Weekly Varia no. 22, 04/15/23

Spring arrived in force in Northeast Missouri this week. The world is starting to turn green, but the leaves around town have largely been preceded by an explosion of flowering things. I can’t complain about the views and the rising temperatures have drawn students out into the quad outside my office, making campus generally feel more alive than it does throughout the winter.

However, spring also comes at a cost. I have never been one to suffer from allergies in the past, but one of these flowering things causes my sinuses to go haywire each spring in Kirksville, which has made teaching classes a bit of an adventure this week. This phase only lasts a couple of weeks, fortunately, and the nice weather almost cancels out the temporary pain. Besides, I’ll be complaining about the heat again soon enough.

This week’s varia:

Album of the Week: Counting Crows, August and Everything After (2007)

Currently Reading: Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement, Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity

My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

Assorted Links

  1. Name Calling– A note in the New Yorker pointing out that, while there are still groups in existence claiming to the name Al Qaeda, those jihadist groups are increasingly local, which makes it hard to argue that it is feasible to have a war on terror (much less one that tries to use Al Qaeda as the target).
  2. In Defense of Classics (and Other Liberal Arts)-Another essay (via Rogue Classicism) arguing that the liberal arts train broad thinkers and creative people who can adapt to the specific needs of a workplace, rather than having specific, non-transferable skills that may themselves be antiquated in a few years.
  3. Diary of Archduke Franz Ferdnand RediscoveredFrom Spiegel, Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept a diary on his journey around the world; that diary has been rediscovered. This article discusses some of the things the Archduke did and saw on the trip, including his hunting excursions, his disappointment with Americans, and prisons/work camps in Australia.
  4. The Modern King in the Arab Spring– In the Atlantic, a portrait of King Abdullah of Jordan. This is a favorable account of his efforts to promote democracy, stability, and prosperity in the industrial world. The article notes some of the problems and difficulties Jordan faces as a country (poverty, refugees, lack of oil, Syria, etc), and also talks more generally about the problems faced by an absolute ruler in the modern world.
  5. Obama Sarcastically Asks How Israel Afforded Such a Great Missile Defense System– From the Onion.

Assorted Links

  1. Defense Nerds Strike BackAt Wired, there was a symposium on the Battle of Hoth (from the Empire Strikes Back, awhere contributors analyzed the battle as though it was a historical event. My favorite contribution, though was by Tim Burke, The Longue Duree of the Galactive Empire, wherein he talks about Hoth as a particularly well known, but otherwise unremarkable example of a recurring type of event in the Star Wars Universe.

    ”Treating the Rebellion as a privileged mode of dissent in an era when many other systems and social classes were in other ways ‘slipping through the fingers’ of the Coruscant metropole is itself granting too much credit to a ragtag band of avidly self-promoting malcontents.”

  2. Quitters Never Win– An article on the Atlantic about the pitfalls of leaving social media. The author specifically addresses recent articles advising or giving strategies for opting out of Facebook and he is right to a point. Not being on Facebook does cut you out of opportunities for “self-expression,” and it is true that most of the security concerns about Facebook in contrast to other social outlets are overblown, that many of the strategies for hiding important information are self-defeating, and that an increasing amount of social planning (even for academic events) is going through Facebook. What he doesn’t address is the veneer of proximity that lulls people into a false sense of connectivity and intimacy, a feeling that I miss sometimes, but that also left me with a deep sense of disquiet. Then there was the amount of idle time spent on Facebook and my frustrations with some of the heavy handed changes Facebook was making.

    That being said, the author tries to use the example of Facebook as to why you shouldn’t quit any social media sites, and the same concerns on those other media sites as to why you should not quit Facebook. It sounds nice and, like I said, true to a point, but it is also overly simplistic.

  3. The Geography of Happiness– A study of vocabulary from Twitter charts happiness by state. Certainly there is more that could be done to substantiate the findings (as the article points out), but it provides food for thought.
  4. New Book Traces the Education of Adolf Hitler– There is a new history (in German) the examines the period in Hitler’s life between the end of the first world war and his political involvement.

