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1. Oxytocin and emotion recognition

Imagine you are in class and your friend has just made a fool of the teacher. How do you feel? Although this will depend on the personalities of those involved, you might well find yourself laughing along with your classmates at the teacher’s expense. The experience of sharing an emotion with your friends (in this case the fun of getting one over on the teacher) will probably strengthen your friendship further. But in a class of one hundred students, there are likely to be one or two who have trouble understanding the joke.

The ability to infer and understand other peoples’ emotions and beliefs plays an important role in human social relationships. However, for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a developmental disorder that affects approximately 1% of the population and for which there is no established treatment — this can be challenging. While high-functioning individuals with ASD may be able to compensate for difficulties in inferring others’ beliefs, they often continue to have trouble understanding others’ emotions, and this leads to impaired social functioning.

Increasing evidence suggests that oxytocin — a neuropeptide that promotes social behavior and bonding in humans and in animals — can improve emotion recognition in ‘typically developing’ individuals, i.e. those without ASD. Notably, oxytocin improves the ability to infer others’ emotions more than the ability to identify their beliefs. Oxytocin has also been shown to improve social behavior in individuals with autism and to partially reverse patterns of brain dysfunction thought to be responsible for the deficits. This has led to the suggestion that oxytocin could be used to develop medications for currently untreatable psychiatric conditions characterized by social impairments.

However, studies to date have only investigated the ability of oxytocin to improve recognition of basic emotions such as fear or happiness. These differ from “social” emotions such as embarrassment and shame, which require us to represent the mental state of another. Moreover, most existing studies have provided participants with so-called “direct cues” as to others’ emotions, such as their facial expressions or tone of voice. However, these cues are not always available in real life and the ability to identify others’ emotions using only indirect cues is itself important for social functioning. We therefore decided to investigate whether oxytocin would also improve the ability of individuals with ASD to recognise social emotions, even in the absence of direct cues.

MRI of brain by bykst. Public Domain via Pixabay.
MRI of brain by bykst. Public Domain via Pixabay.

To do so, we modified a cartoon-based task called the “Sally-Anne task,” which is commonly used to test for understanding of other peoples’ false beliefs, and used MRI scans to measure brain activity in subjects with and without ASD as they performed the task. In the standard version, participants are shown a cartoon in which one protagonist (Sally) places a ball in a box and then leaves the room. In her absence, another protagonist (Anne) moves the ball to a second box to the right of the first, and Sally then returns. At the end of the story, participants are asked the following questions: “Is the ball in the left-hand box?” to test comprehension of the story, and “Does Sally look for her ball in the left-hand box?” to test for understanding of Sally’s false belief about the location of the ball. To examine participants’ ability to infer others’ emotions, we introduced a third question: “How does Anne feel when Sally opens the left-hand box?”. Given that Ann’s gain effectively depends on Sally’s loss, the emotions involved will be complex social emotions: Ann, for example, might gloat upon realizing that she has fooled Sally by moving the ball.

We discovered that individuals with ASD are less accurate than IQ-matched controls in inferring social emotions in the absence of direct cues such as facial expressions. Moreover, individuals with ASD showed lower activity than controls in two brain regions that contribute to this ability, namely the right anterior insula and superior temporal sulcus. Individuals with ASD who had a normal IQ were not significantly impaired in inferring others’ beliefs; however, they did show lower brain activity than controls in a region implicated in this process, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

In order to determine whether oxytocin could improve the ability of individuals with ASD to identify others’ social emotions, we conducted a double-blind trial. We administered a single dose of either oxytocin or placebo in the form of an intranasal spray to subjects with ASD and to matched controls. As predicted, oxytocin increased the accuracy with which individuals with ASD were able to identify others’ social emotions in the absence of direct cues, and also enhanced their originally-diminished brain activity in the right anterior insula. This increase in activity was not observed in other brain regions or during attempts to understand others’ beliefs, suggesting that oxytocin acts specifically on the ability to infer social emotions.

Ultimately therefore, the results of our behavioral experiments and brain activity studies lend support to the idea that intranasal oxytocin could potentially form the basis of a treatment for at least some of the social impairments in ASD.

Heading image: Oxytocin-neurophysin by Edgar181. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Stem cell therapy for diabetes

This month, it was reported that scientists at Harvard University have successfully made insulin-secreting beta cells from human pluripotent stem cells. This is an important milestone towards a “stem cell therapy” for diabetes, which will have huge effects on human medicine.

Diabetes is a group of diseases in which the blood glucose is too high. In type 1 diabetes, the patients have an autoimmune disease that causes destruction of their insulin-producing cells (the beta cells of the pancreas). Insulin is the hormone that enables glucose to enter the cells of the tissues and in its absence the glucose remains in the blood and cannot be used. In type 2 diabetes the beta cells are usually somewhat defective and cannot adapt to the increased demand often associated with age and/or obesity. Despite the availability of insulin for treating diabetes since the 1920s, the disease is still a huge problem. If the level of blood glucose is not perfectly controlled it will cause damage to blood vessels and this eventually leads to various unpleasant complications including heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and gangrene of limbs. Apart from the considerable suffering of the affected patients, the costs of dealing with diabetes is a huge financial burden for all health services. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in particular is rising in most parts of the world and the number of patients is now counted in the hundreds of millions.

To get perfect control of blood glucose, insulin injections will never be quite good enough. The beta cells of the pancreas are specialised to secrete exactly the correct amount of insulin depending on the level of glucose they detect in the blood. At present the only sources of beta cells for transplantation are the pancreases taken from deceased organ donors. However this has enabled a clinical procedure to the introduced called “islet transplantation”. Here, the pancreatic islets (which contain the beta cells) are isolated from one or more donor pancreases and are infused into the liver of the diabetic patient. The liver has a similar blood supply to the pancreas and the procedure to infuse the cells is surgically very simple. The experience of islet transplants has shown that the technique can cure diabetes, at least in the short term. But there are three problems. Firstly the grafts tend to lose activity over a few years and eventually the patients are back on injected insulin. Secondly the grafts require permanent immunosuppression with drugs to avoid rejection by the host, and this can lead to problems. Thirdly, and most importantly, the supply of donor pancreases is very limited and only a tiny fraction of what is really needed.

Syringe, by Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery 2014″. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This background may explain why the production of human beta cells has been a principal objective of stem cell research for many years. If unlimited numbers of beta cells could be produced from somewhere then at least the problem of supply would be solved and transplants could be made available for many more people. Although there are other potential sources, most effort has gone into making beta cells from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSC). These resemble cells of the early embryo: they can be grown without limit in culture, and they can differentiate into most of the cell types found in the body. hPSC comprise embryonic stem cells, made by culturing cells directly from early human embryos; and also “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC), made by introducing selected genes into other cell types to reprogram them to an embryonic state. The procedures for making hPSC into beta cells have been designed based on the knowledge obtained by developmental biologists about how the pancreas and the beta cells arise during normal development of the embryo. This has shown that there are several stages of cell commitment, each controlled by different extracellular signal substances. Mimicking this series of events in culture should, theoretically, yield beta cells in the dish. In reality some art as well as science is required to create useful differentiation protocols. Many labs have been involved in this work but until now the best protocols could only generate immature beta cells, which have a low insulin content and do not secrete insulin when exposed to glucose. The new study has developed a protocol yielding fully functional mature beta cells which have the same insulin content as normal beta cells and which secrete insulin in response to glucose in the same way. These are the critical properties that have so far eluded researchers in this area and are essential for the cells to be useful for transplantation. Also, unlike most previous procedures, the new Harvard method grows the cells as clumps in suspension, which means that it is capable of producing the large number of cells required for human transplants.

These cells can cure diabetes in diabetic mice, but when will they be tried in humans? This will depend on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the USA. The FDA has so far been very cautious about stem cell therapies because they do not want to see cells implanted that will grow without control and become cancerous. One thing they will insist on is extremely good evidence that there are absolutely none of the original pluripotent cells left in the transplant, as they would probably develop into tumours. This highlights the fact that the treatment is not really “stem cell therapy” at all, it is actually “differentiated cell therapy” where the transplanted cells are made from stem cells instead of coming from organ donors. The FDA will also much prefer a delivery method which will enable the cells to be removed, something which is not the case with current islet transplants. One much discussed possibility is “encapsulation” whereby the cells are enclosed in a semipermeable membrane that can let nutrients in and insulin out but will not allow cells to escape. This might also enable the use of immunosuppressive drugs to be avoided, as encapsulation is also intended to provide a barrier against the immune cells of the host.

