An evening with Sir James

February 24, 2007

In addition to having a faculty position at Texas Woman’s University, Diane joined its flute choir last year. Just last week, she went to San Antonio to play at a music educators’ conference. This Friday, she performed in the atrium of Dallas’ Meyerson Center prior to a concert featuring renowned flautist Sir James Galway.

The featured event did not begin until 8:00, but we arrived at 6:00. This meant navigating the so-called “Mixmaster” near downtown Dallas, a formidable series of interchanges that includes I-30 and I-35E, as well as the starting points of U.S. 75 and I-45 (the Texas-only interstate route that connects Dallas and Houston, with Galveston marking its terminus). Miraculously, we made our way to a parking garage near the Meyerson, and we found out way to the east atrium where the flute choir held its rehearsal.

While waiting for the flute choir performance to start, I had to figure something to do for an hour or so. I wandered the atrium, taking in the panoramic views of skyscrapers and construction cranes as the sky turned from gray to indigo. Prior to that, however, I flipped through the program. It contained a few interesting features, including a piece about 15 major conductors of the past and their best recordings. I noted a few absences, such as Karl Bohm and Sir Georg Solti, but such lists always have a subjective element. Amidst the extended pharmaceutical ads, along with the single-page glossies for Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, and Damani (with Gwyneth Paltrow smiling in sepia), I learned more about the concert itself.

I already knew about Galway’s appearance, which constituted the centerpiece of the concert. As a pleasant surprise bonus, however, the concert also commemorated the centennial of the birth of Franz Waxman. The name might not sound familiar to many, but those who appreciate classic movies know him best as one of film’s greatest composers. Born into a Jewish family in Germany, Waxman (or Wachsmann) started his work with film music as the orchestrator and conductor for the score from The Blue Angel. The rise of Hitler drove Waxman away from Germany, but opportunity drove him to Hollywood, where he stayed until his death in 1967. Over the course of his career, Waxman received 12 Academy Award nominations. He also became the first composer to win two years in a row (1950 and 1951 for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun). In addition to his work as a film composer, Waxman started the Los Angeles Music Festival, where he oversaw a number of premiers of works by a broad range of composers.

After wandering the atrium for a while, I found a table near the flute choir and had a seat. Two other couples eventually gathered at my table, including an odd pairing of what looked like Lou Dobbs and opera singer Gwyneth Jones. The program for the flute choir did not list pieces played, but their performance ended with “A Celtic Celebration,” no doubt a tribute to the featured performer. With fifteen minutes to spare before the concert, Diane and I wound our way towards the very top of the Meyerson center and found our seats.

The concert began with two pieces by Waxman. The first came from a film called Prince Valiant. As one would expect, Waxman’s music evokes a heroic mood, with orchestration tricks reminiscent of the hyper-Romanticism of such composers as Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar. Listening to Valiant, I thought of Strauss’ Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), as well as Elgar’s Alassio (In the South). Before I lose too many of you who don’t know much about such compositions, keep in mind that John Williams uses similar tricks to create such chest-swelling moods. If the music from Star Wars pleases your ears, the Valiant score (as well as the aforementioned Strauss and Elgar pieces) would not seem much of a stretch. In fact, don’t be surprised if you end up liking them even more.

Following Valiant, the orchestra played the “Ireland” movement from the score of Billy Wilder’s film The Spirit of St. Louis. I did not find it quite as engaging as Valiant, but it still conjured up visions of flying, as well as stereotypical visions of a pastoral Ireland (which would probably seem quite tempting after a day of crossing the Atlantic in a solo plane). Naturally, after that piece, Galway himself appeared. Since the concert was part of the Dallas Symphony Pops series, he did not play “serious” pieces. Nevertheless, Galway noted with more than a bit of blarney that Mozart and Bach came up with the first two pieces (“Loch Mozart” and “Badinereelerie”) after trips both made to Ireland. The first portion of the concert ended with him accompanying Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane.

During the intermission, Diane and I hauled to and from the gift shop for a CD that we would have Galway autograph. Immediately after getting drinks, the warning bell went off for seating. We frantically made our way to the top again, finding our seats just as the conductor came out to conduct the orchestral suite from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

As his biography indicates, Waxman actually played in night clubs and a jazz band during the 1920s. As the fictional Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) own peak of fame occurred around that time, Waxman incorporates such sounds into the film’s score. With its portrayal of Desmond’s descent into madness, the Sunset suite contrasts quite starkly with Valiant. As Ravel deconstructed the waltz in La Valse, Waxman throws in a tango that collapses into overblown, self-aggrandizing parody. He also draws upon some of the grimmer aspects of German Romanticism, with nods to Mahler and (most obviously) Strauss. One can plainly discern Waxman’s allusions to the ominous woodwind trill from the latter’s opera Salome, the part that Desmond desires to play for her “comeback” role. (In fact, Billy Wilder actually played the “Dance of the Seven Veils” while filming Desmond’s descent down the grand staircase in her mansion.) Naturally, I lapped the whole thing up, especially since I could hear the music live. It actually gave me clearer insight into how the music should sound, especially since I have experienced it with the limitations of sound quality circa 1950. I also considered the apt timing of playing the suite from Sunset Boulevard, with the media close-ups of the Anna Nicole Smith debacle and Britney Spears’ own meltdown.

