On breaking up big museum collections

This morning I read a fascinating item by Hrag Vartanian, at Al Jazeera America, titled “Break up the major museums to save them.” I encourage reading the whole thing, but very very briefly, he argues that the world’s mega museums are already absurdly big, and that rather than trying to make them bigger yet it’s time to disperse their holdings a bit.

I have a number of thoughts on this, the greatest number being a product of my upcoming book Cotton’s Library, much of which is about a great collection that eventually ended up at a mega-museum, after a long struggle to prevent its dispersal. Having chronicled this struggle, I’m sympathetic to arguments against dispersal… but it’s really a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, there’s a world of difference between the Cotton Library—even at its maximum extent—and the modern Louvre or British Museum or the Met. Arguing that one or two rooms’ worth of long-associated items should stay associated need not mean opposing the division of composite collections of millions of items.

What’s more, the story of the Cotton library actually touches on significant precedents for such division. Since the library arrived at the British Museum as a founding collection in the mid-18th century, the BM has spun off pieces of its collection twice. Its natural history collections departed by slow, slow stages to become the Natural History Museum; the Cotton library itself left the museum as part of the (sort of) more recent British Library. I certainly don’t regard the separate establishment of these institutions as losses.

Still, this isn’t entirely what Vartanian is getting at. In fact, he specifically eschews any advocacy for administrative division and instead emphasizes spreading around mega museums’ contents, not just to new buildings in the same city but much more broadly.

I largely support this suggestion, though it’s probably a bit of a tougher sell.

Read More →

Ferguson, hammers, and the NSA

There’s an old saying about how “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” I certainly believe there’s a lot of truth to this proposition. Recently, we’ve had a good (i.e. appalling) demonstration of it in Ferguson, Missouri: it sure seems like, on top of the multiple other problems at work, kitting out local police like shock troops encourages them to act like shock troops even when there’s no conceivable justification for behaving that way. (Which, for local police, is very nearly all the time.)

It occurs to me today that this is also a demonstration of why honest, ordinary citizens ought to be concerned about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and associated programs (arbitrary lists, death drones, “extrajudicial executions,” etc.). The belief that it’s okay because they’re on “our side” seems awfully naive when you consider the fact that we (or people supposedly representing us) have built a massive organization and continually given its employees more and more and more tools for

  1. invading privacy,
  2. finding ways to make it look like someone could be connected with terrorism, and
  3. essentially treating the entire population as suspected criminals everywhere we go, every moment of our lives.

When you and everyone around you are armed in this way, how is it likely to shape your whole concept of what you and your organization do? Particularly when your organization (like the Ferguson cops) has become detached from and even contemptuous of direction by the community you are allegedly “serving?”

Seems to me that when most of your tools are a tyrant’s, everything and everyone is going to start looking like a rebel (which, from a tyrant’s perspective, means “a terrorist”) to be suppressed.

This, I might add, is one of the (many) things that makes it difficult for me to see any potential for reasoned dialogue with contemporary American conservatism. Listen to the US right*, and “government health care is tyranny! Taxes are tyranny! Public transportation is tyranny!” Everything, seemingly, is tyranny except large standing armies and unaccountable, omnipresent secret surveillance.

This.doesn’t.make.sense. All powerful organizations pose risks, and need to be kept in check, but the hammer-nail effect suggests that some risks ought to be considerably more frightening than others. A health-care bureaucracy that gets high on its own powers might… what? Treat the sick and injured? Or just be really, egregiously bureaucratic perhaps. That’s frustrating, and again, all of these programs ought to have an informed citizenry and our representatives closely managing them. But these agencies decried by conservatives as “tyranny!” are usually okay with that at least in principle. In contrast to the NSA, whose unchecked powers pose a risk categorically more dangerous than do “non-defense” programs, and who nonetheless aggressively oppose the whole idea of outside oversight.

Conservatives love to say “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The metaphor fails in multiple ways. Additionally, though, there’s too little consideration of what happens when you teach a man to regard himself as an enforcer of vaguely defined “order” and everyone around him as potential threats thereto.

