Happy Ada Lovelace Day: a post in honor of Bess Sadler

If you've not heard of Ada Lovelace Day, today is "an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology." (And if you haven't heard of Ada Lovelace [1815-1852], she's often described as the world's first computer programmer. Here's her Wikipedia entry.)

As soon as I heard about Ada Lovelace Day, I knew I wanted to give a shout-out to my friend and former colleague Bess Sadler, who's currently Chief Architect for the Online Library Environment at the University of Virginia Library. Bess and I worked in adjacent cubicles during my second year at the UVa Library, and she was a large part of why our department—the then-nascent Scholars' Lab, which is now doing all kinds of fascinating work in the digital humanities—was such a fabulous place to work.

Bess is, among other things, a developer of the extremely cool Blacklight OPAC, which does the kind of faceted searching that the NCSU Libraries' Endeca catalog does, only it's an entirely open-source project. Dorothea Salo has already blogged about Bess and her accomplishments, but I'll add that Bess is also one of my tech heroines for speaking up about sexism in the IT world on her blog. And she's a terrific colleague and friend, who, when I was in angst-ridden job search mode, asked if I'd read Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever's Women Don't Ask (I hadn't, and it helped a lot), who pointed me toward Cory Doctorow's fiction and the Escape Pod podcast, and who's one of my role models for wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and problem-solving geekitude. She's also a fellow Firefly fan, which I think was the very first thing we bonded over when she first visited UVa. I hope we'll be bonding over similar things for many years to come.

(Ada Lovelace Day ends in a few hours, but if you want to participate too, here are the guidelines from the Ada Lovelace Day site:

All you need to do is sign the pledge,
pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on
Tuesday 24th March 2009. It doesn’t matter how new or old your blog is,
what gender you are, what language you blog in, or what you normally
blog about – everyone is invited. …

It’s up to you how you interpret the phrase “in technology”. We’re not
just interested in hardcore ninja programmers, but any woman who
creates, invents, or uses any technology in an innovative way. Feel
free to interpret it as widely as you like.

Hopefully they'll do this again next year!)

So, BSG.

A few things for my fellow Battlestar Galactica fans:

  1. What did you think of the finale? I don’t know what I was expecting, except that after the darkness of so much of this season, I was fully prepared for Galactica to explode and kill them all. But I’m glad that wasn’t what happened. I thought it was a really good ending, on the whole. What were you all expecting? And what are you going to watch now that BSG is no more? Discuss!
  2. BSG rendered in Legos, here and here.
  3. Someone designed a BSG sock pattern! Complete with chevrons that suggest the Vipers and an Eye-of-Jupiter-esque cable. I must knit some to go with my Adama[‘]s Shawl.

ACRL wrap-up, part 1

The thing about a big conference like ACRL is that there are enough different themes going on that everyone can pick out their own program and find their own connections between different events. For me, the big themes were the education of librarians and the use (or not) of social web technologies, plus a strong information-literacy component to the poster sessions I went to. More on the Web 2.0 and information literacy threads in another post or two; first, the question of what kind of education librarians should have.

One of my official reasons for going to ACRL was to participate in a roundtable on "PhDs in Academic Libraries: The Role of the Scholar-Librarian," with several of my fellow current and former CLIR fellows. (Hi there, those of you reading this!) I think we were all thinking that at 8:00 on a a Saturday morning, we'd mostly be talking to each other as our fellow conferees slept in or went to other sessions. But we were very pleased to have 14 people show up, in various stages of PhD consideration and completion. We ranged all over the topic, discussing what an academic librarian might gain from the PhD (in-depth research experience was one answer that a bunch of people agreed on) and what the liabilities might be (cost, time, and the likelihood of taking a pay cut if one moved from library administration—one common career track for PhD-holders—to teaching in an LIS program). I did warn one person who was considering a PhD in English against getting sucked into the prevailing "tenure-track job at an R1 is the One True Career Path" mentality of English departments, but it was lovely to hang out with a whole bunch of people who approached the PhD from another point of view entirely. It was a really good, lively conversation, and we might get to reprise it on the web at some point.

