June 9, 2015

Interview with Chris Roth

Chris Roth is the author of Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar, which was published by Litwin Books in March of this year. Chris is a social-cultural and linguistic anthropologist with an interest in the symbolic politics of nationalism and ethnicity. He has worked extensively with indigenous groups in northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska and is the author of an ethnography of the Tsimshian Nation. He has also done research with and about New Age and paranormal subcultures in the U.S. and elsewhere. Don’t be intimidated by his academic accomplishments though. As a writer and a person, Chris has a sense of fun and an earthy sense of humor. He publishes an entertaining and very informative blog about micronations and nationalist movements called “Springtime of Nations.” Chris agreed to do an interview with me about his book, to better give people a a sense about it.

Chris, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

I’d like to start by asking about your blog, Springtime of Nations, which kind of led to the book. Would you describe it and tell us how it got started?

I started the blog in 2011, around the time I began working on Let’s Split! In a way, the book sort of led to the blog—or they led to each other, I suppose—since I was researching the topic of separatist movements and finding that underneath all of the so-called “normal” international politics in the news there were these smaller struggles for self-determination that were being lost amid the noise, and I started presenting these stories as news dispatches from a sort of alternative international order. Of course in the years since then the world has changed a lot. Now things like the Scottish and Catalonian independence votes, and Islamic State and Kurdistan forming themselves in the Middle East, and of course the Russian puppet states sprouting like mushrooms in Ukraine, are bigger stories. I was analyzing and commenting on things like the rise of ISIS and the powderkeg of Crimea before the mainstream media were. For years I did a feature in the blog called “The Week in Separatist News,” which involved sifting through piles of news reports from around the world, and this was a fantastic way to do the front-end, moving-target research on the hundreds of movements worldwide that I discuss in the book. Lots of people, even overseas, have told me that when they Google “springtime of nations” the first thing that comes up is my blog. The Wikipedia article on the actual Springtime of Nations—the wave of European revolutions in 1848—is actually only the second hit. That kind of surprised me the first time I noticed it. So I guess people are reading it!

In addition to being fun to read, your blog really has turned into an unparalleled information resource on the topic, and so is the book. Why don’t you give an outline of the book itself?

Well, this is an example of a book written because it was a book the author wanted to read. I was frustrated that there wasn’t a single volume that gave an overview of modern separatist movements in the way that readers would be able to connect with. There were global guides to rebel movements written by security-consulting firms, there were a few books specifically on micronations, and there were some rather slapped together volumes listing independence movements which had either no maps at all or only tiny crude maps; one such book had flags, but they were in black and white, which makes one wonder: why bother? It occurred to me that a lot of the trends underlying separatist movements were bigger than local: the attempts to erase or redraw borders left over from European colonialism in places like Africa and the Middle East, grass-roots indigenous movements in places like South America and the South Pacific and the Arctic, the ongoing fragmentation of former pieces of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and tensions arising with those discontented with the European Union—all of these phenomena deserved to be addressed in a way that allowed the reader to see this phenomena alongside one another and interacting. This also allows readers to see larger-scale historical trends—for example, the sense that empires based in Moscow, London, Istanbul, Tehran, and Berlin (in Berlin’s case, a monetary empire) are still trying to sort out where their respective spheres of influence begin and end after the geopolitical earthquake of 1918, when World War I ended. In some ways, World War I has more geopolitical reverberations today than World War II does—that’s how the whole idea of “self-determination” “became a thing,” as they say nowadays—and its aftermath is still being worked out in borderlands like the Balkans and the Caucasus and the Steppes and the Levant. Most of all, I was lucky to have a publisher that shared my vision that a book that brought together large amounts of information that hadn’t been brought together before also needed to have that information visually presented in a new way that would grab people. One of the things I’m happiest about with the book is that as you flip through it there are these dozens of maps that are full color and that show different layers of information about a particular region—historical borders, aspired-to borders, demographic features like the distribution of different ethnic and linguistic groups, and also some of the resource areas and trade routes that sharpen a lot of the ongoing conflicts and movements. The first few map makers we talked to said, “No, no, you can’t do all that in one map, you’d better just have one map that shows the languages of the region, and another one showing what the borders were before 1918, and another one” etc. etc. And I said, “No, but it’s all connected, you can’t understand why what’s happening in Iraq and Syria is happening in the way it is unless you see it, bang, all at once.” Valerie Sebestien did our maps and they’re unlike any collection of maps I’ve seen. In conjunction with the hundreds of flag designs and the sidebars with numbers and data in them scattered through the book, and what’s I hoped would be the go-to book for anyone interested in this very central topic.

