Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Neil Gaiman Christmas Story

In my family the twelve days of Christmas are not celebrated in their literal sense, but the theory is definitely applied because our Christmas just seems to keep going and going. There are immediate family get-togethers and extended family visits, intimate present opening sessions and big, raucous white elephant parties. Even New Year's becomes just another Christmas. As we get ready to celebrate our third and fourth (depending how you count) Christmas dinners of the year (and of the week) and prepare to feed more than 30 people, I really appreciate Neil Gaiman's dose of Christmas humor from his 2008 article in The Independent.

Gaiman tells the story of how, as children, he and his sisters "knew we were bad Jews because we wanted a Christmas tree," but the knowledge did not stop them from relentlessly campaigning for a tree to decorate for the holidays. Their mother told them sternly (well, maybe sternly the first time, after that it was probably more with a sense of grim exhaustion) that "you couldn't be Jewish and have a Christmas tree," but young Gaiman paid her reservations no mind. Eventually the continual pleading and practical theological arguments of an eight year old won the battle.

Gaiman describes the outcome of their family's new "Hanukkah tree" tradition: "Our more orthodox cousins, profoundly treeless, were both scandalised and impressed by this. But we were happy. We had a nice Jewish Christmas. We were content."

Read the full article on

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mind Games

A fun mind exercise, but harder than it looks...

I thought this was pretty neat, sort of like a literary optical illusion. A couple of random observations:
  • I think it's much easier to read the colors (instead of the words) when you read them in three vertical columns instead of left to right.
  • When reading across a line, the first word is usually easiest to say correctly. I tend to get caught up on the second or third.
  • For whatever reason, the color blue is by far the easiest for me to articulate quickly and smoothly.
It's so cool that our brains are able to instantaneously sift through the bombardment of stimuli they receive every second of the day to make sense of words and colors and language. Colors are really completely arbitrary conventions: abstract concepts, a whim of the human desire to classify and categorize. But without that desire, there would probably be no library science profession.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Memory and Imagination

Julian Barnes, an English author and the recipient of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending, was recently quoted on Maud Newton.

"For the young — and especially the young writer — memory and imagination are quite distinct, and of different categories... These different kinds of truthfulness will be fully apparent to the young writer, and their joining together a matter of anxiety. For the older writer, memory and the imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable."

Barnes divides remembrances into three varieties: pure (or accurate) memory, filtered or transfigured memory, and fiction. Over time these distinctions become blurred.

"This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer’s world than he or she cares to admit... but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of imagination than ever before."

The blending of memory and imagination does not make either less real or less true. I have always thought that memory was an odd construction. Even with photographs and home videos to serve as "proof" or "evidence" of memories, there is still room for interpretation. As time passes, memory even seems to change, and sometimes the true version of memories painted or recounted in a different light looks different the next time you recall it. I've always felt that I am fairly adept at lying, and when I was younger I was often concerned at the ease with which I would bend memories and tell stories, but maybe the word "lying" has just developed negative connotations. Lying and storytelling are not that different and they play a role in both imagination and memory.

Barnes says that "I do not mistrust [memories], rather I trust them as workings of the imagination, as containing imaginative as opposed to naturalistic truth.”

I've never read any of Barnes' novels, but I should look them up. His ideas about truth and imagination are intriguing and if that translates into his writing, I think his books would probably be most interesting.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Functional Art: Book Table

I'd love to have this in my apartment:

It may be an impractical design for a book shelf (it definitely has rather limited use), but it can also double as a cool visual display for your book collection and a customized 3D sculpture!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading in 2011

Today I read through a collaborative article in the Wall Street Journal called "Twelve Months of Reading," a collection of reading recommendations from 50 authors, journalists, and various politicians and other personalities.

I was struck by something that Adam Zagajewski, a poet and the author of the book Unseen Hand, had to say on the subject of favorite reading material. He wrote: "I'm one of those readers who love old and sometimes half-forgotten books and who do a lot of rereading, one of those who shun best sellers and can't understand their fellow travelers opening shiny volumes that they bought 10 minutes earlier in an airport bookstore."

