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Funding Open Access

The recent announcement by PLoS that they're increasing some of their fees has provided plenty of fodder for those on all sides of the issue.  On liblicense-l, Peter Banks uses the occasion as proof that the PLoS business model is unsustainable.  Jan Velterop, commenting on the Nature article, comes to quite a different conclusion, pointing out that it typically takes seven years for a new journal to break even anyway, so that the adjustments at PLoS are just part of the normal evolution of things.  It's good to have some additional facts about the money, but at this point facts are obviously not going to change many minds.

Librarians are trying to figure out what their role is in this.  While I've heard some urging that libraries provide more support to PLoS or BMC or to other OA initiatives, it has been somewhat depressing to hear more voices complaining that the memberships "are just another subscription fee."  This stems from what I have always considered the misguided notion that OA was going to provide the solution to librarians' funding woes.  I've never seen any analysis to show why this should be the case, but as I have said repeatedly, I do not consider this a reason not to support OA initiatives. 

Many librarians seem happy to get on the OA bandwagon, as long as somebody else is going to pay.  Take it from funding agencies, or take it from the research budget, or take it from a society's membership fees -- just don't take it from my budget!  OA is a great and wonderful thing -- as long as somebody else is paying for it.

Frankly, I don't understand this.  It's not my money, it's not the library's money -- it's the institution's money.  My university gives me authority to spend a considerable amount of cash in order to advance its work.  My particular specialty is supposed to be in helping the institution manage scholarly information -- to get access to what they need, to use it as efficiently as possible, to provide support for collaboration and the advancement of knowledge.  I hire people, develop programs, manage public computer access, participate in association activities, buy some books, pay subscription & license fees for access to information.  If I consider the work of PLoS to be important -- essential, even -- then why is it less reasonable for me to contribute $10,000 to its operations that it is for me to send $10,000 to one of the commercial publishers for access to a single title?  The lack of enthusiasm for this notion from some librarians leads me to the suspicion that their interest in OA is really at root the hope that they'll be able to quit funding scholarly communication themselves, and that all the talk about the greater good is a bit of a smokescreen.

The argument is made from time to time that if the funding for scholarly communication shifts from the readership side (subscriptions) to the production side (author's fees, or funder's fees, or however you want to characterize it), the larger research institutions are going to bear a greater burden than they do under the current system.    Peter Suber, whose work I quite admire, attempts to skewer this argument by pointing out that most of the OA journals in DOAJ don't charge any publication fees whatsoever.  The implication is that if authors published in those journals, we could have OA without any increase in overall costs.

I suppose this might be so, but those making the argument are using a narrower frame, and looking just at the question of what would happen if we replaced subscription revenue with publication side revenue.    The assumption here (contrary to the assumption underlying Peter's rebuttal) is that the overall cost of publishing doesn't change.  If that's the case, then obviously some institutions will pay less and some will pay more.  And those paying more will be those producing most of the articles.

But I don't see a problem here (theoretically -- the political problems are huge, of course).  Why shouldn't the big research institutions pay the additional costs involved in disseminating high-quality, peer-reviewed, copy-edited and value-added research literature?  We won't want to, of course.  (Nobody actuallys wants to pay for open access).   It doesn't seem like any great leap from the current situation in which research universities provide the bulk of the subscription revenue -- the purpose is still, ultimately, to fund quality publishing.

It may be, as Peter's rebuttal seems to suggest, that in an open access world we could actually do quality publishing for much less than the current system requires.  The latest numbers from PLoS argue the other side, however.  Their new fees are much closer to the figures that the commercial publishers were suggesting were necessary back when BMC was charging $550 per article and the OA partisans were bashing the publishers for coming up with unnecessarily inflated numbers for what publication really costs.  The PLoS numbers suggest that those figures may have been on the mark after all.

If that's the case, and it turns out that OA publishing (no matter how it is funded) is not really going to be significantly cheaper overall than the subscription-based system, librarians are going to have to fairly ask the question -- if you want Open Access, are you willing to pay?


