Assorted Links

  1. Promiscuous Reading-An essay in the New Yorker about a reader who had trouble completing books, even when interested in it. He notes that the last book that he read all the way through a work of shorter essays by a German philosopher, and suggests that most people have been training themselves to read texts with shorter attention spans, and thus get distracted even while enjoying the read. The short format, the author says, keeps his attention span while a linear novel does not. Perhaps there is something to it, but I find it odd that the book that achieves this end is one written before the internet. Frankly, I used to be like this, juggling up to eighteen books at once. Now, busier than I have ever been before, I am usually reading two books–one academic, one fun–but when I am interested in a book or have to read it for some reason, I read it to the end.
  2. A Critic’s Manifesto-An essay in the New Yorker that builds on the job of current debate about the role of critics. In one sense the author is correct that critics should have broad experience with the subject matter in order to make informed, substantive judgements, but in another, the author claims some special status for the critics since the true critics (a now deceased category of author) “know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger.” I do agree that crowd-sourcing reviews on a website like Amazon is not the most accurate form of review, but defending an elite and privileged status for critics when it comes to reviews is petty.
  3. Behavior Problems (Not Only Among Students)-An essay in the Chronicle about how the multi-tasking, procrastination, and digital distraction during meetings are not limited to students.
  4. German Shipyards See Future in Wind Power-According to Spiegel, German shipyards that no longer produce ships are turning to the production of parts for offshore wind-farms.
  5. ESPN: Everywhere Sports Profit Network-An article at Businessweek about ESPN and how it is has grown to be a corporation on par with the traditional powerhouses, largely by taking gambles and adapting quickly to new media, including the internet and mobile video. The idea has been to cater to the fans first, even if it means doing so without the direct monetization (ESPN mobile and streaming doesn’t include ad revenue), so that later they will have a foundation from which to bring in more advertising revenue. For example, ESPN podcasts are free and did not used to have corporate sponsorship, but in the past few years, those podcasts have begun receiving advertisements. Likewise, ESPN has managed to monetize live sports across media and multiple channels.
  6. The Rise of Settler TerrorismAn article from Foreign Affairs, shared with me by Will, recounts increasing violence and radical groups in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It concludes that the United States needs to redouble efforts to foster a deal that could end the violence, though much of the article also notes that many of the radical groups are unresponsive to leaders within the settlements or the Israeli government.
  7. B.C. minister warns against sex recruiters on campus-From Canada, where, evidently, strip clubs have been recruiting college students as dancers in return for money for tuition. The schools were warned that the clubs might try to put up booths at post-secondary school job fairs.
  8. The New Libya Searches for Justice-An article in Spiegel about Libya now, as trials for government officials, collaborators, and officers are about to begin. In particular, the article examines what is happening with guards (and murderers) and prisoners who took part in a prison riot and the bloody suppression and massacre in 1996.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism-A piece run in the Guardian about how food and water shortages as the human population grows and environment becomes more volatile, people will have to drastically reduce the amount of animal products they consume (20% down to 5%, according the article).
  2. “We’re Not Going to Let Our Campaign Be Dictated by Fact-Checkers”-A story in the Atlantic that builds on a quote given by one of Romney’s political aids about facts, the media and politics. The articles concludes that the press (who he seems to think should be able “to stand above the fray”) is becoming bogged down in politics and the truth is reduced to something debatable. The gist of the argument I agree with, but the particulars I do not. Sometimes the truth is based on our own point of view, and the press is not a neutral arbiter.
