Convocation Speech

UW Graduate School of Library and Information Science
June 13, 1998


Ken Thompson
Student Speaker


Good morning everyone. My speech is about Death, Time, Truth, and the Known Universe. I will cover these topics in less than 15 minutes.

I must admit that I was a bit surprised to see Question 15 on this Spring Quartersí Master's Exam, which begins something like this: You have been selected as a representative of students graduating from an accredited masters program this year and are scheduled to make a keynote speech and continues: a speech on the topic of "Identifying and Solving the Three Worst Problems of the Information Age."

I knew that someone had written this question just for me. God knows that I excel at identifying problems (regardless of whether they exist or not), and that I am not the kind of person that shies away from pointing them out, and suggesting a wide array of solutions. This just seems to be the way I operate.

However, I ended up writing on Internet Filtering, a topic which, luckily for you, I will not harrangue us on at this moment. Which leaves "The Three Worst Problems of the Information Age" still available as a topic for this speech.

Let me then briefly identify the Three Worst Problems of the Information Age:

Hunger
Cruelty
Death

I think that we can all take some comfort from knowing that these are in fact the 3 worst problems of any age, be it the Elizabethan, Industrial, Bronze, or our own. And it is perhaps illustrative that itís not too far fetched to imagine some Egyptian Librarian standing before her colleagues telling them that these are the 3 big issues of her day; and it certainly doesnít seem to be a stretch to imagine some Middle Ages monk standing before his fellow Brother-Librarians saying the exact same thing. Hunger, Cruelty, Death. Some 3000 years of recorded human culture and weíre not too much further along. I donít mean to sound pessimistic about this, rather Iím interested creating an historical frame around the "3 worst problems of the information age."

Because Hunger, Cruelty and Death make "information overload" sound like a picnic. They make 10,000 hits on an Altavista search sound like an opportunity, and they make the consolidation of publishing businesses into the corporate-owned military-entertainment complex seem like a frivolous and paranoid fantasy.

What can we as information workers do about Hunger, Cruelty and Death? Not a whole heck of a lot, Iím afraid. What can we as people do about Hunger, Cruelty and Death? I would say -- Quite a bit. Once again, luckily for all of us, I will not now barrage you all with suggestions about how you can make the world a better place, nor bend your ear on how to be a socially conscious and responsible citizen. I do urge us, however, to always place our professional practice inside our larger and not occasionally problematic culture. That is to say, I urge us to have some perspective.

Itís still before 1a0a and I've said the word "Death" eight times now, for which I apologize. I wanted to get Death out of the way at the beginning of the speech, and I promise that it only makes one more haunting appearance in the text.

I'd like to discuss one of my new heroes. His name is Danny Hillis, and as a child he made a working computer out of tinkertoys, then in the early 1980s, he invented the massively parallel processing computer at the annoying age of 28. This was a computer that worked 1000 times faster than any other computer, and did so utilizing a system that had occurred to many other people but had been disregarded as impossible.

This, however, this is not why I admire him. In an article in Wired by Po Bronson entitled "the long now" (v.6, issue 5, May 1998, pages 116-123 and 167-174), we learn that Hillis is now employed by the Disney Corporation. This is a guy who, instead of having business cards printed up, he re-sequences DNA to encode it with his contact information, then hands out little vials of it instead of cards. So you know he's going to be working on something wayyyyy out there. And indeed he is. The Disney guys arenít exactly sure what to do with him. He's inventing something called the Millenium Clock. His goal is to make a monumental clock that will start ticking on Jan 1, 2001 and run until the year 12,000. To design something that will operate 10,000 years in the future, Hillis determined that he could not use any of today's volatile and fragile technologies. So he turned to Bronze Age materials -- giant stone wheels, pendulums, metals and the sun -- and he is well on his way to achieving his goal.

The central problem that he's tackling is this: current thinking about technology is bound up in what he calls the "3 Year Limit." The premises of the 3 year limit problem are these: that 1) problems that take longer than 3 years to solve are thought of as "effectively unsolvable"; and 2) that people don't like to work on unsolvable projects. And so the problems remain (Hunger, Cruelty, Death). Hillis' project goes to an extreme length to point out the problems of short-term thinking, and in my mind, forces one to pull back to a new perspective. And thereís that word again.

I started this speech wanting to make some grand pronouncement about the future. Unfortunately, I seem to have painted myself into a corner. So far I've suggested that the future is irrelevant, or at best it is short-sighted to expend much energy thinking about it. Still, it doesnít seem right to leave us all without some sort of authoritative vision of what our lives will be like. So here it comes:

A friend of mine in Kansas City is an astrologer. I asked him to do a chart for the whole class, thinking that this was an unusual request. He assured me that businesses ask for this type of service all the time. Our birth date was figured out to be the first day of Autumn Quarter 1996, so effectively this is the chart for the average us which -- when you mush us all together -- works out to be a 19 month old mixed-race hermaphrodite from Seattle with a Master's degree.

Here, then are the results.

