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, April 29, 2010

April 29, 2010 - railroad

[This week's column is a true story, in his own words, by one Francois Pretorius. My thanks to library Delta County Libraries District Director Annette Choszczyk for passing it along.]

The North American Freight Railroads operate 90,000 miles of track 24 hours a day. On some of the busiest lines, such as Chicago to Los Angeles, and many other sections, trains are scheduled every 10 minutes under the watchful eyes of dispatchers far away in Omaha, Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Atlanta, Edmonton and Calgary. Observing the progress of the trains on their arrays of LCD screens, these dispatchers issue instructions to move switches, clear signals, and schedule time for the maintenance gangs to fix and grease and grind and level the track as needed. The operation is not as glamorous as the air traffic control system, but is every bit as complicated.

Tying all of this together is a communications network comprised of fiber-optic lines, radio base stations on mountain tops, copper wire strung on poles along the track, cell phone modems, satellite links and phone lines. Railroads have been operating for 150 years or so, and have seen every bit of new technology deployed. This mix of old and new is looked after by the back-office technicians, who co-ordinate the efforts of armies of maintenance personnel out in the field. If something breaks, a maintenance truck rolls, sometimes for a few hundred miles, and rain or snow, 24 hours a day, it gets fixed.

The trains have to keep running. Stopping a train can cost as much as $250,000.00 per hour, and can back up traffic for hundreds of miles, affecting dozens and dozens of other trains. If the communication circuits go down, the dispatchers can not issue instructions to clear signals, and things grind to a halt. If the problem can not be diagnosed within a few minutes, further experts are called out of their beds, and if they are stumped, the phones start ringing for the engineers that built the system originally, regardless of where they are or what they are doing. Nothing is more important than keeping those wheels turning.
I am one of those engineers, and I operate my business out of a little town in Paonia, Colorado. I get paid to answer the phone 24 x 7 x 365, and when it rings, it normally spells trouble, since by that time all the usual things have been tried, and train stoppages are snowballing on each tick of the clock. Very stressed people on the other side of the call are only interested in "what is wrong, and how do we fix it."

Thanks to the magic of the modern Internet, I am then able to remotely connect to computers far away, and assist in the troubleshooting. To ensure that I can be effective, I have two land line phones, an Internet voice phone, two cell phones from different providers, dial-up internet connections, and a DSL Internet connection.
Until the day the road construction people cut the fiber-optic cable between Delta and Paonia. I was in the middle of working with some of my customers to upgrade their system, when I lost voice and data communications with the outside world, and the town of Paonia and I learned with a shock that the cell-phone towers for both providers, the Internet circuits, and the phone lines all ran through the very same fiber-optic link. So much for connection diversity!

We could make local phone calls in town, and to the nearby town of Hotchkiss, but other than that, we were cut off from the outside world. I had a crisis on my hands, since we were in the middle of the upgrade process, and without my help, the railroad personnel could not go forward, and could not go back. A lot of trains were going to be stopped.

I started calling around town to see if anyone had a satellite internet connection, but no one did, and time was running out. Someone suggested I try the Hotchkiss Library, since they had a radio internet provider and may be ok.
Success! With my laptop under my arm, I walked into the Hotchkiss library, explained my predicament, and was given a table in the corner where I could set up camp. Within a few minutes I was back in contact with my customers, and we finished the upgrade in time to prevent any train delays. 

One library saved the day!

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22, 2010 - music options

As a teenager, I listened to music in one of three ways: on my transistor radio (portable), on the radio in my room (a dedicated device plugged into the wall), or on the stereo.

For the stereo, I bought a few albums, but like most teenagers mostly I bought, and listened to, 45s.

45s had two songs, one on each side. The "A" side was the song that got radio play. But the "B" side was where things got interesting. It was where artists got to put up something a little different. So if Aretha Franklin had "Respect" on one side, she had "Ain't No Way" on the other. "Respect" ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me") was pop; "Ain't No Way" was the deepest soul music, the intersection of gospel and blues. The "A" side is what you paid for; the "B" side grew your musical tastes.

