Sunday, July 20, 2014

Durable Goods 3

July 20, 2014

It seems that everything wears out.  Last December I had to replace my microwave and this month I had to replace my clothes washer.  The old washer still looked new on the outside, but inside the pump and the transmission were broken.  Repair would cost more than a new washer. It was long and lingering demise.  I didn’t want to replace the washer before I had to. 

The repairman recommended a washer with minimal electronic gadgetry. It was also much less expensive than the fancy machines.  I searched the online sites of three stores.  The salesman agreed with the repairman. The washer was still on sale for the 4th of July sales.  The repairman said to get the model 4800, however I learned there were two model 4800 – the CU and BQ.  The CU cost $50 more, had a 3.4 cubic foot tub and fewer cycle choices.  The BQ has a 3.7 cubic foot tub.  I bought the BQ model.  The cost was below the threshold for free delivery.  I got an extended warranty for the same cost as delivery.  Then delivery was included.  I had to buy new water hoses to get free installation. 

On Friday (July 18) the washer was installed and the old one was taken away.  The delivery people said the old machine was ancient.  It worked for me for more than 20 years.  I didn’t want a new machine; I was forced to.  The machine had to run a cycle without clothes before I could use it to make sure residue remained from the shipping or manufacture.  The new machine works. It is quieter than the old one and the clothes are clean.

Good by old, leaky machine, hello new washer. 

Dear Little Girl

Usually in this blog I do not express personal opinions off my topic of libraries and information.  Today I must share an emotional event.  I was teary-eyed when I wrote the first draft.

A few weeks ago the daughter, son-in-law and their month old baby went to visit his father in Los Angeles. I have known the daughter and her family since I moved to this block.  She was a toddler when I moved here. I was at their wedding in May 2013.  Two weeks ago the young husband dropped dead of an undiagnosed health problem.  I asked what I could do and was asked to write about her husband.  I agreed even though I really barely know him.  I only met him a few times.  On those times I was very impressed with his kindness, friendliness, wisdom, and excitement to make a wonderful life for his family.  They were indeed a wonderful couple; lucky to find each other.

Below is the letter I wrote for their infant daughter with all the personal details removed.

July 20, 2014

Dear C,

No one is supposed to write a letter like this.  A child is supposed to grow up with the love and guidance of two parents and lots of friends and relatives.  A child is supposed to see their parents grow old.  At the end one is supposed to mourn the passing of parents who have led a long and meaningful life full of Torah, mitzvot and family.

I only knew your father for a very short time.  I met him briefly at the engagement party and at your parents’ wedding. The wedding was so happy with everyone dancing and celebrating.
This past Pesah your parents came to Chicago in anticipation of your birth. Your father was very self-assured and your parents looked so much in love and ready to start a family.  I offered to let them stay at my home.  Your father’s father also came for the first days of yom tov.  In anticipation, your father rearranged the guest room in my home. However they never took me up on the offer. 

In the time between Pesah and June I visited your grandparents and had the opportunity to speak with your father.  The topics were general friendly conversation.  It was at the Shabbat or yom tov table and everyone was participating in the conversation.  Your father was a true ben-Torah and mitzvot.  He took his knowledge and freely shared it with others.  He was a true man of the world and was not stuck in words; he was living Torah as a man of this world.  He knew so much and I wish that some of that great knowledge will someday be part of you.  

After you were born I could see the love of family in his eyes.  Whenever he talked of you he did not have to use words, I could see that he wanted great things for you and your family.  His love of family extended to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Even to me, a friend and neighbor of your grandparents he exhibited a friendship as if I had known him all his life.
When you begin to walk and talk I hope that we will see your father in every step and in every word.  May you be blessed with great knowledge and wisdom. May his eyes always shine through yours and someday you will accomplish all the dreams that he had for you. 

Be strong and stand on the shoulders of giants.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is a Plinth?

