These are reviews that I wrote 2010-2016. They appeared on a discontinued Books blog from the Library (in reverse chronological order), and the first few from the Library’s blog on its current website. Many of the links do not work, or lead to the Internet Archive (webarchive). — March 8, 2019
October 18th, 2016
Author: John Palfrey
Title: Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of the Internet
Publication: New York: Basic Books, 2015. 280 p.
Sacred Heart University Library: Z674.75 .I58 P38 2015
This is not a book for librarians, but for everyone else. Palfrey makes a strong, counter-intuitive case that libraries matter more than ever, not despite the volume and complexity of information, technologies, and sources available today, but precisely because of them. Digital culture has made libraries more important, not less. The author’s claim directly contradicts the culturally ascendant narrative that such a “legacy” institution is merely a ripe occasion for “innovative disruption.” The affluent can get what they want from Amazon, anyway, so who cares? As Head of School of Phillips Academy, Andover, and formerly a professor of law at Harvard, Palfrey intentionally reaches beyond the affluent to ask how society can work for everyone, not just those at the top.
The rise of digital
culture has been accompanied by the rise of cultural and economic divisions and
tensions. Previously dismissed, such divisions have led (surely at least
in part) to recent political and social polarities. The divisions and tensions
of American (and world-wide) society have deep roots in growing, unequal access
to information and cultural discourse (and many of things, to be sure).
Providing this access is the fundamental mission of libraries, and Palfrey
embraces it heartily. Libraries provide safe spaces, access to
information, face-to-face and digital networks, and a sense of connectedness
and connectivity. This social life of information and cultural discourse
is of little interest to marketplace capitalism unless it can be monetized
(such as Amazon), and such conversion changes the conversation: who can speak,
what can be said, and who can afford to hear it.
Libraries have not had an easy time of it, nevertheless. Rapid changes in information technology have not been easy for them to anticipate and implement, in part because they are very expensive, and in part because libraries have to live in a both-and world: both digital and analogue, both print and networked. A decade or so ago it was fashionable to claim that universities, libraries, and bookstores would simply disappear. Even groups of librarians like the Taiga Forum of 2006 produced statements that “within five years . . . all information discovery will begin at Google.” All? —in 2016 even Google does not claim so much. (Next time you require serious medical consultation, instruct your physician or nurse to restrict information searches to Google . . . ) Living in the both-and world, libraries recognize that people seek and use information in many different ways, and that facile generalizations about “digital natives” are as often false as true.
Many who work outside libraries have a nostalgic view of them, and remember them as adventurous places of discovery: building a sense of self-direction, mastery, and purpose whether as a child or a student. Libraries still do that, but the means have changed. No longer the only information game in town, libraries have recalled their fundamental purpose of providing access: “free to all” (Boston Public Library), with meaningful contact that allows everyone to use the resources and services. By serving their communities, libraries return to their beginnings: to guaranteeing that responsive democratic government and culture will in fact be open to all. Lest anyone suppose that the library of a private university catering to the upper middle class does not need to bother with such a mission, one may recall that a great deal of tuition funding is in fact dependent upon government guarantees. No university, and no library, is an island: the fundamental purposes of public and academic libraries are the same: access, instruction, the care for our common home.
October 13, 2016
Author: Cal Newport
Title: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Publication: New York: Grand Central (Hachette), 2016. 296 p.
Cal Newport became a guru of study hacks after publishing Study Hacks, two other books, a dissertation, and six articles. Clearly “do as I say and as I do,” he knows his subject. Deep Work extends his thinking to sharper critique of the glut of social information that distracts many people.
Newport is especially sharply critical of Facebook (including the new Facebook headquarters building), Twitter, and the well-recognized Fear of Missing Out (FOMA) that can drive compulsive distraction and seriously erode the quality and quantity of work. His critique is well-sustained, but its claims to be counter-cultural or disruptive are overblown: numerous other writers have critiqued the culture of distraction, including Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Sherry Turkle.
Newport’s positive formulation of deep work betrays a certain ambivalence at the heart of the book. Deep work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”(p. 3) By contrast shallow work is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”)(p. 6) His hypothesis: “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare . . . [and] valuable . . . . The few who cultivate this skill with thrive.”(p. 14) His goal: to help you be one who can work deeply, a noble aim. His examples are not always convincing, however.
His leading example (which opens the book), Carl Jung’s creation of Bollingen Tower as a retreat for his writing, is more multi-faceted than Newport suggests. Jung retreated to his tower to write without distraction, but based in large part on his interaction with patients in Zurich. Later Newport identifies Jung’s “bimodal” pattern, contrasting the Tower with Zurich, a “busy clinical practice,” “gave and attended many lectures,” “active participant in the Zurich coffeehouse culture,” all suggesting to Newport the hyper-connected, digital-age knowledge worker: “replace ‘Zurich’ with ‘San Francisco’ and ‘letter’ with ‘tweet’ and we could be discussing some hotshot tech CEO.” (p. 107)
I think this is a serious, ideologically-driven misunderstanding of Jung’s life in Zurich, and life’s work. Jung’s own writings are filled with episodes, instances, and cases from his practice in Zurich. To suggest that Jung’s work in Zurich was “shallow work” devalues his clinical practice and Jung’s whole motivation for developing depth psychology and disputes with Sigmund Freud. The ideas and art work Jung picked up in his Zurich life provided some of the critical raw material from which he fashioned his singular and valuable insights in the Tower. Suggesting that Jung’s beautifully written letters are the work equivalent of contemporary tweets is simply preposterous and and fundamentally misconstrues Jung’s life’s work. Valuable as Jung’s deep concentration in the Tower was, it never would have amounted to much without his corresponding life in the city.
Newport’s other examples (Adam Grant, Jack Dorsey for example) probably work better, but tend towards the two-dimensional. This valuable book has to be read with caution.
In the end, I am left with the uneasy sense that Newport’s beloved “deep work” is really what computer scientists do. (He is an associate professor at Georgetown.) His concept of deep work is less applicable to those whose work is primarily leading people and organizations. I know in my own work as a library director that sometimes I have to work on a project uninterrupted. Some interruptions are shallow, but some definitely deep: the work I do listening to coworkers, helping them develop their ideas, skill and insights, indeed pushes my cognitive and emotional capabilities, improves my abilities, is hard to replicate mechanically, and (I hope) creates value. Every encounter with a colleague is not deep work, but I always have to be alert to the moment when it turns deep, sometimes on a dime.
I completely accept Newport’s critique of the numerous, superficial distractions of social media, e-mail, and news, and the confusion of busyness with productivity. But his concept of deep work needs broadening and humanizing. This seems to be the work of a very confident and highly creative young professor appropriately characterized as brilliant, creative, and important, but whose very brilliance and confidence may have drawn him towards an unnecessarily narrow conception of generosity, significance, and depth of insight. I wonder how his ideas will change over time, work, and experience. I would really like to find out, because it will be important.
October 09, 2015
the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity
in the West, 350-550 AD, by Peter Brown.
Princeton: University Press, 2012. 759 pages.
Peter Brown, whose writing spurred the development of Late Antiquity as a study, returns to familiar territory. Through the Eye of a Needle revisits individuals and events he knows well and has written about brilliantly: sexuality, Jerome, Augustine, the Pelagian controversies, and the shifting sense and meanings of authority. This book is practically a sequel to The Body and Society in Late Antiquity: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in early Christianity (1988).
Brown illumines new perspectives, however, in two important ways. First, he has not written before about wealth and how Christians came to exercise the power wealth confers so explicitly. Second, scholarship since the 1980s has revealed with greater clarity and breadth the shifting tensions and textures of Romanness as imperial power receded. Brown consistently and brilliantly invokes findings from archaeology, art, numismatics, geography, and other areas to supplement familiar themes and reveal newly-discovered worlds within worlds. For example, at the very time that large estates were falling fallow in Gaul, trade and agriculture were booming in valleys of the Italian Mezzogiorno (south and east of Rome).
Brown consciously adopts and extends helpful concepts from other historians. For example, his discussion of “local” versus “central” Romanness (he avoids the more traditional term romanitas) is based on work by Paul Halsall and Peter Heather. Brown extends their language when discussing the alternative power structures that were developing in the southern valley of the Rhone and elsewhere as Rome itself became increasingly a stage set for the Senate, an archipelago of islands of settlement in an sea of urban dissolution.
