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October 2015 Reading Recap, as such

Back near the start of October I decided to challenge myself by reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in part because I have yet to successfully grind through one of those long Russian novels, having abandoned Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace part way through. I have more trouble with Russian translations than with a lot of other languages, and will readily admit I sometimes struggle to keep tabs on who is doing what when there are multiple ways of addressing each character. These are me problems, but I was determined.

Then October happened. The job application process happened, and a whole slew of things I needed to do came up, and a small number of social events sucked what little time I had left. There have been days where wheedling away at a dissertation paragraph has taken the place of opening a book for twenty minutes. It is all rather exhausting and I only managed to get through about a third of Demons. I have not yet given up on it, though, at this point, I might not finish it for another month. I hope not, and if it comes to that I might race through something a little bit lighter before I finish this one.

Anyway, that was my fiction reading for the month of October. Such as it was.

Goodbye, Lincoln Chafee

I was not going to vote for Lincoln Chafee in the Democratic primary. In fact, at this point, there is little any of the candidates could do to actually change my mind as to who to vote for. To be honest, the only major change in my opinions since campaigning began way back before the Canadian election kicked off is that Martin O’Malley, the candidate I knew least about, moved up in my opinion, rather than not even being on the radar.

These campaigns are long, loud, and serious and, while mocking things said by Republican candidates trivializes the seriousness of governance and the traction they have among voters, humor is a nice break from the grind of American campaigns. But I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to share some appreciation for Lincoln Chafee, who just withdrew from the Democratic primary race.

To date, Chafee had my favorite campaign plank: convert the United States to the metric system. His reasoning made sense, namely that the changes will not be too painful and that there are economic benefits, but it was this sort of non-traditional statements that made me like him and his withdrawal speech lived up to expectations.

Chafee linked Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Middle East, and Feminist International Relations theory in his speech before the Women’s Leadership Forum (without directly saying that Hilary Clinton should be president). As a historian of Ancient Greece I always appreciate a good reference to Greek theater, the other great example of which being Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu invocation of Aeschylus the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chafee mentions the basic plot of Aristophanes’ play, albeit not its conservatism, and encourages women to get involved in ending wars around the world. But his message is also reminiscent of another feature of Aristophanes’ play–that it is women from around Greece who make a joint cause to stop wars. Chafee’s message was one of understanding an unification and said, “from what I’ve heard none of the Republicans running for president want to understand anything about the Middle East and North Africa.”

I wasn’t going to vote for Chafee, but, at least on the day he withdrew, he preached a humanistic message of understanding and obliquely endorsed the value in a classical education.

I failed a MOOC

At least I thought I did. Here’s what happened.

My first MOOC experience was positive enough that I decided to take another one. The decision itself was expedited when the University of Michigan announced the creation of specialties in Python and HTML, with the latter being an new course offering. I want to learn more about both these languages, so I signed up for the first course in the HTML sequence. A lot of what I liked about the first course held true in this one, but, right away, it didn’t go as well as Python, and I was frustrated by everything from each week having multiple videos that went by quickly and had embedded questions, to some awkwardly phrased questions in the weekly quizzes, to the Coursera site redesign that I found confusing. But perhaps the most bothersome part for me is that I know some HTML–not a lot and I did learn things, but I knew enough that most of what I needed to advance my skills wasn’t being taught in this section of the course. [What I really need to learn how to do is use CSS, which this was not.]

I kept up with the course well enough for the first two weeks, but, in the third, life came up. I had work to do, people came in from out of town, and I had a bit of a freakout, so I missed the first deadline. The course was set up with an extended deadline to complete the materials, but for the next week I couldn’t work up the motivation to go back to the lectures, so I just kept working on things that count toward my degree and watched as the final deadline passed. Failure through incompletion, which I’ve witnessed all too often as an instructor but never actually experienced from this end.

Then I received another email announcing that I didn’t fail the course and the deadlines in Coursera are only meant for timely progression with the idea that small groups of students can keep up together–the answers will just be pushed to the next batch of students. I’ve never interacted with other students taking the course and don’t much like discussion boards as a substitute for class discussion, but I can understand this motivation for the dates. Yet, while it is nice to know I can’t fail the course (I guess) and nice that I can go back to the videos, the notion that failure is not an option is also disconcerting.

