Monday, December 29, 2008

Of big pictures and little details

I'm on my one year break -- my lost year as they call it at the iSchool. Or in my case, my lost 18 months. And I am plagued by superficiality. I can't seem to get below a very surface interest in anything.

I read, I think, I write, I talk with people about a subject (any subject) and quite quickly I find, almost like magic, that I've connected up this dot with that dot, drawn this parallel, identified this or that recurring theme, and before I know it, I've drifted up like smoke out of whatever depths I might yet pursue if I would stay with the idea for awhile, to some lofty mesa where I "see" the big picture and lose all interest in the subject. It's a kind of fatalistic, "oh, yeah, well this is just another example of that" and it's pointless to think about it any further. This pattern is getting to be a real pain in the ass.

At its best, this big picture thing is a tremendous asset. It provides unique perspective. I learn by associating unlikely events, by seeing beyond the immediate details to more remote implications. I've always thought of it as a good thing. But it seems now to lead inexorably towards a false belief that I already know enough when in fact, that's absurd. I lose curiousity. I draw conclusions too quickly. I cut off exploration and discovery. It's not always the best thing, to see the big picture or to "instantly get it." Without enough pieces in the puzzle, I see the wrong picture, I see the same picture in every puzzle.

So, though I entertain all sorts of ideas about what I might pursue next, it seems none will ultimately sustain my interest until I take some time to adjust my approach to entertaining ideas.

You know, it feels like I am a car out of gear. Nothing works but gravity and the brake. So maybe I need to have a look under the hood (is that where the gears are?). What on earth am I doing with a car analogy?

I need to study in detail why I can't study detail.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Retirement Slow Your Personal Growth?

My statistics class wraps up today with turning in my final paper. Final. Who knows what that really means at this point. But here it is, my first go at statistical analysis.

I decided to write the paper as a blog post and that's how I'm turning it in (I'm not doing two versions, one for public consumption and one for "publication"). Admittedly, that's pushing things a bit. People don't blog about statistical analysis and final papers aren't usually blog posts. But you know, I firmly believe that anything can be made interesting to a wider audience than the narrowly defined scholarly research audience that we typically prepare our work for. The writing just has to tell a story that's reasonably interesting to real people in a language they can understand -- mainly that means avoiding throwing unusual terms at the reader without explaining what they mean.

So I have to explain certain of the parentheticals here, the ones like this: (b=.759; t=-4.96; p=.000). This is statistics codespeak. It truly is a foreign language, more difficult to interpret even than legalese in the sense that normal people can't understand what it means. Even if you translate it from symbols and numbers to plain English, it still does not make ordinary sense (the slope is .759; the t-score is 4.96; the p-value is .000). No, it takes a lot more words to explain it than that. But, that's what the text is all about. It explains what the code shows without specific reference to the code. The parentheticals are for the statistically-inclined only, those for whom the raw data speaks volumes of "backup" for the statements in the text. They are similar to the citations in legal writing. So feel free to ignore them if you don't want to delve into the supporting authority. I couldn't leave them out. They matter, just not to everyone.

Writing so that unusual terms are explained is good writing anyway, for scholars or for anyone. The difference between scholar-speak and blog post mainly comes down to style. What is it about scholar-style that so quickly brings on the glaze-over for most people? Maybe I'll write about that some day. And, I am sure I probably don't have the style right. But I'll keep working on that. In the mean time, here's the stats paper:

Will retirement slow your personal growth?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
So, a funny thing happened the other day as I was looking over some data from the 1993-1994 wave of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), you know, the study where researchers repeatedly ask a random sample of more than 10,000 Wisconsin high school grads, their parents, and later their siblings or widows, tons of questions about just about everything. I found a negative relationship between retirement and personal growth! Analyzing the respondents’ answers using a mathematical “model,” you can roughly predict a person’s responses regarding personal growth if you know his or her retirement status: those who are retired will have lower scores for personal growth, on average .76 lower, than those who are not retired. This is pretty depressing. I just retired two years ago. So, shall I just say, ‘so long’ to personal growth?

Well maybe I don’t need to worry. These differences between growth scores for the retired and the employed are not alarmingly large (even though the difference is statistically significant), and folks responding to the surveys administered by the WLS graduated from high school in 1957, which means they were born roughly between 1939 and 1941. I, on the other hand, am a boomer, a member of the generation born between 1946 and 1964, estimated at near 80 million. We’ll be retiring over the next 10 to 20 years. As we have in every other phase of our lives, we will affect the understanding of this phenomenon if for no other reason than that our numbers challenge social structures and facilities designed to handle much smaller volumes of individuals at a given time. But more fundamentally, we’ll likely challenge and ultimately change even the very definition of what it means to retire (AFP, 2007).

Leonard Steinhorn, an American University professor and author of "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy," says the generation often wrongly maligned as latte-sipping Yuppies has transformed most of American society.

He wrote that boomers have led or sustained most of "the great citizen movements that have advanced American values and freedoms -- the environmental movement, the consumer movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the diversity movement, the human rights movement, the openness in government movement."

He told AFP he expects this transformation to continue as boomers age. "It's not going to be a generation that's going to go off to the golf courses and do nothing."
As reported at a world gathering of statisticians in 2007, a Canadian researcher reached a similar conclusion about the likely change in definitions for retirement and noted a lack of statistics about this phenomenon (Bowlby, 2007):

Even though this wave [of boomers] will have significant labour market consequences over the next 20 years, no regular statistics are produced on the retired population.

There are some reasons for this. Only recently has the need for retirement data grown. Secondly, the concept of retirement is fuzzy, to say the least. Retirement can mean different things to different people, and measuring it is difficult for national statistical organizations. Having an international standard would assist in deciding what data or range of data should be produced.

It seems implausible to me that a generation that likes to characterize itself as active, engaged, lifelong learners will just let growth slide upon retirement. There really must be more to this story. Maybe there are other factors that explain the connection between retirement and reduced personal growth for the generation that precedes the boomers into retirement, factors that can help predict whether boomers’ growth will stagnate.

To find out, I examined the interactions of these two variables with three others from the WLS to try to explain reduced personal growth at retirement: I investigated how the negative relationship between retirement and growth is affected by one’s sense of purpose; whether the relationship depends on gender; and how educational levels affect post-retirement growth.

Background
Bowlby may be concerned about the lack of research on retirement and the labor force, but there is definitely plenty of research on retirement and health, summarized by Phyllis Moen in her 1996 article, “A Life Course Perspective on Retirement, Gender and Well-being.” As she reports (p. 132), “there is some evidence that being retired affects psychological symptoms” (citations omitted). She also notes that “from the perspective of social integration, individuals are better off both physically and psychologically when they have a greater number of roles, leading to a sense of purpose, identity, and community (citations omitted). Thus, older individuals who delay retirement or take on subsequent paid work or unpaid volunteer work following their retirement from their career jobs would be better off than those who retire from work without compensating roles and relationships” (p, 133). Hardly surprising, is it?

But Moen also noted significant holes in the research, areas ripe for future study. She cites as examples “[t]he effects of gender … as a variable moderating the retirement and well-being link” (p. 132) and “research on the employment-health linkage [that] consider[s] postretirement employment, and … the effects of retirement on women's life patterns and health (citation omitted)” (p. 139).

“Moreover,” she says, “scholars are only beginning to investigate the health consequences of involvement in unpaid volunteer activities (citations omitted)” (p. 139).

Clearly, there is much we do not know about how boomers will retire, what they’ll make of it, and how retirement will affect their psychological health and well-being.

Methods
Sample
As I noted, the WLS surveys more than 10,000 randomly selected 1957 high school graduates, or those able to provide information about them (parents, spouses, siblings), at intervals ranging from one to 15 years. The survey questions are designed to provide information about participants’ “relationships, family functioning, physical and mental health and well-being, and morbidity and mortality from late adolescence through middle age” as well as “social background, youthful aspirations, schooling, military service, labor market experiences, family characteristics and events, social participation, psychological characteristics, and retirement” (WLS, 2008).

Variables
Response variable

I want to know more about personal growth. The WLS measures personal growth with the following questions:

To what extent do you agree that
  • you are not interested in activities that will expand your horizons?
  • you have the sense that you have developed a lot as a person over time?
  • when you think about it you haven't really improved much as a person over the years?
  • you think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world?
  • you don't want to try new ways of doing things -- your life is fine the way it is?
  • you do not enjoy being in new situations that require you to change your old familiar ways of doing things?
  • there is truth to the saying you can't teach an old dog new tricks?Respondents chose their answers from a 6-item scale. They strongly, moderately or slightly agreed or they slightly, moderately or strongly disagreed. Total scores ranged from 1 to 42. The average for respondents’ scores was 32.69.
Does retirement affect growth: The explanatory variable

Initially I wanted to know how retirement affected personal growth. WLS respondents indicated whether they were retired by choosing among five possibilities: partly retired, completely retired, working and not retired, not working and not retired, and don’t know. These five had been collapsed into two categories of retired or not retired for the dataset that I examined. Only 18% of respondents indicated that they were retired.

