Thursday, May 25, 2006

Where is Pittsburgh? A recurring question

Pittsburgh is the farthest west I have ever lived. In the service of figuring out where I am, I have begun to collect views on whether Pittsburgh is part of the Northeast or part of the Midwest or somewhere else.

First item:

from a letter to the editor of the New York Times sports section, Sunday, April 30, 2006, p.9:

"For the second time in two months, I have witnessed teams from Washington state--specifically the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Huskies basketball team--be snubbed by pathetic referees while playing teams from the East Coast [emphasis added]....

"The East Coast bias is getting so ridiculously old... If anyone believes that the referees in the Super Bowl were not paid off to influence the game in favor of Pittsburgh, they are just flat-out ignorant!"

The letter is from Ed Gill of Seattle.

I have no interest in Mr. Gill's conspiracy theory of the Super Bowl, but I find his geography quite interesting for my project.

My way or the busway?

I went this week to the Eastern Corridor Transit Study public input meeting on the Pitt campus.

I came in late, in time to hear a Gen-Y'er (or maybe Z; are we up to Z yet?) speaking in favor of light rail because it projects the right image to young people. A couple of speakers later, a member of the Sierra Club from Edgewood wanted to know why nobody was talking any more about converting the East Busway to light rail.

As I sat there, my thoughts went like this: when I moved to Pittsburgh, busways seemed like a clever idea because you can have the feeder routes go from neighborhoods to the busway to the downtown hub and then spread out again, thus giving people one ride to work (no transfers). (I suppose I'm still recovering from my 3 transfer ride (4 on rainy days) from my apartment in Arlington, MA to Logan airport. But that's another story.) Light rail is nice and makes me feel good and progressive in that old-timey back-to-the-past sort of way, but it seems that busways are cheaper, can be built faster, offer more flexibility, and might get people out of their cars sooner which is better for the environment than waiting around for light rail.

So I raised my hand and said all this (except for the part about Boston).

This set off quite a debate. Apparently I aligned myself with the bureaucrats at the Port Authority and with the realists against the environmentalists and the civic boosters.

So I decided I better read more about it.

See these thoughtful discussions here, here, and here. And here is a report from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies on Bus Rapid Transit.

Turns out, Pittsburgh is either in the vanguard (trailing a bit behind Ottawa) or hopelessly stuck in the past or too cheap to do it right.

I'm still leaning toward BRT (now I'm learning the lingo). I understand the environmental concerns, but it seems hybrid technology is making buses cleaner and it's not as though the electricity to run light rail lines doesn't come from somewhere. I also understand the economic development issues that would seem to favor light rail over buses but as some of the comments in the discussions above point out (and as I pointed out at the meeting on Tuesday), you can have transit-oriented development around a busway station just as you can around a light rail (or heavy rail) station.

One other point of interest: I learn from the National Academies' report that BRT was touted in the transit plan prepared for the National Capital Planning Commission in the late 50s (1956-1959). I suppose I'll have to wait until I read Zach Schrag's The Great Society Subway to find out why this didn't happen in the DC area. I'm happy with the Metro--don't get me wrong! But imagine if the Capital Beltway had a dedicated busway alongside it. It would make all the planning for the proposed Purple Line moot. (I also take a personal interest since my father joined NCPC in 1959. Did Dad kill the Washington busway? Now that would be ironic. [And also impossible since he was the general counsel and not a transportation planner.])

New Media, Information, and History

An update to my posting on Kelly's article ("Nothing New Under the Sun").

If you are interested in a historical perspective on the impact that new media can have on the processing of information and the production of knowledge, the best place to go is to the work of Ann Blair who is working now on a project on what she calls "information overload in early modern Europe."

For the popular version of her work, see this Harvard Gazette article.
One of her early papers on the subject is posted at the Princeton Center for the Study of Books and Media site. (Scroll down to conference papers to find hers.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What's new under the sun?

The May 14 “manifesto” by Kevin Kelly, “What Will Happen to the Books?” is very interesting. (I am a little behind in my reading of the New York Times Magazine, so this link will get you to the archives and not to the full text.) Kelly gives us a portrait of the future in which nearly every book has been digitized and in which information is seamlessly linked together.

Hmm... when is this all going to happen? At certain points, Kelly suggests that we are on the verge of this new environment and at other points, reality intrudes: lawsuits over copyright won’t be resolved quickly and the pace of scanning is unclear. And let’s remember that all that hyperlinking has to be done by humans (for now) for it to make any sense. And that takes time. So the “universal library” might be scanned in relatively short order, but the cataloging is going to be a long-term project. As in today’s world, libraries acquire books much faster than they can sort them into order.

He’s probably right that at some point a “book outside the universal library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air.” But that’s already the case for millions of volumes that sit unread in libraries and millions of documents that sit unread in archives. If we want to anthropomorphize, we can say that these books and documents patiently wait for their rescuers, historians and scholars of the present and future who will unearth them in the course of their research. Books can survive a long time without air actually.

