What Happened to Those Who Signed the Declaration of Independence? Part 1

From The Daily Signal:

Thomas Heyward Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton

Thomas Heyward Jr. of South Carolina was a signer of both the declaration and the Articles of Confederation. Heyward drew the ire of the British when, as a circuit court judge, he presided over the trial of several loyalists who were found guilty of treason. The prisoners were summarily executed in full view of British troops. In 1779, he joined the South Carolina militia as a captain of artillery.

Heyward’s compatriot in the South Carolina delegation, Edward Rutledge, also served in the state militia. At age 26, Rutledge was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence. After returning home from attending the Second Continental Congress in 1777, he joined the militia as captain of an artillery battalion.

Both Heyward and Rutledge aided their country in the battle at Port Royal Island, where they helped Gen. Moultrie defeat British Maj. William Gardiner and his troops.

Arthur Middleton, the last of the South Carolina delegation who served in the militia, took up arms against the British during the siege of Charleston in 1780. His fellow signers, Heyward and Rutledge, fought in that battle as well.

Upon the surrender of Charleston, all three men were captured by the British and were sent to a prison in St. Augustine, Florida, which was reserved for people the British thought were particularly dangerous. They were held there for almost a year before being released. On route to Philadelphia for a prisoner exchange in July 1781, Heyward almost drowned. He survived his fall overboard by clinging to the ship’s rudder until he could be rescued.

During the British occupation of Charleston, Commandant Nisbet Balfour ordered the seizure of many estates in Charleston, including those owned by Heyward and Middleton.

During his imprisonment, Heyward’s wife died at home, and his estate and property were heavily damaged. Rutledge’s estate was left intact, but his family had to sell many of their belongings in order to make the trip to Philadelphia to reunite with him after his release. Middleton’s estate was left relatively untouched, but his collection of rare paintings was destroyed during the British occupation of his home.

Thomas Nelson Jr.

Thomas Nelson Jr. of the Commonwealth of Virginia was appointed to the position of brigadier general and commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia by Gov. Patrick Henry in August 1777. At that time it was thought that the British would be making a full scale invasion of the state. Nelson was able to muster only a few hundred men to defend Virginia, but the British instead decided to attack Philadelphia.

Nelson inherited a vast family fortune, much of which he used to support the American effort. He personally paid for the return journey home of 70 troops he had led to meet the British in Philadelphia during the summer of 1778. In the spring of 1780, Nelson signed his name to a loan for $2 million that was needed to purchase provisions for the French fleet that was coming to America’s aid in the war.

As then-governor of Virginia, during the Battle of Yorktown he ordered American troops to fire upon his mansion, which had been commandeered by Gen. Cornwallis and his men.

Richard Stockton

A member of the New Jersey delegation, Richard Stockton, had his estate commandeered by the British for use as a headquarters. As they left, British troops burned all his personal effects—including his library, private papers, furniture, and clothes.

Though Stockton was in hiding at the time, he ultimately did not escape capture; a traitor led the British to his position in November 1776. He was held captive in Amboy, New Jersey, and was then sent to New York City where he was imprisoned in a jail reserved for common criminals. Incensed by his treatment, Congress worked with British Gen. William Howe to obtain his release.

George Walton

Because of his small build and stature, George Walton was thought to be the youngest of the signers of the declaration (he was actually in his mid-30s). He hailed from Georgia and served as colonel in the first regiment of the state militia in 1778. During the siege of Savannah, a cannonball broke Walton’s leg, which led to his being captured. He was held captive for nine months and was released in the early fall of 1779 in a prisoner exchange for a British navy captain.

At the same time Walton was held prisoner, his wife Dorothy was captured by the British. She was imprisoned on an island in the West Indies and was eventually freed after a prisoner exchange. During the Waltons’ confinement, the British ransacked their home.

George Clymer

British troops destroyed the home of George Clymer of Pennsylvania in September 1777 when they captured Philadelphia. Though his home was outside of the city, it was right in the middle of the path of the British march. American loyalists pointed out to the British homes belonging to patriots, which of course included Clymer’s estate.

Clymer also contributed to the war monetarily. He converted his entire fortune into continental currency, a risky move considering the likelihood that the currency would be rendered worthless. He also told wealthy friends to contribute to the American cause.

Robert Morris

A delegate from Pennsylvania, Robert Morris helped insure Washington’s victory at Yorktown by using his own credit to obtain the supplies necessary to defeat the British. He spent more than $1 million (not adjusted for inflation) of his own money to accomplish this.

While serving as superintendent of finance of the United States, Morris regularly used his own financial resources to obtain much needed supplies. Using his own funds, for example, he purchased one thousand barrels of flour for Washington’s men in late spring of 1778.

Lewis Morris

Lewis Morris of New York served as a major general in the state militia. Morris devoted himself to recruiting men to serve in the militia and to help keep supplies up, which was a constant problem. For almost the entire length of the war, the British occupied his home, Morrisania, and used it as their headquarters. This forced Morris to live off of his close friends and associates until the war ended in 1783.

John Hancock

John Hancock of Massachusetts, the man with the largest signature on the declaration, served in the militia as major general in 1778. Hancock was put in command of approximately 6,000 men during the Rhode Island campaign. That campaign was ultimately unsuccessful because the French failed to carry out their end of the bargain.

Caesar Rodney

Caesar Rodney served in the Delaware militia as well, attaining the rank of brigadier general. Rodney famously road on horseback straight from Dover to Philadelphia to cast his vote in favor of declaring independence (the Delaware delegation was split). He was with his men in the field during the brutal winter of 1776, helped quash an uprising in Delaware (there were a large number of loyalists within the state), and helped in George Washington’s effort to defend Philadelphia from being taken by the British.

Carter Braxton

Carter Braxton of the Virginia delegation accumulated massive personal debts helping the American effort in the war. He loaned 10,000 pounds sterling to Congress, which was never repaid. He also spent much of his wealth outfitting American ships so that they could carry more cargo. Due to the British capturing some of his vessels and others being lost out on the high seas, he suffered great financial calamity. These accumulated losses left him bankrupt by war’s end.

Link to the rest at The Daily Signal (a publication of The Heritage Foundation)

Part 2 of this list will be posted tomorrow (July 4)

The World

From The Wall Street Journal:

Richard Haass is a prolific author on international affairs, served as a foreign-policy official in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is, in short, a high-ranking member of American foreign policy’s clerisy. As if to emphasize the point, he relates that the inspiration for his book “The World: A Brief Introduction” began with a day of fishing in Nantucket, where he spoke with a student from Stanford who confessed that he had taken few courses in economics, politics or history. Otherwise educated young people today, Mr. Haass concludes, “are essentially uninformed about the world they are entering.” He hopes to change this state of affairs with “The World.”

What Mr. Haass has written, alas, is a series of dry primers about the world’s regions and their problems. The book is rife with soporific statements with which it would be difficult to disagree: “Economic problems within Europe have been ever more significant. As a result, the Continent has had low rates of growth.” The assumption seems to be that the young have disengaged from the world because they lack access to information. But engagement has fallen even as the internet has made access to information effortless.

Mr. Haass is among the most respected foreign-policy experts in the world and is fully capable of proposing bold ideas that would put American strategy on a more sustainable path. That “The World” offers mostly uncontroversial data points rather than fresh analysis helps to explain why two (and in some respects three) consecutive U.S. administrations have often rejected the dominant views of foreign-policy experts.

The useful parts of the book mostly come in the opening section, which briskly relays the “essential history” of international affairs. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established the nation-state as the basic political unit in Europe. Webs of alliances and the rise of nationalism set the stage for World War I—and trade ties were not enough to prevent it. This context is important because contemporary debates about international relations often proceed as if history started with World War II.  

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

An exploration of ‘How Innovation Works’

From The Washington Post:

Innovation, Matt Ridley tells us at the start of his new treatise on the subject, “is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood.” Even as it functions as a powerful engine of prosperity — the accelerant of human progress — innovation remains the “great puzzle” that baffles technologists, economists and social scientists alike. In many respects, Ridley is on to something. After decades of careful study, we’re still not entirely sure about innovation’s causes or how it can best be nurtured. Is innovation dependent on a lone genius, or is it more a product of grinding teamwork? Does it occur like a thunderclap, or does it take years or even decades to coalesce? Is it usually situated in cities, or in well-equipped labs in office parks?

We can’t even agree on its definition. Generally speaking, an innovation is more than an idea and more than an invention. Yet beyond that, things get confusing. We live in a moment when we’re barraged by new stuff every day — new phones, new foods, new surgical techniques. In the pandemic, we’re confronted, too, with new medical tests and pharmaceutical treatments. But which of these are true innovations and which are novel variations on old products? And while we’re at this game, is innovation limited to just technology, or might we include new additions to our culture, like a radical work of literature, art or film?

Unfortunately, no one happens to be policing the innovation space to say what it is and is not. Mostly we have to allow for judgment calls and an open mind. As an occasional writer on the subject, I tend to define innovation simply, but also flexibly: a new product or process that has both impact and scale. Usually, too, an innovation is something that helps us do something we already do, but in a way that’s better or cheaper. Artificial light is an excellent case study. Over time we’ve moved from candles, to whale oil and kerosene lamps, to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, and now to LEDs. Or, as another example, we might look to one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process to make synthetic fertilizer, as a leap that changed the potential of agricultural production. On the other hand, we can regard the Juicero press — a recent Silicon Valley-backed idea that promised to “disrupt” the juice market and burned up more than $100 million in the process — as a fake or failed innovation. And still, this leaves us plenty of room for disagreement about what falls between these extremes and why.

Ridley enters into this messy arena with the intent of organizing the intellectual clutter. The first half of his book, “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom,” takes us on a tour through some highlights in the history of innovation. We visit with the early developers of the steam engine, witness the events leading to the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and hear about the industrialization of the Haber-Bosch fertilizer process. There are likewise forays back to the early days of automobiles and computing, the development of smallpox vaccines and clean drinking water, and stories that trace the origins of the Green Revolution in agriculture, which alleviated famine for more than 1 billion people. For dedicated science readers, Ridley’s lessons may have a glancing and derivative feel. He knits together stories many of us have probably heard before — say, through the renditions of writers like Steven Johnson, Charles Mann or Walter Isaacson — but somehow misses the opportunity to enliven these sketches with a sense of wonder and surprise. More seriously, he skirts the opportunity to footnote his summarizations, leaving only a skeletal guide to sources in his back pages.

What becomes clear, though, is that Ridley is focused less on exploring the pageant of history than on fashioning a new belief system. I don’t necessarily mean this as a critique; in fact, the second half of his book — where he looks closely, chapter by chapter, at the factors that shaped the innovations he’s spent his first 200 pages describing — is more polemical in its approach but often more engaging, even as one might disagree with a narrative direction that arises from what I would characterize as the libertarian right. 

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

May heaven protect the unsuspecting Washington Post reader from any political attitudes not consistent with the paper’s editorial page.

The Human Factor

From The Wall Street Journal:

In “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” (2006), the journalist John O’Sullivan asserted that the Cold War had been won by Ronald Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. “Without Reagan,” he stated, “no perestroika or glasnost either.” This belief, according to Archie Brown, emeritus politics professor at Oxford University, is nothing less than “specious.” In “The Human Factor,” Mr. Brown gives most of the credit for the Cold War’s end to Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he presents as almost a pacifist who voluntarily wound up the Soviet Union, albeit with a little assistance from Thatcher. So who is right?

The title of Mr. Brown’s last book, “The Myth of the Strong Leader” (2014), suggests that he might have a philosophical problem with the Great Man and Woman theory of history, and he certainly underplays the role of John Paul II during the last decade of the Cold War. The pope’s call for spiritual renewal and for freedom, not least for his native Poland, stirred the hearts of millions, but he rates only five anodyne sentences in 400 pages.

Mr. Brown was awarded a British honor in 2005 “for services to UK-Russian relations.” One Russian in particular—Mr. Gorbachev—gets lauded in the current work for his “bold leadership,” “new ideas,” “formidable powers of persuasion,” “embrace of democratization,” “emphasis on freedom of choice” and so on. At best, Reagan, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush and the others are praised for their “constructive engagement.” At worst, Reagan is criticized for introducing “complications” to an already begun process of Russian collapse.

At no point does Mr. Brown acknowledge that the primary reason that Mr. Gorbachev liberalized the Soviet Union was that Reagan, Thatcher and other Western leaders forced him to, by keeping Western defenses strong and mercilessly exposing the moral bankruptcy—and looming economic bankruptcy too—of what Reagan accurately called Russia’s “evil empire.”

For Mr. Brown, Reagan lacked sophistication, and his style was all wrong for high-minded diplomacy. It was a familiar critique at the time, though one would think that, with the end of the Cold War, it had lost its plausibility. Still, Mr. Brown hopes to revive it. “In his speeches, at every stage of his career,” Mr. Brown complains of Reagan, “he used stories and ‘quotations’ that came from very unreliable sources or from the recesses of his own mind, often drawing on films he had acted in or seen. . . . For Reagan, whether they were actually true or not appeared less important than the part they played in his narrative.”

A president who told unreliable jokes and unverifiable stories! Lincoln fits the description, as do a dozen other U.S. presidents. Showing a folksy informality and raconteur skill is thought to be an asset in politics.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

PG notes that TPV is a blog focused on the contemporary business of writing, not politics. He will also note that since much of the publishing world, indie and traditional appears to be sheltering in place, he sometimes casts his net a bit wider than he might absent the publishing commentary drought.

(Yes, PG does recognize a sort of mixed metaphor in the “casting his net” and “drought” combination.)

Antifragile

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

1939

From The Wall Street Journal:

On April 27, 1939, the British government announced plans to conscript young men for military training. It was a dramatic departure: Never previously in its modern history had the nation conscripted men for the military in time of peace. As the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, explained to the public, however, with countries all over Europe preparing for battle, and everyone fearing a war might start at any moment, “no one can pretend that this is peacetime in any sense in which the term could fairly be used.”

This liminal period, starting with the sighs of relief at the signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, is the subject of Frederick Taylor’s “1939: A People’s History of the Coming of the Second World War.” Mr. Taylor, whose previous works about the period include “Coventry: November 14, 1940” and “Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945,” charts the escalating tensions as Hitler’s brinkmanship pushed Europe to the edge of war, and the insidious onset of a “wartime” mood across Europe, even before German forces invaded Poland. The book concerns the United Kingdom and Germany, and it intersperses clear explanations of the decisions being taken by statesmen with the way these were experienced by “ordinary” people in both countries.

Rich in social and cultural details that bring the era to life, “1939” makes use of a range of eyewitness testimony and contemporary assessments of public opinion, which together illuminate the variety of individual experience within a historic moment in international affairs. Discussions of the ways that new forms of entertainment, such as television and cheap holiday camps, appeared in Germany and in Britain illuminate both the similarities among European experiences and the stark cultural and political differences. Though each chapter deals with a month, Mr. Taylor dives back into the 1930s to explain the back story of that final year of “peace.”

But Mr. Taylor’s inverted commas on “ordinary” are necessary. The figures to whose testimony Mr. Taylor returns throughout the book are German: the journalist (and later anti-Nazi resister) Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and the well-connected novelist and screenwriter Erich Ebermayer. Their diary accounts provide the self-scrutinizing outsiders’ view of the mainstream that, for the British part of his story, comes from the more numerous contributors to the social research project Mass-Observation, the surviving archives of which are such a boon for historians of this period.

. . . .

Mr. Taylor [keeps] up the momentum of a much-told story—the coming of the European war—while conveying a powerful sense of what it felt like to watch the precipice approach.

For some, the drop had already begun. Matching up the dynamics of genocide and war, Mr. Taylor explains how ordinary Germans carried on as attacks on Jews became part of national and civic life. The author is very good at showing the fear and horror produced by escalating Nazi violence, as well as the bizarre dualities that resulted as everyday routines continued around them. Walking to church or the cinema over the smashed glass from shop windows and through the smoke from burning synagogues, gentile Germans managed not to feel that their world was disintegrating around them. Even Britons who got past the casual anti-Semitism typical of the age to offer aid to Jewish refugees, meanwhile, remained remarkably convinced that decent Germans would one day reject Nazi brutality.

What worried everyone was the onset of another world war, when the last one was fresh in memory. Mr. Taylor quotes one report from a local Nazi party official about popular reactions to the invasion of Poland in the Westphalian city of Bielefeld: The last great war, the document observed, had “returned remarkably vividly to people’s memories, its misery, its four-year duration, its two million German fallen. No enthusiasm for war at all.” That the German people acquiesced speaks not only to the power of Nazi propaganda, which used modern means to tap into deeper strands of European anti-Semitism, but also to the degree to which life was already militarized by September 1939. For all the horror at the slaughter a generation before, mobilizing to fight was something that this state—and this society—knew how to do.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Pencil Leaners

From Public Books:

Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—an initiative funded by the Works Project Administration under the New Deal—provided employment for some 6,000 jobless writers [in the United States]. Today, as stunned authors in Australia and around the world come to terms with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, that experiment deserves reconsideration. As the ABC recently noted, Australian writers—who earn, on average, less than $13,000 directly from their work each year—will be affected on multiple levels: by the cancellation of festivals, talks, and other paying gigs; by the closure of bookshops; by redundancies and cuts in publishing houses; and by job losses in the related industries (from academia to hospitality) through which they supplement their incomes.

It was the American New Deal more than anything else that legitimated the kind of stimulus packages again being discussed in Australia not just for the arts but across the economy. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the crisis of the Great Depression forced him, despite his own fiscal conservatism, to rush through various rescue measures of a now-familiar nature. The US government guaranteed bank loans to prevent further financial collapses; it encouraged industrial cartels to control prices and production levels; it purchased unsold crops from farmers; and through the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and, eventually, the Works Progress Administration it sought to create jobs.

Recent calls for postpandemic bailouts for artists in general or writers implicitly evoke that legacy.

. . . .