I took a long time reading this book, in part because findings so new and arresting required diving into the end notes. “This has been the most difficult book to write that I have undertaken,” Brown notes (p. xxvi) He hopes that the reader will catch “something of the excitement (this scholarship has) inspired in me, as (it) opened a window through which I saw what I never thought I would see –a vista of Roman society” that is new and unfamiliar, “as thrillingly different from our conventional ideas of what late Roman society and late Roman Christianity were like as are the first images of the surface of a distant planet beamed back to earth by a space probe.” (p. xxvii) Brown vividly conveys his astonishment at the revelations of the very field of study he did so much to found. This is a magisterial and entirely readable book by a historian who will be long remembered as one of the Old Masters of the field.
April 01, 2014
The Bible. Varying editions (Collegeville, MN: St. Johns University Press; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), varying dates. Sacred Heart University Library: REF BS192.A1 1970 .L6. Reviewed April 1, 2014.
A sprawling, disorganized, and digressive anthology, The Bible reflects either too many or not enough editorial hands. Though sweeping in scope and subject matter, it is frequently repetitive, inconsistent, and difficult to understand. It’s a challenge to read at every turn. As it is, the editors buried the lead.
Often times the purported values of The Bible’s authors are blatantly contradicted by the conduct of some of its leading characters. In Genesis, the opening text, Abraham is persuaded by God’s expansive promise of future real estate and redemption, but cheats on his wife and abuses his children and household servants. His grandson Jacob, a charming, fugitive swindler, is haunted by extraordinary dreams (wrestling with an angel; climbing a ladder to heaven) but at length degenerates to a self-pitying old man. Father of 12 sons, Jacob’s 11th (Joseph) is a schmoozer worthy of Washington’s K Street lobbyists, who fast-talks his way into Pharoah’s court and then leads his truant and murderous brothers on a wild-goose chase during a disruptive famine. Moses, a trail-blazing stutterer with a divining rod, leads their descendants out of Egypt.
Later in the anthology we meet Jael, audacious woman with a lethal tent peg, and Hannah who braves the stigma of reproductive difficulties only to give birth to Samuel, king-maker and un-maker extraordinare. Ominously, Samuel also hears voices such as God’s. Apparently on impulse he anoints David (a rural teen-ager). As king David unexpectedly proves himself to be a brilliant guerilla commander, dauntless terrorist, and authoritarian ruler with a penchant for beautiful women. As a poet David is oft-quoted elsewhere in The Bible, such as his plaintive “My God, why have you forsaken me?” His son Solomon, an insufferable know-it-all, seeks to globalize Israel’s real-estate franchise only to have his spoiled sons blow it all up.
After David and Solomon narrative coherence breaks down, and the editors seem to have lost control of the text. The reader encounters a succession of prophets who offer trenchant social and political critiques served up with generous helpings of self-promotion. The reader encounters tedious volumes of pithy sayings, “I told you so” rants from Jeremiah, and deranged episodes with Ezekiel and Hosea. The themes of terrorism and irregular warfare return with Judas Maccabeus, who in turn paves the way for the tense stories of the New Testament against a backdrop of Roman imperial aggression and local corruption.
Jesus now takes center stage as the primary character, but his career is reported four times with varying and inconsistent emphases. Gifted with storytelling and the common touch, he meets what Scottish author J.K. Rowling once termed a “sticky end” at the hands of a political conspiracy worthy of House of Cards. But his story does not end –his followers proclaim his new and risen life with a resonance peculiar and powerful for those caught on the social margins. This Occupy-like movement begins to attract notice and opponents, one of whom (Saul of Tarsus) suddenly becomes the movements’ chief spokesperson. Unquenchably talkative, the probably bi-polar Paul is framed on trumped-up charges that wind their way through the Roman legal system. Far from stopping him, this legal process gives Paul a platform from which he either mesmerizes or alienates his successive hosts.
After series of obscure and short letters, this digressive anthology concludes with Revelation, a bizarre hallucination of the end of all things, and a pastiche of slightly inaccurate quotations from the rest of the anthology. Wiser editors would have deleted it as unhelpful second-guessing that distracts from the book’s main emphases.
Only nearly hidden in the middle of the anthology can the reader find the two most startling documents. The wealthy insider Job endures bankruptcy and disease only to argue with his friends and God in some of the anthology’s most eloquent and memorable passages: “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last,” or elsewhere, “born to trouble as sparks fly upward.” Job’s querulous former friends try to talk him down until God forcibly silences him: “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge” –while simultaneously concealing God’s refusal to answer Job’s devastating accusations directly. Some pages later a certain preacher (Ecclesiastes) resoundingly and repetitively declares that all is vanity: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happen to them all. . . . Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Try telling that to a University crowd.
Had the editors of this anthology taken his advice to heart, and positioned the Book of Job first and Ecclesiastes last, the focus of the whole thing might have been much clearer. As it stands, this anthology is best read with some assistance either in a self-critical community or from specialist scholars, and the reader is well advised to take The Bible’s more exotic passages lightly. Consider Elijah or Mary: who knew that messages from angels could have such far-reaching consequences?
–Gavin Ferriby (N.B. I have disabled comments on this post for reasons that anyone who writes for the web will understand — the forest of trolls. And thanks for reading!)
March 12, 2014
Mission In a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently –and Succeeding, by Seth Goldman and Bary Nalebuff; illustrated by Sungyoon Choi. New York: Crown Business, 2013. Sacred Heart University Library Graphic HD9198 .U58 H654 2013. (The Graphic Literature collection is on the first floor on the shelves in the center of the room.)
Business book as graphic literature –can it get better? This book is a lot of fun as well and tells the story of Honest Tea (beverage company). It’s a familiar story of a start-up told in a wholly new way, and involves the reader much more than the standard “how we did it good” business text – the story really comes alive.
But starting it up wasn’t easy! Seth and Barry had some very close calls, nearly losing everything more than once. Seth came to believe that “business can be an even more powerful tool for change,” and “you don’t have to sacrifice your ideals to succeed” –which only matters now because obviously he and Barry did succeed.
Divided into 3 phases, “start up,” “growing pains,” and “a brand emerges” (and epilogue, 2008-2012), the book really follows a familiar pattern of books about start-ups. What is different is not only the format (hand-written font), but Sungyooon Choi’s art, which contributes a real sense of momentum to the story. The two-color graphic format builds the reader’s involvement simply because you have to decode how the pictures and the text interact. It’s a way of slowing down speed-reading to a speed that the human brain can actually process and retain the content.
This book is truly fun, and very much worth the time to read it.
September 16, 2013
Jaron Lanier is an extraordinary writer and equally extraordinary thinker. A computer scientist and musician, he coined and popularized the term “virtual reality” and has made numerous contributions to the field of information technology. As a musician he specializes in playing a large variety of ancient and rare acoustic instruments.
Who Owns The Future is an exhilarating read in part simply because it’s so fresh. Lanier questions every routine adage about information technology. Who owns the future? is an economic question, and Lanier responds in the best vein of thinking that was once called “political economy.”
Lanier shows how the present course of information technology is unsustainable: costs and risks are “off the books,” externalized or socialized, and rewards are privatized. This is done through the mass aggregation and analysis of “big data” which is contributed free (so-called “shared”) to the massive cloud computing summarized by his term “siren servers.” Siren servers are misleading because they produce unintentionally inflated claims that become gigantically (perhaps uncontrollably) volatile. Siren servers depend on information assymetry –they know things that no one else can know and that must be kept secret (or so goes the claim). Each siren server pretends that it alone is playing that game. But the real analysis they do is highly imprecise and unintentionally leads to cascading networked effects such as crisis of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that touched off the economic crisis since 2008.
If almost every kind of work in the future will be done as software and by machines, what becomes of all the surplus workers? This is the heart of the conceptual mistake that is manner in which society and its leadership now envisions technology and economy. The old “levees” that channelled economic turbulence into change tolerable to the middle class are being breached (such as labor unions, affordable education, health care, and retirement funding). So who owns the future?
