Friday, March 30, 2007

Boston and Pittsburgh: banking edition

Here are some more ways that Boston and Pittsburgh are alike.

See this earlier post for the beginning of this thought.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fact in Fiction

I'm sure literary critics have written a lot about the status of inaccurate but purportedly factual information in fictional works. It seems like a simple question with a simple answer in many ways, right? Fiction is fiction hence Dorothy Sayers' "Author's Note" prefacing Gaudy Night:

"It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book.... Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935, but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King's Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon's changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist's only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world."

Of course the question is a bit more complicated and can seem relevant in terms of poetry as well as prose, as this exchange among fictional characters in David Lodge's novel Nice Work suggests:

"Marion began reading her paper in a low monotone. All went well until she observed that the line from 'Locksley Hall,' 'Let the great world spin for ever, down the ringing grooves of change,' reflected the confidence of the Victorian Railway Age. Vic raised his hand.
"'Yes, Mr. Wilcox?' Robyn's tone and regard were as discouraging as she could make them.
"'He must have been thinking of trams, not trains,' said Vic. 'Train wheels don't run in grooves.'
"Simon Bradford gave an abrupt, high-pitched laugh; then, on meeting Robyn's eye, looked as if he wished he hadn't.
"'D'you find that suggestion amusing, Simon?' she said.
"'Well,' he said, 'trams. They're not very poetic, are they?'
"'It said the Railway Age in this book I read,' said Marion.
"'What book, Marion?' said Robyn.
"'Some critical book. I can't remember which one, now,' said Marion, riffing randomly through a sheaf of notes.
"'Always acknowledge secondary sources,'* said Robyn. 'Actually, it's quite an interesting, if trivial, point. When he wrote the poem, Tennyson was under the impression that railway trains ran in grooves.' She read out the footnote from her Longman's Annotated edition...."
(Penguin paperback edition, 1990, pp.242-243).

So what would the annotated edition to Carole Nelson Douglas' Sherlockian/semi-Sherlockian novel Castle Rouge say about this passage in which the possibility that a Jew was Jack the Ripper is discussed?

"Irene [Adler] supported Bram [Stoker] as well. 'That is one fact [apparently ritualized arrangement of the victims' bodies] that made the Jews suspect of the crime: they perform ritual sacrifice of animals, and so were favored suspects because the women were killed as if in a ritual." (Forge Books, mass market edition, 2003, p.281)

In my imaginary landscape of the Sherlock Holmes world, Irene Adler is Jewish** but that may not be how Carole Douglas conceives the character. But earlier in the novel an indisputably Jewish character says:

"He shrugged. 'Who am I to judge ways of worship? At Passover we celebrate with the sacrifice of the lamb. Christians do not understand that, yet they worship a sacrificed man." (Ibid., p.73)

The convoluted plot of this "novel of suspense featuring Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes" is not too important here. I won't reveal the plot but suffice it to say that it turns out that Jack the Ripper is not Jewish.

I can think of a few scenarios here, all of which are perplexing and a bit weird:

1) Carole Nelson Douglas, an actual person living in the 21st century, thinks that Jews in the 19th century engaged in animal sacrifice.

2) Carole Nelson Douglas knows full well that actual (real) Jews in the 19th century did not engage in animal sacrifice but has invented a Cloud-Cuckooland of 19th-century Europe that maps onto historical 19th-century Europe in some respects and not others. In this fictional version of 19th-century Europe, Jews engaged in animal sacrifice.

3) Carole Nelson Douglas knows full well that actual Jews in the 19th century did not engage in animal sacrifice. But she has invented fictional characters who know that Jews did not engage in animal sacrifice but who, for whatever obscure fictional motives, wish to suggest to their fictional interlocutors that Jews in the 19th century do engage in animal sacrifice. [This one seems highly implausible as the plot is not furthered by any such devious scheme.]

