Archive for July, 2012
23 Jul 2012

Coming Soon: Libraries Without Books

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One winces when one reads: “Recently the Yale University library unceremoniously junked its old card catalogue drawers, filling a large dumpster with them.”

David A. Bell
, in the New Republic, describes how cataclysmic change is coming to libraries everywhere and discusses what all this is likely to mean.

For how long will providing access to physical books remain a central mission for libraries? Even as reading on screens becomes more and more common, the number of books easily available in electronic form seems likely to increase, and a consensus for allowing some form of free access to “library copies” of digital files seems likely to emerge. True, the legal wrangling over Google Books has shown worrisome signs of stretching out, Bleak House– fashion, toward the next century. But with the digital files of copyrighted books already in existence, and with money to be made from their distribution, it still seems probable that within twenty years or so, it will be possible to download virtually any book ever printed, anywhere, to any device. The chances will be better for readers with access to some sort of subscription service—most often through universities where they study, or have faculty positions. But even for those without this sort of privileged access, some form of free access may very well emerge. And then, what future for libraries?

One nightmare scenario is all too easy to imagine. The year is 2033, and the Third Great Recession has just struck. Although voters have finally turned the Tea Party out of office in Washington, the financial situation remains dire across the country. New York City in particular faces skyrocketing deficits as a result of the most recent Wall Street wipeout, and the bankruptcy of Goldman Chase. In City Hall, a newly elected mayor casts a covetous glance at the grand main branch of the New York Public Library. Think how much money the city could save by selling it, along with the thirty remaining branch libraries scattered throughout the five boroughs. After strenuous negotiations, the mayor announces a deal with Googlezon, under which the company will make fifty electronic copies of any book in its database available at any one time to city residents, for two-week free rentals on the reading device of their choice. Two years later, where the main branch library once stood, the mayor proudly cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Bryant Park Mall. As for the services once performed by actual librarians, these have now been replaced by a cloud software package, with customer service representatives standing by online in case of technical difficulties (most of them physically located in suburban Manila).

In truth, such a turn of events would hardly rank with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in the annals of cultural vandalism. If it came to pass, readers would still enjoy, between the new electronic “lending library” and the public domain titles accessible through the Digital Public Library of America, a larger and more complete library at their fingertips (literally!) than exists today in any single locality. It would not be the barbaric destruction of knowledge. It would be the democratization of knowledge on a scale unimaginable in the pre-Internet age. The benefits are not to be discounted.

Yet the sacrifices entailed—the loss of physical libraries, and of librarians—would still be massive and culturally tragic.

I don’t personally give a rat’s ass about those “library communities” of his, but I certainly agree that the transition is going to be revolutionary and not without losses and pain.

From my own viewpoint as a researcher and regular user of major libraries, I wonder if the experts and planners managing the Great Revolution transitioning us from printed paper to electronic files sufficiently appreciate the crucial importance of preserving and maintaining access to serial publications.

It is very common for enormously larger quantities and much more detailed information on many subjects to have been preserved in ephemeral articles and letters in newspapers and magazines than ever actually made it onward to be preserved between the covers of actual books.

Serial publications are additionally characteristically cheaply printed on rapidly deteriorating acid-filled paper and weekly publications are typically folio sized. Not only are serials prone to be overlooked as a relatively insignificant afterthought by professional librarians. Their preservation is more costly and more difficult than that of most books.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

23 Jul 2012

Meteora Monasteries

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Greek Orthodox monks built 20 monasteries atop rock pillars at Meteora overlooking the Thessalian Plain, from the 10th to the 16th century, in order to get away from Byzantine politics and raiding Turks.

Wikipedia says:

Access to the monasteries was originally (and deliberately) difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break”. In the words of UNESCO, “The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 metres (1,224 ft) cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.” In the 1920s there was an improvement in the arrangements. Steps were cut into the rock, making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau. During World War II the site was bombed. Many art treasures were stolen.

Until the 17th century, the primary means of conveying goods and people from these eyries was by means of baskets and ropes.

Six of the monasteries remain today. Of these six, four were inhabited by men, and two by women. Each monastery has fewer than 10 inhabitants. The monasteries are now tourist attractions.