Indeed, the biggest flaw in Kelly’s analysis is any sense of historical perspective.

Consider his breathless excitement over the activity of the readers in this universal library:

“Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before....
“In recent years, hundred of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs have written and cross-referenced an entire online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Buoyed by this success, many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans.” (NYT Magazine, May 14, 2006, p.45).

Wow! So prior to the Internet nobody ever read books, took notes, prepared indices, annotated editions, wrote commentaries, digested books for others, quoted passages in new writings, or cited the old texts in the new texts? The hyperlink concept was actually invented hundred of years ago--it was just called a footnote. The index, the abstract, the commentary all have long histories.

And a standard way of note-taking among Western scholars, for hundreds of years, was the commonplace book in which the reader arranged topical headings in a notebook and then copied passages from what he read under the various headings.

These days, the headings might be called “tags” which Kelly notes is a “recent innovation on the Web”:

“A tag is a public annotation, like a keyword or category name, that is hung on a file, page, picture or song, enabling anyone to search for that file.... Because tags are user-generated, when they move to the realm of books, they will be assigned faster, range wider, and serve better than out-of-date schemes like the Dewey Decimal System [Ouch!], particularly in frontier or fringe areas like nanotechnology or body modification.” (Ibid.)
[Not sure I want to know what “body modification” is.]

Now I’m not suggesting that the scale of the Internet or the machine-assisted nature of the searching won’t change the nature of all this activity. But it’s not as if, prior to the Internet, people have been slowly taking one book off the shelf, reading it, and putting it back and then moving on to the next book, all the while not communicating with each other.

As with many new technologies, the first thing people have done with the Internet is figure out how to do the same things they’ve already been doing better, faster, more efficiently. Then they will start figuring out to do new things with the technology and society really changes. Kelly’s analysis of how things will (could) change would be improved if he paid attention to what is truly new and what is a new way of doing the old.

For example, Kelly is really excited that “the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’--a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others a long as whole books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.” (Ibid.)

This isn’t new--you’ve got such things, I’ve got such things, Kelly’s got such things. For example, I’ve got a lot of really specialized information about the reception of a medieval book called the Kuzari. Some of it’s virtual--in my computer files--and some of it is ‘real’--on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets and scattered on the floor of my study, sometimes. And some of the connections are in my brain and some are in writing.

Next sentence: “And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons.” (Ibid.)

I'm not sure what's new here. Don't we publish our specialized collections of knowledge nowadays?

Next sentence: “Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or remixed as pages.” (Ibid.,)

Actually, learned authors writing during the Renaissance period had some notion this was going to happen when their readers got hold of their books. But regardless of authorial intention, we the readers have been doing this to texts for a long time.

Next sentence: “The ability to purchase, read, and manipulate individual pages or sections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides) in the future. You might concoct your own ‘cookbook shelf’ of Cajun recipes compiled from many different sources....” (Ibid., pp.45-46.)

Again, this sounds a lot like a commonplace book. And Kelly might want to read Malachi Beit-Arie’s discussion of medieval Jewish manuscript culture in which scholar-scribes often felt free to rewrite texts as they saw fit.

Skipping a bit: “Once snippets, articles, and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffle-able and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.” (Ibid., p.46)

Indeed, authors in the medieval and early modern periods often looked for patronage by claiming to have put together a useful compendium of information on a topic.

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.

Squirrel Hill Update

Update: we tried Silk Elephant over the weekend. Very good. I liked the vegetarian dumplings, the salmon dumplings, and the fresh rolls quite a lot. And the mushroom soup was excellent. My children, who are noodle experts, thought the Thai Noodle Soup was quite good and they were pleased that plain noodles were readily available.

Some notes on the neighborhood:

Free wireless at Rolladin Bakery/Cafe and at Te Cafe. These are two of my favorite new(ish) spots. Te Cafe has lots of tea; very expensive coffee that is good but my taste buds aren't sensitive enough to justify the difference in price; and nice sandwiches. And there always seems to be a copy of the New York Times. Rolladin, my favorite bakery in Squirrel Hill (yummy burekas[im]), has moved across the street and expanded into a full-fledged Israeli cafe with a breakfast and lunch menu. Nice place to sit and hang out. Kosher but gentiles and apikorsim (heretics) welcome.

Taqueria Mi Mexico (only for gentiles and apikorsim, I think) has closed.

Pacific Ring is a new "Pan Asian" restaurant. (Most of the menu is Chinese and Japanese.) I thought it was okay for a neighborhood place (but I prefer New Dumpling House down the street.) My colleague (who has spent considerable time in Asia) was less impressed. However, the City Paper reviewers gave it three stars and I usually agree with them so it's possible I was there on a bad night.

