Saturday, January 04, 2003

APB On Missing Information
Has anybody wondered, in the information age, what is happening to information?

Does that sound like a crazed question? I have, literally at my fingertips, the most fantastic information search and retrieval system ever created by man, and it continues to improve as I type this. We can find almost anything, almost anywhere, at almost any time. We even find information we would much rather not have known existed. We are drowning in the stuff.

But in spite of all the information available, we are losing information at a remarkable rate, the kind of information that scholars will need to write the history of our times. There are two kinds of problems. The first, ironically enough, is generated by the success of technology in making it easier and more efficient to maintain information in digital instead of paper form. As old technologies are discarded in favor of newer, better, faster ones, the information contained in old technology storage goes missing. For example, in the late 1970s, the Census Bureau discovered that the aggregated data from the 1960s Census could be read only using an UNIVAC Type II-A tape drive. At the time, there were only two of those in existence: one in Japan, and one in the Smithsonian Museum! A massive data rescue effort was mounted and by 1979 the data had been recovered. However, some information dissappears completely: satellite observations of the Amazon Basin from the 1970s, considered critical for anthropological and climate studies, were lost because the tapes they were stored in could not be read.

The second problem has been created by the emergence of e-mail as the tool of choice among scholars, especially scientists, for informal communication. Correspondence between scientists is a primary tool for historians of science. Scientists kept their letters to each other as a reference tool for their own work, as well as with an eye to the historical record. Letters were the equivalent of progress reports, and the replies provided methodological criticism and might even suggest new research possibilities. In some cases the dialogues went on for years. Having the correspondence might be essential to understanding the process of discovery.

But do you know that there is no record of who sent the first e-mail? It was in 1964, and it could have come from one of three places; but since the original message was not preserved, there's no documentary record to determine who sent it. The ease of e-mail is creating a new scholarly work pattern that de-emphasizes the process and favors the finished product. Where Darwin might sit and write a letter to a colleague discussing the results of several weeks of experiments, and get a long, detailed reply several weeks later, a scientist today can dash a series of short questions to someone halfway across the world and get back replies within a few hours. Very few would consider the stuff worth saving. There might be great discoveries being made in laboratories all over the world right now for which there will be no corroborating documentary evidence--unless some mad scientist out there keeps hard copies of all the e-mails she receives. (for a good review of these issues, go to Lukesh, Susan, "Email and Potential Loss to Future Archives in Scholarship",FirstMonday.org, 1999, and RLG, Inc. Preserving Digital Information,1996.)

Right about now you're asking yourself: and why is Emma subjecting me to a dissertation on information loss? And the answer is that the current administration's penchant for secrecy and manipulation is creating a third kind of problem for scholars. From the edict allowing ex-presidents and vice-presidents or their families to bar the release of documents, to the current announcement from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that they would not track mass layoffs, government information is disappearing. When that happens, the only version of history is the one written by those in power.

Does it sound familiar?

Thank You!
Many thanks to Lisa, and Jane, and Randy, and all the wonderful folks welcoming me to Blogtopia!

Friday, January 03, 2003

On Women's Work
I came of age in the Era of Feminism. Women were going to storm the battlements and tear down the walls of the Old Boys Fortress. In some circles, being interested in traditional women's work was tantamount to treason. We belonged in the boardrooms and the university classrooms, the big labs and the diplomatic service.

The spirit of the times suited me perfectly. I had always planned for a career, aided and abetted by my parents, whose only response to any and all of my announcements, from the time I was five, was "fine by us". Since my passion was history, I knew, just knew, that I was destined to become a prize-winning historian and college professor. So I went off to graduate school, armed with almost perfect SATs, enthusiasm, and fifty dollars.

The fifty lasted more than the enthusiasm did.

