things i heard at the library: digital divide edition (#20)

In library school we talked a lot about the digital divide, the ever-increasing gap between those who have access to information and communication technology, and those who do not. Public libraries are one of the very few institutions that exist to bridge that gap, however imperfectly.

What does the digital divide look like on the ground? In my library, located in one of the lowest-income communities in Ontario (and in Canada), we see the digital divide in action every single day.

This week a family worked on a visa application for the United States. They had to come to the library first thing in the morning, so we could special-book them a computer, as the process would take much longer than a standard computer reservation. With intermittent staff help, they worked on their application for three hours. There was no way to download and save the application, and no paper version. When they tried to save and submit the application, either the computer or the site malfunctioned (we don't know which) and they lost all their work.

Two days ago I helped a couple, two refugee claimants, access their application for legal residency in Canada. Prior to arriving in Canada, they had no computer experience at all. Their application is only available online. I was able to offer one-on-one help for 30 minutes - very unusual, and the only reason they were able to accomplish what they needed.

Yesterday a girl asked for my help saving her homework and emailing it to herself. She waited patiently for help, while the time on her computer reservation ticked down. She did not have a USB stick. As I helped her save her work, her computer time ended. Our public computers wipe out all customer information with each login. Her homework was lost.

Lost homework is a daily occurrence. Almost all homework is accessed and completed online. Teachers are supposed to "confirm that students have access to the technology required for the homework assignment". Having a library card is considered adequate access.

Much frustration and heartbreak could be avoided if families invested in a few USB storage sticks and gave each child her own. But parents have no idea this is needed. We can't speak to the parents about this because they're not in the library. They are either at work or home with younger children. Their older children ask to use our reference-desk phone to call home when they need a ride.

Another daily occurrence: children who cannot find an available computer on which to do their homework. Our library has 22 public-use computers. We could double or triple that number and they would all be in use every hour of every day.

has the whole world gone crazy? again? terrorism against muslim people as a "response" to paris attacks

Some facts.

1. The likelihood that you will be killed in a terrorist attack is extremely small. You are much more likely to be hit by lightning, killed in a car crash, have a heart attack, or meet your death hundreds of other ways.

2. Most documented terrorist attacks are perpetrated by people who are not Muslim. And this doesn't count anti-abortion violence or women being killed by abusive partners, which are forms of terrorism.

3. In 2013 and 2014, more than 316,000 people in the United States were killed by guns. 313 Americans died in terrorist attacks.

4. After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, violence against Muslim people in the US and Canada have skyrocketed. Mosques have been burned and vandalized, women picking up their children at school have been attacked, people have been shoved, spit on, forced off planes.

5. In the UK and Europe, it is even worse.

* * * *

Yesterday, in my library, a woman called to alert us to a "security threat". She said she saw a woman wearing a hijab and carrying a backpack. Her two daughters were in judo class in the community centre, and she was "concerned for their safety".

Our senior librarian informed the caller that we don't call the police based on what people are wearing, and in a community centre and library, many people carry backpacks for their books, their swim gear, their lunch, and so on.

The librarian who took the call was seething, and I was close to tears all afternoon. This in Mississauga, one of the most diverse communities in the world, and in 2015. How can this be happening?

I've seen the small kindnesses and demonstrations of support that follow some of these incidents. They're important reminders. But hate is so loud, so destructive, so contagious and so addictive.'

How can we stop this madness?

Sometimes it seems very clear that human beings are incapable of learning from their past.


remembrance day: 11 anti-war books

Remembrance Day readers' advisory: eleven books to help us contemplate the reality of war, and thus oppose it.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

2. War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Christopher Hedges

3. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

4. The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

5. Regeneration, Pat Barker

6. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

7. Comfort Woman, Nora Okja Keller

8. Why Men Fight, Bertrand Russell

9. Hiroshima, John Hersey

10. The Deserter's Tale, Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill

11. Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic


my inner teenager decorates my office

Every time I have moved - many, many moves, more than I care to think about, over many decades - I have carefully removed from bulletin boards and walls dozens of buttons, cartoons, photos, quotes, and postcard images that seemed to define my life. I have saved almost all of these in shoe boxes, file folders, and manila envelopes, those then layered in plastic tubs that now live in our apartment storage. They don't take up a lot of space, and as old as they are, when I have occasion to look through them, I never feel that I can part with any.

