On walkability, part 5: Aesthetics revisited

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on walkability and city form. If you'd like to read them in sequence, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.]

Via The Atlantic Cities, I’ve been checking out OpenPlansBeautiful Streets project, an experiment to determine what makes a street beautiful. When you visit the Beautiful Streets front page, you see two side-by-side Google Street Views of randomly chosen streets in Philadelphia. You then click the checkmark on whichever street you think is the more beautiful of the two.* The data goes into a spreadsheet containing locations and votes, which can be downloaded if you want to crunch the numbers yourself. As the Atlantic poster notes, the choices are often not obvious at all. Is the snarl of streets around 30th Street Station more beautiful than a pleasant but architecturally unremarkable suburb because the former affords a glimpse of the towers of Center City in the distance? Do overgrown areas register as dangerously run-down or lushly green? Does a street with humdrum architecture get points for including a park? Is there any beauty at all to be found in highways?

I’m not entirely sure how useful the results will be; I’ve noticed, from my own interactions, that my perceptions of a street’s beauty are skewed somewhat by sunshine, photo quality (there are some cloudy, hazy images in Google Street View that just don’t look good to me, no matter what the street itself looks like), and whether or not I recognize the part of town in the image. (The little jolt of nostalgia — “3rd and Market! I used to pass that corner on my way to the farmer’s market every Sunday!” — sometimes overrides my sense of aesthetics.) And as a commenter on the Atlantic points out, there might be some selection bias at work. But, even so, I’m going to be very interested to see what kind of results come out of the data once they’ve collected enough of it. As I’ve written here before, aesthetics are important if you want to make streets friendly to foot traffic.

It’s also a very useful site for making discoveries about one’s own visual preferences. I already knew I have a strong preference for older buildings, for streets with trees, for varied architecture, for a feeling of enclosure, and for buildings higher than two stories. But looking at these images has also made me realize that I love idiosyncratic things as well, like trolley tracks and Y-shaped intersections disrupting the regular grid. And that I think streets are especially beautiful when there are people using them. I can see a project like this working as a conversation-starter as well as a source of data.

Plus, for me, seeing these glimpses of Philadelphia again is just plain happy-making. Even the streets I’ve never visited, even the ones that are downright ugly. Though it does make me a bit sad that some of my very favorite Philly streets are too tiny and narrow to be on Google Street View in the first place. But I could write a whole other post about those streets, and I probably will, complete with pictures.

* Rather like the entertainingly time-wasting site Kitten War, where you vote for which of a random pair of kitten images is cuter. I wonder if the Kitten War folks have tried to analyze the principles of kitten cuteness? You know, for SCIENCE? Inquiring minds want to know!

Stranding is hard: a quick, cranky knitting post

As part of my “learn something new every month” New Year’s resolution, I’ve been trying to teach myself to be more adept at stranded knitting. (For those of you who don’t knit, stranded knitting is when you work with two colors of yarn at once, alternating small groups of stitches in each color, and you carry the non-working yarn across the back of the piece.) I have a couple of lovely new books of Fair Isle patterns for visual inspiration, and yesterday I practiced for a while on a test swatch.

This, more or less, is what was running through my head:

  • I HATE DOUBLE-POINTED NEEDLES. They’re so horribly fiddly. Should’ve just made a much bigger swatch so I could work on circulars. [drops DPN for the 20th time; sotto voce swearing ensues]
  • I cannot, to save my life, hold one yarn in each hand, the way that’s supposed to be easiest. Just. Can’t. Do it. I never taught myself to knit Continental-style, with the yarn thrown over the left hand.
  • But if I keep just picking up one yarn at a time and holding it with my right hand like I’m used to, the two yarns get hopelessly tangled in no time at all. [more sotto voce swearing]
  • OK. Trying the two-hands-at-once method again. I feel like a toddler learning to walk, or something. Am I really that much of a klutz?
  • Dropped the needle AGAIN. [more sotto voce swearing]
  • My method of yarn wrapping is generally inefficient and weird. I should work on that. I bet this would be a lot easier if I were better at holding the yarn in the first place.
  • I’ve been at this for what feels like hours, and this is all I’ve managed to do? Augh.

Attempting Fair Isle knitting (daily photo, 2/12/12)

So, clearly, I have a long way to go. But I keep seeing the most amazing stranded patterns for sheep-themed blankets and Old English socks and all kinds of incredible mittens (mittens with octopuses and koi and beetles on them! astronomical mittens! Cthulhu mittens!), and my desire to be able to make them is greater than my annoyance at my own ham-fistedness. At least I hope so.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more swatching to do. And probably a lot more swearing.

