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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

November 25, 2010 - English language still declining

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to George Orwell's essay on "Politics and the English Language." (One version can be found here.) In it, Orwell, author of both "1984" and "Animal Farm," takes aim against what he calls "the decline of language." He provides many examples.

The essay was published in 1946. But its insights remain fresh. For instance, he writes, "In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing." Few who endured the recent election season would argue with that one.

He continued, "Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a 'party line.' Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style."

That's true, too. In print, as in conversation, when people start repeating themselves, it's because they have run out of anything new to say. They invest the cliché and its repetition with a belief in its wisdom. Such clichés are comforting to some, like the choral response of a prayer.

Under the section, "Meaningless Words," he writes, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Substitute "socialism" for "fascism," and it could be 2010.

Don't believe me? Next time somebody uses the term around you, ask him or her to define it. Then ask if professional fire departments fit the definition, and if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Orwell also quotes from my favorite Old Testament book, Ecclesiastes. "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Such strong, clear, wonderful writing!

Then he translates it into what passed for educated prose in 1946. "Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

That reminds me of my favorite sentence, whose mellifluous rhythms so enchanted me as a child that I memorized it: "Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care." Or as my mother put it, "brush your teeth and go to the dentist every six months, or your teeth will fall out."

It's fun to find bad examples of language. But Orwell offered some positive suggestions, too.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It's not bad advice ... for a socialist.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Monday, November 8, 2010

November 18, 2010 - learning to live in the cloud

I started using a Palm Pilot (as it was known back then) in July of 2000. It took another year to pick up a mobile phone. It wasn't until 2008 that I finally combined both into one device: a "smart phone" called the Palm Centro.

When you carry a gizmo around for 10 years, particularly one that uses the same basic software, you accumulate a lot of "data." In my case, beyond calendar and contact information, that meant newspaper columns, talks, essays, poetry, and journal entries. I used my Palm not only to organize my schedule, but also to think: to outline ideas, to record significant events that challenged or confirmed my beliefs.

But as my life and job have grown more complex, I find that my schedule doesn't really belong to me anymore. Having to "sync" my device with a variety of other computers got to be a tangle of cords, broken connectors, and mismatched calendars. Although the Palm Centro was great in many ways, it had a very poor web browser.

It was time to go to the cloud: syncing my data to the wireless Web.

It turned out that I was due for a new phone anyhow, so I just decided to take the plunge. I now possess (or am possessed by) the latest Palm Pre. (I almost went with an Android phone, and that would have been a good choice, too.)

The Pre is gorgeous, sleek and elegant. Years ago, I was a software reviewer, and have always paid close attention to the clarity and consistency of the user interface. The Pre is far more like the iPhone than the Palm Centro. That's not surprising, as former Apple executive, Jon Rubinstein, is said to have worked on the Pre.

I worked through the key issues in just a few days.

Step one: conversion. I needed to capture my over 1,000 contacts and many thousands of calendar entries. Palm provided a utility that did it in about half an hour. I also had to figure out how much of all that extra data really mattered. Answer: not much. But some of it did, and that was a little trickier.

Step two: learning curve. I poked around on the Pre itself, and watched some online videos. Finally, I checked out a "Complete Idiot's Guide" from the library, and paged through it a couple of nights. That was the right sequence for me: play, visuals, text. Bottom line: it took about four days to get remarkably comfortable with how the Pre operated.

Step three: rethinking my work flow. The Pre is Web-centric. I've had a Google account for a long time but didn't really use it much. So I had to spend some time understanding how Google Docs works, and getting more familiar with the calendar and contacts applications.

Step four: rethinking security. If I was going to be linking my life across various websites and services, I needed to be more thoughtful about passwords. I locked down the Pre itself, then adopted a new password scheme, based on a dynamic pattern rather than either a common password, or one so unique to each site that I had to write it down.

Step five: a moment of nostalgia. Really, would it be so bad to go back to the simple moleskin notepad? I fingered them avidly at Tattered Cover. Notebooks are cool. They never have to be recharged.

Step six: adjusting to life in a new world. I downloaded a few new apps (ebook reader, a more robust notes database, sudoku, an outliner). I'm finding that I like the Pre a lot. It's fun to learn new things.

For many, the smart phone is becoming both indispensable tool and window to the world. I'm looking forward to finding better ways to deliver library services in that environment.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Friday, November 5, 2010

November 11, 2010 - library takes community to the world

I've been spending a lot of time lately reading, thinking, and talking about the trends of ebook and self-publishing. Just this week, I got another example that also falls into the area of "local history."

Perry Park resident Pati Palumbo (who also happened to have taught my daughter years ago at the Academy Charter School) has recently published "Pathways of Perry Park: 1870-2010." Like the John Fielder work that inspired her, Palumbo started with historic photographs of frontier photographer William Henry Jackson. Jackson had taken a number of photographs of Perry Park in 1870. Palumbo found the same spots, and retook the photographs today.

