Tagged: cal berkeley

Cal’s Big Data


Catherine Pierre, my boss, likes to tell the story of a conversation she and I had with an astrophysicist a few years ago. I have forgotten most of the details, but at one point he mentioned how much information one group of scientists was gathering about the universe, and I spontaneously exclaimed, “Man, talk about a data set!” Pierre takes undue delight in offering this up to appreciative listeners as an example of my nerdiness.

So there was no chance of my passing up California‘sRiding the iBomb: Life in the Age of Exploding Information.” Written by executive editor Pat Joseph, it’s an 11-page spread in the feature well plus a jump, and Joseph had me the whole way.

When you write about something with the potential for aridity of Big Data, you are well advised to pull some wit from your toolbox. Joseph has a smooth way with droll allusion:

Futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, but the lament is as old as the Bible. I hear it echoing in my ears whenever I walk into Moe’s Books or the Doe Library: “Of making many books there is no end.” That goes more than double for blog posts and tweets and—God help us—Buzzfeed lists, the dreaded “listicles.” With apologies to Ecclesiastes, the current info glut really is something new under the Sun.

Joseph offers the most astute explanation of Moore’s Law that I have come across recently:

The engine of this acceleration is described by Moore’s Law, which is not really a law so much as an astoundingly accurate prediction. Intel cofounder and Berkeley alum Gordon Moore made the offhand observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every two years and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And so it has (growing even faster, doubling every 18 months or so), with the concomitant effect that computing has become not only faster but cheaper. In that way, Moore’s Law also helps to explain why most of our electronic gadgets seem to obsolesce overnight.

I was arrested by Joseph’s use of “obsolesce.” Write “obsolesce” instead of the common “become obsolete” and you reveal yourself as a writer attentive to language, which Joseph is, and not just in his prose but in his reporting. Joseph confirms this a bit later in the piece:

The watchword around campus now, much favored over Big Data, which is looked upon as hype-fueled and faddish, is “data-driven discovery.” Faculty members also speak of bringing a “computational lens” to research problems.

There’s a lot of righteous prose here. Joseph has a knack for clarification:

In an interview before he died, Peter Lyman drove home a similar distinction, between information and meaning. Referring to the aforementioned study he conducted with I-school colleague Hal Varian, Lyman said: “All we tried to measure in figuring out how much information is produced was how much storage it would take to hold it all. What we didn’t address is what makes information valuable…. There’s a real gap between the amount of information we store and the amount of information we know how to use.… So in a sense, most of it is noise.”

Filtering the signal from the noise is the principle challenge for all Big Data enterprises, whether it’s astronomers searching for supernovae in raster scans of the night sky, or agents at the NSA listening for whispered hints of terror plots in the vastness of global communications. Big Data is just the haystack; we still have to find the needle. Scratch that. Increasingly, it’s our computers, running what are called inferential algorithms, that have to find it. Our job now is to verify that what is found is, in fact, a needle and not, say, a pin, or a nail, or a piece of hay.


I could go on, but go read the piece yourself. You’ll be rewarded. Last thing: California makes clever use of footnotes in the story. Yeah, footnotes. Joseph scatters them throughout his piece—they are contained in boxes on the pages—and they provide one more opportunity for lively writing. For example:

I should confess here that I’ve assembled much of the information for this article in precisely this way and, that, often as not, my starting point was Wikipedia. No doubt this admission will arouse suspicions, maybe even disdain, in some readers. Perhaps that’s as it should be. As George Dyson’s father, Freeman Dyson, wrote: “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.”

All right, that’s enough. Go read it.


UMag inbox

I am tempted to call Denison Magazine the best alumni magazine in North America. I hesitate only because the field varies so widely, making comparisons too dodgy to stand up to much scrutiny. Denison, Harvard, The Penn Stater, and CAM all are excellent alumni magazines, but serve such different reader constituencies and different institutions that stating one is better than the other ends up being pretty silly. But I will say this. We now receive about 200 alumni magazines here at the UMagazinology Galactic Compound and Undisclosed Location, and for the past year, the one I consistently look forward to the most is the one put out by Maureen Harmon and her talented crew.

