Writing in the long form
August 17th, 2012 by John

American Gods

Even a few days after finishing it, I’m still not sure what to make of American Gods, and whether I really like it, or not.

This is the first book by Neil Gaiman, an author-hero to the library sector, that I’ve read. Hence, I’m not used to his writing style or subject matter, so this was a bit of a new experience.

It’s set in America (obviously) and, well, it’s difficult to say much without giving away spoilers. I’m also a little wary of the large and fanatical following for this book but, hey, nothing is liked by everyone. Not even chocolate.

The cover, and some other reviewers, have used the phrase ‘road trip’, but that’s a bit inaccurate. The action did move across several – though not many – places in the USA, and not always by road. A large chunk of the novel takes place in one town in Wisconsin which the received wisdom of people who have tried to identify where it is based on have settled on the authors home town (in real life).

The plot revolves around, erm, Gods. In America. Gods of many forms and shapes who have been brought to this (in some ways) new country by immigrants. And also newer gods, who express themselves in different ways (You may not watch “I love Lucy” in the same light again). The main character within is “Shadow”, an ex-prisoner who falls in with another bloke, “Wednesday”. Shadow I found disappointing and emotionally a bit detached, dulled. He rarely seemed surprised; in fact, possibly never. A case in point being the reappearance of his wife, where most people would have reacted in a different way. Shadow himself isn’t developed much as a person, and there’s hardly anything about it from childhood until when the novel starts. Then again, he’s probably not supposed to be a ‘main’ character, as the gods take a more central (and interesting) role in the book.

And there are many gods in the book, with the timeline moving around to fill in their back stories. Some fleshing out of a few of the human characters might have been better, especially Sam, the student and coffee shop barista from Madison. She was particularly under-developed and appeared at times merely as a plot movement device.

The book – which exists in several editions of varying length from ‘long’ to ‘sole Labor Day weekend read’ – is rich with metaphor, dream spaces, and the more considered forms of the human world(s) colliding with those of the supernatural. There’s also several good passages of writing. Sam, stuck in a car with someone who may or may not be a serial killer, elicits a long list, over several pages, of what she believes in:

“… I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste … I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly …”

And our hero – well, possibly not – the main character of the book thinks:

“He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while; or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.”

There’s several major plot twists near the end, of differing levels of surprise, which were a good reward for sticking with the book. Apart from the climactic scene, the last few chapters of the book were notched up a gear over the rest of the text which meandered off in places. There’s plenty of characters, a few somewhat unusual sex scenes, and some violence (though perhaps not as much as you’d expect).

The main problem I have with American Gods is that it seemed quite … familiar. I’ve read a lot of Clive Barker over the years and still do, even though he’s progressively mellowing with age. And many of the concepts and ideas in American Gods are present in Clive’s books from previous decades, especially Weaveworld, Imajica, Everville and Coldheart Canyon. I’m (definitely) not saying that Gaiman has ripped off Barker; many of the concepts can be traced back to other literature, the foundations of gothic writing, and before. But if you’ve read a lot of Barker, then you’ll know what I mean.

This particular book is over a decade old. It shows, implicitly; several of the sequences and plot progressions wouldn’t happen now, due to the Internet. There’s apparently a film version of this at a very early, not yet turned into a screenplay, stage, as well as a sequel on the way at some point.

One personal thing about the novel that I liked was that several of the places within I’d heard about previously, and want to visit, but haven’t yet. For example, the town at the notional centre of America (found in the 1930s by balancing a giant cut-out of America on a pin until it balanced), and The House on the Rock, with its Infinity Room and world’s largest indoor carousel. And a few others that I won’t say for spoiler reasons.

The ending, too, may be a little anticlimactic for some. Though, oddly, the last location in the book is the place on the top of my list of places to visit which I haven’t been to yet. And, because of the history of that place, seemed the most plausible passage in the whole novel.

I look forward to reading more of Neil’s writing. Hopefully there’ll be something I can get a grip on better (people keep recommending Neverwhere and Stardust, so they may be next).