Yes, I think it is the go-to book on this topic, whether someone is looking for a reference book or a book to sit and read on a Sunday afternoon. As you recall, when we first discussed the book, I was expecting it to be much shorter, and I was surprised by the amount of work the designer had to put into it to lay out all the pages (and how much money she charged us). The length of it – it comes it at 634 large-format pages. Had you ever written something that substantial? Was it a surprise to you as well?

It was. I realized it was a big topic, but I didn’t realize how much space I would need to give it the treatment it really deserves. I envisioned something that would weigh in as much shorter. If I’d known from the beginning that the final product would be that long I might not have had the guts to jump in and start, but as it happened it just mushroomed. My other full book, which is an academic book, an ethnography of the Tsimshian tribal group in Alaska and British Columbia, was shorter, but I must say it took longer than I expected it would. I’m a perfectionist at heart, I suppose: I wanted to make sure that the issues I wanted to raise and the points I wanted to make were completely nailed down, and I took a similar approach with getting Let’s Split! to a point where I felt it was doing its full job. Of course, with Let’s Split!, there’s a difference: since I discuss ongoing political situations, I’m writing about a moving target. Some aspects of it are—I won’t say outdated—but partially superceded. That’s inevitable. But I was happy it saw print on a timetable that allowed last year’s Scottish referendum and the expansion of ISIS and the eastern Ukrainian conflict to get full treatments in there. And I feel the book sets a historical and political background for new events that may arise. When new separatist regions flare up—and I’m anticipating further disintegration in Libya and Moldova soon, as well as an acceleration toward independence in Kurdistan and regional fragmentation within England—Let’s Split! is still a place to turn to to understand the history and the dynamics.

I think we’ve given people a fair idea of the book. As a final question, what other book projects do you envision maybe doing down the road?

It would be nice to be able to update Let’s Split! every few years to keep up with current events, but whether it makes sense to do that will depend, of course, on its reception. Recently, I’ve been intrigued by deposed royal families and governments-in-exile, which is a category of non-state or pseudo-state that overlaps with the material in Let’s Split! but also gets at some of the legal and metaphysical questions at the very root of the idea of statehood, and also involves an appreciation of social structures and descent systems in different cultures, which is an interest of mine coming out of anthropology. As with Let’s Split!, one of the attractions of this topic is that it’s a zone where serious geopolitical and legal questions intersect with wildly colorful stories of real people whose stories tend to get buried in the 21st-century news cycle. I’m not sure I’m up to another giant global survey of a volume, but those are the kinds of alleys and byways of history and politics that my mind is running down lately. Readers can check out the Let’s Split! Facebook page as well as the Springtime of Nations blog to see what sorts of things are turning up in my research as I start to orient myself for the next thing.

That sounds like some very interesting material on the horizon. I hope that Litwin Books will be involved in publishing it.

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview.

My pleasure!

November 24, 2014

Award for Ongoing Doctoral Dissertation Research in the Philosophy of Information

1. Nature of the Award

1.1 The award shall consist of $1,000, given annually to a graduate student who is working on a dissertation on the philosophy of information (broadly construed). As we see it, the range of philosophical questions relating to information is broad, and approachable through a variety of philosophical traditions (philosophy of mind, logic, philosophy of information so-called, philosophy of science, etc.).

2. Purpose of the Award

2.1 The purpose of this award is to encourage and support scholarship in the philosophy of information.

3. Eligibility

3.1 The scholarship recipient must meet the following qualifications:
(a) Be an active doctoral student whose primary area of research is directly philosophical, whether the institutional setting is philosophy or another discipline; that is to say, the mode of dissertation research must be philosophical as opposed to empirical or literary study;
(b) Have completed all course work; and
(c) Have had a dissertation proposal accepted by the institution.

3.2 Recipients may receive the award not more than once.

4. Administration

4.1 The Litwin Books Award for Ongoing Doctoral Dissertation Research in the Philosophy of Information is sponsored and administered by Litwin Books, LLC, an independent scholarly publisher.