All opinions are not created equal

Some years ago, there was a movement within the Medical Library Association to move to a single slate ballot in the election for President.  MLA's very elaborate process for designating a nominating committee insures that the committee broadly represents all of the various constituencies and the thought was that this group could be trusted with identifying a single candidate who could be put up for election.  There'd still be the opportunity for someone to mount a write-in campaign, but in general, we'd save ourselves the stress and strain of pitting two talented and committed people against each other.  The candidates never have strongly divergent views, they don't run campaigns, and in most cases either of the candidates would likely do as good a job as the other.  So the election process does not result in a "better" candidate than would be the case if the nominating committee sent only one name forward.  There's no practical benefit to an association like ours of running two candidates.  In some cases the losing candidate has been so burned by the experience that they've pledged never to run again, thus depriving the association of the leadership of someone who would probably have done a great job.  So why was the motion soundly defeated?  A belief among many of the members that there was something anti-democractic (and just wrong!) about a single slate.  This, despite the fact that many of the sections and chapters run single-slate elections, which doesn't seem to bother anybody.

This romanticized notion of "democracy" implies that every opinion is equally important.  Despite the fact that there is no practical benefit to the association, there is a belief that the members would be cheated out of something important if they didn't have the opportunity to cast their vote on behalf of the individual whose name seems to ring more of a bell than the other.

There has always been an anti-intellectual, anti-elitist thread in the American psyche.  It's the flip side of our reverence for "the common man."  Radical Wikipedians can be adamant in their opposition to the very notion of "authoratative".  The passionate ire that some librarians feel towards Library of Congress Subject Headings sometimes reflects this -- fans of tagging as a replacement for controlled vocabularies often couch their point of view as a victory for the individual, independent reader against the elistist grip of those blinkered, distant catalogers off in Washington.  Who are they to tell me what this book is about?  Every reader their own cataloger!!

The web makes it so easy to express your opinion.    Everybody gets to be a critic.   Amazon encourages "customer reviews."    Travel websites and restaurant guides do the same.  Everybody can have a blog, and if that's too much trouble, you can just cruise the blogosphere and comment on all and sundry.  Every opinion is worthwhile, and every point of view should be respected.  With the new tools of the interactive web, we can achieve a new level of true democracy.

This is nonsense.   (My opinion, of course).   We are losing the ability to evaluate viewpoints on any objective basis.  We're left drowing in a sea of undifferentiated opinion and so we cling to those that support our biases.  Rather than truly informing us, the noise tends to polarize us.  Instead of informed arguments or attempts to persuade based on a deep knowledge of facts and context, we get shoot from the hip emotional diatribes. 

It's all quite fascinating from a sociological point of view.  And it does create the illusion that the individual viewpoint is no longer being marginalized by the diabolical elites.   It's cheap entertainment.   But it's not much more than that.


Wikipedia & Objectivity

The recent New York Times article on the changes at Wikipedia comment on the accuracy question, but I've seen little discussion anywhere about how well Wikipedia lives up to its "absolute and non-negotiable" principle of Neutral Point of View.   In some of those areas where I might be able to claim a little bit of expertise, the principle seems pretty shaky.

The article on Open Access is a prime example.  Someone new to the phrase, coming to this article for insight, would come away from it believing that the benefits of open access are clearly understood and accepted, and that except for a few unnamed publishers who may be actively "lobbying against open access proposals" pretty much everybody is on board.   You'll find nothing about the opposition by the DC Principles publishers, and no discussion of the actual economic issues involved. 

As a supporter of open access, I find this frustrating.    Following the NASIG meeting in Denver recently, I had some email correspondence with a presenter who had felt somewhat blind-sided when she gave a very pro-open access talk and was firmly (albeit politely) challenged by some of the publishing people in the audience.  She acknowledged that in the past she'd only talked to library groups, and didn't realize that some of what she considered to be objective fact might be considered rhetorical excess and unsupported exaggeration by the people that she was implicitly attacking. 

The Wikipedia article encourages this kind of thinking.  Presenting "the facts" about open access in such a slanted way encourages the notion that all right thinking people must be in favor of open access and any negative comments are motivated by venal self-interest.  This is not a good way to establish real dialogue and engage in real problem solving.  Maybe it's effective public relations.