* There are exceptions, and bless them, but they aren’t a majority and aren’t setting their party’s agenda. Even with an opposition-party president whom they can seemingly oppose on anything else, whatever he does, a majority of congressional Republicans lined up to endorse leaving the military-surveillance complex unreformed.

Good things, August 2014

I had some tests done today. At the moment, the internet does not need my complete medical history, but I feel like noting that the whole process (though it is quite a process) went relatively well. And, all of the results were what one would hope they would be.

This has really been a good summer in fact, on a personal level. So I feel like briefly remarking on a few positive items from the past month or so (which has witnessed much that was negative, on a larger scale).

Lakewood has a nice farmer’s market every Saturday. I usually walk or bike up and buy some produce. A variety of other goods are also on offer, though, as is entertainment on may weekends.  A couple of times this summer, Diana Chittester has performed. I did not know who she was, but I liked her sound, and last Saturday I just sat listening for a while. Wonderful stage presence, even when the stage is a tiny temporary pavilion between the farmer’s market and Marc’s parking lot. I also bought her new CD, which along with all of the others she priced at “what you feel comfortable paying.” I see that it’s basically the same system online, too. Pretty cool.

I went up to Holden Arboretum for the first time a few weeks ago. That was lovely. Beautiful central area and ornamental gardens, plus some excellent hiking, at least for me. I hiked way back on the optional loop trails, and felt it for days afterward. (Fortunately I’ve at least done enough hiking that I knew to wear boots.) But it was wonderful, just getting away from everything into plain peaceful trees and nature.

A Twitter friend pointed me toward another list of archives that emphasize sharing their content to use, rather than hoarding it with copyright threats and usage tolls.

Warren Ellis has been updating a blog again. I’m not entirely sure why it’s here rather than at his main site, but whatever. I’ve been enjoying these little entries since the discovery. Meanwhile I created a favicon for my own site, here, a few days ago and its humorous homage still makes me smile.

Finally, the Opportunity rover set a new record last month. I can’t find where I saw it, now, but I recall someone making the observation around the same time that “Mars is now the only planet in our solar system populated entirely by active terrestrially manufactured robots” or something to that effect. That’s also pretty cool. Manned space flight is not really producing much excitement… but, it is possible to look on the bright side and recognize that some kind of colonization of Mars is under way.

Don’t cut back on “salt intake,” eliminate it

A few years ago, I wrote a pair of responses following a wave of online alarms about “salt intake.” In the first, my criticism was strictly linguistic. “Salt intake” is an awful, abominable phrase, and I had simply had enough of seeing it. Happily, the interweb’s obsession with this allegedly dire peril seems to have dropped away, but recently Sarah Kliff over at Vox provided it a bump. Ms. Kliff’s coverage of health care reform has been absolutely brilliant, these past years, and her look at the terrible menace of salt also achieves some admirable progress. I applaud her story’s headline, “we’re eating too much salt,” at least linguistically. You have to go four paragraphs in before any reference to “salt intake.”

That said, Kliff still resorts to this syntactical disgrace several times; once, in the alt-form of “sodium intake,” even in a subheading. Thus I shall continue my long-term archiving project by re-publishing the following, originally written in February 2010:

Read More →

Arriving this fall: Cotton’s Library

I have been thinking that I really ought to post something about my upcoming book, here, at some point. I already began building a mini-site a couple of weeks ago, but good form seems to call for some sort of formal announcement here on the main blog.

Front cover of Cotton's Library (links to minisite)So: I have written another book, and it will be available this fall as Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History. Very, very briefly, this is the story of a proto-national-library founded four centuries ago by Sir Robert Cotton, and its long, (sometimes absurdly) difficult journey from a DIY project to a world-class institution worthy of its contents. (You can read more here.) I am proud to add that, barring any surprise announcements in the next few months, this will be the first book-length examination of this important collection’s whole, incredible history, ever.

Today seemed like the right day to make this announcement, meanwhile, for two reasons.

One, the planned release date for Cotton’s Library is exactly three months from now, on November 17. Which date was long celebrated in England as (the Tudor) Queen Elizabeth’s Accession Day, and is therefore a particularly fitting date to remember Sir Robert Cotton and his library, both of them being products of the Elizabethan era.

