Thursday, December 06, 2007

Living In A Brutalist Meat Locker

This post might seem like it starts far away from where it ends. In that cause, I will tell you now that it discusses:
  1. How cold my office is at present.
  2. Why this has not yet been fixed.
  3. Why architecture critics like Brutalist architecure and why no one else does.
  4. Why some history isn't worth preserving.
  5. Why the Mosse Humanities Building at UW-Madison must go now.

If all of that sounds interesting, read on. If not, well, you are here already, so might as well...

I am a gentleman of considerable carriage and a native Midwesterner. I have never even spent part of a winter in a place where the weather didn't have a regular dose of conditions that can kill you.

This means that I am never one to complain about the winter. Separates the sheep from the goats, climactically speaking.

A situation has developed, however, that has caused me to avoid a particular place because of the weather. You might be surprised to learn that this place is actually inside.

It is my office in the George L. Mosse Humanities Building on UW-Madison's campus.

The reason that I have had to avoid it is that the heat has been off, well, the whole time I have been here, really. It has never worked well. Now, though, it has been completely off since Monday and it is really no warmer inside than it is out.

The maintenance people have been doing, well, something for more than a week now. First, it involved tearing out the ceiling tiles, sawing holes in the ceiling and then pointing into those holes. Then, it involved disconnecting things inside the holes, taking them from the holes and then pointing at the things. Now, it involves banging and sawing other things in the holes, arguing about what to bang and saw next and then leaving for the day.

In that respect, it is a pretty typical union job. A lot of activity with very little achievement.

More broadly, however, as an almost three year inmate in the infamous "Inhumanities Building," I have always been with the pack that is baying to see it torn down. According to Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning and Management Al Fish, the building has cost more to maintain than it did to build in 1968. Fish also calls the building an "energy hog," points out that the concrete is cracking and chipping and relates the sad fact that the Music Department is housed largely underground where the temperature fluctuations destroy the instruments.

According to, well, damn near everyone I know who works/studies/maintains this building, it is always damp, it is cold in the winter, stifling in the summer, it lacks the rigging to clean the windows and it lacks natural light inside. In addition, to call the floor plan labyrinthine would pay it the undue comment of being intelligible at all and it lacks a central entrance and elevators and stairs are anything but intuitively placed.

From a maintenance standpoint, the heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical systems seem to be held together with duct tape and kind thoughts. Lastly, one must wonder about the use/wisdom of putting a five and a half storey breezway/courtyard in a building in Wisconsin.

I just know that you want to move in tomorrow. Bring gloves, a hat, some breadcrumbs (so that you can maybe find your way out), a stout pair of shoes and lots of patience.

Why, you ask, would anyone in their right mind want to save such a monstrosity? We will attack that subject in my next post.

Although I will tell you now that the people who do want to save it aren't in their right minds.

How could they be? They're art critics.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Drinking > Sexual Assault: Catholic Church Logic

I'm glad I was alone in the office when I read this. No one around here needs to hear me swearing that much this early in the day.

According to an article in today's Chicago Sun-Times, defrocked and imprisoned former priest Daniel McCormack had a known history of sexual improprieties going back to his days at Mundelein Seminary (the main seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago).

It seems that Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, AZ, who was the rector of Mundelein when McCormack was studying there in the 1980's, knew of these sexual incidents but thought that it would have been "grossly unfair" not to allow McCormack to be ordained.

He was indeed ordained and went on to be somewhat of a "high flyer" in the archdiocese. He also went on to molest five boys (aged eight to twelve, and there may have been more) over the period of about nine years while pastor of St. Agatha's Parish on Chicago's west side. Read the whole sordid story, as told by the Chicago Tribune last year, here.

McCormack is now in prison, having been convicted and sentenced this summer for a five year sentence.

This situation seems like a broken record, another sad chapter in the damnable story of clerical abuse in the church that now involves the entire hierarchy of the archdiocese; read about the larger implications here.

This does not make it better or excusable. Nothing ever could.

What struck me about the revelation of Bishop Kicanas, however, was what he said about the handling of the situation. He claims that he knew about the sexual improprieties while McCormack was in the seminary and allowed him to be ordained. Why, you ask?

There was a greater concern on Kicanas's mind, something that trumped these sexual misdeeds that caused then-rector Kicanas to send McCormack for treatment. What could this possibly be, that would seem more important than a possible predeliction for sexual deviance?

Kicanas said that he was more concerned about McCormack's drinking. So much so that he was sent for treatment for his supposed alcoholism.

Astounding. Simply astounding.

Now, I know that the two might be related, that a drinking problem can come along with other mental issues and that one might have led to the other. That much I get.

What I cannot understand, nor could I ever condone, is the notion that a drinking problem is somehow worse than sexual misdeeds. I also cannot fathom, furthermore, why treatment didn't possibly reveal a more full mental picture of this sick individual.

I think that two main points arise here. First, this story is proof positive of the institutional culture of cover-ups, lies, obfuscation and bullshit that plagues the Catholic Church hierarchy. These specific allegations, and others like them, have caused more than a crisis of confidence among Catholics; I'd say it has caused more than a few Catholics to become not-so-Catholic anymore.

Second, I realize that using a drinking problem to cover up sexual abuse could be a symptom of this aforementioned diseased institutional culture of the Catholic Church. I think it is interesting, however, that at least to one person, it seemed that a drinking problem was worse than sexual "misdeeds." It says a lot about our attitudes as a society when, in a taxonomy of mental pathology, alcoholism beats out sexual abuse.

To put it more bluntly, what would you rather deal with: a priest who is an alcoholic or a priest who molests kids?

Oh, and as for McCormack? Let's hope he meets the same fate that John Geoghan met.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

And Now, Choice Of Reading On COTL

Below you will find two new posts, both political in nature, but both interesting nonetheless. To wit:

  1. A piece about Tony Blair converting to Catholicism (supposedly) and what that says about Britain and how, in general, people perceive their leaders.
  2. A short lead to a political quiz who's structure I found intersting. Take it and tremble (or heave...same thing, really).

Smell that? Fresh, hot politics with a side of participation.

Aren't you lucky?

Best not answer that.

Can't Pick A Pony? No Problem.

I usually find political quizzes inane and of very little use. This stems from the fact that most of them are rather poorly designed or "loaded" to give a certain response.

This one was seemingly different and the format is interesting.

Go check out Glassbooth and see what 2008 presidential candidate most closely mirrors your stances on issues. I particularly like the "points allocation" system...kinda like a voting system used elsewhere in the world that I find fascinating (if not without some significant flaws).

My results? They won't surprise you (if you know me well enough, that is).

Click here for that non-surprise.

So go on, take the quiz and pick your guy or gal...but ask yourself that classic question that works on so many levels:

So what?

Why It Matters That Tony Blair Is A Catholic

On the surface, this might seem to the casual observer to be a bit of a non-story. It was reported today, leaked really, that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007) is just about ready to convert to Catholicism.

For those who watch British politics and politicians, this surely came as no real shock. It had been speculated for some time that Blair, who's wife Cherie and children are all Catholic, would officially convert after years of genuflecting in private.

O.K. Great, so he's a Catholic. So what?

The speculation over this matter proffered several reasons why he would not just do it when he was still resident at No. 10 Downing Street: the situation in Northern Ireland, possible constitutional problems related to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, would be seen as an unpopular and divisive act in what is more and more a secular country.

While these reasons (and others) seem plausible if debatable, I think the real importance lies in the fact that it became such a public concern in the first place.

It does bear repeating that, on the whole, Great Britain is become a more "secular" country, a process that has been ongoing for, oh, a hundred years or more. Secular in the sense that less people profess a belief in any certain religion, attend any religious service and don't think that faith of any sort informs other parts of their lives. See this BBC story for more details on this score.

This seems strange, given that a large part of the UK (Northern Ireland) has been wracked by sectarian violence for thirty-five years (in its current form). Perhaps this is not so odd, though. If your country (or at least part of it) were inhabited by people ready to kill each other and religion was one of the reasons why, wouldn't that cause you to rethink your beliefs in general?

Northern Ireland may be the exception that proves the rule, but Northern Ireland is always treated as a sort of asterisk after any blanket statement about anything in the UK.

So, in a (largely) secular country with lived experience of the violence that religion sometimes causes between people, why is the fact that a former PM is converting to another religion a big deal?

For me, the real importance lies in the fact that this is a public concern at all. It says a lot not only about how Britons relate to their politics and society generally, but also about how history really dies hard in how it shapes perceptions.

It is a curious relation that the average Briton has to the government and institutions of society. It can best be described as a love-it-but-can't-live-without-it sort of arrangement. They complain about how useless the monarchy is, yet polling data suggests that most would keep it, given a choice. Same goes for the Church of England, which is an arm of the state (the monarch is also the head of the church).

It is this strange relationship that lies at the center of the "Tony Blair's a Catholic" foofaraw.