Possible scenarios (“humors”) range from highly negative, Malthusian inability to control human power to improbably and superficially narcissistic socialist utopias. A practical way forward involves the equalization of information seeking, storage, and analysis so that individuals are remunerated (paid) when they supply data to a server. Thus power and justice will be more equitably distributed, rather than the fiction of “free” services in exchange for being spied on (such as the case with Google, Facebook, and others today). This future won’t be perfect, but it will be humanely sustainable.
This fascinating book steers the reader into unexpected juxta-positions of the very old (Aristotle) and the very new (3-D printers). It’s a wild ride, and several times I had to re-read whole chapters until I felt I might understand what Lanier is saying. It’s not the words that are challenging, but the thinking. This book is a really good read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Postscript: Lanier (for all the impact of his telling critique of Silicon Valley culture) still exemplifies a quality inherent in much philosophizing of technology: a blindness or tone-deafness to the Tragic in human affairs. This is also a very American quality: we don’t do tragedy well in this culture, and those American writers, artists, and musicians who do tragedy well are almost exceptions the highlight such a general truth (–such as Eugene O’Neill, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Billie Holiday, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulker, Arthur Miller). A quest to overcome finitude and particularity bears the enormous burden of even guessing how it will succeed in a world that offers absolutely no evidence of any previous success. In his careful distance from any questions that evoke any religious sense (the author carefully retreats or scuttles around any mention of any god, God, or Ultimate Other), Lanier inadvertently cuts himself off from a rich vein of reflection and experience which argues against the facile optimism of too many technologists.
September 03, 2013
The Starboard Sea: A Novel, by Amber Dermont. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. 308 pages. Available at Sacred Heart University in the Popular Reading section.
This novel is a worthy, beautifully-written successor in the genre of John Knowles’ classic A Separate Peace (1959).
Jason Kilian Prosper becomes a student at a second-chance Bellingham Academy, an elite, old-boy prep school on the Massachusetts north shore. His life-long best friend room-mate, and sailing partner Cal committed suicide the previous Spring. Jason feels responsible for Cal’s death, and by taking responsibility for his own destructive behavior, he grows up.
Soon after his arrival at “second chance and third rate” Bellingham, Jason meets Aidan, a girl as wounded in her way as Jason is in his. Their relationship grows as Jason copes with his parents’ impending divorce, his brother’s shady deals, and the young male heedless recklessness of several of his so-called friends at Bellingham. Aidan dies during a hurricane and coming to terms with this double death and grief further distinguishes Jason from “the company,” his arrogant peers.
In many ways this very dark portrait of the wanton behavior of the children of the very rich could have been simply repellant. Set against the backdrop of the Stock Market crash of October 19, 1987 (and a nearly simultaneous fictional hurricane reminiscent of Hurricane Bob, August 19, 1991), these children of the 1% will forever escape real accountability for their cover-ups and lies. Like Nick Carraway’s “careless people . . . they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . . and let other peole clean up the mess they had made.” (The Great Gatsby, p. 179) These characters would now be 43 years old, and judging from the audacious selfishness that characterizes the New Gilded Age, they evade any real accountability still.
The young people are not the only ones to lie and cover up, however. Equally culpable are the Headmaster, the Dean, Jason’s father, and numerous other adults. Jason’s mother, the retiring history teacher Mr. Guy, and Cal’s mother are among the few sympathetic adults with a living moral center.
What holds the reader is Jason’s voice –smart alecky, generous, and uncommonly intelligent. Jason is at once Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, Nick Carraway, and Joshua Slocum. He has a gift for befriending outsiders –Aidan, a townie clean-up boy called Plague (really, Leo), a 23-year-old sailing coach, and Chester, the lone African-American at Bellingham. Jason loves to sail competetively, and his deep knowledge of water, wind, and competitive sailing craft is his touch-point, his body-memory, and grounds his quest to learn celestial navigation. Race, his new, equally morally culpable sailing partner (a jarring successor to Cal) names the starboard sea, which “means the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life. It’s deep.” (p. 274) In the end, Jason wants to swim “until the dark water and navy sky were one.” “I flipped over, floating on my back and leaning into the starboard sea. The night descending, stretching above me like a map promising instruction, direction. I would spend the rest of my life searching for guiding stars.”
That conclusion is part of some of the most beautiful closing pages of a novel that I have read since I first read Fitzgerald’s evocation of the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” That is high praise, but I really believe Dermont’s writing will endure the test of time. She spends her literary allusions carefully — among them Melville, Coleridge, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Samuel R. Delaney’s The Motion of Light in Water. Dermont never clutters the page, and never muffles Jason’s voice. With uncanny accuracy, she conjures an adolescent boy’s varying sexual desires, roaring physicality, and keen yearning for kindness.
I picked up this book by accident –it had been mis-shelved in the Library– and couldn’t put it down. Though it’s not for everyone, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
March 01, 2013
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 499 pages. Sacred Heart University Library: BF441 .K238 2011
Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in in Economics, assembles much of his life’s work in this accessible, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. It’s not short, but it’s worth it. His main target is the model of rational decision-making assumed or implied in many fields: economics, public affairs, diplomacy, psychology, even politics, sociology, and meta-scientific discussion (where “the rational person would … [fill in the blank]”).
Kahneman instead finds two systems that drive human behavior, thinking, and decision-making. “System 1” is fast, emotional, intuitive, reflexively automatic, and constantly monitors the surroundings for changes, threats, opportunities, and emotional signals. “System 2” is slower, logical, deliberative. Everyone has a lively and functioning System 1, but System 2 can be trained, influenced by education and life-experience, and varying levels of self-awareness. System 2 can be inordinately influenced, however, by assumptions, intuitions, and consequent deliberative errors to which System 1 is prone, and System 2 can merely authorize, validate, and intensify decisions resolved by System 1.
These two systems are “characters,” easily discernible shorthand for a congeries of mental habits, neurological links, learned behavior, and physical states. In short, easily read chapters Kahneman discloses numerous fallacies, biases, and heuristic errors to which even highly-trained, logical people are prone. The “availability bias,” jumping to conclusions, the “halo affect” and numerous other well-studied behaviors not only unduly influence personal judgments and biases but influence political deliberations, financial calculations, and above all economic policies. The self-destructive ways that human fall apart (sometimes, especially, powerful ones), the unintended, sometimes disastrous consequences of well-meaning policy shifts, and other human ills are illuminated if not quite completely explained.
Occasionally Kahneman falls into an unintentional paternalism of asking set-up questions at the beginning of a chapter to induce the reader towards an error. Fun to read, sometimes these questions seem too clever by half and take advantage of critical but unexplored ambiguities. For example, in Chapter 14 (page 146) “Tom W is a graduate student at the main university in your state.” The reader is asked to “rank nine subsequent fields of graduate specialization in order of the likelihood that Tom W is now a student in each of those fields.” Fields in not-quite alphabetical order are listed, one of them is “humanities and education.” (–Interesting to combine both of those in one line when some would say they differ substantially.)
I’m a reader in Connecticut. What is the main university of my state? by USNews rankings, Yale? or by the enrollment numbers, UConn? I happen to know, however, that Yale doesn’t teach education at a graduate level, and surely has an above-average graduate enrollment in the humanities. Meanwhile, UConn has numerous graduate students in education, because all teacher certification in Connecticut is channeled through fifth-year “graduate” education programs. So what is the answer to Kahneman’s ambiguous and simple question?
Kahneman tells us that the key to the answer is the relative size of enrollment in different fields. That still doesn’t tell me which is the “main university” in my state –and pity the poor reader in California or New York. Which is the “main university” in Connecticut? I know already that total enrollment at Yale is smaller than UConn. When the reader is subsequently given more personal information about Tom W, it is given to suggest occupational stereotypes associated with fields of graduate study. The reader is paternalistically manipulated into speculating that Tom W is a computer science student. He was written up as an “anti-base rate” character, deliberatively suggestive of smaller-enrollment fields of study and unlike stereotypes of larger fields.
The lesson is to discipline the practice of predicting by representativeness by recourse to rules associated with Bayesian statistics. (Kahneman explains all this, p. 154) But I was left with a sense that the example was set up simply to illustrate where Kahneman was heading anyway, and I would just as soon have followed him there without the suggestive manipulation of a deliberately ambiguous example.
