Miskatonic University Press

Laptop stickers

code4lib libraries privacy york

Today I finished wiping the hard drive on my old work laptop (by booting Ubuntu from a USB stick and running shred --verbose --iterations=25 --zero /dev/sda for complete and utter bit destruction) and handed it back in to library IT. Here are the stickers on the old one:

Old laptop.
Old laptop.

And I’m off to a good start with the new one, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, Tor and Zotero: four important allies in the modern library.

New laptop.
New laptop.

There’s a tiny Tor sticker over the webcam, too.

Emacs in Conforguration


On top of Ruby I now have Emacs itself set up in Conforguration. On a new bare machine I can git clone two GitHub repositories, run some scripts, and after a lot of compiling my entire Emacs setup will be ready and waiting. (Note: works on Ubuntu, and probably other Debian-based systems but I don’t know for sure.)

sudo apt-get install git
git clone git@github.com:wdenton/.emacs.d.git
mkdir -p src
cd src
git clone git@github.com:wdenton/conforguration.git
cd conforguration/dotfiles
source ~/.bashrc
cd ../scripts

Then running emacs will download and install a couple of dozen packages. When that’s done you’ll see exactly what my Emacs is like. If you don’t want to go that far, skip the .emacs.d repository download, but make sure your PATH is set up to point to Emacs in the right place under /usr/local/src/.

Once Emacs is installed you can run the Conforguration scripts inside it, but it’s nice they also work outside, for those scary early minutes on a new machine when Emacs is not installed.


mathematics quotes theatre

From Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, first performed in 1958:

Goldberg: Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

Stanley: Neither.

Goldberg: Wrong! Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

Stanley: Both.

Goldberg: Wrong! It’s necessary but not possible.

Stanley: Both.

Goldberg: Wrong! Why do you think the number 846 is necessarily possible?

Stanley: Must be.

Goldberg: Wrong! It’s only necessarily necessary! We admit possibility only after we grant necessity. It is possible because necessary but by no means necessary through possibility. The possibility can only be assumed after the proof of necessity.

McCann: Right!

An ominous, ominous play. If you read this in the next two weeks, listen to the BBC Radio 3 dramatization while you can.

Petey (broken): Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!

Ruby in Conforguration


I got a new laptop at work, and while configuring it I’m updating Conforguration with some things I did. First up: scripts to install Ruby with rbenv. (I’m switching to it from RVM because RVM was getting on my nerves a bit, and rbenv is the standard at work.)

It needs a tweak so it’s not so brute force, but it works.

Let's Not Talk of Love and

quotes music

Today I noticed a lyrical connection between Leonard Cohen and Hawkwind.

From Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (1967):

But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie

Your eyes are soft with sorrow

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

From Hawkwind’s “Urban Guerrilla” (1973), written by Robert Calvert:

So let’s not talk of love and flowers and things that don’t explode

We’ve used up all our magic powers

Trying to do it in the road

Anthropocene librarianship comes in many forms. One is the making of art.

climate.change york sonification talks

“All of human existence has been in just a few piano keys above middle C.”

This is the text (with slides) of a talk I gave today at Everything Under the Sun: York’s Engagement in Vital Environment and Climate Change Issues, a cross-disciplinary symposium at York University: “Anthropocene Librarianship Comes in Many Forms. One is the Making of Art.” It was a really interesting day and it was wonderful to see all the different approaches and methods and disciplines fitting together. My talk was about GHG.EARTH and a powerful metaphorical implication of the sonification.

(Note 1: Thanks to my fellow librarian Tim Knight for playing the piano at the actual talk. The synth sounds here are paltry substitutes. This was my first talk to have a pianist accompanying me, but not the last.)

(Note 2: The CO₂ reading today was 404.70 ppm.)

Here is the recording of the talk, but be warned, it’s pretty poor because the air conditioner made a lot of noise.

Slide 01.
Slide 01.


I’m Bill Denton, the scholarly analytics librarian in York University Libraries. I’m not a climate scientist, but I came up with a term to help me focus my thoughts on what librarians can do about climate change: anthropocene librarianship.

Anthropocene Librarianship

Slide 02.
Slide 02.

“The active response librarians make to the causes and effects of climate change so severe humans are creating a new geological epoch.”

