Archive for July 2009

Identity crisis? Only if you can’t accept change.

26 July 2009
Categories: Chicago, Wikiality

I remember when the Sears Tower was completed in 1974. I remember my grandfather giving me a cardstock kit that I folded with care and assembled into a little model of it, which I then managed to flatten through overly exuberant play. I remember noticing when the rooftop masts were first extended with taller antennae, and being drawn into an Abbott-and-Costello-style repartee with my Uncle David when I commented, “they’re a different height” (than they were before) and he replied, “no, they’re the same height” (as each other). “No, they’re different!” “They look the same to me.” Et cetera. (Hey, I was maybe ten years old; it was funny at the time.)

So yeah, the Sears Tower has long been a memorable fixture in my life. And when it was announced in early 2009 that new tenants had bought the naming rights, I was aghast, appalled, disappointed. “They can’t do that!” I said.

But of course they can. And in the bigger scheme of Chicago history, perhaps it’s appropriate that they do. After all, Sears abandoned their own namesake tower to move out to the suburbs. It is, in the final analysis, nothing more than a corporate name. These things change. Just ask Alvah Roebuck.

Renaming a building as iconic, as symbolic of Chicago, as the Sears Tower is—a building that stood for decades as the tallest in the world—is somewhere on a par with renaming, say, the Chrysler Building in New York, or the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. Unfortunate, sure. Inappropriate, perhaps. Fair game? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, I still call the Aon Center by its original name, the Standard Oil Building. Because that’s what it was called when I first visited it as a kid. That’s what it was called when I took a picture of it at age nine, with a Quaker-Oats-can pinhole camera that I made myself at the Art Institute. Besides, I like calling it by its nickname, “Big Stan.” Of course, this archaism means I always have to correct myself when speaking to anyone new to Chicago (“new” as in arriving any time within the past twenty-plus years) who only know it as the Aon Center, or perhaps remember it as the Amoco Building.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about the Sears Tower and its new name, Willis Tower, of which I am not a fan. I know I have a lot of company with this sentiment. (On the other hand, although I don’t care for its new name, I have to admit to enjoying the nickname that is already gaining traction: “Big Willie.” But I suppose a lot of Americans are oblivious to the British naughtiness of this.)

Nowhere is the controversy and distress of this change more apparent than on Wikipedia. The day the name change was announced, editors immediately began to jump the gun and put the name in place throughout the site. These were routinely reverted with the admonition: “the name change hasn’t happened yet.” Which meant, of course, that when July 16 rolled around and the new signage was unveiled during a mid-morning ceremony, editors fell over each other in trying to be the first to make the change. Even then, the page move was premature: it went from Sears Tower to Willis Tower on July 15 at 16:07 UTC, a full day early.

Then came the reverters, as well as the confusers. Some were opposed to the name change, and tried to move it back to Sears. Others were overenthusiastic about it and changed all references throughout Wikipedia from Sears to Willis, at the cost of rampant anachronisms. For example, it’s accurate to say “the Standard Oil Building was surpassed by the Sears Tower as the tallest in Chicago,” because it happened in 1974. It would be incorrect to use the Aon Center and Willis Tower names in the previous statement, but it is apropos to say “the Aon Center is third tallest in Chicago, after Willis Tower and Drumpf Tower,” since that is a statement of current fact. This distinction is lost on many editors.

A full week after the page move, on Wednesday, July 22, a newbie editor (having created his account just one day earlier) started a campaign to return the Willis Tower page to Sears Tower. Being inexperienced, he bypassed standard page-move protocol with a cut-and-paste job (cut the content from Willis, paste it in Sears, and change all the names in both pages); being an inappropriate edit, this was quickly reverted with a comment that Wikipedia’s “Requested Moves” process was the correct method to use.

The editor began that process that same day, and now two days later the discussion has just about run its course, with interesting results.

The nominating editor cited the “Common Names” guideline as such: “[it] is emphatically clear: ‘Title an article using the most common English language name of a person or thing that is the subject of the article.'” He used various Google news searches, as well as the usual editorials and news blurbs that discussed peoples’ natural resistance to the change, to infer that Sears remains the “common name” of the building.

His supporters jumped on with more of the same: it’s an icon, it’s like changing the name of the Brooklyn Bridge, etc. Meanwhile, those opposed (i.e. in favour of keeping it at Willis) responded with variations on “the name has changed, Wikipedia must change too.”