I hated the whole thing. I won't name the place, but let's just say that it was big, famous, and had admitted women for only fifteen years. Because of my academic interests, I had been assigned, as advisor, one of the top names in American history, whose books had been bread and butter to me as an undergraduate. It didn't take me long to realize that he was, indeed, brilliant;and that he was also a bigot and a mysogynist. I hated the overcompetitive nature of the department, and the way students were set against each other like pitbulls; you don't know from fisking until you find yourself in a small room with twenty students who are competing to catch the eye of the only professor with an open grad assistant job. I lasted a year and a half, passing my orals by the skin of my teeth, but could not get my advisor to approve my thesis topic. The last straw came when, at our monthly meeting, he told me that in order to produce a thesis he would accept, I would have to go finance my way to the town I was researching and live there for at least four months in order to use primary resources directly. Never mind that the University library held all the records in microfilm; that was not good enough. Never mind that I was a scholarship student and could not possibly afford the trip; that was not his problem. I went back to my dorm, sat down, cried, and called my parents. I went home the next day.

I worked at a bank library for a few years, then moved on to a clerical supervisory position at an academic library. That year, I was encouraged by my boss to attend library school. Her clinching argument: you can make three times as much with an MLS. So off I went to become a librarian.

I loved it. From the time a professor pointed at us and said in the battle of ideas, librarians are arms dealers; we provide information to all sides, I knew I had found the right profession.

Some of my friends were, to say the least, disappointed. You are going to be a librarian? Are you crazy? What, you're going to wear your hair in a bun and go around shushing people? You had promise! You had talent! You were the toughest, hippest, contrariest bitch in the valley! Librarian? That's so...women's work.

I have been doing women's work for twenty years now. Without ever leaving libraries I have been a teacher, a researcher, a confessor, a public assistance worker, a translator, and sometimes even an unwilling babysitter. I have provided information to everyone from John Birchers to latter-day Black Panthers. I have seen the card catalog go the way of the dodo, replaced by microfiche files, which followed it a few years later, replaced by the Online Public Access Catalog, and even later by the Integrated OnLine System. I have ridden the crest of the computer wave and washed up on the messy shores of the Internet. I have come to understand that feminism means giving women the opportunity to do what they love best, what they are good at, whatever that might be.

And I am still the toughest, hippest, contrariest bitch in the valley. If you don't believe me, believe Spider Robinson. In one of the Callahan stories, he says: Librarians are the secret masters of the Universe. They control information. Do not piss one off.

Well, This is Nice

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Who is your dragon spirit guide?

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Thursday, January 02, 2003

Sick Night at the Movies
Spent New Year's Eve and every evening since watching movies, since everyone at home is too sick to do anything else. Capsule critiques:
The Sum of All Fears. Whatever possessed Clancy to butcher his own novel (he's listed as executive producer) and produce this turkey? OK, that's unfair; not a turkey. Maybe a guinea hen.
Reign of Fire. Well, fantasy it wasn't and science-fiction it wasn't. But it did have Matthew M, looking like a reject from the Road Warrior movies. Strange special effects: sometimes they looked good, sometimes cheesy.
Ocean's Eleven.Good all-around caper movie. Lots of ladies' eye candy: Clooney, Garcia, Pitt, Damon (when did Matt Damon turn from nerdy to hunky?). And for the gentlemen, Miss Roberts. Enough said. Check out the rat pack version sometime, though, if only to see Steve McQueen.
Mulholland Drive.I guess David Lynch is one of those acquired tastes I've never managed to acquire. Visually stunning, and a truly bizarre story line (or am I showing my bourgeois tastes by expecting a movie to have a story line?). Anyway. Never mind.

It All Started with Richard Nixon...
Reading some of the blog comments about the comparative morality of recent presidents--usually in the context of Bill Clinton, who will be the bellwether of our political consciousness for decades to come--I've noticed a tendency to treat the media as an actual functioning part of current discourse, the "fourth estate" whose attention we must capture in order to get our message to the folks out in the heartland.

Sorry. Wrong.

Whatever methods the political parties end up using, mainstream American news outlets will be at best a minimal part of them. De facto, the Republicans have ditched it already, and created their own pseudo-factual organization based on kamikaze loudmouths whose only role is to push the party agenda. What used to be called the "legitimate" or "mainstream" press has turned into the gossip-and-entertainment "media," useful only for finding out what Madonna and J-Lo are up to. And what passes for news comes under the heading of "investigative reporting."