  3. Bomb from World War II Detonated in MunichFrom Spiegel, a bomb from World War Two that authorities were unable to disarm was detonated in Munich.
  4. Self-published authors react with anger to ‘laziness’ charge-Sue Grafton described self-published authors as “too lazy to do the hard work” in an interview with her local newspaper. Independent publishers are less than pleased, and have responded to her charges that most of their work is amateurish.
  5. How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional games-A story in the Guardian that talks about Fighting Fantasy, role-playing games, and how the book market is increasingly responding to a cultural desire for competition and games.
  6. Mitt Romney, Business Thinking, and the Failure of Civilization– An excellent blog post about humanities and business, and why the liberal arts matter for a civilization. Hint: the author claims that it is because civilization can’t exist without the liberal arts, which constitute the defining elements of the culture and how it perceives itself.
  7. The Destruction of Krak des Chevaliers-Some embedded videos of the damage to Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader fortress in Syria. The fortress has been damaged in the fighting. For what it is worth, the blurb for the Wikipedia page calls it “one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.”
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. What’s the Matter with Missouri-An essay in the Atlantic about the demographic and political shifts that have radicalized Missouri into a bastion of the Republican party.
  2. Boys on the side-An article in the Atlantic about the hookup culture among young people, arguing that it is largely perpetuated by women who have more choice and control than they ever have had before, rather than the traditional narrative about women being forced to submit to the passing fancy of men. Truth to tell, I have never participated in this culture and both at the liberal “east coast” universities and at more conservative locations there are a large number of people who are capable of having progressive relationships without resorting to flings or getting married; without pointing out legislators who seek to limit the control women have over their bodies or conservative groups who demand abstinence only or no sex before marriage, this article is polemical in that it presents an vision of relationships without stability…at least not until women are financially secure and find a good partner. I am not saying this is a bad thing, per se, and the author does a good job of showing some of the ways that having control over their actions and behavior empowers women (while not ignoring the fact that women enjoy sex, too) and that women are as a general rule more educated (though the article posits that women are more successful than men, which is not really the case), but fails to acknowledge the many people who (for a wide range of reasons) do not like or pursue a hookup culture–or end it prematurely for that antiquated notion of love.
  3. Adjuncts’ Working Conditions Affect Student Learning-An article in the Chronicle that covers a report that says that ways in which universities employ adjunct faculty members inhibits student learning because the instructors are almost necessarily unprepared to teach adequately unless they spend the period before they are actually employed preparing for courses they may never teach. This is particularly true (and hardly surprising) for instructors hired mere days before the start of semester.
  4. Former Israeli soldiers disclose routine mistreatment of Palestinian Children-An organization of former Israeli soldiers called Breaking the Silence published a booklet of testimonials that recount physical, verbal and psychological abuse of Palestinian children as a routine occurance. The IDF statement is that the testimonials were not given to them before publication to be investigated for accuracy.
  5. A Pachyderm’s Ditty Prompts an Elephantine Debate-An elephant in a zoo in Washington DC is obsessed with noise making objects, including her harmonica. This is raising a debate about what music is and whether or not it is a human construct.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

