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The Slow Hunch (MLA12 Seattle: Plenary 2: McGovern Award Lecture by Steven Berlin Johnson)

After the president’s lecture (and a break) came the John P. McGovern Award lecture.  This was, I have to say, my favorite presentation at MLA12.  Steven Berlin Johnson is the author of popular science books aka science for the layman aka one of my favorite genres!  I was super-excited to get to hear him speak and honestly, his intelligence and wit are even more evident in person.  His books that were referenced in the lecture include: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  I now present to you my notes from his amazing lecture that I like to call “The Slow Hunch.”

The Eureka Moment Myth

  • Truly disruptive ideas do not have a eureka moment.  The eureka moment is a myth.  The best ideas almost always start as a hunch.
  • Oftentimes, the external conditions need time to catch up to the idea.
  • Darwin had the theory of evolution before he realized it.
  • Commonplace Book–collection of quotes that mean something to the owner.  They’d then reread them and out of this their own intellectual sensibility would take shape.

How Coffee Changed the World

  • What environments support collaboration and fluidity of ideas?  Liquid networks, such as libraries and coffee houses.
  • Almost every key breakthrough in the Enlightenment featured a coffee house.
  • It is no accident that as the population went from imbibing a depressant (alcohol) to a stimulant (coffee), the Enlightenment happened.
  • There is a lot of diversity of people in a coffee house.

The Evolution of Ideas

  • An idea is a network of other ideas brought together in a new configuration.
  • exaptation–some feature/trait/aptitude that evolves for a specific purpose but serendipitously turns out to be good for something else when the environment changes (wings for warmth work for flying)
  • Exaptation often happens when one industry takes something from another industry, adapts it, and uses it in their own. (Use of wine presses for printing)

The Key to Innovation

  • We will be smarter and better as a society if we surround ourselves with those who are different because it provides the opportunity for exaptation.
  • The more innovative group has connections to different careers than their own. (Don’t just be friends with librarians)
  • Make twitter your diverse coffeehouse.  If you just follow people just like you, you get an echo chamber.  Value diversity because of the openings it allows us.

Information Should Be Open

  • Value connecting information over protecting information.
  • 311 is a city concierge.  People can call and report problems and also ask for information from it.  Meanwhile, the city is gathering data from the citizens who call.  The city is sharing information but also is taking in information.  This democratizes and diversifies problem-solving.
  • Open information architecture rives innovation.
  • Chances favors the connector.

Q and A

  • Remind people that surprise and serendipity is happening with the new information tools.  It doesn’t just happen when browsing physical stacks.
  • Core ideas are ideas that were simultaneously and independently discovered within the course of two to three years.  This happens because of the adjacent possible.  The adjacent possible is possible moves you can make at that moment in time.  The possibilities are limited.  You couldn’t invent computer programming before computers.  Thus when something in the world changes, the adjacent possible changes, leading to core ideas.
  • Create a culture of amateur inventors and innovators (lay experts).
  • Release early, release often.
  • There is a non-linear relationship between population size and innovation (10x population size = 17x innovation).  The thing to remember in modern times, though, is that the internet is big-city-like.
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Anger Can Be Power (MLA12 Seattle: Plenary 1: President’s Address by Jerry Perry, AHIP)

Right after the new member’s breakfast was the first plenary session.  The president’s address.  I realized as soon as I saw him onstage that I had actually chatted with him at the new member’s breakfast.  He was so friendly and personable!  But he’s also intelligent and a game-changer.  I’m glad I got the chance to both meet him and listen to his speeches.  (Yes, speeches. The other was at the awards luncheon).  Perhaps what impressed me the most, though, was that Perry’s speech addressed a topic that was already on my radar.  Enough of my intro, though, here are my notes from the address.

  • Embrace a love of reinvention.
  • Create a legend around yourself.
  • Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
  • Love what you do.
  • We need to get angry at the hand-wringing that is going on within the profession.  We are in fact doing that great American thing of reinventing and staying current.  We know we are changing and staying current, so it is more than ok to have righteous indignation at “the end is nigh” talk.
  • Anger can be power, and you know you can use it.

How could I not love an MLA president who tells us it’s ok to have righteous anger? 🙂

Book Review: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Four sets of feet in a circle with the sky in the background.Summary:
On New Year’s Eve, four incredibly different strangers accidentally meet on Topper’s House a popular local spot for suicides.  Somehow running into each other leads to them taking the long way down that night instead of the quick one.  What happens after is a continuance of their life stories that no one could have predicted.