In a way, this seems to be a feature of the commodification of the MOOC experience. If more and more people are paying for the course and the course is fundamentally auto-graded, then there is an impetus to treat this more like a purchased training module than an actual course. Once it is purchased, it is something that may be returned to as needed until the skills are acquired. This works well for a course like this one where there are clearly-defined, measurable skills, but not for humanities. This feature of Coursera is also nice in that it reinforces the “learn on your own time” setup of MOOCs so that it can only be eternally deferred, never missed. In contrast, the experience of an actual college education (which I once heard as designed to condition students into taking accountability for their time before getting a job) is harsh. There, falling behind carries with it the very real chance of failure–and failure doesn’t come with a refund or a free re-do. At the same time, though, the immediacy of the physical school carries with it more urgency and structured time to complete the work.

1177 B.C., A Review

The inaugural book in the The Turning Points in Ancient History series bears the subtitle: “The Year Civilization Collapsed.” The title is misleading since, as Cline repeatedly points out, there is no single year in which “civilization collapsed,” but this is representative of the problems endemic with studying the ancient world at large and the bronze age in general. Instead, Cline takes 1177, a year in which the Egyptian King Rameses III won a great battle against the Sea Peoples, as representative of the large-scale changes that were taking place in the twelfth century BCE and the beginning of the end of the networks that bound together the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. Rameses III was victorious, but the world that he knew gave way to something new and more isolated in the decades that followed. 1177 B.C. is dedicated to explaining this collapse, but, in order to get there, Cline has to spend most of the book building up the bronze age civilizations. Along the way, he intersperses the narrative with descriptions of the scholars, archeologists, treasure-hunters, and accidents (happy and unhappy) that facilitate the understanding of these connections.

The bulk of Cline’s narrative explains the international commercial and political networks that bound together Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, Babylon, and the (petty) kingdoms of the Levantine coast. He does not shy away from using cultural prejudices to explain political representation, but Cline emphasizes that all the actors in this environment relied on one another to create a relatively stable international community that lasted for multiple centuries. Unlike many traditional accounts, largely absent are gods and cultural clashes. This narrative is fundamentally one of royal politics, but he argues that the market in royal gifts as it circulated is representative of deeper commercial networks that our sparse evidence simply does not attest to. The resulting picture is one of vibrant commercial activity, royal communication, and general cultural understanding–wars happen, but for the usual reasons of land and resources.

So why did this civilization collapse sometime after the year 1177? Cline treats each proposed cause in turn, examining the evidence for earthquakes, famine, social revolution, external invasion, and the collapse of dynasties. Fundamentally, he argues that each one is inadequate as an overarching explanation, but that each could explain an individual collapse. Thus, in an ultimate act of synthesis, Cline posits that the stability of the system required the networks between the different locations, so, as each individual node was weakened by famine/war/invasion/earthquake/aliens/social revolution (I might have added one), the commercial ties themselves fell apart and were unable to buttress the nodes until they toppled one by one.

1177 B.C. is clearly influenced by the modern discussions of world-systems theory and the climate of globalism currently popular, but this doesn’t invalidate the point. I am sympathetic to Cline’s approach for many reasons, including that I think that bombastic literature of all ages tends to exaggerate the differences between peoples. Further, the ancient world did not comprise of Great Civilizations that sprang up in isolation, but was already engage in what might be termed proto-globalism, since globalism is technically impossible until the entire globe is included. As hokey as it may seem, this is also a useful way to approach the issues of “relevance” for the ancient world, since it makes the underlying relationships seem less alien to a modern audience. It is possible to quibble in that Cline does a better job of integrating Egyptian culture into his narrative than, for instance, Ugarit culture, but in a book of fewer than two hundred pages, that is more a problem for an instructor hoping to use this approach into a Western Civilization or Ancient Mediterranean course than it is for him. One is also led to ponder what the peoples of the Aegean, truly on the fringe of the network of civilization, thought about the relationships, but here the evidence is particularly weak.

One last thing that Cline does is to incorporate accounts of modern archeology. Initially I found the vignettes somewhat distracting, but they are not overly cumbersome or frequent and in sum I think it is important to recognize how little evidence there is and how that evidence was found because this, in and of itself, shapes how we understand the period.

I picked up 1177 B.C. as a productive fun non-fiction book to read (i.e. something I shouldn’t be spending time on, but that could come in handy later on) and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot vouch for its utility as a scholarly text, as it is written for an intelligent, non-specialist audience, but I highly recommend that anyone teaching this early period of world history pick it up. For anyone else who wants a different take on early early Mediterranean history that defies the usual solipsism of histories of Egypt, Mycenaeans, etc, look no further.