The Waxman pieces concluded with “Ride of the Cossacks” from the historical epic Taras Bulba. It put me in mind of “Sabre Dance” (probably because it was performed earlier in the evening), as well as Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. Mind you, I do not wish to make Waxman sound like a plagiarizer. In fact, I believe that the best film composers allude to previously-composed pieces as a nod to those who enjoy classical music. Some look down on John Williams for this, but I have heard quite a few people say that Williams’ scores actually got them interested in classical music. In fact, along with my mother playing it when I was a child, I attribute my love of classical music to growing up with films containing Williams’ scores.

With a great evening of Waxman, I can only hope that 2011 or 2012 will see a centenary commemoration of Bernard Herrmann, yet another great cinematic composer (with a career spanning from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver).

After the Waxman pieces, Galway came out again. This time, he appeared with his wife Jeanne to play movements from “The Magic Flutes,” a kind of homage to Mozart. Following that, Galway himself accompanied the theme from “The Pink Panther,” then picked up his pennywhistle for three more Mancini pieces. The concert officially ended with “Baby Elephant Walk,” but Galway came out yet again to play a few more pieces by the great Irish composers Traditional and Anonymous. Seeing Galway work with the audience, I think he could have had a great career as either a storyteller or a comedian. It was good to see that Galway could combine such talents with his own expertise as a flautist, and that he could temper his prestigious talent with his down-to-earth sense of humor.

After the concert, Diane and I stood in line to have the CD booklet autographed. The line seemed formidable at first, but we finally reached the table with Sir James and Lady Jeanne after about 20 minutes. We did not bring a camera, but I did have my camera phone; for once, I found a practical use for it. When Diane’s turn came, she mentioned that she played flute, and that the flute choir had performed earlier. James did not know about it, and he sounded disappointed about not being able to see them. When Diane went over to Jeanne, I stepped out of the line to take a picture of them behind the table. I took the first photograph too early, with Jeanne and Diane looking at me, and James signing an autograph for the next person in line. As I saved the first picture, Jeanne said, “James…” to get her husband’s attention. For a few seconds, the world’s greatest flautist looked in my direction as I fiddled with my cell phone to get another shot. I finally got a picture of the Galways and Diane all looking at the camera, thanked them both, and we made our way to the parking garage.

After seeing Bono speak at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council last May, we went to the Cheesecake Factory a few miles north of downtown Dallas. We did the same thing after seeing Galway. This indicates that Diane and I have developed a bit of ritual: after seeing a great Irishman in Dallas, we go to the Cheesecake Factory just a few miles north of downtown for a late dinner. (Perhaps we will see Anonymous or Traditional next.) We got there around 11 PM last night, and we finally got home to west Fort Worth at 1 AM. I had been up a while, but the concert (as well as post-dinner coffee) left me wired. As you can see from what I have written, it might take me a while before I finally wind down.


Ready for their close-up

February 22, 2007

In my two “Dance of the Infinite Veils” postings from a few weeks ago (on 7 and 8 February), I followed the lead of several posters in the biblioblogosphere who pondered online personae. A New Yorker article by Emily Nussbaum explores how younger people appear to have fewer inhibitions about exposing their lives on the Internet.

Indulging in a bit of hyperbole, Nussbaum compares the apprehensions of older adults now with those who worried about rock and roll 50 years ago. Going even further, she believes that the self-exposure of the younger generation’s personal lives online signals the widest generation gap since the late 1950s. Although I have my doubts about such a shaky analogy, Nussbaum does provide readers with some interesting insights about the changes facilitated by the new media over the past few years.

Nussbaum speculates on which “turning points” compelled young people to take advantage of such media, and to expose some of the most private aspects of their lives. These include MTV’s Real World (which I saw as one of the most fake, pandering, and patronizing things in the world), as well as the infamous Paris Hilton video (No, not that one! The other one!) Whatever the case, she discusses how such self-exposure seems natural to the younger generation, and how they see privacy as little more than an illusion. Furthermore, as the aforementioned examples show, getting some kind of recognition (even negative) seems better than not being recognized at all.

Of course, this posting only skims the surface of Nussbaum’s article, which one needs to read to appreciate. I will say that it does a good job of making me feel like a fossilized phony, living under the illusion of privacy. However, because of small matters like having a career, as well as the prospect of unintentionally offending people I care about, I feel apprehensive about exposing all my personal baggage to the world. Still, I do not begrudge others the choice to put their “complete story” where everyone can see it. In fact, were it not for the aforementioned constraints, I might consider indulging in online naval gazing to turn my personal life into some kind of digital Gesamtkunstwerk. With more time, perhaps I could figure out a way to make good money from it. Ms Hilton has done so, but she already has the money to blow off the consequences.

