Sunday, January 23, 2005

More Fun With Sex Hormones

Reason, one of the best magazines out there, has an article on that Harvard controversy I've mentioned a few times. As usual, they are quite witty and fearless on the whole issue.
Best Quote:
"It has been fashionable to insist that these differences are minimal, the consequences of variations in experience during development," wrote University of Western Ontario psychologist Doreen Kimura in a 1992 Scientific American article. "The bulk of the evidence suggests, however, that the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so early in life that from the start the environment is acting on differently wired brains in girls and boys."

Actually, in the Humanities, it is fashionable to argue that sex hormones don't exist, that any differences between the sexes are due to a social conspiracy, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is an essentialist. And then to get the vapors and run away.


How Torture Plays in the Blogosphere

Here's a blog that pretty much sums up the freeper blogosphere's response to the torture scandal. "New England Republican" really demonstrates how... blind partisan thinking can be.
Quote: "I will never understand why the left is so hung up on this scandal - like somehow this re-inforces the reasons why Iraq was never a threat - but for the sheer logistics of opposition, Abu Ghraib gives them a powerful and uniting costume for their protests."

Why in the world would any American care if this is a nation that tortures people or a nation that doesn't? It couldn't have anything to do with the values on which the nation is founded, right? Of course not. What could that matter? And trying to figure out what behavior might be required by Christian morality is way too tough! So, instead of thinking about that issue, he assumes that "the left" has a problem with torture because its use "reinforces the reasons why Iraq was never a threat". Seriously, would it be possible to say anything stupider than that?

But, he continues:
"AND I won't complain - watching these people makes fools of themselves is priceless and Abu Ghraib provided me with a b*tchin' Halloween costume last year!"

Yes, it's just too bad he can't appreciate the ass he's made of himself.


In Amazonia 2: On Second Thought

On the other hand, the book does avoid most of the pitfalls of this genre. Raffles is interested in language, but he doesn't get as pedantic or deterministic as cultural historians can. He does get a bit carried away with the class stuff (at one point using a source's affectionate comments about Henry Walter Bates' accent as proof that Bates could never escape his class), but not to the extent of a lot of scholars. Most importantly, Raffles covers so many eras and people that he doesn't have time to indulge in the sort of self-indulgent musing that characterizes these things. He even includes some annecdotes about natives chiding him over his tendency to over-analyze. These stories are amusing, although the natives in question do have a point


In Amazonia 2: On Second Thought

On the other hand, the book does avoid most of the pitfalls of this genre. Raffles is interested in language, but he doesn't get as pedantic or deterministic as cultural historians can. He does get a bit carried away with the class stuff (at one point using a source's affectionate comments about Henry Walter Bates' accent as proof that Bates could never escape his class), but not to the extent of a lot of scholars. Most importantly, Raffles covers so many eras and people that he doesn't have time to indulge in the sort of self-indulgent musing that characterizes these things. He even includes some annecdotes about natives chiding him over his tendency to over-analyze. These stories are amusing, although the natives in question do have a point


Saturday, January 22, 2005

In Amazonia

I finished reading In Amazonia: A Natural History by Hugh Raffles. The book deals with the Amazon River, and a particular village within the Amazon as both physical spaces and cultural concepts.
The parts of the book dealing with the physical river were fascinating. Raffles explains how the Amazon River has been physically shaped by constant human endeavour. I had no idea how much engineering has gone on, often by native individuals.
The cultural sections of the book are pretty standard cultural history. These things are often written the same way. First, the author takes an item X. Then, he or she says that "X is a site." What sort of site? Well, a "contested site of conflicting cultural and discursive meanings". What does that mean? Basically, that different groups have different concepts of the River and these different concepts come from outside historical factors, sometimes their race, gender, or class, but inevitably politics. Everything is political to the cultural historian. So, do cultural histories reflect reality? Sometimes.


Cold Snap

Toronto has a cold snap today. I had just fled the Buffalo cold snap earlier in the week, and now it's snowing here. Oh, well. I am busy anyway, reading In Amazonia: A Natural History, by Hugh Raffles. I'll tell you about it when I'm done. It's good to sit inside, drink coffee, and watch the snow blow past the window.
Earlier, I discovered that we had no coffee. This was, of course, an emergency situation. So, I put on the big boots we share and trudged down the street to the White Corner Convenience Store. The Korean store owner was as nice as can be, as usual. Two other men were in the store, both of whom were middle-aged, and both of whom wanted The New York Times. Apparently, it is still the paper of record in Toronto, regardless of their recent internal problems.
Now, Claire is listening to Air and cleaning the apartment.