All Art is Propaganda

One of the most attractive concepts of the base-superstructure dichotomy in Marxism is that some things hold traction and permanence, while others are constructions (rather than everything being a construct). Of course, this is a simplified version of Marxism, of which I am by no means an expert, but I find the distinction revealing. Propaganda, the art of a crafted message, is one of those most malleable things, , but while the most obvious propaganda is political, most propaganda flows implicitly from the individual–everything from clothing to food, to what beer or liquor you drink. I called this implicit propaganda because, often, the choices are not deliberate messages. I choose my beer by some combination of taste and cost, but in the beer summit hosted by President Obama, the brands were more traditionally politicized. Likewise with clothing–there is a message in each outfit–even if that message is “I don’t care” or “I want you to know that I don’t care.”

Orwell singled out art alone as propaganda because the audience for art is larger than the audience is for each clothing choice. Likewise, art is much more likely to be explicitly propaganda as the result of deliberate choices by the artist, while in personal propaganda there are more likely to be ulterior motives for the choices and some people will be more deliberate in crafting their message than others.

In the internet age, there is even a service, Reputation dot com, that promises to help protect your reputation online. The need for this service stems from the issues of permanence, legitimacy, and the speed of change online. The first two are what the sites advertises on, stressing how hard it is to remove malicious rumors online, and also that, online, anyone can post anything, which makes it difficult for users to determine truth from fiction (though the site does not seem to care about the truth of the matter so much as creating a positive image for the client). I have added the speed because news, information, and communication is happening at such rapid speeds that it is difficult to keep up–and easy for people to write a review in a fit of (any) emotion. Sometimes, it is easier to post online than it is to remember what you have said. But Reputation dot Com is correct that the internet has a lengthy memory.

Thus, there is a curious mix of new ideas, thoughts, and arguments, with many crackpot ideas still floating around and popping up. And all this has only limited policing or oversight. This means that publishing is much easier (note the self-publishing boom and the proliferation of blogs, particularly on websites of traditional news outlets). So, yes, the internet is a wonderful way of spreading thoughts and opinions because there is almost always an audience (for me: you!), but there is also a lack of authority to much of it (sorry, I’m just a graduate student who feels compelled to write from time to time–I am author, (sometimes) editor, and publisher). At the risk of sounding hypocritical and offending self-publishers everywhere, I often feel that self-publishing, while it serves to get some authors published who are truly excellent and find audiences, is more about a culture more interested in self-promotion and their own egos than about quality. Sure, crowd-sourcing novels can sometimes result in excellent books, but my gut instinct is that the amount of rubbish has increased out of all proportion.

In this, I am a snob. I have my own reasons for writing and publishing online, and some of it is that I feel that I have things worth being said and also that a self-published blog on my own site is different than publishing a book or working for a news outlet. I will stop here as I do not control the other actions of other people and people certainly have the right to publish online, but I fear that they are doing so at the expense of the authority of traditional publishing and print publishing (sometimes for very good reasons), and has helped bring about some of the journalism issues that have come about in the last few months.

I prefer writing on paper because edits and changes have permanence. I just crossed out four lines , something that would not appear on a typed file (though the paragraph and a half I added in the actual post do), but here and now I see where I had an issue with my though and/or writing. On paper there are necessarily drafts and edits; typed, everything and nothing is in a final form. Perhaps this is fitting for a generation that often seems to have an innate understanding of postmodernism.

One of my concerns here is that the internet enables this uncertainty and enables one or more shell personae (in my younger years I went online and engaged people under a variety of aliases, particularly for some online games). It has not yet reached anything like Neal Stephenson’s digital world in Snowcrash, but while the internet is transparent to tech people, for most people it is easy to put up that shell and to be someone who they are not offline. Everything is propaganda, and nowhere more so than the internet.

