Archive for October, 2007

Happy Halloween

Trick or Treat!

I promise not to give out Mary Jane’s or Necco wafers, or worse. Healthy snacks.

I’m quite overwhelmed by seeing the sidewalks of Centre Street in Jamaica Plain crowded with children aged 0 to 16 in costume, trick-or-treating at the local businesses. Our own street is crawling with children as well. This is great to see. There was never this much Halloween activity in Somerville. Of course we’re here with the lights out because we don’t have any candy. But next year we’ll have our little guy to put in a clever costume.

Newton Streets and Sidewalks had a nice thought about Halloween being America’s Walking Holiday. There’s also a big Halloween Bike Ride in JP tonight, something else I will have to participate in future years.

I’ve never been too good at costume ideas nor execution, but here are 5 memorable Halloween costumes from my youth:

  • Ghost with a pumpkin head – this was based on my favorite Halloween decoration and was a lot of fun to bring to life even though the wire frame of the pumpkin head was awfully poky to my own head.
  • Leprechaun – a natural for an Irish-American youth with rosy cheeks and an Irish name. I did trip and tear my green pants before the night was over though.
  • Vampire – I put my natural widow’s peak and sharp incisors to effective use.
  • Linus – for a college party I dressed up as the Peanuts character I identify with most. If only my big sister were there to play Lucy.
  • Mime – my friend Jenae always hosted the best parties, and once did a great Halloween fete with an Alice in Wonderland theme. For some reason I went as a mime, which gave me a good excuse to go to a party and not be chatty without being called a wallflower.

Boo! Happy Halloween.

An edit at the witching hour:

Just for fun I’ve scanned in photos of me in my Halloween costumes from various years. Sadly, the really cute ones of me as a child are at my Mom’s house.

Me as a Gumby from Monty Python
gumby1.jpg

 

Me as Linus Van Pelt
linus.jpg

 

Me as a mime
mime.jpg

Scary, huh?

Book Review: Odalisque by Neal Stephenson (Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle)

Quicksilver (2003) is the first of three volumes in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, itself made up of three books. I may be wrong, but the cycle seems to me to be a fictional account of the beginning of the modern period in history and the Enlightenment. Each of the three books in Quicksilver focuses on an aspect of the changes wrought in Western civilization at this time. “Quicksilver” focuses on natural philosophy and the scientific revolution, “King of the Vagabonds” is a story about the birth of modern commerce and business, and “Odalisque” is pure politics. It is in fact the story of revolution in all possible meanings of that word – political, social, and scientific. Daniel Waterhouse describes it best in this contrast of revolution with rebellion:

No, rebellion is what the Duke of Monmouth did, it is a petty disturbance, an aberration, predestined to fail. Revolution is like the wheeling of stars round the pole. It is driven by unseen powers, it is inexorable, it moves all things at once, and men of discrimination may understand it, predict it, benefit from it. – p. 810

In Odalisque, there is much political intrigue. Daniel Waterhouse serves in an intimate capacity in the court of James II but works to undermine his reign.  Meanwhile, Eliza serves as a spy at Versailles for William of Orange.  Together they help bring about the Glorious Revolution but not without much personal cost.

It was nice to have Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza in the same book.  They even meet although in a somewhat anticlimactic manner for the reader who has been following their stories for hundreds of pages.  Sadly Jack Shaftoe does not appear in this book although his brother Bob plays a crucial role.

My favorite parts of this book involve historical characters, and while Stephenson probably made these things up, I like to think they are rooted in historical fact.  The first is that William of Orange enjoyed sand-surfing along the beach, and was even ambushed while doing it.  The second is when the fleeing James II, unrecognized by the general populace, gets beaten up in a tavern.

Now I’m a third of the way through The Baroque Cycle.  I’m enjoying the reading immensely and look forward to the next volume.

Red Sox are the 2007 World Series Champions

papelbon.jpg

Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox on their sweeping victory over the Colorado Rockies to win their second World Series title in four years. It’s always nice when the home team wins. Things were different this year from 2004. That year Susan and I watched the game at a pub in Somerville and even though the Red Sox swept the Cardinals, that final game still felt very tense. The weight of history was on everyone’s backs, even a couple of interlopers from Connecticut and Michigan. This year since we’re on on the baby clock we listened to the game at home on the radio. The final game had an air of inevitability to it, but I’m sure was still a joy to the many young players on the Red Sox and long time fans who had many years of disappointments got to double their pleasure.

It is disappointing that the World Series was not more exciting from a pure baseball standpoint. One has to give a lot of credit to the Rockies for their exciting stretch drive, come-from-behind win over the Padres in the Wild Card playoff, and unprecedented 7-0 streak through the National League divisional champion series. As a National League partisan, I bristle at any suggestion that the NL Champions are of a lesser caliber, even when they were swept. I think it’s just that the Red Sox were just that good, the best team in baseball this season, and the deserving World Series Champions.

