Fun piece on the second coming of scurvy

(via Natalie Dee)

There’s a good chance that, like me, you get a kick out of reading about explorers. There is probably less chance, however, that you share my opinion—my generals committee is sick of hearing this—that late 19th/early 20th century explorations, including those that ended in the deaths of some or all of the protagonists, are best understood as farce, rather than as tragedy.*

My opinion has only been strengthened by learning that scurvy—far from being “conquered” at the end of the eighteenth century—had a “second coming” at the end of the nineteenth. A post on a blog called “Idle Words” has an entertaining explanation of why.

Happily, the author’s analysis of how knowledge is lost is almost always genuinely subtle: “It was not clear which results were the anomalous ones that needed explaining away.” On occasion it is more subtle than his analysis of how it is gained (“With a simple animal model for the disease in hand, it became a matter of running the correct experiments”).

But howlers are few and far between. The piece is well worth taking the time to read.

*A post unto itself, to be written sooner or later.

Professionalization in the academy, or why Xaq is never going to graduate

Check out this article by Louis Menand in Harvard Magazine discussing the problems with never-ending PhDs. and control of professionalization in the academy.

I sent it to Susan for her thoughts. My sense is that his reasoning is not so innovative… very Weberian up to a point, but does not explain how professions come upon their social authority (a process which does open them up to outside scrutiny). But it is a nice example of the perennial gripe that we academics are a bunch of spoiled, self-interested good-for-nothings.

Food for thought:
“Weirdly, the less social authority a profession enjoys, the more restrictive the barriers to entry and the more rigid the process of producing new producers tend to become. You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years. And the more self-limiting the profession, the harder it is to acquire the credential and enter into practice, and the tighter the identification between the individual practitioner and the discipline.”

… and …:

“A national conversation about the condition and future of the Ph.D. has been going on for about 10 years. The conversation has been greatly helped by two major studies: “Re-envisioning the Ph.D.,” which was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, and “Ph.D.s—Ten Years Later,” which was carried out at Berkeley. Both studies identified roughly the same areas where the investigators thought that reform is desirable in doctoral education. These are: interdisciplinarity, practical training, and time to degree.”

Science and Technology in the Museum Environment

This course explores the place and significance of science and technology within museum cultures, past and present. The course explicitly juxtaposes (holds in creative tension) perspectives on science and technology in the museum environment from two different sources: ‘external’ (broadly speaking, cultural studies, STS); and ‘internal’ (broadly speaking, collections- and communications-related museum studies). By contrasting perspectives on key issues from these two different directions, the course explores ways in which STS scholarship can be more or less relevant to professional museum practice. Key issues to be dealt with in this way include: the nature and origins of the modern museum; museums and the material culture of science and technology; the rhetorical character of museum displays; and museums as places for learning and social exchange about science and technology. Students review recent work in museum studies as it relates specifically to science, medicine, and technology; review a major gallery or exhibition locally; and have an opportunity to participate in a communications-related research project in the MIT Museum.

The course is built around the twin pillars of weekly readings and discussions on the one side, and a range of experiential and hands-on activities and projects on the other. In the first half of the semester, two visits will be arranged to science museums in the locality (the Boston Museum of Science, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History), and students will be asked to write a critical review of a science exhibition of their choice. In the second half of the semester, students will be offered the opportunity, individually and as a group, to immerse themselves in a real-world exhibition project, by participating in research designed to develop a new public science gallery based at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. As work proceeds, students will keep personal blogs that allow them to reflect upon their own practice in light of the analytical and critical perspectives provided by the course.

Prof John Durant
Mondays 1-4pm in 66-148
starting September 14th


TR5 (i.e. the HASTS student happy hour) will be held at the Warehouse grad residence at 5 PM on Thursday.  If the weather is nice we will be back on the roof deck trying to finish off the leftovers from the BBQ.  If it is raining or cold come to my apartment instead (#289).   BYOB

Address: 224 Albany St.
Time: Thursday 5 PM

Please RSVP so I can leave your name with the front desk

Hope to see you all there


Survey on scientists and everyone else

Okay, the “everyone else” is me talking, not the survey, but the results are interesting and continue to propagate a sharp distinction between those called to the vocation and those in the “lay.”

A survey by the Pew Research Center compares views held by “scientists” and “engineers” versus “non-scientists” and, presumably, “non-engineers,” a category of people also known as “the public.” Aside from the fact that scientists and engineers are not considered part of the public for purposes of the survey (Will there ever be a role for public intellectuals in this country? Probably not.), some of the results are interesting.

And while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, members of the general public are far less sure.

Almost a third say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half agree that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent do not believe there is any warming at all.