Assorted Links

  1. On Leaving Academe-An article in the Chronicle by a former professor of computer Science that details the variety of reasons he had for leaving his job at a university, including the devaluation of education, salary, publishing demands, specialization, mass education, etc.
  2. Is there such a thing as a national literature?-Scottish author Irvine Welsh talks about nationalism in an age where nation states as such are declining, with a particular focus on British and Scottish identity.
  3. India, the Olympic Games and “poor sports”-Mary Beard addresses the issue of India and the Olympics, including a number of Indians who are encouraging their compatriots to focus on “poor sports” that can help that country improve its medal haul.
  4. Journalists on the Edge of Truth-An excellent post by David Carr at the New York Times about the perils of journalism in the internet age, with an emphasis on the boundaries between journalism, plagiarism, and outright lies. It does, to an extent, come across as an elder statesman in the field bemoaning the lack of training and credentials of the “kids these days,” but the larger, systemic problems of twitter, blogs, page hits, etc (such that “you are only as visible as your last post”) are spot on. The world moves incredibly quickly, but, at least online, it also is much more highly mutable. For instance, I often go back to edit my writing on my blog when I reread it and there is a missed comma or a misspelled word (or something more egregious). I do this because it legitimately annoys me that I missed it in the first place, but, at the same time, I prefer to keep this more casual, so I tend to do only minimal edits before publishing it. That said, I am not sure I have yet deleted an entire post and usually try to own what I say, which makes this blog a more permanent record (though the options for mutability remain). Likewise, John Scalzi has made it clear that his blog is (more or less) a permanent record, so anyone who wants to comment there needs to be aware that short of violating his comments policy, there can be no take-backs.
  5. A Scholar, An Expert, An Intellectual-An essay by Timothy Burke about Niall Ferguson that discusses the ways in which Ferguson has disappointed the circle of educators and intellectuals by his comments, somewhat even before the comments he made about President Obama. On that particular instance, Burke focuses on the fact that Ferguson displayed a shocking lack of thought and awareness of his own position as an “expert.” Burke claims that “expert” required Ferguson to be able to “guide an audience through what is known and said about as subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation.” I generally agree, and either Ferguson was negligent in this duty, or he knowingly exploited his position as “expert,” in which case he is more than negligent. Ferguson has been calling the backlash to his Newsweek story a witch-hunt. When it comes to backlash to the article, I cannot agree with him (based on his responses, he does not actually seem interested in a debate or feedback…as someone who writes for a media outlet in today’s society should expect), but with the people calling for his removal from Harvard, I agree. I think he crossed a line somewhere, but the calls stem from backlash over his ideological stance rather than his scholarship (perhaps a letter of censure–at most–is warranted). That said, Ferguson himself ought to think about his message and his position as an educator, scholar, and “public” intellectual and where he ought to go. Simply using a Harvard professorship as a bully-pulpit is inappropriate.
  6. The Myth of Ivy Advantage– an essay on the Inside Higher Ed that rejects the conventional wisdom that people who graduate from Ivy League schools with their doctorates have an overwhelming advantage on the job market. The author does not talk about teaching loads, but instead focuses on what she calls the “scarcity model of academia” wherein candidates from “lesser” universities spend graduate school scraping by and scrambling in a way that keeps them in tune with the “zeitgeist” of the present job market. The argument may be accurate, but it is small consolation.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

The First Generation of the Hellenistic Age: A Lament

The periods in history that most interest me are those with great political upheaval. Often, this means wars. One of the periods that keeps drawing me back in is the first generation of the Hellenistic period, otherwise known as the first thirty five or forty years after the death of Alexander the Great. There are some very good books such as A.B. Bosworth’s The Legacy of Alexander, but most follow the few extant sources enough that the period comes out as a rush, a never ending list of marches and counter-marches. Even just trying to follow the actions of a single individual is confusing.

Part of the problem, I think, is that historians who attempt any sort of lengthy analysis either fit this period into the post-script of a history of Alexander’s conquests (even if it is largely an imagined history or a history that follows Alexander’s followers, in which case Alexander’s conquests loom), or as the foundation aspect to the rest of Hellenistic history. Often, the books try to do both. The result is a litany of details that get in the way of either useful conclusions or a lucid narrative that brings the history to life. It also hurts that histories of this time period require coverage of a vast expanse of land and an equally varied cast of characters.

There needs to be a new history. A new history that forces the Hellenistic historiography for this period to confront the geography and the local cultures. This has been done for the Ptolemaic kingdom more than for any other, in large part because of Alexandria and the plethora of written sources that do not exist in some of the other areas, though (from what I know) the histories that take into account the local history of Egypt tend not to be the same ones that focus on the reign of Ptolemy I. In any case, the combination of lack of information on the local areas such as Babylon and the focus on accounting each move of a period of extended campaigning and intrigue makes the histories hard to follow and harder to actually envision.

This lament comes, in part, from reading a history of the creation of the Seleucid Kingdom and failing to envision what Babylon would have looked or been like in the Hellenistic Age. The histories (stemming from the account of Polyaenus) talk about city warfare, without actually talking about the city itself.

This begs the question “what is history?” In one sense, these factual details and rushed presentation are sufficient since they do account for the period and provide a narrative. In another, they are chronology, but horribly deficient as history since they do not actually demonstrate anything help people imagine the past events.

