Saturday, May 31, 2008
From this week's CityPaper (one of the Philadelphia alt-weeklies):
I love walking — especially outside my front door. Those first steps from my entrance onto my immediate pavement swell my heart with the puffed-up Tennessee Tuxedo pride of ownership. That is until I have to dodge bicyclists who not only ride unusually fast, but with zero regard to anyone or anything on the pavement — me, my wife walking our dog, other people walking dogs, children, laundry bags, parapets. I live on a block with elderly people who can't sidestep pavement-biking pricks with the matador's grace I can.
These bikers are speed-racing zombies who neither stop nor slow, staring blankly ahead — risking their lives and mine. I say "their lives" because I do fear I will one day be forced to kick one from the seat of their bike.
Why are bikers allowed to barrel down sidewalks that rightly belong to pedestrians?
I actually know the author (A.D. Amorosi) slightly, but don't think he was among the teeming millions who read my earlier rant on bikes. If he did, he learned the proper lessons: make it clear that you don't drive, and give cyclists their proper space on the moral hierarchy above motorists. Question the latter, and you earn the undying enmity of the spandex set.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Rick Hertzberg uses the now legendary Matthews-James video to riff on his history with and admiration for Chris Matthews. I'm kind of fond of the guy too, warts and all, so I enjoyed it:
When we met, Chris was doing press relations for a backwater office in the Carter White House called the President’s Reorganization Project, a moribund effort to abolish hundreds of federal agencies and put them all under half a dozen super-duper superdepartments, or something like that. Only the Reorganization Project didn’t have any press relations, because the press had long since lost interest in it, as had Carter, apparently. Chris was restless. He’d come into my office—I was a speechwriter—and talk about the events of the day. He was so full of ideas and energy that I begged and wheedled the White House higher-ups to let me make him a speechwriter, too, even though I had no idea whether he could write or not. I figured it didn’t matter. We could always take notes on his stream of consciousness and massage the result.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Der Spiegel on Obamamania in Deutschland:
Frank-Walter Steinmeier had hoped to meet personally, but Barack Obama has a lot on his plate at the moment and Germany's foreign minister had to make do with a telephone conversation with the presidential candidate during his recent visit to Washington. Still, that's all it took to stir Steinmeier's enthusiasm for the candidate...Obama's secret recipe? He's well-informed and projects a concern for and interest in what other people think. So, radical change.
The few minutes spent on the telephone gave Steinmeier the impression that Obama is prepared to fundamentally reconsider the course of US foreign policy. Steinmeier was impressed, and only a day later he publicly outed himself as the senator's latest fan. "Yes we can," the minister, not known for his emotional outbursts, chanted, evoking Obama's campaign slogan during a speech at Harvard University. Steinmeier used the term to express his desire for a renewal of trans-Atlantic relations.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
It matters to Daniel Larison. I love this part of his liveblog of the Libertarian Presidential debate:
8:06 Barr named Ayn Rand as his favourite philosopher in response to the first question (which wasn’t supposed to be asked until later). I’m not sure if this is deeply worrying evidence of insanity or evidence of absolutely shameless pandering to the Libertarian crowd.
8:21 Mike Gravel must be going for the Eunomia vote, because he named Solon as his favourite philosopher. Solon! His answer was quite brilliant, actually, and if I had never seen him before I would argue that he ought to be the nominee. Phillies oddly named Cicero, the antithesis of heroic resistance to tyranny, Jingozian named Ben Franklin and Ruwart copied Barr by naming Ayn Rand.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
There are a lot of contenders, but right now, for its luminous versatility, it has to be this one:
verb ( past struck |strək|)
1 [ trans. ] hit forcibly and deliberately with one's hand or a weapon or other implement : he raised his hand, as if to strike me | one man was struck on the head with a stick | [ intrans. ] Edgar struck out at her.
• inflict (a blow) : [with two objs. ] he struck her two blows on the leg.
• accidentally hit (a part of one's body) against something : she fell, striking her head against the side of the boat.
• come into forcible contact or collision with : he was struck by a car on Whitepark Road.
• (of a beam or ray of light or heat) fall on (an object or surface) : the light struck her ring, reflecting off the diamond.
• (in sporting contexts) hit or kick (a ball) so as to score a run, point, or goal : he struck the ball into the back of the net.
• [ intrans. ] (of a clock) indicate the time by sounding a chime or stroke : [with complement ] the church clock struck twelve.
• ignite (a match) by rubbing it briskly against an abrasive surface.
• produce (fire or a spark) as a result of friction : his iron stick struck sparks from the pavement.
• bring (an electric arc) into being.
• produce (a musical note) by pressing or hitting a key.
2 [ trans. ] (of a disaster, disease, or other unwelcome phenomenon) occur suddenly and have harmful or damaging effects on : an earthquake struck the island | [ intrans. ] tragedy struck when he was killed in a car crash | [as adj. in combination ] ( struck) storm-struck areas.
• [ intrans. ] carry out an aggressive or violent action, typically without warning : it was eight months before the murderer struck again.
• (usu. be struck down) kill or seriously incapacitate (someone) : he was struck down by a mystery virus.
• ( strike something into) cause or create a particular strong emotion in (someone) : drugs—a subject guaranteed to strike fear into parents' hearts.
• [ trans. ] cause (someone) to be in a specified state : he was struck dumb.
3 [ trans. ] (of a thought or idea) come into the mind of (someone) suddenly or unexpectedly : a disturbing thought struck Melissa.