The Fall 2012 edition does not disappoint. As everyone should know by now, Denison does this great thing with its cover “story,” making it a graphic feature that starts on the cover, continues on the inside front cover and the first five pages of the magazine, and uses the back cover, too.  This time, the magazine recognizes that the theme for campus programming this academic year is “creativity and courage.” The magazine hired illustrator Peter Arkle to draw the ensuing six-page spread. (As always, click to enlarge the images.) The result was a sort of creative artist’s notebook recording dozens of examples of courage and creativity, everything from the serious—Desmond Tutu, Manal al-Sharif, ancient Athenians dreaming up democracy, Pussy Riot standing up to Putin—and the not-so-serious—“A woman adds red pepper to her grandmother’s spaghetti sauce recipe.”

The editorial content in the rest of the magazine is first rate, as usual. What a great issue.

Michelle M. Simmons, editor at Dickinson, has had a little work done. On her magazine, I mean. The Fall 2012 issue debuted a redesign by Landesberg Design (which has also done design work for Kenyon and Oberlin print material), and gave me an excuse for more scannerfest. Below, old cover on left, new cover on right.

There’s much to like with the new design. What stands out to me is the typography. Here is the table of contents, for example:

Great feature spread (for a story about getting and holding a job in contemporary journalism, God forbid):

And I really like this one:

While I’m indulging myself with another scannerfest, here’s a nice spread from Berkeley Engineer explaining the use of nanoparticles to deliver drugs directly to tumors. Jason Lee did the illustration. Karen Rhodes edits the magazine.

Finally, there’s some sort of strange gang sign business going on at the University of Kentucky. Thanks to Kentucky Alumni (Kelli Elam, editor) for bringing it to light. Word of caution: In Baltimore, this kind of thing gets you shot.

Eight Questions for Wendy Miller

Wendy Miller, editor of the excellent California out of Cal Berkeley, responds to the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

Three years and six weeks.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

Managing my time effectively. After 25 years of riding the adrenaline rush of daily newspaper journalism, I suddenly found myself with bi-monthly magazine deadlines, which then became quarterly deadlines. It was both a gift and a burden, like being a 5-year-old who gets her allowance in a monthly chunk and is expected to spend it judiciously. There was so much time, until there wasn’t. Now I grasp that I need to work far in advance on more than just the conceptual frame of each issue. Which, more or less, puts me back where I started: being agitated all the time.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Working with a small team of exceedingly gifted colleagues.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

California magazine is in an alternate universe. We serve UC Berkeley but we operate under the auspices of the non-profit Cal Alumni Association. CAA is the only independent alumni organization in the University of California system, thus the magazine is the only editorially independent alumni magazine in the system. The benefits to us are enormous: We have a generous and supportive benefactor and a mandate to produce a general interest magazine that covers issues in a broad context, challenges certain institutional assumptions, and asks questions we believe an enlightened readership expects us to ask about the nation’s premiere public university. The downside is that because we are not a pure fundraising or marketing vehicle for UC Berkeley, we don’t get the recognition from the university administration that we have earned. It is particularly frustrating to us because we think there is no better fundraising and marketing tool than a high-quality, general interest magazine.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

“Sather Gate,” the segment dedicated to the university and to the alumni association, is not as well integrated into the rest of the magazine as I would like. We have made it much better over the last two years, but we still need to make improvements in creating a seamless transition from the feature well.

What story are you proudest to have published?

That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child. I like different stories for different reasons. But since we are putting out a quarterly magazine, I guess the ones that I am proudest of are those that are richly layered and feel relevant and timely. Joe Brown accomplished that in the piece “Econo-Art” in our Winter issue. The imploding economy forced the Berkeley Art Museum to abandon a much-ballyhooed blueprint for a destination building and replace it with a more affordable plan. A simple “Tale of two Museums” would have been a perfectly good feature all on its own, but Joe placed that event in the broader context of cities all over the country who responded to the go-go economy with plans for, as he put it, “stately pleasure domes and cutting-edge structural showcases.” Good stuff.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Adam Gopnik (whose sister, Alison Gopnik, is a professor here, so I can still dream).

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

As a developmental psychologist working in a baby lab. Maybe after he does the piece for us, Adam could put in a good word for me with Alison.