Assorted Links

  1. Mali rebels torched library of ancient manuscripts– The first (confused) report out of Timbuktu after French forces recaptured the city. The mayor of Timbuktu claimed the rebels torched the library, though some reports are indicating that a large number of manuscripts were not burned or were never at that library , and also that some three hundred sufi shrines were destroyed. As terrible a loss as this is, what frightens me more is the statement by Malian officials that (partly) as a result of this action, all rebels need to be killed. First, wholesale slaughter is never the answer, but, more importantly, there are also several different rebel groups, as well as ethnic Tuaregs who have not revolted against the government, but who are lumped in with the rebels.
  2. As Extremists Invaded, Timbuktu Hid Artifacts of a Golden Age– A story in the New York Times reporting on how many of the manuscripts from Timbuktu were rescued from destruction as citizens in Timbuktu hid them.
  3. Unesco to rebuild wrecked Timbuktu tombs– UNESCO is taking it upon itself to rebuild the lost tombs at Timbuktu out of local mudbrick, replicating as best as possible the original structures. I understand why they are doing it and that they have little recourse, but it nonetheless feels that the tombs and sites have already lost something fundamental and to rebuild them feels as though people wish to pretend that the destruction never happened.
  4. The Lawless Sahel Offers a Vast Santuary to Islamist Extremists– An article in Spiegel that looks at the gap between the Mahgreb in North Africa and the areas claimed and controlled by sub-Saharan countries as a region that has historically fostered insurgents, but is now providing refuge to Islamist extremists. Only the Algerian army has had success against the Islamists in the region, in large part because the Islamists tend to be better paid and equipped than the national soldiers (such is the case in Mali). Despite this, the Islamists are under a variety of leaders and are unified in purpose alone.

Assorted Links

  1. Library turns to pole dancing to entice new readers– A library in Scotland is offering a free pole dancing class to lure people into the library. Among other events includes table tennis using books instead of paddles. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified.
  2. Mali’s army suspected of abuses and unlawful killings– Complicating the French involvement in Mali is the unstable relationship the government has with the Tuareg nomads, with new allegations of abuses and indiscriminate shelling of the camps surfacing.
  3. How the Vatican built a secret empire using Mussolini’s millions– An interesting article, but misleading title. The article traces how the Vatican used offshore tax havens to create lucrative real estate investments in Switzerland, France, and the UK worth more than 500 million pounds. The nest egg for the investment was money paid by Mussolini in return for papal recognition of his fascist government.
  4. A Malian Quagmire?– An op-ed in the Atlantic in defense of military action in Mali. The author cites experts and claims made by the Islamists that indicate that they wish to create an area of influence spanning the Sahara within which Jihad may be fostered. He also provides military and economic reasons why France had to intervene and that there is hope that the French response–combined with aid from African countries–could prevent a prolonged insurgency.
  5. Bowhead Whales see huge population rebound off Alaska’s north slope– From a few weeks back, the whale population is increasing, according to a report at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union. That is good news, of course, but the cool thing is that there is some evidence that a few of the whales might be over 200 years old, after the researcher found a stone harpoon head stuck in a whale. The whaling industry nearly wiped out bowhead whales between 1848 and 1915 using barbed, steel harpoon heads.

Assorted LInks

  1. Naftali Bennett and Israel’s Rightward Shift– An article in the New Yorker that traces a rightward shift in Israel’s political alignment that includes both jettisoning moderate members of Likud and an uptick in membership of far-right parties that are likely to take the third most seats in the upcoming election if they don’t come in second outright. Naftali Bennett is the head of the party profiled; he, and others like him, are campaigning on a platform that opposes the peace process and also opposes the current security measures as being wasteful and inefficient–in a way that conquering greater Israel would not be. Moreover, at least some of the members of this party favor the construction of the third temple, expunging the Israeli democracy, and, quite in contrast to earlier generations of zionists, support a fundamentally religious zionism.
  2. Neolithic Remains Unearthed in Istanbul– While constructing a rail line on the Asian side of the Bosporus (because all manner of nifty things surface during rail construction), remains from a neolithic village have been discovered. Among the preliminary finds, researchers have been able to determine that the inhabitants ate a significant amount of sea food. Byzantine structures have also been found.
  3. France and West Pledge Support After Islamists Start Offensive in Mali– Ansar Dine began a sudden offensive into government held territory and as a result France has pledged to commit more military aid (advisors and supplies have already been in place). It is as of yet unclear, but France might be committing armed forces and there have been efforts to get an African-led military force into Mali. Part of the package, though, is that Mali must recommit to restoring its democratic-republican government in the entire country.
  4. France Claims Gains in Airstrikes Against Mali Islamists– As as follow up to the announcement that France would begin to use force, airstrikes have commenced and French troops from the UN mission in the Ivory Coast have entered the country. Despite hostages held by Ansar Dine, French President Hollande has reiterated that more French support troops are on their way and he is encouraging the UN to put together a West African peacekeeping force.
  5. Sweden Train Crash– A woman obtained keys to a train and crashed into a house. Here is a picture.