Other variables that may explain the relationship between retirement and personal growth

Theoretically, retirement could be a time of exploration, of branching out, of trying new things and taking on projects one never had time for before. The WLS data suggests that may be wishful thinking. When I learned that, far from spurring personal growth, retirement seemed to squelch it, I wanted to know more. I decided to look at sense of purpose in life, gender, and educational attainment to see what I could learn about their possible roles in this negative trend in growth after retirement.

Purpose. Sense of purpose is measured with the same 6-item scale described above for personal growth, but, of course, the questions are different:

To what extent do you agree that
  • you enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality?
  • your daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to you?
  • you are an active person in carrying out the plans you set for yourself?
  • you tend to focus on the present, because the future nearly always brings you problems?
  • you don't have a good sense of what it is you are trying to accomplish in life?
  • you sometimes feel as if you've done all there is to do in life?
  • you used to set goals for yourself, but that now seems like a waste of time?
Scores for this variable also range from 1 to 42; the average of all the scores is 33.37.

Gender. Gender is, of course, either male or female. There were slightly more women than men respondents.

Educational attainment. Education is measured in years of attainment. Respondents completing 12 years (a rough estimate for those graduating high school) constituted 54.1% of the total. Another 13.5% completed 16 years (likely graduating college) and 13.2% finished between 17 and 21 years of formal education. The overall mean number of years completed was 13.6.

Analytic Plan and Results
So, my purpose was simply to explore whether that negative association between retirement and personal growth persists if we take other things into account, or “control” for other variables. The analysis proceeded through several steps as I’ll explain in more detail below. First, of course, I figured out exactly what the relationship between retirement and personal growth was by looking at correlations between a number of the variables from the Study. These correlations show which variables change in associated patterns, either negative (if one goes up the other goes down) or positive (if one goes up the other goes up or if one goes down the other goes down), and how strong the associations are (how likely or unlikely they are to occur just by chance). These associational clues enabled me to think about which of the many variables might have effects on the relationship between retirement and growth. I also examined detailed descriptions of many of the survey responses. For example, I looked at how many people were men, how many were women, how many were retired, how many completed 12, 16 and more years of education, what were average scores for growth and purpose, were growth scores on average higher or lower for the retired, for women, for men, etc. Finally I chose three variables to examine more closely. I looked at what happened if I took the respondents’ sense of purpose in life into account. Next, I examined how the relationship changed depending on gender. And then I evaluated how educational achievements affected the relationship.

Analyzing the Main Relationship: The Bivariate Analysis

As I reported in the introduction above, I found that those who were retired had scores for personal growth .76 lower than those who were not retired. For example, the average personal growth score for those who were not retired was 32.96; the average for those who were retired was 32.12. I discovered the dimensions of this relationship by analyzing all respondents’ scores for the two variables, retired and growth, to see how much personal growth scores changed, on average, with a one-unit change (that is, from 0 to 1, from not retired to retired) in retirement status. In technical terms, I conducted an ordinary least squares bivariate analysis, or OLS regression, on the two variables (bivariate!). This analysis told me that they changed together, and that the way they changed together was extremely unlikely to happen just by chance (that is, it was highly statistically significant (b=.759; t=-4.96; p=.000). But it also showed that the relationship was not likely to be of much practical importance because retirement only explained ¼ of 1% of the variability in respondents’ personal growth scores, and as indicated above, there is only an average difference of .76 between the growth scores for the retired and the employed. Clearly, there were a lot of other things that explained personal growth in addition to retirement. Nevertheless, I still wanted to find out more about this negative association.

Considering Additional Variables: The Multivariate Analyses
Controlling for purpose

I ran the same analysis (OLS regression) again, but this time I added purpose in life to my model for predicting growth scores (“controlled for” purpose). This allowed me, in effect, to look at the relationship between retirement and growth for groups of the respondents who all had the same scores for purpose in life. I found that the negative relationship I first observed practically disappeared -- it diminished by 99.5%! The association between the two, controlled for purpose, could easily occur by random chance (that is, it lost all statistical significance (b=.004; t=-.03; p=.97)). Interestingly, retirement and sense of purpose together explained almost 45% of the variability in personal growth, an increase over what retirement explains by itself of over 180%.

It seemed a bit too convenient that the drop in personal growth might not really be associated with retirement at all, but with a loss of one’s sense of purpose. Voila! End of inquiry! But this wasn’t very satisfying. It seemed like I still faced the same question –why? On the other hand, this did make some sense: maybe retirement leaves people without a sense of purpose. “I am [my career], so when that is over, what am I after that, and what’s my purpose for getting up every day?”

I checked with my instructor. She was not surprised at all by my finding. She pointed out that many people believe that one’s sense of purpose and one’s personal growth reflect the same underlying dimension of psychological well-being. They might be “interchangeable,” so to speak.

I looked at the questions the WLS uses to evaluate these two variables (that’s why I repeated them above, so you could see them too). I couldn’t really tell for sure if they were getting at the same thing, though it seems possible, so I tested that idea by reversing the analyses: If I were measuring the relationship between retirement and purpose in life, would controlling for growth explain away the (presumed negative) association?

Well, there was a negative relationship but growth didn’t completely explain it away. Controlling for growth reduced the relationship between retirement and purpose by 46% (b=-1.17; b=-.63), but it remained statistically significant (t=-5.4; p=.000). So purpose and growth were not exactly interchangeable, but it does appear that they are very closely related. As one goes up (or down) the other changes in the same direction at about 2/3 the value of the first (Pearson r = .68). Perhaps retirement has a more direct effect on purpose, and only an indirect effect on growth, as suggested above, but the strong association of these two makes them a poor choice for a beginning statistics student, so I’ll move on.

Controlling for gender

Next I turned to gender to see what effect it might have on the relationship I had observed between retirement and growth. But this time, controlling for gender in the same way I had earlier controlled for purpose (running a multivariate OLS regression) nudged the negative effect of retirement on growth up 9% (b=-.859; t=-5.62; p=.000). This finding, along with the fact that employed women’s scores for growth were, on average, 1.05 points higher than employed men’s scores, suggests that gender suppresses the effect of retirement on growth. The effect is too small to conclude that gender can explain away the effect of retirement on growth, but it does show that men and women experience personal growth and retirement differently.

Controlling for educational attainment
Next I asked whether the relationship I had observed might be affected by the level of formal education completed by the respondent. Controlling for education (running a multivariate OLS regression) resulted in a 42% reduction in the negative effect of retirement on growth (b=-.76; b=-.44). The relationship was still negative and still statistically significant (t=-2.9; p=.004), but not nearly so bad as it first seemed. Of course, education was positively related to growth: for every additional year of education, the growth scores for the employed rose .5, and this correlation was highly significant (t=21.38), but who would be surprised by that? It does suggest that the main relationship may be spurious in that almost half the effect of retirement on growth is really due to education. Still, we have to keep in mind that education and retirement together account for only about 4.7% of the variability in growth scores.

I decided to have a closer look at the effect of education on the relationship between retirement and growth. As I had earlier noticed in the correlations, higher levels of education are associated with lower values for retirement (that is, the more educated tend not to be retired) and higher values for growth (r=-.1; p=.0000; r=.22; p=.0000), so it looks like the three-way relationship is probably complex.

I created a new variable that would allow me to compare the growth scores for retired and employed who had a high school diploma (12 years of education), with scores for those who had a college degree (16 years of education), and with scores for those who had considerable post-graduate education (20 years) – an “interaction term” that would show how retirement and education are likely to interact in their effects on growth.

By running another OLS regression including the education and retirement variables from the WLS Study plus this new interaction term, I found that, indeed, the effect of retirement on growth was significantly different depending on how many years of education one has (b=.16; t=2.42; p=.015). Retirement was still significantly negatively related to growth for those with average education, but by considerably less than before taking education and its interaction effects into account (b=-.39; t=-2.59; p=.01): Growth scores for those with average education were only .39 smaller for the retired (recall that average education is 13.6 years). The effect of education on growth for those who are employed was still highly significantly and positively related, as one would expect (b=.49; t=18.55; p=.000): One additional year of education will raise growth scores for the employed by about .49 points.

Now let’s look at growth scores for the employed and the retired who had less or more than “average” years of education.



