Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Answer: This is how Elizabeth spends her weekday afternoons.

For the first month or two I was back in the Chicago area, I kept forgetting to watch Jeopardy!, since it's on at 3:30 instead of later in the evening like most of the rest of the country. Now I remember, and I've been watching every day for the past couple of weeks. I saw the end of the Tournament of Champions, the Teen Tournament, and right now, the College Championship.

I love Jeopardy. I really do. It takes me back to the glory days of my high school academic team, which was a really good time. I know it has its flaws. The judging of close-but-not-right answers is pretty uneven. The judges wouldn't accept "Memories" for "Memory," but allowed someone to pronounce "Colbert" in an Anglicized way. Its biggest flaw, as far as I'm concerned, is the "chat" section between Alex Trebek and the contestants. I usually mute this because I think it's just embarrassing for everyone.

The younger contestants seem to enjoy this part a lot more, which can make me either cringe more than at the older contestants, or endear them to me. There was one kid in the Teen Tournament that I particularly liked, because he was sort of gently making fun of the cheesiness of the whole thing - making an overly enthusiastic face for the camera, poking fun at Alex's puns. He was still into the competition, though, and he was really mad at himself when he wagered all his money on a Daily Double and lost it. (The question was about which Czech playwright later became prime minister - which was a staple in the Jefferson County Public Schools academic competition question sets.)

It also amazes me what some of the contestants can't answer. During the Tournament of Champions, no one could identify what band made the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The college champions were unable to name the director of Sicko, or fill in the blank in the following lyrics: "____ singing in the dead of night." I am terrible with pop culture references, but even I know those.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Authority control

It's been a while since I got all library-geek in here, probably because I'm neither in school anymore nor working at a library (still) (yet). Two little news items caught my eye recently, though, about the automated matching of terms on the Internet. The first is from Steve Johnson's August 13 column "Hypertext" in the Chicago Tribune:

From the People Are Still Smarter Than Computers Department: After the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia last week, the Valleywag blog captured Google News displaying alongside its story on the attack a Google Maps image of Savannah and environs. Does that mean they'd also have the details on Gen. Sherman's march to the Black Sea?

The second is from the BBC's website; it's a much longer article, so I'll just post the link - but the city council of Birmingham in England printed up a bunch of leaflets about recycling, and the picture of the city skyline on them was of Birmingham, Alabama. I don't know how the city council got the photo, but I imagine it had something to do with an Internet search that couldn't differentiate the two Birminghams.

For those of you who know this already, sorry to come off condescending, but librarians call this kind of differentiation authority control. You see it in the Library of Congress subject headings all the time - it tells you if a book is by this John Smith or that John Smith, or if the word "records" refers to LPs, archives, or electronic catalog records. The only way to get authority control in a vast amount of information seems to be to have humans do it - so far, anyway. I did read an article in cataloging class about assigning algorithms that would say, okay, when "apple" is near computer words, it's probably talking about Apple computers, and when it's near words about food or farming, it's talking about the fruit. That's certainly not foolproof, but on the other hand, no one's going to index the Internet. Librarians have definitely tried.

This could get very metaphysical, obviously. The meanings of words are personal, and political, and obviously up for debate. And no system is going to be able to control for metaphorical and other creative uses of words - what would that algorithm do with "apple of my eye?" I can't decide if this whole thing gives me hope that humans do a superior job of organizing information and people will recognize this, or if people will just be content with incorrect and incomplete information. Something tells me the latter is probably more likely.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The sands of convention

Earlier this week, I finished The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. And just to preface: I recognize that this book has been written about, a lot, by people much more intelligent and well-read than I, but I just thought I'd record my thoughts. This has been a summer of trying to fill in fundamental gaps in my reading, books that are foundations or landmarks or classics. The Well of Loneliness is a dubious sort of classic, I guess. It's one of those books that is remembered much more for its social impact than its artistic quality...which in this case I'd have to say is sort of justified. The writing is sentimental and melodramatic, and you can see the next event in the plot coming from a mile away. But the whole thing is just so earnest. As is made clear by events in the book, the issues she writes about are a matter of life and death to some, and of happiness and unhappiness at the very least.

And okay, I have to admit, a lot of the information I got about the book's publication history and its place in the gay canon came from its Wikipedia article. But the ciations are very good. The general consensus seems to be that the novel was groundbreaking, that those who publicly condemned it ended up only raising awareness of homosexuality - that at one point in time it was many young women's only accessible representation of lesbians. I'm sure that many people in 2008 find its various stances antiquated and harmful to understanding and civil rights. While Hall is insistent that "inversion" is part of nature and not chosen behavior (which I guess was part of what scandalized people), she also has this prescriptive "good gay" attitude that "inverts" should be model citizens to show the rest of the world that homosexuality isn't just one symptom of inherent weakness of character. Puddle, the main character Stephen's governess and a major closet case, imagines telling her:

“…you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet – you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself….above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind.” (173)

There is also, however, a repeated anger at the world's hypocrisy that could very well have been written today:

“Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its mighty self-satisfaction, with its smug rules of conduct…They sinned grossly; even vilely at times, like lustful beasts – but yet they were normal! And the vilest of them could point a finger of scorn at her, and be loudly applauded.” (289)

Then there's this sentence, which jumped out at me from the long descriptions of nature and the symbolism that tends to sledgehammer you over the head:

“Outrageous…that wilfully selfish tyranny of silence evolved by a crafty old ostrich of a world for its own well-being and comfort. The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth.” (135)

This thought doesn't just apply to homosexuality, of course. I've been thinking a lot lately about conventions and how much people buy into them. I think it is getting better in a lot of ways. But a lot of people still have nostalgia for a simpler time that never actually existed. I'm reminded of a visit to the Susan B. Anthony house when I was thirteen or fourteen, and someone with me said, "They never mentioned her husband." I said, "Um...she was a lesbian." She said, "Elizabeth, they didn't have lesbians back then."

I guess I'll end there. I really have a lot more to say on the subject, but other people have said it way better than I would, and have actually done their research. So you get that muddled quasi-essay, and maybe I'll write again soon about Jeopardy or the book I'm reading now, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, which is, in tone, the polar opposite of The Well of Loneliness.

All quotations from Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness. New York: Sun Dial Press, 1928.