This leads into the second reason why this is important: the persistence of history. People like to think that history is, well, history. It is old news, forgotten, swept away in the march of progress. As most of you know, however, history retains a strange hold on people and their world views. How many of you think that the British are staid and proper, the French are snotty, the Irish are drunks, the Italians/Spainards/Greeks are passionate and violent and the Germans/Russians are authoritarian?

Probably more than a few. These perceptions are couched in historically determined conceptions of "national character," an idea that emerged from the eighteenth century. It is just this sort of thing that informs the reaction to Blair's conversion.

The British (the English in particular) seem to have a deep-seeded distrust of anything that smacks of Catholicism. For a country that went through the Reformation in the manner that England did (fits and starts and wars and most of Europe), this memory is part of the national story.

On the other side, the story of Catholics in Britain is a story, after about the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) of an underground religious culture that was distrusted and marginalized. This is not even mentioning how Catholicism developed and reacted to British domination in Ireland (which one could write about for the rest of one's life and not reach a conclusion).

This historical mistrust seemed to rear its head when, even before he left office in June of this year, there were hints at Blair being a "crypto Catholic." This mistrust of Blair's religion seemed to awaken the old demons of sectarianism and division that were supposedly laid to rest.

It could just be (and I think there is something to be said for this) that some people just didn't like Tony Blair and found any percieved difference to pounce upon. It could also be that this rise in negative feelings toward a Catholic leader is but a part of a complex interaction of perception, reality, policy and public opinion that intersect in the life of a lot of public figures (a lot of everyone, really).

I think that there is a lot at work here: perceptions of a public figure's private life; old prejudices rearing up; dislike of a controversial leader; questions over the faith of an ever more diverse people; the role of faith in public life.

These are questions that, rightly or wrongly, we will keep asking of our leaders and interpreting their answers to our liking. While the inclination to do this is strong indeed, I just hope that people for once stop and consider why they believe what they believe and see if it makes any sense given the situation.

This may be too much to ask of anyone, but I think it should be considered by everyone.

These are the "big questions" that we all must face, like it or not.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Real Fright For Halloween? Try Historians Partying.

I know, it seems like two things that just do not go together. It does, however, occasionally happen.

Perhaps I am not being completely clear; for lots of historians, it never happens. For some, it happens so infrequently as to be a real shock to the system. For others, it is a weekly occurrence. No points for guessing which group I'm in with.

Taken by itself, last night's festivities were great. One of our number got the whole thing sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon. Holly is a wonderful human being and a credit to the "drinking crowd" in the department.

As ever, I had to wonder why more people didn't show up when free beer is offered. Moreso because, even if beer is not your thing (as hard as that is for me to understand), it is a big departmental social event when we can come together outside of an official setting and, well, get to know each other as people and not just historical fields of specialization.

At least that's how I view it.

Others cannot seem to take off the historian hat for ten minutes and talk about anything else. It's always "I'm working on this" or "I am presenting that" or "preparing for prelims sucks (which it does)." I work hard, but I am a big believer in the notion of not talking shop after hours.

I understand that there will be a certain amount of this. Hell, it is all of our somewhat inexplicable interest in people and times long gone that brings us together as a group. Then it hit me: is this all that we have in common? Is the only "tie that binds," so to speak, the fact that we all happen to do the same thing for a living?

In many similar situations, I think that this is exactly it. Think of any corporate social event and you'll see what I mean. Strained conversations about the Johnson account or what Ted in Finance did in the copy room or aren't Post-It Notes grand, that sort of thing. This has not always been the case, as it seems that lots of corporate events don't involve as much booze as they once did. There is much less awkward drunken dancing, photocopying of buttocks (among other things) and watching the people who went home with each other avoid the subject on Monday morning.

There was plenty of booze at this thing last night, so that wasn't it.

So, does that make us, the history graduate students, different from other sets of people that work together. Well, yes and no.

No because of what I said before. What ties us together as a group seems to be precious little. But it is that precious little that I think is so interesting and infuriating at the same time.

We all do a job that is not something that most people in the general population care about or know a whole lot about. It is not normal (by many standards) to dedicate eight years of your life to something that pays rather poorly, makes you move all over the country and have regular and sustained contact with college students, an interesting group in and of themselves (I know: I was one). Does this make us special? No. Different, it would seem so.

What I want to know the most about my colleagues is, well, what got them here and do they do anything else than history stuff. The former desire springs more from curiosity than anything else. I was compelled to do this for a living and I want to know what drove others to the same decision. The latter springs from the first in that the "academic personality" is a fascinating phenomenon.

This personality type, such as it is, is a mix of many good and bad things (just like most people, I guess) that make us what we are and how we are percieved by others and ourselves. The admirable things come in the form of dedication to trying to answer some of those big picture questions like "who am I?" and "where did I come from?" It also comes from the notion that, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, we try and enrich those areas of life that make the whole damnable business of existence worth bearing. That is us at our best.

Then there's the bad stuff. The pretension, the elitism, the feelings that what we do is (in the larger scheme of things) not all that important. The embarassingly low pay doesn't help either.

So, where does that leave us? It shows that historians (and a lot of acedemics in general) might seem like a breed apart, like radically different sorts of people than "everyone else." Really, though, we are not. Lots of my colleagues don't like to admit it, but we are just people, trying to make our way through a world that doesn't make sense a lot of the time. We like to pretend that, in some way, we have a better grasp of things and have a deeper understanding of the world as a whole.

We don't, really.

All we do is look at the world with an interesting set of eyes and hopefully shine some light on issues and problems that face us all as we deal with the world around us. Or, to put it another way, historians are people too.

Sometimes we in the field need a reminder of this. Having this reminder in the form of a monumental piss-up doesn't hurt either.

Until you wake up on Ted from Finance's bathroom floor, that is.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Prepare To Be Enthralled... the majestic, the haunting, "Old Turkey Buzzard."

(Thanks to David Letterman for sticking this song in my head for two months. I guarantee you will not be able to stop humming this song).

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rinse, Spin, Ponder

It's interesting the things that you get up to when you are stuck somewhere with nothing to do.

For me this evening, I went to the laundromat and forgot the reading that I had to do tonight. I could have gone to the tavern next door, but that seems too much like fun on a "school night." I already read the paper, parts of which from several days were strewn about the place. So, I bought an overpriced can of pop and surveyed my surroundings.

I have been doing my laundry at this place since I moved to Madison, but I realized that I never just sat there and watched life come and go (at least for the time when my giant slacks were being cleansed of their ickyhood.)

Tonight, it seemed that all of the regular characters were there. People coming in and out from the tavern, checking their laundry, some with drinks in their hands even (making me jealous, those bastards). Couple having a fight over the laundry which seemed to spill over into other aspects of their lives. Serious guy with a laptop who frankly struck me as the sort of guy who would hire a laundry service. Creepy guy in the corner just sort of staring (wait, that was me).

I guess that spending time in a laundromat allows you to, well, observe the lives of the sorts of people who use laundromats. Where I live, that means a lot of students and apartment dwellers who have landlords that don't provide laundry facilities. It also means a lot of homeless people who come in to wash their clothes, often using the bathroom to change. Lastly, it means people who are drawn in by the novelty and (frankly) convienence of a tavern next to a laundry. Even though there is a place in town that is a laundromat that serves drinks, that place is by campus and for jerks.

So, that's the scene as I saw it.

Great, you say, but why are you telling us this?

Well, I got to thinking about the sociocultural dynamics of the laundromat. It is an interesting place in that it brings a cross section of people who don't normally associate with each other in a place where they expose some of their most intimate things and are captive by necessity.

Doesn't it seem that it is the necessities of life that draw disparate individuals together. It can't really be called a community, as there is no sense of unity among the group, anything that can cause group cohesion and the only common thread is that the place has something that all these people seem to need for one reason or another. It is really not a group, but a collection of individuals.

That causes me to question the notion, first proffered by Ancient Greeks like Aristotle, that man is an inherently a social animal. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the Thomist Schoolmen to Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau have confronted this issue. It was only really Rousseau who questioned if society was good for us (he didn't think so, but he had a hard time proving it). In fact, that is one of the central questions of the human condition, namely what is the "atomic" unit of human life, the group or the individual?

I have always very much leaned on the side of the individual, but that is not to say that I think all people should be loners. Some of our associations we choose (family, friends, even work to a certain extent) and others we do not (usually situations where we are under coercion of some sort). In many ways, these situations that we do not choose are of necessity and as I mentioned before, cannot really be considered a group of any kind.

How does this relate to the laundromat? Well, it is really one of these very situations of unchosen association. Some might view that scene as proof of the alienation that all of us who live in supposed urban isolation confront every day. I really don't see it as that.

I see it as proof that the best associations we all have are those that we make the individual choice to form, out of some need. It is one of the features of "commodious living" that we all enjoy (in this country, at least).

