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June 6, 2014

19 hours in the Negev

My wife and I just spent nineteen hours in Yeruham [flickr photos] in the Negev desert. We were visiting Avi Warshavsky and his family who I know through the Center for Educational Technology, an Israeli non-profit that encourages tech innovation (in Hebrew and Arabic) for schools. Avi is the head of MindCET, a remarkable ed tech incubator in Yeruham, and is a highly respected figure in the Israeli open tech field. (I was brought to Israel by Yad Hanadiv and the National Library of Israel to talk with the Library about its digital initiative. I also gave an informal talk to the Library staff, talked at a Wikimedia conference, and went to a meetup of Hasadna (a collective of open data activists), so it’s been a busy and ultra-stimulating week.)

Anyway, yesterday evening we went down to Yeruham, a town of 10,000 noted for its open-hearted culture. You come to Yeruham after a long drive through an increasingly barren landscape. Yeruham Lake announces the start of the town, which in the US might make it all the way to being a large pond, but which is the second largest lake in Israel. (I think I must have gotten that wrong since it doesn’t even make Wikipedia’s list of lakes in Israel, which is only three entries long.) The town itself is modest but full of the signs family life: playgrounds, small shops, cafes, a well-used cultural center.

That evening, Avi took us and two of his children to see "the crater" from atop Mt. Avnun. You drive up a two-way road about the width of 1.5 cars until you are on the top of a mountain. Then you walk for about two minutes to get to the edge of a cliff bounded by a trip wire pretending to be a fence. The crater is not a deep hole but more like an upside-down bottle cap, except the edges are mountains and the bottle cap would take a day of walking to cross. Also, if you or any of your loved ones get too close to the edge of this bottle cap, they will be pulled off by an invisible vortex which your host insists does not exist but you can sense through your X-Man power of Being Afraid.

It’s quite beautiful.

The next day, we started the morning by going to David Ben-Gurion‘s burial place, which is a park of green atop a bluff that looks out at a sea of bluffs. Magnificent. If only Charlton Heston were there to hold his arms out majestically.

In the park, if you go in the morning, you can see wild ibexes (ibixen?) chewing at the vegetation, birds of various sorts, and lizards scuttling about. The ibexes we saw were smaller than deer, and lovely. It was great to see the ibex outside of its usual habitat: the crossword puzzle.

Then we went to Avdat, a Unesco World Heritage site where you can wander through a mountaintop village built of stone inhabited by the Nabataeans, Romans, and Byzantines from third century BCE to the seventh century CE. It was one of 65 walled villages along the route incense caravans took to ships waiting in Gaza. It is a beautiful spot, and more of the old village remains than I’d expected. We were the only people there. (It was also the first time in my life I wished I were wearing sun glasses. After about half an hour, I had trouble seeing.)

In a total switch of context, we then went to the MindCET offices, which were closed for the Shavuos holiday. Avi and I were able to catch up on the 14 startups MindCET has worked with, the global Ed Tech competition MindCET is co-sponsoring, and more. MindCET is a great place for early stage startups, providing them with a place to co-work and mentoring. Yeruham would like to attract more tech companies, which I can see. It seems like a wonderful community.

Also, at night Yeruham has stars We should get some of those for Boston.

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April 26, 2014

I [heart] Amsterdam

I’m in Amsterdam for The Next Web conference, along with a number of other Americans. And we all can’t understand why Amsterdam is so often treated as a second-tier city for Americans visiting Europe. London, Paris, and Rome make it into the top tier. Amsterdam is to often an “if-we-have-time” city. Ridiculous.

Part of it is perhaps due to Amsterdam’s reputation for drugs and hookers. To this day if I say that I’m going to Amsterdam, people make the puffing on a joint gesture and grin. Now that it’s cheaper just to fly to Denver, maybe we’ll be spared the implication that Amsterdam’s main attraction is the opportunity to smoke weed. I smell more pot being smoked in Cambridge, Mass. than I do in Amsterdam.

