Articles in Vol. XXIV, No. 2
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Website Review: The British Museum Ancient Civilization Sites for Young People
Website Review: CyArk
Miscellaneous News Items
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Index of Web site and CD reviews from the Newsletter.
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Miscellaneous News Items
Publishing Negative Results
Listening to a recent radio program about health-care publications, I was struck by the discussion of what kind of medical research does and does not get published. Experiments or studies that do not demonstrate the effectiveness of something new, more or less regardless of what other, so-called negative result(s) may be demonstrated, are rarely published — so rarely that authors of studies that produce "negative results" no longer even attempt to write or publish the results of their work.
This radio program resonated because the problem of publishing "negative results" is not unique to medicine. In many disciplines, including archaeology, positive results in the form of new information or a new theoretical understanding are required for publication. This is, of course, a common-sense response to limited space and funds. Everything cannot be put into print; so those reports that offer important new information naturally receive preferential treatment.
Nevertheless, "negative results" may be very valuable in some cases, and it seems that some encouragement should be given to those who have carried out work that may not have produced optimal results but nonetheless produced information of value. This is certainly true of field surveys, for example, where seemingly ambiguous results may deserve a wide audience. Even if relatively little is found via a field survey, that is not necessarily an absence on information. It may, rather, reflect an absence of people at some or many periods in the past. It may also reflect changed physical conditions that had not been understood in advance. In any case, the fact that a field survey was carried out — in a given place, with given operating assumptions and starting hypotheses, and with sub-optimal results — provides potentially valuable information. Such work should be widely known.
Similarly, methodological experiments designed to show potential users how a given technological approach may help solve a problem can be important when the results are not as expected, warning people away from apparently promising approaches. Particularly in this period of rapid and revolutionary development of software, software that can often be repurposed for fields of study such as archaeology, knowing what others have tried — whether successfully or not — can provide vital information to scholars.
It may well be whistling in the wind to suggest that more publications select articles with negative results for future issues, but this seems an important time to bring such results to light, and web publications have fewer constraints, though editing and reviewing electronic documents is as expensive and time-consuming as doing the same with paper documents. Encouraging the presentation of "negative results" might also reduce the tendency of authors to overstate their positive results, something all too common under current conditions.
CDs and DVDs have often been used as secure data-storage items by those who have important files to preserve. However, CDs and DVDs (even those most carefully manufactured with precious metals) are not particularly well-designed for true long-term storage, longer than a few years. A new kind of DVD is now being touted as a better answer. In "A 'stone-like' optical disk that lasts for millennia," Chris Jablonski, writing for ZDNet (August 9, 2011 posting) provides information about this new product. It has been developed by Hitachi-LG and a start-up company called Millenniata, and the important part of the new disk is its data layer. While its make-up is not defined, it is said to require a relatively long high-temperature etching process that makes the resulting pits in the material permanent. The manufacturer claims that a disk could be dipped into boiling water immediately after being dipped in liquid nitrogen — without damage.
These disks can be read by any DVD drive, but they require a special drive to write them, one that uses more energy and higher temperatures to make the pits that are the ones and zeros of the digital record. At present, writing one of these disks requires more time than writing a standard DVD, but the data content is the same. These new disks will apparently be released in October.
It is interesting to ponder the impact of a new disk material on long-term data storage. To assume that the disk is sufficient one must also assume that DVDs and DVD drives will remain state-of-the-art for long enough that the permanence of the disk can really come into play — or assume that this is really a medium-term solution to data preservation. No removable disk technology has lasted more than a rather short time thus far, whether five-inch floppy disks (any readers remember those?), three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks (that were not, in fact, floppy but quite rigid), CDs, or . . . . Why, then would one expect the DVD to be long-lasting? Especially since we are already using high-density solid-state storage devices in cameras and computers. These stone disks may well have a market, but, if so, it will not be because they are permanent storage devices; they are not, after all, stelae. They require DVD players. It will be because they last long enough to be more economical than competitors.
