Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dumb Monday

Monday seemed to be a day for dumbness. I spent a good part of the afternoon doing some work with Mathematica, a computer algebra program. I hadn't worked with mathematica for around 8 years. It took me quite some time to re-figure out some "code" that I had written before, and I spent far too long wrestling with some really clumsy output functions. I wanted to repeat and extend some calculations that I did in my dissertation. So I printed out the relevant pages and read them over, and within one minute noticed two typos. They weren't substantial. But still. Arg.

Then, I thought I had finished all the runs necessary for the data for a plot for a paper that I'm trying to finish up this week. So I thought I'd make some nice-looking plots. But when I made the plot it had a huge gap in it; I hadn't actually done all the runs I needed. So I set a bunch more jobs running. It'll take less than half a day to run, so it's not a big deal.

And then, after dinner I bought a 2CD set at a used CD place. When I returned to my office and opened it, I discovered that there was only one CD in it. Arg. I will return it today.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why Chillout??

I don't understand the sub-genre of electronica referred to as "chillout." There's a radio station here in Santa Fe devoted to chillout. And there's a sirius radio station devoted "chillout" music, too. The place I'm staying at has sirius, and so I've been listening some.

A few days ago I realized that I have had enough chillout. I'm increasingly feeling that chillout is another way of saying "techno that sucks." I imagine a producer making a track and it doesn't come out so good. It's not energetic enough to be trance or techno, not funky enough for house. It's the sort of thing that goes well with weak chamomile tea, not redbull. No one would want to dance or even move rhythmically upon listening to it. Delete the track and start over? Nope. It can be a chillout track and can be put on some crappy chilled compilation.

On the sirius "chill channel" yesterday I heard an absolutely dreadful chilled/acoustic version of modern English's "I'll stop the world and melt with you." Why? This should be illegal. What's wrong with people?

A few years ago I got a Hed Kandi Winter Chill compilation that was pretty good. Well, at least it wasn't bad. Each CD had maybe two really nice tracks, and the rest were boring background music. Perhaps these several tracks fooled me, or unreasonably raised my expectations, and led me to believe that something good could come from chillout. Now I'm not so sure. I never had much of a relationship with chillout, but whatever it was, it's over now.

I have nothing against the idea of chillout or downtempo. For example, the Back to Mine series, which is mostly downtempo stuff, is really good. Groove Armada's Back to Mine is awesome. But I think that anything that calls itself chillout is destined to suck.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Some stuff I've been up to

1. Over the past week or so I made a bunch of fairly minor edits to my lectures notes from the Complex System Summer School (CSSS). I have a hard time proclaiming a piece of writing done. But ... let's say that these are now finished, at least until I start revising them for the 2006 CSSS.

2. Speaking of the 2006 CSSS, I read around 50 applications last week. There are around a dozen other readers; each file gets read by three people. March 1 we'll pull together all the reviewers' rankings and start making decisions about who to admit. It will be difficult; I've been quite impressed with the applications thus far.

3. I figured out a nice argument for why the high-entropy behavior of a complexity-entropy plot for the 2d nearest-neighbor Ising model is linear. It's not anything too deep. But it's nice to feel like I figured something out -- it's a different sort of satisfaction than writing memos and emails, which seems to be a large fraction of my work these days.

4. I've been listening to The Saxon Shore lately. "The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore" is one of the CDs I brought with me. It's got a confidently melancholy sound that I like a lot. (Yes, I still carry around CDs. I don't have an mp3 player. )

5. I've watched some of the Olympic men's hockey, and I've found myself rooting against both the Americans and the Canadians. I often root against the U.S. in various international competitions. But I usually pull for Canadians. I don't really understand why I've shifted to rooting against the Canadians, but I've decided to not analyze it too much and just roll with it. So I was pleased that both the US and Canada lost their quarter-final games.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Santa Fe Institute

I've spent the last week at the Santa Fe Institute. I'll be here for two additional weeks before returning to Maine. The main purpose of my visit is to help plan the Complex Systems Summer School. I'm serving as the co-director of the school in July this summer. A good portion of last week was spent working on a grant to the NSF that would provide travel support for US grad students who attend the school. We submitted it on Friday. We're now beginning the process of reading applicant files and making decisions on who we'll admit.

The last few days I've been sitting in on a number of the talks associated with a workshop on the evolution of inequality that was held here. All of the talks were interesting, and a few were quite extraordinary. The workshop was quite small, so I got to spend quite a bit of time talking with the presenters.

Thus far, my visit to SFI has been great. I hadn't been here for a couple of years and its very good to be back. I'm looking forward to my next two weeks here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Departing Davis

Friday I left Davis. I'll be back in June, or possibly December, or conceivably even August. Not sure exactly when, but definitely sometime fairly soon.

My visit went well and was productive and fun. I was pleased with the talk I gave on Wednesday. As is always the case, I thought of a lot of things I could have done differently or explained better. But the audience seemed to get the main point and there were good questions throughout the talk, so I think it went well. Five of my former professors from the physics department came to the seminar; it sounds corny, but I was quite touched that they came.

Spending time in Davis after having basically been away since I finished grad school in 1998 was quite interesting. The city has grown some, as has the university. But from what I can tell, the feel of the town is the same. It's still an extremely pleasant place, and there seem to be a few more restaurants around town, which is nice.