• cause (someone) to have a particular impression : [with clause ] it struck him that Marjorie was unusually silent | the idea struck her as odd.
• ( be struck by/with) find particularly interesting, noticeable, or impressive : Lucy was struck by the ethereal beauty of the scene.
4 [ intrans. ] (of employees) refuse to work as a form of organized protest, typically in an attempt to obtain a particular concession or concessions from their employer : workers may strike over threatened job losses.
• [ trans. ] undertake such action against (an employer).
5 [ trans. ] cancel, remove, or cross out with or as if with a pen : strike his name from the list | striking words through with a pen.
• ( strike someone off) officially remove someone from membership of a professional group : he had been struck off as a disgrace to the profession.
• ( strike something down) abolish a law or regulation : the law was struck down by the Supreme Court.
6 [ trans. ] make (a coin or medal) by stamping metal.
• (in cinematography) make (another print) of a film.
• reach, achieve, or agree to (something involving agreement, balance, or compromise) : the team has struck a deal with a sports marketing agency | you have to strike a happy medium.
• (in financial contexts) reach (a figure) by balancing an account : last year's loss was struck after allowing for depreciation of 67 million dollars.
• Canadian form (a committee) : the government struck a committee to settle the issue.
7 [ trans. ] discover (gold, minerals, or oil) by drilling or mining.
• [ intrans. ] ( strike on/upon) discover or think of, esp. unexpectedly or by chance : pondering, she struck upon a brilliant idea.
• come to or reach : several days out of the village, we struck the Gilgit Road.
8 [ intrans. ] move or proceed vigorously or purposefully : she struck out into the lake with a practiced crawl | he struck off down the track.
• ( strike out) start out on a new or independent course or endeavor : after two years he was able to strike out on his own.
9 [ trans. ] take down (a tent or the tents of an encampment) : it took ages to strike camp.
• dismantle (theatrical scenery) : the minute we finish this evening, they'll start striking the set.
• lower or take down (a flag or sail), esp. as a salute or to signify surrender : the ship struck her German colors.
10 [ trans. ] insert (a cutting of a plant) in soil to take root.
• [ intrans. ] (of a plant or cutting) develop roots : small conifers will strike from cuttings.
• [ intrans. ] (of a young oyster) attach itself to a bed.
11 [ intrans. ] Fishing secure a hook in the mouth of a fish by jerking or tightening the line after it has taken the bait or fly.
1 a refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer : dockers voted for an all-out strike | local government workers went on strike | [as adj. ] strike action.
• [with adj. ] a refusal to do something expected or required, typically by a body of people, with a similar aim : a rent strike.
2 a sudden attack, typically a military one : the threat of nuclear strikes.
• (in bowling) an act of knocking down all the pins with one's first ball.
• Fishing an act or instance of jerking or tightening the line to secure a fish that has already taken the bait or fly.
3 a discovery of gold, minerals, or oil by drilling or mining : the Lena goldfields strike of 1912.
4 Baseball a pitch that is counted against the batter, in particular one that the batter swings at and misses, or that passes through the strike zone without the batter swinging, or that the batter hits foul (unless two strikes have already been called). A batter accumulating three strikes is out.
• a pitch that passes through the strike zone and is not hit.
• something to one's discredit : when they returned from Vietnam they had two strikes against them.
5 the horizontal or compass direction of a stratum, fault, or other geological feature.
6 short for fly strike .
strike a balance
strike a blow for (or at/against)
strike a chord
strike at the root (or roots) of
strike it rich
strike me pink
strike a pose
strike while the iron is hot
strike someone out (or strike out)
• ( strike out) informal fail or be unsuccessful
strike up (or strike something up) (of a band or orchestra)
• ( strike something up) begin a friendship or conversation with someone, typically in a casual way.
Old English strīcan [go, flow] and [rub lightly] ; related to German streichen ‘to stroke,’ also to stroke . The sense [deliver a blow] dates from Middle English .
Friday, May 23, 2008
All Music Guide's critics share lists of their favorite albums from 1999. They're some of my favorites, too -- although I suspect that the list I would have made in 1999 would be a lot different, and definitely more embarasssing.
1. Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs
2. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
3. Smog - Knock Knock
4. Dismemberment Plan - Emergency and I
5. Wilco - Summerteeth
6. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - I See A Darkness
7. Jim O'Rourke - Eureka
8. Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
9. Pavement - Terror Twilight
10. The White Stripes - The White Stripes
Given how white 1-10 are, it's ironic that my #11 is Mos Def's Black on Both Sides.
“Mr. Walters has fully served the sentence imposed upon him for his convictions, had an exemplary disciplinary record while in prison and on parole, and has been living without incident in the community for more than 10 years,” said Governor Paterson. “In that time, he has volunteered at youth outreach programs to counsel youth against violence, and has become a symbol of rehabilitation for many young people. Given these demonstrated rehabilitative efforts, I urge federal immigration officials to once again grant Mr. Walters relief from deportation, so that he is not separated from his many family members who are United States citizens, including his two teenage children.”
Peter Mucha at the Inquirer finally puts the kibosh on the notion that Cheese Whiz is the "authentic" topping for a Philly cheesesteak. But Marissa M. at Yelp is also right: "There is something terrible and yet totally wonderful about Whiz on your steak."
Jeff Greenfield in Slate on "the perils of running for President with an unusual name":
Run down the names of the 42 men who have held the office: From Washington to Madison to Grant to Wilson to Clinton to Bush, the names ring with echoes of Northern Europe, of Scotch-Irish or Dutch or German ancestry. Of all our presidents, only one bore a name that could fairly be called unusual: Eisenhower, our only four-syllable president. About that exception, two points:
Everybody called him "Ike."
