Monthly Archives: April 2007

Grand jeté

The Glossary of Ballet may turn out to be a fruitful source of imagery.

Patrick Lambe is really onto something over at Green Chameleon, and it fits remarkably with my Pirouettes thread. Today’s post points to and quotes wittily from The Interstitial Library and Uncyclopedia, and I’ll reproduce a couple of bits here to tempt you to read Green Chameleon further:

We contend that every reader is an amateur librarian, with a mental library organized according to a private cataloguing system that is never identical with that prescribed by the AACR2R (the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Revised). Since every system of organization highlights some kinds of information and obscures others, we contend that these idiosyncratic catalogues have advantages—advantages that could be shared.

We do not consider the “authoritative” taxonomies of the Library of Congress (or Barnes & Noble) to be superior to private ones. We are suspicious of taxonomies that appear self-evident, unbiased, objective. All taxonomies are interpretations. All interpretations are valuations. We ask, how does a given taxonomy, which is always a reduction and a generalization, come to be associated with objective or ideal categories of knowledge? We contend that the question of what matters and what does not is a political and philosophical one that should be open to the input of individual readers.

(that one is from Interstitial Library, and the next is Patrick Lambe himself)

Taxonomies and category systems are filters. They render certain things visible and help ensure those things are preserved. The things in between, not captured in our official categories, are ignored, and hence easily forgotten and lost.

If they are there but not seen, then we need strategies for seeing them – or for bumping into them. These strategies need to directly counter the mechanisms we use for rendering this stuff invisible. We need inversionary mechanisms.

…To counter the invisibilising effects of limited taxonomies, we need interstitial categorisation systems, that deliberately break sensible rules, and bring stuff together on idiosyncratic principles. Individuals do this all the time, so we simply need to be able to see their idiosyncracies.

Pirouettes continued

Still thinking about the Prelinger Library article, and considering that we need some models/visualizations for the kinds of distributed collections I’m working on, or toward. I made a marginal note when this phrase tripped through the forebrain:

tesseracted Whole Earth Catalog

and now I want to follow it up with some interlinked digressions.

First, the Whole Earth Catalog and, seriatim, its various successors (CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, the WELL, Long Now Foundation…) have been essential to me for …bless us… almost 40 years, ever since I first frequented the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park. The basic model of knowledge as a sprawling and interconnected and navigable system of tools for understanding the world has been with me ever since, and some of that snuck into a summary of Goals and Methods of Teaching that I wrote at tenure time, about 12 years ago, and still find apt. And Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism is a fine entrée into the dramatis personae and associated mindspaces.

The word ‘tesseracted’ isn’t one I can remember seeing or thinking before, but it seemed to fit the model of multidimensionally interconnected broad-ranging knowledge that I was imagining as an antidote to the geocentric but shelf-bound linear array that is described as the ordering principle of the Prelinger collection. The ‘tesseracted‘ form turns out to be not uncommon.

I first encountered the Tesseract as a concept in a Robert Heinlein story (“And he built a crooked house”) reprinted in Clifton Fadiman (ed.) Fantasia Mathematica (1958). The book was used as an auxiliary text in a marvelous math class (Plane and Solid Geometry) I had as a high school sophomore, taught by Phil Coyle, who went on to grander things.

Google found a 1996 text by Michael Jensen (now Director of Web Communications at National Academies Press) which is wonderfully prescient: Here there be Tygers: Uncharted Tesseracts in the Age of Disintermediation. Some bits:

Intermediation is what we all do, every one of us in this room, in some form or another. What happens when so many institutions are put in doubt or confusion because their primary role of intermediation is challenged by direct digital access to anything we want?

…Something quite separate from the technology –though predicated upon it– something under the sun that is truly new, something unfathomably transformative, is being loosed upon us: disintermediation.

I think of societial disintermediation as the online tesseract –you remember, the “wrinkle in time” that shortens the distance between two points.

Two things are required to make possible the tesseract of disintermediation: rapid easy access to distant digital content, and easy financial exchange.

