Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Political Arrivistes

Daniel Larison:

Despite his fairly humble origins, Obama speaks the language of the elite and the highly educated (or at least the thoroughly schooled), which he uses as a marker of the status that he has acquired; despite their more privileged backgrounds, McCain and Clinton are more comfortable speaking in a lower register, or at least have accustomed themselves to speaking this way, because they have nothing to prove and no need to reinforce their right to belong to the elite. It may be relevant that some of the Democratic candidates over the years who have been derided as elitist, “out of touch” or lacking in some patriotic enthusiasm are the children or grandchildren of immigrants–Kerry, Dukakis and now Obama–so that the very signs of assimilation to the norms of the political class are taken as evidence of a lack of connection to other Americans, when, of course, the retention of visibly ethnic or foreign habits would be considered equally disqualifying in an election.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Le chagrin et la pitiƩ

Der Spiegel reports on an exhibition of photographs of Vichy-era Paris that have caused an uproar. The 270 full-color photographs were taken by Andre Zucca, a photographer who worked for the Nazi magazine Signal, although the photographs were apparently not intended for publication. They show an occupied Paris that seems mostly unaffected by war and regime change: families at market, fishing in the Seine -- ordinary street scenes, neither glittering propaganda or subversive underbelly.

The Paris Historical Library, who'd displayed the photos, received criticism that the photos essentially whitewashed the occupation, especially the persecution of Jews in the Vichy regime (only two photos show Parisians wearing the yellow star). The exhibit didn't identify Zucca's employer, and didn't try to appeal to this larger context. After a push to close the exhibit, the exhibit was modified to include new captions and a statement in the catalogue, noting that Zucca "chose not to show anything, or very little, of the reality of the occupation and of its dramatic aspects."

The difference between the French and American myths of World War II is vast. No American exhibit of life during World War II would pause to add captions noting that Japanese-Americans were being rounded up and sent to internment camps. Our myth is the myth of national heroism and national innocence (or at least ignorance). The French myth is different -- the myth of the heroic resistance. But the Zucca photos aren't staged or manipulated. They're not really propaganda. Instead, they really do show a different "reality of the occupation." Its crime is that it is inconsistent with the national myth of heroic resistance.

My favorite film ever made about World War II is Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. If you only know it by the jokes at its expense in Annie Hall, you've done yourselves a disservice. It makes the point again and again -- the numbers of the resistance were smaller and the numbers of the collaborators larger than anyone would have you believe, and that the huge numbers of people who were simply indifferent dwarfed them both.

What I hope is that the Zucca photographs' captions teach a different lesson than either Zucca or his employers wished to teach or the critics would like to say, that they're not dismissed, but noted accordingly. In the middle of atrocities, we blinded ourselves to them, and went on with our lives.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky:

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, "Pluto is the ninth planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system."

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

I will add: the transformation of our cognitive attention isn't about television vs. Wikipedia. If you look at the most successful television shows of the past five or ten years, as opposed to the ten or twenty or thirty years before that, we've shifted from a kind of cool or loose or detatched participation -- "water cooler shows" like Seinfeld or Friends or The Real World or whatever -- to shows with very intense participation, online and off, ranging from Lost to American Idol to The Sopranos. In other words, the most successful television shows are sparking and harnessing -- or at least benefitting from -- the surplus value created by their communities.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Abstraction Levels

The most emailed story at the New York Times is about researchers at Ohio State who claim that learning to manipulate abstract mathematical equations is better for students than story problems. Put this way, I actually agree with this. But here's the problem with the article and with the research.

1. Story problems aren't actually "concrete," and they're certainly not "real-world" examples. They're verbal, which is a quite different thing. The famous train problems, like most story problems, test your ability to translate a verbal description into a mathematical model (in this case, two linear equations). The recent push to add concrete explorations to mathematics has more to do with using physical experiments, measurements, in more of a laboratory style approach.