I also see it as the vindication of that most elusive right, that right that the Supreme Court has never been able to define - the right to privacy. The best thing I ever heard on this score was actually from a former Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. He defined the right to privacy as the right to be left alone. I could strike up a conversation with any of the "laundromat people," but I choose not to. I respect their right to be left alone and would never think of infringing on it.

There are a lot of situations that I find myself in where people don't respect this right. On the bus, in line anywhere, when I am eating alone outside. I have never understood what drove these people to begin talking to complete strangers. Most of the time, if not all the time, I just wish people would keep their comments to themselves and go about their business and let me do the same.

I feel in these situations, a personal right of mine is being violated. I and I alone choose the people that I associate with and no-one should presume that I want anything to do with them. Don't listen to my conversations, don't comment on my purchases, don't tell me about your grandkids. I don't really care.

Does this make me a cold, aloof and cruel person. To some, perhaps. I happen to think that the nicest people can do for each other is to leave each other alone to pursue their own paths.

Some people like being alone. I have always been one of these people. Maybe the preceeding commentary says more about me than a particular view of the world, but it is worth considering.

All of this because I forgot my book at home. I promise it won't happen again.

If it does happen again, I might tell you, I might not. Up to me really, isn't it?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Badger Game, Approximately

Right now, the Badgers are in the midst of their second game of the year against the Michigan State Spartans...should be a good one.

Wait, you say, why isn't Will at Camp Randall, like every football Saturday?

Well, I was there, but am not now. Let me explain.

Camp Randall Stadium holds about 82,000 people, about 25-30,ooo of that is the student sections. That is where I sit for most games. That is where I was to sit today (Section P, Row 20, Seat 36 to be precise). So far, so good.

I am inside the stadium, I am going to my seat and, as ever, there is someone sitting there. No problem, I'll just ask one of the friendly Per-Mar Security people to eject the interloper from my seat and we can get on with the show.

Upon asking the aforementioned Per-Mar person, I was told that there was plenty of room in rows above and to seek a seat there. Not something they normally do, but allright. I make my way to near the top of Section P and find a seat as instructed.

Does this clip need any set-up?

The people with the tickets for the seats that I commandeered showed up. I explained politely that I was told to find another spot as it is nigh on impossible to move thirty rows of people and that, as a matter of fact, I was not staying for the whole game (I am even now waiting for a bus to Milwaukee) and that, if they could handle the squeeze for about forty-five minutes, I would be gone.

They were having none of it. I was told, and I quote, "get out of our fucking seats, you fat asshole!"

Well, I never...

I left the seats, deciding that a fight with these people (drunk, but with no notion of how to deal with it) was not advisable as I was just one. I again sought out security, and they did offer to get me to my original seat, but by this point, I was so angry that I suggested to the people who displaced me some possible erotic activites to take place with their mothers and left Camp Randall, walked the several blocks to the Humanities Building and here I am.

What will come of this? An angry letter from me to Barry Alvarez, John Wiley, and Per-Mar Security that will be ignored.

What should have happened? Either I should have been given my seat the first time I asked for it or the fuckwads that made me move should have understood how game days go at Camp Randall and found another seat in the section.

According to the radio, I am missing a hell of a game.

So, to Per-Mar Security (for their idiotic employees), the UW Athletic Department (for not making the student sections general admission) and the amateur drinker assfuckers who caused this I say that I would not give you a squirt of my piss if you were dying of thirst.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Society And Culture: Who Needs Them?

Y'know, it's funny. Sometimes you read something and think that it is complete bullshit, an utter steaming heap of nonsense the first time you read it. Yet, given this gut reaction, the ideas presented therein won't leave you alone. Well, it happens to me...

Just such a thing happened to me this week when I read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." I thought, on first glance, his argument was weak, his evidence was worse and the whole thing smacked of sour grapes.

A little background is in order. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote this piece, also called the First Discourse, in 1750 in response to what amounted to an essay contest held by the Academy of Dijon (and, no, it had nothing to do with mustard as far as I can tell). The question that was to be answered was: "Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”

Rousseau, in short, answered "no." He argues that societies, such as that of eighteenth century France, that concentrated on the arts and sciences to the detriment of what he calls practical skills, were certainly worse off for doing so. He claims that humankind was much better off before getting entangled with art, science and the whole of what he deems the useless decadence of society and culture in general.

His examples come from history, the most famous being ancient Athens and Sparta. Rousseau states that Athens, who had become complaisant by focusing on art and science, was overrun by the more practical, vigorous and therefore more virtuous Sparta. The larger argument, therefore, was that societies where arts and sciences were the height of culture often get toppled by societies where practical skills and the virtue of the "citizen" are central.

Rousseau won the contest, the prize and started his path to being one of the most influential thinkers (for better or worse) produced by the Western tradition.

Why the knocks against art and science? Rousseau asserts that these pursuits allow people to wear masks that hide their real thoughts, deeds and urges behind a facade of culture and learning. This allows people to lie to each other, causing widespread distrust and the aforementioned decadence. In other words, Rousseau would have hated PBS.

My reaction, as I hinted at above, to this was critical to say the least. He seems to elide over the fact that Sparta was basically a military dictatorship where people weren't free to pursue anything apart from what the state deemed necessary. His other historical examples are equally weak (like claiming that the "savages" of North America had no culture to "poison" them).
This is where the gut reaction came in.

Whenever things that we are always told are good are attacked, no matter how cynical or jaded we claim to be, we always recoil just a little. We are told from youth that culture, arts and sciences are good things and that we should be as interested in them as possible because, well, that's what makes us human. In a superficial way, I guess I can buy that.

What I had more trouble with was when I asked myself the question "what is so damned good about art and science, anyway?" To put it another way "did Rousseau get anything right?" Well, on one score, I think he was dead on.

Think about people you know who consistently beat you over the head with how "cultured" they are. These people who portray the image, in whatever form it takes, that they are "with it," "plugged in" and so far beyond you, you peon, that you would do well to emulate them in your every thought word and deed.

Yeah, a real bunch of assholes, right?

Above, when I say, "in whatever form it takes," that is intentionally broadly defined. These can be people involved in this "scene" or that, discussing/wearing/listening/watching/reading/consuming (really) whatever it may be. These people seem so involved in their "thing" that you must wonder if there is anything else to them. It calls to mind Winston Churchill's famous definition of a fanatic as someone who "won't change their minds and won't change the subject."

And that, friends, is why Rousseau wouldn't leave me alone, though he has been dead for 229 years. He put his finger on people who wear these masks of culture to hide their true selves, which are full of the same fears and hatreds that we all harbor.

Some might say that it is good that we have these masks, or life with other people would become unbearable. Rousseau would say that life with other people is inevitably unbearable and we should rethink the fundamentals of society. That is a discussion for another day.

So, do I agree with Rousseau? Not really, or at least I think he doesn't prove his assertions very well. What I cannot help but notice, though, is how right he seems to be about how people interact with each other.

Is it good that we hide our true selves away?

If Rousseau is wrong, how do arts and sciences lead to a "moral" life?

Can people ever be truly honest with each other?

Are society and culture really as bad for us as Rousseau thinks?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Just because of this, don't be put off of thinking about them.

We owe it to ourselves to consider these questions deeply.

I know I will.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Picture This...

Some of you (here and on Facebook and MySpace) have commented on my pictures.

Yes, it is true that I don't use real pictures of myself because, well, what's the point? Most of you know what I look like and the rest of you probably don't care.

Also, I give the excuse that no image exists of me online or in digital form to use.

That excuse is no longer valid.

So, if you really want to, click here and scroll down to "History 365." There you will find what I actually and really looked like as of Monday morning.

Did you do it? See...told you there was not much point to it.

Hey Nonny, Nonny! I Dislike Thee Greatly!

As I was walking from my office to the library, I happened upon and open air "meeting" of the campus chapter of these people. Oh brother, were they ever "meeting."

Fighting with fake swords and armor; dressing in tights and armor in the heat of the late summer; a fat guy in a monk was all there.

Why is it that these people bother me so much?

As a historian, actually, I have mixed feelings. If this is the way that some people decide to interact with the past, I guess I have no right to stop them. On the other hand, I think the thing that bothers me the most is that they choose to take the "good" parts of the Middle Ages and leave the rest.

They are happy to take the comely wenches, brave men in armor, traditional handicrafts, Busch Light drank out of pewter tankards, quaint speech and so on. What they seem to forget is that the Middle Ages (in most of Europe, at least; the Arabs in Andalusia were doing pretty well, thank you) was extremely nasty.

Even setting disease and the lack of sanitation aside (and that is a lot to set aside), people lived in political arrangements as little better than slaves, beholden to a series of landowners and ekeing out a subsistence existence. You also lived in constant fear of these temporal powers who marshalled spiritual powers to keep you in frightened subjection.

O.K., now add in the disease, stink, rotten food, worse water and sever killer bouts of the plague.

The worst part, in my opinion, was that things never got better. You could never hope to do much better than your father and you could have no such hope for your children. When did things like this start to change in Europe? Oh, about, around the late seventeenth century (like, well, maybe sorta 1690-ish).

