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Tokyo

Eleven stories below my hotel window, the bullet trains glide in and out of Tokyo Station.  On the other side of the station is the Ginza, where I went strolling yesterday after I got checked into the Marunouchi Hotel.  I'd imagined the Ginza as one broad avenue, lined with pricey stores, neon displays blazing, and jostling throngs filling up the sidewalks.  It certainly is that, but it's also a warren of little side streets, barely wide enough for a car to bump alongside the pedestrians.  Along these streets are the little specialty shops, restaurants and tiny bars opening out onto the street.  I wandered aimlessly for an hour, not too worried about getting lost -- all I'd need is for someone to point me back in the direction of Tokyo Station, after all.

I'd slept about two hours on the plane, but that was about it in the last twenty-four hours, so my energy was flagging a bit, and I stopped into the Hills Bar for a drink.  They had two little tables outside, so I got a scotch and a glass of water and went to sit and watch and write.  There was a dress shop across the way, a grandmother and small child sitting in front of it, watching the street and waiting for mom to come out.  Many young couples out strolling, and the occasional black sedan slowly inching along with a couple of elderly ladies in the back, all dressed up and gazing impassively at the shops as they slid past.

The young bartender came out to join me.  He'd been to college in Seattle and we talked a bit about his days there and this being my first trip to Japan and the differences in the weather down in Alabama and other bits and pieces of small talk.

Back at the hotel, I had dinner in the French restaurant, curious about what a fancy French place in Tokyo would be like.  For my appetizer I ordered something that was translated as "just caught raw fish with shellfish and crustacean."  It turned out to be a bowl of various morsels of seafood in some kind of thick greenish broth topped with a lightly poached egg that had the reddest yolk I've ever seen.  Served cold, and with a variety of textures and tastes that puts it well in the running for the most unusual thing I've ever eaten -- certainly I've never seen anything like it in any other French restaurant!  Then onion soup and a rack of lamb -- these both much more familiar, although still with distinctive touches.  All of it quite delicious and marvelously presented.

Jet lag was finally catching up to me, however, so I skipped desserts or coffee and headed up to the room and to bed.  Nine hours of sleep and I woke to another gray, monsoonish Tokyo day.   This is the one day of my trip that I get to do some sightseeing, so one of my hosts is meeting me later this morning to take me around.  I have no idea what we're going to see.  I can't wait.


There's Always Another Flight...

...although sometimes it might be awhile.  So I didn't really mind getting the call from Delta at 3:00 this morning to tell me that because my 7:10 flight to Atlanta was delayed, they had rebooked me onto a 6:00 flight, so that I wouldn't miss my connection to Tokyo.   I want to get a couple of hours of sleep on the flight over there anyway, so the fact that I lost a couple of hours this morning isn't a problem.

One of my hosts asked me awhile back, when I'd told her of my lifelong affection for Japanese art & philosophy, if I'd ever read Nitobe's Bushido, the Soul of Japan.  I hadn't, so I ordered a copy from Jake and started it on the plane this morning.  It was written in 1899, by a Japanese scholar & diplomat who spent much time in the West -- his attempt to explain the essence of the Japanese character to his Western friends & colleagues.  I'm familiar with the basic ideas, but Nitobe is a delightfully elegant writer, so it's fun to read, particularly under these circumstances.

I have an intense schedule coming up.  I'll get to my hotel mid-afternoon on Saturday, so I'm planning to get out and do some exploring, but that'll be about the only portion of this trip that I'll be able to get out on my own.  Tomorrow (that is, Sunday) one of my hosts (the one who recommended Bushido) is taking me sightseeing.  Monday & Tuesday are the conference in Tokyo & Kyoto.  Wednesday we fly to Korea.  Conference in Korea on Thursday & Friday and Saturday I fly home.  I've got my two lectures prepared and I'll be giving each of them twice.   

It should be fascinating journey.


Dealing With The Money

This was my favorite part of the Inside Higher Ed article reporting on an ALA session that focused on communicating with chief academic officers:

“You don’t have to convince me that you are worth the extra funding,” said Dominic Latorraca, vice president of academic affairs at County College of Morris, in New Jersey: “Can you convince others within the university that this is the way to go to track down the help we need? If you can show that, it’s going to impress me more than you saying, ‘Did you know that inflation went up 4 percent last year?’”