2. I love ripping on educational research as much as anyone, but to write that random, controlled experiments are "something relatively rare in education research" *or as Matthew Yglesias writes, "it's a bit bizarre how little effort we put into developing serious research-based pedagogical methods") just isn't true. I know hundreds of studies in mathematics education, some of it experimental, lots based on testing and controls. The trouble is that the body of research has yielded very few consistent results, in part because the research design is often designed to prove a point or justify a particular curricular change rather than to actually figure out what works. And, "what works" is pretty murky itself.

3. This experiment is flawed, and I'll tell you why.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

This is wrong. In fact, the second "real world" example teaches a fundamentally different kind of mathematical problem. It's modular arithmetic. The relationship is one of addition, but the sums "reset" at 3, so 1+1=2, but 2+2=4, i.e. 3+1, so 4=1, and likewise 2+3=5, or its modular equivalent, 2. The water example teaches a completely different mathematical relationship than the purely symbolic systems so, while the shapes and the game are essentially the same. So what obscures the underlying math is the explicit math. The second group is doing a kind of arithmetic, while the first group isn't. The fact that you can model the first set of relationships using this modular arithmetic is interesting, but since the game doesn't rely on that skill, of course it doesn't transfer. It could be argued that the experiment proves exactly the opposite of what's claimed. The group working with relationships between specific objects does better than the group working with arithmetic-based models.

Oh, yeah, and the experiment used college students, but they think the results apply equally well to elementary students. Wha? Sociologists don't work that way. Pharmaceutical researchers don't either. Neither do serious educational researchers.

Here's how I'd test this theory. First, work with the target population -- let's say, eighth graders who know a little bit of algebra. Train one group in pure systems of equations and the other only in train modeling problems (or some other specific kind of story problem). Then give them both the same test, including abstract systems, train story problems, and a range of other modeling problems that use the same mathematical principles. Repeat with a bunch of different groups, using different teachers, maybe different income tiers, slightly different background knowledge. And then see what you see.

I think it's plausible that training students to do one or a handful of specific examples of algebraic modeling doesn't really teach them how to do modeling in general very well. Maybe a great deal of comfort and familiarity with systems of equations could actually improve their ability to do so. But to my admittedly skeptical mind, this research just stinks.

Poetry, Whatsa Matter?

Hey! It's Saturday, so here are some poetry links.

Ron Silliman on poetry contests:

Consider the best known of these awards, the Yale Younger Poets, and the piece I linked to last Monday from the Houston Chronicle about Fady Joudah winning the current round. The article states, reasonably enough, that "previous winners include such iconic figures as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, John Hollander and W.S. Merwin" without quite noticing that not one of these figures is under the age of 78 and that maybe more recent winners have not gone on to such iconic status. But it’s worth remembering that anyone who is 78 began at a time when the number of publishing poets in the United States was in the low hundreds, not the tens of thousands. Further, if these four poets didn’t come out of the same community, exactly, the world they arose from was small enough: as undergrads they attended Harvard, Radcliffe, Columbia and Princeton, in that order, and all were picked by W.H. Auden (who asked Ashbery to submit a manuscript, rather than picking one that had been sent in according to the rules).

Al Filreis on Flarf:
Easy enough to define, harder for some to appreciate, harder still perhaps for some of the flarfists to stay with it (in any particular sense) after the months or years of excitement about the mode has worn off. Then again, a number have managed to keep the excitement up.

Surely a flarfist himself or herself wrote the Wikipedia entry on "flarf poetry"; it's quite a good little essay on all this. "Its first practitioners practiced an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of 'the inappropriate' in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet with odd search terms then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts." Joyelle McSweeney expressed my own relief and delight: "This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems."

My attitude towards Flarf would roughly approximate "hard to appreciate," at least insofar as it sounds more fun than it actually turns out to be.

Allen Ginsberg did a better job of being genuinely playful, funny, and revolting:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ecological Disaster? No, Thanks, I'll Take Man-Made

Environmental Graffiti lists five American cities that may become "lost cities" in the indeterminate-but-not-too-distant future. In four out of five cases, the culprit is nature, especially not enough water (Atlanta, Las Vegas) or too much (Miami, New Orleans). But one city is bold enough to be "already in the process of becoming ruins" -- of course, it is the city of my birth, Detroit. (Via Kensingdelphia.)

