Forbes Smiley: Library Thief Looking for the “Good Life” in Maine

BlandingEncountered a brief, but fascinating excerpt from a new book about Forbes Smiley, a bibliophile bent on creating a little Eden in Sebec, Maine, who resorted to theft from famous libraries to fund his utopia and the legal battles it required. From the book, by Michael Blanding:

It was around this time that the stress and financial difficulties became too much for Smiley. Sitting in a library one day, he told me, Smiley found himself looking down at a map that he knew he could sell the next day for tens of thousands of dollars and make payroll up in Maine that Friday. He folded it up, slipped it into a pocket, and walked out.

The mash up of preservation vs. improvement, people “from away” who are  interlopers to the “natives,” and endless legal battles; well that’s just an ordinary day in Maine, where “how it used to be-ism” and “how it should be-ism” are in a death match. But funding this craziness by stealing maps from places like the Beinecke Library at Yale University adds a novel twist.

When I worked at the Library of Congress, there was a notorious manuscript thief who had been raiding there and at the Archives, then selling his booty, Civil War docs and John Singer Sargent letters in Boston. Like Smiley, he had a vintage Social Register name, Charles Merrill Mount.

Blanding’s book looks to be a fascinating read.

The old-fashioned solution to book theft: chain the books to the shelves, a library in the UK from

Photo credit: Wimborne Minster: the chained library (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Web Production Tips

A forum I am on for Web Producers asked for tips on Web site management. I, being the prolix sort I am, generated more than LinkedIn could take, so here is the full list, of interest only to people who create or look after web sites, but offered to them for what it’s worth. Slightly updated, 2/20/2018.

