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1. Scorpion Bombs: the rest of the story

The world recently learned that the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS) has resurrected a biological weapon from the second century. Scorpion bombs are being lobbed into towns and villages to terrorize the inhabitants. As the story goes, this tactic was used almost 2,000 years ago against the desert stronghold of Hatra which was once a powerful, walled city 50 miles southwest of Mosul. But this historical interpretation might be just a bit too quick.

What we know from the writings of Herodian, who documented the ancient attacks by Hatrians on Roman invaders, is that the people crafted earthenware bombs loaded with “insects.” The favored hypothesis is that these devices were loaded with scorpions. And it’s true that these creatures (although not insects) were abundant in the desert. In fact, Persian kings offered bounties for these stinging arthropods to ensure the safe and pain-free passage of lucrative caravans through the region. But the local abundance of scorpions is not sufficient to draw a conclusion.

Scorpions tend toward cannibalism, so packing a bunch of these creatures into canisters for any period of time would have been (and presumably still is) a problem. According to an ancient writer, powdered monkshood could be used to sedate scorpions, although at high doses this plant extract is insecticidal (how ISIS solves this problem is not evident). But there’s another problem with the scorpion hypothesis.

A Syrian account of the siege of Hatra specified that the residents used “poisonous flying insects” to repulse the Romans. But, of course, scorpions don’t fly. One possibility is that the natural historians of yore were thinking of the scorpionfly (a flying insect in which the male genitalia curl over the back and resemble a scorpion’s tail), but these are small creatures are found in damp habitats, not deserts. Another possibility is that ancient reports of scorpions becoming airborne during high winds account for flying scorpions, although such a remarkable phenomenon hasn’t been reported by modern biologists. Finally, some scholars speculate that the clay bombshells were filled with assassin bugs, which can fly and deliver extremely painful bites.

Leiurus quinquestriatus, or deathstalker scorpion. Photo by  Matt Reinbold. CC BY-SA 2.0 via furryscalyman Flickr.
Leiurus quinquestriatus, or deathstalker scorpion. Photo by Matt Reinbold. CC BY-SA 2.0 via furryscalyman Flickr.

In the end, it seems likely that the Hatrian defenders and the ISIS militants latched onto the opportunities presented by the local arthropod fauna. But why would scorpions be so terrifying then or now? These creatures deliver a painful sting to be sure, but they are only rarely deadly. The responses of the Roman invaders and the Iranian townsfolk seem disproportionate to the consequences of being stung.

To understand why panic ensues when insects (or scorpions) rain down on a village, we must appreciate the evolutionary and cultural relationships between these creatures and the human mind. Our fear of insects and their relatives is rooted in six qualities of these little beasts—and scorpions score well.

  • First, our reaction arises from the capacity of these creatures to invade our homes and bodies. Scorpions, with their nocturnal activity and flattened bodies, are adept at slipping under doorsills and hiding in our shoes, closets, and furniture.
  • Second, insects and their kin have the ability to evade us through quick, unpredictable movements. While scorpions might not skitter with the panache of cockroaches, they are still reasonably nimble.
  • Third, many insects undergo rapid population growth and reach staggeringly large numbers which threaten our sense of individuality. While scorpions are not particulary prolific, having them scatter from exploding canisters (as described in the modern attacks), surely generates a sense of frightening abundance.
  • Fourth, various arthropods can harm us both directly (biting and stinging) and indirectly (transmitting disease and destroying our property). Scorpions certainly qualify in the former sense, as they are well-prepared to deliver a dose of venom that elicits intense pain, sometimes accompanied by a slowed pulse, irregular breathing, convulsions—and occasionally, death.
  • Fifth, insects and their relatives instill a disturbing sense of otherness with their alien bodies. Scorpions are hideously animalistic, even rather monstrous being like a demonic blending of a crab, spider, and a viper in terms of their form and function.
  • Sixth, these creatures defy our will and control through a kind of depraved mindlessness or radical autonomy. Scorpions can appear to be like tiny robots, with their jointed bodies and legs taking them into the world without regard to fear or decency.

Perhaps it is in this last sense that scorpions most resemble the ISIS assailants. Both seem to be predators, unconstrained by ethical constraints, maniacally and unreflectively seeking to satisfy their own bestial desires. Of course, we ought not to dehumanize our enemy—no matter how brutal his actions—by equating him with insects or their kin. (This rhetorical move has been made throughout history to justify horrible treatment of other people.) But perhaps this sense of amorality accounts for our fear of both ISIS and their unwitting, arthropod conscripts.

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2. Suggestions for the Batchelder Award?

ALSC Personal Members are invited to suggest titles for the 2015 Batchelder Award given to an American publisher for a children’s book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country and subsequently published in English in the United States during 2014. Please remember that only books from this publishing year are under consideration for the 2015 award. Publishers, authors and illustrators may not suggest their own books. The deadline for submission is December 31, 2014.

You may send recommendations with full bibliographic information to the Chair, Diane Janoff at diane.janoff@queenslibrary.org.

The  award will be announced at the press conference during the ALA Midwinter Meeting in February 2015.

For more information about the award, visit the ALSC website at http://www.ala.org/alsc/. Click on “Awards and Grants” in the left-hand navigation bar; then click on “ALSC Book & Media Awards.” Scroll down to the “Batchelder Award Page”.

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3. Moping on a broomstick

One of the dialogues in Jonathan Swift’s work titled A complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation­ (1738) runs as follows:

Neverout: Why, Miss, you are in a brown study, what’s the matter? Methinks you look like mumchance, that was hanged for saying nothing.

Miss: I’d have you know, I scorn your words.

Neverout: Well, but scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings.

Miss: My comfort is, your tongue is no slander. What! you would not have one be always on the high grin?

Neverout: Cry, Mapsticks, Madam; no Offence, I hope.

This is a delightfully polite conversation and a treasure house of idioms. To be in a brown study occupies a place of honor in my database of proverbial sayings (see a recent post on it). I am also familiar with scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings, but high grin made me think only of the high beam (and just for the record: mumchance is an old game of dice or “a dull silent person”). But what was Neverout trying to say at the end of the genteel exchange (see the italicized phrase)?

The first correspondent to Notes and Queries who wrote on the subjectand the problem was being thrashed out in the pages of Notes and Queries—suggested that it means “I ask pardon, I apologize for what I have said” (4 October 1856). Two weeks later, it was pointed out that mapsticks is a variant of mop-sticks, but no explanation followed this gloss. When fourteen years, rather than fourteen days, passed, someone sent another query to the same journal (8 May 1880), which ran as follows: “Like death on a mop-stick. How did this saying originate? I have heard it used by an old lady to describe her appearance on recovery from a long illness.” Joseph Wright did not miss the phrase and included it in his English Dialect Dictionary. His gloss was “to look very miserable.” Although the letter writer who used the pseudonym Mervarid and asked the question did not indicate where she lived, Wright located the saying in Warwickshire (the West Midlands). We will try to decipher the idiom and find out whether there is any connection between it and Swift’s mapsticks ~ mopsticks.

As could be expected, the OED has an entry on mopstick. The first citation is dated 1710 (from Swift!). In it the hyphenated mop-sticks means exactly what it should (a stick for a mop). The next one is from Genteel Conversation. Swift’s use of the word in 1738 received this comment: “Prob[ably] a humorous alteration of ‘I cry your mercy’.” This repeats the 1856 suggestion. After the Second World War, a four-volume supplement to the OED was published. The updated version of the entry contains references to the dialectal use of mopstick, a synonym for “leap-frog,” and includes such words pertaining to the game as Jack upon the mopstick and Johnny on the mopstick (the mopstick is evidently the player over whose back the other player is jumping), along with a single 1886 example of mopstick “idiot” (slang). The supplement did not discuss the derivation of the words included in the first edition. By contrast, the OED online pays great attention to etymology; yet mopstick has not been revised. I assume that no new information on its origin has come to light. In 1915 mopstick was used for “one who loafs around a cheap or barrel house and cleans the place for drinks” (US). This is a rather transparent metaphor. Mop would have been easier to understand than mopstick, but mopstick “idiot” makes it clear that despised people could always be called this. Johnny on the mopstick also refers to the inferior status of the player bending down. The numerous annotated editions of Swift’s works contain no new hypotheses; at most, they quote the OED.

I cannot explain the sentence in Genteel Conversation, but a few ideas occurred to me while I was reading the entries in the dictionaries. To begin with, I agree that Swift’s mapsticks is a variant of mopsticks, though it would be good to understand why Swift, who had acquired such a strong liking for mopsticks and first used the form with an o, chose a less obvious dialectal variant with an a. Second, I notice that the 1738 text has a comma between cry and mapsticks (Cry, Map-sticks, Madam…). Nearly all later editions probably take this comma for a misprint and therefore expunge it. Once the strange punctuation disappears, we begin to worry about the idiom cry mopsticks. However, there is no certainty that it ever existed, the more so because the sentence in the text does not end with an exclamation mark. Third, mopstick, for which we have no written evidence before 1710, is current in children’s regional names of leapfrog, and this is a sure sign of its antiquity (games tend to preserve local and archaic words for centuries). A mopstick is not a particularly interesting object, yet in 1886 it turned up with the sense “idiot” in a dictionary of dialectal slang. Finally, to return to the question asked above, to look like death on a mopstick means “to look miserable,” and we have to decide whether it sheds light on Swift’s usage or whether Swift’s usage tells us something about the idiom.

An old woman took here sweeping-broom  And swept the kittens right out of the room.
An old woman took here sweeping-broom
And swept the kittens right out of the room.

I think Swift’s bizarre predilection for mopsticks goes back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In 1701 he wrote a parody called A Meditation upon a Broomstick (the manuscript was stolen, and an authorized edition could be brought out only in 1711). It seems that after Swift embarked on his “meditation” and the restitution of the manuscript broomsticks never stopped troubling him. At some time, he may have learned either the word mopstick “idiot” (perhaps in its dialectal form mapstick) and substituted mopstick ~ mapstick for broomstick; a broomstick became to him a symbol of human stupidity. To be sure, mopstick “idiot” surfaced only in 1886, but such words are often recorded late and more or less by chance, in glossaries and in “low literature.”

