Miskatonic University Press

25 Minutes of Silence

john.cage podcasts

I recently discovered the 25 Minutes of Silence podcast and it’s now one of my favourites. Every week the host, Joey Clift, says hello to a guest, and then they don’t talk for twenty-five minutes. You might hear breathing, or pages turning, or tapping on keyboards, or other ambient rooms sounds, but no conversation. Then Clift does a brief wrap-up with the guest and that’s it. Many of the guests are from the comedy world, which I’m not so interested in, but nevertheless they’re all worth listening to. So far my favourite episode is with Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust.

Doris Lessing's library


Doris Lessing’s Library: A Life in 4,000 Books is a nice essay (in the Guardian) by Nick Holdstock.

Four months after Lessing’s death in November 2013, I was asked to come to her house in West Hampstead, London, because the executors of her estate had a problem. Her house contained more than 4,000 books that had to be inventoried in order for the estate to be settled. I agreed to help – I wanted to know what sort of reader Lessing had been, whether she folded page corners, highlighted passages, wrote in the margins or on blank pages. I thought that learning what she read, and how, would shed light on her work.

I hope the catalogue makes its way public. Perhaps one day Doris Lessing could be added to the LibraryThing Legacy Libraries.

Several months after I’d finished cataloguing, the fate of Lessing’s library was announced. While some books would go to a special collection at the University of East Anglia, the majority were sent to the public library in Harare. Judging by her Nobel speech, Lessing would have approved. She’d have hoped they might do what the classics had done for a young girl called Doris, who just wanted to read.

Lessing’s Nobel lecture is required reading.

John Cage's library

john.cage libraries marcel.duchamp

John Cage’s library is now catalogued online. There are 1126 items—perhaps fewer than I’d have expected, or perhaps not. Lots about mushrooms, poetry, Zen, anarchism, music, art, chess, Marcel Duchamp and cooking. Just the sort of collection one would love to look through, especially when flipping open Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–1980 one sees the dedication: “For John Cage & Merce Cunningham / One syllable at a time! New York January 18, 1985 / Allen Ginsberg.”

He had Hoyle’s Rules of Games, like everyone used to … but in the Cage-Cunningham household, maybe it was used for making art as well as checking the rules for Canasta.

I deleted everything from Twitter

privacy ruby

Twitter’s a hell of a place. A while ago I removed the app from my phone and logged out on my laptops and would only use my tablet, at home, to check it, which meant instead of checking it frequently I’d just scroll through a lot of stuff two or three times a day. That works pretty well. It’s enough to see what people are talking about and catch up on pointers to useful things.

I’d post on Twitter when I made a new blog post, and hardly ever outside of that. I like to own my content, not hand it over to some private American company.

Still, I was feeling weighted down by all my past tweets. Aside from not being on a platform I control (see IndieWeb), and my words being mined for profit (probably not much, but still), there’s concern about what the US border guards might want to do about social media. I read Peter Rukavina’s Atwitter and thought, “By Jove, maybe I should delete all my old stuff.” And I did.

I downloaded my Twitter archive, then started deleting some old tweets by hand, but I had over 4,904 (which isn’t many on Twitter) and that wasn’t feasible. I used the excellent tool t, which lets you control Twitter at the command line. I already had this configured, and in fact it’s how I do most of my posting (with t update "Text of the tweet goes here.")

First I did this, to preview 30 tweets way back in my timeline, then delete them one by one by pressing “y” when it asked to confirm a deletion:

$ t timeline wdenton --number 2000 --csv | tail -30
$ for I in `t timeline wdenton --number 2000 --csv | tail -30 | cut -d, -f1`; do echo $I; t delete status $I; done

But that was way too slow, and since I was deleting everything there was no need to review it, so I worked in larger chunks and fed the “y” in automatically:

$ for I in `t timeline wdenton --number 1000 --csv | tail -400 | cut -d, -f1`; do echo $I; echo "y" | t delete status $I; done

Now, somewhere in there something went a little wrong. I’d intended to leave my last dozen tweets up, but they got erased. So be it. There was no going back after that. I’m sorry it messed up the responses and retweets I got on a few recent tweets, but we must accept what fate decrees.