Obviously, the publishing scene today—dominated by vast multinationals, for whom books are merely part of a broader engagement with the “entertainment industry”—differs greatly from the more small-scale milieu of the 1930s. Even so, it’s still worth noting how contemporary thinking about funding literature differs from the Federal Writers’ Project in several important ways.

Most importantly, the job schemes of the 1930s as a whole, including the Writers’ Project—emerged from intense class struggles in a way that today’s plans do not.

In her history of the Works Progress Administration, Nancy E. Rose writes:

Starting in early 1930, unemployed councils, organized by the Communist Party, began to lead hunger marches to demand more relief. On March 6, 1932, which was proclaimed International Unemployment Day, hunger marches took place throughout the country. … In general, cities with strong Unemployed Councils provided better relief.

Agitation by the unemployed coincided with intensified industrial disputation. By 1934, some 1.5 million workers were on strike and FDR went to the polls the following year in the midst of a massive wave of industrial action, in which the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations played an important role. Those titanic clashes paved the way for the Second New Deal, under which the most significant reforms (including the WPA) were implemented.

Crucially, writers themselves fought, through explicitly political groups like the Writers’ Union and [before that] the Unemployed Writers’ Association, for the program from which they benefited. In 1934, the UWA’s secretary Robert Whitcomb explained:

The unemployed writers of New York City do not intend to continue under the semi-starvation conditions meted out to them. If the government does not intend to formulate some policy regarding the class of intellectual known as a writer … then the writer must organize and conduct a fight to better his condition.

The following year, with something like a quarter of the entire publishing industry out of work, the two organizations launched a widely publicized picket of the New York Port Authority, in which their members carried signs reading: “Children Need Books. Writers Need Bread. We Demand Projects.”

. . . .

The authors employed by the FWP included many who went on to conventional success, people like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, and others. As David A. Taylor notes in Soul of a People, his history of the FWP, “four of the first ten winners of the National Book Award in fiction and one in poetry came from this emergency relief project.”

. . . .

Thus, even though the program did actively recruit some literary stars, the author Anzia Yezierska, who’d previously worked in Hollywood, experienced enlisting in the New York FWP as a kind of proletarianization. “There was,” she wrote later, “a hectic camaraderie among us, though we were as ill-assorted as a crowd on a subway express, spinster poetesses, pulp specialists, youngsters … veteran newspapermen, art-for-art’s-sake literati, clerks and typists … people of all ages, all nationalities, all degrees of education, tossed together in a strange fellowship of necessity.”

Not everyone approved of this camaraderie—W. H. Auden dismissed it as “absurd”; one of the project’s own directors complained that “all the misfits and maniacs on relief have been dumped here”

. . . .

The FWP faced especial hostility and ridicule, with one editorialist complaining that it meant that literary “pencil leaners” would join the “shovel leaners” of the WPA. Again, the authorities stressed the project’s utility, with its remit described in an official announcement as the

employment of writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, architects, archaeologists, map draftsmen, geologists, and other professional workers for the preparation of an American Guide and the accumulation of new research material on matters of local, historical, art and scientific interest in the United States; preparation of a complete encyclopedia of government functions and periodical publications in Washington; and the preparation of a limited number of special studies in the arts, history, economics, sociology, etc., by qualified writers on relief.

It duly enlisted its staff to labor on perhaps a thousand volumes, including 50 state and territorial guides, 30 city guides and 20 regional guides. David Taylor describes these texts, composed by a dazzling group of writers, as “a multifaceted look at America by Americans, assembled during one of the greatest crises in the country.”

Many writers resented their tasks (at one point, Yezeriska was sent to catalog the trees in Central Park); many worked on their own manuscripts on the side.

. . . .

In books like Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk TalesBibliography of Chicago Negroes, and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, FWP employees collected the folklore that Zora Neale Hurston described as “the boiled-down juice of human living.” They interviewed people who had been enslaved, generating an astonishing assemblage of reminiscences. It’s thanks to the FWP that we have a small number of audio clips in which we can hear the actual voices of the survivors of slavery explaining what was done to them.

Alfred Kazin described how, in the late 1930s:

Whole divisions of writers now fell upon the face of America with a devotion that was baffled rather than shrill, and an insistence to know and to love what it knew that seemed unprecedented. Never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Women’s Ways of Aging

From Public Books:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, it intensifies fears of aging and debility that characterize our culture of fitness and drive our aspirations to bodily invincibility. The stigma of aging affects women differentially. While feminists have touted the achievements of older women and insisted that the later years can be the best, we now find ourselves on the other side of an increasingly solid barrier between a “younger” population and an “elderly,” “older,” or “old” one. Those of us who are age 65 or older are the most vulnerable and at risk, both in need of extra protection and most likely to lose out in the triage battle for hospital beds and ventilators. At the same time, our vulnerability to the virus makes it impossible for many of us in this age cohort to participate in the historic street protests we are condemned to witness from afar.

This is therefore a good moment to assess our experiences of aging, and to face our own attitudes more squarely. Rather than battling an ageist and sexist media by insisting that older women can do and be more than ever before by working and playing harder, might we instead focus on care and interdependence, accepting rather than disavowing bodily, emotional, and social vulnerabilities? Rather than celebrating individual victories against aging and mortality, we might embrace a communal ethos of mutuality to which the old have a great deal to contribute.

In proclaiming older women’s powers, the titles of two recent books give a clear sense of their tone and mission: No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, by journalist Gail Collins, and In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead, by communications and media scholar Susan J. Douglas. Indignant about the blatant disparagement of older women that characterizes our moment, Collins and Douglas take a celebratory, if not outright triumphalist, tone. Both search for greater social importance and acceptance of older women in earlier historical periods and find examples of their unrelenting energy and productivity today. Both books encourage all women to fight against gendered ageism. They call for forms of cultural recognition that would better represent what their authors see as older women’s mostly positive experiences of aging.

. . . .

In a whirlwind journey through United States history, from the colonial period to today, No Stopping Us Now traces changes in opportunities for and attitudes toward older women. With spirit and energy, Collins leads us through the lives of numerous, mostly well-known older women who wielded considerable influence at different historical moments. Although the book touches upon larger economic arguments about shifting social roles available to mature women—brought about by the need for their products in colonial times, for example, or the opportunities for widows to run their husbands’ farms or businesses—Collins is more interested in how individual women were able to circumvent prejudices and taboos, and thereby thrive in their later years. Collins’s story is one not so much of steady progress as it is of a series of gains and losses, advances and declines—a story that leads to what she sees as today’s open future of increased possibility.

Thanks to Collins, one certainly gets a sense of women’s energy and activity, which is hard to reconcile with popular attitudes of gendered ageism, then and now. She paints vivid portraits, for example, by following the writing, publishing, and public-speaking “adventures” of 19th-century luminaries like Sarah Josepha Hale, who continued writing until she was 89; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged middle-class women to start a whole new life in their 50s; Catharine Beecher, who took courses at Cornell in her 70s; and Jane Addams, who advocated a postponement of old age.

Notably, historians studying American women have analyzed the feminist strategies these and lesser-known women used to advance their work: by seemingly conforming to set gender roles, even as they radically subverted them. Collins, meanwhile, is content to tell these stories chronologically, ending with encouraging contemporary examples that range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi to Gloria Steinem and Helen Mirren. She does fold these individual white women into a broad historical sweep that also includes exceptional African American figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, and 98-year-old National Park Service ranger Betty Reid Soskin. Yet she only mentions—without analyzing in any depth—how gendered prejudices are structurally inflected by racial, economic, and other social inequalities.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Anti-Semitism and the Intellectuals

From The Wall Street Journal:

George Eliot was at the peak of her renown in 1874 when John Blackwood, her publisher, learned that she was at work on “Daniel Deronda, ” a new novel. As a literary man, he was in thrall to her genius. As a businessman with an instinct for the market, he valued her passionately dedicated readership. But an early look at portions of her manuscript astonished and appalled him: Too much of it was steeped in sympathetic evocations of Jews, Judaism and what was beginning to be known as Zionism.

All this off-putting alien erudition struck him as certain to be more than merely unpopular. It was personally tasteless, it went against the grain of English sensibility, it was an offense to the reigning political temperament. It was, in our notorious idiom, politically incorrect. Blackwood was unquestionably a member of England’s gentlemanly intellectual elite. In recoiling from Eliot’s theme, he showed himself to be that historically commonplace figure: an intellectual anti-Semite.

Anti-Semitism is generally thought of as brutish, the mentality of mobs, the work of the ignorant, the poorly schooled, the gutter roughnecks, the torch carriers. But these are only the servants, not the savants, of anti-Semitism. Mobs execute, intellectuals promulgate. Thugs have furies, intellectuals have causes.

The Inquisition was the brainchild not of illiterates, but of the most lettered and lofty prelates. Goebbels had a degree in philology. Hitler fancied himself a painter and doubtless knew something of Dürer and da Vinci. Pogroms aroused the murderous rampage of peasants, but they were instigated by the cream of Russian officialdom. The hounding and ultimate expulsion of Jewish students from German universities was abetted by the violence of their Aryan classmates, but it was the rectors who decreed that only full-blooded Germans could occupy the front seats. Martin Heidegger, the celebrated philosopher of being and non-being, was quick to join the Nazi Party, and as himself a rector promptly oversaw the summary ejection of Jewish colleagues.

Stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders: The book burners were inspired by the temperamentally bookish—who else could know which books to burn? Even invidious folk myths have intellectual roots, as when early biblical linguists mistranslated as horns the rays of light emanating from Moses’ brow.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

As we have been reminded of late, there is an astonishing complexity—and at times fragility—to our mental and physical health, and we owe a debt to the legions of scientists whose insights and discoveries, over the years, have improved our chances of well-being. Alas, too many of them are unknown to us. One name that was once broadly known has fallen into lamentable obscurity—that of Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor who did ground-breaking work on one of the great scourges of humanity. With Judith Hoare’s “The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code,” we have a chance to learn about Weekes’s varied life and, as important, become reacquainted with her work.

Decades before her death in 1990 at the age of 87, Weekes had been a global sensation, reaching millions of people through her books—“transfusions of hope,” she called them. One of the original self-helpers, she believed that sufferers could master themselves without the aid of professionals, and the strategies she gave them were firmly grounded in the biology of anxiety.

Weekes didn’t plan on medicine as a career, Ms. Hoare tells us. In 1928, at the age of 25, she began graduate studies in zoology in London on a prestigious fellowship. When her beloved mentor died of a stroke, she developed severe heart palpitations. Doctors misinterpreted her condition as tuberculous and sent her to a sanatorium. There she fell into a general state of fear. Six months later, doctors retracted their diagnosis, and Weekes, now nearly incapacitated by stress, resumed her research.

The turning point came when she confided in a friend, a World War I veteran, that she suffered from a frenzied heartbeat. “Far from being surprised or concerned,” Ms. Hoare writes, “he shrugged,” saying: “Those are only the symptoms of nerves.” He told Weekes, in Ms. Hoare’s paraphrase, that “her heart continued to race because she was frightened of it. It was programmed by her fear. This made immediate sense.”

The explanation was deceptively profound, going straight to the core of the mind-body connection. 

. . . .

Weekes had hypothesized a “first fear and second fear” process. The first is a reflex—and the problem in many anxiety disorders is that the reflex is set off for no obvious reason. The second is the conscious feeling of fear. Relief of suffering, for her, came when she learned to quell the “fear of the first fear,” thereby short-circuiting the cycle that was set in motion by the original, unbidden rush of panic: the pounding heart. According to Ms. Hoare, Weekes “immediately grasped the point that she needed to stop fighting the fear.” She had cracked the code.

But this insight would not reach the public for another 30 years. After becoming the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Science at Sydney University, Weekes conducted research in endocrinology and neurology. Eventually she sought a more pragmatic occupation and enrolled in medical school at age 38. During her work as a general practitioner, she felt special sympathy for her anxious patients and began to counsel them to do as she herself had done: “float past” panic, give bodily sensations and fearful thoughts no power. One of her patients asked for written advice. Her pages to him became “Self Help for Your Nerves,” published in 1962, when Weekes was 59; the book rocketed up the bestseller lists in the U.S. and the U.K. As Ms. Hoare shows, Weekes’s contributions to human welfare live on in mindfulness training and forms of behavioral therapy, sometimes combined with medication. Contemporary neuroscience has vindicated her theory.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

How to Fill a Yawning Gap

From The Wall Street Journal:

Is boredom really all that interesting? Thanks perhaps to the subject’s dreary durability, it has generated a considerable literature over the years. Alberto Moravia wrote an engaging novel called “Boredom,” and psychologists, philosophers and classicists have also had their say.

Out of My Skull,” the latest work on this strangely alluring topic, has an exciting title, but nothing about the book is wild or crazy. James Danckert and John D. Eastwood, a pair of psychologists in Canada, know an awful lot about the subject (Mr. Eastwood even runs a Boredom Lab at York University), and they examine it methodically. “In our view, being bored is quite fascinating, and maybe, just maybe, it might even be helpful,” they write, echoing predecessors who find boredom salutary. “Boredom is a call to action, a signal to become more engaged. It is a push toward more meaningful and satisfying actions. It forces you to ask a consequential question: What should I do?”

A taxonomy of boredom, if it’s to avoid exemplifying what it describes, ought to be simple. So let’s just say that boredom is of two kinds. The first is better known to us as ennui, and the democratization of this once-rarefied feeling is one of civilization’s triumphs. At first the preserve of aristocrats and later taken up by intellectuals, nowadays it is available to affluent citizens everywhere. Our endless search for palliatives in the face of this affliction underpins the consumer economy.

The other kind of boredom is the version that most of us get paid for. Commentators on boredom usually genuflect briefly toward factory workers, nannies and other hard-working members of the hoi polloi whose tasks can be mind-numbing. But such people live with a version of boredom that intellectuals find, well, boring. So the focus is usually on the self-important existential variety.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

Bread Winner

From The Wall Street Journal:

For Jack Lawson, “ten hours a day in the dark prison below really meant freedom for me.” At age 12, this Northern England boy began full-time work down the local mine. His life underwent a transformation; there would be “no more drudgery at home.” Jack’s wages lifted him head and shoulders above his younger siblings and separated him in fundamental ways from the world of women. He received better food, clothing and considerably more social standing and respect within the family. He had become a breadwinner.

Rooted in firsthand accounts of life in the Victorian era, Emma Griffin’s “Bread Winner” is a compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. Ms. Griffin, a professor at the University of East Anglia, investigates the personal relationships and family dynamics of around 700 working-class households from the 19th century, charting the challenges people faced and the choices they made. Their lives are revealed as unique personal voyages caught within broader currents.

“I didn’t mind going out to work,” wrote a woman named Bessie Wallis. “It was just that girls were so very inferior to boys. They were the breadwinners and they came first. They could always get work in one of the mines, starting off as a pony boy then working themselves up to rope-runners and trammers for the actual coal-hewers. Girls were nobodies. They could only go into domestic service.”

Putting the domestic back into the economy, Ms. Griffin addresses a longstanding imbalance in our understanding of Victorian life. By investigating how money and resources moved around the working-class family, she makes huge strides toward answering the disconcerting question of why an increasingly affluent country continued to fail to feed its children. There was, her account makes clear, a disappointingly long lag between the development of an industrialized lifestyle in Britain and the spread of its benefits throughout the population.

. . . .

In preindustrial times, both men and women had faced a fairly set course in life on the edge of subsistence. During the Victorian era, their fortunes rapidly diverged. Many of the best-paid roles within the newly industrialized economy were designated as exclusively male. Those designated as female were very low paid (well below subsistence level). Thus developed the “breadwinner wage” model—the idea being that a man needed to support a family upon his earnings but a woman needed only pin money, her basic needs having been provided by father or husband.

Ms. Griffin’s groundbreaking research tracks the effects of this philosophy through personal autobiographical accounts. Working-class men gained power and personal freedom from the new opportunities and broader horizons. Working-class women, by contrast, faced the same old narrow set of options. This new pattern of gender divergence was most pronounced in urban situations, where the higher male wages were largely to be had, and was attended by a significant rise in family breakdown.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In the dim caverns of his memory, PG remembers reading that survival and eventual prosperity of married settlers who journeyed to the American West generally required the hard work and often income-producing farming and ranching also required the active physical participation of both spouses to a greater extent than was were the family circumstances of the typical Breadwinner economic model.

In the American West economic model, children were also expected to provide productive labor in the process of obtaining food and income from the farm or ranch.

When PG was a wee lad, he remembers helping to herd livestock and run to get tools from the shed as required by his parents.

His mother was definitely involved in the agricultural and livestock activities on a regular basis. She and PG both were chased by an angry cow as they were trying to give some medication to her calf. PG was 7 years old at the time and discovered a running speed he didn’t realized he possessed as he headed for the fence.

When PG was 11 years old, he learned to operate a Caterpillar D6 (sometimes known as the most important piece of military equipment used in the Pacific theater of World War II) and thought he was the coolest kid around driving it to help his father on the farm.

Unfortunately, PG doesn’t have any photos of himself operating the D6, but here are a few to give anyone who is still interested a sense of the size of the machine. PG remembers that it required about a three-step climb from the ground to the seat.

Military Caterpillar D6
This is a civilian D6
Caterpillar D4 (a little smaller than a D6) practicing landings in preparations for service in the Pacific Theater.
Another D4 in the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood Combat Engineer’s Museum.

Rivers of Power

From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s hard to imagine a world without rivers. The continents would be higher, colder and more rugged, and we humans might still be hugging the coastlines. Our iconic cities, situated along rivers, would not have been built. Global trade and travel might never have developed. Even so, rivers’ crucial role in shaping civilization is “grandly underappreciated,” according to Laurence C. Smith, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University. In his important new book “Rivers of Power,” he surveys mankind’s long, shifting relationship with our rivers, ranging from prehistory to the present and embracing nearly every region of the world.