I guess they are just hobbyists and if this is how they choose to spend their time, money and effort, hey, good for them. At least they are not dealing smack or writing horrid popular songs.

But you won't find me out there, poncing about, playing at medieval fun. I know too much about the past to have it be any fun at all.

What's more, I have no problem with that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thirty Years On

This past Sunday, September 9, 2007, at 3:57PM, I officially turned thirty years of age.

At that exact moment, I was paying for a pizza...yeah, typical, I know.

How does it feel to be thirty? This seems to be a question that people like to ask others on their birthdays. I think it is kind of silly, but I'll try to answer it nonetheless.

On one level, I always knew this day was coming. This is based on the fact that I never figured that I would die before my thirtieth birthday.

On another (more meaningful, less smartassy) level, I feel no different at all. So, I'm thirty now. Great. How am I supposed to feel? Older? Wiser?

Some people think of thirty as a milestone and time for reflection on the road behind and the road ahead. I am not really one of those people, but it cannot be ignored that it gives one a bit of pause. I, confronted with this notion, think "much done, much more to do" and get back to it. I know it is funny for a historian to say this, but there is little use to dwelling on one's own past. Oh, it is fun for moments of nostalgia and wistful remembering, but not as a regular diet. If we do, we cease to move forward and evolve and, in a real meaningful way, we die.

Will things in my life ever be the same as they were when I was (fill in the "milestone birthday" here)? A little yes, but mostly no, and thankfully so. I like to think that I am a more complete, better informed, more engaging person that I was in the past and I hope to keep evolving.

Is the world a different place now than it was in 1977? As ever, the answer is yes and no. There is no longer a President Carter, a Soviet Union, double digit inflation or discos in every village and town. There are still idiotic, out of touch leaders, looming and misunderstood foreign enemies, national financial jitters and silly cultural obsessions. So, same as it ever was on that score.

Did I think I would be in a different place at thirty than I am now? Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I just, as I always have, get up, work hard and take my advantages when they come. I guess that's pretty much what we all do. I guess I could say "fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have never thought I would be teaching Irish history to undergrads and trying to learn Latin." What good does that do, really?

I don't believe that there was some special path for me, some personal Sonderweg, where I am driving to some great, preset goal that I have had since birth. I just try to do my best, keep my nose clean and enjoy myself wherever I can. I have responsibilites, but they are far from onerous; I have my fun, but it is nothing outlandish. For a guy with strong opinions about things, in my daily life, I am pretty dull.

I guess, then, that balance between a lively life of the mind and a (relatively) placid outer life is the sort of balance that I like and need. If this is where I was meant to be at thirty, I didn't know it ahead of time, but I must say I don't mind it at all.

So, as I move forward from thirty, I like where I'm at, I know it won't last and I am ever moving ahead...whether it is to the sunlit uplands of success, the gray middling ground of monotony or the dark depths of oblivion, I cannot tell for sure.

All I can do is be as ready as I can, learn to flinch and have fun along the way because life'll kill ya.

Bring it on.

(I realize I made two Warren Zevon references in that one sentence...I should apologize, but Warren never did and neither will I.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sums A Lot Up, Really

Please read the post below this one on two funny men who celebrate birthdays today, but I thought this was interesting.

I ran across a great quote from the classic British film noir of 1949, The Third Man. It really sums up a lot about history, culture, society and the like. I guess it is a bit reductive and leaves a lot out, but I thought it was worth repeating nonetheless.

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Happy Birthday, Bob and Pat

Today marks the birthdays of two of my favorite people. Both were indeed born on September 5, both in the Chicago area and I find both incredible amusing, but for completely different reasons.

These two people are, of course, comedy legend Bob Newhart and my brother Pat.

George Robert "Bob" Newhart, who turns seventy-eight today, is possibly my favorite stand-up comedian of all time. Starting with The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in 1960, Bob captured the American imagination with his dry and witty one-man conversation routines. That album shot to the top of the Billboard charts, beating Elvis and the cast album of The Sound of Music, became the first "spoken word" album to do this, and earned Newhart three Grammy Awards.

The rest of his career was no less lustrous. Starring in The Bob Newhart Show from 1972 to 1977 and Newhart from 1982 to 1990 (which for my money still has the best final episode of any TV show ever), he also starred in films, other TV projects and kept right on performing live. Read more about Bob here, here and here.

His manner and material were, and are, something great. He is the definition of the "sane man in an insane world," affecting his trademark stutter of incredulity at much of what goes on around him. In his classic stand-up routines, his one-sided conversations show some of the best comedic timing since Jack Benny and never seem to show their age too much. His act typifies the put-upon everyman that we can all identify with at some level. From Abe Lincoln's PR man to the pilot on the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company, from Dr. Bob Hartley to Dick Loudon, he is an American comedic icon and someone who never fails to make me laugh.

Another funny guy, not as well known and beloved of the American people, is my brother Pat. Patrick Michael Shannon, who turns twenty -seven today, is one of the funniest people that I personally know. What makes him funny? Well, his consistently off-the-wall perspective on any given situation, the complete unpredictability of what he will say next and one of the quickest come-back men I have ever seen.

Actually, an interaction between Bob Newhart and my brother would be interesting...Pat represents the insane world in which Newhart's characters often find themselves.

There is not much "Pat content" on the web, but you can visit his bands here and here and his employer here.

Apart from that, Pat is good to people around him, generous to a fault and a person who, when he asks you how you are doing, is actually interested in the answer.

Oh, and he is one of the people I will never challenge to a drinking contest. Ever. There would be no winners, only losers on their way to get their stomachs pumped.

So, on this September 5th, raise a glass and have a laugh for these two favorite comedic sons of the Windy City.

"Same to you, fella!"

Friday, August 31, 2007

When Courtesy Goes Too Far

I was waiting to cross the street yesterday at a fairly busy intersection on Madison's near west side. As I watched the traffic flow for the right time to launch my large frame into the intersection, I noticed a car in the oncoming lane stop and wave me across. Well, this really did me no good as the other lane kept moving. I tried to wave the car off, but he just sat there.

Then it got worse. Another car joined the first, thus allowing me to (theoretically) cross half way. This would have been fine...if there was a median in the center of the street. As there was not, I still stood on one side of the road, unable to cross as the other lane kept moving.

I tried to wave these people off, but they will not move at all, so I had to run across, barely getting to the other side ahead of a garbage truck careening down the street.

What caused this difficult situation? The same thing that causes problems in all facets of modern life...misplaced courtesy.

It is apparently a law in Madison that drivers have to stop at crosswalks to let pedestrians cross. It is, as you might imagine, a law that is sporadically followed and enforced...and this is where the difficulty starts.

It is one of those laws that would work if everyone followed it or no-one did. If just some people follow it, I think it makes you more likely to get hit because people are inclined to "take the driver up" on their "offer" to cross the street. Unless you can wait the "well-meaning" driver out, you have to take the chance of being hit instead of waiting until the opportunity presents itself to cross safely. If I wanted to cross at a more reliable pace, I would find an intersection with a stop sign or a traffic light.

In Chicago, this would never happen. People would never in a million years think of stopping to let people cross if the light was green. Never. Ever. Not kind, caring or concerned for the safety of your fellow man? Yes? More predictable? Absolutely. In Chicago, I can just assume that drivers are dangerous sociopaths who would gladly run me down in the street. The surety of that assumption allows me to react in more predictable ways.

This is just more evidence that the feeling in Madison that we are a kinder, more aware, more community-minded city is often a case of the heart being in the right place but the brain not considering the practical implications.

It is also further proof of another old saw, namely "the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions."

Use those good intentions for something that is really worthwhile and, since you won't be stopping at every crosswalk, you can get to it right away.

Problem solved.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summertime Done Come And Gone, My Oh My

It hit me for the first time this morning. That feeling that summer is drawing to a close and that the academic year is again upon us.

You see, it has been raining in Madison pretty much non-stop since early Saturday morning (when I left the bar, it was not raining; when I got home, I looked like a pool guy with bad balance). The temperature has also become more temperate; as I write this, it is sixty-five degrees with drizzle outside. This change in the weather patterns has triggered an almost unconcious reaction in me.

It is telling me to meet with my advisor to hammer out TA is telling me to get my office in order and review the texts for is telling me to finish registering so that my refund check will appear and I can stop is telling me, really, that the wheel has come around another rotation and that it is time to start another year.

I always have mixed feelings about this. I hate the summer weather, but like the feeling summer has - open and seemingly endless. I like the months spreading out before me, although I am used to the clausterphobia that schedules bring as well as any person in the modern, industrialized world.

I always look forward to school starting again (yes, I was always one of those sorts of kids...bored with summer by about the end of July). I also realize that, in my almost thirty years in this mortal coil, I have only not been in school for seven academic years (1977/1978-1981-1982 and 1999/2000-2001-2002). It is my life, my passion and I cannot wait to be a part of it again. Still...

