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.

What is Making Me Happy: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

I like watching the Olympics. I don’t have the TV on constantly during the competition, but I just appreciate watching feats of athletic excellence. This year, though, I had a hard time getting excited. Not only have I found that my willingness to engage in over-the-top displays of patriotism has waned from years past, but we are also still in the middle of a raging pandemic. The tape-delays don’t help, either.

Nevertheless, I have found myself flipping through the Olympic coverage the last few mornings. Today I watched all five heats of the women’s 1500M freestyle qualifier. I would have tuned out sooner, but Katie Ledecky was in the in the fifth heat and I wanted to see her swim in the event she holds the world record in. She didn’t set a record, but it was worth it.

The other event I tuned in for was the women’s 3×3 basketball. I’ve seen two matches so far and I’m in love with this event.

I’ve mentioned my love of basketball here before, so my infatuation with this new event should come as no surprise, but there are some changes to the sport that might offend purists.

Each 3×3 game lasts ten minutes or first-to-twenty-one, scoring by ones and twos. The entire game is played on a court slightly larger than a usual half court, but with a 12-second shot-clock that begins as soon as the defending team gets the rebound or takes the ball out of the hoop after a made basket. In either situation, the ball has to get cleared past the three-point line. Shooting fouls or every defensive foul after in the bonus results in one foul shot.

I came into the Olympics not sure what to expect from 3×3 basketball. I like the rules overall — these are certainly recognizable to anyone who has played pick-up — but was it going to feel like a gimmick?

Having seen one entire game and parts of two others played only by the USA team, it does feel a little bit like a gimmick, if I’m being honest. It is not a full 5×5 basketball game that evolves over nearly an hour of game time with active coaching and sophisticated defensive schemes. Instead, this is a fast-paced, physical, free-flowing game with almost no stoppage even as the fourth player on the team rotates onto the court. Officials do call fouls and other infractions, but the ethos is to let them play.

And here’s the thing: I don’t care. I love it.

This is still basketball, with basketball skills, many of the same basketball rules, and basketball plays that you would see in any game, but opened up to favor well-rounded players and with a shot clock that ensures that the game flows back and forth. You can’t play with an offensive liability who can’t handle the ball in this event and the spacing encourages movement.

At the same time, the thing that makes this so compellingly watchable is the length of the games. The two teams are racing both a clock and their opponent to a finish-line. To my mind, the combination makes this event the perfect length for a tournament — each game lasts a little less time than a 1500M freestyle race, for instance — and all-but guarantees that there will be dramatic moments in each game.

As much as I enjoy the US team, my only complaint is that theirs are the only games I have been able to watch.

Public Funding and Monumental Buildings, a few thoughts

I want to make a few observations about public funding of monumental buildings in ancient Greece and modern America–not so much for conclusions as for musings. To put it bluntly, I am thinking out loud.

Before diving in, I want to acknowledge a few caveats because it is always dicey business to equate the two time periods.

  1. The state of public financing, both in terms of state income and state obligations are hardly similar between modern America and ancient Greece. For instance, the United States doesn’t employ twelve carrier-archs to underwrite the cost of the navy.
  2. Obviously, the form and function of monumental buildings are different between the ancient and modern contexts, particularly since the most common of the monumental buildings in the American context, at least among those that are publicly funded, are sports arenas rather than temples, though I would be remiss if I overlooked the 1.5 billion dollars congress offered to build the Freedom Tower in New York on the site of the World Trade Center.
  3. I do not want to go into actual values because the problems, since, to provide one example, Modern America has a monetary economy, whereas there are a number of ways in which Ancient Athens was only partially monetized.

In the Greek context, monumental buildings often demonstrated the prominence of a city and of the state or people who commissioned or funded it. For instance, the Stoa Poikile in Athens, which contained painted panels of both mythological and historical images from the Athenian past was in part commissioned by the Philaid clan (the family of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and his son Cimon), but, probably as the result of political conflicts in the mid-fifth century, their names were removed from the structure. Later that century, Pericles oversaw one of the largest Athenian building programs that included the Propylaea and the Parthenon, which were partially constructed using the tribute from the Delian League. In addition to beautifying the city, these buildings provided the backdrop for city Dionysia, Lenaia, and Panathenaic festival, which people usually point out as sources of added income to the city because it would have brought people from the countryside and from abroad for the festival where they would have done what people everywhere on trips do–spend money on food, lodging, and souvenirs, but more on this below.

