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Monday, March 14, 2016

Breaking in the new kid

Starting a new job is humbling. I used to be the founder of a well-respected library district where I knew (almost) everybody and everything. Now I'm the new guy in an association where I sometimes forget which floor my boss is on.

The late Missy Shock, a very insightful training coordinator I hired for Douglas County Libraries many years ago, told it like this: we go from unconsciously incompetent (we don't know that we don't know), to consciously incompetent (OMG, I know NOTHING), to consciously competent (OK, I need to do this, then that), to unconsciously competent (you're done with the task before you realize you started).

My own phases as the new director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) have gone more like this:
  • exhilaration. What fun to learn! New city, new building, new people, new issues. It was thrilling. This lasted about four weeks.
  • humiliation. "I know I've asked this before, possibly twice, but how do I..." "In the 293 emails I got in the last hour, you asked me, and I meant to respond, but ..." This painfully conscious incompetence lasted another three weeks. And has not gone away entirely. ALA is a complex organization, and the OIF deals with a LOT of stuff.
  • modest achievement. I did something right today. I did three things right this week. I begin to grasp a larger pattern... And that brings me up to the 10th week, today.
One of the continuing issues is something I'll call the OIF "house style." I work with some very smart people. As they zoom through their days, they copy me in on our business. A vital piece of that is member support: sometimes librarians find themselves in a tight spot. They holler for help. We help them.

At other times, we respond to other constituents: Intellectual Freedom Committee members, Freedom to Read Foundation board members, internal ALA colleagues, external media. Consistently, my staff follows a format something like this:
  • here are the relevant links to definitive legal cases.
  • here are the relevant links to previous ALA/OIF policy decisions.
  • here are the best practices for folks in your situation.
My small staff (5 people!) cranks all this out in great volume, with great focus, and on often very tight deadlines. It really is impressive, and exemplifies the best kind of academic rigor. We at the OIF cite our sources, remember precedent, gather the good, and give it back to our members and communities.

I find that this does differ from my own style. As a newspaper columnist for a quarter of a century, I tried to be a little more approachable, more ruminative, more conversational.

As is the case with most relationships, I suspect both of us (me and OIF) will adjust. I'll work to get smarter about the extraordinary depth of resources in our office, and point to them with precision. My staff will maybe get a little less formal, and a little more emotionally nuanced.

But I suspect that I need to do more changing than they do. I have been given the chance to look at a much larger world than I knew. I have a lot to learn. The good news: I have good teachers.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

SmartDown II

I encountered the first version of SmartDown, written in C+, version 1.0) in November of 2014. It was a minimal, "Zen" writing application. That is, the screen was very stripped down: the top had a sandwich menu, window controls and nothing else; the middle was a pleasant faint grey background and a darker text; and there was a line at the bottom of the screen with a character and line count, and a toggle between editing and preview. Hover your mouse over the character count, and get a word and sentence count.

Markdown editors are all pretty much the same: simple text with a handful of markdown symbols to control formatting. What distinguished SmartDown was that it also offered "folding" - the ability to "collapse" or conceal text under a "#" heading.

In short, it was a clean, fast, quickly learned writing application that allowed for the creation and manipulation of complex documents. At the end, the text could be exported or copied as html or rtf.

There were a few oddities in SmartDown: changing preferences required the direct editing of a configuration file. It showed on-screen symbols for soft returns (which could be toggled, but again required config file editing). Minimizing the app moved it to the lower right taskbar area, rather than the more typical task bar icon. Hitting Home and End took you to the beginning and end of a paragraph rather than the onscreen line.

But I liked it. And in June of 2015, I bought it for $19.99.

Now I'm looking at the trial version of SmartDown II (version 0.8.2). It has been completely rewritten in C#. It remains a very capable markdown editor. But many things have changed.

Key changes

On my Windows laptop, SmartDown II takes longer to load than the original - about three times longer. But that's not surprising for a beta.

Once it does load, the differences are immediately apparent: now three panes are displayed. On the left is a directory window. Load a folder, and "snippets" - file name, date, and the first three lines of text - show up. The center pane still has a sandwich menu on the top; the character count has been replaced with a word count. That's far more convenient for writing, although hovering still gives a few more statistics. There are two more controls on the bottom. On the lower left is a toggle to either reveal or hide the snippet pane. Moreover, the snippet panel can be adjusted by dragging its border - much as with a spreadsheet column. On the lower right, another toggle lets you access various functions (spellcheck, line number, word wrap, highlight, layout, template, and preview). Preview - the html conversion of markdown - can be turned off, shown as the constant third pane, or shown as a separate window. While displayed on the screen, however, you cannot resize it, or the center pane to the right.

What works

The snippet pane not only allows a more convenient way to work with multiple files (although only one at a time), it also shows a navigation of the currently loaded file. That is, it shows the headers, and lets you jump around the file by clicking on them. The snippets pane works as a nice way to assemble things from smaller documents. However, I haven't yet found a way to drag them around within the pane. So snippets can be combined and rearranged within an editor pane, but not within the snippets or file pane.