In a similar vein, I went to a debate with the provocative title "Resolved: The Master's Degree In Library Science Is Not Relevant to the Future of the Academic Library," with Arnold Hirshon of NELINET taking the "pro" side and Liz Bishoff of BCR taking the "con" position. She argued that with widespread digitization of library resources, training of new librarians is more important than ever; he argued that LIS programs aren't teaching the right skills, and aren't selecting candidates with the right combination of ambiguity tolerance, learning agility, and talent for improvisation. There were lots of great questions from the audience, and something of a consensus at the end that LIS programs need an overhaul, starting with much closer connections with what people are actually doing in the field of librarianship.

James Neal of Columbia University moderated the debate, and also appeared on a panel called "Subject Librarian 2.0" (blogged in a lot more detail here), at which the major themes were the need for a lot more collaboration with faculty, a more active role in instruction, and "embedding" in various parts of the curriculum. Kara Whatley of New York University coined a phrase I liked: "librarians as middleware." (She also said "We don't have to be it all or do it all, we just have to build partnerships"—good to keep in mind, especially since the expanded role of the subject librarian sounded, in some of the presentations, like a nonstop commitment.)

More on ACRL tomorrow, and at some point I must post about the utter awesomeness of Ira Glass, who was our closing keynote speaker and who actually made me wish I were still teaching composition (this is no easy feat) so that I could encourage my students to experiment with his method of storytelling.

“Because you are doing it for love.”

I'll get back to the ACRL recaps tomorrow, but first I wanted to point to Thomas Hart Benton (a.k.a. William Pannapacker)'s latest column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Just Don't Go, Part 2," in which he responds to various people who criticized his previous article about why grad school in the humanities is a bad idea for all but the independently wealthy or exceedingly well-connected. Apparently, various people wrote to him that he'd abandoned the values of the life of the mind, and that he was ignoring the importance of "love" for one's academic subject.

As far as I'm concerned, Benton's response is bang-on. For instance:

It is striking how often the word "love" is used by defenders of the
current job system in academe; they would never use the word in their
serious work. There is a double-consciousness about graduate school in
the humanities. We often pretend that it is a continuation of the
undergraduate, liberal-arts experience when it is really — like law
school and medical school — professional training for one kind of
position: a research professor at a university, and, failing that, a
teacher at a liberal-arts college.

All of which comes back to the point: What good is professional
training for a job that you are not likely to get, after a decade of
discipline, debt, and deferred opportunity?

And also:

Academic labor is a precisely tuned system: Provide no more costly
tenured positions than are needed to keep the graduate students coming
and the adjuncts working. And, when that balance begins to arouse
skepticism about the fairness of the exchange of labor for opportunity,
the rhetoric of "love" becomes all the more powerful: "We don't need to
pay you fairly because you are doing it for love."

And the part that especially made me nod my head and say "Hell yes":

One probably could not devise a better system for keeping people with
humanistic values away from power than by confining them to decade-long
graduate programs with a long future of transient adjunct positions
making less than the minimum wage.

Go read the whole thing. (I don't actually see graduate programs in the humanities as part of a vast conspiracy to keep humanists out of the public realm; I think that a lot of the time we do that to ourselves. But it's a point that seems very much worth making, all the same.)

Way back when this blog was in its infancy at Blogspot, I made a rather similar argument about the rhetoric of love and happiness in academia, in response to a very different Chronicle column. As I said in that post:

I see … an instance of a
pattern I've been noticing a lot recently: the inversely proportional
relationship between the fervor with which academics embrace their
vocation and the actual availability of tenure-track positions. The
worse the market looks, the more people insist, as the title of this
essay does, "We're Happy. Really." … there's
something that makes me tired and depressed about the whole "well,
there are no jobs, you're going to be poor and anxious and overworked,
and you'll have very little choice in where you end up living — but
the immaterial rewards of a life of devotion to learning make it all worthwhile!" position.