I also have to give credit to the great Rockies’ fans who cheered and chanted right to the end of game #4. That kind of spirit is actually what drew me to Mets fandom, since once-upon-a-time Mets fans would chant “Lets Go Mets” (unprompted by the PA) even when the team was down in the late innings. Judging by this September, I guess if the Mets had made it to the World Series this season and found themselves in the same circumstances as the Rockies, Shea Stadium would be full of booing and expletives shouted at the Mets. It’s nice that the spirit of “Ya Gotta Believe” lives on somewhere. Here’s another Mets’ fan view from Faith and Fear in Flushing.

It’s a credit to the Red Sox management and players that they’ve been able to win two championships so close together. They are a well-engineered team that play together well (and yes, also have a lot of money). I think this proves false the snarky comments that the 2006 Red Sox late season collapse was due to the team not keeping many of the veterans of 2004 (also a ray of optimism for fans of a certain team that collapsed in 2007 that 2008 may be brighter). It also is the death-knell to any talk of a curse and “wait ’til 2090” (although maybe the Red Sox can only win championships in the first two decades of a given century). As I wrote at the beginning of the season, the Red Sox from 1967-2003 were not a bad team but a very good team that somehow finished 2nd place to some johnny-come-latelies and suffered unlikely losses when they did make it to the postseason, while during the same period some less consistent franchises won 2-3 championships. I think the laws of probability have caught up with the Red Sox.

More Red Sox coverage:

  • Curt Schilling gives credit to God
  • People who bought furniture at Jordan’s Furniture last spring are getting their money back
  • The victory parade will be Tuesday at noon
    • Jonathon Papelbon will do his victory jig during the parade according to Mayor Menino: “He promised the people he would do the dance,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said today at a press conference at City Hall, “and he will do the dance.” It’s nice that he did not do on the Rockies home field.

And now there’s no more baseball.  It’s always hard to adjust to not having baseball games as part of the daily rhythmn of life.  Rogers Hornsby put it best:

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Movie Review: The Right Stuff

Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983).  I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized.  The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me.  Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.

This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.

The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier.   This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character.  If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things.  I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947.  After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)  while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.

Then Sputnik orbits the Earth.   The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space.  In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission.  First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule.  Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show.  Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).

The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film.  I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema).  Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype.  It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule.  In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry.  While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.

But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film.  The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection.  And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well.  Each mission has a particular point of tension.  The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield.  The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight.  The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.

Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program.  In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot.  These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston.  The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot?  The unsung fliers of experimental  jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?

Friday Sillies for Halloween

First you need a jack-o-lantern.  When I was in grad school one of my classmates was an expert carver of anime pumpkins.  I don’t know much about anime but I do admire the skill and artistry of her carving.  My favorite pumpkin though still has to be the Melvil Dewey pumpkin (second from the top) she made for our cataloging class.

Next you need a costume.  How about sexy mustard?

Note that there is naughty language in this clip:

Happy Halloween!!!

Book Review: Clara’s Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley

Clara’s Grand Tour (2006) by Glynis Ridley is quite simply the delightful tale of a rhinoceros and her travels in Europe in the Eighteenth-Century. I learned about Clara on my trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles where her portrait was the centerpiece of an exhibit of paintings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

Clara was a young Indian rhinoceros purchased in 1741 by Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer who then transported her to Europe. For the next 17 years, Clara and Van der Meer traveled across Europe, often in a specially designed wagon, and occasionally on a barge along the River Rhine. I don’t know if the pun would work in Dutch, but Ridley makes no mention of Van der Meer advertising her as a Rhine-oceros on these occasions.

At any rate, Clara was the first live rhinoceros in Europe for centuries and she attracted crowds wherever she traveled including royalty, philosophes, and artists. Ridley credits Van der Meers advance notice posters as the first multi-national advertising campaign. Similarly, Clara created a cottage industry in memorabilia from commemorative medals to high-class decorative arts in her image. Paris and the court of Louis XV were swept up in rhinomania with Clara inspiring fashions and fads. The king himself though balked at the cost Van der Meer asked for purchase, so Clara did not get to retire in the menagerie at Versailles.

Clara died on tour in London with the location of her remains now unknown, and Van der Meer faded from the written record. During her time, she helped redefine the image of rhinoceros for Europeans familiar with myth and scripture regarding unicorns and Behemoths. Her gentle nature contradicted that legend that rhinoceros and elephants are mortal enemies who will fight to the death. Similarly, Clara captured in art provided the first real image of the rhinoceros to a society reliant for centuries on Albrecht Dürer’s image of a rhinoceros in armor. On a total tangent, I love how things in my life totally overlap so that while I was reading this book this image appeared in my Bloglines in this post on Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog (where it’s used for an analogy about social networking tools).

I enjoyed this book despite the fact that Ridley writes in a dry academic style. Her constant hedging on what she has reasonable proof to be accurate is distracting. Similarly, she constantly refers to images of which only a few are included in the book, and they are packed in the mid-section of the book not with the text that describes them. Still, how could you not like a book about a rhinoceros traveling across Europe, especially with details like her love for oranges and tobacco smoke?

Library Trick or Treat

In preparation for Halloween, here’s a nice bag of links about libraries.