A post-graduate degree will raise growth scores for the retired slightly more than 6 points above scores for those who only finish high school. That degree will only boost scores for the employed by just under 4 points above the scores of the high school grads.

But the employed who only graduated high school start out with higher growth scores than their retired respondents. At 20 years of education, the tables have turned and the growth scores of the employed lag behind the retired! And as you can see, at 16 years of education, retirement status is irrelevant -- whether you are retired or working, your growth score will likely be the same.

The gaps between the employed and the retired at the extremes of education I examined are not large, but there is a bit of a difference between the high school grad gap and the advanced degree gap. The gap at 12 years is almost 2 points (1.7); at 20 years, the gap is just a little more than half a point (.6).

In summary, growth scores for the retired really only lag behind those of the employed for those with less than a college degree. Thereafter, additional years of education are correlated with higher growth scores for the retired than for the employed.

Conclusion
Discussion
Life changes when we retire. Retirement can be a time of freedom from the exigencies of earning a living and raising a family, giving us time for renewed curiosity and exploration; or it can be a time of uselessness, boredom and resignation. Of course, it’s more likely to be something in between. Either way, some characteristics of our lives before retirement might give us clues as to how we will likely behave or feel after we retire.

It appears that the better educated among us are not so eager to retire, and once they do, they’ll be more likely than their less educated peers to continue to grow in retirement. Women may have a slight edge over men in the degree to which they continue to grow after retirement, but education is more helpful than gender in explaining what might keep us curious and learning after we retire. It would seem that the same things that prompt some of us to pursue more years of formal education before we retire may continue to drive us to learn and grow afterwards.

Limitations and Future Directions
The 1993-1994 wave of the Study surveyed these Wisconsin graduates in their mid- to late-50’s – not quite retirement age by most standards, though according to Bowlby, at least in Canada, retirement age had been trending lower through the last half of the 20th Century (para. 6). He observes that the trend has begun to turn around in the fifteen years since. The Study data show that only 18% of respondents identified themselves as retired. Moen’s summary of research conducted during the same part of the 20th Century indicates that early retirement is often caused by declines in health; early retirement does not itself cause declines in health). This suggests that it’s at least possible that the leading edge of retirees from this generation was in retirement at that time because of poor health, which could certainly affect responses to questions about personal growth and sense of purpose as much or more than retirement status. And indeed, the average response for self-rated health for the group of retirees is lower than the average response for those who were not retired (means of 3.96 and 4.18, respectively). This difference in scores is only .22, but it is highly statistically significant (t=12.8; p=.000). It certainly suggests that we ought to review the findings about retirement and growth based on the 1993 – 1994 wave when a larger percentage of participants has retired.

References
AFP: US braces for baby boom retirement wave. (2007, December 24). Agence France-Presse. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5g-W4yeMsbNpknzofffLTFxOgKI2A.

Bowlby, G. (2007, February). Perspectives on Labour and Income - Defining retirement. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/10207/9584-eng.htm.

Moen, Phyllis. (1996). A Life-Course Perspective on Retirement, Gender and Well-Being, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 131-144.

Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). (2008, November). University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved November 26, 2008, from http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Joni Mitchell's Urge for Going; Jamie Boyle's Public Domain

Red Oak in fall color, Austin, Texas 2008

It's a beautiful sunny, cool fall day in Austin. The fall color is the most spectacular it has been in decades -- no exaggeration. The weather folks said it would be windy today but by 10:00 it was still calm and clear. Then, just now, a gust whistled through the windowsills, leaves fell all around like big snowflakes, and I heard (in my head) "the warriors of winter give a cold triumphant shout; all that stays is dying, all that lives is getting out."

I hear the singer, I hear the guitar notes. Who wrote that? Who sang it? What were the rest of the lyrics? I always think of that song this time of year.

So I Googled it: warriors winter give cold triumphant shout

Up popped 61,000 pages satisfying my search terms. The first one contained the entire set of lyrics, author (Joni Mitchell). The rest of that verse, the last in the song goes like this:

Flameleaf Sumac in fall color, Austin, Texas 2008

Now the warriors of winter give a cold triumphant shout
All that stays is dying, all that lives is getting out
See the geese in chevron flight
Flapping and a-racing off before the snow
They got the urge for going and they've got the wings to go ...
And I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
And the summertime is falling down
And winter's closing in

But the first couple of pages say it was performed by Crosby and Nash. Not as I recall. It was a single male voice and acoustic guitar. A little deeper into the list, below the fold, let's see... Tom Rush. That sounds more like it. Let's see if I can listen to a bit of a recording of him playing and singing it... Ah, yes, iTunes has it playing within a few seconds of entering the store. From an album released a long time ago, recently remastered and re-released. That's it. Wow.

My husband thinks I am so stupid for being constantly amazed at the Internet. "I just did that yesterday, so what?" he says when I tell him about this little foray into the information treasure-trove we have at our fingertips, 24/7. THIS IS INCREDIBLE. No it isn't. It's just normal day-to-day. Ah, yes. That's why it's incredible.



So, all this in the middle of reading Jamie Boyle's new book, The Public Domain -- Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. Fantastic read. God he is so clever and witty and has such a great sense of humor. And he is not giving up and he is making a difference. Go, Jamie.

He says early on in Ch. 1, p. 13 to be exact, that the Internet is an "existence proof" that for a lot of information (a lot as in billions and billions of pages of information), copyright isn't necessary to its production. In his words:

The Internet is an existence proof of the remarkable information processing power of a decentralized network of hobbyists, amateurs, universities, businesses, volunteer groups, professionals, and retired experts and who knows what else. It is a network that produces useful information and services. Frequently, it does so at no cost to the user and without anyone guiding it. Imagine that energy, that decentralized and idiosyncratically dispersed pattern of interests, turned loose on the cultural artifacts of the twentieth century. Then imagine it coupled to the efforts of the great state archives and private museums who themselves would be free to do the same thing. Think of the people who would work on Buster Keaton, or the literary classics of the 1930s, or the films of the Second World War, or footage on the daily lives of African-Americans during segregation, or the music of the Great Depression, or theremin recordings, or the best of vaudeville. Imagine your Google search in such a world. Imagine that Library of Congress.

Theremin recordings? Was that a typo? No. Google it.

Any other word in Jamie's incredibly rich vocabulary you don't know? Google it. Ah, I hear Phil's admonition to stay away from general-purpose dictionaries in graduate school, to use only specialized dictionaries for the field of study. Some day, maybe.

So, I am reading his book in both Adobe Acrobat and in Stanza, my nifty screen reader that works on the iPhone as well as on the Mac. An experiment to compare functionalities. So, really, any word, I'm already at the computer, I just Google it. I came across one earlier today: p. 38, "a tessellated map." Now, granted, I understood the meaning from the context within a few seconds, but honestly, I don't think I have ever heard that word before (thank you Jamie). Instead of just glossing over it, I Googled it: 198,000 pages respond to "what is tessellated." Top of the list? You guessed it: Wikipedia. You know, this is a word I really ought to know. But I ask Dennis. He doesn't know either and he's an artist and the word comes from the Latin tessella, a small cubical clay, stone or glass piece used to make mosaics. Well, after that very interesting adventure, I don't think I'll forget what tessellated means.

Well, I have to say, I love this book. It is really readable, brings together many of his past writings with other authors I've read (many thanks to Phil), but focuses on the dire implications of our current trajectory. He is determined that the law has to change. As I've said many times, I've given up on that. I want to hope, but the underlying process seems so irretrievably lost to money, or so I believe. He, and I have to admit, lots and lots of other people along with him, are not convinced lawmakers can't be persuaded to turn things around. What evidence is there that anyone other than the Disneys and RIAAs have any ability to persuade? Does he imagine that his arguments will persuade them to back off their demands for more and longer and stronger? I have never thought that was possible. They are like programmed robots whose programming can't be changed. And their programming includes paying whatever it takes to lawmakers to be sure the lawmakers don't threaten the status quo. (Keep in mind that whether this assertion is true or not, the very fact that I believe it is true is the basis for mine and many other people's loss of confidence in the Congressional part of our democratic system of governance, so, it matters even that we think it is so!) So where does this hope come from?

I'm going to keep reading. Maybe he explains his hope as well as he explains history, economics and philosophy. I could use some encouragement about now.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

So, putting the PhD on hold -- a year to reassess

At the start of this semester I had as my objective to figure out by December what I wanted to do next. Well, it's almost December and I have figured out many things, but not that. And it's official. I submitted my request for a leave of absence Monday, for spring through fall '09. My real projects for the next year are: figure out what I want to do next; take care of my mom and come to grips with what she is experiencing. Today is Thanksgiving and, among many other things for which I am extremely grateful, I am quite thankful to have more time to figure out what I want to do next.