Two, this morning brought the first outside reaction to the complete, relatively polished draft text… and it was very, very good. The reviewer is, admittedly, an old college friend, but it’s been around a decade since we’ve had much contact, and I don’t believe she would hesitate to share a negative opinion. I valued her judgment as both an avid reader and a librarian; today I got it. She made several small critical suggestions which I expect no difficulty in implementing in the weeks ahead. Overall, though, she “thought the writing in this book much stronger than Brilliant Deduction,” which fwiw wasn’t exactly a dud. She offered “thanks for the read,” noting that “I feel smarter now.”

This feels very encouraging. I’ve done my best to produce a good book, and haven’t necessarily been haunted by doubt. But I still feel a bit like Bryan Talbot in his behind-the-scenes vignette from Alice in Sunderland, after the spirit of Scott McCloud offers the nascent project a thumbs-up. “Yes! This can work!” It’s going to work!

Also, my friend confided that “I LOLed at some of the jokes. :)” and… well. Ahem. Good writing, advancing understanding and appreciation of some unsung heroes of history (maybe even making a buck or two?), all of this is very good. But, y’know. Really, there’s no overestimating the importance of teh lulz.

Transformers after three decades

A few weeks ago, the always observant xkcd introduced the instantly familiar concept of the “Timeghost.” These things have been haunting me for years, now, long before I had a name for them. I think the most consistently strange one year in and year out, so far, must however be Transformers: The Movie.

Get back to me in several more years, when Hill Valley of 2015 has also slid into the past, and it may have taken over. But at this point, the 20-years-from-now “two thousand fiiiiive” of my childhood has been behind me for most of a decade. As I probably watch this movie about once per year, I saw this weird reality creeping up even before that… and yet, viewing the movie again last night, I was still surprised by this most familiar Timeghost showing off a whole new trick. I’ve got to guestimate his age in TFTM, but it occurs to me that at this point, the Autobots’ boy sidekick Daniel Witwicky may very well be old enough to drink. Yeeesh. Pass that bottle over here Danny.

Meanwhile, this got me thinking yet again about how and why it is that at 36 years old, I’m still a fan of Transformers.

Section of Transformers toy catalog from 1985

I’ve go that guy in the upper-left, yes.

There are bigger fans out there, certainly. I haven’t bought a Transformer since the last century. But, I’ve been tempted, and I still have three or four of the things around here. I’ve got more than 100 Transformers comics, and those I occasionally still buy. I’ve got a Transformer web site bookmarked, and I still watch the flipping movie (which I must have seen two dozen times by now) once per year at least. At age 36. Can I account for this?

In one sense it isn’t difficult. The quick answer is “shameless, trashy nostalgia for happy associations with childhood” and that’s by no means wrong. If anyone has read this far but wants to bail out now, you won’t be missing any key points. That said, I feel like there has to be a bit more going on, if only to explain “why Transformers and why not other fascinations of my early life?”

Read More →

Toledo’s water crisis & climate change

Recently The Plain Dealer* published a letter that I sent them. It’s online, here; I’m not sure whether it was in the print edition or not. Meanwhile, in continuing the long-term project of making this site my personal archive, I’m posting the text of the letter below:

This past weekend delivered a valuable climate change lesson, for anyone willing to notice it.

Aside from being fed by climate change, the infection of Toledo’s water offers a microcosm of the entire problem. Our waters are treated like a sewer; so is our atmosphere. It’s nonetheless easy to ignore the problem for a long time; sure, that algae bloom looks nasty on satellite imagery but nothing suddenly appeared different the day that people started getting sick. Meanwhile, the sky still looks the same as we vent ever more heat-trapping gasses into it, and the option of listening to “skeptics” seems entirely valid.

Yet as we’ve just had a reminder, a day can arrive when the rubber meets the road, and even Kevin O’Brien** (probably) would have turned down the Kool-Aid if it were made with Toledo water. Now we have Senator Portman, e.g., suddenly declaring “I think this is a wake-up call.” Perhaps it would be better to pay attention to environmental safety ahead of time, though, rather than always sleeping in until the alarms are going off?

Footnotes, not included in the original letter:

* Or cleveland.com, or Northeast Ohio Media Group, or whatever they’re calling themselves today.

