Sunday, March 30, 2008

Small World

Friday was a fun day. A friend from high school was in town to give a talk at Duquesne University and I met him for coffee in the morning. Later in the day, I helped lead a professional development workshop for our graduate students on the topic of book reviewing. In the course of that workshop, I explained to the graduate students the way in which my first published book review, written while still in graduate school, ended up being on a volume of essays on art and Jewish identity in contemporary America that was also the catalog from an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. Later still, I took the bus down to Duquesne to hear my friend's talk, which turned out to be about the forms and functions of literary book reviewing. It was a wonderful talk and he's an accomplished reviewer. (You can see his latest work here.) I got a ride home with my friend's host at Duquesne. While we were driving up Forbes Avenue, I remarked on the coincidence of the two events and mentioned my story of how I ended up as a reviewer of a book on art and identity--and learned that the driver of the car I was in was the daughter of one of the artists featured in that exhibit at the Jewish Museum those many years ago.

(By the way, the title of this post is part of the answer to a trivia challenge from a previous post.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paging the Public Editor

I'm not doing a lot of politics on the blog these days--not doing much at all.
But I was in Oakland yesterday and saw the overflow crowd at the Obama rally outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial listening to Obama speech on loudspeakers. And I heard from a colleague who got in that the place was packed to the rafters. And I had already heard from someone else that all tickets to the event were gone within hours on Thursday.

So when I opened the New York Times this morning, I was pretty surprised to find a photo on the front page that featured one lonely "O'Bama" supporter across from a solid flank of Hillary supporters. Can't deviate from the reigning media narrative that, as the caption says, " While Hillary Clinton leads in the polls in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama has his supporters, too." Here's the photo and the story and here's the "Today's Paper" page online where you can see an image of the front page of the print edition (at least for a few more hours).

Now if I didn't know the Pittsburgh neighborhood where this photo was taken well and if I didn't happen to be there yesterday or see the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette--so I'm describing 90+% of the readership of the New York Times print edition--I surely would not have known that right behind the photographer were thousands of people gathered to hear Obama speak. Here's the Post-Gazette photo that does a better job capturing what was going on in Pittsburgh yesterday.

We hear a lot about the media treating Obama (and McCain) with kid gloves. But I think this picture in the Times is evidence of the more insidious problem with media coverage of our elections: it's not just that policy issues get pushed aside for "process" stories. Even in the "process" stories, once the press has settled on a narrative, a kind of groupthink seems to take over until some radical change occurs to shift the narrative. A primary can change the narrative--if Obama ends up winning Pennsylvania (even by 20 votes), watch for the stories about how Clinton wasn't as strong here as everyone thought. (If Clinton wins Pennsylvania [even by 20 votes], then the conventional wisdom will nod and point out how Obama can't seem to win the big states.)

If you don't think the groupthink is real and that it has worked on the readership of the major media outlets, take a look at the reader comments on the NYT politics blog about Casey's endorsement of Obama. I was astounded by how many commentators took Casey to task for going against "the will of the people" in Pennsylvania by supporting Obama rather than Clinton. A few of the commentators pointed out that PA has yet to hold its primary and that polling is not the same as voting. But they were like a chorus of the sane drowned out by those who have already put PA in the Clinton column. Now I realize that a lot of this complaint had to do with some convoluted argument that the Obama and Clinton camps are having over whether superdelegates should follow the electorate and which electorate they should follow and that some of the criticism aimed at Casey was really aimed at the Obama folks for supposed hypocrisies of this or that sort. But I just couldn't get over the simple fact that there seem to be a hefty group of people out there for whom Hillary Clinton has already won the PA primary.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Opening Day is coming

and what better way to celebrate than with a 1981 letter by John Rawls, the great political theorist, recounting a conversation about baseball with another scholar. Here it is, published in the Boston Review.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A puzzle for you

"Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people. Ergo, it's no longer necessary to hoard your information in one building, or keep your top scholars corralled in one campus. There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: [1] [2] and [3]."

