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Archive for December, 2010

[2b2k] Citizen scientists

Alex Wright has an excellent article in the New York Times today about the great work being done by citizen scientists. (Alex follows up in his blog with some more worthy citizen science efforts.)

Alex, who I met a few years ago at a conference because we had written books on similar topics — his excellent Glut and my Everything Is Miscellaneous — quotes me a couple of times in the article. The first time, I say that the people who are gathering data and classifying images “are not doing the work of scientists.” Some in the comments have understandably taken issue with that characterization. It’s something I deal with at some length in Too Big to Know. Because of the curtness of the comment, it could easily be taken as dismissive, which was not my intent; these volunteers are making a real contribution, as Alex’s article documents. But, in many of the projects Alex discusses (and that I discuss in my manuscript), the volunteers are doing work for which they need no scientific training. They are doing the work of science — gathering data certainly counts — but not the work of scientists. But that’s what makes it such an exciting time: You don’t need a degree or even training beyond the instructions on a Web page, and you can be part of a collective effort that advances science. (Commenter kc I think makes a good argument against my position on this.)

FWIW, the origins of my participation in the article were a discussion with Alex about why in this age of the amateur it’s so hard to find the sort of serious leap in scientific thinking coming from amateurs. Amateurs drove science more in the 19th century than now. Of course, that’s not an apple to apples comparison because of the professionalization of science in the 20th century. Also, so much of basic science now requires access to equipment far too expensive for amateurs. (Although that’s scarily not the case for gene sequencers.)

Ordering your video store

Roger Beebe has posted a fascinating, polemical explanation of the thinking behind the way he physically arranged his Gainesville, Florida video store. He takes educating his visitors as an obligation of the layout. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s a pedagogy to this arrangement, and it’s clearly making a case for a certain kind of engagement with the cinema and with film history. The prevailing first-order logic is one of national cinemas as a way of thinking about large groups of films together. Within those national cinemas, there’s a decidedly auteurist bent, privileging works by significant directors (toward the start of each section) followed by non-auteurist works from those regions. US films get further important subdivisions based on the mode of production and circulation; they are subdivided into Sub-indie (underground, avant garde, etc.), Independent (following the standard nomenclature of that fraught area), and Hollywood. Hollywood is then subdivided further between auteurist works (with a breakdown stretching from Woody Allen to Robert Zemeckis) and non-auteurist works that are then subdivided by genre.

An additional strategy—and this may be more ideological than pedagogical—is the arrangement of sections from the front of the store to the rear. The store has a narrow central corridor with small alcoves of videos along each side. We consciously front-loaded the store with documentaries on one side and our Sub-indie section on the other. The more mainstream Hollywood fare is pushed much further back in the store, forcing anyone seeking out those titles to run the gauntlet past all of these alternative cinemas.

Roger makes reference to Everything Is Miscellaneous throughout, a book about which he has at best mixed feelings. He understandably takes it as an unabashed, “boosterish” argument in favor of the multiple categorizations and sortings that the digitizing and networking of information enables. But, I disagree with part of his interpretation of the book. I did not intend to argue against careful organization of physical goods (the prologue waxes enthusiastic about Staples’ store layout) or against the value of expertly curated collections. Rather, we benefit on the Web from having expert curations as well as curations by multiple, multiple experts, both professional and amateur. Mortimer Adler’s Great Books would have been a welcome addition to the Web, but it would have been only one of many “playlists.” The fact that Adler’s list would have had to compete with those of UnNamed_Teenager at Amazon is a serious problem on the Net, but it’s balanced by the unavoidable harm done during the Reign of Paper by the impact Adler’s list had on which books were actually printed and placed in libraries.

Of course, I’m responsible for not having communicated my intentions adequately.

Boston Public Library has 15,827 photos on Flickr

The Boston Public Library has put 15,827 photos into Flickr, using the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses possible. Tom Blake, the Digital Projects Manager at the BPL reports “he images on our Flickr account have been viewed collectively over 1.6 million times since we launched the account in March of 2008.”

The photos I dipped into were well marked up with metadata, and tagged. (Their new collection is called “Misc.” :) Some great stuff there. E.g., if you’re interested in the early Red Sox, try these. Or stereopticon images.

[the next day:] Jon Udell, in a tweet [twitter: judell], points to Keene Public Library’s recent Flickr uploadingg. ” KPL nicely models photo curation,” Jon tweets.