Thursday, June 18, 2009


So, everyone knows the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds”. What I never understood was why the birds were attacking in the first place. Were they mad about Tippi Hedrin's "joke"? I still don’t get it.

But that’s a movie. In real life, I’ve been noticing a lot of bird-related delinquency, starting with larceny:

Ha-ha, cute! But then an airplane goes down over the Hudson River. Why? Because of...a bird. A Canada goose, to be exact:

Okay, the pilot managed to handle everything correctly, and no one was injured. Canada geese are a pain in the ass—ask anyone who lives in Northern New Jersey. Usually the threat is in the form of goose poop that is EVERYWHERE. Now they’re getting a bit more aggressive. Hmm.

Then I saw this article about a baseball game:

Okay, so in this one the bird gets hit. And if you’re an Indians fan, you would probably regard this as divine intervention. Still, those birds are interfering where they’re not wanted. But they haven’t attacked anyone, right?

Woman is Savaged By Angry Seagulls

I don’t know about you, but I think I need some more cats. Big ones.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I don’t watch much television these days, but I’m still a sucker for two reality shows: Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. I’m not so interested in “proving” the existence of ghosts or similar phenomena, but I’m very interested in the approaches people take to dealing with these “paranormal” unknowns. Paranormal is the right word, regardless of whether you believe in ghostly phenomena or not. By definition, to be “paranormal” is to be something anomalous with respect to our “normal” everyday experience. That doesn’t mean that we might not find an explanation for it; just that there’s no obvious logical reason for it. Some things are without explanation, and those are truly “paranormal”, whatever they might be. In any event, I would refer anyone who places too much emphasis on everything have a reasonable cause and effect to the late Mr. David Hume.

The two shows take two very different approaches to the paranormal, though there is some overlap. Ghost Hunters relies entirely on evidence caught on film or audio; personal experiences, unless they are of a very physical nature, are usually discounted. The idea is to be more scientific in their attempts to identify truly anomalous phenomena. Given the nature of reality TV, this doesn’t always happen, but at least they’re giving it a shot.

Paranormal State also has a tech department that records audible and visual evidence, but they also make use of mediums and demonologists in their work. Ryan Buell, the team leader, does not attempt to hide his rather Catholic approach to such phenomena (I’m not suggesting this is bad, it’s just something to be noted). Additionally, they will bring in priests or ministers to do house blessings, and may bring in professional counselors to talk to affected parties as well. While I don’t agree with all of Ryan’s assumptions (e.g., the idea that 3am is the time that “mocks Christ”, a medieval Catholic notion), on the whole I would say the team pretty good about separating legitimate phenomena from hysteria or other factors. Even Lorraine Warren, an occasional visiting demonologist on the show, has been a pleasant surprise. She’s much more cautious than she used to be about labeling things as “demonic”—in fact, she hardly does it at all. Truthfully, I don’t think “demonic” phenomena really happens all that often.

But what is “demonic” phenomena? I was revisiting some old Paranormal State episodes on iTunes last night, and was watching the “Devil in Syracuse” episode, where the demon they won’t name is afflicting a family. This is supposed to be the same demon that is or was following Ryan from place to place. Of course, I can read lips, and they show a scrambled version of the name, and I know exactly which demon it is. Interestingly, Abramelin and other grimoires have described this particular demon as holding principle sway over this world and its desires.

I like this particular episode, because it makes some good points about the demonic. First, the house they are visiting is a complete mess. A family friend comes over regularly to add fuel to the family’s fear. And the couple who live there has serious marital discord. Ryan accurately notes that the demonic feeds on fear, weakness, and depression.

Which leads me to my own definition of the demonic, for better or for worse. Like the divine or angelic, the demonic is a deep psychological phenomena that can manifest as something physical, or affect the physical—like any deep psychological phenomena. It’s not unlike poltergeist phenomena in this way (though it is theorized that poltergeist phenomena have a hormonal component as well). It affects people who don’t have sufficient psychological boundaries. I would say “spiritual”, too, but they are really bound up in the same thing. To be possessed or affected by such a thing requires a very unique set of psychical and mental circumstances—and an invitation or evocation.

So how can demons be named and labeled? Deities and angels can also be named and labeled. They are qualities, elements of human experience. The form and function of such qualities are part of what is observed in the collective unconscious.