Given that the Jewish Jack the Ripper theory is introduced in this mystery mainly as a red herring, #1 seems most likely. One could argue that the Jewish Jack the Ripper theory functions as more than a red herring since Irene Adler is initially set on the case by the Baron de Rothschild who is concerned about antisemitism. Thus anything that makes the possibility of a Jewish Jack the Ripper more plausible does serve the plot and thus #2 may be the answer. Arguably, however, this rather subtle plot point would be established more effectively (and way less subtly) by putting these notions only into the mouths of non-Jews.

Perhaps Robyn Penrose would tell me that it's a "trivial" point, but nonetheless, I would like to know whether a popular American mystery writer does or does not think Jews in the 19th century engaged in animal sacrifice.

*Good advice.
**I have no good Sherlockian evidence for this, either from within the canon or from pastiches, but it just seems like she ought to be Jewish.

Non-Jews at Jewish Schools

It's old news but someone forwarded this interesting article from The Independent (UK) to me. And just a few weeks someone asked me why non-Jews cannot attend Jewish day schools in the US. It's a good question, actually.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How the future looked in 1982

I accidentally stumbled across this, an essay that Jim Morris of CMU wrote in 1982 about what a campus computing system should look like. Fascinating. Everyone knows that we have lived through an unbelievable amount of technological change in the last 25 years, but reading this brings it home, and like some kind of bloggy madeline makes me think about what I was doing with computing technology in 1982:

By 1982, I had been exposed to the personal computer: we had some Tandy computers (TRS 80's) at school and I spent the summer of 1982 at a day camp where we swam in the morning and in the afternoon, we learned to program the computer to do such important tasks as drawing cubes and writing "My name is..." in an infinite loop. Our middle school math skills were limited and one couldn't do that much with BASIC (or at least we couldn't), so the head counselor (who was a math and English teacher at my middle school) spent most of the time teaching us algebra and reading us O.Henry stories.

1982 was also the year that my family entered the home computer era when my parents opened up a big box on the first night of Hanukkah and took out a Commodore Vic-20. We hooked it up to the TV and away we went. I recall that we had a Centipede game and a word processor called "Quick Brown Fox." Data storage was a tape recorder.

Meanwhile up in Pittsburgh, Jim Morris was wondering whether or not the campus computers could be hooked up to something called "ARPANet."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday Musings: Special Spring Break Edition

Normally, I'd be teaching this morning, but since it's spring break:

This morning's Post-Gazette has an interesting article about arts funding in various cities, including Pittsburgh. Once again, I wonder if some of the statistics cited--for example regarding educational levels--don't tell the full picture because they don't account for the demographic history of the region. Chris Briem has blogged about this question at Nullspace.

I just read the Sunday section from the Post-Gazette ("On the Arts") over breakfast (I parcel out the Sunday paper--actual paper--for the rest of the week's breakfasts) and found this article about Bessie Bramble interesting. The PittGirl of her day? (Yes, I know the "blogger" label applied to pre-Internet writers is getting tiresome.) And yes, I have read one of the Carole Nelson Douglas novels that mention Bessie Bramble, although the reference passed right by me at the time.

Via the Hirhurim blog, I got to this interview with four scholars of early Christianity and ancient Judaism in the Biblical Archaeology Review. This is an issue that comes up frequently for my students in Religious Studies classes, particularly introductory ones and ones that deal with antiquity. Less of an issue when I teach on the medieval and modern periods. For discussion (from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism), see Hirhurim, Dov Baer , and Wolfish Musings. I assume some Christian bloggers are discussing this, but I haven't checked.

Regarding "old books": a review in Haaretz alerted me to a new book on Jewish booksellers and the booktrade in 19th-century Eastern Europe by Hagit Cohen.

In this week's Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, two stories about important resources for researching Pittsburgh Jewish history (and American Jewish history writ larger as well): a cemetery database and digitization of the Pittsburgh-based Jewish Criterion.

