Google Scholar

Google Scholar. It doesn’t find everything – hardly surprising – but it did find interesting things I didn’t previously know about, on topics where I thought I knew the literature. Count me as impressed, and likely to use it further.

Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Dave Bacon.

Update: Well. Having just replied to a referee report, I can say that “Google Scholar” was exceedingly useful. Now it just needs to be linked to’s “look inside a book”, wikipedia, MathWorld, and PlanetMath.

It also appears to be a great way of constructing reading lists: search for your topic of interest, and look to see what comes up first. Eventually, pagerank may be a better measure of impact and utility than citations. Describing potential problems caused by this is left as an exercise for the reader…

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What are blogs good for?

There’s lots of fun and exciting things about blogs. Yes, I know there’s lots of hype (“journalism as we know it is OVER!”), but there’s also something important there, and it’s worth thinking about what is worthwhile. Here’s a few thoughts.

Blogs are opening up communities. Let me give as an example one of the most abstract, technical, and, until very recently, isolated communities in existence: the quantum gravity community. Nowadays, if you’re interested in quantum gravity, you can go and look at blogs by people like John Baez, Jacques Distler, Peter Woit, or the String Coffee Table. The great thing about these blogs is that you can get something out of them even if you’re not part of the community of people who work on quantum gravity. You can figure out what’s bothering people in that community, what the real problems are, what’s exciting, what’s controversial, and so on.

A related point is that blogs are providing an excellent forum for folklore and for simple ways of understanding and organizing existing knowledge. It is unfortunately true that in any field there’s all kinds of folklore and ways of understanding that, ordinarily, you have to be part of that community to know, preferably via an apprenticeship (i.e., a PhD) to a master in that field.

A good example for me is my effort to learn various bits of condensed matter physics over the past few years. Often I’ll get stuck at some particular point, sometimes for months. I’ll talk to a condensed matter physicist, and they’ll say “Oh the way to understand that is [blah, blah, blah]”, and clear up my concern in five minutes. I’ll say “Is there anywhere that’s written down?”, and they’ll say “No, everyone just knows it”. Of course, by “everyone” they mean the people who are actually inside the condensed matter community. In the current academic publishing world, there’s all sorts of reasons this kind of informal folklore and understanding don’t get written up. This is fine if you’ve got the ear of experts in all sorts of fields, and can just go ask them to clear up your difficulties, but it’s a little discouraging for the rest of us.

I hope (and see some encouraging reasons to believe) that blogs will help alleviate this. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is, for example, Lance Fortnow’s regular “theorem of the month”, often accompanied by an explanation of the ideas used in the proof, or the significance of the result. If you’re deep inside the theoretical computer science community no doubt much of this stuff is well known to you. But if you’re outside, but interested, then Lance’s writings provide a window into that field that formerly didn’t exist.

Finally, blogs also humanize the experts. It’s fun to go visit the blog of renowned computer pioneer Dan Bricklin, and hear him gushing enthusiastically about things like the Segway, or talking about his photo hobby.

There’s a lot of ways in which our society has become more and more specialized over the past few centuries. This has always bugged me, but I now hope that blogs will help reverse that trend, helping create communities that are larger, more transparent, and more porous than before.

Update: In the comments Seb Paquet points to a great essay he wrote on this topic.

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Class blog on quantum information

Running a blog for a class is certainly an interesting idea. This is being done for a Philosophy of Physics course at Carleton University, whose syllabus includes plenty of quantum information. Appears to be mainly scribe notes for the lectures, rather than a conversational forum. As a variation – I’ll bet someone has done this already! – it would be interesting to give students incentives to post comments, and try to get a lively conversation going.

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Alan Kay

Eugene Wallingford has a summary of Alan Kay’s Turing Award Lecture. Kay, in my opinion, is one of the great thinkers and innovators of our time. Not surprisingly, the talk summary is terrific. Read it.

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Second update and warning: Apparently there was a bug in the analysis described below. Please disregard, and look instead at my later post.

Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman have developed some astonishing maps of the US election results. There really are two Americas, but it’s not the two people talk about. Rather, US Counties divide up into two sets:

1. Counties (about 400, for a total of 6 million people) where essentially everyone votes Democrat.

2. The remaining Counties, which follow a more or less typical Bell curve, with the mean County about 60% Republican, and 40% Demcrat.

Their results are so stark that I have to wonder if there’s something wrong with their data. (Might we be seeing gerrymandered counties?) Assuming there’s nothing wrong, that’s an awful lot of Democrats who will never meet a Republican!

Update: So why does this happen? Maybe it is all gerrymandered counties, or maybe it’s not. If not, what else is going on? Why are those results that way?

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Ranking Schmanking

My last post was about the ever-controversial – at least, among academics – subject of University rankings. I thought I’d add a few comments about why this subject is controversial, and what point (if any) there is in such rankings.

Many people are disappointed by such rankings, often disparaging them as unobjective, or as being “not scientific”.

In my opinion, this is to start off with the wrong perspective. A ranking of the top 200 Universities in the world is no more likely to be objective or scientific than is a list of the top 200 movies, or the top 200 albums. Everybody’s got a different ideal, and so different people come up with different lists.

In short, the devil is in the details of the criteria used. I’ve often heard people decry the criteria used to produce a certain list as “obviously wrong” in some way. The difficulty is that it’s rare to find two people who agree on what ways those criteria are obviously wrong. This is particularly true if you take a diverse range of people – High School students, undergrads, postgrads, postdocs, admin staff, academics, bureaucrats and politicians all have radically different ideas of a what a University ought to be.

So what’s the point of lists like the one mentioned? Is it all just personal opinion? Is it all just a waste of time?

In my opinion, no, it’s not all just a waste of time. The lists are worthwhile, provided they’re not taken too seriously. Here’s a few ways they’re worthwhile:

1. They focus our attention on a very interesting question: what is it that makes a good University? To what should one aspire? These are things well worth thinking about for anyone associated with a University, and they often get lost in the humdrum of the everyday.

2. They can help people at all levels make decisions. This might mean a High School student entering University, or a Government bureaucrat making multimillion dollar funding decisions. This is only a good thing, of course, if people are conscientious, look at the criteria being used in constructing a list, and making sure they’re appropriate for the type of decision being made.

3. They can change the way we look at academia. For example, ETH Zurich was just barely on my radar before looking at this list. The fact that it came in at number 10 certainly got my attention.

4. Most people associated to a University in any way have their own little informal version of this list, based on their own personal criteria. Looking at a list like this causes us to re-evaluate. I must admit, my own personal list is far more dominated by American Universities than the list I pointed to, and there’s no way six Australian Universities feature in the top 50. Seeing this list has caused me to ask myself some questions about whether my former evaluation was wrong.

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The Times Higher Education Supplement recently published an interesting set of University Rankings. These are always rather subjective – how do you assign a single number to a University – but interesting nonetheless.

The top ten were Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Princeton and ETH Zurich.

The University of Queensland came in at 49.

The top-ranked Australian University was the Australian National University, at 16.

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Posting referee reports

Update (Nov 6, 2004): Lance Fortnow comments on this issue. Doron Zeilberger has recently independently commented on some related issues, from a rather different point of view. Finally, Seb gives another update.

Seb Paquet posts about the public posting of referee reports on blogs.

I’ve contemplated doing this several tmes in the past, but have held off because I don’t have satisfactory answers to key questions: will this help make referees more accountable? What are the upsdes? What are the downsides?

What do readers think?

On a related note, Cosma Shalizi has posted a whole bunch of his student evaluations online. He has my sincere admiration for posting the first set.

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