I originally envisioned this post as a two-part brain dump, but then I realized
that the type of people interested in libraries are also the type of people who
aren't bothered by long text. So this post will be longer than usual.
Now that we are almost a quarter into the 21st century it is perhaps time to
have the talk: what do we do with our public libraries?
I'd like to start by pointing out that I love libraries. I love the feeling of
being surrounded by books, picking one of them at random and reading a couple
pages -- sometimes I put the book back after a few seconds, and sometimes I rush
to the nearest chair and remain there until it's dark outside. Having said that,
I also realize that I'm only focusing on what libraries are instead of what
they could be.
Part I: books
Physical books are awesome: paper is relatively inexpensive, lasts a long time,
doesn't hurt your eyes, can survive some natural disasters, requires no
electricity, an can be easily recycled if a book is really bad. Having said
that, paper is also heavy, flammable, and duplicating its content takes work.
A book's physicality is both its blessing and its curse. The New York Society
Library acquires 4800 books a year, meaning
that they also need a plan for getting rid of
4800 books a year. What happens to those books is a touchy subject. History is
full of brilliant artists who didn't get recognized during their time, but
90% of all books are crap.
How to strike a balance between both extremes is a full-time job.
I am a fan of physical books. But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't consider
that maybe I like them just because that's what I grew up with, the same
way my dad's coworkers rejected computers because a calculator was all they
ever needed. And I am willing to bet that, about a hundred years
ago, someone somewhere must have rejected cars for being cold and boring in
comparison to the horse they brushed and cuddled every day.
It isn't hard to imagine a library without physical books. You would simply show
up to the reception desk, pick a tablet (or bring your own), sit in one of the
multiple available couches (with all the books gone, there's plenty room for
them), and browse the virtual catalog. No need for queues, no book needs ever
be thrown away, and you could even do it from the comfort of your house.
(Note that "don't throw anything away" sounds suspiciously similar to hoarding,
but we won't get into that today)
But this is where I worry: why stop there? If you can check out books from
anywhere, why even have a building? Just make it a webpage that everyone can
access. All you need to do is add Digital Restrictions
Management (DRM) and
you no longer need to worry about people making unauthorized copies and/or lending
your books to non-members. It is also a very convenient way of getting rid of
problematic books: one simple command and voilà!, the book is gone from every
library in the country. And as a plus, you
don't need to fight anymore with those pesky librarians who refuse to hand over
without a court order.
Which touches on an important point: that if you were to invent the concept of a
library today, you would be labeled a pirate and sued.
A library is an inconvenient institution: it is not run for profit,
it facilitates copyrighted material, and it provides access to dangerous ideas
If I were me, I would be scared of tinkering with such an important institution
and risk breaking it forever.
Part II: activities
Whenever I think about what an ideal library would look like, I always come back
to the same example: the Vancouver Public Library.
If all you had was a VPL card and time, you could learn music theory, learn how
to play an instrument (which you can borrow on the fourth floor),
record a podcast with your progress in the recording booths,
design an album cover in their computers (don't know how? there's a book for
that), and eventually release your album.
Not many other institution offer this much knowledge for free.
The VPL (and others like this, such as the Cologne
go straight to the core of a different concept of library: not a
place to store books, but rather a place to explore ideas. And while in theory
you could also do that with a virtual library, I wouldn't discount the power of
moving your physical body somewhere. Once you are inside the library, a part of
you knows that you are there with a purpose.
No one I know associates libraries with activities, but they definitely
associate them with the idea of a safe, quiet place to study.
Which is, once again, a blessing and a curse: the space you need for your
activities is space you take away from the books. And just as important for this
discussion, it is space: if you have tried to rent even a moderately sized
empty room you'll know that it doesn't come cheap.
Perhaps I am conflating too many ideas. Perhaps the world doesn't needs a
library-makerspace-coworking space. And yet, the idea of a Library as a
"Temple of knowledge" is all my nerd brain ever wanted.
Part III: the Metaverse and Zoom meetings
This is the part where Mark Zuckerberg shows up and says "something something
THE METAVERSE". And he could have a point: if you are not at least intrigued
by the idea of reading a (virtual) book while sitting (virtually) in the
Library of Babel
you need to catch up.
But until the day comes when we all wear Metaglasses (R) all the time,
we could take about their little sibling the smartphone.
Have you tried working in a library in the past months?
I have, and I tell you, it's a challenge.
This was not a problem 4 years ago, when all I needed was fast
internet and power for my notebook. But in a post-pandemic world where everyone
and their dog want to rope me into Zoom meetings this is no longer enough:
meetings require sound-proof cabins in short notice, and they are very scarce.
The Staatsbibliothek Berlins has six such cabins for all of their members
(split into 4 and 2 between its two buildings) and trust me,
they are not even close to enough.
And so, the only people who can currently accept a phone call in a library are
Olympic sprinters who can run down four flight of stairs in less time than it
takes for a call to go to voicemail (ask me how I know this!).
I imagine libraries will eventually adapt - if anything, those six cabins
in the StaaBi did come from somewhere. But again, each one of those cabins
takes away space from "regular" book readers, who may argue that libraries
are not WeWork and that I should go somewhere else.