When you win a world war, you can have any damn name you want.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Longtime readers of Short Schrift know that, like many, many other people, I enjoy messing around with GarageBand, the music creation app that comes with Macs. I posted an earlier song here last September; but now I am ready to reveal a fully-fledged 5-song "Fun With Garageband" EP.
What are you in for? Well, the software is (like the Nintendo Wii) fun but limited, so it's a lot of chamber-pop in the style of Jim O'Rourke and Stephin Merritt, with a few rock/blues efforts thrown in like gravel in the bubblegum. It's all instrumental, no vocals. "Orkney Street" has actually become my ringtone.
I hope you enjoy it. And if you too secretly make your own GarageBand tracks, it's time to share that stuff.
Monday, May 19, 2008
"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is an article in this month's Atlantic penned by an anonymous adjunct writing teacher calling himself (I kid you not) "Professor X." As you might expect, some of his small-college freshmen and community college students aren't very good at writing or reading literature. X uses this experience as a basis to argue... well, really, to almost argue, to half-heartedly argue, almost nothing, other than his students aren't very good, and that that's a problem.
He comes to the verge of saying either the arch-reactionary "the idea of universal education is inherently flawed and we should abandon it" or the stalwartly progressive "colleges are motivated by greed and primary education is a joke." But he doesn't quite commit to either of those propositions. Instead, he flunks a lot of people.
If Professor X were my student, I would tell him that his thesis is muddled at best and trivial at worst. Yes, your students have gaps in their education; but what does this mean, and what must be done? He lectures his students not to write vaguely and without a clear argument on topics like "gun control," but he has done exactly the same thing, albeit with a more successful impressionistic style and a nobler smattering of middle-high-cultural references.
The great pattern of this essay, in fact, is for its author to censure an act and then immediately to commit that same act. He follows a self-amused joke about his students' unconscious use of mixed metaphors with a wholly sincere one -- "The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades." I'm not entirely sure that the problem with that metaphor is that it's mixed, confused, or meaningless, but I know that it's disastrous, and that the first remedy I would apply would be to eliminate "zeitgeist." There's also his premonition that one of his students, a middle-aged woman, would fail his course, a premonition he didn't want to share for fear of appearing to be "a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob." Then he writes: "In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah." Ding ding ding! We have a winner!
It never occurs to Professor X -- despite his powerful telepathic powers -- that he should abandon his useless textbook or give up on the Joyce and the Faulkner that stump and bore his ill-prepared students. This, I think, is the cardinal law for all teachers: if it doesn't work, if it doesn't help you to teach and your students to learn, get rid of it. Try something different.
It also never occurs to him to teach introductory or remedial material as if it were introductory or remedial. Acknowledgment of "deficits," as he puts it, demands pedagogical and institutional adjustment, not just awkward woe-is-I-and-all-of-us lamentations. Colleges and universities have handled significant shifts in their student bodies, organizational bureaucracies, and teaching content before. But it required them to try something different, to change what they do -- not just to reflect and lacerate and masticate and ultimately to act as if nothing has changed at all.
Also, one last complaint: who is this guy that he got to write an essay in the Atlantic? I want to write an essay in the Atlantic.
And okay, one more: anonymity in the academy has gone way too far. Virtually anytime anyone working for a university complains about anything having to do with the business end of the academy, they do so under the cover of a pseudonym. Except in the rarest of cases, we are not whistleblowers, and the CYA doxa ultimately hurts open discussion. It also causes these issues to descend into personal gripes and complaints. I think Professor X's article would have benefited tremendously from cutting the anecdotes that could have potentially identified someone else and formulated a position that he could have signed his name to and been willing to defend.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Wired's Which Stereolab Is Better? poll led me to this YouTube video of someone playing a record -- specifically, of the German band Neu!'s song "Hallogallo" from their 1971/2(?) debut. The sound quality is surprisingly great, and the song is beautiful: as AMG's Thom Jurek says, it's "driving music for the apocalypse."
Normally, I watch my son on the weekends, but with he and his mom out of town, I'd been looking forward to tuning into some testosterone-driven TV. No luck. I absolutely cannot believe that NBC Sports -- still part of a major network the last time I checked in -- is showing a poker tournament (and a grade B one at that) at noon on a Sunday in late May, when every major sport except football is in season (along with plenty of not-so-major sports).
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy poker, but the fun gap between playing poker and watching poker on TV has got to be 100 times that of baseball, which is already pretty significant. The racing of horses and cars, which is what the other networks are offering, poses the same problem. Isn't there a single baseball, hockey, or basketball game, tennis match, swim or track meet, or toughman/lumberjack competition today?
As it stands now, the poor TV offerings are making it effortless for me to clean the house and get work done, which upsets me to no end.
Pow: "It didn’t help [the Republicans] that their recent stab at an Obamaesque national Congressional campaign slogan, 'The Change You Deserve,' was humiliatingly identified as the advertising pitch for the anti-depressant Effexor. (If they’re going to go the pharmaceutical route, 'Viva Viagra' might be more to the point.)"
Bang: "The president implied that Mr. Obama would have enabled the Nazis even more foolishly than his own grandfather, Prescott Bush, did in the 1930s when he maintained 'investment relationships with Hitler’s Germany,' as Kevin Phillips delicately describes it in American Dynasty."
