Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From the Forgotten Tales of Conan the Librarian

A little private joke I threw together for the Nerd/Geek Pride Day they're having on Facebook. If you don't know who Conan the Librarian is: dude, get yourself to UHF!

The Illyrian warrior stepped warily into the cavernous antechamber, where a ghoulish pall already hung over the Borrowing Tab. Broadsword at her side, bejeweled dagger at the ready, she faced the first round of battle. Her face set in grim determination as she scrolled through the symbols and counted her foes, those items that were in the "New" and "Waiting for Process" statuses even though they were owned by her own library.

There was no way to know what kind of enemies she was dealing with, save testing them one by one. The sound of steel rang out in the Borrowing Queue as she hacked and slashed in a frenzy of bloodlust, copy and pasting, first in the Interlibrary Loan module, then in Circulation, piercing to the very heart of the matter: which items were available, which lost or missing in battle. With the panther-like speed of one seasoned in the arts of database war, she toggled to the Word document on which her text was saved.

Straining with every ounce of her enormous strength, she continued to copy and paste, and a red mist rose over her eyes as she furiously clicked the "Print" keys to generate mildly-phrased letters to say "We cannot order items through Interlibrary Loan that are owned by the library. You may place this item on hold." Then one by one, her foes laid defeated before her, she delivered the clean killing stroke of "Delete."

Wary of the time that had already passed, and how far into the cavernous reaches of the module she must traverse before the break of day, she wielded her highlighter swiftly, folded and stuffed the envelopes, and put them hurriedly aside. Later she must face the bloody jaws of the postal meter, which had driven many brave men into a screaming frenzy of insanity from which they had not returned.

But the time was not yet for that task, nor the others that lay before her: the Lending Requests, the OCLC Requests, the Incoming Mail, each weirder and more harrowing than the one before. She wiped the blood from her dagger against her strong thigh, and was about to pass into the next dim chamber when her eye was caught by a fleeting slither flickering in the queue, and she discovered a new foe, camouflaged in the shadows as "Locate in Progress."

She recognized Now That's What I Call Music 31. They had met before, in the crimson-soaked battlegrounds of CD labeling. This was also an item owned by the library, and not eligible for Interlibrary Loan. The warrior cursed beneath her breath. Could it be because the mystical sigils of the ISBN were not attached to the record? But no CD was destined to bear the mark of the ISBN tattooed upon its flesh...

Not only must this request be slain, but the fight would not be over even then. For she must yet face -- the Help Ticket of Doom!

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Old School

"We cannot learn from doing anything right. We already know how to do it."
-- Systems Thinking guru Russell Ackoff

My recent attempts to belatedly learn something about technology, through the McGuffin of my amateur radio license, have led me to some pondering that, well, at least gets me onto the verbal and theoretical footing I'm more comfortable with. Slightly ironic, considering the subject du jour.

What happened is, one day my honey and I stopped at a used bookstore (and yes, my supposed book-buying fast is still in effect, so not truly wise), where I picked up a copy of Basic Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide, by Karl F. Kuhn. I had read reviews of this very book on Amazon, where the top review (by a reviewer I definitely voted "helpful") described it thusly:

"Dr Kuhn has made a somewhat different approach to the usual methods of teaching physics.
1) Mathematically (formulas!)
2) Conceptually (no mathematics, just ideas, more like 'popular science')...He has sought a pedagogically stronger middle ground (balancing act) between these two methods ... especially in the minds of those who can't do mathematics very well but communicate well, or do mathematics very well and not the communicating thing very well."

That made me think this would be a good text for me, and that's definitely going to be relevant later on.

I started slowly, and much to my surprise, kind of halfway understood the concepts. However, at one point, I had to go back a few pages and re-read the formula for acceleration with gravity. When I did this, I felt a completely disproportionate sense of discouragement, as if it proved I was never going to learn this stuff, and it was probably hopeless. Basically, because I hadn't instantly memorized something I was previously unfamiliar with. Fortunately, I recognized this thought as insane, and then asked: where on earth would I get an idea like that?

Well, how about my entire educational experience?

So, in today's edition of "Anarchivist solves the world's problems," we're going to look at aspects of the American public educational system, at least as it exists in much of "middle America." (That is: what goes on in those private schools or charter schools or what have you, I'm not in a position to judge).

1. Much of our educational system rewards us for what comes easily to us, and doesn't support our learning what doesn't.

The current educational system skews us heavily toward the things we have a "knack," or a natural aptitude, for. That steers us into studying what comes easily, staying within a comfort zone, and doesn't reward us for taking chances, or attempting things that are more difficult.