So many times in my life I've thought I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, not just "next." I have been right in some ways, not always the ways I thought I was right, and I have been very, very wrong in some ways. The constant seems to be that I always ran through whatever it was that interested me about an endeavor, and soured on the realities of it, long before I thought I would or really wanted to. I always got to take comfort though, in being a member of the biggest generation ever, the boomers, because no matter what I was experiencing and no matter how different it was from my expectations built upon the experiences of my parents' and grandparents' generations, there were always lots of us having the same 'different experiences.' So we changed careers every 10 to 15 years. Well, that was just the new way it was. So we threw ourselves into our work and burned ourselves out in record time. Well, that was just the way we were. I now understand a bit more about statistics than I did before, thanks to my fabulous teacher, Tetyana, so I know that "we" could be a very small part of that 77 million, and still feel that we were in substantial good company. So I just didn't question whether it was really a good thing or a bad thing. This jumping from thing to thing just was.

Admittedly, when I cashed in my chips from my first career, teaching, and went off on a 2 year sailing adventure with my then boyfriend, now my husband, Dennis, I felt like I had "wasted" my 6 years of college education and my 8 years of building up expertise and confidence as a teacher of handicapped young adults and normal pre-schoolers. But staying on was not an option. Teaching had become torture. I remember my strongest aversion at that time: I didn't want to have to make anyone other than myself do anything, anymore. Compelling others to do things was at the heart of a teaching job, much to my surprise. Foolishly, I thought it was actually teaching. Instead it was police work. Apparently, without police work, one can't teach young children anything. Of course, that's ridiculous. Young children are learning machines like sharks are killing machines. It's the environment in which we want them to learn that makes the job a job at all. But, whatever. I quit and went off sailing and thinking and talking to everyone I met about what they did for a living and what it was like and how they liked it and what they didn't like about it and where the satisfaction lay, and on and on. I didn't want to "make the same mistake again" -- the mistake of spending all the time and money and effort to prepare for, learn and become good at a new profession only to abandon it after a few years and "waste" all that time, etc., again. Well, I learned a thing or two in the pursuit and accomplishment of my second career: my first career was far, far from over (I teach about copyright almost as much as I actually practice copyright law), and I would still run through the second before my productive life ended, whether I wanted to or not.

So, law became my second career. I had matched its characteristics as a profession to my own personal strengths and weaknesses, my desires to challenge myself in new ways and to earn enough to get beyond the marginal financial security that a teaching career offered. Sorry to say that money mattered, but it did. At least with a law career, there would be a clear relationship between effort, excellence and reward. After 3 years in the private sector, I moved to public service lawyering. And I was so lucky to have support from my four general counsels over the years to lecture, teach and write as well. But, though I didn't want it to, my law career came to that point where I no longer wanted it -- at least not full-time. The satisfaction from personal service to others has never flagged, ever, but the daily work of confronting the same issues, over and over and over, and recognizing that the dynamics that keep resolution from ever being possible are not going to change, that has gotten really old. Copyright law is held hostage to fear among those with something to lose if it changes. I just got weary of the insanity of it.

But there was something else too: As I began to see my mom's health deteriorate, and recognized what could happen in the last years of one's life, maybe of my life, I realized that in the grand scheme of things, copyright law really was not all that important. Fundamental creativity will survive the crippling effects of our current law whether it changes or not. The benefits of digital networked communication just become too obvious to deny at some point. And there are other things that matter a whole lot more to me.

So it was time to choose a third career. This hasn't been easy. At first it was just that I didn't actually have time to figure it out because I was still working full time. And then, things seemed to come together in January, 2006, when my friend Lolly suggested I get a Master's of Science in Information Studies and find an expanded role (beyond just lawyering) in libraries. Libraries and librarians had been my favorite clients, always, and it seemed like the perfect idea. Most importantly, it felt right. I applied to graduate school, just under the wire, got in, retired from OGC on August 31, 2006, and began classes on August 29. Yes, that's right. I started classes 2 days before I retired. Perfect.

So, I thought I had it figured out. And, indeed, I was on cloud nine, absolutely loved school, for about 20 months, right up until last April, when things came rather unceremonious crashing down. Two years after starting classes, in August of 2008, I came to a very tough conclusion. I was wrong. I didn't have it figured out. Researching the intersection of copyright and libraries is not it, as I have explained in other entries over this semester.

So for now I am certain of two things: I'm a teacher. So I'll teach something at some point. I just don't know what, where, when or how. And I'm a lawyer. Not in the same way that I'm a teacher, however. Teacher is who I am. Lawyer is what I do to earn money. I love the actual service of lawyering; I am very weary of the politics of copyright. You do what you can do (you know, "God give me the wisdom to know the difference..."). Thanks for insight.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

When managing fades


I arrived at my mom's assisted living facility, The Gardens, a few days ago to find the place swarming with the members of a film crew with all their equipment, and the actors and extras playing the very people who live and work there. The people who live and work there, however, were instructed to stay out of the way, in their rooms, or in the cordoned-off areas of the halls and the dining room. Ok, filming happens. Not too big a deal. A minor inconvenience for a few days. And a story gets told. Like Driving Miss Daisy (image credit, and a little bonus story on US auto industry and Madison Avenue).

But the irony of it all really got to me. Actors managing carefully scripted parts, presenting a picture of what it's like in this place, for these people, our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters. The criteria we have for what makes a good story requires that we make most of it up. The story has to have certain aesthetic qualities, and it can't be too real or it will scare the living daylights out of everyone and no one will come to see it. Dying and death are not aesthetically pleasing. In fact, they are horrifying and you'd give anything in the world not to have to confront them. One of the most common experiences there is (i.e., everyone has it), dying and death, and we have no clue until it happens to someone we love and are privileged to care for, and then...

Just like everyone else before us, our instinct is to cover up the worst parts, gloss over the worst feelings, fail to come to grips with the central meaning of this sometimes long and horribly painful passage. Our complicity in the "great hiding" helps everyone else to continue their own great hiding from the truth of what life is really like, because death is an inescapable part of it.

And do we really want it any other way? Is there any pent-up societal desire to live more comfortably with the realities of what dying and death are and what they mean for how we live our lives? No.

So I was in Providence last week and, coincidentally, the front page of the paper featured a story about a study of nursing homes in Rhode Island, and how awful even the best among them were, and how all that had to be fixed before the boomers begin to find themselves there because we sure aren't going to put up with all those indignities. Maybe not in our current states of mind and health, but those are not the states of mind and health that land you in a nursing home. Power dwindles. Judgment disappears. Hands shake. Eyes stop seeing. "Managing" the thousands of little things we manage so easily, so adroitly, almost without being aware that we are managing, becomes impossible. And then other people have to start managing for us. And the struggle begins, intensifies, comes to its crescendo, and then stops. This can take years.

Well, I'm not up to it. I attended a caregiver support group last night. Twelve people, each with a different story, but these folks did not gloss over. Thank God that somewhere it is possible to say what's really happening, say how it makes you feel, see how others nod in affirmation, hear what they are experiencing, how they struggle with the same feelings of guilt, fear, pain, frustration, and relief that it ends.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Armadillo Journal, Volume 1, Issue 3: Results analysis

Six weeks have passed. I hesitate to say that the effort has been successful, for fear of bringing the wrath of the God of the Vengeful Armadillo down upon my garden again, but plugging up that hole seems to have done the trick. It's just like old times ('old times' shall mean the time since Dennis built the fence for me in fall '05).

Six weeks without an armadillo is positively correlated with plugging up a second hole in the fence, and highly statistically significant. Plugging up the second hole under the fence is also practically significant, as my thriving garden demonstrates.


Plugging up one hole but not the other was totally ineffective to stop armadillo adventures as the two variables are completely unrelated. Fussing about the cliff and hypothesizing how an armadillo could scale it was also a big waste of time, uh, I mean, an unrelated variable, so long as a second hole under the fence remained accessible. But, if the first hole had not been found and plugged (the one just below the level of the first cliff edge), and the second hole had been found and plugged (up at the level of the garden proper), then the fussing about the cliff and hypothesizing how an armadillo could scale it would not have been a big waste of time, but plugging up a hole under the fence is a lot easier than building up a cliff with lots of heavy rocks to make scaling it difficult to impossible for an armadillo.

So, lessons learned: find the damned holes. Check really carefully. The fence does its job so long as it goes down to the ground and just a bit below and doesn't suggest to an armadillo going along its edge that there's a spot here that looks a little weak, and let's see what's on the other side...