I jumped in with the contention that the “Common Names” guideline is not the one in play:

As far as guidelines go, WP:COMMONNAME is not specific, but WP:Naming conflict#How to make a choice among controversial names is: “Is it the official current name of the subject?” (emphasis added) In fact, WP:COMMONNAME appears to defer to this guideline when it says, “Except where other accepted Wikipedia naming conventions give a different indication”. […]

Many—including myself—consider this to be an asinine, money-grubbing decision by building management to change the name of an icon; but change it they have, and it’s not our place as Wikipedians to argue against that change. That said, I’ll call it Sears Tower until the day I die, just as I do with the Standard Oil Building—but I won’t feign confusion if a tourist asks me how to get to Willis Tower or the Aon Center.

He quickly responded with:

Well the policy you cite above refers specifically to naming article [sic] to avoid POV; there isn’t really an NPOV problem here.

To which I replied:

I disagree. Nothing personal, but the passion with which some people are resisting this change strikes me as very POV.

My position was soon seconded:

The statements by Forsyth [et al.] clearly state the primary flaw in this nomination, which is the claim that a move from Willis Tower to Sears Tower is supported by a guideline phrase where “WP:COMMONNAMES is emphatically clear” about this issue. Pulling a single sentence from the lead when that sentence has paragraphs of explanation following which cover multiple scenarios can be misleading, which I think has been the result here. In continuing to staunchly support the move, the nominator has also used arguments which have been repeatedly and effectively rebutted. [One] sees similar arguments listed as arguments to avoid in deletion discussions, including reliance on Google hits to determine what title to use, and comparing this article’s title to those of other articles in an illogical way which is akin to the What about X? line of reasoning that is discouraged as well.

One might think this would begin to settle things, but then an administrator threw a wrench into the proceedings—eight days after the original move—by reverting the move as having been done “without consensus.” He was soon overruled by another administrator who said it should “remain at this title pending close of move request.” Clearly, even the upper echelons of Wikipedia lack consensus on what precedent should be set, and the discussion raged on.

The discussion then turned absurd. An editor opposed moving back to Sears by citing—WP:COMMONNAME!

Most of the articles I find in Google News that came after the renaming call it the Willis Tower and mention that it used to be called the Sears Tower. This Chicago Tribune article calls it the Willis Tower without even bothering to mention that it was the Sears Tower [link]. No one can seriously believe news sources are going to keep calling it the Sears Tower even though that is no longer its name; that’s just wishful thinking by people who don’t like the change.

Despite these cogent remarks, both refuting the use of “Common Names” and using it in opposition of the original argument, editors continue to push for Sears under the premise of that guideline—mostly with variations on “it’s what people call it!” At the 48-hour mark, the discussion still lacked consensus, but was trending 5-to-3 in favour of Willis:

Sears Tower (supported) (9)

Willis Tower (opposed) (15)

Quite frankly, this will play out in one way and one way only: the page will keep the name Willis Tower, at least as long as the building does; people will attempt to revert and rename for just as long, if not longer; and much more editorial energy will be spent in cleaning up those recurring changes than in making genuine improvements and updates to the Willis Tower page.

And, if not—if the page returns to the title of Sears Tower—my first action will be to use the Request Moves process to nominate a move from Aon Center (Chicago) to Standard Oil Building. I won’t need to use spurious comparisons to Myanmar, or Muhammad Ali, or Menara Kuala Lumpur. I will simply cite an evident and utterly equivalent precedent: the Sears Tower. Current Google results: “Standard Oil Building” 19,200; “Aon Center (Chicago)” 15,200. My path is clear.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

8 July 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFor whatever reason, when I’m given books as gifts, I often don’t read them for a very long time afterward. They sit on the “pending” shelf in my library, gathering dust like all the rest, taunting me by tacitly saying, “me next!” But they only rarely make it to the head of the reading queue.

I suppose I could speculate on some reasons for this. One is the basic assumption of friends that I’ll like to read what they like to read. That’s not always the case. Slightly more off-base is the assumption that I’ll like what they think I’ll like. These are, of course, the normal pitfalls of gift books. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that the majority of books I’ve gifted over the years have similarly languished on shelves. I have no hard feelings about that fact, and so I suppose I should not feel all that guilty for doing the same.

