Monthly Archives: November 2008

review

dogReading Dogwalker, a bizarre collection of stories by Arthur Bradford is well worth the short time it takes to transform the mundane into the weirdness we so crave for amusement. All of the stories contained within revolve around Bradford’s attempts in finding some solace from one’s self-imposed boredom and stagnation through stray canines and equally stray roommates. If it means anything, this collection takes place throughout Texas; apparently, there is a lot of weird down there.

Bradford writes with childlike simplicity and whimsy, though his plots border on the uber-strange and even the horrific. Cat-faced carnies, fruit sculpting with chainsaws, blind friends who own cars, and the glamour of giant slugs are just some of the musings Bradford could expound on in greater detail; stories I’d happily delve into when in need of a fresh bizarro-cleanse.  Yet he tends to focus on dogs and roommates, and the fleeting affection he has for both.  By whatever circumstance, both tend to be maimed, mutated or psychologically unhinged, yet that doesn’t stop him from adopting each for a brief laugh to pass the time.

What is surprising about this collection of stories is the degree of openness or ambivalence set forth by  Bradford.  While he languidly chooses his own adventure in each, the degree of tension that rises in most of the stories is soon enough offset by a delicate weirdness that prevents real malice from taking over and sending the reader dashing to the nearest bottle of Pepto. Hence, a slight hint of unsettling will envelop the reader, which is exactly what a good collection of short stories is supposed to do.  It was a very quick read and stories like Mollusks, The House of Alan Matthews, Bill McQuill, Chainsaw Apple and Roslyn’s Dog tend to linger in my mind, to the extent that I hope Bradford will publish more.

resisting google: not so futile

Not too long ago I mused upon the idea of how some search engine companies are trying to provide more  human interaction when one has an online reference question, by either doing the searching or providing suggestions on how to perform the search.  This quasi virtual reference seems to be catching on, and librarians are suddenly becoming more recognized for the credibility they provide in their reference work.

This sentiment is the impetus for a new project that aims to compete with likes of the great goog, Reference Extract.  The project, an ever-increasing collaboration of libraries, aims to differ from Google in the credibility taken from the shrewd linkages that librarians provide in applying sound information literacy principles. Said better than myself:

Users will enter a search term and get results weighted towards sites most often referred to by librarians at institutions such as the Library of Congress, the University of Washington, the State of Maryland, and over 1,400 libraries worldwide.

The issue of credibility is interesting when compared to the measure of relevancy and popularity Google bases its index on.  The issue of credibility is more fully explained:

In essence linkages between web pages by anyone is replaced by citations to web pages by highly trained librarians in their daily work of answering the questions of scholars, policy makers and the general population. Instead of page rank, the team refers to this as “reference weighting.”

That is to say, it is no great leap to believe that working one-on-one with a librarian would yield highly credible results, but it also appears that gathering the sites librarians point to across these one-on-one interactions and making them searchable continues to yield highly credible results. Further since the librarians answer question on very wide range of topics, their answers can be applied to a general purpose search engine.

I find it clever that the organizers of RefEx measured their index by using the custom search engine provided by Google…beating it at its own game perhaps.

It is important to note that by using the Google Custom Search Engine service the exact same technology was used to search and rank the results, the only thing that varied was that one was an open web search, and one was limited to only those pointed to by reference librarians. So, even outside of the library website context the credibility of librarians is retained.

We may index less pages, but the ones we point to are more informationally literate. One question to walk away from with this: does less material indexed = more reliable?  Philosophically speaking, words like popular, relevant, and usefulness will cause debate; academically speaking, this justifies the librarian’s attempt to wean those frothing, zombie-like patrons away from The Google and more toward our subscribed databases, online resources and guides.  And with RefEx, Google’s helping us do it.

gaming’s on board

Conference time again, this time at the Indiana Library Federation annual gathering. Glad there was gaming included in the program; one interesting session I dropped in concerned the other type of gaming, just as virtual but not quite as digital. Board games typically take a backseat to their video counterpart, and it is unfortunate that this is the case.  However, with an increasingly cult-like following, more students and adults alike are making board games not just mainstream, but the preferred form of gaming at their institutions, clubs, whatever.  So convincing and charismatic was Christopher Harris, ALA Mover and Shaker, as well as author of Digitalreshift and Infomancy, he just about had me heading out the door ready to purchase Settlers of Catan after his presentation.

Throughout his talk, Harris, a self-admitted gaming geek, gave numerous reasons “why board games PWN”.   Calling them “curriculum aligned institutional resources”, the strength of board games within any institution, be it school or academic, equals and even surpasses the influence carried by the shinier, sexier video game titles.  Indeed, Harris stresses that board games provide a gaming experience rather than simply being provided, and should be the first step when establishing a gaming-centered curriculum.  Harris explains:

  • Board games make you money – For the price of any popular video game console, numerous board games can be purchased, tested, and distributed for circulation.  Successful usage may then allow for purchase of video consoles with increased funding.
  • They make you use more of your brain than you thought you had – nowadays, people really have to think critically, often using mathematics, logic and other skills not typically used in an FPS.  Huzzah for higher order thinking skills!
  • They’ve lasted forever – Not that old Monopoly set gathering dust in the attic, but games like Go and Chess have been around and will be around forever. Thus, they have high replay value!
  • Board games give you “telepathy” – rather than reading other players’ minds, they put you into their’ shoes, allowing players to exercise empathy and strengthen prediction patterns according to the game structure.
  • Board games may teachers cry (tears of joy) – imagine incorporating fun, collaborative, and practical examples into your lectures, teaching plans, instead of having to continually prepare for all those meaningless state-sponsored tests.
  • You’ll be surprised who’s playing: They’re not just for geeky boys…the females can be just as rabid when it comes to gaming activities.

