What is Beginner's Mind

Having 'Beginners mind' is to approach a subject enthusiastically, with openness and without preconceptions, even if you are an expert. It represents a willingness to ask questions and challenge assumptions; both essential to the scientific process.

Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 is one of the warmest years on record

Another warm one.

ScienceDaily (Dec. 31, 2007) — The year 2007 is on pace to become one of the 10 warmest years for the contiguous U.S., since national records began in 1895, according to preliminary data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The year was marked by exceptional drought in the U.S. Southeast and the West, which helped fuel another extremely active wildfire season. The year also brought outbreaks of cold air, and killer heat waves and floods. Meanwhile, the global surface temperature for 2007 is expected to be fifth warmest since records began in 1880. Preliminary data will be updated in early January to reflect the final three weeks of December and is not considered final until a full analysis is complete next spring.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Changing my mind about Wikipedia

I have been reading David Weinberger's new book Everything is Miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder an he has changed my thinking about Wikipedia. It has been common knowledge among librarians that the information in Wikipedia is suspect and should not be used in a reference search. But, Weinberger brings up a number of things that I was unaware of.

First, although it seems that Wikipedia articles are produced by individuals without specific qualifications, most are, in fact, produced by a community of interested individuals. If there is enough interest in the topic, the article is reviewed by many eyes and is reviewed in real time in response to new research and changing circumstances.

Second, the real power of Wikipedia is on the discussion page of the article. In traditional encyclopedias, you never get to see the workings of the editorial board playing out. I looked at the article "Biofuel", since controversy is raging over the topic. On the discussion page, the biofuel wikipedia community is debating various aspects of the article and how best to present the information. The debates are completely transparent. And, you can really get more information about a subject from the debates that are going on around it.

Finally, Weinberger reports on a study by the journal Nature (Nature 438 (7070) p900-901) concerning the accuracy of Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica. The study found the accuracy to be roughly equivalent (although Britannica was found to be better written.) Although more studies will need to be done to prove or refute this point, initial results are encouraging. They also point out that even the venerable Britannica has inaccuracies.

Ultimately, the individual seeking the information is the final arbiter of what is true. Weinberger says

Deciding what to believe is now our burden. It alwasy was, but in the paper-order world where publishing was so expensive that we needed people to be filterers, it was easier to think our passivity was an inevitable part of learning; we thought that knowledge just worked that way.
Before the internet, we assumed (to our detriment) that whatever is in print is true. This was never a safe assumption and now with the plethora of information available to us, we can no longer act in this manner. This is a call to get off our duffs and take responsibility for finding out what is true. And, it seems to me that one of the best indications of truth is the debates on the discussion page of Wikipedia articles--can the information hold up to community scrutiny.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to help people frightened by new technology

Here is an interesting article in Science Daily about people who are afraid of new technology. The study, performed by Economic and Social Research Council in the UK found that people afraid of new technology tended to be poorer and less educated. They are frightened by media reports of virus and the hazards of computer use and tend to be hampered by their ability to spell.

The study found that most computer courses that were available are concerned with work related subjects (how to use spreadsheets and wordprocessing) but did not address what people needed to do in their personal lives (email, shopping and finding information online).

I believe that this provides a huge opportunity for libraries to become more relevant to their communities. We could make an impact on computer technophobia by developing classes, courses and tutorials that specifically address these fears and needs. Wouldn't it be great if we could produce an online tutorial, perhaps using podcast or videocasting technology that would address these problems!!! Then, when folks drop in the library, we could hook them up to the tutorial and we could address their needs in real time instead of directing them to a class.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

More on Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen's book the Cult of the Amateur has started me thinking about news organizations. He says:
Newspapers and news magazines, one of the most reliable sources of information about the world we live in, are failing thanks to the proliferation of free blogs and sites like Craiglist that offer free classifieds, undermining paid add placement pg 8.
While it is true that newspapers and magazines are failing, it does not necessarily follow that this is due to blogs and Craigslist. Circulation is certainly declining, but is because of blogs? A study by the Pew Research Center as reported in the State of the Media Report 2007 suggests the following reasons:

Why People Are Not Reading the Newspaper

"What is it that you like less about newspapers compared with TV, radio or the Internet?"
Don't have time
Don't like to read
Inconvenient to get/don't subscribe
Not interesting/nothing there
Cost/not free
Layout (small print/big pages)
Just pile up/clutter

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

I can think of several other reasons that Americans might be abandoning newspapers.

