Saturday, February 20, 2010

Authors at Douglas County Libraries

For a decade or so now, the good people of DC8, "the Network Douglas County" have produced high quality, thoroughly professional, and Emmy award-winning shows. Funded in part by Comcast cable franchise fees, this small team (3 full time employees, 3 contract employs) was also responsible for the production of the "Authors at Douglas County" shows, which aired on the county's web set, and on channel 8 in Douglas County.

Earlier this week, that show was taken down from the web, without either notice or explanation. The three contractors were notified back in December that they will not be offered contracts for 2010. David Schler, producer of DC8, has submitted his resignation and will be leaving at the end of March.

Douglas County Libraries has acted to acquire this digital content, and will be working, at some time in the future, to offer them up ourselves, as archives of local history.

Jesse Stainbrook, who formed the station, and David Schler, who continued its tradition of excellence, proved that government television doesn't have to be dull, boring, or humorless. DC8 told fun and fascinating stories about everything from oddball local history events, to the workings of elections, and what was in the long trains rattling through town in the morning.

The rapid and ill-conceived whittling away of DC8 is a real loss for Douglas County. But I do hope to work with the talented individuals of the team again in the future.

"You are not a gadget," by Jaron Lanier

I remember Jaron Lanier from the 80s, when he was the dreadlocked guru of virtual reality. He articulated an important point about technology that has stayed with me through the years. Some technologies were passive -- like television. Some technologies -- like telephones -- were active. You had to invest yourself in them. He found the latter more interesting. So do I.

A couple nights ago I was driving back from Denver, through one of the old neighborhoods. I could see through so many picture windows people looking at the glow ... of laptops. Just maybe, the Internet is shoving TVs right out of the living room. If so, that's a good thing.

But Lanier is an incisive critic of what he calls "cybernetic totalism." He sees a glorification of the "hive mind," spreading from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and the New York Times. He sees the reduction of human beings and their creativity to anonymous mash ups, and the elevation of advertising as all that is sacrosanct. (It's a clever insight. The Web decontextualizes people and contextualizes ads. Seen any mashed up ads lately?)

While hardly a Luddite (he's still at the forefront of tech exploration), he provides one fresh insight after another about how the deification of the Singularity (the notion that one day the Internet wakes up) is the diminution of the human. One example: what he calls the "ideaology of violation." Remember the mom who fake-friended the high school girl, and humiliated the girl to the point where she committed suicide? Noticed the nastiness of anonymous postings on newspaper sites? Are we really sure the wisdom of crowds can be counted on?

Among his many topics is this startling observation: every ten years, popular music in the west had gone through remarkable changes, profound shifts in sound and consciousness. Now we're all linked together on the Web. So between 1998 and 2008, where was the big breakthrough? What new sound emerged, as sharp as blues, or jazz, or big band swing, or the Beatles, or ska, or hip hop? Why does global mean retro?

He also takes aim at a long standing interest of mine: open source software. Who would have been excited, 20 years ago, to say that after two decades of crowd sourcing computer programming, we would wind up with a UNIX clone (Linux) and an encyclopedia (Wikipedia). I mean, we already had UNIX and an encyclopedia.

I didn't know that Lanier is also a musician. But he points out that while the Internet enriches the "Lords of the Cloud" (Google and Amazon), free content and the long tail don't seem to be doing much for the creators of the content. The Internet dismantles newspapers and the music industry. These days, reporters and musicians are finding it much harder to make a living. Wouldn't it have been more thoughtful, more productive, more conducive to a truly vibrant culture, to have designed a system that paid a penny to the producer of each song or article every time somebody accessed it, instead of suffering the ads and monthly bills of content aggregators and telecommunication companies?

Lanier is a true original. He writes as provocatively about octopi as he does about financial derivatives. His mind finds connections and surprises. Lots of people talk about critical thinking. Lanier actually does it. I bet he'd be fun to hang out with.

"On Writing Well," by William Zinsser

I have a signed copy of this book. Zinsser had a profound influence on my writing, back when I first started doing technology pieces for the Wilson Library Bulletin. I used to read his book annually. In the move from Greeley to Douglas County I misplaced it. It's probably in the basement somewhere. But I got a hankering to see it again, and found the expanded 25th anniversary edition in our library (copyright 2001).

It's still good. Zinsser sees writing as a craft, and his advice is clear, direct, and humane. I can see, looking back all those years now, just how much I owe to it. And how far I have yet to go.

"Blackout," by Connie Willis

A few days ago I finished "Blackout," Connie Willis' first volume of a time travel story. It's 2060, and a group of students, training as historians, go back to the time of the Blitz in England. As a writer (whom I first met as she was working on "Doomsday Book" at the Greeley Public Library some 23 years ago) Connie has gone from strength to strength. She couples impeccable research with profound human insight. In this long first volume, the focus is all on the England of the past. Our cast of characters begins, as we do, as observers. But soon, the boundaries between them and the "contemps" disintegrate. They, and we, pass from the safety of historical knowledge to the chaos and uncertainty of the moment. I now know how it feels to be alive back then.

Connie has been working on this one for years, and it's big in scope, in feeling, and in length. It's 491 pages, and I hate having to wait until this fall for the second and concluding volume. But I know it's worth the wait.

I'm not sure how she persuaded her publishers not to write a trilogy. There aren't many two volume science fiction masterpieces out there. ("Darwin's Radio," and "Darwin's Children" by Greg Bear come to mind.) But I'm confident that "Blackout" and the sequel, "All Clear" will qualify.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lincoln Library closes branches

Years ago, I was the assistant director of Lincoln Library, the public library of Springfield, IL. For part of that 3 year position, I oversaw all the branches: North, West, and the consolidated Southeast branch. Back then, as now, there were budget battles, and one of the issues that came up was closing the branches in favor of the big, three story downtown library. But there were fierce battles by the neighborhoods to keep their local branches open.

At the time, I argued that Lincoln Library, a city department, should become an independent library district. But the board and director believed that the library was a unique and interwoven city service. They remained with the city.

And now - as you can see here and here - 23 years after I left, all of those branches are closing. The articles themselves are sad, but sadder still is the city's continued disregard of the value of the library. Saddest are the public comments.

I remain convinced that librarians and their allies must take the initiative. Our culture, at present, continues to be profoundly destructive of public institutions, seems to have forgotten why we need them. If we don't do something to turn that around, then we participate in that decline.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Why do people often vote against their own interests?

Click the title of this entry to read a provocative answer. (And thanks to Suzanne for again sending me really interesting stuff.)

To my mind, this article exactly captures what I'm finding in my reading on the brain. And it reinforces my notion that libraries aren't "warehouses of information." We are, instead, gatherers of stories, and those stories have their own narrative metastructure.

"Glasshouse," by Charles Stross

Note to self: while recovering from a bad chest cold/cough, it's good to go to bed early, as I did last night. It's not so smart though, to pick up a cracking good book that makes you read it through to the end after midnight.

"Glasshouse" is interesting on at least three levels:

* it details a convincing "post-human" world, where you're effectively immortal, you can switch bodies and genders, make backups and duplicates of yourself, bounce around the stars, and are wired to the net.

* it posits characters that you come to care about.

* it tells a gripping and suspenseful story with lots of twists and turns.

"Glasshouse" was altogether satisfying and new (although published in 2006). Highly recommended. I'm going to have to track down more by this guy. - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...