Name the three inventions, the speaker, and the novel in which this appears. (You can use Google to get the answer, but only if you use Google or reference books in doing crossword puzzles; you have to wrestle with your own conscience here. At least try to guess the three inventions before you open the new tab.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

First Robo-Call of the season

When: about 4 pm today
Who: Rendell
Supporting: Clinton
What: rally tomorrow in Pittsburgh

I'll keep a running tally in the sidebar until the PA primary.

Master of the Return

I received an invitation to a brunch at a Pittsburgh Jewish community institution with this description:
"Alan Veingrad: Former Dallas Cowboy, played on the 1992 Super Bowl team speaks about his spiritual journey from being a Super Bowl star to an observant and Hasidic Jew."

And all I could think of was that of course a former member of the Cowboys would have a lot of teshuvah to do.

(Yes, I know he played on the offensive line and not special teams, but I love a good pun in a headline.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The early tutor gets the afternoon ice cream?

I'm sure any current reader of Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy's classic novel of academic politics (1951) can point to their favorite examples that demonstrate how very different academic life and campus culture are a half century later.

As my wife and I rush around, trying to balance work, day care, after-school schedules, large amounts of homework for our first grader, we are always feeling rushed in the evenings as we try to eat dinner early enough to get the kids to bed early enough for them to get a good night of sleep and for us to get done all our after-kids-go-to-bed chores.

So this passage just sounds like something from a lost world:

"And yet in the darkening afternoons when he chugged up to the Co-op with Mrs. Mulcahy and the children, leaving the motor running while he hurried them into the counter for an after-school treat, ice-cream cones and Nabs [query: what are these?] all around, he and his wife, their noses white-tipped from the cold, were always brisk and merry." (1952 edition, p.22)

Now I am well aware that Mrs. Mulcahy is a stay-at-home-Mom (or housewife in 1950's parlance) and I do not regret for one moment the advances of feminism in the last 50 years that mean that Mrs. Tea-Lemon-Old Books is Dr. Tea-Lemon-Old Books, MD who works outside the home. My wistfulness about this passage has nothing to do with Mrs. Mulcahy's availability to spend time with her children after school.

On the contrary, it's the time available to Mr. Mulcahy and the kids that make me think about how foreign this passage sounds. These kids don't sound over-programmed. One might think they're rushing because they have to get the kids off to dance lessons or soccer, but one doesn't have that sense. The hurrying seems rather to come from a desire to come in from the cold; the motor running is to keep the car from dying (in the passages leading up to this, we've heard a lot about the Mulcahys' money problems and their old, unreliable car).

Naturally, I focus on Mulcahy: the amazing thing is that Mr. Mulcahy (he's a PhD, but it's a liberal arts college in the '50s, so Mr. fits better) is done with his work such that he can be with his family in the "after-school" hours. One figures he's got to leave the campus by not much after 3 to be driving up to the Co-op with his family for an after-school treat (4ish?) Maybe he only manages this every once in a while ("treat"), but McCarthy's phrasing here ("always brisk and merry") suggests some frequency at least. No afternoon classes? Office hours? Lectures and seminars? Class preparation? Committee meetings?

One clue: earlier in the book, in reference to an unfortunate nick-name he has gotten from the students, we hear about "eight-o'clock tutorials" (p.7). Imagine that.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Stanley Fish Misinterpreted

Stanley Fish has a post in his New York Times blog clarifying his intentions to his readers and complaining about being misinterpreted. One of the early commentators (no. 33) gets the irony. The comments went on and on and I couldn't read them all, but I didn't see the one I was expecting: "Ha! Ha! Signed, E.D. Hirsch."

The Chit-Chat Index and Subway Door Index

I came across this interesting discussion on "City-Data-Forum" about Bostonians. The weight of opinion there seems to be that Bostonians tend to be more aloof than in other places, with some debate over whether aloof and rude go together. (I think not.)

I've blogged before once or twice about how I'm not a big Boston fan, but I do think over-generalization is problematic. Lots of Bostonians are friendly, lots are rude, lots are aloof, lots are cold, and lots overlaps one or more of these non-exclusive categories. And I doubt the proportions are that different from any other major city. Maybe a slightly higher "aloof" score.

