What else I’ve been up to: a list

Wrapping my head around data modeling, particularly entity-relationship modeling, which is bizarrely fun. Also
Dialog, a.k.a. (depending on one’s perspective) “You’re learning Dialog? Oh my God, why?” or “a powerful teaching tool” or “hours of pain, but you’ll be better at power-searching databases than anyone else.” Even though I persistently forget that S is short for both “set” and “select,” I’m actually starting to see the connections between the theory and the practice of database-searching (construction, too), in both classes I’m taking. Which is nifty.

Keeping the invading mice at bay with a combined strategy of traps in the basement, blocking possible access routes, obsessively vacuuming up crumbs, and spraying a peppermint-oil-and-water solution in the places where I’ve seen them. Traps baited with peanut butter only lured more mice into my apartment, where they then kept getting the bait off the traps without getting caught. This gave me a certain respect for their intelligence, but I’d still rather be able to sleep at night without listening for the scritching of unwelcome little feet. Fortunately the strategy  seems to be working, cross fingers and touch wood.

Reading voraciously on the train and over meals. Latest books I’ve read: Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, which I initially thought might be too grim for my tastes, but it’s a strong contender for my favorite of her novels thus far; Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, after two years of meaning to read it (very good, I thought); and I just finished Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Not getting out all that much, thanks to work and school, but planning a few excursions: probably the Philadelphians Against Santorum Halloween cabaret this weekend, and Tosca at the Center City Opera Theater next week. Also, hopefully, Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (Schubert, Hindemith, and Strauss), if I can score a student rush ticket.

Mulling a sort of experimental literary-critical project, which keeps shifting frustratingly out of reach and getting shelved for later.

Getting back into knitting, especially now that I’ve found people to knit with on my lunch hours and familiarized myself with my nearest yarn stores. Loop, on South Street, even has its own blog.

Wondering whether kids on my block go trick-or-treating, and how much candy I should get in case they do, and whether I have time to carve a pumpkin as fabulous as this one. (Maybe not this year, but some year I want to start carving pumpkins into the likenesses of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies.)

A visit to the art museum

Owing to Swarthmore’s fall break schedule, the weekend before last was a
three-day one for me. I celebrated the extra day off by
visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was high on the list of
"things I’m surprised I haven’t done since moving to Philly." I ended up spending most of
my time on the main floor (1850 to the present day); another time I’ll go
back and check out the Asian art wing and the pre-1850 works.

the Museum Postcard Rule (as expounded in About Last Night: there will never be a
postcard of the paintings you like the most) held true, and so I have
no postcard of one landscape that I found strangely compelling, I’m not quite sure why. Nor is there an image
of it anywhere to be found on the museum’s website (suggesting a
corollary to the Postcard Rule: you won’t be able to find it online,
either). But I can at least point to a few other highlights of the
trip, even though the images don’t do them justice. I lingered in front of a little Whistler nocturne; Bonnard’s
Homage to Maillol and the Maillol nude that
inspired it
; Dorothea
Tanning’s Birthday; Cy Twombly’s scribbly version of the Trojan War; a whole room full of Duchamps; and Miró’s The Hermitage. I confess to zipping past the Impressionists,
because for the most part I can take or leave the Impressionists (I
blame overexposure), and when confronted with a wall of Renoirs,
my first impulse is to head for the next gallery. But I love those Surrealists. It’s a grand thing to live half a mile away from the likes of Duchamp and Tanning and Ernst and Magritte.

Speaking of Tanning, Salon ran an interview with her a few years back, aptly titled "Oldest Living Surrealist Tells All." She’s the kind of person I aspire to be when I’m ninety-odd.

Political malaise and election season

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had fragmentary political posts
buzzing around my head. I never know how much to write about politics
in this space. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I’m not paying
attention. It’s more to do with genre, really. By and large, I
don’t feel at home writing in the style and rhetorical stance of the all-politics-all-the-time political
blogs. But periodically, like now, I find myself thinking:
how can I post about nothing but my regular topics at a time like this?
Isn’t that just ignoring Current Events?