  1. The consolidation of newspaper ownership reducing the points of view expressed in an area.
  2. Americans increasingly distrust newspaper journalism (see below)
  3. Corporate ownership of newspapers driving profitability goals. Since state and national reporting is a big expense, many newspapers have reduced their news staff and have focused more intensively on local (and less expensive to report issues)
The State of the News Media Report 2007 indicates that local newspaper credibility is at an all time low.
Overall, local daily newspapers sat on the lower end of the scale among media on believability, lower than CNN, Fox News, NPR and local television, and above only the Associated Press. In 2006 19% of people said they believed all or most of what they read in their daily paper, down 10 points in eight years. (Another 40% believed a good deal of what they read in the paper, though less than “most”).
Looking in today's Baltimore Sun, I found one small paragraph on page 7 about the crisis in Burma/Myanmar, nothing on Darfur, and barely anything about Iraq or Afghanistan. Is it a wonder that we have no clue about what the world thinks about us.

I believe that newspapers lost their audience log before Web 2.0 and blogs came along. Many newsrooms abandoned international coverage, professionalism and integrity for profitability. This is reflected in the drop in circulation and subsequently, advertising. Many people are turning to blogs or major newspapers online coverage to get the news that the local papers cannot or will not cover.

Keen does bring up a good point about the demise of news staff and professional journalists. I hope that the public will always support good journalism wherever it can be found. It is worth its weight in gold. But I maintain that newspapers abandoned us long before we abandoned them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Andrew Keen's polemic on Web 2.0

I have been reading Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is killing the Culture. His main point is that anyone, irrespective of talent, truth or taste, can publish anything on the web with little or no ramifications. This causes:

  1. the replacement of professionals by mostly untalented amateurs with no responsibility for integrity
  2. the demise of legitimate sources of information and culture i.e., closing of newspapers, independent record and book stores.
  3. so much internet noise because of all the untrue, untalented and tasteless items that it isn't worth sorting through it
This made me think quite deeply about the value of user provided content. First, Keen seems to believe that the work of the amateur is worthless. I think that this is a grave overstatement. What is the definition of amateur? Is is simply that they do not get paid for their work? I do not believe that it follows that just because a market economy does not value a piece of work, that it is worthless. Van Gogh's paintings were worthless during his life. Does this make him an amateur?

The explosion of creative expression on the internet is partly due to the consolidation of market driven outlets for it. During the early 60's it was much easier for bands with unusual sounds to land a record contract. Now, if the bandmembers don't conform to a specific physical and auditory ideal, they can forget about a wider audience through the traditional record label. But the internet changes all that. Same for publishing and art.

What about social discourse? It has always been difficult to get your thoughts out into the ether, especially if your opinions do not mesh with the prevailing ones. This is more and more true as newspaper and media owners want journalists to reflect their own bias (or at least the bias of the people who buy the advertising.) Cutting edge social discourse has often started outside of traditional journalist channels, whether from a soapbox in Hyde Park or through self-publishing. For example, Thomas Paine self-published his pamphlet "Common Sense"--yet another amateur according to Keen's definition.

Amateurs throughout history have made significant contributions to art, science and philosophy and this is no less true today. And Web 2.0 is not only a haven for the tasteless and untrue, but also of the creative talent that is not YET recognized by the public at large.

It is true that it is difficult to sort through the true versus untrue, the valuable from the tasteless. Perhaps here lies a role for librarians. Sites like the Librarians Internet Index may be a good start but we also need to address the blogosphere in our vetting efforts.

I will be discussing Keens remaining points in upcoming blogs. Stay tuned!