A cairn of small stones

Inspired by friends in the blogosphere, I’ve been participating in the January 2012 River of Stones project. The idea is that every day you write a short burst of prose, some sort of observation of the world, and then either blog it or tweet it. I’ve been confining mine to less than 140 characters so I could stick them directly up on Twitter under the #smallstone hashtag. Now that January’s over, I thought I’d pull them all together into one post and put it up here for safekeeping.

(I like the image of each of these bits of writing as a stone. Like you could pile them up and get a cairn. And I also really liked the habits of attention that this project encouraged.)


Hopped off the bus and into the blue hour. All downtown soaked in a wash of cobalt, interrupted by streetlights & lit windows.

A crop of spiky gumballs still hangs on the leafless sweetgum tree outside my office window.

Dashing between buildings on a bitterly cold day, face averted from the sun’s bright, remote, warmth-free glare.

On my walk home, church spires catch the last light. Two joggers, in matching navy sweats, emerge from the deepening twilight.

A dozen or so birds flying northwest in a ragged V that keeps shifting into a line, a loop, a shapeless huddle. Entropy.

Two men vehemently arguing on a New Haven street: “You wanted cappuccino! You wanted cappuccino!” “No, I did not!” “Yes you did!

Pink sunset light on the underside of blue clouds picks out an inverted landscape of prairies with the occasional plateau.

Constant micro-adjustments to the indoor temperature. The thermostat nudged up or down. The fleece slippers & fingerless gloves.

Burst of bright color through trees; looks like fall again, but it’s an orange-suited arborist on a cherry picker.

Two enormous raccoons outside my building. Suspicious muddy paw prints running right past my front door. Suddenly I’m nervous.

The arborists’ completed work: a tree lies in perhaps two dozen neatly made sections on the grass.

A thick disc of milky-opaque ice, raised irregularly in the middle, in my landlord’s birdbath this morning.

Distant church bells overlay the thumping bass from a passing car’s radio.

Yesterday night’s snow, this morning’s slush, this evening’s damp and vaguely slippery sidewalks.

Swaying gently in my chair to a glam-rock spreadsheet-editing soundtrack. Trees outside sway a little more briskly in the wind.

Freezing morning air took <5 minutes to insinuate right through the fingertips of my gloves and the cables and ribs of my hat.

Dusting of snow last night. Tree branches catching the morning light look like they’ve been lightly dipped in cream.

Pleasures of a snow day: walking in the middle of the street. For once, more pedestrians than cars. We grin at each other.

Three loads of laundry hastily done at the end of the weekend. The smell of clean, heated cloth pervades the apartment.

The waitress brushes crumbs from the table with a solicitous gesture. Through the wineglass the restaurant gleams ripplingly.

On a passing oil truck, the words “MYSTIC FUEL.” It’s from Mystic, CT, but the image of fuel for mysticism is irresistible.

Bibimbap in a stone bowl too hot to touch barehanded. All through dinner it radiates heat. I scrape the last of the sticky rice.

The man in the airplane seat next to mine slept for much of the flight, his thumbs moving as if texting in his dreams.

A woman, giving directions over her cell phone, points one way and then another along the route she imagines for her hearer.

Glimpses of people’s lives through windows at dusk. A glowing fish tank, a TV turned on, a refrigerator covered with pictures.

Weird contrast of mild, benignant weather & a lingering sense of wrongness: too-early daffodils sprouting at the end of January.

A week in the life of a librarian

Somewhat tardily, seeing as it started yesterday, I’m posting to announce my participation in Round 8 of the Library Day in the Life project, which runs all this week. The idea is for librarians of all stripes to post on various channels about what they do all day, which is the kind of information that I would have loved to have available when I was in the early stages of career exploration. For those of you just looking at this blog for the first time, hello! I’m a research and instruction librarian at Connecticut College in New London, CT, and you can read probably more than you ever wanted to know about me elsewhere on this site.

Mostly I’m going to be posting my day-in-the-life snippets on Twitter under the #libday8 hashtag, though I may also put the occasional photo up on Flickr. Like this one:

Connecticut College library at night (daily photo, 1/30/12)

I snapped this yesterday as I left work. You can’t really see because of the blurriness, but the main floor of Shain Library was full of students (it’s the second week of the semester, and the activity level in the building has already picked up a lot), and it looked very warm in the cold January 5:30 p.m. darkness.

