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Nature Magazine: Big Data, Environmental Data

[Note: this was cross-posted on Free Government Information]

The Journal Nature has a special issue about "Big Data" with articles by Clifford Lynch, Cory Doctorow, and others. The whole issue is worth reading and is freely available online for a short time.

Coping with floods of data is now one of science's biggest challenges. In this Nature Special, we assess the need to complement smart science with smart searching; look at what the next Google will be; talk to the pioneering biologists who are trying to use wiki-type web pages to manage and interpret data; and recall that the first mass data crunchers were not computers, but the remarkable women of Harvard's Observatory.

In the area of government information, David Goldston, the former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science, writes about environmental data.

He notes that there is no set of environmental indicators that is regularly updated -- something akin to economic statistics -- and that a report by the Heinz Center on the State of the Nation's Ecosystems ( is chock-full of lists of subject and geographical areas for which few if any data exist.

He calls attention to the Data Quality Act, which, "has been anathema to environmental groups, which have seen it as a way to stymie regulation. And it has been primarily invoked by corporations questioning studies that raise alarms about their products." (The act is less than half a page in a public law of more seven hundred pages (Public Law 106-554 Sec. 515; Statutes at Large volume 114, pages 2763A-153 to 2763A-154, available online as plain text and as pdf).

He also says that, "Even when instrumentation is regularly funded, as some kinds of satellites are, money is often lacking to maintain the data or to make them sufficiently accessible or digestible."

Must read: Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is not a librarian, but IS a serious bibliophile. His new book, entitled Library at Night, reflects that love of libraries with a captivating meditation on their meaning and critical role within our larger cultural continuum. According to the Irish Times review, "this volume assembles its reflections in a systematic way, under 15 uniform titles, ranked up like handsome spines, all in a row: The Library as Myth, The Library as Imagination, The Library as Identity, etc. Topics range from an account of the great library at Alexandria (The Library as Myth) to a discussion of the Google book project (The Library as Space), from a consideration of catalogues (The Library as Order) to history of book burnings (The Library as Shadow)." Check out other reviews from And here's a short excerpt published in USA Today:

During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and numbers.

But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. "Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight," noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half- remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle.

Buckminster Fuller Podcast

Fuller GraphicThe Stanford Libraries have sponsored a podcast in the New York Academy of Science's Science in the City series, featuring interviews with the curators of the exhibit Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe. That exhibit is also sponsored by the Stanford Libraries, and features a number of items from our collections.

Saroyan Prize finalists selected

"Thirty books—half fiction, the other half nonfiction—have been selected as finalists for the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Winners in both the fiction and nonfiction categories get a $12,500 prize and will be recognized Sept. 5 during Stanford's Saroyan Centennial celebrations. Jointly awarded by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation, the Saroyan Prize aims to encourage new or emerging writers and honors Saroyan's literary legacy of originality, vitality and stylistic innovation."

--From The Stanford Report

See also:
William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

Stanford's William Saroyan Collection

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