Of course, Detroit's immanent destruction isn't celebrated in a Donovan song:

History's Anatomy

Timothy Burke at Cliopatria has sketched a near-comprehensive list of modes of historical explanation -- or as he calls it, different ways of saying "so what?" in history. Highlights:

4. The past is another country: our own times are made more particular by looking at just how different the past really was. Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast; Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre; Richard White, The Middle Ground.

5. The past helps us make N as big as possible: it is a source of data for making generalizations, formulating models, constructing claims about human universals. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel; David Christian, Maps of Time...

16. The past is memorial: we study (recite it, really) it to honor what people did or sacrificed on our behalf. Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation.
This is actually slightly different from explaining how historical argument works, and why we're persuaded by it -- although a few touch on that -- but does speak well to the problem of why we care about history in the first place.

I would add a few, especially if we're considering history writ large and not only what current academic historians practice. For example, we read and write history (especially biography) to find models of ethical behavior. (Hi, Robin.) Examples: Plutarch's Parallel Lives, many others.

On a slightly different tack, we read history to psychologize or better understand someone who is interesting for other reasons. Again, a big chunk of biography, especially of artists, celebrities, or political figures.

And we turn to history to win other arguments, whether factual or interpretive. If I think word X in poem Y by author Z means ___, then I might look at either Z's biography or some contemporary history to justify that claim.

Lastly, we use history to understand language, what words mean and have meant, where they come from and how they circulate.

I'm sure there are many more, but these are the first that come to mind.

The Raw and the Cooked

Ken Silverstein's "The Revolution Will Not Be Pasteurized" is a long, readable, and balanced story about raw milk. It also includes several startlingly vivid moments, such as this:

Schmidt is a man of Teutonic certainty, but as he walked into the field soon after he’d sold the land, he was filled with doubt. The morning sun had turned the sky red, and mist hung around the legs of the cattle. While he twitched a stick at his bull, Xamos, to turn him away from the cows, Schmidt wondered whether it was even possible to run a farm in the manner he wanted. If he started selling his milk at industrial prices it would erode his meticulous style of farming. He would lose the direct connection to his customers. He’d have to push his cows to produce more milk. He’d be compelled to adopt the newest feed-management strategies and modernize his equipment. Schmidt didn’t see Xamos coming, just felt the explosion as the bull struck him. Even as he hit the ground, the animal was on him, bellowing. It stabbed with one horn and then the other, tearing up the earth and ripping off Schmidt’s clothes. One horn sank into Schmidt’s belly, another ripped into his chest and shoulder, grazing a lung. Only when his wife charged into the field, flanked by the couple’s snarling dogs, did Xamos retreat. Another man might have taken this attack as a sure sign, a demonstration of the folly of seeking harmony with nature. As Schmidt lay there bleeding into the earth, however, he felt only humility. “Nature is dangerous, yes,” he would tell me later. “But I can’t control it, and I can’t escape from it. I can only learn the best way to live with it.”

Or this:
Around the time that Chicago passed the first pasteurization law in the United States, in 1908, many of the dairies supplying cities had themselves become urban. They were crowded, grassless, and filthy. Unscrupulous proprietors added chalk and plaster of paris to extend the milk. Consumptive workers coughed into their pails, spreading tuberculosis; children contracted diseases like scarlet fever from milk. Pasteurization was an easy solution. But pasteurization also gave farmers license to be unsanitary. They knew that if fecal bacteria got in the milk, the heating process would eventually take care of it. Customers didn’t notice, or pay less, when they drank the corpses of a few thousand pathogens. As a result, farmers who emphasized animal health and cleanliness were at a disadvantage to those who simply pushed for greater production.

