Author Archives: oook

Sarah Kendzior interview

Back in the day when I was a graduate student (Stanford 1967-1972) the world was oh so different in so many ways. The discipline of Anthropology seemed alive, vital, relevant; there was money (NIMH, NIH, foundations) for study and for research; the ‘Developing World’ seemed to welcome the attentions of young American scholars; and there were jobs for those who survived the process of doing research and writing a dissertation… Of course all was not so rosy as it seemed to us, and big changes were just over the horizon. The 80s and 90s were a bonfire, a train wreck, and departments wrangled and split and tenure-track jobs dried up and money and foreign welcome evaporated. I was safe in a tenured position, but increasingly restive in academia… so I made a successful leap into library school (Simmons 1991-1992) and thence to a job I loved as a Reference Librarian and then Science Librarian. My vantage point on academic Anthropology has been pretty distant for more than two decades –I don’t follow the literature, and many of the current hot topics and controversies are far from my interests anyway. Still, I claim the identity ‘Anthropologist’ and enjoy the ambiguities it affords (few people have any clear idea of what an anthropologist is or does), and I continue to learn about human variety and follow my own paths of inquiry. I do follow the Savage Minds blog, and often find provocative material therein. Case in point: today’s interview with Sarah Kendzior, a writer for Al Jazeera English and (of course) a blogger. Here’s a chunk from the interview that strikes me as beautifully observed and expressed:

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

some surly thoughts

Eight years ago (as I was on the final approach to Retirement) I was wrestling with the discontinuity between my visions of Education in the liberal arts context and the gelid realities of liberal arts institutions. At that time I was in the habit of keeping running logs of thoughts and discoveries, and these four seem especially relevant to today’s thoughts:

  • How It Looks at the end of March 2005
  • Endgame (March-August 2005)

    …a place to accumulate odds and ends that have to do with preparing for retirement –ruminations, legacy stuff, things to do and not-do, etc. This is it. To some degree, it’s also a continuation of The Disgruntlement File, but the Watchword is/should be Fuggeddaboudit!, liberally applied, with a dash of Master Kung:

    The Master said, “To learn something and then put it into practise at the right time: is this not a joy?
    To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?
    Not to be upset when one’s merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?”

    (Leys translation –but see the end of this page for other renderings of the passage)

  • SUMMARY from early June 2005
  • Ruminations on Infospace (10 June-4 August 2005)

In the nearly-eight intervening years my engagement in the scuffles and food fights of Education has waned to almost nothing –I still track some edublogs, but nowadays I don’t usually feel inclined to try to influence anybody (something I used to take pretty seriously) or even to post my thoughts in the quiet backwaters of this blogspace. In the last year or so I’ve watched the buzz about MOOCs go from mumble to frenzy, and I haven’t been provoked to register my own (jaundiced) opinions on this most recent version of The Emperor’s Clothes. Here’s the bit of what Cogdog said that got me started today:

I remain astounded that anyone with a fully functioning neocortex talking seriously about MOOCs being some model of saving educational costs when the word is each course rings up a tab of $250k (edx) or even more. What does an institution get for dropping a quarter of a million per course?

I can tell you what you do not get- an ongoing open sharing of the processes, of what worked, what did not work. Not a Udellian narrating of the process. It’s more like another loaf of pre-packaged Wonderbread off the racks.

And it ties back to what Leslie Madsen-Brooks recently summarized eloquently in using UMW as a case example of innovation on higher education. That’s right, look beyond the Ivies and the Silicon Valley darlings, and you land at a tiny, public liberal arts college in Virginia. Jim Groom writes it all in the title- the Innovation isn’t Technical, It’s Narrative.

I spent 6 months working at UMW thinking they had some magic in the water (did not taste any). But it’s a culture of open sharing, not the final products, but the makings thereof. It’s not a mindset of saying, “Look what we experts hand you like Greek gods”, it’s an ongoing narrative of trying, asking, failing, reflecting, of process, not just product.

Exactly. Ongoing narrative is precisely the Grail to which teachers and learners need to attend, and to which they need to commit themselves. I now think that it’s always been true (though I didn’t discover/realize it myself until maybe 20 years ago, after I made the leap from classroom to library), though we now have tools at our fingertips that make the individual narrative distributable and greatly broaden the possibilities of collaboration as a basic modality of education.