For all the fears of a Democratic civil war, the planets may be aligning for a truce, and possibly a celebration. As fate has it, the nominee’s acceptance speech is scheduled for the night of Aug. 28, exactly 45 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified the nation with “I Have a Dream.”
The next day brings another anniversary: Mr. McCain turns 72. And then, on Sept. 1, comes the virtually all-white G.O.P. vaudeville in Minneapolis. You’ll be pleased to know the show will go on despite the fact that the convention manager, chosen by the McCain campaign, had to resign last weekend after being exposed as the chief executive of a lobbying and consulting firm hired by the military junta in Myanmar.
The conventioneers will arrive via the airport whose men’s room was immortalized by a Republican senator still serving the good people of Idaho. This will be a most picturesque backdrop to the party’s eternal platform battles over family values, from same-sex marriage to abortion.
From "I Have A Dream" to "I Have A Wide Stance" in two moves. We have a winner.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Per my last post, I was searching for lists of important events in world history, and stumbled across (get this) Most Important Events In History, a website that aims to list the most important historical event in every year between 1 BCE and the present.
So, first disappointment: no Sumerians. But the method gives the site and the process some structure, and also leads to really wild cruxes, some of which are listed on the front page:
1215: Was the signing of the Magna Charta or the Mongol capture of Peking more important?
1789: Was the adoption of the U.S. Constitution or the storming of the Bastille more important ?
1905: Was the Treaty of Portsmouth which marked the ascendancy of Japan or Einstein's General Theory of Relativity more important?
Also, please note the entry for 1938:
In Europe, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), German Chancellor Adolph Hitler (1889-1945), French President Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) and Italian Duce Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) agree in Munich to allow Germany to annex the Sudeteland portion of Czechoslovakia.
P.S.: Watch out, though; there are either a handful of egregious errors, or a jokester at work. Unless "The Great Fire sweeps Chicago and destroys two-thirds of the city" really did happen in 64 AD, just before Seneca and Lucan were killed for suspicion in a plot against Nero.
Chris Matthews's remarkable pantsing of Kevin "Blank Slate" James leads me to think that instead of 1001 Novels or 1001 Movies, what we really need is a list of 1001 Historical Moments that everyone should know something about. Munich would definitely qualify.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Mary Beard on the "gobbet" (aka "throwing an unidentified piece of [writing] at students, and expecting them to identify it and say something sensible about it."):
In Ancient History, as in most other historical disciplines, the gobbet still holds an honoured place, as the best test of the novice’s acumen and skill. The student is confronted with a few sentences of text, the more apparently unremarkable the better: perhaps part of Cicero’s list of names of those senators who assisted his recall from exile in 57 BC, or Tacitus’s casual reference to the death of some second-rank Roman noble, or the career of a senator as recorded on his tombstone. The answer has to show that you know what the passage is about, where it comes from and why it might be more important historical evidence than it seems. But to get top marks you have to be able to explain why we might not wish to take the text concerned at face value. Could Cicero have been economical with the truth in constructing his list of helpers? Is there more to the Roman noble than meets the eye? Can you detect a mysterious, and significant, gap in that senator’s CV? Is there some other piece of evidence you can drag out (from memory) which gives a subtly different picture?
The gobbet is, in other words, an exercise not only in showing that you know the sources well, but also in showing that you know better than them. It is an adversarial kind of exercise, which pits the historian against the ancient evidence, and challenges him or her to prove their superiority. As such, it encapsulates the two competing tendencies that lie at the very heart of the study of Greek and Roman history: the first is a tremendous reverence for the evidence, especially the literary evidence, that gives us access to what happened in the ancient world; the second is a simultaneous distrust of the reliability of that evidence and a sense that the expert historian must find a way to transcend the bias and loaded agenda of the ancient writers themselves. This is a conflict which goes back to the nineteenth-century origins of ancient history as a modern discipline, and continues even now.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Here's an open question: What do you need in order to think? I'm not asking this question philosophically or physiologically, but practically. What do you need at hand in order to think through or solve problems?
Some people need to look at their fingers to count, or to hold up both hands to tell their left from their right. I find that some of my thoughts require speech (either with someone else or just to myself), others typing, still others -- especially math problems -- a pen and paper. I've completely conditioned myself to solve higher-order algebra problems by writing -- and not typing -- a series of equations. I don't think I could calculate them in any other way.
I said that I wasn't interested in philosophical implications, but I'll speculate on some anyways. To what extent does thought occur as a purely mental process, and to what extent does it exist in a series of embodied actions? To put it in Descartes's terminology, is the "I," the "thinking thing," as much the hand tracing the curve as it is the mind judging that curve to be immediately certain, and therefore, true?
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Massachusetts legislators, demonstrating a growing resentment against the wealth of elite universities in tight economic times, are studying a plan to levy a 2.5% annual tax on the portion of college endowments that exceed $1 billion. The effort takes aim at one of the primary economic engines of the state, which is home to nine universities with endowments that surpass the $1 billion level, led by Harvard University's $35 billion cache, the nation's largest... Supporters said the proposal would raise $1.4 billion a year. Based on the most recent size of Harvard's endowment, the university would have to shell out more than $840 million annually.
Greg Mankiw, "Time for Harvard to Move?":
1. Instead of expanding the university into Alston, Harvard could create a second campus in another state. Call it Harvard South. (Put it in a better climate than Boston, and I would be one of the first faculty to volunteer for the move.)
