Out of touch academics

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:12 pm

Wednesday I was listening to an interesting show on Chicago Public Radio’s “Odyssey.” It’s a good program, and this episode, on “The Ghost in American Culture” (audio available here), featured interviews with Renee Bergland (Associate Professor of English at Simmons College) and Jeffrey Weinstock (Assistant Professor of Language and Literature, Central Michigan University). They both had some interesting things to say, and Weinstock in particular made some good points about the ideological work ghosts do in American literature, historically and in the present (I’d like to take a look at Spectral America: Phantoms and the American Imagination, which he edited).

But at one point in the conversation, Renee Bergland referred to the “Indian burial ground” theme (asking, “I have a house for sale, but it’s on an Indian burial ground. Are you interested in buying?”). It’s a very common theme, I don’t dispute that at all, but she went on to say that this was a device which Stephen King had used many times. I think she said “specializing.”

That claim is just not right. Stephen King has almost never used the Indian burial ground…in fact, the only time I can think of is in the (relatively minor and unsuccessful) Pet Sematary–and that’s not even a use of the theme in the way that Bergland meant.

It’s fine (and a good idea) for academics to connect their study of “canonical” literature to popular culture–I do it all the time. But if we can’t get it right–if we haven’t at least read Stephen King well enough, and respectfully enough, to make the connections accurate, then we’re really better off sticking with Hawthorne and Henry James.


Mystery Bug Identified

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:36 pm

MothIt’s a bit embarassing to be so far wrong, but a year later I finally discovered that the lovely bug I found last summer was not even close to what I thought it was. I was thinking some kind of leafhopper (of which there are many, some colored just as nicely), but it turns out I was way, way, off. It’s not even a homoptera of any kind, not even a beetle at all. I was looking at the pictures again, as I assembled some albums for the new flickr photo album, and I realized those antennae were awfully long–way too long for it to be a leafhopper. Then I started looking around, and found a very similar plate in the Peterson’s Guide. The “ermine moth” (yponomeutidae). A little internet sleuthing, and I’ve got a definite ID.

It’s an Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva Punctella)–which makes perfect sense, because we’ve got plenty of Ailanthus growing here in Brooklyn.

I thought I was a better observer than that–the differences between lepidoptera and homoptera should be apparent even to my casual eye. In my own defense, I could say that I didn’t capture or kill (much less dissect) the little guy, but I looked at him closely enough to take those photos–you’d think I’d realize that he was a moth, not a hopper!

Better late than never, I guess. 😳


Flickr Plugin is Done

Filed under: — Joe @ 2:22 pm

If you look over on the right there, you’ll see a new link…I got the flickr plugin working right, and now I’ve got a photo gallery included in this blog. Just a couple of galleries available now, but more to come. I like the plugin because (if it works right) it seems to include all the cool flickr functionality–exif, notes, tags, even slideshows.

It was a little struggle to get it working with this wordpress (1.5) installation, but it seems to work fine now (with the help of a very clear and ingenious tutorial). Good deal, and fun to fiddle with. Time to do some more photo-ing!


Flickr Plugin

Filed under: — Joe @ 1:20 pm

Working on getting the WordPress Flickr plugin to work right–so that flickr photosets can be easily integrated into this blog as albums. It’s pretty cool, but I don’t have it exactly the way I want it, yet.

Preliminary Version is up now. Final version will be up….



Slime Mold Beetles and Stapelia

Filed under: — Joe @ 7:51 pm

agathidium According to Science Blog, two former Cornell entomologists have named three new species of slime mold beetles (g. Agathidium) for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The incident reminds me of a very similar scene in The Nutmeg of Consolation. Stephen Maturin visits Thomas Stamford Raffles (the lieutenant governor-general of Java):

‘I am about to achieve immortality [he tells Raffles]. Mr. Sowerby intends to name a nondescript plant after me.’
‘There’s glory for you!’ cried Raffles. ‘May we look at it?’
Stephen broke the seal, and from several layers of specimen-paper inside the letter he drew a flower and two leaves.
‘I have never seen it before,’ said Raffles, gazing at the dirty brown and purple disc. ‘It has a superficial resemblance to a stapelia, but of course it must belong to an entirely different family.’
‘Sure, it smells like some of the more fetid stapelias too,’ said Stephen. ‘Perhaps I should move it to the window-sill. He found it growing as a parasite on the glabrous bugwort. These viscid tumescent leaves with inward-curling margins incline me to think that it is also insectivorous.’ They considered the plant in silence, breathing as it were sideways, and then Stephen said ‘Do you think the gentleman may have had some satirical intent?’

StapeliaI have to ask the same question of the two entomologists! 😉 Although they protest, with completely straight faces, that their intent was nothing of the kind…I still have to wonder.