After a century of pasteurization, modern dairies, to put it bluntly, are covered in shit. Most have a viscous lagoon full of it. Cows lie in it. Wastewater is recycled to flush out their stalls. Farmers do dip cows’ teats in iodine, but standards mandate only that the number of germs swimming around their bulk tanks be below 100,000 per milliliter.

Invention of the Quotidian

Natalie Zemon Davis's review-essay on Michel de Certeau is unsurprisingly peripatetic, given de Certeau's interest in "extravagant wanderers." But it leans very heavily on the theological and spiritual aspects of de Certeau's writings, saying very little about his social or broader philosophical concerns. Here's one paragraph that gives you a glimpse:

Certeau examined commonplace activities over which control could in principle be maintained by the institutional organization of space and language and suggested how in fact control was ignored or bypassed. People walk their own way through the grid of city streets, zigzagging, slowing down, preferring streets with certain names, making turns and detours, their own "walking rhetoric." People read in ways that escape the social hierarchy and "imposed system" of written texts: they read in all kinds of places from libraries to toilets. They read with their own rhythms and interruptions, thinking or daydreaming; they read making gestures and sounds, stretching, "a wild orchestration of the body," and end up with their own ideas about the book. "These procedures and ruses...compose the network of an antidiscipline."

Davis also devotes a surprising amount of space to Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. It's almost as though she were working on a really cracking article about de Certeau, Ratzinger, and Foucault (those "exact contemporaries") -- their intellectual development, responses to the 1960s, theological dimensions, and cultural reception -- and it morphed into a review of de Certeau.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Sweet God

There are times when I would rather wrestle a rabid alligator to the ground than get my seven-month old son to sleep. Yet the first, I do only for bar bets and toughman competitions, while the second, I do five nights a week.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Artists (and Grad Students and T-Shirt Designers)

I am available to write copy.

Fabricators and Abortafacients

Many of you have heard of Aliza Shvarts. The Yale senior presented an art project of blood samples and videos of what were claimed to be repeated abortions. It turns out that the whole thing may be a hoax, a performance-art fiction, or something not quite as grotesque.

But I'm not interested in what she did or didn't do, but how she has presented herself. When the story first broke, I told my friend Gavin that it bothered me -- not because it was outrageous, but because the gestures were so calculated, political and safe. Organic herbal abortion pills? Facilitating a discussion? The goal of an artist is not that of a dean of students. Whom is this supposed to shock? And why start contemplating ethical dimensions here?

Shvarts's self-justification in the Yale Daily News is likewise a pastiche of self-conscious, closed, lit-theory talk, of the sort that I am professionally both obligated and inclined to engage with, but here feels both safe and false. Here is a sample:

This piece — in its textual and sculptural forms — is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body. The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as a independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse.

It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership. An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it. The performance exists only as I chose to represent it. For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation — the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) — is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.

Why go all Barbara Johnson on us? Ms. Shvarts must have read authors who really knew how to shake things up: Sade, Nietzsche, Marinetti, Bataille. This is what I would have written:
When everything in art is dead, the only solution is to risk everything with the body.

I am not interested in your understanding, forgiveness, or help. And I am not interested in consoling you. I want housewives to vomit in their children's mouths. I want denouncers to be unable to speak my name. I want to shit on your fathers' sheets.

I am a monster. My body is a volcano. I will embrace its inhumanity.

Like it or not, that is someone to be taken seriously.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I Guess These Are The Best

The top ten most viewed pages on Short Schrift, ever:

  1. "Love and Theft" (Oct 2007)
  2. "Ode to Man" (May 2007)
  3. "A Randomly Beautiful Sentence" (Nov 2006)
  4. "The Narrowing of Politics" (Apr 2008)
  5. "The iPod Moment; A Snarkmarket Dialogue" (Dec 2007)
  6. "Mix CD #1: The Book I Read" (May 2006)
  7. "The Mysterious Production of Eggs" (May 2005)
  8. "Why's He Spell Schrift That Way?" (Aug 2004)
  9. "Remarkable Things With A Pen" (Dec 2007)
  10. "Put Some On The Handle, Redux" (Apr 2006)
The lessons? First, get linked to by much bigger blogs. (In my case, Snarkmarket, Kottke, and Silliman have probably been the most important.) Second, write on unusual things that people are likely to Google, like Sophocles or shaving. The phrase "beautiful sentence" is astonishingly popular. Third, write more about music.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Don't Everybody Start Thinking About Print At Once