Rain started falling on Earth at least 4 billion years ago. Merging into streams and then rivers, the water launched its eternal assault on the continents, grinding them down and carrying them grain by grain toward the sea. The rivers, over their tortuous course, occasionally slowed and dropped some of their silt, forming tangled deltas and wide valley plains. Perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago, nomadic peoples in the Mideast and Asia settled these valleys and began to plant crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

The valley soil was fertile, and early farmers learned to divert river water for irrigation, increasing their harvests and producing surpluses of grain. Starting about 4,000 B.C., they built the world’s first great cities, in present-day Iraq, Egypt, India, Pakistan and China. As these societies grew wealthier and more populous, they also became more complex, supporting a ruling class, traders, philosophers and engineers. In fact, these civilizations (the Egyptian, Sumerian, Harappan and Chinese) were so utterly dependent on their rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra, and Yangtze and Yellow) that they have been dubbed “hydraulic societies.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Farm Girl, A Wisconsin Memoir

From The New York Times:

My grandfather died many years ago, but I still remember his stories of growing up in the Texas Hill Country in the early 20th century, walking two miles each way to a one-room schoolhouse and doing chores that were, to me, unfathomable: making laundry soap out of lard and lye, plucking chickens, hauling water from the well. I thought of him often as I read “Farm Girl,” Carlson’s spare, charming memoir of her Depression-era childhood.

Carlson grew up on her parents’ farm outside Plum City in western Wisconsin, where she was born in 1926. (Family lore has it that the doctor who delivered her exclaimed: “Well, this is a nice, big one! Nine or 10 pounds.”) She and her three siblings roamed through “80 acres of beautiful, rich, fertile Wisconsin cropland, pasture and woodlot” while their parents shielded them from the worst economic woes of the period. Her memories, mostly rosy, are punctuated by descriptions of the era’s terrible droughts. “We could hear the cattle bawling as they searched the dry pastures for a bit of grass,” she recalls, and “we saw the leaves on the stunted corn plants in the sun-baked fields curl to conserve moisture.”

“Farm Girl” isn’t chronological. It’s split into two sections — one on her family, the other on the seasonal rhythms that define life on a farm — and divided into thematic chapters, some as short as two pages: “The Party Line Telephone,” “Butternuts and Maple Sugar Candy,” “Sunday Dinner,” “Long Underwear” (“nothing, nothing separated the farm kids from the town kids like the dreaded long underwear … the scourge of Wisconsin winters”).

Link to the rest at The New York Times

For those who have never lived in a place with extremely cold winters, long underwear is an important winterwear component. If the electricity goes out or the schoolbus becomes stranded during a cold snap, long underwear can become very important.

That said, long underwear is seldom regarded as a fashion-forward piece of clothing other than among the old guys sitting around a hot wood stove at the local grain elevator, spinning stores about the winters of their childhoods when winters were really something and, when you woke up, crawled out from under five or six blankets and your bare feet hit the linoleum floor, you got dressed in a big hurry, then went out to help your father thaw out the water pump because Mom couldn’t make oatmeal without water and refused to use melted snow because who knew what might have been done on that exact spot by some creature or another.

Girl Decoded

From The Wall Street Journal:

What if the disinterested machines that surround us and encroach on every aspect of our lives were sensitive to our emotional states? Imagine fridges reprimanding us for our furtive late-night snacks. Or cars decelerating when we are anxious, or preventing us from driving when we are distracted. Consider laptops offering gentle words of consolation or praise, or washing machines groaning with indignation and wristwatches chastising us for our misdemeanors and lack of attention.

In “Girl Decoded,” Rana el Kaliouby’s compelling vision of an emotionally imbued future for artificial intelligence, indifferent machines are elevated into magnificent humanlike creations. While lacking—for now—the authentic emotions of their human counterparts, emotionally enhanced automatons might nevertheless do a perfectly good job of imitating them.

Such devices, in addition to invigorating human-machine relations, have the potential to convey emotional awareness to people—such as those with autism—who struggle to navigate routine emotions. They may also help track emotional states, predict depressive crises and detect the loss of emotional expression that often accompanies diseases like Parkinson’s. Marketing companies could engage them to evaluate reactions to new products. Had Shakespeare’s Othello possessed such a device, he might have been better equipped to understand Desdemona’s intentions. But how might such an imagined world of machine-facilitated emotional enlightenment be brought to fruition?

Ms. el Kaliouby’s brilliance is demonstrated in the simplicity of her solution. While earning her doctorate at Cambridge University, she learned the importance of nonverbal information as she communicated with her geographically distant family back home. She suspected the intricate facial muscles that enable us to grimace, smile, laugh and frown might provide a conduit into the lexicon of human emotions. Once a range of expressions is defined, they could be incorporated into the anatomical structures of emotionally enabled automatons.

Former archivists of the anatomy of emotions, such as Charles Bell in “Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting” (1806) and Charles Darwin in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872), established the foundations of the science of emotions. Darwin’s unique use of photographic representations was itself rooted in artistic exposition, perhaps influenced by the drawings of the Renaissance painter Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, whose early-16th-century “A Man With Eyes Shut Tight” documented a dystonic facial expression in a remarkable level of detail.

A Man With Eyes Shut Tight
Giovanni Agostino da Lodi

Inspired by Rosalind Picard’s seminal book “Affective Computing” (1997)—which emphasized the importance of emotions to intelligence, rational decision-making, perception and learning, and reimagined our relationship with machines—Ms. el Kaliouby set out to construct a “mind-reading machine” or “emotion decoder” based on the deciphering of facial features. Given the potential universality of emotions, such a device would need to be relevant to all ethnic groups and cultures.

[Note: PG couldn’t find the book. The link to Affective Computing goes to a 1995 paper published in the M.I.T Media Laboratory Perceptual Computing Section Technical Report No. 321]

A fortuitous encounter with Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism expert, led Ms. el Kaliouby to his unique archive of videos that captured people displaying a wide range of emotions. With the help of sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, and later innovations while she was a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, Ms. el Kaliouby’s machines eventually learned to recognize a rudimentary “emotional palette” encompassing six different human emotional categories.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The reference to Dystonia in the the OP in connection with the image of the man with his eyes shut sent PG down a Dystonia rabbit hole.

From The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

What is dystonia?

Dystonia is a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Dystonia can affect many different parts of the body, and the symptoms are different depending upon the form of dystonia. Early symptoms may include a foot cramp or a tendency for one foot to turn or drag—either sporadically or after running or walking some distance—or a worsening in handwriting after writing several lines.  In other instances, the neck may turn or pull involuntarily, especially when the person is tired or under stress. Sometimes both eyes might blink rapidly and uncontrollably; other times, spasms will cause the eyes to close.  Symptoms may also include tremor or difficulties speaking.  In some cases, dystonia can affect only one specific action, while allowing others to occur unimpeded.  For example, a musician may have dystonia when using her hand to play an instrument, but not when using the same hand to type.  The initial symptoms can be very mild and may be noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress, or fatigue.  Over a period of time, the symptoms may become more noticeable or widespread; sometimes, however, there is little or no progression. Dystonia typically is not associated with problems thinking or understanding, but depression and anxiety may be present.

Following is another example of dystonic facial expression depicted in art. According to Google Translate, the meaning of hargneux includes surly, aggressive, fractious, angry, snappish, crabbed, waspish or shrewish. A snarling dog is sometimes called a hargneux.

Chien hargneux a toujours les oreilles déchirées translates to “A snarling dog always has torn ears.”

Le hargneux (Soult)
Honoré Daumier

According to PG’s quick and dirty research, Soult refers to French Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), described as Napoleon’s most able Marshal. Soult appears to carry a secondary meaning of a stern or aggressive appearance. PG is happy to have any of his errors corrected in the comments.

Hollywood Park

From The Wall Street Journal:

The story begins in 1979, when (Mikel) Jollett is 5 and living on a farm-like compound in Northern California with other children and a few female caretakers. Every person Mr. Jollett ever sees has been shorn of hair. A woman with a shaved head who cries a lot visits occasionally. “I’ve been told this woman’s name is ‘Mom,’ ” Mr. Jollett writes, in an opening chapter that attempts to capture his childhood perspective. “I know the word is supposed to have some kind of special meaning.”

One night, this woman spirits him and his older brother, Tony, away from the compound. Mr. Jollett later learns that the place is a cult called Synanon, where former alcoholics and drug addicts (including, at one point, Mr. Jollett’s father) came to get clean and to try to create a utopia.

The price is those you love: Parents must give up children; husbands and wives must divorce; and no one can be more important than dear leader, in this case a false prophet with a penchant for violence. Some who leave the cult, the author reports, find their dogs hanging from trees. Others disappear and are presumed murdered. Mr. Jollett reports witnessing an escaped Synanon member being beaten by cult thugs. This would be a horrific scene for anyone to see, let alone a young child. Mom’s solution is to tell Mr. Jollett he never saw it and is thus not entitled to feel fear or anguish. “Do feelings exist if no one sees them?” Mr. Jollett wonders.

The boys are moved to Salem, Ore. They grow up hungry, dirty, cold. Mom has them raise rabbits so they can eat; by age 6, Mr. Jollett is required to defrost the creatures’ water bowls before dawn, and to learn to kill them. He receives guidance from a lover of his mother’s, a gentle alcoholic who teaches him to fish and engenders in him a love of running. One day, with no proof, she tells the boys he’s dead. The boys never see him again, leaving Mr. Jollett racked with sadness.

Meanwhile, Dad has been clean for years and is managing a mechanic shop. He lives in Southern California with a fellow ex-Synanon member—a woman who cared for Mr. Jollett at Synanon, a woman the author loved and still does. By the time he is 7, Mr. Jollett and his brother are spending summers in SoCal—where, Mr. Jollett says, “We fight less. We eat more. We lie with eyes closed in the sun thinking of precisely nothing.” He recalls going to the beach and standing in “the soft waves as they pour over us and Dad, shirtless and tan in the sun, standing still like an anchor in the water.” They go to horse races at Hollywood Park, where, feeling Dad’s hand on his shoulder, Mr. Jollett is overwhelmed by what it is “to be a son, to have a father, to be out at the track, with the men all trying their luck.”

Then it’s back to Oregon, to “moldy bread and four-day-old rabbit”; to Mom telling Mr. Jollett he’s fat and figuratively scratching off whatever healing has occurred when he’s away from her. Teachers tell her that Mr. Jollett, a straight-A student, should skip a grade; Mom won’t have it, and by age 10, Mr. Jollett understands why. “I know it’s my job to take care of Mom and that all boys are supposed to take care of their mothers because that was the reason they were born,” he writes.

As he gets older, Mr. Jollett tries to thrash his way out. He ditches school and crashes a Honda XR80 motorcycle. He becomes obsessed with David Bowie, picks up a broken guitar and beats on it. He takes up track in high school and earns a full-ride scholarship to Stanford, where he wins Pac-10 honors and runs the third fastest 10,000-meter time in the nation. It should be sunshine from here on out, but the damage inflicted by Mom has Mr. Jollett pushing women he loves away and occasionally wondering whether he should stick around this world at all.

It can sound airy to say, “Music saved my life.” In Mr. Jollett’s case, it seems also to be true. In his early 20s, living in L.A. and writing for a music magazine, he finds himself interviewing his hero Bowie. He gets up the gumption to ask, how does Bowie write songs? Mr. Jollett confesses that he’s written a few hundred; that his “deepest wish” is to perform for an audience. But the interviewer admits to the rock star: “So many things I thought were good, including parts of myself, turned out to be more complicated, more broken. And I can barely remember having a thought where love is just love, where there is peace and I feel like I deserve it, before all this contradiction in me came about.”

“Write about the contradiction then,” Bowie says.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Japan Doesn’t Want to Become Another Casualty of English

From Foreign Policy:

In a 2019 survey, Japan dropped to 53rd in global English proficiency, squarely in the “low proficiency” band. Japan ranks near the bottom of Asian and developed countries alike despite constant reshuffling and refinement of the English educational curriculum in schools and the frequent assertions, acknowledged by Japan’s Ministry of Education, that English-language skills are needed to compete in the modern economy.

The failure to adopt English is particularly unexpected given that the English language—and the whiteness associated with it—signifies privilege in Japan. Countless advertisements flaunt white foreigners on TV and use English aptitude as the basis for selling products. Top companies such as Rakuten, an e-commerce website and the Japanese competitor to Amazon, place immense weight on English proficiency, whether or not English is needed for an employee’s role. Eikaiwa (English conversation) programs run daily on TV, and accounts featuring videos of Japanese American children speaking English cultivate tens of thousands of Instagram followers.

. . . .

At the same time, essays and books about the supposed uniqueness of Japanese language, culture, and identity—a genre known as nihonjinron—are in every bookstore, next to shelves of English-learning books. They overflow with complaints about young people’s poor Japanese and instructions on how to speak polite and beautiful Japanese.

Today, Japanese are caught between a belief in the importance of Japanese language and culture and the need to exist in a globalized world in which English carries economic privileges and status associations. A plummeting population and an inevitable future influx of foreign workers collide with a proud national identity, structural and cultural obstacles to English learning, and enough economic independence to resist what might otherwise seem an inevitable future: an English-speaking Japan.

For years, multinational companies have been mandating English as the common corporate language. “In East Asia, many parents, professionals, and students themselves see English as a prerequisite for attaining the best jobs on the market,” said Minh Tran, the executive director of academic affairs at Education First, a Swiss language-education company that offers classes in Japan.

Yet the spread of English has left behind a “trail of dead”: mangled languages, literatures, and identities. As countries around the world scramble for widespread English, there’s a fear of losing their own traditions, cultures, and even names.

English became a tool of the Japanese elite throughout Meiji era Japan’s relentless race to catch up technologically with the West. And while Japan was never a colony of a Western country, the U.S. occupation after World War II lasted for seven years—enough time for the U.S. military to implement widespread political and economic changes throughout the country. In the Cold War, Japan came under the U.S. nuclear umbrella of protection from the Soviet Union, further cementing America’s image as a symbolic protector.

This presence of American soldiers at this time exposed the general Japanese public to spoken English. “America [was] idealized in Japan at the time as a symbol of freedom and democracy, partly as a result of the success of the American occupation,” writes Takako Yoshida, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Lleida. English accordingly became associated with freedom, power, and status.

Link to the rest at Foreign Policy

During the occupation, Japan was governed (or ruled) by General Douglas MacArthur. At the end of the war, about 450,000 US military personnel together with other Allied soldiers were stationed in the country. Those members of the military who had fought in the war were mustered out as quickly as feasible and replaced with occupation troops from America, Britain, Australia, India and New Zealand.

Whatever his shortcomings, no one ever accused MacArthur of being indecisive. (Well, General George S. Patton did on at least one occasion, but Patton always had to be the most decisive military commander who had ever lived.) One biographer dubbed MacArthur as the American Caesar. (PG’s favorite bio of MacArthur)

The General effectively ordered Hirohito to remain as the emperor of Japan, staving off a potential suicide, which would have caused a great deal of societal disruption. Acting by fiat, MacArthur established a parliamentary democracy and, under his direction (although he was a politically-conservative Republican), the Japanese government introduced sweeping social reforms and implemented economic reforms similar to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

Major land reforms resulted in millions of acres of farmland (nearly 40% of Japan’s arable land) being purchased from landlords by the Japanese government, then resold at very low prices, to the tenant-farmers. Under these reforms, about three million peasants became owners of the land they had worked, sometimes for generations.

The Occupation ended in 1951 and Japan became a fully-sovereign nation in 1952.

According to Cultures of War,

Discipline, moral legitimacy, well-defined and well-articulated objectives, a clear chain of command, tolerance and flexibility in policy formulation and implementation, confidence in the ability of the state to act constructively, the ability to operate abroad free of partisan politics back home, and the existence of a stable, resilient, sophisticated civil society on the receiving end of occupation policies – these political and civic virtues helped make it possible to move decisively during the brief window of a few years when defeated Japan itself was in flux and most receptive to radical change.

All the Lonely People

From The Wall Street Journal:

In recent years, surveys have shown that a large percentage of Americans feel lonely or socially isolated. (One such survey, published in January, put the figure at 61%.) The restrictions prompted by Covid-19 have surely triggered even more such feelings. At a time when technology supposedly fosters new levels of interpersonal connectivity, how did we get to this place? What are the broader effects? What should we do?

Those are some of the questions that Vivek Murthy, a doctor of internal medicine and a former surgeon general (2014-17), addresses in “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” Though written before “coronavirus” entered our lexicon, the book is a timely and well-reported meditation on a critical aspect of the American mind.

Dr. Murthy begins by highlighting research showing that isolation is not our natural state: We evolved as social beings. “Humans have survived as a species,” he writes, “not because we have physical advantages like size, strength, or speed, but because of our ability to connect in social groups. We exchange ideas. We coordinate goals. We share information and emotions.”

It follows that when we’re not routinely socializing, we feel that something is amiss. Researchers have found three “dimensions” of loneliness, Dr. Murthy reports: “intimate” (wanting a spouse or confidant), “relational” (seeking close friendships) and “collective” (desiring a community with common interests). To thrive, we need to find the right approach to each of them, and loneliness can result if even one is left unfulfilled.

Dr. Murthy draws a distinction between loneliness and solitude. While solitude “is a state of peaceful aloneness or voluntary isolation,” loneliness is “burdened with shame.” He describes his own battle with loneliness as a child, saying that he didn’t want to tell his parents about it because doing so would have conveyed more than an absence of friends: “It would feel like admitting I wasn’t likable or worthy of being loved.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Have We Weaponized Virtue?

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

FOR EVERY ACTION, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law deals with physical objects, but does it also have something to teach us about human behavior and the clash of forces in our fraught and turbulent society?

When it comes to the volatile issues of race, sex, identity, privilege, rights, and freedom, well-intentioned actions to redress genuine injuries can conflict with equally important societal values, such as freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas. Are there unintended and adverse consequences that flow from the energetic vindication of cherished rights in our society? Consequences that have been ignored and deserve serious examination? Is there still any legitimate place for dissent and disagreement on these fundamental issues?