Swift hated contemporary slang. The last sentence in the quotation given above (Cry, mapsticks, Madam; no offence, I hope) seems to mean “I cry—d–n my foolishness!—Madam…”). The form mapsticks is reminiscent of fiddlesticks, another plural and also an exclamation. The dialectal (rustic) variant with a different vowel (map for mop) could have been meant as an additional insult. If I am right, the comma after cry remains, while the idiom cry mapsticks, along with its reference to cry mercy, joins many other ingenious but unprovable conjectures.

The phrase to look like death on a mopstick has, I believe, nothing to do with Swift’s usage. In some areas, mopstick probably served as a synonym of broomstick, and broomsticks are indelibly connected in our mind with witches and all kinds of horrors. Here a passage from still another letter to Notes and Queries deserves our attention.

“Fifty years ago [that is, in 1830] I recollect an amusement of our boyish days was scooping out a turnip, cutting three holes for eyes and mouth, and putting a lighted candle-end inside from behind. A stake or old mop-stick was then pointed with a knife and stuck into the bottom of the turnip, and a death’s head [hear! hear!] with eyes of fire was complete. Sometimes a stick was tied across it, to make it ghostly and ghastly….”

Those who have observed decorations at Halloween will feel quite at home. The recovering lady looked like death on a mopstick, and we now understand exactly what she meant. In 1880 the letter writer (Mr. Gibbes Rigaud) resided in Oxford. Oxfordshire is next door to Warwickshire, and of course we do not know where our “heroes” spent their childhood.

Image credits: Witch, CC0 via Pixabay. Kittens, public domain via Project Gutenberg.

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4. Giving the gift of well-being

In the film A Christmas Story, Ralphie desperately wants “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200 shot range model air rifle.” His mom resists because she reckons it will damage his well-being. (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) In the end, though, Ralphie gets the air rifle and deems it “the greatest Christmas gift I ever received, or would ever receive.”

This Christmas, why not give your friends and family the gift of well-being? Even removing an air rifle and the possibility of eye injury from the mix, that’s easier said than done.

Well-being is tough to pin down. It takes many forms. A college student, a middle-aged parent, and a spritely octogenarian might all lead very different lives and still have well-being. What’s more, you can’t wrap up well-being and tuck it under the tree. All you can do is give gifts that promote it. But what kind of gift promotes well-being?

One that establishes or strengthens the positive grooves that make up a good life. You have well-being when you’re stuck in a “positive groove” of:

  • emotions (e.g., pleasure, contentment),
  • attitudes (e.g., optimism, openness to new experiences),
  • traits (e.g., extraversion, perseverance), and
  • success (e.g., strong relationships, professional accomplishment, fulfilling projects, good health).

Your life is going well for you when you’re entangled in a success-breeds-success cycle comprised of states you find (mostly) valuable and pleasant.

Well-being as a positive groove
Well-being as a positive groove

Some gifts do this by producing what psychologists call flow. They immerse you in an activity you find rewarding. Flow gifts are easy to spot. They’re the ones, like Ralphie’s air rifle, that occupy you all day.

A flow gift promotes well-being by snaring you into a pleasure-mastery-success loop. A flow gift turns you inward, toward a specific activity and away from the rest of the world. It involves an activity that’s fun, that you get better at with practice, and that rewards you with success, even if that “success” is winning a video game car race.

The Flow Gift
The Flow Gift

Flow is important to a good life. It feels good, and it fosters excellence. It’s the difference between the piano-playing wiz and the kid (like me) who fizzled out. But there’s more to well-being than flow and excellence.

A bonding gift turns you outward, toward other people. A bonding gift shows how someone thinks and feels about you. In O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, a young couple, Jim and Della, sacrifice their “greatest treasures” to buy each other Christmas gifts. Della sells her luxurious long hair to buy a chain for Jim’s gold watch. And Jim sells his gold watch to buy the beautiful set of combs Della yearned for.

Bonding gifts change people’s relationships. The chain and the combs strengthen and deepen Jim and Della’s love, affection and commitment. This is why “of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”

The bonds of love and friendship are not just emotional. They’re causal. We’re tangled up with the people we care about in self-sustaining cycles of positive feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments. Good relationships are shared, interpersonal positive grooves. This is why they make us better and happier people. Bonding gifts strengthen the positive groove you share with a person you care about.

A good relationship as an interpersonal positive groove
A good relationship as an interpersonal positive groove

You’re probably wondering whether you can find something that’s an effective bonding and flow gift. I must admit, I’ve never managed it. A tandem bike? Alas, no. Perhaps you can do better.

So this holiday season, why not give “groovy” gifts – gifts that “keep on giving” by ensnaring your loved ones in cascading cycles of pleasure and value.

Image credit: Stockphotography wrapping paper via Hubspot.

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5. Heart-stopped: Fiction and the rewards of discomfort

Recently I was talking to a younger colleague, a recent PhD, about what we and our peers read for pleasure. He noted that the only fiction that most of his friends read is young adult fiction: The Hunger Games, Twilight, that kind of thing. Although the subject matter of these series is often dark, the appeal, hypothesized my colleague, lies elsewhere: in the reassuringly formulaic and predictable narrative arc of the plots. If his friends have a taste for something genuinely edgy, he went on, then they’ll read non-fiction instead.

When did we develop this idea that fiction, to be enjoyable, must be comforting nursery food? I’d argue that it’s not only in our recreational reading but also, increasingly, in the classroom, that we shun what seems too chewy or bitter, or, rather; we tolerate bitterness only if it comes in a familiar form, like an over-cooked Brussels sprout. And yet, in protecting ourselves from anticipated frictions and discomforts, we also deprive ourselves of one of fiction’s richest rewards.

One of the ideas my research explores is the belief, in the eighteenth-century, that fiction commands attention by soliciting wonder. Wonder might sound like a nice, calm, placid emotion, but that was not how eighteenth-century century thinkers conceived it. In an essay published in 1795 but probably written in the 1750s, Adam Smith describes wonder as a sentiment induced by a novel object, a sentiment that may be recognized by the wonderstruck subject’s “staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’). And that was just the beginning. As Smith describes:

“when the object is unexpected; the passion is then poured in all at once upon the heart which is thrown, if it is a strong passion, into the most violent and convulsive emotions, such as sometimes cause immediate death; sometimes, by the suddenness of the extacy, so entirely disjoint the whole frame of the imagination, that it never after returns to its former tone and composure, but falls either into a frenzy or habitual lunacy.” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’)

It doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it? Eighteenth-century novels risked provoking such extreme reactions in their tales of people in extremis; cast out; marooned; kidnapped. Such tales were not gory, necessarily, in the manner of The Hunger Games, and the response they invited was not necessarily horror or terror. More radically, in shape and form as well as content, eighteenth-century writers related stories that were strange, unpredictable, unsettling, and, as such, productive of wonder. Why risk discomforting your reader so profoundly? Because, Henry Home, Lord Kames argued in his Elements of Criticism (1762), wonder also fixes the attention: in convulsing the reader, you also impress a representation deeply upon her mind.

3923648422_d86da2a48b_z
Spooky Moon by Ray Bodden. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

One of the works I find particularly interesting to think about in relation to this idea of wonder is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a deeply pleasurable book to read, but I wouldn’t describe it as comfortable. Perhaps I felt this more acutely than some when I first read it, as a first year undergraduate. The year before I had witnessed my father experience a fatal heart attack. Ever since then, any description or representation that evoked the body’s motion in defibrillation would viscerally call up the memory of that night. One description that falls under that heading is the climactic moment in Shelley’s novel in which Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” If the unexpected, in Smith’s account, triggers convulsive motions, then it seems fitting that a newly created being’s experience of its own first breath would indeed be felt as a moment of wonder.

When I was a nineteen year-old reading Frankenstein, there was no discussion about the desirability of providing “trigger warnings” when teaching particular texts; and even if there had been, it seems unlikely that this particular text would have been flagged as potentially traumatic (a fact that speaks to the inherent difficulty of labeling certain texts as more likely to serve as triggers than others, given the variety of people’s experience). I found reading Shelley’s novel to be a deeply, uncomfortably, wonder-provoking experience, in Smith’s terms, but it did not, clearly, result in my “immediate death.” What it did produce, rather, was a deep and lasting impression. Indeed, perhaps that is why, more than twenty years later, I felt compelled to revisit this novel in my research, and why I found myself taking seriously Percy Shelley’s characterization of the experience of reading Frankenstein as one in which we feel our “heart suspend its pulsations with wonder” at its content, even as we “debate with ourselves in wonder,” as to how the work was produced. High affect can be all consuming, but we may also revisit and observe, in more serene moments, the workings of the mechanisms which wring such high affect from us.

In Minneapolis for a conference a few weeks ago, I mentioned to my panel’s chair that I had run around Lake Calhoun. He asked if I had stopped at the Bakken Museum (I had not), which is on the lake’s west shore. He proceeded to explain that it was a museum about Earl Bakken, developer of the pacemaker, whose invention was supposedly inspired by seeing the Boris Karloff 1931 film of Frankenstein, and in particular the scene in which the creature is brought to life with the convulsive electric charge.

As Bakken’s experience suggests, the images that disturb us can also inspire us. Mary Shelley affirms as much in her Introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, which suggests that the novel had its source in a nightmarish reverie. Shelley assumes that Frankenstein’s power depends upon the reproducible nature of her affect: “What terrified me will terrify others,” she predicts. Haunting images, whether conjured by fantasies, novels, or films, can be generative, although certainly not always in such direct and instrumental ways. Most of us won’t develop a life-saving piece of technology, like Earl Bakken (my father, in fact, had a pacemaker, and, although it didn’t save his life, it did prolong it) or write an iconic novel, like Mary Shelley. But that is not to say that the impressions that fiction can etch into our minds are not generative. If comfort has its place and its pleasures, so too does discomfort: experiencing “bad feelings” enables us to notice, in our re-tracings of them, the unexpected connections that emerge between profoundly different experiences—death; life; reading—all of them heart-stopping in their own ways.

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6. Excusing torture

We have plenty of excuses for torture. Most of them are bad. Evaluating these bad excuses, as ethical philosophers are able to do, should disarm them. We can hope that clear thinking about excuses will prevent future generations–for the sake of their moral health–from falling into the trap.