Overall: 7 out of 10. A good read, but not an original one.

July 5th, 2012 by John

Happy 325th birthday

Arguably the most important book ever written, this was first published on the 5th July 1687. From this eventual trilogy, modern mathematics, science, engineering, technology and physics is influenced and derived.



There’s a rather battered copy, at Cambridge University library, that’s been digitised so you can look at every page. There’s also an English version, downloadable as one huge PDF file.

(Pictures from the Library of Congress)

June 27th, 2012 by John

Don’t shush me, I’m tweeting the speaker

(The title is a play on librarian cliches and stereotypes, and on the worst book title in the field of games in education)

A better title is Dealing with Bunheads.

Twitter has been around for over six years. Other forms of social media have been around longer. Phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices where you can type while sitting at a presentation, seminar, workshop, conference or other event, have been around for many years, decades. And emails, mailing lists, usenet news groups, and other digital textual forms of presentation have been around for longer than quite a lot of the population, possibly some of the readers of this post.

And yet, at library and librarian conferences, there’s still reports of people in the audience asking, or telling, other people not to tweet. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m typing this in mid-2012.

It seems to happen on a regular basis at UK library events, less so – but not unknown – at US ones. Here’s a tweet from a conference earlier this week:

Tweeting problem

Here’s a comment by Jo the librarian on a post by Phil Bradley, from 2010 about a regional library organisation AGM from earlier that year. The whole comment included to give some context:


At the same event, another tweeter was also intercepted by a dinosaur who had some kind of objection to her ‘blackberry’. Lots of comments on this one. And lo, another post by someone else at the same event.

This hasn’t just happened, in the UK, at CILIP events:


This has also happened in the USA, at the American Library Association annual conference this week past, where it happened to Kate and she posted about it on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (a recommended thing to join):


Kate adds some info on who and why the tweetophobe said what they did:


There are variations on this type of objection. For example, Sophie writes:


There are far worse things than someone next to me using a smartphone, laptop or other device, at a library conference. These, ALL of which I’ve experienced at library conferences in the UK, include:

  1. The agent orange. Ridiculous amounts of aftershave or perfume, creating a natural ‘killzone’ around the wearer. Perhaps they are on ‘the pull’. Or perhaps they are too lazy to shower, and it’s to mask…
  2. The hobo. Bad body odor. Not the kind you get for running for the train that morning, but from seriously deficient personal habits.
  3. The muncher. Crunching their way through tube after tube of polo mints. Or some other bag or container of rustling sweets, due to an inability to wait until the break for refreshment.
  4. The slurper. People who have a cup or mug of coffee or tea, and loudly slurp. Every. Single. Damned. Mouthful.
  5. The stirrer. Usually the same person as the last one; people who stir their tea or coffee, in a mug, noisily using a metal spoon for several minutes. This is the only time (I think?) I have physically threatened someone with actual violence at a library conference. He left, suddenly, probably as a better option than having the metal spoon surgically removed later in the day. I’m a little unnerved by how close this came to violence, and I retrospectively apologise to everyone who overheard. Even if I was provoked.
  6. The yakker. People who talk through the whole session with the person next to them, on stuff that has nothing to do with the presentation. I mean, why the hell did you bother to turn up?
  7. The sniffer, who sniffs every five seconds, as regular as clockwork. Closely related to the throat-clearer.
  8. The crotch fiddler, as you’re aware of it, and as it is repeated, you’re not sure how innocent it is and whether you should move far away.
  9. The frakker. So called because they are their own personal gas drill well, emitting – sometimes loudly – gaseous material into the near locality. This seems to be prevalent amongst men of a certain age at UK library events. Or maybe I get repeatedly unlucky about who I sit next to.
  10. The tutter. He or she tuts at nearly every comment the speaker makes.

Suggestion to ‘The tutter’. If you want a wider audience, join twitter and tweet about what’s wrong with everything the speaker is saying.

If you can articulate your displeasure.