He reports that Mercury, which deals with communications, books and most likely library science is in Virgo. Virgo is the head critic of the zodiac and gives us a very strong sense of organization and logic -- ideal for librarians is his guess. Virgo is entirely in the 9th house -- the house of education and higher learning.

As far as wealth and money, Capricorn (the slow steady climber) rules the 2nd house and Jupiter (expansion and good fortune) is located there. We should expect wealth through traditional means -- hard work -- as opposed to the lottery or gambling, and monetary success, a good deal of it, through structured organizations like corporations, the government, large universities. He says "I'm thinking 401Ks, stock options, and retirement plans will be key, Capricorn is slow to accumulate, but is successful when it comes to time, old age and the long term."

He notes that a conjunction of Neptune (which rules imagery) and Uranus (which rules anything electronic) might inspire many of us to manage electronic databases, catalogue graphic information, or develop on-line, computer based library systems. The Sag rising and Jupiter in the 2nd house might also indicate work in the legal fields, or a strong sense of justice.

And now, the bad news: Our Moon is conjunct with Saturn in Aries opposite the Sun. Which means: The moon, one's emotional state, in Aries tends to lead to hot tempers, but Saturn probably keeps this in check (smoldering in a way) and in opposition to the Sun would lead to a lot of career frustrations, not getting the emotional satisfaction, or recognition, not being promoted fast enough. Itís always something.

I asked him about our Romantic lives. He suggested that Geminis would make good matches for us, and that we had exhibitionist tendencies that could get us in trouble with the law.

He concludes: "This is an excellent chart for a group of library science students, and indicates that their education will carry them far, especially in the long-term."

Is he smooth or what?

Do I believe all this? There was definitely a time where I would have laughed this off, as it doesnít really fit into my rationalist worldview. I wonder now, though, if it doesnít offer access to a perspective that I had ruled out. Donít get me wrong I'm not about to start screening my boyfriends to see if they are Geminis. But nor am I running out to buy that videophone thatís been promised for so long. Who has access to The Truth? Who has access to The Future? Not me.

If there's one thing that I've learned in this program, it's that one person's life-changing valuable source is another person's propagandistic garbage. The crazy ideas of some turn out to change the world. The issue again is perspective.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here.

Go forth, prosper, do the right thing, read a few good books, eat some good food, and live righteous lives.

Thank You.


y of hands-on exercises and projects. A doctoral candidate in Urban Planning, she consults in desktop publishing and related computer applications. She really cared about our progress and gave each of us plenty of personal attention as we worked through our projects in the labs.

By the end of a full summer term, each of us produced our own newsletter, reformatted a document using Word's many bells and whistles, and got a brief grounding in the basics of email and the Internet. This course would be especially valuable for those of us planning to write a thesis; Dena offered advice and copies of the University's style manual. A great course, I highly recommend it!

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SLA Chapter Presents Sylvia Piggot
Raney Newman

I attended the presentation by Sylvia Piggot, president of the Special Libraries Association, on January 16. It was seething with un-library school looking-types, in ties and with steely eyes. It looked like a good networking opportunity. And that's what she emphasized in her talk. She had the nicest accent that was a mix of Canadian, British and Jamaican. I was trying to decipher which country each vowel came from as she talked about the need for continual self-education and self-evaluation, to make sure you are staying on target with your goals. I gleaned the idea that in special libraries, we need to take charge of our own development. The presentation sometimes seemed a bit esoteric, and I would have liked more real-world examples, but some of her little maxims were interesting. She said: don't stay in a job you don't like, don't hang around negative people, congratulate yourself for trying with every job application, even if you aren't hired.

She also had some intriguing ideas with regard to library schools, which is relevant in this time of transition in this school. She suggested that there should be a mingling of ideas by the business, education, computer science and library school departments. This needn't be limited to only those departments. Having lunch with her and my fellow SLA officers, she told about her student days, crusading to reform the library school. One of her tactics which was brutal but effective was to threaten to report the poor teaching quality to the student newspaper if there weren't changes made. It ended with several of the faculty going on sabbatical, and new faculty being hired. I thought they might have had some grudges but the school hired her as an administrator when she graduated.

With regard to the kinds of jobs we can do, she mentioned that people other than librarians will be coming into the field of what has usually been done by the special librarians; however, new kinds of work will simultaneously be opening to us. Some of the job titles she listed were Client-server Network Administrator, Knowledge Management Officer, Systems Librarian, Intranet Consultant or Designer. I got a feeling that we could create our own job title, depending on which areas of skill we develop.

To prepare ourselves for a self-created role, taking charge of our education is vital. She listed some of the useful skills: web development, intranet, database design, public relations (for proving to someone why they need our services), installing CDs, and teaching skills (to facilitate user self-sufficiency).

Altogether, I came away from this inspirational talk and meeting with a clearer idea of what awaits after library school.

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Special Libraries Association UW Chapter - Introduction
Raney Newman, vice-chair, SLA student group

Hello Everyone! I'd like to introduce the officers of the GSLIS SLA Student Group, and mention some of our upcoming events.