When you highlight text, SDII now offers some pop-up one-click formatting guides (bold, italics, header, links, footnotes, etc.).


On occasion, I get a white cursor blob, a graphic glitch that hangs around on screen even when I move the cursor away. Pressing a Return after it tends to make it go away. [Follow-up: not a bug, a feature. This highlights two spaces.]

Sometimes, using the cursor to move up or down causes a line number to flash on the top right of the screen. That's useless and annoying.

Spellchecking: the red underlining starts immediately and only ends when you get to a punctuation mark. That's irritating, too: it means that most of the time you're typing, there's a red squiggle appearing and disappearing on screen - the opposite of distraction-free. So I turn it off. [Right now, you have to do this not through the preferences menu, but through the pop-up on the lower right corner of the main screen.]

The highlight paragraph mode, at least in the standard display, whites out and underlines everything else, although that may be because I was fiddling with foreground and background defaults. So that gets turned off, too.

Preferences are a little mysterious: you're not always changing what you think you're changing. But that could be just the learning curve. Meanwhile, it might be handy to have a "reset defaults."

On occasion, there's a lag in the preview display. Sometimes, when I add a new paragraph (especially as a list), the rightmost pane toggles to a huge font, then settles back down.

Moving through the editor pane doesn't move through the preview pane; they scroll separately. That's probably more a design feature than a glitch, but it seems to me to require excessive scrolling.


Nonetheless, SmartDown II looks promising. The developer, Ric, clearly is putting a lot of careful time and attention into the product, and it shows. I'll probably buy this one, too! [I did. Keep the talent happy.] Meanwhile, back to fooling around with it....

Saturday, February 13, 2016


I spoke to my sister, Mary, today. She lives up west of Waukegan, where we were raised. But as a young woman she lived in Chicago, probably not too far from where I live now. I like the layout here very much. My one-bedroom apartment features a bay window in the living room. But those windows look out on a brick courtyard. Even on bright days, there just isn't much sunshine in the place. Or even outside of my apartment. I remarked that my apartment doesn't have a lot of light.

"The city," said my sister, "is dark." It is. Chicago's big shoulders cast long shadows.

This weekend, it's cold, too. Early this morning, I got a weather text about chill factor. It would be, I was informed, -20 degrees. Wear a hat! Wear gloves! OR DIE. (Well, no. But 30 minute exposures might well result in frostbite, said my app.)

On the one hand, it's all true. It was cold. Despite my amazing Russian hat (bought in Red Square, Moscow), my uber-warm long coat (a gift from Suzanne), my EYES were cold.

On the other hand, it was sunny. A blue sky, not much wind. And I found myself walking quite comfortably from old Union Station to my apartment near State and Division. It wasn't that bad.

Chicago, let me be perfectly clear, is a far harsher environment than Colorado. It just is, a result of this mid-continental climate. Colorado may be harsh for a morning or afternoon, even, VERY rarely, for a day. But 85% of the time, it's bright and balmy. Sub-zero temperatures are REALLY rare.

But Chicago as a built environment is remarkable. I found myself repeatedly beguiled today by its history and views. It is FAR more diverse than Colorado. I love the mix here of languages, skin tones, food choices, accents, and architecture.

So here are a few shots from the day.

high backed benches almost bare
at Union Station

[Note: in fact, Union Station pushes some 48,000 people a day through its doors. But the "melancholia" is more about remembering a time when "Union Station" meant both a strong endorsement of the Labor Movement, and a far more elegant mindset about transportation. Look at the SCALE of this building!]

Could we be any more orange?

A fascination with water and bridges.


Dunno if you can make it out, but the top of the center skyscraper frames just space.

I just like the lines and shadows.

And that's the view from my walkabout today.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Open Focus

I read a book a few years ago about something called Open Focus ("The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body," by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins). The idea is this: some people who meditated achieved an "alpha" state: measurable brain activity indicated deep, centered contemplation. Others struggled.

But something surprising happened when those laggard meditators were asked to do what would seem to be simple: imagine space. That is, while meditating consider the distances around and between things. Think about the area enveloping your tongue, the distance between left shoulder blade and right collar bone. All of these suggestions were about visualizing dimensions within the body.

Let me add the notion of pondering the rippling horizon over waves (Chicago), the sheer volume of distance from foot to mountain top (Denver). Feel free to add in your own moment of connection with the larger, natural world. This captures, I feel, the Taoist ideal signified in so many paintings: small people, big world.

When meditators did that, they ALIGNED. They got it. Big time apha waves.

My takeaway: the combination of meditative practice and the visualization of volume has unusual power to expand our spiritual insights and peace.