The first of the pair is here, as we all know. I can pull down a Web page located in Australia as easily and almost as fast as I can one from Duluth. Any material –whether a recording, a video clip, a multimedia presentation, a monograph, a poem, an encyclopedia– can be put online by its creators, and pulled down and displayed the viewers. In three years, it’ll be absurdly easy.

The second part isn’t quite there yet, but we’re almost there, and that’s online micropayments… To my mind, when I can easily, safely, and comfortably pay a buck, a quarter, a nickel, or a tenth of a cent online, then a day of revolution will have arrived.

I don’t say that lightly, or with too much melodrama. I’m quite serious. Micropayments will be transformative, challenging most institutions, most governments, and most economies, perhaps even more than the Internet itself.

…It was Colin Day, director at the University of Michigan Press, who first described the Internet as a “giant disintermediation machine,” and he’s right. The Internet will be–heck, is–challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves in the new economy, and they won’t all make it.

Just how to build and manage tesseracted collections is up for grabs, and seems like sort of an apotheosis of conventional hyperlinkage. I flirt with ‘holographic’ and ‘fractal’ as other terms that might convey the multiple interrelationships among objects in such collections, but I’m not as clear as I should be about where the metaphors outrun the requisite lexical precision. Working on it…

Conceptual pirouettes

Another piece from the May 2007 Harper’s: Gideon Lewis-Kraus “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the post-digital library” has me thinking about collections, legacies, contextualizations, and the bugaboos I struggled with during my 15 years as a Librarian. With all that, this posting may take a while to unreel itself, and I’m thinking to break it up into money quotes from the article (which is eminently worth reading, even if you are not now nor have ever been a Librarian) and my own ruminations. So (with emphasis added here and there for bits I particularly like):

…why do they [Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger] truck across town to spend their afternoons painstakingly arranging and rearranging fifty thousand uncataloged and whimsically classified items, very few of which are overwhelmingly rare or commercially valuable… (pg 48)

…they want to help preserve a space for the physical, the limited, and the fussily hand-sorted alongside the digital pile. And they think there is a way that the small private library …can be reimagined to do just that. (pg 49)

The first rule [of the classification scheme] is that locality trumps all other considerations (pg 49)

Megan describes the library as fundamentally a physical organization of their own mental furniture. Their assortment maps out the range of future projects they have considered pursuing, and its varying granularity of organization provides insight into what they have worked through and what they haven’t quite gotten around to yet. (pp 50-51)

The charm of the Prelinger Library lies in the canny and pleasantly unexpected ways one subject blends into another [examples]…This latter transition is one of the conceptual pirouettes that Megan is proudest of, as it bridges the gap between the material and immaterial worlds. (pg 51)

The connections in Rick and Megan’s browsable narrative require varying degrees of imaginative exertion. (pg 52)

…the library is in a constant state of associative refinement, what Megan characteristically calls “brushing the teeth of the granularity” –that is, “work,” which also includes the transport of heavy cardboard boxes from one heap to another. (pg 52)

(Public libraries) are increasingly centered around computer terminals and stupidly grandiose atria that make them feel less like book repositories and more like shopping malls or free Internet cafés. The San Francisco Public Library… was constructed at enormous public expense in the nineties, and the result –a vacuous hotel-lobby sort of space, the actual books peripherized as a guilty afterthought— is unanimously considered a disaster… The reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degree “information scientists,” stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printer to work… (pp 52, 54)

[the Prelinger Collection] is not about browsability per se but tailored and pointed browsability —browsability within a narrative structure and in service to some very particular ideas about the ownership of culture and the cultural frameworks of democracy (pg 55)

The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the roiling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways… (pg 56)

…the Dewey decimal system is a helpful but ossified structure best suited to the bureaucratic centralization of thousands of different libraries (pg 56)

“We want to foment bursts of concentrated discovery across the spectrum,” Megan told one tour (pg 57)

As I read and re-read this article I found myself alternately cheering and tut-tutting, and here and there scribbling something in the margin, and when I add all that up I end up with the label “provocative” for the whole thing. There are some things that bother me, some scabs I continue to pick and itches that will be scratched.