First, a trick: The headline of The New York Times article Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web (by Katie Hafner, October 22, 2007) is very misleading. Jessamyn West at librarian.net puts it best in her post Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web, really?:

Quick quiz: when you read a headline like the one in the New York Times today Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web do you think that the libraries involved are

a) sticking up for free access to information
b) prohibiting free access to information

If you continue to read the article you will learn that it is actually option a):

Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they are put off by restrictions these companies want to place on the new digital collections.

The research libraries, including a large consortium in the Boston area, are instead signing on with the Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit effort aimed at making their materials broadly available.

The cynical side of me feels that The New York Times is supporting big business at the expense of libraries and the Open Content Alliance. As I learned at the Boston Athenaeum lecture last winter, many libraries have simply given away material to Google and others only to learn that Google doesn’t care about library ethics and open access. They want to sell a product, which is all fine and good, but you just can’t expect libraries to continue to give up their resources. I applaud the Boston Public Library and other participants in the Open Content Alliance for sticking to the ideals of librarianship and attempting to extend free access to information for all.

Now for a treat, a more positive article in the Boston Globe, Libraries Move With Times, Discover Niches (by Anna Badkhen,October 22, 2007). Traditional libraries are not so traditional and not so quiet and offer circulation of music and movies, community events, and gaming.

“We are not your grandmother’s library,” said Kimberly Lynn, president of the Massachusetts Library Association. In the era of waning readership and Internet search engines, libraries in Massachusetts and across the country are shifting their resources and expertise to areas once unthinkable. Gone are the hushed bibliothecae of yore where even an occasional irreverent clicking of a heel prompted furrowed brows of disapproval.

The modern-day library, Lynn said, is a community living room-cum-reference clearinghouse, with some digital gaming sprinkled in.

“It’s a zoo,” Lynn said. “It’s chaotic. It’s not getting quieter.”

Library circulation in Massachusetts grew by a million copies between fiscal years 2005 and 2006, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. But the growth is not necessarily because people are borrowing more books.

Nothing here is really new to those of us who already know that libraries rock, but it’s still good to see good press. A big part of the future (and present) of the library is social networking and there is a New OCLC Report on Social Networking called Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in Our Networked World which I haven’t read yet, but should be worth reading. Of course, there’s a lot about Web 2.0 and the future Semantic Web that we librarians still don’t understand. The Goblin in the Library takes a humorous look at the web’s future in Web X. The apparent winning definition of Web 3.0/Semantic Web is in the comments by the way:

The code will reach out and grab what it needs on its own – from any source available, regardless of format – without needing to be told to search for this or that.

The structure within the library is also evolving. I particularly liked this article from Walking Paper about the North Plains Public Library in Oregon: creating a flat library and the culture of maybe. As noted in the comments this is an egalitarian attempt to get past job descriptions and into job duties while working toward collaboration.

Instead of a Culture of No, I’m aiming to create a Culture of Maybe. You might not be surprised that employees really appreciate being able to discuss library issues without fear of judgment or other negative reactions. Here are some ideas for creating a Culture of Maybe.

Encourage collaboration. Collaboration needs to be at the core of how things are accomplished. It isn’t just a method of working on discreet projects, but rather an complete way of communicating and acting. Challenges to this include staff involvement with many aspects of library service, some of which might be outside their traditional area of interest or expertise. (At the NPPL it is very apparent that we>me. The group does a fantastic job of brainstorming and refining ideas.)

Listen to everyone. This doesn’t mean that everyone is always right, but it does mean that their ideas deserve consideration. Staff need to know that presenting ideas that don’t get put into practice is not an indication of poor performance and that they won’t be penalized in any way for doing so.

Let natural talents develop. People are happy when they can do what interests them. People do their best work when their happy.

Make people responsible. This is not about being able to blame someone if things go haywire. It is about letting people know what they’re responsible for and that their actions have a direct impact on the operation of the library. If employees see the direct impact they have, they’ll be more likely to take pride in what they’re doing. An essential part of this is providing the freedom and resources to allow people to actually do their job.

Set deadlines and stick to them. All of this free flowing conversation and discussion is great, but it must result in something. Decisions should rarely be final, however. An initial deadline and a secondary evaluation point can be set, the latter providing another opportunity for reflection, reevaluation and refinement.

This article and the model proposed was also discussed at length on the Uncontrolled Vocabulary podcast for October 3rd.

After all this discussion of change in the library, you may just want something to read. Librarian’s Place recommends Sex, Drugs, and Bombs: Confessions of a Librarian (that definitely sounds like my workday in a nutshell). If that’s too grown up for you, Random Musings from the Desert collated Children’s Books to Check Out. 3 of the 4 books appear to have librarians as the heroes, or at least the good guys. The last book is about evil librarians (yes, I can assure you that evil librarians do exist). If you want to read something that has nothing to do with librarians at all, Judge a Book by its Cover lists Titles That Took Some Thought (which are actually books with absolutely awful titles). If you click through to the post on Ironic Sans that inspired this list you will see that I actually played a part in creating it of which I’m inordinately proud.

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