The theology of the demonic is highly developed within Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity. The Church has special rites of exorcism to deal with these undesirable elements. Sometimes the rites work, sometimes they don’t. A lot of the rite’s ability to do good is based on the belief of those taking part in the rite. It would also depend on the psychology of the victim—sometimes the victim is unwilling or unable to let go of the offending influence that has taken over. But I would still say the offending influence is internal, not external, even though it may manifest in external ways. As one of my professors once said in seminary, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about psychology”. To call something psychological is not the same as saying “You’re imagining it”, or “It’s all in your head”, in a dismissive sense. Depth psychology is as tenuous an area as occult practice, and requires a great deal of caution when “jumping in”.

Which brings me to another assertion that Ryan frequently makes on shows dealing with the demonic. He refers to the encounters as a literal battle “between good and evil”. I would suggest that this is not exactly the case, though it is true on some level. The Eastern conception of the demonic is a bit easier to follow, and I think resolves some of the difficulties of the Western Christian perspective.

There is an extended prayer/chant/story in Hinduism called Srichandipath. It is part of a larger work called the Devi Mahatmayam. In this, the rishi (seer, holy man) explains to a businessman and a king the mysteries of the goddess Durga. To summarize—both devas (gods) and asuras (demons) populate the world. For many yugas (cycles) there may be a relative balance between the two, but eventually the asuras take over everything. This is characterized by a society that is greedy, self-centered, materialistic, and ignorant. The gods are forgotten, and the asuras “rule the Three Worlds”. Eventually the gods will call upon the great Devi (goddess) who is beyond the visible universe to help them. She appears as Durga, a goddess carrying weapons and riding on a lion (or tiger). In the Srichandipath, she comes on two different occasions, both times to do battle with and vanquish the asuras, and both times she is victorious.

There is another hymn related to the Srichandipath called the Mahisasuramardini Stotra. There is particular part of the seventh verse that I’ve always found interesting. It says:

Shiva shiva shumbha nishumbha mahahava tarpita bhuta pishacarate

It doesn’t translate nicely into English, but it basically says that the Goddess (i.e., Mahisasuramardini, or Durga) delights in both the “auspicious” god Shiva and the “inauspicious” Shumba (demon of self-conceit) and Nishumba (demon of self-depreciation), and the ghouls that feast on dead souls. What it implies is that both the “good” and the “evil” are manifestations of the Goddess (referring to Adiparashakti, the Supreme Primal Consciousness), and therefore all are “good” in the sense of being in the “order of things”, for lack of a better phrasing. The goddess doesn’t step in and get rid of the demons until they have completely tilted the balance of life in their direction. The goddess herself represents the Numinous, and is beyond concepts of good and evil. Life cannot happen unless there is a perceived split from the initial Unity of things. This is the basis of the Adam and Eve story (Eve is not a culprit in this view—worldly life can’t happen unless she and Adam recognize separateness), and it’s also the Kabbalistic and Gnostic view of life. Through pairings of opposites, life is created. We spend our days in separation, and eventually seek to become one with that essential Unity again. In order to do this, we need to “play” at life, deal with the demons, and eventually vanquish them along with our egos to achieve that final Unity. In such a world view, it’s hard not to believe in reincarnation—there is no way that this happens in one lifetime.

So, what is “demonic” is not particularly unnatural—all of us have both “divine” and “demonic” qualities, and we spend our lives trying to negotiate them. In rare cases, they can take shape and possess us—the same is true of the Archetypes that unconsciously rule our lives. In those cases, it takes highly symbolic acts (sigils, spells, prayers, whichever is used) to remove one from a possessed state. Other types of possession can lead to various forms of madness, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. In any case—the demonic is not all that abnormal, unless you are talking about possession.

Word of Christ...

Paul Tillich would have a field day with this one:

Friday, June 12, 2009

"It's too hard", Pt. 2: Editorial Process

“Editorial process” is the selecting of authoritative sources. There’s that word again—“authoritative”. No one likes it, but it’s a bit like what your mother told you about eating your vegetables—it’s good for you, so swallow it. (And no comments from those of you who know I don’t eat vegetables...:)).

There are many discussions in library science about what makes a source “authoritative”. An article peer-reviewed in a respected journal has more credibility in a research paper than a blog posting written by a twenty-year-old. Non-fiction collection developers purchase books and other resources for libraries that have met some criteria for having authoritative merit. Reference librarians serve the same function—they are there to help you weed through all the crappy information you find to get the useful stuff, and also to teach you how to make those decisions yourself. At least that’s what happens in an ideal world.

