Weekly Varia no. 6, 12/24/22

One of two things happens when I submit grades at the end of the semester. Sometimes, words start flowing, as though they have been building up behind a dam of grading that has now opened its sluice gate. Other times, I emerge from the final push in a fog that takes several days to dissipate. The harder the semester, the higher the odds of the second outcome.

This was an exceedingly difficult semester for me and its conclusion coincided with a storm front that brought both ice and snow ahead of a holiday weekend, all of which made settling in for a few days of inactivity an attractive proposition. I’ve relished how much time I’ve been able to spend reading the past few days—in addition to the lengthy round up below, I’m on my third novel since the end of the semester—and I’m getting back to my usual routine of baking bread (sweet treats can wait until there is less candy in the house). I suppose that this is how holidays are supposed to go. There will be time to return to more substantive posts next week and in the new year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, since the pairing is actually appropriate this year.

This week’s varia:

  • This was a neat story about how John Gompers repatriated a number of antiquities that had been acquired by his grandmother, the Dutch archaeologist Gisela Schneider-Herrmann, and were now sitting in his mother’s garage. He started by Googling “How do you repatriate antiquities?” If a random citizen can do it, then surely so can major institutions since in his insistence that objects belong in museums, Dr. Jones leaves out a critical piece of information: where that museum is located.
  • Staying on the theme of repatriation, Germany has returned 22 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (BBC). These are some of my favorite objects from Africa, but the overwhelming majority of them were looted by European colonizers, removed from the walls of buildings where they told the history of the people, and taken European and American museums. This is a good start.
  • A beautiful necklace from 7th century CE Britain has been discovered. I grimaced at the use of “Anglo-Saxon” in the article, but the artifact itself is spectacular (Washington Post).
  • New Maya settlements have been discovered in Guatemala. Ignore the headline: these were previously unknown settlements, but not a lost civilization. The real story here is that LiDAR is so cool.
  • I love Higher Education. It isn’t Loving me Back.” Continuing with the theme from last week, Hannah Leffingwell writes in Jacobin about the New School Strike and the cultish atmosphere of academia. I particularly like how she describes her realization that a favorite professor from undergrad was leaving because her contract was up: “I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.” I often fear that pulling the curtain back with students will only lead to more disillusion, but I also think that students deserve to know what is happening at the institutions where they are studying.
  • An interesting piece about peer review by Adam Mastroianni at his Substack. His argument is that “peer review” in the sciences, which developed as a means to prove to funding bodies that the experiments being run were worthwhile, offers at best a marginal benefit to the actual product. More frequently, he argues, it both fails to catch serious flaws and inhibits potentially valuable research. Coming from a field that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I am sympathetic to some of the frustrations with peer review, especially when it is used as a means of gate-keeping, but ditching peer review isn’t going to bring back great discoveries. Moreover, by the end of the piece, Mastroianni acknowledges the value of receiving feedback with an anecdote about a recent paper he published online at his site, making this a critique of the specific peer review apparatus and the rhythms of academic work.
  • This week in their new newsletter Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele and David Perry, authors of The Bright Ages, write about the shallow “medievalism” of the architectural trend “Castlecore.”
  • Kelly Baker, in her newsletter Cold Takes writes about the existential crisis of being a writer who didn’t write for most of a year. I adore Baker’s memoir Grace Period, which is a deeply-moving accounting of her falling out of academia. I’m glad that she seems to have found her words again.
  • At The Conversation, Casey Fiesler offers perspective on the migration away from Twitter as compared with previous platforms. The short version: no platform will replicate Twitter, but the communities that form in one place tend to be resilient as members find themselves in other spaces.
  • From The Washington Post, an article with the title “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Speaking as a teacher at the college level, yup. However, I always get a little bit leery about articles that center mental health services as the solution. They’re important, no doubt, but too often I’ve seen the availability of those services as either as a crutch, or their absence as an excuse, to avoid confronting larger systemic causes of the mental health problem.
  • A long read in Pro Publica, Lynzy Billing reports on the so-called Zero Units, Afghan forces trained and supported by the CIA. These units conducted night time raids in Afghan villages under the pretense of hunting militia leaders, a practice that carried over from the Vietnam War and with the predictable results of hundreds of civilian casualties. She quotes a US army ranger succinctly identifying the core problem with the US strategy in the country: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”
  • Greece is preparing to expand its border wall with Turkey in 2023 as a deterrent to migrants. Both Greece and Turkey have been playing politics with migrants for a number of years now and it is killing people.
  • A police chief in small town Iowa has been charged with lying to the ATF to acquire fully-automatic machine guns, some of which he resold. At least the ATF denied the transfer of a minigun that is usually mounted on helicopters (the department has three members an no helicopter).
  • George Santos, Republican congressman-elect from New York, has come under scrutiny for having lied about his biography during the campaign, including both his education and work history. The latest fiction seems to be his family history, which, he claims, includes Jewish family members that fled from Ukraine to Belgium, survived the Holocaust, and then ended up in Brazil. Except that there is no evidence of this heritage (CNN).
  • From the Huffington Post, Chuck Schumer seems to be trying to run out the clock on a (moderate) anti-trust bill targeting online monopolies. This is why we can’t have nice things.
  • In Slate, David Zipper highlights the problems with CLEAR, a private company that is empowered to accept what amount to bribes in data and money to skip the TSA line.
  • A new report indicates dangerous levels of Cadmium and other heavy metals in dark chocolate.
  • A piece at CNN Business talks about changing norms around tipping three years into the pandemic: basically, it is as it has been. American tipping culture sucks because it foists the costs of workers making a living wage onto the consumer. I would rather pay a bit more and have employers pay a living wage.
  • I’m a recent convert to e-books, but I have recently found the reading experience on Kindle Paperwhite both easy and convenient, so I was both interested and disappointed to read this blog post suggesting that Amazon will be phasing out the devices.

Album of the week: Old Bear Mountain, “On the Run”

Now reading: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War

My menorah on night 4

2 thoughts on “Weekly Varia no. 6, 12/24/22

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