When I recently reviewed a book (Organizing Exhibitions by Freda Matassa. London, 2014)  on organizing museum  exhibits.  One several  of the check lists are items the curators need.  As the book was written by a British author, several of the choices were more British than American English, but I was able to figure everything out except for the word, “plinth.”  One way to figure out is from context or a glossary in the book.  Here are three examples from the book and none offer clues as to the meaning.  On page 47 is list of installation items, "display cases and plinths."  On page 72, A wide plinth can act as a deterrent." On page 133, "Items on a plinth or shelf can be placed one metre from the edge ..."   I looked for "plinth" in my colegiate dictionary and even though it had the word and a definition, the meaning was not clear.

I looked up "plinth" in the Oxford English Dictionary, which reports “plinth” is on unknown origins.  It appears in ancient Latin and Greek as well as modern French, Spanish, Greek, and German.  If it is a loan word, the original language is not Latin,  Greek or a Semitic language.  OED says the first English use was in the book, The first and chief groundes of architecture vsed in all the auncient and famous monymentes  by John Shute .  1st edition, 1563.  (Note in 1563 English spelling had not yet been standardized.) In folio X is a picture of column with all the parts labeled. The “Plinthus” is the solid support at the bottom of the column.   In architecture it is clear that the word means the right prism (rectangular solid) used as a support for at column.

In room decoration a plinth is the base along a wall that prevents chairs from hitting the wall.  An early description of the process of creating a plinth for a room is found in the article, Agricultural architecture and engineering. No. ix by R. S. Hunt page 14 in Journal of Agriculture,  July 1853 (Google books:   Today one can go to Ikea or Home Depot and purchase material for block plinths to be used as molding or plinth that can used as a support for a post or column.

None of these uses of the word fit what “plinth” means for museum exhibits.  I looked in a catalog for library and museum supplies.  A plinth is a rectangular solid (right prism) that supports museum display cases.   A plinth could also be used inside a display case to hold the item on display.  The supplier uses “plinth” as a shape to describe the base of a display case.


“Fabric deck and back panel; glass shelves; archival materials; fluorescent light hood; 6" plinth base”

It is interesting that most of the companies that sell plinths for museums are in Great Britain. Perhaps in the US  most people just use other words such as “base,” “pedestal, “ or “support?” I know what a "plinth" is but I am not sure if the word is more British than American usage.  Perhaps you should ask your colleagues if they can use "plinth" in a sentence?

6/29/2014   Addendum

Yesterday I had a guest from London join us for lunch.  I asked him if he ever heard of the word, "plinth" and did he think it was a British word.  He said that he heard of the word because in Trafalgar Square in central London is a group of three statues.  The fourth plinth was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but they ran out of money.  For 150 years the fate of the empty plinth was debated.  In 1999 it was decided that it would be used for the temporary display of contemporary art.

6/30/2014  Comment received.  Included with permission.

A new Brit/American usage difference to add to my list. Yes, "plinth" for Brits is the normal word for the thing you stick a statue on. I do believe we use the expression "to put s.o. on a pedestal", although you would have to check with somebody whose British English is less contaminated than mine!

 John Williams
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Bologna, Italy

Friday, June 6, 2014

What is a Database?

One would think that the word “database” is an easy, straight forward word that as a native English speaker would not need an explanation. It is not an easy word to explain.  If I hold up an object to a native speaker, they should be able to tell me what it is.  I hold up the object below and a child in France would say it is a “livre;” a German would say, “Buch;” a Latin speaker “liber;” a Hebrew speaker “sefer.”  However, to a Yiddish speaker what it is called depends on the content. The answer could be, “buch” or “sefer.”

Suppose a reader came into the library and wanted a book.  The library has 1000’s of books.  You would ask him/her to be more precise.  When you find a book in the catalog the call number will tell you where to find it. The reader starts with a book describing the kind of object wanted and eventually finds the precise items needed. A similar thought process could help a hungry person find food in a grocery store. 