Assorted Links

  1. A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical-An op-ed in the New York Times that suggests that while nobody likes to be criticized, having these flaws is part of what it is to be human, and that real criticism is not petty putdowns, but thoughtful response.
  2. Ira Glass: By the BookAn interview in the Sunday Book Review with Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life.” He says that he would like to meet Edgar Allen Poe, but “I don’t have a question, but dude just seems like he could use a hug.”
  3. Siberian princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos-From the Siberian Times, an ancient mummy is being returned to the Altai Republic. Research and tests on her body reveal significant tattoos. There is a local movement to prevent further archeological digs in the area, particularly since the mound where this mummy was found is a sacred burial ground (though the ethnic group in antiquity is not at all related to the present inhabitants).
  4. Yemen: Days of Reckoning– A feature in National Geographic that examines the massive upheaval that is taking place in Yemen.
  5. Roman Frontiers-A feature in National Geographic that looks at the limes or boundaries of the Roman Empire. It charts a rather standard line on most of the issues here (except Hadrian’s beard), though the claims that the frontier strategy could not withstand a large, determined foe, is misleading since it seems that the Roman opponents around the time that the frontiers collapsed were actually weaker than Roman enemies of earlier times, but the Romans were proportionally even weaker. The article offers the Roman walls as a comparison to some of the wall-building today, but the lack of ability and lack of space for the author to actually grapple with the socio-political and economic causes for Roman decline makes the comparison superficial. There probably are comparisons to be drawn, but a deeper understanding and explanation of both the Roman frontiers and the modern situations (including intent, maintenance, and determination about keeping the walls impermeable) is needed before the comparison can really work.
  6. America’s Worst Historians-Via Jonathan Jones, a story in Salon about plagarism and the perpetuation of histories that lack rigorous standards, but are popular because of the ease of reading and catchy premises.
  7. Alcohol Apartheid: The New Turkish Laws that Segregate Drinkers– An article in the Atlantic about some new laws in Istanbul that seek to make certain neighborhoods in the city “dry,” thereby segregating drinkers to certain areas rather than tolerating a mixture of secular and religious groups (and tourists) that, in some ways, defines Istanbul.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Some thoughts about Paris

Living in Botswana or being a Bonesman does not intrinsically grant anyone insight into the world, but both seem somehow more substantive than watching the world unfold on Twitter from a coffee shop in Columbia, MO. Then again, there is a case that the Lost Generation, watching the world unfold from a cafe in Paris created an artificial sense of nostalgia and culture that is replicable elsewhere. After all, their reputation was created only after their success, and A Moveable Feast is a retrospective. Given an artful commentator, a comparable situation could be created anywhere.

Yet, Paris is exotic. It has a rich history, amazing art, and a sense of gravitas that even Hitler could not pass up. Columbia is not Paris. But, then, in very real ways, Paris is not Paris. Parts of it are. Parts of it can be. But in Midnight in Paris, the background people are meticulously crafted to fit the type, and in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway simply leaves out those people who do not fit. So does Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. The invisible majority are the non-conformists, ironically. Merely by conforming to another paradigm they are condemned to obscurity as authors and filmmakers glorify and normalize the artificial construct that suits the Paris of the Lost Generation. That Emerald City brimming with culture.

How often does Hemingway go to the Louvre? How often to the Opera? How often to the tourist sites? The answer is rarely, if ever. Orwell’s account of Paris is even more deficient in that respect–he mostly accounts for poor neighborhoods and restaurants. Now, partly this is due to living there. Having lived in Boston, there is something in an atmosphere of a city and you need not do all those cultural events to take advantage of it. Columbia, where, in some ways, I have been coming of age, has its own vibe, but also too much thoughtless drunkenness and trashed streets. At the same time, Hemingway’s two major activities seem to be going to cafes and going to the races. Life is more mundane than the stories, even in Paris.