However, what happens more often is that “research” papers from students are becoming cut-and-pastes from Wikipedia, or whatever they found first on Google. They don’t even ask librarians for help. Students act surprised when they get to university or college and get failed for handing in such papers. One might chalk it up to student laziness, but recently I came across a more disturbing example of not using editorial process.

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in recent months about Reiki therapy. I happen to be a Reiki Master, so I pay attention to these things. In short, the Bishops did not want Catholics to receive Reiki treatments because there was “no scientific evidence” that it works, and because it was outside the Catholic religion and potentially “dangerous” to a Catholic soul.

When I first read this, I thought it was a joke. These men had studied theology, they were leaders and scholars. There’s no scientific evidence that prayer, anointing of the sick, or most of their other practices work for anyone. And how does an energy therapy “endanger your soul”? How in the world did they come to this conclusion? Where did they get their information about Reiki? There are many nuns and communities of Sisters that offer Reiki therapy as part of their work. Did they ask any of them? How about the experts in the Reiki field? People like William Rand and Frank Arjava Petr?

William Rand himself looked into the statement, and followed up with his own statement. He looked over the resources consulted by the Church, and found that most of them were just random websites with misinformation. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation on the Web about Reiki.

I don’t know if the Church has acknowledged Rand’s statement, or if they’ve amended their declaration, but to me, it’s a lesson in not doing proper research. People who still care about what the Church says are going to avoid or view with suspicion a practice that may be beneficial to them or to others. While Reiki may heal some, no responsible practitioner makes any claim to heal anyone—it’s a relaxation technique. It is religion neutral, and often used in hospitals as an enhancement to traditional therapies. Rejecting Reiki makes the Church look stupid, and puts those Catholics who receive or engage in Reiki treatment in a tight spot for no reason. All because they never bothered to ask anyone who had done real research on Reiki’s origins and practices. It pays to select your sources carefully.

Public service librarians face another challenge. I can’t speak for international education, but in the United States, elementary school teachers are expected to push students to absorb as much material as they can in a short space of time. This doesn’t leave time for developing things that can only be learned with time and patience—such as language skills, writing skills, and research skills. The students are burned out by the time they’re twelve. When they grow up and go to college, they are unable to do any of these things well—they can’t spell, they don’t use proper grammar, they don’t have good oral communication skills, and they are clueless about research. They also no longer care—they don’t want to learn at this point, they just want to get the grade and get out. Why not? Because “it’s too hard.” This is the teacher’s excuse, and it’s the student’s excuse. It’s an uphill battle, and everyone is tired of fighting it.

So, what is the answer to “it’s too hard”? I haven’t a clue. It certainly won’t be a three-word solution. I do know this—if librarians and other library professionals don’t understand and stand by the basics of their profession, the answer may be that we don’t need libraries or librarians. I’m not suggesting for a minute that this is a correct answer, but it may be the conclusion that society comes to if we are no longer in the business of providing organized access and editorial process. After all, they can search Google and Wikipedia at home.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"It's too hard", Part I: Access

This morning I was thinking a lot about my current profession. I have a lot of ambivalence about librarianship in the 21st century, and I’m sure I’m being kind when I say that. I started thinking about exactly what’s wrong with the profession today. I realized that I can summarize the whole complex mess with three words: “It’s too hard.”

Librarianship has two principle components: organization/access, and editorial process. The former is traditionally associated with cataloging, technical services and systems. The latter is associated with reference services and collection development. However, there is not a strict separation—both components need to be integrated to have a successful library environment.

Let’s look at the first one. Organizing information into somewhat meaningful categories is the backbone of what we do, even if the taxonomies used are highly imperfect. Over the years, standards of organization have been developed that are very complex—in the United States we use AACR2 and LCRI for description, LCSH for subject access, LCC or DDC for classification, and MARC format to make the records accessible in an inventory system.

This system worked great for books, but the information world is no longer about just books, or even about physical items that you can check out. A lot of material is now digital and virtual, and this presents a challenge in an organization system reliant on describing physical items. But we still have many, many physical items in our libraries, so we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Unfortunately, “it’s too hard”.