But having lived in a number of cities (and spent time visiting the big "City"), I propose the following two indexes.

First, the "Chit Chat Index": How bizarre will a clerk in a chain store think you are if you make small talk about weather while buying an umbrella? And how much will the clerk engage in the small talk?

From lowest to highest, in my experience:

Boston: Clerk's facial expression seems similar to what it might be if you had just suggested that you move into his/her house. Clerk does not speak.
Washington: Clerk registers no facial expression but responds with a conventional pleasantry.
Philadelphia: Clerk chats amiably about rain.
Pittsburgh: Clerk tells you all about rainstorms experienced since 1997 and invites you over for dinner. (Ok that last one is an exaggeration.)

Second, the "Subway Door Index": How easily can you exit a subway car? Will passengers wishing to board the train step aside to let you off? (Here I exclude Pittsburgh--never having ridden the T here--and include New York as a major locus of subway riding.)

From easiest to exit to hardest to exit, in my experience:

Philadelphia: Not enough people trying to get on to make a difference.
Washington: The people will respectfully stand aside, lined up as a "V" on either side of the door. (I am told this is changing due to increasing ridership on the Metro and the increasing partisan rancor of the Bush years.)
New York: A lot of people on the platform, but a narrow path will open.
Boston, most stops: A solid wall of people--each giving a blank stare as you try to figure out between which two people you might escape.
Boston, Park Street, rush hour: A solid wall of people will begin pushing onto the train as soon as the door opens. This is really why Charlie couldn't get off the MTA.

Friday, March 07, 2008

God and Blair at Yale

Sorry, couldn't resist, and I will be surprised if some headline writer doesn't come up with this.

See the article in the Guardian or the Independent.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A dashboard monitor for the car battery?

Has this been invented? And if not, why not?

We have a second car that we drive rarely. When it's this cold, we really should start it more often and let it run. This week we were reminded of this again--the hard way. My wife needed to use this car on Tuesday. It started fine and she drove to our son's preschool--about a 10 minute drive. When she came back out, the car wouldn't start. The AAA guy told her/reminded her that starting the car takes the most charge off the battery, and he suggested starting the car every other day at least and letting it run 15 minutes at least each time.

So this morning while my wife and children were all out, I spent 20 minutes of quality time with the New York Times Book Review and the sounds of Sinatra on 1320 am and sat in the car with it running. But while I sat, I thought, and this is what I thought: the AAA guy has a tester that tests the charge. Why not have something like that always testing the charge with a wire running to a dashboard control that displays how much charge is left or how much time is needed to recharge the battery. That way, if you don't use the car much, you can check out the "battery monitor" when you do get the car started and if it looks low (maybe bars like on the cell phone?), you can bear this in mind if you're making a short trip and make sure to let the car sit and idle for a while. Seems like it would be a useful feature. So why isn't there something like this on car dashboards?

Unless--this is a scary thought--we are part of a very small minority that lives in a cold climate with a (second) car that is used rarely and only for short trips. So maybe there's no market?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Goodbye Cafe La Fortuna

The New York Times is reporting that Cafe La Fortuna on the Upper West Side will close on Sunday. This became one of my favorite cafes when my sister lived a few blocks away for a couple of years in the mid 1990s. She then moved a few blocks even further but I still tried to get over to Cafe La Fortuna whenever I visited. I didn't really care about the Lennon/Ono mystique but I liked the coffee and the desserts and the relatively relaxed atmosphere.

(Mention of the Beatles in two consecutive posts is only a coincidence.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Israel asks forgiveness from the Beatles

The New York Times reports that the State of Israel has now officially made peace with the Beatles.

Again, a small news item sets off a chain of associations in my head leading to Ben Gurion and Spinoza. (On Ben Gurion's participation in the "nationalist rehabilitation of Spinoza," see Daniel Schwartz, "The Spinoza Image in Jewish Culture, 1656-1956," Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University, 2007).