5. Nominations

5.1 Nominations should be submitted via email by June 1, 2015, to award@litwinbooks.com.

5.2 The submission package should include the following:
(a) The accepted dissertation proposal;
(b) A description of the work done to date;
(c) A letter of recommendation from a dissertation committee member;
(d) An up-to-date curriculum vitae with current contact information.

6. Selection of the Awardee

6.1 Submissions will be judged on merit with emphasis on the following:
(a) Clarity of thought;
(b) Originality;
(c) Relevance to our time;
(d) Evidence of good progress toward completion.

7. Notification

7.1 The winner and any honorable mentions will be notified via letter by July 1, 2015.

Advisory Board

Jonathan Furner, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA
Ron Day, School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University
John Budd, School of Information & Learning Technologies, University of Missouri

Past Winners

2014: Patrick Gavin, of the University of Western Ontario FIMS, for his dissertation propsoal, titled, “On Informationalized Borderzones: A Study in the Politics and Ethics of Emerging Border Architectures.”

2013: Steve McKinlay, of Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia, for his dissertation proposal, titled, “Information Ethics and the Problem of Reference.”

November 5, 2014

Morris Berman on a dumbed-down America

In light of the 2014 midterm elections, I am sharing a passage from Morris Berman’s book from a few years ago, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman has generously agreed to let me share this passage, which is about the deplorable state of ignorance of the American people. The facts and data in this passage are a bit old, but all signs suggest that things have gotten worse since then, not better.

The Twilight of American Culture, pp. 33-40.

Turning to Item (c),The collapse of American intelligence, we find a picture that is unambiguously bleak. The following data are going to seem invented; please be assured, they are not.

– Forty-two percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map, and according to Garrison Keillor (National Public Radio, 22 March 1997,) another survey revealed that nearly 15 percent couldn’t locate the United States (!). Keillor remarked that this was like not being able to “grab your rear end with both hands,” and he suggested that we stop being so assiduous, on the eve of elections, about trying to get out the vote.

– A survey taken in October 1996 revealed that one in ten voters did not know who the Republican or Democratic nominees for president were. This is particularly sobering when one remembers that one of the questions traditionally asked in psychiatric wards as part of the test for sanity is “Who is the president of the United States?”

– Very few Americans understand the degree to which corporations have taken over their lives. But according to a poll taken by Time magazine, nearly 70 percent of them believe in the existence of angels; and another study turned up the fact that 50 percent believe in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on earth, while a Gallup poll (reported on CNN, 19 August 1997) revealed that 71 percent believe that the U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up about the subject. More than 30 percent believe they have made contact with the dead.

– A 1995 article in the New York Times reported the results of a survey that revealed that 40 percent of American adults (this could be upward of 70 million people) did not know that Germany was our enemy in World War II. A Roper survey conducted in 1996 revealed that 84 percent of American college seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in any newspaper, and a U.S. Department of Education survey of 22,000 students in 1995 revealed that 50 percent were unaware of the Cold War, and that 60 percent had no idea of how the United States came into existence.

– At one point in 1996, Jay Leno invited a number of high school students to be on his television program and asked them to complete famous quotations from major American documents, such as the Gettysburg address and the Declaration of Independence. Their response in each case was to stare at him blankly. As a kind of follow-up, on his show of 3 June 1999, Leno screened a video of interviews he had conducted a few days before at a university graduation ceremony. He did not identify the institution in question; he told his TV audience only that the students he had interviewed included graduate students as well as undergraduates. The group included men, women, and people of color. Leno posed eight questions, as follows:

1. Who designed the first American flag?
Answers included Susan B. Anthony (born in 1820,) and “Betsy Ford.”

2. What were the Thirteen Colonies free from, after the American Revolution?
One student said, “The East Coast.”

3. What was the Gettysburg Address?
One student replied, “An address to Getty;” another said, “I don’t know the exact address.”

4. Who invented the lightbulb?
Answers included Thomas Jefferson.

5. What is three squared?
One student said, “Twenty-seven;” another said, “Six.”

6. What is the boiling point of water?
Answers included 115 degrees ?.

7. How long does it take the earth to rotate once on its axis?
The two answers Leno received here were “Light years” (which is a measure of distance, not time,) and “Twenty-four axises [sic].”

