Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Liberal" Indeed

I recently picked up a copy of Liberal Fascism from an airport bookstore. I'd intended to read it for some time, but never got around to it. Now that I'm starting it . . . this book terrifies me.

Goldberg ends his introduction by settling on a definition for "fascism," which is apparently much more complicated than you would think. As much as the term gets thrown around by hot-headed political junkies (and politicians), most people never really explain what they mean when they say it. The definition Goldberg uses encompasses a lot of progressive movements, both at home and abroad. I've only read through the chapters on Mussolini and the Italian Fascists (with a capital 'F'), Hitler and his National Socialists, and the Woodrow Wilson / Teddy Roosevelt era. I never knew much about Wilson, but now that I read some of the things he wrote and said . . . the man would have been a dictator had he been given the chance.

Anyhow, what's starting to spook me is the degree of similarity between Obama, his presidency, and these fascist movements of the past. The rhetoric, the reasoning, the nature of the popular support, the direction of government . . . a lot of it looks very familiar to those who know what to look for.

I often hear how "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." It's a shame nobody ever applies this to the pedigree of the philosophy and ideas being sold to them by politicians and movements.

Monday, June 01, 2009

See figure 1

One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is that your text book(s) is/are as valuable as a paperweight. At least in the hard sciences, the field tends to move fast enough that, by the time a text book is published, the information within is either incomplete or inaccurate. Consequently, you'll spend more time reading the relevant journals for your field than any text book, and new information is introduced through review articles.

The long preface is only to introduce Shamus's post on the problems he encounters in the tech world, writing support documents and other technical documentation. Though many of his examples are angled towards programming or coding languages, the general principles are by no means unique to his field.

I find often that the scientific literature suffers from the problems Shamus describes: No explanation of technical terms, assuming a higher level of knowledge on the part of readers than is warranted, assuming a high level of knowledge in related (or not) fields, over-complicated examples, building too steep a learning curve, and so on. One problem that is more unique to this field is the use of self-serving examples. That is, all of the "relevant" work referenced by the author of a review is to his (or their) own work in the field. While this might be appropriate if you're one of a handful of people who actually study the topic at hand, it usually gives only a narrow impression of the work being done in the field, and thus not appropriate for a "review."

One idea that Shamus introduced that I would love to see implemented more fully in the scientific journals is better use of the electronic medium. Everything that is published on paper also is published online as a PDF. Journals like Science usually affix a "title" page to it, with links to the supplemental material on the web (additional figures, movies, and whatever else the authors considered important enough to include but not critical enough to warrant space in the paper). However, taking this further would be an incredible step in bringing science into the age of the internet.

In a review article, what if certain terms or phrases were hyperlinks to either a "dictionary" of terms or to futher review articles on the specific topic? What if the citations at the end of the paper were themselves hyperlinks which would take you to the reference? What if each of the authors' names were hyperlinks to other articles they have published? When a technique is not fully explained by said to be done "as previously described," either link to where it was described or to a database which explains the principles such techniques.

While I realize this might seem like a lot of work to put into a simple PDF journal article, this would be insanely useful to all sorts of people. And these are just the hasty suggestions of a graduate student . . . I'd love to see what sorts of suggestions actual experts might come up with.