Okay, I’m turning into Jerry Seinfeld. But, whatever. All of those are far worse than someone silently, without offensive odor, typing away on a device. People don’t publicly object to any of those ten, saying “Sir, you smell worse than the rear end of a dead horse!” or “Madam, if you suck those boiled sweets any louder, windows will shatter and dogs scatter!” Perhaps they should? But some people will complain about tweeting, despite tweeting being a positive and useful thing:

  • More people – many, many more – get to hear what the speaker is on about. That’s not disrespect; that’s amplifying. Tweeters are doing the speaker, and the event organisers, a huge favor.
  • The event itself is promoted more.
  • The speaker is critiqued. This is good. And from the many, many events I’ve followed on twitter, it doesn’t turn into an anti-speaker mob; at worse, there’s snark instead of vitriol. At best, there’s praise.
  • Extra information; links, context, additions, corrections, are added by the event twitterati to the speakers presentation. Good for him or her to review afterwards.
  • People tweeting, like note takers, will retain, remember, more information about the speaker.
  • Tweeting is good. It shows that at least some in the profession are comfortable with information flows through all media. Or, to put it more shortly, that they are information professionals.
  • Actively blocking tweeting is bad; contributing to the death knell of the profession. It’s off-putting to many people to join and gives ammunition to anti-library organisations that librarians are stuck in the past and irrelevant.

The objections to tweeting appear to fall into three categories:

  1. “You may be showing disrespect to the speaker.” I have a tiny bit of sympathy here, as the twitterophobe possibly has good intentions, but is just utterly in a different – previous – world as to how things work at events. Some education is required.
  2. “I don’t like technology, and therefore I’m going to make up ridiculous reasons why you shouldn’t tweet.” No sympathy here, and the twitterophobe shouldn’t be at Information Professional events. Or, arguably, in the profession.
  3. “I hate change. And I hate you, because I’m not young any more, and you are, with your virility and technology. This is my organisation, because I’ve been in it for decades and you haven’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because myself and like-minded people run it, and others in the organisation are too frightened to say anything in case we leave and stop paying our fees.” Again, no sympathy. Every elephant his graveyard, every dinosaur his tar pit.

What to do if someone tells to you stop tweeting, or typing, or messaging. There’s a few approaches that don’t involve violence or the threat of same:


Or tell them you aren’t stopping and they are in the wrong. It’s important that you stand your ground as you are not in the wrong. Or, stay sitting on your slightly wobbly conference seat. Inform them that they can move to somewhere where they won’t encounter people tweeting, if it upsets them so much. Perhaps suggest North Korea, if you want to get flippant.

And then ignore them and tweet about them (which is even funnier if they are looking at your screen). Any decent conference or session organiser will pick up on this, and possibly intervene with dealing with the tweetophobe.

Alternately, if it is someone on a power-trip or being passive aggressive, take a picture of them and twitpic it. Let’s see the bunhead.

Concluding how this started; I’m still finding it hard to believe that this goes on in mid-2012. Not in huge amounts. But it does.

June 26th, 2012 by John


A bit of a discussion on Ian Anstice’s Facebook wall propelled the writing of this and the hunting down of vidoes. So; my favorite group is an Icelandic group called Amiina.

Not many people have heard of Amiina, or heard their music. But, not having the hipster insecurity of fearing being ‘mainstream’, that’s not why I like them.

Neither do I like them because they are from Iceland, though I want to visit there. Very much.

Nor is it because the first time I saw them play was from the front row, a few feet away from Hildur Ársælsdóttir playing the saw, and realised that you could fall in love with a musician you’d probably never talk to, just because of her sheer talent and … something else, when she’s playing a few feet away from you.

(Erm, in the very remote chance you ever read this Hildur, don’t worry; I’m engaged to someone else :).


Nor is it because Amiina take household objects, stringed instruments, farm implements, and tech such as MacBook, and turn deceptively simple sounds into something … unique.

Nope. It’s simply because what they do consistently makes me feel good. Really good. That’s enough reason, surely.

Right; showtime. Some music by Amiina. Infuriatingly there are very few videos of them playing, so this is a mixed collection of documentary footage and fan-made works.