In The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, Robert Boyers, professor of English at Skidmore College, author of 10 books, and editor of the literary journal Salmagundi, is alarmed by the “irrationality and anti-intellectuality” on college campuses and in the wider cultural environment that was “unleashed by many of the most vocal proponents of the new fundamentalism” to “silence or intimidate opponents.” He is deeply concerned that

concepts with some genuine merit — like “privilege,” “appropriation,” and even “microaggression” — were very rapidly weaponized, and well-intentional discussions of “identity,” “inequality,” and “disability” became the leading edge of new efforts to label and separate the saved and the damned, the “woke” and the benighted, the victim and the oppressor.

He regrets that “people who are with you on most things — on the obligation to move the world as it is closer to the world as it should be — are increasingly suspicious of dissent.”

Boyers is asking whether in our zeal to address the consequences of racism, misogyny, sexual violence, bigotry, and intolerance in America, are we spreading a new intolerance, undermining cherished values of free and open discussion?

. . . .

As Boyers sees it, tendencies that alarmed him and others on the liberal left 25 or 30 years ago have grown more disturbing.

Intolerance among young people and their academic sponsors in the university is more entrenched than it was before, and both administrators and a large proportion of the liberal professoriate are running scared, fearful that they will be accused of thought crimes if they speak out against even the most obvious abuses and absurdities.

Boyers offers a startling example.

An Ivy League college senior in Boyers’s July 2018 New York State Summer Writers Institute — a young white man — told Boyers he was denounced in a seminar by several other students for writing poems based on his experience as a volunteer in Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. “How dare he write poems about lynching and the travails of oppressed people when it was obvious that he has no legitimate claim to that material?” Boyers sarcastically asks, echoing the all-too-sincere accusations leveled at the student. “Was it not obvious,” Boyers continues, “that a ‘privileged’ white male, who could afford to take off a year of college to work as a volunteer, really had no access to the suffering of the people he hoped to study and evoke?”

Boyers expands this example beyond the college setting by recounting another controversy that unfolded in July 2018, when objections (which Boyers calls “predictably nasty and belligerent”) were lodged against The Nation magazine for publishing a short poem by a young white poet in which he used black vernacular language. Within a few days the poetry editors who had reviewed and approved the poem issued what Nation columnist Katha Pollitt called a “craven apology” that read “like a letter from a re-education camp.” In The Atlantic, the scholar of black English John McWhorter called the language in the poem “true and ordinary black speech” and a “spot-on depiction of the dialect in use.” He also noted the irony that, at a time when whites are encouraged “to understand […] the black experience,” white artists who seek “to empathize […] as artists” are told to cease and desist.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

For PG, freedom of expression qualifies as the premier virtue of a free and civilized society.

With it, the polity has the possibility of fixing things that are broken, righting the wrongs that are, unfortunately, inevitable in any collection of diverse human beings.

Without it, not so much.

Close behind freedom of expression is tolerance for the opinions others with whom we disagree.

PG is reminded of how his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, illustrated Voltaire’s beliefs:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The Gift of Good Soil

From The Wall Street Journal:

More than anything else during this lockdown, I’ve missed restaurants. What wouldn’t I give right now to be sitting with friends in a cheerful bistro, nursing a glass of wine and looking over the day’s menu? Instead, tucked under the bedcovers, I’m reading about dishes I might have ordered had I been so lucky. You can almost taste the food in Bill Buford’s “Dirt,” an engrossing, beautifully written memoir about his life as a cook in France.

“Dirt” refers to the soil that gives food its taste, the goût du terroir to which the French famously attribute the complexities inherent in wine. The book is a sequel to “Heat” (2006), Mr. Buford’s account of how he quit his job as an editor for the New Yorker to work in Italian restaurant kitchens. He was a man obsessed, determined to prove his worth among professionals, earning the requisite badges of honor: knife cuts, singed hair, burns and blisters. Former editor of the literary magazine Granta and author of “Among the Thugs” (1990), a hair-raising account of British soccer hooliganism, Mr. Buford seeks out extreme experiences. He finds plenty when he gets to Lyon.

The city, about 250 miles south of Paris, is the capital of French gastronomy and has been home to the finest chefs, including Daniel Boulud, who is from there, and the great Paul Bocuse. Mr. Buford intends to stay for three months, but he ends up living in the town for five years.

. . . .

During that time he works for a baker, attends a top cooking school and, finally, toils on the line in one of Lyon’s most famous restaurants.

Mr. Buford brings a novelistic approach to his story; he is both observer and participant. He’s an entertaining, often comical, raconteur. “The women were beautiful, as you would expect—it was France,” he observes upon arrival in Lyon. “It was the men who were unexpected. Their look was almost uniform: blunt, short-cropped hair, unshaven, sometimes a cheek scar, thuggish—ugly: forthrightly so. These were not New York faces. They were not Parisian. They were more English than French, an aging-lad look. I thought: I know these people. They are not fancy or fussy, and they unexpectedly put me at ease.”

. . . .

In his neighborhood bistro, a diner complains to Mr. Buford’s wife: “Do you really need to smile so much?” A taxi driver hits his 3-year-old boy for putting his legs on the seat. “I searched for words, while securing my children on the sidewalk, and put my head back into the car to tell the driver, in my best possible French, that he must never (jamais!), ever touch (toucher) my child (mon fils) or I would rip the eyeballs out of his fat sockets and eat them. Actually I have no idea what I said.” Mr. Buford had yet to master the French language.

. . . .

His descriptions of his new city are vivid and evocative. “In Lyon, the rivers make everything built near them—bridges, quais, pastel-painted sixteenth-century homes, random Roman ruins—into performances of light and darkness and reflection. But Lyon is also a throwback city—wiseguys, corrupt cops, unbathed operators working a chance, the women, mainly Eastern European, working their trade. Friday nights are rough: The after-hours clubs across the Saône from our home open at 11:00 p.m. and close whenever . . . Saturday nights, remarkably, are rougher than Fridays. You wake on Sunday and there is a drunk guy leaning against your door. A vehicle that had been parked in front of the apartment has been torched. Farmers arrive early at the market to hose away vomit.”

But early in the morning the enticing smell of bread wafts across the street from a bakery opposite his apartment. He befriends the owner, Bob, a large, jowly man, permanently bedecked with flour. After a month unable to find work in a restaurant, Mr. Buford becomes his apprentice.

The job is a stopgap. He leaves Bob when he is accepted at the prestigious culinary institute named for Paul Bocuse. The course is hard and, as in “Heat,” Mr. Buford is humorously self-deprecating. “My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was.” At the school he learns, among other things, the three principles of a French plate: colorvolume and texture. Then, at last, he finds a restaurant willing to take him on.

The kitchen in Mathieu Viannay’s Michelin-starred La Mère Brazier was run the old-fashioned French way. It was hierarchical and tense, with 15-hour days. 

. . . .

“The French kitchen was about rules: that there was always one way and only one way (like trimming the gnarly ends off your beans—with your fingertips, never a knife).” There was even a rule about popping peas. Split the pod, drop the peas quickly into boiling water, drain and ice; the pea’s membrane will slide off with a gentle squeeze. He imagines the belly-wobbling laughs this idea would provoke in his Italian colleagues. “In the long history of Italian cuisine, you will not discover a single popped pea.”

But he has another goal besides training in a French kitchen: to investigate the history and origins of that country’s cooking and its links to Italian cuisine. Food historians have debunked the long-held myth that Catherine de’ Medici taught the French how to cook.

. . . .

This attitude towards food prevails even at the local school where Mr. Buford’s twins are enrolled. For lunch, the children are served three-course meals, no menu ever repeated during the year, ending with cheese, fruit, dessert or yogurt.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Signatures: A Nourishing Intellectual Feast

From The National Review:

There is a genre of book that constitutes the happiest — rather than guiltiest — pleasure for book-lovers: books about books. Books that seem to tap into the echt, the origin-pleasure of reading. Books that exemplify why reading remains the supreme vehicle for the transmission not just of facts or of history, but of memory.

Take an author who possesses the skill for capturing this essence and combines it with the spirit of a gentleman, the taste of a connoisseur, the eye of a gossip, and the knowledge of a historian, and you get near to what I think might be the perfect genre of book. “Belles lettres” may once have almost done justice to it, but, thanks to the sniffily pejorative ring of the term, I’m not sure it now does. Still, however you describe it, there remains a type of book that some of us dive for on the table as soon as we see it.

Whatever name you give this genre, David Pryce-Jones’s Signatures is a masterpiece in it. The premise is brilliantly simple. The author, a familiar presence to NR readers, selects 90 books from his considerable library, each signed by its author. Each book, of the many collected over the course of a long life, is awarded its own brief chapter, allowing Pryce-Jones to open his treasure chest of a memory, recall the circumstances in which he met or came to know the book’s author, and reflect on the author’s world and the impact this extraordinary cast had on their century.

The work forms more of a complement than a coda to Pryce-Jones’s 2015 autobiography, Fault Lines. As in that work, the cast is international, polyglot: British, continental, transatlantic, Middle Eastern, and more.

. . . .

There are figures from the world of literature, starting with people David met through his father, Alan Pryce-Jones (who had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement), and progressing through many of his own contemporaries. So we have Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton, and W. H. Auden as well as John Fuller, Muriel Spark, and V. S. Naipaul. Not all his subjects are now remembered. Chapters such as that on Alasdair Clayre constitute moving tributes to friends now lost to a wider public. What unites almost all of them is that they are a reminder that there was almost no big subject of his day that Pryce-Jones did not apply his mind to.

The age of the dictators haunts the chapters on Svetlana Alliluyeva (daughter of Stalin), Arno Breker, and Albert Speer. The Cold War runs through the chapters on Oleg Gordievsky, Arthur Koestler, and Alexander Yakovlev. And of course the wars of the Middle East and their spillage run through the chapters on Mahmud Abu Shilbayah, Bernard Lewis, and Amos Elon. On each of these subjects Pryce-Jones has written books: Paris in the Third Reich (1981); The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (1995); and The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (1989). But Signatures allows Pryce-Jones to give us a backstage pass into these worlds he has written about. The view is not only suitably gossipy and anecdotal, but serious and occasionally devastating.

Speaking with Ernst Jünger in Paris several decades after the Nazis had vacated that city, Pryce-Jones posed a question about the First World War. How had Jünger been able to actually enjoy that war, as his classic memoir Storm of Steel makes it clear that he did? “Killing Frenchmen,” comes the reply. A verdict that seems in no way to blight Jünger’s enjoyment of post–Second World War Paris, or indeed of his Parisian girlfriend.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG notes that one hundred years ago, 1920, the world had already seen a huge cataclysm, World War I. The beginnings of World War II were only seventeen years into the future.

The military conflicts during the 21st Century (the following come to mind), very fortunately, nothing has come close to equaling the enormous slaughter of the 20th Century.

  1. The Syrian Civil War – At least 470,000 deaths were caused directly or indirectly by the war. About 1 in 10 Syrians had been killed or wounded by the fighting.
  2. Darfur – At least 300,000 people nearly three million displaced.
  3. Afghanistan – 30,000 Afghan troops and police and 31,000 Afghan civilians were killed. More than 3,500 troops from the NATO-led coalition were killed.
  4. Iraq – 4,700 coalition troops killed; at least 85,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, possibly double that number
  5. Yemen and Ukraine – About 10,000 killed in each war

By way of horrendous contrast (without minimizing the losses of 21st Century wars) here is what the 20th Century looked like:

  1. World War I – 15-22 Million deaths (9-10 million military deaths, 8-13 million civilian deaths) plus 23 million wounded military personnel. Civilians wounded are unknown.
  2. World War II – Deaths directly caused by the war (including military and civilians killed) are estimated at 50–56 million people, while there were an additional estimated 19 to 28 million deaths from war-related disease and famine. Civilian deaths totaled 50-55 million. Military deaths from all causes totaled 21–25 million, including deaths in captivity of about 5 million prisoners of war. More than half of the total number of casualties are accounted for by the dead of the Republic of China and of the Soviet Union.
  3. Korean War – 5 million people died. More than half of these–about 10 percent of Korea’s prewar population–were civilians. 40,000 Americans died and more than 100,000 were wounded. South Korea – (217,000 military, 1,000,000 civilian deaths). North Korea – (406,000 military, 600,000 civilian deaths). China – (600,000 military deaths) (PG notes that these numbers don’t necessarily add up, but obtaining death and injury tolls for North Korea and China are impossible.)
  4. Vietnam – Total deaths – about 1.4 million. Allied military deaths 282,000, PAVN/VC military deaths 444,000, civilian deaths (North and South Vietnam) 627,000

20 Books to Read in Quarantine

From The Atlantic:

For many of those lucky enough to be able to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, books have taken on a special meaning. COVID-19 book clubs have popped up to help readers feel connected to one another, group readings have brought new life to old poems, and—in this time of ambient anxiety—the value of losing yourself in a novel has never seemed more apparent. What follows is a selection of recommendations from The Atlantic’s culture writers and editors, with an eye toward stories that will resonate during a summer of continued social distancing and tentative reopenings. We’ve loosely grouped them according to literary cravings you might have: Perhaps you’ll decide on a breezy beach read to devour responsibly on your fire escape or a collection of nature essays that lets you explore the outdoors from your living room. Either way, stay safe, and happy reading.

If you Want to Get Lost in a Place

Wilderness Essays, by John Muir

For the past several years, my family has spent our summer vacations exploring America’s national parks. Acadia, Glacier, Badlands, Grand Teton, Yellowstone—they’re places as humbling as they are astounding, and our goal is to visit each one, eventually. When we canceled this year’s trip (hope to see you soon, Zion), I found some consolation in the writings of John Muir. And because the naturalist turned activist was so prolific—many of his writings were originally published in The Atlantic—I’ve been loving Wilderness Essays, a collection of the work he produced as he explored the western United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Muir had the eye of a scientist and the wonder of an enthusiast; in his observations, run-on sentences spill forth in adjectival ecstasies (“the vast forests feeding on the drenching sunbeams, every cell in a whirl of enjoyment”), nature transforms from a place into a character, and the whole tumult resolves in giddy benedictions. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” Muir urges. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” — Megan Garber

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Enemy of All Mankind

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Sept. 11, 1695, a Mughal treasure ship found itself so shrouded in Indian Ocean haze that the lookout failed to sight an English vessel until she was only 5 miles distant. She was coming on very fast—possibly making 15 knots—but this didn’t worry the captain of the Ganj-i-sawai (Anglicized into Gunsway in the copious accounts that were to follow): His ship mounted 80 guns; he commanded 400 musketeers and had 1,000 men aboard.

The British interloper, the Fancy, had a crew of only about 150, but she possessed 46 guns—an extraordinary weight of metal for a pirate ship—and a determined captain who had been waiting months for the Gunsway. The Mughal ship fired first and was at once beset by a scarcely believable run of bad luck. That initial shot burst the gun, killing its crew and leaving a swath of flaming wreckage; and the first broadside from the Fancy not only struck the Mughal’s 40-foot mainmast but knocked it right down to the deck in a tangle of spars and rigging. Amid the confusion, the Fancy ranged alongside; her men swarmed aboard the Gunsway in the smoke and, having subdued a far larger crew, made straight for her rich cargo.

This encounter, dramatic in itself, is the pivot on which far greater events turn and continue to reverberate down to this day, as Steven Johnson argues with verve and conviction in his thoroughly engrossing “Enemy of All Mankind.” “Most confrontations like this one, viewed from the wide angle of history,” he writes, “are minor disputes, sparks that quickly die out. But every now and then, someone strikes a match that lights up the whole planet.”

The man who struck this particular match was Henry Every, a Devon-born Royal Navy renegade who had turned pirate and, after stealing a fortune from the richest man on earth, became the first object of an international manhunt. On that one violent day in the Indian Ocean, he set in motion a chain of events that, as Mr. Johnson shows, did much to shape the modern world.

. . . .

The career that was to capture the world’s attention began blandly enough in 1694, when Every was hired by a group of British investors who had formed a company called Spanish Expedition Shipping to recover treasure from sunken galleons in the West Indies. They built a “ship of force” named the Charles II, which, with three consorts, got as far as Madrid, a voyage that should have taken a couple of weeks but, for reasons lost to history, consumed five months. And there they waited, without getting their promised pay, for some never-received orders, until Every, the first mate of the Charles II, seized the ship, renamed her the Fancy and set sail for the riches of India.

. . . .

Euphemisms notwithstanding, reports of the attack generated growing anger on a national level. One of the earliest, issued just days later by a local British official, held that “it is certain the pirates, which these people affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the people of the Gunsway . . . to make them confess where their money was.” They seized a woman “related to the king, returning from her pilgrimage to Mecca, in her old age. She they abused very much, and forced several other women, which caused one person of quality, his wife and nurse, to kill themselves to prevent the husbands seeing them (and their being) ravished.”

. . . .

Mr. Johnson writes: “Against extraordinary odds, Henry Every had made his fortune. But he must have realized, listening to the screams echoing across the water from the Gunsway, that his men’s actions had now made him something else: the world’s most wanted man.”

And, surely against any desire he likely had, one of the world’s most influential ones. His attack took place during the vigorous infancy of the joint-stock company, which—then as now—allowed investors to diminish their financial risk by investing in the whole operation rather than gambling on a single voyage. The joint-stock company most crucial to Britain—really, almost an alternate, farmed-out government of its own—was the East India Co. It had already grown so important to England’s commerce that to assuage the Mughal emperor’s wrath the whole British government had to make amends by condemning the Fancy’s attack and its English captain. And, in condemning it, had to suppress piracy as a whole. A mere 30 years earlier Sir Francis Drake might plausibly be seen as a pirate operating under British protection. No longer.

Parliament passed new laws; the East India Co.—which came to have a navy of its own—enforced them, and in time it became clear that Henry Every’s profitable day had helped bring about a trading system that, despite the fall of empires and the rise of modern technology, has not in essence changed for three centuries.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Beating the Bounds

Not much to do with books and writing, but interesting history.

