April 26, 2007

Bill Moyers on the Drumbeat to War

Posted in Politics, recent history at 3:18 am by ndsmith

Bill Moyer’s journal provides a very good summary of the feedback loop between the administration and the media in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information is already widely known, but this short program puts it all together, includes a good cast of key players in inside-the-beltway journalism who were involved in this reporting and introduces information that I was not previously aware of.

link

April 22, 2007

Ira Socol on Virginia Tech

Posted in Culture, Higher Education at 6:07 am by ndsmith

This is a nice commentary on some of the reaction to the recent tragedy at VT by Ira Socol who is better known for his work on higher education for people with disabilities. His commentary points out some of the problems already beleaguering University mental health care systems and suggests that “cracking down” on students exhibiting mental health problems will exacerbate them.

link. Also see this article from the perspective of a forensic psychologist.

Infant death rates rise in South

Posted in Culture at 4:00 am by ndsmith

Remember the old days when people used to say that Katrina had awakened us to race consciousness and particularly the links between race, poverty and vulnerability to natural disaster in the US South. Today the NY Times is reporting that infant death rates, defined as deaths in children in the first year of life, is again on the rise: from 9.7 per one-thousand in 2004 to 11.4 this year. The rates are even more dramatic for the Black population. Not only is the thought of more babies dying intuitively disparaging, but the infant mortality rate is really a bell-weather of the health of the general population.

Obesity and its accompanying health risks are thought to be major factors, and the Times reports that few women seek prenatal care for reasons of both money and motivation.

link.

March 26, 2007

Ze Frank on TED: online social spaces

Posted in internet at 5:35 pm by ndsmith

I just found this presentation Ze did at TED … in 2004. This is two years before the show began and it demonstrates how coherently zefrank conceived of himself and his mission as an online personality from a long time back. There is a segment in the presentation where he does a powerpoint associative bit that resembles Stephen Colbert’s ‘the Word’. But this is two years before the Colbert Report’s first broadcast.

I only recently became fascinated with zefrank through the show. Part of his genius in that video blog was to make the viewer feel like the production is something anyone could do–to draw viewers into his world as participants rather than passive recipient of the content. The show was conspicuously low-tech: Ze usually had not showered, appeared in a t-shirt or sweatshirt and almost always with his computer monitor in the background. Viewers are fascinated by what makes ze ze and how he does what he does. They also feel a certain intimacy with him and his production. I think this is, in part, what motivates people to participate in the collaborative projects proposed. I suppose it’s also what would prompt someone to think that it was a good idea to create a music video of them recycling.

Zefrank describes himself as creating online social spaces with a low threshold of involvement in order to utilize our latent social capital. He does this to great effect; and it seems to me that his vision exploits the essence of the medium.

Bicycle Commuting and Activism

Posted in Life at 3:25 pm by ndsmith

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on activism, its aims and tactics. One thing that has come up recently (and I’ll hopefully post more on this soon) is the case for vegetarianism as an inherently progressive practice. I think this is wrongheaded and serves to further marginalize progressivism. In the mean time, however, I got into a conversation with someone about methods of bicycle commuting. Check out the full post here at Citizen Rider.

The issue in that blog was raised by a bicyclist posting his commute on YouTube. Cafiend suggested, and I think correctly, that this should not be considered an “instructional video.” The rider in the video exhibits some unsafe techniques (running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic and riding in the lane against the flow of traffic). Cafiend takes the rider to task in a recent post. While I do not commute right now (because I scarcely leave my desk), when I used to commute daily in Boston, I practiced some of the techniques exhibited in the YouTube video and I could sympathize with the rider who made the video. The thing I object to, and it’s something I have objected to before in my interactions with bicycle activists in Boston, is that taking the moral high ground and criticizing other riders for their riding style is just a downer. It puts a damper on the whole event and can snuff out the energy of activists.

This was palpable in Boston where a few active participants in Critical Mass (mainly those associated with MassBike) would routinely argue and criticize other riders at the monthly ride and in the email listserv. I unsubscribed from the listerv because of the sheer volume of email it would periodically generate when some new user would raise a some hot button issue. The absurd conclusion of their position can be characterized by the oft-repeated claim that we should obey traffic laws while participating in Critical Mass rides (i.e., we should occupy only one lane of traffic and stop at all red lights). This seems ridiculous to me. The greatest thing about Critical Mass, for my money, was the sheer carnival of it. One of my favorite seasons was when a few riders built a makeshift trailer and mounted variously a couch and a live rock band on it. They towed this thing all around the city during the ride; and I’ll bet their legs thanked us when we didn’t force them to stop at all red lights.