First up; Ásinn, live. The opening track to the first time I saw them live.

Amiina with Lee Hazlewood – Hilli (at the top of the world). The last vocals he recorded.

What are we waiting for? Especially for any expectant soon-to-be-parents.

More videos made by random people, this one a solo dancer. Track: Sexfaldur.

Sicsak, live.

Amiina playing in an Icelandic bookstore, to various book buyers and browsers (one of whom for attentive viewers is Bjork).

In the sun:

Ugla. I have no idea what this amateur video is about:

Finally, as the backing group to Sigur Rós, which they do a lot of. Olsen Olsen, from the film Heima which followed them around Iceland.

Well, nearly finally. My favorite song of theirs and, for a while now, of anyone’s. With Yukihiro Takahashi (seriously):

If Amiina come near you on one of their rare tours, they are worth seeing. Well, selfishly I’m hoping they don’t become mega successful so I have to fight for tickets and see them from the distant back of a cavernous concert hall. But, in fairness, their music deserves a wide and appreciative audience.


June 20th, 2012 by John

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)


I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set.Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:


Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.

June 18th, 2012 by John

Public Libraries, Community Libraries and Volunteers

My response to the Linkedin discussion on “Public Libraries, Community Libraries and Volunteers” hasn’t gone live. Maybe it’s in a queue, or maybe it’s been deleted. is finally live on there.

The response to the discussion is below, as I don’t like wasting time typing things that don’t see the light of day.

The discussion is here:


You have to join Linkedin to participate. Advise using a unique password and changing it regularly, if you do so.


I’ll start with the positive. Singular, as there’s only one.

It’s good that the new building is called the ‘Discovery Centre’ and not ‘Great Ayton library’, as it isn’t a library. Places staffed by misguided volunteers that call themselves ‘community libraries’ are not libraries. The label is misleading and fake, putting them on the same level as genuine libraries where skilled staff can answer a wide range of information issues and queries.

The ‘Discovery Centre’ is really a building with some books in it, room hire opportunities, a few bolted-on services and a pile of donated jigsaws in the corner.

What isn’t mentioned, and I’m betting isn’t provided, are most of the things on this list which a genuine library would offer:


Ideology-wise, this ‘Discovery Centre’ is Fifty Shades of Stupid. All of the residents – not just the happy 90% in the unreferenced “survey” – are effectively paying twice, for a service which pretends to be a library but is not. This fails in two further ways.

First, by making it more acceptable for skilled librarians to be sacked, made redundant, unemployed, and replaced by Mrs Bun the bakers wife, who has her own (un)professional views on patrons, stock choice, enquiry privacy and the like, and isn’t bound by any formal contract to change them.

Second, by contributing to a wider ideology that skilled professionals in general can be replaced by volunteers, interns, people forced to do placements to claim benefits and others who do not have the suitable, or basic, skills or experience. There are many recent UK examples in the health, education, policing and other sectors.

If Mrs Bun went into hospital to find she was being treated, nursed, or given a body bath by her young unemployed unskilled and indiscreet next door neighbour, she may be less impressed. But if the same Mrs Bun volunteered for the ‘Discovery Centre’ then, well, she’d be a hypocrite to complain.

I sincerely hope the ‘Discovery Centre’ struggles, there are incidents (though not wishing harm on the children who will be forced to use your library-lite ‘Centre’), and the place has to eventually close its doors. In some ways it already has failed, due to the very limited range of services it offers. But permanently failing, even under the limbo dancingly-low bar set by the ‘Centre’ and ‘community libraries’, would be excellent as it would show that this negative and anti-skills and education ideology cannot, and should not, function in a society or community.

Better no (fake) library than a service which tries to demonstrate that skills, experience and knowledge are worthless and replaceable by anyone.

On a side point; the pseudo-endorsement of things such as the ‘Discovery Centre’, and their unethical internal communication manner, is why I won’t join CILIP (nearly did twice last year). It’s not so much turkeys voting for Christmas, but also paying for the privilege of having their (professional) necks chopped off at the first opportunity.