There is a part of me that always misses the catch-as-catch-can feel of summer...the being able to, at the drop of a hat, drink beer, go to a ball game, sit by the lake and stare at the sailboats and the diaphenous haze over the surface of the water. Who wouldn't miss that?

This time of transition has always contained another milestone for me, my birthday. While I will comment at more length on my thirtieth birthday, suffice to say that this is more wrapped up than usual in my feelings at present.

So, as these last days of August give waay to September, I look back on a summer of some fun, some frustration, some accomplishment and some shortfall and, all in all, cannot wait for the coming storm. What can I say? I am a glutton for punishment.

Though this is undoubtely true, I will carry those happy moments of summer with me somehow, those last fading streaks of sunlight over the placid water.

These are the things that sustain us.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Elvis Aaron Presley, 1935-1977

Yesterday was the day. The thirtieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley (1/8/1935-8/16/1977). I felt reflective and more than a little sad, I must admit.

Elvis was always a part of my musical life. My dad is a huge Elvis fan, and it most certainly rubbed off on me and my brother. There is a story (apocryphal, possibly) that I was to be named Elvis because of the proximity of his death (8/16/1977) and my birth (9/9/1977) if I was replacing Elvis in the population.

But, and let's be serious, who could ever replace Elvis? He, throughout his life, represented American life, good and bad. He grew and changed with us, for better or worse.

His music was such a part of my young life, and became a part of my adult life. In my opinion, two of his greatest concerts were the 1968 Comeback Special (for musicianship, this is unparalelled) and 1972's Aloha From Hawaii (the first TV show to be simulcast from a satellite feed). Those concerts never fail to entertain, and they show Elvis at his best.

What has been said before should only be repeated briefly here...that he was the most influential pop artist of the 20th century, I'll buy that (excepting Frank Sinatra, but they were both symbols of their ages)...he died too soon (well, sure, but if you ingest as much perscription medication as Elvis did, something bad WILL happen.

I always liked Elvis's spirit, giving jobs to his relatives, handing out Cadillacs like they were breath mints...he was everything that was good and bad about post-war America rolled up in one man. He was, however, generous to a fault and he loved his momma...what could be better?

His best song? I guess this vaires between people, but for me, it is "Kentucky Rain." I could hear that a thousand times and call for it again.

So, let's all raise a glass to Elvis...America has had 43 Presidents, but only one King.

TCB, baby, TCB. If we could all be so dedicated.

Thank you, thank you very much and Elvis HAS left the building, but he has not left us.

Thanks, Elvis.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thanks, That's Just What I Didn't Need

As I am within a month of my thirtieth birthday, I am beginning to reflect on what this milestone means to me...the results of said contemplation will be presented in this space as the date (September 9) draws nearer.

In these intervening weeks, and coupled with my contemplation, a piece of mail that I got yesterday gave me some pause.

Was it one of those inane "Over The Hill" cards from a "friend?" No.

It was an invitation to join AARP.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Well, I guess I laughed more than anything...seeing as it will be another twenty years before I can join the organization that assures that all people over fifty get deep discounts on hotels and a soul-crushingly boring magazine (it makes airline magazines seem like Playboy).

I am pretty sure that this was a case of sales of mailing lists being sold, and who knows has access to your address anymore. I guess I must do/buy/read something that a lot of more "mature" people do/buy/read.

Nevertheless, it did give me pause. I guess I am getting older, and though I am not fifty yet, I have had the personality of an old man for most of my adult life, so I've got that down.

I also have down the constant complaining, the tendency towards cheapness, the varicose veins, the salty attitude toward most children and my predeliction for "old man bars."

I guess if you consider these stereotypes of old men to be true and that age is a relative thing, I, in many ways, have been an old man for some time now.

Now, if those damned kids would turn that music and let me watch Andy Rooney in peace...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The One Where He Explains Himself (On Some Level)

Is this a retraction? Not really.

Am I pulling the old "I didn't mean it, I was drunk?" No, that is the lamest excuse ever. I am a firm believer in the proposition that you don't say anything drunk that you don't believe anyway...booze just lets things out.

What I am doing is wondering if my word choice was appropriate. Mysogyny was not really the correct term.

What is, you ask? Well...

Let's just say that what you all had confirmed is that I am an opinionated, frustrated, conflicted drunkard. You all know that by now, right?

I don't hate anyone...I am just not sure what to think about certain things.

When it comes down to it, furthermore, aren't we all like that on some level?

Thank you for your continued support. Goodness knows I need it.

The One Where Will Confirms His Mysogyny

So, I went to my local tavern tonight, what of it?

One thing that all people need to notice is the real masters of the situation....the bartenders.
At this place, they are simply the argument needed...they refill my Scotch glass with such frequency that it becomes, thanks all of you.

As for the hatred of women, what else could I do? I have been done over by so many women that it sucks. Really and truly.

It is good that I have decided that I never shall marry...perhaps for the best.

To all of you who say that "well, Will will come arpund," I say PISS OFF.

For my next trick, I'll need a voulnteer...

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Well, he done gone and did it. Barry Bonds has surpassed Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron as the all-time home run king.

As a life-long baseball fan and something of a student of the game, what to think?

As for if it was going to happen, I never had any doubts. I perhaps thought that Bonds might (at the far, far end) might retire amidst the controversy that makes me so ambivalent about this accomplishment.

Whenever such a record is surpassed, it is a notable day for the sport in question, and for baseball, yesterday was no different. What I could not help but notice was that this story was about fifth in the network and PBS newscasts...whatever goes on in baseball, the rest of the mostly cruel joke of modern life goes on I guess.

On one level, I must say "bully" to Mr. Bonds, if for nothing else, for being here to do it. That was no easy record to break (even if it took the equivalent of lying to Congress to do it), and well, good for you.

Then there is the other level, where I feel indignant about the achievement of a true athlete like Hank Aaron being topped by a suspected steroid fiend like Barry Bonds and I get pissed off. "How dare he," I and countless others say. Hell, even Bud Selig phoned in his congrats. What the hell message does that send?

What it says is that, as Charles Barkley has always been trying to tell us, athletes are not role models nor should they be construed as such. They are people doing a job for large (almost inconceivable) amounts of money and what they do in their personal lives is none of the public's business and even less of a reason to admire these people.

But, wait, Bonds is suspected of reaching these heights through breaking the rules, so what then? Well, I guess he will end up like the greats Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, having all of his records with an asterisk next to them that explains the extraneous circumstances surrounding his feats of prowess. Fate worse than death? Hardly...he did really hit all of those homers, whatever strange chemical cocktail was coursing through his veins at the time.

Will he ever be stripped of these records and refused entry to Cooperstown? I suppose only time will tell on this one, but Pete Rose only gambled on his team and look what happened to him. In our messed-up, Puritan based society, drug use outpaces even gambling in the hierarchy of moral turpitude. If you were to throw in some juicy stories about hookers on the road, well, that would only serve to sweeten the pot, wouldn't it?

Is there a larger lesson to be learned here? If there is, it is a fairly simple one and (to your horror, dear reader) it relates back to economics. It is a simple fact (pointed out by many economists for whom setting up incentive schemes is a favorite indoor sport) that given the right incentives, anyone will cheat. This fact is intensified in such high risk, high reward, high potential for failure worlds as professional athletics.

So, to Barry Bonds, congrats I guess, and if you did break any rules, shame on you. You will have to live with the dreaded asterisk. You will learn to do this.

The real question, then, is will WE learn to deal with it? CAN we? SHOULD we?

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Tourist At Home, A Resident Abroad

This past weekend, I played host to my family here in Madison. Forgoing the regular trek to Lake Geneva, WI, they decided that they would get their summer Wisconsin fix (something many people from Illinois need) by coming to Madison to visit me.

They arrived on Thursday and left yesterday afternoon and I have to say it was a great time made even better by the chance to be with my family. I guess that's how family is: it does not matter much where you are, just that you are together for some good time with each other.

I then got to thinking about exactly what it was that went on over the weekend. First, I considered the interesting position of trying to be a tourist in one's own town. I live here while they are just visitors. Would it suffice to follow my normal weekend routine? Of course not; I suspect that they would find that boring and wonder why the only thing to see in Madison is cheap restaurants and the insides of taverns.

So, in planning for their visit, I tried to think what would be fun for everyone, both as a group and as individuals that would keep all entertained while giving them a taste of the place where I live. A somewhat convoluted task, but I think that I did well enough. If they didn't have fun, they at least did not tell me that.

What decisions did I make? Well, we really didn't do anything that I had not done before or gone any places that I do not go at least somewhat regularly (except the farmer's goes on MUCH too early on Saturday for me to have been there at all). The hotel that they stayed in was even very near my house, although worlds apart where amenities are concerned (hotel: phone in pool area with direct link to room service, my place: well, there's a phone). It is one of the nicer hotels in town and a place that I all but recommended even though I had never stayed there nor did I know anyone who had.