And in the category of totally pointless trivia: I have often assumed that the Springfield in "The Simpsons" must be Springfield, Mass. This article from the Boston Globe cites some of the reasons, but it leaves out what I consider the clincher: Mr. Burns takes the train to the Harvard-Yale game. (This is in the episode where Rodney Dangerfield guest start). I suppose one could take the train to New Haven from Springfield, VA; Springfield, NJ; or Springfield, PA (suburban Philadelphia?). But Springfield, Mass. to New Haven is perfect train distance. And the other northeastern Springfields are all suburbs of big cities and not central cities. It's clear that the Springfield in "The Simpsons" is the central city of a small metro area.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Boston and Pittsburgh

I used to live in Boston and now I live in Pittsburgh. Overall, I prefer Pittsburgh, but I'm often struck by how similar the two cities are. In many ways, Pittsburgh is a smaller version of Boston. (I can elaborate at length if you would like me to.)

A few weeks ago, we heard about Bostonians in the robotics industry upset that "Roboburgh" is stealing their thunder. Now a report that Boston should not be complacent about its leadership in health-care and biomedical research. Pittsburgh is listed as one of the smaller cities nipping at Boston's heels. But some of the same issues that have Boston worried--healthcare as an outsized percentage of the local economy and a decline in NIH funding--should have Pittsburgh worried as well.

Where is the 4200 block of Murray Ave?

According to the Post-Gazette today, there were 3 hold-ups "in Squirrel Hill" yesterday morning in the 4200 block of Murray Ave after which the robber "ran toward Greenfield." This caught my eye and not only because I live a few blocks from that stretch of Murray Ave.

Mainly, I was interested in the neighborhood label: I had always thought of the 4200 block of Murray Ave as lying in Greenfield. Everyone I know calls the Giant Eagle on that part of Murray the "Greenfield Giant Eagle." Indeed, I had thought of all of Murray Ave from the bridge over Beechwood Blvd to Hazelwood Ave as part of Greenfield. I had thought of the border between Squirrel Hill and Greenfield as the section of Beechwood Blvd running from Hazelwood Ave and Brown's Hill Rd north to the parkway entrance and beyond to the Greenfield Bridge over the parkway--Squirrel Hill east of Beechwood and Greenfield west of Beechwood.

On the other hand, I checked the zip code directory and 4200 Murray is indeed in the 15217 zip code. 15217 is normally associated with Squirrel Hill and the post office goes so far as to list "Squirrel Hill, PA" as an acceptable alternative to "Pittsburgh, PA" for mail addressed to the 15217 zip code. And the shopping center at the intersection of Murray Ave and Hazelwood Ave is called "Squirrel Hill Plaza."

But check the Pittsburgh city official neighborhood maps and one finds that "Greenfield" extends east as far as Saline St and makes a weird jog around the triangle park at Hazelwood Ave, Saline St, and Beechwood Blvd such that the triangle is part of "Squirrel Hill South." This is consistent with the signage put up by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy ("Welcome to Squirrel Hill") on that triangle. But it puts "Squirrel Hill Plaza" as well as the
victimized businesses in the 4200-block of Murray squarely in Greenfield.

Let Them Go to Kansas City

Update: I guess we have Scenario 3 and I can live with it. It looks like no local tax revenue (city, country or RAD) will go to this. And if we are to have casinos in Pennsylvania, I suppose diverting some of the profits to this is ok. According to Gov. Rendell, some of the casino funds were already dedicated to economic development and the state money for the arena will come from that. Most interesting is the plan for economic development rights around the arena: the Penguins get them parceled out year by year and then lose them each year if they do nothing. But I can still fantasize about Pennsylvania politicians singing Rodgers and Hammerstein can't I?

Let me get this straight:

Scenario 1:
The Penguins can pay no rent to Kansas City and the citizens of Kansas City and Missouri can shell out the money to run the arena there and we can ask Mr. Barden to spend $7.5 million a year on community development instead of a hockey arena. Maybe he can even renovate Mellon Arena and turn it into something like a big concert hall with a retractable roof.

Unhappy people: Penguins fans in Pittsburgh.
Happy people: Taxpayers in Pennsylvania and Penguins owners.
Stupid people: Taxpayers and officials in Kansas City and Missouri who are giving away millions to a for-profit business.