For today's teenager, even the music CD is passé. I'm having trouble finding anyone under 30 who has bought one in the past six months. When they pay for it at all, they buy individual pieces of music from iTunes.

In short, it hasn't taken long for music to undergo profound changes in format. The question for libraries is: how do we leverage the cooperative purchasing power of your tax investment to give you the broadest possible access to commercial music?

Our current main strategy is still the purchase of CDs. As I've noted in previous columns, I suspect there's a brisk business in the theft of intellectual property going on. That is, some people check out the CD, rip all the songs to their computers, and bring the CD back. This practice is not the library's intention. But I really don't have a good way to stop it.

We're investigating two other options that might be not only a better answer to copyright issues, but also a better fit to the times.

In Douglas County, people spend a lot of time in front of their computers. So point your browser to our website - DouglasCountyLibraries.org. Click on the icon near the top left of the screen - "eMedia to Go." Then scroll down the page to "Alexander Street Press." Explore.

What you get is a remarkable collection of music that streams to your PC. (There's more cool stuff, too.)

From the library side, what I like about this is that the music takes up no shelf space. It can't be stolen or damaged. We don't have to reshelve it. There are no calculations of fines or fees for late or lost materials.

Shortly, we'll be rolling out another service. Called "Freegal," it's an intriguing idea brokered by Sony. In brief, Sony bought the copyrights of over half a million songs, which it sells to libraries, then to library patrons, at a base charge (to the library) of $1.29 each.

There are two unique features: first, the library can "throttle" the downloads to limit a patron to, for instance, five downloads a week. This way, the annual subscription (about $19,000) lasts for a whole year. Freegal provides detailed reports about how much use the service gets, how many individual patrons there were, what kinds of music are chosen, etc.

The kicker is this: the patron gets to keep the song. It’s a legal download of music that never has to be returned.

Both of these solutions are, in some respects, improvements to our current offerings. They're not perfect. The content - individual song titles, for instance - aren't integrated into our catalog. That means you have to do multiple searches to find something.

I worry that the fragmentation of intellectual content among multiple vendors makes for many rich offerings, but ultimately, a confusing library experience.

Ultimately, though, I think of it like this. The "A" side of libraries is that we're doing a good job of keeping up with the wild changes in music formats. The "B" side is that there's a lot of interesting work still to be done to bring it all together.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010 - Taipei Public Library

[This week's column is by my daughter, Madeleine LaRue, currently teaching English in Taipei City, Taiwan. She is the child of two librarians, and as you can see, this has left its mark.]

The Taipei public library, by Madeleine LaRue

About a year and a half ago I read an essay by George Orwell called “Books vs. Cigarettes,” in which he defends of his habit of buying books by systematically proving that it is not, in fact, as expensive as other hobbies, such as smoking. I don’t smoke, and thank God, because I, like Orwell, already spend the majority of my paycheck on books. Since moving to Taiwan this has become problematic: all English-language books here are imported, and therefore astronomically expensive.

After a month or so in the country — by which time I had finished the books I’d brought with me from home and determined that the books at school, full of sentences like “Biff cannot open the door. She is angry!” would not quite satisfy my intellectual appetite — I began to worry. And then, luckily, blissfully, and with the help of a friend of mine, I discovered the Taipei Public Library.

The library has eleven floors and five or six elevators, none of which actually go anywhere. The foreign language collection is housed on the fourth floor — an ironic fact, since in Chinese culture the number four (and by extension the fourth floor) is unlucky. The collection consists mainly of English books, though occasionally a French, German, or Russian volume will crop up.

Like the libraries in the stories of Borges, the Taipei central branch has its own order of things, which is utterly incomprehensible to mortals. There are mysterious and delightful labels in the non-fiction section such as “Institutions Governing the Relation of the Sexes” (which turns out to contain books on wedding planning and marriage counseling) and “Breakfast Foods and Animal Husbandry.”