I have participated fairly regularly in the protest movement since the 2000 election and I have found the same thing operating there. Sometimes people criticize the protest movement for lacking direction, unity of purpose or a coherent position. But this just entirely misses the point! Protests–among which I would include Critical Mass–are about mobilizing people (period). The goal is to get people out in the streets! Once they’re out there we can talk about why and where we’re going. But if we had to have all of that straightened out beforehand, we’d more likely stay inside on our couch or at our computer, fostering our own self-righteous indignation at the fact that the whole world isn’t exactly like us.

March 20, 2007

Haven’t you heard?

Posted in Politics at 12:33 am by ndsmith

In case you missed all the buzz around Seymour Hersh’s article that just broke in the New Yorker, I thought I would just pass along to you the fact that the United States government is funding al Qaeda in Lebanon. Say what?! Yup, that’s right, the US government is funding the very people who destroyed the World Trade Center. Listen, if this were coming from some quack job conspiracy theorist that would be one thing, but this is Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was one of the first to break the Abu Graib prison scandal. And it’s not as if I am on the leading edge of this story; it was published in the March 5 issue of the New Yorker and Hersh appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s, The Situation Room (click here to see an excerpt) at the end of February.

This is the quagmire that is Iraq: We invaded a largely unhostile nation controlled by a secular Sunni Baathist dictator under the premise that he was funding and aiding the religious extremist Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda. In fact, these two Sunni sects were wildly at odds with one another; but when we invaded the country and disbanded or jailed all of the ruling Baathists, al Qaeda swarmed into Iraq to fill this power vacuum. Initially, the majority Shia population did not step into the fray, hoping that the United States military would control these fringe fighters. The Shiites made gains in the legitimate Iraqi government forming there, so they saw no need to engage militarily with al Qaeda, until the Sunni deliberately attacked a Shia mosk last summer and instigated a Shia rebellion. Now, Hersh is reporting, the US government sees Shia Islam (in the form of Moqtada al-Sadr, Hezbollah and Iran) as the greatest single threat to national security.

One vulnerable Sunni state that the current administration would like to see retain its power in the region is Lebanon. As a result of the recent Shiite uprising there, a movement that broke into violence with the unwarranted Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon last summer, the Lebanese government is funding al Qaeda jihadist groups as protection against Hezbollah. The administration is funding these groups indirectly through covert operations with the government of Lebanon. There are probably no direct cash flows, but there is an awareness in the Pentagon of these groups and the fact that they are receiving US money. Hersh compares it to Iran-Contra and his sources have informed him that it is at least one of the reasons for John Negroponte’s resignation from the CIA.

Sounds pretty interesting: wonder if it’ll catch on?

March 19, 2007

The Science of Sleep

Posted in Movies at 9:57 pm by ndsmith

This new film, also known as La Science des rêves, from Michel Gondry is what cinema is all about. My only regret is that I did not see it on the big screen. In this film, Gondry continues his playful investigation into the mechanics of the brain and its role in imagination,  fantasy and even real life. This fascination is apparent in his earlier effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Indeed, The Science of Sleep trades on some of the same subject matter: the vicissitudes of love, the way that desire is an impediment to desire and the destabilization of narrative by incorporating the real and the imaginary.

Indeed, I think this is really the essence of film. Recent movies like Memento, Being John Malkovich (interestingly, Gondry also worked with Charlie Kaufman, directing the much less spectacular Human Nature) and Waking Life have demonstrated that the space of film narratives is not physical reality, but some strange mixture of physical and psychical reality. In other words, film is a story of the imagination. We come to see the characters not as flesh and blood actors in a drama of people, places and events, but as interconnected consciousnesses in a drama of desire, fantasy and fear. The reason I think that these narratives tap into the essence of film is because they exploit the nature of the medium. Whereas the written word forces us to produce the images and events, whereas theater displays real, flesh and blood actors on a stage, whereas visual art is static, film inserts itself directly into the imagination of the viewer. When we watch cinema, we become as it were passive recipients of someone else’s dream sequence.