2. Transfer much of the endowment to Harvard South. Support Harvard North by slowly selling off land in Massachusetts.
3. Eventually, make Harvard South the main campus, and Harvard North the satellite. If Massachusetts state lawmakers remain hostile, close Harvard North down entirely.
Brad DeLong, "Alma Mater Blogging":
Somebody last week--was it Jan de Vries? John Ellwood? Somebody else? I forget who, but it is not original to me--said that the right model for Harvard over the past century is Yugoslavia. Remember the story of the Yugoslavian socialist worker-managed firm? If you add another worker to the firm, that worker gets a pro-rata share of the firm's value added. The firm's value added has a component attributable to the firm's capital stock, a component attributable to the ideas embedded in the firm, a component attributable to the firm's market position, and a component attributable to the workers. Hire another worker, and only the last of these goes up: the first three do not, and so average compensation falls.
This means that a worker-managed firm is likely to shrink whenever it gets good news that makes it more productive--the larger is the value added due to ideas, capital, or market position, the more expensive does it become for the existing workers to replace workers who leave, let alone hire enough workers to expand. While a competitive market capitalist firm responds to good news about its productivity and value to society by increasing employment, a Yugoslavian-model market socialist firm responds to good news about its productivity and value to society by shrinking. On this analysis, the very success of Harvard over the past two generations together with its degree of worker management has created enormous internal pressures not to expand, the better to share out the surplus among the existing stakeholders.
Jim Manzi, "Is Harvard Just A Tax-Free Hedge Fund?":
[Harvard] claims to be in the business of serving humanity through the creation and dissemination of knowledge, but Biogen claims to “transform scientific discoveries into advances in human healthcare”. That sounds pretty good, too...
Receipts = $2 billion of operating revenue + $7.3 billion of investment income + $0.6 billion of gifts to the endowment = ~$10 billion.
Operating costs = ~$3 billion.
Profit = $10 billion – $3 billion = ~$7 billion.
This explains why Harvard’s net assets increased about $7 billion in 2007, from about $35 billion to about $42 billion.
Viewed purely in terms of economics, Harvard is really a $40 billion tax-free hedge fund with a very large marketing and PR arm called Harvard University that has the job of raising the investment capital and protecting the fund’s preferential tax treatment.
I have no idea whether or not this endowment tax idea kicking around in the Massachusetts legislature really makes sense. My guess is that it may not since the flow of resources toward Harvard may well be good for the state in which it's located even if it doesn't particularly serve the public interest. But the people making additional gifts to Harvard and similar institutions really ought to rethink their giving strategy. Even in terms of helping your kids get in, if you're really rich and give a lot of money to deserving charitable institutions, the admissions office will still view you as a good development prospect and let your kid in. Then just don't pony up the money!Personally, I think that a hedge fund or investment bank outside of MA should start their own university. You'd have a great initial core of investors to fund the endowment (whose relatives would get free tuition, of course), plus the additional revenue streams of tuition, grants, and donations, and your tax benefits would be huge. Plus, you could actually put a fraction of your wealth to work doing some pretty worthwhile (and potentially high-yield) stuff, from education to medical and scientific research.
Via Kottke, 1001 Fiction Books You Must Read Before You Die. It's awfully light on the classical period, or anything pre-Renaissance -- whatever metric makes Ovid's Metamorphoses count as fiction/a novel should qualify a lot more stuff, especially narrative/epic poetry.
But, in keeping with the disclose-it-all practice of my interlocutors, here are the books on the list that I have read. (I have tried to be as honest as possible, not including books begun and not finished, or books purchased, books merely discussed intelligently, books that I have claimed to read for courses, and the like.)
- Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
- Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
- Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
- Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
- Them – Joyce Carol Oates
- Myra Breckinridge – Gore Vidal
- One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez
- The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
- Labyrinths – Jorg Luis Borges
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
- Lord of the Flies – William Golding
- Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
- Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
- Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
- The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
- Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges
- Go Down, Moses – William Faulkner
- The Outsider – Albert Camus
- For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
- Native Son – Richard Wright
- Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Threepenny Novel – Bertolt Brecht
- The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein
- Passing – Nella Larsen
- A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
- The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
- Story of the Eye – Georges Bataille
- The Well of Loneliness – Radclyffe Hall
- Nadja – André Breton
- Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust*
- Amerika – Franz Kafka
- The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
- The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Trial – Franz Kafka
- Billy Budd, Foretopman – Herman Melville
- The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
- Cane – Jean Toomer
- Ulysses – James Joyce
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
- The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West
- Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
- Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
- Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
- The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
- The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
- Germinal – Émile Zola
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
- Bel-Ami – Guy de Maupassant
- Against the Grain – Joris-Karl Huysmans
- The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
- Middlemarch – George Eliot
- Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert
- Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
- A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
- Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lonely – Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
- The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe
- Dangerous Liaisons – Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
- The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne
- Candide – Voltaire
- Pamela – Samuel Richardson
- A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift
- Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
- Metamorphoses – Ovid
Monday, May 12, 2008
Jonathan Gottschall, writing in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe, notes the following crisis of the humanities:
Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can't find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.So is Gottschall's solution to rethink academic publication, doctoral admissions, professional support, funding sources, or undergraduate teaching? No! Instead, literary critics should stop doing interpretation and start doing science. In particular, we should do half-assed, pseudo-scientific studies that refute straw man arguments and prop up questionable and grandiose claims about "human nature" or "the human condition":
In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women's beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.