There are many cities I love, but there is none I more look forward to visiting than Amsterdam.

It is physically a gorgeous city. Every corner there’s another sight you never want to forget.

It is big but walkable.

The museums are amazing. I spent a couple of hours in the Rijks Museum this afternoon and I’ll come back the next time I’m here and the time after that. If you love Van Gogh or Rembrandt or …

Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride

Frans Hals

But mainly there are the Dutch. They are great to do business with because they’re straightforward and rational. And they’re great to hang out with because they’re warm, funny, and a little bit crazy.

Then there’s the food. Well, let’s move on.

If you ask me for recommendations for cities to visit in Europe, Amsterdam will be in the topmost cluster without a doubt.

Note: Today is King’s Day. The entire population is out on the streets, wearing orange, eating various fried foods, drinking beer, and enjoying being together. (I did all of those things except for the beer.) We don’t have days like this in America. And altough it’s not exactly my idea of fun, it’s fun watching the Dutch have fun.

amsterdam text sculpture

King's Day crowd

King's Day bozos

[6:30pm: The street festival has turned into an all-city frat party. That’s a lot of drunken people.]

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March 22, 2014

Biblioteca Malatestiana – The world’s oldest public library

I’m in Cesena, Italy for the first holding of the Web Economic Forum. Because I’m only here for a day, I didn’t bother to look up the local attractions until I arrived this afternoon. At TripAdvisor, the #1 Attraction is the Biblioteca Malatestiana, so I walked there. (It turns out the WEF is in the adjoining building.)

The 400-year-old Biblioteca lays claim to being the world’s oldest public library. And it’s worth a visit, although the tour is in Italian, which I listened to attentively with my 1% Italian comprehension that consists almost entirely of false cognates and pizza toppings. Nevertheless, you can get the gist that this is a damn old library, that it’s got some very old books, including one from the 11th century, and that it was managed jointly by a monastery and the city government. (The intricate doors to the reading room require a key from each to be unlocked.)

The reading room looks like a chapel. There are two rows of pews that turn out to be reading desks designed for people to stand at. The books are stored underneath, like prayer books in a church, except they’re not and they’re chained to the shelf. The books on the right side of the chapel are religious, and the ones on the left are civic and classics. (The Greek classics are Latin translations.) The collection of 353 books includes seven Jewish works.

Reading room
Photo by Ivano Giovannini, from here

Reading room
Photo by Ivano Giovannini, from here

Then you are taken into the Pope Pius VII’s library, a well-lit room with 15th century music books on display. They are nicely illuminated. There’s also a small display of small books, including one that they claim is the smallest that is legible without a magnifier. I couldn’t read it, but my eyesight isn’t as good as it never was.

Chorale books
Photo by Sally Zuckerman, from here

I wish they had shown us more of the Library, but you can hear very old voices there, and they’re mainly saying, “Printed books are going to kill reading! Everyone’s a reader now! You don’t need any special skills or training. And the books are so much uglier than they were in my day. Hey you kids, get off of my fiefdom!”

 


The Wikipedia article isn’t very good. There’s better info on this Consortium of European Research Libraries page, and this Travel Through History page by Sally Zuckerman. (The photos are from Sally’s post.)

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January 23, 2014

The Flu

I am just emerging from what I will call “the flu,” even though I have no idea what it was, but to call it “a cold” would be to disrespect it. Flu, suh!

I am, of course, a delicate flower (i.e., a man) so I lay on my back and moaned for several days. Today I am upright and moaning, so that’s progress. (BTW, yes, I did get a flu shot this fall. Thanks for nothing, Evolution via Natural Selection!)

Just to catch you up, not that you need to know, but I started coming down with The Flu on our plane ride home from London through which my wife and I walked for several days. Saturday night we had a Bloggers’ Dinner, which was tremendous fun, although physical space being what it was, the socializing was unevenly distributed. But it was great to see people I know through blogging and hadn’t seen for years, and to meet some new people I hadn’t seen in all my years.