Overall, Davis has a bit of a fairytale feel to it. It's almost too pleasant and cute and precious at time. When I was living there, this sometimes annoyed me. But now I find it rather endearing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Statistics Invasion

My office here in the Mathematical Sciences Building was just invaded by statisticians. (My office is large with a number of cubicles and a big table in the middle and a nice whiteboard.) Five students and a professor just walked in and started doing a stats problem. The prof is at the board helping students with a homework problem. It's quite bizarre. It looks like a reasonably advanced stats class. One of the students just corrected a small error that the prof made. The prof seems like a very nice guy, even if he does think that he can commandeer my office in the name of statistics. Does he not have a blackboard in his office that he can use? Isn't there a blackboard in the hall? This is a Mathematical Sciences building -- there ought to be blackboards and whiteboards everywhere.

Maybe this is what we get for keeping our office door open on a floor that is shared with the statistics department.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Talk Preparation

I'm back at UC Davis. The weather is warm and pleasant -- a nice change from Maine. I'm currently preparing for a talk about Complexity-Entropy diagrams that I'm giving on Wednesday as part of the Science of Complex Systems Seminar. I'm looking forward to it, although I've got a bunch of preparation to do before Wednesday.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Journal Pricing

In a previous entry I wrote some about the nuts and bolts of academic journals. I also promised that I'd write a series of entries on this topic. Alas, I'm far behind the schedule I imagined for myself when I made that first entry. So, to try and get myself back on track, here are some thoughts on journal pricing.

The question I ended with last time, was: How much do journals cost, and how much should they cost? Most journals charge different rates for libraries and individuals. I'll focus on library subscription rates. Let's start with two journals that I've been thinking about lately.

  1. Physical Review E (PRE), a physics journal that covers statistical, nonlinear, and biological and soft-matter physics. I've published a few articles in here.

  2. The Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB), which is, as the name suggests, mainly about theoretical biology. I've never published there, but I was recently asked to referee and article for them.

The table below shows some various data for each journal. At first blush, both journals seem to be cost about the same. However, PRE publishes many more pages than JTB. If one calculates the cost per page, PRE turns out to be a relative bargain. JTB costs three times more per page than PRE.

Journal NamePhysical Review EJ. Theoretical Biology
Institutional Cost per year$4,315$4,085
Total number of pages published (year)19,097 (2004)2,724 (2005)
Price per page$0.226$0.667

(Note: PRE charges different rates to different sized institution. The rate I've shown above is the most expensive rate corresponding to the largest institution. Their least expensive rate is $2,795.)

One question that immediately jumps to mind when looking at this table is: Why are the two journals priced so differently? One journal costs three times more than the other. This is pretty remarkable; imagine going to the store and finding that one brand of milk costs three times as much as another brand. This would be strange. It might make you suspect that there must be something fundamentally better about the three-times-as-expensive milk.

So, is there something fundamentally better about JTB? Nope. Not so far as I can tell. The average article quality might be slightly higher in JTB than PRE, but I doubt by much. Both use essentially the same refereeing and editing and typesetting processes. JTB might be on a slightly higher quality paper. However, most people read journal articles by gaining access to an electronic copy and printing it out on their own printer.

So, why is JTB three times as expensive as PRE? The answer is simple: PRE is a non-profit entity. It's published by the American Physical Society (APS), which is the (non-profit) professional society for physicists in the U.S. JTB, on the other hand,is published by Elsevier, a for-profit publishing company based in Amsterdam. PRE's primary goal is to generate sufficient revenue to offset costs, while simultaneously maximizing access to its journal. JTB's primary goal, however, is to maximize profit. JTB thus charges what the market will bear; PRE charges what the need to cover expenses.

Does JTB really make a profit, or is this just conjecture on my part? It's hard to know about JTB in particular, but Elsevier, who publishes around 1700 journals, is clearly doing very, very well. Reed-Elsevier, the company that holds Elsevier, reported a 2004 adjusted pre-tax profit of 1.51 Billion Euros. Elsevier itself, the academic, medical, and technical publishing and communications arm of Reed-Elsevier, reported revenues of 2 Billion Euros and an adjusted operating profit of 676 Million Euros. (You can access their most recent financial statement here, and an interesting report by Morgan Stanley here.)

The situation illustrated above for JTB and PRE is quite typical of the difference in pricing for for-profit and non-profit journals. A number of researchers have done careful studies of this issue. Some results of these studies are collected in Carl T. Bergstrom and Theodore C. Bergstrom, "The costs and benefits of library site licenses to academic journals," PNAS. 101:897-902. Here is a table, using data cited in Bergstrom and Bergstrom, of mean price per page (for institutional subscriptions) for for-profit and non-profit journals, for several academic disciplines:


All costs are in US dollars per page. See Bergstrom and Bergstrom for further details. (For a thorough and lucid discussion of journal pricing, I strongly recommend Theodore C. Bergstrom, "Free Labor for Costly Journals?" Journal of Economic Perspectives. 15:183-198. Although the focus is on economics journals, what he has to say applies to all other fields, as well. Both of the papers by Bergstrom are available on Ted Bergstrom's website here.)

In any event, the trend is very clear: for-profit journals are between 3 and 5 times more expensive than their non-profit counterparts. But perhaps its the case that the for-profit journals are better. Journal quality is often measured by the number of citations to articles published in it. If lots of other articles cite the articles in a particular journal, that's an indicator that the journal is pretty good. This isn't a perfect measure of journal quality, but it seems a good place to start. Bergstrom and Bergstrom also compile data for the cost per citation to a journal. I.e., they don't worry about the number of pages in a journal, but rather the number of times articles in that journal are cited. They find that price differentials between non-profit and for-profit journals are even larger for cost per citation than they are for cost per page. So much for the better quality theory.

Questions for next time: Where does this money for institutional subscriptions come from? Where does it go? And why does it matter how much journals cost, anyway?