And now it’s time for this librarian’s day to turn to dinner and laundry. Catch you all on Twitter…

On not knowing code*

It’s kind of ridiculous that I’ve made it this far without learning any programming languages. I mean, sure, that wasn’t part of the “Computer Applications” class I took in high school, and I was the kind of undergrad English major who took the required math courses and plunged with relief back into the humanities. And my graduate English program wasn’t known for its technophilia. But considering how much time I’ve spent since then among digital humanists and tech-savvy librarians and generally geeky people, you’d think I’d have picked up some coding somewhere along the line. It’s been a lacuna in my education. And I could sit down with some books and teach myself, except I learn better when I’m interacting with someone else in some way. Particularly when I don’t have a lot of spare time to learn new things in.

So when I heard about Codecademy‘s “Code Year” project, I signed myself up posthaste. Lessons in discrete chunks, on a regular schedule! Gamification! Comparing notes with also-participating friends! It sounded very doable, and it was well-timed, considering I’d just decided to learn some programming at some point in 2012.

And then a friend pointed me to Audrey Watters’ post on Codecademy, and I thought “Oh dear.” And then Julie Meloni posted about it too. Julie argues that “the key issue is pedagogy”:

Yes, the interface is shiny and the badges are neat, but no, it is not teaching you how to code. It is teaching you how to call-and-response, and is not particularly helpful in explaining why you’re responding, why they’re calling, or—most importantly—how to become a composer.

I’ve silently watched many people start the lessons, ask the right questions (“why am I doing X?”, “what happens when I do Y instead of X?”, “how does X and Z fit together?”, “how does Z compare to A?”, “wait, all I’m doing is typing what you’re telling me to type?”), and end up saying “well, I just earned 5 badges and don’t know what the heck that was all about or how it relates to [insert completely reasonable things here].”

I’ve been noticing the same thing. I mean, I’m learning something, but the key concepts are tangled up in my head with the details of JavaScript syntax, and I’m not sure why I’m doing a lot of the things the lessons walk you through. I’m typing into the box and getting “Correct!”, and I get what I’m doing in the short term, but I have my doubts about how well how well I’ll remember it in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, another friend, over on G+, explained functions by way of an example involving pseudocode and peanut-butter-sandwich-making instructions — which made immediate and enlightening sense to me, in part because I used to do a similar assignment with my freshman comp students, and in part because it made the larger point clear: what you’re doing, as she said, is “verbing nouns in time, checking conditions as you go.” Including conditions like “the lid of the peanut butter jar is stuck.” It comes back, as a lot of pedagogy does, to building on what the learner already knows (hello, constructivism).

So I’m still doing the Code Year lessons, but we’ll see. I might try the Rubyist Historian tutorial instead, or HacketyHack, both of which I’ve heard people speak well of. If there’s any learning-to-code resource out there that you particularly recommend, Reader, please feel free to point to it in the comments. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted.

* By the way, the title of this post is a deliberate reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” And even though programming and Greek are two quite different things,** I kept thinking of it as I drafted this post, probably because, like Woolf with the Greeks, I’ve been confronting something simultaneously unfamiliar and foundational, and trying to connect it with what I already know.

** I actually do know Greek, though it’s been a while since I’ve used it for anything. I still have my battered Hansen & Quinn and my Middle Liddell, though. Hmm. Maybe later on this year I can work on reviving my Greek.

A couple of New Year’s resolutions

1. If I find myself dithering excessively over a decision, I will ask myself, “Really, why the hell not?” And if the only answer is “Um…I don’t know but I’m sure there’s a very good reason! Because of…um…stuff that might go wrong!”, I resolve to go ahead and do whatever it is, even if it scares me.

2. Each month, I’m going to try to learn a new thing. I haven’t picked out all the things yet, but I’m thinking: some basic programming, stranded knitting (my own personal knitterly final frontier), and, if I can swing it, perhaps a Rare Book School course this summer. Oh, and if I can find any local classes, maybe belly dancing. And if I manage to keep up the learning new things, I’ll blog about them.

2011 in review

It’s New Year’s Eve and, I have to say, I’m not sorry to see the last of 2011. It has not been the greatest year. My grandmother passed away in the middle of it; the neverending recession spread its malaise everywhere; and I spent the entire year conducting a job search that, so far, hasn’t netted anything, although there have been one or two near misses.