September 2015 Reading Recap

I finished three books in September, as the academic year picked up and things, as they do, got busy.

Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden continues his wizarding, only, now in the third book, the decisions he made in the previous two are beginning to catch up with him. I did a little write up about the series after I finished reading this one. The general impression of it still stands, which is to say that they are fun, largely pulpy reads that can be addictive in the moment, but haven’t really compelled me to read on. The third book started to build to a larger plot that could make up for how thin the noir skin began to feel, and the cast of characters is starting to expand, but I am still taking a break from the series.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a rich client, Dracula, who is moving to London. The he stumbles into a backward environment of unspeakable horror. The vampire escapes and descends on an unprepared England, while Harker, his wife Mina, Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood (the beloved of the Vampire’s first english victim), the American Quincy Morris, and the Dutch doctor Abraham van Helsing combine Catholic doctrine, folk remedies, and the cleverness of modernity to hunt this relic from eastern Europe. One of my favorite things about reading classic novels for the first time is that some of them are so utterly familiar and yet completely bastardized by subsequent representations. That is the case here, where many of Dracula’s traits and various descriptions are familiar, yet this specific version is not one often portrayed. I loved just about every minute of reading this beautiful mess of a novel. It is easy to see how this book was (and sometimes still is) considered overwritten and lowbrow, with dozens of concepts and fads mashed together in sometimes bizarre ways, and how it became a classic of Western literature. I have also started posting to Twitter quotes from books I read, and have collected them into a blog post.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed and quotations collected.

One of Pamuk’s early works, The New Life is the story of a book and a girl that inspired young men to seek a new life, while being ambiguous about what the new life is. Most of the story takes place in shadowy buses careening across Turkey, at a time when and place where identities are transient. The men, particularly, in the story all seek a way to achieve equilibrium after reading the book, but the only way to reach this balance is to suspend themselves from a world that is racing onward. The New Life is not an easy book to describe and while it fits thematically in Pamuk’s oeuvre, it is not part of the same semi-real Istanbul that forms the backdrop of, for instance, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. This is also a book that I have grown more fond of upon letting it sink in than I necessarily was in the middle of it, so I’ll tentatively say it was my favorite of the month.

October is probably going to be another tight month for reading, particularly because I am starting off with an ambitious read, at least in terms of time investment. Currently, I am reading Dostoevsky’s Demons.

Live-Tweet The New Life

The collected quotations from Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, which I reviewed here.

Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Live Tweet” Dracula

Following in the footsteps of my friend Will Mountz, I have started tweeting some quotes from books as I read them. To some extent I have always done this, but I’m now doing it in a more organized way. These are not meant to be a review of the book, but rather things that stood out as I read. Excepting the occasional typo, the only curation of the quotes is for length. These posts (since I suspect this is going to turn into series) are meant to collect what I tweeted out in one place, starting from the beginning of the book.

Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk

Two things happen to the narrator of The New Life, one after the other, which changed everything: he read a book and he fell in love with a girl. In his accounting of events, the reading of the book was both the first and the more important occurrence, but, really, he only read the book because he saw a pretty girl reading and was smitten. One might even say that our protagonist was entrapped by this distant and unapproachable beauty. This book changed everything and, he is told, those under its sway are wrapped up in a long-standing conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that could cost them their lives. Following Janan, he witnesses the assassination of her beloved and is immediately launched into a journey across Anatolia in pursuit of Janan, in search of answers to the riddles posed by the book, and hunting for a new life.

Most of The New Life takes place on dimly-lit bus-stops and on darkened buses that roar across the Anatolian landscape past–and sometimes into–similarly nondescript vehicles. Each bus seems to take people further back in time. Bloody crashes are a frequent occurrence, and sometimes provide an opportunity to adopt a new persona. The narrator’s obsession with Janan is Quixotic and while his pursuit of the woman sitting beside him spurs him on as a young man, the book proves a somewhat more intimate and more fruitful quest. The principle question is how one is able to reach equilibrium between the promises of the book and a changing world. There is no single right answer.