This is a lot for a Friday:

  • Stephen Fry, "The Machine that Made Us," a documentary about Gutenberg, movable type and the printing press is available on YouTube (via Kottke)
  • Kevin Kelly thinks about print and computing, via Gutenberg and Joseph Weisenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason
  • Dan Visel at if:book writes about Robert Bringhurst's The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology which revisits the whole writing, print, orality triad (add electronic text and you've got a foursome)

One of the things in which I'm interested here are the different historical strategies we take to try to understand these and other modalities of language. Can we use X to better understand Y, or Y to better understand X (for example, using print to understand the digital or the digital to understand print)? Do we "return to the source" and try in whatever limited a way to immerse ourselves in a predecessor's world (for example, Gutenberg's or Weisenbaum's)? Or do we stand in our own space, gaining either a critical distance on some other structure of meaning or an estranged point-of-view on our own? Or is it some combination of all of these?

Putting it another way -- to what extent must we misunderstand what we're not? And to what extent must we misunderstand what we are? Finally, is there a way to distinguish a serious or useful misunderstanding from one that simply gets it wrong?

Nebular Blogging

Space Collective has one of the most interesting interfaces and layouts I've yet seen on a blog, group or otherwise. As Bob Stein puts it at if:book, it avoids the tyranny of chronology.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Depends on What You're Looking For

On his blog, Paul Krugman has a series of data plots that he's going to use for tomorrow's column. It looks like he's going to argue 1) the Clinton years were good for midwestern incomes; 2) the religion-income correlation is largely driven by poor southern states rather than the rust belt ; 3) the real losses of the Democratic party have largely been among wealthier white Southerners than in the non-south.

God knows that I would hate to go toe-to-toe with Krugman in understanding data. He's a Princeton economist. I'm a Penn grad in Comp Lit. But here's my beef anyways.

First, I believe that average incomes went up during the Clinton administration. But I am unsure whether that rise lifted all boats to the same degree. Small manufacturing towns did not and have not done nearly as well as suburban office parks.

Second, it is clear that the second graph is driven at the upper end by poor southern states. But look smack-dab in the middle, at the near-average income, average-religious attendant states. It's Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Minnesota. In short, it's the purple states, including a bunch in the midwest. And really, each of these states has pockets of deep blue and pockets of deep red, and it's the deep red pockets Obama was talking about.

Finally, the Democrats have clearly lost the solid South. But it's clear to me that middle-class and upper-middle class Southerners fled the Democratic party in the fifties and sixties because of the split in the party over segregation, which is largely what looking only at 1952 to 2004 charts. A chart showing changes in the party at different class levels in 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1984, 1992, 2000, and the present would be much more useful, to show how class+religion pressures have affected the party in the North and South over time.

Really, none of these statistical charts treat the phenomenon of "Reagan Democrats" -- blue-collar Dems and independents in cities and towns in the northeast and midwest who voted for Reagan, Clinton, then Bush -- at all.

Two Down

Two of my favorite bloggers, and the ones whose sensibilities hew closest to my own, are packing it in: Scott Horton and Ben Vershbow. This world feels a little smaller.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Professor's Sense of the Possible

Daniel Larison has a fine post that explicitly names the semi-buried, bad-conscience doubt of my earlier entry on Obama:

Besides highlighting another episode where Obama’s own supporters seem intent on destroying him through their own misguided enthusiasm and good intentions, justifying the ways of small town America to the wine and cheese set exemplifies a couple of other problems with Obama’s campaign. One is that it puts him into his academic, meta-candidate role, where he talks about his campaign as a kind of prism for understanding American society as if he were a pundit commenting on his own candidacy, and the other is that it conveys the impression that his campaign (and, if he won, his administration) would be a long, drawn-out graduate seminar in which the Professor holds forth on various subjects on a regular basis as a way of spurring on “dialogue.” That definitely appeals to a certain kind of person, which is why Obama wins college grads and post-grad degree holders by gigantic margins. For everyone else, it inspires the kind of dread and boredom that I sense in my students when I use the word uxorilocality.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bring a Towel

I was introduced into blogosphere library-love by Rachel Leow's Bookporn section at A Historian's Craft. Back in September, I blogged about the "Librophiliac Love Letter" at Curious Expeditions. Now there's another entry in the lists, The Nonist's "Red-Hot and Filthy Library Smut." It seems to double several of the photographs at Curious Expeditions, although the two may just share the same source (Candida Hofer's Libraries, according to the Nonist).

Andrew Sullivan just linked to the Nonist, with this testimonial that splits the difference between "eww" and "aww":

When I think back of my fondest reading memories, several are in the Bodleian at Oxford and the Widener at Harvard. The hush of the reading rooms, the turn-on of a great book, the spasm of what you thought was an original thought, which lasts about as long as a male orgasm: it's better than porn.

Who Needs All These Books Lying Around, Anyways?


For more than two decades, 250 historians and specialists labored to produce the first six volumes of the General History of Latin America, an exhaustive work financed by UNESCO, the United Nations organization created to preserve global culture and heritage.

Then, over the course of two years, UNESCO paid to destroy many of those books and nearly 100,000 others by turning them to pulp, according to an external audit...

According to the report, the destruction occurred in 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO's overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. Rather than pay to move 94,500 books, auditors reported, UNESCO officials ordered them destroyed. The books were turned to pulp for recycling, the audit says.

Fatherhood in Film, Pt. 2

As I've continued to think about my earlier post on paternity in film, I've noticed something else: Most of the movies that really deal with fatherhood are actually father-son stories, rather than father-daughter stories.

In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of good father-daughter movies other than Fiddler on the Roof and a handful of adaptations of King Lear. I may be skewing things, since I'm a father of sons rather than daughters (and I've been a son myself). On my original list, the best treatment of the father-daughter relationship is David Chase's take on Tony and Meadow Soprano.

But why fathers and sons? Is it the old Oedipal drama? Is there something fuller about the chain of paternity (Vito to Michael, Royal to Chas, etc.)? Is father-daughter conflict inevitably spiked with the hint of abuse, which removes the chance for nuance? (Magnolia may or may not be an exception.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Narrowing of Politics

Obama in 2004, on Charlie Rose:

(via TPM)

The problem with "Bittergate," as someone (Marc Ambinder?) has dubbed it, is that there are two ways to read this last sentence:

And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

One way of reading it is that Obama thinks joblessness drives small-town Americans to guns, religion, and xenophobia. The other -- and this is clearly what Obama advances in the 2004 interview, and I think was trying to advance at the SF fundraiser, is more complicated, and much more Obama's style. That is, for better or for worse, it is not about people and their beliefs or their circumstances, but about politics itself.

Here is the context:
Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter)...

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

In other words, cynicism about politics and government, and their apparent inability to affect the biggest issues in people's lives, leads not just to disaffection, but to a narrowing of the political issues that gain traction with voters. This compounds the result of an already cynical political system (and press). Politics becomes a game with only a handful of moves: guns, trade, immigration, taxes, choice, religion, war. These aren't small issues -- some of them are the very biggest -- but they are a very small portion of the business of government. They dominate, polarize, and electrify our discourse to a disproportionate degree. And very often, they preclude the solution of problems.

The irony is that every time Obama tries to point out the narrowness of our political discussion, he butts head with that narrowness itself. For all of the praise Obama received for his speech on race, there were strong voices that disliked the political mention of race at all, and even more who inevitably viewed the speech through the skinny lenses Obama was trying to break.