The section labeled “American Literature” is the largest, made up of British authors and Danielle Steele. Alphabetical order is nonexistent; the Dewey Decimal System is unheard of; books are classified according to the order in which your eyes find them. For this reason you cannot browse with intention; you can only wander and wait to stumble across an unobtrusive treasure.

The first thing I found was "The Complete Poems of Cavafy," which I have since renewed twice and will probably refuse to give back at all; the second was "Mrs Dalloway," which both prompted and resolved an existential crisis in me. The library’s collection of translated Chinese, Japanese, and Korean classical literature is impressive, and I have my eye on some Japanese fairy tales, including the very poetically-titled "Story of the Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower."

In order to avoid the spurious elevators, I take the stairs between the first and fourth floors. One wall of the stairwell is glass, and looks out on to Taipei’s vast central green space, Daan Park. Another wall is decorated with posters, which are in Chinese except for the cheery yellow order, “Have a question? ASK A LIBRARIAN!” In the stairwell I often encounter other foreigners. We rarely speak, but we often exchange little embarrassed nods and guilty smiles. We are here ostensibly for the same reason — to indulge our addiction for books while ensuring that our paychecks remain firmly in our bank accounts.

And that’s what I’d tell everyone, Orwell included, but the truth is: I love the Taipei library for reasons that have nothing to do with money. I love it for its randomness and its good intentions, for its eager offering of calculus textbooks and outdated travel guides, and for its unintentional arrangement of itself into a microcosm of my experience in Taiwan. In the library, familiar things seem slightly foreign and surprising; yet at the same time, that foreignness suddenly reminds me incontestably of home.

LaRue's Views.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April 8, 2010 - zombies

I have zombies on the brain. I am not alone.

What got my attention was "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," by Seth Grahame-Smith. (This incorporates the full text of Jane Austen's novel with a whole lot of zombie issues.)

Then I saw Will Smith in "I am Legend" (which I actually remembered as a science fiction novel, published the year I was born). I also noticed "The zombie survival guide: complete protection from the living dead," by Max Brooks. And of course, "Zombieland," featuring Woody Harrelson, "Resident Evil," and even video games like "Left 4 Dead."

Here's my thesis: trends say something important about the times.

Now let me say right up front that I get the current interest in another, more fantastic creature: the vampire. Vampires are sexy. They are strong, fast, beautiful, even glamorous.

They are also predators. They seek your bodily fluids. They exude conflict and danger and intimacy. Thus, they are exciting and appealing.

But no one ever says, "Whoah. That zombie is hot!"

On the other hand, not only are zombies all over today's books, and movies, and music (ever since "Thriller," now reputed to be in the works as a Broadway musical) but there's the interesting phenomenon of the "Zombie walk."

Imagine that you wander downtown one day to see maybe 50 people shambling in that arms-out, lurching manner, their faces made-up to show ghastly decay. They surround a laughing bystander, who disappears in their midst. Suddenly, they pull back, and now the victim is like them, made-up, shuffling forward, calling for "Brains!"

This kind of street art, a so-called "flash mob" (a bunch of folks gathered spontaneously for extremely silly purposes) seems to have started in 2001, in Sacramento, California. Since then, it has spread to other English-speaking countries: Canada, Australia, the UK.

The Guinness Book of World Records is tracking zombie walks now. The verified record is 4,026 participants. But crowds of twice that size have been claimed.

So what is going on with zombies? They made their appearance in novels and movies back in the fifties. They're back. People are hooked on them. Why?

I have asked some of the smartest people I know about this important issue. Here are a few of their ideas:

* we're media zombies. We hang out in front of the TV. We are too wired into the Internet. We stare at the screen, passive, stunned and stupid.

* we need safe targets for our aggression. I mean, they're already dead. And they're trying to eat your brains. Grab your chainsaws and shotguns!

* we fear that we are ourselves becoming zombies. Day after day, we are less and less alive. We don't pay attention. We are too slow, too dumb, too physically awkward. In our jobs, in our relationships, we may as well be dead. Yet, we move.