According to the survey, about a third of Americans think there is lively scientific debate on both topics; in fact, there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution and there is little doubt that human activity is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that threaten global climate.

Also, scientists don’t really hold much esteem for non-scientists.

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations.

Here is the New York Times article, and here is the survey itself.

Thanks to Peter Shulman’s facebook updates for alerting me to this.

Native speech recognition software for Mac users, finally.

Some of us have been using speech recognition programs as a fast way to transcribe interviews.  You listen to your interviews on head phones while speaking them back into a microphone. The program converts your words to text. It works.

The biggest caveat is that speech recognition on Windows is much much much better than on a Mac.  So if you run a Mac, then you find yourself at a disadvantage.  But I recently purchased MacSpeech Dictate 1.5, a native Mac application, and I’m pleased to say that this program is unbelievably accurate.

I began my foray into speech recognition in 2004 with IBM’s ViaVoice, using it to take notes while I read for my general exams. It was very handy to be able to dictate notes without putting down the book I was reading.  But the software was not accurate enough to compose a research paper on. The next speech recognition program I tried, MacSpeech iListen, was an improvement over ViaVoice. However, it still lacked the accuracy necessary to compose a research paper.  It made enough mistakes that correcting them completely interrupted my train of thought.

I became disillusioned with speech recognition.  But the real issue, I discovered, was not in the state of the art for speech recognition in general, but instead that speech recognition programs for Macs lagged behind their PC counterparts. All the while that I was struggling with ViaVoice and iListen, Windows users were able to take advantage of a Windows only program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking that worked a whole lot better. The difference with NaturallySpeaking is in the engine it uses to recognize speech. NaturallySpeaking used a very advanced speech recognition engine, while iListen used a less advanced version.  No matter how hard you “trained” iListen to recognize your voice, in other words, it was a fundamentally weaker piece of software.

When Dragon released NaturallySpeaking 10 last year, the difference between Mac and PC options was so huge that the only real solution for Mac users was to install Windows on their Mac, either with VMware or Boot Camp, and then run the Windows only NaturallySpeaking. This was not an ideal solution for several reasons. The first, of course, was that you had to run Windows on your Mac. For many of us, the reason that we use a Mac is so we don’t have to touch Windows with a 10 foot pole. Beyond a desire not to support monopolistic and preditory business practices, running Windows opened your Mac to viruses to which it had previously been immune. On top of that, you needed to buy a windows license, and the Boot Camp solution required that you reboot your computer to run NaturallySpeaking, while the VMware solution required that you buy virtualization software.

Finally, however, MacSpeech abandoned their iListen program and licensed the speech recognition engine found in Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The result is a Mac native version of Dragon.

Finally it’s possible for Mac users to use speech recognition that actually works.

I’m using MacSpeech Dictate 1.5 right now, and so far it’s made only one or two errors in this entire blog post. Compared to the other speech recognition programs that I’ve used, it’s really a gigantic improvement. It is an investment, however. At $199, it is more expensive than the cheapest version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. But when you take into account the cost of having to purchase Windows and VMware, it comes out ahead.

A few words of warning, however:

First, Dictate 1.5 is substantially different than the versions of Dictate that preceded it (again, this is because of improvements in the speech recognition engine).  So avoid older versions of Dictate. But because Dictate 1.5 only just came out at the end of May, a lot of stores still don’t have it. The only place that you can be sure that you’re getting the latest version is from the MacSpeech online store ( and the Mac store, for instance, still stock the depreciated version.

Secondly, Dictate 1.5 requires Mac OS 10.5.  This may mean you have to update your operating system to use Dictate 1.5 (which adds about $100 to the total price — although this is still cheaper than buying VMware and Windows).

Thirdly, and this will likely apply to only a few people, Dictate 1.5 does not work with NeoOffice, an open source word processor and office suite for Mac.  Until recently, NeoOffice was one of the few open source choices for word processing on the Mac. The reason for this was that OpenOffice, the leading open source office suite, could not use the native Mac windowing system. However, fans of open source applications need not worry, since OpenOffice has solved these compatibility issues. And Dictate 1.5 works with OpenOffice.  Since NeoOffice and OpenOffice use the same file format, switching is easy.

Overall, the fact that effective and accurate speech recognition is finally available for the Macintosh makes Dictate 1.5 completely worth it.

As I keep using the software, I’ll update this with added impressions.


FYI – NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant for STS is due on August 1st.

There are rumors floating around that NSF is flush with money (economic stimulus package trickle down). I guess I’ll now put them to the test, seeing if they want to give me several thousand dollars to spend time in the deserts of Utah, Chile, and Idaho (well, not a desert there), imagining with scientists and enthusiasts what it would be like to be on a different planet. I can’t wait to write the ‘broader impacts’ section.