As grossly unfair (and potentially illegal) as I find it, employers could use one’s online presence as a make-or-break factor in deciding whether to hire someone. As Xiyin Tang says in the article:

    If that girl’s video got published, if she did it in the first place, she should be thick-skinned enough to just brush it off… I understand that it’s really humiliating and everything. But if something like that happened to me, I hope I’d just say, well, that was a terrible thing for a guy to do, to put it online. But I did it and that’s me. So I am a sexual person and I shouldn’t have to hide my sexuality. I did this for my boyfriend just like you probably do this for your boyfriend, just that yours is not published. But to me, it’s all the same. It’s either documented online for other people to see or it’s not, but either way you’re still doing it. So my philosophy is, why hide it?

Tang’s points make me think about the hypocrisy of condemning someone whose actions were caught on video, even if those who harshly judge the exposed actions indulge in the same kinds of behavior themselves (or even in much worse behavior). Although Tang sees the exposure of one’s personal behavior as no problem, the new media has yet to change the attitudes of those who make the “big decisions” in society.

Whatever the personal or societal constraints, many of us have differing comfort levels with exposing ourselves online. Since my blog relates to librarianship, I try to keep it fairly professional. Nonetheless, I still like to share a bit about myself occasionally. At certain times in my personal life, I might think about things related to librarianship or information science. If I see or do something that resonates with me, I might feel the urge to share it with others, just to demonstrate that I have interests beyond the profession. On the other hand, I prefer to keep some things secret. I do not have time to share the details of my life with the world, and I have serious doubts that anyone would really care. However, if I were seeking another job, a prospective employer might care. A lot. Even though it might seem fake to the folks Nussbaum describes, “the real me” would care more about employment prospects than the desire to expose the every bit of my life to a broad audience. In addition, I doubt that Diane would be very happy if I uploaded some homemade homage to the Paris Hilton video.

Perhaps someday, I will have the courage to discuss the minutiae of my life; my personal hopes, desires, fears, joys, religious beliefs, political leanings, and so on. However, since this blog relates to librarianship, one would need to look elsewhere (if they really care, anyway). Nevertheless, I have debated whether or not to put a very personal posting on here. It may appear in a few weeks, on a significant anniversary date. However, it is nothing “naughty,” I (re)assure you.

In The Chronicle, Stanley Wilder writes about The New Library Professional. Just looking at the title, one would assume correctly that he writes about younger librarians, which Wilder defines as those under 35. I actually made the same assumption myself. However, I remembered that most of the students I teach (as a SLIS adjunct) do not fit the under-35 demographic described by Wilder. Nevertheless, they will become new library professionals fairly soon.

Since I have another 10 months to go before reaching Wilder’s magic number, I decided to compare myself with the demographic he discusses. The time has probably arrived for me to stop considering myself “new,” however, as symbolized by my unsubscribing from the NEWLIB discussion list a few weeks ago. I have yet to reach 35, but I have worked as a professional librarian for the past six years.

In the opening, Wilder says, “If you work in an academic library and are under 35, you probably don’t have a lot in common with your older counterparts.” Although that sounds like a fair statement, Wilder’s generalizations about my cohort do not apply specifically to me. In contrast to his description of under-35s in academic libraries, I work as a subject librarian in possession of a stalwart MLS. I also do not fit into the category of “feral professionals,” as my near-namesake calls them. I entered library school with a rather traditional outlook on libraries, and I pursued a course of study that led to a traditional degree and position. Nevertheless, I have encountered plenty of ideas that have made me think more broadly about prospects for libraries. With her background in computers, my wife Diane has guided me further in thinking about such ideas. As a result, I have considered how libraries can continue to fulfill their traditional societal roles, while also considering how to handle the societal and technological challenges that have emerged over the past several years.

Every so often, I have wondered how I fit into the current environment of academic librarianship, as well as its future. The end of Wilder’s article gives me some hope. While academic libraries may hire “feral professionals” to meet constantly-changing needs, Wilder suggests that administrators should use those with more traditional backgrounds to keep libraries anchored. On the surface, some hardcore visionaries and technophiles might view such an idea as arch-reactionary. I believe that traditional library values do not preclude flexibility and openness to new ideas; “because we have always done it that way” is a different matter, being a problem of individual library cultures (rather than librarianship as a whole).

When considering the many changes that could affect patrons and the profession, we should find ways to balance new ideas and technologies with the idealistic principles of librarianship. We should contemplate how best to respond to challenges and opportunities posed by new devices, new modes of communication, Web 2.0 (with an eye towards the potential for Web 3.0, however that turns out), and anything else that could change how libraries operate. That may seem obvious, but it is not always feasible when time and money are scarce. Related to that, librarians also need to consider the necessity (and feasibility, as mentioned above) of integrating new technological advances into their institutions. Some “innovations” might sound useful on the surface, but library staff should determine if patrons actually want the library to facilitate activities that require such technologies.

Going beyond the offerings of current technology, I believe that librarians should take on the role of visionaries. I speak not of those who think in terms of technology similar to what’s available now, but of ways that would make “information” in various formats more easily accessible. Ironically, I think taking on the attitude of a Luddite would be a good start. Various technologies pose different problems, so why not consider ways to transcend those problems so that everyone (patrons and library staff) can find what they need, and do what they need to do? Not everyone has the expertise to make changes, but everyone knows what problems need to be overcome. Perhaps feral professionals and librarians can work together towards such a goal, and improve the information-finding lot of all. That may sound a bit too idealistic, but I would like to think of such serious dreaming as a good start.