The larger question for Wikipedia, however, is whether or not it is possible to write about topics like open access from a truly Neutral Point of View.   Once one gets beyond very basic matters of non-controversial fact, any extended treatment of a subject is going to involve matters of interpretation and bias.   In the best case, the give-and-take that is behind Wikipedia might balance those differences out and result in a truly objective and balanced article, but as is demonstrably the case with the Open Access article, there's no guarantee that this will happen.  (And don't even get me started on the Library 2.0 article!)

The proper response to this criticism, by the way, is not to point out that other reference works also involve bias -- of course they do.  But Wikipedia makes a strong statement about its own dedication to neutrality.  It fails to live up to its own standard.


Copyright, Joyce and the Messy Monstrous Beauty of "Ulysses"

As I turned to D.T. Max's story about the lawsuit that's been issued by Lawrence Lessig and Carol Schloss against Stephen James Joyce, I was quite sure whose side I was on.  Clearly Joyce's attempt to maintain iron-fisted control of his grandfather's work is an abuse of copyright, a threat to scholarship, an injustice against the world of literature and academic criticism, a perfect example of how far off-balance the copyright laws (and the enforcement of them) have gone.

And then, I was stopped in my tracks in the third paragraph.  Max quotes Joyce at a "1986 gathering of Joyceans in Copenhagen" explaining that

"Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" can be "picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can 'Ulysses,' if you forget about all the hue and cry."

Two years ago, when I announced to friends that I had booked a long weekend in mid-summer to re-read Ulysses in anticipation of my first trip to Dublin, I was greeted with amusement and mild derision.  "You're going to read it a second time?  The only people I know who've even made it through once are English professors!"

"No," I said.  "I'm going to read it a fourth time."  Amusement replaced by astonishment.

Then followed a discussion of the folly of the book's recent ranking as the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Ulysses has been crushed by the accumulated weight of a century of criticism.  The first that a young person would hear of it would be accompanied by descriptions of how difficult it is, how murky and puzzling.  Why would anyone want to read it?  Unless it's assigned for a class and you can't escape, you're best off staying well clear of it.  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this is the message that most people get.

And that's a terrible shame.  I haven't read every novel written in the 20th century so I can't venture to say that it's the greatest of all.  But certainly I've not read one that was more astonishing for its hilarious and tragically beautiful vision of the nobility of daily life.  The play of the language is great fun, certainly, but it's the human heart of the book that brings one to tears.  The experience of reading Ulysses, if one is willing to throw oneself into it with abandon, is to be plunged into the exotic grand wonder of human life itself, with a poignancy and a fullness and a directness that I've not encountered to the same degree in any other novel.

After four readings, do I understand every allusion and get every joke?  Of course not!  Do I still get lost and find myself tripping through paragraphs uncertain of my way?  Sure.  So what?  That's all part of the beauty of the experience.  I don't feel that I have to unravel every puzzle.  I certainly haven't unravelled every puzzle in my own life.  With luck, I've got enough years left to read it another three or four times and I don't expect to "get" the whole thing then either.

But who, now, realizes that you can plunge into the book that way?  A bright and curious teenager is going to be faced with it as a challenge, as a task, as something to be overcome, rather than something to be surrendered to.

The rational librarian/academic in me is rooting for Lessig & Schloss.  They're not trying to take the copyright away -- they're just trying to make sure that the boundaries are loose enough for study and learning and criticism and creativity to flourish.  I know that they're right.

But I think wistfully of how the lit crits have hijacked that great book and made it virtually unreadable, and my heart is with Stephen James Joyce.


Curious Kids

I have to wonder where Stephen Healey was educated that he can write something so foolish as "Before ... 1994, students writing papers were schooled in the basics: the library, journals, and books. ... Everything that is wrong with learning can be summarized as The Internet."

He suggests that "reading skills, curiosity and initiative" have "gone into hibernation."   It's too easy for students today to find information on the Internet.  They don't put enough effort into their research.   Life was so different before the big bad thing happened.

We love to idealize the past.  When Elizabeth Dole was running for President some years ago, she was invited to be a keynote speaker at the AAMC meeting.  Her schtick in those days (and she is a fabulous and engaging speaker) was to talk about how wonderful America was in the late fifties and early sixties and how we needed to get back to those marvelous times.  I was standing in the back of the auditorium with Lynn who started muttering and twitching.  As the daughter of the guy who carried nuclear codes for the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and who remembered the "duck and cover" routines of her childhood all too well, Lynn didn't quite remember those days as having the same rosy glow that Dole was presenting.  I finally had to pick her up and carry her out of the room before her muttering caught the attention of the secret service boys scattered throughout the audience.