Ignorance. Senator John McCain knows torture at first hand and condemns it unequivocally. Most of the rest of us don’t have his sort of experience. Does that give us an excuse to condone it or cover it up? Not at all. We can easily read accounts of his torture, along with his heroic response to it. Literature about prison camps is full of tales of torture. With a little imagination, we can feel how torture would affect us. Reading and imagination are crucial to moral education.

Anger and fear. In the grip of fear and anger, people do things they would never do in a calm frame of mind. This is especially true in combat. After heart-rending losses, soldiers are more likely to abuse prisoners or hack up the bodies of enemies they have killed. That’s understandable in the heat of battle. But in the cold-blooded context of the so-called war on terror this excuse has no traction. Of course we are angry at terrorists and we fear what they may do to us, but these feelings are dispositions. They are not the sort of passions that disarm the moral sense. So they do not excuse the torture of detainees after 9/11.

Even in the heat of battle, well-led troops hold back from atrocities. A fellow Vietnam veteran once told me that he had in his power a Viet Cong prisoner, who, he believed, had killed his best friend. He was raging to kill the man, and he could have done it. “What held you back?” I asked. “I knew if I shot him, and word got out, my commander would have me court-martialed.” He was grateful for his commander’s leadership. That saved him from a burden on his conscience.

Saving lives. Defenders of torture say that it has saved American lives. The evidence does not support this, as the Feinstein Committee has shown, but the myth persists. In military intelligence school in 1969 I was taught that torture is rarely effective, because prisoners tell you what they think you want to hear. Or they tell you what they want you to hear. In the case of the Battle of Algiers, one terrorist group gave the French information that led the French to wipe out competing groups.

Drewdlecam Enhanced Interrogation
Enhanced Interrogation by Drewdlecam. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Suppose, however, that the facts were otherwise, that torture does save lives. That is no excuse. Suppose I go into hospital for an appendectomy and the next day my loved ones come to collect me. What they find is a cadaver with vital organs removed. “Don’t fret,” they are told. “We took his life painlessly under anesthetic and saved five other lives with his organs. A good bargain don’t you think?” No. We all know it is wrong to kill one person merely to save others. What would make it right in the case of torture?

The detainees are guilty of terrible crimes. Perhaps. But we do not know this. They have not had a chance for a hearing. And even if they were found guilty, torture is not permitted under ethics or law.

The ad hominem. The worst excuse possible, but often heard: Criticism of torture is politically motivated. Perhaps so, but that is irrelevant. Attacking the critics is no way to defend torture.

Bad leadership: the “pickle-barrel” excuse. Zimbardo has argued that we should excuse the guards at Abu Ghraib because they has been plunged into a situation that we know turns good people bad. His prison experiment at Stanford proved the point. He compares the guards to cucumbers soaked in a pickle barrel. If the cucumbers turn into pickles, don’t blame them. This is the best of the excuses so far; the bipartisan Schlesinger Commission cited a failure of leadership at Abu Ghraib. Still, this is a weak excuse; not all the guards turned sour. They had choices. But good leadership and supervision would have prevented the problem, as it would at the infamous Salt Pit of which we have just learned.

We need to disarm these bad excuses, and the best way to do that is through leadership and education. Torture is a sign of hubris–of the arrogant feeling that we have the power and knowledge to carry out torture properly. We don’t. The ancient Greeks knew that the antidote to hubris is reverence, a quality singularly missing in modern American life.

Headline image credit: ‘Witness Against Torture: Captive Hands’ by Justin Norman. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr 

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7. Where is the global economy headed and what’s in store for its citizens?

The Great Recession of 2008–09 badly shook the global market, changing the landscape for finance, trade, and economic growth in some important respects and imposing tremendous costs on average citizens throughout the world. The legacies of the crisis—high unemployment levels, massive excess capacities, low investment and high debt levels, increased income and wealth inequality—reduced the standard of living of millions of people. There is an emerging consensus that global economic governance, as well as national policies, needs to be reformed to better reflect the economic interests and welfare of citizens.

Global recovery is sluggish and the outlook uncertain. The economies of the Eurozone, which may have fallen into a “persistent stagnation trap,” and Japan remain highly vulnerable to deflation and another bout of recession; in the advanced economies that are growing, recovery remains uneven and fragile. Growth in emerging and developing economies is slowing, as a result of tighter global financial conditions, slow growth of world trade, and lower commodity prices. Because consumption and business investment have been tepid in many countries, the gradual global recovery has been too weak to create enough jobs. Official worldwide unemployment climbed to more than 200 million people in 2013, including nearly 75 million people aged 15–24.

Professor Roubini, one of the few economists who predicted the 2008 crisis, has argued that the global economy is like a four-engine jetliner that is operating with only one functioning engine, the “Anglosphere.” The plane can remain in the air, but it needs all four engines (the Anglosphere, the Eurozone, Japan, and emerging economies) to take off and stay clear of storms. He predicts serious challenges, including from rising debt and income inequality.

Relatively slow growth in the advanced economies and potential new barriers to trade over the medium term have significant adverse implications for growth and poverty reduction in many developing countries. Emerging economies, including China and India, that thrived in recent decades in part by engaging extensively in the international economy are at risk of finding lower demand for their output and greater volatility in international financial flows and investments. A combination of weaker domestic currencies against the US dollar and falling commodity prices could adversely affect the private sector in emerging economies that have large dollar-denominated liabilities.

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Money, money, money, by Wouter de Bruijn. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Rising inequality is holding back consumption growth. The ratio of wealth to income, as well as the income shares of the top 1% of income earners, has risen sharply in Europe and the United States since 1980, as Professor Piketty has shown.

The ratio of the share of income earned by the top 10% to the share of income earned by the bottom 90% rose in a majority of OECD countries since 2008, a key factor behind the sluggish growth of their household consumption. During the first three years of the current recovery (2009–12), incomes of the bottom 90% of income earners actually fell in the United States: the top 10%, who tend to have much lower propensity to consume than average earners, captured all the income gains. In developing countries for which data were available for 2006–12, the increase in the income or consumption of the bottom 40% exceeded the country average in 58 of 86 countries, but in 18 countries, including some of the poorest economies, the income or consumption of the bottom 40% actually declined, according to a report by the World Bank and IMF.

Some signs of possible relief may lie ahead. In September 2014, leaders at the G20 summit in Brisbane agreed on measures to increase investment infrastructure, spur international trade and improve competition, boost employment, and adopt country-specific macroeconomic policies to encourage inclusive economic growth. If fully implemented, the measures could add 2.1% to global GDP (more than $2 trillion) by 2018 and create millions of jobs, according to IMF and OECD analysis. (These estimates need to be treated with caution, as the measures that underpin them and their potential impact are uncertain, and the nature and strength of the policy commitments vary considerably across individual country growth strategies.)

Another potential sign of hope is the sharp decline in the prices of energy, a reflection of both weaker global demand and increased supply (particularly of shale oil and gas from the United States). The more than $40 a barrel decline in Brent crude prices is likely to raise consumers’ purchasing power in oil-importing countries in the OECD area and elsewhere and spur growth, albeit at considerable cost (and destabilizing effects) for the more populous and poorer oil exporters. It could also be a harbinger of energy price spikes down the road, as the massive investments needed to ensure adequate supplies of energy may not be forthcoming as a result of their unprofitability at low prices.

waterpump
Pumping water in Malawi, by International Livestock Research Institute. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Major global challenges have wide-ranging long-term implications for the average citizen. By 2030, the world’s population is projected to reach 8.3 billion people, two-thirds of whom will live in urban areas. Massive changes in the patterns of energy and resource (particularly water) use will be needed to accommodate this 1.3 billion person increase—and the elevation of 2–3 billion people to the middle class.

A citizen-centered policy agenda would need to reform national economies to spur growth and job creation, placing greater reliance on national and regional markets and the sustainable use of resources; emphasize social policies and the economic health of the lower and middle classes; invest in human capital and increase access to clean water, sanitation and quality social services, including a stronger foundation during the early years of life and support for aging with dignity and equity; improve labor market flexibility to employ young people productively; and enhance human rights and the freedom of people to move, internally and internationally. These policies would need to be complemented by policies that use collective action to mitigate risks to the global economy.

To prevent another global crisis, there is an urgent need to strengthen global economic governance, including through global trade agreements that favor the bottom half of income distribution; reform of the international monetary system, including the functioning and governance structure of the international financial institutions; encouragement of inclusive finance; and institution of policies to discourage asset bubbles. To achieve sustainable growth, all countries need to remove fossil fuels and other harmful subsidies and begin pricing carbon and other environmental externalities.

Worldwide surveys show that citizens everywhere are becoming more aware and active in seeking changes in the global norms and rules that could make the global system and the global economy fairer and less environmentally harmful. This sense is highest among the young and better-educated, suggesting that over time it will increase, potentially leading to equitable results for all citizens through better national and international policies.

Headline image: World Map – Abstract Acrylic, by Free Grunge Textures. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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8. The Christmas truce: A sentimental dream

By December 1914 the Great War had been raging for nearly five months. If anyone had really believed that it would be ‘all over by Christmas’ then it was clear that they had been cruelly mistaken. Soldiers in the trenches had gained a grudging respect for their opposite numbers. After all, they had managed to fight each other to a standstill.

On Christmas Eve there was a severe frost. From the perspective of the freezing-cold trenches the idea of the season of peace and goodwill seemed surrealistic. Yet parcels and Christmas gifts began to arrive in the trenches and there was a strange atmosphere in the air. Private William Quinton was watching:

We could see what looked like very small coloured lights. What was this? Was it some prearranged signal and the forerunner of an attack? We were very suspicious, when some­thing even stranger happened. The Germans were actually singing! Not very loud, but there was no mistaking it. Suddenly, across the snow-clad No Man’s Land, a strong clear voice rang out, singing the opening lines of “Annie Laurie“. It was sung in perfect English and we were spellbound. To us it seemed that the war had suddenly stopped! Stopped to listen to this song from one of the enemy.

“We tied an empty sandbag up with its string and kicked it about on top – just to keep warm of course. We did not intermingle.”