Miletus in Ionia, much like Athens, had a large number of monumental sanctuaries, with the most famous being the eternally incomplete sanctuary at Didyma, which has sometimes been taken to indicate that Miletus was exceptionally wealthy. The problem I have with this observation is that it one one hand fails to account for the source of much ancient wealth and on the other where the money for the sanctuaries came from. Miletus, in particular, was poor when it came to mineral wealth, though it was rich in terms of agricultural land, marble, and clay. The marble would have been of use in constructing the temples, but there is not much in the way of fungible assets that Milesians could use. The money spent on the sanctuaries, particularly Didyma, was not local, but the donation of foreign potentates, whose names are left inscribed on the buildings. Sure, the number of sanctuaries shows a certain type of wealth for the polis, but, at least in this example, it may be better to consider the sanctuaries more as a sources of wealth than as a demonstration of it.

Now to a modern context. I am not in any way an expert on publicly financed (or privately financed, for that matter) buildings, whether in an American or foreign context, but there has recently been quite a bit of controversy over the public financing for sports complexes. Supporters of public financing argue that the stadiums will bring in business–they will provide jobs for construction and to operate them, bring in concerts, and restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity to service the thousands of people who come to the events. Opponents point out that most of these stadiums seem to have a shelf-life of a decade or two before the teams begin to clamor for a new one, the jobs created through stadium construction tend not to be particularly well paying and are usually seasonal, and that a single sport-stadium is generally used at most a quarter of the days in a year, while creating a bubble around the stadium where the customer traffic is tied to the stadium’s use, meaning that it is largely abandoned three quarters of the year. Further, opponents point out that the owners of the sports teams (regardless of sport) are in multi-billion dollar industries that have government sanctioned monopolies and lucrative media contracts and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax dollars to fund the stadiums, often with the threat of relocation should the city refuse.

The case of the opposition becomes heightened with the other massive sporting complexes created for events such as the World Cup or the Olympics where the price-tag is higher, most of the use is concentrated in a single extended event, and the majority of the complex immediately falls into disuse.

The industrialized nation state in a monetary economy wields far more financial capacity (at least in terms of spendable money) than many ancient states could and the ancient states often compensated for this weakness by relying on wealthy individuals to pay for buildings and services on a fairly regular basis. Sanctuaries benefited from donations by states and individuals and, when they weren’t being plundered by invading armies, became quite wealthy. Beyond the contributions of the wealthy, tribute that came into imperial states, such as Athens, could be used for building projects, as well as for defense. The modern state has far more obligations and more sources of revenue than most ancient states did, but, at least at first blush, enormous amounts of tax money being given to (effectively) private entities is an inversion of the responsibilities of the wealthy in the two societies–and no, using a cigarette or other regressive tax to raise money for a stadium, as is the case in Minnesota, means there can be no claim that the wealthy pay more than their equal share into the pot of money being used for the stadiums the way that it might with an income tax.

Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying both processes for this account. A larger consideration, and one that I just want to throw out there as a conclusion, is that perhaps sanctuaries and festivals should be thought about along these lines w/r/t the economy and prosperity of a state.

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?