When I think about it, it seems strange that I haven't outgrown this habit. It seems adolescent. But there it is, my inner adolescent. I print out a quote, or peel off a bumper sticker, and it goes on the wall or bulletin board or desk. I do much less of this than I used to; I used to cover huge spaces with this kind of stuff, and now it's only a few pieces here and there. But the habit remains.

Here are a few cartoons that I recently packed away. "Peanuts" from childhood, others from when I was freelancing, and one from grad school. Click to read more clearly.

And two that are still up.

Also on the walls: quotes from Orwell and Amelia Earhart, a postcard image of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted during arrest, a reproduction of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of Easter 1916, a postcard of Picasso's Guernica, and pictures of Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and Robbie Robertson.

On top of the desk hutch: David Ortiz bobblehead, small bust of Charles Dickens, Leela (from Futurama) action figure, 1996 Atlanta Paralympics mug, baseball from a Yankees-Orioles batting practice (tossed to me by Dion James), empty can of Kilkenny ale, several tiny Wishbones dressed for various roles, Lou Gehrig statuette, Charles Dickens finger puppet, and many photos of our dogs who live in my heart.


what i'm reading: thoughts on "go set a watchman"

I wasn't planning on writing about Go Set a Watchman, the surprise second - or possibly first - novel by Harper Lee. I am among the legions of readers who were shocked, thrilled, and confused at the sudden appearance of this book, and I didn't think I'd have anything noteworthy to add to the conversation. And indeed I may not. But reading the book, I was so surprised, and so saddened, that I was moved to weigh in.

Most media attention to Watchman focused on the mystery and doubt surrounding its origins and publication, and the revelation that Atticus Finch is, in this book, a racist. When I read it, only one thing struck me.

It's awful.

Taking a more generous view, perhaps Watchman is an early draft. No author should ever be judged by an early draft. And first drafts should never be exposed without the writer's express wishes and consent. If first drafts were exposed and circulated, most writers would never put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. It would be too embarrassing.

Worse, it would impede the trial and error, the free flow of ideas, the re-writing and re-writing and re-writing, that is at the heart of the writing process. Most writers struggle to suppress their inner editor when getting out a first draft. Knowing that no one will read that draft is what allows them to write it.

If Go Set a Watchman is an early draft, then it's a perfectly serviceable early draft. As a draft, it's a literary study, a curiosity, like Ralph Ellison's posthumously published work. And if it's a draft, it shouldn't have been published and distributed and marketed and reviewed as a finished novel.

But if it's a finished novel, it's awful.

So why do I say Watchman is awful? One, the writing is terrible. And two, the plot is not credible.

One reason To Kill a Mockingbird has endured, one huge reason for its popularity, is its accessibility. It allows readers to ponder important themes through language that is simple, clear, and direct. By contrast, the writing in Watchman is convoluted, contrived, and sloppy. There are crazy run-on sentences, changes of tense and voice, and dozens of nonsense paragraphs that an editor or writing teacher might call "throat clearing": something the writer needed to get her train of thought going, that is later deleted.

I ask you, what is this?
With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2:28 p.m.
On a recent episode in my M*A*S*H re-watch, Radar enrols in a writing "correspondence course" - the 1950s equivalent of a University of Phoenix degree - and uses his new-found writing "skills" to dress up the daily reports, with amusing results. A good portion of Watchman is not far from such a joke.

Occasionally, the lovely, simple writing I associate with Harper Lee pokes through. Then it's back to the thicket. This supports the idea that the book may have been an early draft.

The plot itself is a complete mess. We're asked to believe that Atticus Finch has been going off to meetings of a White Citizens Council for decades and his daughter, who lives and breathes in his shadow, never knew. She had no idea about her father's political views at all, even though we're told that the private Atticus and public Atticus were one and the same. Jean Louise's dear friend-and-maybe-lover Henry holds the same views as Atticus, but Jean Louise wasn't aware of that, either... even though everyone in Maycomb seems to talk about the Supreme Court and the NAACP as if they live next door.