I should add that I’m not looking for a new job because there’s something wrong with my current job; I work with some really lovely people and I get to do quite a few things that suit me very well. But I’m starting to feel a bit stale, like I want to move in different directions. And there’s a geographical reason for wanting to look elsewhere: three years in New London have convinced me that I would not be happy living in a small town in Connecticut for the long term (“not happy” is putting it mildly, actually), and I need to get back to a larger city. I don’t blog the details of job searches, but if any of you who don’t know me in real life were wondering about the subtext of that recent meta-post, that’s what’s been going on.

Job searches can be exciting, but they also have a way of making one feel either inadequate or exhausted, or both. Most of my spare energy in 2011 went into the job search and keeping my spirits up, and I had very little left over for anything else. A lot of my daily writing at 750Words has been fraught with angst and tiredness and repeated disappointment and general dullness, like my brain has a few too many processes running in the background. It’s probably fairly telling that one of my theme songs for the year was “This Year” by the Mountain Goats, with its refrain “I am gonna make it! Through this year! If it kills me!”

But I’ve still been able to come up with a few good things about this past year. So here’s a list, as the sun goes down on the last evening of the year:

2011 saw the launch of #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, edited by the always fabulous Bethany Nowviskie. I’m immensely pleased to have been a contributor to this project, and to have been in such fantastic company.

2011 was the year when my ongoing commonplace book research, conducted mostly in fits and starts and on vacation days, started to feel like it connected up with my dissertation in several ways, and like it could maybe turn into a book, somewhere down the road.

2011 was the year I came up with the following list of priorities, or personal manifesto, or set of guidelines, or whatever you want to call them:

  1. Make things
  2. Attend to the aesthetic
  3. Stay curious
  4. Discover things
  5. Seek and create conversation

(I wrote this list out on an index card and tacked it up over my desk, to remind myself of what I want to contribute to the world, and what I want to make sure to focus on both at work and outside of it. I still think it’s quite a good list.)

2011 was the year I started feeling a strong inclination to write fiction again. Or rather, I’d been feeling it off and on for a while, but 2011 was the year when plots for stories started popping into my head in much larger numbers than I’d experienced before, and the year in which I actually started writing some of them.

And, finally, 2011 was the year when I started memorizing poems again. I used to do that all the time when I was younger, and then got out of the habit (even when I was writing a dissertation on poetry and memory), but I’ve gotten back into it. Right at the moment there are a whole bunch of Philip Larkin poems I want to commit to memory. He’s in some ways the perfect poet to read in times of uncertainty, pessimism, and general dourness. But he’s also one of those poets who can pull me out of that state of mind by writing about it so well.

Anyway. Happy New Year, reader. May 2012 be a better year than 2011 for all of us.

Random Bullets of Ghostliness

‘Tis the season, not just for a deluge of forced consumerism and overplayed Christmas music in every public space, but for cold and darkness and, traditionally, for sitting around the fire and scaring the living daylights out of each other with creepy stories. And since supernatural things have been on my mind a lot lately (I keep being ambushed by more plots for weird fiction I want to write someday), and since I want to follow through on my many good intentions not to let my blog fade away with neglect, I bring you: Random Bullets of Ghostliness. Happy winter solstice!
  • Oxford University Press just came out with a new edition of the collected ghost stories of my all-time favorite author of things macabre, M.R. James. I think this one’s destined for my collection. When I tweeted about it, a friend (recalling that James used to read his stories out loud to friends at Christmastime) commented, “I always like to think that someday I’ll time-travel to one of James’s Xmas ghost storytimes.” That’s now right up there with “attend the first night of Le nozze di Figaro” on my personal list of Things I’d Do If I Had a Time Machine.
  • If this workshop is ever held again, I want to go. I mean, think of it: ghost story writing in Scotland in an old house near Loch Ness. For a week. Heaven!
  • Favorite ghostly book I’ve read recently: Sarah Monette‘s The Bone Key, a collection of linked stories about an archivist named Kyle Murchison Booth who lives in a never-named city in a vaguely early-20th-century setting, and who keeps encountering cursed artifacts, revenants, ghouls, and, in one story that’s not so much scary as it is heartbreakingly sad, an incubus. Monette is an admirer of James (both Jameses, in fact: M.R. and Henry), and it shows. I didn’t find this collection entirely bone-chilling, though there are some great creepy moments, but I enjoyed the psychological depth a lot. The scars from Booth’s deeply screwed-up childhood — family curse that kills his parents; abusive guardian; horrific boarding school — feel very real without being melodramatic; in one story, he’s startled when a former schoolmate treats him with simple friendliness instead of shunning him, and that moment really resonated. (My own childhood was nowhere near that traumatic, but I remember very clearly what it was like to operate under that same assumption that no one would ever voluntarily associate with me.) This is another for the permanent collection.
  • I think I’m going to join the Ghost Story Society, just for the fun of it.
  • One of my so-far-unrealized ambitions: to host a ghost-story-reading party of my own. Preferably on a cold dark evening around this time of year, with the lights turned down low and my ever-growing collection of ghost story anthologies on hand to read from. Who’s in?