The Science of Sleep is exactly that. In it we are brought into the psychological world of Stephane, a Mexican born artist who is living in Paris working as an intern for a calendar publishing company. The film’s narrative moves seamlessly between his dream-life and his waking life such that even the most absurd and catastrophic scenes do not seem out of place. What is wonderful about the effort of Michel Gondry to blur the lines between physical and psychical reality is that he never wavers from his course. Indeed, at the end of the movie one really must wonder: which is more vital to the well being of our characters, their dreaming life or their waking life?

I am reminded of the old story about the beggar who dreams every night that he is king and the king who dreams every night that he is a beggar: one wonders who is the happier?

March 18, 2007

Oh my!!

Posted in Culture, Leisure, Life, Politics at 2:35 am by ndsmith

Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday was the last Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day. And if you don’t know what that means, then you must find out… now… here (it’ll only take a few minutes). And in addition to knowledge filling you in on what’s new, you will see animations, power moves, bits of the ORG, an intro broadcast from Hawaii…. and Jack Black, reporting the weather… from inside. All I can say is it’s fluorescent…. or was that evanescent. 🙂 Aaahhh…. it just makes me feel good inside.

March 9, 2007

Nacirema

Posted in Culture, Life at 5:30 am by ndsmith

I’ve been meaning to post about my great-uncle Neil, but I just never get around to it… Until I was motivated today after I pulled off the bookshelf a collection of articles that had been given to me via my grandfather, with the title Nacirema (wikipedia). I had an inkling about what the name might mean, but when I read the Introduction, it read like a real collection of scholarly articles on American cultural anthropology. In fact, Neil writes the final article, “The Mysterious Fall of the Nacimeran: This Vigorous Culture’s Obsession with Altering its Land and Waterways May Have Caused its own Death,” written in 1972 (I was delighted to have found the article online–hence the link). Put down your Harry Potter and read this article–it is wonderfully illuminating.

Over the last two years, as both of my maternal grandparents passed away, I had the unexpected good fortune of discovering a previously unknown family relative: Neil Baird Thomspon, a former professor of American Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He died prematurely of cancer in 1977. An intellectual and a man with vision, he took his illness as an opportunity not only to prepare the manuscript on which he was working, and which would be published two years after his death, but to prepare his own “humanistic” funeral. There is a surviving audio tape of the funeral that I have not heard; but I am told that in the car on the way back from Minnesota, I (a year and a half old) uttered my first word: wa-ter.

The book was completed by a colleague who wrote “In Memoriam” that “Because Neil was a careful and complete craftsman, his drafts and notes eased the final work of publication.” I cannot imagine much higher a complement to be paid. When I received a copy from my aunt last year, I read it with the enthusiasm of meeting someone I had longed to meet. There are many wonderful features of the book, but most of all its careful, concise and measured prose made reading it a joy.

The Foreword describes the book as “a vivid portrayal of the events which transpired during the Indian Wars Campaign following the Civil War and services performed by that relatively small Regular Army force engaged in securing the western plains for occupation and settlement by the white man.” More than anything, it is a meditation on the real life situation (‘on the ground’ as we say today) of the American footsoldier. Its title, Crazy Horse Called Them Walk-A-Heaps, expresses much of Thompson’s final assessment in a few, poignant words. Published in 1979, it provides a well-developed complement to, for instance, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Using the Battle of Little Bighorn as its guiding point, it supplements that pioneering work on the Native American realities of the great plains wars with an equally sensitive portrayal of the American footsoldier himself.

Like any good historical account, Thompson’s study of the Regular Army has as much to teach us today about the politics of war as it teaches us to distrust our romantic visions of the past. Indeed, it seems that the United States was singularly unprepared to undertake its mission of securing the west from the “ravages” of the “lawless” Native Americans. The Regular Army was a rag-tag force of Civil War veterans, foreign recruits and vagabonds. They were underfunded, ill-prepared, inappropriately supplied and their various forts and encampments were only loosely connected. Meanwhile, the political establishment and the media back east kept the populous woefully ignorant of the real status of the ongoing conflict. In concluding a chapter called, “The Hydra-headed Monster: The Nation’s Interests and the Army,” Thompson writes:

Two of a kind, those–the soldier and the Indian. Disliked, feared, treated with contempt, they were kept from an intimate relationship by ambiguities, animosities and the greediness of those people who created the murky situation in which they were the primary pawns. And so the trooper and the warrior fought and killed each other while developing hatreds to last more than a lifetime.