Despite all this, I enjoyed the book. I wish it had been shorter, and that Kahneman actively solicited errors of judgment less. They occur anyway –give the reader a rest, sometimes. I learned a great deal, however, and I watched the “availability heuristic” guide a University deliberative meeting while I was reading it. It was an eerie experience, and well explored in this book.
January 12, 2013
Stephen Greenblatt is a literary mandarin –editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Norton Shakespeare (etc.), and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and other well-received works on early modern culture and the beginnings of “modernity.” The Swerve turns to Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 BCE), and the extraordinary story of Lucretius himself, the career of his poem De rerum naturae, ancient Epicureanism, its eclipse and return in early modern culture.
The critical link, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), was a papal secretary, humanist, and adventuresome bibliophile extraordinare. He discovered an obscure medieval manuscript of Lucretius’ only work in the aftermath of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418, where his boss, Baldassare Cossa (the first Pope John XXIII) lost his job. With an ability to copy quickly and beautifully (his handwriting was a significant source for Roman type-font), Poggio was a natural manuscript-hunter. The beauty of Lucretius’ language matched the power of Lucretius’ critique of religion and other ancient philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism (which contributed so much to Christianity). This critique in turn contributed to writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Niccolò Macchiavelli, Montaigne, and Thomas More –as well as exposing many others to condemnation by the Inquisition or other guardians of orthodoxy. Whether Poggio himself really understood the power of the text he unearthed is an open question.
Greenblatt’s makes very clear his sympathy with epicurean-tinged atheism and distaste for mainstream varieties of Christianity. He is occasionally tone-deaf to options within Christianity as well unaware of Christian critiques of theologies of substitutionary atonement (what is means to say that “Jesus died for our sins–Abelard’s, for example) –theologies which have been enormously influential but that have never had an exclusive lock on Christian self-understanding. Occasional trivial errors mar Greenblatt’s text, such as the slightly snarky “As every pious reader of Luke’s Gospel knew, Jesus wept …” (p. 105) –no, an accurate reader of Luke’s Gospel knows that Greenblatt is referring to John’s Gospel, 11:35 –couldn’t a fact-checker have caught this?
Greenblatt’s account of the murder of Hypatia at the hands of thugs clearly inspired and maybe ordered by Cyril of Alexandria brings further public light to re-assessment of a complex and violent Patriarch too often given a pass. The gradual disappearance of the great Library of Alexandria (Museon and Serapeon) has to force a re-assessment of the passage from late antiquity to Christian and Muslim medieval worlds (beautifully rehearsed in Matthew Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History, 2004). As a scholar of the Renaissance, Greenblatt has a vested interest in narratives of ancient decline, and more than once he tiptoes on the edge of caricature.
Greenblatt’s fascinating story becomes marred, in his later pages, by his tendency to claim too much for Lucretian influence. Such influence is conclusive and well-documented in works by later Renaisance figures noted above. But later influence –Galileo, Newton, Jefferson, Darwin– seems over-emphasized. Those were all complex figures with layers and layers of divergent pulls at work in their thinking and writing. Even if Jefferson owned five copies of Lucretius, does that really demonstrate influence? He was also very fond of Tacitus and Cicero, two writers quite unsympathetic to the Epicureans, and he owned multiple copies of their works as well.
Greenblatt also commits intellectual slight-of-hand when he occasionally links ancient atomism and modern atomic physics. He correctly notes that ancient atomism was completely theoretical, and that Einstein’s work in particular was founded on quite different sources. Did Epicurean speculation really set the stage for atomic physics? (page 262) –that’s quite a claim and needs further exploration. Readers of Hawking, Brian Greene, and Leonard Susskind might indeed be led to think that ancient atomism in fact obscures those elements of modern physics which suggest worlds, influences, and physical motifs that move well beyond atomistic reductionism. Only when influence such as Lucretius was overcome could ninetheenth-century physics move on.
I enjoyed this book immensely. I came away unconvinced that a reductive atomism explains very much about the world and what makes a human life worth living. What about genuine philosophical problems of language, the existence of other rational minds, and character of justice? How are or is mathematics possible? The Lucretian episode in early modern Europe was a fascinating stage and important stimulus for enormous creativity –but ultimately was superseded by a world of Scottish philosophies, Keynesian economics, and quantum physics. As an undergraduate I read Lucretius in the Latin (well, some of it) and never forgot the hypnotic beauty of the poetry. The philosophy that animated the poetry I always found as unconvincing as many of Plato’s myths. They were brilliant thinkers, but have no more monopoly on truth than anyone else. Things have moved on, even for atheists.
December 30, 2012
This timely book sets current political, financial, and cultural conflicts and questions in the context of many American’s experiences since the 1970s. In part one, The Great Crash, Jeffrey Sachs (Earth Institute at Columbia University) outlines the numerous economic and political fallacies which have governed discussions of public policy since Reagan, and he sees the Clinton presidency as an episode in a long-lasting ideology of free markets, minimal market or financial regulation, maximal entrepreneurial financial returns, and stifled public discussion. In part two, The Path to Prosperity, Sachs outlines what he considers to be more comprehensive, germane, and accurate diagnoses of major issues such as financial trust, global economic development, global climate change, and education. He concludes with what he believes to be practical steps in a realistic timeline to restore prosperity to the broad swath of the American middle class, and to ensure middle-class economic viability with technological skills and global awareness.
Conservatives (especially libertarians and “cultural” conservatives) will not like Sachs’ account of American decline since the 1970s, and most centrist liberals will not appreciate his linking them with a political emphasis instituted by Ronald Reagan. The real question is whether Sachs’ account of the world and recommendations for change are accurate diagnoses and helpful suggestions for the present discussion. The similarity of Sachs’ discourse with President Obama’s agenda as advocated in the 2012 election cannot be missed, and Sachs would not (I believe) deny it. Sachs’ rejoinders to conservative icons such as Friedrich Hayek, Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Lawrence Summers, and the Tea Party (and whether it has a clear and consistent agenda) are well worth pondering.
Sachs by no means lets ordinary people off the hook, either. His subtitle Reawakening American Virtue takes on the “distracted” society and wide-spread withdrawal from politics, economics, and even practical discussions. Sachs advocates not only political and economic ideas but mindfulness, an individual ability to pay attention, think clearly, act responsibly, and maintain viable plans for the future. He recognizes that American prosperity will not be ensured without change not only to American politics and economic policies, but with changes to individual behavior and turning away from the anti-policy, anti-intellectual posturing of too many “leaders” and media elite.
Do any of Sachs’ suggestions stand any chance of discussions, let alone adoption? Sachs rings all the alarm bells, and the problems (global economic shifts; climate change; decay of the American physical infrastructure) are hardly state secrets. The powerful interests who deny these problems will not simply give up and melt away. Sachs seems to come away with continued bewilderment that American political discourses (or what passes for it) fails to respond to the expertise and advice present in America’s highly trained workforce. He places his hopes in the Millennial generation which tends, he believes, to be more tolerant, better educated, socially liberal, and more trusting of government. (Those who teach at SHU may not always share that assessment.)
The four issues that Sachs identifies– education, environment, geopolitics, and diversity– will indeed be decisive in establishing the character and achievements (or lack of them) of the next decades. A liberal arts university can do much to foster serious discussion of all those issues. But will hearing Sachs’ alarms summon a serious American response?
November 28, 2012
From Command to Community: a New Approach to Leadership Education in Colleges and Universities, edited by Nicholas V. Longo and Cynthia M. Gibson. Medford, Mass.: Tufts University Press, 2011. 277 pages. Accessible to SHU students, staff and faculty through ebrary as an e-book.
This book emerged from papers and conversations from a national symposium on redefining leadership education in higher education, held in 2008 and sponsored by Tufts University, Miami University of Ohio, and Public Allies, a non-profit in Milwaukee, WI that seeks to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits, and civic participation. As a set of essays, the book explores the change that is happening now, as notions of leadership move from ideas derived from the “great man” principle (a compelling leader who commands his followers –the choice of masculine pronoun is intentional!) to community-oriented views of adaptive leadership, citizen-centered, engaged in civic processes, and change-oriented.