In another study, Gottschall uses the similar response of 500 professors/academics to a Jane Austen novel to argue that "the death of the author" thesis is false. Never mind that Barthes was responding to Surrealist and other avant-garde writings that specifically sought to discredit the idea of the author, or that many other institutional structures are arguably both necessary and sufficient to shared-meaning-making than the intentions of the author. Besides, Gottschall seems confused about what Barthes' little essay says: what he seems to be thinking of is Brooks and Wimsatt's "The Intentional Fallacy," which famously argues that you can't understand a literary work from what its author says (or who its author is) alone, that you have to look at and justify your arguments from the work itself -- these days, a pretty conservative thesis. (What Gottschall and his colleagues have actually done is a version of Brooks's "affective fallacy" -- the claim that the meaning of a work is circumscribed by what its readers say, think, and feel about it.)
Gottschall offers the spectacle of a cohort of literary scholars too pessimistic to write anything interesting, or to claim anything as "true," whose only cure is a dose of truth-affirming scientific optimism. He argues as though literary scholars' only work comes from their brains and backsides, offering up yet another futile armchair interpretation, with no concept of empirical research or argument. But that isn't now, nor has it ever really been the truth. The major push in literary studies over the past twenty to thirty years has been to historicize, historicize, historicize, which, surprise, actually requires doing some historical research. The scholars who came and are coming to maturity in this generation have this imperative imprinted upon their scholarly consciousnesses to a much stronger degree than they have internalized any specific claims of literary theory or philosophy, beyond the generic multicultural liberalism that they share with most academic scientists anyways.
This impulse to historicize has given literary scholars a taste for the empirical, the documentable, and (yes) the scientific, but has also made them skeptical of bogus universalizing claims about human nature. Even scientists don't talk about "human nature" with the kind of reverence shown by pseudo-science-worshipping literary scholars; they're too busy making claims about the brain, or particular chains of polypeptides, or other genuinely scientific claims, than to pontificate about What It All Means. Likewise, literary criticism concerns itself -- rightly in my view -- with the study of particular literary texts, movements, and moments, and justifies itself with research, evidence, and argument, just like every other humanist endeavor. Cloaking yourself in poorly conceived "science" is just another way of practicing one of literary studies's most obnoxious sicknesses: believing oneself to be the persecuted minority facing an all-too-dominant wall of hegemonic opinion, and using one's "outsider" status to claim for oneself the position of virtue. It is not about science or "the pursuit of knowledge" at all: it just offers another style, another mode of argument where one set of practitioners can seize a little bit of power and institutional ground.
Finally, I want to see the undergraduate seminar where Gottschall sells undergraduates on counting references to beauty in folktales. I bet that really packs them in. It will also sell like hotcakes.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Tim Ross, guesting at The American Scene, writes about David Keirsey's system of personality classification:
Keirsey paid close attention to how people spoke. He asked them about their thought processes. He noticed that people’s communication patterns always reflected the way they perceived the world around them. People who thought about Concrete things, like tools, tasks, logistics, and schedules, talked in a Concrete way. Similarly, people who preferred to think about systems, concepts, theories, and principles tended to speak in a recognizably Abstract manner. Keirsey also carefully watched people at work. Did they tend to build relationships while engaged in a task, or just focus on the job? He dubbed those that had a natural sense for establishing norms and relationships Cooperative types, and those that preferred to just get-‘er-done he called Utilitarians.Ross also adds a nice note of skepticism/pragmatism facing these ideal types:
Keirsey combined these two polarities, Concrete vs. Abstract and Cooperative vs. Utilitarian, into a two-dimensional matrix of four quadrants. Keirsey identified these as the four basic Temperaments: concrete, co-operative Guardians, concrete, utilitarian Artisans, abstract, cooperative Idealists, and abstract, utilitarian Rationalists.
And let’s not forget that categories and classifications don’t have to be universally accepted as “real” to be meaningful. And fuzzy boundaries are often better than no boundaries at all. Is there a clear-cut distinction between young Bobos and older Grups? Do Soccer Moms have a verifiable ontological reality? And just what is a neocon, these days, anyways?
- "Lexicographical Longing," by Virginia Heffernan, New York Times. "As of now, Oxford University Press has no official plans to publish a new print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary." Also, why dictionaries should tell you what using a word makes you sound like. "'Lenity,' whatever it means, is, above all, 'a word used by Richard Posner at the very end of the 20th century.' If you still feel like using it, by all means, it’s yours."
- "Stages of Thought," by Martha C. Nussbaum, The New Republic. Review-essay on philosophical readings of Shakespeare, with high praise for Tzachi Zamir's Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. "Antony and Cleopatra depicts 'mature love,' love between people who enjoy being grown-ups together, and who have no project of transcending human life, because they are taking too much pleasure in life as it is."
- "Edward Said's shadowy legacy," by Robert Irwin, Times Literary Supplement. The mistranslated quotes are embarassing, but should Said -- a professor of Comparative Literature -- really have to apologize for being interested in Flaubert's Letters From Egypt because they were "never intended for publication"? Irwin thinks so. Another transgression: he doesn't pay attention to how funny some of the rich old Orientalists were.
Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders to Mass Transit ," Clifford Krauss, NYT.“The future of mass transit in this country has never been brighter." Whaaaaaa?
- "The Programming Historian," William J. Turkel & Alan MacEachern. Actually a really useful beginner's guide for humanities programmers!