Stem cell therapy has been hyped for years but with the exception of the long established bone marrow transplant it has not yet delivered. An effective implant which is easy to insert and easy to replace would certainly revolutionize the treatment of diabetes, and given the importance of diabetes worldwide, this in itself can be expected to revolutionize healthcare.

Featured image credit: A colony of embryonic stem cell. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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3. Another Gaza war: what if the settlers were right?

Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed their presence provided a buffer. They said God promised this Land to the Jewish people and that they should not abandon it. They said Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.

Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery. While it might seem strange, this has also had some benefits for those communities. In support of those who live on the front lines, the government has reduced taxes in those towns. The train ride from some peripheral areas is now provided free of charge. People began purchasing inexpensive real estate and were able to easily commute to their jobs in center of the country. Towns like Sederot became targets of missile fire, but also began to prosper in ways they had not before. More recently, Palestinian missile fire has increased in number and in range, disrupting life for Israelis throughout the country.

The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. This might seem strange, but it was probably entirely predictable.

Armored corps operating in the Gaza Strip. Photo by Israel Defense Forces. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
Armored corps operating in the Gaza Strip. Photo by Israel Defense Forces. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

Such might have been the prediction of James Ron in Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, for example, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing, as has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”, or what we might think of as a reservation, or a camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.

But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And, he explains, when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, that helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.

We might ask ourselves if the disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if the settlers were right. What if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis?

Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side.

But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation that makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the national group that has sovereignty. As Judith Butler so eloquently explains in Who Sings the Nation-State?: “The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain.”

If the danger lies in that hyphen as chain, then removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating; a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for increased violence. If it is true that war is only politics by other means, or politics only war, then we have to think further. The political terrain of Israel has changed. If, prior to the 2005 disengagement, there was a vibrant Left Wing opposed to settlement in the Occupied Territories, those voices have faded.

The political terrain has changed, but the foundations of the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine have not. Those foundations lie in the normative episteme of nations and states that form the basis for international relations and liberal peacemaking. If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that hyphen as chain will continue and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. As evidenced in Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. Writing Past Colonialism, if Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial polity, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives (Wolfe 1999). It matters little if one believes that Jews have a right to sovereignty in their homeland or if one believes the Palestinian struggle for liberation is justified. If liberation relies on the ethnic purification of territory there can be no winners.

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4. Eight facts about the waterphone

What in this galaxy is waterphone? You’ve might have not seen one, but if you’ve watched a horror or science fiction movie, chances are you’ve heard the eerie sounds of the waterphone. With Halloween around the corner and a spooky soundtrack required, I toured through Grove Music Online to learn more about the monolithic, acoustic instrument.

1. The waterphone was invented in 1967 and patented in 1975 by Richard A. Waters. It was manufactured individually to order by him (formerly under the company name Multi-Media in Sebastopol, California) so each was unique.

2. The Standard model is a stainless steel bowl resonator containing water. The dome-shaped top opens into a vertical unstopped, cylindrical tube that serves as a handle. Around the edge of the resonator are attached between 25 and 55 nearly vertical bronze rods, which (depending on the model) are tuned in equal or unequal 12-note or microtonal systems.

3. Various sizes have been produced; the earliest (‘Standard’) had a resonator 17.8 cm in diameter. Current models (‘Whaler’, ‘Bass’, and ‘MegaBass’) are constructed from flat, stainless steel pans.

4. The rods can be struck with sticks or Superball mallets or rubbed by a bow or the hands.

5. The movement of water in the resonator produces timbre changes and glissandi.

6. It has been played in a wide variety of musics, including rock and jazz, and featured in the compositions of Tan Dun and Sofia Gubaidulina.

7. It is an important element in the Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band founded by Waters in 1967.

8. It has been featured in many horror and science fiction film and television soundtracks, such as Poltergeist and The Matrix.

Headline image credit: Waterphone. Photo by Hangklang. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Stress before birth

Stress seems to be everywhere we turn. Much of the daily news is stressful, whether it pertains to the recent Ebola outbreak in western Africa (and its subsequent entry into the United States), beheadings by the radical Islamic group called ISIS, or the economic doldrums that continue to plague much of the developed world. Moreover, we all experience frequent stress in our daily lives. Stress can come from your job, your family, a romantic relationship, personal attacks by way of social media, or, if you’re a student, your school performance. Counselors, psychotherapists, even self-help books and other materials may help us cope with stress, but these sources don’t usually give us very much information about what is actually happening to our brain and our body when we’re stressed.

If we think about it for a moment, it becomes clear that stress is not a recent phenomenon brought about by the features of contemporary western societies. Our hominid ancestors who evolved on the African savanna were surely stressed in the course of meeting their basic biological needs of finding food and water, acquiring shelter, and keeping safe from predators. Moreover, the principal brain and endocrine (i.e. hormonal) systems that underlie the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological responses to stress are found throughout the animal kingdom, indicating that these systems arose much earlier in evolutionary history than the appearance of the first hominids. So just what are these systems and how do they work?

Insert drawing of adrenal gland here with the following caption: Structure of the adrenal gland, showing the outer cortex and the inner medulla along with the hormones they secrete. Reproduced from Psychopharmacology. Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, second edition, by Jerrold S. Meyer and Linda F. Quenzer. © Sinauer Associates.
Insert drawing of adrenal gland here with the following caption: Structure of the adrenal gland, showing the outer cortex and the inner medulla along with the hormones they secrete. Reproduced from Psychopharmacology. Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, second edition, by Jerrold S. Meyer and Linda F. Quenzer. © Sinauer Associates.

A lot of research has focused on the hormonal systems that are turned on during stress. These responses are easier to access than brain responses, since researchers usually need only to obtain samples of the person’s blood, saliva, or urine to determine whether her endocrine system is showing a normal stress response or perhaps is functioning abnormally due to the effects of previous stress exposure. There are two parts to the endocrine stress response, both involving the adrenal glands. The inner part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla, rapidly secretes the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (also called adrenalin and noradrenalin) in response to a stressor. These hormones help prepare the person for rapid physical action by elevating heart rate and blood pressure, mobilizing sugar from the liver for instant energy, and increasing blood flow to the skeletal muscles. The outer part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal cortex, is also activated by stressors but a bit more slowly. This part of the gland secretes glucocorticoids such as cortisol, which not only works in conjunction with epinephrine and norepinephrine but also affects inflammation, immune function, and brain activity.

For many years, researchers focused on how stress, especially chronic stress, can damage the adult brain and body. More recently, however, it has become clear that stress may be particularly destructive during development. We now know, for example, that repeated childhood maltreatment and abuse increase the child’s vulnerability to a later onset of clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. But stress can exert deleterious effects even earlier in development, namely during the prenatal period. Although the fetal adrenal glands begin to function before birth, it seems likely that stress is transmitted to the fetus mainly through maternal hormones such as cortisol. The placenta breaks down much of the mother’s cortisol before it reaches the fetus, but some of the hormone manages to get through. One example that shows how prenatal stress can adversely affect offspring development stems from a terrible ice storm that hit Québec Province in Canada in January of 1998. Three million people lost electrical power for up to 40 days, resulting in significant privation. David Laplante and colleagues at Douglas Hospital of McGill University later studied 89 five-and-a-half-year-old children whose mothers had been pregnant with them during the power outage. Children whose mothers endured the greatest hardship as a result of the storm scored noticeably lower in verbal IQ scores and in a vocabulary test than children whose mother experienced low or moderate hardship.

Insert drawing of human fetus here with the following caption: Late pregnancy human fetus. Illustration by Bruce Blaus. Source: Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Late pregnancy human fetus. Illustration by Bruce Blaus. Source: Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While natural disasters like the Québec ice storm afford researchers the opportunity to investigate some of the deleterious effects of prenatal stress exposure, there are many limitations of such studies because the stress cannot be controlled experimentally and there are additional confounding variables such as differing postnatal experiences among the participants. To overcome some of these limitations and additionally permit a more detailed examination of behavioral, endocrine, and brain function than normally available with human participants, models of stress (including prenatal stress) have been developed for studying nonhuman primates such as rhesus monkeys. Offspring of rhesus monkeys exposed during mid-to-late pregnancy either to repeated mild stress or to pharmacological stimulation of cortisol release show behavioral and brain abnormalities that are still present at least several years later.