On Christmas Day itself, in some sectors of the line, there was no doubting the underlying friendly intent. Yet the men that took the initiative in initiating a truce were brave – or foolish – as was witnessed by Sergeant Frederick Brown:

Sergeant Collins stood waist high above the trench waving a box of Woodbines above his head. German soldiers beckoned him over, and Collins got out and walked halfway towards them, in turn beckoning someone to come and take the gift. However, they called out, “Prisoner!” A shot rang out, and he staggered back, shot through the chest. I can still hear his cries, “Oh my God, they have shot me!”

This was not a unique incident. Yet, despite the obvious risks, men were still tempted. Individuals would get off the trench, then dive back in, gradually becoming bolder as Private George Ashurst recalled:

It was grand, you could stretch your legs and run about on the hard surface. We tied an empty sandbag up with its string and kicked it about on top – just to keep warm of course. We did not intermingle. Part way through we were all playing football. It was so pleasant to get out of that trench from between them two walls of clay and walk and run about – it was heaven.

The idea that football matches were played between the British and Germans in No Man’s Land has taken a grip, but the evidence is intangible.

Christmas_day_football_WWI_1915
“Officers and men of 26th Divisional Ammunition Train playing football in Salonika, Greece on Christmas day 1915.” (1915) by Varges Ariel, Ministry of Information. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The truce was not planned or controlled – it just happened. Even senior officers recognised that there was little that could be done in this strange state of affairs. Brigadier General Lord Edward Gleichen accepted the truce as a fait accompli, but was keen to ensure that the Germans did not get too close to the ramshackle British trenches:

They came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible was done – and our men met them half-way and began talking to them. Meanwhile our officers got excellent close views of the German trenches.

Another practical reason for embracing the truce was the opportunity it presented for burying the dead that littered No Man’s Land. Private Henry Williamson was assigned to a burial party:

The Germans started burying their dead which had frozen hard. Little crosses of ration box wood nailed together and marked in indelible pencil. They were putting in German, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom!’ I said to a German, “Excuse me, but how can you be fighting for freedom? You started the war, and we are fighting for freedom!” He said, “Excuse me English comrade, but we are fighting for freedom for our country!”

It should be noted that the truce was by no means universal, particularly where the British were facing Prussian units.

For the vast majority of the participants, the truce was a matter of convenience and maudlin sentiment. It did not mark some deep flowering of the human spirit, or signify political anti-war emotions taking root amongst the ranks. The truce simply enabled them to celebrate Christmas in a freer, more jovial, and, above all, safer environment, while satisfying their rampant curiosity about their enemies.

The truce could not last: it was a break from reality, not the dawn of a peaceful world. The gradual end mirrored the start, for any misunderstandings could cost lives amongst the unwary. For Captain Charles Stockwell it was handled with a consummate courtesy:

At 8.30am I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas!’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He put up a sheet with, ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches – he fired two shots in the air and the war was on again!

In other sectors, the artillery behind the lines opened up and the bursting shells soon shattered the truce.

War regained its grip on the whole of the British sector. When it came to it, the troops went back to war willingly enough. Many would indeed have rejoiced at the end of the war, but they were still willing to accept orders, still willing to kill Germans. Nothing had changed.

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9. F, a Novel

What is it with books and exquisite plotting lately? Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Jane Austen’s Emma (write up to come on that one!). I generally call myself a character novel person. Not that I don’t enjoy a good plot, I do! Most of the time though it seems that the best books are the ones centered on character with plot happening in order to provide the character with something to do. The meaning of the story lies in the character’s development. Books with meaningful characters and tight, meaningful plots that aren’t clunky or forced are hard to come by. At least in my experience.

But now to the list above I can add a fourth book, F by Daniel Kehlmann. Four books within two months. Unheard of!

F is about what happens when Arthur Friedland abandons his three sons to pursue a writing career. Arthur has a son, Martin, with his first wife whom he divorced. He has two sons, twins, Eric and Ivan, with his current wife. He has regular outings with his three sons and on this occasion he has taken them to see the Great Lindemann, a hypnotist. Arthur is certain he cannot be affected by hypnotism but when Lindemann calls him up on stage something happens. Was he really hypnotized or did Lindemann just manage to hit so close to the bone that Arthur could no longer remain in his mediocre life? Whatever the case, Arthur drops all three boys off at Martin’s house and disappears out of their lives. He doesn’t completely disappear, however, because he eventually becomes a best selling author.

Martin grows up and becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric grows up to become a financial manager who begins an honest man but through a number of large investment errors ends up running a ponzi scheme in order to keep himself and his company afloat. Ivan sets out to be a painter but instead becomes a forger of paintings.

The story is told in sections. The first is the events with Lindemann. The second section belongs to Martin. This is followed by a section that is a portion of a book Arthur wrote about his family history which may or may not be fiction. The next section belongs to Eric and events in this chapter neatly coincide in places with Martin’s section while also moving forward in time. The fifth section is Ivan’s and it continues to move the story ahead while also fitting in with events that happened in Martin’s and Eric’s sections. The final section brings them all together again with the addition of a third generation, Marie, Eric’s daughter. This too, ties in with events that happened in earlier sections but also moves forward in time.

There is much in the book about work, choosing a path or having it chosen for you, determination and lack of it. Also, what happens when you aim for big things but discover you are only average?

What does it mean to be average — suddenly the question became a constant one. How do you live with that, why do you keep on going? What kind of people bet everything on a single card, dedicate their lives to the creative act, undertake the risk of the one big bet, and then fail year after year to produce anything of significance?

And what is work and all the things we do in life about anyway? Is it all just meant to fill up time until we die?

All the same, a day was a long time. So many days still until the holidays came around, so many more until Christmas, and so many years until you were grown up. Every one of them full of days and every day full of hours, and every hour a whole hour long. How could they all go by, how had old people ever managed to get old? What did you do with all that time?

Something only a child can ask.

The “F” of the title is never defined. It could mean all kinds of things: Friedland, family, faith, fate, forgery, fraud, father and probably a few others. The writing is fairly unadorned, there is no fancy styling here, just good, competent prose.

F has gotten a bit of buzz. While I was impressed with the plotting, I didn’t especially love the book. It might be because it has a rather bleak outlook on life. No one in the book is happy about anything. And when there are moments of happiness they tend to be fleeting or arise from escaping punishment. It all kind of feels pretty close to nihilistic. Of course the gray skies I have been living under for the past two weeks probably didn’t help matters. If the sun had come out once or twice I might have felt differently. I think it’s time to pull a more upbeat book from the reading pile!


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Daniel Kehlmann

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10. BookPage

Thank you BookPage for including Flight School in your best of the 2014 list! What an honor to be in such company.

bookpage

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11. Particpate in the Newbery Selection Process

Dear ALSC Members,

ALSC personal members are invited to participate in the 2015 Newbery Award selection process by submitting titles for consideration.

The Newbery Medal is presented annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in the United States during the preceding year.  Honor books may be named.

“Distinguished” is defined as:

o    marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement

o    marked by excellence in quality

o    marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence

o    individually distinct

For more information about the award, including a full list of criteria, terms and definitions, visit the ALSC Website.

Reflect on the 2014 books that you have read which clearly meet the Newbery Award Criteria and submit for the committee’s consideration with the following information:
1) author, 2) title, 3) publisher, 4) a brief explanation as to why you think the book meets the Newbery Award Criteria, and 5) your name.

Send your suggestions to Randall Enos, Chair at renos@rcls.org.

Suggestions should be submitted as soon as possible but by December 31 at the latest.
Thank you for your support and participation.

Remember: Only books from the 2014 publishing year are under consideration for the 2015 award.   Publishers, authors, illustrators, or editors may not nominate their own titles.

The award will be announced at the ALA Youth Media Awards Press Conference during the ALA Midwinter Conference to be held in Chicago, February 2, 2015.

The award will be presented at the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Banquet during the ALA Annual Conference to be held in San Francisco, June 28, 2015.

***********************************************************************

Our guest blogger today is Randall Enos, Chair of the 2015 Newbery Selection committee.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

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12. “a brilliant and entertaining resource book on the craft of writing”

Mastering front 100WshadowA new review from Amazon for my new Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling:

5 stars I'll Use It Every Time I Sit Down to Write

You WILL become a better writer by reading this book and implementing the suggestions made by Mr. Rhamey. And they’re not vague or theoretical suggestions, either—they are clear, definitive, concrete, and 100% useful. It’s a brilliant and entertaining resource book on the craft of writing.

In my opinion, the best way to use this book is to first read it cover to cover, pretending it’s an online course or weekend workshop. Gobble it up whole, so the cells of your writer’s brain absorb and integrate the information. Then, as you write and revise, you can go back to refresh yourself on specific skills or techniques as you need them.

Here are three reasons I like and recommend this book:

The style and voice are friendly, engaging, encouraging, and genuine. There’s no huge ego behind the scenes, bestowing rules and regimens. Ray Rhamey is an unassuming guy who really knows his stuff, and his warm teaching style comes through the text beautifully.

Examples abound! By far the best way to improve writing and revising is to see before and after samples, and Rhamey has included a truckload. At every step we’re shown ways to improve word choice, sentence structure, characterization, description, dialogue, opening pages, and more. He draws from published and unpublished novels, other books on the craft, agent blogs, and even his own fiction.

The final section of the book includes the opening paragraphs of eleven stories, submitted to his online critique blog, Flogging the Quill. After reading through the book, critique these excerpts yourself, and see how your comments compare to those Rhamey made. The results are dramatic: do just a few of these and you’ll realize how much you’ve learned. Better yet, you’ll be ready to apply these critical reading skills to the revision of your own work.

Rhamey suggests “there should never be a good place to put your book down.” If you want to write a book that readers can’t put down, then Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling is a resource you can’t afford to be without.!

Signed paperbacks are available on my website (discounted price, free shipping), both Kindle and the paperback are available on Amazon.com.

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13. The other torture report

At long last – despite the attempts at sabotage by and over the protests of the CIA, and notwithstanding the dilatory efforts of the State Department – the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has finally issued the executive summary of its 6,300-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. We should celebrate its publication as a genuine victory for opponents of torture. We should thank Senator Dianne Feinstein (whom some of us have been known to call “the senator from the National Security Agency”) for her courage in making it happen.

Like many people, I’ve got my criticisms of the Senate report. Suffice it to say that we’ve still got work to do if we want to end US torture.