Scenario 2:
The citizens of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and Pennsylvania shell out lots of money
for a new arena and/or forego the use of tax revenue and casino profits for other purposes. The Penguins spend money that they wouldn't have to spend in Kansas City. Kansas City continues to look for someone to occupy their new arena for nothing.

Unhappy people: Penguins owners; taxpayers in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania; Kansas City officials and residents.
Happy people: Penguins fans in Pittsburgh.
Stupid people: The people in Kansas City and Missouri now joined by the people of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

I might see this differently if I were at all interested in hockey, but it looks like a no-brainer to me. If I were Ed Rendell, I would call Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle and start singing a certain Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite through the phone.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I've been having trouble logging into blogger and google recently so I haven't been posting. But here's a sampling of some of my musings over the last few weeks:

Some of you may have noticed this New York Times article about the Texas lawmaker who got some flack for characterizing modern science, including the Big Bang and evolution, as kabbalistic and rabbinic. But he was simply offering the non-philo-semitic version of what has long been a trope among kabbalistically inclined Orthodox Jewish scientists. If one googles "Kabbalah and Science," the first result is for something called "" and which includes this short story on its website. An interesting case of Jewish apologetics (our holy rabbis discovered the Big Bang before modern physics)? Of course if one thinks modern physics is a great threat to one's own religion (fundamentalist Protestant Christianity), one might accept this claim and see it as further evidence of Jewish (or "Pharisaic") perfidy. The best line in the NYT article refers to a characterization (by the website that served as source material for the Texas representative) of Albert Einstein as a "Kabbalist physicist."

One of my actual physicist friends got a kick out of that when I mentioned it to him yesterday at a Purim carnival. He's been reading Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion--dare I say spreading the good news about this book? In the meantime (via Leiter Reports), I just read this interesting article in the Guardian about a kind of anti-Dawkins backlash in England. And the letters in response are equally interesting. The impression one forms from the reviews of Dawkins is that he is quite aggressive about countering rather simplistic belief in a supernatural God whose followers often take violent actions against those who do not share the same belief. Presumably Dawkins would say that the fact that this critique does not take into account sophisticated liberal theologies, naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic, is beside the point since the "liberals" (broadly speaking) in whichever religious tradition one focuses on are not the ones doing violent things to other people in the name of "God." But I will say no more until I have read his book.

Meanwhile, I have been thinking some about religious violence in my own religious-ethnic tradition of late, given that Purim was yesterday and my friend Elliott Horowitz (author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence) spoke last Monday at Pitt. I could not help pay attention to the stories about Ariel Toaff's now-pulled Pasque di Sangue over the last two weeks. Without reading the book (and it looks like that will not be a possibility for the foreseeable future unless anyone in Italy has a bootleg copy they would like to send me), I won't offer any historical judgement on Toaff's claims since I'm not really sure what those claims are (were?). However, one issue strikes me as interesting and worthy of comment: historians of pre-modern Europe have routinely relied on Inquisition documents and other archival records of trials as primary sources for years. Given the use of torture in medieval and early modern judicial systems, how one uses these sources is a tricky methodological problem. The best approaches, it seems to me, are those that regard archival sources (all of them) as texts to be interpreted--in which authorship, intended audience, genre, political considerations in the production and conservation of the material, language (both langue and parole for you structuralists), and a host of other factors have to be considered in order to make sense of what these pieces of past writing can actually tell us. In terms of methodology, this seems to be the central question in evaluating Toaff's work. Yet many (lay) commentators have suggested that using the trial records at all was wrong. So far, I have only seen two discussions of the work that emphasize the manner in which Toaff reads (wrongly as far as these reviewers are concerned) his texts: Kenneth Stow, writing for History News Network, and Roni Weinstein, writing in Haaretz. (If you can read the Hebrew, I recommend that version of Weinstein's article.) Weinstein notes that Toaff turns to Carlo Ginzburg's groundbreaking historical work for inspiration. So Ginzburg's comments in Corriere della Serra are worth noting (found via the blog, My Obiter Dicta).

Ok. That's enough about books I haven't read.