Review:
I distinctly remember that this book made it into my tbr pile because of the suicide theme.  What makes these four different people want to kill themselves, and what makes them not do it.  Clearly this is a book about depression and suicidality.  But it is not a depressing book. Not by far.

Without revealing too much, since the revelations are part of the fun of the read, I will just say that the four suicidal people span different generations, reasons, and nations of origin.  Different levels of conservatism and liberalism.  But what makes them come to understand each other is their universal depression and suicidal thoughts.  This fact that someone out there gets them….well oftentimes that can help get a profoundly depressed or mentally unwell person over the hump.  Feeling less alone.

Her past was in the past, but our past, I don’t know…Our past was still all over the place. We could see it every day when we woke up.  (page 253)

In spite of this being a book about depressed people bonding over their depression, it doesn’t read as such.  I was reading it on an airplane and found myself literally laughing out loud at sections.  Because these people are brilliant.  They have a great understanding of the world. Of art. Of relationships.  Even of themselves.

I had that terrible feeling you get when you realize that you’re stuck with who you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (page 208)

That is, after all, frequently what depression can be all about. A profoundly clear understanding of how royally fucked up you are or your life is.  What’s hard is seeing past that moment.  The book is kind of a snapshot of the process of them learning to do that.  And that’s what makes it so eloquent and poignant.  Nothing is done melodramatically. Things are just presented as they are.  Even down to the four being able to laugh together periodically (and make you laugh in the process).  Depression isn’t just oh everything sucks nonstop.  There are moments of laughter.  It’s just that those moments are outweighed by the weight of the depression.  Getting rid of that weight is a cleansing, uplifting process, and that’s how it feels to read this book.  You bond and you laugh and you maybe even cry (if you have more susceptible tear ducts than this reader).  And in the end you come to an understanding of that suicidal dark place without being abandoned in it.

Overall this book manages to eloquently present depression without being a depressing book.  It is compelling to any reader who has ever struggled with a depressed period of life.  Highly recommended to the depressed and the sympathetic.  Both will be left feeling lighter and less alone.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Librarianship Is About People (MLA12 Seattle: New Members Breakfast)

May 23, 2012 1 comment

My first real event at my first ever MLA conference was, appropriately enough, the New Members Breakfast, at the ungodly early hour of 7am. Thankfully I was still on East Coast time, so for me that was the much more sane 10am.

I want to share what I gleaned from that semi-formal meeting.  Maybe you’re a student who has yet to go to MLA or will be attending for the first time next year or maybe you’re just curious what they’re telling us new-folks nowadays.  In any case. Here are my notes from the breakfast.

The most important thing as a new member is to think about what you would like to get from MLA.  It’s here to help you in your profession, so think clearly about what it is that you want your career to look like.  Once you’ve figured this out, volunteer, accept committee appointments, get involved.

What’s the difference between a section and a SIG?

They’re both arranged around an interest, but sections are much more formal, they follow all the rules, and they ask for dues of $10 to $25.  SIGs (special interest groups) sit around and talk about the area of interest.  Their meetings are open to everyone.  This is the easiest way to get involved, plus they are free.

Colleague Connection is mentoring.  We’re probably too new to mentor ourselves, but you may want to sign up for a mentor.

Professional Recruitment and Retention Committee (PRRC) exists to get people to join the profession.  It also hosts and organizes the resume clinic.

Lucretia McClure closed out the breakfast.  She is evidently a legend in medical librarianship, although I didn’t know this at the time.  I certainly suspected it, since she is elderly and also has a real presence in the room.  Her speech was powerful and energizing.  I’ll do my best to summarize it next without bullet points, although of course Ms. McClure was far more eloquent than this.

Librarians must be better than ever.  We most know more and do things we never studied.  However, librarians’ edge is that we are people, not machines.  We are the most curious people in the world.  Remember as you attend this conference that the people around you are going to be your colleagues for the next two to three decades, and they want the same things you want.  Personal face to face communication is increasingly rare and special.  That’s what we get at MLA annual.  As you move forward in your career, get yourself prepared for changes and be willing to adapt or you will be unhappy.  A thinking librarian is the best resource in the library.

Remember one thing: People count.

Stay tuned for my notes from Plenary 1 (President’s Address).

Friday Fun! (Get Your Geek On)

Hello my lovely readers!

