February 17, 2013

Thinking through

What follows is just another in a long series of attempts to write my way out of a puzzlement, placed here so that I can find it again someday, so that I can point others to it, and so that I can stop thinking about it. It's digressive and mostly self-serving, but I hope not without interest.

Here's the problem that inspired the screed: my beloved brother John lives in Mexico, far enough away that visiting would be daunting even if I liked to travel. And I don't. I've been wondering what technologies might make us better connected and enable the kinds of exchange we might have if we were in the same place at the same time. It's not a simple question --his interaction with computers is idiosyncratic (he's a retired geek, but he doesn't have an email address, and uses the medium only by proxy); while Skype might fill part of the bill, I'm not sure that he's really a Skype sort of person (phone conversations aren't something he enjoys, and adding visuals might not help much). I've been thinking about resorting to letters, except for the fact that much of what I'd like to communicate to him is really via links to Web materials (images, documents, sound files) which are best enjoyed asynchronously. This has led me to thinking about just what the overlap in our lives and interests really is, and so to thinking about what MY distributable interests are. And 'distributable' is probably the most important qualifier.

I am a lifelong finder-and-redistributor, always on the lookout for the Interesting, and generally inclined to pair up the things I find with people who should, or just might want to, know about them. Twenty-odd years ago I was fortunate to find myself a perch as a Reference Librarian, where find-and-redistribute is the basic mandate, and doubly fortunate to find the perch just as the Web emerged as a communication medium. I am also a lifelong Enthusiast for an ever-expanding roster of subjects and pursuits, though I especially prize my status as Amateur and student-of, and generally dodge the mantle of Expert. I'm generally content to suggest links that my interlocutors might make something of: I'm fonder of the hunt and the gathering than of the hard work of distilling and integrating, so 'finishing' projects has always been of lesser importance than finding more new stuff. I have vast volumes of (literal and figurative) stuff squirreled away in Collections that could absorb eons of organizing.

So what's the Method? How do I find stuff, and what do I do with found things? My main inputs are (1) the hundreds of blogs I monitor via RSS feeds, (2) the print sources I allow into my ken [lots of books, several periodicals], (3) searches I do because of things I read/encounter, and (4) the backlog of the library and the archives --stuff I've accumulated in a lifetime of collecting and sorting and not-discarding. Processing the river of new stuff isn't very systematic or consistent, and involves the old technologies of file folders and shelf placement as well as the evolving spectrum of electronic organizing methods (currently, Zotero for links to Web documents, sometimes oook blog for items I'm inspired to rediffuse, sometimes textfiles that summarize the outcomes of searches, and always more clusters of downloaded documents, images, videos, and sound files). I've gone through bouts of digitizing (music, 35mm negatives, image scanning) and betimes I make stabs at reorganizing sectors of the maze of electronic file folders that decorate the computer's desktop and hard drives. And some found things go immediately into email to a half dozen or so like-minded others (Kate, Nick, Ken Stallcup, John-the-son, Daniel Heikalo, Broot...).

In the days when I had roomsful of students to entertain and inform, much of my preparation time went into the organization of coherent narratives for real-time delivery, generally illustrated with cases-in-point, often images or (in the case of Cross-Cultural Studies in Music) sound. I would work on constructing an engaging story line and then improvise on the plan, ad libbing as the tale unreeled. It was always a bit of a high-wire act, never to be exactly repeated and prone to non sequitur asides that amused me but probably didn't succeed very well with most of the audience. I loved the preparation part (just an excuse to learn more), often enjoyed the vaudeville of classes, positively abhorred the grading, was permanently at odds with institutional pomposities, and had far too little in common with faculty colleagues. It was a great relief to discover my Vocation as a Reference Librarian

When I defected from classroom to library, I outran the (sometimes baffled) audience and changed my own focus to teaching how to find answers to questions, and then how to broaden the search into unanticipated territory with new questions. This teaching was generally 1:1, and was in fact (and consciously) an explication of how to learn, conducted by demonstrating that I was continuing to learn myself. The Web provided a platform upon which I could construct (hyper-)textual narratives of search and discovery, many of which still exist in the 'logfiles' that I built with HTML and placed in my own Webspace (these can be explored via timelines of logfiles and wherewhen). Oook blog also provided a platform, from March 2004.

The task with blog reading is to decide where any particular bit of new information might fit in the existing structures of found things. Many bits just don't fit, or don't resonate such that I follow up on the proffered lead, and quite a few are of only tangential interest but still make it into the fragments/clippings realm. Thus, a moment ago I checked the blog stream and found a posting about Green Screens for which I have no immediate use or destination, though my curiosity is piqued and I know that I could easily be diverted into half an hour or so of reading and further exploration... This happens many times a day, and one is never bored.