Young rhesus monkey, courtesy of author
Young rhesus monkey, courtesy of author

The implication of both the human and primate research is clear. We must pay closer attention to the well-being of pregnant women in order to minimize whatever life stresses can be controlled. By so doing, we can help newborn children begin life with better prospects for their future mental and physical health.

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6. A taxonomy of kisses

Where kissing is concerned, there is an entire categorization of this most human of impulses that necessitates taking into account setting, relationship health and the emotional context in which the kiss occurs. A relationship’s condition might be predicted and its trajectory timeline plotted by observing and understanding how the couple kiss. For instance, viewed through the lens of a couple’s dynamic, a peck on the cheek can convey cold, hard rejection or simply signify that a loving couple are pressed for time.

A kiss communicates a myriad of meanings, its reception and perception can alter dramatically depending on the couple’s state of mind. A wife suffering from depression may interpret her husband’s kiss entirely differently should her symptoms be alleviated. Similarly, a jealous, insecure lover may receive his girlfriend’s kiss of greeting utterly at odds to how she intends it to be perceived.

So if the mind can translate the meaning of a kiss to fit with its reading of the world, what can a kiss between a couple tell us? Does this intimate act mark out territory and ownership, a hands-off-he’s-mine nod to those around? Perhaps an unspoken negotiation of power between a couple that covers a whole range of feelings and intentions; how does a kiss-and-make-up kiss differ from a flirtatious kiss or an apologetic one? What of a furtive kiss; an adulterous kiss; a hungry kiss; a brutal kiss? How does a first kiss distinguish itself from a final kiss? When the husband complains to his wife that after 15 years of marriage, “we don’t kiss like we used to”, is he yearning for the adolescent ‘snog’ of his youth?

Engulfed by techno culture, where every text message ends with a ‘X’, couples must carve out space in their busy schedules to merely glimpse one another over the edge of their laptops. There isn’t psychic space for such an old-fashioned concept as a simple kiss. In a time-impoverished, stress-burdened world, we need our kisses to communicate more. Kisses should be able to multi-task. It would be an extravagance in the 21st-century for a kiss not to mean anything.

And there’s the cultural context of kissing to consider. Do you go French, Latin or Eskimo? Add to this each family’s own customs, classifications and codes around how to kiss. For a couple, these differences necessitate accepting the way that your parents embraced may strike your new partner as odd, even perverse. For the northern lass whose family offer to ‘brew up’ instead of a warm embrace, the European preamble of two or three kisses at the breakfast table between her southern softie of a husband and his family, can seem baffling.

The context of a kiss between a couple correlates to the store of positive feeling they have between them; the amount of love in the bank of their relationship. Take 1: a kiss on the way out in the morning can be a reminder of the intimacy that has just been. Take 2: in an acrimonious coupling, this same gesture perhaps signposts a dash for freedom, a “thank God I don’t have to see you for 11 hours”. The kiss on the way back in through the front door can be a chance to reconnect after a day spent operating in different spheres or, less benignly, to assuage and disguise feelings of guilt at not wanting to be back at all.

Couple, by Oleh Slobodeniuk. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Couple, by Oleh Slobodeniuk. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

While on the subject of lip-to-lip contact, the place where a kiss lands expresses meaning. The peck on the forehead may herald a relationship where one partner distances themselves as a parental figure. A forensic ritualized pattern of kisses destined for the cheeks carries a different message to the gentle nip on the earlobe. Lips, cheek, neck, it seems all receptors convey significance to both kisser and ‘kissee’ and could indicate relationship dynamics such as a conservative-rebellious pairing or a babes-in-the-wood coupling.

Like Emperor Tiberius, who banned kissing because he thought it helped spread  fungal disease, Bert Bacarach asks, ‘What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia…’ Conceivably the nature of kissing and the unhygienic potential it carries is the ultimate symbol of trust between two lovers and raises the question of whether kissing is a prelude or an end in itself, ergo the long-suffering wife who doesn’t like kissing anymore “because I know what it’ll lead to…”

The twenty-first century has witnessed the proliferation of orthodontistry with its penchant for full mental braces. Modern mouths are habitually adorned with lip and tongue piercings as fetish wear or armour. Is this straying away from what a kiss means or a consideration of how modern mores can begin to create a new language around this oldest of greetings? There is an entire generation maturing whose first kiss was accompanied by the clashing of metal, casting a distinct shadow over their ideas around later couple intimacy.

Throughout history, from Judas to Marilyn Monroe, a kiss has communicated submission, domination, status, sexual desire, affection, friendship, betrayal, sealed a pact of peace or the giving of life. There is public kissing and private kissing. Kissing signposts good or bad manners. It is both a conscious and unconscious coded communication and can betray the instigator’s character; from the inhibited introvert to the narcissistic exhibitionist. The 16th-century theologian Erasmus described kissing as ‘a most attractive custom’. Rodin immortalized doomed, illicit lovers in his marble sculpture, and Chekhov wrote of the transformative power of a mistaken kiss. The history and meaning of the kiss evolves and shifts and yet remains steadfastly the same: a distinctly human, intimate and complex gesture, instantly recognizable despite its infinite variety of uses. I’ve a feeling Sam’s ‘You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss’ may never sound quite the same again.

Headline image credit: Conquered with a kiss, by .craig. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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7. Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2014, Part 1

It so happened that at the end of this past summer I was out of town and responded to the questions and comments that had accumulated in August and September in two posts. We have the adjectives biennial and biannual but no such Latinized luxury for the word month. Although I realized that in this case bimonthly would be misleading, I hoped that the context would disambiguate it. Let me assure our correspondents that my gleanings will keep appearing every last Wednesday until some unpredictable circumstance (for example, a sudden lack of queries: I can’t think of anything else) do us part. My bimonthly meant “gleanings for two months.”

Etymologies

Gaul, Walloon, Wallachian

Wallachian, Walloon, and Welsh share the same Germanic root, which means “foreign” (one can also see it in walnut, as well as in the family names Wallace, Welsh, and Walshe). The Anglo-Saxons called the Celts and the Romans foreigners. The element -wall in Cornwall is related to them. Gaulish is a Romanized form of the same adjective (compare ward and guard, Wilhelm and Guillaume). But one should not argue from etymological affinity to tribal or national identity. Calling some people foreigners does not say anything about their origin.

Hull gull

Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has an entry for the word, and descriptions of the game abound, but the origin of the name remains undiscovered. My browsing has not yielded anything worth reporting. What little has been said on the subject in books on games can be found on the Internet in five minutes. The idea that hull goes back to the Old Engl. verb for “hide” (hellan ~ helian, in Modern English, rare and dialectal hele; compare German hehlen, hüllen, and their cognate -ceal in Engl. conceal, from Latin, via French) is, in my opinion, fanciful. Hull gull is known among American Indians, but in the absence of its native name nothing follows from this fact. The hully gully dance seems to have been called after the game. Some people have looked for its source in Africa, yet no facts bear out its African origin. In my experience, the nucleus of such reduplications (hugger-mugger and the like) is more often the second element; the first is then added to rhyme with it. This is especially true of the words whose first element begins with an h. Should some brave word sleuth decide to search for the etymology of hull gull, it may pay off to begin with gull. Perhaps some of our correspondents have ideas on this subject. If so, kindly don’t hide them.

A hazel-grouse
A hazel-grouse

Color words

Brown

My gratitude is due those who informed me about the origin of brown shirts in Germany. I knew most of what was said in the comments but can now state with certainty that brown had no symbolic value in the choice of that uniform. As regards the name of the hazel grouse, it indeed has a root with wide Indo-European connections. The remark on braun und blau (see the quotation from Deutsches Wörterbuch adduced by Roland Schumann) should be considered, but in such binomials a descending scale is also possible: compare Engl. black and blue.

Livid

I am sure Michael Lamb is right. It did not occur to me to consult dictionaries. The OED explains that livid with anger means “pale with anger.” However, I still wonder whether anger, rather than fear, causes pallor. In those few cases in which I heard the phrase, the speakers always meant “suffused with red.” Apparently, I err in (good) company.