8. How many moons does the earth have?
The student questioned said she had taken astronomy a few years back and had gotten an A in the course but that she couldn’t remember the correct answer.

It is important to note that not a single student interviewed had the correct answer to any of these questions. Leno’s comment on this pathetic debacle says it all: “And the Chinese are stealing secrets from us?”

– A 1998 survey by the National Constitution Center revealed that only 41 percent of American teenagers can name the three branches of government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. Only 2 percent can name the chief justice of the Supreme Court; 26 percent were unable to identify the vice president. In the early 1990s, the National Assessment of Education Progress reported that 50 percent of seventeen year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage, and nearly 50 percent couldn’t place the Civil War in the correct half century–data that the San Antonio Express News characterized as evidence of the “steady lobotomizing” of American culture. In another study of seventeen year olds, only 4 percent could read a bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size.

– Ignorance of the most elementary scientific facts on the part of American adults is nothing less than breathtaking. In a survey conducted for the National Science Foundation in October 1995, 56 percent of those polled said that electrons were larger than atoms; 63 percent stated that the earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (a chronological error of more than 60 million years;) 53 percent said that the earth revolved around the sun in either a day or a month (that is to say, only 47 percent understood that the correct answer is one year;) and 91 percent were unable to state what a molecule was. A random telephone survey of more than two thousand adults, conducted by Northern Illinois University, revealed that 21 percent believed that the sun revolved around the earth, with an additional 7 percent saying that they did not know which revolved around which.

– Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the United States ranks forty-ninth in literacy. Roughly 60 percent of the adult population reads as much as one book a year, where book is defined to include Harlequin romances and self-help manuals. Something like 120 million adults are illiterate or read at no better than a fifth-grade level. Among readers age twenty-one to thirty-five, 67 percent regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965, as compared with 31 percent in 1998.

– In a telephone survey conducted in 1998, 12 percent of Americans, asked who the wife of the biblical Noah was, said “Joan of Arc” (reported on National Public Radio, 13 June 1998.)

– In 1997, as a hoax, the attorney general of the state of Missouri submitted a proposal to an international academic accrediting agency (not identified) to establish an institution he named Eastern Missouri Business College, which would grant Ph.D’s in marine biology and genetic engineering, as well as in business. The faculty would include, inter alia, Moe Howard, Jerome Howard, and Larry Fine–that is, The Three Stooges; and the proposed motto on the college seal, roughly translated from the Latin, was Education Is for the Birds. The response? Academic accreditation was granted.

Now, this story was reported on the radio program “Car Talk,” hosted by National
Public Radio, and I have no idea whether it is true. It itself could be a hoax. But what I
find interesting is that I am unable to dismiss it out of hand, a priori, as a joke. In fact,
it could very well be true–which ambiguity itself is a sign of the times.

– In 1998 the Massachusetts Board of Education instituted a literacy test for teachers, pegged at the level of an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. Of the eighteen hundred prospective teachers who took it, 59 percent failed. In response to this, the interim commissioner of education, one Frank Haydu III, announced that the passing grade would be lowered. The board finally reversed the decision, and the commissioner resigned. But that 59 percent of a large group of potential teachers had severe problems with high school spelling and punctuation, and that an educational administrator would declare this no obstacle to the performance of their jobs, are as good indicators as any of the twilight phase of our nation.

– In a similar vein, when the College Board, which administers the SAT exam to high school seniors applying to college, discovered that the average verbal score had dropped from 478 in 1963 to 424 in 1995 (this on a scale from 200 to 800,) it “recentered” the scoring so that 424 became 500, and 730 became 800 (a perfect score.)
? According to the Wall Street Journal (31 March 1989,) only 10 percent of applicants in Chicago were able to meet the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and the Motorola Corporation reported that 80 percent of all applicants screened nationally failed a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math.

These kinds of horror stories are multiplying in our culture at an alarming rate, and they are corroborated by the most casual observations that many of us now make on a daily basis. It is as though America has become a gigantic dolt-manufacturing machine. We now see common words misspelled on CNN, for example, or on labels in supermarkets (CAESER SALAD.) Below are some personal anecdotes; I am guessing you have a list of your own.