Abstract concepts are harder to define.  The meaning of “data” is moving target.  One person’s data is the basis for another person’s information.  One “datum[1]” is the smallest unit that represents objects, events, or entitles that have meaning in the user’s universe. The last part of this definition is where the context and flexibility make the exact definition imprecise.  In the computer language 0’s and 1’s are bits and are used for bytes.  Each byte represents a letter of the alphabet. Letters make words; words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and so forth.  A small example of a database is a sentence.  The characters (data) are organized into words and related to give meaning. A database is an organized collection of data. The database may be on paper, electronic or stored in any other media one could imagine.  A directory, an encyclopedia, or a card catalog may be considered databases.

In March a librarian asked about the difference between updating a database and updating a website.  At first I was going to dismiss the question as being too naïve for me to bother, but then I read an article by Denis Pombriant in CRM Magazine [2] “Data versus knowledge”  Pombriant talks about using data as a way to gain knowledge.  This flow of knowledge is a concept that I have long talked about.   He talks about data points that are not quantitative.   For example shoes can have size, color, style but also shipping records, sales records, etc.  Taken with the data from other sales, the business can gain the knowledge to make informed business decisions. Knowledge is a property of the human mind, but information and data are in constant motion.  He concludes that one must cultivate (in other words “organize”) data in order to turn it into information. 

If we follow this line of reasoning, data is the source that when it is once organized and stored may become information.  There is no definition of data that can fit every situation. 

Databases by their very nature are meant to by dynamic and always changing.  Paper databases, of course, change a lot slower than electronic databases. 

Returning to the original question about the difference between updating a website and updating a website, one has to figure out the type of entity one is dealing with. There are two kinds of web pages – dynamic and static.  Dynamic web pages are formed with data from many sources.  Every time one visits the site, it is different.  A dynamic database could be a portal to more information or display information based on a search of a database.  For example a web based email program will display the mail with the featured offered by the programmers.  The display changes based on messages that come and go.  A library catalog or a retail business site are examples or web sites that search databases.  A static page is coded by the creator and will display the same way until the creator changes it.

Updating a database is independent of the display of data on the screen.  The data could be displayed on multiple interfaces.  Many libraries have multiple search options for their catalogs.  For a static page, only an authorized user may update it.

[1] Just a reminder -- “data” is from Latin and is plural.  The singular is “dataum.”  However, in common usage “data” is used as singular noun.

[2] CRM means customer relations management.  This is publication aimed at helping business becoming more tuned in to the needs of customers.  Full citation: Pombriant, Denis.  “Data versus knowledge: gaining insight from your data means rethinking its definition.”  CRM Magazine April 2014. Online:  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Give Thanks

Showing appreciation and giving thanks are two powerful psychic rewards.  During the week that after the semester was over and we were still working in the library, a student stopped by.  At first I told her the library was closed, then she said that she stopped by to thank me for all the reference help I gave her and showed me her graduation pictures.  She was so proud to have that degree.

Sometimes it just takes a moment to make the whole year worthwhile.

Monday, May 19, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 28 A Wonderful Job

New President Interview -- Part 28  A Wonderful Job

Q: Very often one hears complaints about the workplace.  In a large organization such the College how do you make it such a wonderful place to work? 

A: With multiple stakeholders, the College has multiple authorities to answer to.  Sometimes the requirements of one, conflict with the requirements of another.  As a public institution partially funded by taxes we need to answer to the needs of entire community.  We have accreditation agencies looking over individual programs while the entire college has accreditation from the Higher Learning Council.  For example the nursing and radiology programs are accredited by their professional organizations. Employers depend on as outside organization endorsing the College degrees and certificates.   The taxing body over sees our budget and for them the bottom line is the money.  The accreditation agency wants our graduates to get an education that enables them to get a job or continue in a four year college or university. 

The two most important factors affecting how people feel about the workplace are power and money.  If people feel powerless to work within or change the system, they are unhappy.  If they are underpaid or programs are underfunded, they are unhappy.  People have to be empowered to work toward change that will improve the individual and the institution. People need to be listened to and heard.  Very often the people closest to the end users know more about how to improve the organization than the administrator in the central office.  Bean counters know beans, but not students.  I am in favor of being frugal, but not losing sight of the reason the College exists.  Not every decision should be based on the dollars. Decisions should be based on what is good for the students and communities we serve.

