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1. The Tall Tales of Talbot Toluca Aims to Reignite the All-Ages Comic Genre

The Tall Tales of Talbot Toluca aims to reignite the all-ages comic genre with exciting hidden-object games and puzzles.

Las Vegas, NV April 24,2014 – Award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Kenneth Lamug makes a jump to comics while adding twists and turns to what is usually expected in a comic book.

The Tall Tales of Talbot Toluca – The Quest for the Ore Crystals combines the high-impact visuals of comics while engaging the reader with Where’s Waldo-like hidden-object games, mazes and puzzles.

qftoc

The story follows a group of friends who discover an underground military laboratory underneath their school. Their break-in unleashes a series of events, which unravels secrets to Talbot’s past. In The Quest For The Ore Crystal, the evil scientist Dr. Kadoom makes a comeback to the lab with the aim of total world destruction. It’s now up to Talbot and the reader to complete the challenges in the book and stop Dr. Kadoom.

“My hope is that this unique format engages all readers to be part of the story,” says Lamug. “I take my readers on this wild adventure and make them solve problems alongside the characters. This is inspired by my fascination with puzzles as well as the classic adventure games of the 80s and 90s. Yet unlike one-shot puzzle-books, my goal is to eventually share many more of Talbot’s tales using this same format.”

Lamug’s previous book, A Box Story, garnered four awards in its first year, an unexpected accomplishment for a first title. He hopes that adults and kids alike will respond in a positive way to this new book and seek out comics as a new medium for interactive content.

Talbott Toluca’s Kickstarter campaign starts Monday, May 12th, and will run through June 10th, 2014, all funds raised will go entirely to publishing expenses.

To learn more about the comic and the author, visit www.talbottoluca.com.

Contact:
Kenneth Lamug
ken@rabbleboy.com
www.talbottoluca.com
www.rabbleboy.com

tttott_book1

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2. New perspectives on the history of publishing

There is a subtle shift occurring in the examination of the history of the book and publishing. Historians are moving away from a history of individuals towards a new perspective grounded in social and corporate history. From A History of Cambridge University Press to The Stationers’ Company: A History to the new History of Oxford University Press, the development of material texts is set in a new context of institutions.

The University processes in fron of the Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Printing House, 1733 (William Williams, Oxonia depicta, plate 6).

The University processes in fron of the Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Printing House, 1733 (William Williams, Oxonia depicta, plate 6).

Recently, Dr Adam Smyth, Oxford University Lecturer in the History of the Book, spoke with Ian Gadd, Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University and the editor of Volume I: From its beginnings to 1780 of the History of Oxford University Press, about the early modern history of the book. They discuss the evolution of university presses, the relationship between Oxford and the London book trade, navigating the division of learned and scholarly publishing and commercial work, and some new insights into the history of the Press, such as setting William Laud’s vision of the Press in the context of university reform and the role of the University’s legal court in settling trade disputes.

Podcast courtesy of the University of Oxford Podcasts.

Ian Gadd is Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University. He is editor of The History of Oxford University Press, Volume 1: From its beginnings to 1780.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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Image courtesy of OUP Archives. Do not reproduce without permission.

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3. Improving My Good Book Average

At last, I have made it through the Slough of Despond and have landed myself in a couple books that really caught my interest. Okay, Slough of Despond is a bit extreme. The set aside Prose book and the disappointing Cantor book were more like a slightly squishy ground that got my shoes muddy. But the ground has firmed up and I am happily striding along first enjoying Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and now embarking on The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner. I just started it a couple days ago and have been reading a little every night which means I’m at page 45. But it has been a good 45 pages! I like the style and the story is going somewhere even if I don’t know where that somewhere is.

Have you read the book? So far there are two narratives. It begins with WWI in 1917. A man named Valera is cutting a motorcycle headlamp off the bike of his dead friend who had just slammed into a tree in the woods because he was going too fast and lost control. The headlamp was salvageable, the bike, not so much. The pair are in the cycle battalion and had fallen a bit behind their squadron. Up comes a German soldier and Valera beans him in the head with the motorcycle lamp.

And then we get a chapter in 1975 and we meet Reno, a young woman and artist riding her Valera motorcycle to the Salt Flats in Nevada to participate in time trials there and at the same time create what she hopes will be some interesting Land Art. It is an exhilarating chapter, first as she speeds down the highway and then later as she speeds across the salt flats at 148 miles and hour. On a motorcycle. But before we know exactly what happens we are back to Valera in 1917 who then flashes us back to his childhood in Alexandria, Egypt and a bit later to 1912 Rome where he is about to finish his university degree and where he rides his first motorcycle.

Kushner is thus far showing herself to be skilled at pacing and character development, letting Reno and Valera reveal who they are through their actions and thoughts. No paragraphs long info-dumps telling the reader about them or having some other character tell us. Nope, it is character development as it should be, a gradual getting-to-know-you.

I have no idea what the book is about. I have read good things about it without managing to retain any sort of plot summary and I have avoided reading the synopsis on the dust jacket. All I know is that I am a happy camper at the moment. Amazing what a couple good book can do for a person.


Filed under: Books, In Progress

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4. Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman


Henry Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the details. For instance, Skeat lamented the use of the letter c in scissors and Bradley defended it. He even noted, in the supplement to the paper devoted to Spelling Reform, that, all Skeat’s ardor and arguments notwithstanding, in his publications and personal letters he stuck to traditional spelling. This mild taunt was beside the point. Why should Skeat have adopted reformed or simplified spelling before it became the norm?

Skeat’s program paper was delivered in 1906. In modern times, the proposal for simplified spelling was first made in 1881, and the decade before the First World War witnessed an unprecedented and never to be repeated splash of interest in this matter. In the United States, some linguistic journals agreed to print papers with the words having the appearance favored by the reformers. George O. Curme, a distinguished American linguist, published a scholarly article in a leading German periodical using “new orthography” (1914). I needn’t remind anyone that this was the epoch of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, hence the numerous cartoons connecting him and the Reform. In 1910 George B. Shaw believed that England would move toward phonetic spelling in the foreseeable future. Foreign scholars, especially in Sweden and the Netherlands, clamored for action, and offered recipes. English, they pointed out, had become an international language and its written form was the greatest handicap to those who wished to learn it.

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The war made all such problems irrelevant. Then came the Bolsheviks and the Nazis and another war. In later times, the Chomskyan revolution did a lot of harm to the “cause.” Chomsky’s emphasis on the historical logic of English spelling contributed to the loss of the little enthusiasm scholars might have for Spelling Reform. He taught that one has to distinguish between underlying forms and surface realizations. Archaic English spelling provided Chomsky and his closest ally Morris Halle with a treasure trove of “underlying forms” (for example, we spell take, and the underlying form has “long a,” that is, the vowel of Modern Engl. spa, father, etc., and it is exactly this vowel from which the modern diphthong developed). In that academic battle, Bradley won a decisive victory, a fact to be regretted.

Skeat’s paper runs to eighteen pages. His main point, so cleverly contested by Bradley, is predictable: letters should represent sounds, but English spelling fails to do so. Very funny from our perspective is his suggestion for explaining to boys (naturally!) the true value of English vowels. The English should give up their habit of Anglicizing Latin pronunciation, and, once the boys begin to read Latin approximately as they would read Italian, they will understand the nature of sound change, and it will be easier to explain the correlation between letters and sounds, a major prerequisite for the success of the Reform. Alas and alack, today this recommendation has little value: our “boys” no longer study Latin for six years.

Help from Abroad

Help from Abroad

One of the pioneers of Spelling Reform was the great philologist Henry Sweet, and Skeat supported his ideas. These are the spellings both of them advocated: hav, liv, abov; agreev, aproov, solv, freez, etc. (in the e-less category, only adz and ax gained a foothold, and only in American English); jepardy, bredth; acheev, beleev; cumfort, tuch, cuzin; flurish; batl, ketl, writn; lam, num; lookt, puld; honor, labor (once again the last words will not offend the American eye). Skeat referred to two great gains the Reform would have. The first strikes me as almost humorous, even though offered in dead earnest, the second as vital.

“The first is that those partial reforms would necessarily involve the disuse of a large number of useless letters. In this way more matter would be got into a page, and some labour in the compositions of the type would be saved; and as this would happen in every case, …it might very easily save every printer and publisher a considerable sum of money. It would not be surprising if the aggregate savings, in the course of a year, throughout the British Empire, were to amount to a considerable sum of money. [He projected the economy of thousands of pounds.]… The second is that the task of learning to read would be considerably simplified, and the time taken to achieve that task would be considerably shortened…. In this case there can be no doubt at all that the sums thus saved would be very considerable.”

He devoted several paragraphs to beating this willing horse.

Skeat summarized the situation quite convincingly: English words have turned into hieroglyphs that have to be learned mechanically. With this spelling we are not quite in China (figuratively speaking), because many words are still spelled phonetically, but we are halfway through (I am paraphrasing, not quoting Skeat). Close to the end of the paper he admitted that since 1881 absolutely no progress had been made in reforming English spelling. Publishers and journalists crushed every attempt to tamper with the existing system (“I speak it to our utter shame,” he added). But his explanation of the reasons for the failure is probably wrong. He ascribed the public’s near universal resistance to its ignorance of the most basic facts of linguistics. The obtuseness and ignorance of his countrymen was one of Skeat’s favorite subjects; he had no patience with human stupidity.

However, in this case, it was probably not only ignorance that killed the Reform. We should rather consider the natural wish of human beings to protect their riches, be it material possessions or spiritual property. Someone who has learned the spelling of the noun occurrence (very few have, as far as I can judge), has perhaps been whipped, rapped over the knuckles, or received bad grades for spelling it with -ance or with one r (or one c), will cling to the hard-obtained treasure like grim death. To waste years on such terrible words and give up their spelling? No! Besides, in England honor, labor, ax, and their likes had the stigma of being Americanisms. Who would fall so low as to imitate the Americans? Even after 1918 British periodicals carried blood curdling letters to the editor about the corrupting influence of Americanisms on pure English.