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to the third degree

Summer's over, fall's in full swing, I'm taking statistics and, surprisingly to me, enjoying it. But, it's the only class I'm taking and I think that's a lot of why. The other part of why is that I have a great professor who is taking it nice and slow, step by step, explains everything well, uses lots of examples from real life research she's been doing (sociologist). But --



It's a really, really good thing I'm only taking one class this semester because lifelong learning is coming fast and furious from an entirely different sector of life right now, and I sure do need the time I have freed up to submerge myself in what these lessons have to show me. My mom is teaching me, as she always has, how to struggle to keep going, how to adjust to changes, how to keep your independence, and, ultimately, how to let go of things too. How on earth does she manage this? She's got alzheimer's, diagnosed 3 years ago and on meds for 2 years now, slowly, but steadily declining. Yesterday I worked from 9 in the morning until 10 at night packing up the things that she convinced me (only after much painful effort on her part, because I really didn't want to believe it), that she didn't want or need -- about 95% of what she had in her apartment when I moved her into assisted living last weekend. To her it was just clutter, confusing her efforts to learn her new routines (where light switches are, how to turn them on and off, etc.). So, that was a bit of a shock.

Then the nitty-gritty of packing up for the second hand store was as grueling a task as I ever expect to undertake the rest of my life. Every little thing, from pouring out old spice container contents (to recycle the containers), to wrapping up little crystal vases and gold-plated soap dishes, just put me in hysterics, all day long. This is the person who taught me how to cook, how to walk around the block, how to deal with adversity, how to do the right thing when you're tempted not to. There were just a million little reminders that she was giving up all those things. I saw them as *her.* She was the collection of little crystal sugar bowls. She was the makeup containers all organized in little plastic bins in the bathroom drawers. She was the neatly stacked towels and sheets. She was the myriad lazy susans that organized everything in nearly every cabinet or closet where one could fit.

She wasn't any of those things.

They're just things. And she hadn't used most of them in months, maybe for as much as the last 2 to 3 years. But as long as she was there, surrounded by them all, there was this semblance of normalcy and I could keep on ignoring what was happening. Yesterday that was no longer possible and it just killed me to have to let go of the her I have known for my entire life. But then I realized, even though she's not being explicit about it like she was when I was little, she's just showing me how to let go. Well, how to not let go, until it's time to let go.



I found so many little things that showed me how hard she struggled to keep it together as things fell apart. Her little lists, her reminders (of her name and address and phone number), the little plastic container of cut-out labels from the food boxes she wanted from the grocery store so she could match them to the boxes on the shelves in the store. And there were the notes I had made for her -- how to use the can opener, how to microwave a Lean Cuisine, when she could still read relatively well. She loved to read. Read like there was no tomorrow.

So, today I have a little better perspective on it all. Especially as I look around at my own house and my own things, and hope I'll know that it's time to let them go. Not too soon. But not to hold on too long.

Now she's got a little two room "apartment" at assisted living and the transition begins, getting used to the new place, the new people, the new routines, especially getting used to being helped a lot more than I was able to help her. She lives close to me, but until this summer and fall, I've been scheduled to the max so I wasn't "helping" that much until May. Thank God I took some time to spend with her over the last 6 months. Maybe that helped, not just helped me, but maybe it helped her to see that it was taking a lot more "support" to be independent than either of us could continue to pretend was really being independent. When I finally suggested late September that I thought it was probably time to move to assisted living, she quickly said, "ok." Then for the whole month of October she always wanted to talk about it, when she was going, what she needed to take (very, very little, from her perspective).



Well, life just doesn't quit teaching us, ever. The most valuable lessons are not learned in school, in class or in the process of getting a degree. I'll worry about the degree later. I'm going to keep it together for many years to come. I had a good teacher.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Armadillo Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2: Rejecting assumptions, continued


Ok, ok, ok. I'm really crummy at this. I should have tried to kill him when I had the chance. Oh, wait a minute. I'm crummy at that too. Well, here it is, several weeks later, and I've rocked up just about every possible access point along the ledge (amazing how many I found), from level three to level two and from level two to level one. I've crawled around under the deck to see if there are tunnels from level two to level one that open out into the yard somewhere that I can't easily see. I've inspected every inch of the greenhouse space under the deck, where the summer pots get stored until spring. No stopping the little devil. The only reason it has taken this long for me to come to my senses and reexamine all my assumptions is that most nights, he doesn't deign to visit my yard. Actually I'm quite grateful for this, but it does make the accumulation of evidence a rather slow process.

Yesterday, however, with all but certainty (3 standard deviations if this were amenable to a confidence interval), I concluded that he isn't actually coming up from the ledge. There's just no evidence to suggest that he is (no trails in any place that provides even a hint of reasonable access). So, what were all the assumptions?

  1. Armadillos don't climb rock walls
  2. Armadillos don't climb fences
  3. The perimeter fence is secure
  4. Where he went out of the yard indicates where he came into the yard
  5. It is in fact an armadillo that we're dealing with here

So, I'm sticking with one and two. I thoroughly examined five because if it were a raccoon, I wouldn't be pursuing any of this. They are impossible to keep out. But I actually have seen the armadillo in the yard at least 4 times. So at the moment, I think assumption five is ok. I decided this afternoon to reexamine assumptions three and four. So I really went after the perimeter fence to be sure that there are no burrows under it and no tunnels from one side to the other that might come up well inside the yard, maybe under a rock or a pot or something. And what do you think I found?

A hole. Another place where the underpinning of tighter wire (about 2"x 2") that goes from the bottom board of each fence panel, into the ground, had been pushed up and into the yard, and the ground had been dug out under the bent wire, just enough to squeeze something, maybe something the size of an armadillo, through. It was behind a nice big lemongrass clump, up by the corner of the yard, by the driveway, where lots of shrubs grow and it's moderately shady, under a crepe myrtle tree. I don't know though. It's not that big of a hole. I need to fix it, obviously, but I sort of worry that if an armadillo really can get through that hole, what's keeping them from just coming right through the fence? It's one of those wire fences made from the wire with 4" square openings. My 5 year old cat squeezes through the 4" square openings. Now, she's long and thin, and has to carefully maneuver to do it (head first, then right front paw, then left front paw, then body, then back legs). If she tries to go through with head and paw together, it doesn't work. I just don't think an armadillo has the flexibility or the agility (I hesitate to say, the brains) to do it.

So, I plug up this hole tonight and see what happens next.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Armadillo Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, Fall 2008


The armadillo is a creature of habit and it’s blind and practically deaf. What does that leave? Smell. It has a very strong sense of smell. It follows edges of things (because it’s blind) and it follows scents it picks up, of things to eat, and of where it’s been and where it’s safe to go again.

That’s the theory.

The perimeter fence is secure. The rock plug in the hole discovered over the weekend is undisturbed. All gates closed. No other point of entry exists — except the cliff face. Armadillos do not climb cliffs. Again, that’s the theory.

Ah, but when the facts rip your theory to shreds sort of like an armadillo rips a nicely tended garden to shreds, or a wire fence to shreds, well, you need to reexamine your theory.

This morning I got a really lucky break in the quest to stop one part of the garden from destroying another part of the garden. When I went out this morning to see how my theory was holding up, I was greeted immediately with the evidence: it wasn’t. There, right by the front porch, was not only a torturous path of dug-up garden soil, but the armadillo himself, wantonly having at it. Muddy-clawed, silver-backed, snout sniffing the air, there he was. I resisted my first instinct, which was to kill him. “We could do that, but it would be wrong,” I said to myself, picturing Nixon all over again. Actually, I instantly recognized that I had about as much chance of success killing him as I had of scoring a free-throw in a Laker’s game. And for whatever reason, I guess my stars and planets are aligned or something, I instantly recognized that I had right here the absolute best source of information about where he was coming in, because it was 7:00 and way past his bedtime and he was going to be headed out any moment now, especially since only a few seconds after I spotted him, he smelled me and kitty. Kitty confronted him — sort of. She was curious at best, but not hostile. He got the message though. He scooted through the garden ground covers, but as I did not wish to frighten him, I wanted him to take a leisurely route out of the garden, not the emergency escape hatch, I didn’t follow closely or make loud noises. I just watched what he did. (By the way, in that moment, I realized I could do this research scientist thing I have been contemplating, so long as it is in the service of a practical goal.)