From JSTOR:

Maps are only one way of knowing the shape of a place. Before the borders of England’s parishes were definitively mapped, people learned the boundaries of their community by foot. Every year, a few days before the feast of the Ascension, the members of each parish would come together to walk the edge of their common lands.

The practice was called “beating the bounds,” and the purpose was to create a shared mental map of the parish, to ensure that neighboring communities couldn’t encroach on their land. They carried flags, sang songs, read homilies, and used slender willow-branches to swat the landmarks that separated one parish from another.

It was the responsibility of the older members of the community to remember the boundaries, and the responsibility of the younger ones to learn them, so that they could be preserved for another generation. Pain was used as an aid to memory, and the form of attack was determined by the landscape. If they came to a stream, the children’s heads might be dunked in it; if the boundary ran against a wall, they might be encouraged to race along it, so that they would fall into the brambles on either side. If they came across a ditch, they might be encouraged to jump across it, so that they would slip in the mud. And when they came to a boundary-stone, the children would be flipped upside down, to have their heads knocked against it. In some spots, though, more pleasant memories would be created, by pausing for a glass of beer or a snack of bread and cheese. Finally, they would finish with a party on the village green.

The most practical reason for this tradition was to create a living record of the parish’s boundaries, which could serve as evidence in disputes. In one case, for instance, a 75-year-old man testified that he knew exactly where the eastern boundary of the parish lay, because he had been thrown into a heap of nettles there sixty years ago, when he was a boy. Simply asserting that he remembered the boundary would not have stood up in court; it was the vivid, visceral nature of this memory, its connection to a dramatic experience, that helped his parish win the case.

The perambulation also served to bless the crops and to draw the people of the parish together. The poet and priest George Herbert wrote that the beating of the bounds was a time for “reconciling of differences” and that anyone who stayed home would be reproved as “uncharitable and unneighborly.” The parish came into being as its inhabitants walked it: both as a geographical space, and as a community.

But, in the sixteenth century, the common lands began to be enclosed and appropriated to the exclusive use of landowners. John Taylor writes bitingly of how landowners, through enclosure, enriched themselves at the expense of their neighbors:

One man in garments he doth wear
A thousand akers on his back doth beare
Whose ancestours in former times did give
Meanes for a hundred people well to live
Now all is shrunke, (in this vaineglorious age)
T’attire a coach, a footman, and a page.

Landowners employed professional surveyors to assess the value of each acre (which quickly led to hikes in the rent) and make maps of their properties. Rather than a space to be travelled through, the land was turned into an object that could be viewed at a distance and treated as a trophy. The common lands that the people had once considered part of their shared landscape were fenced off and surrounded with hedges, and the practice of “beating the bounds” was slowly suffocated.v

But the consequences of land enclosure were much more dramatic than simply destroying a colorful tradition. The common lands supported people in many ways: they were used for grazing, hunting, for digging sod, and for collecting firewood. Enclosure cut deeply into the ability of average commoners to support their families, and many were forced to uproot themselves and move to the cities, becoming industrial laborers.

Link to the rest at JSTOR, which includes a photo and an illustration

Shanghai’s Past, Hong Kong’s Future

From Public Books:

Sometimes, when a city changes, residents are suddenly forced to ask themselves hard questions: Should we stay, or cut our losses and leave to start afresh somewhere else? Will this place still be enough like the community we love in a year or a decade to make it worth sticking it out? If we don’t leave now and things get worse, will we still be able to get out? Even if we’re okay now, what about our children? And all these personal questions boil down to bigger ones: What does it mean for a city to be free? What happens when a free city loses its freedom? And when does that occur?

Seventy-one years ago today, these questions were being asked by many residents of the most cosmopolitan city on the China coast: Shanghai. Some had considered leaving in 1937, when the Japanese took over all Chinese-run parts of Shanghai, and again in 1941, when the city’s two enclaves of foreign privilege, the International Settlement and the French Concession, fell to Japan. But they had stayed, only to face a choice early in 1949, when the Red Army advanced toward the great metropolis of the Yangtze Delta. While many locals welcomed the Communist Party’s arrival, others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, feared that their way of life would be dramatically changed once Mao Zedong’s forces took over, and changed for the worse. As the first battles outside the city began on May 12, 1949, those who had remained surely wondered if they’d made a mistake.

Seven decades later, the same questions are being asked again, but in Hong Kong. In the Pearl River Delta’s most cosmopolitan city, the people asking the questions today might have pondered leaving in 1984, when Beijing and London made the deal that would change a British colony into a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They also might have considered leaving at other, later points, including before July 1, 1997, the day of the Handover. Today—as the mainland government warns that it is losing patience with locals seeking to defend the liberties and legal protections that make their city markedly different from all mainland ones, protesters battle with police after nearly a year of struggle, and the novel coronavirus disrupts daily life and the economic activities that make the city’s unique lifestyle possible—Hong Kong residents may be wondering again if they’ve made a mistake.

Hong Kong and Shanghai are connected by more than just history: they have long competed for the crown of the China coast’s most worldly, wealthy, and cosmopolitan city (even during eras when racism and segregation limited the freedoms of many of their residents). And each one’s successes have been matched by the other’s downturns. For a time, Shanghai was an open and prosperous city far outstripping its sleepy colonial counterpart—before 1949. But as Shanghai suffered under Maoist rule, Hong Kong prospered. Both have triumphed when they remained open to outside finance and outside cultures; both have turned stagnant when denied access to the world.

Therefore, the story of Hong Kong and Shanghai isn’t simply a defining story of the last two centuries of Chinese history. It is really the story of all world cities around the globe today: how they thrive and how they decline.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Print Unit Sales Rose 10.1% Last Week

From Publishers Weekly:

Unit sales of print books are proving to be surprisingly resilient despite the massive disruption to the economy caused by the coronavirus. Unit print sales rose 10.1% last week compared to the week ended April 18 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Sales were nearly flat with units sold in the period ended April 27, 2019, and in the year-to-date, units were down 3.2% compared to a year ago.

BookScan estimates that it captures about 85% of print books sold through physical and online retailers who sell books. The service, however, does not record sales to libraries—and with many libraries closed, trade publishers who do significant business through that channel are likely seeing softer sales.

The adult nonfiction category had the strongest performance among the major publishing segments, with units increasing 24.7% last week over the previous week. The religious segment posted a 54.4% increase, led by the release of Jen Hatmaker’s Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire which sold more than 17,000 copies. Another new release, Medical Medium Cleanse to Heal by Anthony William, sold more than 11,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How I wrote and published a book about the economics of coronavirus in a month

From The Conversation:

I just published a book, Economics in the Age of COVID-19.

It was written over the last month or so, peer-reviewed, edited and released by MIT Press.

This is the thoroughly-2020 story of how it happened.

Like many academics who entered our present period of isolation in mid-March, I was not at all concerned about my job and how to continue doing it.

To be sure, I would have to deal with purely online interactions with some 300 plus students but fortunately I twigged to the value of virtual lectures a few years ago.

Of course I would have to cancel all travel and conferences for the foreseeable future, but in some ways that thought was liberating.

And I would have to deal with motivating a teenager to learn at home, and with two annoyed college students who had been forced to return home.

Obsession

For the first week I got nothing done, despite being free to do anything.

I couldn’t help but obsess over what was happening in the world.

At first it was frustration at the slow pace of government action as I constantly refreshed scant data on rising infections.

Then it was panic that those actions wouldn’t be enough.

The economic changes were unprecedented. The stock market gyrated and convulsed in tune with fear and other motives that none of us could understand.

. . . .

What was clear was that if I was home, then so were most other people.

That would leave stores empty, factories shut, and services unnecessary. The vast majority of businesses rely on cash flow to keep things operating, and the cash was most definitely going to stop flowing.

While there were public health pandemic playbooks that were being followed with varying degrees of adherence, there was no economic playbook for this.

Playbook

No one had, to my knowledge, written a paper on how to shut down an economy and then simply restart it again at some unspecified time.

In my mind, the analogy was that we would have to pause things.

We happily shut down most economies each Christmas and no one screams “depression.” The easiest way to do this was to just delay bill payments without consequence.

I could think of ways to do it: loan guarantees, wage subsidies, straight out cash, moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures.

I started to write up my thoughts as if that were original and insightful. And then I saw all of my economics colleagues doing the same thing.

. . . .

Everyone had simultaneously come to the same conclusion. A new playbook was being invented at the same time, all over the world.

Trillions of dollars were being spent, but it was clear to me that non-economists were somewhat dumbfounded.

. . . .

Like public health officials who needed to explain in far more detail what was going on with COVID-19, economists needed to explain what they were thinking when they were taking such unusual and exceptional steps.

A week into my isolation, I decided I would write a book.

It would cover all of the economic issues, conundrums and controversies that were emerging. It would put what we knew together with what we did not know and try to help people process what was happening.

It would help me get a handle it as well.

I have written popular economics books before, but never as quickly.

My plan was to write 10 chapters – one a day – and then publish. In terms of that last step, I could self-publish, but, given the speed at which I was working, I couldn’t be confident I wouldn’t miss things. It had to be peer-reviewed.

. . . .

Most academic publishers work slowly but I contacted MIT Press and asked if they could do things differently. They came through in ways that I did not anticipate.

As it turns out MIT Press had recently collaborated with the MIT Media Lab on a platform called PubPub. It is built to allow public comment and review. The plan was for me to write the book and after an editorial review, post the entire thing to PubPub for open review by members of the public.

It was posted on April 7, just 19 days after I first had the idea to write a book.

There were only 8 chapters, but they were longer than I had anticipated – 30,000 words in all. 

. . . .

Then MIT Press sent it out to peer reviewers whom they pushed to return comments within a week.

In the meantime, I kept writing. Things were evolving quickly. More critically, economic research was flooding in as economists from all over the world diverted their energies from what they had been doing to researching different aspects of the crisis.

In the end, my guess is that 80% of the citations in the book were from two months in one year – March and April, 2020!

Finally, I had to incorporate a wealth of comments from open and peer review. The former (public comments) were actually more detailed and useful than the latter (peer comments), which raises issues for the future.

In the end, on April 22 (one week ahead of schedule), the electronic version of my book was published globally.

It was 40,000 words long and hopefully would remain relevant for a few months.

. . . .

The journey isn’t over. MIT Press will publish the usual version of the book in November. I will update it continually for a month or so before then.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

PG absolutely loved this story. It’s not exactly self-publishing, but it’s close.

It’s about an academic press acting like KDP and allowing a quality author to publish a timely book and push it out the door almost instantly while the topic is red-hot and thereafter updating the book to keep it relevant.

PG did a quick search for COVID-19 on Amazon and came up with a handful of pre-orders plus what appeared to be junk books slapped together with no objective other than to get the rubes to spend some money.

Telling the Stories of War

From Writers Digest:

Writing accurately and truthfully about war is never easy. Writing about conflicts that occurred decades and even centuries earlier is even more difficult.WD reached out to Mark Bowden, C.J. Chivers, and Nathaniel Philbrick to discuss their most recent war-themed books and the challenges they encountered researching and writing them.

What was the inspiration for your most recent work? Tell us briefly how the project came about.

MARK BOWDEN (Hue 1968, Atlantic Monthly Press): Several years ago, my editor and publisher, Morgan Entrekin, suggested a book about the Battle of Huế during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I initially declined, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized it was an amazing story that had not been told in the way I would like to tell it. I felt after a long career in journalism that this was an opportunity to study an event during the war in Vietnam that could act as a lens on the whole conflict and I could arrive at my own well-informed understanding of what happened.

C.J. CHIVERS (The Fighters: Americans In Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, Simon & Schuster): I spent years accompanying military units for The New York Times, with some magazine work on the side. I came to realize that the limits of daily, weekly, or monthly journalism didn’t let me tackle my subjects in a way that allowed them to cohere or bring in the context that developed over time. So the idea behind The Fighters was to revisit a small body of representative characters to try to tell tales that had more coherence and arc. I felt a duty to go back and give it fuller meaning and purpose than possible in fast-turnaround journalism. 

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK (In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Viking): I believe mainstream writers tend to downplay the importance of the sea in our country’s history. I knew that what made the victory at Yorktown possible was a naval battle, the Battle of the Chesapeake, so In the Hurricane’s Eye was an opportunity to write my own version of a naval slugfest and continue the story of George Washington, which started for me with [my books] Bunker Hill and continued with Valiant Ambition.

Take us through the research you did for this book. What was your process?

BOWDEN: I started by reading everything I could find about the Battle of Huế, while jotting down the names of people I would like to interview. Next, I contacted the National Archives in Maryland regarding the official records on file there, and simultaneously tracked down Marines who had fought in Huế that I wanted to interview. My preliminary interviews were scattershot because I had no deep understanding of the battle as it unfolded. In addition, I visited North Vietnam twice to interview participants there. I hired a Vietnamese graduate student at the University of Delaware, where I was teaching at the time, to translate those interviews when I returned home.

CHIVERS: The first step was identifying a small group of characters who were distinct from each other and would bring some of the quintessential experiences and the common recurring experiences of the two wars for people who didn’t know what they were. The second step was securing their agreements to cooperate with this project, which would be difficult for them. I would tell them, my ambition is to download your brain with immersive interviews and then go through your personal records and documents to help me understand your experiences. The next stage was to write the thing, and the last stage, which I would argue is the most important, was fact-checking. I went through the manuscript with my primary sources, then hired an independent fact-checker to do it all again.

PHILBRICK: With each book I spend a year broad-brush researching, trying to identify the plot I want to follow and the characters I want to focus on. From there, the research becomes very specific by chapter. I look for documents that have not been consulted deeply as a way of providing some new angle on it. For In the Hurricane’s Eye, I reviewed the logs of the British and especially the French ships involved in the battle. There are copies of many of the French logbooks at the Library of Congress.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

N. Roy Grist

Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the most severe pandemic in recent history.

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Fort Devens, a military camp about 40 miles from Boston, was among the sites hardest hit by the 1918 influenza epidemic. On September 1, some 45,000 soldiers waiting to be deployed to France were stationed at the fort; by September 23, according to the New England Historical Society, 10,500 cases of the flu had broken out among this group of military men.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Physician N. Roy Grist described the devastation to his friend Burt in a graphic September 29 letter sent from Devens’ “Surgical Ward No. 16.”

These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves.

On average, wrote the doctor, around 100 patients died each day.

. . . .

Grist’s letter is “a remarkably distinct and accurate description of what it was like to be in the midst of this,” says Bristow. “And then it goes on to talk about how difficult it is to be a doctor, … this sense of not being able to do as much as one might like and how exhausting it all is.”

Toward the end of the letter, Grist notes how much he wishes Burt, a fellow physician, was stationed at Fort Devens with him.

It’s more comfortable when one has a friend about. … I want to find some fellow who will not ‘talk shop’ but there ain’t none, no how. We eat it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day. I would be very grateful indeed if you would drop me a line or two once in a while, and I promise you that if you ever get into a fix like this, I will do the same for you.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

How Chaos Is The Only Sure Thing

From HuffPost:

One day Lulu Miller, the co-founder of the science podcast Invisibilia, was out birdwatching with her father. She was 7 years old and eye level with his “friendly belly,” when she blurted out one of those deep questions kids like to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” Under a hot summer sun, her father’s answer tore open her world. There was no meaning to life, he said. Everything was meaningless. 

So begins Miller’s origin story. That 7-year-old would grow up to become an award-winning science reporter with a mission to tell stories that give meaning to life, to investigate why we are here and how we live out our days. One such story was that of David Starr Jordan, a 19th century taxonomist who sought to bring order to the natural world. He spent decades trying to collect every species of fish, and over the years he amassed a shoal numbering in the thousands. But then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, and his life’s work — stored in glass jars — fell to the ground and shattered. But instead of wallowing in his loss, he did the unexpected. He tried to put his collection back together. He looked chaos in the eye, and said, “I dare you.”

That’s where Miller picks up the story. In her new book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” which comes out on Tuesday, she dives deep into the story of a man who believed he could make sense of the chaotic world. She investigates how Jordan was able to overcome not only the loss of his life’s work, but the human loss of his children, his wife and his colleagues who all died too young. Jordan possesses a godlike level of resilience and Miller explores where it came from and how she could learn from him. 

“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” strangely, could not have been better timed, publishing during a global pandemic that also seemingly came out of nowhere and upended millions — if not billions — of lives in unthinkable ways.  

HuffPost caught up with Miller by phone, as she took a walk in her neighborhood in Chicago. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.  

Where are you right now? What do you see?  

The streets are empty, it’s completely empty because it’s pretty freezing and rainy right now. But I’m all bundled in my kick-ass giant coat and hat and I even see some bark and pine cones and the moss looks extra green because it’s that gray and rainy.  

. . . .

[Jordan] was basically a passing anecdote while I was getting a tour of the California Academy of Sciences, and the little detail was that this guy’s entire life’s work of fish specimens, fish collecting, discovering new species, ordering them, thousands and thousands of jars — a huge amount of it came down in the 1906 earthquake. Shattered, the fish were separated from the names. And as he stood there in all that wreckage, instead of just giving up, he invented this little new technique of sewing a label to a fish so that should another earthquake come, the names would never get separated.

And I don’t know, it just struck me as this little perfect emblem of human persistence and just the refusal to back down in the face of all these huge forces that will always do us in. When I first thought about it, I just was like, “Oh you fool, chaos will keep destroying you.” I don’t know what it was, I just thought he was pathetic. I thought he was an Icarus, I thought he was a fool.

And then I didn’t think about him for years. Then in my late 20s, I had just screwed up a bunch of stuff in my own life and I found myself in my own proverbial wreckage, personally and professionally; I had left radio and I was trying to write fiction and I was really bad at it and I was lonely and I screwed up a whole relationship and I was in a new place, I didn’t really have a community, and I was just alone, and lost. I wanted to keep pining for this person who I really wanted to get back together with but was showing me no signs that he was going to ever take me back. And I suddenly wondered, “Am I being crazy or is this hope and this persistence the kind of faith you need that ultimately wins you, sails you through the storms, like is it actually noble and beautiful?”