If you have the knack for something, a natural aptitude, it's like having an ear for music. You know what sounds right and what doesn't. You can start picking a subject up pretty easily, and it's easier to integrate the new material with what you already know -- clearly a boon for learning.

If you don't have the knack for something, the introductory material will already stymie you. Most learning builds on information. If you didn't understand the concept on the first day, the second day is only going to get harder, because the lack of understanding is cumulative. And in too much of the modern American educational system, there's no time: the material is generally presented en mass to a group of students with diverse knacks, abilities, and levels of previous learning. Something is scrawled on the blackboard, and students either "get it" in the beginning or they don't, but either way, the teacher has to move on. Except in rare and lucky cases, if students don't "get it" immediately, they're screwed, because they're never going to have any leisure time to catch up.

Because of this tendency to immediately fall behind, I think too many of us assume that if we can't do something right immediately, we're doomed to fail at it. We don't believe we can apply ourselves and learn, and we don't learn the value of doing so. We give up too quickly. And we label ourselves by possibly insignificant experiences (maybe we just had teachers who mumbled on the first day!) as if we know something essential, and flawed, about ourselves.

2. Teachers of a particular subject are generally people who have a knack for that subject: it came easily to them (relatively), and they won't relate to the problems of students who don't have the knack.

Now, as I get into discussing teachers, I'm not saying it's easy for people to acquire substantial knowledge in their fields. Even people with a natural aptitude have to study and apply themselves to really master their subjects. But if they already have the knack, it's significantly easier than if they don't.

For students who don't have any knack at all for a particular subject, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the material is mainly being taught by people who excelled in their subjects, or had a natural interest. By and large, Math is taught by people who get math, and English is taught by people who get English. But the knack itself can't be taught -- it has nothing to do with teaching or learning. And it tends to be difficult for people who have the knack to communicate their subject to people who don't.

That's why my memory of math classes consists of someone rattling off some verbal information, writing a formula on the blackboard, and then saying, "You see how I got that, right?" They might as well have speaking Sanskrit for all I got out of it, and today, if they did, I'd have more of a fighting chance that at least something would sound halfway familiar.

I don't blame them, because when I briefly taught English composition and literature, I had no advice to give to students who had a hard time with the basics. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, heavily motivated to learn to read; I had older sisters who helped me out whenever I had a question; and I had a natural aptitude. I don't know how I learned to spell, or why I easily picked up how to use grammar and sentence structure. That kind of thing just came naturally to me, and fell into place.

3. All of this creates an artificial divide between people who have the knack and those who don't.

Or to put it another way, between people with a knack for one thing and people with a knack for something else. The classes we took, especially the crucial introductory ones, contained a mixture of people with different aptitudes. So some of the students would get it and excel, others wouldn't and would fail, while everyone watched. I think these experiences led, again, too many of us to divide ourselves up into people who get math and ones who don't, ones who are good with words and ones who aren't. And that kind of self-defeating self-definition is a terrible attitude for learning. Once you say "I just can't do math," you feel doomed to failure, so the motivation to try to learn is hard to come by.

The distinction is really between people who'll get it more or less easily. The fact that you did or not grasp a particular subject or concept immediately doesn't say anything essential about who you are, or how intelligent you are.

Now, the idea of an animosity between groups on the basis of this difference is clearly absurd, and yet it's all too common. I've met my share of academics who were privately disdainful of blue-collar work (where people are sometimes crazy-smart in technical subjects), and more than my share of people who are prejudiced against the book-learned.

Much more might be learned by combining disciplines, and by individuals learning outside what comes easily to them.

Because I more or less randomly decided to get a ham radio license, it forced me to learn something about subjects that I've always been interested in, but was discouraged from pursuing. I very much do not have a knack for gadgets, or for the kind of practical scientific knowledge that most of the radio folks take for granted. But because I wanted to, and began to apply myself, I now find myself in the club meetings with a roomful of people who can be handed some specs and discuss the technical ins and outs of different antennas. For my entire previous life, something like this would have seemed impossible; unthinkable, even. On the one hand, I feel like a poser, but on the other, like I'm overcoming a divide that was put between us at an early age, which now seems foolish and, more than anything else, wasteful.

Obviously, there are motivated individuals who overcome the obstacles and become well-rounded, and thank goodness! And it's certainly possible to meet individuals with different interests and skills, from different walks of life, in various ways. But when one considers our disciplines, the realms where those interests and skills are used, it's often as if they exist in completely separate, parallel worlds. However, the electric company and the poetry reading both exist in the same world: one which has grown increasingly complex, full of almost unfathomable interconnections. Trying to make sense of it, and really solving its problems (as opposed to, say, blogging) will almost certainly require skills from all across the spectrum. The kind of artificially induced segmentation that I experienced, and which I still see all over in society, is totally counterproductive.