Friday, January 21, 2005

Bleeding Heart

Typical meandering and mediocre editorial from Peggy Noonan about Bush's inauguration. She's still a supporter, but a bit disturbed because she thinks Bush sounds like a religious fanatic. What? All of a sudden? Anyway, he sounds more like something else to me. Listen:
Bush: "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies." "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery."

Wow! What a flaming, bleeding-heart Liberal. How did he ever get out of Berkeley?


Thursday, January 20, 2005

Torture Myths #3

Today, I offer a pretty easy one to rebuke. But, as it is quite common, it is worth rebuking.

Myth: We should, in fact, torture captured terrorists, because they would do the same to Americans whom they captured.

Truth: This is not a good argument for torture at all. Actually, it's a fantastic argument against the use of torture. Americans are morally superior to the terrorists that we're fighting, and we should do everything we can not to behave as they do.


Flat Earth Society

Lawrence Summers has apologized, apparently for the third time, about those comments he made. Hopefully, he has shown the proper contrition for suggesting a hypothesis be tested.
I love this line:
"I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully," Summers said in a letter to the Harvard community posted on his Web site and dated Wednesday. "I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women."
Right. So, now girls can't even hear a potential hypothesis for one of the factors that there are less women in the sciences. Because, that might frighten the horses.
Anyway, it seems rather obvious that the next Culture War in the academy will be between the Sciences and Humanities. Unfortunately, I don't want to be on the side of the Flat Earth Society on this one.


Back in Classes

Well, I just started my first seminar on Tuesday and it seems like fun. Basically, a grad seminar in History involves researching primary sources and writing a research paper for the semester. In other words, it's more helpful for learning how to do historiography than a class on theories of historiography. So, I'm very happy with the seminar. My major primary document will be Madame de Stahl's book on Germany, which actually relates to my dissertation topic on French Romanticism because de Stahl helped to introduce Romanticism to France.


good morning

it is cold.


Harvard Hooray

Great interview with Professor Steven Pinker in the Harvard Crimson ridiculing those academics who would declare certain hypotheses unspeakable, in relation to President Summer's speech. Best quote:

CRIMSON: Were President Summers’ remarks within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?

PINKER: Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa.

Hear hear!


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Washington Post on Gonzalez

This Washington Post editorial states the obvious about potential Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; that he should never, never, never get the job. Still, it's well worth reading.

"It is nevertheless indisputable that Mr. Gonzales oversaw and approved a decision to disregard the Geneva Conventions for detainees from Afghanistan; that he endorsed interrogation methods that military and FBI professionals regarded as illegal and improper; and that he supported the indefinite detention of both foreigners and Americans without due process. To confirm such an official as attorney general is to ratify decisions that are at odds with fundamental American values."


Monday, January 17, 2005

Torture Myths #2

Torture Myth #2:
The White House never condoned torture.

Actually, White House lawyers and officials wrote several hundred pages of memos supporting, condoning, and perhaps encouraging, the use of tactics that could be considered torture. 1300 pages of these memos are even about to be published in book form. It just keeps getting worse and worse, eh?


And Goodnight!

Tomorrow classes begin for the Spring semester. At least, for us grad students. So, off to prepare I go.



Just testing.


Saturday Night Dead

Okay, admittedly this is too easy, but here's an editorial entitled
Saturday Night Live Sucks! Again, everyone knows this, but the writer does cover most of the annoying aspects of SNL over the last few years. One thing he leaves out that drives me nuts about SNL is the fact that every time they have one of the black cast members in a sketch, they do the same lame gag wherein a white cast member says something somewhat racist and the black cast member gets offended. That's the whole joke! Sometimes, the joke is that the black guy has no real reason to be offended, but that's about the only variation on the bit. Look, it was funny thirty years ago when Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor were doing that bit, but that was a long time ago. Don't get me wrong- I'm not offended by it- it's just not funny any more.


Torture Myths #1

Just working my way through an argument against torture here. I'd like to go through some of the myths about torture that are made most often by torture-apologists.

#1: Nothing that has been done to prisoners of the US Army has violated the Geneva Conventions.