Special Phantom Link: "Looking At Libraries." For some reason, this post at if:book went up and then down, but if it ever comes back, it's really quite good. It looks at libraries, public, private, and research, the differences between them, the way that libraries protect books, but close them off to their readers, and extrapolates this to emerging digital libraries. Plus, lots of good anecdotes/examples, including some smart stuff by that most admirable poet Susan Howe.
- You should be able to put what you learn to work in your research immediately. We think that many beginning programmers lose patience because they can't see why they're learning what they're learning.
- Digital history requires working with sources on the web. This means that you're going to be spending most of your research time working in a browser, so you should be able to put your programming skills to work there.
- You will have to be somewhat polyglot. Individual programming languages can be beautiful objects in their own right, and each embodies a different way of looking at the world. In order to become a good programmer, you will eventually have to master the intricacies of one or more particular languages. When you're first getting started, however, you need something more like a pidgin.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Marc Ambinder posts a letter Mark Salter has written about Obama and his campaign. Salter claims that Obama
used the words 'losing his bearings' intentionally, a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue. This is typical of the Obama style of campaigning.
We have all become familiar with Senator Obama's new brand of politics. First, you demand civility from your opponent, then you attack him, distort his record and send out surrogates to question his integrity. It is called hypocrisy, and it is the oldest kind of politics there is.
Salter's claim would be true if Obama had said that McCain were "losing his marbles." But to lose one's bearings means to be off course, having lost direction, or to be uncertain about one's relative geographic position. Old people don't lose their bearings. Pilots do. If Salter had asked McCain first, he probably would have known that.
Birmingham City University's first-year media/communications students have a once-a-year radio show. When I write it like that, it doesn't sound so awesome, but these college kids in the British Midlands have great taste, so if you're fishing for something to listen to today, check it out.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Eric Griffiths's "Dante, Primo Levi, and the Intertextualists," in this week's TLS, has it all: Mr Aligheri (of course) but also the Lumieres, Milton, Kristeva, Bakhtin, Saussure, Barthes, and a range of lesser-known writers and theorists, all of whom have their say, get tweaked a bit, and exit the picture. As Wordwright's Gavin pointed out, it has a great tagline:
"Language makes us capable of talking about ourselves and itself, and does one only by doing the other."
On top of that, it's actually pretty lucid and enjoyable to read, which most discussions of intertextuality are not. (Griffiths also helpfully explains why that's the case.)
A nice sample:
Take “epic”, for example. In his lucid and thoughtful From Many Gods to One: Divine action in Renaissance epic, Tobias Gregory writes well about Milton not just because he unpacks the label “epic” itself, indicating its wrinkles (where “a European culture that was officially, if by no means purely, monotheistic” and the convention’s “pagan origins” tug it about), but also because he individuates the agent Milton, whose conduct in the epic environment of Paradise Lost he subtly describes as “arguing” about predestination not only with tough-minded contemporaries but “arguing as well, perhaps above all, with his own younger self”. Milton’s great poem is not, as Bakhtin was inclined to label all epics, “monological” but in dialogue over time with himself, both intersubjective and intra-subjective. This is why it often sounds like a play by Shakespeare. Sometimes the resemblances are probably happenstances. When, at the outset, he promises his readers “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”, we had better not hear “unattempted yet” as an echo of the same words from King John, Act Two, scene one (line 601), where the Bastard torrentially reflects that the only reason he is railing against bribery is that nobody has so far troubled to try greasing his palm. We discount this as “static”, interference from a shared, but insignificantly shared, atmosphere, unless we impute to Milton a desire to hint with inordinate faintness that we should think of him as a bastard, too. But when Satan leads Eve to the forbidden tree, and she explains that it is off-limits to her, “To whom the tempter guilefully replied. / Indeed?”, a family resemblance between two tempters may strike us. We can hear here an echo of that “Indeed?” with which in Act Three, Scene Three, Iago initiates Othello’s downfall. Textually, and a fortiori intertextually, there is more in common between Milton and the Bastard than between Satan and Iago – two words rather than one – but if we personify “Indeed?”, embody it with camp surprise and mock solicitude, with the paraded reasonableness that comes pat to both these insinuators, we find they are a match for each other. When intertextuality distends into a General Theory of Relatedness, it loses the capacity to produce such yields. It becomes a mere derivative of the exchange principle, “every contact leaves a trace”, which Edmond Locard introduced into forensic science. This principle guides the work of those who investigate the scenes of crimes, but it serves them well only because they select for traces which will lead them to a person.
And Europe's still trying to figure the whole thing out.
The first (and last) time I went to France was in March 2000, when the currency was still the franc but it was being steadily deflated in order to make the switch to the euro. The dollar, on the other hand, was sky-high, so the exchange rate was something like 6 francs to the dollar. The most expensive meal I ate was four courses, with wine, and cost the equivalent of 16 USD. It was glorious.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Monday, May 05, 2008
More on this later, but for now, just know this: the new Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker is about a group of geniuses who get together and think of new ideas to make the world better. Well, half of it is about that, and the other half sort of fits in and sort of doesn't. Cool without coherence, that's MG all over.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
There are so many occasions for spontaneous anger when you live in a city that it is nearly impossible to recall or rank them all or to even remember the reasons for your wrath. But one group of citizens consistently outrages me, all the more so for their moral grandstanding. At times I have to acknowledge that my dislike of them is visceral and perhaps irrational. But it is no less real for that. I'm talking, of course, about bicyclists.