Neil Thompson, like his brother (my grandfather), was a WWII GI and a devoted soldier. He does not bring to his analysis any a priori distain for war or soldiers. Just the opposite, his assessment of the R.A. soldier is admiring and illuminating. He sees the soldiers as victims of a bureaucratic tangle, brought about by greed for expansion to the west and an army that was unfit to fight a war over such a vast landscape, against a superbly trained guerrilla warrior. As the previous quotation makes clear, he extended the same respect and empathic perspective to the Native American warriors. For them, Thompson observers, horsemanship and the ability to navigate the landscape were simply part of life: “the lifestyle of the horse Indian produced a superior fighting man. His value system, his concept of logistics, his use of the horse, his tactical sense, his medical knowledge, all contributed to make the warrior.”

A chapter called “Gentlemen by Act of Congress: The Officer’s Corps” describes how the American soldier, though undertrained and underequiped, rose to the occasion of the war. Despite woeful conditions and a lack of funds, these soldiers made the most of it. Select officers who possessed innate military acumen adapted to the style of warfare waged by the Native Americans to some effect. Almost more remarkably, however, Thompson records impressive scientific observations of the topography, flora and fauna of the western plains carried out by officers. One developed into what Thompson calls a “litterateur,” writing some 86 novels, while others preserved a more modest body of information about paleontology or weather.

No, there was nothing reprehensible about the American soldier; and there remains a wealth of reasons to ponder over what we lost with the deaths of so many American Indians… It was simply the war itself, the policy that governed it and the way in which it was executed that made that period such a morally bleak era in American history.

In fact, Thompson is quite clear that the stated policy of expansion was hardly advanced by this foolhearty war. Indeed, it seems that white settlement, the railroads, disease and the destruction of the buffalo were the real reasons for the annihilation of the Native American civilization. In fact, the most positive outcome of the great war in the plains was that it readied an outdated and aging military for the wars of the twentieth century.

One can only conclude that the R.A. was really a quite minor factor in the “civilizing” of our last frontier. We can surmise that the men who faced the Indian Campaigns, risked life and limb against some of the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen, finally learned what it took to make a modern army. Those hard lessons finally forced that army into being.

As I mentioned at the outset, the book was posthumously edited and published. Though I believe the argument is complete and the writing certainly fluid, I wonder what more uncle Neil may have had to say. As it stands, the book seems to end abruptly. But the last few paragraphs portend wonderful insights:

Given such a slap-dash organization, the history of the Indian Campaigns could be little more than the series of ill-managed episodes that it was…. The Old Army was a grand spectacle–of individuals. It certainly was not a grand army. the historian finds it difficult to call it an army at all.

One wonders how he would have understood this claim in light of the broader identity and development of a nation of frontierspeople. A nation, as his tongue-and-cheek “Nacirema” article suggests, that is so driven by consumption and its desire to alter its environment that it would someday (gasp!) bring about its own demise.

March 6, 2007

Against the Philosophical Gourmet

Posted in Academia at 11:14 pm by ndsmith

Though Brian Leiter‘s ranking of PhD programs in philosophy is a useful tool, it would be nice to have other sorts of “relatively objective” methods for determining the credentials of various faculty of philosophy. The Leiter report is based on a survey of about 250 faculty who are largely from the “top” Universities. As I understand it, the survey asks these scholars to rate various departments on the basis of the qualifications of the faculty there. So there is clearly a question of the tool itself being self-reinforced by an unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, as one very respected scholar once told me, “It’s the only game in town.”

Given the nature of the twentieth century distinction between what was termed “analytic philosophy” and everything else (which by default came to be called “continental philosophy,” in contradistinction to what was being done at Oxford and Cambridge, though admittedly there was an important strand of analytic philosophy in Vienna and Germany), I think one ought to be careful when appealing to samples of faculty members–there is good reason to suspect prevalent biases in any selective population. There must be better methods available to rank PhD faculty. And since I think it would be panglossian in the extreme to dream of a world without college rankings. Shouldn’t we employ these?

For instance, I just googled DePaul University–a well-respected school specializing in the History of Philosophy and Continental philosophy. The second option, after the university’s main page, is the philosophy department. I wonder how many other schools are known for their philosophy departments, at least as far as the set of google users extends (which is probably a pretty large sampling)? Another possible candidate for survey would be the selectivity of admissions. And I have always wondered if there could be some automated ranking of the number of times a scholar is cited in a selected sample of contemporary publications as a function of contemporary scholars.

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