The Scottish play of the opera world?

I just hope nobody collapses or falls into the prompter’s box during tomorrow’s matinee of the Met’s Tristan und Isolde. I also hope that the run of bad luck that the production’s been having won’t make the live movie broadcast feed conk out in mid-performance while I’m watching from here in Philly. It’s enough to make one think of analogies with a certain reputedly cursed Shakespeare play.

(Do the same superstitions attached to Shakespeare’s Macbeth Scottish play also apply to Verdi’s Macbeth? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Oh, and in other news, my final exam and conference paper draft? Done! I’m going to enjoy my weekend of not writing anything as much as I possibly can.

Random bullets of science fiction

  • RIP, Arthur C. Clarke. I know I’ve blogged about it before, but,
    dear Reader, if you haven’t read his story "The Nine Billion Names of
    God," you absolutely must.
  • I’m in the process of working my way through Cory Doctorow‘s entire
    oeuvre, mostly in podcast form. A hat tip to the friend who first
    recommended "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" — it’s my favorite so far.
  • Another friend sent me "Wikihistory" by Desmond Warzel, which has been making the
    rounds of the blogs. What if time travel were like Wikipedia? I’m still snickering.
  • Somewhere I
    remember learning that the Library of Congress Classification doesn’t have any classes starting with W, X, or Y because those letters have been set
    aside in case they ever need to add new subjects. Someday, I want to
    write a speculative fiction piece that starts off with a librarian in
    the not-too-far future cataloging something and assigning it a call
    number in the W’s.
  • Thing #508 that I like about life outside the English-professor
    track: I can admit to reading and enjoying genre fiction without immediately having to add that I’m only reading it because I’m
    doing Serious Research on it.
  • As I appear to be getting into a science-fiction kick, and I’m still rather new to the genre, I’m still looking for recommendations. Anything you think I shouldn’t miss? Comment away!

A Met broadcast, a rave, and a blogger meetup

I saw my very first Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast this weekend! And my first Peter Grimes! And…well, not my first blogger meetup, but great fun all the same. Initially, I was skeptical about the whole idea of live opera on video
broadcast — I was afraid it would be too much like watching opera on
DVD, where the camerawork always seems to be either too static or too
intrusive, and it’s just close enough to live performance to remind one
of what one is missing.

I’m not skeptical any more.* I’m sold. I hope the Met keeps this
project up, and I’m now seriously contemplating spending something like
six hours next Saturday parked in a seat at the Bridge for Tristan und Isolde, despite the scarcity of free time in my schedule and despite the fact that I’m still on the fence about Wagner. That’s how good Saturday’s broadcast was.

I saw it with Terry Teachout of About Last Night,
who’s writing a column about the HD broadcasts and who was, if
anything, even more enthralled than I was. It’s a terrific production, voice-wise
and acting-wise — even though I’m not that familiar with Grimes,
I could hear the perfectness of Anthony Dean Griffey and Patricia
Racette as Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford. I’d heard that Griffey’s
Grimes comes across as too dark, too brutal, too unsympathetic, but I
didn’t get that at all, because — as Terry and I wound up discussing during the
intermissions — the camera stays close enough to the singers that you
can see the acting as well as the singing. Ellen’s "Peter, we’ve
failed," in Act 2, was heartbreaking, because you could see the
realization hit both of them. It got me right in the throat. I’ve never
sat close enough to the stage to pick up on that level of detail, and
opera-glasses only do so much when you’re in the upper tiers.

Plus, the cameras stayed on for intermission, poking into the Met’s
backstage spaces, following Donald Runnicles into the orchestra pit,
catching up with the two leads for an interview, and switching over to the BBC for a live feature in
Britten’s home town of Aldeburgh. And during the sea interludes, the
cameras went into the pit to show us the orchestra. I’ve always liked
watching musicians play, so I liked the way I got to recognize their
faces ("oh, there’s that one flutist again!").

I went home with my head filled with Britten’s amazingly pictorial sea-music,
which conjured up waves and storm-clouds even while my eyes were trained on
the orchestra. Then I dreamed about Patricia Racette’s
voice. And there are still four more broadcasts left this season!

* I also appear to have gotten over my dubiousness about a) English-language opera, b) 20th-century opera, and c) tenor-centric opera. That’s rather a lot of prejudices dismantled in one afternoon.

[Update: Sarah of Prima la musica, poi le parole saw it too, and weighs in.]

This explains a lot.

Brain researcher thinks we’re hard-wired to be infovores. Apparently, the act of interpreting something that needs interpretation makes the brain produce happy-making neurotransmitters:

coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

The study in question suggests that this is why people find the internet irresistible. But I think it also explains why I spent six years of my life in grad school, and to this day can’t resist research-oriented environments. The "interpreter’s high" beats the "runner’s high" any day of the week, in my book.

(Via BoingBoing.)

Hurried notes from job-search land

  • I had a phone interview today! Hopefully the head cold that’s been with me since this weekend didn’t make my voice too nasal. And another phone interview for a different job is coming up in a few weeks.
  • The great thing about iPods is that you can make up a playlist for every occasion. In the job-hunting playlist I’ve put together: "Straight to the Top" by Tom Waits; "Opportunities" by the Pet Shop Boys (refrain: "I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, / Let’s make lots of money!"); "Hang On Little Tomato" by Pink Martini (despite the fact that it’s about a tomato destined for ketchup, I still find it reassuring); and "My Wandering Days are Over" by Belle and Sebastian, because I’m hoping this will be an end to my wandering days, at least for a while.
  • This advice is well put. I served on a search committee myself, once, and am studiously avoiding doing any of the things that led us to automatically nix some of the candidates. Not that I would ever have e-mailed my resume to fifty different libraries without even bothering to send out the e-mails separately, like one guy did. (And then there was the candidate who had obviously written a generic cover letter and done a mail-merge to add the relevant library names and job titles. We tossed his application, too.)
  • If I seem a bit preoccupied in the coming weeks, well, now you know why.