We now know something about the Senate report, but many folks may not have heard about the other torture report, the one that came out a couple of weeks ago, and was barely mentioned in the US media. In some ways, this one is even more damning. For one thing, it comes from the international body responsible for overseeing compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – the UN Committee Against Torture. For another, unlike the Senate report, the UN report does not treat US torture as something practiced by a single agency, or that ended with the Bush administration. The UN Committee Against Torture reports on US practices that continue to this day.

Here are some key points:

Guards from Camp 5 at Joint Task Force Guantanamo escort a detainee from his cell to a recreational facility within the camp.
Guards from Camp 5 at Joint Task Force Guantanamo escort a detainee from his cell to a recreational facility within the camp. Photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park. Public domain via Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
  • The United States still refuses to pass a law making torture a federal crime. It also refuses to withdraw some of the “reservations” it put in place when it signed the Convention. These include the insistence that only treatment resulting in “prolonged mental harm,” counts as the kind of severe mental suffering outlawed in the Convention.
  • Many high civilian officials and some military personnel have not been prosecuted for acts of torture they are alleged to have committed. It would be nice, too, says the Committee, if the United States were to join the International Criminal Court, where other torturers have already been successfully tried. If we can’t prosecute them at home, maybe the international community can do it.
  • The remaining 142 detainees at Guantánamo must be released or tried in civilian courts, and the prison there must be shut down.
  • Evidence of US torture must be declassified, especially the torture of anyone still being held at Guantánamo.
  • While the US Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations prohibits many forms of torture, a classified “annex” still permits sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. These are both forms of cruel treatment which must end.
  • People held in US jails and prisons must be protected from long-term solitary confinement and rape. “Supermax” facilities and “Secure Housing Units,” where inmates spend years and even decades in complete isolation must be shut down. As many as 80,000 prisoners are believed to be in solitary confinement in US prisons today – a form of treatment we now understand can cause lasting psychosis in as short a time as two weeks.
  • The United States should end the death penalty, or at the very least declare a moratorium until it can find a quick and painless method of execution.
  • The United States must address out-of-control police brutality, especially “against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals.” This finding is especially poignant in a period when we have just witnessed the failure to indict two white policemen who killed unarmed Black men: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Like many who have been demonstrating during the last few weeks against racially selective police violence, the Committee was also concerned about “racial profiling by police and immigration offices and growing militarization of policing activities.”

Why should an international body focused specifically on torture care about an apparently broader issue like police behavior? In fact, torture and race- or identity-based police brutality are intimately linked by the reality that lies at the foundation of institutionalized state torture.

Every nation that uses torture must first identify one or more groups of people who are torture’s “legitimate” targets. They are legitimate targets because in the minds of the torturers and of the society that gives torture a home, these people are not entirely human. (In fact, the Chilean secret police called the people they tortured “humanoids.”) Instead, groups singled out for torture are a uniquely degraded and dangerous threat to the body politic, and therefore anything “we” must do to protect ourselves becomes licit. In the United States, with lots of encouragement from the news and entertainment media, many white people believe that African American men represent this kind of unique threat. The logic that allows police to kill unarmed Black men with impunity is not all that different from the logic that produces pogroms or underlies drone assassination programs in far-off places, or that makes it impossible to prosecute our own torturers.

At 15 pages, the whole UN report is certainly a quicker read than the Senate committee’s 500-page “summary.” And it’s a good reminder that, whatever President Obama might wish, this is not the time to close the book on torture. It’s time to re-open the discussion, to hold the torturers accountable, and to bring a real end to US torture.

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14. 10 quotes to inspire a love of winter

Winter encourages a certain kind of idiosyncratic imagery not found during any other season: white, powdery snow, puffs of warm breath, be-scarfed holiday crowds. The following slideshow presents a lovely compilation of quotes from the eighth edition of our Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that will inspire a newfound love for winter, whether you’ve ever experienced snow or not!

Are there any other wintry quotes that you love? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Winter bird. Photo by Mathias Erhart. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. All slideshow background images CC0/public domain via Pixabay or PublicDomainPictures.net (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10).

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15. The Lerner Letters: Part 2 – Lerner and Loewe

This is the second of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. Read the previous letters to Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 23 December 2014.

Amongst the many famous people Lerner corresponded with, Frederick Loewe is naturally the most important in terms of musical collaborators. Yet sadly, correspondence between Lerner and Loewe is quite rare. I found only a few letters between them during the course of the research for the book, and was particularly disappointed by the lack of letters from their early years. They must have written many letters over the forty-odd years they knew each other, and it would have been particularly fascinating to have been able to chart every move of this legendary collaboration. (Incidentally, letters between Rodgers and Hammerstein are also quite rare; of course, composer-lyricist teams spend a lot of time together, and don’t always need to collaborate through the mail.)

Nevertheless, the letters that have survived are quite wonderful. For example, a letter from May 1956 – not long after their biggest hit, My Fair Lady, had opened – indicates the warmth of their relationship at this point, as well as their close interest in business matters:

There has been a lot of interest motion picture wise in the last couple of weeks and Irving has worked out a formula which he will, of course, go over with Ben, whereby whatever sum is paid for the picture rights will exclude GBS. He will get his on the gross later on. In other words, if the property sells for a million dollars, which is certainly the mini­mum, we will be able to divide it on the usual basis.

The songs are doing absolutely wonderfully. Vic Damone’s record in the last seven days has begun to crash through and you hear it all the time. Not only that, but “On The Street Where You Live” is get­ting wonderful plugging on radio and TV; in fact, all three of the songs are. Rosemary Clooney is making another record of “I Could Have Danced All Night” this week and the old record is being withdrawn. I have been keeping after Goddard [Lieberson] and Mitch and I’m going to try and get them to make another record of “Accustomed” with a male singer.

Did I tell you last time about the Actors Benefit? I don’t think so. Anyhow it was the goddamnedest night of all time. It made the opening night look like a Hadassah benefit. The laughter was enormous on every point; practically every song stopped the show and the ovation at the end was something I’ll never forget as long as I live. When Rex and Julie stepped out of the line for their final bow, the entire audience stood up like one person and shouted. There were over seven minutes of curtain calls. Comments at the end were something I’ve never heard before. It was an absolutely incredible experience and I can’t tell you how much I wish you’d been there. Rex told me later it was the most extraordinary night in his entire theatrical career. Incidentally, Rex gave the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give and it was fascinating to see how the actors knew that his was the really great performance of the show. His ovation was tumultuous.

[…] The French play I told you about looks fascinating and Moss and I have also been kick­ing other things around from time to time. I am sure when you come home that it won’t take too long for us to decide on something. I want you to know, incidentally, that for the first time in my life, I am not bursting to go to work. The only reason I am doing what I am doing is just to keep my mind occupied in a vague way. However, I am sure this lethargy won’t last forever and the minute we’re together again, the old sparks will begin to fly.

Here, we see them discussing a possible film version of Fair Lady already (it didn’t appear for another eight years); some cover versions of a couple of the songs by popular singers Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney, released to boost interest in the show; and a special Actors Benefit performance, at which Rex Harrison had evidently given an especially electric performance. Then, the final paragraph offers a vivid insight into the affectionate relationship between Lerner and Loewe at the time, with reference to “the old sparks flying.”

By the 1980s, however, the previous warmth had gone. Two letters regarding the revised stage version of the movie Gigi, which was being put on in London under Lerner’s supervision but without any input from Loewe, reveal high levels of tension between them:

There has been so much legal back and forthing about what songs can or cannot be used in “Gigi” that I thought, perhaps, I could cut through it all by giving you a history of the enterprise over here.

[…]The idea of bringing “Gigi” to London originated over a year and a half ago with Cameron Mackintosh, who, as you know, did “My Fair Lady” and did us proud. It was while Cam was planning it that John Dexter, who certainly in everybody’s opinion is one of the best directors in the world, became involved. What Dexter had in mind, and God knows I agreed with him and I am sure you would, too, was to capture the intimacy of the film— which, as we know, did not have the usual M-G-M production numbers, etcetera—but, at the same time, not be haunted by the film. It would be a true theatrical piece and not what Gerald Bordman, in his authoritative History of the Musical Theatre when writing about “Gigi,” said: “Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting film musical was lifted off the screen and set down uncomfortably on the legitimate stage. The translation from film script to play script was mere hack work.”

Rehearsals are to begin a week from today and last week was the first time we heard that you only wished songs from the film to be used. If your desire was conditioned by the success of Louis Jourdan’s production, let me assure you it was dreadful and only successful in places because of Louis combined with “Gigi.” When I read the script, I told Dave Grossberg to make certain it never appeared within 150 miles of New York. Even Cam, when he saw it, was appalled.

Also, the fact is at this point that management has rights that can­not be withdrawn. The Dramatists’ Guild Law and the law over here is that only one of the authors’ signatures is required. The reason for this is that if the other author (or authors) is unhappy, he can have his ver­sion done by someone else. Because I signed the contract with the full confidence that you would be as pleased about the production as I, the producers now have the right to the stage version.[…]

The rest of the letter offers more detail, but the situation was this: Loewe tried to wield his legal rights over Lerner, who was making changes to the score on his own in London, and Lerner replied by explaining that he had the legal right to do so in the UK. Twenty-five years after they had taken Broadway by storm in a series of musicals including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, the golden partnership had been reduced to bitterness. Yet, as the letters from the 1950s reveal, at the height of their fame they had been intimately connected and deeply affectionate.

 Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay

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16. Doing development differently

It is common that the pendulum of economic development scholarship and practice swings back and forth from one set of (faddish) ideas to another. But beneath this back-and-forth cycling is another, longer cycle the tension between a search for grand, seemingly scientifically-grounded solutions, and an approach to problem-solving which self-consciously is more pragmatic and incremental. In recent decades, this long-cycle pendulum has swung powerfully in the direction of scientism. There are, though, some striking signs that it may be swinging back.

