexity of the private insurance infrastructure will likely fail. It will be left with scraps, the big money being in the hands of private insurers. It will depend on reducing payments to doctors and hospitals to make up for its lack of wealth. It will have to draw a harder line on the limits of care to afford covering those who join. It will underperform and put a sour taste in the mouths of those who trust it.

I think that, in fact, insurance companies know this. They are making such as stand on the public option because if they don’t make us fight for this scrap, we might have the energy to push for more. To simply defend and probably water down the public option in response will be just what they want, it keeps our mind and effort off the real battle: ending private insurance once and for all.

The value of single payer is much more than that it covers our citizens. The value is in the ways it simplifies practice for doctors and hospitals and for all of us. The way it could eliminate the maze of billing and contracts, eliminate the worries about degrees of coverage, eliminate the time wasted on making decisions every year about health plans and alternatives. We are all human beings, we are each given a body susceptible to similar disease and in need of similar care. Our nation, and if not our nation then our state, should take the opportunity to pool together the risks we all bear and provide for us one common solution that puts us all on equal health care footing.

Sure, there is room for private plans and a for-profit health care industry at the margins. Elective care and extraordinary care will always be attractive for those who can afford it. They will thrive even in the face of a single public health plan that covers the basics.

But making a public plan just one option that “competes” against an industry as rich and misguided as our health insurance industry will, I fear, leave us spending way too much energy on the competition and realizing way to few of the potential benefits. We need to radically simplify this system to really gain the efficiencies that can transform the money we currently spend on the health industry into real health care.

While I realize that the “public option” and “medicare for all” may be easier sells, I am afraid they will not get to the heart of the solution we need. Now is the best opportunity we have had in decades to sell the solution we really need. Now is when the constituency for health care (that is every one of us) is most frightened by the gaps in our current “system”. Now is the time that small businesses, educational institutions, and government itself is being drowned by the costs of “managed” care. Now is the time that many feel at risk of losing their tenuous hold on the employer-sponsored plans that tie us to companies we would rather not be doing business with given how poorly they treat us. Now is the time to make a push for the solution this state and this country really need. We need more than a “public option”. We need to remove the maze of private insurance. We need a simple plan that serves all of us. We need to trust government to deliver this in the way it did deliver on medicare many years ago.

Yesterday Andrew Sullivan quoted scienceblogs with regard to some CDC statistics, and they put it much more succinctly:

The simple truth is that one of the major reasons we have such a lousy health care system and receive such bad value for our money in the US is that we placed health care financing into the hands of the same folks who helped make our economic system such a disaster: private insurance companies, who are little more than disguised investment banks with the added incentive not to pay back their depositors (the premium payers).

We don’t need health care reform with a public option. We need one with public financing by default, perhaps with a private option for those who wish to and can pay extra for it.

Here in Minnesota, please consider supporting the Minnesota Health Plan.

13 April 2009 . Comments Off on rev=”canonical”

rev=”canonical”

Let me be the first to say that rev=”canonical” is not the savior of the internet or even the solution to persistent URLs. But it is an interesting concept and something like this may well be a great way to notify systems of the persistent URL associated with a particular resource, especially if we go to the trouble to create short persistent URLs. Keep an eye on it.

13 April 2009 . Comments Off on Citing sources

Citing sources

The MLA seems to have stirred the pot with it’s 7th edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

In the past, this handbook recommended including URLs of Web sources in works-cited-list entries. Inclusion of URLs has proved to have limited value, however, for they often change, can be specific to a subscriber or a session of use, and can be so long and complex that typing them into a browser is cumbersome and prone to transcription errors. Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors’ names than by typing URLs. You should include a URL as supplementary information only when the reader probably cannot locate the source without it or when your instructor requires it.

I agree with Maurice Crouse’s assessment of this:

It appears to me that the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers in § 5.6.1 comes very close to saying, “It’s out there somewhere; I found it; you probably can, too.” … Many of [their] points are well taken. But I would urge that you always give the URLs that you used to reach the cited material. Why not give your reader all the help you can? Why make him or her do a search for a source for every item in your paper? If the RL fails, then he or she can always resort to the searching that MLA recommends.

All in all, I am very impressed with Crouse’s recommendations in Citing Electronic Information in History Papers. If you are looking for some sensible advice, you might want to start there.

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6 April 2009 . Comments Off on One way public domain

One way public domain

On Friday a federal court agreed with the Fair Use Project at Stanford and ruled in Golan v. Holder that falling into the public domain is a one way trip. Once something is in the public domain, no one, including congress, can stuff it back into the copyright box. Why is this a big deal? Because in 1994 congress did just that when it signed the US onto the worldwide Uruguay Round Agreements Act. This act required the the US honor foreign copyrights (the Berne Convention), which until then had not been the case. A whole host of items that had been in the public domain in the US (but not abroad) were suddenly protected in the US as well.

I’m sure this will be appealed. And it is hardly the most appealing win; since it relies on the differences between US and foreign law it really does nothing to crack protections for some very old US content. Still, it is a victory for Larry Lessig and the team at Stanford. Bravo!

While at browsing copyright matters and national boundaries, check out whether the President violated copyright law when giving the Queen of England an iPod. The Queen can’t get in trouble, she has sovereign immunity.

5 April 2009 . Comments Off on No nukes!

No nukes!

Obama’s remarks in Prague are being widely reported as a call for a “nuclear-free world.” I’d like to believe that, but I just don’t see it.

Yes, he does say that the nuclear threat is the most dangerous legacy of the cold war. Yes, he does pledge to reduce our US nuclear stockpile. Yes, he calls for a comprehensive nuclear test ban. But somehow, mixed with responses to North Korea and Iran I don’t have a lot of hope that this will amount to much.

Should I be more excited? I know I would have been if I’d heard a president talk like this in the 1980s.

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org