Then it hit me. I guess that the difficulty with being a tourist at home begins with the fact that the traveler's presence is temporary while the resident's is permanent.

"No shit, really?" you are no doubt thinking to yourself.

Then I considered that while people who live in a fixed place (i.e. not nomads of some sort) have more time and a broader range of experience with which to interface with the world around them. There is a bunch of stuff that I know and have learned about Madison that would be of no use to someone just visiting for three days. I am sure it is the same for most people who have a permanent residence.

The traveler, on the other hand, gets only glimpses of the places that he or she visits. There is a noticeable lack of depth to these experiences. Does this extend to people who visit the same place over and over again? In a way, yes because there is always that knowledge that at some level, this experience is finite, will end and that this place is an outside place, part of my spatial experience but not at its core.

Do travelers ever get the depth of a single place that a resident gets? I suspect not because of this defining characteristic; the tourist leaves and the resident stays put. It is an extension of this to say that the tourist does not interface with the travel destination as much as he or she judges it against the place that they call "home," however this is construed.

So, to my opinion, there is no real point in seeking the "authentic" experience of a place as a traveler because your presence there is temporary. It takes the irrevocable knowledge that this is where I will be to spawn the process of forming an understanding of a place that is different.

Different, yes. Better? That is a matter of perspective.

Did I lure my family here to trick them into a falsely authentic experience of a place? No, I wanted them to come here to have a good time. Do most travelers understand this? Some do and some don't.

As long as a traveler understands that all his or her experiences away from home are fleeting and finite, that they have gained a certain sort of experience of a place that is different from a resident, then it is fine. What is not fine is taking a three day trip somewhere and then proclaiming that you know everything about the place.

I spent three days in Kentucky in October of 1997. I had a good time and learned a lot about a couple of things. Do I understand what it is to live there? Of course not.

None of this should stop people from travelling, if that makes them happy. What it should do is lead people to think in a different way about how we understand ideas like space and place, home and away as we journey across territory and through time.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sweet, Sweet Snobbery

It would be very easy for me to be a snob on a lot of levels. Academics are notorious for looking down at people and finding the tastes and opinions of the hoi-polloi quite horrid and distasteful.

Luckily enough, I am not that sort of person. I am of the "regular guy" faction in academia, a movement that I hope grows. Academics have a bad enough reputation as it is.

So, when I notice people trying to use knowledge (or the semblance of it) to try and make people feel bad or inferior, it usually makes me pretty mad.

Especially when the entity doing the belittling is a business. Money, as I see it, can be the great equalizer...if I got the cash, I gets to play. Simple as that.

We all know that it is not as simple as that, but dammit, it should be.

Anyway, the commercial enterprise in question is a candy shop on Capital Square in Madison. Click here and you will immediatley see what sort of place this is.

A small box of their chocolates would keep me in beer and pizza for three weeks, that's what sort of place it is.

This snooty chocolate place recently had a sign out in front that read something like this:

"Fifteen kinds of chocolate and none of them are named after a baseball player."

Well, aren't we grand?

I assume they are referring to the fact that the Baby Ruth candy bar is supposedly named for Babe Ruth. Because it is, right?

Well, maybe.

The story that is told by the original makers of the Baby Ruth bar (the Curtiss Candy Company of Chicago) was that it was named for the daughter of President Grover Cleveland, who was apparently called "Baby Ruth." Uhh, ok. I guess. Seems a bit obscure.

This was the story that I always heard and, given lack of better evidence, believed. Well, it turns out that the Curtiss Candy Company might have been trying to pull a fast one over on the Sultan of Swat and then feeding people a line.

It seems that the Baby Ruth was introduced in 1920, just when a certain New York Yankee named George Herman Ruth was starting to shine and get really popular. In a lot of ways, Babe Ruth can be seen as one of the first real celebrity spokesmen; he lent his name to everything from chewing tobacco to underwear...for a fee.

Well, the Curtiss Candy Company didn't want to pay that fee apparently, so they named it something like Babe Ruth but not quite so that they could capitalize on his popularity.

So why is the story about Grover Cleveland's daughter not really plausible? Ruth Cleveland died of diptheria in 1904; her father left the White House in 1897. So, in effect, they say that they were naming a viable new product after the long-dead daughter of a former president? Really?

Back to the snooty candy shop in Madison. Bearing these two stories in mind, they either are flat out wrong (the apocryphal story about Ruth Cleveland) or mistaken (Babe Ruth never consented or was paid to promote the Baby Ruth Bar).

In either case, I can tell you what they are not: a place I would ever spend a plug nickel. Any place that in adverts talks to their customers like that deserves no business at all. Insulting your customer's intellect is just about the worst way to get their business.

Luckily, there is a Walgreen's next door where last time I checked, Baby Ruth bars (among others) were on sale three for a dollar...and they came from a pharmacy, so they are prescription strength Baby Ruth bars.

Nice try, though, snotty chocolatier. Just get your facts straight before you try to use them to make people feel stupid.

(Thanks to these sites for the Baby Ruth and Grover Cleveland info).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Page 23, Line 5

This exercise, admittedly, is not of my own devising. It is based on a MySpace bulletin that I was sent not too long ago.

What it asked you to do was to grab the nearest book, whatever it was, go to page 23, line 5 and relate the sentence found there. I did this and found this idea to be somewhat interesting.

We can tell a lot about a person by the books that they read (or by their motivation for doing so), and I thought that I would extend this exercise and post it here.

Why, you ask?

Well, when I first got this bulletin, the book that I quoted from was atop a stack of books next to my desk and I thought that it might be interesting to extend this notion vertically to many page 23, line 5 citations from the nearest books of one person.

Is this high Dada weirdness, a window into the intellecutal life of one person or a way to kill time in front of the computer. I suspect a bit of all three.

So, without further ado, here are the page 23, line 5 quotes for the stack of books nearest my desk. They will be presented in narrative form with ellipses connecting the quotes; the numbers at the end of each section refer to the book list at the end of the post.

O.K., really now, here we go...

Hence the primary axiom in moral disciplines which look at the subject from the point of view of the human court is held to be: a man may be held accountable for those actions which it is in his power whether they are to be done or not (1)...Internal cultural divisions between social groups ran much deeper than they do today, when the differences are as much between generations as between classes (2)...The church did not simply leave nuns to their own devices in the face of the Protestant campaign (3)...Because the visual variables match the measures portrayed, these maps are straightforward and revealing (4)...Indeed, to focus too much attention on demographically based comparisons is to miss many of the most important changes in the ways in which family and kinship function in particular societies (5)...Once a systematic grid was adopted for the earth, serious study of map projections was possible (6)...Again, God showed His opinion when he endured not only men, but all creatures
, with a natural propensity to monarchy (7)...In the 26th verse, where God declares his intention to give this dominion, it is plain that he meant that he would make a species of creatures that should have dominion over the other species of this terrestrial globe (8)...Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion (9)...Writers in the tradition of Max Weber treat having a monopoly on the use of force in a geographical area, a monopoly incompatible with private enforcement of rights, as crucial to the existence of a state (10)...All of this enhanced to an enormous degree the power and mobility of artillery and gave the owner of such weaponry the means to reduce the strongest fortresses-as the Italian city-states found to their alarm when a French army equipped with formidable bronze guns invaded Italy in 1494 (11)...No one agreed more heartily that George III, who never wavered in supporting the rights of Parliament (12).

So, what does this fractured narrative say about me, my mind, my tastes and the fact that I took the time to do this?

Oh, the books are:

1. Samuel Pufendorf, On The Rights of Man and Citizen.
2. Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800.
3. Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Renaissance Europe.
4. Mark Monmonnier, How To Lie With Maps.
5. Michael Anderson, Approaches to the History of the Western Family, 1500-1914.
6. Norman J.W. Thrower, Maps and Civilization.
7. Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha.
8. John Locke, The First Treatise of Government.
9. Murray N. Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.
10. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia.
11. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000.
12. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence.

Now, aren't you glad you read that?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Pet Peeve (In More Ways Than One)

I just have to get something off of my chest that bugs me every time I hear it and, seeing as blogs are the accepted new format for spouting ichor at the world, here goes...

Do you know what I hate and what makes me furious every time I hear it?

When people refer to their pets as their "children."

I hate, hate, hate, hate this.

Why does this piss me off so much? It's actually quite simple.

These people are, in their minds and actions, equating human beings to property.

To put it another way, a child is a person while a pet is a possession.

But Will, you say, people consider their pets to be companions, members of the family and should be accorded the same level of respect, love and deference as the human members of a family.

I could not disagree more.

Let's engage in some thinking here, shall we? If I were to steal, injure, or kill your child, I would be guilty of a felony. If I were to steal, injure, or kill your pet, in most places I would be guilty of a misdemeanor in the same lines as those for the destruction or forced alienation of property. For one, I would go to jail and possibly be sentenced to die; for the other, I would most likely pay a fine, restitution and lose you as a friend.