Assorted Links

  1. ‘Humane’ Drones Are the Most Brutal Weapons of All-The German army is in the process of purchasing unmanned weapons. This article in der Spiegel examines the decision and argues that there is a delusion that the drones are humane and good, when it is really causing the destruction of human lives to become anonymous.
  2. Islamist sect found living underground near Russian city for nearly ten years-In Russia an Islamist sect was found in a bunker. Some of the children were born there and had never seen natural light. The sect is named for its founder who had declared himself to be a prophet and his house an independent Islamic state.
  3. The New Olympic Arms Race-An article in the New York Review of Books that does a really good job of pulling out the elite-proxy-war aspects to the Olympics, including a bunch of facts that I was unaware of, such as the reason to encourage athletes in certain individual sports rather than team sports in order to maximize efficiency of expenditure and medal count.
  4. Essay predicting that campuses will be completely digital in 3 years-The president of McGraw-Hill publishing wrote a predictive (and, to an extent, marketing) essay calling for a digital revolution, and posits failing grades and preparation of students to the lack of digitization on college campuses, something of which I am skeptical. Perhaps it is just my experience with these technologies (reading on a screen is difficult for me), but I am not convinced of the educational value of digitization, at least for the humanities. Digital options should be available, yes, but a complete digital transformation prioritizes pushing everyone into the realm of the digital and plays into “modern” values that are regressive in terms of actual engagement with texts. I am highly skeptical that students would be any more prepared, and their misguided reliance on technology is leaving them less and less prepared, particularly when it comes to writing. Do note that I really only speak for history and classics in my opinion, and not any other disciplines for whom complete digitization makes more sense.
  5. New York Mayor’s Soda Ban Sparks Debate on Fat and Freedom-Some discussion in der Spiegel of the ongoing debate about obesity in the United States. The article states:”what Bloomberg is doing is courageous to the point of foolhardiness.” There is a clear indictment of the overall health of Americans and the implication is that it is a corporate and cultural problem.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. For Profit Colleges– Yet another look into the for-profit College industry, this time in the Village Voice. There are new anecdotes, but the same conclusions about how the industry profits by scamming the financial aid system paid for by tax dollars, without offering much in the way of an education. One person is quoted as saying that “This is basically a parasitic industry that is preying upon not just some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but the best of these most vulnerable members, people who listen to the rhetoric we feed them and who are actually attempting to better themselves.” I suspect that there is a link between the emphasis on standardized tests (which mostly benefit the test-prep industry1) and the idea that the same model can be applied to the college degree (hence massive online universities). Call it a gut instinct, but the fact that the Kaplan test prep company–which charges exorbitant fees for marginal real returns on the standardized tests of all sorts (from what I have witnessed, most of the gains come from either learning how to beat the testing system or actually feeling responsible to dedicate time to studying since you are now paying for it)–has an accredited online college and university makes me see a link.
  2. College Costs Too Much Because the Faculty Lack Power– Commentary on the Chronicle that suggests that the cost of college is not rising because of too many overfed faculty members, but because the number of full time administrators has risen well beyond the proportion of full time faculty and students.
  3. Amazon Kindle E-book Sales Overtake PrintAt least for the UK site, Amazon is now selling 114 Ebooks for every 100 print books.
  4. Gabby Douglas Isn’t Jingoistic Enough for Fox News-Apparently Gabby Douglas bothered some people because she did not wear red, white, and blue spandex when receiving her award. They did actually use the words “jingoistic” and “exceptionalism” in berating her for not having enough pride.
  5. Can Hospital Chains Improve the Medical Industry – A piece in the New Yorker that evaluates restaurant chains as a successful business model vis a vis hospitals and tries to make a claim that some of the lessons of the chain restaurant (regular updates in offerings, more cost efficiency, standardization) could be beneficial to the hospitals. I have little to not experience with hospitals, but I do have a bunch with restaurants, and the description of the restaurant model grated me. The most basic problem I had with it was the glorification of the Cheesecake Factory as an exemplar of the model, when it is no different from most chain restaurants. Moreover, the assembly-line model and the organization of a kitchen for efficiency is not some miracle that this restaurant came up with, but is something that will be applied in some form at any restaurant. The same goes with the ratios for costs at restaurants, though it is misleading. The cost of food is often not second after payroll. The hidden cost that is not factored into the equation is rent and utilities, though perhaps at the Cheesecake Factory, the revenue is high enough that the rent and utilities are smaller. At a Pizza Hut, though (also referenced), that would not be the case. It is also important to note that (despite the author’s claims), the model usually relies on providing consistent–not good–quality food. Most of these chains (see: Pizza Hut) offer you food that is worse than many hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stands that I have had. Yes, there are things that hospitals need to work on, but the chain restaurant model, particularly when offering it as somehow revelatory to food in general and overlooking the poor to bland quality of most of it, is a flawed comparison.
  6. 1One of the biggest beneficiaries of the No Child Left Behind tests was Ignite! Learning, a company that was run by Neil Bush.