So once again I thank the lucky stars that I got out when I did.

Remembering a teacher, 50 years later

In my freshman year at Harvard I studied Swedish (Scandinavian B –there was no Scandinavian A) under Göran Printz-Påhlson, a pleasant if (as I thought) somewhat lumbering Swedish poet (I particularly remember that he wore leather jackets which creaked when he moved). He was a friendly and generous teacher, though I was too much in awe to actually seek him out and, well, converse. Just today I happened upon an electronic version of his Letters of Blood, and Other Works in English, and learned that he died in 2006. The introductory materials tell me some of what I missed by not, well, conversing.

Poetics is a subject of which I am largely ignorant, but a quick flip through the pages of the prose parts of the book suggests that I might enjoy discovering on some winter night when the snow howls without. And I’m mostly immune to poetry, though sometimes my attention is caught. And caught it is by some bits of Printz-Påhlson’s, like this from My Interview with I.A. Richards

Inversion is a counterfeit experience
there is but one irreversability.
Chestnuts, rabid squirrels, slosh and sleet,
the sullen, birdstained wisdom of John Harvard.

O Fyffes bananas, obscene planks,
the flexes bared to vision like the sinews
in Vessalius. I grope my way
through the intestines of heuristic house.

Last night we heard in Kresge Hall
a lion-vested English poet fulminate
like an under-paid volcano against Science,
applauded by a host of boffins.

Afterwards, a girl called Shirley took my hand
and wished to lead me through the maze
toward the magus posing there as Tannhäuser,
fettered with electric wires in a great maidenform…

and here’s the whole of Songs of Dock Boggs

There are gridiron reverberations
in the hills, sourmash
blandishments bleating
from the sheriff’s office

Ah, the gavroche innocence of a barnyard rape!

He offers a smile, mild
as pick-axe handles a
mile wide which kindles
the hide of rutabaga;
their red necks swabbed
by cool, pale blue grass
in the abstracted stare of poverty
Bushwacking the melodies of God
for the breakdown of bushfires
he nurtures illustrious health
with the grating pap
of pink indulgence,
plucking the lure of life
from the audible mouchoir moment
when distant authority suppurates
the blueridge landscapes of childhood.

Raw death: a clodhopper shovel
smack in the kisser.

and from The Lyndon Baines Johnson Lavatory Seat Refurbishing Rightwinding Leftbranching Recursive Selfperpetuating Paradox Memorial

Here I sit thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, waiting for the end, entertaining a friend, bridging a loan, blowing my horn, sucking my stick, flexing my prick, farting through my ring, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

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

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.

Aaron Swartz

I didn’t know Aaron, but a whole lot of people whom I admire and follow did, and they have a lot to say. Just to put them in one place, for future reference

Larry Lessig
Alex Stamos
Quinn Norton
Cory Doctorow
Doc Searls
Ethan Zuckerman
Dave Winer
danah boyd
Dave Weinberger
Brewster Kahle
Remember Aaron tumblr
…and Ron Nigh adds Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian
…and The Digital Archive’s Aaron Swartz Collection, crowdsourcing “any digital materials you think appropriate in a memorial collection: emails with him, code archives, photos”
…and a Twitter hashtag #pdftribute (via Kerim)
Jason Scott, acerbic but believeable
and Dan Gillmor
and Gardner Campbell, who points to Matt Stoller’s post, among others I’ve already noted above

a Doc Searls fragment

The whole thing is worth reading, especially if your vision is headed for the suboptimal, but this passage has particular clarity:

All vision is in the brain, of course, and the world we see is largely a set of descriptions we project from the portfolio of things we already know. We can see how this works when we disconnect raw sensory perception from our descriptive engines. This is what happens with LSD. As I understand it (through study and not experience, alas), LSD disconnects the world we perceive from the nouns and verbs we use to describe it. So do other hallucinogens.

in the new year

I’d like to think that I’ll use this medium more, and more creatively. We’ll see how that works itself out in the light of various realities. The vernacular architecture project is the main arrow in the quiver at the moment, and here’s a recent contribution:

keeper's house at Marshall Point