From this point of view, it is curious to read the concluding paragraph of Skeat’s paper.

“If, however, it should come to pass that a real Spelling Reform should previously be effected in America, it may quite possibly be a gain to us; because the history of our language is there more generally known. I lately met with the President of an American university, who said to me (I have no doubt with perfect truth) ‘In our universities English takes the first place’. This is one of those facts of which the ordinary Englishman is entirely ignorant; indeed, it is almost impossible for him to imagine how such a state of things can be possible. I recommend the contemplation of this astounding fact to your serious consideration.”

I am a great fan of Walter Skeat’s and often try to placate his irascible shadow. This time I hasten to reassure the great man that English no longer takes the first place in American universities; at all stages, we teach concepts and critical thinking, not facts. We despise memorization and encourage discussion, ideally group discussion following a PowerPoint presentation. One semester of the history of English is rarely required even of English majors, and for spelling we have spellcheckers. However, it is not good to finish even a grim comedy (that is, a drama in which the protagonists don’t die) on a gloomy note. Perhaps indeed, the stimulus to reform English spelling will come from America; we’ll see. The past is hard to reconstruct, but the future is even harder to predict.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Printed in 1911 in the American Transactions of the Philological Association (part of the article by Charles P.G. Scott “Bogus and his Crew”; Scott was the etymologist for The Century Dictionary). (2) A sample of what the Swedes suggested (the Anglic Fund, Uppsala). Both images courtesy of Anatoly Liberman.

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5. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

What a beautiful and curious book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine turned out to be. Rankine is a poet who had three collections under her belt when she published this book that is and is not poetry in 2004. I say it is poetry because it is beautifully lyrical and written in short pieces that could be poems except they are prose paragraphs, essays of a sort. Only each essay doesn’t even fill a page, is sometimes only a paragraph long. But each piece connects together sort of like a collage, accumulating and building up to a whole picture. Many of the poem-essays can stand alone and are gorgeous little gems:

Forgiveness, I finally decide, is not the death of amnesia, nor is it a form of madness, as Derrida claims. For the one who forgives, it is simply a death, a dying down in the heart, the position of the already dead. It is in the end the living through, the understanding that this has happened, is happening, happens. Period. It is a feeling of nothingness that cannot be communicated to another, an absence, a bottomless vacancy held by the living, beyond all that is hated or loved.

The book moves around many themes, death, grief, unhappiness, forgiveness, sadness, life, and most of all, loneliness:

Define loneliness?

Yes.

It’s what we can’t do for each other.

What do we mean to each other?

What does life mean?

Why are we here if not for each other?

Even though the poem-essays are questioning, sometimes melancholic, sometimes baffled, and sometimes tragic, the book is not depressing. There is a softness, a gentleness to it that is present throughout no matter if it is about personal tragedy or the World Trade Center. And the book itself ends with a number of poem-essays on hope:

Such distress moved in with muscle and bone. Its entrance by necessity slowly translated my already grief into a tremendously exhausted hope. The translation occurred unconsciously, perhaps occurred simply because I am alive. The translation occurs as a form of life. Then life, which seems so full of waiting, awakes suddenly into a life of hope.

Loneliness never goes away, it is something that is and always will be with us, a part of the human condition. But with hope, with reaching out a hand to someone else, for just a little while we can forget our loneliness:

Or one meaning of here is ‘In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,’ or in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody — Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognizes and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.

The whole book builds toward being “here” and recognizing the presence of someone else; recognizing another person’s existence, and what that existence entails — messy, sad, lonely, grief and hope filled life.

It is a beautiful and affirming book. The language is gorgeous. The poem-essays are often accompanied by small drawings or photos that provide additional impact. I read the book in less than a day. I had stopped about three-quarters of the way through thinking I should save the book and finish the next day. But when casting around for something else to read, nothing appealed except Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. So I finished it. I am glad I did because I think it is meant to be read in one day while all the connections and layerings are mingling around in the brain, fresh and pliable. I enjoyed the book so much I will gladly give one of Rankine’s poetry collections a go sometime.


Filed under: Books, Essays, Poetry, Reviews

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6. A Rant from the Pulpit

Today, a word from the Reverend Josiah Crane, who has been the preacher of the Goose Creek Country Church in Portsong for as long as anyone can remember. He’s a masterful orator of the Scriptures, but could be described as somewhat distant when it comes to the shepherding side of his calling. In his own way, he cares for the souls of his flock very much.

Rev._Thomas_Chalmers,_1780_-_1847._Preacher_and_social_reformer_(shown_preaching)

I see you there.

I know you are squirming in your seat and I know why. What I just said hit close to your wandering heart…that is what the bead of sweat on your forehead tells me. A more compassionate man might offer you his handkerchief to mop your brow. But I say, better a little sweat now than hellfire for eternity!

So while you think I am speaking to the back wall, know that both God and I have you in our sights. Neither of us is oblivious to what goes on in these holy pews. For example:

1.  I know the children count the number of times I hit the pulpit every week and even play a little game with it. While I don’t condone wagering, I have stacked the odds for a couple of my favorite little lambs over the years.

2.  I know precisely what time it is. If you think repeated checks to your wristwatch will give me a subtle hint, understand that it only makes me slow my pace. You’ll get to your precious lunch, even if the Lutherans beat you there.

3.  You cannot hide your dozing off – see point one, that’s why I pound the pulpit. When your head bobs up and down, I assume you are agreeing with me, which stokes the fire of my verbosity.

4.  I do not believe in alliterations or acrostics like some word game player. I’ve got the Scriptures on my side and I don’t even care for the little numbers that man added.

5.  You are absolutely correct – I do, in fact, like to hear myself speak.

6.  I will not tell you how old I am or what year I was born! Before you were, I was. No one is going to win that bet. You may as well put the proceeds into the offering basket. I am not older than dirt, but recall firsthand accounts of its creation.

So next time you think you are pulling one over on the old preacher, remember that I have been doing this a long time. Ecclesiastes chapter 1 and verse 9 tells us, “There is no new thing under the sun.” I’ve seen quite a few suns rise and fall. Further, I’ve seen all the tricks.

I hope the old Preacher will forgive me the edits I made to his submission. He sent me 3491 words that I condensed after dozing off a few times. If you have any memories of being terrified by an old preacher, then you can identify with my friend, Virgil Creech – who is more than a little afraid of the Reverend Crane.

Virgil Creech

Photo Credit: National Galleries of Scotland Commons from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK via Wikimedia Commons

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7. The Compleat Earth Day

First published by Izaak Walton in 1653, The Compleat Angler remains one of the most original and influential books about the environment ever written in the English language. Walton’s narrative depicts a group of urbanites whose appreciation of the natural world deepens as they go fishing in the countryside north of London. In honor of Earth Day, here are some interesting facts about The Compleat Angler as an environmental text.

By Marjorie Swann

(1)   Before The Compleat Angler, fishermen were regarded as loners, but Walton’s book transformed angling into a sociable activity that draws men together through their shared experiences of the natural world.

(2)   Walton champions core principles of wildlife management, including closed seasons, size limits, and restrictions on fishing methods.

(3)   For Walton, outdoor recreation enhances spirituality:

“So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him.”

(4)   Walton was an early advocate of food security. Without environmental laws to guarantee sustainable food production, Walton argues, fish stocks will drop so precipitously that the population of England “will be forced to eat flesh.”

(5)   As Londoners visiting rural Hertfordshire, Walton’s anglers are exemplary ecotourists. They treat the natural environment they visit respectfully and take care to compensate fairly the local inhabitants who provide their food and lodging.

800px-Otter_in_Southwold

Otter in Southwold, Suffolk, England. By Catherine Trigg (Flickr) via Wikimedia Commons.

(6)   Walton censures “conservators of the waters”—officials charged with overseeing rivers and their fisheries—who turn a blind eye to illegal (and environmentally harmful) fishing practices.

(7)   Walton’s anglers practice environmental justice by giving financial donations and most of the fish they catch to poor residents of the countryside.

(8)   Reading The Compleat Angler can also help us to appreciate how our attitudes toward the environment have changed over time. Walton regarded otters as pests that should be controlled in order to protect fish populations and in The Compleat Angler, Walton’s fishermen join an otter hunt at Amwell Hill in Hertfordshire. Otters became extinct in Hertfordshire in the 1970s, but in the 1990s, the Otter Trust successfully reintroduced otters to the Amwell Nature Reserve. The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is now working to improve otter habitat in the Amwell Nature Reserve by creating “fish refuges.”

(9)   In the 1890s, the Pullman Company created a special railway car for American sportsmen called the “Izaak Walton.” Staffed by both a cook and a waiter, the car could hold twelve passengers and was fitted out with dog kennels, gun racks, an ammunition room, an ice-chest for game, and a wine closet.

(10)   Walton’s depiction of a “brotherhood” of environmentally-conscious anglers inspired the creation of the Izaak Walton League of America, a mass-membership conservation organization founded in 1922 that now has more than 43,000 members in the United States and Britain.

Marjorie Swann, Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is the author of Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England. She has edited a new edition of The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton for Oxford World’s Classics and is now writing a book about Walton’s Angler and its post-seventeenth-century afterlives.

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8. The politics of green shopping

By Thomas Jundt


On this day forty-four years ago, some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and lecture halls for an event billed as a national environmental teach-in—Earth Day.

When he announced plans for the event, Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, a longtime conservationist, hoped it would gather enough attention to pressure his colleagues into passing environmental legislation that he had been struggling to push through Congress. It did. President Nixon and policymakers responded to the growing environmental fervor with some of the most significant environmental laws in the nation’s history. Although Nixon once called environmental issues “just crap,” he was a savvy politician who understood that the public mood required some sort of action.