And my commiserations to the sacked professional librarians in your area. As per usual, they get a brief mention or no mention at all; in your case, you call it a ‘compromise’(!) Their contribution, years in dedicated education and employment, fulfilling the remit of a genuine library service, are forgotten and swept under the carpet. Out of your sight, and out of your mind, unless you pass the Job Centre and see them entering while on your way to opening up the Discovery Centre to play at being ‘pretend librarian’.

You should not be proud of the ‘Discovery Centre’. If you have a sense of professionalism, and a conscience, you should be ashamed.

June 8th, 2012 by John

#ff: Five Follow (inspirational) Fridays

I’m not a huge fan of the #ff (Follow Friday) thing, where people recommend other people to follow on Twitter. Usually, because many of the well-meaning people who do this throw out a list of @ twitter handles, with no reason why they should be followed. It can be a little overwhelming.

When doing the #ff myself I’ve usually recommended five people, giving each one a tweet-full of explanations or justification as to why they should be followed. No-one else seems to do it this way, but as my middle name should be “ploughing a lonely furrow”, this isn’t an issue.

So, here are five people you are invited to consider following on Twitter (or on other social media or, hey, in real life). Three are American (perhaps not surprising considering the many adventures there over the last decade) and two are English. Two I have never met, and two of the others I haven’t met for a good few years now. Hmmm. You don’t need to constantly see someone in real life for them to be an inspiration.

But I want to do a bit more justice, give a bit more detail than just a tweet, to these people. These five in particular I know in some way or other, and have been a significant positive influence over me for the last seventeen years or so. Perhaps ‘hero’ isn’t the right word, being more associated in these times with firemen, or military personnel, or people who save lives in some other way. Inspirations, or role models, then. People who I think more than once “Yeah, wish I was more like him/her.”

1. Jessamyn West (@jessamyn)

On the surface, Jessamyn just appears to be a librarian working in a small town library in a rural New England state. But, that’s just the surface. Jessamyn can be regarded as the online librarian equivalent of Patient Zero (Librarian Zero?) – in a positive sense. Through her work, profile, “this needs to be done so I’ll just do it” attitude, and longevity as an online presence, other librarians have raised their game. You can see this in her substantial online content, some of which is at the domain name many probably wish they’d gotten, librarian.net.

Jessamyn has a page on Wikipedia. She is only ten days older than me, but has achieved a heck of a lot more. She’s written the book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, and has been an open access, freedom of access to knowledge, privacy and library advocate for many years now.

questions and answers ii

As well as being a library and online trainer of residents (specialising in seniors), Jessamyn presents at many library events and spends a lot of time moderating, and adding content to, Metafilter which has become my main offbeat news source.

I first became aware of Jessamyn online in the 90s, when there seemed to be a librarian over in America, who was not in a library school, putting up lots of stuff on the websies that wasn’t pictures of cats. At the time, outside of academia and geekdom, this was an unusual thing to do. What’s impressed the most over the years is how consistently Jessamyn has put this increasing amount of material online. While I’ve scatter-gunned content everywhere that may take years to fix, Jessamyn has built a formidable one-person archive. Kudos.

I’ve never met her in real life, though we have been in a Chicago airport at the same time on two occasions, and it’s gotten to the point now where, perhaps oddly, I’m not sure I want to meet Jessamyn in real life; expectation would make me terrified and I’d probably hide.

2. Andy Powell (@andypowe11)

The punk rebel who always seems just a moment away from putting the Doc Martens back on, length of Britain cyclist, Eduserv programme director, metadata guru and occasional swimwear model.

Andy was poached from the technical services of Bath University to join the metadata team at UKOLN, back in the day when Lorcan was the boss. This was a big coup, and strengthened UKOLN in the technical research area. Of the many things he did there, Andy is perhaps best known for DC Dot, and his JISC Information Environment diagram which 73% of the worlds population have now seen at some point* (think “Monolith from 2001 A Space Odyssey” for gravitas).

