From the monthly archives:

December 2011

E-Books and iPads and PDFs: Some Thoughts

by John Holbo on December 21, 2011

I’d like the survey the CT commentariat about their ebook reading habits, and toss out a few ideas. I’ve made the shift this year. I now read more new books on my iPad than on paper. I also read a lot of comics on the iPad, mostly courtesy of the Comixology app. But let’s start with plain old mostly word productions. [click to continue…]

Reading Coates Reading Eliot

by Tedra Osell on December 21, 2011

If you’re not following Ta-Nehisi Coates as he reads Eliot’s <i>Middlemarch</i>, you’re really missing out. It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m having great fun reading someone who is really smart read something I’m familiar with for the first time. I love reading Coates, and in this case especially so. He’s no callow undergrad and he writes better than anyone I can think of, which means reading him is not merely the familiar pleasure of observing students’ first encounter with a familiar novel. His frame of reference is totally intellectual but not “academic” in the conventional sense: rigorous but really fresh. His go-to for beautiful language is hip hop, which I like just fine but am not particularly familiar with, so I’m getting new insights into Eliot along with a little mini-education in rap music, plus occasional comparisons to his research into the Civil War (which has anyone posted here about that yet? Because damn). Just so much fun.

<a href=””>’Greedy of Clutch'</a>

<a href=””>Shirley Chisolm, Cont.</a>

<a href=””>The Notorious George Eliot</a>

<a href=””>George Eliot’s Spellcraft</a>

<a href=””>George Eliot Conversates</a>

<a href=””>’All the Light I Can Command'</a>

<a href=””>Into the Canon: Middlemarch</a>

<a href=””>Into the Canon</a>

(Those are all the posts I could find. <i>The Atlantic</i> needs an easier way of searching their blogging archives.)

Other Deaths

by Henry on December 20, 2011

A couple of commenters have requested less post-mortem commentary on Christopher Hitchens and more on Vaclav Havel. Don’t know what to say about Vaclav Havel beyond that he was mostly pretty great (ill-considered support for the Iraq war: obviously not so great), but if people want to talk about him, here’s your thread. But also – “Russell Hoban”: His death won’t nearly get as much attention as Hitchens’. Still, I’d bet good money that _Riddley Walker_ and _The Mouse and His Child_ will still be read when Hitchens is a Cyril Connolly-esque footnote in cultural histories of the late twentieth century.

Very Worth Reading

by Belle Waring on December 20, 2011

Katha Pollit on Hitchens (yes, yes, I’ll stop now). She doesn’t hold her fire. Via Lindsay Beyerstein
Update of sorts: there are lots of high-functioning alcoholics in the world. They manage to keep it together for a long time. When do they come to AA? When they’re 65. What was it like for his family to have to deal with him dying as an active alcoholic? I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty.

Lucid Dreaming

by Belle Waring on December 20, 2011

Ever since I was very young I have been able to recognize that I was dreaming (not always). The first time was awful and thus memorable: I dreamed that robbers had driven down our driveway and shot my mother and father and brother and me with shotguns. And our dog. I was in terrible pain, full of buckshot and slick with blood, but I realized that I couldn’t die, in my own dream. So I thought I would go scare the robbers, that they would think I was a ghost and maybe I could call 911, maybe my family hadn’t bled out in the yard under the big oak tree. But when I came in they laughed and said some of the worst words I have ever heard, then or since: “this is your dream. We can kill you as many times as we like.

Since then I have developed the ability to wake myself up if the dream is so awful that I can’t bear it. But since I never had anything but nightmares for years and years, with the odd exception, shit has to get pretty rough before I can pull the ripcord and sit up in bed, panting. Oddly for a person my age, I have done Freudian analysis, 3x a week on the couch just like a New Yorker cartoon, for a whole year. The goal was that I stop having nightmares. The therapy was very successful. For a time I had no nightmares at all. Even now they are scattered and few compared to my earlier life. My sister’s experience is the same, and our evening kiss good-night was always followed my the ultimate benediction: “don’t dream!”

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The New Apocrypha

by Henry on December 19, 2011

“Ross Douthat”:

bq. Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) … where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost-filial connection that many Christians felt for him. … Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and “Brideshead Revisited” surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science. In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so. At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find. … When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that “death is no different whined at than withstood.” Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair. My hope — for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead — is that now he finally knows why.

“John Sladek”:

bq. “Houdini’s ghost was not even then allowed to rest. In the same year it was summoned by another medium to Conan Doyle’s home, where, after complaining of the darkness, it said:

‘It seems cruel that a man in my position should have thrown dust in the eyes of people as I did. Since my passing, I have gone to many, many places (mediums) but the door is closed to me. …. When I try to tell people of the real truth, they say I am not the one I claimed to be, because when I was on earth I did not talk that way. I ask you here to send me good thoughts to open the door, not to the spirit world – that cannot be yet – but to give me strength ad power to undo what I denied. …’

bq. Thus, the man who devoted his life to the cause of spiritualism, by trying to rid it of frauds who feed on grieving hearts, was made to mouth this childish, demented apology.’