** AKA “Hell no I’m not going to subscribe, not even if it were a year for a penny; are you crazy?”

Review: “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde”

Note: From time to time, this site potentially constituting my personal record for ever after, I may corral a stray item from years past that merits some kind of lasting endorsement. The following book review suggests a good place to start; it may be one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. Goodreads (its second home) reports only six, as of this writing, but it seems like I get an e-mail notice that someone likes the review every other week… At all events, I do feel this was a good review of an excellent book, which I’m happy to recommend for a third time.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
by Jeff Guinn

An absolutely fantastic work, rich in absorbing detail.

I’m far from being an expert on Bonnie & Clyde, so I can’t evaluate this against any other works on the pair. But it certainly seems like Guinn did a lot of research, and used it to very good effect. Unsurprisingly, there’s no Hollywood glamour in the story; yet for a tale of two largely inept, ineffective small-time criminals, it’s a remarkably dramatic and even moving story.

Front cover of 'Go Down Together'The element of inevitable doom in Bonnie & Clyde’s tale probably contributes a lot to this, and while Guinn makes it a very real presence, he hardly had to invent it; throughout much of their brief criminal careers, B&C knew there was only one possible ending to their story, and were often completely frank and casual about it.

Perhaps the most effective and surprising ramification of this, though, is how Guinn convincingly calls into question just how much Barrow and Parker ever really had a better alternative. The story of their dead-end world in Dust-Bowl Texas, and particularly of the Barrows’ utterly dispiriting poverty, comes across as just unremittingly bleak. Unless the prospects for a young person in Depression-era Dallas slums were significantly brighter than Guinn’s account suggests, one has difficulty seeing any reason Bonnie & Clyde would have particularly preferred lives of impoverished drudgery to brief careers as famous criminals, even allowing for the deglamorized reality of the latter.

In all honesty, though written as a biography of two celebrated bandits, Go Down Together is one of the most effective works of social criticism I’ve read in a long while.

A political recap of the 21st century

I chanced upon a particularly interesting item, recently, by one Thomas E. Ricks, published at Politico. Entitled “Why Am I Moving Left?”, the author muses on how it should be that he finds himself “moving steadily leftward” in successful middle age.

It struck a chord with me because his eight-point summary of, one might say, “How I Learned to Start Worrying and Turn Leftist,” reads very much like a recap of my own political reevaluations since adolescence.

As recently as 15 years ago, I still considered myself more or less a conservative Republican. Today, I’m a self-employed professional and at least modestly successful. Yet I would have to say that I am very liberal by typical American standards, and about as likely to vote Republican as I am to get my eyeballs replaced with cherry tomatoes; how does this add up? Mostly, the things on Mr. Ricks’s list. More than a dozen years of basically constant spying, torture and murder by the military-surveillance complex, with little substantive dissent from elected officials of either major party, has been a disturbing but persuasive argument for its dismantling. Likewise the concentration of more and more money in fewer hands, and the growing corruption and arrogance of elites in business and politics alike.

All in all his list offers a close and eloquent summary of my own. I can’t say that gun violence would make my own personal list of warning signs; I absolutely support gun-control measures, but as a danger I think that being shot by an armed nut is (rather like that of terrorism) much exaggerated by emotional reactions relative to its real statistical threat. (I’m also skeptical of how much can be accomplished in a vast nation with about a zillion guns already in circulation and a large number of people fanatically devoted to keeping them.)

I would probably add one or two further reasons, meanwhile, in a list of my own.* Read More →

Lost and Found Files of Sherlock Holmes

I have been accumulating comic books for nigh on a quarter-century, at this point. Strangely, though, it occurs to me today that while I generally think of “my comic book collection,” it may be that I’ve never really approached its assembly as collecting, per se. I’ve rarely emphasized completion for its own sake, and I’ve also felt very little instinct to show off my holdings… It was this latter point that really got me thinking about what makes a collection vs not, because I’ve realized that by contrast I do like the idea of showing off my nascent Sherlock Holmes collection a bit.

Sherlock Holmes book and two video games

Items 39-41

I think this could well be a semi-regular topic for this blog, in fact. We’ll see. For now, my three most recent acquisitions.

Read More →