On 1 January 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. The National Environmental Education Act, which mandated environmental education in public schools, was signed into law in October. By President Nixon’s executive order the Environmental Protection Agency came into being two months later, charged with overseeing the enforcement of federal environmental policies. The Marine Mammal Protection Act followed in 1972.

Girl Scout in canoe, picking trash out of the Potomac River during Earth Week. O'Halloran, Thomas J., photographer 1970 April 22. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Girl Scout in canoe, picking trash out of the Potomac River during Earth Week. Photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran, 22 April 1970. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Environmentalists had urged such action for decades. The brutal light of atomic bomb flashes revealed a vulnerable planet, and key intellectuals soon recognized other ways that humans might destroy the earth. The head of the New York Zoological Society, Fairfield Osborn, warned of “man’s conflict with nature” in his 1948 bestselling book, Our Plundered Planet. Among the many planetary threats he addressed was the chemical DDT, made public shortly after the war. “The new chemical is deadly on many kinds of insects—no doubt about that,” he conceded. “But what of the ultimate and net result to the life scheme of earth?”

Big business was at the epicenter of this threat. “One of the most ruinous limiting factors is the capitalistic system,” William Vogt emphasized in his own 1948 bestseller, Road to Survival. “Free enterprise—divorced from biophysical understanding and social responsibility… must bear a large share of the responsibility for devastated forests, vanishing wildlife, crippled ranges, a gullied continent, and roaring flood crests.” Desire for stronger federal environmental regulations had been building long before Earth Day, and years before Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring in 1962.

The Earth Day era’s reforms proved inadequate. Rules and regulations that worked well initially were often less effective once corporate lawyers went to work figuring out how they could be exploited, and corporate lobbyists aimed their skills at softening their impact. As Denis Hayes, hired by Senator Nelson to organize Earth Day, said years later, the new laws looked good so long as you ignored things like “graft, corruption, huge campaign contributions, friendships forged on golf links, and all of the other stickiness in the system.”

The real world bore little resemblance to a political-science text. Indeed, in 1972 Nixon moved to undermine his own EPA. The president told his aid, John Ehrlichman, to have the EPA “say a number of things designed to shock the consumer that the cost of the environment will be very high and that the air quality laws are very impractical.” The EPA complied, shaking the public’s confidence enough to reduce or delay a number of antipollution regulations opposed by the automobile industry. “Whether it’s the environment or pollution or Naderism or consumerism,” President Nixon assured a gathering of Ford Motor Company executives, “we are extremely pro-business.”

None of this would have surprised many of the Americans who turned out for Earth Day. As ecologist Kenneth Watt observed in a speech at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, “More and more people are giving up on the system. This isn’t just the young people, or the poor, or the black people. I’ve been startled to discover the extent to which white, middle-class, suburban housewives have become so frustrated and are so full of despair about the ability to have any effect on the system that they’ve given up on it.” Mary Humphrey, of the activist group Ecology Action, at an EcoFair near Los Angeles concurred: “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who really thinks the government will do something.”

Perhaps the most telling admission that the political system was not up to the task was made by prominent Senate Democrat and conservationist Edmund Muskie of Maine. “The power of the people is in the cash register,” he proclaimed in an Earth Day speech. He was right.

In a study that asked those who attended Earth Day events in 1970 what actions they would take to help the environment, the plan most frequently cited, by 40% of Earth Day attendees polled, was to change their “consumer behaviors.” In comparison, only about 8% mentioned changes in activities such as joining others to take action.

For critics, this is a troubling example of businesses’ ability to co-opt the ideals of reformers and sell them back to them as organic soy lattes. They charge those who practice personal politics through consumption with avoiding the more difficult work required to organize for traditional politics.

But the retreat to eco-consumerism is understandable. Lacking political solutions, with a two-party system beholden to the very corporations pillaging the planet, citizens concerned about the environment have turned to alternative green consumption. They are not lazy or indifferent, and they are certainly not ignorant. The fact is policy and enforcement favor business at the expense of citizens and the environment.

Organics and other products believed to be environmentally friendly exploded in popularity as producers recognized a ready market in the millions who turned out for Earth Day events across the nation. Today, nearly all consumer products seem to offer a choice of greener alternatives, and for most Americans, consumer choice remains the most popular, if ironic, expression of environmental concern.

During the Cold War Americans heard about citizens in the Soviet Union who coveted Beatles records and blue jeans. Although it might have been a desperate and limited response, we comprehended that type of counterculture consumption as an under-standable reaction to political conditions Soviet citizens felt powerless to change. Green consumption is similar, limited yet understandable. With government in thrall to corporations and chamber of commerce ideologues, as we watch the seas rise, buying a Prius seems like the only game in town.

Thomas Jundt is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown University, and author of Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America.

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9. Player Profile: Jane Paech, author of Delicious Days in Paris

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Jane Paech at Carette tea salon, Place des Vosges, Paris. (PHOTO Vincent Bourdon)

Jane Paech, author of Delicious Days in Paris

Tell us about your latest creation: Delicious Days in Paris. It’s a series of walking tours that explore the food and culture of Paris, with visits to both legendary and little-known cafés, restaurants and pâtisseries along with small museums, art galleries, gardens and markets – all at a civilised pace, with time to daydream.

Where are you from / where do you call home?:

Adelaide, South Australia

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

A chef.

9781921383045Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

During periods of intense writing my study gets pretty messy, but I can’t work like that for too long. It’s essential for me to have lots of light and a large window to connect me to the garden and the outside world.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

Books in the food/travel genres

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

The enchanting Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

I love to cook (and eat!). I also enjoy lap swimming a couple of times a week, and taking long walks on the beach or along Adelaide’s Linear Park.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?: A crispy-skinned confit de canard with sautéed potatoes, and a glass of Sancerre Blanc.

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10. Book Review: ‘Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii’

I can remember looking at anime titles in British video catalogues back in the nineties; as the pastoral fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki would not reach prominence in this country until the new millennium, UK distributors placed a strong emphasis on futuristic thrillers. The films of Mamoru Oshii certainly fit that bill.

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11. Putin in the mirror of history: Crimea, Russia, empire

By Mark D. Steinberg


Contrary to those who believe that Vladimir Putin’s political world is a Machiavellian one of cynical “masks and poses, colorful but empty, with little at its core but power for power’s sake and the accumulation of vast wealth,” Putin often speaks quite openly of his motives and values—and opinion polls suggest he is strongly in sync with widespread popular sentiments. A good illustration is his impassioned speech on 18 March to a joint session of the Russian parliament about Crimea’s secession and union with Russia (an English translation is also available on the Kremlin’s website). The history of Russia as a nation and an empire are key themes:

“In Crimea, literally everything is imbued with our common history and pride. Here is ancient Chersonesus, where the holy Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of turning to Orthodoxy predetermined the shared cultural, moral, and civilizational foundation that unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In Crimea are the graves of Russian soldiers, whose bravery brought Crimea in 1783 under Russian rule. Crimea is also Sevastopol, a city of legends and of great destinies, a fortress city, and birthplace of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge [major battle sites during the Crimean War and World War II]. Each one of these places is sacred for us, symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valor.”

No less revealing is his reflection on the relationships uniting the diverse peoples of Russia.

“Crimea is a unique fusion of the cultures and traditions of various peoples. In this, it resembles Russia as a whole, where over the centuries not a single ethnic group has disappeared. Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and representatives of other nationalities have lived and worked side by side in Crimea, each retaining their own distinct identity, tradition, language, and faith.”

How Russians have often understood their history as an “empire” (though the word is no longer favored) pervades these words and Putin’s thinking.

Try to figure out Putin’s mind—getting “a sense of his soul,” as George W. Bush famously thought he had seen after meeting Putin in 2001—has long been a political preoccupation, and has become especially urgent since the events in Crimea in March. Until now, most commentators viewed Putin as a rational and potentially constructive “partner” in international affairs. Even the growing crackdown on civil society and dissidence, though much criticized, did not undermine this belief. Russia’s annexation of Crimea shattered this confidence. German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Putin seemed to be living “in another world.” Influential commentators in the United States declared that these events unmasked the real Putin, destroying any “illusions” that might have remained (Obama’s former national security advisor, Tom Donilon), revealing a revanchist desire “to re-establish Russian hegemony within the space of the former Soviet Union” (former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton) by a “cynical,” power-hungry, “neo-Soviet” despot seeking to reclaim “the Soviet/Russian empire” (Matthew Kaminski of the Wall Street Journal). A less radical reassessment, but with roughly the same conclusion, is President Obama’s argument that Putin “wants to, in some fashion, reverse…or make up for” the “loss of the Soviet Union.” In this light, the key question becomes “how to stop Putin?”

iStock_000037778612Small

History haunts arguments about what Putin thinks, how much further he might go, and what should be done. Some commentators focus on how Putin sees himself in history. The Republican chairman of the US House of Representative’s Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told Meet the Press that “Mr. Putin…goes to bed at night thinking of Peter the Great and he wakes up thinking of Stalin.” The logical conclusion is that if we do not stop Putin “he is going to continue to take territory to fulfill what he believes is rightfully Russia.” Others think of historical analogies. The former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, writing in the Washington Post, described Putin as “a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler,” making the Crimea annexation, if West does not act, “similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.” Echoing these interpretations are scores of satirical images of Putin as Stalin and Hitler that have appeared at demonstrations and in social media (images of Putin as Peter the Great, more common once, are seen as too flattering now).