Random Website Production Tips courtesy of Arthur Smith

  • Sign your work: I’ve found it useful to make sure people put their names (or at least initials) on all concept stage and later docs (specs, treatments, mission statements, wireframes, page designs, whatever). I used to only ask for dates, but “signing your work” may actually improve quality and it is also a godsend later when you are trying to track something down from an archive.
  • Number wireframes: Decimal numbering navigation trees on wireframes/screen comps has been helpful. (That is, assigning a number to each path (Home page =1, a sub-page like “about us” = 1.1 etc.) although as complicated hierarchies become less prevalent on sites, may not be as important.
  • Responsive from the get go: Checking responsive view compatibility really early and being psychologically prepared to clip the wings of a really nice design solution and content strategy if it’s not feasible.
  • Workflow realism: Be prepared for clients’ (or partners) non-use of proposed workflow tools for content, delivery and review etc. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can lead a client to BaseCamp, Google Drive, DropBox, SharePoint or whatever, but you can’t make them click. Most people are reluctant to add another tool to their work ecosystem, and a vendor seldom has the leverage to persuade them to do so. I ask how clients already work with copy, visual assets, and do review for existing projects, and then work out an approach based on that that’s bearable for the web team. It is often email attachments, the bane of any web producer, but then I put them in the tool I need and name them using the production convention. I work on small sites, and I realize something this ad hoc may not scale.
  • Milestones: Rally around a fixed external event to shape client schedules and expectations (even if it’s a sort of made up event). It’s best if there is a plausible date to tie production milestones to, but even if not, designate one based on something on the calendar. For instance, end of a semester for an academic client, annual meeting for a non-profit, etc. Some public version of a deliverable should be tied to this., “e.g., we will focus group the alpha at the next regional meeting.” What’s key is that be such a date be front of mind for client and feasible for you. End of contract dates don’t necessarily work this way. For one thing, they can be amended, but dates of public meetings cannot. If you have to keep looking up a date to see when something major is due, it’s a bad sign.
  • Presentation tools for sketches: Consider Keynote, (or if you must, PowerPoint ) for concept and design stage work. If your designers are comfortable with it and particularly if you are working from a family of templates, have designers create plausible Keynote “page shells” that then can be updated by producers and writers to iterate content strategy. This is sort of a hack, and it’s not what Keynote is for, per se, but it is much more convenient (and less costly) that working on content revisions in a designer/Photoshop workflow. For one thing, text in Keynote is much easier to move around and chunk, and the graphics tools are sufficient at least to wireframe, or even do simple page design. Photoshop (or other image tools, are not text friendly). Don’t leave the designer and developer out of this phase, though. It’s possible to create something in Keynote that is insane to execute. Periodic check ins on feasibility and implications are good, as is working from a shell that both the designer and developer have seen and ok’d, or better participated in.
  • Start early on copy and other content: Also, if you are careful, you can get a jump on cleaning up the copy, and sort out images, rights etc., in this Keynote stage, not just resolve the content strategy problems. Interestingly enough, now that I work mostly in WordPress, I still find that this Keynote workflow helps. WordPress sort of tempts you to think you can do iterative content development if you have chosen the right theme etc. This hasn’t worked for me: it’s a publishing content management approach (presentation and content wrangling) it’s not a content creation tool, at least for anything editorially intensive. I think there still really isn’t a good content creation tool—a sort of github for editorial would be part of it, but some 10 year old is probably creating one. I know people have had success with iA Writer, and Medium is making a big splash, although I’m not sure that it is designed to work inside other workflows.
  • Map editorial workflows: figure out in advance how copy (and other assets) are getting from the client or the writer to the site, and how revisions, proofreading/copyediting and publishing will be done. Note who’s job it is, and do a ‘pre-flight’ to make sure this approach will work. Particularly important for big sites or conversion jobs.
  • Restrain your theme addiction: If you are in a WordPress world, or other theme-based platform, don’t move to the theme choice stage until content strategy is established. (This is really hard for me, and others I’m betting. There are so many themes, and it’s fun to think in a preliminary way about your project and then go “theme shopping”.) The danger is you start thinking about the project in terms of what the theme will do, rather than what the project goals are. (It’s a version of having all those typefaces available in a design program: sort of irresistible to try them out early on.) It’s also a waste of time learning a theme and its quirks, only to find out you won’t use it later. (Although this only happens once in my experience!) If you are building a theme from scratch, or redoing most or all of the CSS, then this would not necessarily apply. Still good to have a clear idea of what success looks like for your content first.
  • Stay in touch: Do a weekly report email to clients, include milestones from your project spreadsheet or PM tool, and color code tasks: on time (green), behind, (red) ahead (blue), not started (black), so it can be glanced at (but not edited).
  • Keep track: Document as you go. (Like flossing easy to say, hard to do).
  • If timelines change, be realistic: If some stage takes a lot more time than it was scheduled and budgeted for, the natural tendency is to believe the “Just So story” that you will “catch up” later. If the first stage took twice as long, it’s likely that the other stages will take twice as long. Make an alternate Plan-B version of the schedule that uses this delay as a factor for all remaining stages. For example, if it took the client 10 weeks instead of 5 to provide copy and signoff on concept spec, multiply all remaining stages (page designs, alpha, testing, whatever) by 2 and see where that gets you. Figure out how you could manage such a schedule, and find a professional and respectful way to address this with your client. This isn’t very comfortable, but even if you are just thinking through it yourself is useful. As difficult as it may be to bring up a delay like this with a client, it is easier than trying miraculously do work in half the time. Even if you end up eating the time, your client and team may well respect you for being realistic about it.
Web site don'ts: Labeling everything in dingbats!
Web production don’ts: Labeling everything in dingbats on your sitemap!

• Love your content: Finally, it’s my experience that if you like the content and do right by it, many workflow problems either don’t occur or are easier to solve. Even neutral professional content that isn’t your particular specialty can be rewarding to work on, and if everybody believes it is valuable to get it out to the people who need it, that gives you some basis for working together and solving problems when they come up.  On the other hand, content that hasn’t been worked out pushes back, and chokes workflows.