Most librarians tend to be uncomfortable grappling with the money issues -- since we tend to be selfless egalitarians who are only concerned with the welfare of society, we think that there is something unseemly in being hard-headed about the business aspects of running a large organization.  In a well-ordered world, our provosts (or library boards or school systems or hospital administrators) would simply give us all the money that we think we need because we are so clearly a good thing.  To have to argue for our funding is prima facie evidence that the administrators that we deal with are pennypinching suits who don't appreciate the really important issues.

If only it were that simple.  As an administrator myself, I am, of course, already suspect.  But dealing with the money is my job and I don't have the luxury of just complaining about the lack of vision of the people who hold the pursestrings.  The fact is, I'm extremely fortunate to be working in an institution where the people leading the institution (president, provost, deans, etc.) really do value the libraries and believe in their importance.   However, they also believe in the importance of supporting research infrastructure, and faculty development, and study abroad programs, and more scholarships for the best undergrads, and healthier stipends for the grad students we're trying to attract....  And once they've finished arguing for funding for all these things with the people that they report to, there's still never enough to fund everything adequately.

So my job, as I think about the budget plans that I'll be putting together over the next few weeks, is to make the most compelling case I can for why putting more money into the libraries is going to make the biggest impact on the goals of the university.  When talk turns to "How do you advocate for the library" I always say, "You need to figure out what keeps the person in charge awake at night." 

The point is that the people running our organizations are always faced with more good ideas than they can fund.  But, if they're doing their jobs right, they also have a vision for their organization and there are just a few things that they really focus on that can keep them awake at night.  It might be the quality of the undergraduate experience, it might be competing with other local hospitals for physicians, it might be expanding the tax base in some big city suburb -- it probably isn't how to have a bigger, better-funded library than anybody else.  So the challenge to the library administrator is to figure out how to make the case that putting money into the library is going to be a part of the solution to whatever those problems are.   Complaining that resources are getting more expensive isn't going to cut it -- everybody has that problem.    You've got to show that investing in the library is a part of the solution.   And then you do the very best you can with what you get.


Who Am I?

One of the more entertaining problems we discussed back when I was an undergrad in philosophy school was that of "personal identity."  What is it that makes me "me" over time?   In what sense and Scott_in_3rd_grade how is the 3rd grader the same person as me and no other?  Physically, we're composed of completely different atoms.  Psychologically there are vast differences between us.  Modern memory studies are sufficient to show that there's no steady constant link that we can rely on from his day to mine.  The faces that we present to the different people in our lives can be very different indeed.  What binds all those facets of personality over space and time?

I was disappointed that Laura Albert was found guilty of fraud for signing contracts under the name of her alter ego, JT Leroy.  I haven't followed the transcripts closely enough to know how the legal issues actually played out, but I was hoping that she'd get off.  That she needed to be JT Leroy in order to write seems clear enough.  And she did indeed deliver the novel that the studio wanted to make a movie out of.  But it seems that in our celebrity culture, novels don't stand on their own and the novel apparently written by JT Leroy is substantially different than the novel written by Laura Albert. 

One of the first librarian blogs that I started reading regularly was bizgirl.  It was literate, funny, sharp in a way that none of the other librarian blogs that I was coming across could begin to touch.  It also turned out to be a work of fiction, something that was coming to light just about the time that I started reading it.  Natalie Biz, the 28 year old "international librarian of mystery" was actually the creation of  a male  librarian and sometime music writer from New Zealand.  The truth finally came out when bizgirl started winning awards.  I don't recall that anyone accused the author of "fraud" -- but then, there weren't large sums of money in play.

Many of the bloggers that I follow wrestle with the identity conundrum.  Are they writing a "personal" blog, or a "professional" one?   If you're trying to be anonymous, how long can you carry on before you inadvertently leave too many breadcrumbs and your co-workers start suspecting that it's you?   

We are inevitably shaping our personas when we write.  Whether we label it personal or professional, we're creating a particular character to present to the rest of the world.   Sometimes, the creation of that persona can be more blatant and crafted, and that may make it possible to write things that one couldn't get to in one's "real" voice.    Those who value anonymity on the net argue that sometimes it is essential if certain things are going to get said at all.  That it so often becomes cover for deceit and meanness is, perhaps, just the price we have to pay.