Putin himself has a lot to say about history in his 18 March 2014 speech. He points, as he often has, to the recent history of humiliation and insults suffered by Russia at the hands of “our western partners” who treat Russia not as “an independent, active participant in international affairs,” with “its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected,” but as a backward or dangerous nation to dismiss and “contain.” Worse, the Western powers seem to believe in their own “chosenness and exceptionalism, that they can decide the fate of the world, that they alone are always right.” Rulers since Peter the Great have been fighting for Russia to be respected and included, and generally along the same two fronts: proving that Russia deserves equal membership in the community of “civilized” nations through modernizing and Europeanizing reforms, and winning recognition through demonstrations of political and military might, “glory and valor” (in Putin’s phrase). That Russia was famously disgraced during the original Crimean War, revealing levels of economic and military backwardness that inspired a massive program of reform, and that Western commentators now are expressing surprised admiration at the advances in technique and command seen among the Russian army since it was last seen in the field in Georgia, is not only surely gratifying to Putin (who has made military modernization a priority) but part of an important story about nation and history.

Putin also has a lot to say about empire. In the nineteenth century, a theme in Russian thinking about empire was that Russians rule the diversity of its peoples not with self-interest and greed, like European colonialists, but with true Christian love, bringing their subjects “happiness and abundance,” in Michael Pogodin’s words. As Nicholas Danilevsky put it in 1871, Russia’s empire was “not built on the bones of trampled nations.” The Soviet version of this imperial utopianism was the famous “friendship of peoples” (druzhba narodov) of the USSR. Putin, we see, echoes this ideal. He also directs it against ethnic nationalisms that suppress minorities (above all, Russian speakers in Ukraine). Hence his warnings about the role of “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” in the Ukrainian revolution, and his declaration that Crimea under Russian rule would have “three equal state languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar,” in deliberate contrast to the decree of the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian parliament that Ukrainian would be the only official language of the country (later repealed).

Of course, the Russian empire and the Soviet Union were not harmonious multicultural paradises, nor is the Russian Federation, but the ideal is still an influence in Russian thinking and policy. At the same time, Putin contradicts this simple vision in worrisome ways. A good example is how he wavers in his March speech between defining Ukrainians as a separate “people” (narod, which also means “nation”) or as part of a larger Russian nation. Until the twentieth century, very few Russians believed that Ukrainians were a nation with their own history and language, and many still question this. Putin works both sides of this argument. On the one hand, he expresses great respect for the “fraternal Ukrainian people [narod],” their “national feelings,” and “the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.” On the other hand, he argues that what has been happening in Ukraine “pains our hearts” because “we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are truly one people [narod]. Kiev is the mother of Russian [russkie] cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”

Putin’s frequent use of the ethno-national term russkii for “Russian,” rather than the more political term rossiiskii, which includes everyone and anything under the Russian state, is important. Even more ominous are Putin’s suggestions about where such an understanding of history should lead. Reminding “Europeans, and especially Germans,” about how Russia “unequivocally supported the sincere, inexorable aspirations of the Germans for national unity,” he expects the West to “support the aspirations of the Russian [russkii] world, of historical Russia, to restore unity.” This suggests a vision, shaped by views of history, that goes beyond protecting minority Russian speakers in the “near-abroad.”

Putinism often tries to blend contradictory ideals—freedom and order, individual rights and the needs of state, multiethnic diversity and national unity. Dismissing these complexities as cynical masks does not help us develop reasoned responses to Putin. Most important, it does not help people in Russia working for greater freedom, rights, and justice, who are marginalized (and often repressed) when Russia feels under siege. “We have every reason to argue,” he warned in his March speech, “that the infamous policy of containing Russia, which was pursued in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.” Of course, Putin is not wrong to speak of Western arrogance toward Russia (though he is hardly a model of respect for international norms) nor to warn of the dangers of intolerant ethnic nationalism (though he looks the other way at Russia’s own “nationalists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites”). That he can be hypocritical and cynical does not mean his thinking and feelings are “empty,” much less that he has lost touch with reality or with the views of most Russians.

A version of this article originally appeared on HNN.

Mark D. Steinberg is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author or editor of books on Russian popular culture, working-class poetry, the 1917 revolution, religion, and emotions. His most recent books are Petersburg Fin-de-Siecle (Yale University Press, 2011) and the eighth edition of A History of Russia, with the late Nicholas Riasanovsky, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. He is currently writing a history of the Russian Revolution.

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Image credit: Vienna, Austria – March 30, 2014: A sign made up of a photo composite of Vladimir Putin and Hitler looms over protesters who have gathered in the main square in Vienna to protest Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. © benstevens via iStockphoto.

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12. Easter rites of initiation bring good news for American Catholics

By David Yamane


For many Catholics in America, waking up in the morning to find no news about the church is a relief. They won’t have to deal with stories about the lingering stench of the priest sexual abuse scandal, the consolidation of parishes and closing of schools, controversy over Catholic hospitals and the loss of Catholic youth, fewer and older nuns and more and younger “nones.”

But what if no news was not the only good news? What if Catholics turned on their TVs and opened their papers on Easter Sunday and heard some real good news instead?

Photo of family watching tv

Family watching television 1958. Image credit: CC 2.0 via Flickr.

At Easter Vigil Masses on Saturday night, 19 April, something truly remarkable will take place. Tens of thousands of adults in thousands of parishes across the United States became Catholic. For most of them, this rite of passage is the climax of a months- (and in some cases years-) long process of formation called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

As I have written previously, the implementation of this modernized ancient process of initiation is an excellent example of the contemporary re-invention of rites of passage and a fruitful legacy of the Second Vatican Council. It is a Catholic success story.

Sign reserving pews for the Catechumens.

Sign reserving pews for the Catechumens. Photo by John Ragai. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

Although based on a single, universal ritual text, the way the RCIA process is implemented differs from parish to parish. We do well to remember a variant on Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local.” All Catholicism is local. In some parishes we find elaborate and beautiful rituals, rich with fragrant oils and soaring hymns and full body immersion in the waters of baptism. In some parishes, we see minimalistic ceremonies that strain the use of the term ritual.

Regardless of the quality of the celebration, however, through the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist—individuals become Catholic. When the officiating minister speaks the words and performs the actions of the sacraments—“I baptize you…” and “Be sealed…” and “Receive the Body of Christ”—from the perspective of the church, they have the intended effect. It does not matter if the priest says the words excitedly, sincerely, or in a monotone while yawning under his breath. It does not matter if a team of 20 catechists and thousands of parishioners welcome the new Catholic warmly and profusely, or if a single deacon rushes through a minimalistic ceremony while a few dozen assembled individuals wait impatiently for communion. It does not matter if the symbols of the initiation ceremony are rich or sparse. An individual who receives the sacraments of initiation in a Catholic Church is a Catholic. The individual now can check the “Catholic” box, join a parish, receive communion, get married in the church, and so on.

Pink Floyd album cover

Dark Side of the Moon album cover. Via pinkfloyd.com.

This fact reminds us that, at the same time that all Catholicism is local, we can also say that no Catholicism is only local. Without the universal church, there would be no RCIA process in local parishes. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (promulgated in 1963) led to the editio typica of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum (issued in 1972), which led to the vernacular typical edition of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (published in 1988), which has gradually been implemented in US parishes. Understanding this movement from universal to local is important. I think of this as being like the image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon.” The album cover shows a beam of white light hitting a triangular prism, which refracts it to create a rainbow of colors. The culture and resources of local parishes do act as prisms, but without the light, you have no rainbow.

With unprecedented opportunities to choose a religion (or no religion) and to choose how to practice that religion (or not practice), the fact that tens of thousands of people still voluntarily chose Catholicism again this year is indeed good news for American Catholics.

David Yamane teaches sociology at Wake Forest University and is author of Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape. He is currently exploring the phenomenon of armed citizenship in America as part of what has been called “Gun Culture 2.0″—a new group of individuals (including an increasing number of women) who have entered American gun culture through concealed carry and the shooting sports. He blogs about this at Gun Culture 2.0. Follow him on Twitter @gunculture2pt0.

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13. Is CBD better than THC?: exploring compounds in marijuana

By Gary Wenk


Marijuana is the leafy material from Cannabis indica plant that is generally smoked. By weight, it typically contains 2%-5% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive agent. However the plant also contains about fifty other cannabinoid-based compounds, including cannabidiol (CBD).

One Internet ad claims that “cannabidiol (CBD) can cure arthritis, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.” CBD is the main non-psychotropic cannabinoid present in the Cannabis sativa plant, constituting up to 40% of its extract. Somehow this one particular component of the marijuana plant has become much more popular than all of the sixty (at least) other biologically active molecules that have been isolated from this plant, to the point where growers are breeding marijuana plants with significantly higher levels of CBD.

750px-Marijuana

Why are people so excited about CBD? The answer lies in unpacking a series of complex truths, making distinctions between what is known and what is not known, and dispelling some false claims.

The human brain naturally possesses a pair of protein receptors that respond to endogenous marijuana-like chemicals. These receptors are incredibly common and are found throughout the human brain. When a person smokes marijuana, all of the various chemicals in the plant are inhaled, ultimately, into the brain where they find and bind to these receptors, similar to a key fitting into a lock. Which receptors are affected, and what parts of the brain are involved, differs for just about everyone, depending upon their genetic make-up, drug-taking history, and expectations regarding the experience; the last factor being commonly known as the placebo effect.

wenk figure

The images above come from Dr. Wenk’s research at Ohio State University, and demonstrate an increase in hippocampus neuron activity in rats following a cannabinoid treatment.

In addition, the chemicals inhaled into the brain also interact with a complex array of other neural systems; these interactions also contribute to the overall psychoactive experience, such as the marijuana’s ability to reduce anxiety, produce euphoria, or induce “the munchies.” My own research has demonstrated the positive effects of stimulation of the endogenous cannabinoid neural system in the aging brain.

Both CBD and THC are capable of interacting with this complex variety of proteins. However, and this is where things get interesting, they do not do so with the same degree of effectiveness. Scientists have shown that THC is over one thousand times more potent than is CBD, meaning a person would need to consume 1,000 “joints” of the genetically modified CDB-marijuana plant to get high. This chemical property of CBD has led to the accurate claim that CBD does not make one feel “high.” However, the low potency of CBD may also indicate that, by itself, it offers limited clinical benefits – currently- no one knows. Animal studies have discovered many beneficial effects of CBD but only when administered at very high doses.