It still makes me tired to see how little has changed in the world I left behind.

Conferences and memory supplements

I spent the second half of last week at the 2009 ACRL conference in Seattle, having a generally great time, going to a lot of panels and poster sessions (of which more blogging to follow), helping to facilitate what proved to be a very popular roundtable on Ph.Ds in libraries, visiting the Seattle Public Library in its strangely appealing Rem Koolhaas building, eating excellent meals at, among other places, Cafe Campagne and Place Pigalle, and fitting in some tourism time (cheers to Jane Dark, who steered me toward the Underground Tour and the Smith Tower, not to mention some lovely Italian sandwiches and gelato).

I ended up with a lot of notes and impressions to review, in a variety of media. I took notes in a notebook, as is my wont, but I also posted a bunch of updates using the conference Twitter hashtag. I subscribed to a search for that hashtag, so several hundred tweets are sitting in my Bloglines reader waiting to be scanned. I wrote down a bunch of people's Twitter handles (hi @shinylib, @ijastram, @srharris19, @shawncalhoun, @uinen, and everyone else who was at the meetup!) and a bunch of recommended readings. ACRL itself is posting a lot of the conference materials on their website. And as I wandered around the poster hall, I saw lots of fellow attendees taking pictures of the posters they wanted to remember, which struck me as a great idea, so I did likewise.

There's also an ACRL 2009 Flickr tag that everyone's been encouraged to use for their conference pictures, which I'm planning to do, as soon as…well, there's a slight problem. On Saturday night, while stupidly trying to take a picture while getting my gloves off, I dropped my camera, damaging the lens and making the camera refuse to start up. So there go a lot of the things I was going to say about the poster sessions, plus some neat shots I got inside the Central Library, plus a shot of a monkfish in the fish market that I just had to preserve for posterity. I'm hoping it's fixable, but until it's fixed, some of my conference impressions are unshareable. Alas.

It's ironic, because my dissertation was about the ways people supplemented their memories before the digital age, and the anxieties about permanence that sometimes went with that—and here's a proof of the fragility of memory supplements. At least I didn't drop my notebook into Elliott Bay, or lose my iPod (though I very nearly lost my phone).

I also brought home some commemorative smoked salmon and See's chocolates, which will probably be gone very soon, and a lovely souvenir head cold, which I hope will also be gone soon. But apart from the rhinovirus and the camera breakage, it was a fantastic trip.

The poem fragments in the back of your mind

Emily Lloyd at Poesy Galore has tagged me with an irresistible meme:

"What are ten lines from poems that stick in your head when you are
walking around your day? Or, if you stop a minute and think of some
lines of poetry, what comes up? It’s fine if you distort the line as
you remember it, if you misremember it."

Here are mine. I suspect that I'd probably give a different set of answers tomorrow or next week; some are lines that come to me often, and others presented themselves when I started writing them all down.

  1. Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. [This one pops into my head all the time when I'm bored, reminding me that I probably have no Inner Resources.]
  2. And now that the end is near / The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
  3. Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.
  4. Green is night, green kindled and appareled.
  5. Love's the boy stood on the burning deck / trying to recite "The boy stood on / the burning deck."
  6. Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.
  7. For Juliana comes, and she / What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.
  8. Small comfort the candle / Of moon on the maple; / The steeple of poplar, / The arch of the birch. [I don't know who wrote this poem; I read it in a children's poetry anthology at least twenty years ago, and Google hasn't yet been able to tell me anything about it.]
  9. And is the white sail free on its walled infinity? [Another one I read decades ago, on a placard in a bus in Santa Monica. I didn't think to write down the author's name, and the rest of it fell out of my head a long time ago. It's probably not nearly as good a poem as I thought at the time, but I remember it because it's something of a mystery.]
  10. Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
  11. [Bonus, because it was in my head all morning:] Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet, / Over the splendor and speed of thy feet.

I tag anyone who wants to be tagged. Have at it!