Criticizing MOOCs: the Cartoon

MOOCs, like many educational innovations that have come before them, are a flashpoint for certain kinds of rather tired arguments about the supposed eternal verities about what schooling should be. It’s a feeble flap, particularly since we are in not just early days but minute 1 or 2 of the whole change that online education will foment. The anti-MOOC case is also full of the weird mash up of empirical and conceptual carping that fights over education seem prone to. Two of the strands:

1. The philosophical opposition seems to go something like: MOOCs do not provide sufficient texture of experience to count as education, and are, further, an effort to outsource teaching via a technological approach, something which, for ineffable reasons, has to be, or is at least optimally, delivered in person as part of a (preferably, super-exclusionary) community.

2. The empirical complaint seems to be: look, they don’t work anyway, as most people don’t “complete” them, so therefore they can’t have any merit.

Both of these I think are refutable on their own, but they are basically self-refuting when mashed together. Good things those completion rates are low, even though that is arguably a meaningless metric, because, we shouldn’t be doing these things anyway.

I’m sanguine to optimistic about MOOCs and what they may lead to, and certainly feel deserve their chance to weave their thread in the Internet tapestry. My guess is that some of the growing pains result not from any problem in online delivery per se, but the sort of sad effort to replicate the format of a “course,” and the attendant forced march through the curriculum. (Curricula, whatever else they do, instantiate ideology and culture, something I’ll blather on about another time.)

Diderot's Encyclopedia: The MOOC of its day?
Diderot’s Encyclopedia: The MOOC of its day?
Getting a topic into some 13-week chunk for in-person delivery including the duly required mid-term, final, and term paper, is already artificial: an historical reenactment of an approach that was creaky 100 years ago. Preserving it online has never made any sense to me, except for laziness and resistance to change that academic institutions, and truthfully teachers, often fall into.

The other thing I think is not just promising about MOOCs, but here now and heartening, is how much humanities content they offer. In a time when there’s much stewing about the ailing state of the arts & humanities, there are crowds joining MOOCs on humanities topics and participating with enthusiasm. (Once upon a time you could get this subject on public broadcasting, even sometimes on commercial TV, but priorities have shifted.) Two, of many, examples: a course on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas with Jonathan Biss, and on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, which is the closest I’ve found to busting open the idea of a course, it is really more of a community event, and the better for it.

Still, to give the opposition their say, here’s a delightful animation taking up the contra side (including an argument that it’s all about money that I’ll hang fire on until another day). Daphne, Sebastian, and Anant make such adorable video game characters, I think they should consider that as an add on career.

Beyond the “Anthology Recital”

programs_18920215e_001Involved as I have been over the years in classical piano recitals (mostly attending and writing about them, rather than giving them), I’ve thought a lot about how the programs are put together. One template is the anthology. It goes something like this: kick off with Scarlatti Sonatas (or a Bach WTC Prelude and Fugue), then offer a first course of Mozart Sonata in C K. 330, (or more adventuresomely, his lovely Duport Variations). Main course closing the first half will be something hearty, but in parts, one of the Schumann sets, maybe Waldszenen. And when people come back after intermission, it’s time for a trip up the mountain . The most frequently encountered vehicle for the journey seems to be one of the late Schubert Sonatas, but Beethoven of course will also be considered, and there are offerings by many others–one of the best second halfs I ever heard was the complete Études-Tableaux of Rachmaninoff.

There’s still a lot of life in this plan, but it does risk monotony. As well, although the performer no doubt puts a lot of thought into the order and meaning of the pieces as a larger experience, the audience can miss this. The familiar format can, and often does, let the audience off the hook from any effort to figure out what is going on.

Not so in this wonderful recital by Israeli pianist Matan Porat. “Variations on a theme by Scarlatti” takes a Scarlatti sonata as an opening, but observing the stepwise character in this piece’s  material, builds out a program that riffs on that as a set of variations that lasts the whole concert/CD. Works from different styles, periods, and emotional registers come together, but with something related, and a really engrossing musical conversation ensues. At first pieces seem plucked randomly (one piece from within Waldszenen, side by side with Boulez, and Ligeti too?) Soon, you do the work as you listen, finding the connections within pieces, and from piece to piece in the whole set. I found myself asking what idea is repeated, what is varied, and why? How do these things relate? By the end, I was hearing new things in works I know very well, and hearing familiar things in works that were new to me.