What has become quite apparent is that no single component of the plant is entirely good or bad, therapeutic or harmful, or deserving of our complete attention. To date, all of the positive evidence supporting the use of medical marijuana in humans has come from studies of the entire plant or experimental investigations of THC. Given the very low potency of CBD within the brain it is highly unlikely that CBD alone will provide significant clinical benefit. Some small clinical trials are being initiated; until rigorous scientific studies are completed no one can claim that CBD is better than THC.

Gary L. Wenk, PhD., a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, is a leading authority on the consequences of chronic brain inflammation and animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. He is also the author of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings.

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Image Credit: First image is from United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. The 4/20 update

By Mitch Earleywine


A lot has changed this year in cannabis prohibition. Science and policy march on. Legendary legalization laws in Colorado and Washington have generated astounding news coverage. Maryland is the latest state to change policies. A look at these states can reveal a lot about the research on relevant topics, too.

Colorado and Taxes


Colorado provides taxed and regulated access to recreational users for the first time since 1937’s Marijuana Tax Act. Money rolls into the state’s coffers (roughly $3.4 million in January and February) and the sky has yet to fall. Some observers grouse that the taxes on the recreational market are not generating as much as pundits predicted, as if economic wonks have never guessed wrong before. Apparently, fewer medical users switched from their medical sources to the recreational suppliers. Given that the tax on medical cannabis is 2.9% and the recreational sources cost an additional 25%, we shouldn’t be stunned. It’s nice to see that people behave rationally. It’s only been a few months (since 1 January 2014), but the anticipated spikes in emergency room visits, psychotic breaks, and teen use are nowhere to be found.

Washington and DUI


Washington State continues to hammer out details for how their legal market will work. A per se driving law there has generated controversy. All 50 states prohibit driving while impaired after using cannabis, but the majority require prosecutors to prove recent use and unsafe operation. In contrast, these per se laws essentially make it illegal to drive with a specified amount of cannabis metabolites in the blood. Perfectly competent, safe drivers with the specified amount of metabolites are still breaking the law. For Washington State, the specified amount is 5ng/ml. Unfortunately, this level does not say much about actual impairment and laws like these don’t decrease traffic fatalities. Medical users, who often have more than the specified amount of metabolites, are particularly worried. Though they have developed tolerance to the plant with frequent use and likely show fine driving skill, they remain open for arrest. Plenty of prescription and over-the-counter medications have the potential to impair driving, but comparable laws for these drugs are not on the books. Given the potential for biased enforcement, per se laws like these will undoubtedly face challenges. Standard roadside sobriety tests like those used for alcohol, though less than perfect, might be fairer.

bush of hemp stock

Maryland and Rising Change


A few days ago, the governor of Maryland signed bills removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis and setting up medical distribution. Citizens there caught with 10 grams of the plant risk arrest, a criminal record, a $500 fine, and up to 90 days in jail. After 1 October 2014, they’ll get slapped with a $100 fine for their first offense. Decriminalization can mean different things in different states, especially given the varied styles of police enforcement in each area. But comparable laws appear in Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and others. These laws have the potential to free up law enforcement time to decrease serious crimes.

Maryland will also become the 21st medical cannabis state. Over a third of the US population lives in states with medical cannabis laws now, but the details of distribution remain perplexing. Markedly fewer have access than this statistic would imply. Medical marijuana laws have provided the plant for the sickest of the sick, but without increasing teen use. They also appear to decrease traffic fatalities, perhaps by decreasing alcohol consumption. Medical marijuana laws appear to lower suicide rates in men by 5%, perhaps also via the impact on drinking.

Reaching the Public


A Pew Poll earlier this month suggests that data like these and changes in state laws accompany altered public opinion.

More people than ever (52%) support a legal market in the plant. Less than ¼ think possession should lead to jail time. Over 60% think that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis. With attitudes like these, comparisons to the repeal of alcohol prohibition are loud and numerous. Though no one has a crystal ball and it’s impossible to guess the implications of policies that haven’t been around long, everyone agrees we’re in for an informative and wild ride in the years ahead.

Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Clinical Science and Director of Clinical Training in Psychology at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition and Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. He has received nine teaching awards for his courses on drugs and human behavior and is a leading researcher in psychology and addictions. He is Associate Editor of The Behavior Therapist.

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Image credit: Bush of a hemp. Lowryder 2. © Yarygin via iStockphoto.

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15. The continuing threat of nuclear weapons

By Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel


Out of sight. Out of mind.

Nine countries, mainly the United States and Russia, possess 17,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost 70 years ago. An attack and counterattack in which fewer than 1% of these nuclear weapons were detonated could cause tens of millions of deaths and could disrupt climate globally, leading to crop failures and widespread famine. A greater conflagration could cause a “nuclear winter” and threaten the future of life on earth.

The recent tensions concerning Ukraine demonstrate that although 23 years have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain a clear and present danger to humanity. Persistent threats include accidental launch of nuclear warheads, proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations, potential acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors, and diversion of human and financial resources in order to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals in the United States and other nations.

Despite safeguards, accidental detonation remains a real possibility. A few years ago, a US Air Force plane transported six missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, unbeknownst to the pilot and crew. Twice, in recent weeks, it was revealed that as many as half of navy and air force personnel who maintain nuclear-armed missiles and would be responsible for launching them if commanded to do so had cheated on their competency examinations. In 1995, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, had only a few minutes to decide whether to launch Russian nuclear-armed missiles against the United States in response to what, on radar, looked like a US air attack with multiple re-entry vehicles (MERVs); it turned out to be a rocket launched by a team of Norwegian and US scientists to study the aurora borealis.

Another major concern is that the leaders of the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons each have absolute authority — unchecked by other government officials or institutions, even in the United States — to launch an offensive or allegedly defensive nuclear strike.

Furthermore, proliferation remains a serious threat. During the past decade North Korea obtained nuclear technology and fissile materials, and developed and tested one or more nuclear weapons. At least until recently, Iran apparently was — and may still be — on the path to developing nuclear weapons. Given the widespread knowledge about nuclear technology and the potential availability of fissile material, non-state actors could acquire and use nuclear weapons.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Betty Puma, from the 5th Munitions Squadron, reviews a nuclear weapons maintenance procedures checklist as part of the Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) May 19, 2009, at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. An NSI is designed to evaluate a unit's readiness to execute nuclear operations. Areas to be evaluated during the NSI include operations, maintenance, security and support activities needed to ensure the wing performs its mission in a safe, secure and reliable manner. This no-notice inspection is expected to conclude May 22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miguel Lara III/Released). defenseimagery.mil

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Betty Puma, from the 5th Munitions Squadron, reviews a nuclear weapons maintenance procedures checklist as part of the Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) May 19, 2009, at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. An NSI is designed to evaluate a unit’s readiness to execute nuclear operations. Areas to be evaluated during the NSI include operations, maintenance, security and support activities needed to ensure the wing performs its mission in a safe, secure and reliable manner. This no-notice inspection is expected to conclude May 22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miguel Lara III/Released). defenseimagery.mil

Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — the fissile material used in nuclear weapons — is distributed globally, and used in nuclear reactors to perform research or power aircraft carriers and submarines. Converting to low-enriched uranium would eliminate the possibility of HEU being stolen or otherwise diverted to produce nuclear weapons.

Yet another major concern is the huge diversion of financial resources to maintain and modernize the US nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated over the next 30 years to be about $1 trillion. The proposed nuclear weapons budget of the US Department of Energy for fiscal year 2015 is higher than at any time during the Cold War. Meanwhile, substantial cuts have been proposed in programs to dismantle and prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons — and in programs to reduce poverty and protect human rights.

To most Americans, all of these concerns are out of sight and out of mind. Each of us has a responsibility to become more educated about these issues, increase the awareness of other people about them, and advocate for measures to reduce the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, including the abolition of nuclear weapons.

A longstanding proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). In 1997, a consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation drafted a model convention. The Convention would require nations that possess nuclear weapons to destroy them in stages — taking them from high-alert status, removing them from deployment, removing warheads from delivery vehicles, disabling warheads by removing explosive “pits,” and placing fissile material under control of the United Nations. Such a convention has had wide public support throughout the world.

An immediate step that could pave the way to the Nuclear Weapons Convention and the eradication of nuclear weapons is a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Such a treaty could be negotiated with or without the participation of those nations possessing nuclear weapons. It could create an international norm of the illegality of nuclear weapons, similar to the norms that have been established concerning chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel landmines, and cluster munitions. Such a treaty could put substantial pressure on the nations possessing nuclear weapons to comply with their disarmament obligations — which they have been unwilling to do thus far. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has mobilized 300 civil-society organizations in 90 countries to campaign, on humanitarian grounds, for such a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Given resurgent Cold-War-era arguments for revitalizing US nuclear-weapons capabilities to deter Russian actions in Ukraine, we must resist measures that would reset the “Doomsday Clock” to a point that places all humanity — and indeed all life on earth — in great peril of annihilation by nuclear weapons.

Barry S. Levy, M.D., M.P.H., and Victor W. Sidel, M.D., are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health, all of which have been published by Oxford University Press. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Levy is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Sidel is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Victor W. Sidel was a member of the 1997 consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation that drafted the model Nuclear Weapons Convention. Read their previous blog posts.