Pamuk eventually reveals that the name of the book is The New Life, and there is reason to suspect that it is the same as the novel, but for most of the story it is simply referred to as “the book” and its contents are left ambiguous. The closest comparison I could think of is the fanatical devotion inspired by religious texts, but it is emphatically a secular, subversive book. Similarly, there is an ambiguity as to what, exactly, The New Life is. Does it refer to swapping identity papers? Claiming a new name? Revolution? The process of aging? Or is the life in question not the life of the individual at all, but the life of a culture or country? Ought the new life really be an old life? Or is there another transcendence above these all? In the end, The New Life is being told from the point of view of an adult man, married and with a daughter. He has certainly found a new life, but, somehow, it hasn’t totally satisfied the hunger that the book awoke.

The New Life is an early example of Pamuk’s work and while I enjoyed the book, it is lower on the scale of his novels, ahead of only The White Castle. On the one hand, there were features that were engaging, including the two discussed in the previous paragraph, the tension between bus and rail, and the appearance of going back in time and the speedy onset of western modernity; on the other, there were aspects of the conspiracies that left me hollow because they fit in the novel but were not fleshed out. Some of this is a stylistic choice and some is the narrative style, but I wanted it to be spun out further as Pamuk does in later novels.


I recently decided that I want to prune my book collection somewhat by donating books I don’t actively want to keep around to charitable book drops and/or libraries and have already chosen six or seven volumes to give away. I am militantly against getting rid of my entire physical collection despite the hassle of moving boxes of books, so this is more about culling for space. Along the same lines, I want to be able to talk about every book in my collection either because I have read it or because it is a new acquisition and soon to be read. As such, there is somewhat of a backlog that I need to read, some of which I started once upon a time and gave up on, others I bought and never read. Right now I am read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which falls into the former category, and which I am enjoying quite a lot and thus wondering why I stopped reading it before (other that I am finding myself a more patient and careful reader as I age).

A question of sorts about tuition

College is too expensive, and for every glowing report about the financial returns of a college degree, another blows apart those numbers by showing that particular schools and particular careers that, by grace of family connections, artificially inflate the numbers. At the same time, U.S. Taxpayers are disproportionately subsidizing the elite universities with large endowments— schools that spend more money managing their portfolios than on scholarships. The jobs of Presidents hang on their ability to pull in large donations. Most colleges are simultaneously seeing increased selectivity and increased enrollment and are crafting incentives to push those numbers higher still. I don’t want to get bogged down in most of those perks and whether they ought to exist or distracted by other cost-saving measures taken by schools or even question where all that money goes. I’ve been lead to believe that universities function through dark rituals carried out by accounts and involving large piles of imaginary money. Yes, I am being glib, but since I know just enough about it to make wildly inaccurate generalizations, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will focus on the extension of in-state tuition and tuition freezes, because there is something I find troubling here.

On the issue of tuition freezes, I have just one comment: the phrase itself is a red-herring. Promises to eliminate or freeze tuition do not keep down the price, but adds incentive to call the bills something else, usually fees. The itemization of the bill is a nice addition, but it also represents rhetorical chicanery when some of the fees can plausibly be argued to belong in the tuition pile. For instance, in graduate education, there are instances where students with tuition waivers nevertheless pay a fee for every credit they take. Fees or tuition, the result is the same: costs rise.

My working hypothesis on the split between in-state and out-of-state tuition is that the out-of-state rate represents more or less the full tuition rate, while the in-state is a lower rate because it is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. This is not to say that there is a 1:1 correlation, and there is the added variables of federal funding and donations, but, in general, this seems to be a reasonable model. Likewise, though I haven’t seen it stated outright, it seems likely that state taxes that go to supporting state higher education institutions are done with this sort of implicit assumption in mind. States are, by and large, reducing their financial support for higher education, for a variety of reasons, which forces out low-income students and results in more cost increases for families.

Working with the model, though, and the fact that states still do help subsidize education, there is another anomaly that has me turned around: the extension of in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The University of Missouri participates in the < a href="">Midwest Student Exchange Program, which reduces the cost of attendance for students in surrounding states and I have seen other proposals to reduce out of state tuition. The purpose, of course, is to attract ever-more students to the university in order to get more tuition dollars and, as for-profit institutions can attest to, means milking federal funding for all it is worth. International students bring in even more money.

I am sure that I am being overly simplistic with all of this, and it is linked to and symptomatic of all sorts of other issues in the finances of higher education, but I can’t help but wonder if the mad race to bring in students has the side-effect of making these institutions large businesses that happen to reside in a particular state, blurring the lines between where the students come from in order to lure them in. I do wonder if maybe it would be useful to frame the state funding for higher ed specifically as a benefit for in-state students. On the other hand, maybe I am making mountains out of molehills.