The first of three broad sections attempts to “define” (more accurately, describe) “the new leadership and what it looks like in the context of higher education.” (p. 14) The second section of the book puts such leadership and civic engagement in higher education into historical and contemporary contexts. Case-studies and examples of new leadership education models comprises the third section. A final section grapples with the question, “What does this all mean, especially for the future?” (p. 19)
The academic prose is usually graceful, but in the end the (usually) vivid descriptions of particular programs, events, encounters, and examples remain more memorable than the necessarily more diffuse secondary description and analysis. The book attempts to narrate and analyze a kind of change in leadership climate which is both welcome and confusing; a common note among the students is their realization of the overwhelming complexity and ambiguity of the world.
In particular the closing essay by Stephen Smith (“a former student leader who helped to mobilize Harvard’s well-publicized living wage campaign”) is a vivid challenge to educators. Organizing 101: Lessons I Wish I’d Learned On Campus tells about his frustration with Ivan Illich’s famous 1969 speech “To Hell With Good Intentions” that (brutally) chided college students about to embark on a service trip to Mexico. When Smith experienced an alternative –living for twenty-one days in the (Harvard) University President’s office protesting below-poverty wages. (Note to SHU students: the University President respectfully requests that you do not do this at home.) Responding to the protest, Harvard agreed to pay a “living wage” of $11.35 plus benefits. Smith found a way forward towards genuine participation in social change. He found his way to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and found the right questions, the right answers, the right relationships. This IAF model has helped to train César Chávez and Barack Obama, amongst others, “by each of us telling our stories and inviting others to tell theirs too.” (p. 236)
The first essay of the book ends with a student’s last Letter Home (“Letters Home” is a format to try to make sense of the experience of engaged leadership) that begins:
I’m not quite sure what to make of the past ten months as a close off this chapter of my life. I’m a little more conflicted than I had expected. I thought that those internal battles I was having with myself would end after a while, as the bigger obstacles of life revealed themselves to me, but I am finding more and more than the battles that happen inside are 99 percent of what happens outside. All those ideas about courage, strength, bravery, virtue, principle, and any other adjective meant to describe a great human being are all descriptions of things that happen inside a person. Everything else is just epilogue.
A part of me has been lost, just as another part of me has grown. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but something about the world is decidedly less romantic, while the ability to be astounded by the complexity and immensity of the world has increased …
Take and read –the rest of this letter is worth reading the whole book.
November 13, 2012
The innovative university : changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2011. 475p. SHU Library: LA227.4.C525 2011
This book has been widely acclaimed and is almost required reading for faculty and senior staff at many universities today. Christiansen’s strength is his very influential analysis of disruptive change in various industries such as electronics and automobiles. Eyring provides a narrative history of Brigham Young University (Idaho) which the authors contrast with a long history of Harvard University. The text is cumbersome to read, however, suffering from repetitive points and a lumbering style which reminds one of less successful articles in scholarly journals.
The central idea is that in “the DNA” of universities is a desire to be like Harvard: wealthy and comprehensive. BYU/Idaho represents a completely different strand of “DNA” in how it serves students by a combination of distance learning, on-site learning, and lower-cost alternatives to residential college.
“DNA” is obviously a metaphor: only living organisms have it, not organizations –and therein lies a weakness in the authors’ argument. “DNA” implies a set of biological determinations that are both inescapable (such being born with a color of hair) but which are further shaped by culture in how the biology becomes interactive socially (such as jokes about blonds: or Nazi ideology about “pure” blonds). But organizations –even Harvard– change, sometimes radically, in response to changing conditions. Harvard is no longer a Puritan or Evangelical training ground for clergy; neither is it a pocket of rich people’s inherited privilege and wealth; in these times even Harvard is examining which subjects it should be teaching and how to finance them –with sometimes painful consequences such as the reorganization (right now) of Harvard University Libraries).
Organizations are human constructions and can and do change. Christiansen and Eyring seek not the extinction of higher education but its wiser practice, and seek to free leaders of organizations from the presumption that they have to imitate Harvard. How many organizations ever really wanted to do that? Some, to be sure, but others have sought distinctive patterns such as professional schools, undergraduate-only liberal arts colleges, and schools with special clientele such as Gaullaudet University or even St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe). Even University of California (Berkeley) is re-evaluating its mission in light of radically reduced state funding.
The book speaks hardly at all about the tenure process, the administrative burden imposed by governmental standards and expectations, information technology, and the problems and opportunities posed by too many courses taught by adjuncts. Discussion of online or distance learning is remarkably slight. The authors note the rapidly rising costs of higher education but offer no fresh comments about what can be done about it. The authors also minimize the substantial portion of funding for BYU (Idaho) comes from tithes to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints –and very few academic institutions elsewhere have such percentage of operationaL funding from a faith-based or sponsoring group. Tuition per semester for full-time LDS students is $1,785; for non-LDS students $3,570. (99% of its 15,100 students are LDS members; admission (acceptance?) rate is 97%: see BYU-I Quick Facts.)
The Innovative University is a worth-while read based on the reputations of its authors but those inside academia will not find particularly fresh insights or deep discussions.
August 22, 2012
Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, by Howard Rheingold. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. 322 pages.
Thriving online is exactly the point here –how to do it. Pay attention to your paying attention, says Rheingold —mindfulness is the one resource that is uniquely yours to contribute. Rheingold continues his work from numerous publications including Virtual Reality (1991) and Smart Mobs (2002). With a memory that goes back to Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog, Rheingold has witnessed the development of online communities from the 1980s to the present. This book is a useful and compact summary of a real-world face-to-face and virtual lifetime.
The five net literacies are (in a nutshell):
- Attention (can be trained, like a puppy);
- Crap detection (start out skeptical)
- Participation (companionship and influence lie with those who know how to participate)
- Collaboration (against the dominant narrative of competition)
- Networking (networks have structures that influence the way individuals and groups behave, and are liable to control if networkers are unwary).
By being mindful (controlling how you pay attention), filtering out crap (Rheingold’s word), building a literacy of participation, collaboration, and networking wisely — Rheingold advocates for intelligent use of a Web that can make us smarter, not dumber. He’s very aware of the structures of assumptions and habits embedded in global capitalism that seek to make Web users merely data points, users to be exploited. His pages “Facing Facebook’s Facts of Life” (page 230-238) are worth the price of the book, even if details may be slightly out of date given Facebook, Inc.’s ever-shifting privacy policies. Any user of Facebook should Google the simple phrase “Facebook privacy controversy” to spend an instructive hour on the numerous gaffes, mis-calculations, and deceptions that Mark Zuckerberg has foisted upon the world.
Rheingold wants a mindful collaboration –the kind of collaboration that makes academic life worth living. This book is chock full of useful suggestions and arresting phrases that will make you think about life online. Be more than a list of monetized “likes” and “gets” — build a world in which you would like to live. It’s possible to do online with a little thought and Rheingold as a guide. He’s a wary, embattled optimist who refuses to surrender to those seeking only to control content for profit. –Gavin Ferriby
April 16, 2012
Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, by Conor Grennan. New York: William Morrow, 2010. 307 pages, illustrated. SHU Library: copies on order.
Buy this book –you will be contributing to Next Generation Nepal. Conor Grennan co-founded this organization with Farid Ait-Mansour in 2006 to re-unite the lost children of Nepal with their families. (–and buy it from independent local booksellers)
Nepal underwent a bloody civil war 1996-2006 that left the country even more desperately poor than it when it started –it is one of the poorest and least economically developed countries in the world. A very rugged, mountainous terrain (including Mt. Everest or Sagarmāthā) isolates most mountain valleys from the capital Kathmandu. During the war child traffickers solicited payments from anxious parents to “place” their children in safe situations in Kathmandu, but in reality dumped the children on the street and pocketed the money. Thousands of children were traumatically separated from their parents in this manner, and war, poverty, and the difficulty of travel prevented parents from finding them. The children were frequently mistreated, starved, and enslaved, and aid organizations could not begin to keep pace with the need for relief.