The new epoch (that’s a technical term) is the Anthropocene. The details of formally declaring it haven’t happened yet but are underway at the International Geological Congress. The idea is that since 1950 or so we have had such an impact on the Earth that millions of years from now geologists will be able to look at sedimentary rocks and ice cores and say, “Aha, something big happened here.” There will be a different markers, like plastics and radioactive fallout, but most importantly for us, an unprecedented rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The changes that we have made to the Earth will be visible forever.

Comes in Many Forms

Anthropocene librarianship comes in many forms.

  • Building collections.
  • Preservation, in all forms and carriers: knowledge, culture, data, code.
  • Sustainability: of buildings, practices, processes and platforms
  • Preparation: for droughts, storms, floods, heat waves, higher sea levels, climate migrations, conflict.
  • Disaster response: providing reference services; providing telephone and internet access; lending technology; supporting crisis mapping.
  • Climate migrations: providing services for incoming migrants; preserving what they leave behind.
  • Communities: hosting special shelter in cool air during heat waves, as the Toronto Public Library does.
  • Advocacy.
  • Information literacy and climate literacy: about the science and how is done; about the politics and how it is made; using climate change as an example subject in instruction (in science, health, business, law, engineering, social sciences, practically everywhere on campus, it works as a good example to use when talking about research methods).
  • Research.
  • Free and open: access, data, software, research; all work available under the best free license (e.g. Creative Commons, GPL).
  • Social justice.
  • Values we share with others, about preservation, conservation, stewardship and long time frames.

And finally one of those forms is the making of art. Because making art is important in all parts of life.


Slide 03.
Slide 03.

I’m going to talk about GHG.EARTH. That’s the name of the work and it’s also a domain name—if you go ghg.earth in your browser, it will work (use Firefox or Chrome). GHG is for “greenhouse gases,” and EARTH is for “earth.”

“Play the tone (Hz) equal to the atmospheric CO₂ concentration (ppm).”

This is a musical composition, and that is the score. Let’s listen to it. Clear your head and take in the sounds. This is meant as background ambient sound, but I’d like you to place it in the foreground. It’s a little annoying and a little glitchy, but that’s what CO2 readings are like, after all. Let’s listen.

[Listen to it for a minute or so.]

That’s it. GHG.EARTH is a sonification of atmospheric CO₂ concentration meant as background ambient sound. It is a reminder of what the greenhouse gases are like today. Tomorrow, the sound will be about the same, a little different. The day after, about the same, a little up, a little down. It’s hard to hear the change from day to day because it’s microtonal. It requires attention. I’ve never been able to remember yesterday well enough to distinguish it from today, but I keep trying.

The score is very simple. There is no end specified. This web site will last as long as I can maintain it, and then I plan to pass it on to someone else. I hope it will play forever. There is no orchestration or arrangement or instrument or timbre specified. I’ll be changing the sound soon, but anyone can play this for as long as they want, however they want, anywhere.

The number, and the tone, is going to keep going up for decades. We will never see or hear it below 400 in our lifetimes.

That is the piece. For more, including links to all the source code, check the details on the web site. Now I will explain a little more about an implication of this kind of sonification.

CO₂ ppm and the Keeling Curve

Slide 04.
Slide 04.

The CO₂ number is taken every day from the readings at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which make up the famous Keeling Curve.

This is my artistic rendition of the Keeling Curve. You see how the CO₂ goes up and down every year, following the seasons in the northern hemisphere, where most of the land mass is. In the fall and winter leaves fall and plants die and rot, releasing CO₂, then in the summer the next year plants and trees grow and suck up carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, of course, we’re always adding more and more, so every year the numbers go up and up.

Sound and hertz

Slide 05.
Slide 05.

That’s the atmosphere. What about the sound?

Sounds come to us as vibrations in the air, measured in hertz, which is the unit of frequency. Sixty Hz means sixty times per second.

Humans who can hear can hear something like a range of 20 to 20,000 Hz, though it varies person to person.

If you see an orchestra perform you’ll hear them tune their instruments to one note before the show begins. That’s an A (the A above middle C, in the fourth octave on a piano) and by convention it is 440 Hz.

Now, 440 is pretty close to 404, today’s atmospheric concentration. Middle C is about 260 Hz, and that’s pretty close to 280, which is the pre-industrial CO₂ concentration.

Atmospheric CO₂ concentration, when you turn those numbers into tones by changing parts per million into hertz, falls right into the middle of the piano.