We already have massive amounts of data in the form of MARC records—bibliographic data and authority data. For the non-librarian—bibliographic data is what you see in your catalog when you search for an item. It describes the book/DVD/CD, whatever. Within that bibliographic data is something called “authority controlled” data—author names and subject headings in particular (yes, some titles too, but I’m not going there right now). There is a separate unseen authority record for every author, every subject in your catalog. Those records not only contain the chosen “authoritative” form of the name or subject, but all other seen variations—and in the case of subjects, related terms, broader terms, and narrower terms. The idea is that one heading is chosen as the one listed, and if you search for something different, a message will pop up telling you to “see” the authoritative heading, or to suggest other possible headings. Sounds good, yes?

Well, it should be, but no. Library catalog systems have not been designed to make good use of authority data. Keyword searches only search the bibliographic record. So, if you haven’t used the terms in the bibliographic record, you’re “SOL” if you stop with a keyword search. The only way many systems allow you to access the authority records is to do a “browse” search—if you do a subject browse, you will then get the benefit of those extra messages if you type in the wrong thing.
There are many problems with traditional catalog searching, but I won’t go into detail about that here. Recently, integrated library system vendors have been trying the “faceted” search approach, which does allow keyword searches to access the authority data. This is a big improvement, and I do hope libraries implement faceted search interfaces when they become available.

However, we still have another problem—library users don’t search the library catalog. Yes, I know, it’s a generalization, but I’ve seen enough surveys of library database usage to know that the catalog is the last place people look, especially if their past experience has been trying to navigate a crappy Boolean/BRS search engine. In university libraries, I’ve seen another problematic trend with respect to the catalog—students don’t want to use books, or at least they want the bulk of their information from online resources. And who can blame them? It’s easier to get things online, and in certain fields, the information in books is out of date by the time the book is printed and distributed.

Still, there is a lot of good information in books that is missed, so libraries want users to use the catalog, and they want them to check out or at least look at the book sources. Ideally, it would be nice to have a federated search that allows you to search the catalog AND the electronic resources at the same time, and give you one result set. But wait!, you say—such products already exist! Indeed they do. And they are highly inadequate, because of yet another problem—the searching protocol problem. Try this: go to your local library, and look up something in the catalog. Look up anything you want, though a more complicated search makes it more fun. Keep your result list—print it out, whatever. Now go to your library catalog via another site--
Did you get a list of items? Good. Save that, or print it out. Now—go home and go to a neighboring library’s site that offers access to your catalog. It could be through another County library system (e.g., if you are in New Jersey, search in Morris County, then search the same catalog via Passaic County or Bergen County’s site). Do the same search you did in your library and look at the list of items. Compare it to the first list. Are they the same? I’m betting they’re not, especially if your search was more complex.

This is because of the Z39.50 protocol. When you use a search protocol that allows the different library servers to “talk” to each other, the search is not executed by the system in the same way. And that’s just in a regular library catalog—try putting an Ebsco or Proquest database into the mix. Their searching is entirely different.
The bottom line is that one federated search will often give you disparate and confusing results. A standard, consistent search that would give you relevant results across different platforms has not been effectively developed.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have very good data, and for all of our technological developments, we don’t seem to be able to design library systems that make good use of this data in a simple, user-friendly way. Why not? Apparently, “it’s too hard”.

Instead of treating this as a programming/technology issue, the library profession has attempted to rewrite the rules. There are huge flowcharts about “relationships” between different types of “entities” that looks like a huge, confusing Peyton Place of data, only not nearly as interesting. Ever practical, the Tech Services staff and librarians are responding by saying. “Nice flowchart. So what do we do with it?” Over the last 4 years of workshops, conferences, and lectures, I’ve not yet heard a coherent answer to that question. Two big mistakes are being made—letting academics drive the rule-making, and allowing the technology to compromise basic organizational principles. Programmers don’t understand the principles behind the library data structures, and rather than try to learn them, they’d rather we dropped all that “fancy” stuff and made it simpler. The academics go along with this, because I think they somehow believe that the idea of traditional librarianship is obsolete, and that they have to “get with the times”. All I can say to that is—librarianship is still librarianship regardless of the technology. The fact that a lot of things are “born digital” now shouldn’t be making us scramble to change our standards. Digital object metadata is not useful for physical items by itself, and shouldn’t be treated as such—just as the converse is also true. But we don’t demand that the technology accommodate us because we’re told “it’s too hard”.