Readings to bring back the muse

I was on the phone with my mother last weekend and she asked if I’d written any poems lately. Um, no, I had to reply, and it bothered me more than a little. Not only am I not writing anything creative, I’m not even in the kind of state where language feels inherently interesting. I used to get into that state a lot more often, if my commonplace book is any indication. I’ve been wondering how to get it back; this list, a compendium of Things That Might Get Me to Write Again, came out of that wondering. It’s mostly for my own future reference, but I thought I’d put it out there in case any of you are interested. So, herewith, my to-look-at list:

  • Anything with (relatively) unfamiliar language: the language of knitting made me want to write poems when I first encountered it, as did the language of systems analysis during my first semester of library school.
  • Poets’ commonplace books and notebooks. There’s a good collection called The Poet’s Notebook that I’ve been revisiting lately.
  • Writing exercises. Perhaps it’s time to dust off my battered old copy of The Practice of Poetry, or look again at Charles Bernstein’s writing experiments.
  • Books on city design, architecture, and urban planning. It’s partly my ongoing spatiality obsession, but something about books on the relationships between streets or buildings or rooms make me want to write. Must find a copy of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language at some point (because what I want for myself is another kind of pattern language).
  • Books that link poetry with visualization in interesting ways. I’m reading Jill Stoner’s Poems for Architects (hat tip to Jane Dark for the recommendation), and the way she turns villanelles into cross-sections of buildings makes me want to run out and do the same thing.
  • Overheard conversation. I should spend more time surreptitiously eavesdropping.

What am I leaving off this list that ought to be there?

Question for a rainy evening: forgotten children’s books?

It's a dark and stormy night in New England, with rain dripping on the roof. The cat I've been cat-sitting is curled up, snoring, in her favorite warm spot by the baseboard heater. I feel disinclined to post about anything intellectual. Instead, I've been cooking (salt-cured salmon, spinach with sesame seeds), and wondering what's gone awry with my latest knitting project (I suspect an error in the pattern, because the math just doesn't add up at one point), and listening to vintage science fiction from Librivox, and thinking about random things; in particular, about books I read as a child but no longer remember the titles of.

Before Google and Amazon and Bookfinder came along, there were a lot more of these books I almost remembered. I now know that the wondrous, wordless split-picture book I used to check out from the library over and over, almost a First Book of Surrealism, was Graham Oakley's Magical Changes, and that the series of eerie YA-ish novels set in the UK were written by Ruth M. Arthur (A Candle in Her Room was my favorite), and that the splendidly weird book with the family visiting a labyrinthine alternate dimension was The Light Maze by Joan North, whose other books I also devoured. But I'm still hunting for a couple of ghost story anthologies, a book about an orphaned brother and sister who run away to live in a hollow tree in a forest, and another book the plot of which I've forgotten except for a handful of details: a (possibly fake) document with old spellings and sealing wax, someone climbing out of a window in pajamas, and underground mine explosions that shattered a glass pitcher of lemonade. I may be conflating several books, of course. Why is it always these odd details that survive?

It occurred to me that this would be a good thread topic. Reader, what do you remember of your childhood reading? And what childhood books do you sort of remember but not quite? Post them in the comments, and maybe we can figure some of them out.

Battlestar Galactica, or (Paradise) Lost in Space

(Warning: This post contains major spoilers for recent episodes of Battlestar Galactica, so if you don’t want to know, you’d best stop reading now.)

When I first started watching Battlestar Galactica, I saw it as, among many other things, a reimagining of Vergil’s Aeneid. Now that another couple of seasons have passed and the emphasis has shifted away from the search for Earth, the show’s range of references has shifted, from classical myth and legend to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” A few weeks ago, I was startled to hear Emily Dickinson quoted by a weary Bill Adama; maybe, I thought, given the show’s preoccupation with the Cylons’ religion, there’d be a Milton reference at some point.