Despite doing all these things, Andy always seems to have a remarkably laid-back, unstressed, demeanor. In our office at UKOLN, we came to the conclusion that his blood pressure reading is probably … 2. Andy appears in the famous “UKOLN team of 1996″ picture. Of the four devastatingly handsome men in the centre of the back row, he’s the furthest to the right:

UKOLN Staff Photo 1996 (Anne Chapman not present)

By coincidence, Andy Powell joined twitter exactly five years ago today. It was his tweeting that got me intrigued with the whole twitter thing, and encouraged me to give it a go. Here’s his first tweet:

First tweet of Andy Powell

After several years of creating all manner of teccie things and becoming a rather crucial person in the driving of such developments in the UK academic research sector, Andy made the move down the hill to Eduserv (whose historical roots are somewhat entwined with UKOLNs). With Andy running the programme, Eduserv gave funding and support to Virtual World Watch back a few years, which became my baby to run with (in an abstractly similar way to running with Ariadne some 12 years or so before).

There’s a lesson there; don’t burn your bridges. Oh, and the virtual world stuff brings us to…

3. Aleks Krotoski (@aleksk)

Aleks has a page on Wikipedia.

I first became aware of her in the late 1990s when a late night games review TV show, Bits, appeared on TV. It was, and still is, the best program of its kind on UK TV (though admittedly some of the competition is … not strong). Aleks and Emily and the other Emily bounced around various locations in Glasgow, and reviewed video games in an intelligent manner, as they had obviously played them in depth.

Aleks Krotoski

This was strangely liberating. Women, not men, talking with knowledge and depth about video games, while often sending up anything and everything. It’s the one games show, out of the many, I miss. For your amusement:

Aleks popped up in another games review programme (Thumb Bandits), started to write on matters gaming and technology for the Guardian, and presented the four part BBC TV series Virtual Revolution.

Academically she’s done a PhD, which involved using Second Life a lot. It was through Aleks giving me my first guided tour of that environment that I had my “Aha!” virtual-worlds-in-education moment, which led to Virtual World Watch as previously mentioned. Everything is connected; yo! Her book on Learning and Research in Virtual Worlds is also pretty good, in particular for academics who aren’t well up on this technology in education.

Like Jessamyn, Aleks is someone I’ve “known” only online and who, for the same reasons as for Jessamyn, am uncertain I now want to meet in real life. We nearly met at a Nintendo event on games I spoke at that she curated a few years ago, but Aleks was I think collecting an award elsewhere that evening (to add to the BAFTA, Emmy and other nice shiny things she’s accumulated).

4. Tom Roper (@tomroper)

After several interesting jobs in the library and information sector, Tom is now the Primary Care Librarian in Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust. He also runs, swims, sails, plays musical instruments, learns old languages, follows horse racing, sails, mans a lifeboat, and does a load of other things I’ve forgotten.

Tom Roper

Once described as “the most dangerous man in librarianship” I met Tom way back in the day, the mid-90s, during a presentation about digital library things that somehow mentioned squirrel hazing. This has not been forgotten, and unfortunately neither has [REDACTED].

Our first few meetings were, for me, quietly terrifying as Tom exhibited a casual but vast array of knowledge (think he decided to answer one of my questions in both Greek and Latin at one point). Tom is part of Voices for the Library; though he isn’t as high profile as some of the other activists online, don’t underestimate his influence and reach. Others have done so, to their cost (see the testimonials on his website).

5. Becky Yoose (@yo_bj)

After a few years as the Bibliographic Systems Librarian at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Becky is now the Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. As well as doing all manner of technical things which I don’t totally understand, Becky also runs libcatcode.org, is building the definitive list of library-cataloger types on twitter, has a writes loads of articles and chapters, is starting to run various groups again, and is heavily involved in the annual Code4Lib conference.

Yes, and she owns cats. Or they own her.

Laser Ninja Cat

Biased? No. There aren’t many people I know who, while still in their twenties, are the key teccie person in the library of a prestigious college (yeah; check out the size of the endowment fund for this college of just 1,600 students), have a degree and masters and are on tenure track, who own their own home, and already have an impressive CV including conference organisation and publications.