Rush, seen in Montreal while I was at Access 2012.  Great show.
Rush, seen in Montreal while I was at Access 2012. Great show.

Looking back, there was: enjoyable chit-chat; conference tweeting and interaction that brought back fond memories; a bunch of utterly forgettable stuff; a fair bite of shite; some good jokes; some good quotes; a lot about Code4Lib and Access; not as much about cats as you might expect from a librarian; more about AC/DC and Rush than you might; books; Emacs; climate change; and a lot about staplers.

The first one was from 10 August 2008, at the IFLA conference in Québec City:

Running into people like @weelibrarian, @jambina, former profs, and cow-orkers.

Self-contradictingly, after I post this, I’ll tweet about it, so my only tweet will be about how I deleted everything from Twitter.

Just saw this, one of the last to be deleted, a quote from Ed Summers, which will live on somewhere in his feed:

“I guess I’m pretty much happy whenever whatever the norm is people are breaking it.” @edsu

Don't forget Aaron Swartz

aaronsw code4lib

Today’s Data Scraping Mini Episode of the Partially Derivative podcast appalled me. It’s about scraping data off web sites, and there’s lots of laughter and joking as Chris Albon relates how in preparation for his PhD comps he wrote a script to download thousands of articles from JSTOR. And sure enough he got in a little bit of trouble because he hadn’t read the terms of service, and the next day the university librarian passed the word down that all that had to stop immediately or there would be serious repercussions. More wry laughter at having escaped without anything worse.

All that and no mention, not one, of Aaron Swartz. I don’t know when Albon was doing the downloading, but from the dates on his MA and PhD it looks like it might have been after Swartz got arrested in January 2011 (and before he committed suicide in 2013). Even if it was before that, it astounds me that anyone now could talk about doing a mass download from JSTOR without mentioning Swartz. I can understand there wasn’t time to get into how messed up everything about scholarly publishing is, but a joking reminder about how it’s important to read terms of service trivializes important issues that everyone in this field should know and discuss.

Aaron Swartz, slightly blurry in lower left, February 2008
Aaron Swartz, slightly blurry in lower left, February 2008

I met Swartz very briefly one day in 2008, and wrote it up after he died.

Gödel Rucker Ajzenstat

art mathematics libraries

Last month I bought “Red Scribble,” a painting by American mathematician, computer scientist and SF writer Rudy Rucker. Why I bought it starts over thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-teens, and my uncle Samuel Ajzenstat (1937–2013) gave me two books.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

The great Toronto children’s librarian Lillian Smith (who now has a library named after her) said: “The right book, to the right child, at the right time.”

(I generalize that as, “The right book, to the right hands, at the right time.” Of course by “book” I mean book or article or comic book or movie or podcast or whatever. It’s like the second and third laws of library science put together: “Every reader their book” and “Every book its reader.”)

The right book to the right child at the right time can change a life and change the world. Every children’s librarian knows it, and they make it part of their work. Many people who had a good librarian when they were children know it too, because it happened to them. One day, the recommendation, with an unknown book handed over the counter: “I think you might like this.” The sudden understanding of the child that this person, this adult, this librarian, with their glasses and cardigan, who’s been quietly sitting behind that desk, has actually been watching them, observing them, mentally noting the books they’ve been borrowing, and understands their secrets better than their parents or siblings or friends—and would never reveal any of that except by handing over a good book to read. Because that’s what librarians do, and librarians know how to keep secrets.

(Of course, the children have to go to the library for that to happen. So my advice is: gets kids started early on going to the library. Then let them go on their own. While you’re at it, go yourself.)

Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy

Non-librarians can do this too. It’s one of the pleasures of knowing young people who like books. You wait for the right moment and then hand over Harriet the Spy or The Phantom Tollbooth or whatever seems right. It doesn’t always work—and sometimes the effect is delayed, and you don’t find out about it for years—but when it does, ah, that’s magic. That’s deep book magic.

That’s what Uncle Sam (a philosophy professor) did when I was sixteen, twice at once. I remember where we were, but not what the occasion was. It might have been summer and we were getting together for a birthday or just a family dinner, or it might have been around Christmas. Whatever was going on, he gave me two books: Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite by Rudy Rucker and Godel’s Proof by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman. They’re still on my shelves, and as it happens they’re right beside each other in QA 9, at N3 and R79.