I think, I apprehend, I process, in poetry. First, let me express this insight as philosophic haiku:

an aspect of space
is spirituality:
volume is holy

That's true, I think. But although it follows the form, it doesn't follow the spirit. It ain't poetry.

But this, I hope, is:

in the Irish pub
she lifts her river green eyes
to skyscraper top

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Leadership: definition and challenge

I spoke over brunch last Saturday with Peggy Sullivan (American library luminary and a fascinating, insightful conversationalist) about the definition of leadership.

Based on comments one of Peggy's bosses once made (and I'm paraphrasing), here it is:
  • figure out where you want to go
  • do stuff that gets you there

Any questions?

The more I think about it, the more powerful it gets.

In so many libraries - in so many organizations of any kind, public or private - we have "leaders" who don't lead. "Where do you want to go?" is usually some variant of "where do we want to go?" That is, direction is not just the independent judgement of the putative boss. Ideally, it's the best thinking of an informed and thoughtful staff, facilitated by (and contributed to, certainly, by) the leader. If that staff and leader have any smarts at all, direction is grounded in user (customer/member) needs or aspirations. To reverse that flow: who do we serve, what have we learned about how best to serve them, and what are the key directions that matter?

The point: leaders should be able to say, succinctly, based on thoughtful analysis, "here's where we're going."

"Does this take us there?" is equally important. Every institution has legacy programs and activities. We get invested in them, both financially and emotionally. But do those programs and activities move us in the direction we need to go? And if not, will we have the honesty and courage to let them go? Will we have the creativity to spin out new ones? And will we hold ourselves accountable to the vision of powerful and effective service?

If leaders can't answer those questions, and with answers that assert our agency (here defined as the ability and will to act on our own behalf), they're not leading.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


You've seen them. Indeed, you can't avoid them. You step into an online discussion that interests you, and ... there he is. (It might be a she, but not usually.)

I'm talking about trolls.

So what do I mean? A troll is not:

  • Someone who expresses a contrary view or argument. That's interesting and an occasion for learning.
  • Someone who is socially dim or clueless. Let's face it: at some point, that's all of us. We offend people. Usually, it's unintentional, and when it's pointed out, we realize we've overstepped. If we're mindful, then we try to mend bridges. Sometimes, our offensive comments are totally intended (we are snarky, sarcastic, and/or condemnatory), and we shouldn't be surprised by the response. But, call me old-fashioned, I think we should try to be polite.

A troll is:

  • Someone who obsesses about a viewpoint. And here I mean not just sounding a recurrent theme, but demonstrating an unwillingness to let go of a particular event. Trolls expand that circumstance to a general indictment, and ignore any contrary evidence or context.
  • Someone who demands that anyone holding a contrary view weigh in, every single time, to any statement the troll declares is important. And the failure to respond proves the conspiracy of suppression.
  • Someone who must be noticed, who calls persistently for acknowledgement even when such an acknowledgement would be decidedly odd and irrelevant.

Ultimately, trolling is a kind of mental illness, a desperate and narcissistic attempt to seize collective attention and refocus it on the troll.

The problem, of course, is that it isn't always clear or obvious when someone moves from being just irritating to mentally disturbed.

But I will say that trolls are corrosive to public debate. I once thought that the Internet and the ability of the public to respond instantly to the news could usher in a new round of civic engagement and enlightened discourse. Instead, the race to the bottom - turning every single posting into (pick one) an anti-Obama, anti-immigrant, anti-business, anti-whatever rant - makes people turn away from comments altogether. It's free speech, and that's swell. But all too often it's not free speech worth listening to. Instead, it's a loop of nasty self-references. In the end, it's boring.

As an inveterate letter-to-the-editor-writer, I used to chafe at the rejection of my missives. But, in retrospect, a system that moderates, edits, and confirms the identity of contributors seems smart. The sad truth is that even I need to be moderated sometimes.

Here's the core issue: what do you do about a troll, especially one that stalks you? On the one hand, you want to be polite. On the other, you don't want to grant this person the right to dictate how you spend your time. You have your own life. Yet trolls keep tossing their thoughts into the public forum, responding to your every action.

So sometimes, you just ... ignore them. It's not that you think they're subhuman. It's just that you've learned interacting with them winds up being a "striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14). You get what they mean, you don't agree, and continued engagement with them is just pointless.

So we wind up with the Internet meme: don't feed the trolls. Don't give them air, don't give them time, don't give them a blank check on the bank account of your attention.

Have you ever dealt with a troll? What worked for you?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

New website

Last weekend, I simplified my website. As a consultant and speaker, I was focused on marketing those services. Now that I'm an ALA department head, I've decided to use the website as more of a placeholder for my resume and broad professional activities.

 I may still tweak it a little: my largest body of work is my newspaper column site: LaRue's Views. These days, I do my blogging here, so it might make sense to give those destinations and perhaps a link to my book, a little more prominence in the menu.