Back in the 1950s, Albert Hirschman, perhaps the most eminent development economist of the post-WWII generation, challenged scholars to look beyond a narrow vision of social science and adopt a more problem-oriented approach. In the introductory essay of A Bias for Hope, his volume of collected essays on Latin America, Hirschman suggested that:

“most social scientists conceive it as their exclusive task to discover and stress regularities, stable relationships, and uniform sequences. This is obviously an essential search… But in the social sciences there is special room for the opposite type of endeavor: to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner…to widen the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible…”

In time this bold, but open-minded quest for insight congealed into something very different: the sequential embrace of one ‘magic bullet’ after another as the solution to development’s challenges – each advocated enthusiastically by its champions, only to be superseded by a new generation of very different and ever-more-ambitious certainties. First came a pre-occupation with increasing capital investment (the focus of development efforts into the latter 1970s). Limited results led to a turn to economics, and an insistence that results depended on ‘getting incentives right’ via structural adjustment policies. The 1990s witnessed the emergence of an even more ambitious agenda, with an insistence that far-reaching institutional reform—get ‘good governance’ right—was necessary for development. The past decade has been characterized by a pre-occupation with quantitative, results-based approaches—most vividly evident in the enthusiastic embrace of randomized control trials as a way of identifying what works, and by Jim Kim’s assertion, within months of becoming World Bank president, that the organization needed not just to support what works, but to embrace “the science of delivery”.

Antique wooden Buddha. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly. CC BY 2.0 via beggs Flickr.
Antique wooden Buddha. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly. CC BY 2.0 via beggs Flickr.

Emerging scholarship and innovation by practitioners suggest that this long-cycle pre-occupation with grand solutions may be turning. While the protagonists of new approaches vary in many specifics, most share the following:

  • An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for understanding and influencing development is to explore the way things actually are on the ground, rather than superimposing some normative ‘best practice’ vision of how they should be.
  • The use of ‘good fit’ orienting frameworks as guides for helping to identify a variety of distinctive trajectories of change—each with distinctive patterns of incentive and constraint, and thus distinctive entry points for seeking to nudge change forward.
  • A focus on working to solve very specific development problems—moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern.
  • An emphasis on ongoing learning—in recognition that no ‘good fit’ blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation.

As a next step in crafting a way forward, a rapidly growing group of eminent scholars and practitioners have signed on to a “Doing Development Differently” manifesto. As the manifesto puts it:

“genuine development progress is complex: solutions are not simple or obvious, those who would benefit most lack power, those who can make a difference are disengaged and political barriers are too often overlooked. Many development initiatives fail to address this complexity, promoting irrelevant interventions that will have little impact. Some development initiatives, however, have real results. Some are driven domestically while others receive external support. They usually involve many players – governments, civil society, international agencies and the private sector – working together to deliver real progress in complex situations and despite strong resistance.”

The “Doing Development Differently” manifesto is thus a profound departure from recent practice. But many of its protagonists (myself included) also take inspiration from the earlier generation of scholars. Indeed, against the backdrop of the current discourse, the sly irony with which Yale Professor Charles Lindblom entitled his classic 1959 article, “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’,” takes on an especially contemporary flavor.

Lindblom contrasts “the attention given to, and successes enjoyed by operations research, statistical decision theory and systems analysis…[and…] wherever possible quantification of values for mathematical analysis” with the reality that:

“making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes…[and]… proceeds through a succession of incremental changes….”

Let us hope that in the coming long-cycle, the spirit implicit in the words of both Hirschman and Lindblom can prevail—determined step-by-step exploration, infused by a bias for hope, but with no facile guarantees of success. As I put it in the concluding sentences of Working with the Grain, “our task is to bring our best effort to the search for ways forward. We can do no more than that, and should strive to do no less.”

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17. Magical Scotland: the Orkneys

The light in the Orkneys is so clear, so bright, so lucid, it feels like you are on top of the world looking though thin clouds into heaven.

It doesn’t even feel part of the UK: when you sail off the edge of Scotland by the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, you feel you are departing the real world to land in a magical realm.

Nowhere else on earth can you go to a place and see eight thousand years of continuous history in such a tiny space.

Skara Brae is what remains of a neolithic village, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids, kept secret underground until uncovered by a severe storm in 1850. You can walk in and sit down, look around at the stone walls, stone beds, stone cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Recognizably human people lived here, seeing this same landscape and coast, feeling the same wind on their faces that you do, their eyes resting on the doors, hearths and toilets (one in each dwelling).

This is ‘stone age’ but talking about such ages is a misnomer in the Orkneys where they had no appreciable bronze age nor iron age so proceeded from the non-use of one metal to the non-use of another in what is now the best preserved neolithic site in Europe.

Skara Brae by Russel Wills. CC BY SA 2.0 via Geograph.

The Orkneys have been so fascinating for so long that even the vandalism needs to be preserved. In Maeshowe burial mound you can see where Viking tourists who came to the monument, already ancient by their time, wrote graffiti about their girlfriends on the walls. They wrote in Norse runes.

The Orkney islands were the headquarters of the Viking invasion fleets, and to this day the Orkneys are the only place in the world besides Norway where the Norwegian national day is celebrated.

The islands are filled with Tolkeinesque place names like the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Sagas were born here, like that of the peaceable 12th century Earl of Orkney, treacherously assassinated and now known as St Magnus, after whom the cathedral is named.

Sagas were created here in living memory. This is where the British home fleet was at anchor and the German fleet still lies. The battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow in 1919 to await a decision on its future. The German sailors could not bring themselves to give up their ships; they opened the seacocks and scuttled them all. At low tide you can still see the rusting hulks of Wilhelmine ambitions to dominate Europe.

If the Orkneys sound bleak and rocky, that would be the wrong impression to leave. They have rich and fertile farming land with green plains rolling on under a pearl sky. People tell folk tales around the peat fires, drinking ginger-flavoured whiskey; an orange cat pads around the grain heaps in the Highland Park distillery, and the islands shimmer under the ‘simmer dim’ of nightless summer days. I should be there now.

Headline image credit: Stromness, Orkney Islands by Geoff Wong. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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18. Merry Elvis Christmas recollections

In celebration of the recently published biography, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson, I thought I would share some memories of Christmas past. In the 1970s we listened to Elvis on vinyl. Every December when it was time to decorate the tree you could hear the deep dulcet warbling of Elvis coming from the hi-fi. Some of my favorite Elvis renditions of Christmas songs follow.

Photo by Ollie Atkins. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Original photo by Ollie Atkins. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

With the tree up and ready to be decorated we’d pop on the Elvis to kick off the Christmas season with “The First Noel”.

In the kitchen we’d often hear my mother sing along to “Winter Wonderland” as she made stained-glass window cookies to hang on the tree.

Photo by Christian Purdy. Used with permission.
Photo by Christian Purdy. Used with permission.

One of my dad’s favorites was “Silver Bells”. He’d sing along so that it sounded like Elvis was his backup singer.

My best friend Tracy had an artificial, all-white tree bedecked in tinsel and lit solely with blue lights. In the evenings we’d just sit in her living room watching the tree as she and Elvis sang “Blue Christmas”.

Now that I am older, I still like to listen to Elvis when I decorate for Christmas. Then when I have everything just the way I want I like to get a crackling fire going, turn down the lights, plug in the tree, toss back a few slugs of egg nog, settle into a comfy couch with someone special, and listen to Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”.

Here’s hoping your stocking is stuffed with Elvis this season. I find he makes the holiday merry.

Headline image credit: Elvis! Photo by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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19. Traveling patients, traveling disease: Ebola is just the tip of the iceberg

Many in the media and academia (myself included) have been discussing the Ebola crisis, and more specifically, the issues that arise as Ebola has traveled with infected patients and health care workers to the United States and infected other US citizens.

These discussions have been fascinating and frightening, but the terrifying truth is that Ebola is just the tip of the iceberg. Diseases have long traveled with patients, and as the phenomena of medical tourism and the more general globalization of health care grow, these problems are likely to grow as well.

Medical tourists are very good targets of opportunities for pathogens. Many are traveling with compromised or suppressed immune systems to destination countries for treatment with relatively high infection rates, including the risk of exposure to multi-drug–resistant pathogens.

Doctors typically distinguish commensals—the bugs we normally carry on our skin, mouth, digestive tracts, etc.—from pathogens, the harmful bacteria that cause disease through infection. But what is commensal for a person in India might be an exotic pathogen for a US population. Medical tourist patients are transporting their commensals and pathogens to the hospital environments of the destination countries to which they travel, and are exposed to the commensals and pathogens of hospitals and population at large in the destination country. These transmissions tax the health care system and the knowledge of physicians in the home country to whom the new microbe may be unknown, and diagnosis and treatment more difficult.

Air travel can involve each of the four classical modes of disease transmission: contact (e.g. body-to-body or touching an armrest), common vehicle (e.g. via food or water), vector (e.g. via insects or vermin), and airborne (although more recent planes are equipped with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters reducing transmission risk, older planes are not).

We have seen several diseases travel in this way. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 involved a three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing carrying one SARS-infected passenger leading to sixteen passengers being subsequently confirmed as cases of SARS, with eight of those passengers sitting in the three rows in front of the passenger.

In January 2008, a new type of enzyme was detected in bacteria found in a fifty-nine-year-old man with a urinary tract infection being treated in Sweden. The man, Swedish but of Indian origin, had in the previous month undergone surgeries at two hospitals in India. The enzyme, labeled “New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1 (NDM-1)” was able to disarm a lot of antibiotics, including one that was the last line of defenses against common respiratory and urinary tract infection.

In 2009, a study found that twenty-nine UK patients had tested positive for the bacteria-carrying NDM-1 and that seventeen of the twenty-nine (60%) had traveled to India or Pakistan in the year before. A majority of those seventeen received medical treatment while abroad in those countries, some for accidents or illness while traveling and others for medical tourism, either for kidney and bone marrow transplants or for cosmetic surgery.

High-income countries face significant problems with these infections. A 2002 study estimated that 1.7 million patients (ninety-nine thousand of whom died as a result) developed health care-acquired infections in the United States that year. In Europe these infections have been estimated to cause thirty-seven thousand deaths a year and add US $9.4 billion in direct costs

What can be done? Although in theory airline or national travel rules can prevent infected patients from boarding planes, detecting these infections in passengers is very difficult for the airline or immigration officials, and concerns about privacy of patients may chill some interventions. A 2007 case of a man who flew from the United States to Europe with extensively resistant tuberculosis and who ultimately circumvented authorities who tried to stop him on return by flying to Montreal, Canada and renting a car, shows some of the limits on these restrictions.