The actual physical environment of the Prelinger collection centers on

haphazardly rigged shelves, eleven-foot stanchions, a gleaming gunmetal… [consisting of] about fifty thousand items… [including] twenty thousand pieces of what they call “ephemera,” maps and charts and brochures and errant scraps of apposite paper (pp 47, 48)

…so it’s different from my private library in being, well, bigger, but a lot of us preside over collections of a lifetime, which we tend and prune and augment and keep in idiosyncratic order (generally less apparent to outsiders than to ourselves), and which contain precisely what we “have worked through and what we haven’t quite gotten around to yet.” Managing such mathom houses, and turning them to productive use, is the greatest of pleasures for some of us. And now we have the means (via the Web) to put such ephemera into context and present some of their facets to a global audience.

The challenges of array and navigation are pretty profound, and I’m not convinced that the Prelinger approach to classification and order (“locality trumps all other considerations”) is of general utility –though I surely have myself bits of shelvage that are ordered by geographical considerations. Really the important point is one that I can’t find mentioned anywhere in the article: every item has more than one quality/characteristic that makes it worthy of membership in a collection, and a user needs to be able to use those earmarks to find associated items, and needs to be able to attach additional earmarks (OK, let’s call them TAGS) as new relationships emerge as a consequence of use.

A physical item pretty much has to reside in one location (its place on a shelf, or a labelled folder, or whatever), and serendipitous browsing is an important discovery method, but systematic frameworks and tools for managing such dynamic collections are essentially non-existent. The world of cataloging standards isn’t much help if the materials aren’t included in the standards (e.g., my collections of photographs, or of musical instruments, or coffin plaques, or extinct mass storage devices…). Thinking through all of this makes me realize the fairly obvious truth that what associates all these things is a narrative structure, the tales they are or can be woven into. Again, we have the medium for curation and distribution of those tales –the Web– but there aren’t a lot of examples or models out there. Perhaps more accurately, most of the existing examples and models are institutional, and based on grants and budgets and administrations. I need to keep a weather eye peeled for the work of others who are thinking along these lines, while continuing to pursue them myself. Expect to see more about this in this space…

Annals of Med’cin

Before you visit another doctor or take another pill, I suggest a reading of Gary Greenberg’s “Manufacturing depression: a journey into the economy of melancholy” in the May 2007 Harper’s (not yet online, but widely available at newsstands and even supermarkets. Better yet, subscribe and get access to the WHOLE archive, back to !!1850!!). Here’s a bit of what you’ll encounter:

…in more than half the clinical trials used to approve the six leading antidepressants, the drugs failed to outperform the placebos, and when it came time to decide on Celexa, an FDA bureaucrat wondered on paper whether the results were too weak to be clinically significant, only to be reminded that all the other antidepressants had been approved on equally weak evidence. (pg 40)


…irresistable ideas about who we are only come along every so often, and here at Mass General they’ve gotten hold of a big one. They have figured out how to use the gigantic apparatus of modern medicine to restore our hope: by unburdening us of self-contradiction and uncertainty, by replacing pessimism with “optimization,” by inventing us as people who seek Life Enjoyment and Satisfaction, who will buy from the pharmacy what we need to forge ahead toward Well-Being unhindered by Depressive Symptomatology, to pursue antidepression if not happiness. Who can resist this idea that our unhappiness is a deficiency that is in us but not of us, that it is visited upon us by dumb luck, that it can be sent packing with a dab of lubricant applied to a cell membrane? (pg 46)

Syllepsis for the masses

It’s always a comfort to learn a new bit of terminology, especially when a favorite bit of lyric is attached, and thus further clarified. Today’s case in point, from Language Log, invokes a song that’s been warming my little heart these 40 years, Michael Flanders’ and Donald Swann‘s Madeira M’Dear. If you don’t know it (and I can see by the look of you that some of you don’t, as Flanders was wont to say), a tiny fragment (but without the delicious syllepsis) is available via Amazon. Or you could watch a version, via Eric Storm and kwego:
Have Some Madeira M'Dear - kewegoHave Some Madeira M’Dear – kewego

Have Some Madeira M’Dear – kewego
Humorous song written by Flanders and Swann.

Video from ptolemy

While you’re at it, if you don’t already know The Gnu Song, here’s your opportunity, though once again not at the hands of the Original Authors.