Some of the media forms I enjoy are essentially solitary pleasures. I read a lot of novels, many of them in the borderlands between sci-fi and fantasy, some definitely cyberpunkish and some flavored with alternate realities. My affection for these works isn't particularly transitive or even defensible, and I don't usually resort to recommending books to others. The long-form narrative just takes too much time unless the prospective reader is already down with the author's agenda or familiar with related works. Likewise, I watch a lot of video that isn't easily shared with others, or that's simply outside the interests of those nearby (I think of Scandinavian Noir like Forbrydelsen, Bron, Borgen... fascinating to me, but of no interest to Betsy, and ditto my affection for British police procedural drama). I've been more interested in the dramatic potentials of foreign malfeasance than in most of the American versions (I'd make an exception for The Wire and Treme, both of which I really enjoyed). Thus, yes to the original Swedish versions of Dragon Tattoo and its sequels (and the novels, which I read before I saw Noomi Rapace and company) and no to their American remake; no to the Seattle version of Forbrydelsen, or a possible remake of Engrenages.

And then there's music. I have never been able to figure out a legal and practical means to share my vast holdings with others who might be interested. There are certainly workarounds (essentially digital mixtapes) that might be semi-legal, and there's the potential of playlists based in electronic distribution services like Spotify (though Spotify isn't available in Mexico or Canada).

Back to the question of what I'd like to communicate with brother John, which is really a corner of the broader question of content and audience.

A number of us share in appreciation of a style of repartee that our brother-in-law Wickham has (not admiringly) labelled 'Blackmer whimsy': it dwells in allusion, obscurity, and verbal crinkles; assumes irony as a foundation; and takes abundant pleasure in skewerings and Schadenfreude. Brother John is the regnant master of the genre, and nephew Nick is that mantle's inheritor in the next generation. Just whence it is sprung isn't at all clear (neither parent was much inclined to its hallmarks), but quite a few of us know that it separates us from the rest of humanity. I don't know if such whimsy can survive conveyance via the medium of Skype, though Nick is especially good at stoking the fires via email.

The danger for me is that whimsy sometimes skates too close to misanthropy where the follies of others are concerned. There's a lot to be outraged about, scornful toward, to decry and bemoan. Sometimes I notice that my irritation has precisely no effect upon the continuing supply of provocations and idiocies, but I'm easily sucked in when the next preposterosity is announced. And sometimes the outrage is clearly justified, not misplaced, and demands some response beyond 'not really my business'... and what then? Pointing out error to like-minded others doesn't do much but reinforce one's own sense of rightness; engaging with those who are not like-minded invites the very sort of disputes I've spent my life avoiding. And yet I know there's good and evil, greed and generosity, progress and retrogression, honesty and deception, the open and the closed, multifaceted truth and multifaceted falsity too. The Emperor is Nekkid, dammit.

A subject area that John and I share an interest in is the general realm of Technology. My own take tends to the historical and the problematic: how various clevernesses evolved and spread, and how our species gets into trouble via the unanticipated effects of clevernesses (case in point: the career of Thomas Midgley, developer of tetraethyl lead and freon). I'd really like to understand more of John's lifelong entanglement with computers, and I wonder what he misses now that he's retired from the fray. How can he resist playing around with Arduino and Raspberry Pi?

So here are a few bits for Brother John, extracted from the slipstream of recent Webstuff, and generally concerned with upshots of current technologies

A case study in argy-bargy with data:
Tesla and NYTimes and continued and further

Big issues upon which one has taken a side:
an hour of Jacob Appelbaum via YouTube

Posted by oook at 01:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2013

snow day serendipity

A posting by Mark Liberman at LanguageLog about the Psychoacoustics Lab at Harvard nudged the memory cells and set off a train of associations. The PAL was located in the basement of Memorial Hall (arguably Harvard's ghastliest building, though there are many claimants to that title), right across Quincy Street from the house where I spent the first 10 years of my life. A bit of googling produced Harvard Crimson stories from 1946 and 1947, and photographs of the PAL faculty and staff, replete with the lab's cat...

Well, so what? An engaging biographical memoir by George A. Miller [he of "The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two"] sketches the career and character of the lab's director Stanley Smith Stevens. I went to the first meeting of a George Miller class in the Memorial Hall basement when I was an undergraduate, but it was primarily for graduate students and I realized that I'd never survive it. Other bits of co-incidence with my own experiences include my brother David's discovery of the psychoacoustical work of Georg von Békésy (done in that very basement) and a link to precursors of the Internet via Licklider and Beranek. And the list of NAS memoirs led me to Eugene Hammel's for my own mentor G. William Skinner, and to Richard Shweder's for Clifford Geertz. And the Geertz memoir led me to his 1967 NYRB review of Malinowski's A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term, which provoked me to lay out $20 for a year's access to full text of the NYRB...

Quite a lot for a snowy morning, which also included a couple of hours of shoveling.

Posted by oook at 11:53 AM