The purpose for our trip was to participate in a meeting at the Cambridge University CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) about a new program they’re developing in digital humanities. I got to spend a day with an awesome set of people. More later.

From there we went to London for the weekend. London was great fun and I would tell you about it, but I feel an approach of the vapors and now must sleep for 3.5 hours.

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December 9, 2013

A day at the Bogota Library

The Luis Ángel Arango Library and the National Library of Colombia have been bringing in speakers this year to talk about the future of libraries, the relation of digital and cultural worlds, and library innovation, partially sponsored by the U.S. State Dept. through our local embassy. Friday was my turn. What a privilege!

And I mean privilege. After spending the morning wandering around a section of Bogota that we really enjoyed — so interesting and lively, and people wer so kind to us — but we were later told we should have avoided, my wife and I met with Alexis de Greiff [twitter: ahdegreiffa] the director of the Luis Ángel Arango Library (web site here). He and I had had lunch this summer when he was touring library innovation labs in the US. Alexis has the opportunity to re-do some of the space in the National Library. It was a fascinating to hear the sorts of possibilities he’s considering, including creating an innovation lab somewhat along the lines of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab; we talked about the wisdom of including researchers in the mix, something we’d love to do here at our Lab.

Alexis has a huge opportunity because the Library is such an important part of the life of the city and of the country. It has well over a million books, making it the largest library in Latin America. And it gets an astonishing 5,000 visitors a day, making it more used than the New York Public Library. Many of the patrons are university students, so the Library has elements of both a research library (including the most complete collection in the world of materials about Colombian heritage) and a public library. It is physically located in the midst of an amazing cultural complex that includes an absolutely stunning concert hall and art museums. If you think there’s value in having art, culture, education, and knowledge intersect, come to the Luis Ángel Arango Library Library.

Luis Ángel Arango Library

The Luis Ángel Arango Library, and the church up the street.

We got a tour of the Library from top to bottom, led by Diana Restrepo Torres, the director of technology (collections development and cataloguing), and Juan Pablo Siza Ramírez, the coordinator of digital resources. The current building was created in the 1950s and still exhibits that era’s openness and cleanliness of line. Significant additions and modifications have been made over the years. It all feels light, airy, and inviting.

About 20% of the works are on open stacks. The rest are in the basement and are fetched via a conveyor system. (The works are shelved according to the Dewey Decimal System, but have a color stripe on the spine to indicate the rough area in which they are shelved, a quick way to get works to their first stop.)

Books with color-coded stripes at the bottom

Books in basement with conveyor systen

Books in basement, with conveyor upwards

The Library includes sound-proofed rooms where people can practice playing musical instruments, a room for playing board games (with a balcony overlooking Mount Monserrate), lots of computers (but only designated areas with wifi), a rare books room, cafes, and much more. It is a big library.

Game Room at the Bogota Library

Game Room

Mt. Monserrate from the game room window

Mt. Monserrate from the game room window

And it is a library completely committed to serving its community however it can.

The Library is funded by the Central Bank (like our Federal Reserve). The Bank spends about a third of its budget supporting Colombian culture, and for this reason the Library is able to purchase cultural items that otherwise might slip out of Colombian hands. For example, Diana and Juan Pablo should us a set of volumes from the 1880s that were simply astonishingly. They are part of a ten volume set the Library recently purchased, hand-written and illustrated by José María Gutierrez de Alba, a Spanish spy who traveled through Colombia for about 13 years. The Library is going to digitize the volumes and post them online in its Virtual Library under an Open Access license. The thought that everyone will be able to see these pages makes me happy.

1880 manuscript

Juan Pablo tells me that the Spanish equivalent to "awesome!" is "grandiose!" This is a grandiose library.