Well, he slipped easily over the first ledge taking one of the three routes down that I had identified over the weekend as probable routes up from level two. Check. He hung out on level two for a minute, going first in one direction along the edge of the cliff face, then in the other. Check. He made no attempt to go into any of the caverns under the ledge, suggesting that none of them is his daytime abode. Check. But then he surprised me. He headed for the edge. He seemed to be searching, not digging, but sniffing the ground, zigging a little, then he quickly slipped over the edge of level two to level three right below the bird bath bed, and was gone. The fence stops at the edge of level two because the cliff face to level three is fairly daunting, too daunting, we thought, for an armadillo or even a deer to scale. Well, I think we have to rethink that. There may be a place. I have to go check later, examine where he went down from the path below that level to see what the chances are that he could have come up that way. Dennis says no way. I’m thinking, at this point, way.

One of the first tenets of science is that when you have carefully examined and rejected all the likely explanations for a phenomenon, the unlikely, and even the seemingly impossible, have to be examined next. There’s a hole in the theory, and we have to figure out what the hole is and fix it.

Stay tuned.

Image credit: Photo taken by Mike6158, turned up in Google search "armadillo jump texas" on page 5, near the bottom. Although Google image search shows the original context of the photo, the site, called Photography on the Net, does not actually show the image. I think one has to be a member and be logged in, even to see a member profile (that's why I can't show anymore than Mike's username, above -- I can't learn anything about him without being a member), let alone an image. The Armadillo Journal needs a proper credit line for images, so I'm going to get Dennis to draw me an armadillo. This tacky photo credit is temporary, I promise! It'll be better next time.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

New semester, new approach to studying


Fall semester got underway about 10 days ago and I'm only taking one class this semester. This leaves plenty of time for other things, like mornings spent gardening, watching birds, watching butterflies, outsmarting armadillos (you'd think that would not be much of a challenge, but you'd be wrong). And yesterday I completed discussions with all three of my committee members about what I did over the summer and where I am now. All three seemed to agree that slowing down was a good idea (at least I think they all agree on that). The fact that I mainly got comfortable with not knowing what I want to write about, rather than finding a topic over the summer came as no surprise. I guess it takes how long it takes.

I also recognized something that was rather surprising: I think I have been looking for a topic in the wrong place. Not just copyright-wrong, but library-wrong. As much as I have tried to convince myself that the dissertation can be just a big paper, and not necessarily related to what I want to do for the next 10-15 years, I don't buy it. As such, I really do have to accept that for me a dissertation topic is a choice about what I want to do for the next 10-15 years, not just what I want to study for two years. What I was finding for most of my topics was that I didn't think I could handle them (sustain interest in them) for two years. If that's true, I sure can't handle them for 10-15.

So I came up with a different approach. I decided to put aside even imagining that I am in a PhD program, trying to come up with a topic, and instead imagine that I am taking some time off to figure out what I want to spend the next 10-15 years doing. In this time off I am taking a statistics class and still working 10 hours/week at the library, but compared to full time student, this is not a stretch to imagine that I'm taking time off to contemplate my future. Of course, I also have to put aside the fact that I thought I had already figured that out. That's what I am doing in iSchool, right? I'm getting a PhD in information studies. But I was defining that rather narrowly, it seems. I was taking as my subject matter, Libraries. Libraries and the future. Libraries and the digital environment. Libraries and preservation and access. Libraries and orphan works, public domain, fair use. Whatever. It was all focused on Libraries.

Two years in the iSchool may not have clarified for me what I want to do for the next phase of my life, but it has clarified for me what I don't want to do. I don't want to try to affect Libraries. They are what they are, and they are going to be what they are going to be. They'll be fine.

So, I start with, not a clean slate, but a slate with a question on the top: "You have, let's say, 15 years to accomplish one more thing in your life. Based on what you've done so far and knowing a lot more about your strengths and weaknesses than you did when you first chose a career as a teacher (1970) and then as a lawyer (1986), and trained carefully for each of them, and rode them where they took you, what do you want to do next?" That's the question I'm going to concentrate on answering this semester. Maybe I won't have an answer by December, but at some point I will know the answer. Then, I'll see whether there's a way to pursue that that makes a PhD in information studies make sense. I am inspired by Lance Hayden's path through all of this. His subject was one of great interest to him personally (surveillance) and he managed to find a way to look at it through an information policy/content analysis lens (discussion of red-light camera surveillance analyzed for use of metaphor).

That's several bridges to cross down the road, however. Add to those two, the bridge of the PhD being valuable enough to me personally and to my achievement in my next career to make the bureaucratic aspects worth enduring. Lots of pieces to fit together here over the next couple of months. But I'm not in a hurry anymore. Now that I fully appreciate the gravity of what I'm deciding, I am going to take my time. I took two years off, bought a 32' full-keeled ocean-going sailboat (a Westsail) and sailed around the gulf and the carribbean to decide about what my second career would be. Two years! Why should it take me less time to figure this one out?

Ah, there's a rare butterfly hanging out in my garden today, a White Angled-Sulphur. He's been around about a week. I snapped his picture, above, a couple of days ago. I have time for this. This is the life.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Overcommitting: Inevitable?

I just reread the post I made early this year as I approached the spring semester, totaling up all the things I had committed to do over the course of the semester, in addition to a full course load, and no wonder I nearly went insane. What on earth was I thinking? And have I done it again? Well, no. I am only taking one class. That has got to make a big difference. But here's the list of extra-curriculars -- so far:

Bring OGC and UT Austin task forces on Eres/Blackboard issues to a close (finalize reports, recommendations, etc.)
Prepare course materials for re-hosting Eres/Blackboard course for UMUC
Host course for same (in late October/early November)
Prepare and make presentation for Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala re how to decide what to digitize and provide public access to
Revise paper about Eres/Blackboard for publication in Learned Publishing
Peter Brantley's DLF fair use panel invitation in November

And there's work at the library. Google (pd determinations; orphan work determinations); the UT Press project (Lords of New Spain Website); open access issues.

And school and the dissertation topic search.

Oh, it all seems so easily manageable, compared to spring semester. But I have these ideas that I'll still be able to work in the garden over the fall (as I have over the summer), that I'll still be able to cook and bake, that I'll still have coffee with friends once in a while (there's the new coffeehouse in the conference center and Caffe Medici, my favorite place, has opened a location right on Guadalupe just a few blocks from the Library), and come spring, that I can rent a house in Patagonia for a month and take my kitty and really, truly get into the Arizona sky islands in a thorough way, as I have dreamed about for years (about 12 to be exact). Well, we will just see. NO WONDER I have a tough time settling on a dissertation topic. I have too many things I want to do other than research and writing... Maybe Kenny is right. It's not like there's something missing from my life, without the dissertation.

Not knowing is ok


Only ten days or so until tuition payment is due for the fall semester. I am going to pay it. It's the last class I need to satisfy all the course requirements. Though I am not any closer to deciding what to write about, I am much more at ease with not knowing than I was at the start of the summer. I have so many ideas; it's just that the thought of two years delving into any one of them just doesn't seem right. Sometimes it occurs to me that I just don't care enough about anything to spend two years submerged in it. That is such a shock. I can't believe it.

One thing that is odd about this whole process is that I used to make relatively major decisions with very little fuss. I didn't feel compelled to take all future ramifications of them into account (as though I really knew what those might be!). I was much more comfortable with the idea of the path leading off into the woods (no way to know where it's going and that's ok). Now I seem to expect that what I decide to write about has to be the first step along a path that I know now I'll want to stay on for twenty years. I think that's asking way too much. I need to just look at it as a single topic, a single experience, like the last two years of coursework has been. It's just something I'm going to do, and then move on.

I got some good suggestions from friends in comments to last blog entry and in conversations with others on the phone. School will start next week and I will be back on campus and will have lots of opportunities to explore these ideas with others. I definitely need to stay relaxed about it, comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing what I'm going to be doing or what difference it will make or where it will take me. Zen Mind Beginner's Mind.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Oh, and theory

I was just reviewing a book I bought for Dr. Northcutt's class last summer (an overview of qualitative research methods) and it occurred to me as I prepared to review for the nth time all the various theories of social science, the philosophies of science and quantitative and qualitative methods, that maybe there's no magic theory that I have to latch onto to look into the question of the effectiveness of best practices over guidelines. Maybe it is a simple as my own intuition (my own theory?) that people have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, and an intuitive sense of what will work in their day-to-day lives, and they react positively to, are more receptive to, "norms" that don't offend their intuition. That's always been one of the most perplexing things about trying to explain copyright law to people: it confounds expectations, logic, and intuition. What a normal person expects or thinks the law must be is not what it is. It is horribly counter-intuitive. Maybe best practices are, well, they actually are, what people are doing, that is, what they believe is ok, so they are much more in line with intuition, not bent ("negotiated") to the bizarre fears of copyright maximalists.