* we're scared, period. There was a surge of zombie literature and art, at least in America, after 9/11. We could, at any moment, suddenly find ourselves the victims of incomprehensible events, larger than us, reducing us to mere shadows of ourselves.

* we're surrounded by the walking dead. In some sense, the zombie scenario is about being overwhelmed by others, by the mindless viciousness of the crowd. The individual lost in the mob.

* we have lost our faith in all human institutions. Maybe that's a twist on "we're surrounded by the walking dead." But a lot of zombie movies feature the total breakdown of society. It's Armageddon, the end times, the collapse of culture into chaos. It's the main message of Fox news.

So take your pick. Zombies might be mindless entertainment. Or they might be the symbol for just what ails our culture.

It's worth thinking about. While you still can.


LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 1, 2010 - long term thinking in short supply

Last week, I wrote about my new hero, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Fed. A quietly brilliant economics professor, Bernanke's research focused on the history of the Great Depression. Following a crash precipitated by wild speculation, Bernanke came to believe that the business people and government of the time (the 1930s) did almost everything wrong.

What should have happened, he believed, was that more money needed to be pushed into the system, keeping people employed and products flowing. Instead, banks tightened up, the Federal Reserve of the time kept interest rates high (to avoid the non-existent problem of inflation), and the result was a decade of joblessness and abject poverty.

What are the odds that a scholar of that period should happen to preside over the Fed when history's dice rolled up precisely the same numbers? And have the courage to meet the challenge?

We got lucky.

So Bernanke applied what he'd learned. Interest rates dropped to almost zero. What is now called "the great bail-out" kept afloat a financial system whose collapse would almost certainly have led to Depression.

Since then, I've talked to a lot of people who still resent the bail-out. It didn't help when businesses offered multi-million dollar bonuses to the same people who got us into the mess. But let's be clear: the alternative was Depression.

Bernanke now warns us that one of the big problems we face is businesses too large to fail. Their sheer size, the interconnectedness of commerce across the globe, means that one collapse triggers others. That's sage advice. Fixing it will be complicated.

Now all of this leads me to my second point. It came up when I was talking over lunch about Tom Brokaw's profiles of, first, the "Greatest Generation," and second, the Baby Boomers.

After a lot of consideration, Brokaw labeled the Boomers "Unrealized." Their big dreams didn't come true.

Speaking as a Boomer myself, I would have used a different label. I would call us the Self-Centered Generation. And it speaks directly to the whole issue of today's profoundly anti-government rhetoric, now so common that it passes for truth.

The Greatest Generation, revered because they are mostly gone, were institution builders. They presided over the military, government, and big business. They applied collaborative intelligence to solve big problems.

The Boomers, by contrast, were and are institution destroyers. We can't collaborate to save our souls -- indeed, saving souls is just another example of how we tear institutions down (see the decline of mainstream churches, and the rise and likely fall of mega churches).

I sometimes believe that the anger of Tea Party activists comes down to precisely this. Just as Boomers were back in the 60s, we're by God angry at the Establishment. The problem is, now it's our establishment.

We're the ones running everything. With all the power in the world over the past decade, we proved incapable of maintaining either peace or prosperity. That starts to look like incompetence. It's enough to make you angry.

And the inhumanly ugly faces and voices of adults shouting at each other resembles nothing so much as the tantrum of a 2 year old who wants what he wants right now, even if it isn't possible. Especially then.

The enemy is not business, not government. The enemy is our startling inability, both as a generation, and as humans, to build and sustain institutions, either business or government, whose work we can respect.

But just as we need business to ensure quality of life, and the joy of productivity, we also need government to build the infrastructure -- physical, intellectual, and regulatory -- in which business can thrive.

We need long term thinking and it's in short supply.

So here's my big point: Institutions are necessary, both public and private. They are also interdependent. Let's hope that by and by a "greater" generation comes along again to show us how to run them.

Meanwhile, thank God for Ben Bernanke, a man who understood the value of his institution, and did the job it was made to do.

LaRue's Views are his own.