(I would also guess that more people in Israel today listen to the Beatles than read Spinoza.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

We can call it "checked baggage"

A few days ago on a flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte, while watching dozens of people struggling aboard with suitcases and trying to fit them in overhead compartments, I had an idea: wouldn't it be great if the airlines could devise a system whereby people would arrive at the airport and give their suitcases to the airlines who could then deliver those suitcases to the passengers' final destinations?

Mr. Banks, call the office.

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article on troubles at the Bank of England, including the first run on a bank in Britain in a century (which took place last fall). I cannot read a sentence with the words "Britain," "bank run," and "century" without getting Mary Poppins on the brain. What does this say about me?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Things to read this summer?

Geraldine Brook's new novel, People of the Book, which sounds like a kind of novelized reception history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, reviewed last week in the New York Times Book Review and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Max Apple's The Jew of Home Depot, also reviewed this Sunday in the NYT, sounds intriguing. Although I don't usually read short stories, I very slightly know the author, so maybe.

The Newberry Medal winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Ann Schlitz. (But why does Karen MacPherson describe it as "nonfiction" in her review distributed by Scripps Howard and published in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette?)

A post by my friend JSE at Quomodocumque reminds me of a great classic, The Pushcart War.

Some of the new books on Islam featured in the January 6 New York Times Book Review.

The collected works of David Macaulay, the subject of an appreciation by Peter Miller in the January 30 New Republic (a review of an exhibit at the National Building Museum in DC). And Peter Miller makes a good case that these are not children's books. Or that all books are children's books.

And Ruth Franklin in the same issue of The New Republic also gives me a good hint what not to bother with.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Interesting things people do with new technology and historical figures

A group of people have entered Thomas Jefferson's library into "Library Thing." See here for details.

Chaucer has a blog.

I wonder who is on Facebook.

Interesting possibilities here for fun, creative pedagogy, and new kinds of historical research.

"Erev Iyyun" on Sepharad in Ashkenaz

The "Erev Iyyun" [evening of discussion] is one of my favorite parts of Israeli academia (it may be limited to Jewish studies scholarship for all I know). Two or three scholars discuss a recent book--offering comment and criticism--and then the author responds. Almost always, these are for monographs. So I am a bit surprised that a multi-author volume, Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Jewish Discourse, ed. Resianne Fontaine, Andrea Schatz, and Irene Zwiep, will be the subject of such an evening this coming Monday (January 7) at 6 pm in Jerusalem. See here for details. I am also proud because I am the author of 1 of the 16 articles. I am also scared because I am the author of 1 of the 16 articles (the criticism is always polite but can be sharp). Looking at the program, however, it looks more like a mini-conference with three lectures on subjects related to the book, as opposed to three lectures offering a critique of the book (especially since one of the lectures is by one of the contributors to the book).

For more information on the book, see here.

And if anyone is in Jerusalem and goes to this, please send me an e-mail or comment here and let me know what was said.

Update: a minute after I posted this, I found this post at the Michtavim blog which mentions the book.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pittsburgh: the world's biggest small town...

... or smallest big city? (I'm pretty sure this was tourist slogan for Pittsburgh or somewhere else at some point.)

Either way, one of the things my wife and I love about living here is that Pittsburgh offers pretty much everything a large metropolitan area offers but with such a low housing cost and decent city public schools (at least in our neighborhood) that we can live in close proximity to the major cultural and entertainment venues.

A few years ago we visited Chicago and stayed with friends in Evanston. A trip to the science museum in Hyde Park was an all-day outing with a 45 minute drive in each direction.

A few weeks ago we spent a Sunday taking children to Hebrew school and swim class in our neighborhood, then went downtown to a children's theatre performance, and then went to Oakland to see the renovated dinosaur exhibit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum. We were tired out at the end, but none of the car trips took more than 15 minutes. This was a pretty busy Sunday for us and not typical but we had the tickets for the play and the tickets for the dinosaur preview were issued for a specific time. But a day like that just would not be possible in Chicago or New York.

Another friend, who lives in New York, just e-mailed about her family's visit to a college town in the upper south (trying to keep this anonymous) over the Christmas-New Year's week. She writes: "We had a nice time in ________- it's somewhat of a shock to the system to be in a small town where you can drive anywhere in 10-15 minutes!"