Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fourth Estate?

Today Utah woke up to the news that House Majority Leader Kevin Garn has been keeping a secret.

It seems that 25 years ago he had a little naked hot-tubbing encounter with a young woman. That’s no big deal in itself, but it seems that this woman was a 15-year-old girl at the time, and that Garn was approximately 30, and that she was also his employee, and that he was also married, and that when she threatened to go public during his 2002 campaign for Congress, he paid her $150,000 in hush money. Oh, and after he confessed all this to the Legislature last night, they gave him a standing ovation.

But among all the juicy details of this still-unfolding story, the one that interests me most is this: The Deseret News knew all about it 8 years ago, and never printed a word.

Their excuse is that they learned Garn’s secret shortly before the primary election in which he was defeated. They didn’t want to print something so inflammatory right before the election, when voters might not have time to hear and absorb all sides of the story. And after the election it wasn’t newsworthy because he was no longer a candidate or office holder.

They may have been right about not publishing before the election. Depends on how close to Election Day it was, and exactly how much information they had at that time. But there’s no excuse for their suppressing the story even after the election. Garn had then served in the Legislature for 12 years, and a story like this is newsworthy even when it’s about a former legislator or former candidate (just as the John Edwards scandal was newsworthy when it broke). And when Garn joined the Legislature again in 2007, the story became even more newsworthy.

Makes you wonder what else the Deseret News knows that it isn’t telling us.

The behavior of the Deseret News reminds me a lot of how our local Standard-Examiner treats Mayor Godfrey. In his case there have been no sex scandals, but there’s been plenty of lying, cheating, and illegal activity that the Standard-Examiner has done its best to ignore.

When the Press is part of the cover-up, there’s something seriously wrong with our democracy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

iPad Textbooks

I have no immediate plans to buy an iPad, since it can’t replace either my iPhone or my laptop computer. But as a textbook author, I’m intrigued by the iPad’s possibilities as a book platform.

Following a link from the New York Times, I just read a thoughtful blog essay by Craig Mod on the future of printed and digital books. Mod wisely divides book content into two categories: “formless” (which is trivial to port from one delivery platform to another) and “definite” (which is created with a particular platform in mind, using that platform’s physical features in an essential way). Last year’s digital book platforms--Kindles and iPhones--were fine for formless content, and allow us to foresee a day when these kinds of platforms will be common enough to make most mass-market paperback books obsolete. The iPad, according to Mod, changes the picture by opening up new opportunities for digital definite content.

Mod doesn’t specifically mention textbooks, but they’re discussed in the comments below his essay. Electronic textbooks have some obvious advantages: they’re less bulky; their text can be cross-linked and searchable; they can incorporate multimedia content; and they can link to related content on the web. Also, textbooks are so expensive already that the additional cost of an electronic reading device shouldn’t be much of a barrier.

As an author, I’m attracted not only by these advantages but also by the prospect of no longer having to worry about page breaks. Both of my textbooks were created using TeX, a mathematical typesetting system that mostly frees the author from thinking about form. But inevitably, when a book is full of equations and illustrations, one of the last steps before going to press is to manually tweak the layout to minimize awkward page breaks. Even then, there will be many places where students end up flipping a page back and forth to see what’s on both sides. Electronic books on portable devices won’t show as much information at once, but at least they can (if done correctly) present an entire chapter on a single scrollable page, with no artificial discontinuities.

Unfortunately, the technology for good electronic physics textbooks isn’t yet where it needs to be. For one thing, there still doesn’t seem to be a good way to incorporate complex mathematical equations into electronic documents. In html pages, equations are usually rendered as ugly, low-resolution bitmap images. A pdf document can incorporate equations made of scalable fonts, but you can’t (as far as I know) create a pdf without breaking the document into pages.

Another limitation of electronic textbooks is that it’s hard to scribble notes in the margins. Reading a textbook should be an active experience, during which the student frequently jots down thoughts and questions. (When my thermal physics textbook was published, I made sure the publisher gave it wide margins for students to write in.) Perhaps, though, the iPad can help here. With the right software, a reader should be able to add text annotations to a document using the on-screen keyboard. And with the large touch-screen, it should even be possible to add graphical annotations that include math symbols and sketches.

So even though I don’t yet plan to buy an iPad, I’ll be eager to borrow one and check out the iPad book reading experience.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The War Against Science Escalates

Yesterday’s New York Times reports that the anti-evolutionists are joining forces with the global warming deniers. I suppose this was inevitable, as both groups share the common practice of believing what they want to believe, without regard for the facts.

Here in Utah we get a strong dose of anti-science every winter during the legislative session. This year our elected leaders have officially proclaimed that global warming is a hoax. They also introduced a bill requiring the health department to produce a video of the heartbeat of an “unborn child” of three weeks gestational age, despite the fact that at that age an embryo does not have a heart.  (This bill was later modified to add another week, making the health department’s task barely possible.)  If the legislature had political reasons to dislike the law of gravity, they would undoubtedly try to repeal it.

Amidst all this, I recently received the latest Save Our Canyons newsletter, which contains a refreshing essay by SOC President Gale Dick titled “Is Science Just Another Opinion?”. Dick is also a retired physics professor from the University of Utah, so he and I naturally look at a lot of things in the same way. In the essay he insightfully lists possible reasons why so many people reject science:
  • Flaws in our education?
  • Sheer laziness?
  • Fear?
  • The inability of science to explain why so many terrible things happen to us?
  • Distrust of academic scientists who come across as arrogant and elite?
  • Belief that science is the enemy of religion?
  • Cultural aversion to mathematics?
  • Reluctance to accept the limitations that science puts on what is possible?
  • Reluctance to accept the responsibility that comes with scientific knowledge?
There are no simple antidotes to any of these understandable human shortcomings. The only cures are education, hard work, and integrity. All three of these things are part of the difficult process of growing up, when we recognize that we must accept the things we cannot change, work to change the things we can, and inform ourselves well enough to tell the difference.*