One as a pronoun

One is responsible for one’s mistakes. Is this a silly sentence? In at least one opinion, it is as silly as John is responsible for John’s mistakes. I am afraid I disagree. One, our correspondent points out, is not only an indefinite pronoun but also a noun, a circumstance ignored by grammarians. However, grammarians have always been aware of the nature of one. In the United States, grammar is seldom taught today (where some watered down elements of it remain, grammar has been replaced by the less offensive term structure; I cannot vouch for the rest of the English-speaking world), but those of us who did study this allegedly-devoid-of-fun subject at school have heard about the parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest). The division of the vocabulary into parts of speech is a minor catastrophe. For instance, adverbs often resemble a trashcan (what is not a noun or an adjective finds refuge there, and, to add to the confusion, nouns and adjectives in oblique cases tend to be “adverbialized”). Numerals fare even worse: we provide a list of them (one, two, three, etc.) and say: “This is your part of speech.” Is twice a numeral or an adverb? Twelve is a numeral, while dozen is a noun. Is threescore a numeral or a noun? Sixty is certainly a numeral. In the Old Germanic languages, the words for one, two, three, and four could be declined (as they still are in Icelandic) and belonged to the same classes as nouns; yet we call them numerals. All this is common knowledge. One is the worst offender, because, despite its meaning, in Old Germanic it had a plural form and sometimes meant “only.” Modern Engl. ones shows how natural that plural sounds, while once is a petrified genitive.

My next point concerns usage. John is responsible for John’s mistakes is unnecessary and even silly, because his, instead of John’s, would refer to the subject quite clearly. But one has no correlate, hence the trouble. One is responsible for his (her) mistakes is embarrassing, because one is neither a man nor a woman. Their is safe and politically correct, but one is singular, while their is plural. To be sure, those who say when a student comes, I never make them wait will find the correlation one/their unobjectionable, and let them enjoy their usage (“every man in his humor”). In addition to those variants, we can say either one is responsible for one’s mistakes (logical but perhaps inelegant) or rephrase the sentence (all of us are responsible for our mistakes). “John” is doing better: he pays the price for his folly, just as “Mary” rues her missteps. While speaking English, one occasionally hits the wall, and there is no help for it.

Come one, come all
Come one, come all

I wrote my response before Michael Lamb’s comment appeared. There was no need for me to change anything in my text, and “at this point of time,” as so deplorably many people say and write, I invite our correspondents to read our “polemic” and express their opinion: come one, come all.

Disagreements over strategy, or a maid of all work: over

Some prepositions succeed in ousting all their competitors. Henry W. Fowler, the author of the immortal book Modern English Usage, wrote with contempt about those who say as to, because they are too lazy to think of for, about, and their synonyms. I have a dim recollection that in one of my old posts I discussed over as an example of an evil invasive species. Recently, Walter Turner has sent me a list of such overdone phrases from the most respectable British and American newspapers. Some of them are offered below for the wise to be aware. “Egypt jails nine men over sex assaults”; “Moscow faces bank curbs over new public-sector projects” (= because of? in connection with?); “Journalists face jail over spy leaks”; “Cameron ambushes Labour over tax plans”; “Cameron criticized over plans to knight Tory reshuffle victims”; “X warns Y over boozy night out,” and many more. This virus, like all viruses, knows no borders. Take note and think it over.

I have something to say about the Indo-European names of fruits, the phrase in brown study, the origin of Viking, and about the ever-green subject of English spelling but will do so next Wednesday.

Image credits: (1) Hazel grouse. Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band VI, Tafel 8 – Gera, 1897 digitale Bearbeitung : Peter v. Sengbusch. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Marx Super Circus Tent Side 2 Inside Detail 1. Photo by Ed Berg. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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8. The Catholic Supernatural

From eighteenth century Gothic novels to contemporary popular culture, the tropes and sacred culture of Catholicism endure as themes in entertainment. OUP author Diana Walsh Pasulka sat down with The Conjuring (2013) screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes to discuss their cinematic focus on “the Catholic Supernatural” and the enduring appeal of Catholic culture to moviegoers.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Your recent movie The Conjuring was financially very successful and is the third highest grossing horror film about the supernatural, behind only The Exorcist (1973) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Each of these films engage Catholic themes, and more specifically, the supernatural. The Conjuring, of course, is based on the lives of Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren. What is it about Catholic culture that you think resonates with audiences?

Carey Hayes: Catholic culture is global. It also has a long history that almost everyone in the West identifies with on some level. Medieval cathedrals, priests in black robes and white collars and nuns in habits, in many ways these visuals are like short hand or code, and audiences understand them. For example, take the movie, The Exorcist. When it is apparent in the movie that the little girl is possessed by evil, they call in the priest. The priest, with his identifiable clothing, his crucifix and holy water, is the representation, visually, of the antidote to evil. Of course it doesn’t hurt that authors and filmmakers have used these themes over and over again, and this adds to the recognizable effects. The more we see elements of Catholic culture used in visual culture this way, the more we understand what they mean.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: That’s interesting. The meaning of these tropes, then, can take on a second life, of sorts, in popular culture. Non-Catholic audiences might equate what they see about Catholicism in the movies, with Catholic-lived practice.

Chad Hayes: That could be the case, of course, but in our experience we’ve had only positive reinforcement from Catholics. When we promoted The Conjuring in San Francisco a Catholic priest approached me and said “Thank you for getting it right.” That one comment was one of the best compliments I’ve received about the movie. We were also interviewed for U.S. Catholic, and they were very positive.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: A few years ago, Carey, you coined the term “The Religious Supernatural” to differentiate what you were doing from other screenwriters who wrote movies about the supernatural. Why designate it “religious?”

Carey Hayes: I coined the term to identify a certain framework, and, I suppose, to suggest a history. Today there is a lot of focus in popular culture on the supernatural or the paranormal. It is almost all secular. In the past, the supernatural and paranormal occurred within a worldview that allowed for the supernatural but within a religious framework. People had tools like prayers to deal with the supernatural, which, you have to admit, is scary. We wanted, in our movies, to return to that. We thought that, in many ways, religion deals with the big questions, and the supernatural is usually a scary thing that interrupts daily life and causes people to think about the big questions. So, we wanted to pair the two, religion and the supernatural, and remind audiences that this is, ultimately, what scary movies are about: ultimate questions about life.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Are you ever frightened by what you write about?

Chad Hayes: We’re not afraid when we write and produce movies about the supernatural. But our research frightens us!

Carey Hayes: Right! It is frightening because some of this is supposed to be true, or based on events that are true.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I wondered about that. Part of the appeal of your movies, and other movies like it such as The Exorcist, is that they play on the ambiguity of fiction and non-fiction, or the realism of your subject. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a great example of the play on realism. The movie was presented as recovered footage of an actual university student project. I was in Berkeley, California for the pre-release of that movie, and I couldn’t get tickets for three days because the lines outside of the theaters were so long. When I finally got to see the movie members of the audience were wondering, is this real? Of course, we knew that it wasn’t, but we were also intrigued that it was presented as real. That definitely contributed to its popularity. The marketing campaign for that movie was unique at the time, too, in that they emphasized the question of the potential realism of the movie.

Chad Hayes: We purposely look for stories that are based on true events. We do that for this very reason: because people can relate. They can Google the story and see that maybe its folklore, or its real, but it is out there and is an experience for other people. So that contributes, no doubt, to the scare factor.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Do you think this also has something to do with the appeal of the Catholic aesthetic, like the use of real Catholic sacred objects — the sacramentals, the crucifix, and the robes of the priests?

Chad Hayes: Absolutely. Ed and Lorraine Warren are practicing Catholics. Ed has passed away, but Lorrain still attends a Catholic Mass almost every day. That part of The Conjuring is based on her real Catholic practice. We were in contact with Lorraine throughout the writing of the movie and we included the objects that she and Ed actually used, like the sacramentals, the blessed objects, and holy water. My Catholic friends tell me that most Catholics don’t use these objects in their daily lives, but then they aren’t exorcizing demons, are they?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I suppose not!