Bicyclists drive me nuts. In Philadelphia, as in cities across this great country, bicyclists routinely flout the law, riding on the sidewalk when it's convenient and holding up traffic in the street whenever possible. I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a bicyclist at a stop sign or even a red light, or wait behind a car that is correctly stopped at such an intersection. Instead, the man or woman on the bicycle will weave between parked, stopped, and moving cars to gain a fractional advantage. Yet if an automobile so much as grazes a bicycle lane, all hell breaks loose.
Yes, I know that an automobile bears greater mass, velocity, and force than a bicycle and that the consequences of a motorist's mistake almost always outweigh those of a bicyclist's. But come on. Half of these people on bikes are just jerks. I'm especially bothered as a pedestrian, since half the time my sidewalk winds of becoming an impromptu bicycle lane. If my wife, baby, and I are walking two abreast, or worse, walking with a stroller, we wind up getting clipped or shoved aside by some jerk in a bike helmet who won't or can't ride on the street.
And please, spare me the spasms of virtue. I know it feels good to move around the city under your own power, and to tend and care for a shiny object. And you have your own catalogs with gear and shirts and knee pads or whatever. But there isn't anything virtuous about what you're doing. You want virtue? Ride the subway, or the number 13 trolley. D.on't get all holier-than-thou with people who drive or ride in cars just because they've chosen the most technologically advanced form of transportation available to the average citizen. Yes, cars have problems. Yes, parking stinks. Yes, we need to think more about global warming. But you are exactly 2/10 of a nose hair away from the occasional driver in terms of your carbon footprint, so cool your jets, bike boy.
In case you're wondering why I'm suddenly dumping on people who ride bikes around the city, the occasion or pretext is this article in the New York Times. Here are some of the outrages:
Feel free, Mr. Frederick, to be angry at the jerk with a green Ford parked in the bike lane. But, if you swerve at full speed into a lane of traffic, don't be surprised when the automobiles next to you don't immediately stop to let you through. Did you stop and wait and look for a safe way around when you saw, probably from some distance, that your lane was blocked? No, you didn't. That's what the rest of us have to do when somebody double-parks. Which, by the way, happens a lot.
James Frederick was in Manhattan cycling west in the Prince Street bike lane on a recent morning when a green Ford parked in the lane forced him to swerve into the narrow roadway where cars and vans were rushing past.
“It’s kind of scary because the cars next to you just keep going,” said Mr. Frederick, 49, a messenger who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. “The city just put this lane in a few months ago, but it’s not respected by drivers.”
In response, some cyclists have handed out fake but realistic-looking summonses to drivers in bike lanes, leading at times to arguments. Others said they have slapped stickers on cars that look like those pasted on vehicles that fail to make way for the Sanitation Department street sweepers.Well, we all love vandalism, and impersonating officers. Only a bicyclist would be so impressed with his or her moral superiority that they wouldn't see a problem with this, or would be so naïve as to be astonished that these practices lead "at times to arguments." I'm surprised they haven't resorted to slashing tires, or kicking cars, which has happened to me on three different occasions when I was trying to park in a metered space.
Ten years later, Mayor Edward I. Koch became frustrated when bike lanes that he had built on main thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue and Broadway, which were separated from motor vehicles by asphalt islands, were criticized by drivers and pedestrians and, even worse, ignored by many cyclists. As a result, he ordered that the islands be removed.There may be responsible safe cautious cyclists out there who take as much care with themselves and their machines on the roadways as I do when I'm a pedestrian, a motorist, or a passenger on public transit. But, when push comes to shove, cyclists are just as ready to flout the law and put themselves in danger as anyone else in this crazy-ass city.
Get over yourselves, cyclists. As Stephen Colbert would say, you're on notice.
P.S.: Welcome, many referred readers. Had I known that so many people would read this post, I would have argued it differently, plugging holes and making needed concessions, but that ship has sailed. I do want to add, though, since there's been confusion on this point, that I don't own or regularly drive a car. My frustration with bikes is mostly borne out in my pedestrian experience, but in the war between drivers and cyclists, have about the same mixture of sympathy and frustration with both. (Maybe I'm just jealous.) So, instead of referring to me as "idiot motorist" or "dumbass driver," if you would call me "that douchebag who walks and rides SEPTA everywhere" I would be much obliged.
Thanks for coming, and if you're at all interested in anything else I write about, please stick around. Otherwise, in one week, I will write about why I hate puppies.
Friday, May 02, 2008
Yesterday, I gave this advice to a student of mine who is pursuing a B.A. in English. I'm sure I omitted many, many things.
- Get an internship or summer job at some stalwart industry in the cultural field. In literature, this boils down to publishing or radio-- both fine careers for the Ivy Leaguer with a BA, but easier to break into when you already have some experience.
- Learn more about media and software. I can't tell you how many jobs for writers/lit majors also include either HTML/web knowledge or (even more often) public relations/advertising experience.
- A PhD in literature should be a last rather than a first resort. ;)
Thursday, May 01, 2008
What makes the whole thing so cool is that it’s so global and so wired. In fact, its the wiredness that makes it possible; it never could have happened 10 years ago. The movies were submitted digitally; the broadcast will incorporate hosts and musicians from multiple sites; even a cellphone stream is available for viewing.
Sure, people of all nations have been joined by Internet video before, thanks to a little thing called YouTube. But YouTube joins people without them realizing it; there’s not much sense of community (unless you count the juvenile, raunchy comments), and zero sense of mission or purpose. It’s very unlikely that, after watching some YouTube video of someone putting Mentos into a Coke bottle, you’ll stand up and announce, “I’m a changed person.”