So, theory would be that best practices, being documented practices of a representative sample of teachers or librarians or whatever, inspire confidence because they make sense at an intuitive level. This puts me squarely on the subjective/interpretive side of things. I am interested in how and what people perceive as fair, rejecting that there is some objective fairness out there to be discovered. It is subjective, what's fair. We won't all agree. But we can document what many teachers or librarians think, and put it out there for others to see, and they either will or won't feel validated in their own subjectively held beliefs about what's fair.

Feels too thin. Too easy. Too superficial. I need to talk to other grad students about this and what it is part of (I feel that it is part of a bigger picture, but I can't see the rest of it).

The search for the question

I got some good advice from a fellow grad student in response to my last post (thanks, Bettie). She noted that I had failed to state any research questions in there, and was stuck on method (which I did acknowledge in the post). Excellent points. I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn how to generate research questions during the last year of classes. I never quite got beyond the point where it seemed like an artificial process because I had always been starting from the point of wanting to explore some phenomenon very generally. My "real" research question was merely, "what's up with that?" And therein lies the reason that ethnography appeals to me so much: that's precisely what it's about -- what's up with that. But she convinced me that continuing to look at research questions as an afterthought is not going to work. Merely explaining some phenomenon is not going to work. I need to start with questions, not tack them on at the end.

So, I'm going to expand on idea number 3 from the last post: Ethnography of the process of creating Best Practices for Fair Use in Education (a Berkman Center project I just learned about).

Strip out the ethnography pre-condition and I have a phenomenon, the phenomenon of generating best practices. Now I'm going to have a little talk with Bettie (a pretend talk) about this idea.

Bettie asks, "what do you want to know about generating best practices?"
Me: Well, I want to know if they work.

Bettie: What does "work" mean?
Me: Work means that they change perceptions or they change behaviors, or both.

Bettie: Whose perceptions and behaviors?
Me: For starters, the people they are created for, in the case of Harvard's Berkman Center fair use project, teachers. But second, I wonder if they change perceptions and behaviors of people who have traditionally wanted to limit or even marginalize educational fair uses, the copyright owner community. In the Center for Social Media's first set of best practices, the documentary filmmakers were on both sides of the debate, both users and owners of copyrights, so there was less a sense of imbalance, of power versus powerlessness. In educational environments, teachers, rightly I think, tend to view themselves as vulnerable and powerless in the face of possible allegations of infringement and the resulting liability that can ruin their lives.

Bettie: There are a lot of questions in there. List them out.
Me: Do teachers feel more comfortable relying on fair use after they learn about normative best practices documented by prestigious research institutions? Do teachers actually rely on fair use more after they learn about normative best practices blah, blah, blah? Do copyright owners accept and express support for statements of best practices to which they did not contribute? Ultimately, the question is, does the best practices process increase reasonable reliance on fair use when compared to guidelines?

Bettie: What are guidelines?
Me: Well, they are statements about the scope of fair use that are "negotiated" between the content owners and educators, and as such, they tend to be skewed towards the interests of the more powerful of the negotiators and thus, quite narrow in their interpretations of what is acceptable. While colleagues might disagree about how narrow and whether or to what extent they are useful, it seems that it would be possible to determine to what extent they are used and relied upon, and compare that to the extent of use and reliance on a similar best practices document that did not involve the "negotiation" among grossly unequal bargainers, by not including input from the copyright owner community at all. That seems to be the core question.

Bettie: OK. You have a question now. How would you go about answering it?
Me: EEK. It seems to require some big-time surveys of lots and lots of teachers regarding their comfort levels with relying on fair use in their teaching, whether they know about and if they do, how they use existing guidelines, and then some surveys of teachers after the best practices are published, to see if attitudes change. I wonder if it would have to be the same teachers, a longitudinal study? And the Berkman Center estimates its project will take 3-4 years. EEK again. I don't think this is doable.

Bettie: Try another question.
Me: But that's what I want to know about. Are they effective? Why put a lot of energy and time into a process that is going to be, in the end, a waste of time? Again, folks can disagree with me about this, but I would *never* become involved in a guidelines negotiation again because I think they are a huge waste of time. The whole concept of the "negotiation" is flawed. And yet, this is a common practice, not just in this context, but in life in general. We reach compromise.

But if the guidelines compromises have been on the whole not very useful (and I could find out how useful or not useful they have been), why do we think that best practices will be any better when we are leaving one side out of the discussion? What is it about this process that we think will satisfy and calm the excluded interest? Or is it that we are just giving up on caring about what they think?

I know how I reacted to the statement on a group of STM publishers' websites of what they considered best practices for researching orphan works status, which clearly did not involve any normal people (non-publishers). I thought the effort was designed for other publishers and of no relevance for regular people at all. You'd have to have a commercial motive in planning to use the orphan work, and the money to back up your plans with very expensive research to satisfy their best practice document. Sort of like the slant of the most recent orphan works bills. But I digress. But only a little.

I guess I really want to know if this is different and if it will be a more productive use of time, money and energy. Ultimately, if it is effective and productive, I would like to see best practice documents for librarians about how to select analog materials for digitizing, online materials for archiving, etc., taking the copyright caselaw and statutes into account, but relying more on actual best practices, and without undertaking the largely futile attempt we saw in the Section 108 study group, to obtain buy-in for what publisher participants seemed to feel are monstrously threatening actions, that are in reality, very important and useful library functions of archiving and providing public access (I hear the screams -- access!!!!!! oh, my god no, not that...). In truth, I don't think a substantial number of publishers will be able to accept any risk to their current business models until more of them have managed to move beyond those models, and who knows when that will be. Thankfully there is progress here, including notable efforts by many scholarly publishers to experiment with new business models. But it is very slow-going, and while the majority of publishers is figuring out that easily accessible and freely usable digital copies are their friends, libraries still need to make decisions about what to save and who to let see what. Best practices might help. Might not. Wouldn't it be useful to know something about how they are created and how they are used? Or not?

Next time: uh, oh, what about theory? Am I just too practical? Is all I care about what works, efficiency, and getting results for effort? Damn. I'll never be an academic. Must... drag... self.... to... ivory... tower... Oh, who am I kidding?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The cache of ideas and academic judgment

School starts in only a little over a month. I am enjoying the big slow-down so much, it is hard to imagine gearing up for a marathon again. Here are the dissertation ideas I have grown accustomed to entertaining:

1. Ethnography of the process of building a new library.
2. Ethnography of the process of building a copyright evidence base for orphan and public domain works (OCLC's Copyright Registry).
3. Ethnography of the process of creating Best Practices for Fair Use in Education (a Berkman Center project I just learned about).
4. Ethnography of the processes involved in envisioning the future of the book (not sure of the venue for this, but it could be a really visionary scholarly publisher/library collaborative). This one is not about e-books or e-book readers. It's about entirely new ways of envisioning communication of ideas. Actually, this one could be the story of creating an innovative dissertation, but it would also have to be the story of fighting to get to communicate in innovative ways. That would be too many stories...

All of these are interesting to me, but all pose significant challenges -- not intellectually, but rather, challenges to being acceptable topics to study and write about.

Challenge 1: There's no theory. I have no theory. I want to do inductive research. I want to explore and see what's there and tell a story about how things grew, changed and evolved at this time in the history of libraries and books and the ability to access and use information.

Challenge 2: I have no clue about who among the faculty would be interested in or support my working on this kind of project. I also would have to come up with a non-iSchool committee member. Again, I'm clueless.

Challenge 3: I'm not sure any of these will sustain my interest long enough to result in a "finished" communication. I am so interested in process, that I just am not sure I'll be willing to hang in there to perfect product when I think I have communicated sufficiently what I have learned.

Challenge 4: I'm worried about my colleagues' and faculty members' judgment that an ethnography is at best a tool, a method, not a goal in and of itself. I know my interest in ethnography to tell a story, simply to tell a story, will be insufficient in others' eyes, especially those who see qualitative studies as of little or no value to the academy.

Challenge 5: I can see doing these projects without being in school, or only very tangentially associated with school. I see the work, the process of discovery, as enjoyable and likely very fruitful, but the effort to structure it to satisfy scholarly criteria as tangential and superfluous. This stems from my increasing concern that I am not really cut out to be a scholar. I'm just someone who likes to learn, likes to study, and likes to convey what I've learned to help others. I thought that university life would be a good fit, but I'm increasingly concerned that it really isn't.