I believe books will still be an integral part of our daily lives way into the
22nd century and further. Sure, eventually all new books will be digitized and
nothing will be lost ever again, but the value of holding a book in
your hands cannot be matched. And in a time when sharing is no longer caring,
I am not counting on any better replacement coming anytime soon.
I love my local library - I like the small ones, I like the big ones, and I
definitely like the VPL. And precisely because I like them I can't stop
wondering whether I'm the old guy who complains about cars while brushing his
horse. But what does the future of the library look like? Is it in the comfort
of my home? Is it in my pocket? Is it inside incredibly expensive VR glasses?
Or is the future of my library the exact same place where it was the last couple
Sure, sometimes one of them catches fire, but doesn't everything?
And it's not like we can't just rebuild them.
Lucky for us, manuscripts don't burn.
If you told me I was going to die in the next 24hs, asked me to guess what from,
and it was a working day of the week, "MS-Teams-induced aneurysm" would
definitely be in my top 5 guesses.
I know what you are thinking: "he's exaggerating - no software can be that bad".
This reveals one of two possible scenarios: either you don't use Teams in your
daily work, or you do use it but you only pretend to work.
Don't worry, your secret is safe with me.
But just in case, please take a seat and let me tell you all about Teams.
First and foremost, Teams is where information goes to die.
If I need a piece of information I know exists, I have to identify the Account
(I have 2), the Team (around 25 and growing), the Channel (around 5 per team
but only two in actual use) and the media type (was it in a chat? a wiki? a
file? If so, in which folder?), all of which are just slow enough to make it
frustrating but not slow enough for my office to ditch it (assuming they could
and wanted to, which then can't and don't want to).
And with a search function that works ~20 percent of the time, it's not unusual
for me to just give up.
"It's somewhere in our Teams channel" is what I tell people when I don't
actually care about whether they find what they need or not.
And if I'm looking for something said in a person-to-person Chat, this is
different from a Channel chat and I need a different window altogether.
Chat brings us to notifications.
Teams is the only tool I know that will display up to four notifications
for a single event and leave more than one on.
If someone sends a message during a meeting, Teams will display a box in the
notification area, play a sound, add an indicator to the task bar, and a
second indicator to the meeting windows.
Your window will resemble a Christmas tree until you open the chat window, even
if you already clicked on the very first notification box.
As far as Teams is concerned, a single unread chat is the most important thing
that has ever existed, and it will not rest until you've clicked on it.
The system requirements are also an issue, but all things considered they are a minor one.
Sure, I cannot calculate the number of hours that I lost waiting for things to
load, but I can at least estimate how much my employer had to pay to replace an otherwise perfectly good computer.
And yet,if I only consider them a minor issue it's because they pale in comparison to the hours I wasted doing things the Teams way, a burden no hardware upgrade can relieve.
Teams empowers you to go through the motions of work without actually getting anything done.
No project can start without yet-another useless channel, a bunch of documents you'll never find, a to-do list hidden at least four levels deep into the interface, and a collaborative editor that ruins your formatting until you open the desktop app.
But it takes a strong company leader to stand to Microsoft, and those don't come easy nor cheap.
Once your company has willingly chained itself to a Teams-based working environment, your fate is tied to that sinking ship.
And yet, the worst aspect of Teams had escaped me until today when a friend pointed it out: that we started using it because Microsoft imposed it on us right at the beginning of the pandemic.
I guess some Microsoft salesman decided that the pandemic was not hard enough on us as it was, and that's why they decided to add a buggy, resource-hungry tool as the cherry on top of the pandemic dessert.
I have not yet received my check for working as an alpha tester for a terrible tool I didn't want, and I am starting to believe that I might never get it.
Friends don't let friends implement MS Teams in their organizations.
If you are going to choose a collaboration tool that sucks, you might as well choose one that's lighter on resources and less annoying.
Even yelling at your coworkers down the hall is better, even if they are in another building.
Just say no to Teams.
Two years and 44 days after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I caught it.
I haven't felt this sick since at least January 2013 (probably longer), and
I therefore spent an entire week lying on my couch.
Which is ironic considering that, as I lay there "looking half dead"
(not my words), Germany was scraping almost all protective
What happens when you get sick right as the country is ready to move on?
In my experience you get sent back and forth between different services who
haven't yet noticed that there's a pandemic going on, you rage against "Corona
test centers" who don't test sick people, and eventually someone takes pity on
you and takes care of it.
My first difficulty was the PCR test:
quick tests are not accepted by my employer, my girlfriend's employer,
nor my soon-to-be-ex-doctor's office.
But getting a PCR test while sick is bafflingly difficult:
the test centers suggested by the 116117 Patient service
only offer quick tests, and the multiple other test centers that sprung up these
years don't accept customers with symptoms. The only choice is a 20 minutes
ride to the nearest Hospital, meaning you need either a car (have fun driving
while sick!), a driver (ideally someone who is willing to get sick by being in
contact with you), or a moderately-full public bus. Fun fact: do you know which
kind of people takes a bus on a working day during working hours?