This distinction, however, goes beyond the mere strictures of criminal and civil law. Think about this: is a child the possession of its parents in the same way that a pet is the possession of its owner? I think not.

Parents are regarded, whether the children are born to the parents or adopted, as custodians of these children. That means that they are responsible for a reasonable level of care and caution, but this does not imply ownership. For, unless you have forgotten this, most countries in the West decided in the nineteenth century that allowing people to own other people was a bad idea.
(Incidentally, I believe that you should be able to sell yourself into slavery, be a prostitute or sell your organs on an open market, but that discussion is for another day).

So, where does that leave us? Some may say that people become attached emotionally to pets and this is reason that some consider them as their children. Give me a break. People become emotionally attached to all kinds of property. Have you ever seen how some people treat their cars?

But Will, you protest, cars, video game systems, baseball card collections, model train sets and barbecue grills, while possibly being the targets of people's affection, are not living, sentient life forms. Well, it would be hard to argue with you there. I have yet to see a PlayStation get up off of the table and fetch a cartridge.

To make that argument, however, I think that you must also agree that all life forms are equal in stature; that the rights of animals are no different from the rights of people. In this case, you should not eat, ride, own, wear, kill (intentionally or otherwise) any form of life whatsoever. If this is your stance, fine. Act like it. Free your pets, don't eat meat or meat derivatives and watch where you walk at all times. Same should, naturally, go for plants.

If you disagree with this, then you must agree to some hierarchy of life forms. How you define this is, I guess, up to you, but most people would put, well, people at the top, no? If people are not, then what is...I would be interested to know.

Do I agree that it is O.K. to torture or harm animals? In many ways, no, but not for the reason you might think. If I own a dog, and that dog gives me some benefit, then I should do my best to protect that dog so that it continues to give me that benefit. It would be wasteful and ineffecient for me to do otherwise. So, if I consider that dog's life to be worth preserving, I will take steps to see that that happens.

This is no different that any other form of property I might have. I own a DVD player. If I want it to continue to provide the service that it does, I will not bring it in the pool with me.

In the end, however, the dog and the DVD player are both my property and you have no right to tell me how I may dispose of my property, nor do you have the right to use coercion, laws and the state to do the same in your stead.

Just because my motivation and incentive for owning a certain sort of property (and the type of benefit I derive from it) are different from yours does not mean that I must make my behavior coincide with yours. Far from it. You should keep your laws and opinions to yourself where my property is concerned.

Does this mean, incidentally, that I think that dogfighting and cockfighting should be legal? Absolutely.

In closing, i might mention a historical note about pet ownership. Pets, until quite recently (certainly within 100 years) were an expensive status symbol. Pets are a non-productive animal. Yes, people kept animals that are now pets but for wildly different reasons (think of dogs herding and cats catching rodents). Having a pet used to say to the world "I am so wealthy that I can afford to feed and keep an animal that serves no practical purpose." This is somewhat less so today, but the origins are worth noting.

Are my positions cruel? To some, perhaps. To me, they are just a logical extension of property rights. Things tend to turn out better when people own things rather than through some notion of communal ownership. Will I roam the neighborhood looking for animals to harm? Certainly not; those animals don't belong to me. If I come to your house, will I kick your dog? No, for the same reason.

But, do be aware that if you refer to your dog, cat, ferret, fish, iguana, pot-bellied pig or other pet as "your child" or "a real member of the family," I might just kick you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Laziness Into Nostalgia Into Reflection

Y'know, it's funny sometimes how some happenstance can lead one to think about something that has not come up for years.

Take me this afternoon...I got back to my apartment, sweating like Kim Jong Il's barber with the shakes, and I wanted to change shirts. Upon opening my armoire and rummaging through the contents, it became painfully clear that I have not done laundry in some time.

I found pillowcases of unknown origin, no less than two pairs of sweatpants with paint on them, polo shirts that I thought were lost to the sands of time and bathing suits that probably should have been.

Finally, I found a rolled-up thing that looked big enough to be a t-shirt that would still fit. When I unrolled it, I was a bit surprised to say the least.

It was a Saint Joseph's College Little 500 shirt from 1997...I honestly had no idea I still had it.

No, the only surprise was not the fact that a ten year old garment still fit.

It was mainly the happy surprise that finding an artifact of my past that I assumed was gone forever, quite possibly in the great purge before I moved to Madison in 2005.

Oh, the memories that came washing over me as I pulled the comfortably stretched neck hole over my head...for those of you out there who are Pumas, please forgive me explaining and reminiscing and explaining a bit about the wonder that is Little 500.

Basically it was a go-kart race/all-campus party-hearty weekend that for most people marked the social high point of the year (for me it did, at least). I was usually involved in the race, usually as pit crew member for #17, Joe Vorrier "The Puma Warrior." My junior and senior years, I also took a turn singing the Indiana state song "On The Banks Of The Wabash, Far Away," and I am not even from Indiana.

What fun those weekends were...going out to "the Barns," tinkering with a contraption that was basically a lawnmower engine with a bicycle chain on a chassis with some fiberglass bodywork...realizing that "the Barns" were structures that, in a normal town with building codes, would have been condemned for inhabitation by most self-respecting rodents...seeing the Start/Finish line being repainted as the "roads" through campus were transformed (with the help of hay bales and snow fence) into our very own pint-sized road course (LeMans eat your heart out)...speculating over and over while walking the track about conditions on race day while trying to see where the "groove" was, left by carts during practice and qualifying.

Then came the big day...the bunting was up, the course was set, the bridges over the course were in place, the safety staff set along the route, the cars at the starting line. Then came the ceremonials...pre-race prayers, anthems, speeches. Then comes driver introductions, final instructions, "Gentlemen and ladies start your engines," the pace laps and then we're off.

The race was always a combination of careful planning and on the spot disaster control (sometimes quite literally), a lot like life in general really. Then, after three white-knuckled hours, the winners were crowned, the runners-up recognized and another race was in the books.

For me, a participant in the race, it was then when I could start boozing it up for real...they always said that we had to stay clean and I always did, but come the end of the race, oh brother...

It then went on to a typical SJC social evening, only moreso. Some moving around to see what everyone is up to, some staying put with stores of booze collected for the occasion, running into alums (more of whom came back for Little 500 than for Homecoming) all in an atmosphere of liquor-fueled jackassery. I dare you to come up with something that is more fun. That's right; you can't.

As I recalled these memories, it also occured to me that those weeekends had a certain feel to them, a sense of fun but also a sense of finality.

It was the last big event of the year before graduation weekend and it always struck me as being the beginning of the end of the year.

My first three years at SJC, these weekends meant that soon I would have to transition back to living at home mode; not bad, just different. I would have to search for boxes for all of my crap, finish any academic projects that were outstanding and buy the yearly pot of plaster to patch my walls up. The summer stretched out before me, I had three months of Bulider's Square to look forward (?) to, and it would be quite some time before I would see my beloved gang of cronies again.

My senior year, naturally, was different. I realized that this would be the last time that it would ever be like this. Oh, I returned for Little 500 as an alum (my brother still had three more years to go when I graduated), and recaptured a little of that magic, but there inevitably felt that there was something missing, something that was gone forever.

That last year, as the future spread before me, it was after Little 500 when I realized for the first time that this phase was coming to an end and a new one was beginning to show itself. I realized that the old gang would go their separate ways and, despite occasional reunions, would ever quite be the same again.

I guess a certain amount of this change is good, but I cannot help but get a bit meloncholy over that wonderful place and time being lost forever; finding this old beat-up t-shirt just brought a lot of that back.

I have not been to Little 500 since my brother graduated in 2002, and I have only been back to Rensselaer once since then. I guess that there would be no real reason to go back unless I knew some of my old crew would be around. Maybe that'll happen, maybe not. Who knows?

It is always interesting for someone like a historian to consider the story of one's own life. It does show the difficulty of "doing history" in that memory and fact often don't match up and that sometimes things as presented in the evidence are not as you remember them.

I say, given the situation, and that I am not exactly someone who is (or likely will be) crucial to the history of the human race, that I will keep my memories how I remember them and the truth be damned. They were good times in my life; I am not going to let some feeble attempt at "practicing what I preach" ruin something that is quite special to me.

Would you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I Think It Was The Fourth Of July...

...fat guys swimmin', really loaded, eatin' pork products. (with my half-hearted apologies to Chicago).

Well, I wanted to do something profound for the Fourth of July, but I spent my profundity for today on the contemporary politics of the country we told to go and fornicate themselves 'lo those many years ago. Please read that post below.

Otherwise, here's what I'm up to for Independence Day.

Don't like it? Guess what? You are aiding the terrorists...would they want us to drink beer, eat pork and show off our hairy backs? I think not.

Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists; which is it gonna be, asshole (or friend, depending on how you answer)?

P.S. I think I was right about the Chavez-Ahmadinejad connection...they look like kids at camp here.

Fade To Brown

I wanted to wait to comment on the accession of Gordon Brown to 10 Downing Street until his cabinet was chosen, he had spoken in Parliament giving the "wish list" speech and also to see where this terrorist situation was headed.