This was done with no help and hand-up, through a sheer putting-in-the-hours, and with the hindrance of a mad Englishman. Becky is also very skilled in working out what she wants, and how to get it.

Commonalities? Themes? Yes. Driven and self-motivated is probably the binding one.

  1. They are all seriously intelligent people, but haven’t wasted that intelligence.
  2. All have a strong work ethic and, well, just get stuff done.
  3. And because they’ve got a lot done, no matter the obstacles, they’ve achieved a lot.
  4. And despite achieving a lot, none of those five are arrogant, or have an ego. Or if they do, it’s well hidden. They are all genuine people.
  5. And they’re very active, or activists, in their field. Non of them is a nine to five person.

Anyway, that’s my list of inspirational people. Oh yeah; back to the original point, all of them tweet interesting stuff, so they’re also recommended people to follow on Twitter.

* = may be a slight exaggeration. But only a slight one.

June 5th, 2012 by John

Wisconsin prediction for tonite

Predicting that in the recall election in the land of cheese tonite, Scott Walker will win, with an 8 to 10 percentage margin over Barrett.

Before another whiny liberal incorrectly accuses me of being a Republican*, I shouldn’t have to spell this out but that is not the result I want; it’s the one I think will happen. There is a difference.

And on a similar note, to liberal bloggers on social media who think that if they write about the big bad nasty Walker losing enough times then it will happen – it doesn’t work like that. For similar reasons as to why Romney is likely to win in November.

Do consider voting, if you live there. A vote is more useful than a whine. Sorry you’re in the hell that seems to be election number one billion in the last few years.

I’m weary of the enclaved, impotent hysteria and arm-waving of the left against the corrupted money and prejudiced, incoherent anger of the right. Hence the usual long and rambling post stops here.

Update Walker won, by 7 percent.

On the plus side, this could do a lot for the Democrats and nationally be more useful than a narrow win. It’s an unavoidable wake-up call time for them. They’ll have to work out where they went badly wrong, and how they can learn for this for the November elections, including the presidency. Raising, between themselves and their friendly SuperPACs, another several hundred million more dollars, and starting the campaign as soon as possible, will also help.

Though am sticking with the prediction from exactly seven months ago, and am increasingly thinking that Hillary Clinton may have more chance of winning in 2016 than Barack Obama in 2012.

(* Personal US political alignment is about 2 parts Democrat, 2 parts Libertarian, 1 part Socialist.)

May 29th, 2012 by John

The 95th birthday of JFK

(For my friend Amy, who is an amazing person and will soon be a mother, and who went with me to see the current president win on that night in Chicago in 2008)

It’s May 29th 2012. Back on May 29th 1917, before the end of World War I, a man of Irish ancestry was born to a family dynasty in Boston, USA.

John F Kennedy, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 95th birthday today. That’s a strange concept, imagining JFK as a very old man, half a decade off his centenary. Possibly because, after being assassinated nearly half a century ago, there’s no pictures of him at more than early middle age.

My mother and father christened me “John” after JFK. They were admirers of him, his presidency and the way he spoke. Britain was a very different world, then, especially in the way information about current events and politics was obtained. A few TV channels, newspapers more restrained than todays, radio, your peers, and that was about it. Unless you were rich – and my parents certainly were not – going to America was not an option. So they got all of their information, impressions, from those few sources, liked what or who they saw, and named me after him. Which was also possibly a lucky escape, as the other politician they both admired was Winston Churchill.

My father was born just a few years after JFK; I was born nearly five years after the president’s assassination. Consequently, I never saw him “live” on TV, though my earliest memory is of the moon landing, a program he instigated and pushed for several years before …

… the memory being of being in someone else’s living room, full of adults, and the strange box in the corner showing some moving black and white images. I didn’t have a clue what was going on – I was less than two, but can remember, sharply, the excitement in the room.