Piano and scales

Slide 06.
Slide 06.

The eighty-eight keys on a piano cover just over seven octaves. There are seven full octaves and then a little bit extra at each end. A0, the lowest key, is 27.5 Hz and C8, the highest, is 4186 Hz.

I’ve marked in some important numbers and pitches here.

180 Hz is about an F below middle C, and that’s about as low as CO₂ concentrations have ever been on Earth, if I understand right. Glacial times, with ice everywhere.

280 is about a C#, the black key above middle C, the pre-industrial concentration.

350, F, is where some people think we need to get back to. You’ve probably heard of 350.org.

404 is between G and G#, just below G#, and that’s where we are now.

Looking ahead, with models, there are Representative Concentration Pathways, which a climate scientist would have to explain, but they make predictions about how much CO₂ will be in the air based on different actions we take. RCP 2.6 is a best-case scenario where emissions peak very soon, decline, and by about 2070 we’re actually removing CO₂ from the air. In that case in 2100 we’ll be at about 420, which is just over G#. Just from one side of G# to the other.

RCP 8.5 is a very bad scenario. With it, in 2100 we’re at 936 parts per million, which takes us up almost an octave to about A#.

We live in one octave

Doubling the hertz makes a tone go up an octave; halving it goes down one. With A 440, if you go up an octave, you’re at 880 Hz. Down an octave, 220 Hz. It’s an exponential scale, a geometric progression.

The CO₂ concentrations are not an arithmetic progression, changing by the same amount each year, but it’s pretty close. Right now it’s going up by about 2 or more every year. Of course, we need to lower that number, and then make it less than zero so we’re taking carbon out of the air, but we’re talking 1 or 2 or -1, not 2, 4, 8, 16.

So the two numbers, the musical and the atmospheric, are working on different scales, literally.

But that’s actually very useful: it means is that we only have one octave to live in. That fourth octave on the piano, from middle C up to B, that’s where we have to stay. Pre-industrial we were at C#. Now we’re getting close to G#. We definitely do not want to get into the next octave, which starts at about 525.

We’ve come up about seven semitones on the piano. We can go up another semitone, maybe a whole tone, but only if we’re going to come down fast after that.

All of human existence has been in just a few piano keys above middle C. Lately we’ve made an awkward clumsy melody rising quickly, uncontrolled, and the song will continue going up for years, but we need to make it go back down, back to safety, not up into the higher registers, where human society as we know it cannot continue.

That’s long term. That’s years and decades and centuries ahead. For now, day to day, GHG.EARTH is there as an ambient sonification, reminding us, telling us, every day, what the CO₂ concentration is. Listen to it, put it on in the background, quietly, and it will fade out of your attention after a while, you’ll start thinking about other things, but then it will come back, sharply, you’ll hear it again, you’ll remember what it means, and you’ll remember the situation we’re in.

I hope you find it interesting. Thank you for listening.


quotes stoicism

“My own experience tells me that a man can always do the work for which his brain is fitted if he will give himself the habit of regarding his work as a normal condition of his life.” — Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, 1883

My job description

york libraries code4lib

Recently I’ve chatted with a few colleagues at work about sharing job descriptions, so I thought I’d post mine. I’m the scholarly analytics librarian at York University. At York University Libraries the librarian and archivist job descriptions have, I think, accumulated years—possibly decades—of text from previous iterations and other job descriptions, the origins and purposes of which are now lost. One day we may update them. In the meantime, here’s mine with some explanatory comments.

The description begins with a summary, the first sentence of which is the brief description of the scholarly analytics work:

Leads and works with colleagues in identifying and analysing data and metadata related to the collections and services of the Libraries in support of the teaching, learning and research mission of the University.

Ultimately everyone’s work at York means supporting the teaching, learning and mission of York because that’s what York is there to do. It’s a university, and everything on campus, from faculty research to grounds-keeping to running the wifi to fundraising, is there to support teaching, learning and research—and the student experience, which is also part of all our planning.

Then there’s the brief description of being the math and stats librarian. I think all the subject and liaison librarians have something very similar:

Under the direction of the Head, Steacie Science and Engineering Library, provides assistance to the users of the Library, and under the direction of the University Librarian and the Head, Steacie Science and Engineering Library, select, develop and maintain library collections in all formats for mathematics and statistics according to established library policies and procedures.