I tend to think that the virtues of anonymity on the net are exaggerated and it is too often used to provide cover for someone who is unwilling to stand up to the things that they write.   But whether we write anonymously, or in the guise of a pseudonym, or ostensibly as ourselves, we're still just creating characters.


Still in the incunabula stage

In the past few months, the biblioblogosphere has seen interesting discussions about openness, sympathetic listening, the difficulties of managing one's social networks and the like.  We are really still at the very beginnings of figuring out the best ways to engage in discourse using all of these new tools.

So amidst the kerfuffle surrounding the latest Gorman outrage, I was struck by Laura K’s comment, “I think that when people need to diminish the efforts of others to make themselves look/feel better, it speaks to a pettiness in our profession.”  Well said (although I don’t think it’s peculiar to our profession).  Laura K was making the comment in response to the reports of the (curiously) unnamed presenter at the NASIG conference who apparently used one of Jane’s posts as an example of why blogs are bad.

What intrigues me  is that the comment was made in the context of a larger discussion in which some bibliobloggers have been piling on Michael Gorman’s recent pieces on the Brittanica blog, and a number of the posts I’ve seen exhibit the same apparent need to “diminish the efforts of others.”  A sampling:

“the latest Michael Gorman insanity,” “Gorman rambles…like a lost puppy…,” “rambling, nearly incoherent piece….”

“His hair is still blue…”

“I believe Michael Gorman was sad that we were not talking about him anymore…”

“his usual insultingly privileged self.”

These bloggers feel strongly about the issues, and I follow them because they often write useful and thought-provoking things (which I sometimes agree with and sometimes not), and just as often, are simply fun to read.  But presumably, the speaker at the NASIG conference also feels strongly about what he was saying (as does Gorman).  From the reports, it seems likely that I’d disagree with him vociferously, but I don’t have any grounds for questioning his sincerity or his passion for his beliefs.  And yet, it seems that in the minds of some, it’s unfair and petty to go after one of Jane’s posts, but it’s perfectly fine and reasonable to question Gorman’s sanity, ethics, emotional stability and hairstyle(!)  Why is that?

I’ve seen a number of very good responses to Gorman, in particular on Information Wants To Be Free, librarian.net, Walt at Random and Many to Many.  Think what you want about Gorman, the issues he tries to raise in his piece are fundamental questions to how our societies are going to view scholarship, authority, community and the generation of knowledge in the future.  I disagree with his stance, but he’s trying to talk about the right issues.  Challenging his ideas with better ideas is what’s needed.  Engaging in ad hominem attacks seems, well, petty.

As I was contemplating this post, I was reading de Botton’s superb “The Architecture of Happiness.”   He refers to Le Corbusier’s 1922 plan for Paris as one that “seemed so obviously demented that it intrigued me.”  He goes on,

Only after properly understanding how a rational person might come up with an idea to destroy half of central Paris, only after sympathising with the aspirations behind the plan and respecting its logic, did it seem fair to begin to mock, or indeed feel superior to...

But alas, attaining such an understanding of those one wishes to criticize requires work and time.



Living In The South

Roy Blount Jr. opened it up for questions.  He'd been telling hilarious stories about his experiences as a southerner who has spent most of his working life in the north.  He's on the book tour for Long Time Leaving, and Jake had arranged with WBHM to hold this event as a benefit for the station.  The venue was the McWane Science Center, which might not seem like a logical venue for Blount, but Jake is good at bringing people together, and it gave him a chance to promote the non-fiction book club that he's starting up with McWane.

Blount's an old hand at this and had the audience cracking up from his first sentence.  His manner suggests that he's just pulling these memories and stories up at random, but it's actually well-practiced.  Indeed, some of his stories had appeared almost verbatim in a newspaper interview that appeared a couple of days ago.  It may be an act, but it's a very good one.

I raised my hand  and he nodded in my direction.  I said I'd undergone the opposite journey from his, being raised in the north, and then finding myself living in the south.  So I'd had mirrored experiences to his, with southerners curious about how I was managing down here, and my northern friends asking questions about what it was really like.  Lynn had given me the clue years ago, and I'd distilled the distinction down to the matter of discretion.  Blount raised an eyebrow. 