Grennan embarked on a round-the-world trip in 2004 after eight years at the East-West Institute in Prague and Brussels, working on post-conflict reconciliation in the Balkans. He wound up volunteering for three months at Little Princes Orphanage in Godawari, near Kathmandu. It changed his life, but he didn’t realize how much until he continued his travels elsewhere. In 2005 he returned to the children but was forced to leave in the chaotic last months of the war in April 2006. Back in the United States, he found himself starting a non-profit organization to reunite seven Nepalese children he had met in 2006 with their families in Humla, perhaps the most remote region high in the far northwest corner of Nepal.
Next Generation Nepal took shape in 2006 when he returned after raising money and rented a house in cooperation with the Umbrella Foundation, a non-profit already working in Nepal. Farid and Grennan founded Dhaulagiri House (named after one of the highest mountains) with six of the seven children he had encountered in 2006 (the seventh was found later). When travel became safe Grennan set out for Humla just as winter weather came in December 2006. Travelling by foot with a guide party and an injured knee, Grennan actually found many of the parents of the children in Godawari and began the slow process of reacquainting parents and children separated by years of war.
Meanwhile Grennan corresponded with Elizabeth Flanagan, a fellow UVA alum who had volunteered at a orphanage in Zambia. She understood the depth of Grennan’s passionate commitment to his work and throughout the book their relationship (via e-mail and in person) deepens until he proposes. In 2007 Grennan and Flanagan return to the United States to continue their work, and today they live in Connecticut with their children.
Part advocacy and personal travelogue, part social history, part adventure, part love-story, Grennan’s book recounts his unexpected journey from being “just a normal guy,” fun-loving in college (according to his friend Josh Arbaugh) to tireless advocacy, to an understated Christian faith, and to unstinting devotion to children. Grennan embraced his work seriously enough to study at the New York University Stern School of Business, graduating with an M.B.A. in 2010 so that he could better manage this organization.
Conor Grennan will be speaking at Sacred Heart University on Wednesday, October 17, 2012, sponsored by the University Library and the Common Core Curriculum.
March 06, 2012
Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller. New York: Norton, 2012. 238 pages. SHU Library: Popular Reading M (center shelves of the first floor, Ryan-Matura Library)
Olive oil has a very long and multifaceted history as a religious element, medicine, beauty aid –and food. For 5000 it has charaterized the life and ancient cuisines of the Mediterranean, as ubiquitous in the age of Homer as the current Euro-crash. In 2007 Tom Mueller began to investigate the dark side of olive oil corruption in The New Yorker, and he became oil-obsessed, an ancient condition. This book expands and deepens his previous writing.
So what is olive oil virginity? Virgin olive oils are made by mechanical methods alone: the fruit is washed and crushed; the pulp is malaxed (softened by kneading) and centrifuged; and the resulting oil is filtered. No chemical, thermal or nonphysical (reesterification) are used. “Extra Virgin” is an oil grade of excellent color and odor and free fatty acid content of 0.8g per 100g (0.8%).
The olive oil trade is frequently corrupt, however. Much of the oil that appears as extra-virgin in supermarkets is not, and sometimes not even made from olives. In many areas small artisan producers practicing ancient and local traditions must compete with globalized multinationals dominated by fraud and deceptive practices. Olive oil has become a unique prism through which to view the problems and promise of global trade: high-quality olive oil is now available where it was never available before, but in so doing depends upon a trade system and semi- or openly-criminal syndicates which inevitably corrupt it.
Beyond trade, olive oil also has a particular place in religious and medical practices (and sometimes those commingle). The very teminology of olive oil is redolent of religion: how many products other than oil, wood, wax, and honey can be described as “virgin”? (–and all of those are also Christian sacramental elements or constituents).
You deserve to know where you olive oil comes from, whether you simply eat pizza or cook gourmet foods. You should have the assurance that your oil is pure whether you apply it to your skin, receive it in token of blessing, or simply celebrate its special and ancient taste. Extra Virginity will tell you all this and more in entertaining, memorable, even delicious prose, stories, and poetry.
The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, by Mark Hamilton Lytle. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007. x, 277 pages. SHU Library: New Books QH31 .C33 L98 2007
This short book tells an intellectual, ecological biography of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), a founding writer of the environmental movement. Lytle (who teaches history and environmental studies at Bard College) puts Carson into context in her time, and bases his text on wise readings of her books and carefully selected materials from Rachel Carson’s papers at Yale University, in other collections, and comments in the literature about her. Lytle never forgets Carson’s patient care for her mother and the financial exigencies she faced, but also portrays the courage and stamina of a female scientist willing to take on major corporations in the time before the femininst movement.
Trained as a biologist and originally employed by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson began to publish naturalist essays in 1937 in The Atlantic Monthly. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941) was reviewed well but sold poorly; she continued to write magazine articles while working for the Bureau and writing a biological history of the ocean which became The Sea Around Us (1951). This popular and well-received book enabled her to move to Maine to write The Edge of the Sea (1955) about ecosystems of the North American north Atlantic coast. Continuing to care for her relatives in Maryland, she began to investigate synthetic pesticides (especially DDT) and the harm they did to wildlife and the coastal ecosystems.
Carson began especially to study carcinogenesis (origins of cancer) which was beginning to be associated with synthetic pesticides at the National Institutes of Health; she was drafting the “cancer chapters” of Silent Spring when she was found to have cysts in her breasts, and underwent a mastectomy. The cancer, however, had metastasized and Carson was in a race with cancer to write what she knew before was she realized would be her inevitable death.
Silent Spring found that synthetic pesticides are as crude “as a cavemans club” which simply kill everything they touch and release toxins into the ecosystem. In fact she was “calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar America.” (p. 166) Corporate producers of synthetic pesticides fought back hard, calling her a subversive. Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s (Mormon) Secretary of Agriculture, wondered “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics” and labelled her “probably a Communist.” (p. 175) By April 1964 she was vindicated in stark terms: a massive fish kill in the Mississippi River was traced to the pesticide endrin that entered the river at the Memphis waste-treatment plant. It was produced by Velsicol (now Eastman Chemical Company) a corporation which had tried to block publication of Silent Spring. In that month Carson died.
Lytle provides context and nuance to this sad and heroic story. She saw humans in the ecological web; her opponents saw (and continue to see) humans as masters of nature. At the end of Edge of the Sea (1955) she writes,
What is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is sea lace, existing for some reason that is inscrutable to us–a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of life itself. (p. 216)
January 18, 2012
My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, by Susan D. Blum. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2009. Located at: First Floor, New Book Display: PN 167 .B48 2009; also available online for SHU users via eBrary.
University undergraduate students and faculty live in two different cultural communities and their understandings of plagiarism and originality differ profoundly. Blum presents plagiarism as (for faculty) rooted in Enlightenment discussions of ideas, words, expression, individual originality, and sources –summed up in the concept of “authenticity.” But students live performative lives –surrounded by texts via chat, texting (text is now a verb), and view performative quotation and allusion very differently from adult norms of attribution.
Plagiarism involves, according to Blum, and spectrum of behaviors from outright intentional deception (purchasing a paper to be submitted as one’s own) to casual or uninformed quotation and appropriation of text. Academic disciplines vary in their approach to quotation: when does a cliché (if the shoe fits …) become a literary allusion (the best of times, the worst of times) become unsourced appropriation and potential plagiarism? Students are actually very sophisticated in their use of quotation and other textual reference, but their norms differ from those enforcing originality in academe. The previous sentence is actually quoted from page 27 –academic norms require that I attribute it to Blum; but if I loosely paraphrased the same content without attribution, am I committing plagiarism?
An anthropologist, Blum bases her study on interviews carried out by four trained students; 234 people participated in 154 interviews (“a few involving more than one student” –so there’s quotation marks!) and 32 conversations resulting in more than 5,000 pages of transcripts. She studied “Saint U” –probably a more “competitive” university than Sacred Heart University although many of Blum’s findings seem directly relevant to this context. Her chapter “Growing Up in the College Bubble” should be required of all faculty and staff. This is thought-provoking material about a serious concern which evades simplistic policies and processes.
November 07, 2011
The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick. New York: Pantheon, 2011. Sacred Heart University Library Z665 .G547 2011.
In 426 pages Gleick maps the development of a
concept, a property, and flow: information. Just what information is, is
hard to pin down: for this reason the book is properly The Information and that
definite article is important: THEinformation.