The same is proving true for this speech. In trying to advance an explanation for why Democrats lose on cultural issues and are perceived as elite and out-of-touch, Obama has been attacked for his disrespect of people's culture and for being elite and out-of-touch.

What's most attracted me to Obama, from the very beginning of his campaign, is his sense of what kind of politics can be possible in America. It may very well be a professor's sense of the possible, rather than the pundit's. If he can succeed, it stands a fighting chance of changing the way we talk and the way we think about all of this. If not, then forget it. We won't see anything like this again for a long, long time.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Travis, Hunter, and Jane

Fatherhood in Film

Rewatching There Will Be Blood recently reminded me of some of my other favorite films about fatherhood:

  • Paris, Texas
  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Bicycle Thieves
  • Finding Nemo
  • To Live
  • Knocked Up
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Children of Men
  • The Spider Stratagem
  • The Godfather
  • The Incredibles
  • The Sopranos

This is a mixed-up list, but I think it helps to show the range and complexity with which fatherhood is dealt with on screen. Fatherhood is something both honorable and terrible; Darth Vader stands right next to Atticus Finch. Motherhood is rarely afforded the same kind of full view, even though the discourse about it is far more copious.

What other great (note: not necessarily positive) treatments of fatherhood are there, especially unexpected ones?

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's true what they say

Milk and cookies are delicious!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Elusive Apple Reader

The Reader, Wowio's blog on reading technology, takes another stab at it:

In my earlier specifications for an ideal ebook reader, I thought that a 12″display would be ideal. Now, after using a 12″Lenovo X61T Tablet PC, a 6″Sony Reader and a 3.5" iPhone, I’ve changed my mind. The high pixel density and high contrast of the iPhone’s display allows for good readability at reduced text sizes, and the weight and battery life penalties suffered by the Tablet PC make a smaller screen even more attractive. At four pounds, the the X61T gets to be uncomfortable while reading in bed, for example. A high-pixel-density 5.25″display — as conjectured by the rumor sites — would provide very usable screen real estate without unduly compromising portability or power consumption.

Recourse in Patriarchy

Joy Connolly reviews Sarah Pomeroy's The Murder Of Regilla: A case of domestic violence in antiquity in the TLS:

As in modern times until very recently, wife-beating was not much talked of by classical writers beyond the odd aside, as when Augustine in his Confessions recollects the bruises he saw as a child marking the faces of his mother’s friends, or when Herodotus and Suetonius report that the Corinthian tyrant Periander and the Emperor Nero beat their pregnant wives to death. Plutarch hints at the frequency of abuse in his Roman Questions, a quirky study of Roman religion and customs, when he wonders why Romans avoid marrying close relatives. He suggests three reasons: Roman men may seek to expand their influence by marrying into different families; they may fear that domestic over-familiarity breeds contempt; or they might prefer an exogamic system where sisters and daughters, should they suffer abuse, could seek help from male kin unrelated (thus under no obligation) to the abuser. The Greek preference for endogamy, Plutarch implies, caught women in a familial trap from which there was no easy escape.


The Washington Post has a story titled "Losing a Best Friend Along With the House" (the subtitle being "In Foreclosures, Pets Pay a Price"). Stories about pets and shelters dominate local news, both in large dailies, alt-weeklies, and television. This is the first time I've seen it obviously grafted onto a national news story. The last line, a quote from "a real estate columnist for About.com" says, "You feel for the owners of these places, but the animals are suffering, too."

Call me heartless, but do you know what? I just don't care.*

*At least, not enough to mitigate my disgust at schmaltzy manipulation posing as news.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Primers in Digital Humanities

Jeremy Boggs at ClioWeb has begun a multi-part series on designing projects in digital humanities. It looks like Boggs is planning to be much more nuts-and-bolts, but it reminded me of a much earlier post at the now-defunct Semantic Humanities on what digital humanities tools could take from Web 2.0:

Give users tools to visualise and network their own data. And make it easy.