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August 5, 2013

A very good day in NYC

I love Boston, where I live, but NYC on a good day is beyond words.

Here is one very good day in New York, with my wife.

Sunday:

  • Amtrak to New York.

  • Library Hotel. Friendly, guest-centric, non-obsequious, relatively mid-priced, well-placed hotel. (I did much better on price by going to the hotel’s site.)

  • Walk 30 blocks up 5th Ave., 10 of them in Central Park

  • Frick Collection. Such an intensity of awesomeness. God bless the robber barons!

  • Dinner at Candle Cafe: hearty vegan food

  • Mediocre movie.(Pacific Rim. Yes, I know.)

  • Back to the hotel for a drink outside.

And, what the heck, here’s Monday:

It does not get better than this. I am very lucky.

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June 23, 2013

Top, oh, 14 ways to tell you’re in a hip hotel

  1. It’s named a letter, a number, a letter or number spelled out as a word, or has some completely generic name, like “Hotel.”

  2. The entire staff at the reception desk put together weighs less than one standard American.

  3. Color in the lobby is taken as an affront to style.

  4. The minibar only has liquors you’ve never heard of, except for the beer which is Bud.

  5. Your room’s waste basket is so well-hidden that you don’t discover it until Day Three.

  6. They would rather let the shower flood the bathroom floor than put in a shower curtain or frosted door.

  7. There’s a full-length mirror in the shower.

  8. There’s a window to the outside in the shower. (Not only have I been in that hotel, but the window was frosted up to waist level. Holy sexist voyeurism, Batman!)

  9. Irregular furniture has sharp, shin-barking edges that are invisible at night.

  10. The pad of paper on the nightstand is made out of hemp and is accompanied by an old-fashioned pencil to encourage you to be authentic.

  11. The hotel restaurant (if there is one) only serves tiny, tiny food.

  12. If there is a concierge, and there probably isn’t, that person is called “city coach” or “wrangler,” or anything except “concierge.”

  13. If there is room service, the menu offers only kiddie food, but at adult prices: PB&J for $14, grilled American cheese on white bread for $18, and the mac ‘n’ cheese requires a credit check.

  14. The TV only gets ironic channels.

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October 22, 2012

Busy, tired me

If I don’t blog much over the next week, it’s because I’m doing everything I can to become an incubator of airplane-borne diseases. This morning I spoke at the excellent Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, then I’m on to NYC for the World Technology Awards, where Too Big to Know is shortlisted, then on Wednesday I’m in Chicago for Learning 3.0, where I’m keynoting plus arguing with Andrew Keen, then Thursday at Northeastern U. where I’m giving a breakfast talk on Open Access, and finally on Thursday night I’m going to the Genoa Science Festival for two days to give a talk and to support the Italian publisher of Too Big to Know. Ah, yes, just a typical week.

I’m on the first leg, and I’m already exhausted.

(And sorry that this is a braggy, self-centered, low-value post. I’ve decided I should do these occasionally. For example, it matters to me that because of 2b2k I’m one of five finalists for a technology communication award. I’m not proud that it matters to me — I’d like to be above it all — but it does.)

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June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!

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June 13, 2012

My inner voice

As I have mentioned before, I have what I think is particularly strong inner narrator, especially when I’m alone. I’ve always attributed this to my proclivities towards writing, since my narrator drafts and often redrafts descriptions of what I’m experiencing. It’s either that or I’m a little schizo. Or both.

I am today at the beginning of a three week trip, during which I will be spending a fair bit of time alone. My inner narrator has already kicked in, and here’s the thing: It’s now Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.

I have to say it’s a little disconcerting having two of them. Not for me it isn’t. But it is for me. I’ll tell you exactly why: It’s because your inner Mike and Tom include an internalized Mike and Tom, so you have a little fractal regression thing going on that’s got to be a little upsetting. Yes, that’s true; it’s because I’m a people person. Whereas I’m just a person person. Exactly right.

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