This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005 - Too Much Information is not enough

Back in my wanderin' days, I was hiking a federal trail outside Los Angeles. As I was walking along an arroyo -- a high ridge beside a dry stream bed -- I got a sudden urge.


I resisted. It was a hot, dry day. The stream bed was a good 8 feet down. The ground was rocky and uneven.


I felt distinctly uneasy.

I jumped.

And as I dropped, I heard a high whizzing sound, a WHING!

In moments I was on the bottom of the wash, looking up at a puff of dirt rising from where I'd stood.

I popped my head up over the ridge. This time I heard the bang, too.

Somebody was shooting at me. Somebody was trying to kill me.

For the next, tense 20 minutes or so, I worked my way around the hill the shots were coming from, dodging more shots, eventually slipping down the brush to safety.

I never liked L.A.

Where did the urge to "jump!" come from? Weird coincidence? ESP? Divine intervention?

Here's what I think. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I'd noticed something that didn't fit.

Probably, it was the glint of light on a gun barrel, high up in the dusty land. Somewhere, I registered that a man-made object was tracking me.

My unconscious mind decided that I was in danger, and it acted to save me.

And I'm grateful.

I remembered all this because of a book I'm reading called "Blink," by Malcolm Gladwell.

It's fascinating. There are numerous examples of people making instantaneous decisions that turn out to be right. There are art experts who glance at a scientifically tested "antique" sculpture, and immediately know it's a fake.

Elsewhere in the book, the author interviews psychologists who can predict within just a few minutes of watching them whether a couple will stay married. (What's the danger sign? When one spouse shows contempt for the other, however subtle.)

In yet another, students can watch a videoclip of a teacher -- with the sound turned off -- and again within a minute or two, say whether or not that teacher is any good.

Not all snap judgments are reliable. Plenty of research shows that sometimes a quick decision is informed more by prejudice than knowledge.

Sometimes, in a moment of great danger or stress, we seem to LOSE the ability to sum up a situation. The mechanism of "blink" judgments can be very effective -- but not necessarily so.

Here's another twist. Gladwell describes another situation in which doctors are fed more and more data about a patient. Then they get to change their earlier diagnoses.

What happens? The doctors' confidence in their judgment grows steadily. The accuracy of their diagnosis does not.

As a librarian, and as something of a technophile (my family has THREE networked home Internet stations) I am very much aware of the phenomenon best captured by the expression, "TMI!" Too much information.

We are the targets of ads, radio shows, TV, newspapers, Internet news feeds, cell phones, music, and even real live people, all clamoring for attention.

To make good decisions, we don't need MORE information. We need the RIGHT information.

Because you never know when you might have to move fast.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

September 15, 2005 - R-rated movies

When I was five or six years old, my dad took me to see "Gone with the Wind," a revival at the big downtown movie theater. Years later, I realized it was packed with all kinds of steamy stuff.

But here's what I remembered from my early exposure: there was a big fire.

I believe that regarding many complex issues, children see and understand only what they are ready for. That includes movies. It even includes R-rated movies.

The library doesn't own a tremendous number of such movies (and no X-rated ones, if you were wondering). We do have some unrated foreign films.

There are lots of misconceptions about movie ratings.

First, movie ratings are labels, created by the movie industry itself, to suggest what movie producers believe is the intended audience. These ratings do NOT have the force of law. Movie theaters and video stores enforce them (sort of) also voluntarily.

Second, ratings are not authoritative. Anonymous people make superficial judgments. We don't know who they are. Ratings are determined through a count of naughty words, or kind and type of sex scenes, or variety of violent acts.

But the final rating has nothing to do with the content, with what the movie is about. Sex, violence, and language can be gratuitous. Or it can be germane to the dramatic action of the movie.

The ratings don't cover any of that. They don't say anything about the quality of the film, either.

So, in our libraries, we have not restricted the checkout of R-rated movies.

Over the past 15 years, I have gotten four phone calls from parents upset that their children (typically in or near their teens) could check out such a movie.

I always ask them the same thing: "DID your child check out the movie?" "Did your child WATCH the movie?"

In two occasions, the parents said, "Certainly not!"

On the other two occasions, one child did check it out and watch it. He knew he wasn't supposed to, and he'd seen the film before. But his mom caught him with the library copy.

Most recently, another young man checked it out, but his mom intercepted it minutes later.

Frankly, I just don't see an epidemic of children watching an hour of complex and nuanced emotional content to catch the 30 second flash of nudity. Generally speaking, people are interested in movies that are actually targeted to their age group.

Incidentally, most children don't have to go to the library to get R-rated films. My family has several of them at home, as I suspect most homes do. Others have cable or satellite.

Of course, many minors do have lots of unsupervised moments in our society. Both parents work, or there may be only one parent in the picture. Or none.

The question then becomes, whose values are being enforced, and who does the enforcing?

I believe that the discussion about which movies are OK to watch at home, alone, should stay between parent and child. Not between library staff and child.

Parents have the right to set limits for their children -- but only for their own children.

I understand that some children violate their parents' trust. But I don't think that misbehavior is always the fault, or the responsibility, of the public library.

However, public institutions must also listen to the people they serve. Our policies are reviewed and adopted by our citizen Board of Trustees.

Do you think the library should enforce Hollywood ratings for your children? Or do you believe what your children do and view is your job, not the government's?