Fillin’ up on free stuff

February 16, 2007

I vaguely remember a King of the Hill episode where Hank was at a restaurant, probably with Peggy and Bobby. They got a free appetizer (bread, if I remember right), but Hank warned them not to “fill up on free stuff.”

As anyone who has attended a library conference knows, vendors hand out all kinds of free stuff. Librarians probably know at least one person who brings home a whole suitcase of such baubles from conferences. In fact, I remember someone in library school actually telling people to bring an empty suitcase so they can fill it with giveaways.

It seems reasonable to question the long-term benefits of grabbing goodies at conferences. I work at a large academic library that provides generous travel funding to its staff, and that could probably purchase more sticky notes and pens than we need. At least until I lose it, or it disappears in one of several tote bags (also vendor freebies), a vendor’s pen might save me a trip or two to the supply cabinet. On the other hand, staff at smaller and poorly-funded libraries might have a better rationale for sending staff to big conferences and grabbing as many gratis goodies as they can. Bulk orders of pens and sticky notes pose no challenge to well-funded institutions, but every mismatched handout might delay the necessity of purchasing such items. Admittedly, a trip to Staples or Wal-Mart to get a pack of Bic pens would not break the budget of even the most woefully-underfunded libraries. Still, I don’t begrudge them their desire to save every penny they can.

Despite my own attitudes about “fillin’ up on free stuff,” I will admit to having encountered some outstanding giveaways. Two of my favorites came from the EDUCAUSE annual conference in Atlanta (2002), where I received a nicely-made backpack with the organization’s logo; for almost $500 a head, it seemed appropriate to get a decent memento. While visiting the Hewlett-Packard exhibit, I got a couple of interesting pens. They were compact, and they resembled a “retro” rocket. When trying to figure out giveaways for the Texas Library Association’s Automation and Technology Roundtable’s booth a few years later, I remembered those pens and decided that we should give away something similar. They did not look quite as swanky as the Hewlett-Packard pens, but they all disappeared by the second day of the conference. I think people liked the novelty of compact pens, as well as their practicality.

I can understand why people might want to get free stuff at conferences, but I have no idea why some attendees view conferences as a freebie-grabbing free-for-all. Sample pens and sticky notes may seem practical, but I have difficulty figuring out the necessity of various “novelty” handouts, including the myriad useless gadgets that have no purpose besides superficial amusement. That may work for librarians with pint-sized patrons, but I don’t understand why others end up grabbing such novelties for themselves.

Simply put, I think some people like to get a good deal. They accumulate stuff so they can say, “Look, I got this for free.” The same goes for those who hunt bargains, including my wife and me. However, we approach bargain-hunting by carefully scrutinizing sales at department stores and outlet malls, as well as offerings from used book stores. In the latter case, I highly recommend Half-Price Books chain; one can easily get lost in the mothership store for hours. Recycled Books in Denton, Texas, is quite excellent, too.

Just a few weeks ago, I thrilled at finding a rare Wagner recording for only $6.00. Just by looking at it, I figured out immediately that I couldn’t just buy the recording at Barnes & Noble, or even at Borders. As the record in Amazon indicates, the album is no longer available to purchase new, and the one review for it says, “Snap it up while you can.” On the other hand, my mother-in-law is much tighter with money than us, but she has two or three closets full of clothes bought on sale. Although not necessarily a bad thing, a considerable number of garments still have the price tags on them. Diane and I also scratch our heads over the “bargains” that her parents have accumulated from estate sales, which end up stored somewhere in their house or sitting under our Christmas tree.

Fortunately, Diane and I agree about the obsession some people have with accumulating freebies or bargains for their own sake. Coming back from conferences, we have a rather light collective loot, usually consisting of little more than a few practical supplies with logos of various vendors. Diane has told me how some vendor representatives look stupefied when she declines to take something free. I suppose the vendors rely on the opposite reaction, where people simply cannot turn down something free. As for myself, I do not stay very long in exhibit halls. I have not been designated to purchase anything major on behalf of the library, and conferences have too much going on for me to spend time looking at everyone’s wares. Nevertheless, Diane and I try to take advantage of sales on the final day of a conference, where vendors take at least 50% off the normal price. We usually try to find books for our own personal enjoyment or professional enrichment.

Just as Dr. Phil doesn’t care if people follow his advice, I don’t care if you end up with a whole truckload of freebies at conferences. However, I would recommend rethinking your freebie-taking habits if you have felt physically and mentally weighed down, or if you fret over the logistics of taking all that newly-acquired stuff home. I’m certainly no therapist, but I would recommend exercising common sense when fillin’ up on free stuff at conferences. I’m sure Hank Hill would agree, with a resounding “Yep.”

Just a few days short of Valentine’s Day, Diane and I finally got Ryszard and Ailsa to meet. We teleported them from their respective locations, and they met on the ALA Arts InfoIsland. After engaging in some “meet cute” banter, they wandered around on some nearby islands with virtual spaces for libraries and library/information science schools. They then went to the Toyota Scion dealership, where avatars can purchase their very own Scion for 300 Linden (roughly $1, depending on the current Linden/Dollar exchange rate). Ryszard and Ailsa also visited a home dealership, with a variety of unfurnished houses ranging from approximately 500 to 7,000 Linden (roughly $2-$25). Neither avatar has the premium membership, but it never hurts to look.