Outside of situations of crisis, or danger to health and safety leaders should not be barking orders.  Supervisors need to direct because they have knowledge outside of what people in their department have.  Policies and work conditions need to be based on consensus, not fiat.

Q: What makes one college succeed and another fail to deal with work place unrest?  

When the upper leadership detaches itself from understanding basic human
behaviors, feelings and motivations of people in the organization, the atmosphere becomes toxic. By “toxic” I mean that people are more concerned about keeping their job and not rocking the boat rather than trying to make the organization better and helping the students.  When people work as a team, are appreciated, and allowed to make mistakes, the organization can grow and thrive. No matter how carefully the rules are crafted, sometimes people need to change, adapt, and even bend the rules.  (Of course if the rules can’t be followed, they need to be changed.)

If upper management wants to get rid of unrest, first they need to listen more than talk.  Sometimes directed listening diffuses a problem without the need to issue directives.  The best leaders know how to listen, read people and anticipate the future. Leaders who bark orders are similar to dictators who rule by force.

Q: What are the pressures of funding on college and universities?

Columbia University in the City of New York recently completed a $6.1 billion fund raising campaign.  This was the largest campaign in Ivy League history.[1] Some of the money is for new buildings, some for endowment, and some for specific programs.  Even though Columbia’s endowment grew significantly with their campaign to a value of about $8.2 billion, it is still much smaller than Harvard’s $32 billion, Yale’s $21 billion, Stanford’s $19 billion, and Princeton’s $18 billion.  To our College this sounds like an astronomical amount.  We have a yearly budget of $280 million and an endowment of less than $1 million. Their endowments allow them more economic flexibility than colleges without endowments.

Funding is always a delicate balance of income and expenditures.  Income comes from tuition, fees, tax support, investments, and grants. As a public college we answer to community and to the state legislature even when their messages conflict.  We do not have total control over any of the sources.

While we want to keep our costs for students low, we know that to recruit and keep the best faculty and staff we need to pay decent salaries. We also need to offer benefits and rewards that are appropriate to keeping our people working as a team.

Many of my colleagues in other universities report demoralizing program cuts.  They see the administration demanding budget cuts without concern for the welfare of the students. We see states wanting more graduates while forgetting that greater numbers does no service to the community.  If we don’t have quality graduates then the value of the degree is worthless.  We could easily manipulate the numbers of graduates by lowering standards and requirements.  That would be a disservice to our students and the community. 

Q: You are sometimes critical of the media.  We are professional communicators.  What is your position on communication skills?

With all due respect the general for-profit media is in the business of selling copies or getting people to view their web sites.  Their business is selling information.   There are investigative reporters who try to go beyond the daily news reports, but just look at the promotion of these reports on TV before they air.  Sometimes the stations spend more time on the promotion and teasers, then the whole story.  They are going to choose stories that are most appealing to the intended audience.  Now this is not bad.  It is something we have to teach students to be aware of.  Journalists write newspaper and TV stories while scholars and those wanting to be scholars write for scholarly publications.

Communication skills are essential in every field.  Listening, learning, reading, are an important as saying and writing. One must master the language and vocabulary of the general world so that people take you seriously and respect your authority.  The language and vocabulary in your profession or academic discipline are important to help communicate with a precision and expertise.  Communication also includes the ability to read and understand texts, academic publications, and everyday human communications. Mastery of communication includes all types of media such as print, electronic, visual, and non-print media. One must be able to write and express one’s self to the general public and colleagues.

Critical thinking is a skill that involves gathering data and information from multiple sources to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate. The information gathered interacts with previous knowledge and experience and enables executive decisions or indicates when to seek help.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-eight of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] For the full story see the Spring 2014  issue of Columbia Magazine. “The Evolving University” an interview with Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger (  and  “Going Places” (