To be honest, nearly every book I add to my collection tends to sit on the shelf for quite a while before I get around to reading it. Such is the way of the avid book collector.

Moreover, though, there’s the simple fact of my tendencies when selecting new reading. I like to think that the next book chosen is generally either a logical progression or wildly divergent from the last, but perhaps that’s not really true. In a quick review of my reading selections of the past few years, I see that they hop between several of my favourite topics—in particular space and history, and their literary adjuncts sci-fi and historical fiction—with the occasional digression into what can only be termed research reading, mainly into the history of my alma mater, Michigan State University. And then, mixed amongst those, there’s the odd book that doesn’t really fit into my usual routine but piques my curiosity due to interesting reviews, or coincidences with other media, etc., such as In Cold Blood (the movie Capote), The Dangerous Book For Boys (several rave reviews and sale-priced at Costco), The Barn House (excerpted in the Chicago Reader), and The French Connection (again, the movie), to name a few.

Into this fray leapt my friend David, who presented me with a hardcover copy of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I’d read a positive and intriguing article about this book in the Reader, and so it was on my radar as something I might want to read some day. Yet given that the article ran nearly three years ago, it’s clear that I would not have gotten to it any time soon—had David not pressed the issue by giving me a copy for my birthday, and later asking an innocent question about whether I’d started reading it yet.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anything by James Tiptree Jr.

As a kid, I got into sci-fi in grade school and read a bunch of it over the years, mostly sticking to stuff by a few of the “heavies”: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Around the time I graduated from college, I decided to expand my horizons and look beyond the familiar… but not knowing quite where to start, I decided to delve into the lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners. I could not have made a better choice—it was like having my own personal sci-fi Virgil to guide me. That’s how I discovered many of my very favourite authors, including Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, and David Brin.

(As an aside, I’m interested to note that four visits to my website this week have been the result of searches on “sci-fi book recommendations”—it turns out Google has my page currently listed third. Awesome. Google still loves me. As a result, I amended that page to suggest the Hugo and Nebula lists.)

Helping me considerably in my quest for quality sci-fi was Curious Book Shop in East Lansing. Long before authors like Delany enjoyed a renewed interest and subsequent re-issuance, I could almost always count on Curious to have the out-of-print paperbacks. (Sad to say, despite having borrowed its name from a classic Alfred Bester title, Chicago’s now-defunct shop The Stars Our Destination always came in a distant second to Curious in terms of both selection and price.) For example, one of Bester’s works, The Computer Connection, didn’t make Vintage’s reprint cut a dozen years ago, but I didn’t mind because I’d already managed to find the Analog 1974/5 three-issue serialisation (with the unfortunate title The Indian Giver) in the basement at Curious.

But I never read Tiptree, and here’s why: he mainly wrote short stories. Back when I was hitting Curious on a weekly basis, it was in the very early days of the web and it was not as easy as it is now to determine where these stories have been published. On the rare occasion when I could figure out a source, it often involved some thick anthology, which felt unfrugal to purchase for the sake of a single entry. So I stuck to the Best Novel lists.

To my detriment, it would seem—Tiptree’s stories sound fascinating. And if I may offer one caveat regarding Phillips’ biography, having read fewer than a hundred pages into it, I fear that it might contain more than a few spoilers—it already has given away a couple of endings. Perhaps it would be in my best interest to seek out some of Tiptree’s work in advance of finishing the biography.

Easily done, of course. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects several of his best-regarded works, including the Nebula Award–winning “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” the Hugo Award–winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Nowadays, there’s something called the “Internet Speculative Fiction Database” that makes that kind of fact-finding simple; not to mention for a quick and easy shopping spree. (Sorry, Curious… just can’t make a 200-mile road trip right now.)

Trouble is, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is awfully hard to put down. I’m fascinated by Alice’s childhood experiences in the disparate but equally wild jungles of the Belgian Congo and Chicago’s upper-class society. Julie Phillips employs clear understanding and deft phrasing to explain the origins of her “double life” in language that avoids stereotyping and value judgments. When discussing written works she treats Sheldon and Tiptree as distinct, using both gender-specific pronouns depending on whether she (Sheldon) or he (Tiptree) was the writer, a conceit I have followed here.

All in all, I doubt I’ll be able to hold off on finishing this terrific biography before a box with the familiar smiley-swoosh arrives. Thank you, David!