Myself, I find Harry Houdini a _far_ more attractive figure than was Christopher Hitchens. And I don’t imagine that Douthat is being deliberately dishonest here – indeed, I suspect he thinks that he’s paying Hitchens a compliment. But the rest of the analogy carries.

Zombie Economics: The movie

by John Quiggin on December 19, 2011

My plans for a full-length movie extravaganza based on my hit book Zombie Economics have gone nowhere. But, now, thanks to the wonders of Xtranormal, reader Paula D’Itallo has produced her own movie version, Zombie Mourning: Exploring the Lives of Dead Economic Theory. Watch and enjoy, as zombie financial theorists explore the risks and opportunities created by an apocalyptic zombie bubble.


Final exam

by Michael Bérubé on December 17, 2011

I stopped giving in-class final exams a few years ago.  It was a light-bulb moment, brought on by a student who needed a disability accommodation — in that case, someone with mild cerebral palsy.  I immediately recalled being asked for an accommodation a few years earlier, by a student who said not “I have arthritis” but rather “I need some extra time because of the arthritis that is in my hands,” which seemed a poignant way for a 20-year-old to speak of the strangeness of having arthritis at 20.  But this time, rather than simply offering an accommodation to one student (and it was <i>reasonable</i> accommodation, thus required by the Americans with Disabilities Act — just a note to all you professors out there who think that Federal law stops at your classroom door), I asked myself why I was offering in-class final exams in the first place.

Every semester for 15 years, I had been asking students to identify and/or comment on passages from our readings, and then to write a couple of longer essays on various aspects of those readings, and for some reason the essays were (with notably rare exceptions) pretty bad.  Why was that?  Perhaps, I thought, asking sleep-deprived students to scribble madly in bluebooks for two or three hours wasn’t a good way to get them to say something interesting and coherent about literature.

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Even Though Hating Mother Teresa Was Great

by Belle Waring on December 17, 2011

Noted without comment.


by Tedra Osell on December 16, 2011

<a href=””>This is huge</a>: medical homecare workers will start to be treated as actual workers, with overtime and minimum wage requirements, rather than volunteers. At some point perhaps other groups of workers excluded from that kind of basic protection–waiters, other domestic workers, farm laborers–will also overcome the racist legacy of not counting Certain Classes of People as “real” workers.

In the meantime, for god’s sake tip well and if you’re not paying the person who cleans your house or mows your lawn or delivers your newspaper or nannies your kids two weeks bonus wages at some point during the year (it doesn’t have to be during the Big Spending Season, but everyone is entitled to a vacation, and don’t give me this crap about how they’re “self-employed” and it’s “their responsibility” to budget for their own vacation), you suck.*

*Possibly not if you live in a country in which people who do this kind of work actually get the same benefits and protections as so-called “professionals.”

Schooling Anonymous Kids

by Tedra Osell on December 15, 2011

Commenter MS asked <a href=”″>what I think about charter schools</a>, which as it happens is something I have opinions on. (I know, go figure.)

I am a die-hard pro-public-schools liberal, in a nutshell. I wasn’t real keen on charter schools from the beginning: while I’m all for the idea that educators and schools ought to be allowed, dammit, to try innovative or new approaches, it was clear that demanding that “regular” public schools conform to the one-test-fits-all-and-here-is-THE-mandated-curriculum approach while setting up alternative schools that were magically freed of that bullshit while still being the financial responsibility of the school district was pretty much a recipe for trying to further siphon money out of public schools while beating teachers up for failing to educate 30-40 kids in a class with the change they could find at home in their couch cushions.

Funnily enough, that concern was founded on an expectation that charter schools, freed from some of the regulations that public schools have to adhere to, would, in fact, manage to offer better educations. It turns out that that’s not actually the case, though; by now we all know that the results comparing charters to public schools are mixed; there is no clear advantage to charter schools. My guess is that founding schools based on half-baked theories and ideologically driven philosophies, or as for-profit institutions, rather than oh, say, based on actual evidence about what works in education, isn’t the way to go.

The problem, of course, is that most of us aren’t experts in educational research; I’m highly interested in pedagogy, and know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t than most people, but it isn’t a field I’m trained in, I don’t read education journals regularly, and I would not claim to be an expert on this stuff. So we can’t, honestly, expect parents to pick schools based on their knowledge of what’s educationally beneficial.

That said, obviously parents in general can be trusted to know their own personal kid pretty well, and I think there’s a decent case to be made that parents ought to have the ability to send their kid to, say, a school with a heavy focus on the social aspect of learning, where there’s a fair bit of noise and chaos and no individual desks and lots of moving around the classroom; or to recognize that their kid is easily distracted and kinda likes the pen-and-paper model of learning and finds it easier to get stuff done while sitting in one of several rows all facing the teacher. (I have sent my kid to both kinds of schools, just fyi.)