Trek Earth slide-show

From Fred Lapides.

23 Jul 2012

“I Built This”

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Via Theo.

23 Jul 2012

Rabies: Scary Stuff

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rabies virus

Several weeks ago, returning from shopping, as I proceeded along our driveway, I saw a skunk standing in broad daylight, right outside our fenced house compound. I slowed deliberately, intending to give the skunk a chance to scamper off, away from threatening human beings and cars. The skunk, however, failed to respond appropriately. It stood there, swaying a little from side to side, and then it began to stagger, not away toward the woods, but in the direction of a gate in the fence around the house area.

Not good, I thought. That skunk is sick, and it probably has rabies.

My dogs were outside, and if the skunk went under that gate, he could easily have run into them.

I hurriedly drove around the corner, and ran into the yard. Fortunately, both our dogs came to me immediately, and I was able to lead them into the house and safety. I’d been target-shooting recently with Karen’s 9mm Walther pistol, and it was the nearest available gun, lying ready for use on a handy shelf beneath the kitchen counter. I grabbed up the Walther and went back outside.

I walked down to the corner of the fence, and found that the skunk had not moved very far. It was still swaying. It still looked terribly sick.

Skunks present a pretty impressive hazard even without rabies, and I definitely wanted to be out of range of both deliberate and terminally-reflexive spraying, so I worked the slide and took aim from a good long 20 feet. I shot the skunk in the head with a 9mm bullet, but I had no desire to try disposing of it until it was absolutely certainly dead and completely inert, so I proceeded to empty the magazine into the animal’s head and neck region. The skunk quivered in response to the first shot, and subsequent rounds knocked it over and moved it a bit. After 10 rounds, I finally felt sure that it was dead, dead, dead, and completely past any kind of retaliation.

I walked back and got a shovel. I picked up the skunk on the blade of the shovel, got into my truck, and balancing the shovel on the car window with one hand, managed to carry the dead skunk outside the vehicle, back out our long driveway. I then carefully got out and pitched the skunk far into the uninhabited woods across the road. That placed it almost a quarter of mile from our house and much farther than that from any other homes.

Disposing of the sick skunk actually went very smoothly, but the possibilities were frightening. Our two dogs and two of our cats could have run into that skunk and been infected.

Alice Gregory‘s review of a new cultural history of rabies makes it clear that that particular disease is really far more awful than we normally realize.

“Ours is a domesticated age,” writes Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus
. Wasik is an editor at Wired and Murphy, his wife, a veterinarian. Together they have coauthored a sprawling chronicle of rabies, which until you get the numbers, seems like a willfully anachronistic topic. I did not know, for instance, that rabies is the most fatal virus in the world (only six unvaccinated people have survived, the first in 2004.) A fun party trick is forcing people to guess how many rabies fatalities there are each year. Optimists will hazard 100. Skeptics, 1,000. The real answer is 55,000, a figure so large it transforms your audience into a bunch of stoned teenagers marveling at the fact equivalent of a Big Gulp.

Wasik and Murphy’s subject might seem like a deliberately strange one, but they exercise nothing but user-friendly restraint when it comes to historical detail and medical explanation. It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists. They have mined centuries’ worth of primary sources and come bearing only the gems. My favorites were the archaic cures, some of which were reasonable (lancing, cauterization), while others were plain perverted. The Sushruta Samhita recommends pouring clarified butter into the infected wound and then drinking it; Pliny the Elder suggests a linen tourniquet soaked with the menstrual fluid of a dog. The virus comes up surprisingly often in literary history, too. A Baltimore-based cardiologist speculates that Edgar Allan Poe, who died in a gutter wearing somebody’s else’s soiled clothes, perished not of alcoholism, as has long been thought, but of rabies. In the most famous anecdote about Emily Bronte, she is bit by a mad dog while dawdling in a moor. Terrified of infection, she rushes home and secretly cauterizes the lesion with an iron.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I live in Virginia these days, where vultures abound, and my property is actually infested by black vultures who try to hang out on the barn roof, nearby trees, and even occasionally the house.

