And on a less serious note…


Self-portrait as a South Park character, courtesy of the South Park Studio (linked to by so many people at this point that I forget where I saw it first).


Oh, lord. Remember this story about the egregious book-banning bill? It’s back (link via LISNews). Is anyone else thinking that homophobia makes people certifably insane? I mean, this is nuts. It’s loony. The fact that this bill is still around suggests to me that someone has been putting hallucinogens into Alabama state legislature’s drinking water.

Oh, and Microsoft? You just gave me a really good reason to switch to Apple when I buy my next laptop. If you’re going to cave in to the pressure of homophobic nutjobs, you’ve lost my patronage, and I hope a lot of other people follow suit.

And while we’re on the subject of horrific things: this story that Rana comments on and this from Echidne of the Snakes are both pretty horrific.

Where can I sign up to join the liberal feminist conspiracy? I want to live in a world where the lunatics haven’t taken over.

[Updated to add: Emily Lloyd at Poesy Galore has the best response I’ve seen to the Alabama book-banning story, and she’s totally right about what it’s like to be young and not yet aware of who you’ll be attracted to, but nonetheless picking up on intriguing subtext even in the most ostensibly heterosexual literary classics.]

Let us now praise Joss

Trailers for the Firefly movie! Fellow Joss Whedon fans, rejoice! (Via Making Light and TangognaT.)

You know, I didn’t really get into "Firefly" when it was on TV. Fox’s addlebrained decision to show the episodes out of sequence made the storylines hard to follow, and the cinematography was too dark to look good on my small-screen TV (also, I was cable-less and my local Fox station came in all snowy). But this year I watched the entire series on DVD and couldn’t believe I’d been so indifferent. Lots of people have already commented on the marvelously unromantic future-world of "Firefly," its rattletrap spaceships and its dusty, harsh, barely settled planets. And its great ensemble cast and its slowly unfolding story arcs. What I loved, in addition to all of that, was the way it avoided the usual ham-handed exposition and let us fill in the blanks: we’re never given all the backstory, but we guess it from small details, like the way everyone speaks Chinese, or the way Book buys a passage on a spaceship with a bag of fresh vegetables, or the way the characters always refer to Earth as "Earth-that-was."

That, and the future-slang is irresistible. Or, rather: shiny.

(And, look! patterns for Jayne’s hat! Now I know what my next knitting project will be.)

Circuit overload

Brief summary of what’s in my head right now: Major decisions to be made, and soon. Mild panic over timing. General sense of life shifting on its axis. (I don’t want to go into more detail until the decisions are made, so that’s all I’m going to say at present, except that it’s good rather than bad — the panic factor is mostly because I thought I’d have more time to reflect.) Expect either sporadic blogging or manic babbling as a result. Probably the former, because I’m feeling a tad overwhelmed, and some unplugged time is in order. For now, talk amongst yourselves!

[Edit: Decisions and accompanying panic have been temporarily deferred. We now return to your regularly scheduled blog.]

Oxyrhynchus Papyri, finally intelligible

Like vilaine fille and languagehat, I also wasn’t sure if this wasn’t a really elaborate hoax. But since it’s evidently not, holy cow. Lost works by Sophocles and Euripides  and Hesiod and maybe Aeschylus! Lost epics! This makes me want to revive my Greek. Oh, how I envy the classicists…

Open letter to current and future pharmacists

Dear everyone out there considering a career as a pharmacist:

If you have religious objections to birth control or emergency contraception, if you believe it’s the same thing as abortion (which it isn’t), or if you think you should be allowed to refuse to dispense emergency contraception on account of your conscience, or if you think that it makes you a good, moral person to bully women who rely on you to do your job?

Believe what you want to. But please, for the love of God, choose another career. If you want to preach, go into the ministry. Don’t become a pharmacist and then decide to refuse birth control to someone who will then have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy just because you decided that you had to use your job as a platform for exercising your self-righteousness.