Part II tomorrow...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Found Footage Festival’s Bad Movie Night

Last weekend I was in downtown Manhattan for the Found Footage Festival’s Bad Movie Night. I talked about the Found Footage Festival in a previous post. This particular event is a little different; it involves screening movies that were found at yard sales, thrift stores, etc., as opposed to watching short films like training videos, exercise videos, and such.

First, a word about the venue. The 92nd Street Y has opened up a space in Tribeca, near the Holland Tunnel. It’s a very nice space, with an open café when you walk in. That evening, my friends and I had the misfortune to be waiting in/near the café while they were having their improv night—poetry, spoken word, what I think was supposed to be comedy—all backed by a band playing what I think was supposed to be jazz. With apologies to the performers, I’m sorry to say it was horrible—my friends and I could not stop laughing it was so horrible. The music was frequently out of tune. Singers with the band kept trying to create vocal sound effects , but they were just as bad as the band. Most of the time I thought they were either suffering from intestinal distress or perhaps this was the get-together night of the melodramatic actors guild. In any case—I know we were not alone in our opinion of the sets. Frequently, members of the café staff would come out from the back to watch the band; the looks on their faces suggested it was giving THEM intestinal distress. And more than once I heard the ticket office staff apologizing to those coming for other performances “about that noise out there”.

So, I suppose bad music and poetry was a great set-up for a bad movie. We had a late start, but eventually we got into the theater at about 10:15. Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett were both there, along with the two guys who found this particular bad movie at a thrift store in Ohio. They divided the movie into 3 parts. Nick and Joe kept offering Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary, and at the end of each “part” they would get up to offer comments, and what little background information they could find about the actors in the movie. (The female lead in the movie is now a Kung Fu black belt). They even had a quiz at one point, during which they gave away copies of the movie for correct answers. My friend Liz ended up winning one of the copies.

The movie itself—it was—CONFUSING. The movie was called “Computer Beach Party”. It was clearly made in the 1980s, and apparently did have some level of wide distribution. However, the Internet Movie Database doesn’t have any listing for it, and neither does anyone else. The director was someone who made two films in his career—the first one was bad, and I think he gave up after this one. I certainly wouldn’t admit to being involved with this one.

The plot—was there a plot? Something about a pirate ship; treasure found on a beach, where these two geeky guys live; some kind of sailing races on the beach; a mayor’s daughter who is inexplicably in love with one of the geeky guys who really has no acting ability or personality ; a mayor who wants to secretly buy the beach and kick out everyone who lives there so he can search for buried treasure; a stupid lifeguard and his friend; and beach parties where everyone is invited by computer prior to social network sites, and always featuring the band Panther, a bad 80s hair metal band who also did the crappy soundtrack for this movie. And there was a chicken car (seriously--a car with a large chicken on it) that always appeared when the idiot police officer character wanted to arrest teenagers for having sex on the beach. Yes, there was nudity, mostly boobs. Nick theorized that this was how the movie got any distribution at all.

Here is a clip for your viewing pleasure:

Besides the obvious lack of a plot or any sort of real character development, the dialogue was all dubbed—the characters often had different voices in different scenes. The editing was really terrible—there were scenes that just show characters staring into space for several minutes, that clearly should have been cut. So—no plot, bad acting, lukewarm characters, and poor editing—all of the elements of what might be one of the worst movies ever committed to tape. Besides the Creeping Terror, of course.

Like Mystery Science Theater 3000, some movies are totally unwatchable without the benefit of snide commentary, and it looks like Bad Movie Night promises to fill that void in upcoming events as well. Be sure to look out for the next Bad Movie Night, featuring the film “Kindergarten Ninja”. It ought to be spectacular.

Eugene Mirman's Graduation Speech

Welcome to my 100th post!

About 10 days ago I was in New York City for Book Expo America, and a party given by Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott, and the folks at McSweeney's and SMITHMag. Eugene Mirman was one of the comedians performing at this party. As part of his set, he read the draft of a graduation speech he'd been asked to give at his former high school (where he graduated with a blazing 1.9 GPA). It was amazing.

I was pleased today to discover that he gave this speech, and that the video recording of it was available on YouTube. With thanks to, here it is:

Monday, June 08, 2009

Jon Stewart Takes on Republicans

Most of American government is now ruled by Democrats, and the Republicans are not happy. In fact, not only are they not happy, they're really sore losers. This episode of the Daily Show aired almost 2 months ago (I'm behind on my TV viewing), but it's a pretty eloquent summation of the Republican temper tantrum:

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