First off, as one might believe, the "Brown bounce" was given, well, more bounce by the reaction of Brown (and especially his new Home Secretaty Jacqui Smith) in the face of more terror attacks in Britain. I don't think, however, that this is the whole story. Some of this bounce is doubtlessly due to people being utterly sick of the sight of Tony Blair and, if momentarily, happy just to see someone else smiling from the steps of No. 10. This usually does not last long...think of John Major.

In outlining his program to the Commons in his first speech in the House since becoming PM, Brown has outlined a slate of programs to make the British government "a better servant of the people." In that cause, he has offered to give up some the powers given to the PM by royal prerogative (such as the final decision to go to war). Brown would cede these powers to the Commons.

He would, in a more general sense, seek to increase the powers of MP's and decrease that of the PM, who in any parliamentary system should be more of a "first among equals" than a president is. Is this in response to accusations that Blair ran a presidential style government and ignored his cabinet colleagues? Perhaps, but in the wake of many decisions taken by Blair, presidential in nature or not, it seems that this might be a popular move.

In looking at his cabinet, it bears mentioning that it seems that Brown brought an awful lot of people across the street (literally) from the treasury to serve both in the Cabinet and as advisors (who often pull more influence than the Cabinet over a PM's thinking). As for the cabinet more generally, it can be seen that some old faces remain, but a lot more are gone or moved on.

What can be said of these new people and policy changes? Well, at the outset it seems to me to be a change in style but with similar substance. You know the old routine: people like what's being done (generally) but don't like who's doing it. Simple...change the faces, shift the ol' paradigm and poof! It seems there was a change without there being much of a change.

Oh, the personalities are different. Take the Home Secretary. It seems that Jacqui Smith, much in contrast to the combattive John Reid, has a cool head and a steady hand (we'll see how much of that survives the daily dose of terrifying security briefings that the Home Secretary gets). For more on this difference, read this commentary in the Telegraph.

What of the other parties? Well, in typical fashion, both David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell pulled off the shadow cabinet/front bench axe job to try and "rebalance" the issues and personalities that will be confronting Brown's new cabinet. While in the case of Campbell and the Lib-Dems it seemed pretty routine (bring some of the new people up and give them a go at Brown's new people), for Cameron and the Conservatives, it seemed to be a bit of a different move.

In a word, Cameron seemed more desparate. In his choices and what he is hoping to convey, it seems that this reshuffle is a bit more of a panic move than that of Campbell. It also shows a trend that seems to have been going on for at least the last few years. It seems that the Tories under Cameron want to remake their image in the same way that Blair remade the image of Labour beginning in 1994. What might this do, you ask? It might totally redefine what the Conservatives are all about. Is this good or bad? The answer is yes and no.

Cameron needs to realize that Brown is going to have his "honeymoon," perhaps lengthened by the terror attacks (as macabre as that seems), but then the holes will start to show. If Cameron is as adept a politician as I think he believes he is, he will take advantage and hopefully, come the next general election (which I predict will be sometime in early to mid 2009) he will have presented himself as the main opposition voice in Parliament.

What he could also end up doing, of course, is alienating the base, that core of Conservative voters that are like the religious Right in the United States for the Republicans. Like it or not, you have to keep them happy. Some say that Cameron is already doing this; for the broader swath of the party, I am sure they hope he stops.

In closing, Brown is still in the first weeks of his new government and the challenges to come are, well, still to come. I believe that along with the reforms that he is proposing, he will have to deal with the Euro question again, Northern Ireland (almost goes without saying) and the tricky constitutional issue wherein the House of Lords might become part elected and what that will mean for the constitutional framework of the nation and also the idea that he may call for a written constitution for the UK (something they have never really had).

For now, all we can do is watch him grimace and furrow his brow a lot...politicians, no matter what the party, love to do that. Makes you look like you are thinking about something.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Heat Wave Hero Worship

We live in a time and place where we are constantly surrounded by the products of the collective genius of the past and present. We are dependent on the ingenuity of others from all places and ages for our comfort, our security, our very lives.

Don't believe me? Take a look around the room where you are currently sitting. Look at all of the things that surround you. Go ahead, do it. (While you are looking, I will have time to thank James Burke, from whom I pirated this thought experiment).

Now, what (if any) of these objects could you still have if you had to make them yourself from scratch? I venture to say not many.

Ingenuity, and the people who drive technological advances, make our lives longer, cheaper and more comfortable. You might ask, though, "at what cost do we have these artificial things, these commodities that we depend on and center our lives around?" That is a simple question of economics: is what you are giving up worth what you are getting? Think not just in terms of money because economics, at its core, is about value and money is just one component of this.

Of those proudcts of technology that surround you, which could you easily live without? Live without with difficulty? Absolutely not live without?

I suppose this answer will be different for different people. I, however, can point to one thing in particular that I consider essential to my mental and physical well-being and therefore (in some sense) my survival.

It is just such a piece of technology as mentioned above, and it was invented by a man who is near the top of my "greatest guy of all time list."

That man was one Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950) of Buffalo, New York.

His invention? The first mechanical electrically powered air conditioning unit.

Well, now, he didn't invent it from scratch; inventors rarely do this. He did, however, have the knowledge and skill to take a problem and, using this skill, design a practical solution that would go on to have profound effects on society.

First, a bit of history about the "moment of creation." Carrier, freshly out of Cornell University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, went to work for the Buffalo Forge Company of Buffalo New York in 1902. They put the young Carrier onto a problem for one of their clients, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Printing Company of Brooklyn.

The problem was that the heat and humidity were so high in the plant that the ink and paper would not dry (this is a simplification of a much more complicated problem, but you get the idea). Carrier had quite a problem on his hands; fortunately, he had the tools to get to the bottom of it.

He reasoned that the machine to be built must bring the humidity down to acceptable levels for the industrial processes at hand. He studied weather records, humidity data and took measurements at the factory itself. Using this information, he designed a machine that would regulate the temperature of water flowing through refrigeration colis and then blow air across those coils. He also figured in a regluator for measuring and controlling the dew point, another key feature.

Voila. The ability to control indoor climate in hot conditions.

After this, it was up and away for Carrier. After WWI, and the divestiture of the Carrier Air Conditioning Company from Buffalo Forge, Carrier and a group of investors staked $32,600 (some $633,202 in 2006 dollars) to found the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915. This company went on to have such prestigious large clients as Madison Square Garden and the U.S. Capitol Building. By the 1920's, Carrier's company was engineering systems for home use, which would not become widespread until after WWII.

Another American institution is born. Hot outside? Turn the air on.

The wider effects of this invention are easy to follow. Regions of the country that were not practical for development before (think Arizona and Florida) were suddenly looking a lot better (well, certainly a lot cooler).

After WWII, and the accompanying clamor for more consumer goods, demand and production of room air conditioners soared from 30,000 units in 1946 to over one million in 1953. As ever with technology, what was once an expensive luxury for the home or a great expense for a busines became easily within reach of most average income people. Now, it has been estimated (I've heard both figures) that between 64% and 76% of low-income households have air conditioning (if you are interested, I could try to remember where I heard this spread from).

More close to home than that, I cannot picture life without air conditioning. I just can't see how I would survive. You think I'm kinda cranky now? Wait until I have spend hour after hour in a hot, still room then dare to ask me "hot enough for ya?"

This actually happened not too long ago. Last Memorial Day Weekend, my air conditioner died on that Friday and, because of the holiday, I was not able to get it looked at until that following Tuesday. I tried to manage, but by Sunday night, I was in my underwear eating chicken wings on my kitchen floor with my feet in the freezer (now, THERE'S a mental image that will stick with you for a while). I had to throw myself on the mercy of friends who were more fortunate than I.

I tell you, that was the most miserable I have been in years and I am thankful every morning that 1. my brand new Frigidaire is working just fine and 2. my landlord pays for the electrical, although I would gladly foot the bill to have a cool space...clean clothes be damned!

I know that there are killjoys who will say that "air conditioners are worse than nuclear waste for the environment" and "when people got air conditioners, they withdrew to their cool homes, killing any sense of community" and "people lived for centuries without it; why do we need it now?"

To the first objection, I say that I consider it a good enough trade off that I don't own a car (and haven't for six years). That's my contribution to the environment, so leave me alone to be comfortable in peace. To the second, I say that you may be trying to reconstruct something that never really existed and besides, if I want to associate with people in the neighborhood, I will invite them over (or vice versa) to recreate in electro-chilled splendor. To the third, I say that if you would have offered and explained this device to people in the past, you bet your (sweaty) ass that they would take it in a second.

So, here's to Willis Haviland Carrier, a real exemplar of the ingenous problem solver who made people's lives a little cooler...and that's worth the price of admission from my standpoint.

(Thanks to these sites for some of the historical information alluded to herein; check out this especially informative interactive timeline at the Carrier Corporation's website).