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9. Food insecurity and the Great Recession

While food insecurity in America is by no means a new problem, it has been made worse by the Great Recession. And, despite the end of the Great Recession, food insecurity rates remain high. Currently, about 49 million people in the U.S. are living in food insecure households. In a recently-released article in Applied Economics Policy and Perspectives my co-authors, Elaine Waxman and Emily Engelhard, and I provide an overview of Map the Meal Gap, a tool that is used to establish food insecurity rates at the local level for Feeding America (the umbrella organization for food banks in the United States).

For 35 years, Feeding America has responded to the hunger crisis in America by providing food to people in need through a nationwide network of food banks. Today, Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization—a powerful and efficient network of 200 food banks across the country. You can learn more about food insecurity rates in America by listening to the below podcast:

 

What are the state-level determinants of food insecurity? What is the distribution of food insecurity across counties in the United States? How do the county-level food insecurity estimates generated in Map the Meal Gap compare with other sources? Along with reviewing Map the Meal Gap and finding out the answers to these questions, we discuss ways that policies can and are being used to reduce food insecurity in the United States.

Headline image credit: Supermarket trolleys, by Rd. Vortex. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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10. Five lessons from extreme places

Throughout history, some people have chosen to take huge risks. What can we learn from their experiences?

Extreme activities, such as polar exploration, deep-sea diving, mountaineering, space faring, and long-distance sailing, create extraordinary physical and psychological demands. The physical risks, such as freezing, drowning, suffocating or starving, are usually obvious. But the psychological pressures are what make extreme environments truly daunting.

The ability to deal with fear and anxiety is, of course, essential. But people in extremes may endure days or weeks of monotony between the moments of terror. Solo adventurers face loneliness and the risk of psychological breakdown, while those whose mission involves long-term confinement with a small group may experience stressful interpersonal conflict. All of that is on top of the physical hardships like sleep deprivation, pain, hunger, and squalor.

What can the rest of us learn from those hardy individuals who survive and thrive in extreme places? We believe there are many psychological lessons from hard places that can help us all in everyday life. They include the following.

  1. Cultivate focus.

Focus – the ability to pay attention to the right things and ignore all distractions, for as long as it takes – is a fundamental skill. Laser-like concentration is obviously essential during hazardous moves on a rock face or a spacewalk. Focus also helps when enduring prolonged hardship, such as on punishing polar treks. A good strategy for dealing with hardship is to focus tightly on the next bite-sized action rather than dwelling on the entire daunting mission.

The ability to focus attention is a much-underestimated skill in everyday life. It helps you get things done and tolerate discomfort. And it is rewarding: when someone is utterly absorbed in a demanding and stretching activity, they experience a satisfying psychological state called ‘flow’ (or being ‘in the zone’). A person in flow feels in control, forgets everyday anxieties, and tends to perform well at the task in hand. The good news is that we can all become better at focusing our attention. One scientifically-proven method is through the regular practice of meditation.

  1. Value ‘knowhow’

Focus helps when tackling difficult tasks, but you also need expertise – high levels of skills and knowledge – to perform those tasks well. Expertise underpins effective planning and preparation and enables informed and measured judgements about risks. In high-risk situations experts make more accurate decisions than novices, who may become paralysed with indecision or take rapid, panicky actions that make things worse.

Expertise also helps people in extreme environments to manage stress. Stress occurs when the demands on you exceed your actual or perceived capacity to cope. An effective way of reducing stress, in everyday life as well as extremes, is by increasing your ability to cope by developing high levels of skills and experience.

Developing expertise requires hard work and persistence. But it’s worth the investment – the dividends include better assessment of risk, better decision-making, and less vulnerability to stress.

Climber
Climber, by aatlas. Public Domain via Pixabay.
  1. Value sleep.

Getting enough sleep is often difficult in extreme environments, where the physical demands can deprive people of sleep, disrupt their circadian rhythms, or both.

Bad sleep has a range of adverse effects on mental and physical wellbeing, including impairing alertness, judgment, memory, decision-making, and mood. Unsurprisingly, it makes people much more likely to have accidents.

Many of us are chronically sleep deprived in everyday life: we go to bed late, get up early, and experience low-quality sleep in between. Most of us would feel better if we slept more and slept better. So don’t feel guilty about spending more time in bed.

Experts in extreme environments often make use of tactical napping. Research has shown that napping is an effective way of alleviating the adverse consequences of bad sleep. It’s also enjoyable.

  1. Be tolerant and tolerable.

Adventures in extreme environments often require small groups of people to be trapped together for months at a time. Even the best of friends can get on each other’s nerves under such circumstances. Social conflict can build rapidly over petty issues. Groups split apart, individuals are ostracised, and simmering tensions may even explode into violence.

When forming a team for an extreme mission, as much emphasis should be placed on team members’ interpersonal skills as on their specialist skills or physical capability. Research shows that team-building exercises – though often mocked – can be an effective way of enhancing teamwork.

Effective teams are alert to mounting tensions. Individuals keep the little annoyances in perspective and respect others’ need for privacy. To survive and thrive in demanding situations, people must learn to be tolerant and tolerable. The same is true in everyday life.

  1. Cultivate resilience

Extreme environments are dangerous places where people endure great hardship. They may suffer terrifying accidents or watch others die. Such experiences can be traumatic and, in some cases, cause long-term damage to mental health.

But this is by no means inevitable. Research has shown that many individuals emerge from extreme experiences with greater resilience and a better understanding of their own strengths. By coping with life-threatening situations, they become more self-confident and more appreciative of life.

Resilience is a common quality in everyday life. We tend to underestimate our own ability to cope with stress, and overestimate its adverse consequences. Some stress is good for us and we should not try to avoid it completely.

Featured image credit: Mount Everest, by tpsdave. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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11. Six classic tales of horror for Halloween

People have enjoyed the horror genre for centuries, reveling in the spooky, toe-curling, hair-raising feelings this genre elicits — perfect for Halloween. Whether you’re trick-or-treating, attending a costume party, or staying home, we’ve put together a list of Oxford World’s Classics that will put you in the mood for this eerie night.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre by John Polidori

“The Vampyre”, a gothic horror that’s sure to push you to the edge of your seat, is considered the first to incorporate a vampire into fiction. And that’s just one of the many squeamish stories in store; from a bloodthirsty vampire to obsessive revenge, let the ghastly atmosphere overwhelm you with this collection of stories.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Follow the terrifying story of a young man whose descent into madness leads into a life as a serial murderer. In the second half of the novel, the murderer tells his side of the story, revealing his true madness. This psychologically unnerving novel will probably leave you sleepless. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

Perhaps a story about an arranged marriage wouldn’t garner the usual horror fan’s interest. But after nearly (and unknowingly) being stabbed by her jealous stepmother, the protagonist escapes from the arrange marriage into the labyrinth of the passages underneath Sicilian castles. With Ann Radcliffe’s weaving of psychological terror in a gothic setting, this is a perfect book to lose yourself in while (perhaps accidentally) ignoring the trick-or-treaters at your door.

Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

In a story highlighting the horrors that humans can wreak upon one another, Marlow (the narrator in the story) tells of his experience in Africa and of his witnessing Kurtz’s descent into power hunger and madness. The dark themes present throughout Heart of Darkness will sit at the forefront of your mind, an ever-present reminder that humans can be just as frightful as any monster.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

The first story in this four-piece collection is the horrifying story that tells of a doctor conducting experiments that cause him to transform into a violent, murderous man. Is Hyde really a separate “being”? Or is he simply Jekyll unleashed from the confines of moral society…? This classic story is bound to find its way on the list, and with a number of other chilling short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson in this book, you can’t lose.

In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

You’ll claw your way out of being buried alive in The Room in the Dragon Volant. Or you’ll go mad as a demon haunts you with the intent of destroying you psychologically in Green Tea. With supernatural creatures and nightmarish circumstances, this collection of five short stories will highlight any horror lover’s Halloween.

Headline image: Caw! Caw! Photo by Wayne Wilkinson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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12. How well do you know the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984?

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and its Codes of Practice entrench the legal basis for police powers in England and Wales. A thorough and practicable knowledge of PACE is essential to an understanding of policing – but how well do you know it?