Item: A fancy restaurant I had lunch at in Salt Lake City, bearing an elegant carved wooden sign done in Art Deco style, listing hours of operation, with the word Sunday spelled “S-u-n-d-y” on it–actually carved into the wood. A sign outside of a hospital clinic in Washington, D.C.: INFANT, CHILDERN, & ADULT CARE.

Item: A visit I made a few years ago to several creative writing classes at a college in the Midwest, only to discover that not a single student in any of these classes had ever heard of Robert Browning, whereas I was memorizing “My Last Duchess” when I was in high school. A colleague at this same school telling me that one of his students, a twenty-year-old male, told him that he had never read a novel.

Item: The growing inability, which I have observed over nearly three decades of teaching, of the majority of undergraduate students to analyze an argument, or identify the evidence for an argument, or construct a grammatically coherent sentence. Essays turned in with sentences such as “In this paper I are going to show that . . . “ My asking one student, in all innocence, what her first language was, only to be told it was English.

Item: A listing in the Portland Oregonian (10 April 1998,) under “Literary Events”: “Hear works from William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot read allowed.” (Such a notice is itself, one might venture to say, a literary event.) An announcement on National Public Radio (early in 1999) that they would be interviewing Edmund White, author of a book on Marcel “Prowst” and recipient of a “Guh-genheim” fellowship.

Item: A phone call I make to the foreign currency department of a major commercial bank because I have received a bill from Holland and need to know the guilder-dollar exchange rate. The clerk can’t find a listing for Holland because, as it later turns out, it is listed as the Netherlands. “Is Holland the same as Denmark?” she asks me.

Item: I am asked to give a lecture at a southwestern university on the “crisis of American intelligence,” and the talk is written up for the school newspaper by a student in her late thirties. In an article of fewer than 250 words, there are seven errors of elementary grammar and one completely incoherent sentence. (I am guessing that this was not a deliberate attempt to satirize the lecture, which would, in fact, have been wonderful.)

Item: An interview I have for a job as an editor of publications for a national higher education association. The association–I’ll call it the NA–has, as part of its declared mission, “the improvement of the quality of liberal arts education.” What it means by this, however, is not the preservation of any type of core curriculum or academic standards, but the moving of students toward “social action” (vaguely defined) and the acquiring of hands-on skills useful for jobs in the twenty-first century. (For this purpose, the NA receives heavy corporate funding.) In the course of the interview, I raise the issue of knowledge for its own sake of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick. The NA president, who is conducting the interview, stares at me for a moment and says, “Well, that’s fine, if one is interested in a withdrawn or contemplative life.” I say, “I don’t think it necessarily leads to that.” “What else would it be good for?” she asks, almost angry now. And, much the way I might have to explain the concept to a college freshman, I reply, “Well, ideally, at least, such an education changes your sensibilities. Its aim is the transformation of the psyche. Students can be very active in the world, but they have a much larger understanding of what the world is about, and how they fit into it.” My interviewer nods imperceptibly; it’s obvious she has no idea of what I am talking about. And I think: This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is virtually nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of a liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.

June 18, 2014

News from the Sign Project

News from the Sign Project, This-Sign.net. (This-Sign.net is a digital sign in a public space that is connected to the internet, so that people can put their messages on the sign.)

We have enjoyed having this sign up and running at the Doughbot donut shop on 10th Street for the past half year or so, and have especially enjoyed working with Bryan and his wife in maintaining it. They have been super generous and accommodating as we got our project up and running and dealt with the occasional downtime issues. That is one of two reasons that we are sad about their recent decision to close up shop in August (the other reason of course being: no more donuts).

This is going to mean that our gizmo will be without a home soon, so, we are looking for potential new hosts. Someone in Sacramento or Marin County with some kind of a shop – bar, cafe, bookstore, etc. – could benefit from having our sign up on their wall, because it is a way for their customers to interact with each other and with the store, and a way for the store to put up rotating messages for them. It works pretty well.

The sign currently works very simply. There is a website that people can go to on their smartphones where they can simply enter text, and the text shows up on the sign in about ten seconds and sits there for a little while. We are working on getting it connected to Twitter and toying with some other ideas as well, but for now, that is what it does.

Want to have our sign in your store? Drop us a line….

