Monthly Archives: June 2005

This notion that the private sector ought to automatically have primacy over the public sector

Here’s a news item from Slashdot reporting that the American Chemical Society is pressuring the US government not to make publicly available the results of research payed with taxpayer money. Their rationale is that the government shouldn’t provide what the private sector is already providing, but should be understood as “anything that is hurting us is bad and should be outlawed”.

I am particularly saddened by this due to the fact that when I was actively working as an engineer I was writing software that facilitated the migration from paper to digital for organizations like the American Chemical Society. (I know ACS was a client of the company where I used to work… I just don’t remember whether I actually worked on one of their projects…) While in the business, at times I did have the impression that our clients had interests that were at odds with that of the general public. Now, I’m finding that my impressions were indeed founded.

When those publishers explained their projects to us, it was always for the benefit of students, researchers, teachers, widows and orphans. (Alright, nobody talked about widows and orphans.) In fact, the only benefit they really care about is their own. The benefit of others is taken into account only insofar as self-benefit is directly influenced by it. A particularly flagrant case of this is Questia about which you can read more here.

Housing in Charlottesville

Thursday and yesterday, my wife and I were in Charlottesville looking for housing for me since this coming Fall, I’ll be entering the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies at UVA. I must say it was quite frustrating. Advertisements were often erroneous in a number of annoying ways. There’s one place we visited that announced “washer/dryer: none” but in fact there was a laundry facility in the building. (Because of this mistake, this place turned out better than advertised but there’s no telling how many places I rejected because of erroneous information.) Then there were places for which the addresses they had entered for showing a vicinity map were wrong. The difference between 1309 and 1039 can be enough to put a location out of the running.

Some ads were for places that had already been rented out. I can understand that the timing may just have been bad: maybe I called just after the place had been taken but before the manager had time to remove his listing. However, there were a number of cases that looked fishy: management companies overadvertising in the hope that they’d get more calls. (Why that is advantageous remains a mystery.)

I also had a bit of sticker shock. I expected Charlottesville to be cheaper than Philly but that’s probably some expectation I formed without enough research. I don’t think now that it is cheaper than Philly; rather, prices are probably very much in the same range. In Philly I stayed in a big Victorian house with 6 other students. The house was located in West Philly which actually has a bad reputation due to perceived criminality there. (In 2 years there, I haven’t had a problem.) That might have been enough to make the price lower than average and then I went to Charlottesville with that unrealistic price in my head.

The place I have found in Charlottesville is closer to the university than the place I had in Philly. It is also closer to… hmm… places of interest in general. It is similar to what I had in Philly in that I have my own room but the kitchen, dinning and living room areas are shared with 3 other students. However, I have my own bathroom whereas in Philly I had to share that with 3 other students (there were 2 bathrooms in the house). Due to the rules in place, noise or other disturbances shouldn’t be a problem. I’m just hoping there won’t be personality problems with the other students. In Philly, I was lucky that that was never an issue. I had been thinking of getting my very own apartment but the places that I have had a chance to see all had some problem: the location was bad, too spartan, too big (yes, one of them was too big), too expensive, run down, etc. Getting my own place would have also meant furnishing it, which would have been yet another thing to take care of. Now, I don’t have to think about that.

Anyway, I’ve found a place which will fulfil my needs for a year. After that, I can move.

Un verre à l’américaine

La culture américaine, fortement axée sur la consommation, favorise les grosses portions. Les consommateurs (tout le monde ici est un consommateur) veulent en avoir pour leur argent. Les marchands, donc, proposent des formats de plus en plus grands. Quand je suis allé voir le dernier Star Wars dernièrement, j’ai été surpris de voir la grosseur d’une grande boisson gazeuse: c’est tout simplement gigantesque. Il me semble aussi que “grand” est plus grand qu’avant. Verrons-nous bientôt le jour où ils offriront des tonneaux?

Cette situation qui prévaut dans le commerce s’immisce aussi dans nos maisons. Depuis quelques temps, il m’est difficile de trouver des verres de taille raisonnable dans ma propre maison! Or, ça cause des problèmes quand je veux contrôler ma consommation. Je dois avouer boire trop de cola principalement parce que c’est mon choix. Cependant, ma consommation totale est aussi influencée par la grosseur des verres que j’utilise. Depuis peu, je m’efforce d’utiliser des verres de taille raisonnable plutôt que les gros formats. Ça a eu l’effet de réduire ma consommation. Malheureusement, hier j’étais à la recherche d’un verre raisonnable et faute d’en trouver un qui soit utilisable parmi la foule de verres gigantesques qui occupe notre cuisine, j’ai dû me rendre à l’évidence que nos propres verres, chez nous, sont aussi sujets à l’inflation générale.

Swindling taxi drivers…

Magesh warns his readers of some taxi drivers in Mumbai swindling their clients by switching notes. I’m surprised nobody ever tried to pull this on me in the US given that American paper currency looks pretty much all the same. I mean, the differences between the various notes are not as visible as with Canadian currency, for instance, where notes of different values are of a completely different color. That’s the kind of system I was raised on so when I came to the US, I had to learn to take a good look at what I hand out to cashiers because color was no longer enough to know what I was doing. I know I made a mistake at least once since an honest cashier once returned the money I just gave her while noting my error.

Well, that’s just a good reminder to be on the lookout, no matter where you are because individuals and corporations are after your money and some of them will resort to dishonesty to get it.

"I obtained this distinction legally…"

Aiee! Students are suing to be named valedictorian!. I wonder when we’ll start seeing people suing to get literary and scientific prizes or research grants. I can just imagine: “Physicist sues NSF for wrongful rejection of grant request.” Maybe he can also get his dad to beat up the NSF’s dad while he’s at it.

What we’re talking about are not people suing for gross lack of fairness in the selection process but people who were not able to clearly get ahead of the other students, that were actually in a tie or even scored a little lower than other students, and in the end had to rely on lawsuits to get things to go their way. I’ve been in the position of being ranked second by a process that involved some arbitrariness and, yes, it’s disapointing and sometimes you’ve got to wonder about the fairness of the system (and that opens a big can of worms) but I must say that I don’t find the decision of launching a legal battle particularly endearing. Especially for an honor as useless as valedictorian.

A dubious way to lose weight

According to this article, some researchers have found that laughing can help lose weight. Isn’t this another variation of the general rule that doing any kind of physical activity is better than not doing anything if one wants to lose weight? Is anyone surprised? Anyway, I certainly lost some weight as I was reading that article. And for those getting excited at the prospect of losing weight through laughter, the article states:

Physiology experts say it’s not exactly an effective way to shed extra weight — but the idea is worth a laugh or two.

The rise of the publishing gazelles

Larry Lessig points out the case of the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) in South Africa. They offer content for free on the net, and we’re talking about complete books here, but also offer print versions for those who want it. Apparently, making their books available for free has increased the sales of the printed versions.

Unfortunately, the HSRC does not seem to offer books directly related to my research interests. If it did however, its authors would benefit from an advantage of visibility over those of their colleagues that are not available for free on the web. I’m speaking intuitively here, but I think plain visibility is half the battle when it comes to ensure the propagation of one’s research (the other half being the quality of the work itself). If no one sees a treatise, no one will read it. The harder it is to get – because it costs money to obtain, because forms must be filled to get it, because it requires a trip to the library, etc – the less visible it is.

The gazelles are rising, are the dinosaurs taking notice?