In the little paper mill town that I grew up in, most of they guys knew that their future was going to be in the mills and the bars of the little towns scattered along the Fox River.  They went to school because they were told to.  They did not read.  Their focus was friends and family and sports.  As they got older, girls were added into the mix.  Were they curious?  Sure.  But their world was bounded by the borders of their town.  They grew up to be honest and honorable or miserable and despicable.  They raised families or abandoned them.  As they look forward to retirement in a decade or so, some of them are bitter and some of them are full of pride for what they've achieved.  Some of them have done great things in big and small ways.  Some of them have changed the world and some of them live quiet and contented lives in the towns they grew up in.  They are no different than their sons and grandsons of the turning of the century -- the kids that Healey is fussing about.

We scraped our way through college (early seventies).  Some us spent hours in the library (because we'd grown up with books, a love engendered by parents and families and the occasional brilliant teacher); some of us never checked a book out in our lives.  All of us cut corners when we could.  When we were lucky enough to find a teacher who entranced us, we did everything that we could to make them proud of us -- for the others we figured out how to get a grade that we could live with. 

I went to work in a candle factory and spent my time with guys who were proud of the fact that they had never read a book.  One of the brightest and most interesting among them had never in his life (he was in his early twenties) travelled more than thirty miles from the town he was born in.  He couldn't think of any reason that he'd ever want to.

When we are very young, and just finding our way, we try to live up to the expectations that are set before us.  If we are expected to make our living in a factory, and to spend our evenings at the bar, and to raise a couple of kids and feel estranged from them as they go into adulthood, that's what we'll try to do.  If it is assumed that we will be curious and creative and will stretch every boundary that is before us, we'll do our best to achieve that.  It was like that before 1994 and it is no different now.

Healey finishes his essay musing about reading to his son, and worrying that the Internet will "eventually diminish his curiosity."   That's largely up to him, and I don't think he needs to be concerned.  Healey may have written a foolish essay, but his own passion and caring and curiosity shine through.  If that's what he models for his son, the boy will be just fine.

At sixteen months, the first thing that Josephine does when she comes to our house is go to her bookshelf and pull one off and bring it to me so that I can read it to her.  Last weekend I saw her sitting on the living room floor, flipping pages and chattering.  It'll be a couple of years yet before she's actually reading (I started at three, so she could be almost halfway there), but she already understands that having a book in her lap is a normal and expected thing to do.  I'm sure that she'll love the Internet.  I'm sure that she'll make many foolish and glorious mistakes as she finds her way.  I pray that fortune favors her with a few brilliant teachers.

We expect her to be curious.  We always will.



Josephine in the Morning

There's a story in yesterday's Times about recruiters checking MySpace and Facebook to see what potential recruits might have to say about themselves.    Naturally it highlights the kid who writes about getting stoned or blowing things up or who puts up pictures of herself passed out from drinking.   Not generally the kind of thing you'd bring up yourself during the interview.

There was a similar rash of stories some months ago about the potential negative impact of blogging, which stems from the same thing -- using the online vehicle to present a side of oneself that you might not always want to be "public".   

When Marshall Keys spoke at the Off Campus Library Services Conference he said that the kids simply don't have the same assumptions about privacy that an older generation grew up with.   I'm not sure what he bases that on, but I found the notion quite striking.    What are the assumptions about privacy that one has when growing up as a "digital native"?

When I started writing here over a year and a half ago,  I was interested in how using the blog might help me push my daily writing in ways that I couldn't seem to with the pen and ink journal.  I wasn't worried about who might be reading it.  I was aware that it could be read by anyone, and I've always been cautious about what I choose to reveal.  This seems like normal prudence to me.  I don't want to embarass anyone (myself least of all!) and I try not to say things that could be misconstrued or that could reflect badly on my library or my university.  But my primary audience was myself, and my goal was principally to write better sentences.

Lately, however, I find that my increasing awareness of readers is having an inhibiting effect.  Instead of getting up in the morning and thinking about what I might want to write, I'm worrying over what might be interesting or useful for someone to read.   