As I remarked earlier this summer as I pondered my future, not needing a degree underlies all of this ambivalence. If my goal is to investigate, learn, communicate and interact with others around the learning, there are plenty of hurdles to actually doing that, plenty of challenges, without adding on top of all the intrinsic challenges, the challenge of doing it in a particular, and rather precisely defined way, to satisfy some set of criteria that I'm not at all sure are relevant to me or what I want to do. I think I need to spend some time over the next 4 weeks talking to people at the iSchool about all this. I'm fast approaching decision time.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Back to the future of the library

It seems that as I mull things over, I keep returning to the idea of the future of the library. But I don't want to investigate it in the sense of running an experiment. I want to do an ethnography.

I took an ethnography class in the spring and I became fascinated with the process of writing up field notes. Actually, taking the notes is pretty fascinating too. One of the best parts of the process is that while you observe in the field you withhold judgment about what to expect, what to look for, what to see even, and you just try to see what's there. It's actually very Buddhist in that way. There's no pretense that it's objective or any bullshit like that. Clearly, two people sitting side by side taking notes while watching the exact same scene will notice different things, take different notes, and when it comes time to write them up, will see different patterns and ascribe to the events different significance. But it still puts you into the most open-minded frame of reference that it's possible for you to have.

So, here I am in Austin where our public library has obtained public support (a bond election) to build a new downtown, central library. What must they have to think about on the brink of such an undertaking? How do they imagine the Austin Public Library in 5 years and on into the middle of the 21st century (say, 25 years down the road)? How do they plan for the future of an institution that is so rooted in the physicality of the book? Can they let themselves imagine a future where a library might not exist in any form like it exists today? Could I somehow be a participant observer, or just an observer of the process of thinking through those issues, spend maybe 6 months attending planning meetings (who knows if they even have such meetings, or if they already have it all planned out) and then write up my notes. I don't know anyone who works there, only people who work for the foundation and friends group that support the library. I suppose I ought to start talking to them about this, to see if it's too late to get involved.

Ah I just checked out the Austin Public Library's Web page that describes the design process and it looks like the timing couldn't be better: the teams that desire to be considered to design the new building have just submitted their qualifications and the top 3 will make presentations to the City Council in October. This looks pretty auspicious. There's a little slide show you can access at the top of the left side-bar on the Web page that shows the Design Team Selection Process. The Library already specifies several aspects of what they want in the new building, so I better get started with some emails today. This might not be possible at all. I at least need to know what's do-able.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thinking it all over

Half-way through the summer of thinking it all over, I sort of like the idea of suspending judgment. I just float ideas around, talk with folks about them, Google this, Google that, see what's already out there on different subjects, sort of try them on, and then just let them go. A couple of things are emerging as guideposts: "stay away from copyright" and "slow down."

Going back for a third degree is really quite a different proposition than going back for a second, and certainly totally different from going for the first. I have got to be doing this for the process, not for the product. It's not a step in any direction or a prerequisite for anything. It is simply and completely what it is itself -- pure experience. It is just life happening, one day after the other. I suppose I'll go from being someone who gets a Ph.D. in record time to someone who has to be booted out the door after years of tinkering.

The urgency of the copyright issues, the urgency that comes from 20 years of dealing with it all and being quite sure about myself and my views and knowing what needs to be done, where the work will be most productive, is pretty much exactly the opposite of what I really wanted this experience to be about. The trouble is that copyright isn't just tangential to the world of libraries and information in the digital environment -- it's right there in the middle of things. So, it's not easy to avoid it. But it needn't be the focus of what I do. And that's what it was about to become.

But, because I have so much experience with it, and the players, and the theories, and the politics, and the absurdities, all that baggage comes along with exploring even a relatively new facet of copyright (new for me). I really need to just leave the subject at the door and wander around in the world if ideas that don't have copyright at the center.

That takes care of one major parameter. The other is the slowing down. I felt in a hurry because of the time sensitivity of the arguments I was developing. I'm just going to tend towards topics that aren't urgent. In a way, just by publishing here, on my blog, the ideas about how things might be more difficult when the next copyright term extension act gets proposed (because of the explosion of the free over the next 10 years), well the ideas are already out there. I have done what I wanted to do. I could spend 3 months or 6 months or 24 months expanding, polishing, refining, but in the end, the core ideas are going to be the same, and they are already out there for anyone to see and for anyone to build upon. From what everyone says, after all that polishing, refining and expanding, I'd have something so minutely pointed that only 6 people in the whole world would read it, and 4 of them would be on my committee (the others being my mother (not) and me), and already, I am pretty sure more than 6 people have read it. So I am moving on.

Ah, I can see that the idea of that polishing until it's so esoteric that no one is interested, that idea is going to give me problems. I just find that absurd. If that really is what one has to do to prove oneself worthy of the title, scholar, I am not and don't want to be a scholar. I am so much more interested in writing in such a way about subjects, so as to appeal to as broad an audience as possible -- people who really do care and would be interested but won't be able to get past the long and boring scholarly crap. The idea of purposely incorporating verbiage that makes it hard for people to understand what you are trying to say seems so sad and wasteful. I don't think I'll want to spend very precious days of my life producing something that won't help anyone do anything. Life's shortness becomes more and more a focused part of the picture as you approach its end. And that fact, life's shortness, colors just about everything I do these days.

It is much simpler when all you want is a piece of paper and a job somewhere. There is no way that I could have predicted it would be more complicated to not need or want the standard outcome of an educational experience, but just the educational experience itself.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

CIP is in SL this year



In just a week I am speaking at the Center for Intellectual Property's Annual Symposium, and this year it's being presented in Second Life as well as first life. I am planning to visit the NMC Conference Center where the event will take place, so I decided to dust off my avatar (Gee Susanti), make a new outfit (no spiffy $ duds, just the basics) and wander around a bit. I found this great hammock by the beach (well everything's by the beach in SL). I don't anticipate the Conference Center will have a hammock by the beach, but you never know. Anyway, maybe I'll see you there!

Friday, May 09, 2008

I never thought I could *want* the month of April to be over

April is the most beautiful month of the year here in Austin (my humble opinion, obviously). If it lasted all year, that would be fine with me. Well, not really, but I do enjoy spring, or rather, I used to enjoy spring. Somehow or another, being in graduate school has changed that. I'm thinking maybe that's too big a price to pay for a Ph.D. No more loving spring. No, I do not accept that.

People here joke about how awful April is: "April is the month we eat our young." I'm not kidding. This I heard here at UT. The horror of April is not just a myth. I experienced it first-hand this year. I was really on edge. Hair-trigger temper. Flare-ups were common. Old friends sharp with each other. Major decisions made as snap judgments. Geez. This is not right. This level of tension is not really conducive to a what really should be, at heart, a thoughtful process. Over 18 years of working as a lawyer, and having gone through quite a few stressful times, I must say that I don't recall very many that were as bad as this April was.

If it's this predictable, then it should be preventable, or at least manageable. But this is no more and no less than what I learned about balance this semester, this brutal academic year -- it's all in what you commit to do, what you believe you can plan to accomplish. You have to consider each commitment very carefully and recognize that you'll have to say no to some things way before you experience the pressure that results from having over-committed. You have to believe what you really don't want to believe: that you won't be able to do everything you want to, without unacceptable compromise of your sanity, your health, at some level.

I read something recently that suggested that being over-committed has become a mark of success, or something like that. We exhibit our unbelievable lists of things that we must do, of committees we are on, of multiple jobs we have, of meetings we have to shuttle our kids to, of papers we are writing, as proof that we are successes. Who can argue with the guy who can juggle five balls? He has accomplished something real. Hardly anyone can do it. And it's not killing him. In fact, he's nodding his head side to side and whistling a tune and smiling while he juggles. But he does this as an act, a short demonstration of a skill he acquired by hours and hours of repetitious practice. This is not a way of life.

So, now it's May. Things are winding down. Classes ended on the 2nd. All but one paper is finished. Three meetings in other cities are behind me. May's not a piece of cake by any means, but it's doable. UMUC's CIP is the last week. I have until then to polish my talk and think about what I really want to say (the paper is just the beginning of the process of giving a talk, for me). Then comes June, July and August. Somehow, I am going to slow down and not set myself up for a mad dash to the end of the year.

Which brings me to my research topic. I have decided to reject for now everything I concluded through the end of April. I just don't trust any conclusion I reached by participating in a process that I think is fundamentally flawed. I have felt closer to crazy during the last 6 weeks than I ever want to feel again. I'm going to take the summer to think about it, to talk to people who aren't stressed out, to explore the options at a more leisurely pace, to be more open to changing course, to venturing into terrain that's less familiar, to maybe taking more time to unfold the story. Most of my fellow Ph.D. students seem to have these trajectories that were not straight. The process is maybe all there is. Right now I am too focused on the outcome (finishing). I know better than that. But then again, that's what April was about -- not making a lot of sense.