So, new law: no more beating myself up for how long it takes to learn things. अच्छा!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Most days, I'm glad to be out of touch

A friend on Facebook posted a link to a column by well-known political writer Maureen Dowd, which poses the Carrie Bradshaw-like question "When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?"

My first thought was: there's a difference?

I guess so. "Often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone."

Huh. Where do people get the handbook that tells them these things?

My second thought was: when does a man go from being single to unmarried?

Apparently, never. "Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages."

Again: really? Segueing nicely to third thought: on all counts -- says who?

I shouldn't blame Dowd for this, because I guess she's responding to things other people are saying about the new Supreme Court candidate and her single status. But still, I cannot contain myself. It is the year 2010. How the frak can this possibly still be an issue?And why is rampant idiocy still being validated and made respectable by addressing it as if it were in any way legitimate?

If any human being devotes themselves to the kind of life that makes them capable of being a decent Supreme Court judge, with all the learning and effort and dedication that entails, and some people want to turn around and say, well, she couldn't find a man: those people are idiots, they are probably muddying the waters deliberately, and most importantly, the "attack" is not only a non sequitor, but ridiculous, because no woman in the world should be judged for not having a man.

We are not cavepeople. We are not livestock! The worth of human beings has absolutely nothing do with whether or not they mate and/or breed.

It also occurs to me, the whole ideological rallying point of America has always been liberty and justice for all. Now, actual liberty and justice are difficult, contentious things, and involve a lot of grey areas, a lot of definition issues, a lot of conflicting interests, etc. BUT -- it should be possible for the media and the mass audience of this country to say that liberty and individualism are American values, so people should be allowed to make their own choices in life, to live differently from one another, without being condemned for it. In other words: her being unmarried has nothing to do with her job, so who cares? Anyone who wants to judge her negatively for something like that is actually un-American!

Okay, I know how easy the holes would be to poke: but couldn't we make it an advertising slogan? Prejudice is un-American. Discrimination is un-American. Forcing people into little boxes, whatever those boxes are, is un-American. If we can't be free in our daily lives, in any meaningful way, in areas that don't even effect other people, how on earth are we going to be able to stand up for the kind of abstract larger freedoms that our nation supposedly stands for?

Note to the reader:
I've been out of the loop for a bit: embroiled with various plans and schemes, most of them in the so-called real world, leading to less blog time -- and, tragically, way less time for movie-watching. If any of my peculiar notions come to fruition, you'll hear it here first!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In vino veritas

When people talk about the clothes of the '80s, they're generally referring to the New Wave, or the Miami Vice, or the Madonna look: aggressive pastels, lime green, asymmetrical haircuts. But this is '80s fashion as I remember it:

Oh my God, just look at those ruffles! In Falcon Crest's first season (originally airing 1981-1982), I think red-haired Vickie there wears a front-ruffled blouse like that in every episode. The businesswomen, exemplified by the show's matriarch, Jane Wyman, wear a disturbing array of polyester blouses with floppy bows and shoulder pads. No wonder my early entry to the workforce was so traumatic!

Here she is, flirting with Re-Animator's Fritz Weaver to make her ex-husband jealous! Whenever he talked about her coming to visit him in Vermont, we MST3K'ed something about a side trip to the Miskatonic University.

For those who weren't around in those days, the '80s were a time of big-budget nighttime soaps, with Dallas and Dynasty being the most popular and iconic. Falcon Crest, which focused on a family's dynastic conflicts in the California wine country, is the only one of them that I was ever a fan of, since it always counteracted its melodrama (and oh, was there melodrama!) with an air of slightly campy humor.

I never actually saw the show until its fifth season, but in season one, the characters are already established as the scheming old friends I remember. It's funny to think of me, a starving college student in a fairly literal sense, saving up for a four-pack of wine coolers, so I could open one a week to drink along with Falcon Crest on Friday nights. I knew so little about wine then, I don't think I really knew that vineyards and wineries were different things. I'm positive I didn't know that wineries had laboratories until I saw the one in the show. And I was not only completely removed from the lifestyles of the rich and famous, I had outright contempt for them. But there I was.