"In the north, to be 'discreet' means to act in such a way that nobody knows what's really going on.  But in the south, to be 'discreet' means to act in such a way that everybody can act as if they don't know what's really going on."  Much laughter from the audience.  Blount just grinned and went on to the next question.  I've been using that line for years when I've been talking with people about the differences and I've never met a southerner who disagreed.

Earlier in the week, I was with several of the deans, meeting with a candidate for one of our open dean positions.  All but one of us, I think, were raised in the north, and we were unified in our praise for Birmingham and Alabama.  There's a generosity of spirit and, despite the stereotypes, a genuine openness to new ideas and new people.   And although the ridiculous unregulated development is threatening, it is still a very beautiful part of the country.

The past is always with us here, of course, and the wounds from slavery and segregation are still at least a couple of generations away from being healed.  But maybe that's what makes so many of us here work so much harder to make things better.  You don't need to deny or ignore the evil that's been done in the past to recognize all of the wonderful history of this region and the great promise it shows for the future.

I'll never be a southerner -- you don't get to be that unless you're born here.  But I don't imagine that I'll ever want to live anywhere else.


Rain

We're in the most serious drought that anyone can remember.  Enforceable restrictions on water use have finally been imposed, but they're weeks late.  It's been at least a month or more since it became obvious that we were going to be facing a very critical situation this summer, and the best that the authorities could do was to ask that people voluntarily restrict watering their lawns to two days a week.

It's been so long since we've had rain that the downpours Thursday night and for much of the day yesterday were strikingly unexpected and equally marvelous.  Lisa and I got semi-soaked going from my car over to Lynn's office, even though we had umbrellas.  As we were driving there, she was amazed at the ferocity of the downpour.  "Rain is different here," I said.  "When I was growing up in Wisconsin, rain was either a loud booming thunderstorm late on a spring or fall afternoon, or, more typically, a gentle steady rain that went on all day.  Here, we get brief, violent downpours that make it impossible to see more than a few feet.  But they're very localized, and last only a few minutes.  Who knew that rain could be so different in different parts of the country?  Maybe it has something to do with those low mountains."

None of the people that we passed, scurrying along those same paths, holding their umbrellas or their coats over their heads seemed too bothered by it.  We're all just grateful to see it.  When Lynn and I were at Grinnell, there was one rainy day (which washed out the all-reunion picnic).  We were walking to lunch through the drizzle with the college librarian, and he was apologizing (as people typically do when you're in their town) for the rain; but we said, "No, no... this is wonderful!  We've nearly forgotten what walking in the rain can be like."

My president is trying to garner some positive press for the dynamic leadership in the fight against human causes of global warming that he showed at the G8 summit this week.   His bold initiative recommends that the fifteen biggest emitters of greenhouse gases hold meetings and set an emissions goal.  What a brilliant idea!!  Of course, it is far too soon to suggest what that goal might be, and we certainly wouldn't want to apply any mandatory enforcement to it.  But by all means, we should certainly all get together to talk about it.

At this point the mind-boggling incompetence and cluelessness of my president is such an established fact that one can only give a sad shake of the head and sigh.  The leaders of the other nations put the best face on it that they can -- after all, for him, this is actually progress.  And they've still got to put up with him for another year and a half.

I've no idea what the relationship of the current drought in Alabama is to the larger global climate shifts that we're witnessing, and I certainly acknowledge that it is devilishly difficult to sift through the impact of human causes on the natural shifts that the planet undergoes anyway.   The nature of science is such that there will always be outliers, and if one takes the approach that unless there is absolute unanimity on an issue it is still "open for debate," then we'd never get anywhere at all.  But the consensus on the causes of global warming and the actions that must be taken to try to mitigate the problem has been pretty clear for years now.  Unfortunately, my president, as ignorant of science as he is of democracy, can do no more than suggest that the nations get together to talk about the issues.  With luck, he'll be able to slink out of office before he actually has to make a decision.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the rain, and try not to think about August.


Making up a meal

I'm in the mood to do a stirfry for supper (we had a great Thai meal in Grinnell a week ago), but I don't have anything specific in mind, so I'll make it up as I go along.