Many have trouble bridging the distance between the often abstract terminology from PACE, its subsequent amendments, and legislative changes — including the Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 — and common, everyday scenarios facing police officers. Stop and search, detention and interviews, and other everyday procedures and requirements of policing may be lost. So let’s test your knowledge of PACE.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Headline image credit:Police in riot gear – Parliament Square, London, by BobBob. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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13. A composer’s thoughts on re-presentation and transformation

My father, Paul Bullard, was a landscape and portrait painter, and on family holidays he would sit and sketch, sometimes with me by his side, filling my music manuscript paper. As a child, I used to think that his task was easier than mine: all he had to do was to put on paper what he could see in front of him, whereas on the other hand I had to imagine a whole sound world, hearing music in my head, and then put it down on paper. Of course that wasn’t really correct: what I didn’t realize was that his task was to re-present the view in front of him in pen and ink, or oils, and not merely copy it. In other words it was an equally creative process to composing.

Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden’ courtesy of Alan Bullard
‘Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden’ courtesy of Alan Bullard

So what my father was doing, I suppose, was looking at an existing object from a different angle, ‘arranging’ it for pen and ink, and that just got me thinking about the way that composers often do that too. At the moment I’m reading John Eliot Gardiner’s book Music in the Castle of Heaven and guided by that I’ve been listening to some of J. S. Bach’s cantatas. In most of these, Bach takes a well-known melody and re-presents it, embroidering the material in a myriad of ways. It wasn’t a new idea of course: composers had been doing it for hundreds of years, but Bach’s skill and variety in transforming the ‘known’ material, both in his choral works and his organ Preludes, is breathtaking. And ever since, many composers have loved to re-present the old with the new in the same way.

And so when I came to write my recent Advent cantata, I found myself using the traditional hymn ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ as a starting point. I turn its phrase shapes into recitatives, and use it as a slowly moving melody in some voices against more decorative singing in the others, so that although the hymn is never sung in its complete form, it permeates the whole work and, I hope, gives the listener a sense of security and comfort. In a similar way, my Christmas cantata, A light in the stable uses the ancient hymn ‘Of our Maker’s love begotten’ as a melodic basis throughout, as well as using a number of Christmas carols, concealed in the background as well as in the foreground.

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14. Meet the Commercial Law marketing team at Oxford University Press!

We are pleased to introduce the marketing team for the Commercial Law department at OUP. Chris, Simon, and Miranda work with journals, online resources, and books published on a variety of subjects which relate to the rights and practice of people in business. The resources they work with are used by practicing lawyers, academics and students, and cover a range of topics including competition law, energy, arbitration, and financial law. Get to know more about them below:

Chris Wogan

wogan c
Chris Wogan. Do not use image without permission.

What is your role in OUP’s Commercial Law department?

I’m Chris, the Marketing Manager for Commercial Law. I plan, implement, and execute marketing strategy for Oxford’s Commercial Law portfolio.

What is the best part of your job/highlight of working at OUP?

The people you get to work with are so much fun. There are some incredibly bright and talented people at Oxford, and I love making our authors and customers happy – that is a really great part of the job. Also, the variety – working in marketing at OUP means you get to try new and different things all the time, it’s a truly interesting place to work, and an exciting time to be in marketing.

Which three songs could you not live without?

Song for Zula – The Phosphorescent
Dream the Dare – Pure Bathing Culture
On the Sea – Beach House

What’s your favourite place in Oxford?

There are so many lovely places around Oxford, including Jericho, Cowley and the colleges, but my favourite place would have to be the walk round Christchurch meadow.

What is your favourite fiction book and why?

I have lots of favourites, it’s difficult to pick just one! I’m a huge fan of James Joyce so will pick one of his – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s debatable how fictional it is, but the language is incredible. Or Villette.

If you were in a Hogwarts house, which would it be?

I’d like to think it would be Gryffindor, but in reality it would probably be Ravenclaw.

 

Simon Jared

simon jared
Simon Jared. Do not use image without permission.

 

What is your role in OUP’s Commercial Law department?

I’m the Marketing Executive for Commercial Law and work mostly on our book products, though I do also pitch in with our online products and journals.

What is the best part of your job/highlight of working at OUP?

The best part of working at OUP is definitely the people here. I’ve made a lot of friends and there are loads of friendly and creative people around (especially in marketing!). The best part of the job is the diversity. We have a lot of products and types of products, and we’re doing more and more exciting things with digital, content, and social marketing to promote them. We also still get to attend events and meet our authors and other lawyers.

What’s your favourite place in Oxford?

My favourite place in Oxford is the top of the hill in Raleigh Park for two reasons. One: I think the best view of Oxford is from above, with all the spires, domes, and old buildings. Two: I only ever go there when I’m out running and it means the rest of my run is downhill!

Who is the most famous person you’ve met?

I once walked into Paloma Faith on The Strand (not intentionally).

Which three songs could you not live without?

The End – The Doors

Mine for the Summer – by my friend Sam Brawn

Gone – Kanye West

Do you have any hidden talents?

Yes, but I’ve forgotten where I hid them.

If you were in a Hogwarts house, which would it be?

Hufflepuff, because the name amuses me.

 

Miranda Dobson

What is your role in OUP’s Commercial Law department?

I am the newest member of the team, and recently started as the Marketing Assistant for the Commercial Law department.

What’s your favourite place in Oxford?

miranda dobson
Miranda Dobson. Do not use image without permission.

I’ve only just moved to the city, and it’s such a beautiful place it would be difficult to choose somewhere as a favourite. However, when I’m not hanging out with daffodils, I am a sucker for a good bar or pub, and there are some great places in the Jericho area of Oxford to mooch between!

What is your favourite fiction book and why?

My favourite book is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, simply because I think it’s the perfect novel. I love how the book uses different perspectives through diary entries and a jumbled up time scale. It combines science fiction with a love story; it has violence; it has time travel; it has romance… what more could you want?

Who is the most famous person you’ve met?

I once met Judy Dench (Dame) in Disney Land Paris, she was all in white and looked very stern, but we spoke to her and she was lovely!

What is your biggest pet peeve?

When people have a first name for their last name… you can’t trust those people.

Which three songs could you not live without?

Ain’t no mountain high enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

Take me to church – Hozier

Say you’ll be there – The Spice Girls (no shame)

If you were in a Hogwarts house, which would it be?

I’d be in Slytherin, because green is my colour and just like Draco and Snape, beneath my cold, evil-seeming exterior, I actually do have a heart.

Featured image credi: Lady Justice, at the Old Bailey, by Natural Philo. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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15. Place of the Year 2014: the longlist, then and now

As voting continues on the longlist for Place of the Year 2014, we decided to take a look at the past and present of each of the nominees. Check out the images in the slideshow to see, and make sure to vote for your Place of the Year below.

If you have another ideas for what you think Place of the Year 2014 should be, please post it in the comments section. Keep following along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous winners.

What do you think Place of the Year 2014 should be?

Featured image credit: The Ortelius World Map by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. A map of the world’s cuisine

With nearly 200 countries in the world, the vast number and variety of dishes is staggering, which goes to show just how diverse your food can get. Which countries’ foods do you enjoy the most? Is there a particular characteristic of your favorite food that can’t be found anywhere else in the world? Do you know how national dishes vary by region? Explore (just some) of the world’s different cuisines discussed in The Oxford Companion to Food, from Afghanistan to Yemen, with our interactive map below:

Feeling hungry for more facts about food? Why not discover some less common types of meat, or test your knowledge in our food quiz? Bon appétit!

Featured image credit: Olives, photo by Dominique Godbout. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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17. Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary

Today, 27 October sees the centenary of the birth of the poet, Dylan Marlais Thomas. Born on Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, and brought up in the genteel district of Uplands, Thomas’s childhood was suburban and orthodox — his father an aspirational but disappointed English teacher at the local grammar school.

Swansea would remain a place for home comforts. But from the mid-1930s, Thomas began a wandering life that took in London’s Fitzrovia — and in particular its pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf — and then (as a dysfunctionally married man) the New Forest, squalid rooms in wartime London, New Quay on Cardigan Bay, Italy, Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, and from 1950 the United States where he gained a popular student following and where he died in Manhattan, aged thirty-nine.

For all his wanderings, few of Thomas’s poems were written outside Wales. Indeed, half of the published poems for which he is known were written, in some form, while he was living at home in Swansea between 1930 and 1934. As Paul Ferris, his Oxford DNB biographer writes, “commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited” — the latter giving rise to one of Thomas’s best-known poems, “Fern Hill.” In literary London, and in numerous bar rooms thereafter, Thomas’s “drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ he once observed, with some truth.”