Answer: Old people! Have fun at night wondering how many of them
you'll put in an intensive station next week.
I then tried to use the Corona Warn-App to
tell anonymous people they should get tested, but that didn't work either.
The app doesn't let you self-declare as sick, offering only the
possibility of scanning your official code. The problem is that I started
exhibiting symptoms on Wednesday, got my PCR results on Friday, and yet as of
this writing (one week later) the results are still not uploaded and
probably never will be.
I said it before and I'll say it again: when security researcher Bruce Schneier
said that contact tracing apps have no
he was right.
And finally, the sickness certificate: my soon-to-be-ex-doctor has not yet
learned that they are allowed to extend certificates per telephone, but won't see me in person either.
I tried calling the 116117 people again for a referral, but they entered a loop
and got me nowhere. I guess no one asked them for a doctor before?
I next gave the health services of my employer a try, but they were as
useless as always.
And as I started going through a list of other possible doctors to call my
girlfriend lost her patience, took time off work, and went to my
soon-to-be-ex-doctor's office in person to get me the stupid certificate.
People, it's been OVER TWO YEARS since we canceled Karneval the first time,
and yet we are still in the same spot where we started.
I know that Germany is a bureaucratic place, but that's not the issue - if
anything, the fact that there is a protocol to follow is a bit of a consolation.
But when EVERY.SINGLE.STEP of that protocol is broken, it really makes you
wonder what else might be FUBAR and waiting for you to discover it.
So you want to use my PC? Sure, no problem, it's right there. But real quick,
before you start, there's a couple small tips that you should keep in mind.
If you turn it on and nothing happens, that means the KVM switch is listening
on the wrong input. Just press the black button behind the screen to switch it
back. Can't find it? Maybe it fell down - it has a short cable and sometimes the
other cables pull it back. Or maybe it's underneath all of my drawing stuff.
Either way, search for it behind the desk and press it.
The screen should turn on.
You may also notice that the computer chair has been relegated to the side and
that I'm using a regular wooden chair instead. You can use the fancy one if you
want - after a couple weeks it may cause some completely unexpected health
issues, but on a short enough scale it's fine.
Now, this computer runs Linux. Technically it runs Windows too, but the screen
for choosing a different operating system goes away before the monitor has time
to turn on, and we lost too much time to spam the arrow keys anyway.
But that's probably for the best: given that I haven't booted Windows in a long
time, that Windows loves mandatory updates,
and that the computer has a mechanical hard drive,
there's a good chance that you would have to wait at least an hour before
being able to use it.
Why haven't I upgraded to an SSD, you ask?
I have considered it, but Windows won't let me for complicated reasons.
So Linux it is.
You may see a bunch of text scrolling by. That's fine. If the text stops
scrolling for a long time you may want to consider pressing the NumLock key
several times. I'm not entirely clear on the details, but something about
interruptions and IRQs sometimes keeps the PC from starting if it doesn't
detect activity. And since the NumLock key doesn't do anything bad, it is the
safest key to spam-press.
Once you've made it to the login screen it is going to ask you for a username
and password. That one should be easy - I have been using the same combination
for over 20 years, so you probably know it already. Need a hint? It's in the
same league as my network name plus my favorite number. It's not exactly
hunter2, but it's close.
You may have a bit of trouble reading the letters on screen. Don't worry, the
screen works fine - I just keep my brightness and contrast real low,
and even the smallest hint of natural light turns them invisible. You could
adjust the brightness using the monitor's crappy touch controls, or you could
do what I do and close the curtains. I'm not going to tell you which one is
right, but I am going to vouch for the one that has kept me glasses-free for
more than 25 years of extensive computer use.
If you want a graphical interface, type
startx and my
Mate Desktop Environment will start.
Ignore the error about sticky notes - I have been meaning to fix it for some
time, but there's always something else and it doesn't bother me anyway.
But before you type anything, a word of caution: the interface is in English,
but the keyboard is German and the key mapping is Spanish. That means that
regular keys are where you expect them to be (except for
Y, which are
inverted), but if you want to type a single quote you need to add a space
afterwards or you'll get an accented letter otherwise. If you have a password
with more than just letters and numbers then you may want to type it in a
text editor first and copy-paste.
You probably need a web browser, in which case the Firefox icon is right there.
But you probably don't want that: the script blockers almost
guarantee that whatever website you are trying to open will not work. For those
cases I recommend using the super-outdated Chrome browser instead - the icon
is right next to the Firefox one. It won't play Netflix because I didn't
install the DRM stuff, but everything else should work fine. If you want
audio, remember to plug the headphones first. And that reminds
me: I have set the browser to auto-delete all history when closing the browser.
So don't close the window until you're done, or you'll have to login again.
I hope you didn't close the text editor with your password!
Now, I'll be honest with you: at this point most people give up and resort to
their phones. And it's okay, I get it. That's what happens when you keep your
tools exactly like you want them to be and suddenly you are asked to share.
But most people tend to blame Linux for it, which I think it's unfair - if
anything, I'd like to see Windows offer even half the flexibility to do
things my way.
Now, let's talk about that WiFi password.
But first, one question: do you know how to type the "¿" symbol on your keyboard?
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