Citation Needed

I was recently reading a NY Times article about the new gold rush going on in Silicon Valley which included the following statement: "Nationwide unemployment among computer scientists and programmers is higher than in other white-collar professions - around 5 percent". Ok, that seems interesting, and not what I expected, so I wanted a citation.

Years of using Wikipedia has developed a very good set of habbits in actually looking at all the references someone links to in an article. Just because someone writes a thing down, doesn't make it true. In the era of the internet you can't hide behind your endnotes.

So I went trying to find this fact. Maybe they paid the $20 for the IEEE report on unemployment? Though I doubt it for an article that was basically about crazy perqs that were being given. All the freely available pieces of data cited on blogs are from October 2009, 18 months ago. I'm sure that 18 months in no way changed that number. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data that is broken down by job family is older than that, dating back to May 2009. And it doesn't actually address unemployment, but employment. And when it break it down by job family, you start to realize how difficult it would be to figure out those rates anyway. If anyone has a better way to find these numbers, please let me know.

As the NY Times is about to put itself behind a paywall, I'm starting to wonder if one of the lessons old media really needs to learn from new media is heavily footnote. Trust is no longer given to an organization, they've all been too wrong too often. But trust can be given on a piece by piece basis if it has enough supporting material. And providing people good links to good primary sources is really valuable, as an hour on google will attest to. If the NY Times actually started doing that, I'd jump on the digital subscription bandwagon. It's one of the reasons I pay for Ars Technica, they actually spend time getting good citations.

Book Review: Moby Duck

A couple weeks ago I went to a lecture by the author of Moby Duck, Donovan Hohn.  I was interested in this because of a story that I remember reading a few years ago. The story was about a flotilla of 1000 ghost rubber ducks, bleached by the sun, about to invade the coast of the UK.

That story turns out to have been false, part of the growing myth surrounding the Friendly Floatees. Much like the white whale, a figment of the collective imagination.

This book tells the story, as best can be reconstructed, of these toys. They weren't made of rubber, and the ducks only accounted for 1/4 of the toys (lost in the creating of the myths were the turtles, frogs, and beavers).

The story is incredible. In an attempt to find the full lifecycle of these toys Hohn goes up and down the Alaskan coast looking for the toys cast upon the rugged north Pacific beaches. He goes to sea, many times, including joining scientific expeditions looking at the plastic content of the Pacific, meso scale currents in the North Atlantic, and crossing the North West Passage (now possible due to a rise of 5 degrees C at the poles) all exploring the possible tracks these toys could have taken. He even goes to China to find the birth place of these toys, and crosses the Pacific on a container ship not unlike the one the Floatees fell off of.

His style is very much like that of Bill Bryson, though his mind drifts and wanders in a really interesting way that gives you a sense of the drifting and wandering of these toys at sea. It's an incredible lens to look at our Oceans, a largely unexplored part of our earth, the impact we are having on them, as well as the dangers that still lie out to sea.

Highly recommended.

Deaths per Terrawatt Hour

The folks at Next Big Future did an analysis of deaths per unit energy produced back in 2008, which was republished recently due to the media's focus on the Japan reactor.  (There is also a many eyes visualization of the data.) World wide Coal kills 4000 times as many people each year as Nuclear. In the US things are a bit better than world wide, and it's only killing about 1/2 as many as Oil, but it is still a big killer.

I think people are reacting to this safety issue much like they do flying vs. driving. Flying on an airplane is far safer than driving, but if it goes wrong a lot of people all die in one place at one time. The real killer takes us in ones and twos every day in every corner of this country.

(Image courtesy of Seth Godin)

Google Font API

One of my favorite new tools in doing websites is the new Google Font API. Using various hooks that exist in modern browsers, as well as really ancient versions of IE, Google is building a huge library of Open Licensed fonts. With a single css include, you can use any of these on your site, and be assured that the bulk of the internet will see what you see.

My current favorite of the new fonts is Cabin, which I've found works incredibly well on headers. There are now many dozen fonts in their API, and it is growing all the time.