February 11, 2014

New book: Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings for The Progressive

Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings for The Progressive

Author: June Jordan
Editor: Stacy Russo
Foreword: Angela Davis
Preface: Matthew Rothschild
Price: $28.00
Published: February 2014
ISBN: 978-1-936117-90-1

This volume is a complete collection of June Jordan’s columns for The Progressive, published between 1989 and 2001. Jordan (1936-2002) was a poet and UC Berkeley professor who is celebrated as a great human rights activist and social critic. Through her work, she taught a concept of “life as activism,” based on inclusiveness, consistency, honesty, and identification with the oppressed. Far from being a purely idealistic and unsustainable approach to life, Jordan demonstrated that “life as activism” can be a way of engaging with the world that is accessible to all people who are committed to social justice. The writings collected here can be read as a road map to such a life of activism. These columns provide a critical study of important issues from the end of the twentieth century, as well as a clear illustration of the intersections of many forms of injustice and oppression, celebrating a movement away from single-issue politics to a far-reaching activism.

The publisher hopes that through this collection Jordan’s work will become more widely known.

December 2, 2013


I’d like to take a moment to tell you about a very interesting non-library project that I have been working on with my old friend Ian Stoba. A while ago I had the idea of putting digital signs in public places that people could put messages on over the internet. Ian has great coding skills and loves creative projects, so I invited him to work on it with me. We found a location for an initial sign project, bought a digital sign and a Raspberry Pi to control it, and got it working. The sign is on the wall inside a hip gourmet donut shop in Sacramento called Doughbot. You can actually put a message on the sign by going here. We don’t have a webcam pointed at the sign presently, so you have to either trust us or be in the shop to see the actual message. We have a blog to inform people about what we are doing with the project. We also have a Facebook page for it.

Here is the sign on the wall of the donut shop:

The sign on the wall

September 26, 2013

Voltaire and Islam

Malise Ruthven, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, wrote the preface to the recent Litwin Books publication, Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation. His preface is titled Voltaire and Islam, and provides an insightful picture of the great 18th century liberal’s relationship with the religion of the region Europe called “the Orient.”

Voltaire’s play has been translated into English several times, but this prose translation is less archaic-sounding, and captures the intensity of the melodramatic passions among the characters. The play itself is an enjoyable, light read. Ruthven’s preface and the translator’s introduction, which focuses on the reception that the play received among contemporaries and how it was viewed by later critics, illuminate some of the background to the way Islam is understood in the West.

August 31, 2013

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet:
A New Translation

Author: Voltaire
Translation and Introduction: Hanna Burton
Preface: Malise Ruthven
Price: $15.00
ISBN: 978-1-936117-81-9
Published: September 2013
Printed on acid-free paper.

Voltaire’s play Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet was controversial in its own day, and has stirred up controversy in recent decades as attempts to mount stage productions have been met with protests. Originally intended as an oblique criticism of the Catholic Church and religious fanaticism in general (as Voltaire understood it), the play stands today as an entertaining melodrama marked by gleeful irreverance and historical imagination. This new prose translation into English by Hanna Burton brings the text to modern English-speaking audiences. The translator’s extensive introduction sheds light on the history of the work and its reception by Voltaire’s contemporaries.

April 10, 2013

Daniel McGowan Forbidden From Publishing Articles Without Permission

The constitutional rights of people who are caught up in the criminal justice system are always an issue, but this is a little bit different, because the activities that got Daniel McGowan in trouble with the law were political activities in the first place. I recommend this article in the Village Voice to the ALA IF community: Daniel McGowan Forbidden From Publishing Articles Without Permission. In short, McGowan was serving the end of a prison term in a sort of halfway house (on an eco-terrorism charge), when he was detained and imprisoned again in an experimental new facility called a “Communications Management Unit,” after publishing an article critical of the authorities he has been dealing with. A Freedom of Information Act request uncovered memos that show he was indeed incarcerated to silence him, and he is pursuing a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of these CMUs. I think this is worthy of attention from the Freedom to Read Foundation, don’t you?

March 11, 2013

The women behind Russia’s literary greats

Interesting article from The Moscow News this week about the women behind the great men of Russian literary history. The author claims that creative partnership between writers prior to women’s independence was a uniquely Russian tradition…

December 6, 2012

All That Is Banned is Desired

This was Session 4 on Day 1 of the conference ‘All that is banned is desired’ which was held in Oslo, Norway, in October 2012.