I made a few more observations based on the wanderings of Ryszard and Ailsa yesterday. Ryszard had never interacted with another avatar before, so I had to do some Instant Messaging (something of which I’m not a big fan). Diane and I were sitting just a few feet away, so the experience of typing a message that would take one second to say felt a bit disorienting. Perhaps something like Skype would enhance the illusion of real interaction, especially if it had some kind of voice-changing capabilities. Diane and I also had to keep track of our avatars, who initially acted clingy. However, with the large and small maps at our disposal, we found each other rather easily when needed.

I feel more comfortable navigating Ryszard around Second Life. Besides teleporting to and from different locations, he has also learned how to move objects and open doors with ease. Despite a number of similarities to the real world, the economic, social, and political situation differs quite a bit. Unlike the real world, no one actually “needs” anything in Second Life. There’s no struggle for necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter, or medical care. One can fall from great heights or splash into deep water, but no one has to worry about broken bones or drowning. Being a vagrant (like Ryszard and Ailsa) carries no stigma, and one can remain looking quite healthy and clean quite easily. In fact, it would take some effort to dirty oneself up.

Only aesthetes who worry about their online persona need think about money. Fortunately for them, they can act as benefactors who lavish their avatars with the finer things in life for very little real-world money. However, the cost of things is a bit off-balance. Houses and cars seem cheap, but clothing looks like it could add up. One can buy a Scion for 300 Linden, but I saw t-shirts at one store for 50 Linden (probably “designer,” but still…). If a new Scion costs $15,000, that means a designer t-shirt would cost around $2,500. Or, put another way, a designer t-shirt costs $50, and a new Scion would cost $300. I haven’t learned much about the details of the Second Life economy, but some people can make pretty good money.

Unless I have a really original idea that people might buy into, I plan to abstain from doing business in Second Life. However, at the very least, Ryszard should have a decent wardrobe. He might meet avatars of other professional librarians, and he will want to look presentable to them. Acquiring a house and car remains a low priority, but Diane and I might do something with those if time allows in our non-digital realms.

As you may recall, I recently admonished hardcore Second Lifers to Get a First Life, and I have questioned the intrinsic educational value of Second Life. I have received no irate commentary from such folks yet, but I suppose they would tell me to “get a Second Life.” That sounds fair, as they have had more experience with First Life than I have had in Second Life. In fact, a discussion at work on Friday prompted me to make a “preemptive strike” by creating a Second Life account of my own.

I am part of a web usability committee that meets roughly twice a month on Fridays. Our meetings last an hour, but the meeting on Friday lasted a half-hour. However, we ended up going to an hour when someone asked the head of our committee about the wallpaper on her desktop, which actually came from a Second Life snapshot. This prompted me to ask about the purpose of Second Life. I actually meant to ask about its educational value, but the head of our committee described how it actually has no purpose. Instead, users have to create their own meaning out of it. (Very existential, I kept thinking.) We ended up having a philosophical discussion of sorts, which helped pique my curiosity about the experience of using Second Life.

I began by selecting a name for my avatar. I believed that one could use their own name, but a dropdown menu limits the number of available family names. This forced me to come up with something different, and to use my imagination. The first name that came to mind was “Richard,” after two of my favorite composers (Wagner and Strauss). That seemed too obvious, so a derivative seemed more suitable. I ended up settling on Ryszard, a Polish variant on Richard.

Now I needed to find a suitable last name. Although I probably could have chosen anything for a virtual space, I felt compelled to select something that could reasonably work well with Ryszard. After looking for a few minutes, I determined that Etzel sounded appropriate. Although its warlike connotations might give people the wrong idea, it sounded like it would work.

After setting up Ryszard, he dropped into the Second Life orientation center in the form of a “sexy male.” (Any resemblance between Ryszard’s original appearance and my own is purely coincidental.) Other avatars landed in the same circle in various forms of undress, like The Terminator at the beginning of the original movie. In the orientation area, Ryszard learned how to walk, fly, move objects, sit, and stand. Upon reaching the graduation temple, Ryszard flew to a larger island to practice more Second Life skills.

As Ryszard wandered through the intermediate and secondary orientation areas, I kept thinking about how Second Life seemed like a utopian rehabilitation center, or a heady hybrid of a futuristic sci-fi utopia (or dystopia) and an afterlife. Fully fledged adults had to learn the skills that many in the non-digital world take for granted, and helpful avatars could guide them through the process. Ryszard included, many of them seemed preoccupied with learning their own skills, and little interaction seemed to occur. It made me start to wonder what an existential writer would make of the whole business.

I knew that Ryszard probably had much to learn, but it seemed time for him to move on to the “real (second) world.” However, before teleporting away from the orientation level, avatars receive a warning that they may never come back. Unintentionally, the statement carries a certain poignancy, reminiscent of a child leaving its parent(s) or guardian(s) for the adult world.