And then I thought of this David Starr Jordan guy again and I was like, “I wonder what happened to that dude, because he is the most comic example of this, and did he end up a king with tons of kids and admirers or did he end up alone and poor and a fool?”

So then I set out to — not knowing what else to do — I set out to research his life, thinking I’d write a very short essay and get a little clarity or a little hint of what to do for myself. Then it just spiraled because he had such a weird tale and he was also a profoundly interesting person to study because he left behind so much to go through and he’s funny and he’s kind of evil and it just made him a wonderful person to obsessively research while I wasn’t sure what the heck to do with my life.

Link to the rest at HuffPost

Providence Lost

From The Critic:

Of all the events in the history of British Isles from the Conquest to the present day perhaps none is quite so important to understand as the Reformation and, with that, to understand one of its main and more immediate offspring and consequences, the English civil wars. Their legacy is everywhere, as was outlined in one of the best history books of the last 20 years, Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations. Some of the fundamental divisions in our society, not necessarily between Labour and Conservatives, but of attitude and broader questions of ideology, can be traced back to them.

Our forebears, even 250 years after the events, had a better understanding of these things than we do. When, in the late 1890s, it was decided to put up a statue to Oliver Cromwell outside parliament, there were such fierce objections to the state paying for it that Lord Rosebery — who as prime minister had been one of the progenitors of the idea, but who was by this stage no longer in office — paid for it out of his own considerably well-lined pockets. It was strangely appropriate that he did, because the Primrose family coffers had been boosted by his marriage to a Rothschild; and it was one of the Lord Protector’s more enlightened policies, in 1656, to re-admit the Jews to England, whence they had been expelled more than 300 years earlier.

The concerns about Cromwell rumbled on well into the twentieth century. When Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested to King George V that one of the new Dreadnoughts be named after the Lord Protector, the King roundly objected, reminding Churchill that there had been an unhappy sequence of events involving Cromwell and his distant predecessor, Charles Stuart.

. . . .

Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, by Paul Lay, concentrates on the period of less than five years between Cromwell assuming control of England as Lord Protector in 1653 and his death — supposedly from gout and “various distempers” (which may have included Fenland malaria, contracted long before in Cromwell’s earlier life as a Huntingdonshire farmer) — on 3 September 1658, the anniversary of his famous victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Cromwell was 59 — far from a bad age for those days — and as Lay also points out, his health had been broken by the hard physical campaigning of the civil wars, and by the illnesses, including dysentery, that he had contracted during them.

. . . .

What Lay gives us is a warts-and-all picture of a man with the weaknesses of any other, and who struggled heroically to stabilise, and to attempt to unite, a country shattered by a decade of civil wars.

More than that, of course, Cromwell had to unite a country that had gone against an ancient precept, that of hereditary monarchical rule. He was one of the more prominent men who signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant, but it was far from clear at the time, in the winter of 1648-49, that Cromwell would be the man who ended up as the next English head of state. The new form of rule was meant to be parliamentary; but when Cromwell and others close to him in the Commonwealth forces discerned just what a shambles this was, a new form of administration had to be found: and that was the Protectorate.

Link to the rest at The Critic

Sheltering in Place with Montaigne

From The Paris Review:

By the time Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Experience,” the last entry in his third and final book of essays, the French statesman and author had weathered numerous outbreaks of plague (in 1585, while he was mayor of Bordeaux, a third of the population perished), political uprisings, the death of five daughters, and an onslaught of physical ailments, from rotting teeth to debilitating kidney stones.

All the while, Montaigne was writing. From a tower on his family’s estate in southwestern France, he’d innovated a leisurely yet commodious literary mode that mirrored—while also helping to manufacture—the unpredictable movements of his racing mind. Part evolving treatise, part prismatic self-portrait, the essai, in Montaigne’s conception, was the antidote to self-isolation, a recurring conference in the midst of quarantine, perhaps even a kind of textual necromancy—his best friend and intellectual sparring partner, the poet Étienne de La Boétie, had died of plague in 1563.

. . . .

Given the subject matter, “Of Experience” has about it a remarkably buoyant magnitude. Take, for instance, the following passage, as translated by Donald Frame in The Complete Essays of Montaigne:

It takes management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it. Especially at this moment, when I perceive that mine is so brief in time, I try to increase it in weight; I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it, and to compensate for the haste of its ebb by my vigor in using it. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.

Propelled by verbs—perceive, arrest, grasp, make, try, try—the sentences wheel and wrestle across the page, resisting stasis at every turn, refusing to wait around. They achieve that mimetic, nearly miraculous work of performing the very action they describe. Here and elsewhere, Montaigne’s musings on mortality, his gripes about illness and aging, his love-hate relationship with the natural order, not to mention his fervent epistemological stocktaking, make for a stubborn blueprint for life in the red zone, an operative action plan for how to wring futility’s neck.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Novel Rejected for Pandemic Lockdown Published 15 Years Later

From The Kashmir Observer:

A dystopian novel about a deadly pandemic wreaking havoc across the world that was rejected 15 years ago has finally been published after reality once more proved itself stranger than fiction.

Scottish author Peter May, 68, a former journalist and BBC screenwriter, wrote Lockdown in 2005, imagining London as the epicentre of a global outbreak, only to see his manuscript turned away by publishers, who deemed its subject matter “extremely unrealistic and unreasonable”.

“At the time I wrote the book, scientists were predicting that bird flu was going to be the next major world pandemic,” Mr May told CNN.

“It was a very, very scary thing and it was a real possibility, so I put a lot of research into it and came up with the idea, what if this pandemic began in London? What could happen if a city like that was completely locked down?”

His novel centres around a police detective investigating the murder of a child after their bones are discovered at the site of a makeshift hospital, an idea anticipating the opening of the NHS Nightingale at the capital’s ExCeL Centre this week.

“British editors at the time thought my portrayal of London under siege by the invisible enemy of H5N1 [bird flu] was unrealistic and could never happen – in spite of the fact that all my research showed that, really, it could,” the author told iNews

Following the thriller’s dismissal, Mr May abandoned the project and eventually came to forget he had ever written it, until a fan contacted him on Twitter suggesting he write something for the age of the coronavirus, refreshing his memory and prompting him to retrieve the file from a Dropbox folder.

“I thought about it for a minute before I realised that I’ve kind of already done it,” he recalls. “I told my publisher about it and my editor just about fell out of his chair. He read the entire book overnight and the next morning he said, ‘This is brilliant. We need to publish this now.’”

Link to the rest at The Kashmir Observer

Lockdown was unavailable on Amazon when PG checked, but the preview below worked right after PG posted it.

Nothing Sacred: On “Intelligence for Dummies”

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

I have often bristled at Arthur Rimbaud’s injunction at the end of A Season in Hell: “Il faut être absolument moderne.” I have never wanted to be absolutely modern; I find infinitely more comfort in my futile yearning for the past. Recently, however, I came across a short film by Lucien Smith that unexpectedly assuaged my nostalgia. A Clean Sweep (2013) is a sort of lullaby for New Yorkers: the soft texture of the film footage renders otherwise mundane city scenes (a bustling street at rush hour, a plump deli cat pawing a door) into tender tableaux vivants. Blinking brake lights of cars stuck in traffic blur into soft, red nebulas, as though seen through a rain-splattered window. But this soothing effect is conveyed most acutely by the spoken-word address of its narrator: the maverick writer Glenn O’Brien, who passed away in 2017. He meanders through his thoughts about the concurrence of the past and the present, gently nudging us to see that time is perhaps far less rigid than we suppose. “It feels like history here,” he says at one point. “Where? Where what? It feels like history, here.”

O’Brien was himself a mainstay of New York City’s landscape for over five decades, a remarkable polymath who championed the cross-disciplinary mentality of creative culture in the 1970s and 1980s. ZE Books, for its inaugural publication, has released Intelligence for Dummies, a collection of O’Brien’s writings from 1963 to 2017. The smartly designed book features critical reviews, profiles, and essays alongside poems, freeform meditations, diatribes, tweets, and works of fiction. Intelligence for Dummies is not just a mélange of O’Brien’s greatest (and quirkiest) hits, however; the rounded selection pointedly reflects his virtuosity with form and the imaginative fluency he had within the medium of words.

The essayist does not have it easy when it comes to gaining entrance to the literary canon, but O’Brien would seem to have an even greater trial than most because his seminal work was defined by its ephemerality. His extraordinary output existed mainly in the glossy pages of magazines: in the editorial columns as well as in the advertisements. He was a prolific copy writer and advertising director whose wit graced many a billboard and perfume bottle, and his ad campaigns were lauded and even occasionally denounced (most famously by the Justice Department in 1995 for a series of Calvin Klein commercials shot by Larry Clark). O’Brien managed to blur the lines between art and commerce in a way that legions of artists today attempt to do but rarely accomplish as successfully, or explosively, as he did.

. . . .

Artistic visions such as his rarely distinguish between media. O’Brien was a critic, an artist, and an adman, both observer and participant: the literary incarnation of Pop Art’s union of art and commerce. Some critics accused him of playing both sides, but this criticism ultimately seems disingenuous, particularly in light of the transparency of his writing. He sums it up neatly in the introduction to his collected Artforum writings, Like Art (2017): “There are no ethics in fashion. There are no ethics in magazines. There are no ethics in advertising.” The art, film, and publishing industries (not to mention academia) could hardly be excused from moral bankruptcy, too. But using commerce as a vehicle for personal gain is one thing; using it also as a vehicle for art, as O’Brien did, is another.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Public Books Database

From Public Books:

With university classrooms and libraries shuttered because of the COVID-19 crisis, scholars are facing disruptions not only in their teaching lives but also in their ability to access research materials. In response, many academic presses have made hundreds of their titles freely accessible online. The Public Books Database aims to catalog such resources in a single location and to highlight titles of particular interest. We’ll be updating the list regularly as additional materials are made available.
 


• University of Arizona Press

• Bristol University Press

• University of Calgary Press

• University of California Press

• University Press of Colorado

• Cornell University Press

• Duke University Press

• Fordham University Press

• University of Georgia Press

• University of Hawai‘i Press

• Indiana University Press

• Johns Hopkins University Press

• Lever Press

• University of Maryland Press

• Manchester University Press

• Medieval Institute Publications

• University of Michigan Press

• University of Missouri Press

• MIT Press

• Monash University Publishing

• University of Nebraska Press

• University of North Carolina Press

• University of North Texas Press

• Northwestern University Press

• Ohio State University Press

• Penn State University Press

• Princeton University Press

• Purdue University Press

• Rutgers University Press

• University of South Carolina Press

• Temple University Press

• Texas Tech University Press

• Utah State University Press

• Vanderbilt University Press

• University of Virginia Press

• Wayne State University Press

• University of the West Indies Press

Link to the rest at Public Books

Quarantine Reads: Dhalgren

From The Paris Review:

I started reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a prismatic, nightmarish work of speculative fiction, in New York City a couple weeks ago, when the coronavirus had just begun to spread into the West. Italy had fallen and the threat in the United States was imminent, but the real panic and anxiety still hadn’t sunk in. Stubbornly, and against better judgment, I decided to go through with my plans to take a three-week trip to Japan. I continued reading Dhalgren on my way to Tokyo on March 14. As I was reading on the nearly empty plane, I kept looking down at my hands, getting up, washing them, until they were dry and cracked and my knuckles started bleeding, and by the time I disembarked it looked like I’d been in a fistfight. Dhalgren has been my only real traveling companion this week: gently purring in my hands with the landscape tilting outside the window of the Shinkansen; in the coffee shops of Ginza and Shinjuku, wiped with sanitizer each time, carefully, front and back; and in my lap on a park bench overlooking a river, across which stands the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the battered dome of a ruined building.

The German-language writer Elias Canetti—most famous for his book Crowds and Power—deeply admired Dr. Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, a powerful and lucid account of the days and weeks following the Hiroshima atomic bombing. In a short essay from 1971, Canetti wrote of Dr. Hachiya’s profoundly vivid hellscape, of the uncertainty each new day brought to the doctor’s treatment of victims (while trying to understand what was happening to his own body), and of the doctor’s narration of the ever-shifting new realities of something completely unknown. As Canetti writes, “In the hardship of his own condition, among dead or injured people, the author tries to piece the facts together; with increasing knowledge, his conjectures change, they turn into theories requiring experiment.”

It had been years since I’d first read Canetti’s essay, but the notion that I should reread it popped into my head while I was distractedly strolling through the crowded Hondori shopping district of Hiroshima. It’s difficult, of course, not to jam the coronavirus into every thought, and I couldn’t help but draw connections to the bombing of Hiroshima—and to a fleeting question that Canetti poses in this essay: “Is misfortune the thing that people have most in common?” Walking around Hiroshima today, with the scars of its past barely concealed to anyone looking for them, I noted the surreal and incongruous way the city still functions normally despite the threat of the virus. The city’s past—even the name, Hiroshima, evokes carnage and loss—seemed to offer a brief moment of perspective: bacteria, an invisible terror, feels somehow less threatening when reminded of this human atrocity, of our capacity to inflict destruction upon ourselves.

One of the things that Canetti found most captivating—and horrifying—in Hiroshima Diary was that it was written in real time, as the events unfolded. This sense of narrating and revising the shifting facts resonated with me, not only because of the strange state of the world, but also in thinking about Dhalgren, which, though I’ve been reading every day for the past couple weeks (but don’t these weeks feel like years?), has felt at times impenetrable, surreal, frustrating, unpredictable. Dhalgren eludes me at every turn—I have a notebook now nearly full of scribblings and half-baked ideas about themes I’d wanted pick apart (about hygiene, the uncanny, mythology, race, migration, disaster, et cetera). I keep trying to wave the book in the air to see if the coronavirus waves back.

Dhalgren takes place in the fictional city of Bellona, a city that once had a population of two million but because of a strange disaster (a series of fires? a race riot?), there are only about a thousand inhabitants left there. In general, Bellona is a pretty dangerous place to find yourself: people die unexpectedly; acts of violence or debauchery occur randomly and often; and a gang of thugs, called the Scorpions, run the streets by night. To stay safe, it’s best to wear an orchid, a bladed weapon that I imagine looks like the Wolverine’s fist, if you have one.

Soon after arriving in Bellona, Kidd (or Kid, or the kid—he’s not even sure of his own name) meets Tak Loufer, who, in these first pages, serves as a guide to the ravaged city. Laufer explains, “You know, here… you’re free. No laws, to break or to follow. Do anything you want. Which does funny things to you. Very quickly, surprisingly quickly, you become… exactly who you are.” Kidd, is, as he soon discovers, a poet. But he is also a nomad, a flaneur, an adventurer, an eyewitness.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

From The Harvard Business Review:

Some of the HBR edit staff met virtually the other day — a screen full of faces in a scene becoming more common everywhere. We talked about the content we’re commissioning in this harrowing time of a pandemic and how we can help people. But we also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the panes.

If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it. We turned to David Kessler for ideas on how to do that. Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

. . . .

Kessler shared his thoughts on why it’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in it. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity.

HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?

Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?

Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

What can individuals do to manage all this grief?

Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.

When we’re feeling grief there’s that physical pain. And the racing mind. Are there techniques to deal with that to make it less intense?

Let’s go back to anticipatory grief. Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images. My parents getting sick. We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. We all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.

Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.

You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.

Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this. I’m seeing their fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Lady in Waiting: Self-Portrait of a Lady

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Anne Glenconner, the 87-year-old daughter of the Earl of Leicester, came from a generation and a class that were not brought up to express emotion. “There were no heart-to-hearts” and no self-pity was allowed, she writes in “Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown.” You didn’t “dwell.” You kept the proverbial stiff upper lip. And, as her stalwart and disarmingly honest book testifies, that is what she did. Nevertheless, emotion resonates through this delightful memoir, which offers a candid, humorous look inside the royal family and the daft world of the British aristocracy.

Born Anne Veronica Coke, she grew up in one of Britain’s greatest manor houses, Holkham Hall, a North Norfolk estate she couldn’t inherit because she was female. (It went to a cousin.) Her father, she writes, “was not affectionate or sentimental, and did not share his emotions. No one did, not even my mother.” In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he was posted to Egypt with the Scots Guards. Anne and her younger sister, Carey, were sent to live with their cousins in Scotland. They didn’t see their parents for three years. Her mother never knew that Anne’s governess bound her hands to the back of the bed every night (the woman was eventually sacked, not for child abuse but because she was a Roman Catholic).

At Holkham Hall, Anne began a close friendship with Princess Margaret when, as children, they would jump out from behind the curtains to scare the footmen. Reunited at Anne’s coming-out dance in 1950, they chatted until the sun rose over the front portico. Three years later, Anne was picked to be one of six maids of honor at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, a ceremony Anne describes with starry-eyed detail (ivory silk dresses with gold piping). The archbishop of Canterbury offered them brandy during a recess and, later, the queen sat down on a red sofa, her skirt billowing, “and when she kicked up her legs for total joy, we did the same. It was the happiest of moments.”

Anne then fell “madly in love” with the charming Johnnie Althorp, but she made the mistake of introducing him to her friend Lady Fermoy, who, like a character out of Trollope, snapped him up for her own daughter. He vanished without telling her that the engagement was off. (Later he would become the father of Diana, Princess of Wales.) On the rebound, Anne married Colin Tennant, eventually Lord Glenconner, a millionaire with a castle in Scotland whose family fortune had come from the invention of bleach powder in 1798. Her father disapproved: Tennant was “nouveau riche.” On a Holkham pheasant-shooting weekend, where guns were “placed by rank,” an enraged Tennant was made to follow behind the lords, dukes and marquesses, walking with the beaters, the men who flush out the birds with sticks.

. . . .

[D]uring their 54 years of marriage Tennant was to lose his temper many times, often lying on the ground in a fetal position and howling. Nevertheless, Anne insists, he was “never boring.” When she asked him why he kept screaming at people, he answered: “I like making them squirm. I like making them frightened.” Why did he marry her? He said he knew she would never give up.

