Writing in the long form
November 30th, 2012 by John

Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work

The author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a popular MetaFilter topic, was born 177 years ago today (November 30th 1835) in Missouri. The printer, riverboat pilot, game designer, journalist, lecturer, technology investor, gold miner, publisher and patent holder wrote short stories, essays, novels and non-fiction under the pen name Mark Twain.

This included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (recently adapted into a musical), one of the top five challenged books of the 1990s, published in 1884-85 to a mixed reception and with an ending that still causes debate.

In his life, Clemens … received a total of three patents. Twain spent some of his summers in Elmira, New York. His study is now on the campus of Elmira College. Its original location, Quarry Farm, is out of the city a little ways and can also be visited. In more recent summers the Mark Twain Musical Drama was staged in the round, where the college hockey team plays. He also presaged the local food movement.

The extensively quoted author of the Tom Sawyer stories, Mark’s work and life are still the subject of research, imitation, analysis, interpretation (disturbing claymation) and inspiration (nsfw).

Mark lived his last few years in Redding, Connecticut, where he donated many books to the local public library association. Photographed in 1861, 1902, with family, as a lecturer and with various friends.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Mark died on April 21st 1910 and is immortalised in Google doodles, stamps, benches and forthcoming commemorative coins. His works are widely available online in various digital formats, for ebook readers and at your local public library and bookshop.

He also liked cats.

(Extended version of MetaFilter Front Page Post. Additional links, text by knile, lumpenprole and three blind mice.)

November 9th, 2012 by John

The fifteen hundred

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.

You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.

And the time passes. And they don’t go to heaven, but just stand there, all upset, some in denial, many angry, some forever angry, some crying ‘lies’, some broken, some think they have been cheated, some blaming it on a lack of faith and action, some rearranging the date according to a hastily-justified reason, and some bewildered why the non-believers “just don’t get it”.

That was the core of the Republican party on election night. Cue Karl Rove in disbelieving mood. Cue the disbelieving party workers and Romney faithful in Boston. Cue the many viewers of Fox News, now spewing out angry disbelief on the comments sections of a thousand online news reports, and warning that the apocalypse is now upon us and the country is doomed and it’s all the fault of the non-believers, those strange unbelieving liberals who seem inexplicably angry with the prophecy of an imminent Conservative heaven.

Flag-waving "Patriots"

Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.

For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.

And for some of these more rational people watching from near or far away, it’s weird, this post-election feeling. A mixture of relief, fear, trepidation and exhaustion. The analysis of how Obama won – and why Romney lost, and lost an election many thought they could and should have won – is underway in a myriad of media, political centers, and television studios and smoke-filled back offices across America. The excuses from the losers – careful to point the blame at everyone except themselves – have begun. And so this experiment to change the Presidency by subtly and not-so-subtly brainwashing a significant proportion of the richest country in the history of mankind and throwing a billion dollars at an election, is over. As is a multi-level campaign featuring some of the most hateful and negative electioneering for a while, both widely known and not so widely known.

And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.

US Constitution

Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.

But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.

This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.

From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.

But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.

But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.

Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.

Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.

old glory. venice beach, ca. 2012.

And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.

And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.

And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…

The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.

I love the place, and its people, dearly. One day, I’ll be one.

November 2nd, 2012 by John


Looking up at the midnight sky just now, while listening to distant English church bells chime in midnight. Hey; there’s the moon, barely a degree away from a bright Jupiter. Thinking, slipping back to four years ago today, watching the moon and stars from my bed and train cabin as it trundled through North Dakota, waking up the next morning somewhere in Minnesota while heading towards Jenny Levine’s excellent ALA conference on games and libraries. That evening would be spent meeting a new bunch of people and friends, drinking various things, investigating this Twitter thing, and/or remarking on Amy Jean Kearns’s pink iPhone.

First drinks of GLLS2008 tagged :-)

But that was then, and this is now, four years later. Four days to go now until election day. Five days exactly, or 120 hours, until the polls start to close in the swing states. Six nights – minimum – until there’s a result. Still too many unknowns, though the more plausible analysts have Obama narrowly ahead at this moment.

My fear is widespread disruption in many polling stations on tuesday. Especially by twitchy and partisan “observers” kicking it up over people voting who they don’t like the look of. Also, it being close enough where it matters for delays due to slow counts, recounts, problems with voting systems, and lawyers. Lots and lots of fucking lawyers, on both sides. A repeat of the 2000 count would be a socio-economic and political disaster.