Since I signed up on the “First Basic” plan, Ryszard has no land to call his own. He currently wanders around as a vagrant in Second Life, with no circle of friends of whom I am aware. Ailsa McMillan, an avatar Diane created, has him listed as a friend. They currently occupy roughly the same space as Second Life vagrants, but they have not officially met each other since they have yet to be logged on simultaneously. (I assumed that we would at least see each other in a state of suspended imagination.) Ryszard does fly around and observe other avatars, but he has generally avoided interpersonal contact with them. Someone pushy tried accosting him yesterday. Our home computer’s processor had difficulty with the demands of Second Life, which made the encounter even more annoying. Ryszard’s actions must have looked funny to others’ avatars as a result of the processing problems.

Ryszard has also changed his appearance over the past few days, going from “sexy male” to a cross between Patrick Stewart and Sir Georg Solti (no slouchers in looks and charisma themselves). I have had problems with manipulating hair in Second Life, so bald seemed the way to go… at least for now. Clothing is even more difficult to handle, so I went with something simple. I do hope to acquire a nice gentleman’s wardrobe for him, but he still wears the dark tattered jeans that came with his avatar.

Despite a few difficulties, Ryszard’s experiences in Second Life do not make me run screaming from it. Diane and I hope to hook up Ryszard and Ailsa, and to possibly buy a little piece of land with a house for them. It might be useful for meeting other professionals (and perhaps students online), and it certainly sounds more visually appealing than simple instant messaging. Nevertheless, I still wonder about its intrinsic educational value. It has lots of neat features, but it still has an air of “gimmickiness.” More importantly, not everyone would have the capabilities to run Second Life properly. The computers my wife and I use have different processing capabilities, including a 2002 laptop that would not even download Second Life, a 2004 desktop that could not process Second Life very well, and two 2006 laptops from our places of employment that do a decent processing job. I suspect that we may need to upgrade the processor and/or video card for at least the desktop, while the 2002 laptop might remain a hopeless case. (Since Diane is the IT person, I’ll leave that decision to her.) As an additional problem, Diane started to feel nauseous while testing Second Life; in fact, a friend of hers mentioned a similar problem when she tried it. I can see how that would happen, with the poor resolution of all monitors (at least compared to what one sees in the non-digital world), as well as the illusion of constant movement in three dimensions on a two-dimensional monitor just a foot or two away.

So, now I have a Second Life. Even if I have a number of reservations about it, I at least have a foundation to take on the challenges (and to take advantage of the potential opportunities) that it offers. Ryszard also hopes to see some of you (or your avatars) soon. However, I would advise you to have some Dramamine handy, just in case…

As you may know (and appreciate), I have not done a Search!Down! since two Fridays ago. The novelty has worn, and I’m ready to move on to the next hot trend that we librarians should be jumping on (whatever it is this hour).

I have had some “interesting” search strings that have directed people to my blog, but nothing too odd. For that reason, I would like to draw your attention to search terms that have led people to The Annoyed Librarian’s blog. She listed some in a posting from Wednesday, accompanied by appropriate comments.

And I thought I had some weird ones…

In the first portion of the “veils” discussion, I refer to two Chronicle articles about the personae one needs to put on in the classroom and for finding employment. I also mention a posting by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his blog that expresses skepticism about Google’s new customizable search history service, which made me consider the online personae that others develop for you.

Since starting this blog, I have considered writing about my experiences with MySpace, which ranged from initial enthusiasm to disillusionment. However, it seems like part of a broader issue related to the development of an online persona… or personae, in some cases. Several bloggers have recently discussed this issue within the context of “professionalism,”so I feel compelled to describe my own experiences in MySpace and beyond.

On a librarian discussion list last March, several people talked about developing MySpace accounts to get “more connected” with their younger constituencies. It sounded like an interesting idea, so I started one of my own. My original intentions may have been good, but I drifted away from using it as a way to increase my “visibility.” Instead of dutifully informing students and faculty in my subject areas about my account in MySpace, I ended up using MySpace to connect with others who shared similar interests, and to find people I knew from high school and college. To help viewers of my profile, I mentioned bits of personal background and interests on my profile. As a result, I shied away from my original intention for starting the MySpace account. I did not feel comfortable with the prospect of sharing the “real” me with students and faculty. I also kept my current place of employment unlisted, just to reduce the potential for sleuthing so that people could figure out my identity. However, I provided just enough information so that people who already knew me could do so.

I ended up joining quite a good number of groups (and even starting a few) related to my interests. Unfortunately, many of these groups did not seem worth checking very often; the bulk of them would have too few postings, a large number of insubstantial postings, and vindictive threads started by “trolls” (especially in groups with tons of postings). Only a few provided good venues for thoughtful discussion. With the diversity of opinions held by people in some groups, it sharpened my writing skills. As part of a semi-public forum, it behooved me to write thoughtful and substantive postings.

Although I liked the social networking possibilities of MySpace, I became disillusioned with it over time. I occasionally got into counterproductive debates with people who simply held different opinions, which I found exhausting (especially when they would get personal). I also found my eventual cadre of online “friends” rather slim. A good number of other people seemed to have lots of friends (real and imaginary), while I had a scattering of people I already knew. Along with the very few whom I did not know, but who probably found me because of common interests, my friend count fell just short of 20 by the time I left. Rather disturbing, the idea of a “friend count.” However, I wondered what was wrong with me. Stuff I had said? My age (33)?