Which in turn prompts a "what, precisely, is a blog supposed to do?" internal
debate that usually results in my shutting up, because really, aren’t
there a zillion others out there already making the
arguments I’d be making, and what use is a "what they said," anyway?
And then you think about the public personas you cultivate on- and
offline, and the disclaimers you have to issue about how you’re
speaking as a private citizen and your views don’t necessarily
represent those of anyone else associated with you, and so on.

And when you turn on the news and learn that the president now has the
power to declare someone an "enemy combatant" for vague and nebulous
reasons, and that such people can be held indefinitely without the
right to face their accusers, and you
start thinking about what this implies — well, what can you say? It’s
at once too big to talk about and too big not
to talk about. (It occurred to me recently that a fair number of "How
do we know the world we live in will still be recognizable in a few
years’ time?" thoughts have been creeping into my head lately. I don’t
think I’m alone in this at all.)

So instead I’m going to write about what you can do, concretely,
when you feel like you have no say in what your government is doing.
Dr. B got me started on this train of thought by asking "So what are you going to do about it?"
To her list of suggestions, I’d add volunteering to get out the vote
next month
. I’m also thinking about doing a class project on the information-seeking behavior and information needs of voters, because it can be really hard to find out where candidates actually
stand. For starters, there’s Project Vote Smart, the League of Women Voters, Open Secrets (find out where your candidates’ campaign contributions are coming from), and, for people hereabouts, the Committee of Seventy’s election information site. I’ll post more links as I find them; I may also post some thinking-out-loud about education and citizenship, depending on how busy I am cramming for midterms. (Exams, that is, not elections.)

New vocabulary

Unfamiliar phrases to which I’ve been introduced of late:

inverted file
critical path
scope creep
waterfall model
business logic
pre-coordinate system
assembly language

I keep thinking I should make a found poem out of them…

Personal anthology: Robert Graves

Because I haven’t posted a random favorite poem for a while:

Love Without Hope

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Robert Graves

What I love about this poem: its tremendous compression (so much of the scene is implied, so economically, in the tall hat and the "imprisoned larks"), the surprise of "Singing about her head," and that wonderful off-rhyme of "catcher" and "daughter," which seems almost to measure the distance between the two characters even while it links them together.

(While Googling to make sure I remembered it right, I saw that Alan of this moment once posted it too. Great minds, etc. etc.)

If dissertations were software

In my systems analysis class this week, we learned about the differences between various models for software development, and we talked a bit about the circumstances under which you might choose one model or another. For instance: the waterfall model, in which the programmers and everyone else involved in the project move through a series of well-defined stages where the outcome is known from the get-go, and everyone signs off on each stage before moving to the next; the incremental model, in which you release the system a little at the time, improving it and adding features with each stage; and rapid prototyping, in which you develop a prototype, show it to the people who need the system, fix and refine as necessary, lather, rinse, and repeat.

Halfway through the lecture, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head: oh, this is like working on a big writing project! Especially the kind of writing project where you’re getting feedback from several different readers. It reminded me of the process of writing my dissertation, which was sort of a cross between the incremental model (here’s a crappy draft of chapter 1! here’s a better draft of chapter 1 with feedback incorporated! here’s a chunk of chapter 2! and so on) and the rapid-prototyping model. My preliminary exams were all about coming up with a dissertation-prototype in 72 hours, then going through an intensive critique with a view of turning it into a finished product eventually — even though I ended up not using the prototype.

And then I recalled how I always tried to encourage my writing students to try something like the incremental model (draft, get comments, revise, get more comments, et cetera) rather than the waterfall model (plan out the entire thing so that you know what the end stage will be). Which is probably about as far as the analogy will go before it starts to fall apart. But it was good to feel that connection-making part of my brain come online and start whirring away.