I think it's unfortunate to choose one's reading material with such an exclusionary mindset. I'm definitely "one of those readers" who cherish their favorite novels and reread the classics sometimes even on a yearly basis. But I still like to keep an eye on the bestseller list, and sometimes you can find real treasures on the popular racks. Several of the books I've enjoyed most this year have been highly praised and widely publicized novels (at least in online circles). A couple of my favorite new reads from the year are Ernest Cline's Ready Player One and Ransom Rigg's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Authors that I enjoyed rereading include Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, and Kurt Vonnegut. I think it is important to be open to reading every and anything, because you never know in what unlikely place, whether it be a dusty shelf in an independent bookshop or the center of a shopping mall, you might find your new favorite book.

In the Wall Street Journal article, Zagajewski recommends: "a slim collection of poems written by John Burnside, a Scottish poet: Black Cat Bone. Mr. Burnside creates a world in which dreams and realities mix up, and yet we recognize in his verses our thoughts, aspirations and reveries." I will be sure to put it on my list for reading in 2012.

A new trailer

As will probably be revealed in the coming months, I am a huge Lord of the Rings geek, which means I am very psyched for Peter Jackson's newest JRR Tolkien adaptation coming 12-14-2012.

The trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (also known simply as The Hobbit, Part I) was released yesterday and while I need to go watch it about a hundred more times to internalize all of its awesomeness, my initial response is that it looks amazing!

The first preview for The Hobbit on Apple Movie Trailers

This blog is definitely still intended to focus on library and information issues, but as can be seen in the posts so far, inevitably sometimes my other interests creep in (okay, a lot of the time). So apologizes for any future LOTR references or random Hobbit news!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Literary Tragedy in the News

Over the weekend, protestors, whether accidentally or purposefully, set fire to the Egyptian Scientific Institute, which houses the richest library in Egypt and is the oldest scientific institute in the country, established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte during the French invasion. According to an article in Egypt Independent, the building housing more than 200,000 books suffered substantial damage, and "state TV reported that the fire damaged the whole building and all of its collections."

The fighting during which the fire broke out was apparently between security forces and pro-democracy protestors, a number of who stepped in to help remove books from harm's way and salvage precious manuscripts. Unfortunately even some of the documents rescued from the flames were damaged by the water used to extinguish the fire.

One civilian accurately described the incident as “a national tragedy,” one which it has been estimated will take somewhere around 10 years to recover from.

The clean up itself is being managed by a group of institutions, including the Cairo University Library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Rare Books Library of the American University in Cairo. And despite the efforts of many conservators and volunteers, large quantities of books still remain buried in the rubble and the chances of their recovery are still uncertain. I thought it was interesting that those leading the book recovery effort have placed a strong emphasis on "comparing them to the digitized copies available at the Information and Decision Support Center" in Egypt, revealing an important possibility for digital archives, and one perhaps not always thought of: digital copies as a disaster plan.

Protestors carrying armfuls of books to safety.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Anatomy

Today there are lots of readers' advisory websites and databases out there, like EBSCO's NoveList, a popular subscription service for librarians. And of course, many people make use of the comments and recommendation suggestions on bookstore websites like A fairly new option on this front is BookLamp, marketed as "The Book Genome Project." This service breaks novels down into "Story DNA" components to help readers "find books with similar themes and writing style to books you've enjoyed in the past - comparing elements like Description, Pacing, Density, Perspective, and Dialog - while at the same time allowing you to specify details like... more Medieval Weapons.

This is brilliant, because I've always wanted a way to look up books based on Medieval weaponry.

But joking aside, it really is a neat program, and one that the creators have clearly put a lot of work into. As well as providing the usual information like genre/subject listing and plot summaries, each entry rates the book's writing and story content. A book's language is broken down into motion, density, pacing, dialog, and description categories, which are used to help readers predict the author's linguistic style and practical things like if the book will be a lengthy read or a short one. And to characterize the plot of a novel, BookLamp describes Story DNA with labels like: Medieval Weapons & Armor, Features of the Body, Horses / Ranching / Horse Care, Physical Injury / Exertion & Physiology, Military Campaign / Siege / Historic Combat, Nature / Fields / Hills, Expressions of Emotion, Castles / Towers / Kingdoms, and Nonverbal Communication, which are each also scaled on a sort of bar graph. (That particular list, by the way, comes from the entry for A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin.)

The site is very open to feedback, and designers are quite enthusiastic about having reader opinions play a role not just in which books are connected, but how the individual books themselves are defined within the database. I'm a big fan of sites and programs that incorporate user comments and opinions; the Internet audience can be a great resource for companies willing to listen to it. BookLamp has also actively incorporated librarians and teachers into their research division.