Stop at the new Whole Foods store, since they've got the best range of interesting produce.  Shanghai bok choy -- that looks interesting.  Some slivered carrots would be good so I'll take three of these.  A handful of green beans.  A stalk of lemon grass.  One fat red bell pepper.  I need hot peppers -- they've got lots!  Settle on these two small squat red ones -- I think they're serranos, but Whole Foods does a lousy job of labeling their produce so I'm not quite sure.  Mushroom selection isn't bad.  (Need to remember they've got fresh porcinis -- I'll do something with those next week).  Here's a mix that looks like the right amount -- shitakes, oyster, crimini.  Let's see, what else?  Oh yeah, let's try one of those fat red onions.  Surely I've got plenty of garlic at home, but grab another bulb just in case.

On to the meat counter.  I've been dithering between chicken and pork, but I'm leaning toward the latter.  Ah-ha!  They have some nice thick center cut boneless pork chops that run about 8 oz each.  One of those will be perfect.  Then on to the Asian foods aisle to see if anything strikes my fancy.  I've got fish sauce at home, but maybe there'll be something else interesting?  I browse the bottles, but decide to stick with the fish sauce.  Grab a box of jasmine rice.

What else?  Huge selection of nuts here, and I find a small packet of chopped raw cashews.  Perfect.  And then to the wine aisle for a good Zinfandel that can stand the heat of those peppers, whatever they are.

At home, I lay everything out on the counter, and put a pot of water on to blanch the green beans.  Peel away the outer layers of the lemon grass stalk and coarsely mince the bulb.  Into that long gray bowl that I like using for marinades I throw a couple of teaspoons of corn starch and a lot of freshly ground black pepper.  Pour in enough rice cooking wine to make a thin paste and then mix in my lemon grass.  The pork chop gets cut into small dice and I mix it well with the marinade.

The beans go into the boiling water for just two minutes.  (Since we're in a drought, I'm being careful with water, so I'll use the water from the beans to fix the rice.)  Now comes the chopping, which I always rather enjoy, particularly after a long and intense day at work.  Carrots first, into little matchsticks.  Then the box choy, separating the stalks from the leaves (I'll throw them in at different times).  Slice the onion against the grain, use half the bell pepper cut into strips.   How hot are these little red ones?  Ooh, yum!  Just the right bit of sting -- I'll take out about half the seeds I think.  Am I missing anything?  Oh right -- mince up three or four big cloves of garlic.

The rice is going by now, and after simmering for fifteen minutes, I move it off the heat to finish and it's time to get the rest going.  Pick through the pork, pulling out the larger bits of lemon grass -- I want to use those to flavor the oil, but lemon grass is a bit woody, so I don't want any big bits to end up in the final dish.

Pull out my beloved wok -- the plain steel one that my brother gave me over twenty years ago.  Far and away my favorite kitchen utensil.  Pour in some peanut oil and let that heat up.  Throw in the lemon grass bits and let it bubble fiercely for a minute or so.  Turn off the heat and use a spoon to take the lemon grass bits out -- I'm done with them now.  Wok back on the heat, and now we're ready to progress.

Garlic first, no more than thirty seconds before I put in the pork.  Keep the heat around medium -- I want it cooking fast, but not so fast as to risk scorching.  Use the wooden paddle to keep moving things around.  Onion next, and stir that around so that the pieces separate.  Then the mushroom mix, and I'll give that a minute or so to get going.  The mushrooms start to throw off their liquid, which is what I need to generate a little steam for the other vegetables.  Carrots, the slices of bok choy stalk; swirl those around and then put in bell pepper strips and the chopped hot peppers.  Toss in just a couple of pinches of salt, and a liberal amount of fish sauce.  It's all bubbling nicely now.  Keep moving everything around with that wooden paddle.  Taste.  A little more fish sauce, I think.  Now the green beans.  Stir, taste.  More fish sauce.  The bok choy leaves.  A handful of cashew bits.  Taste.  I think it's just about there.  Sauce is too thin, though.  Toss a teaspoon of cornstarch into a cup, add a little water, mix quickly, pour that in and stir -- just right, that thickened it up nicely and we are ready to go.

Moment of truth.  Do the flavors blend right?  Are the proportions the way I want them?  How's the heat?  Did I get enough of the woody bits of lemon grass out?  Peppery enough?  Not too much salt?  Or did I end up with a half-cooked disastrous mess of clashing tastes that we'll force our way through only because we're too hungry not to?