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16. A Highly Unlikely Scenario

Have you ever read a review of a book from a trusted source that gushed about a book, how utterly fantastic, original, funny, quirky it is (fill in the blanks with the descriptive words that make you say omg I have to read this book)? Of course you have. And have you then gone out and either bought it or borrowed it from the library, brought it home in a great excitement of anticipation, opened the cover, dove in and about halfway through realized the book was not even close to the heights of delight you thought it would be and in fact got lost somewhere in the foothills? Of course you have. And did you keep reading it anyway because you thought that maybe the big payoff came at the end, oh please let there be a big payoff at the end to have made it all worthwhile? Of course you have. And then when you got to the end and closed the cover did you sigh, not with satisfaction but with sadness because the payoff never came? Of course you have.

I seem to be having some difficulty with books lately. First the Prose book I have set aside and probably will never finish, and now A Highly Unlikely Scenario Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, which I did finish. The book held such promise.

The story takes place in an unspecified future where the world is run by fast food companies that faction themselves into different philosophical traditions. For instance Neetsa Pizza, the company our hero Leonard works for, governs itself and its food by Pythagorean precepts. Leonard’s sister, Carol, works for a Scottish fast food company called the Jack-o-Bites. There are also Heraclitans, Cathars, (Roger) Baconians, neo-Maoists, and a host of other competing fast food ideologies.

But the book is not about fast food, that’s just the setting. The book is about Leonard whose gift is his receptivity and ability to listen. He sits in an all white room and takes calls from unhappy Neetsa Pizza customers, helps them feel better and gives them coupons. He has a training book on hand to help with likely scenarios. But one day he gets a call that turns out to be an unlikely scenario that sets him on a journey in which he saves the world, finds love, and travels through time. It is completely bonkers, but given that his love turns out to be Sally who is a librarian and Baconian whose job is to guard the Voynich manuscript and, who has managed to decipher some of it, the book was looking to be promising.

Does the Voynich manuscript sound familiar to you? It has been in the news lately. Cantor’s book was published in 2013 before the latest news about the manuscript. The Voynich, was supposedly composed by Roger Bacon in the 13th century and discovered in 1912 by Wilfred Voynich. The book is written in a code no one, not even top cryptologists, has been able to crack. This has many believing the book is a hoax. Though a University of Bedfordshire applied linguistics professor has recently claimed to have cracked the code.

The news added to the promise of the book, but the book did not deliver. Dancing letters, talks in the present with historical personages from the past, Jewish mysticism, time travel, Isaac the Blind, and Abulafia never melded into a story that made much sense. Sure, the world was supposed to be in danger because Abulafia got Felix, Leonard’s nephew who could stop time, to go back in time where he, Abulafia, planned on using Felix to bring on the end of days. But given that Felix comes from the future there isn’t much sense of peril because we know the outcome even though there are hints that the future might be changed.

The book could have been a fun story about finding and using your gifts to make the world a better place but all that gets lost amidst the quirkiness and fighting between the fast food companies and the mysticism. As far as I can tell, this is Cantor’s first novel. She has previously published a number of short stories in literary journals. There appear to be enough to make a short story collection and if she goes that direction I would definitely read it. The writing itself is good and her style is fun. She creates interesting characters and knows how to keep the pace moving. And she is original and obviously creative. However, all these pluses end up fighting against each other. I hope she writes another novel because she does have potential if she can manage to get all of her skills working together instead of competing for top billing.


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17. Top five hip hop references in poetry

By David Caplan


Hip hop has influenced a generation of poets coming to prominence, poets I call “The Inheritors of Hip Hop.” Signaling how the music serves as a shared experience and inspiration, they  mention performers and songs as well as anecdotes from the genre’s development and the artists’ lives, while epigraphs and titles quote songs. The influence of hip hop can be heard in the work of many poets including (but certainly not limited to): Kevin Coval, Erica Dawson, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Matthew Dickman, Major Jackson, Terrance Hayes, Dorothea Lasky, John Murillo, Eugene Ostashevsky, D.A. Powell, Roger Reeves, and Michael Robbins.

640px-Turntable_spinning

In no particular order, here are my five favorite hip hop references in poetry:

(1)   Kevin Young, “Expecting”
To capture the experience of first hearing his child’s heartbeat during a sonogram exam, Young develops a wildly inventive simile followed by metaphors borrowed from hip hop:

And there
it is: faint, an echo, faster and further

away than mother’s, all beat box
and fuzzy feedback. You are like hearing
hip-hop for the first time–power

hijacked from the lamppost–all promise.
You couldn’t sound better, break-
dancer, my favorite song bumping

from a passing car. You’ve snuck
into the club underage and stayed!

(2)   Rowan Ricardo Phillips, “Mappa Mundi
Describing his hometown of the Bronx, Phillips combines Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon’s verse in “Triumph,” “Aiyyo, that’s amazing gun-in-your-mouth talk,” and Samuel Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” “the redbreast sit and sing”:

Whether red birds sit and sing from rooftops

Or rappers cypher deep into the night,
The gun-in-your-mouth talk of a ransomed
God, nature is a lapse in city life.

(3)   Harryette Mullen, “Dim Lady”
Hip hop is nearly everywhere in Mullen’s earlier collection, Muse and Drudge, but my single favorite reference in her work to hip hop appears in “Dim Lady,” collected in Sleeping with the Dictionary. The prose poem rewrites and updates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. In the place of Shakespeare’s lines,

“I love to hear her speak, yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound,”

Mullen offers,

“I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat.” 

(The poem’s ending always makes me laugh, “And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief.”

(4)   A. Van Jordan, “R&B
A subgenre of poems about hip hop criticizes the music. A rare exception to the ignorance such work typically show (see, for instance, Tony Hoagland’s “Rap Music”), “R & B” offers a well-informed, thoughtful critique. “Listen long enough to the radio, and you’ll think / maybe C. Dolores Tucker was right,” the poem opens and an endnote reminds readers of Tucker’s significant contributions to the black civil rights movement.

(5)   Michael Cirelli, “Dead Ass”
“I am not afraid of dope lyrics,” Michael Cirelli writes in “Dead Ass.” Several poems in Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard retell moments from hip hop history. To describe teens grooving to the music, “Dead Ass” borrows from Oakland slang, “hyphy,” meaning “crazy” in a good sense, “hyphy / music makes their bodies dip up and down / like oil drills.” (My favorite line in the book, though, describes eighties pop, not hip hop, “We danced incestuously to Michael and Janet that night.”)

Bonus Tracks


(6)   Adrien Matejka, “Wheels of Steel
“I got me two songs instead of eyes,” the poem opens then swaggering quotes five songs in twenty-seven lines.

(7)   Marcus Wicker, “Love Letter to Flavor Flav” tries to make sense of Public Enemy’s most puzzling member:

How you’ve lived saying nothing
save the same words each day
is a kind of freedom or beauty.
Please, tell me I’m not lying to us.

David Caplan is Charles M. Weis Chair in English and Associate Director of Creative Writing at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture. His previous books include Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form and the poetry collection In the World He Created According to His Will.

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18. Identifying unexpected strengths in adolescents

By Johanna Slivinske


Think for a moment, back to when you were a teenager. What were you like? What did you enjoy doing? In what did you excel? The positive activities in which we partake in adolescence shape our adult lives. In my case, playing the clarinet in band and competing in extemporaneous speaking on the speech team molded me the most, and became my personal strengths.

360px-Chambre_adolescentMusic and the creative arts continue to influence my writing and speaking, and many of these facets of my professional life can be traced back to strengths developed and built upon in my youth. Another strength was the fact that I had a loving, kind, and caring family. This provided me with a solid foundation for life, and in a sense, these protective factors in my life made me resilient. However, strengths can also be found in unexpected venues, perhaps peering through the cracks of hardship.

  1.   Adolescents might find strengths through their failures in discovering that they are able to get back up after falling. When teens fail, and continue to try despite the failure, they show a level of resilience, diligence, and perseverance.
  2.   The communities of adolescents, even if less than perfect, can be a source of strength. Creating dialogues about community leaders may benefit teens that need role models in their lives. It can help them figure out whom they aspire to be similar to in character and in positive personal qualities. A community leader can be anyone who functions as a responsible person in the community, or anyone else who cares about the well-being of the community as a whole.
  3.   Acting out behaviors may be viewed through a strengths lens if those behaviors are a response to traumatic experiences such as community violence or sexual assault. The nonproductive response of acting out behaviors during adolescence may be reframed therapeutically as a survival mechanism or a stepping-stone leading toward a more productive path of healing and growth.
  4.   Instead of viewing quirks, eccentricities, or diagnoses as negative qualities, these may sometimes be perceived as qualities that foster the creation of unique perspectives and promote divergent ways of understanding the world.
  5.   When everyday necessities are lacking from adolescents’ lives, they may learn to be resourceful. Resourcefulness may entail surviving under extremely stressful circumstances or learning how to “make due” with limited resources. Teens may have learned how to cook for themselves, or they may have asked friends to share clothing with them. These are examples of using the strength of resourcefulness under difficult circumstances.


When working with adolescents and their families, it is essential to focus not only on their problems, but also on their strengths. This may sometimes present as a challenge, but if you search intensely, with an open mind, strengths may be identified and built upon as a solid foundation for life. This contributes to the fostering of resilience in adolescents and their families.

Hidden or obscured strengths, when perceived in a positive manner, may serve as methods of coping or means of survival during times of stress. Even when strengths are obvious to professionals, adolescent clients may not be aware of their own strengths, and may benefit from therapists’ ability to identify, recognize, and name them. Through working with adolescents, it’s possible to identify strengths and help them learn more about themselves and what makes them unique, so that they can grow to become productive members of their communities.

Johanna Slivinske is co-author of Therapeutic Storytelling for Adolescents and Young Adults (2014). She currently works at PsyCare and also teaches in the Department of Social Work at Youngstown State University, where she is also affiliated faculty for the Department of Women’s Studies.

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19. Oh, the Places You’ll Go

bookCoverShannon Bowers’ son Alex loves Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go.