Do something else with your professional life. Don’t set yourself up to get into situations where your beliefs come into conflict with someone else’s need for an essential service. Please. I’m begging you.

(See Dahlia Lithwick’s Martyrs and Pestles – Should pharmacists be allowed to refuse to dispense birth control?, via Riba Rambles. See also: mediagirl, Clancy, Bitch. Ph.D., LiL, and Amanda at Pandagon.)

Ashbery on the bridge

One of the sights I saw while in Minneapolis was a pedestrian bridge with a John Ashbery poem running all along its length in both directions. According to this article, the poem was commissioned expressly for the bridge. I didn’t know it was there until I spotted it while crossing the bridge itself, and even though I had a sense of its Ashbery-ness as I was reading, it was still pleasantly startling to see the name of my favorite living poet at the end of it. Then I walked slowly back over the roar of traffic on the highway below, transcribing the poem one line at a time. It goes like this (line breaks are my best guess, because they aren’t there in the original):

And now I cannot remember
How I would have had it.
It is not a conduit (confluence?)
But a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new,

Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all
Where you stand and think of going no further.

And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up
And places you where you always wanted
To be.
This far.
It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is.
Steel and air, a mottled presence,
Small panacea and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.

The line "It is fair to be crossing, to have crossed" marks the point where the two versions of the poem on opposite sides of the bridge, one going toward the Walker Sculpture Garden and the other toward Loring Park, cross in the middle. It’s also more or less the midpoint of the bridge over the highway. One could write an entire paper on the figure of chiasmus and the placement of that line.

When I headed back toward my hotel through Loring Park, already impressed at a city that would commission Ashbery to write something for a public place, I stumbled across a gazebo with excerpts of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets on little pedestals around it. I like Minneapolis. I hope I get a chance to go back and see what other poems might be hidden in its parks.

Conference report 2

So of the sessions I attended at ACRL, the two standouts were the pair of papers on "Curiosity and Motivation-to- Learn" and "Socratic Pedagogy at the Reference Desk" by Kate Borowske and Jessica George, respectively, and the session on Google Print and Google Scholar, with Adam Smith from Google and John Price Wilkin from the University of Michigan. (I missed the Quality Metadata/Mining for Digital Resources paired session, alas. Next time…)

The papers on pedagogy intrigued me because they confirmed hunches I had while teaching composition: e.g., that if students think they know either all or too little about their topics, they won’t want to explore; and that narrowing down a question too early can foreclose the possibilities that open up with a more open-ended approach. The latter point was from Jessica George, and she was talking about reference-desk interaction, but it was also what I tried for years to convey to my first-year writing students: if you start the paper knowing exactly what your thesis is, the end result won’t be as good, and it’ll be boring to write, to boot. As something of a connoisseur of weird coincidences, I liked her
emphasis on serendipitous discovery through unexpected search results. I also liked Kate Borowske’s point about showing students the "manageable gaps" in their knowledge but making sure these gaps are neither too trivial nor overwhelmingly huge.

At the Google session, what Adam Smith had to say about Google’s side of the mass digitization project was, for the most part, what I’d already heard. One could tell he was aware of librarians’ reactions, as he was careful to say, early on, that Google’s scanning technology won’t harm any of the books, that it’s not intended to supersede or replace other digital projects, that it’s going to be multilingual and international (hmm, I wonder who prompted that?), and that one of the goals is to encourage discovery of libraries’ print holdings. I would have liked to hear more specifics about how Google is working on the parts of Google Scholar that are still "challenges," especially how they’re going to handle disambiguating authors’ names and sorting out different citation formats.

John Price Wilkin reminded everyone that the libraries are keeping their own copies of all the files Google produces (it bore repeating: there was a question during the Q&A about the prospect of a Google "monopoly" on the digital texts). He gave us a narrative of Michigan’s side of the project, explaining the stipulations they made before agreeing to work with Google and the guidance they got from the university’s lawyers and the Preservation and Conservation departments. He also sketched out some of the possibilities: Michigan is looking into developing richer and more flexible ways to display and cite its own versions of the electronic texts, and possibly do some data mining eventually.  He ended by mentioning the "paradox of the library as place," with more patrons visiting the physical building even as more and more collections become accessible online.