I have yet to try it, but I am pleased that we now have a kosher sushi restaurant (Susheli). I am guessing it's one of the only ones in North America outside of New York. A quick internet search turns up kosher sushi at Rubins in Brookline and a "Kosher Sushi Club" in St. Louis. Personally, I'll take my cucumber and avocado rolls anywhere, but I think it's nice to be able to say I live in a Jewish community with a kosher sushi.

4 kosher restaurants now: Milky Way (which I think has the best pizza on Murray Avenue); Susheli; Rolladin; and Pinati (Israeli Mizrachi, meat).

Two other new(ish) Asian places I want to try: Sweet Basil/La Filipiana which is Thai and Filipino (but apparently not fusion) and Silk Elephant which is "Thai Tapas."

Another Russian food store has opened on Murray Avenue in Greenfield, across from the Giant Eagle. A quick glance through the window suggests that this will be a good source for Wissotzky tea.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ruth Ann Dailey confused about her profession

Bill O'Reilly gets it, but one of our local pundits is completely confused about the difference between journalism and theology. See here.

Can anybody spot the problem with this analogy between the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's coverage of the Pennsylvania legislature and the Gospel of Matthew's "coverage" of the life and death of Jesus?

"Here's how [journalism] usually works: You have a busy life, filled with jobs and kids and chores and charity work, so you don't have time to attend, say, most sessions of the Legislature in Harrisburg. (If you're lucky, you haven't attended any at all.)

"Instead, you drop 50 cents into a little box and pull out a newspaper with regular, detailed reports on what our fine state reps are up to. The newspaper also carries first-hand accounts of things such as war, natural disasters, crime and government -- or crime in government.

"The newspaper's managers pool together all those quarters you drop at the newsstand (it costs less if you subscribe!) to pay reporters to do the observing and fact-gathering on your behalf.

"It's a good system, don't you think? It also happens to be the reason that I believe Jesus was divine, performed countless miracles, preached radical truths and didn't father children with Mary Magdalene.

"The eyewitnesses who heard his sermons, witnessed his miracles and touched his living body after they'd watched him die wrote about these events in both detail and great accord. Though they give Mary Magdalene credit for arriving first at Jesus' empty tomb, they don't mention a romantic relationship or children. They understood that the gospel concerns his blood, not his bloodline.

"There are far more early copies of their reporting and a far shorter gap between the originals and the surviving copies than for any other document from ancient times. And the authors of these journalistic accounts chose to die rather than renounce what they'd written."

If you are having trouble answering my challenge (to spot the faulty logic in the analogy), I recommend any basic textbook on the history of early Christianity.

In the meantime, two salient points:
1) The earliest of the four Gospels (Mark) dates from at least 3 decades after the death of Jesus. The usual range of dates given by historians for the four Gospels (without total consensus on when each was written) is circa 70 CE to circa 120 CE.

2) The penultimate sentence I quoted from Ms. Dailey is a red herring: yes, there are lots of early manuscript copies of the four Gospels. But all this tells us is that Christian communities in the late first century and early second century accepted these accounts and transmitted them as accurately as possible. It doesn't tell us anything about the reliability of the accounts regarding early first century events.

Ms. Dailey and other Christians are perfectly free to believe that the Gospel accounts are true. But if she is basing her religious faith on a notion that the Gospels have the same epistemological status as the AP wire, she is working from faulty premises.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Strange to agree with Bill O'Reilly...

...about anything, but in an Associated Press dispatch by Richard Ostling, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saturday May 20, 2006, p.A2, O'Reilly is quoted as saying: "no gospel is history." Bill O'Reilly apparently shares the understanding of most academic historians regarding the historicity of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament: that they "all have different interpretations of what happened" and that they can not be taken as accurate history. As texts from late in the first century and early in the second century, they are not eyewitness accounts, but do offer us some clues about what may have happened earlier in the first century. However, our use of the text to reconstruct earlier events must be done cautiously given that they are later texts, offering particular theological interpretations to particular early Christian audiences. [The last two sentences are my summary of the views of historians that O'Reilly seems to share. They are not a paraphrase of O'Reilly's comments.]

It's worth keeping this in mind when we hear that The Da Vinci Code is "fiction." It makes claims about certain things being true which are not true. And certainly it is worth pointing out what supposed historical facts are not false lest anyone think that Isaac Newton was a member of a secret society that worshipped the eternal feminine or that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby.

But it's quite interesting to read the novel (and I suppose interpret the film) as a particular theological interpretation designed to speak to a contemporary audience.

To loosely paraphrase a famous comment about the study of Jewish mysticism: fiction making truth claims is fiction but the history of the acceptance of such truth claims is Religious Studies.

Free Newspapers Update

The TribPM appeared again on our front steps two days this week.
Have taken no action except to read them.