Part of the solution is technological. The HEPA filters discussed above on newer model planes reduce the risk substantially, and we can hope for more breakthroughs.

Part of the solution is better regulating the use of antibiotics: overuse of antibiotics when not effective or necessary, underuse of antibiotics when they are needed, failure to complete a full course of antibiotics, counterfeit drugs, and excessive antibiotic use in food animals. This is not a magic bullet, however, and we see problems even in countries with prescription systems such as the United States.

We also need much better transparency and reaction time. Some countries reacted quickly to the report of the NDM-1 cases discussed above in issuing travel warnings and informing home country physicians, while others did not.

Finally, as became evident with Ebola, we need better protocols in place to screen returning medical tourism patients and to engage in infection control when needed.

Headline image credit: Ebola virus virion by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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20. 1914: The Battle for Basra

The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.

On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.

The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.

Indian_Army_QF_3.7_inch_gun_battery_Jerusalem_1917
Indian Army gunners with 3.7 inch Mountain Howitzers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The 16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.

The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.

The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.

This article originally appeared on the Hurst Publishers blog.

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21. Seed Sharing and Gardening Books

One of the really awesome things some public libraries have started doing is creating a seed lending library. Patrons “borrow” seeds from the library to plant in their gardens and then in the fall they save seeds from what they grew and return them back to the library. Great idea, right? It promotes community sharing, healthy food and good exercise, what could be wrong with that? Back in June of this year the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture told the Mechanicsburg public library it could no longer distribute seeds. The seed-exchange program violated a law passed in 2004 that required anyone distributing seeds to conduct quality tests, adhere to labeling and storage rules, and to have a license.

This makes sense for companies that sell seeds for profit. But for a library seed sharing problem?

Now the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has gone after the Duluth public library for its seed sharing program. They cite the very same reasons as they did in PA. You don’t have to have license here but apparently anyone who sells, trades or exchanges seeds in Minnesota must follow state rules and proper labeling. One of those rules is having the seeds tested to make sure they will germinate. It costs $50 for each germination test. Typically, about 400 seeds have to be tested for a valid result but what do you do if you are looking at one to two dozen seeds? The Ag Department said they’d allow the library to have a gardener in Duluth test a smaller sample size.

This means the Duluth program is not going to be shut down, it just means they have lots of hoops to jump through every year to continue the program. And it’s a big program: 200 members borrowed 800 packets of seeds in the first year of the exchange.

Even more ridiculous is the law applies to everyone in the state. So should I give my neighbor some flower or bean seeds from my garden and I don’t first test them or label them I am breaking the law. Supposedly the law is meant to protect consumers and create a level playing field for seed companies which to me means make free seed sharing programs difficult so people will have to buy seeds from companies more often than not.

Don’t worry though, there are some laws worth breaking and this is one of them. If you ever come visit me and my garden and want some seeds from my calendula or coneflowers or zucchini, I’ll gladly provide them to you. Seed sharing is part of what gardening is all about and I am not going to let short-sighted laws that protect companies keep me from it.

On a bookish note, I have five days of work and then two glorious weeks of vacation. I have a little pile of gardening books that I have accumulated from the library that I plan on enjoying as part of that vacation:

  • Preserving by the Pint by Marisa McClellan. This is a marvelous book that I am going to buy myself a copy of. It is filled with recipes for small batch canning. And by small batch I mean one or two small pint jars. The book is intended for gardeners and farmer’s market shoppers who want to preserve small amounts of in-season produce. In other words, you don’t need five pounds of strawberries to make jam, just a few cups. If you have a gardener on your holiday gift list or you are a gardener with a wishlist, this is one you will definitely want to take a look at.
  • Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison. Because a plant’s Latin name contains lots of information, this book is intended to help the Latin ignorant like myself to figure it out.
  • The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr. Herbs, herbs and more herbs. And what to do with them from culinary to medicinal to the purely ornamental. It’s a hefty A-Z book with more herbs than I have ever heard of, how to grow them and what to do with them. I get the feeling after just a quick browse that I am going to want to own a copy of this. Also, my herb spiral is going to be crammed full next summer and likely overflowing into the rest of the garden.
  • The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. Rumor has it that I might be able to extend the growing season into January or longer using the right equipment and techniques. I had thought I’d like to try it in a couple of years. Bookman says, we should totally try it next winter. Guess who gets to be the one who figures out how to do it? Bookman says he’s just the muscle. So I have some learning to do. Most likely I will be buying myself a copy of this book too. Glancing through, it seems like it will be quite a bit of work getting it all set up so we’ll start small, make lots of mistakes and then expand after we (I) learn how it works in my own garden. Even though it is daunting, I must say the thought of having fresh lettuce from the garden in December is rather appealing. Have no fear, you’ll be hearing all about it!

I have been happily reading the giant seed catalog I bought. I limit myself to reading it for short periods of time. I am looking forward to utter indulgence during my vacation. I might have to check in to a rehab center afterwards. But it will be totally worth it.


Filed under: Books, gardening

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22. Expand Your Collection with Bookapalooza!

Submit your Bookapalooza application by Feb. 1, 2015

Submit your Bookapalooza application by Feb. 1, 2015 (image courtesy of ALSC)

Dream of expanding your collection with a huge shipment of books, videos, and audio books and recordings? Boy, have we got an offer for you!

ALSC and the Grants Administration Committee are now accepting online applications for the 2015 Bookapalooza Program. This program offers select libraries a collection of materials to be used in a way that creatively enhances their library service to children and families. The materials are primarily for children age birth through 14 and include newly published books, videos, audio books and recordings from children’s trade publishers.

Applicants must be personal members of ALSC, as well as ALA members to apply. Deadline for submissions is Sunday, February 1, 2015. For more information about the award requirements and submitting the online application please visit the Bookapalooza Web page.

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23. Is international law just?

For almost a hundred years, international law has been on the receiving end of relentless criticism from the policy and academic worlds. That law, sometimes called the law of nations, consists of the web of rules developed by states around the world over many centuries through treaties and customary practices, some bilateral, some regional, and some global. Its rules regulate issues from the very technical (how our computers communicate internationally or the lengths of airport runways) to areas of common global concern (rules for ships on the seas or ozone pollution) to the most political for individual states (like when they can go to war or the minimum standards for human rights).

The first challenge to international law comes from those politicians, pundits, and political scientists who see it as fundamentally ineffective, a point they see as proved ever since the League of Nations failed to enforce the Versailles Treaty regime against the Axis in the 1930s. But those who really know how states relate to each other, whether diplomats or academics, have long found this criticism an unrealistic caricature. While some rules have little dissuasive power over some states, many if not most important rules, are generally followed, with serious consequences for violators, like ostracism, reciprocal responses, or even sanctions. The list of routinely respected rules is enormous, from those on global trade to the law of the sea to the treatment of diplomats to the technical areas mentioned above. Most international cooperation is grounded in some legal rules.

The second challenge to international law has come from domestic lawyers and some legal scholars who asserted that international law is not really “law” because it lacks the structure of domestic law, in particular an executive or police force that can enforce the rules. But this too is a canard. As the British legal scholar H.L.A. Hart pointed out more than a half-century ago, one does not need to have perfect enforcement for a rule to be “law,” as long as the parties treat the rules as law. With international law, states certainly interact in a way that shows they treat those rules as law. They expect them to be followed and reserve special opprobrium and responses for law violators. Certainly, powerful states can get away with some law violations more easily than weak states, but that has nothing to do with whether international law is law.

Third, international law has faced a challenge from some philosophers and global leaders that it is fundamentally immoral. They claim that its rules reflect self-interested bargains among governments, but lack moral content. It is intriguing that this moral criticism actually comes from two opposite directions. On the one hand, so-called cosmopolitan philosophers, who think people’s moral duties to one another should not turn on nationality or national borders (which they view as morally arbitrary), condemn many rules for sacrificing concern for the individual, wherever he or she may live, for the mere interests of states. On the other hand, leaders of many developing world nations claim that many of international law’s rules are immoral for not privileging states enough, in particular because they see the rules as part of a move by Northern states to undermine poor nations’ national sovereignty.

Perevalne, Ukraine - March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStockphoto
Perevalne, Ukraine – March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStock

One example shows the criticism. Consider the rule on secession, a rule that helps us evaluate, for instance, whether Crimea’s separation from Ukraine, and Russia’s engineering of that move, is illegal. International law has a “black-letter” rule that strictly limits the possibility for a group of people disaffected with their government to secede unilaterally from their state, only endorsing it if the government is severely denying them representation in the state. The point of the rule is to avoid the violence that comes from secessions – as we have seen from the break-up of Yugoslavia, the war between Sudan and the recently formed South Sudan, and the Ukraine-Russia conflict today. Cosmopolitan philosophers condemn the rule for not allowing individuals enough choice, by forcing people to remain tied to a state when they would prefer to have their own state, just for the sake of the stability of existing and arbitrary inter-state borders. Developing world leaders, often intolerant of minority groups in their state, criticize the rule for the opposite – for harming states by opening the door, however slightly, for some groups to secede and form their own states.

I think both of these criticisms miss the mark. In my view, many core rules of international law are indeed just because they do what all rules of international law must do – they promote peace, interstate or domestic, while respecting basic human rights. We need international rules to promote peace because the global arena is still characterized by a great deal of interstate and internal violence. At the same time, we cannot tolerate rules that trample on basic human rights, which are a sort of moral minimum for how we treat individuals.

This standard for a just system of international law is different from the more robust form of justice we might expect for a domestic society. The great theory of contemporary justice, that of John Rawls, demands both an equal right to basic liberty for all individuals within a state and significant redistribution of material wealth to eliminate the worst economic inequality. But we can’t really expect international law to do this right (particularly the second) now. Why? Because we cannot assume the domestic tranquility on which to build that more robust justice, and because the international arena does not have the same kind of strong institutions to force those sorts of rules on everyone (even though it can force some rules on recalcitrant states).

