Friday, February 11, 2011

The Curse of Academic Specialization

This is actually a separate complaint than the one about the cast of thousands working with the biology software and with us not having a common jargon with which to discuss the technical issues in a precise way.

This is about two of my current pet peeves: Bad writing and bad databases (separately -- not bad databases filled with bad writing).

I was working with someone to write a few paragraphs for a general technical audience, and he made an off-hand comment that we didn't need to write it well because his office has someone with a Ph.D. in English who rewrites everything for them. I found this somewhat shocking because it's not like the bread-and-butter of their office is producing lengthy texts examining the diction in works of Mark Twain. They are technical people who write technical things (mainly relatively short technical things) for a scientifically-minded audience. These people are all native-speakers of English who have graduate degrees!

And then there is the issue of the databases. From what I can tell, we do not offer any courses in databases at the undergraduate level. We have a graduate-level course in computer science about databases, and we have a few graduate-level courses in library science about databases. I suspect that the library science courses are less technical than the computer science one. The only people I know who have taken undergraduate courses about databases have taken them at not-especially-selective colleges, and they tended to be fairly watered down courses. Probably the worst of both worlds from the library science and CS worlds. I understand that the whole "teach to fish" thing suggests that an undergraduate with a strong background in CS should be able to figure out databases, but I suspect that there are some pretty well known maxims of good database design that are worth passing on to people before they start to build a database from scratch. I'm sure that the databases that I use at work are internally structured in a way that makes really nice use of memory and I/O. But I'm not the only person who finds their value as information containers to be limited. Someone needs to get a bunch of librarians on as consultants the next time we need to make a database. Or, better yet, the coders need to know how to organize information -- as well as to write in English.