First bite is pretty tasty.  On the second, the hot pepper starts to come through -- right about where I wanted it.  Yes, with each bite I'm more confident.  Lynn's enjoying it.  The wine's a good match.  Relief!  Maybe I should remember to write this down in case I ever want to do something similar again.   Nah.

I'm a happy boy.  Tomorrow night I'll make rice cakes with the leftovers....  maybe with some chili sauce...?   And I'm still thinking about those porcini mushrooms for next week...



Travel Writing

My travel tends to cluster -- heavy in April/May, heavy again mid-September to early-November.  The rhythm works for me.  After I've been home five or six weeks, I start itching to get on a plane to anywhere.  I want to check out a new hotel, find a new museum and a new little french bistro.  I want to talk with some people I haven't met before, find out what ideas we have in common and where we're different.  I want to hang out with good friends that I only see when I'm traveling, and sit up late sipping whisky and talking about how our lives are revolving.  I want to learn new things.

But when I finish a travel stretch like I've had the past two months, when I've been sleeping in hotels more nights than in my own bed,  and am feeling overstuffed with restaurant food and too many receptions, and can barely keep straight which audience I'm giving which presentation to, the prospect of coming in to the library day after day for several weeks and settling into something approaching a routine feels like bliss.  I want to get up at the same time every morning and have an hour and a half to write, dig into the planning and projects at the library, make a simple supper in the evening, read for an hour before bed, curl up next to Lynn to go to sleep, play with Josephine on the weekends.

Still, my head is overfilled with the images and sounds and sights from the places I've just recently been.  Whenever I'm about to leave home, I imagine that I'll be able to do regular posts from the road, documenting what I'm seeing & feeling, who I'm talking to and what I'm finding out.  It never happens.  I generally manage to write every day, but that's just the thirty or forty-five minutes of morning journal writing, scattershot notes & clumsy sentences that help me keep track of where my brain is.  Definitely not something that I'd want to post to the world.  I console myself by thinking that when I get back home, I'll write some longer posts about the more significant events.

But then I get back and while the pace is more relaxed, life still moves along on its merry way carrying me headlong into the new and leaving those places I've been, increasingly dimly behind.  How would I pick the one or two significant moments that are most worth writing about?  I could easily write a short essay about Geoffrey Bilder's brilliant presentation at UKSG on data-mining and its potential impact on scientific publishing.   I could wax poetic about the Caribou Cafe in Philadelphia and why I managed to get there three times in five days.  I could go on and on about how proud I was to see so many of the people that I work with at MLA, giving papers and presenting posters and running meetings -- about the number of times someone would say to me, "You've got quite a crew down there in Alabama!" and I'd just grin.

I could write about the interludes when we did have a few days at home between trips -- the way that Josie clung to my neck when I picked her up at school on that Tuesday afternoon after MLA, or the marvelous dinner cruise that we had in perfect weather with Rollo, BtheA, and Vikki.  There was a phone call from Heather Joseph to talk about the direction that SPARC is taking, an interview with the reporter from some magazine about how librarians can help consumers sort through health information, the scholar's week program with the med students, a weekend when we actually had time to do a little yardwork.

But then I'd want to think back about the road and mention debating Andrew Booth in North Carolina, or listening to Henry's wonderful Doe lecture, or just driving through the streets of Milwaukee with my Mom when I went up there for the WHSLA meeting.

I could go on like this for thousands and thousands of words, just pulling out images.  The crunch of gravel in the parking lot outside our window at Nailcote Hall, the giddiness of the post-banquet survival game in Wisconsin, the flush on a young colleague's face as we sipped wine and talked about her professional future, the Google guy finishing his presentation by quoting a poem by Kay Ryan,  the laughter when Rick put up his title slide at the space debate, LMF & Siemers at lunch with the new Grinnell librarian, the director of the National Library of Medicine pulling me aside at a reception in Philadelphia to pay for his membership in the Thicket Society.

What is one to do with all of this?  Every day changes you a little bit.  Every encounter teaches you something.  Every moment is mysterious.  I want to capture it in words so that it doesn't slip away.  There is never enough time.

On to the new...