There are mini lectures about the South, about white southerners' relationship with slavery, about the early incarnations of the Klan. They stand out awkwardly as if on billboards, bearing no organic relationship to their surroundings. The rambling flashbacks are contrived and disjointed. If this hadn't been an Important Book, I would never have finished it.

Harper Lee's reputation and place in American literature - and everything To Kill a Mockingbird means to us - have been irrevocably changed by the appearance of this strange mess of a book. That, to me, is very sad.

Scott Timberg, writing in Salon sums it up for me, in a column titled "The Atticus Finch of your childhood isn’t ruined: Read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” for the early draft that it is".
Nearly every novelist has a shelved novel in his or her close[t] or desk drawer: Trying out ideas that don’t work out is how writers learn. And novels go through enormous revisions over time, especially with an assertive editor. “Watchm[a]n” may tell us less about the transformation of the white South or Atticus Finch himself, and more about the financial pressures that lead what could have been framed as a work of scholarship into a vehicle for explosive front-page news.


m*a*s*h re-watch update: still funny and other observations (updated)

Back in August, I started re-watching M*A*S*H end to end on Netflix. I promised updates... and here we are. (tl;dr: it's great.) Random thoughts below.

A huge number of M*A*S*H episodes have no plot whatsoever, but are a series of unconnected scenes or vignettes. These aren't clip shows, as the scenes have not aired before.

For many years Allan and I have called any TV show comprised of vignettes and framed by narration "Hawkeye writes home". We both remembered M*A*S*H frequently using this structure, with Hawkeye writing a letter to his father. Turns out there's a reason we remembered it: it's used all the time. In the first season alone, there were three Hawkeye-writes-homes, two narrated by Hawkeye and another by Henry Blake. This remains a constant from season to season: Radar writes to his mom, Henry Blake writes to Lorraine, BJ writes to Peg, Colonel Potter writes to his wife. In most shows I would call it lazy writing, but here the writing is so good, I just go with it.

Every episode of M*A*S*H has two distinctly different parts, with two different feels: the operating room and everywhere else. The distinction is achieved by what must have been a very bold move in its day: there's no laugh track in the OR. (Much is written about this online; producer Larry Gelbart talks about it here.) In the absence of canned laughter, Hawkeye's bon mots are revealed as grim, gallows humour. Hawkeye's and BJ's commentary on Frank Burns' inferior surgery techniques becomes deadly serious.

In Season 3, the episode "O.R." is set only in the OR - which means that there's no laugh track at all, for the entire show. It's extremely fitting, as the episode is not funny: it's an indictment of war. (There's some good commentary on this episode, including a quote from Gelbart, here.)

Season 4 ends with a famous episode called "The Interview," in which a journalist - apparently an actual war correspondent playing himself - interviews the cast. It's another Hawkeye-writes-home, written by Gelbart himself, shot in black-and-white, with no laugh track - also with no laughs. This episode is clearly not intended to be funny.

When I started this re-watch, I wondered if these serious episodes would be maudlin or overly sentimental. They are not. They are hard-hitting and heartbreaking.

I know that M*A*S*H was a commentary on the Vietnam War, but I didn't remember how far it went as a commentary on all wars generally. One way this is achieved is by having serious, honourable characters make anti-war statements. Colonel Potter, who fought in both World Wars, will often comment on the waste, the futility, the brutality, the unfairness of war. He is an honest and revered figure, a career soldier, yet he understands war only as a necessary evil - and often questions the necessary part. Pro-war statements, on the other hand, only come from buffoons - Frank Burns, Colonel Flagg, and other bit roles.

The future-famous-actor cameos ended early. Since my last M*A*S*H post, only Alex Karras and Mary Kay Place have appeared. Mary Kay Place (who I adore) was absolutely unrecognizable, but I'd know her voice anywhere. She also co-wrote the episode. Of course, there might have been guest appearances by people who were known in real time, but wouldn't necessarily be remembered by a 21st Century viewer.