Gleick’s story really begins with Claude Shannon’s work that bridge mathematics and electrical circuits in an obscure, technical article in The Bell System Technical Journal, July and October 1948. Shannon clarified and quantified information as signal, bits, dots and dashes and electrical pulses, bridged by an abstract theory between knowledge and entropy, chaos, and uncertainty. Shannon hardly cared what the bits meant, what could be resolved into meaning: he was concerned with quantified pulses, signals, loss, or distortion. The process he discovered what the world runs on now, the fuel, the vital principle of our world. By the time the physicist John Archibald Wheeler writes in At Home In the Universe (1994), “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” (p. 296) It is now hard to envision the world before Claude Shannon.
Information’s maze-like permutations and unexpected entanglements, however, take the reader to Norbert Wiener’s MIT, Kurt Goedel’s Vienna Circle, and later the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Alan Turing’s amazing years at Cambridge and Bletchley Park. From the study of Babylonian cuneiform came a realization of ancient algorithms: instructions in starkly binary clay tablets. Cryptograph contributed habits such as check-sums and other fail-safes to prevent the loss of signal, and in 1941 Jorge Luis Borges began his story, “The Library of Babel,” with the phrase, “The Universe (which others call the Library) ….” –the concept of the conceptual, ideational universe entangled with the physical, particle universe was born.
Gleick’s book, like Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach (1979), is hard to understand and exhilarating to read all at once. Like Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (2003), Gleick’s book is both readable and at times utterly baffling. This book requires patience, but rewards the reader with truly unexpected conclusions that are elegant, satisfying, and logically compelling. This is the kind of book you should read while you’re in college.
June 23, 2011
When Asia Was the World, by Stewart Gordon. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2008. 228 pages. Library location: DS 5.95 .G67 2008
This fascinating book traces (according to the cover) the “traveling merchants, scholars, wariors, and monks who created the ‘Riches of the East.'” The author uses some fairly straightforward ideas from social network theory to interpret the traveling records of nine individuals who undertook long journeys for trade, scholarship, diplomacy, and pilgrimage across central and southern Asia from the seventh to the 16th centuries.
Vast scholarship informs this book, but it is all worn very lightly. Gordon writes in a very accessible manner about individuals you probably have never heard of, and makes them interesting. Ibn Fadlan in 921-922 undertakes a perilous journey from the heart of Caliphate (Baghadad) to the wilds of the Russian frontier, Almish, King of the Bulgars, on the Volga River. This obscure journey takes on all the marks of frontier travel in any era: Ibn Fadlan was wiley, clever, lucky, and above all brave.
The Asian empires had many customs in common, such as robing (as a mark of favor and sign of power). Traders did not represent sovereign powers or kings, and power was often distributed through kinship and tribal systems. When Gordon finally recounts the Europeans who encountered this innovative, wealthy, and self-reflective Asian world, they seem strange: their armies cohere around command centers and survive the death of generals; traders were responsible to kings; powerful posts went to members of the same ethnicity and the white race. Europeans held concepts of Christian and heathen which went far beyond sectarian divisions among the followers of the Buddha, or rivals in the Islamic umma (community of the faithful).
The great contribution of such scholarship is finally to glimpse one’s own culture or history as though from the outside. The book succeeds in doing just that –the restless, commercial, innovating Asians are “normal” and the Europeans are the outliers. And so it was until the 18th century, when Europeans began to re-organize trade patterns millenia old. I wonder whether Asia will in turn wind up re-organizing European and American trade and cultural patterns to resemble more closely the Asia portrayed in this book.
February 22, 2011
American War Poetry: an Anthology. Edited by Lorrie Goldensohn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. xxi, 433 pages. Ryan-Matura Library: PS595 .W36 A46 2006
The passage of five years makes this volume more pertinent, not less. A topical anthology such as this can suffer from focus either too narrow or too broad. In this anthology a rich variety of voices speak, sing, and lament: not only those who engaged in battle, but their children, their survivors, their victims, and those of later generations who remember their bravery, sacrifice, and (sometimes) brutalities. More than half the poems result from the direct witness of war.
Goldensohn’s breadth of vision is extraordinary: from the colonial wars (1746-1763) to Iraq and Afghanistan; poems by great Americans, virtually unknown Americans, anonymous writers, American Indians, Union and Confederate soldiers and those who remembered them, African Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans.
The writers all wrote in English (hence no German poetry about American soldiers in World War I). Some famous poems were too long or expensive to reprint, and were not. Other poems are included had compelling topical interest beyond their meagre literary qualities. A few are very familiar in the shock of the original complete version, such as Francis Scott Key’s “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Particularly compelling is “the chronologically loose but large group of poems by and about” American Indians that “runs like a subcutaneous layer through the whole of the national narrative.”
The urge to quote is simply too great not to be indulged, even briefly. The poetry from twentieth-century wars often celebrates patriotism and the last full measure of devotion, and yet there runs a persistent under-current of moral outrage and vocal dissent. This is especially true of the more controversial combats: the Spanish-American War, Americans’ involvements in the Spanish Civil War, the War of the Philippines, and more recently Viet Nam, El Salvador, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. James Dickey’s “The Firebombing,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Dachau Shoe” (a prose poem), and Thomas McGrath’s “Remembering That Island” all witness a war in which ordinary men and women came to act in unspeakable ways beyond their own explanation, while
. . . . waiting, waiting,
While the rich oratory and the lying famous corrupt
Senators mine our lives for another war.
The witnesses begin with a precise date: “August, ’twas the twenty-fifth, / Seventeen hundred forty-six; / The Indians did in ambush lay” an ex-slave Lucy Terry writes of the clash of ethnic “white” and ethnic “red,” and the projection of terror and brutality onto the outsider (Indian), though practiced as well by the European. The witnesses end with Brian Turner’s (b. 1967) defiant memorial to Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, in Iraq, addressed to the bullet:
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
January 24, 2011
Library: An Unquiet History. By Matthew Battles. New York: Norton, 2003. x, 244 pages. Sacred Heart University Library Z721.B28 2003
Battles doesn’t just read in the library, he reads the library –the social arrangement which not only preserves the cultural record, but becomes part of the cultural record itself. This history is unquiet, because all libraries are subject to change and decay. The larger and more famous the library, the greater likelihood that it will be destroyed, in the long run.
The greatest legendary library in history, the Library of Alexandria, likely decayed and died not only from causes of war, but cultural change –people (Christians, Muslims, merchants, others) simply stopped caring what was in it, their libraries “moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents.” (p. 32) Battles uses the word biblioclasm to meant not just the random destruction of certain books, but the wholesale destruction of the cultural record as a reflection of and means to power.
The funny thing is, books don’t burn all that well –a fact discovered early by the first august emperor of China, Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE), by Savanarola in Renaissance Florence, and by Goebbels, Rosenberg, and other Nazis. Many of Battles’ accounts of biblioclasm are moving: the repeated destruction of the priceless library of the University of Louvain, 1914 and 1940 (furore teutonico diruta indeed), and the Vilna ghetto library, 1943 –a remarkable coincidence of librarianship and resistance. But all that packed paper makes for a slow fire.
Battles’ book is readily accessible to non-specialist readers and broadly suggests that the current attitude of educated contempt towards pre-digital learning is a prelude to its destruction. Libraries, for all the cultural sanctimoniousness of Melville Dewey, are home both to civilization, its discontents, and its malcontents. Matthews’ own battles continue in the blog HiLoBrow –see also bookfuturism
December 21, 2010
My Cousin the Saint: A Story of Love, Miracles, and an Italian Family Reunited. By Justin Catanoso. New York: William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2008, 2009. xi, 337 pages.
This multi-layered story grows in the telling, like a long Italian family dinner that takes hours –different moods at different times, with a variety of pasta, meats, and sweets along the way (as well as plentiful wine). The courses don’t all run in order –but there are patterns of tastes.
The first layer is the story of Padre Gaetano Catanoso, a pious priest and shepherd of the poor of Calabria (the toe of the boot of Italy) (1879-1963). The Padre labored in one of the most impoverished regions of Europe, a steep land perched over the sea poor both in material wealth and in imagination and spirit. Buffetted by centuries of invasion, oppression, and the duplicity of rulers –not the least the Mafia– Calabrians developed a protective fatalism and a skeptical hostility to outsiders. The Padre –both Calabrian and an “outsider” in the sense that he could see further than the searing poverty around him usually allowed– radiated an activist holiness through earthquakes, Facism, wars, and the fatalism of those left behind by those many who left Calabria for a better life elsewhere. When the Padre died, his holiness and life of service were vividly remembered by those around him, including clergy whom he had helped to train.