. . . .

In 1958 Tennant bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean for £45,000 and developed it into a playground for millionaires and aristocrats. As a wedding present, he gave Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones a piece of land where she built a villa, Les Jolies Eaux. After Margaret’s marriage broke down, she created a scandal by staying there with her young lover, Roddy Llewellyn.

Anne was made lady in waiting in 1971, a role she held for nearly 30 years. She was devoted to the princess, whom she feels was much maligned. Margaret was rude when she was bored, but she was also capable of great kindness. Anne saw to all her needs, accompanying her on royal tours and even living with her for a year in Kensington Palace, where one of Anne’s duties was to turn the garden hose on the cats of their neighbor Princess Michael of Kent.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Terrible Ripple Effect of Canceled Book Tours

From Publishers Weekly:

The coronavirus outbreak is punishing the economy, but as a debut author, I never imagined the release of my forthcoming anthology would illustrate the impact of economic ripple effects.

In 2017, I published a call for submissions asking women to send their stories of how they’ve been affected by Donald Trump and his policies. I received over 200 essays, spent nine months winnowing that number down to 38, then prepared a proposal for the collection, entitled Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.

I celebrated when Pact Press, an imprint of Regal House Publishing, offered me and my coeditor a publishing contract. I celebrated again when I received the ARC by mail, and again when the first glowing review came out. On March 24, I was scheduled to begin a 22-city book tour, complete with voter registration tables at events in swing states and interviews with women for a later podcast. Contributors to the anthology were to join me at various stops along the tour. Then Covid-19 hit.

After learning about what it takes to “flatten the curve” of contagion, I decided I couldn’t in good conscience travel from city to city hosting large gatherings. Nor could I then return home and possibly infect my husband, who falls into a high-risk category. So, with equal parts conviction and despondency, I emailed the bookstores on the tour and asked to reschedule.

. . . .

Personally, I never expected to get rich off book sales. The time and toil I put into Fury was always about political activism and documentation. My financial goals were to earn enough royalties to fund the tour, pay contributors an honorarium, and offset my $925-per-month health insurance premium for the remainder of the year. It looks like even these modest goals may have been too ambitious.

. . . .

For Regal House Publishing, a North Carolina–based, woman-operated indie press, event cancellations mean a high influx of book returns from retailers. These come at significant cost to the press’s bottom line.

Jaynie Royal, publisher and editor-in-chief of Regal House, said the company is already feeling the pinch of the coronavirus. “Print runs for Fury and our other spring catalogue titles were determined by retail preorders in the fall of 2019, long before coronavirus was on anyone’s radar,” Royal explains, “and, like all trade publishers, Regal House relies upon bookstore events to drive buzz and ultimately revenue to recoup invested production and printing costs.”

. . . .

Politics and Prose events coordinator Beth Wang initially offered me assurances that the Washington, D.C., store was taking extra precautions—including rigorously sanitizing all event areas, making hand sanitizer available, placing chairs further apart, announcing to attendees that no physical contact with the author should be initiated, and offering authors latex gloves or a presigning (instead of a signing line) to minimize physical contact with the audience.

Even with assurances like these, however, authors canceled their in-store events due to fear of contracting the virus, a sense of moral obligation, and/or because they anticipated a low turnout. Given the fluid circumstances, Politics and Prose now offers authors a digital option.

. . . .

Finally, there is the book industry as a whole, for which book tours are a fading tradition. Since the Great Recession, publishers have tightened their collective belts and have all but eliminated book tours for debut authors, let alone for anthology editors like myself. Nevertheless, publisher tours for celebrity authors and those with established audiences, whose books are guaranteed to sell well, contribute to propping up an industry with wafer-thin margins.

“The absence of book tour events at independent bookstores will have a profound impact on the industry,” says Jamie Fiocco, president of the ABA and owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG is leagues outside of the target audience for this book, but he expects the attitudes of those within the book’s audience to recent events and the President’s response to various critics of the Administration have not transformed the feelings of those who don’t like him.

PG also has to say that the cover of the book looks a bit down-market to him, the photo and, especially, the typography (generic and doesn’t really do much to make the book feel like a quality title).

PG thinks that even his amateur Photoshop talents could have improved the look of the photo – gray overcast skies are the bane of good photographs and mid-day images typically don’t show the subjects – people, buildings, mountains – at their best, but there are easy ways to punch things up a bit. Does the dull gray sky behind the title and sub-title communicate anything useful or make the book stand out on a bookstore shelf?

With respect to basic Photoshop talents, what’s that little piece of something above the roof of the building on the right? And what do flying bird-specks add to the cover’s message? Those are ten-second photoshop fixes.

Caught Mapping

From Public Books:

As I write this, Sydney, the city where I’ve set my life and much of my fiction over the past 27 years, is ringed by fire and choked by smoke. A combination fan and air purifier hums in the corner of my study. Seretide and Ventolin inhalers sit within reach on my desk. I’m surrounded by a lifetime’s accumulation of books, including some relatively rare and specialist volumes on China, in English and Chinese. This library might not be precious in monetary terms, but it’s priceless to me and vital to my work. I wonder which books I would save if I had to pack a car quickly and go. The thought of people making those decisions right now, including people I know, twists my gut.

I check the news online and the Fires Near Me app (with watch zones set for friends’ homes) compulsively. Distracted from the book I’m writing, a short history of China, I compose furious, polite, pleading letters to politicians about their failure to declare and act on our climate emergency, and their continuing support for coal. Then I try, with the aid of other apps like Freedom, to remove myself from my digitally infused physical surroundings so that I can write about place. So that I can write this. The best places for writing are those that fade from consciousness as the landscapes of the imagination take over.

Back in August, on the first day of a visit to Spain, I considered setting the start of this essay in Barcelona. Bit of a cliché, of course, how being in a new place sharpens the powers of observation. But it’s true if you make it so. It’s also a vital habit to cultivate for a novelist and travel writer. Many a beautiful notebook bought with the intention of keeping a daily journal has become a beautiful failure. But put me on a plane, and I’ll fill two pages before we even land. Do you want to know the name of every film I’ve seen on planes? Neither do I. But they’re all there. My travel journals are a continual source of wonder. All those details: Who was that brilliant and witty person I seemed so taken with? Others trigger memories that have slipped the loosely strung fishing net of my mind, which generally retains only the biggest catch, while everything else wriggles back into the sea. Recently, when in conversation, I likened my memory to a sieve, a friend objected: “It’s a filter,” he said. Nice thought, but sadly it’s not that deliberate.

. . . .

The fronts of buildings in Barcelona are lovely, with long, shuttered windows and balconies overspilling with flowering plants. The Catalan flag, fluttering off some balconies, proclaims the residents’ politics. The backs of the buildings are more intimate. In one apartment, a couple is rising from a siesta. The woman is putting on her bra. An arm reaches for her and pulls her out of sight for a moment. She reappears, and finishes getting dressed. The novelist in me imagines they are illicit lovers, doing what the French call the cinq à sept but from, let’s see, de la una a las tres in the afternoon. In the flat below, another woman, older, less obviously content, mops the floor, back and forth, back and forth, lost in thought, a lock of hair falling onto her cheek and sticking there. Upstairs, on a clothing rod suspended across the bottom of the window, a woman’s white slip flutters in a gentle breeze next to citrus-colored sheets and a hot pink pillowslip. In a higher window, too far up for me to see anything else, a bright ceramic plate hangs on the wall.

Link to the rest at Public Books

ABA Journal: Market Spotlight

From Writers Digest:

The ABA Journal is the flagship magazine for members of the American Bar Association. With a circulation around 400,000, it’s considered the magazine for lawyers and the legal profession. As such, it’s a very competitive market with a reputation of paying competitive rates to freelancers.

The editors say, “The ABA is the largest voluntary professional association in the world. With more than 400,000 members, the ABA provides law school accreditation, continuing legal education, information about the law, programs to assist lawyers and judges in their work, and initiatives to improve the legal system for the public.”

What They’re Looking For

ABA Journal does not review unsolicited manuscripts. Rather, the editors want freelancers to query with their resumé and published clips. They expect articles to include multiple sources and opposing points of view.

The editors say, “The ABA Journal considers queries from professional writers or from potential sources who wish to contact us regarding subjects that might be of interest to our readers.”

Estimated length and payment are discussed upon assignment.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

Many years ago when he practiced a much different type of law than he does now, PG had a regular monthly column in The ABA Journal, so he became very familiar with the topics that would interest the publication.

A few preliminary points for those who are not attorneys:

  1. The American Bar Association is a voluntary organization. Unlike the state bar associations which attorneys are required to join (and pay dues to) for the privilege of practicing law, nobody is required to be a member of the ABA.
  2. Thus, the ABA is looking for stories that will interest both its members and non-members who may be wondering if they should join.
  3. Non-members can see many (maybe all?) parts of The ABAJ online – https://www.abajournal.com/ so you can get an idea of the types of stories that have been publishing recently.
  4. Like every other bar association, mandatory or voluntary, the ABA charges dues ranging from $75-$450 per year, depending upon how many years an attorney has been in practice. The amount of the dues payment has been a sore point for solo and small firm attorneys since forever. The ABA dues payment is on top of the mandatory payment required from the state bar and the combination can go over $1,000 per year.
  5. Among solo and small firm attorneys, it is not unusual to find those who believe the ABA is relevant for attorneys in large firms and specialized practices and doesn’t have much to offer those who don’t meet that description.
  6. One of the reasons PG was offered a regular column in ancient days was because, at that time, he was in solo practice in a small town, so he didn’t fit the stereotype. Additionally, PG had learned a lot about using computers in his own practice which was not understood by the average lawyer in either a large or small firm.

So, if PG were putting together a pitch for a story to the ABAJ today, he would look for a story about an attorney who didn’t work for a large firm in a large city and who was doing something different than typical lawyers were doing.

Bar associations of all types love to tout the work attorneys do without being paid, pro bono publico (Latin: “for the public good”) usually shortened to pro bono.

Some state bar associations require that attorneys perform XX hours of pro bono work each year or give them credit for those hours against state-mandated Continuing Legal Education (which usually costs money) requirements that must be reported to the state bar periodically.

A story about a small-town lawyer who represented an indigent juvenile repeat offender, got the kid get out of juvenile detention and helped her to get into Harvard would be close to ideal.

PG has no idea about how much The ABA Journal pays for articles these days. In ancient times, he was definitely satisfied with the payment he received from them each month.

Another area that seems to be evergreen for ABAJ articles is how lawyers use computer or other technologies in their practices. For as long as PG has known anything about computers in law offices, a significant portion of attorneys have not been very good with technology. Perhaps too many humanities majors realize they’ll never make a living in their chosen field and apply to law school.

The ABA has hosted a successful annual legal geekfest called ABA Techshow for a very long time (in tech years).

Each year, great flocks of geek attorneys circle O’Hare Airport and descend upon an unsuspecting convention hotel in downtown Chicago. They call to each other and the leaders display their latest tech accomplishments for competitors and compatriates to admire.

(During PG’s time, there was no widespread mating that occurred at Techshow, but he can’t speak for today.)

Techshow provides a fertile field for finding stories about attorneys doing unusual things with their computers, tablets, smartphones, etc., in court, in their offices and on the road.

I Wore the Juice

One of the comments to another TPV post sent PG on a romp.

From Medium:

At five foot six and 270 pounds, the bank robber was impossible to miss. On April 19, 1995, he hit two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. Security cameras picked up good images of his face — he wore no mask — and showed him holding a gun to the teller. Police made sure the footage was broadcast on the local eleven o’clock news. A tip came in within minutes, and just after midnight, the police were knocking on the suspect’s door in McKeesport. Identified as McArthur Wheeler, he was incredulous. “But I wore the juice,” he said.

Wheeler told police he rubbed lemon juice on his face to make it invisible to security cameras. Detectives concluded he was not delusional, not on drugs — just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler knew that lemon juice is used as an invisible ink. Logically, then, lemon juice would make his face invisible to cameras. He tested this out before the heists, putting juice on his face and snapping a selfie with a Polaroid camera. There was no face in the photo! (Police never figured that out. Most likely Wheeler was no more competent as a photographer than he was as a bank robber.) Wheeler reported one problem with his scheme. The lemon juice stung his eyes so badly that he could barely see.

Wheeler went to jail and into the annals of the world’s dumbest criminals. It was such a feature, in the 1996 World Almanac, that brought Wheeler’s story to the attention of David Dunning, a Cornell psychology professor. He saw in this tale of dim-witted woe something universal. Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack. This observation would eventually become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning and a graduate student, Justin Kruger, embarked on a series of experiments testing this premise. They quizzed undergraduate psychology students on grammar, logic, and jokes, then asked the students to estimate their scores and also estimate how well they did relative to others (on a percentile basis). The students who scored lowest had greatly exaggerated notions of how well they did. Dunning had expected that, but not the magnitude of the effect. His first reaction to the results was “Wow.” Those who scored near the bottom estimated that their skills were superior to two-thirds of the other students.

Those who scored higher had, as might be expected, more accurate perceptions of their abilities. But (are you ready for this?) the group that scored highest slightly underestimated their performance relative to others.

As the researchers observed, the only way to know how well you did on a grammar quiz is to know grammar. Those lacking that knowledge were also least able to gauge their knowledge. They were oblivious to their own ignorance.

Link to the rest at Medium

The Idealist

From The Wall Street Journal:

If isolationist slogans such as “America First” drive you to despair, “The Idealist” might be the book for you. Imagine a time when a failed presidential candidate became a hero to millions for promoting internationalism. And not internationalism of the muscular Cold War variety but a dovish “interdependence.”

It happened in 1942. Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee in 1940, had been thumped at the polls by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two years later, with World War II raging, Willkie set off on a 31,000-mile goodwill trip to the Middle East, Africa, the Soviet Union and Asia.

Traveling on his own dime, as FDR’s “private citizen number one,” Willkie met heads of state, the leaders of colonial populations, Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek and, in exile in Beirut, a prickly Charles de Gaulle. From Baghdad to Chongqing, the hail-fellow-well-met Hoosier was greeted by thunderous crowds. Dispatched by FDR to give “pep talks” to American allies—and coax neutrals into the Allied camp—Willkie ended up delivering a very different message.

The war was being waged not only to defeat the fascist powers, he said, but to abolish colonialism. America should stop ignoring “the peoples of the East.” The Iraq Times saluted him as the “ideal democrat.” American correspondents ate it up—not just his message of “one world” but his informal strolls through old Baghdad, his tête-à-tête with Marshal Stalin, his decision to escort a young and eager shah of Iran on his first airplane ride.

After 49 days, he returned home to a Willkie boom. Letters and speaking invitations poured in. His book about his travels—“One World” was the inevitable title—sold 1.6 million copies. A presidential rematch seemed preordained.

In “The Idealist,” Samuel Zipp, a cultural and intellectual historian at Brown University, has captured Willkie’s “brief, blazing moment,” a little-remembered interlude when America was at war but already worrying about the postwar order. Younger readers, dismayed by today’s various nationalisms, may be comforted to learn that isolationist and internationalist impulses—like so much else—are cyclical phenomena. And Mr. Zipp stresses that internationalists come in two stripes—assertive nationalists (think Teddy Roosevelt) and global idealists.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

On Diversity

From The Wall Street Journal:

There is something deeply amiss about the way the word “diversity” is used in American culture, but it’s not easy to describe what that something is. That human diversity is a good thing is self-evident, but do its cheerleaders care about diversity for its own sake? Sometimes you suspect that what they really want is sameness. On Staten Island this week, the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the object of outrage because its organizers have not approved a gay and lesbian contingent to march under its own banner. Boycotters cannot abide the thought of a public event in which older opinions prevail in any way. What they want is . . . diversity.

The disingenuous use of the word appears everywhere. The faculty hiring committee can proclaim its dedication to diversity all it wants, but everybody understands that the diversity criterion is incidental to what the committee is really after, which is someone whose general outlook matches that of the rest of the committee. Diversity in the service of sameness.

Russell Jacoby’s “On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era” is very far from a right-wing critique of the left’s obsession with diversity—he is not a conservative of any kind, as far as I am aware. Nor does he indulge the temptation to lampoon the nonsense language of the diversity industry. His aim, rather, is to separate proper notions of diversity from ideological ones: in other words, to distinguish a genuine concern for human diversity from the superficial and opportunistic uses of the term to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Mr. Jacoby, a history professor at UCLA and the author of several books on American politics and culture, believes that Americans are becoming more and more alike—we wear the same sneakers, enjoy the same entertainments, adopt the same opinions and, increasingly, speak the same vernacular. This sameness, he believes, augurs ill for our democracy. “Uniformity weakens the individual,” he writes, “which in turn weakens democracy. If individuals lose their singularity, they form a susceptible electorate.”

. . . .

Perhaps I am too immersed in discussions of political polarization and cultural de-consolidation, but in my understanding Americans used to watch the same movies and read the same books and act on the same moral impulses but no longer do. Mr. Jacoby worries about other forms of sameness: The loss of unsupervised play among children, he fears, leads to a kind of conformity mind-set in adults, and our reliance on smartphones and social media forces us into the same habits and attitudes. Maybe. But in an era in which social fragmentation and national breakup are constantly talked about, I would have welcomed a more robust case for our sameness.

Mr. Jacoby is at his best when he turns his attention to the disingenuousness of the diversity ethic. He recounts, for example, the debate about the deaths of indigenous languages around the globe. This is said to be a tragedy, and maybe it is. But it is striking, he writes, “that the linguists and anthropologists who lament language loss do not address the decline of foreign language study in the United States or foreign language deficiency in developed countries. This does not interest them.” The alarmists love to lament the fate of languages in Papua New Guinea and Cameroon but not the absence of foreign-language study in American high schools. “They love preserving languages,” Mr. Jacoby writes, “as long as they are elsewhere.”

. . . .