To return to my example about secessions, I think the rule we have strikes the right balance between peace and human rights. It promotes interstate and internal peace by disallowing merely unhappy groups to separate unilaterally; but it keeps the door open to that possibility if they are facing severe discrimination from the central government. So the Scots, Quebecers, or ethnic Russians in Ukraine do not have a right to secede, but Estonians did, and maybe Kurds still do. Other rules of international law will also meet this test, though I think some of them do risk undermining human rights.

Why should we care whether international rules are just? Because, as I stated earlier, those norms actually do guide much governmental action today. If a norm of international law is just, we have given global leaders and the public good reasons to respect it – as well as good reasons to be wary of changing it without careful reflection. And for those that are not, we can use an ethical appraisal to map out a course of action to improve the rules. That way, we can develop an international law that can promote global justice.

Headline image credit: Monument. CC0 via Pixabay.

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24. Physics Project Lab: How to build a cycloid tracker

Over the next few weeks, Paul Gluck, co-author of Physics Project Lab, will be describing how to conduct various Physics experiments. In this first post, Paul explains how to investigate motion on a cycloid, the path described by a point on the circumference of a vertical circle rolling on a horizontal plane.

If you are a student or an instructor, whether in a high school or at university, you may want to depart from the routine of lectures, tutorials, and short lab sessions. An extended experimental investigation of some physical phenomenon will provide an exciting channel for that wish. The payoff for the student is a taste of how physics research is done. This holds also for the instructor guiding a project if the guide’s time is completely taken up with teaching. For researchers it seems natural to initiate interested students into research early on in their studies.

You could find something interesting to study about any mundane effect.  If students come up with a problem connected with their interests, be it a hobby, some sport, a musical instrument, or a toy, so much the better. The guide can then discuss the project’s feasibility, or suggest an alternative. Unlike in a regular physics lab where all the apparatus is already there, there is an added bonus if the student constructs all or parts of the apparatus needed to explore the physics: a self-planned and built apparatus is one that is well understood.

Here is an example of what can be done with simple instrumentation, requiring no more than some photogates, found in all labs, but needing plenty of building initiative and elbow grease. It has the ingredients of a good project: learning some advanced theory, devising methods of measurements, and planning and building the experimental apparatus. It also provides an opportunity to learn some history of physics.

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Cutting out the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck and used with permission.

The challenge is to investigate motion on a cycloid, the path described by a point on the circumference of a vertical circle rolling on a horizontal plane.

This path is relevant to two famous problems. The first is the one posed by Johann Bernoulli: along what path between two points at different heights is the travel time of a particle a minimum? The answer is the brachistochrone, part of a cycloid. Secondly, you can learn about the pendulum clock of Christian Huygens, in which the bob and its suspension were constrained to move along cycloid, so that the period of its swing was constant.

Here is what you have to construct: build a cycloidal track and for comparison purposes also a straight, variable-angle inclined track. To do this, proceed as follows. Mark a point on the circumference of a hoop, lid, or other circular object, whose radius you have measured. Roll it in a vertical plane and trace the locus of the point on a piece of cardboard placed behind the rolling object. Transfer the trace to a 2 cm-thick board and cut out very carefully with a jigsaw along the green-yellow border in the picture. Lay along the profile line a flexible plastic track with a groove, of the same width as the thickness of the board, obtainable from household or electrical supplies stores. Lay the plastic strip also along the inclined plane.

Your cycloid track is ready.

The pendulum constrained to the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck
The pendulum constrained to the cycloid, image provided by Paul Gluck and used with permission.

Measure the time taken for a small steel ball to roll along the groove from various release points on the brachistochrone to the bottom of the track. Compare with theory, which predicts that the time is independent of the release height, the tautochrone property. Compare also the times taken to descend the same height on the brachistochrone and on the straight track.

Design a pendulum whose bob is constrained to move along a cycloid, and whose suspension is confined by cycloids on either side of its swing from the equilibrium position. To do this, cut the green part in the above picture exactly into two halves, place them side by side to form a cusp, and suspend the pendulum from the apex of the cusp, as in the second picture. The pendulum string will then be confined along cycloids, and the swing period will be independent of the initial release position of the bob – the isochronous property. Measure its period for various amplitudes and show that it is a constant.

Have you tried this experiment at home? Tell us how it went to get the chance to win a free copy of the Physics Project Lab book. We’ll pick our favourite descriptions on 9th January. Good luck to all entries!

Featured image credit: Advanced Theoretical Physics blackboard, by Marvin PA. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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25. Scottish OUP staff reflect on Scotland as Place of the Year 2014

With the announcement of Scotland as Place of the Year 2014, we asked a few of our staff members who hail from Scotland to share their thoughts about home. They responded with heartfelt opinions, patriotism, nostalgia, poems, and a little homesickness. Here are their thoughts about Scotland being voted Place of the Year:

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If I had been given a penny each time I was asked in 2014 about the Scottish referendum, I could quite possibly have written off the UK national debt. However, while there was no financial gain in these chats, I did sense that something much more valuable was happening; Scotland was finding its voice again. In the referendum, political debate was no longer a pursuit reserved for a privileged few, but open to everyone. There are some famous traditions in Scotland like haggis, tartan, and 12 year old Speyside whiskies (and I love all three), but I think the most lasting Scottish tradition is a readiness to stand at the vanguard of change. Whether this is manifest in new inventions, poetry, or indeed in changing the nature of political debate, Scotland’s voice is often worth listening to.

I’m glad that Scotland’s story is still being told as part of the United Kingdom but I remain grateful for the events of 2014 and the good they can bring. This year has allowed us to take stock, and hopefully, in the words of Rabbie Burns, ‘To see oursels as ithers see us’ and to change for the better again. I may be biased, but Scotland will always be my place of the year.

– Alistair Shand, Marketing Executive, Oxford Journals, from Markinch

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Kirsty Doole keeps a saltire above her desk. Photo used with permission.

I’m delighted that Scotland has been voted Oxford Atlas Place of the Year for 2014. If nothing else, I hope it means that people will think of something other than the stereotypical kilts, haggis, and bagpipes when they think of Scotland. It is a vibrant modern nation full of fantastic culture, rich history, and as we have seen this year, progressive politics. No matter which side of the referendum debate you were on, the level of engagement was really heartening, and spanned the generations; for the first time 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote. While 55% of voters decided against independence, the referendum has elevated Scotland in the world’s consciousness, and that makes me one tremendously proud Scot.

– Kirsty Doole, Publicity Manager, from Glasgow

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It’s a great choice having Scotland as Oxford Atlas Place of the Year for 2014. Despite having lived away from Scotland for the best part of 20 years, I’m still a fiercely proud Scot (you can take the girl out of Scotland….). When people hear your accent for the first time, they always want to talk to you about Scotland. Where should they visit? (where do I start!) Is Glasgow scary (not in the least!), do you support Rangers or Celtic (neither, I’m a St Johnstone fan). It’s such a beautiful country, something of which I am reminded every time I take a trip across the border. The colours in autumn are spectacular, the natives are friendly, and its cities are vibrant, cosmopolitan places with plenty to explore. But if you asked me what I missed most about The Homeland, my answer might surprise you. It’s the drinking water. Crystal clear, straight out of the tap, and with no limescale — I’m homesick already.

– Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, from Grangemouth

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I don’t think there are many other countries that provoke such a positive sense of belonging as Scotland. We may well have a reputation for being travellers, but no matter how far from ‘home’ or how long you’ve been away, that pride remains strong. When I think of home, it’s not the spectacular scenery that springs to mind (nor the much-maligned weather!), but the warm spirit, welcoming nature and humour of the people. We saw this in the summer of this year where Glasgow was the perfect host for the ‘Friendly Games’ and we see it annually in Edinburgh where the Fringe and Hogmanay are the focus of a global audience. However, my own favourite example of our welcoming, humorous people came in a football match against Italy in 2007 where the visiting Italians were treated to a rendition of ‘Deep fry your pizza. We’re gonna deep fry your pizza.’

— Paul Repper, Commissioning Editor, Primary Maths, Oxford Education, from Aberdeen

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‘Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is. Here’s mines.
National flower: the thistle.
National pastime: nostalgia.’
— Liz Lochhead

In recent years, the whole world has caught a glimpse of my nostalgic Scotland. This is something we can all thank Alex Salmond for. As the referendum loomed, it seemed as though the drastic change in governance we were pursuing was based entirely on the first verse of ‘Flower of Scotland’. For those of you who may need a refresher in unofficial Scottish national anthems, this football fans’ favourite refers to Scots king Robert the Bruce sending Edward II of England ‘homewards, tae think again’.

Whichever way we voted in September, I’m pretty sure we Scots can all agree that our nation has been invented by nostalgics. We can wince all we like at Mel Gibson’s attempt at William Wallace, and shout down anyone who asks if we solely eat haggis and shortbread, but we’re just as guilty as the rest of you. I personally, having moved to England less than six months ago, have spun many a yarn about the mysterious land in the north, trying to appear exotic to my Oxford colleagues.

Scotland being chosen as the Oxford Atlas Place of the Year warms my nostalgic tartan heart; I always welcome an excuse to quote Rabbie Burns and raise a glass to Caledonia.

— Kathleen Sargeant, Marketing Assistant, Oxford Journals, from Falkirk, Stirlingshire

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I may be somewhat biased but I thought it fitting that Scotland was announced as Place of the Year 2014. In a shortlist dominated by war and varying degrees of civil unrest, Scotland was a beacon of progress and positive political involvement. In the lead up to the independence referendum, held in September, the people of Scotland engaged with their future and their choices in a way rarely seen today, with 97% of people registering to vote. It was amazing to see my relatively small country become the focus of worldwide attention, especially for such a positive reason.

– CJ Cook, Marketing Executive, Law Marketing, from Livingston (but an adopted Glaswegian)

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Scotland is my favourite place in the world and I’ve never found a bunch of friendlier people than those you find in Glasgow. Our sausage is square, our squash is called juice, and our pigeon holes are ‘dookits’. You’re guaranteed to make a friend if you travel any distance on public transport. My favourite bit about going home to Scotland is standing in the queue to board the plane. I never truly realise how much I miss the accent until I’m standing there, surrounded by people who over pronounce their ‘r’s’ in the same way I do. That’s when I know I’m nearly home.

– Jane Williams, Senior Marketing Executive, Medicine Marketing, from Inchinnan

Heading image: Heading image: Flag of Scotland by Cayetano. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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