If so, if satire was the intent….then bravo, Doctors Miller and Wheeler! 🙂


Really supporting the troops

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:52 pm

I don’t usually blog items that are already in boingboing, because I think most of my (few) readers have already seen things there anyhow.

But this one is just too excellent, and deserves all the extra credit it can get. SF author John Scalzi and his excellent publisher Tor Books are offering his novel Old Man’s War as a free download to any troops stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. They just have to email him and they get it for free. A new SF novel, at the right price, for some folks who probably really need some good reading material. I like the idea very much, and I’ll be supporting the idea by buying the book for myself.


Nashville Impressions

Filed under: — Joe @ 1:56 pm

Based on admittedly very limited momentary experience, but here’s some things I’ve noticed: people actually say, with no irony intended, things like “ah appreciate y’all,” and “ain’t you the cutest li’l thing!” (after hearing that for the third time, my daughter said “people are funny here.”)…women wear makeup. Lots of makeup…everybody wears t-shirts with slogans related to alcohol, sex, and NASCAR. Or all of the above…nobody wears black…words are pronounced differently, and it’s not just an accent (a couch, coffee table, and an armchair are a “living room suit” and those delicious chocolates are from “the Godova chocolate store)…Applebee’s and Friday’s and Chili’s are considered not just acceptable (which they’re not) but actually desirable. A rare treat.

The red states (probably suburbs in blue states, too–in a way the red states are all just giant suburbs) really, truly, are different.


5,200 Childish Chessplayers

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:27 pm

SupernationalsWell, not only childish, but actually children. I’m with my daughter and her team at the 2005 US Chess Federation Supernationals III Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. The team (the PS 282 Royals) is doing quite well.

PS 282 RoyalsThis is no powerhouse team, it’s only their second year and first trip to this level of tournament, but they’re playing right up there with the big winners. And it’s a team of boys and girls (more boys than girls–that’s a problem in the chess world, and one that needs more attention than it gets, but there is some effort at least to address it. I’ve discussed it with several other more experienced chess moms and dads this weekend) who really demonstrate the diversity that makes NYC, and particularly Brooklyn, and more particularly PS 282, so great. Most of chess outside of NYC is a white world (and some Asians), it seems (mostly–there are two Native American teams I’ve seen, and a Black team from Detroit). These kids are teammates, and that means a lot to them. Some are stronger players, some are weaker, some are sweet, some are obnoxious, but they care about each other and they care about their team. Even I’m feeling warm towards even some of the obnoxious ones!

So far, there has been vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain, headaches, tears, bloody lips, and tantrums, but no actual fatalities. It’s an imposing (frightening?) sight to see 5,200 children, all playing chess, all discussing their moves and strategies, as well as running, wrestling, screaming, overeating, swimming in the pool, and whining like other children.

I’m a proud parent–not just because she’s winning (which she’s not, much) but because she’s competing with such a positive spirit, and working so hard, and bonding with her team-mates. Today, after a very hard match (the fifth in two days) which ended with a loss at about 30 minutes past her normal bedtime, I told her that if she was too tired, she could skip analyzing the game with her coach (a normal part of the routine), and just have ice cream and go to bed.

“No, Dad,” she told me. “I think I played poorly this time, and I want to learn from this game. I’d like to analyze it with Mr. O. That would help me learn.”

If you’ve ever seen a dad so blown away with pride he swelled up like a blimp…that was me.


Sad but sadly not too surprising

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:52 pm

John Rennie at the SciAm Perspectives Blog describes a truly disheartening encounter with a group (more than a dozen, he says) of university presidents. At a media roundtable he posed the presidents this challenge:

Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.” Who here would not sign, and why?

How many university president said they would sign? All? Some? A few?




College presidents, unfortunately, far too often, have priorities that are far removed from student learning, or the growth of a rational society, or civilization or science. They see themselves, really, as executives, not as educators.

I remember the days, years ago now, when our own current (then new) president faced, and lost, a vote of no-confidence from the faculty. I remember thinking how much easier it could have been for him, and for all of us, if he had approached us (the faculty) cooperatively–as our leader, but our leader who was our ally, who was working toward the same goal as we were.

Time has passed since then, and my opinion of him (and probably his opinion of us as a faculty) has certainly improved. I’ve seen him take some actually brave steps, and I’ve seen clear evidence of a real commitment to our students. He’s still an executive, and I’ve begun to see reasons why an executive is an important thing to have.

But I wonder if, faced with the kind of challenge Rennie posed, our own president would have reacted as an educator, as a colleague, as someone who cares about truth and learning and knowledge. I like to think that he would. I like to think that he would be braver, less political and more principled, than the presidents of the University of Texas, Stony Brook University, the University of Chicago, and the others (the hiss of shame upon them all) Rennie encountered.

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