Larissa Sansour, Visual Artist (Palestine/UK)
Nadia Plesner, Visual Artist (Denmark)
Fredrik Gertten, Film Director (Sweden)

October 4, 2012

A modest proposal regarding the Presidential debates

Wouldn’t it be nice if a Presidential debate was actually a debate on one question, where each candidate took a position on that question and defended it? It might be the question of whether low tax rates for wealthy people are good for the economy – something where the candidates have a well-known, clear difference on a matter that is debatable in a practical sense. That particular question is that economists disagree on and that most Americans have an opinion about as well. We wouldn’t learn any less about the candidates’ actual plans this way, and we would learn more about the qualities that matter. The candidates would know the question in advance and would be expected to prepare. It would be a treat for the audience to see a question like that debated. It would be educational. And it would show television viewers something that they might never know otherwise: That there is more to issues than soundbites and emotional affiliation, that there is knowledge worth knowing, knowledge that makes a difference…

October 23, 2011

Karl Mannheim on “conservative thought”

I ran across this essay by Karl Mannheim while looking into ideas on “styles of thought” in relation to philosophy and politics. Mannheim was one of the founders of the “sociology of knowledge,” which is an area of inquiry that some in LIS have said constitutes a good theoretical underpinning for what we do. The field of sociology of knowledge is a little too relativistic about knowledge for my taste, but this essay on “conservative thought” by Mannheim, one of his most famous, really floats my boat. I would recommend it to anyone who ponders what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean, in our time and historically. Mannheim describes the conservative mode of thought and its historical genesis through the lens of an intellectual history of Europe. Useful reading for our times.

April 22, 2011

Say it isn’t so, NPR

The attack on NPR during the present budget scare has been symbolic, but for more reasons than one. It’s been observed that the attack is symbolic because the proposed cuts in funding are not a very significant amount of money in light of the Federal budget problems. But the other reason it is symbolic is that NPR isn’t the beacon of non-commercial information that we think of it as being, and hasn’t been for a long time. Corporate sponsorships have paid the bills more and more as the decades have gone by, and the recognition given to the sponsors between shows has become more ad-like accordingly. But today I noticed something that indicates their dependence on big business more starkly.

On Science Friday today there was an interesting segment about a large solar array being built in the Mojave desert by a company called BrightSource. It sounds like a very impressive and smart project. Enhancing the impression of the project’s smartness was Ira Flatow’s discussion of Google, Inc.’s investment of one hundred and something million dollars in the project, their largest investment ever. He wondered aloud why Google would invest so much money in a company that is not doing something related to computers, and proceeded to give a number of good sounding reasons, ending with Google’s considered expectation of “something like a 6% return on their investment.”

I went home wondering if I, too, can invest in BrightSource, and found a press release issued today, the same day as the Science Friday program, titled: “BRIGHTSOURCE ENERGY, INC. FILES REGISTRATION STATEMENT FOR PROPOSED

That is pretty good publicity work for the IPO, getting that segment on NPR.

I have read enough to know that that is how it works in the commercial news media. Something like 60% of the news we read in newspapers comes in from PR people rather than reporters, and the proportion has grown as newsrooms have cut staff. But I have assumed that NPR, being a public service, is different. Not so much.

March 26, 2011

Some links for you…

I haven’t been posting much, but I do have some links to share:

By Steve Coll, in the New York Review of Books: The Internet: For Better or for Worse, a review of two books skeptical of the idea of the internet as a force for liberation.

By Richard Dorment, also in the NYRB: What Andy Warhol Did, about an interesting legal dispute over the authenticity of one of his works, and the systems and actors involved.

Brian Christian writes in the Atlantic Monthly about how the push for more advanced artificial intelligence can help us understand what it is to be human (a favorite topic of mine): Mind vs. Machine

In The Chronicle Review, an article about Sherry Turkle’s recent work on our use of computers for social networking, taking a more worried tone than she is known for: Programmed for Love

Words for Daniel Bell, the sociologist and public intellectual who died this January, from Morris Dickstein, Russell K. Nieli, Michael Aronson, and Lindsay Waters.

Gautam Naik writes in the Wall Street Journal about enthusiasts of a new spiritual technique for the information age: Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation

Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, writes briefly of his experience in the Boston Globe: Escape route.