I left the presentation thinking that board games really have a prominent place in terms of the future of gaming and instruction.  The level of critical machination needed exceeds its video counterpart, and the level of imagination for creating such games generally is more robust, in my opinion.  A list of captivating, topically current games to consider, suggested by Harris include (descriptions after clicking):

The overall message is that board games cannot be ignored.  They foster cooperation and collaboration, “higher order thinking”, and cost-efficient replay value.  They’re just worth it.

life in googlevision

The great and powerful Goog has now acquired the archived photos from LIFE magazine, and it’s publicly available on each of your interwebs:

The collection includes the entire works of Life photographers Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gjon Mili and Nina Leen. Also available are: the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination; Dahlstrom glass plates of New York from the 1880’s; and Hugo Jaeger Nazi-era Germany 1937-1944.

Dawn Bridges, a spokeswoman for TimeInc, the archives in their entirety would be available in the first quarter of next year. She said it was would not just be historical. “We will be adding new things. There will be thousands of new pictures from DC for the inauguration on January 20,” she said.

What’s cool is that according to the article, 97% of the photos (10 million) have never before been seen. Here’s Google’s portal for accessing the photos. A prominent issue now to consider is whether the photos are in the public domain. Obviously, the older ones might just be, but what about the ones less than the 70 or so years it takes for fair use? Pretty groovy for browsing, though.

review

worIt’s an easy speculation to say that without humans, the earth will restore, recleanse, rectify itself. Indeed, in his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman repeatedly hints to the reader that the world doesn’t need us as much as we need it. But Weisman goes beyond the obvious implication and details just how incredibly short-sighted we humans have been in just a brief time on this planet.

Weisman thoroughly stresses home the point that despite our tendencies toward toxicity, life will indeed find a way, whether it be millennia or billennia. There are a whole lot of ideas to take away from this thought experiment, for example the futility of our marvelous infrastructure once we are no longer around to monitor it; what will happen when wonders like the Chunnel, the Panama Canal, our volatile oil refineries and nuclear reactors/repositories as well as our subways have no one to flip the off switch or close the valve? How will the unmeasurable amount of polymers (plastic) dumped in our oceans annually begin to degrade, and what are the hopes of a hungry microbe that evolves the ability to feed on them?

Of the many thought provoking speculations and projections Weisman so meticulously researches and thoughtfully relates, he proposes the irony that the realization of our collective death may just perhaps contribute to the saving of ourselves. Interviewing the organizer of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and yes it it’s a real organization, he postulates that if humans were really serious about curbing overpopulation, thereby eliminating juvenile delinquency among other issues, we might just have an epiphany:

…spiritual awakening would replace panic, because a dawning realization that as human life drew to a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water. The seas would replenish. Because new housing wouldn’t be necessary, so would forests and wetlands.

…Like retired business executives who suddenly find serenity by tending a garden, Knight envisions us spending our remaining time helping rid an increasingly natural world of unsightly and now useless clutter, in pursuit of which we’d once swapped something alive and lovely.

As improbable it may be that people would go to such extremes or even somehow suddenly become extinct, Weisman’s book is an ambitious and enlightening experiment that brings us closer to acknowledging our impact upon and responsibility to the world, while we’re still with it.

review

bdmkI’m glad Matt Ruff didn’t fall into the superhero trap when writing Bad Monkeys.  Superheroes and their respective movies are annoyingly everywhere these days, and it’s getting really boring.  Instead, Ruff delves into the more interesting realm of secret organizations and the psychologically jarring surveillance they use to either maintain or take control.  Real people using gritty manipulation to get what they want, without the super dooper special effects.

Without giving away the details, we are introduced to Jane Charlotte and her situation.  She’s just been detained by the authorities, and we subsequently learn about her seemingly aimless life, culminating in an active career inside an organization, THE organization, purposed to find and eliminate those in civilized society deemed “bad monkeys”.  From the hazy fog of San Francisco to the deserts and aching lights of Las Vegas, we are told a twisting, bending story in which we are constantly asking ourselves whether we have the whole story.  Mayhem, scary clowns, mind alterations and machinations…it’s all here.

Everything in Bad Monkeys is written with color: the characters, the action, the intrigue and the manipulation.  It’s not exclusively a work of sci-fi, though there are definite moments where reality and belief are playing ping-pong in dreamlike suspension.  But the novel is as Orwellian as it is weird and that’s slightly disconcerting in a good way.  Surveillance is a major theme, and its parameters are absurdly carried out to its obvious conclusions; the MO is called “Eyes Only”, and while one may consider the details a bit too fantastical, know that bionic eyes apparently are being tested as I write. In any case, Bad Monkeys is an entertaining, creepy, puzzling, and fast read that’ll keep you thinking.