Here's something that dawned on me slowly: the most important character of the show isn't Hawkeye, it's Radar. Walter "Radar" O'Reilly is the thread that ties all the characters and scenes together, the one character who has reason to interact with every other character, in any setting. Over the seasons, Radar's character develops with both humour and pathos, and Gary Burghoff's performance is brilliant. When I watched M*A*S*H in real time, as a child, I was always confused by Radar's age: other characters talked about him like he was a teenager, even a kid, yet he was clearly an adult. I mean, he was balding! Watching it now, I still note his hairline, but it's very clear that the character is meant to be a young person.

And finally, a note about M*A*S*H's theme music. There's no cold open, and the show opening with those first minor-key notes, as the helicopters hover, preserves a plaintive feel. The music builds as the medical staff race to receive the wounded. The music is sad, and urgent, and very effective. In the first four seasons, however, one note was bothering me. Literally one note. As strange as this might seem, the final note of the theme music was out of place. It sounded comical, with almost a zany sitcom feel, more fitting for Gilligan than Hawkeye. It bothered me in every episode. Then, amazingly, in Season 5, the note is gone. Apparently I'm not the only person who heard an incongruity in this note. The producers cut one note from the theme music, and that changes the viewer's expectations from sitcom to serious.

Update. How annoying! I just found some notes I made with more inconsequential M*A*S*H information. It doesn't warrant its own post, so...

I was wrong about the disappearance of the guest stars. I spotted John Ritter, Terry Garr, Robert Alda (Alan's father), and Michael O'Keefe. I'm thinking that many other small parts were played by actors who were known in their day.

In one episode, Colonel Henry Blake remarks that they watched a double feature: "The Blob" and "The Thing". Now, The Blob holds a very special place in my life; perhaps I will blog about it at some point. The original The Blob came out in 1958. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953.

For "The Thing", the only similar title I found was the 1951 "The Thing from Another World." Making up a title, no problem. Using the title of a real film that wasn't out yet... you can bet the producers got cards and letters about that one.

My other observations, I've decided to hold for a post about re-watching TV shows from the 1970s.


what i'm reading: dead wake: the last crossing of the lusitania by erik larson

On May 7, 1915, the gigantic luxury ocean liner Lusitania - an engineering marvel, the fastest ship of its era - was hit by a torpedo shot from a German "U-boat" submarine. The ship had nearly completed its crossing from New York and was in sight of the Irish coast.

Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk. 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways, were gone. Only six of the ship's 22 lifeboats had been launched. Many passengers drowned because they had put their life-jackets on wrong, so their feet waved in the air while their heads were held underwater. The passenger list included an unprecedented number of infants and children, including several large families. 764 people survived, including the ship's captain.

Before reading Erik Larson's Dead Wake, I knew nothing about this incident. I might have vaguely known that it had something to do with World War I, perhaps not even that. So for me, this book was a revelation, and I think most readers would agree.

Larson tells the story through multiple perspectives, cutting in short chapters between the ship, the U-boat, Woodrow Wilson's White House, and the top-secret British naval intelligence office. Despite the known outcome, Larson builds suspense masterfully. The first-person accounts of Lusitania passengers, and dozens of perfectly placed details, paint a very vivid picture.

I found the chapters on the German side particularly fascinating. Most of us know something about travel on the glorious ocean liners of that era, from all the Titanic lore. But I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing nothing about submarine technology of that time. The conditions on the U-boats were beyond grueling, and so dangerous that early forays were suicide missions. Reading Dead Wake, I developed an unexpected sympathy for the U-boat captain and crew, despite knowing that they were preying on undefended civilians. This is a tribute to Larson's considerable skill.

Larson is an absolute master of literary nonfiction. He established his reputation in 2003 with Devil in the White City, about a hunt for a serial killer during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. I haven't read his other books, but White City is a true page-turner, and Dead Wake is even better.

Many things about the sinking of the Lusitania remain unsolved and controversial. To those ends, Larson presents new evidence suggesting that British naval intelligence knew, and possibly even expected, the attack, but allowed it to happen to give the United States a pretext for joining the war then raging in Europe and elsewhere. According to this review, Lusitania buffs will encounter nothing new. But how many of us are Lusitania buffs? For everyone who is not, this book will be richly rewarding.