I find myself fussing over whether to try to say something profound about the future of libraries, or to make some heated comments about the political issues of the day, when what really moves me the most is the pleasure I get from being the first person that Josephine sees in the morning when she stays over here.

She sleeps up in the guest room, but we use a baby monitor so that I can hear when she starts to stir.  I go up quietly and she'll be sitting in the crib, pacifier in mouth, playing with one of her toys.  She looks up as I walk in.  She breaks into a grin and reaches up for me.  I bring her downstairs, get her a cup of milk.  She goes over to her bookshelf and brings a book over to me, and I read it to her.    In a little bit, I'll make her breakfast.

And so the day begins with moments of the utmost simplicity.   Giving her my undivided attention is easy.   It feels as if whatever else might be going on in my life, nothing is as important as being there with her for those moments.  Later on, Lynn will wake up and over the course of the day, we'll trade off keeping the primary eye on her until eventually her Mom comes to retrieve her.  In this case, Lynn picked her up on Friday evening and we had her to ourselves until late yesterday afternoon.  I even took her down to the farmer's market at Pepper Place on Saturday morning.

But as profound and deeply affecting as those moments are to me, it feels somewhat trite to write about them.  Mildly amusing, perhaps.  So rather than approach it straight on, I take a more circuitous route.     And then my time runs out, and I have to toss it out there, and get on with my day.


Elections in Alabama

I don't think this is at all fair.   I generally don't vote in the party primaries.   The matter of open vs closed primaries may be a matter of much dispute, but it just doesn't seem right to me that I should get to have a say in what candidate each party runs.  If the Republicans want to nominate a lunatic like Roy Moore, that's their business.  Democracy in action.  (Of course, if Moore were actually running more competitively, I might be tempted to change my mind on that one -- but he'd be an exception...)

But the election today also includes a referendum on an amendment to the state constitution opposing gay marriage.  If I want to vote against this foolishness (and I do) I need to declare myself as voting in one of the party primaries -- which is something that I very much do not want to do. 

The fact that it's on the ballot today at all is entirely the result of cynical political maneuvering.    The amendment sailed through the legislature  last session -- every politician of whatever stripe was eager to get on that pandering bandwagon.    But the Republicans wanted to wait to put it before the voters until the general election, figuring that having the issue on the ballot would be likely to strengthen Republican turnout.  So the Democratic majority in the legislature maneuvered to have it put on the primary ballot where its impact on voter turnout will be severely diluted.   None of them doubt that it'll pass, no matter when it's voted on -- the question is just how it can be used for other political advantage.

This is typical of Alabama politics.  There's very little range of ideological difference across the politicians of either party.    We could run truly nonpartisan elections in Alabama and likely end up with the same crew in charge, making the same decisions -- but where would be the fun in that?   The parties exist merely to provide a line in the sand for the politicians to shout across.  The path from SEC football to party politics is a strong and steady one.


The Petroglyph Tour

We were sitting in the late afternoon sun, drinking martinis at the rooftop lounge at Far View Lodge.   Bruce was annoyed at what he considered a slighting reference to the "stone-age" natives during our tour of Cliff Palace earlier in the afternoon.  "When this was going on here, the Europeans were spending their energy figuring out how to use metals to devise better ways to kill each other.  Who's more primitive?"

Although I hadn't anticipated it, at every stop on our tour -- Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, even at Taliesen West (!) -- we came across petroglyphs and pictographs, reminders of civilizations past, throughout the southwest.    On our last stop that afternoon, we stood at the Sun Point overlook on Chapin Mesa, where we could see many of the cliff dwellings at one time.  When we'd been down in Cliff Palace, or passing by Spruce Tree House on our way to Petroglyph Point, each collection of buildings seemed isolated and remote, but from the overlook they suddenly snapped into a greater relationship with each other and you could imagine the farms on the top of the mesa filled with people working and laughing and visiting each other and waving across the canyons at friends & lovers.  At the root of it, how different were their lives from ours?