Dylan_Thomas_-_Was_there_a_time
Dylan Thomas, “Was there a time” by Biccie. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its life of Dylan Thomas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes entries on his wife Caitlin Thomas (1903-1994) and David Archer (1907-1971), the London publisher who brought out Thomas’s first collection Eighteen Poems — as well as a guide to Thomas’s fellow bohemians who haunted the saloons, cafes, and bookshops of inter-war Fitzrovia.

The Oxford DNB’s life of Dylan Thomas is also available as an episode in the ODNB’s biography podcast.

 

Or download the podcast directly.

Headline image credit: Swansea Panorama by Sloman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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18. Timbuktu and a future no one wants to see

What is jihad? What do fundamentalists want? How will moderate Islamists react? These are questions that should be discussed. We may not have easy answers, but if we don’t start a dialogue, we may miss an opportunity to curtail horror.

The film Timbuktu from African director Abderrahmane Sassako about his native country serves as a needed point of departure for discussion — in government, in schools, in boardrooms, and in families.

Jihadism and terrorism are the 21st century’s “-isms,” following the horrors of fascism and communism. In hindsight, we wonder if we could have prevented the horrors of the 20th century. The devastating results have taught us that people do not want war; they want to live and work in peace. Should we not learn from history’s mistakes and prevent future genocides?

In the name of jihad, innocent victims are beheaded, kidnapped, raped, tortured, terrorized, left without families, and without homes. Extremist Muslims wage war against Christians and Jews, and against other Muslims (Sunnis vs. Shiites). Havoc is occurring in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, West Bank, Mali, Sudan, etc. It may soon take hold of our cities where jihadists threaten to set up terrorist cells.

Powerful and courageous, Timbuktu mesmerizes us with its blend of colors and music amidst a gentle background of sand dunes. Yet, juxtaposed to the serene beauty of Mali’s nature is the ferocious narrative of men turned into animals, forcing their machine guns on the quiet people of Timbuktu. We bear witness to the atrocious acts of barbarism.

Based on a true story when jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012, Sassako gives us a mosaic of characters who represent multi-cultural Africa. The camera takes us directly into their tragedies using a cause and effect structure:

  • We see a fisherwoman who refuses to wear a veil and gloves, for how would she be able to see or pick up the fish she must sell? Her rebellion, despite her mother’s pleas and the jihadist threats, is frightening.
  • Timbuktu
    Timbuktu, un film de Abderrahmane Sassako
  • Several friends play the guitar and sing together in the quiet of their home. The result? They are arrested and stoned to death.
  • A boy has a soccer ball, and accidentally the ball rolls down steps and through sand dunes to fall in front of several jihadists. The punishment? 40 lashes.
  • A caring man defends his young shepherd when their cow is killed. The outcome? A fight and the destruction of a family.
  • The leader of the community, the imam, tells several jihadists to leave the mosque with their guns and boots. People are praying. He warns them that Allah does not want destruction or terror. We fear the imam’s end.

These characters are not abstract; they are real victims. We follow their story, care for them, empathize with their pride, and suffer with their courage.

The contrast between good and evil, beauty and terror, are presented in alternating scenes and play havoc with our emotions. Sometimes we want to close our eyes as the evil becomes unbearable; we fear what horror will follow.

Sassako is a master storyteller and painter of landscape. His color palette holds our eyes as our hearts cringe at the story. Beautiful moments linger amidst savage reality. We see ballet in the scene when a dozen young men play soccer without a soccer ball. How graceful is their athletic movements and how deep their pleasure. We are mesmerized, and at the same time, we are panicked to think what the next scene will bring. The film’s power comes from its majestic beauty – a beauty that we fear cannot exist with the evil we are watching.

Sassako parallels the opening scene with the final scene. The film begins showing an elegant deer running through the soft dunes. It ends with the same scene, but the animal is replaced by the twelve-year-old heroine who runs desperately through the same dunes as she tries to escape her tragic reality. Sassako’s circle is a vicious cycle with no end to crimes against humanity.

Timbuktu is a difficult film to watch because it depicts a possible future that no one wants to see: genocide. All the more reason to see this film now.

Images courtesy of Les Films du WORSO

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19. Preparing for the 2014 FDI International Arbitration Moot

The annual Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) International Arbitration Moot gathers academics and practitioners from around the world to discuss developments and gain a greater understanding of growing international investment, the creation of international investment treaties, domestic legislation, and international investment contracts.

The FDI Moot occurs over the course of six months, and includes regional rounds, which took place in August in New Delhi, Seoul, and Buenos Aires, and concludes with the global finals. Global finals venues rotate each year between Frankfurt, Malibu, Boston, and London.

The 2014 final hearing will be held 24-26 October at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California. In this phase, 48 teams from the South Asia, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Africa, North America, Europe and the Middle East regions will compete in the global oral argument preliminary rounds followed by the quarter final, semifinal, and final rounds.

Established practitioners and academics in the international arbitration, investment regulation, construction law, and international economic law fields act as arbitrators or memorandum judges throughout the competition. The arbitrators facilitate hearings during the oral arguments while the memorandum judges assess and score memorials one month before the oral arguments. Oxford University Press will be awarding prizes for the best memorial and counter memorial.

Pepperdine_University
Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

With three days of oral arguments, this year’s FDI Moot promises to be a busy and exciting weekend. In addition, Malibu, often described as “27 miles of scenic beauty,” is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Mountains, so don’t forget to take some time to check out area attractions.

  • Late October, with an average high temperature of 69°F/21°C, is perfect for exploring one of Malibu’s many beaches. Check out the famous Surfrider Beach and the nearby Malibu Pier.
  • If you’re interested in taking a hike, plan an excursion to Point Mugu State Park, which has more than 70 miles of trails in the Santa Monica Mountains.
  • Looking for a day trip? In just 20-30 minutes by car, you can visit Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley.

If you’ll be joining us in Malibu, stop by the Oxford University Press booth where you can browse our journals collection and take advantage of the 20% conference discount on all books. We’re also offering one month of free access to our collection of online law products for all attendees. Looking to brush up on the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in BIT arbitrations in time for the Moot? Check out the recording of our recent Investment Claims Webinar session and accompanying slides.

To follow the latest updates about the 2014 FDI Moot, follow us on Twitter @OUPIntLaw and at the hashtags #FDI14 #FDIMOOT14, and don’t forget to like the FDI Moot Facebook page.

See you in Malibu!

Heading image: Willem C. Vis pre moot at Palacky University of Olomouc by Cimmerian praetor. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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20. Once upon a time, part 2

There is a quarrel inside me about fairies, and the form of literature their presence helps to define. I have never tried to see a fairy, or at least not since I was five years old. The interest of Casimiro Piccolo reveals how attitudes to folklore belong to their time: he was affected by the scientific inquiry into the paranormal which flourished – in highly intellectual circles – from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. But he also presents a test case, I feel, for the questions that hang around fairies and fairy tales in the twenty-first century. What is the point of them? What are the uses of such enchantments today? The absurdity of this form of magical belief (religious miracles are felt to be different, and not only by believers) creates a quarrel inside me, about the worth of this form of literature and entertainment I enjoy so much. In what way am I ‘away with the fairies’, too?

Butterfly fairy
This watercolor is part of the collection owned by the Family Piccolo of Calanovella Foundation, created by Baron Casimiro Piccolo of Calanovell, www.fondazionepiccolo.it. All rights reserved. Used with their permission.

Suspicion now hangs around fairy tales because the kind of supernatural creatures and events they include belong to a belief system nobody subscribes to anymore. Even children, unless very small, are in on the secret that fairyland is a fantasy. In the past, however, allusions to fairies could be dangerous not because belief in them was scorned, but because they were feared: Kirk collected the beliefs of his flock in order to defend them against charges of heterodoxy or witchcraft, and, the same time as Kirk’s ethnographical activities, Charles Perrault published his crucially influential collection (l697), in which he pokes fun, with suave courtly wit, at the dangerousness of witches and witchcraft, ogres and talking animals. Perrault is slippery and ambiguous. His Cinderella is a tale of marvellously efficacious magic, but he ends with a moral: recommending his readers to find themselves well-placed godmothers. Not long before he was writing his fairy tales, France and other places in Europe had seen many people condemned to death on suspicion of using magic. The fairy tale emerges as entertainment in a proto-enlightenment move to show that there is nothing to fear.