Information for the Wider Public at CSA Propylaea Project Website
When Peter Young wrote his article for this newsletter; "Bridging the Communication Gap: Should academics go public with what they know?" January, 2011; XXIII, 3; he obliged CSA Propylaea Project Director Harrison Eiteljorg, II, to reconsider the project website. In due course the site was updated so that there is much clearer and more comprehensive information for the wider public. The new site was finally finished earlier in September and is now operational — with many thanks to Mr. Young and apologies to those who wanted such materials before.
New Format in CSA Newsletter
For some time now the CSA Newsletter style has included linking web pages to the literal URL, not a page or article name. Thus we used such language as ". . . a set of web pages (www.saa.org/public) linked to the SAA home page. . ." (from Peter Young's article, referenced above); the link was carefully attached to the actual URL, which appeared in the text. This was done to permit anyone to see the URL before clicking on it and to permit easier copying of a URL. One of CSA's board members (Sam Francis) pointed out recently that this is not only non-standard (something often taken, perhaps unfortunately, as a point of pride by the Editor) but produces documents that are hard to read when URLs are long, particularly if they are too long to fit on a given line. As a consequence of the line-length issue, usage here has changed. Starting with this issue, all standard links will be in the more normal format, having the URL hidden and using a bit of simple text as the visual link. In order to do this while still providing explicit URLs, all URLs are placed in the code for the page in such a way that having the cursor hover over the link will reveal the URL at the cursor. Here is how the above example would look in this system: ". . . a set of web pages linked to the SAA home page. . . ." Users may wish to experiment to see that it is possible to bring up the URL visually: www.saa.org/public. Users should realize, however, that this approach does not prevent an unscrupulous website designer from showing one URL and linking to another. Neither did our earlier process. It does, however, make it possible for any user to see the URL, both at the cursor and wherever the user's browser shows it, before clicking on a link.
A note about the Google translation system. In the course of working on the new CSA Propylaea Project website, some use was made of the Google translation procedures. As one might hope, the capabilities of this resource are very impressive, but it cannot be relied upon to provide a good, literate, accurate translation of anything complex. English text was translated into Greek, and the result was then translated back into English as a test. This was repeated with several different passages. The results made it clear that complex language presents problems that cannot be overcome by automated translation system at this time.
The Leading Edge or the Bleeding Edge?
It is very tempting to work to stay on the leading edge of the technology revolution, but it can be very problematic as well, too easily resulting in falling onto the bleeding edge instead and finding oneself in the vanguard but with the following army nowhere in sight. A current example of that danger seems to be approaching in the form of HTML 5, the coming new standard for HTML, the markup language used for web documents. This has been touted as the coming answer to so many of our problems with web pages that its failure was virtually assured by over-promising success. As Peter Wayner, writing for InfoWorld ("11 hard truths about HTML5," posted August 15, 2011) put it, ". . . it'll make your teeth white, too."
We do not yet have the real thing in action, but the problems are already evident. Whether or not they will be solved, it seems clear that a few of them are, in the view of some, not problems but features. These are the "features" that permit, for instance, web pages to add cookies and more pernicious elements that will help someone spy on you.
An important issue brought out by Mr. Wayner is the impact of the makers of the web browsers on the real standards. Again quoting him, ". . . the coding geniuses at the browser companies are the ones who make the real decisions. They may or may not choose to implement a feature, then the Web developers get to decide whether the results are stable. After a few years, the standards are often changed to match the implementation." So it seems likely that many will leap to use HTML 5; others will await the standards, if not the re-stated ones that may arrive in some years, at least those standards that emerge in the form of features supported by Microsoft, Apple, Google, and the other browser makers — and features not supported by those browser makers. Those standards will be more clear in a shorter time. Those who leap first, though, may or may not find their work effective. A feature added to a web page but not supported by important browsers is not a feature; it is just a complex coding error.
All articles in the CSA Newsletter are reviewed by the staff. All are published with no intention of future change(s) and are maintained at the CSA website. Changes (other than corrections of typos or similar errors) will rarely be made after publication. If any such change is made, it will be made so as to permit both the original text and the change to be determined.
Comments concerning articles are welcome, and comments, questions, concerns, and author responses will be published in separate commentary pages, as noted on the Newsletter home page.