A good example is Last.FM. You run a program they give you that uploads the data about the songs you listen to, as you are listening to them. You can then see stats about your listening habits, and are linked with people with similar listening habits. The key thing is that you don’t have to do extra work...

Compare this to a Digital Humanities project: The Reading Experience Database, which aims to accumulate records of reading experiences. They ask that if you come across any reading experiences in your research, you note them down, and submit them to the database with their online form (there are two - a 4 page form and a shorter one page form if you can’t be bothered with 4 pages of forms).
I’m not out to disparage the RED here - in many ways it is a fine endeavour. But I do want to criticise the conceptual model of how it accumulates data:
It requires that you, as a researcher, do your normal work, and then go and fill in (ideally) 4 pages of web forms for every reading experience that you have found (and possibly already documented elsewhere). Do you like filling out forms? I don’t. Worst of all, you don’t get any kind of access to the data - yours, or anyone elses (you just have to trust they will eventually get around to coding a search page).
This doesn’t help you to do your work now.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Who's Slandering Who?

From a Politico story on Pennsylvania's political makeup:

Twenty-two years ago, as a Democratic strategist working on a gubernatorial race, Carville described the state as Paoli (a suburb of Philadelphia) and Penn Hills (a suburb of Pittsburgh) with Alabama in between.

A generation of Pennsylvania political analysts has been trying to reverse the perception ever since. Bloggers have joined the quiet revolt. So, too, have newspaper columnists.

“People think it meant that basically there are two areas of the state where people can read and write and treat people with a certain amount of respect and the rest of the state is redneck trailer trash,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public affairs consultant with ties to the Democratic Party. “It ended up being a slander on people who are living in those places. I would like to see the line retired.”

Funny -- I have a feeling that the southerner Carville probably didn't mean to equate "Alabama" with illiterate "redneck trailer trash." How wonderful it is that Pennsylvanians seem to think that.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Babies and Writing and Buying Things Will Not Save You

Steve Almond, author of the humor + parenting blog "Baby Daddy" on Babble, is calling it quits.

As a writer who puts myself out there in public a good bit, I’m used to hearing back from folks who think I’m an idiot. But both Babymamma and I were disturbed to discover that there were folks using the blog as a way of expressing their animus for me, or their perception of me. It made Babymamma, in particular, uncomfortable. And as much as I urged her not to let these trolls bug her, I could see why she was upset. When you make your private life public, when you seek attention in that broad a manner, you’re inviting not just the cool and the loving, but the angry and aggrieved.

It’s also true that Babble itself has changed. In its best incarnation, the site is a wonderful way of building community. But as with any new business, the bottom line is the bottom line. For all the wise and thoughtful writing the site offers, it also depends on peddling a certain kind of lifestyle, one that sometimes confuses emotional necessities with material luxury.

I enjoy Babble, but it frequently is much less "the magazine and community for a new generation of parents" (as its tagline suggests) than it is a showcase for people with vastly more discretionary income to spend on their child than you. Or at least, more than me.

Almond's place in the Babble-daddy-blog-a-verse now goes to Trey Ellis's "Father of the Year." This also makes it a showcase for people vastly more qualified and talented than me.

Myths of Domestic Utopia

Things magazine has a short riff on the confrontational ecomodernism that dominates architectural discussion on the magazine and the web:

Periodically, the design media indulges in rants against the moribund aesthetic of the status quo, yet the 'average style' that makes up the majority of houses built around the world remains almost entirely invisible in media terms. As a result, the 'average home' has taken on an abstract quality, a universal design bogeyman of indeterminate form - although it is always ugly, invariably oversized, and inevitably representing a lapse in taste on behalf of planners, the public (and, whisper it, other architects)....

It's frustrating how easily - and willingly - discourse about modern architecture slips into us-and-them dualisms. But without a fundamental antagonism, modern architecture loses its radical thrust and threatens to become just plain old architecture, and that would never do. The argument at the core of the Australian debate - that building should accommodate landscape, rather than the other way around - seems to be about modernism as a means of assuaging environmental, even post-colonial, guilt about interaction with the land.