I have super-exciting news!  This weekend I’m attending my first ever work conference, specifically the Medical Library Association’s 2012 conference in Seattle.  This is going to be so many firsts for me!  My first business traveling, first stay at a 5 star hotel, first time outside of the airport in Seattle (or on the west coast period), and first time where I will be completely surrounded by other medical librarians. In other words, no one will be saying, “I’ve never heard of a medical librarian” or asking, “So what do you do all day?” I alas doubt I’ll have much time to see very much of Seattle, although I fully intend to hit up at least one, maybe two, of their famous veg-friendly restaurants.  I also will be flying a grand total of approximately twelve hours, so definitely expect to see an upswing in reviews around here when I get back. 😉  Thank goodness I invested in that kindle last year!

And yes I am sitting here getting excited about tons of things people outside of my field have never even heard of being discussed at the poster sessions and plenary sessions and sunrise meetings.  I mean, I did pick a career I *enjoy*, people.

Also, the hotel has a rocking gym I plan on utilizing, not to mention a bathtub which is always a luxury for me, the lady whose apartment only has a shower stall.  Plus the awesome host librarians organized a sunrise yoga session. Yes.

So it’s a big, exciting weekend with lots of air time (yes, it takes 6 hours to fly nonstop from Boston to Seattle), so I will be getting lots of reading done.

I hope you all have lovely weekends and cross your fingers for me that I won’t get lost in my smart-phoneless state!

Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

Review:
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin

Woman standing in waterSummary:
Warin, an anthropologist, takes an entirely new approach to anorexia, looking it from a purely cultural and anthropological perspective.  She spends a couple of years interviewing women with anorexia at various points in the life of the illness from early treatment to recovery to relapse.  In this way she analyzes not just the culture of women and men suffering from anorexia but also how anorexia is a response to the culture these people find themselves in.

Review:
This was my first read from the holdings of my new workplace.  The instant I saw the title and book cover, I knew I needed to read it.  The anthropology of anorexia? How fascinating!

It’s interesting that I feel I actually learned a bit more about anthropology than anorexia from this book, but perhaps that is because I am more familiar with the latter than the former.  From my work in psychiatry and as a mental illness advocate, I was already aware that people suffering from anorexia have their own culture.  I still highly valued seeing this presented in an academic fashion with a respect for the people involved.  I commend Warin for her ability to interact with these women and glean a sense of how they came to be who they are now with a respect for them as people that is all too rare to see in this type of work.

So what of the anthropology then?  What are abject relations?  Over the course of the book I learned that abject relations are ambiguous relations.

What is abject is in between, ambiguous, and composite. Abjection is thus contrary to dualist concepts because it undermines and threatens that which is separate. As such, abjection is fundamentally concerned with the complexities and contradictions of relatedness. (page 184)

Whereas most books about eating disorders attempt to say THIS definitively caused it, this book’s premise is that the etiology is entirely ambiguous.  What caused it, what makes it persist, what it is to suffer from anorexia.  Nothing about it is clear-cut.  That is the powerful statement of the book.  There are no easy answers to anorexia, but we can do much more to understand it both as its own culture and as an aspect of our own.

This focus on anorexia as a response to the mainstream culture and a formation of a new culture leads Warin to question a lot of the inpatient treatment techniques.   Warin sees anorexia as frequently about women attempting to assert a right to control over their own bodies that goes horribly awry, ripping the control out of society’s or tormentor’s hands, into their own, into ana’s hands, then into the hands of an authority figure again at treatment.  Warin sees value in helping people suffering from anorexia recover in the context of society.  Instead of feeding them alone in a single room have them cook and eat together in a group.  This reenforces the cultural and connecting aspect of eating that they have been denying for so long.

It is an interesting idea to look at anorexia as an abject cultural response, but I don’t think it’s one that is quite as unique or revolutionary as Warin seems to think.  Whereas there have always been those who think anorexia is the ultimate kowtowing to what society deems feminine, there have also been those who view it as women protecting themselves from being perceived as feminine, from having unwanted interactions with those who would objectify them.  Perhaps it is really both, which is what makes it so hard to treat.  I believe this is what Warin is trying to say, although she is often not as clear as she could be.  She gets caught up in academic jargon.  She is at her strongest when simply organizing her interactions with the women into themes and presenting them to the reader to do with what they will.

Overall, for an academic look at anorexia this is unique in that it is an anthropological study instead of a psychiatric one.  Looking at a group of people who are a group simply because they share the same illness and studying their anthropology is a truly fascinating concept.  The book is scientific, but it is social science and is thus easy enough for the mainstream reader to follow.  It provides the human aspect of anorexia without sensationalizing.  Anyone with an interest in eating disorders or anthropology will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Work Library

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