Shannon gets teary-eyed when they read it together. Someday Alex will grow up, go to college and live out his dreams. Alex gets teary-eyed when Shannon reads too many of the pages. He’s five now. That’s his job.

Recently, Alex and his classmates, students from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, all picked out brand-new books from First Book to take home. They chose stories about history, princesses and sharks. Their excitement was overflowing; many of them had no books at home.

Shannon Bowers family 2014Books have always been an important part of Shannon’s life. Her parents read to her as a child, and she and her husband Paul entered parenthood sharing the belief that education creates opportunities. They have always made an effort to fill their home with books.

Since Alex was born, Shannon and Paul have made reading as a family part of their nightly routine. Alex picks out a book; they all pile into his bed and share the story together. These days, Alex really likes to read to one-year-old Michael. He gets frustrated if mom or dad interrupts.

Shannon hopes reading will help take Alex and Michael all the places they want to go – in their imaginations and in life. She hopes financial issues won’t stand in their way. She hopes the same can be true for all kids.

“Our kids, they’re five years old,” she said. “None of them are thinking about [the future] right now. But we are. We think about that kind of thing… I want all of these kids to know if they make good enough grades, and they do what they need to do, then it’s there. They can do whatever they want.”

Together we can prepare kids for brighter future. Please consider making a gift to First Book today.

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20. Hate-Reading

Have you ever hate-read anything? Maybe, like this Paris Review contributor, you even do it regularly? When I came upon that post today I was initially taken aback. Why, I’d never! *Gasp of shock and horror*

Sure, I’ve hate-watched something before. I readily admit that after the second or third episode of the first season of the Under the Dome TV series I found it so terribly bad and realized it wasn’t going to get any better. But I kept watching it each week because there was something about hating it that was fun. And when the second season runs I will hate-wath that too.

But hate-reading? Why I’d never! Except then I remembered that once I did. It didn’t start off as hate-reading but the book quickly turned bad. I kept reading, however, because it was bad. It was a nonfiction book and its badness became not only fascinating but fun. Let’s see how many holes I can poke in the argument! And there were a few flaws of logic that were breathtaking. So I read to the end, hating it the whole time and always wondering why I didn’t just return the book to the library.

I am sure that was the only time I have ever hate-read something. But now I recall hate-reading a couple Harold Bloom books. Those books weren’t bad and Bloom is a very good writer, it’s the man himself that rubs me the wrong way. All his sly insulting comments about feminists, his pomposity and ego drive me nuts. I know this but I read those couple of books anyway just for the pleasure of whipping myself into a hate-reading frenzy.

I generally feel contrite afterwards; a little dirty and ashamed. So it is probably good I don’t hate-read very often. It’s been years but I doubt that means I have seen the error of my ways. No, I suspect I am just waiting for the right book to come along.


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21. It was a wild, wild wood…

furfamily

Here’s a little moment in time. Right after I read The Little Fur Family to Huck (for the first time!) the other day, he wanted to read it himself. This is one of my favorite picture books to read with very young kids, and I can’t imagine how it slipped past Huck until now—I found this copy of the book at the bottom of a box of toys earlier in the week. Of course the very best edition is the tiny one with the faux-fur cover. It’s around here somewhere, but I don’t recall seeing it in ages. It’s probably under a bed.

Anyway, when I grabbed my boy for the read-aloud, he was reluctant to listen, as he very often is right at the beginning. And then, as nearly always happens, before I finish the first page, he’s hooked. It went double this time around. He fell hard for the little fur child in the wild, wild wood, like so many before him.

I caught a good chunk of his reading on video. There’s background noise from his big sisters and brother, but you can hear him pretty well. I love watching the leaps kids make at this age—the substitutions where they think they see where the word is going and plug in one they know, like his “fun children” for “fur child” and “mom” for “mother.”

I don’t know if I caught this stage on video with any of the other kids. I have a pretty young Rilla reading an Ariel speech from The Tempest—you can’t hear much in the recording but it melts me to see the confidence with which she attacks some quite challenging text—but nothing, as far as I can recall, of the others at Huck’s stage. I’m glad I captured this much. Those sneezes!

(Vimeo link)

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22. Guest post by Gueh Yanting, Claudine


I am delighted to share a great guest post on the blog today.

Dear March House Books Readers,

Although I can’t remember it, I heard my first story from my parents. Not from story books, no. Real-life stories. Theirs.

They were the children who ran around in villages (we call them Kampong) in Singapore during the 50s and 60s, slippers slapping the dusty paths and clothes drenched when they hopped into ponds to catch fish. And that’s where the setting-inspiration for my children’s novel (in mid-60s) came from.

{How the Kampong looked like. Picture from Google Images Labeled for Reuse with Modifications. 
Source: http://comesingapore.com/travel-guide/article/607/ten-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-singapore}

I asked my father, who especially loves telling snippets from his childhood, to contribute some for this post, and here’s what he told me:

·         As my father has 11 brothers and 3 sisters, they all crammed in one house, with one yard and owned one family plantation. My grandfather also reared chickens and pigs. At one point, there were more than 20 people (wives and baby cousins) living in that house!

·         My father and his brothers were too poor to afford school bags, so they used rattan baskets instead. When they had to sharpen their pencils, they used my grandfather’s shaving blade. They used to cut themselves quite often but never worried about it.

·         They showered using only one bar of soap: for the hair, face and body. That bar of soap was actually also used for laundry.

·         When he got off school at around 1pm, my father would return to the fields to help out. After completing his chores, he and my uncles would play at a nearby pond. Their main hobby was catching a certain species called ‘Fighting Fish’ and … letting them fight, I suppose.

·         Snacks were usually wrapped in newspapers. Sometimes they bought dried hawthorn flakes. If they didn’t have money for snacks, they’d get sweet potatoes from their fields, and roast them on a bed of charcoals.

{Dried Hawthorn Flakes/Cakes. Picture from Google Images Labeled for Reuse with Modifications.}

·         When the weather was hot, and in Singapore it mostly is, the children would buy balls of shaved ice to eat. The man who sold ice balls would drizzle colourful sugar syrup over them. By the way, we still have these at our marketplaces. During my childhood, it was also one of our favourite desserts. They are shaped like a small hill now, and have extra corn or red bean toppings, like this:


{Shaved Ice, a.k.a. Ice Kachang. Picture from Google Images Labeled for Reuse with Modifications.}

·         During lunar new years, parents would give children red packets (money stuffed in small, red envelopes) on New Year’s Eve, symbolizing good fortune for the coming year. When my father and some of his brothers received theirs, they spent all the money on firecrackers. Lighting up firecrackers was still legal then in Singapore. And they absolutely loved it! I suspect my father is waiting for Baby Olive (my one-year-old niece) to be slightly older so he could buy sparklers and play with her during New Year’s Eve.


{Red Packets. Picture from Google Images Labeled for Reuse with Modifications.}

·        My father studied in the village school till he was Primary 4, which was the highest level in that school. To go on to Primary 5, students had to travel farther out. My father and his brothers didn’t have the gift for studies, because even when they’d reached Primary 2 or 3 (around 8-9 years old), they were still not accustomed to gripping a pencil and writing with it. Usually, my grandfather or one of the elder brothers would have to steady their elbows in order for them to write neatly!

·         So he stopped studying after that and worked in my grandfather’s fields until he was about 16. Then he went into the construction industry.

A Gross, Mushroom Story (If you have a weak stomach, please skip this part!)

Those days, the nearest toilet could be quite far away and it was inconvenient to walk in the dark to get to one. People had chamber pots instead. However, with so many people under one roof, pots were too small. My family used pickled jars.

Sometimes they only poured the waste away after a few days. I’m not quite sure about this because I haven’t seen few-day-old urine, but I hear there would be sediments or dregs left in the jars.

Once, my grandfather stepped on a big, rusty nail. It was likely to give him a bad inflammation. Yet, he didn’t go to the hospital. They distrusted hospitals. My family had learned of a traditional folk cure, which was to soak a mushroom in the urine dregs overnight before applying it onto the wound. It sounds terribly gross, but it did work. The swelling went down the next day and my grandfather recovered fully soon after.


My father also told stories about adulthood, like how female guests attended wedding meals in the afternoon and all went home with a flower in their hair while male guests attended the evening round and each got a cigar, and how villagers called on midwives rather than hospital nurses when one of the women went into labour, and how one of my aunts ran off with a man she knew only briefly. My grandfather was livid, but they managed to get her back. That was the year the Queen of England visited Singapore.

Those were the days that were tough, but those were also the days my father and his brothers had the most fun. Those were the days I hadn’t experienced except through his stories. Those were the days (or close enough) that I’ve let my latest characters live in.



Gueh Yanting, Claudine, has written and published two picture ebooks (age 6 & up) and one middle-grade ebook (age 9 & up). Her latest story, LITTLE ORCHID’S SEA MONSTER TROUBLE, is about a girl trying to prove to her Ma that she hasn’t been spouting nonsense about the Giant Cuttlefish, and later turning into a sea monster herself. It is set in Singapore in 1965.

Check it out here:


Thank you so much for letting me spread my father’s story snippets here on your lovely blog, Barbara. I hope your readers enjoy them!


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23. What’s the secret to high scores on video games?

By Siu-Lan Tan


When playing video games, do you play better with the sound on or off? Every gamer may have an opinion, but what has research shown?

Some studies suggest that music and sound effects enhance performance. For instance, Tafalla (2007) found that male gamers scored almost twice as many points while playing the first-person shooter game DOOM with the sound on (chilling music, weaponfire, screams, and labored breathing) compared to those playing with the sound off.

On the other hand, Yamada et al. (2001) found that people had the fastest lap times in the racing game Ridge Racer V when playing with the music off. Interestingly, 10 different music tracks were tested—and the lowest scores were earned when playing with the soundtrack built into the game (Boom Boom Satellite’s “Fogbound”).