It’s a wonderful idea, and a great inspiration for thinking about a recital as a work of art in and of itself.

Here’s a video of the start of the program, and the whole thing is on Naxos Music Library (where I heard it) but also I’m sure on iTunes and Amazon, and Porat has a web site.

Ridiculous Words: “The Librarians”

So there is another entry for the card catalogue for improbable sub-genre of “library adventure.” National Treasure was sort of about the National Archives, despite a finale that looked like a very boring video game. And what are the Dan Brown books about if not the pursuit of things that are emphatically not Googleable?

The latest is “The Librarians” which, when featured on Library Link of the Day, I assumed was a joke. But it seems like the real thing, although Bob Newhart’s presence does suggest that the TNT series will have a sense of humor.



A far cry from that other screen librarian,


Around the Web: Computeriana

A few things I’ve come across browsing recently for the (sometimes silly) computers & culture file.

1. Correlation is not causation: the picture book. As the saying goes, “torture the data and it will say anything,” apparently even that previously unknown lurking variable linking Nicholas Cage films and swimming pool deaths, or crude oil and chicken consumption.

Correlation is not CausationCheck out Tyler Vigen’s delightful “Spurious Correlations” site for many more and for his engaging video that will teach you something too.


2. Forget a dogged ability to search out “Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? today’s reporters need to know the statistical language “R” and turn in their (now very figurative) Underwoods for a Computational Journalism Server, whatever that is. Kidding aside, given that data is oil of the 21st century, it makes sense that people should figure out how it is made, and how to use the tools it offers.

Rosalind Russell working on determining the “P Value” for a murder story she is writing in Howard Hawkes’ great newspaper comedy, “His Girl Friday.” (Itself a version of that classic newspaper play, “The Front Page.” )

Still, a dual Master of Science in M.S. in Computer Science and Journalism? A strange mash up, dare I say a forced correlation with no causal link? I’m a nerdy data guy, and I could, under duress, possibly become a (crappy) R programmer. I also wrote for newspapers for years, and grew up with a couple being published from my home. They really seem like very different mindsets. Yes, journalists need data scientists, but I’m not buying for a second that data scientists are journalists per se, any more than they are educators. They have an amazing tool set, but it’s not the whole game.

3. John Cage: The App Some enterprising soul has created 4′ 33″ for iOS. (I was tipped to this by an interesting web magazine on classical music, art and technology.) It is not, despite what you may think, a joke (neither was the original). I haven’t downloaded it yet, but it seems very true to part of Cage’s program (if I can be forgive that mundane word) of reorganizing how we think about sound and silence.


Impossible feats?

Hard: Reading Finnegan’s Wake.

Harder: Translating Finnegan’s Wake into a Western language that uses a Latin Alphabet.

Hardest: Translating Finnegan’s Wake into Chinese.

From a recent brief in the London Review of Books about Dai Congrong’s effort:

Many people are eager to know when Dai Congrong, the Chinese translator of Finnegans Wake, is going to produce the rest of the book. To date she has only published one third of her version and dropped no hints about when we might see the rest. A while back, quizzed by a reporter, she said: ‘May God give me the courage to finish it’ – which is surely a good call, even if you’re not a believer. Last month a journalist friend put the question again, and Dai simply replied: ‘Don’t ask me. I don’t know any more than you do.’ That, too, seems reasonable, given the size of the task. There’s plenty of Finnegans Wake that I’d be stumped to put into Mandarin. Browsing at random: ‘The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonn-thunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.’ I’m not sure this is convertible into any language, even an Indo-European one, but Dai’s translation has been a hit in China, as the Western media reported widely at the time of publication.


Nearly as formidable, Ulysses, has been translated into many languages, Japanese being one of the earliest. Here are some of the editions, from an exhibit at the University at Buffalo.

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