The main body of Gödel’s Proof (first published in 1958) is just 100 pages. It sets out what Gödel’s incompleteness theorems were and how they were proved, all in language accessible to the prepared lay reader. It’s not a simple book, but it doesn’t require a specialized mathematical or philosophical background. If someone wants to try to understand what the theorems are about and how the proofs worked, I would still recommend it.

Gödel’s Proof strained my brain, but Infinity and the Mind (1982) blew it. Here’s a part of the review by Philip J. Davis in The American Mathematical Monthly (91.2, Feb 1984) (DOI: 10.2307/2322129) that describes it well:

Infinity and the Mind
Infinity and the Mind

If you are looking for a white water trip down the streams of Infinityland for yourself, your students, or as a graduation present for young relatives, rush out and buy this book written by logician and sci-fi author Rudy Rucker. I guarantee you will get your money’s worth in thrills and spills.

What kind of thing will you see on this guided tour? Well, there are the usual objects: the transfinite ordinals and cardinals; the processes of recursion, self-referral, diagonalization; the paradoxes of Berry, Richards, and the Liar; Hilbert’s Hotel; infinitesimals. All of these are viewed in an up-to-date manner, often from a computer angle. In addition, there are subjects and objects less often seen, or unknown to older trippers: the process of tetration, Conway numbers, and the real fat cardinals such as the inaccessibles, the hyperinaccessibles, the indescribables and the ineffables. One has a view also of universal libraries, fractals, of mind-machine tensions, and of the dialectic split between the “one” and the “many.”

Anyway, the price of admission buys you all this, salted and peppered with comic strips and clips from sci-fi classics, plus a dash of Gödelolotry, plus intimations of the dark, hoaxing occultism of Jorge Luis Borges, plus-for the intrepid-detailed, but hopefully “popular” accounts of big cardinal theory and the incompleteness theorems of logic, plus, lest we forget, a metempsychotic tear shed for the memory of John Lennon. All this and euphoria too.

Oh yeah! Drop that in the hands of a math-loving teenage metalhead living in the 1980s Canadian prairies and you know its found a good home.

Rucker was teaching at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia when he wrote the book. Later I learned he was also writing SF and in a punk band. Lynchburg was where Jerry Falwell lived, and it appears in one of Rucker’s novels as Killville.

Brick wall with ball of gnarly paper.
Brick wall with ball of gnarly paper.

A lot of Rucker’s life appears in his novels, because he’s a transrealist:

The Transrealist writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. Any literature which is not about actual reality is weak and enervated. But the genre of straight realism is all burnt out. Who needs more straight novels? The tools of fantasy and SF offer a means to thicken and intensify realistic fiction. By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF — time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. — are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully. This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.

I didn’t know that then, but I think I figured it out when I read his novels, a good number of which are about a math prof or computer programmer who takes some drugs and leaves this world for a weird other one that probably has sex-crazed space aliens in it.

Before I got into those, though, somewhere back there I read the first two in the Ware Tetralogy, Software (1982) and Wetware (1988): stone cyberpunk. And one day in fourth year (I was studying math) I was looking at magazines in a bookstore and discovered Reality Hackers, which blew my mind again. Rucker was part of that crew and involved with what it turned into: Mondo 2000.


Within a couple of years I was working in that bookstore and I ordered Rucker’s fiction and nonfiction for the shelves. Once I made a cyberpunk display. The store went bankrupt in 1993 in the recession, and after knocking around a while I discovered the internet and started doing web stuff. I kept reading Rucker, and later started following his blog (where I picked up the habit of including unrelated photos) and podcasts. A while back I started following him on Twitter (@rudytheelder). He’s expansive and honest and thoughtful about his life, and worth reading. It’s a rich and interesting life, well lived by someone who appreciates what he’s had.

Some time ago he started painting. I had wanted to get one of his works for a long time, but never saw the one that I knew was right until last month, when on 01 January he posted Bottom of the Year. Midway he said:

I found a drawing on my son’s living-room floor and one of his fourth-grade daughters told me (somewhat loftily) that it was by a first-grade friend of theirs. I liked the composition.