Aaron Oesting (e-mail aoesting@u.washington.edu) is our beloved president. He's pretty easygoing, as long as you spell his name right. He has been living in Seattle for years after a long stint overseas and was most recently employed at a software company. Tiffany Tuttle (e-mail absences@u.washington.edu) is our Secretary. She is a recent graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also an officer in ALISS. She has really nice, boingy, curly hair which I envy, in case you want to spot her in Sam Oh's class, cataloging or various other mindboggler classes. Steve Weil (e-mail sweil@u.washington.edu) is the Treasurer, and has been around Seattle for several years. He has been a social worker, and now, I believe has his own web-related business. He is also student rep for the SLA Student and Academic Relations Committee. Me, I'm Raney Newman (e-mail pum@u.washington.edu), the vice-chair person. I like fiddle music and theater, and the fact that they actually trust us to use IOU slips (I only owe ten cents, really.) I bet they don't do that in the hard-bitten world of special libraries, public libraries maybe...

The SLA student chapter here hosts various events which provide valuable insight into the world of special libraries, career-related but enjoyable at the same time, like fat-free candy-bars. Watch for notices posted on our board about speakers from special libraries in the area. And watch for the dates for SLA student group meetings. We take any and all input on what kind of speakers you want to hear. Sylvia Piggot, the president of the Special Libraries Association, came to talk in Allen auditorium, January 16th. February 6th, there was a talk from a representative of Pathogenesis, who talked about reengineering library services. There will be a tour of King County Law Library on Valentine's Day. Time to be posted; we will meet at the library school and proceed to the buses.

Take advantage of the free admission to this summer's SLA conference if you volunteer 8 hours at the hospitality desk. The April meeting of the local chapter will emphasize how to make your conference experience interesting and productive.

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News from SALA
Ginny Allemann

The new SALA (Student American Library Association) board is finally in place! We are: Bonnie Parks (bonster@u), Chair; Deirdre Miller (mdeirdre@u), Vice-Chair; Ginny Allemann (valleman@u), Program Chair; and Sarah Kielhack (sarahwk@u), Conference Chair. Two other people, Cass Shettleroe (cshettle@u) and Julia Paulsen (gringa@u) form the "leadership group." We are excited about SALA, but just a little overwhelmed as we head into the second half of the quarter.

Our mission, or goal (or is it an objective?) is to provide service and educational opportunities as well as some fun activities for all students of the GSLIS. Please watch for information about our general meeting (sometime in the next month) and a social/fun gathering of some sort in the near future. (I know I could use some fun -- not that my life hasn't been infinitely enriched with Dialog searches and HTML pages!) Though you probably already have a few things to do, you might consider joining in on a 2-3 hour volunteer activity in February. It really can be a way to get a little perspective. The two opportunities are:

  • Wednesday, Feb. 19, 3:30 to 6:30 PM. Madrona Elementary School. The librarian has a large order of new children's books coming in and needs help covering them. Only three to five people needed.

  • Wednesday, Feb. 26, 3-6:30 PM. Franklin High School. The librarian needs help weeding reference materials, as well as some cataloguing and shelf reading. Other projects may be available too! I'm, oh, 80% sure that she'll buy us some pizza too. As many people as want to come are welcome.

Just sign up on the SALA board, or contact one of the people mentioned above. If neither of these works for you, but you'd still like to help out a public school in need, contact Ginny for other options. We can arrange small group volunteer activities with a number of Seattle schools. Thanks for reading and watch the SALA board for more info.

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GPSS Update
Jon McConnel

Just a little update from your friendly GPSS Senators. There is a copy of the minutes for the January meeting available for viewing at http://www.grad.washington.edu/gpss/1996-7files/meetings.htm, and also on the bulletin board outside the student lounge. This is all so you can check up on us and see what we're up to!

The meeting was on Wed., Jan. 8 in the HUB. Nothing was voted on, rather the meeting was for discussing policies and positions that are still in the formative stage. Highlights that may be of interest include:

  • A GPSS proposal to the parking fees committee to keep the burden of parking fees at the current ratio between employees and students, instead of shifting the burden more toward students as the faculty and parking committee have proposed.

  • Discussion of the views of graduate students on a system-wide policy concerning academic integrity and grievance procedures (what happens when you're accused of cheating). Currently departments have their own policies (or not, as the case may be), decisions of which may be appealed to the Faculty Appeal Board (7 faculty members), and then to the president of the university. Consensus of the Senate seemed to be that there should be guidelines that departments must follow in making their own policy, appealable to a committee of students and faculty. A recommendation to be presented to the administration (who requested our input) will be voted on at the next GPSS meeting, in February.

Also brought up in the course of the discussion was the procedure concerning academic dishonesty on the part of faculty. Apparently intellectual property defaults to professors on this campus, so it's not unknown for students to have their research stolen. Would faculty agree to have appeals on these matters heard by a committee of 7 graduate students? Interesting question....

If you have any questions, feel free to email Jon (jonmc@u) or Britt (bfager@u).

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Edited by Kathleen E. Bennett (last updated 2/07/97)
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