The second layer is the story of Catarina and Carmelo Catanoso, who emigrated from Calabria to Philadelphia, then to North Wildwood, New Jersey. Their nine children realized much of the American dream of hard work and security, and their fifth child, Leonard Catanoso, in turn became the author’s parents in a family saga of Italian-American assimilation.
The third layer is the story of Justin Catanoso himself, who never really became attached to the Catholic Church as a youth, and as a journalist became something of a polite but persistent skeptic. His relative complacency or disinterest was challenged first, by discovery of the Calabrian Catanosos and the saintly Padre Gaetano (unknown to the American relations for more than a generation), and then by the mortal illness of Justin’s brother Alan, who subsequently died in 2004. Alan’s illness and death –and the involvement of his family in a new dimension of faith –make the fourth layer of the story.
The fifth and final layer is the story of the canonization process -how a saint becomes a saint in the Catholic Church. The evident care for accuracy and respect for both the material and the spiritual at the heart of this process make for a long and detailed account of how American and Calabrian Catanosos came to be in St. Peter’s Square in October, 2005 for the official canonization of the Padre, now St. Gaetano Catanoso. What difference does a saint make in the family? What difference does the Padre now make in Justin’s life, in the life of his family?
This is a engaging account of life, death, and faith in an Italian-American family –the latter portions on canonization are unavoidably less emotionally engaging than the author’s account of Padre Gaetano, or the illness and death of the author’s brother Alan. Catanoso nevertheless gives an authentic account of how being Catholic has changed for him, and those things that continue to hold him to the church, and those things that make him want to run from it. Written in a decidedly lay, non-theological voice, the journalist Catanoso covers his story with graceful prose and a sure eye for telling detail.
October 08, 2010
Seth Jones. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in the Afghanistan. New York: Norton, 2010. 430 pages; maps, graphs, index. SHU Library DS 371.412 .J665 2009
So is Afghanistan the graveyard of empires? Past experience would suggest strongly that it is — and Seth Jones, with extensive on-ground experience with U.S. Special Operations Forces, provides a wealth of past experience. A soldier’s view of history, however, is far closer than the comfortable remove of study. “Despite the idealism of the initial campaign” waged by U.S. forces in 2001-2002, “and the success of military operations” –about 450 American CIA officers and Special Forces soldiers with 15,000s defeated a Taliban army estimated at 50,000–60,000 plus al Qa’ida– “the United States squandered this extraordinary opportunity.”
The sting of Jones’ indictment of subsequent American leadership and its incompetence, incoherence, and fixation on Iraq animates his sparse, muscular prose and thorough command of relevant history –and Afghanistan has so much history. The opening “Chronology” starts in 1839, and Jones’ historical narrative begins in with Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Jones’ research goal was specific: “to undertand the motivations of key actors and to assess what factors contributed to the rise of Afghanistan’s insurgency.” It is a study of specify aspects of insurgency in Afghanistan, not a general theory of insurgent conflict. The book proceeds basically chronologically, from Alexander to December 2009. After this unusual level of author’s personal engagement, Jones concludes, “Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Afghanistan is its continuity.”
Anecdote: “You have watches,” one Taliban detainee told his American interrogators, “but we have the time.” Is there any solution to this war which most Americans have tuned out of their consciousness, which has dragged on now for nearly a decade (since the University class of 2014 was in the second grade)? “The United States must beat the Taliban at the local level.” Community defense needs to be tied to legitimate local institutions, especially village-level shuras (councils). The Afghan government should manage the process. Therein lies the rub: the Afghan government’s real, on-ground power is rapidly declining since December 2009. The possibility of a backlash against the Taliban remains, but thus far remote in the face of passive resistance to what Americans like to think is the central government in Kabul.
Will Afghanistan prove yet another graveyard of American power?
September 16, 2010
JSTOR Plant Science is an online environment that brings together content, tools, and people interested in plant science. It provides access to foundational content vital to plant science – plant type specimens, taxonomic structures, scientific literature, and related materials, making them widely accessible to the plant science community as well as to researchers in other fields and to the public. It also provides an easy to use interface with powerful functionality that supports research and teaching, including the ability to measure and record plant specimens, share observations and objects with colleagues and classmates, and investigate global plant biodiversity.JSTOR Plant Science strives to be a comprehensive online research tool for aggregating and exploring the world’s botanical resources, thereby dramatically improving access for students, scholars, and scientists around the globe. It is useful for those researching, teaching or studying botany, biology, ecology, environmental and conservation studies.
JSTOR Plant Science offers access to botanical and other resources from around the world including:
- The world’s largest database of plant type specimens representing the botanical diversity of the planet. More than 600,000 specimens are available today. When complete, there will be an estimated 2.2 million.
- Over 175,000 scientific research articles and other content dating back hundreds of years from leading academic journals including Kew Bulletin, Mycologia, International Journal of Plant Sciences, Science, PNAS, and others.
- Foundational reference works and books such as The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, Flowering Plants of South Africa, and illustrations from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
- A significant set of correspondence, including Kew’s Directors’ Correspondence which included hand-written letters and memorandum from the senior staff of Kew from 1841 to 1928.
- More than 20,000 paintings, photographs, drawings, and other images.
A significant portion of the content available on JSTOR Plant Science has been contributed through an effort known as the Global Plants Initiative (GPI). GPI is an international undertaking by leading herbaria to digitize and make available plant type specimens and other holdings used by botanists and others working in plant science every day. Partners include more than 147 institutions in 52 countries. There are two partner networks in place and contributing today: the African Plants Initiative which focuses on plants from Africa and the Latin American Plants Initiative which contributes plants from Latin America. GPI is also expanding to Asia with a first partner working from Nepal.
JSTOR Plant Science is available to all SHU users through the Library’s participation in JSTOR, a journal archiving project now part of ITHAKA, a organization that helps the academic community maintain the values of open-ness, research, and teaching using technology and scholarship in economically sustainable ways.
–Gavin Ferriby, with liberal quotations from the JSTOR Plant Science web site.
June 09, 2010
Recent reports on NPR about Traumatic Brain Injury (June 6-8) and continuing coverage of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster have highlighted the contributions made by ProPublica, a public-interest journalism center in the financial center of New York (Exchange Plaza, 55 Broadway).
According to its website, “ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.'” It does this “by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”
ProPublica defines it mission as:
To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.
ProPublica also blogs, and podcasts. Its stories are timely, hard-hitting, and well-researched, and for that reason occasion controversy and opposition by those inimical to the public interest. It formulated the delightful ChangeTracker tool to allow anyone to track changes in a website, such as whitehouse.gov, to see what is removed and what is added. This center is definitely worth watching by anyone with an interest in public reporting and the public interest.
April 20, 2010
Raj Patel is nothing if not ambitious in this latest book: he takes on homo economicus, the creature thought to drive capitalism itself. Whether you find much in this book will depend on how deeply invested you are in the concept of the Economic Person. Patel takes specific aim at Gary Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior: “everyone is a maximizing animal … pursuing as much of a given thing as they can get … in a market of some sort … [in the same manner] across all societies and circumstances.” (Patel, p. 27)
Patel ultimately wants to show that our over-determining drive to assign all value according to market price is skewing our societies and destroying our world. His treatment of externalities (p. 44-45 etc.) is elegant and simple, eventually showing why a Big Mac in fact should cost $200 –but what is the true value of a Big Mac, as opposed to its price? What is intentionally disallowed to determine price? Allowing the market to assign roles and values in sharing the goods and resources of society results in ecological destruction, social dislocation, and personal unhappiness, in Patel’s view.
This is a book well worth reading: short, punchy, and argumentative. Patel certainly knows how to turn a phrase. In this university community, the Catholic liberal arts tradition certainly remembers many other ways of assigning value to persons, places, resources, and ideas that do not depend upon market price as the sole determinant of valuation. Patel wants to redefine democracy in which political economy has become marginalized by market economy.