For a person who often daydreams about far-off places, this has been something I have struggled to reconcile, sometimes. Ultimately, everything is normalized based on what you are used to. One of my favorite memories of Greece was sitting a town square in the countryside watching children entertaining themselves, some on bicycles, some on foot. I know that there were some other tourists in the town (a French couple I had met and walked around with earlier that day made this clear), but there were not hordes of tourists the way there were in Delphi or Istanbul. And yet the town was set beneath the soaring rock spires of Meteora, which was rather exotic. The same way that to urban and suburban people the forests of Vermont are exotic. Perhaps the advantage that Paris holds for the creation of nostalgia and some sort of cultural movement is that it is a location that lends itself to this type of memorialization and thereby eases the job of a commentator (at this point in time, I would also venture that the Lost Generation aids and abets in this mystique), but though it might be more difficult elsewhere, it is not impossible.

Just as there is with the Lost Generation in Paris, there is an allure about those people who were members of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key at Yale (starting with the fact that they went to Yale), or those people who attend any number of other prestigious universities, or who worked with the Peace Corps, or went on their own to remote corners of the world. The obvious idea of the allure is the experience they had while participating in that activity. A better way of putting it, I think, is that they are the type of people who merited joining a secret society or a great university, or would travel the world for the sake of traveling, or would donate their time. The experience helps, but it is not the experience alone that marks that person, just as it is not the fact that they lived in Paris alone that marks the Lost Generation. Too often the mystique of these organizations or activities causes people to overlook the actual individual, in much the same way that the negative aura of certain activities, experiences, or professions can cause people to overlook those individuals as well.

Assorted Links

  1. Peru’s Nazi party leader believes even the conquistadors were Jews-An article in the Guardian about a man trying to get official recognition for the Nazi party in Peru believes that Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara–and Fransisco Pizarro–had Jewish roots and therefore that Jews have been terrorizing Peruvians for a very long time. His quote “The Jew Pizarro and his band of genocidal Jews killed millions of native Peruvians in their mission to possess our gold.” It might be funny, if it weren’t so depressing.
  2. Pussy Riot Band Members Found Guilty in Russia-Officially, the charge is “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” and the judge cited their clothing being against the Orthodox Church’s dress code (they wore short skirts and bright colors). UPDATE: The sentence is for two years in jail.
  3. Scholars, Spies, and Global Studies-An op-ed in the Chronicle about the development of global studies following World War Two, and suggesting that specialized local studies should be incorporated into the general curricula in order to actually provide a globalized education.
  4. Foreign Policy: How Wikileaks Blew It-An article at NPR about how Julian Assange and Wikileaks lost credibility as an “anti-secrecy” organization because he was (seen, anyway) as specifically anti-American, despite claiming to have a lot of secrets about Russia and China.
  5. Cambodia Ancient Buddha Statues Found By Bathing Children-The statues are thought to be a thousand years old, but have been taken to a museum while investigating the authenticity. The children were bathing in a newly dug pond.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Ryan’s Record on Issues-An account of Paul Ryan’s record on education from the Chronicle.
  2. ‘Supporting Our Troops’ Has Become an Exercise in Denial-From Jonathan Jones, this article in the New Republic assesses the disconnect and hollowness of supporting the troops unequivocally without supporting the mission. In short, the concept of supporting the troops is ritual, but there is no substance behind it anymore.
  3. Turkey and the EU: Turks Question Advantages of EU Membership– An article in SPIEGEL, Turkey has sought membership in the EU for more than 30 years, but in wake of the recent economic downturn, the majority of Turks are ambivalent or opposed to membership. Turkey’s economy is growing, and though some sectors would like to see friendlier trading opportunities with Europe, most of the people (including the government) see EU membership as a long term goal, and one that will help with social issues, and thus are only willing to join on their own terms.
  4. UN report slams Assad forces for war crimes– An article in Al Jazeera about the UN report condemning the government forces in Syria for war crimes, though it points out that there have been human rights violations committed by both sides as fighting has escalated.
  5. Kangaroos Escape From German Zoo With Help from Wild Animals– In Germany a wild boar and a fox were trying to break into the zoo. Each dug under one fence, the fox getting into the Kangaroo enclosure. Three kangaroos escaped and made it 15 km before being caught by police.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?