Either way, I'd like to know. If you respond, let me know if you have children, and how old they are.

I can be emailed at jlarue@jlarue.com. Or call 303-688-7656.

And keep it clean.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

September 8, 2005 - Heard Any Good Books Lately?

By Rochelle Logan

We've carried books in print, books on tape, books on CD, and now the latest innovation for libraries is the digital audio book that can be downloaded off the Internet. This type of book can be played on your computer or a portable audio device (PAD) sometimes called an MP3 player. On September 1, Douglas County Libraries began offering downloadable audio books from Recorded Books and netLibrary. Over 900 titles are available including such bestsellers as "1776" by David G. McCullough, "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" by Alexander McCall Smith, and "Hard Truth" by Nevada Barr. More titles are added every month.

Why are we offering this service now? More and more patrons are checking out our audio books on CD. They often have to wait on hold for the most popular titles. With the new downloadable service, an unlimited number of patrons can check out each title with no waiting. You "check out" (download) the book from netLibrary for 3 weeks and can renew one time. When the checkout period is up, the eAudiobook file becomes disabled on your computer or MP3 player. You don't have to remember to return the book to the library. If you are on a vacation or business trip, you don't have to worry about a book going overdue. Up to ten books can be downloaded on your account at a time.

How do you use this new service? Go to douglascountylibraries.org and click on the red audio book icon for instructions on how to get started. Find a step-by-step guide to downloading and information about compatible portable players. You can listen to eAudiobooks on a wide assortment of portable players. At this time, the Apple iPod does not support the wma files (Windows Media Audio) required for this product. Your portable player should also have a bookmarking function so when you turn off the player in the middle of a chapter, it will go back to the same spot rather than starting at the beginning of the book.

If you don't have a netLibrary account, you can set one up for free by going to the netLibrary site from the Douglas County Libraries homepage. Once your account is established, search for an eAudiobook by author, title, or keyword. Then listen to a preview of the book if you like before deciding to download. Once you have decided which book you want, click on download. You have two choices, to download in CD quality, which is a higher quality and is required if you are transferring to a portable player. Radio quality is faster for patrons with a dial up connection. Download "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" in CD quality on a cable modem in less than 10 minutes. A Tom Clancy would take about 20 minutes.

How does the library benefit from offering this service? Downloadable audio books require no processing, shelf space or keeping track of missing and damaged parts. Plus, we know we are offering a quality product when we selected Recorded Books and netLibrary. Our patrons tell us that Recorded Books has some of the best reader performers in the audio book business.

So, have you heard any good books lately?

Thursday, September 1, 2005

September 1, 2005 - islamic science

There is a certain kind of tree that is sometimes attacked by a nasty insect. When this happens, the tree sends out a powerful scent, very similar to a pheromone, that is attractive to another bug, the natural enemy of the first.

If you didn't have the proper instruments to detect all this, you might say, "The spirit of the tree called to the spirit of the savior insects."

And you would be right. While this is not exactly detailed, it is nonetheless accurate. It tells what happens, maybe even why. But it doesn't tell how.

How is pretty darn interesting.

This nicely captures the tension between science and religion. Science is all about how.

Which leads me to mention a book I found on our library shelves, and highly recommend. It's called "What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East," by Bernard Lewis.

Back during what the Christian world now calls "the Dark Ages," the Muslim civilization was in full flower. It had captured Jerusalem. It had, in fact, expanded as far west as Spain, where the "Moors" were singularly tolerant of a large Jewish population.

But more impressive than its military accomplishments was the Muslim world's fascination with science. Muslims were the pre-eminent mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, chemists, metallurgists, physicians, physicists and engineers of the age.

Muslims were poised, perhaps as early as a century before Columbus, to "discover" what would eventually be known as the Americas.

That didn't happen. What went wrong?

In brief, or so I understand Lewis' argument, Islamic leaders, combining both political and religious authority, decided that all this pursuit of knowledge was a great distraction from the purity of Islam.

No longer was science to be an act of reverence, a discovery of Allah's methods, a thrilling examination of an endlessly creative natural universe, the rapt and active witnessing of God in action.

It was a sin.

Flash forward a century, two, half a millennium, all the way to today. And what happened to the Muslim world?

According to Lewis, it declined, collapsing politically, devolving in tolerance, becoming increasingly insular and irrelevant in the realms of both science and commerce. Where once it was a beacon of light to a dark world, it now, too often, finds itself mired in tribal feudalism and violence.

Moreover, again according to Lewis, much of the Arab Muslim community feels a profound sense of humiliation, a sense of its own decline and cultural inferiority, a sense that history betrayed it.

This sociological and historical analysis says nothing, of course, about Mohammad and his teachings. But it might say quite a lot about that tension between religion and science.

Today, in our own times, in this very country, we are witnessing another swelling concentration of religious and political power. Are we, too, seeing a turning away from science, a rejection of modernity?

Consider the pronouncements from the occupant of the highest elected office in our nation concerning public education and "intelligent design." Consider the restrictions on research involving stem cells.

Then consider what history tells us about the suppression of science.

We can believe that science -- the attempt to comprehend how things work -- is itself a celebration of spirit.

Or we can believe it is the exercise of reason alone, steadily improving our lives, eliminating both disease and inconvenience.

Or we can believe that the trees are mute, that the locusts that come, or don't come, are God's incomprehensible will, and that it is best, as a faith, as a nation, as a people ... to diminish.