Category Archives: journalism

A profile of Sigrid Close and her work on ‘space dust’

A lot of the writing I’ve done in the last few months – white papers, case studies, marketing copy – hasn’t found its way online or hasn’t been under my byline, so I’ve not linked to it.

But here’s a profile that was just published. It’s about the work of Stanford Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Sigrid Close. I started working on it almost a year ago, but it got delayed for a variety of reasons. I’m glad to see it up – and amazed by the number of projects that Sigrid has going on. I didn’t even mention them all.

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Bioengineer Stephen Quake profiled

I’ve been enjoying the chance to write about faculty in Stanford’s School of Engineering recently. My latest effort profiles Stephen Quake, winner of this year’s MIT Lemelson-MIT Prize.

At just 43, Quake has already made an extraordinary number of major breakthroughs in applying measurement to biological phenomena.

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Profile of Stanford chemical engineering prof. Channing Robertson

Here’s a profile that I put together for the Stanford School of Engineering on Channing Robertson, emeritus professor of Chemical Engineering. He’s a legendary teacher, former Senior Associate Dean, and was the first engineering faculty member hired by Stanford to focus specifically on the chemistry of life forms. Apart from all that, he’s been involved in some of the most significant legal cases of the last 40 years to touch on issues of chemical and medical engineering.

Amazingly, though, that’s far from his whole story. Thanks to the space constraints we were working with, we had to leave plenty of interesting material on the virtual editing room floor. I hope Professor Robertson gets time to write a memoir in his retirement. It would be a great read.

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Shaping the Cloud

Here’s something I wrote fairly recently for HP Labs about research conducted at their Bristol, UK facility that aims to rethink the underlying structure of Cloud computing.

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Authenticity and the end of online anonymity

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard that asked if it would soon be all-but impossible to be anything other than your true self online.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching.  “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” announces a headline in today’s New York Times. Author Brian Stelter picks out several recent examples of people caught doing something unusual, illegal or embarrassing in public and then being swiftly identified through their online activities and social connections.

Another news item from today — detailing the arrest of an alleged member of the LulzSec hacker collective — suggests that even those who know their way around web anonymity are finding it hard to stay hidden.

Since I wrote the Standard piece, the financial information-sharing website that I featured, called Blippy, has gone under. At the time it looked likely to fail because relatively few people had taken their online self-revelations to the extreme that Blippy required to succeed. I was nevertheless interested in how the tell-all culture upon which Blippy was predicated was growing in strength, a development that I predicted would eventually spark suspicion of those who refused to share.

What I didn’t address was the idea that it’s also becoming ever-easier for one’s behavior, both online and off-, to be revealed even when you had an expectation of anonymity. But if we’ve reached that point too, as the Times article suggests we might have, then the same consequences hold: that we’ll likely feel ever greater pressure to be authentically ourselves whether we’re online or off, and that that pressure might in turn have us modifying our behavior in both spheres.

As I said in the article, “Maybe, as a result, we’ll all be inspired to lead more responsible lives in the future, figuring that since so much about our modern lives is searchable, we might as well just be good instead of worrying about looking good.”

The same caveats also hold, however. To live both publicly and safely requires a system that’s law-abiding, tolerant, open and totally accepting of its critics and malcontents. Unfortunately, that’s not something that our shifting ideas of authenticity and anonymity are likely to make it any easier for us to secure.

 

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A new feature for Stanford magazine

I really like writing for Stanford’s alumni magazine. It always looks great, it’s run by people who know their stuff and, best of all, it takes as its subject the achievements, interests and opinions of people associated with the university. The caliber and size of the institution pretty much guarantee that any story that the bi-monthy commissions will be a pleasure to research and write.

Here’s my most recent article for them. This was an interesting one.  It started out as a straight forward narrative, but then developed into more of a picture story.

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Vanity searching in vain

Tom Foremski has an interesting post this week about the apparent shrinking scale of Google’s search results.

It turns out that searches on his own name are yielding fewer and fewer results over time.  That understandably surprised Foremski since he’s both prolific and widely referenced.

Foremski is mostly concerned with the fact that this is happening.  “Clearly,” he concludes, “the number of results that Google claims is bogus.”

“What’s going on?” he then asks, and his commenters suggest a number of likely explanations in response.

But whatever the reason, Foremski’s observation makes clear that Google search statistics have dubious validity as measures of scale. And yet journalists, myself included, use them all the time as a shorthand way of measuring impact.

Our model is citations. These certainly have validity when measured against complete and comprehensively indexed sets of data. An example would be a full archive of a particular newspaper’s articles.  You can clearly state that a particular word was used, say, in the New York Times x times in 2005 and y times in 2010.

Citations are also important in science where they help measure impact of a researcher’s work. It genuinely means something to say someone is the most cited psychologist, for example, in the world.

Google, I’m sure, doesn’t mind us thinking that it, too, offers a pretty-much complete and comprehensive data set along with a true count of the number of citations in that data set.

But both the comprehensiveness of the set and the reliability of the count seem to be in fairly constant flux.

There’s solace here for Foremski — his vanity search results may not truly measure his reach (and, along with it, his impact) online.

For the rest of us there’s a lesson, too: that we need to swallow the citation counts we find on Google with a healthy dose of salt.  And I guess we need to be looking for new kind of vanity index to use from now on.

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