Boy, was I ever on-target with that prediction. Friday’s episode, “No Exit,” was Miltonic beyond my wildest dreams, and made my English-major heart positively leap. Not only did we get Anders quoting Paradise Lost, twice, in the midst of the raving brought on by his brain injury,* we also got a whole series of confrontations between two of the later-model Cylons and their creator, not to mention invocations of free will and a scene with an apple that I thought was too obvious, at least until I started to think about it.

I suspect that a lot of contemporary reworkings of Paradise Lost (e.g. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are mediated in one way or another through the Romantic poets’ reading of the poem—Shelley’s reference to Satan as “the hero of Paradise Lost,” Blake’s famous line in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell about Milton being “a true Poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it.” What interests me about the direction that BSG has taken is that it’s not entirely in this mode. Cavil, who envies the godlike perfection he thinks he could have had, who passionately resents his creators’ favoritism toward their later creations, who schemes and rebels and sows dissent, is clearly the Satan figure here. The parallel is underlined when Anders mutters “he…whose guile, / Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived / The mother of mankind” and there’s a quick cut to a flashback of Cavil. And I don’t think we’re meant to dismiss Cavil as unidimensionally evil, but it’s impossible to see him as a tragic hero figure, either.

But Cavil is also fallen Adam, unavoidably aware of his own human(oid) limitations, insisting that “If I’m so irredeemable, if I’m such a mistake, if I’m so broken, then whose fault is that? It’s my maker’s fault.” (“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man?” Adam asks in Book 10 of Paradise Lost—a line that also serves as the epigraph to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another story of an artificial human who turns on his creator.) And Ellen, who created him, is simultaneously Milton’s God, reminding him of his free will, and Milton’s Satan, offering that symbolically overloaded apple to Boomer before biting into it herself.** And Boomer, instead of following Cavil’s lead (he for machine perfection only, she for machine perfection in him?), breaks with him at the last minute and accepts the offer that went with the apple.

BSG has always refused to let any one character or group of characters stay in the roles of “good guys” or “bad guys” for very long. The moral ambiguity that’s characterized the show from the beginning extends even to the Milton intertext. As Milton saw it, with free will, you can choose good or choose evil; but without it, you’re a robot. Except this is the world of science fiction, and the robots are often indistinguishable from the humans.

* One could also say a lot about the recurring figure of the insane or at least slightly altered prophet in BSG: Roslin’s chamalla-induced visions, the Hybrid’s glossolalia, Starbuck’s dreams, Number Three’s near-death experiences, and now Anders with the bullet in his brain.

** And then there’s the way she came to earth as a human (like the other final four Cylons) and allowed herself to be sacrificed for the greater good. And there’s also the weird incestuous vibe to the Ellen/Cavil relationship, which almost reminds me of the Satan/Sin dynamic in Book 2 of PL. I love the way the parallels are never stable or one-to-one.


Via several of my Twitter contacts: The Times Online has developed Book Scraper, a literary text analysis tool with 126 books in its database so far, from the 16th through the early 20th centuries. You can look at word clouds and lists of unique and particularly long words for each text (check out the long word list for Ulysses); you can compare two texts and see how much vocabulary they share, accompanied by a Venn diagram; and you can search individual words and see graphs of how often they appear, in which texts.

It has its flaws. As one friend commented on Twitter: "More books! And where's the API?" And the text analysis isn't perfect: it's clear from the Shakespeare page that stage directions and older spellings affect the statistics somewhat. But I like the word graphs, even though they're a bit skewed by the relatively small sample of texts in the database. Look at the graph for "amiable": a smattering of early 17th-century uses, mostly Shakespeare; then a set of giant bubbles from early- to mid-19th-century novels, with the heaviest concentrations in Jane Austen. I once wrote a short paper for an undergraduate Austen class on the word "amiable" in Emma. The Book Scraper graph is an interesting confirmation of how often that word shows up, not only in Austen, but in her near contemporaries as well.

It would be nice if the text set were big enough to do some higher-end data mining. But it's intriguing to see this kind of thing being done for an audience outside of academia. I wonder if this is a sign of literary data-mining going mainstream?