Sometimes the results are more complex. Cassidy and MacDonald (2009) tested people playing a driving game with car sounds effects alone or with car sound effects plus different kinds of music. People playing with music that had been shown to be ‘highly arousing’ (in previous research) drove the fastest—but also made the greatest number of mistakes, such as hitting barriers or knocking over road cones!

800px-Dubaj

In our own research (published 2010 and 2012), my colleagues John Baxa and Matt Spackman and I found that people playing Twilight Princess (Legend of Zelda) performed worst when playing with both music and sound effects off. This game provides the player with rich auditory cues that function as warnings, clues for access points, feedback for correct moves such as successful attacks on enemies, and more. Many of these don’t just “double” what you see on the screen.

As we progressively added more game audio, performance improved. However, surprisingly, our participants performed best when playing with background music playing on a boombox that was unrelated to the game! (This would be like playing a game with the game sound switched off—while your roommate’s music is playing in the background.)

How to boost your game play?

So how do we make sense of these findings? And do they shed light on what distinguishes the top gamers?

A closer look at the individuals in our 2010/2012 study suggested that the majority of our participants—but not all—played better with unrelated background music until they “got the hang of” the game.

We used a game that was new to everybody. As Twilight Princess is a pretty complex adventure role-playing game, the average player seemed to have to focus attention on the visual information when first navigating the game. So music and sound effects built into the game may have interfered with their concentration, as they had to “tune it out” to focus on visual cues to guide their actions at first.

800px-Dataspel

However, our top players (who concluded four days of play in our Videogame Lab with the highest scores) were different. They tended to play better with the game sound on (full music and sound effects coming from both screen and Wiimote) from the very beginning.

The best players seemed to be better at paying attention to and meaningfully integrating both audio and visual cues effectively—thus benefitting from the richest warnings/clues/feedback. While the typical player strongly favored one sense, the best players were truly playing an audio-visual game from the beginning.

So…one secret to being a successful gamer may be to sharpen your attention to audio cues (in sound effects and music) within a game. Paying more attention to and integrating cues to both ear and eye may boost your game!

More than just high scores…

I’m also reminded of what a participant in our study expressed so well: “There’s more to a game than just high scores. It’s also about being transported and immersed in another world, and music and sound effects are what bring you there.”

Indeed, the lush cinematic scores take us through the emotional highs and lows of the journey of a game. Atmospheric tracks immerse us in other worlds. Rhythmic tracks serve as an engine to drive the action, the propulsion of the music making the virtual environment appear deeper and the visual array seem to whizz by faster (motion parallax).

When you have a great soundtrack, music can be the soul of a game.

Postscript: Sonic Mayhem!

Recently I had a chance to speak with composer Sonic Mayhem (Sascha Dikiciyan) when we were both interviewed on video game music by Sami Jarroush for Consequence of Sound. Sonic Mayhem is one of the most sought-after video game music composers today. He scored Quake III Arena, Tron: Evolution, Mass Effect 2 & 3, Borderlands, Space Marine, James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies, Mortal Kombat vs DC, and a ton of other monumental games.

Click here to view the embedded video.

 Siu-Lan Tan is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Psychology Today. Siu-Lan Tan also has her own blog, What Shapes Film? Read her previous blog posts.

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Image credits: (1) Dubaj, by Danik9000, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Dataspel, by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org, CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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24. Prime Minister’s Questions

By Andrew Dobson


“Noisy and aggressive,” “childish,” “over the top,” “pointless.” These are just a few recent descriptions of Prime Minister’s Questions – the most watched event in the Parliamentary week.

Public dismay at PMQs has led the Speaker, John Bercow, to consult with party leaders over reform.  The Hansard Society asked focus groups what they thought of PMQs as part of its annual look at public engagement. Nearly half said the event is “too noisy and aggressive”, the same proportion as those who felt that MPs behave unprofessionally. Meanwhile, a majority of 33% to 27% reported that it put them off politics. Only 12% said it made them “proud of our Parliament”.

John Bercow. By Office of John Bercow CC-BY-SA-3.0

Both the Deputy Prime Minister Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband agreed that the baying and screeching gave politics and politicians a bad name, and while Prime Minister David Cameron was a little more guarded, he too thought that Mr Bercow’s ideas were interesting and worth looking at.

So would it help if politicians listened to each other little bit more and shouted at each other a little bit less? The fact that PMQs is simultaneously the most watched and the least respected Parliamentary event is significant. No doubt we watch it precisely because we enjoy the barracking and the bawling, and there is always the possibility of grudging admiration for a smart bit of wordplay by one or other of the combatants. Parliamentary sketch writers nearly always judge the winner of PMQs on the basis of which of the party leaders has bested the other in terms of quips and ripostes – and very rarely on the basis of political substance.

So it’s hardly an informative occasion. Indeed the Hansard’s respondents’ main gripes are that questions are scripted, and that there are too many planted questions and too few honest answers.

Once again, though, maybe this misses the point. Some will say that the civilised and serious political work is done behind the scenes in committee rooms, where party loyalty is less obviously on display, and where considered debate often takes place. On this account, PMQs occupy a very small amount of parliamentary time, and anyway, the sometimes angry jousting that takes place between party leaders on Wednesdays is as much a part of politics as the polite exchange of views we find in Parliamentary committees. Where would politics be without disagreement? Would it be politics at all?

But then there are different ways of disagreeing – and some ways could turn out to be exclusionary. One of the ideas floated by John Bercow was that the flight of women from the House of Commons was in part a result of the way in which debate is conducted there.

David Cameron

David Cameron. By World Economic Forum/Moritz Hager (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And it’s a fact that although good listening is much prized in daily conversation, it’s been almost completely ignored in the form of political conversation we know as democracy. While PMQs show that politicians aren’t always very good at listening to each other, they’re not much better at listening to the public either. Politicians instinctively know that listening in a democracy is vital to legitimacy. That’s why when they’re in trouble they reach for the listening card and initiate a “Big Conversation,” like the one Tony Blair started in late 2003, not so many months after the million people march against the Iraq war.

But won’t a government that listens hard and changes its mind just be accused of that ultimate political crime, the U-turn? In 2012, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced some radical changes in UK secondary school education, including a return to an older style assessment regime. Then in February 2013 he suddenly announced that the changes wouldn’t take place after all. Predictably, the Opposition spokesman called this a ‘humiliating climbdown’. Equally predictably, Gove’s supporters played the listening card for it was worth, with Nick Clegg saying effusively that, “There is no point having a consultation if you’ve already made up your mind what you’re going to do at the end of it.”

So it looks as though, as far as listening goes, governments are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: accused of weakness if they change their mind and of pig-headedness and a failure to listen if they don’t. On balance, I’d rather have them listening more – both to each other and to us. John Dryzek is surely right to say that, “the most effective and insidious way to silence others in politics is a refusal to listen.”

As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus says: “Nature hath given men and one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

Andrew Dobson is Professor of Politics at Keele University, UK. His most recent book is Listening for Democracy: recognition, representation, reconciliation (OUP, 2014). He is a member of the England and Wales Green Party and he co-wrote the Green Party General Election Manifesto in 2010. He is a founder member of the thinktank Green House.

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Image credit: John Bercow, by Office John Bercow, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) David Cameron, by World Economic Forum/Mortiz Hager (Flickr), CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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25. The Collective Power of a Nation of Readers

This piece also appears on The Huffington Post’s Impact blog.

Steve White, a volunteer at a local nonprofit, worked through the holidays to ensure that 3,000 kids in need in Denver would have brand-new books of their own at Christmas.

Elisa Mayo, the finance coordinator for a school district in Mississippi, helped students at her Title I school get the books — and the encouragement — they needed to start book clubs, and now dozens of students, from third to fifth grade, voluntarily skip recess to meet and to talk about their new books.

A community group in Navajo County, Arizona was so determined to have a free library for local children that they raised money through bake sales, started with a donated room in a nearby gas station, and eventually came up with the funds to build a library.

These everyday heroes all have something in common. They are part of First Book, a nonprofit network of teachers, librarians, community leaders and program administrators serving kids in need — a network that stretches across the country and around the world.

An Alabama teacher and her class, part of First Book's network

These men and women and thousands more like them are working every day to transform the lives of children from poor neighborhoods, and they know how desperate the need is. Kids from low-income families lack the resources that many of their middle and upper-class peers take for granted. Every study confirms the impact that has on their futures. One study that never fails to shock revealed that, while children in affluent neighborhoods had access to an average of 13 books a day, there is only a single age-appropriate book for every 300 children.

First Book is working to change that. We partner with the publishing industry to provide books — brand-new, high-quality books — to the teachers and program leaders who sign up with us. Our network is the fastest-growing group of educators in the country serving kids in need: we just reached the incredible milestone of 100,000 registered schools and programs.

Reaching that milestone is exciting, because that means that we’re reaching more children in need than ever.

But there’s another reason why bringing so many educators together matters.

By joining First Book, the people we serve are acknowledging something important: we have more power collectively than we do as individuals. It’s one of the most powerful ideas in human history, from the birth of cities to the workers’ unions that built the country to the marvelous online social networks that are transforming how we communicate.

We’ve already seen the impact this can have. For example, at one point, there was no bilingual edition (English and Spanish together) of the perennial children’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but the educators we work with requested it repeatedly. Based on that feedback, we were able to go to the publisher and show that there was real demand. A bilingual edition rolled off the presses shortly thereafter, a book now available to all children and families.

This unprecedented network is also the source of valuable insight into the needs of those serving children at the base of the economic pyramid. There is no group of people whose voices are more critical to our collective future; what they have to say about the 30 million children living in low-income families in the United States and their futures is of paramount importance to us all.

Everyone at First Book is proud of our role in supporting this network. But we know there’s much, much more to be done. We estimate that there are 1.3 million educators and program leaders out there eligible to join us, and we’re doing everything we can to connect every single one.

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