Archive for October, 2010

What’s in a name?

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Two years ago we published a groundbreaking Featured Collection, “Forest Hydrology in China.” The issue introduced our readers to many authors who had not previously published in the English language. What I remember most, however, is spending the weekend before publication trying to untangle all the Sun’s, Wang’s, Liu’s, etc. in the cross-references. The problem is, Chinese names don’t always transliterate uniquely into English. (We ultimately had to include initials, which, thank heavens, worked in this case.) The experience left me wondering how to ensure our authors with foreign names receive proper credit for their publications in JAWRA.

That’s why I’m so excited about a new initiative brought to my attention by our publisher. The Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) initiative is dedicated to solving the name ambiguity problem in scholarly research. The principle is simple: Every researcher receives a unique identifier, and journals publish the id’s of all authors of an article. If everybody does this, building a researcher’s bibliography would be a piece of cake!

Ok, so it’s not really that simple! Privacy and free-speech issues come into play. And, maintaining a registry of all authors in the world is not exactly the easiest task. Legacy publications are yet another matter. But this is a start, and I will go on record as supporting ORCID.

Benoît Mandelbrot

Monday, October 18th, 2010

The New York Times obituaries today noted the passing of Benoît Mandelbrot. If you’ve ever asked “How long is that river?” Benoît Mandelbrot forever changed the way we think of that question.

Rivers and coastlines are “fractal geometries.” That is, as you look at them closer and closer, you continue to see more and more complexity. Thus, length measured at one scale will differ from length measured at another scale. Basically, the length depends on the size of the ruler you use! This fractal property is the reason the National Hydrography Dataset’s “reach address” is expressed as a fraction of the reach in question rather than miles or kilometers; the fractional distance is less sensitive to scale.

Dr. Mandelbrot coined the term, “fractal,” and introduced the concept of “fractal dimension” to quantify changes with scale. Understanding the role of scale is fundamental to error analysis in GIS, where datasets often originate at different resolutions.

The Times notes, “For most of his career, Dr. Mandelbrot had a reputation as an outsider to the mathematical establishment.” I think this was because his interests were so eclectic, multidisciplinary, so to speak. Some, including me, believe we have lost one of the most influential voices in GIS and remote sensing

Report from Our Northern Border

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Pigeon River, Minnesota-Ontario

Notes from a short getaway and family reunion. The pretty river on the right is the Pigeon River. Since 1842, it has formed part of the boundary between Minnesota, U.S., and Ontario, Canada. As international rivers go, the Pigeon today is relatively free of conflict.

Falls and rapids make the lower end of the Pigeon unnavigable as it descends to Lake Superior. So, the Grand Portage, a couple of miles south, on the U.S. side, became a major thoroughfare for the voyagers of the fur trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. About a century ago, timber flumes bypassed the falls as the north woods were logged. There’s mining north (Thunder Bay) and south (Silver Bay), but the Pigeon/Grand Portage is mainly a connection to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Nothing in the immediate area demands any great quantity of water, and, besides, Lake Superior is right nearby. Today, parks line both sides of the river with easy walking trails.

On some borders, a river like the Pigeon might be lined with sentry posts and barbed wire, but none are in evidence here. (Canada and the U.S. boast the longest unfortified border in the world.) If hordes of Canadians decide to invade, Minnesotans will be happy to exchange their colorful money for moose t-shirts, agates, and quilting materials. On their way to overrunning Duluth, — Don’t forget to stop and see Gooseberry Falls! — the Canadian army would be well supplied by good restaurants to bring the troops up to American standards of obesity.

Nice place, eh? You bet!