They and I have reached a modus vivendi in which they know that when I say: “Get going!” they had better take off and fly somewhere else, or very soon .22 Long Rifle bullets are going to come whistling rather near them.

They commonly sit at the top of some tall Locust trees at the end of our driveway. They were not there when I disposed of the dead skunk, but they had already completely cleaned up that skunk by late afternoon (when I went out to get the mail).

Vultures are immune to rabies.

Via The Dish.

22 Jul 2012

Tweet of the Day

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Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

22 Jul 2012

The Worst System Except For All the Others


Hat tip to Jose Guardia.

22 Jul 2012

Iowahawk Reads From the Liberal Bible

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Iowahawk‘s new translation of the Apocryphal Book of Barack.

31 The Lord Govt was in wrath, and said, “For I am the Lord Govt, creator of Eden! 32 I gave unto you the roads and bridges, and schools and cops, brought unto you of gentle showers of Tarp and Stimulus and rivers of Subsidy, I am the purifier of the waters, cleanser of the air, without which you and your profits would not exist. Thus all that thou have created is created by Us. Thus ye shall render unto Govt what is Govt’s, and this is the Word of your Lord.”

33 At these words, Solydra and Gm and Seiu and all the Cronyans and Laborites dropped to their knees in trembling fear and supplicated themselves before the Lord, presenting Him golden gifts of contributions.

34 Then the retailer said to Govt, “And who created you?”

35 In righteous anger did the Lord Govt again rise up and said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Tri-Delts and the Dekes, I am and have always been! I am the great cosmic turtle on which you and the entire economy rest.”

36 “And on whom do you rest, turtle?” said the retailer in blasheme.

37 “Do not mock me with your knowledge trickery, harlot!” said the Lord Govt. “I am turtles all the way down.”

21 Jul 2012

1880 Time Map of US Politics

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Detail of 1880 “Conspectus of the History of (US) Political Parties,” an attempt to represent graphically just over a century of American politics.

Susan Schulten
introduces this interesting antique item at Mapping the Nation.

I had never heard of a “conspectus,” which is a nineteenth-century term meaning “a comprehensive mental survey.” And that is exactly the idea. I have only reproduced the image here, and left out the extensive narrative that was designed to be laid out under the chart, which lists political events, Supreme Court decisions, and acts of Congress.

In fact, there’s so much detail that I wonder about the purpose of the chart. Perhaps the point was to collapse the chaos of change into a single view, one where a party’s power could be traced over time. The appeal seems to be to capture an overall state of change, of flux. Notice how much the chart resembles a a river. The metaphor is useful — the wider the river at any spot, the more “powerful” the party at that time. I’m particularly impressed by the representation of the turbulent 1850s, when the Whig Party disintegrated and the Republican Party was founded.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

20 Jul 2012

This Video of Australian Hurdler Michelle Jennecke at Barcelona Went Viral Recently

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20 Jul 2012

Feisty Hedgehog

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20 Jul 2012

Red Pill, Blue Pill

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James Delingpole, at the Telegraph, is offering readers an economics red pill.

The red pill – for those who haven’t seen The Matrix – is the one which shows you the world as it really is rather than cosy, fantasy confection of the popular imagination. The red pill is not for the fainthearted because it involves confronting painful, ugly reality rather than living the dream.

Let me give you an example of what taking the red pill entails. It’s a report from last year by the Boston Consulting Group showing that the amount of household, corporate and government debt which needs to be eliminated stands at $21 trillion. The cost of dealing with this “debt overhang” will entail the loss (ie confiscation by the government) of one third of the wealth of the asset-owning classes. Some time in the next few months, weeks or years, we’re all going to be taking a 30 per cent hair cut.

20 Jul 2012

How Viper Venom Works


Russell’s viper, Daboia russellii

Vipers kill their prey using hemotoxic venom, which essentially turns their victim’s blood into plastic. Solidified blood causes pain, massive swelling, paralysis, and necrosis in extremities, and when hemotoxic envenomation reaches the vital organs, death typically ensues.

This is what happens when a single drop of venom from a Russell’s viper (the deadliest Asiatic viper) is dropped into a petri dish of blood.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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