So I copied it, sort of, for a small painting. Very, very hard to draw like a child.

This is his painting, “Red Scribble.” When I saw it, I knew it was the one.

Red Scribble, by Rudy Rucker (2016)
Red Scribble, by Rudy Rucker (2016)

I emailed him, it was available, and a week later it was over the border and in my hands. Now it’s hanging over my desk.

When I look at it I think of Rudy Rucker, of course, and books and mathematics and computer science and hacking, but I also think of my uncle Samuel Ajzenstat, who gave me a book when I was sixteen—the right book, to the right hands, at the right time—and helped set the course of my life. A life that’s also rich and interesting, and I hope—I try—well lived by someone who appreciates what he’s had. As, I am completely certain, was Uncle Sam’s.

PS. Uncle Sam and Aunt Janet gave me a number of other books when I was a teenager, including Thomas Gray, Philosopher Cat by the aforementioned Philip J. Davis, and The Continuing Revolution: A History of Physics from the Greeks to Einstein by Joseph Agassi, both of which are also on my shelves, but those are stories for another day.

Worst Little Free Library I've ever seen

code4lib libraries

My downtown colleague Jane Schmidt, a librarian at Ryerson, has some strong opinions about Little Free Libraries. Ever since she told me about the project she was working on I’ve been keeping an extra close eye out for ones in Toronto. They rarely seemed much good, full of ratty old paperbacks, an out-of-date cookbook, a James Patterson thriller not by James Patterson that’s slightly water-damaged (or at least you hope it’s water), a half-completed Sudoku puzzle book, someone’s old eco and poli sci undergrad readings, and some children’s books the children outgrew but that aren’t good enough to keep or pass on to friends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nice old green or orange Penguin in one.

Jane’s work on Little Free Libraries is much more nuanced and political than just that, though. The LFL Project is the home for it all, and last year’s The Trouble with Twee is a good introduction:

For the past year, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to neighbourhood book exchanges, in particular those branded with the Little Free Library (LFL®) trademark. When I announced that I would be doing this research, I received many links to articles about them each article more like the last.

“Person/group installs book exchange. Usually a brief history of the LFL® organization. Neighbourhood agrees it’s lovely. A blurb about building community and encouraging literacy.”

And that’s about it. The narrative is maddeningly homogeneous (some notable exceptions; see the Reading List below) and almost unfailingly obsequious – a sure sign that a critical eye is needed. Here’s where I come in.

Now, not all LFLs are like this. My mother runs one and it is wonderful. It’s carefully tended and has monthly themes. I think it’s everything an LFL should be, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my mother.

At the other extreme, today I found the worst Little Free Library I’ve ever seen. Here it is from the sidewalk:

In front of the LFL.
In front of the LFL.

I looked inside.

Inside the LFL.
Inside the LFL.

That’s no library. That’s nothing. It’s one cold day away from people throwing their little bags of dog poo inside. Would you touch that book with your bare fingers? Would you let a child anywhere near it?

Notifying the Internet Archive when a new post is published

code4lib indieweb jekyll

I saw a mention of the IndieWeb idea of notifying the Internet Archive when a new page is posted.

Trigger an Archive

You can tell archive.org to crawl and archive a specific URL immediately.

$ curl -I -H "Accept: application/json" http://web.archive.org/save/{url to archive} | grep Content-Location

and you'll get a response like:

Content-Location: /web/20160715203015/http://indieweb.org

The response includes the path to the archived page on web.archive.org. Append this path to http://web.archive.org to build the final URL for the archived page.

I use Jekyll for this site, and I manage building and publishing with a Makefile. I added this trigger to it, and now the publish part looks like:

        rsync --archive --compress --itemize-changes /var/www/miskatonic/production/ myhostingsite:public_html/miskatonic.org/
        curl --head --silent --header "Accept: application/json" http://web.archive.org/save/www.miskatonic.org/ | grep Content-Location
        notify-send "Web site is now live"

Now, this just tells the Internet Archive to get my site’s home page. It doesn’t specify which pages have been added and/or updated. That would require keeping track of all the site’s content and checking for differences every time I publish, which is certainly possible, but would require making a new plugin. Adding one line to the Makefile is far easier and gets 95% of the work done.

List of all blog posts