The modern curse known as "investigative reporting" began with the Washington Post and All the President's Men. By bringing down a president that not even his supporters could really stomach, and then getting themselves played by Redford and Hoffman, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Berstein spawned a plague of imitators whose only goal in life was to become famous. Preferably by destroying a political figure and being cast in a Hollywood movie.

The strict rules of evidence used in the Watergate investigation were lost in the rush. Now, it seems, all you need is a good target, i.e. someone the reporter personally dislikes. Get some titillating innuendo from a confidential source. It helps if you can slip the adjectives highly placed or close to the investigation somewhere in the "report". Every quote is edited with an eye to creating the impression of maximum culpability in the target, while affording maximum legal coverage to the reporter. Get some quotes from folks with axes to grind, but don't tell the public about them. If the target does not react, call it stonewalling; if they do, insinuate mental instability or crumbling under the pressure. Use another media outlet for confirmation: CNN reports that..., while conveniently forgetting to report that you and CNN are using the same source. And wrap it all up in the by-now-indecent exclusively on... If your circulation goes up, or your ratings are good, watch everyone pile onto the bandwaggon. If not, search for a new target. Surely, celebrity can't be far away.

There are a few good guys and gals out there fighting the good fight, but they are losing. The News is dead; long live the Media.

Monday, December 30, 2002

What About Freedom of Speech?
Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is an odd dissonance to being an immigrant. You always perceive things in two ways: as an American and as an outsider. As an American, I take that paragraph quoted above for granted; as a outsider, I often wonder if Americans know how truly unique it is, especially now, as we stand divided almost exactly down the middle by bitter controversy over the policies of our government, and many seem compelled to suppress the opposition on behalf of national security.

The meaning of America and what it means to be an American is codified in the First Amendment. The freedoms it spells out have established the framework for our continued experiment in nation-building: they give us the ability to evaluate new ideas, reject the unacceptable, incorporate the beneficial, and move on to the next round. Once the power of the State is used in a systematic fashion to silence individuals, no matter how unpopular or unwelcome their opinions, that framework is damaged beyond repair.

I am not eloquent enough to launch the kind of impassioned defense freedom of speech deserves, but I leave you with Justice Brandeis's words: Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.

Women and National Geographic
Like most serious amateur photographers that ever lived, I'd give a couple of teeth to have a picture in the Holy Grail of photojournalism, National Geographic.

Interestingly, the magazine has a long history of employing women photographers. In 1914 it published the work of Eliza Scidmore, who had been the first woman on the Society's Board of Managers. In the 1950s it hired Kathleen Revis as a permanent member of the photographic staff. Among their contributors was Dickey Chapelle, who was killed in Vietnam in 1965. These women traveled, sometimes for months at a time, into war zones and inhospitable climates, and produced work that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes harrowing, but always eye-stopping.

This Christmas a friend gave me a fantastic book, Women Photographers at National Geographic, with text by Cathy Newman, that displays some of their work. It also gives them a voice, and the stories are as interesting as the photographs. Check out Alice Schalek's shot of the main street in Udaipur, India, taken in 1928, when the only means of transportation were fully-loaded camels. Or the incredible blue-on-blue views of Antarctica by Maria Stenzel. Or....

Ella, Ella, Ella
I've been collecting albums by the Great Women of Song for twenty-odd years. Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Carmen McRae, Sara Vaughan...But to my mind, there's nobody like Ella.

The voice covered over two octaves. It was forever young, losing none of its brightness as she aged. She could scat at high speed and make it sound like a real language: have you ever listened to How High the Moon and strained to understand what she was saying? She had the nerve and verve to improvise to Mac the Knife when she forgot the lyrics. She out-beatled the Beatles on Can't Buy Me Love. And, boy, her delivery of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered really tells you all you need to know about a female in heat. Into lust and out again, in the resigned, weary tones of a woman that recognizes her own foolishness--and knows it will happen again.

But it's the Songbooks that show her at her best. Each covering a great composer's work, she sings them straight, with minimal vocal fireworks. The Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songbooks should be required listening for any would-be Broadway star. And Gershwin? Well, Ira Gershwin once said that he "never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them".