I r srs librarian. This r serious site. (A meta-post)

Those of you who are still subscribed to my RSS feed have, I’m sure, noticed a lack of bloggage here lately. Something about moving to a Domain of My Own, and putting it next to my professional portfolio, has made me slightly paranoid about writing anything in this space that might make me look unprofessional. I’ll want to blog about, say, knitting, or links to interesting but random stuff I find around the web, or what I made for dinner, and that’s the cue for the little inner voice to say “But colleagues and potential future employers will wonder why you’re blogging about that and not about Big Important Issues In Librarianship!” And I’ll think: hmm, nah, maybe I’ll just put that on Google Plus where I can regulate who sees it. Because having no new posts on the front page is better than looking like I’m not serious about my work.*

That inner voice sounds a lot like this LOLcat, as a matter of fact:

i r srs librarian  this r serious site

And then I get into the habit of squashing the urge to blog if it’s not up to my self-imposed standards of SRS LIBRARIAN-ness, so that even posts about things library- and IT-related don’t get written. (Is this too offhand? too outdated? too lightweight? too polemical? too jokey? Better be safe and not write it at all.) It’s not like the old (relatively) carefree days when I was a semi-anonymous blogger at Blogspot, or even a nymous blogger at Typepad. I love being able to point people to my very own site, but I think I’ve given myself a complex about what should go on it. Probably unnecessarily; as I said during the Ivan Tribble controversy, if potential future employers declined to hire me on account of my having a blog, I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.

Anyway. All of that, plus being really busy and, consequently, too tired most evenings to spin words together, has led to a lot less writing for public consumption than I used to do. And that’s a pity; it’s not like I ever had a huge audience, and it’s not like I think my blog posts are so important that the world will be irreparably impoverished by not reading them. But too much of my writing energy has gone into the walled gardens of Facebook and Google Plus lately, and that doesn’t quite sit right with me.

So: from now on, when I hear that no-frivolous-blogging inner voice start up, I’m going to visualize it as a cat in an oversized bow tie, and laugh at it. Even when I’m not being a SRS LIBRARIAN, I’m going to try not to let self-consciousness stop me from blogging altogether. Hold me to that if I disappear again, please, Reader?

In closing: xkcd, as always, says it better than I can.

* I’m still working on ridding myself of the assumption that “serious about my work” = “thinks of nothing else during every waking minute.” I blame grad school for that one.

She refused to be bored, chiefly because she wasn’t boring.

The other day I came across a blog post by Russell M. Davies* on “How to be interesting.” It’s written for people in the business world, but it could apply to anyone, really. I entirely agree with him that it’s hard to be interesting if you’re bored with everything:

The way to be interesting is to be interested. You’ve got to find what’s interesting in everything, you’ve got to be good at noticing things, you’ve got to be good at listening. If you find people (and things) interesting, they’ll find you interesting.

Interesting people are good at sharing. You can’t be interested in someone who won’t tell you anything. Being good at sharing is not the same as talking and talking and talking. It means you share your ideas, you let people play with them and you’re good at talking about them without having to talk about yourself.

The marvelous thing about tinterweb is that it’s got great tools for being interested and great tools for sharing.

Among the tools he suggests for becoming more interested: taking a photo every day and posting it to Flickr; weekly blogging; interviewing people and figuring out what’s interesting about them, then podcasting the interviews; eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in coffee shops; collecting things; making things.

I already make things (knitted things, food, doodles, origami cranes made out of Post-It notes), and I already blog. But I like the daily photo idea a lot; I think I might try that. And I could stand to blog a lot more; I’ve missed the link-posting and miscellaneous noting I used to do. One of my projects for this fall is to get back into it, with the goal of being interested.

(Part of my recent blogger’s block stems from a worry that I’m getting boring. Mostly I think that worry means that I’m feeling a lack of what Anne Shirley called “scope for the imagination” in my day-to-day life. I like Davies’ advice in part because it’s about ways to open up scope for the imagination where one hadn’t looked for it before.)

* Not to be confused with Russell T. Davies, producer of my new favorite show.