There’s an even better case to be made that individual teachers should have the ability to try new ideas in their classrooms. After all, teachers, unlike parents, are actually trained in education, and they have a lot more experience than parents do of how things actually go in a classroom (and of what their own strengths and weaknesses are, and how much patience they have to deal with, say, a socratic approach where kids are encouraged to argue, or to put up with building materials all over the classroom for weeks while the kids construct some awesome physics experiment).

But right now the focus is entirely on parent choice, which, if nothing else means that the children of parents who are motivated to seek out schools that fit their kid or their beliefs about education are going to benefit, if there are benefits to be had, while kids whose parents are either less motivated or less financially able to move to a different neighborhood or afford the gas and time to transport their kids back and forth every day or research and follow up on what’s going on at school, are going to have to deal with what’s left over.

Which basically is my own personal bottom line, as well as–as we’ve seen over and over–<i>the</i> bottom line. The children of people who read academicish blogs are *going to be fine no matter what*. If my kid is going to a school that doesn’t have a librarian (which he did from grades 2-5), well, he has three six-foot bookshelves at home plus piles of books on his bedside table and floor. If his teacher isn’t super patient with his temper, he has a mother who is going to schedule meetings with the teacher to advocate for his emotional needs and then come home and figure out how to explain to him, in a way that he can sign on to, why he needs to manage his frustration and how we’re going to help him do that. If his school doesn’t offer music or art or science classes, and he is interested in those things or I think they’re important, I can arrange for those things privately.

Meanwhile, I’m highly aware that any system that’s set up to siphon money and ideas away from the base option is going to end up impoverishing the base option, right? If the problem is that the base option isn’t good enough or flexible enough, then we need to address that, not create some kind of parallel system. Especially if that parallel system functions as an implicit “alternative” to a default that “isn’t good enough.” If it isn’t good enough for my kid, it isn’t good enough for anyone’s kid. And if my kid is in a public school, then let’s be honest: I’m going to be far, far more proactive than I otherwise would about improving that school, and public schools in general (for example, I created a bit of a curriculum library at his last school, and at his current one I’ve been highly proactive in pushing the administration to deal with bullying).

And finally, the other really major reason for the kids of educated white folks like me to stay in public schools is that we are still a highly segregated society. As my own kid said the other day, “the easiest way to realize that poor people are not lazy or stupid is to have friends that are poor.” Substitute any group and stereotype that you want into that sentence (He also recently commented that he’s always had classes with kids who had “some kind of disability that makes them shout or act out or be really distracting in class” which led us to a conversation about how common learning/behavior/mental disorders are.) I think in our cultural push to “raise standards,” we’ve overfocused on traditional academic standards. Yet one of the things our society suffers most from–and the way we’ve approached academic standards echoes it–is the worship of extreme individualism. We need to keep in mind that our kids are not just my kid or your kid or the anonymous kids of “those” people over there: they are all <i>our</i> kids, and we have a collective duty and responsibility to model public citizenship to them. One of the best ways to do that is to participate in public institutions.

Open thread on Iraq

by John Quiggin on December 15, 2011

Everything that can be said about this tragedy has been said, many times over. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to note the offically announced end of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and to invite reflections on it.

Bad Karma Diaries

by Maria on December 14, 2011

I have to share this. My thirteen year-old god-daughter, Aifric, loves a good read, but I don’t always hit the mark. I like to give her books I loved myself at that age, but also to try out new ones. A few weeks ago, I sent her the Bad Karma Diaries, though not till after I’d read it myself. (I’d picked it up because it’s by an old friend, Bridget Hourican).

The Bad Karma Diaries is about two girls going into their second year of secondary school, Anna and Denise, or rather Bomb and Demise, in text-speak. They decide to start a business, and a blog, and then also a karma exchange for the bullies and bullied kids in their school. It all goes horribly wrong; adventures are had, lessons are learnt, ways are mended – somewhat – but there’s no moralising at all.

The verdict? “I loved it I loved it I loved it! :D Is there a sequel?? :)”. I’ve had a few misses as we navigate the tricky reading years between much-loved children’s stories and those first steps of her reading grown-up books for real. So it’s very nice to have really hit the spot. If you are looking for a funny, clever, non-preachy but still very enlightening book for the young teenager in your life, look no further.

For Aifric’s birthday next year, I’m thinking of sending Jo Walton’s gorgeous Among Others. If, as they say, Harry Potter is about confronting your fears and doing the right thing, and Twilight is about the importance of keeping your boyfriend, Among Others is about the joy of reading (especially SF & fantasy), surviving loss, thriving as a fish out of water, and the inherent value of thinking long and hard about people in your life, both good and bad. Not just for adolescents, then.

Any thoughts on books – especially recently published ones – for 12-14 year old girls or boys?

Blogging the Zombies: Expansionary Austerity – Death

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2011

Another section of the new chapter for the paperback edition of Zombie Economics. Comments much appreciated

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