Eventually, I decided to eliminate the MySpace persona I had created. It seemed too much like high school all over again, and I certainly did not want to repeat that whole experience. Besides the resurfacing of adolescent feelings of insecurity, as well as concerns that I did not really “fit in,” the whole thing just had an overall air of immaturity about it. I managed to have some interesting conversations sometimes, but it just became more and more apparent that MySpace belongs to those several years younger than me. On the other hand, maybe the “almost-real-me” (a-r-m) persona I cultivated in MySpace did not fit in with that social networking site’s ethos.

Maybe I could do it all over again with a more suitable a-r-m persona for MySpace, but I’m not sure that I want to do so. Now that I have started a blog, I prefer that over social networking, and I prefer the a-r-m persona on my blog over the bloated one I had in MySpace. Nevertheless, I do have another avatar floating around MySpace. I named her after the main character of a novel that has gestated in my head for several years, and she occasionally peers in on conversations and profiles as a kind of spectral presence.

In my blog, I reveal different things about myself than I did in MySpace. “The Strange World of…” heading has links to photographs from flickr accounts set up by my wife and me, as well as a listing of some personal interests. However, I remain silent about my educational background and current employment (even though someone could very easily figure that all out). I prefer to maintain the semi-anonymity I had in MySpace, mainly because of the difficulty of arbitrarily parsing out my professional and personal lives. My personal experiences inform my professional opinions, and professional thoughts can seep into my personal life. Fortunately, I have discovered that I’m not the only one trying to find that delicate balance. Several of my favorite bloggers, including Steve Lawson, Mark Lindner, and Jennifer Macaulay), write about the problematic aspects of separating the professional from the personal.

Dance of the Infinite Veils

February 7, 2007

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. – Oscar Wilde

Despite Wilde’s gender exclusiveness in that statement, I think one could say that it applies to practically everyone. His aphorism may come from the 19th century, but it remains relevant today. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it has become even more relevant in the 21st century.

I came across a couple of writings today that made me think of Wilde’s quote, and that inspired the title of today’s posting (which alludes to another one of Wilde’s plays). Two of them come from The Chronicle of Higher Education, while another comes from Sivacracy.

James M. Lang, a professor of English at Assumption College, writes about the many masks he puts on for various aspects of his life: father, husband, good buddy over beers, musician, and professor. Since his piece appears in The Chronicle, he focuses on the last “mask,” which can actually change to fit various moods. Or, to carry the Wildean theme further, Lang has various veils for his professor mask; he mentions the “seminar leader” veil, as well as the “fiery orator” veil. Despite his efforts, Lang still hopes to find the appropriate mask or veil that he can put on for his students day after day. Still, he also concedes that he may never find it. Contemplating some writings about teaching by Elaine Showalter and Jay Parini, Lang believes that teachers need to somehow forge a teaching persona that makes students interested in the discipline. (More or less related, Showalter wrote an excellent book that features a whole chapter about Wilde’s Salome.)

The ideas suggested by both sound interesting, though I do agree with Lang on Showalter’s notion of a “true self.” I don’t think there is an essential “tiny ball of selfhood buried in my torso somewhere,” but we can show various aspects of ourselves to our classes. In the online course I’m teaching, I unveil little bits about myself if they seem relevant to the class. As for Parini, Lang describes his ideas about teaching as sharing similarities with the Wilde quote above; that we “wear a mask of some kind… to give sound to our voices.”

Also worth reading is Jeremy Clay’s piece about the problem of writing a definitive teaching statement. As Lang writes about teaching, Clay writes about his self-doubt, as well as his second-guessing about which mask or veil might work for specific hiring committees.

Beyond the two opinion pieces on choosing the right mask to “impress people,” Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in his blog about the masks that others impose on you. More specifically, he writes about a new service (or, as he puts it, “service”) that will customize search histories so that your results better match what you supposedly need. That actually sounds good on the surface. However, I had an initial reaction that mixed fear and loathing. My concerns echo those of Vaidhyanathan, who has a problem with the way Google ranks popularity, as well as assumptions that Google could make about his interests based on his searches for “intelligent design.”

I have problems with such “histories” based on past behavior. The recommendations listed in my Amazon account is a perfect example. Granted, I could go into Amazon and do some things so they can make “better” recommendations. However, I don’t have the time to tell Amazon what I really like, and such customization would not contextualize why I like some things and not others. What Amazon recommends for me is based on what I have written reviews about, as well as what I have ordered. I use Amazon for those two things, but I don’t expect them to stroke my ego with things like “My Amazon.” As long as they keep my ordering information protected from online thievery and send stuff to me in a timely fashion, I’m quite content with their services.