Fact: Prison Guard Charles A. Graner claims, who has been sentenced to ten years in prison for abuse he inflicted at Abu Ghraib, claimed that "superior officers instructed him take actions at the prison that he knew would 'violate the Geneva Conventions.'"

Note also that Graner named names of superiors who specifically ordered him to violate said conventions, which I suspect is the reason he got such a light sentence. Also, goes against all that "few bad apples" bullshit.


Paris by way of Toronto

Just a plug for a great accordian player in T.O. named
Fabrice Sicco, who may well be playing our wedding in July. His music is just great and he's also a very nice person.


Baby, it's Cold Outside

As a transplanted Torontonian, from sunny Virginia, I can admit that I have yet to get used to the concept of "the middle of the winter". Where I come from, the middle of the winter is a Wednesday and the End of the Winter is a Friday. In other words, brrrrrrr.


Biology and Destiny

Article from the Boston Globe about comments by the President of Harvard that recently "drew ire". Has anyone noticed that the only time anyone cares what academics say is when they "draw ire"? At any rate, here goes:
"The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities."
So, he was musing about something and that was the problem? Academics aren't supposed to muse anymore??
"Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers' talk, saying later that if she hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up."
You have to love a biologist who gets so deeply offended at the suggestion that biology may play a role in behavior.
"Summers said he was only putting forward hypotheses based on the scholarly work assembled for the conference, not expressing his own judgments -- in fact, he said, more research needs to be done on these issues."
At any rate, I don't buy the "biology is destiny" argument any more than the social construction is destiny argument. But, it seems a bit... hmmm, unhealthy to have an academic environment in which people draw ire for considering ideas.


Benny Hill?

Probably the record holder for the five billionth editorial bemoaning Political Correctness; this one comes from the Australian. One strange thing commented upon here here- apparently in Australia, it's considered politically incorrect to laugh at Benny Hill. So, apparently the show that my grandparents thought of as a ribald, but tasteful, good time is offensive to young Australians. What a bunch of yobs!


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Hitler and the Pope

This story from CNN details Hitler's plan to kidnap Pope Pius XII, of which new evidence has recently come to light. Apparently, Hitler saw the Pope as enough of a threat to want him eliminated, but his own Nazi soldiers would not carry out the plan. At the very least, this flies in the face of that old urban legend about Pope Pius and Hitler working closely together, which actually originated in a play, but which is often fobbed off as historical fact by people who should know better. Pius sure could have done more, but Hitler definitely didn't see him as "his" Pope.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Are the Cities Outdated?

Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West wrote:
"World history is city history."
What he meant by this, of course, was that the countryside never really changes, while the city determines the direction that a civilization takes. England is London. France is Paris. Islam is Baghdad. The city drives history.
Yet, we should also remember that Spengler was writing in 1926. At that time, what he was saying had, more or less, been true from Mesopotamia to the then-present-day. World history had been city history.
But, after World War II, a massive historical change took place that has been relatively uncommented upon; the center of Western culture gradually moved to the suburbs. Today, technologies, such as the Internet or ever-improving food storage systems, are driven by the needs of the suburban home. Markets are geared entirely towards the desires of suburbanites, while city dwellers' needs become increasingly capricious and trivial. Politicians respond entirely to the fears, dreams, and needs of suburbanites. Cinema recreates the suburban childhoods of directors like Steven Spielburg and politics reflects cinema. It also seems odd that so few have noted that the most successful New York City artist after WWII was Andy Warhol, a man whose paintings most fully captured the values of suburbia.
As for the cities, they seem sadly antiquated. J.G. Ballard has said that he regards the city as a semi-extinct form. Watch films of Manhattan and you start to realize that, after the 1920's, nothing ever changes. Even the habits of mind of Manhattan residents remain unchanged year after year. Somehow, the metropolises became more provincial than an isolated English hamlet in some nineteenth century novel; the Village Voice reads like the mimeographed gossip sheet of the smallest town in America.
Meanwhile, the suburban mentality becomes the national myth. The War on Terror is the gated community writ large. What I see, every day, in these kids in their teens, twenties, and thirties is that the mall follows them everywhere. Perhaps their greatest act of rebellion against that fact will be in re-establishing a sense of the passage of time.



This is actually my third attempt at starting a blog. Due to software problems, the others have gone dead. Hopefully, I will be able to overcome that here. Anyway, bonjour!