“Under the direction of” does not imply direct involvement or close supervision. Excellent collection development, in line with policies and procedures, is the goal, but how we do that is up to us. I’m part of a group that’s helping us all get better at that by sharing insights and best practices.

This last sentence meant I covered the data librarian while he was on sabbatical, but you’d never guess it from the cryptic wording:

Temporarily serve as liaison and consultant for inquiries regarding a variety of locally maintained and networked data sources.

When the job description is updated, that will be removed.

Then there’s a page and a half of detailed responsibilities, which starts with the main work, being scholarly analytics librarian:

The Scholarly Analytics Librarian will devote significant time to enhancing the role of data and metadata analysis in the Libraries in support of the University curricular and research activities. Leads and works with colleagues to identify useful and relevant data and metadata, analyse these and disseminate the results.

In conjunction with various library committees (e.g. Assessment, Teaching & Learning, Collection, etc.) provides leadership in use and deployment of tools and platforms to support data and metadata analysis and dissemination in support of teaching, learning and research at York and the operations of the Libraries. Advocates for the use and dissemination of open data in appropriate administrative and scholarly contexts, and liaises with colleagues and researchers about open data, data management, and digital scholarship.

Engages in systems operations and software development in support of scholarly analytics, data and bibliographic work, as needed.

The next line means I’m still overseeing the delivery of customized research recommendations in Moodle (our course management system) and the student portal, including my-librarians. This is left over from when I was web librarian. It’s in maintenance mode now, and I hope to hand it off to a group actively involved in the Libraries’ work in Moodle:

Lead and work with colleagues to enhance delivery of library resources and services via established and emerging web-based systems such as Moodle (or other course management systems), the student portal, etc.

Then it’s boilerplate stuff that all subject and liaison librarians have, with, I think, more or less just the name of their branch changed:

Assists users with their information needs by advising on the most effective search strategy and/or method of finding information. Identifies the resources, print or electronic, most likely to answer a question. Develops and renews web tools and resources. Makes effective referrals as required.

Plans, build and maintains information resources in all relevant formats for the Steacie Science and Engineering Library. Participates in the development of policies and procedures for collection development and maintenance. Principle activities include the selection of appropriate materials; allocation of resources budget among formats; planning and implementation of resource sharing and related programs in accord with library programs; collection analysis and evaluation; design and implementation of use and user studies in accord with library programs; collection review for preservation, protected access, remote storage or discard.

Maintains effective liaison with faculty, students and library colleagues and with other resource centres to ensure the development of user-relevant collections and services at York. Particularly, interprets library policies to users and recommends collection, service and policy needs to appropriate colleagues within the University.

Contributes to information literacy programs in a variety of formats by evaluating needs of students and faculty; conducts classes and prepares necessary instructional support materials.

And finally stuff that, I think, all librarians have, again with just the branch name changed. Notice the strangled language, for example how I will provide “input to the decision-making process within the Libraries through meetings and other communication devices.” We always seem to end up adding unnecessary words to cover all bases: “Will endeavour and attempt to facilitate and empower colleagues and co-workers to collegially discuss and consider issues and matters relating to the operations and undertakings of the Libraries.”

Prepares annual and special budgets and reports as required.

As a member of Steacie Science and Engineering Library, develops policies and procedures, coordinates services and implements policies, services and standards. Interprets policies, services and standards to departmental staff, to library staff and to library users. Participates in the hiring, evaluation, training, motivation and supervision of staff as appropriate in consultation with the Head of the Library and other appropriate library personnel. Works in a collegial administrative environment.

Service and professional development and research:

Serves on library committees and provides input to the decision-making process within the Libraries through meetings and other communication devices.

Maintains awareness of university developments and develops professionally by membership on university committees and by attending and participating in meetings, workshops, conferences, etc.; and by reading relevant literature.

Maintains liaison with colleagues in regional libraries (and others as appropriate) in order to develop cooperative programs.

Contributes to librarianship and scholarship by carrying out professional research and scholarly work and by activity in professional associations.

And finally:

Carries out other responsibilities as assigned in accordance with established procedures.

“Other duties as assigned”—surely the last line of every job description ever written. Librarians and archivists are members of the York University Faculty Association, a union, so “established procedures” and past practice matter a lot.

Reading it over line by line, I’m happy to say I actually do all of that. It’s a varied mix, and it’s a great job. The next big step is writing up what I’ve been doing and releasing the code.

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