Exponents of the French Revolution tended to demand sameness: standardized calendars, currencies, weights, measurements and language. The radical priest Henri Grégoire, for example, felt strongly that any foreign language, indeed any dialect, signified disloyalty to the state. Governments, he reflected, don’t understand “how much importance the abolishing of gibberish is to the spread of enlightenment.”

Against the standardizers were liberal writers such as the Swiss-French writer Benjamin Constant and his lover, Madame de Staël; the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher; the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt; and, not least, Tocqueville and Mill. Mr. Jacoby is right to point out that Mill’s purpose in “On Liberty,” the work for which he is best remembered, was not to theorize about legitimate limitations on state action, as most modern treatments lead one to believe. The book’s chief aim was to emphasize, as Mill himself put it, “the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Will the Future of Scholarly Communication Be Pluralistic and Democratic, or Monocultural and Authoritarian?

From The Scholarly Kitchen:

Over the past twenty years I’ve engaged in more discussions, and read more articles and reports, and listened to more presentations about the present and future of scholarly communication than I can possibly count. For me, each of these conversations, documents, and presentations serves as a single point in a large and growing mass of data. Looking at it in the aggregate, this data set reveals certain patterns. One of the patterns that has recently become clear to me is that the scholarly communication community — a huge, globally and ideologically diverse group of people and organizations — is struggling collectively to make a choice between two mutually incompatible options.

. . . .

The struggle that is playing out right now within the scholarly communication ecosystem is the struggle to choose between pluralism and monoculture.

In the pluralistic scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces some mixture of open access (OA) and toll access models. In the monocultural scenario, the scholarly communication ecosystem embraces only OA, and eliminates toll access altogether. (Theoretically, of course, it would be possible to have an all-toll-access scenario as well, but that hasn’t been a realistic possibility for years. OA is here to stay and there is no reason at all to believe that it will ever go away, or that it should.)

We have to choose between these scenarios because as a matter of simple logic, they can’t coexist; one of them will eventually win and one of them will lose.

. . . .

It’s important to note that most of the people and organizations promoting and advocating for either of these scenarios are fully in favor of open access. Although I’ve heard credible rumors of genuine opposition to OA within certain segments of the scholarly communication ecosystem, I have never personally encountered any organization that opposes it in principle, or more than a tiny handful of individuals who oppose it. Even those organizations most commonly held up as anti-OA boogiemen (*cough* Elsevier *cough*) tend strongly to have demonstrated their support for OA in the most concrete of ways: by, you know, enthusiastically adopting it — and, in some cases, by having done more to advance it than most other groups who are in favor of it.

. . . .

Open access vs. toll access is a false dichotomy; you can have (and indeed we do now have) a system that is characterized by both open access and toll access models. So that’s not the choice we’re currently struggling with. What we are struggling with is the choice between universal and mandatory OA and non-universal and optional OA. That’s not a false dichotomy, but a real and logically inescapable one: you can’t simultaneously have universal and non-universal OA; OA can’t simultaneously be mandatory and optional.

Link to the rest at The Scholarly Kitchen

PG will note that large academic publishers tend to be extremely profitable as well as intent on making certain that no academic author ever is paid for the articles he/she submits for publication.

These publishers have aggressively consolidated the ownership of most, if not all of the most prestigious publications in various academic fields and charge the same educational and scientific institutions that pay the academic authors’ salaries high subscription fees to access the research information that at least part of the authors’ salaries have paid for.

The general public does have a stake in the open-access vs. paid subscription debate because, directly – via public funds that help support state and local public universities and indirectly via generous tax breaks given to private non-profit corporations that operate most, if not all, private universities as well as those same public universities. To the extent that paid subscriptions to scholarly publications increase the costs of operating those educational and research institutions, taxpayers will provide at least some of the funds that are sent to for-profit academic publishers.

‘Franklin & Washington’ – Friends at the Founding

From The Wall Street Journal:

At a time when American politics is increasingly dominated by rancor, turbulence and division, it is perhaps unsurprising that books about the Republic’s revered Founding Fathers are as popular as ever. To authors and publishers, the select band of men who championed independence from Britain and hammered out the Constitution resemble a pack of cards to be endlessly reshuffled and dealt out in different hands. Alongside biographies or group portraits of the Founders, another approach is to examine a pair whose alliance—or, more often, rivalry—is credited with forging the nation. Recently, for example, Alexander Hamilton was separately linked with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and his nemesis, Aaron Burr, while several eminent historians have been drawn to the power struggle between Jefferson and John Adams.

In “Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership,” Edward J. Larson lays down a pairing that has hitherto been neglected. Few would quibble with Mr. Larson’s verdict that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin rank as the pre-eminent Founders: Without the former’s determined leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the latter’s assiduous cultivation of the French support that ultimately secured victory, there would be no United States.

Mr. Larson acknowledges that these foremost Founders make an unlikely couple. The gregarious and folksy Franklin (1706-90) was old enough to be Washington’s father. Born in Boston to humble parents but associated with Philadelphia after he moved there in his teens, Franklin was an enlightened polymath, a printer, scientist and inventor who became an opponent of slavery. Washington (1732-99), the restrained, status-conscious, slave-owning Virginian gentleman, can seem like Franklin’s opposite. If the aloof Washington came to be regarded as his country’s father, Mr. Larson observes, Franklin was its approachable uncle.

Despite marked differences in background and temperament, Washington and Franklin had traits in common. Dedicated Freemasons with a fondness for English porter beer, both men were driven to improve their lot through hard work. Crucially, they shared a vision of an independent and united America based upon a strong central government, and each strove tirelessly to achieve that end.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Why Is The Book Of Kells Important?

From BookRiot:

There are a number of literary tourist things to do in Dublin, Ireland. There are the numerous James Joyce themed tours. Then there is the Dublin Writer’s museum. As you trek around the city, you’ll note the number of signs pointing to Trinity College, where you can view the Book of Kells. Though we’ve given you some facts about the Book of Kells before (and noted the strict copyright), here’s a little bit more information on this prestigious manuscript. Here are four reasons why the Book of Kells is important:

1. IT’S THE MOST FAMOUS OF THE EARLY MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS

This may sound like circuitous logic, but the Book of Kells has been well known for a very long time. We have a few well-preserved illustrated manuscripts from before the 12th century. The Book of Durrow, Lichfield Gospels, and the Lindisfarne Gospels rank in a similar period, but even among those three, the Book of Kells has a unique position of veneration.

A lot of this has to do with the very precise illumination of the manuscript. Though it has some similar iconography and styles to the Linisfarne gospels, the actual hand-work is more detailed. The illustrations are lush and layered.

People have been writing about the Book of Kells since the 12th century. The 12th century historian Giraldus Cambrensis even concluded the book had been written by an angel.

It has been housed at Trinity College since the 17th century, given to the school for safe keeping. It’s been on display there since the 1800s, inspiring visitors since.

2. ITS HISTORY IS A MYSTERY

Unlike other manuscripts that have been produced, the Book of Kells did not document its creation. The most popular theory posits that the book was either created on the island of Iona, or its production was begun at Iona. Later, the book (and its creator) fled Iona when it was sacked by Vikings, where it ultimately ended up at the Abbey of Kells. Another popular theory has it as being produced at Kells to commemorate the founding of the Abbey on its centennial or bicentennial anniversary.

We aren’t even sure about the year of production, only that it dates somewhere between the 8th and 9th century. Nor is anyone really sure of its production heritage, alternately claimed to be English, Irish, and Scottish in origin.

The fact that it is unsigned or unattributed is also unique. During this period and in this region, it would not have been uncommon for the book to have some attribution to its maker. Sure, in other regions, manuscripts could be “manufactured” by many nameless hands. However, it is a bit unusual for a piece like this, with its artistry and illustration, to have no attribution. Monks and scribes producing insular books at this time generally had a sense of their own artistry, leading some to sign their pieces or for the pieces to have some sort of specific attribution. It also was not uncommon to write out the ownership of such a book in the marginalia, and the fact that that does not fully exist for this book is strange. Though, we do have some records from the Abbey of Kells written in the book starting in the 11th century.

It’s thought that about four artists and three scribes worked on the book and its illustration. Sadly, they remain nameless, but that doesn’t stop the Book of Kells from being important.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Publisher Bob Dees on selling books in foreign market

From The Globe and Mail:

Selling the rights to publish books in other countries is one of the great subterranean aspects of the Canadian publishing business, adding as much to bottom lines as it does to international reputations. There’s a whole government agency devoted to giving publishers a leg up, and international book fairs happen every month, from New Delhi to London to Beijing to the biggest of them all each October in Frankfurt. We asked Bob Dees, the publisher of Toronto’s Robert Rose Books, about his experience getting one of his books into the German market. Do you try to sell foreign language rights for all your books? No. There are certain titles that are clearly North American.

. . . .

You Are What Your Grandparents Ate [by former Globe and Mail columnist Judith Finlayson] had not just an international market opportunity, but it had a market opportunity in Europe that was larger than in North America because of a greater awareness of the subject matter of epigenetics [the study of biological mechanisms that turn genes on or off]. We came across a recent German edition of National Geographic devoted to the anniversary of the Dutch Hunger Winter and how it was still influencing the descendants of those who lived through it, subjects that are integral to You Are What Your Grandparents Ate . Our foreign language rights manager at the time, Nina McCreath, went online to find German publishers who specialized in this intersection of health and science and found four, and based on their responses, she booked appointments for Frankfurt 2018. Then what happened? We had sales materials prepared, about eight or 10 pages to give an indication of the design, which in this case is unique, and its capacity to attract a readership to the subject. And we had one edited chapter that we were able to share with them both in hard copy and electronic copy. We’re fortunate that English tends to be the language business is done in, even in Frankfurt. Even so, not everyone comes with an equal level of English, and we were even more fortunate there because Nina speaks fluent German. We were able to use that as a tool to create a more successful relationship with these potential publishers. Many publishers may use an agent who speaks the language in question. Having a foreign sales agent with at least a couple of extra languages is incredibly valuable.

. . . .

How did this one get done so quickly? We try to be an easy publisher to deal with for foreign language agreements. Big name publishers have a reputation for being difficult to deal with. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to get the best deal, but sometimes the legal departments can be problematic, some will take three or four months to do an agreement, and some publishers don’t want to wait that long. It took us probably about two or three weeks.

Link to the rest at The Globe and Mail

https://amzn.to/2wOQBpd

You Are What Your Grandparents Ate takes conventional wisdom about the origins of chronic disease and turns it upside down. Rooted in the work of the late epidemiologist Dr. David Barker, it highlights the exciting research showing that heredity involves much more than the genes your parents passed on to you. Thanks to the relatively new science of epigenetics, we now know that the experiences of previous generations may show up in your health and well-being.

Many of the risks for chronic diseases — including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia — can be traced back to your first 1,000 days of existence, from the moment you were conceived. The roots of these vulnerabilities may extend back even further, to experiences your parents and grandparents had — and perhaps even beyond.

Worried a Robot Apocalypse Is Imminent?

From The Wall Street Journal:

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You

Elevator Pitch: Ideal for those intrigued and/or mildly unnerved by the increasing role A.I. plays in modern life (and our future), this book is accessible enough to educate you while easing anxieties about the coming robot apocalypse. A surprisingly hilarious read, it presents a view of A.I. that is more “Office Space” than “The Terminator.” Typical insight: A.I. that can’t write a coherent cake recipe is probably not going to take over the world.

Very Brief Excerpt: “For the foreseeable future, the danger will not be that A.I. is too smart but that it’s not smart enough.”

Surprising Factoid: A lot of what we think are social-media bots are almost definitely humans being (poorly) paid to act as a bot. People stealing the jobs of robots: How meta.

. . . .

The Creativity Code

By Marcus du Sautoy

Elevator Pitch: What starts as an exploration of the many strides—and failures—A.I. has made in the realm of artistic expression turns out to be an ambitious meditation on the meaning of creativity and consciousness. It shines in finding humanlike traits in algorithms; one chapter breathlessly documents the matches between Mr. Hassabis’s algorithm and a world champion of Go, a game many scientists said a computer could never win.

Very Brief Excerpt: “Machines might ultimately help us…become less like machines.”

Surprising Factoid: As an example of “overfitting,” the book includes a mathematical model that accidentally predicts the human population will drop to zero by 2028. Probably an error, but better live it up now—just in case.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Serfs of Academe

From The New York Review of Books:

Adjunct, a novel by Geoff Cebula, is a love letter to academia, a self-help book, a learned disquisition on an obscure genre of Italian film, and a surprisingly affecting satire-cum-horror-comedy. In other words, exactly the kind of strange, unlucrative, interdisciplinary work that university presses, if they take any risks at all, should exist to print. Given the parlous state of academic publishing—with Stanford University Press nearly shutting down and all but a few presses ordered to turn profits or else—it should perhaps come as no surprise that one of the best recent books on the contemporary university was instead self-published on Amazon. Cebula, a scholar of Slavic literature who finished his Ph.D. in 2016 and then taught in a variety of contingent positions, learned his lesson. Adjunct became the leading entry in the rapidly expanding genre of academic “quit-lit,” the lovelorn farewell letters from those who’ve broken up with the university for good. Rather than continue to try for a tenure-track teaching gig, Cebula’s moved on and is now studying law.

The novel’s heroine, Elena Malatesta, is an instructor of Italian at Bellwether College, an academically nondescript institution located somewhere in the northeast. Her teaching load—the number of officially designated “credit hours” per semester—has been reduced to just barely over half-time, allowing the college to offer minimum benefits even though her work seems to take up all of her day. Recently, the college has been advised to make still deeper cuts to the language departments, which are said to not only distract students but to actively harm them by inducing an interest in anything other than lucre. Elena responds with a mixture of paranoia and dark comedy: after the cuts there will be only so many jobs in languages left—maybe the Hindi teacher, anxious about her own position, is conspiring to bump her off? Then Elena had better launch a preemptive strike: this could be a “kill or be killed” situation.

Like a good slasher flick, Adjunct proceeds through misdirection and red herrings, pointing to one potential perp after another—does the department chair have a knife?—to keep the reader as anxious as Elena, while her colleagues, first to her delight and then alarm, begin disappearing. Conveniently, Elena’s own research centers on Italian giallo films, which combine elements of suspense and horror and are one of the cinematic sources for American classics like Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996). As she flees into the safe confines of her office hours—the attackers’ only fear seems to be endangering the college’s primary profit source, the students—she thinks of the films she has assigned to her class and the ways they mirror her own predicament. A giallo, Elena thinks, depicts a world where the “circumstances determining who would live or die were completely ridiculous,” a life of “pervasive contingency”—“contingent” being the most common term for part-time and contract-based academic labor. This is why horror, for Cebula, becomes the natural genre through which to depict the life of the contemporary adjunct, which is to say, the majority of academic workers today.

One suspects that Cebula’s inspiration for this lark came directly from genuine academic horror stories. Among the best known involves an adjunct at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who taught French for twenty-five years, her salary never rising above $20,000, before dying nearly homeless in 2013 at the age of eighty-three, her classes cut, with no retirement benefits or health insurance. At San José State University in Silicon Valley, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, one English teacher lives out of her car, grading papers after dark by headlamp and keeping things neat so as to “avoid suspicion.” Another adjunct in an unidentified “large US city,” reports The Guardian, turned to sex work rather than lose her apartment.

Though these stories are extreme, they are illustrative of the current academic workplace. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 25 percent of part-time faculty nationally rely on public assistance programs. In 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff at US institutions of higher education were tenured or on the tenure track; today, after decades of institutional expansion amid stagnant or dwindling budgets, the figure is 33 percent. More than one million workers now serve as nonpermanent faculty in the US, constituting 50 percent of the instructional workforce at public Ph.D.-granting institutions, 56 percent at public masters degree–granting institutions, 62 percent at public bachelors degree–granting institutions, 83 percent at public community colleges, and 93 percent at for-profit institutions.

To account for these developments, some may look to the increasing age of retirement of tenure-track faculty, which now stands at well over seventy. But, anecdotally at least, the reason many tenured faculty wait so long to retire may be the knowledge that they will not be replaced—when a Victorian poetry professor calls it quits, so, at many institutions, does her entire subfield. Who wants to know they will be the last person to teach a seminar on Tennyson? Others will blame the explosion of nonacademic staff: between 1975 and 2005, the number of full-time faculty in US higher education increased by 51 percent, while the number of administrators increased by 85 percent and the number of nonmanagerial professional staff increased by 240 percent. Such criticism can easily become unfair, as when teachers resent other workers who have taken over some of their old tasks—in fact sparing them chores like advising or curricula development—or when they act as though the university could do without programs that have made possible greater openness (such as Title IX officers and support for first-generation students).

. . . .

Just as business managers in private industry squeezed workers to satisfy ever more demanding shareholders, taking home a cut for themselves in the process, so university administrators have reduced teacher pay and increased job insecurity in an effort to make possible expansions in operations that typically resulted in yet more administrative and professional staff, and higher salaries for those who directed them. In this process, teachers, because of their commitment to their jobs and the relative nontransferability of their skills, were simply more exploitable than, say, financial compliance officers. Notably, between 1975 and 2005, the proportion of part-time administrators in higher education decreased from 4 percent to 3 percent, even as the proportion of part-time adjuncts exploded. As one college vice-president advised a group of adjuncts at a large community college in the 2000s (the specific details are left vague for fear of retaliation), “You should realize that you are not considered faculty, or even people. You are units of flexibility.”

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books.

If PG were King for a day, he would require that colleges and universities publish annual statistics disclosing what percentage of their courses are taught by adjunct faculty and the names of the classes and departments in which those classes reside. He has little doubt that someone will collect such data and publish comparisons between various institutions.

PG suspects that English Literature and Creative Writing are the professional homes for an outsized portion of adjuncts.

Given the sky-high cost of most colleges in the US these days and the massive debt many students and their families incur to pay those costs, prospective students may wish to know how many classes they will be taking that are taught by part-time or poorly-paid adjunct faculty.