The Q&A that followed had its share of "Google is scary! We’re doomed!" questions, but a good number of non-panicky ones as well. One person asked about the implications for accessibility, and another asked about what Google plans to do with non-Roman alphabets and languages with diacritics (answer: "Well, we haven’t managed to solve all the world’s problems yet…": okay, but we still want to hear more!). Another audience member asked whether this project wouldn’t reinforce students’ tendency to go to Google first and not go further when they have to research something. To which John Price Wilkin replied that that’s all the more reason to make sure they get directed to relevant library holdings when they do go to Google.*

It was hard to tell whether anyone dead set against the Google digitization project had their mind changed (I’m guessing, realistically, probably not), but for me the most useful thing about the panel was hearing about how the project is actually working out from the library perspective. I hope we continue to hear these kinds of reports, and in as much detail as possible.

* You could tell who in the audience belonged to the "students doing research on the web is inevitable and we have to adapt" school of thought and who belonged to the "it’s a sign of information illiteracy that students go to Google" school of thought by where the applause came from after he said that.

News flash: poetry makes you smarter

I knew it. I knew it!

Psychologists at Dundee and St Andrews universities claim the work
of poets such as Lord Byron exercise the mind more than a novel by Jane

By monitoring the way different forms of text are read, they found
poetry generated far more eye movement which is associated with deeper

Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose.

Preliminary studies using brain imaging technology also showed
greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being
read aloud.

Dr Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a
member of the research group, believes poetry may stir latent
preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop during
childhood. …

"It may be because readers are trying to hear the words or recreate the imaginary event the poet has provided a script for.

"Also, children seem to be born with a love of rhyme and rhythm.
Then something happens and by the time we see them in the first year at
university many of them are almost frightened of poetry and clamouring
to study the contemporary novel."

— "Verse broadens the mind, the scientists find," The Scotsman, 4/3/05


Conference report 1

I’m back from ACRL, which was great all around, though next time I’ll stay for three nights instead of two. (And the next one will be in my native Baltimore, so I’ll be able to stay with family.) My compatriots from the fellowship program and I kept drawing up comparisons with the MLA conference: more free stuff (you’d never, ever be given a free shoulder bag to carry your swag in at an MLA), greater variety of types of panels (you’d never see a poster session at the MLA either), nicer receptions, and many more conversations with friendly strangers.

There are a few constants, though, especially the familiar conference feeling, comprised of equal parts spatial disorientation* and buzzing overstimulated brain. I got my resume looked over at the job center, spent not nearly enough time checking out the exhibits (they ran out of Edward Gorey t-shirts before I got back, dagnabbit!), chatted with early risers at the roundtable I was on, kept repeatedly bumping into people from the library of my graduate alma mater, and went to some very cool panels, on which more when I can transcribe my notes.

I also liked Minneapolis a lot. I got from the airport to downtown on the (squeaky-clean, fast, pleasant) light rail for $1.25 and in less than half an hour. Between a performance of As You Like It and the reception at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it was also a Culture Weekend. I wish there’d been more time to explore the MIA; I only glimpsed Magritte’s Promenades of Euclid in passing and missed the de Chirico entirely. On Sunday I had a few hours to bum around before going off to catch my plane, and I spent them wandering through Loring Park, watching the red-winged blackbirds, and strolling around the Walker Sculpture Garden. I do appreciate a city with such terrific public art, not to mention good food and good used bookstores along the pedestrian-friendly main downtown drag.

* Did anyone else find themselves going all the way around the Minneapolis Convention Center in an enormous loop trying to find the ballrooms after going in the wrong direction at the main entrance?