BookLamp's approachable attitude and sense of humor can also be seen in their use of the FAQ page to include questions like "What happens when BookLamp's engine goes insane?"

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Oh, and with my last project turned in, I'm officially done with my first semester finals! =)

Now I just have to wait for my grades to come in (and catch up on all the Christmas shopping I've been putting off for weeks because I've been too darn busy.)

But as much as I'm relieved to be out of classes for the next couple weeks, the nerdy student inside me is eager for next semester to begin (yes I did go check out my required reading lists for next year today).

Literary Cathedrals

As much as I became a library science student because of my interest in technology and the modern possibilities for library institutions and ideology, there's also something about the grandeur of classical libraries that is utterly captivating. Over the years libraries have been described as "temples" of knowledge, and while many writers criticize this model and the intermediary role that it creates for libraries as "priests" between patrons ("pilgrims") and The Information, sometimes the majesty of these old literary cathedrals is downright magical.

Here's a link to a recent article with photos from one writer's compilation of the 25 Most Beautiful College Libraries in the World.

And from the list here are a few of my favorites:

The Trinity College Library, aka “The Long Room,” Dublin, Ireland:

The "mirror" effect is absolutely stunning. This is the sort of place you could wander through for hours and hours and still not be sure you'd seen it all. Also, I love the ladder as a book retrieval system--maybe not very practical (or safe, so near to that balcony?) but oh how picturesque!

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD:

This room could be a set from the movie Inception; all those layers and layers of books seem to almost defy gravity. And I love it when libraries show their collections off like this, letting the books be the visible works of art they so clearly are.

Suzzallo Library’s Graduate Reading Room at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA:

Hogwarts, anyone? I would love to have a library like this at my school. While I can (and have) study just about anywhere, a room like this gives the task of studying an allure we don't usually associate with all-nighters and caffeine overdoses and trying to write an entire term paper in a single twenty-four hour period.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Supernatural Collective Nouns

Isn't it amazing what you can find floating around on the Web?

I thought this list was awesome!

Some of my favorite terms include: "a rumpus of phantoms," "a cackle of mad scientists," "an industry of villains," "a caper of mutants," "a rage of orcs," "a lunacy of werewolves," "a dastardly of manticores," "a rustle of reapers," and "a vexation of zombies." =)

I'd love to know more details about the "All Entries Verified" claim in the lower right corner...

Monday, December 12, 2011


"A gift in support of libraries, books, works, ideas... Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story..."

In Scotland an unnamed artist is bequeathing paper sculptures to libraries, art cinemas, and a storytelling center. These unique gifts are made from paper and old books, and seem to have a tenuous connection to British mystery writer, Ian Rankin, and Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, but no one has claimed (or admitted) responsibility for the pieces.

It's a wonderful little mystery, I think. Someone's whimsical, artistic way of thanking the literary world for their inspirational contributions to our daily lives. NPR reports on the story with pictures of more of the left-behind treasures.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A fairy tale sigh

As all good stories begin, once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a girl or a boy in times simultaneously much simpler and much, much more dangerous than our own. She, or he, was born and grew up believing she--or he--was no different from anyone else. Not special, not interesting, not extraordinary. At the premise of the story she or he has almost reached that moment, the tipping point, when a neat orderly life spirals out of control into a brilliant adventure that may sometimes resemble a wild goose chase through hell with everything is existence trying to kill her--or him. But that's where the good part really starts; when the heroine is up against the wall, hungry tigers all around her with only a broken, rusted blade for protection and an unconscious prisoner who she has just dragged to freedom sprawled at her feet. There seems no possible escape, no happy ending in store, but you'd still change places with her in a heartbeat. Because you know the impossible will happen; a masked vigilante will appear on the cliffs high above or a thunderstorm will suddenly blow up and a bolt of lightning will sear through the villain's heart just as he makes the killing leap, razor-sharp blade glinting in the twilight. That's just how it happens, the unwritten law of fairy tales. And we sigh over our ordinary, mundane lives and wish we could have our own once upon a time...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Predicting the Future

The New York Times initiated an interactive collaborative prediction timeline where readers can input ideas about the future of technology. Some of my favorite ideas are "No Red Lights" in 2041 and "WiFi to the Brain" in 2071. There's even a prediction for "A.I. Government" in 2258.