As I was growing up, I understood a little more about JFK. The Cuban missile crisis. The election battle with Nixon in 1960. The Cold War. And that politics in America was changing, different in the 60s to other decades, and certainly different to the toxic, hysterical and impossibly bipartisan governance that the country now struggles with.

Those differences come through in the speeches and the soundbites. And, as acknowledged by many, JFK was one of the best presidents, up there with Lincoln, at public speaking. This is one of his most famous lines:

It would be a curiously libertarian statement if made by a mainstream president, or (especially) a presidential candidate, now. They probably wouldn’t say it; the risk of it being misinterpreted, or used against him or her. But when it came to speaking, either from a script or off the cuff, JFK had memorable quotes, and he had balls.

And speaking of balls, there was his private life, his alleged private life, his family life, and the like. Jackie. Camelot. The new first family. The first presidency out of the shadow of post World War II reconstruction. And the links with Marilyn Monroe, who, even in black and white footage, is to me the personification of sex and desire. You can kindly keep the modern day pop videos complete with people shaking their ‘booty’ and wiggling whatever else they choose to wiggle, in an advanced state of undress. This … this is sexy:

We’ll never know how different the world would have been if he had not been assassinated. Or, if he had lost in 1960, and it was close, whether there would still be a world under Nixon’s presidency during scary-events-time Cuba. And we’ll never be entirely sure why he was assassinated, very nearly half a century ago now.

Somehow, in eleven trips to America, over two years spent there and many experiences, I’ve never visited any JFK-related sites, with the notable exception of Air Force One, the actual plane which took Kennedy to Dallas and brought his body back.

Maybe I need to rectify that in the future, in America or Ireland. Especially as I come from an English village that had a significant involvement in the American presidency and flag, as well as a lifelong fascination with things America and American politics.

But the thing about JFK that most fascinates me is how much he achieved. Yes, he had the family dynasty to get a good start in life. But, like FDR a few decades before him, he was beset with ill health, to the extent of having a disrupted education and, on one occasion, receiving the last rites. That’s not the only time John had a brush with mortality, having been in Germany on September 1st 1939, and having to dash back across to the USA in a deteriorating war situation. But, he still managed to rise and win the presidency, reinvigorate the sluggish US economy, and deal with Cuba, Russia and a number of international situations (though even then, the US was getting bogged down in Iraqi politics) in the space of a few years, plus moving American society on to make it easier for his successor to pass sweeping legislation, before being assassinated at the age of 46.

His legacy? America was never the same again, socially or politically. Communication between rulers and people changed, with television predominating. And those hard things – man landing on the moon, equality, significant social reform – were done or progressed.

7.20.1969 Man on the Moon - Aldrin on Surface after Descending Ladder on LM (2 of 5)

Which is a thing that makes me humble, acutely aware of time. In less than 3 years time, assuming I live that long, I’ll be older than JFK was at the time of his death. Barring some completely implausible chain of events, I won’t have achieved a small fraction of what he did in his equivalent time on this rock; I am like JFK in first name and gender only.

Though it’s often not healthy to compare your “progress” to that of others (especially, perhaps ludicrously, to a president of the USA), when you reach a certain age you become more aware of what you’ve achieved – and what you haven’t. Adventures and experiences, I’ve clocked up more than most people will in their whole lives, but in terms of conventional achievements, and doing things that slightly change humankind and society for the better, my scorecard is lacking. I’m hoping that the best years and decades are still ahead for me – though perhaps more actual “doing”, and less “hoping” and writing about doing, would help them actually happen.

Certainly, JFK didn’t slowly build up to a period of “late life achieving”, instead becoming president of the USA just before 43 and a half (younger than I am now), and doing it all, when he could, as soon as he could. And he didn’t let poor or bad health get in the way (self: take note). It’s a good thing that he got so much done, bearing in mind how young his life was cut short. Which is a reminder of what someone I follow on Twitter said in the spring of 2009:

Don’t take your potential to the grave.

Final thought: I wish JFK had been alive to see the moon landing.

May 28th, 2012 by John

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.


I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.