One thing I find less useful is something I learned about in an online conference, which discusses the “disconnect” between librarians and Millennials. A site (aptly) called Pandora allows users to listen to radio online, and to customize what they listen to by entering music preferences into a profile. I suppose that sounds fine if you like listening to radio, but I prefer listening to my own stuff whenever I want. (If I do listen to radio, it’s usually NPR or the local classical channel.) Paradoxically, one of the presenters mentioned that it was a more “active” technology. (Remember: active=good, passive=bad) Well, Pandora may provide more listener options than a regular radio, but it’s not nearly as active as going into iTunes and selecting what I want to listen to, when I want to listen to it. I also might like to listen to certain parts of pieces of music, which neither active nor passive radio allows me to do. Others might be happy with Pandora, but I don’t want some computer guessing my tastes. I prefer a much greater level of active listening.

Anyway… enough of the soapboxing. Getting back to the original point of this piece, we all choose our own masks or veils to get through life. Some of us wear them well, while others do not. (And I haven’t even gotten into online personae, which could be the topic of a future posting.) As for myself, I would rather select my own masks and veils for the digital and non-digital realms. I do not want or need user history and preference options to set them up for me. I’m also quite certain that Mr. Wilde would not have wanted that, either.

Get a (First) Life!

February 5, 2007

Via Mark Linder’s blog, I found links to a satirical website called Get a First Life, as well as a London Review Bookshop article by Jenny Diski that details her adventures in Second Life. Those of you who have read my blog know that I have quite a bit of skepticism about Second Life, so it should come as little surprise that I appreciated Linder’s posting with the two links.

Get a First Life provides needed relief from all the hype surrounding its digital counterpart. It obviously targets Second Life, but the satirical aspect of this site could easily encompass other digital environments… or, perhaps more accurately, the obsession that some people have with such environments, which may cause them to lose out on the vitality of inhabiting the non-digital realm.

Diski’s article looks more deeply at her own experience with Second Life, which makes one question the point of Second Life even further. Granted, users can create an idealized version of themselves with no limits, but that sounds like the only main virtue. Speaking for myself, my own Second Life avatar would look very similar to my real world manifestation. It would just have no receding hairline, a voice with no nasal twang, and a slightly slimmer waist. Of course, improving on these aspects in real life would feel more rewarding to me than tinkering with some Second Life cartoon counterpart.

I suppose most of us would like to make idealized versions of ourselves if given the chance. However, one aspect gave me pause. Diski noticed the absence of avatars that looked older, so she created one that looked like an older woman… with whom very few people engaged in conversation. Taken together, the lack of older-looking avatars and the “invisibility” of Diski’s avatar (though an anecdotal case) makes one wonder about the kind of “ideal” world that Second Life might subtly promote. (Anyone ever hear of Logan’s Run?)

Besides the lack of older people, Diski comments on how easily one could imagine their avatars to be great “whatevers.” As she points out, Diski could fancy herself or her avatar a great painter, even if she is not. At least in the real world, one actually has to put forth some effort to be a decent amateurish artist or pseudointellectual (and I know whereof I speak). As for battles between political factions, they end up descending into almost Marxist silliness:

    Political rage, Second Life style, is expressed by chucking exploding pink pigs at your opponents, strafing them with virtual machine guns, pelting them with holograms of marijuana leaves or anything else you fancy making with your little bits of processing power.

(As you might have figured out, Marxist refers to the “Brothers,” not Karl.)

You can even indulge in sensual pleasures in Second Life, but don’t let the virtual versions of “Amsterdam” or a library fool you. Diski even finds those rather disappointing.

I suppose that Second Life sounds like fun for those who like inhabiting online environments, or who would like to unleash a more attractive or scary version of themselves on the (virtual) world. Unfortunately for Diski, she just ended up feeling bemused disappointment about the many ways in which Second Life already resembles real life… never minding the lack of actually “experiencing” what your avatar might experience.

For anyone who thinks about the potential of virtual reality, Second Life has to feel like a relatively crude and unfulfilling version of the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would be willing to “get on board” with something like that, but Second Life sounds like a sorry placeholder in comparison. In the meantime, as I keep hearing about the supposed wonders of Second Life, I almost feel like repeating what William Shatner infamously shouted to hardcore Trekkers in the infamous Saturday Night Live sketch. I would probably also add the word “First” in the appropriate place.

Glass 70

February 1, 2007

Alex Ross’ blog posting from yesterday reminded me about the 70th birthday of composer Philip Glass. The man best known for “deedle-doodle” music (at least to his detractors) has written quite a few pieces I like, which might seem surprising to those who know about my other concert hall tastes. I listen more frequently to the grandiose works of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss (among others), but listening to Glass provides my musical life with a sense of balance.

For a meditative experience, find a quiet spot outdoors or indoors at night, and just absorb the single-track recording of Music with Changing Parts. For those with more traditional tastes, I would recommend his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which appears on a good Deutsche Grammophon recording of violin concertos that also features works by Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem

For those of you interested in information retrieval, check out the Glass Engine. While working on her Ph.D., Diane wrote a paper about it for a class. With my interest in music, I found the ideas behind the Glass Engine rather intriguing. Nevertheless, Diane and I have discussed potential problems with the Glass Engine. My main concern relates to the attachment of emotional attributes, such as joy and sorrow, to certain pieces. This brings up a number of issues related to the subjectivity of classification.

With a professional colleague, Diane plans on revisiting the Glass Engine soon. Oddly enough, they just happened to discuss the Glass Engine yesterday…