I wonder if my students would have glazed over if I’d started making software development analogies? It’s probably just as well I didn’t know about this stuff back when I was teaching composition. Though it might have appealed to the future engineering and computer science majors.

“This workout is the only medically approved workout for librarians”

This video has been making the rounds amongst my coworkers, and it cracked us all up. Something about the juxtaposition of ’80s exercise-video music ("Shout! Shout! Let it all out!"), ’80s library technology (the terminals! the microfiche catalog!), and the shots of people aerobically shelving books and spinning globes — well, maybe it’s funniest if you’re a librarian, but still: hee!

First week of classes in review

Miscellaneous notes from the first week of classes:

  • Wow, it’s been a while since I was a student. My Tuesday evening class was practically my first exposure to PowerPoint as a lecture presentation method. Not that I’ve never encountered PowerPoint before — far from it — but before this term, I’d never taken a class where the professor used it. Though this may have something to do with humanities professors’ notorious resistance to new technologies than anything else. (Transparencies on the overhead projector, anyone?)
  • Info 503, Introduction to Information Systems Analysis, was a bit of a culture shock at first, since it’s oriented toward the business-and-tech side of things. But then the professor started talking about object-oriented approaches to systems analysis, and my ears pricked up, even though it’s a fairly new set of concepts for me.
  • I never really thought about it before, but I must be a visual learner — everything makes more sense to me if there are diagrams.
  • The challenging thing about evening classes (this, at least, I remember from the occasional three-hour, 6 PM graduate seminar back in my Eng. Lit. days) is figuring out when to eat. I suspect that sandwiches before class and big salads at home afterwards are the answer. And energy bars. Lots and lots of ’em.
  • In Info 510 (Information Sources and Services), we went around the room and introduced ourselves. It’s an interesting blend of just-finished-college folks and self-proclaimed career changers. Everyone has a different background.
  • I’m finally going to learn how to use Dialog. Yay!
  • And now, back to thinking about topics for group project #1 of my MSLIS career…

Reflections on book bans

In honor of Banned Books Week, I made a little LibraryThing widget to display banned books from my own collection:

I used Wikipedia’s list of banned and challenged books as a quick reference. Looking over the list, I recognized quite a few books I loved when I was growing up. It made me wonder if the children’s librarian at my neighborhood public library — whom I remember with great fondness as one of the first people outside my family who let me know it was okay to be a bookwormish nerdy kid — ever had to deal with the "Won’t someone please think of the children?" type of book-banners. I hope she didn’t. (I can’t believe people have tried to ban the Anastasia Krupnik books; they were some of my favorite reading material in fifth grade. Zilpha Keatley Snyder‘s books, too.)

My "banned books" tag set isn’t very extensive, but I’ve read quite a few of the books on the various banned book lists. It occurred to me that I didn’t own a lot of these books because I’ve been able to borrow them from libraries instead of buying them. Which is a good thing to realize this week.

So: happy Banned Books Week! Now go forth and read something controversial.


Yesterday evening I went to Drexel’s new graduate student orientation. We all sat in an auditorium and listened to presentations on financial aid and library resources and the grad student association and whatnot, and then we all trooped out to eat free food and talk to our advisers at the tables our respective schools had set up. The iSchool gave everyone a little bag with handouts and an assortment of logo’d souvenirs (including a stress ball shaped amusingly, if a bit inexplicably, like a brain). During the sitting-and-listening part of the evening, I’d been looking around and trying to guess which of the sea of people around me were fellow iSchool students. So I was rather pleased to spot a fair number of the people I thought looked like librarians-in-the-making walking around with iSchool bags at the reception. There must be such a thing as librarian-dar; I suddenly remembered how I managed to spot the ALA attendees on the plane to Chicago last year.

My first class is on Tuesday. I’d been feeling a bit apprehensive and odd about being a student all over again, but now (apart from textbook sticker shock) not so.