    As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Mitt Romney Confirms he would end US wind power subsidies -The idea being that he would “allow the wind credit to expire, end the stimulus boondoggles, and create a level playing field on which all sources of energy can compete on their merits.” Merits like OPEC, smoke, and depleting resources, I guess.
  2. Drone warfare: a new generation of deadly unmanned weapons– A story on the Guardian about some of the new bases and training facilities for the unmanned missile operators. According to the article, the operators do not appreciate being told that they are not courageous for their actions.
  3. Neither the Will nor the Cash: Why India Wins So Few Olympic Medals– A look in the Atlantic about why India wins so few Olympic medals (22 total all time). The most prevalent theory that it is about financial clout, combined with the lack of a safety net for the families and thus no emphasis on relatively frivolous athletics (as differentiated between competitive athletics and personal health). One of the most telling statistics is that between 1928 and 1968, India won all but two of the gold medals in field hockey, the other two going to Pakistan. In 1972, India was third, Pakistan took second, and East Germany won. In 1976 the Olympics switched to the more expensive synthetic turf fields and since, India has won one medal (a gold in 1980). The upper echelons of hockey stadiums in India are also synthetic, but I think that the idea is that many field hockey players grow up playing on grass and are therefore at a competitive disadvantage. The drop-off is a bit too extreme to call it coincidence. I suppose it should also be noted that in 1932 only three teams participated in Olympic hockey.1
  4. Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution– A study that was featured on NPR today wherein biologists suggest that the development of the reward receptors in the brain of animals that need sustained aerobic activity are linked to the eventual development of the aerobic capacity. Thus, human beings are hard-wired to be runners on an evolutionary level.
  5. Stunning Restaurant built inside a cave on the Italian coast-A very cool new restaurant that, as the person who linked me this article pointed out, is reminiscent of Tiberius’ villa at Sperlonga.
  6. The Olympics as Reality TV– An article at the New Yorker about the way in which NBC has seized upon reality TV as a model for women’s gymnastics.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

1 As a fun fact, the first time field hockey was an Olympic sport, six teams competed–including four from Great Britain, one each for Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales.

Assorted Links

  1. Tolkien and Technology-Commented on by Chad, this is an article in the Atlantic about one of Tolkien’s most enduring legacies to fantasy literature, namely the fear and disdain of technology.
  2. Remote-Scanning Techniques Revolutionize Archaeology-An article in der Spiegel about some of the new technology (like flying lasers) that are helping to uncover archeological sites in remote or otherwise veiled locations without needing to embark upon expensive digs.
  3. First Female, Saudi Arabian Olympians-Some photos on The Atlantic commemorating the first female Olympians in that country’s history.
  4. What do we mean by “evil”-some discussion of the Aurora shooting and how people have labelled James Holmes as “evil.” The author points out that evil is really the only word we have, but that it is a word that says “more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor.”
  5. How the Gorgeous, Sometimes Fictional Sound of the Olympics Gets Made-Adding to the spectacle of the Olympics, there are the sounds. I suspect that this sort of manipulation of sounds is more common than we might think, but the huge array of different sounds that are traditionally associated with Olympic sports adds a bit more pomp to the coverage.
  6. Ivory Coast Leader Foresees Mali Intervention Soon-Not soon enough, in my opinion, and the intervention requires approval from the U.N. Security Council, but the ECOWAS has obtained Malian permission for the intervention. This is a response to the Islamic fundamentalists who have taken over most of the country and begun demolishing UNESCO sites (which I doubt is actually the immediate impetus). Hopefully it won’t devolve further.
  7. Mississippi Church Rejects Black Wedding-The church in question was founded in 1883 and has never married anyone who is black; despite the prior registration for the wedding, the congregation decided to upholding its grand tradition and prevent the marriage. The pastor agreed because he feared for his job if he proceeded with the wedding.
  8. Orangutan Sent to Island to Kick Smoking Habit-A zoo in Indonesia is sending their heavy smoking Orangutan to an island in a lake at the zoo along with another Orangutan who is known for stamping out butts rather than smoking them.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

The Olympics and Human Rights

The opening ceremony for the London Olympics was an impressive display last night, focused as it was on the development of Britain. It was not without questions (were there really super wealthy industrialists of African descent in the 1800s? Are we really glorifying those super wealthy industrialists anyway? Is there really going to be no acknowledgement of British imperialism?) and controversy (the ceremony featured the National Health Service in a way that a number of people have interpreted as a tribute to socialism.Then (as always) there was the parade of nations accompanied by some rather embarrassing and ill-informed commentary by the NBC broadcasters–frankly, a wasted opportunity. Then more music, some speeches, the torch, and fireworks. All in all, a wonderful spectacle.