We measure "standard of living" by level of material comfort, and consider a rise in this to be an indicator of progress.   And yet, we still inhabit a planet in which misery, despair, poverty and want seem to be predominant.   We require the antics of a multimillionaire Irish rockstar to  remind us of the grim poverty that rages throughout Africa.  In our misbegotten pursuit of "freedom" in Iraq, we brutalize idealistic young men and women and turn them into torturers and murderers.  Even in the rich countries there is little evidence that, on the whole, we have a better grasp of our place in the universe, our ability to find inner peace and true happiness than has ever been the case in the past.    Somebody growing up in Cliff Palace eight hundred years ago had just as good a chance of finding the meaning of life as Josephine does.  All of our wealth hasn't done anything to make that easier.

Many years ago, when I was just beginning to find my own path, I read Ambrose's Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors.    The two men were roughly the same age, and Ambrose tells the tale in alternating chapters as he follows them from their births, through their rise to prominence in their societies, to their tragic ends.  What I found so striking was that by the time they were in their early twenties, Custer was still all potential, while Crazy Horse was already everything that he would ever need to be.  In his pursuit of glory, Custer left a trail of obscene death and destruction in his wake; Crazy Horse was recognized as a wise man and true leader, caring for his people, when he was barely out of his teens.  Who was the primitive?  And Custer's people nearly wiped the Lakota off the face of the earth.

I came to believe, as the Lakota do, that all life and all history is circular.  We find wisdom and grace only one person at a time.  The American experiment is a noble thing, but it has not brought any more wisdom to those of us who are privileged to live here than was available to the boys and girls of Mesa Verde.

We do have the advantage of history, if only we would pay attention.


The Finest Cat

Even in her crotchety last days, Molly would patrol the house a couple of times a day, going from room to room, making sure that all was in order and safe.  For 21 years, she was sure that she was all that stood between Lynn and complete chaos.   

I often spoke of her as Lynn's alter ego.   In those days, it was just her and Marian, learning how to be strong and independent together.  It'd be good for Marian to have a pet, and Lynn found the little grey kitten.   But the primary bond turned out to be between Lynn and the cat.  Molly cared for Marian, because Lynn did.  She tolerated me, because Lynn did.  She put up with the other cats (once she made it clear who was in charge -- she had some fierce battles with Merline) because Lynn wanted her to.

When she slipped out an open door on Christmas a few years ago and stayed away for several days, Lynn was bereft.  Molly was already an old cat then, and it was a cold December.  I came to realize that the source of Lynn's grief was her fear that she had failed her familiar.  I thought at first that it was just the loss of the cat, but Lynn knew she'd eventually have to deal with that.   This was different.   Molly kept her safe, and she was responsible for keeping Molly safe.  She imagined Molly shivering and alone in a gutter somewhere, confused and cold and lost, wondering what had happened to her human.  As it turned out, Molly was quite comfortably hanging out beneath a neighbor's hot tub, and finally came out when Lynn approached the right spot singing her Molly songs.

She was increasingly cantankerous in these last years, but still astonishingly active.  She'd generally be awake when I got up in the morning, demanding her medicine (half a tablet for her thyroid, mixed in with a little diluted turkey & gravy babyfood).  She'd nap on the couch until it was time for a patrol, and that became the rhythm of the last months.  Eat a little bit, make sure the house was okay, take a nap.  She weighed next to nothing and in the last few weeks the strain was more apparent when she got up from a nap and stretched her sore limbs out.  We'd wonder how long she could possibly last, but she seemed determined not to give up -- if she did, what in the world would happen to Lynn?

But even Molly couldn't stave off time forever.  We were just approaching the heavy traffic outside Phoenix, on our way to Taliesen West, when Marian called.  As soon as I heard the wail in her voice I knew what had happened, and handed the phone back to Lynn.  Molly'd died while sleeping in one of her sun spots, probably on Sunday afternoon.   

Marian took her off to Riverview to be cremated, telling her mom that she was glad it had happened while we were away so that Lynn wouldn't have to do it.  When we got home Tuesday evening, Marian and Josie were here and we had supper and drank a toast to the very best cat in the world. 

In the mail yesterday there was a sympathy card from Riverview, along with Molly's collar and a little plaster paw print.   Lynn spent some time going through old photos and showed me the polaroid that she took on the day they brought Molly home, and some of the early pictures of her in Marian's lap.  Looking back, it seems fated that Lynn & Molly found each other.  They will remain inseparable.  What a fine, fine kitty.