In addition to using them on the web, you can download these fonts for local use. There is also a donate button when you download so you can give some money to the font creator, which will ensure more fonts under open licenses get released. I did this for the author of Cabin, as I love his eye for typography and want to see more of that out there.

With technology like this, HTML 5, brand new releases of Firefox and Internet Explore, the promise of the web a good as native, or even better than native, is really starting to take form. Very cool stuff.

Sobering Comment on Japan Quake

I think the thing we've definitely learned about this is having one of the top 10 earthquakes ever recorded is a really bad thing.

-Chad Orzel

As we discussed many things post the Mid Hudson Astronomy meeting on Tuesday, the earthquake came up, especially some conversations around the nuclear reactors, as our speaker, Chad Orzel, is a physicist. Fortunately generosity seems to be overpowering blame at the moment in helping Japan recover from this act of nature.

Our local public radio station is doing a one day fund drive for relief to Japan. They did this with Katrina and Haiti, and it has become a fabric of WAMC, which I'm proud to support.

You are here

That is Earth and Moon taken from the Messenger probe last year, though it's been wandering the blogosphere this week as Messenger successfully entered Mercury's orbit. It's a little brighter than the Pale Blue Dot, but equally cool.

Quoting from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

Celebrating Female Engineers

Wired magazine has not been know for women on their covers, and when they are, they were somewhat problematic. At least this month, things are different, and they chose a really spectacular female engineer for their cover.

Limor is the creator of Adafruit Industries, and online store / community for DIY open source electronics. She and her team specifically work on simplifying the electronic designs so they are more approachable by the average person with a soldering iron. She's been one of the big proponents and drivers of the current Arduino craze, which is vastly expanding the ranks of the people that can make basic interactive electronics.

I love the callback to Rosie the Riveter, for those gentle readers outside the US.

Weekend hacking... much progress

This was one of the most productive weekends of hacking that I've had in a long time. I finally managed to get all my fixes for the drupal epublish module upstream. And, as a bonus, I wrote a first pass at exporting the data via views because I needed that in order to make the Featured Veggie block on the PFP website work. I'm actually hoping this is going to turn into an epublish 1.6 release before the end of the month.

On the PFP site I completed the last few things I committed to as part of the winter feature additions. This now means that instead of featured programs on the front page, we've got features, promoting columns from our upcoming (or just released) newsletter. I also managed to pull of a bit of a back flip and via the afore mentioned epublish views, figure out what veggie was most recently highlighted in a newsletter. Thus creating the featured veggie box.

The mid-hudson astro site saw a bit of work as well. My lending module is now pretty robust, and ready for review to become an official drupal module. Hopefully it will get some testing over the next month and we can have start transitioning to it come April.

And lastly, I managed to connect up with some of the NY State Senate developers working open government initiatives. Hopefully we can get one of them to come down and give a lecture at MHVLUG, as I think a local talk on open government would be really spectacular.

Making an Impact

Recently the Poughkeepsie Farm Project received a $100,000 grant for the Building Bridges program to attack hunger in the city of Poughkeepsie. This is part of a Department of Agriculture initiative to fund pilot programs and see what works so that they can apply it at a larger level in the US. 10 grants were given, and by all appearances the PFP was the smallest of the organizations that got the grant.

Which made me wonder. My major contribution to the organization has been a revitalized website, which I've been working on for two years. As we were approaching our annual volunteer retreat I dug into the analytics, and not surprisingly there were hits from the Dept of Ag in there. The website was not the reason that we got this grant, Susan Grove is an impressive organizer, and has come up with a great program. But I'm sure it helped.

It helped to show that as an organization we have resources at many levels, including a solid technical backing. It helped because it highlighted the depth and breadth of the programs run by the organization. It helped because it had current information on current programs, and thus showed how high the activity level is. It made an impact by exposing all that is done in the PFP in a way that's easy to see and consume from the outside.

I felt very good that I was part of a team that helped make this happen.