The premise is: after his father's death, New York City airline pilot Chase Gioberti convinces his writer wife Maggie and their two (mostly) grown kids to relocate to his childhood home to keep the family vineyard going, and re-connect with each other as they work toward a common goal. The move is partly motivated by the desire to take a step back from the fast-paced, fractured nature of then contemporary society, getting back to the land and the rhythms of nature, as well as embracing older family traditions. Almost immediately, the audience learns (as the characters eventually do), that a family and its traditions can be the source of even more problems than they had before.

Come to think of it, the numerous built-in, Reagan-era ironies may be one of the reasons I liked the show! Not least in the Gioberti family's primary nemesis, aunt Angela Channing (Wyman), who controls the profitable bulk of the family's holdings. She's a rather frail-looking older lady, who welcomes them graciously, talks a lot about the importance of family and higher values, and is played by the ex-wife of the then United States President. But behind this facade, Angela is a steely, cut-throat manipulator, who'll go to any lengths to secure her own interests, and doesn't care who she ruins in the process.

By the time we're midway through the first season, enough has happened that the Giobertis know she can't be trusted, although they still have no idea what she's up to or why.

Two things about the story-telling that I especially appreciate: the multi-generational relationships are nicely drawn. Father Chase's perpetual air of manly confidence makes his self-doubting son Cole feel like a loser in comparison. Mother Maggie (the moral compass of the show) is full of warmth, nurturing, and common sense, which only irritates teenage daughter Vickie, who's desperate to prove her independence -- even when she can barely leave the back yard without getting kidnapped.

The kids' lack of direction is surprisingly true to life for such a fluffy show: Cole wants to be an archeologist, but he thinks college would be a drag, and discovers that working his way up through part-time work on digs is mainly just back-breaking labor. Working at the vineyard gives him some sense of purpose without his having to really make any decisions about his life, which suits him. Vickie dreams of being a dancer, but to this point, the only time she actually takes classes, she skips them all the time to sneak off with an older boyfriend. So they both have vague ambitions, but aren't doing anything to make them happen, which, sadly, is what happens to most people's ambitions.

More amusing is the relationship between Angela and her heir-apparent grandson Lance (designated beefcake Lorenzo Lamas). She's trying so hard to groom him to become the kind of Machiavellian power player that she is, but really, he's just kind of a dopey spoiled rich boy. The sense of entitlement he got being raised to take her place some day actually gets in the way of his ability to do so. Although he spends most of his time being a high-living jerk, Lance is kind of a sad character, especially when he's attempting to flex his authority, and we see a poster in the background of his bedroom that says "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins."

The other aspect of the show that I appreciate is the specificity of it. Too often, fiction is set in relatively generic settings, with the idea that audiences can relate more to it that way. But if it's handled well, otherwise unfamiliar details can actually draw an audience in. In this case, I'm sure someone in the wine industry would find it all hopelessly inaccurate, but I love the industry-specific nature of so many plot lines. So far, various machinations have hinged on: the fact that grapes grown on one piece of land will vary in quality from those on another, because of the mineral content of the soil. Bribing and bullying migrant workers not to help rivals with their harvest. And my favorite: that the '81 zinfandel is too young to bottle! (That detail tipped people off to a fraudulent scheme to --gasp! -- put premium labels on ordinary table wine).

I don't know anything about how potassium levels will effect the wine, or the legal ramifications of mislabeling, but these things are all McGuffins. The important thing is that the characters are plotting against each other, and they're using the means at hand. So far, the writers are managing to keep the schemes interesting, and the whole wine industry as a fresh backdrop upon which character psychology can play out.

In other words, at least the early episodes have aged fairly well. Aagh! Sorry! Bad joke. But it's true. The ruffles and the floppy bows are hideous, and bring back post-traumatic fashion stress, but at least it's not the horrible Dynasty hair. I don't think that's something I could endure.

If you watch, I recommend you institute a drinking game in which you take an enormous slug every time someone says "Thank you, Chao-Li." I already wish I'd started counting. Chao-Li is the Chinese -- butler? I don't really know his job description, but he obviously pretty much runs everything at Falcon Crest, behind the scenes. Here he is helping Angela into her car to join a high-speed pursuit already in progress. See what I mean about the camp humor?

Angela clearly trusts him more than she trusts anybody in her own family, and I think he's keeping detailed files on everyone's misdoings on all sides, because he's clearly the sharpest person on the show.

Actor Chao-Li Chi, by the way, appeared in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, where he got to lecture Kurt Russell about magic and the fact that "China is here!" He also played real-life stage magician Chung Ling Soo in The Prestige. Of course, Chung Ling Soo was really Caucasian William Ellsworth Robinson in "Oriental" makeup, so his character being played by a real Chinese actor is an interesting twist.