The book contrasts the black and white photos on one side with extravagantly colorful modern pictures. Also included are other pages from the original book, which was apparently a kind of real estate brochure.

It's fascinating to see how place names change over the years. "Old Saguache" is now "Indian Head Rock." One meadow was once known as "The Vale of Cashmere." And this is a perfect time to interject some florid 1817 poetry by Thomas Moore.

Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,
With its Roses the brightest that earth ever gave.
Its temples, and grottos, and fountains as clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave!

And the wind, full of wantonness, woos like a lover
The young aspen trees till they tremble all over.

You just don't see a lot of poetry in today's real estate fliers.

These days, the Vale of Cashmere is known as the Big D. The "Washington Monument" is now "Sentinel Rock." "The Green and Silent Valley" is now a golf course. And one formation is now Dark Vader Rock.

Poetry gives ways to prose. But the magic of the "mystic valley" persists.

Palumbo created the book online at a place called Mixbook.com. This kind of one-off production might not have been picked up by a commercial publisher. But the ability to create the book herself (with a lot of help from family and friends) gave Palumbo a unique and deeply personal connection to it.

The original book was a gift from Mrs. Alda Pottenger, daughter of the Metlzer family that homesteaded Castle Rock. Her grandson, Chad Pottenger, married Palumbo's daughter Jeni. Chad and Jeni also assisted in the new book, mainly by finding the right shots.

The book is available for sale from www.pathwaysofperrypark.com.

What interests me about the book is not only its beauty, but that it illustrates a trend. In the 19th and 20th century, the job of the library was to bring the world to your community. But in the 21st century, the library is about taking your community to the world.

By collecting such works and making them available through our local catalog, we make it possible for people to learn more about Douglas County - somebody tracking the works of W. H. Jackson, for instance.

So we'll be adding the "Pathways of Perry Park" to our collection. It's worth a read.

P.S. I wanted to give a big shout out to Monique Sendze, the library's associate director of information technology. On November 1, 2010, she and her husband became American citizens. On November 2, she cast her vote, an act taken for granted by too many of us, but of great significance to her. Congratulations!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

November 4, 2010 - NPR firing lame

I listen to NPR, almost the only radio station I do listen to. I like it for several reasons.

* It covers international news. I find the British news shows particularly interesting. My daughter lived for a time in Germany, France, and Taiwan. Those places regularly get mentioned on NPR, not so much in most U.S. media.

* NPR covers science. "Science Friday" usually raises some topic that doesn't show up anywhere else. I think science is important.

* They do breaking and in-depth news. Often, I hear something on NPR several days before I see it in the paper. They also dig into a story, not just present a 30 second sound bite. I found their coverage from China - right after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - riveting.

* Some of its shows, "A Prairie Home Companion" and "This American Life" for instance, often make me laugh, or present music and perspectives I appreciate.

Last week, I discussed the problem of "accidental extremism" -- what happens when you pay attention only to one voice in the political spectrum. It's fair to wonder: do people who listen only to NPR run the same risks as people who watch only Fox News?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Fox may have gone to court to defend its right to distort the news (as I talked about last week). But this week, we have the far more recent case of NPR firing one of its distinguished "news analysts," Juan Williams.

Why? Because while appearing on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" on October 18, 2010, Williams said, "...when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Why was that a firing offense? According to NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts..."

Well, that seems pretty lame to me. Williams is a smart guy. His admission of discomfort at this moment in our history just makes him human.

Sure, "Muslim garb" can be tricky. Can you tell the difference between Afghani headgear and Sikh? I can't. But the comment reminded me of Jesse Jackson, who once reported that when he walked down an urban street at night, then was approached by strangers, he was sometimes relieved if they turned out to be white.

The issue here is lingering fear. Some of it may be statistical, or anecdotal, or even irrational. But all of us carry it around with us. Jesse Jackson wasn't arguing for racial profiling. Williams wasn't suggesting a new Crusade.

Firing Williams isn't censorship. NPR isn't the government. They can employ anyone they like. And in fact, Williams has apparently been offered a lucrative contract ($2 million over three years!) by Fox, who is delighted by the whole affair. Williams won't be injured by the deal.

The call from the conservative crowd immediately went up to end government funding for NPR. But that only accounts for about 2% of their budget. As any regular listener knows, most of the funding comes from irritating on air requests for pledges.

But they work. That means that the people who want it, pay for it. I do myself. At $15 a month, it's exactly three times what I pay for library services through my taxes.

If we're ending government funding for private concerns, does that include subsidies to oil companies, loggers, ranchers, and others? Which pot of money do you reckon is bigger?

Nonetheless, this flap does dent the credibility of NPR, at least in my eyes. It makes me pay a little more attention to them, to be a little more thoughtful, a little more critical, about what they tell me.

Ultimately, against accidental extremism, that's the only protection we have.

LaRue's Views are his own.