Assorted Links

  1. Paraguay’s Awful History– A story in the Economist about how a war waged by Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay against Paraguay in 1865 is having direct political consequences today. The immediate impetus is that those countries kicked Paraguay out of an economic agreement following the ouster of a leftist president that they interpreted as a coup. The new Paraguayan government then accused them of trying to create a new Triple Alliance–the alliance that waged war against Paraguay, killing up to 60% of the total population and 90% of the male population.
  2. Haredi education is dragging Israel closer to the third world– From Ha’aretz, a story about how Israel will be forced to cease taking international education tests because the numbers of people (learning disabled, special ed, Haredim) do not take educational tests. The largest chunk of those students are Haredim who are not required to learn math or English and thus are not subject to the tests. The author of the article accuses the Israeli government of “financially allowing” the Haredi to operate their own school system and, as a result, of crippling their ability to function within the Israeli economy and Israel’s ability to complete in the world system.
  3. The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown – An article in the New Yorker about a crackdown on leftist artists and intellectuals in Hungary, including (likely) coerced repudiations of statements in opposition to the government.
  4. Project Plans to Pump Oxygen into Baltic Sea– From Spiegel, there is a project currently being tested in a fjord that will artificially pump oxygen into the Baltic Sea. Fertilizer flowing into the sea has caused a rapid growth of algae, which, in turn, has caused de-oxygenation of the sea, suffocating the ecosystem. The hope is that an artificial process can restore that balance, but neither supporters nor opponents actually know what will happen.
  5. Semi Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings are alright– An essay at the New Yorker about the enduring features of being a twenty-something, arguing that despite the changes in the job market, technology, and the nature of society, there is something persistent and resonant about being twentysomething. While that may be of little comfort, it is an engaging essay and sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Assorted Links

  1. Temple and Sacred Vessels from Biblical Times Discovered at Tel Motza– A temple complex from the kingdom of Judah was found outside of Jerusalem, including walls and sacred vessels and pottery figurines have been discovered. This is one of the few sites from the period of the first temple now known to have possessed an independent temple complex, and is even more remarkable for its proximity to Jerusalem. The archaeologists have suggested that this site corresponds to the biblical Mozah, a town in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin bordering on Judea and perhaps supplying grain for Jerusalem (silos were found). The article includes further discussion of assemblages found at the site.
  2. A real look at being a professor in the US-CNBC published a list of least stressful jobs in the US, placing “university professor” at number one. Actual tenured faculty members (let alone adjuncts and graduate students) have not been taking the “honor” well. This is an evaluation of the life of one university professor seeking to debunk the notion that being a university professor is low-stress. I am sure that the other careers on the list have similar objections, but midway through graduate school (i.e. several more years to go without the guarantee of a real job at the end) I am sympathetic to the author of this reaction.
  3. A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins– From the New Yorker, the life and career developments of a professional (and legal) pickpocket. The article mostly follows his career, but talks about the technique and recent interest in the neurological science behind pick pocketing and the where people focus their attention.
  4. A Two Year Travelogue From Hell– An article in Spiegel about life and situations in the Syrian countryside during the civil war.

Assorted Links

  1. Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico– A story in the New York Times Wal Mart de Mexico and how it used bribes to bypass, manipulate, or acquire zoning and licensing permits for stores in Mexico, including around historic landmarks.
  2. Ramesses III’s Throat Was Slit– A new cat scan on the mummy of Ramesses III reveals a deep cut in the throat that likely would have caused death instantly, thereby suggesting that that was what caused his death. Likewise, a DNA test on a desecrated body found near the dead Pharaoh, confirms that it was a blood relative and probably his son.
  3. The Entourage in Antiquity– At PhDiva, classicist Sarah Bond discusses some of the ways that paying for and having an entourage was a symbol of status in the ancient world…not unlike the modern world.
  4. Defining Learning Expectations-An essay on Inside Higher Ed that looks at the set of standards for skills that students should be able to learn in history classes, while leaving the specific facts up to the instructor.
  5. Why Workers Are Losing The War Against Machines– An article in the Atlantic that has a somewhat misleading title. Instead of looking at manual labor against the machines (as the followers of Ned Ludd attempted), the article gives a solid, if somewhat basic, account of the ways in which technology disproportionately benefit those people who are already in positions of power or have the technology. In short, those with the resources and training/ability can maintain some level of control over the product and with the rapid growth of communication, the net effects of the decisions made by relatively few people are magnified. There are exceptions, but the article argues that those few who can rise into the category of “superstars” are fewer than in the past while the underlying, structural gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. Despite the somewhat misleading title, the article provides some figures and a straightforward walk-through of information that has been popping up in fits and starts for a few years (at least).
  6. Buried Christian Empire in Yemen Casts New Light on Early Islam– A report in Spiegel about an archaeological find in Yemen that further suggests a Christian kingdom that may have exerted influence over Mecca in the years leading up to Mohammed’s birth. It also discusses in passing the environmental conditions and plagues of Arabia during the latter part of the period of the kingdom. As a detailed report and discussion the article is pretty deficient (or, alternately, it tries to let the reader know too much and does it in terms that are too vague), but as a thought piece and article blurb it is interesting.