One of the human interest stories that has come out of the Olympics this year is that for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia allowed female athletes to participate in the Olympics. A news story pointed out that Saudi Arabia is not the only country never to send female athletes (the others are Qatar and Brunei Darussalam), but had originally intended to send female athletes through a loophole in the rules so that, rather than competing as Saudi’s, they would compete as independent athletes, as several are this year, including Guor Marial, a runner from South Sudan (Unsurprisingly, South Sudan has had some more pressing issues to deal with than forming an Olympic committee). Eventually Saudi Arabia gave in and allowed the women to compete as Saudis.

I find the Olympics to be a bizarre event because of the nationalistic fervor it inspires, despite limiting the importance of men’s soccer. Moreover, the Olympics encourage people to drink, cheer, watch, and otherwise support “sports” like badminton, canoe, figure skating, and curling (all impressive athletic displays to watch, but I hesitate to call them sports). I enjoy the Olympics, but usually with a little bit of confused detachment. I also understand that the Olympics are political and more flash than substance, but I cannot help to read a number of social and economic disparities, particularly because the IOC actually has rules in place to enable Olympic bans for discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, or gender ( levied against Afghanistan in 200, and South Africa from 1964-1992). Additionally, there is a nod to gender equality in the Youth Olympics since every country to enter must have at least one female representative.1

The most obvious disparity is the total number of athletes competing for some teams, and the makeup of those teams in that some of the teams have just two or three athletes, while others have more than five hundred. This does have a lot to do with the total number of people in a country, but it often seems more directly related to the gross economic power of the nation (just my speculation). The more insidious disparity are the countries who send a massively disproportionate number of men to women–and that there are still several countries never to have sent a woman (Afghanistan has begun to allow women to participate since the fall of the Taliban), and the fact that countries with horrific human rights records and active civil wars are still allowed to participate. Syria has a delegation, Rwanda competed on both sides of the civil war during which there were acts of genocide,2 China is (still) occupying Tibet, Somalia has competed in every summer Olympics since 1996 despite the ongoing civil war (that prevented it from competing in 1992), Sri Lanka participates despite the twenty six year war with the Tamils (who were staging a rebellion or a war for their freedom, depending on your point of view), Zaire participated in the 1996 Olympics only months before Joseph Mobutu fled in the face of the militia formed by Laurent-Desire Kabila (formed after the Zaire army launched a campaign against them–the country continued to compete as the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite an extremely questionable human rights record afterward), North Korea competes despite forcing athletes to stay within their own compound,3 and some people believe that Israel’s actions toward Lebanon and the Palestinians warrant a ban. The list is incomplete, but you get the idea.

I suspect that the IOC realizes that it is basically impotent, which is why when there are civil wars, coup d’etats, or revolutions, the IOC is more likely to simply update the database and allow them to compete than actually take a stand. At the same time, it took a stand in the past over apartheid and about the way that the Taliban treated women, and has written rules about moral stands against discrimination. But these are the exceptions and, despite the opportunity to sometimes see the opportunity to watch an athlete from some third world country triumph over the giants industrialized world, the Olympics end up being dominated by the first- and industrializing world. To see this disparity and to be reminded of countries that are starving (at best, sometimes) or in active civil war only to have the IOC turn a blind eye, much as the rest of the world does, tarnishes some of the nationalistic spectacle that the Olympics endeavor to be.

One of the requirements in Classical Greece was that wars were put on hold for the duration of the Olympics. There was no ban for human rights violations or requirement that each state solved all its problems before competing, but there was an assumption that the problems of the world would be put on hold for the time. The idea was that the participants would be set aside their problems, not turn a blind eye. The modern development, though, strikes me in many ways a colossal waste when there is an active disinterest on the part of the world in any humanistic impulse.

1As an interesting aside, for the first time ever there are more female Olympians on the US team than men. It is hard to deny that Title IX has worked for women’s athletics.
2Not genocide, technically, since the western world would be treaty bound to intervene if it was genocide. Acts of genocide are different and do not obligate the treaty signatories to intervene. In a hopeful story this time around, though, the Rwandan flag-bearer is a survivor of the genocide.
3An article on Gawker brings up a good point about North Korea in that against all odds, the women’s contingent of that delegation is very strong.