Even an American Political junkie such as me wishes this particular three ring circus was over with, and over with now. This hour. I’ve been following it for four years, this road to yet another extreme, bitter election with shouting and abuse on all sides. But, whatever the result, the day after a president-elect is determined it all starts again. “Who will be the Democrat candidate in 2016; Hillary, or someone else?”, what’s left of the media will ask.

I might have something positive to write about the whole American political thing when it’s done, but for now I’m tired of it and out. And if you ain’t got anything good to say, probably best not to say anything at all.

August 24th, 2012 by John

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first popped up on my reading radar during a first read of Blue Highways, where the author mentions packing this book to read as he travels around America. I’ve been curious since then as to why William Least-Heat Moon (yes, that’s his real name and his book I’ll review another time) chose this book in particular. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Leaves of Grass as an important book within the canon of American literature, and the controversial and lively debate surrounding its author – to the extent that Walt and Mark are the two people who adorn my Kindle cover. But it’s only the last few weeks that I’ve properly read Leaves from cover to cover.

Poetry is not a form of literature I’m at ease with. There’s cultural and upbringing reasons for this discomfort. Ironically when very young I won a national poetry competition, more as an act of rebellion against being told that culture such as literature, poetry, classical music and other “fine arts” wasn’t the kind of thing that people of “my type” (farming lower working class) should or could do. That was by the headmistress of the primary school I endured, but hopefully for many reasons she’s now burning in whatever kind of purgatory exists for people of “her type”.

Anyway, that’s why I’m not going to attempt to analyse Leaves of Grass; it’ll just read like some fumbling junior school literature review 101 essay. I’ll just write about what I read.

The edition I perused was a 1986 reprint of the 1959 Viking Press print of the original 1855 text, borrowed from Birmingham Central Library. The first version of Leaves, as Walt tweaked and fiddled about with it for the rest of his life, seemingly never happy with the body of work (typical Virgo, perhaps). The editor of this edition, Malcolm Cowley, added a lengthy introduction and analysis of his own which, for me, didn’t really add or shed any new light on the core work. It speaks for itself pretty well.

Walt Whitman - em Camden, 1891

Leaves is partially a kind of observation of America as it was 160 years ago, the people in it, what they do, how they go about their business. It’s also partially about the author, as a person, a human people, a physical and emotional being, and as an American. The second paragraph of the original work begins:

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

So I guess it’s interesting, not just from a literature perspective, but from a historical perspective. For example, there’s a rather graphic retelling of a retelling of the massacre at the Alamo (of the accuracy, we are not sure), of how people of trades travel around their country, of what they wear and what they eat. And there is mention, descriptions, of slaves and slavery; for example:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him

And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at the table, my firelock leaned in the corner.

It’s a very person-based piece of work. There’s probably a deep and meaningful poetry phrase that means “person-based”, but that’ll do for me. And Americans, leading American lives, is the element that most reoccurs in the text; for example:

The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers.
The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill.
The canal-boys trots on the towpath – the bookkeeper counts at his desk – the shoemaker waxes his thread
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings

Walt obviously takes pleasure in observing Americans being themselves, and makes no secret of this:

And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

Speaking of observing women, Leaves of Grass was controversial in its day and for a long time thereafter because of the “explicit” nature of the work. It isn’t, of course, explicit in terms of the low-grade Internet pornography of today. But Walt doesn’t hide his often celebratory thoughts regarding the human body and nakedness, which appear frequently, or his musings about sex. To an extent that a subtext of Leaves of Grass could arguably be “I really want to get laid more”. For example:

Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!
We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.

Voices of sexes and lusts … voices veiled, and I remove the veil

I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips

Despite my lack of poetry experience, I did enjoy reading Leaves of Grass fully. It’s a collection of poems and texts that, for me anyway, has to be read in pretty much one go in order to get some kind of grasp on the work.

It’s also useful as a historical timeline marker in the compressed, accelerated history of America. This work was published in the decade before the civil war, and less than 80 years after independence – but this is still recent enough that there are people alive today whose grandparents would have been alive then and would have recognised the America, and Americans, described by Walt. The relative “recent-ness” of the text, compared to European historical descriptive poetry which can be many centuries old, is what makes Leaves of Grass still easily readable, and the people and places within it recognisable.

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.