What will the future be like? It's fun to predict, but in the end we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Last day of classes - Fall 2011

Today was the last day of classes of my first semester of library science school. Half of me is flat out refusing to believe that I'll never sit in these classes again, and half of me cannot wait to finish up my last couple finals and take a few weeks off for the holidays.

Was this semester what I was expecting? Not exactly, I'd say. I think I was anticipating more practical library instruction (which admittedly we did get in Reference), and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth (and variety) of the theoretical and ideological components of the program. I think I learned that I don't really want to be a reference librarian (which was sort of my plan going into the program) or an archivist probably, but I feel like there are a lot of new career options that I'm genuinely interested in and that I had never even really heard of before this semester. I was worried that compared to studying literature and language in undergrad, library school was going to be too "science-y." But I find that now I'm excited to explore the technical side of information science more in future semesters.

I always have a hard time letting go of classes; I will have more to say about this semester in the near future, I'm sure, but right now I feel like I'm just trying to process the last three and a half months. Trying to catch my brain up to 12-07-11.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011


When finals season is getting you down there are two sure ways to get your spirits back up. Christmas shopping! And reading Terry Pratchett! When you are a penniless grad student, the second option might sometimes be your only option. (And conveniently one of the cures for penniless grad student depression is also reading Terry Pratchett! Two birds with one book!)

 Pyramids artwork by Les Edwards (yes, that is previously pent up time energy being released from the pyramids in the form of lightning; happens every night)

In this adventure, Mr. Pratchett takes his readers to a very Old Kingdom, a land that boasts a long and repetitive succession of kings and traditions and a large collection of stone pyramids. Prince Teppic, recently returned from school in a modern foreign city, is not excited about ascending the throne and has trouble putting up with the old fashioned habits of his army of palace priests. His reign gets off to a bumpy start as the plan to build his late father the biggest pyramid ever goes slightly off schedule and sucks the entire kingdom into a rift in space and time. Terry Pratchett's parody of ancient Egypt is hilarious, and especially as someone who was fascinated with pharaohs, sphinxes, hieroglyphics, and everything Egyptian as a kid, it is an exceedingly fun romp through a fantastical alternate history.

And of course Mr. Pratchett has a random library-related factoid for his readers. On the Discworld, "the fastest insect is the .303 bookworm. It evolved in magical libraries, where it is necessary to eat extremely quickly to avoid being affected by the thaumic radiations. An adult .303 bookworm can eat through a shelf of books so fast that it ricochets off the wall." (p. 201)

Consuming literature that quickly would come in extremely handy when writing papers...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Slowing down

Thanks to Ghostery, you can see a list of the top ten culprits for website loading lag time and slow Internet browsing. These "lagtags" include widgets and analytics programs, typically add-ons webmasters are paying to have run on their sites.

Here's the list with the average number of milliseconds these products will add to your website.
Avalanchers: 3912.721751 ms
Adfunky: 2600.142857 ms
2leep: 2305.563533 ms
ShareASale: 2090.703573 ms
Brand Affinity: 1917.470961 ms
Adfusion: 1908.145773 ms
Wahoha: 1853.056856 ms
GoDaddy Site Analytics: 1793.0625 ms
Redux Media: 1663.106572 ms
Kitara Media: 1578.838889 ms

And apparently if you included all these on one webpage, it would take an extra 22 seconds just to load. (An eternity to the average user.) The coolest website in the world isn't going to get any traffic if it takes 22 seconds to load; a slow load time also adversely affects Google rankings, so a regardless of its interesting content, a slow site may be so far down the results list that no one even knows it exists.

Here's an interesting article about user perceptions and the way people form impressions of the websites they visit. Jakob Neilson says that "that new pages must display within 1 second for users to feel like they're navigating freely; any slower and they feel held back by the computer and don't click as readily... After 1 second, users get impatient and notice that they're waiting for a slow computer to respond. The longer the wait, the more this impatience grows; after about 10 seconds, the average attention span is maxed out." Honestly, I think that's being pretty generous (the article was written in 2009). I rarely stay on a webpage for ten seconds waiting for it to load. If it's been even half that time I have probably already given up and either tried to refresh the page or abandoned it entirely. It's definitely a reminder to me to be mindful of the "extras" I put into my webpages--images and videos are probably culprits just as often as adsense and analytics--and to be wary of soul-crushingly slow load times.