"I always think those WWJD? bracelets really ought to stand for ‘What would Jeeves do?’"

(Courtesy of my friend R., who was in town for a visit this weekend. It’s finals week and I have a ton of stuff to finish, so blogging will be sparse for the next few days, but I just had to share that.)

Conference paper think-out-loud post

I have way too many end-of-term projects to finish in the next few weeks, so in an attempt to force myself to write my upcoming conference paper on time, I’m going to put some of the points in my head into a post. With any luck, it’ll help me over the getting-started hurdle. Those of you who are here for the opera reviews or the random poems or the minutiae of my daily life, feel free to ignore this post — there are more of all of the above coming before long, I promise.

So the conference theme is "Questioning Authority," and I’ve been wanting to write something about LibraryThing for ages, mainly because LibraryThing fascinates me. In part because it’s kind of counterintuitive that a bunch of website users could generate not only a classification system (the tags), but also a way to disambiguate authors with the same name, as well as a way to link up multiple editions and versions of works (the "combine
works" function, which approximates what libraries are trying to do
with Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, a.k.a. FRBR).

So my angle on the "authority" theme is to play on a couple of different senses of "authority": authority as in "authority control" (librarian-speak for the work of creating consistent, "authorized" forms of names and subject terms to avoid confusion in the catalog), and authority as in who’s authorized to perform this kind of work: professionals at the Library of Congress? Or, in the case of LibraryThing, regular people cataloging their own book collections?* I’m using the phrase "distributed authority control" to describe the phenomenon of lots of people each contributing bits and pieces of knowledge to create a kind of home-grown bibliographic authority system.

One of the things I’m curious about is what motivates people to do this. It makes sense that LibraryThing’s tag classification emerges out of people’s desire to tag their own stuff. But the work-combination and author-name disambiguation seem like an extra layer of user effort: and yet the "Combiners" group is among the most active on the site, and people are contributing to the "Common Knowledge" wiki, which lists information about both books and their authors, at a great rate. My hunch is it’s a combination of a lot of factors: a desire for accuracy (no, wait, that’s not the right Alexandre Dumas!), a certain degree of fannish enthusiasm (I’m thinking of those who contribute detailed character lists for their favorite novels), and — probably the key thing — a preexisting community of interest.

Because if you throw a bunch of random library catalog records at people who aren’t interested in the books in question and say "want to help us improve this data?", they’re not going to care. But get a group of Patrick O’Brian fans** to catalog and describe and disambiguate their favorite author’s work, and they have a stake in it. The Library of Congress (speaking of) put some of its photo holdings on Flickr, and found that a horde of enthusiastic Flickr users promptly started tagging them.

There are more things I want to say: how this isn’t an ideal model, how distributed and professional authority control might coexist, how all of this compares with Wikipedia, etcetera etcetera — but I only have 12 minutes to say it, so a lot of these points will have to get edited down (and, hopefully, re-elaborated in the Q&A session afterwards).

Whew. If you’re still reading this, feel free to weigh in!

* This isn’t an either-or, of course. LibraryThing pulls in that structured library data automatically. And it helps that a fairly large number of LibraryThingers are librarians.

** Example chosen because I’m a Patrick O’Brian fan myself, and there was some interesting conversation in the LT O’Brian group about adding character names to Common Knowledge.

Someday I’ll have one of these in my house.

I recognize the design flaw implicit in keeping books in places where they’re likely to get wet, but I still desperately want a Library Bath. The slanted back just makes it all the more appealing. (But it looks like it needs to be longer, so one can wash properly after soaking until one’s toes are pruney.)

Greetings from New York

For the past several weeks I’ve been using my Fridays (which, in my work schedule, are the start of the weekend) to work on my project for the special collections class I’m taking. It’s a faux exhibit (i.e. we have to turn in an introduction and set of labels for an imaginary exhibit we’d like to put together), and mine is on the Gotham Book Mart.

Today, I’m on an all-too-brief daytrip to New York to look at some of the GBM’s archives in the New York Public Library, and in front of me are two letters from Gertrude Stein (whose handwriting I can’t always decipher), and another from Wallace Stevens. And there’s so much more, my head practically exploded when the librarian handed me the shelflist.

I just had to mention that, because how often can one say "In front of me are two letters from Gertrude Stein"? Now, back to the archival folders, in a race against time before the library closes and I go off to dinner with friends followed by the bus back to Philly. Catch you all later!

Note to self

Googling the piece of music that’s stuck in your head will not unstick it. If anything, giving in to the impulse to Google for it will make the earworm twenty times worse.

Damn you, Léo Delibes, you and your ubiquitous duet.* Also, please get out of my head now. OK? [clutches skull and whimpers]

* Not only is it the British Airways theme, it appeared in an episode of The L Word I was watching the other night, hence the earworm. (Hmm. I wonder if I could ever get myself hired as Overeducated Culture  Consultant on that show? "The Anne Carson references were rather a good idea. But Lakme? I don’t care if you’re slyly alluding to that scene in The Hunger, try something baroque with lots of mezzos in drag instead!" And that would probably be when they’d hire someone else. Oh well…)