The current state of fairy tale – whether metastasized in huge blockbuster films or refreshed and re-invigorated in the fiction of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Margaret Atwood or, most recently, Helen Oyeyemi (Mr Fox, and, this year, Boy Snow Bird) does not invite, let alone compel, belief in its magic elements as from an audience of adepts or faithful. Contemporary readers and audiences, including children over the age of 6, are too savvy about special effects and plot lines and the science/magic overlap to accept supernatural causes behind Angelina Jolie’s soaring in Maleficent or the transmogrifications of the characters. Nor do they, nor do we need to suspend disbelief in the willed way Coleridge described.

Rather the ways of approaching the old material – Blue Beard, The Robber Bridegroom, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White and so on – opens up the stories to new meanings. The familiar narrative becomes the arena for raising questions; the story’s well known features provide a common language for thinking about families and love, childhood and marriage. Fairies and their realm allow thought experiments about alternative arrangements in this world. We are no longer looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden, but seeing through them to glimpse other things. As the little girl realises in The Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox, her grandmother through her stories ‘saw what others couldn’t see, that for her the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.’ In the past, these other, greater things were most often promises – escape, revenge, recognition, glory – but the trend of fairy tales is turning darker, and many retellings no longer hold out such bright eyed hope.

Featured image credit: Sleeping Beauty, by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Lessons from the heart: listening after Ebola

Like many this past week, our attention has been fixated on the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak: images of experts showing off the proper way to put on and take off protective gloves to avoid exposure to the virus; political pundits quarrelling over the appropriateness of travel restrictions; reassuring press conferences by the director of the Centers for Disease Control. It is an event that has received immediate and intense attention and generated compelling journalism, for sure, but does it really give us an emotional understanding of the impact of the event?

What is it like for a mother or a father to watch their child die and not to be able to touch them? What happens within a community that has experienced a major outbreak? Are people brought closer through a shared suffering or are the bonds that held the community together forever broken? There are infinite questions that we could ask of the human heart in the midst or the aftermath of such an event. Oral history with its emphasis on empathy is an effective method of asking these questions.

Hopefully the epidemic will be contained, but by the time it is, it is likely that the public’s appetite for more analysis on the outbreak will have been satiated. Journalists will be compelled to move onto the new topic of the day. Oral historians, however, can — and should — linger on this event.

For oral historians, who have increasingly worked in the aftermath of crisis over the past decade, the motivation to document is fueled by both a humanitarian impulse to respond to crisis and a scholar’s desire to inquire and understand. Times of widespread crisis have an elusive complexity which defies any attempt at meta-narrative. Aspiring to get at a comprehensive picture and the countless ways in which the epidemic is impacting so many seems unfeasible. For many researchers, the most profound way to begin is to try to appreciate how this crisis manifests itself for an individual, for a family, or for a community is oral history.

Dr. Joel Montgomery, Team Lead for CDC’s Ebola Response Team in Liberia, adjusts a colleague’s [personal protective equipment] before entering the Ebola treatment unit.  Photograph by Athalia Christie. Public domain via Flickr.
Dr. Joel Montgomery, Team Lead for CDC’s Ebola Response Team in Liberia, adjusts a colleague’s protective equipment before entering the Ebola treatment unit. CDC Global. Photograph by Athalia Christie. Public domain via Flickr.

Doing oral history in West Africa in the aftermath of the epidemic will present unique challenges for interviewers. Navigating the emotional and political resonance of the Ebola outbreak will require caution, compassion, and courage, as well as flexibility in the application of oral history best practices. The outcome of this work, however, can offer insight into how the individual human heart and mind respond to the terror of an epidemic, and how an individual’s responses to fear and grief impact their communities.

The personal perspective oral history provides has so often been left out of our analysis of crisis. We are left with dry academic reports often composed by responding agencies trained to exclude emotion from their analysis. But without this emotion, without this individual perspective, we don’t understand crisis and the impact it has on those who are left to pick up the pieces of shattered lives and communities. Oral history provides a means for the people most affected by crisis or disaster to be recorded, archived, and shared, to put them, not the devastation, at the center of the story. It is an effort that often runs counter to our collective response to emergency and, for that reason alone, it offers meaningful and enduring outcomes.

Featured image: Hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where the Ebola virus samples are tested. June 2014. By Leasmhar. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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22. Race relations in America and the case of Ferguson

The fatal shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri during a police altercation in Augusts 2014, resulted in massive civil unrest and protests that received considerable attention from the United States and abroad. To gain further perspective on the situation in Ferguson and its implications of race relations in America, I spoke with Wayne A. Santoro and Lisa Broidy, authors of the article “Gendered Rioting: A General Strain Theoretical Approach” published in Social Forces. This articles is freely available for a limited time.

Why do you think there has been so much media attention on the situation in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting?

Police shootings and mistreatment of black citizens is not, unfortunately, an uncommon experience in the United States. Protests like street marches have become so routinized that at best they get covered in the back pages of the local newspaper. But what no one can ignore are protests that turn violent. Whether we call them riots or rebellions, they are front page news. They are dramatic and unpredictable, threaten life and property, and capture the media’s attention. Policymakers cannot ignore them. After all, it is not every day that a state governor calls out the National Guard to maintain law and order. And whether the public views the protestors in a sympathetic or unsympathetic manner, we are mesmerized by the ongoing drama. How long will the rioting last? How will law enforcement respond? What will be the cost in lives lost and property destroyed?

Why do you think that the shooting of Michael Brown sparked protest by citizens? What was unique about the circumstances in Ferguson, or the Michael Brown case?

Four factors stand out, some unique to the incident and to Ferguson while others are more typical. First, the single best predictor of black riots is police shootings or abuse of blacks by police. Indeed, in our research we find that a particularly strong predictor of joining a riot is having experienced police mistreatment personally. Police harassment is the spark that ignites protests that turn violent. This was a central conclusion of the famous 1968 Kenner Commission that studied black rioting in the late sixties.

Second, blacks in Ferguson have long complained about police harassment. Numerous blacks in Ferguson have recited to the media past experiences with police mistreatment. One resident recalled how he was roughed up by the police during a minor traffic stop. Another spoke of how she called the police for assistance only to have the police arrest her upon arrival. There was an incident in 2009 where a black man accused officers of beating him and then found out that he was subsequently charged with damaging government property by getting his blood on their police uniforms. Some of this mistreatment is suggested by data in Ferguson on race, traffic stops, and arrests.

Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_44
Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Blacks comprise 67% of Ferguson’s population (in 2010) but account for 86% of all traffic stops by the police and 93% of all arrests resulting from these stops. Blacks are also twice as likely as white drivers to have the police search their car despite the fact that whites are more likely to have contraband found in their car. These data point to racially biased police practices. This is not unique to Ferguson, and in fact national survey data tell us that it is common knowledge among blacks that the police often act as agents of repression. For instance, in a New York Times/CBS News national survey conducted 10 days after the shooting, 45% of blacks report that they had personally experienced police discrimination because of their race (7% of whites report this experience). Similarly, 71% of blacks believe that local police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person (only 31% of whites agreed). Thus, it is a racially charged shooting of a black man within the context of widespread experiences of police racial abuse that fuel motivations for protest and the belief that the use of violence against the state is legitimate.

Third, the circumstances of the shooting matter. Was the shooting a legitimate or excessive use of police force? It is relevant that so many local blacks think that not only was Michael Brown unarmed (which is undisputed) but that he had his hands raised and was surrendering at the time of the shooting. What matters is not so much whether the “hands raised and surrendering” scenario is accurate (this likely will remain in dispute) but that so many local residents found it believable that a white police officer would shoot six times an unarmed black man trying to surrender. People believe narratives that resonate with their personal experiences and this again tells us something about what these personal experiences with the police have been.

Fourth, blacks in Ferguson have been excluded almost completely from positions of power. People protest when their voices are not being heard, and in Ferguson it appears that those who make policy decisions and influence police behavior are particularly deaf to the concerns of the black community. Referring to an incident where Ferguson officials were unresponsive to a relatively minor request, one black resident remarked “You get tired. You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done.” One arena where this exclusion is evident is in the police department. In the Ferguson police department only 3 (some report 4) of 53 commissioned officers — about 6% — are black. Recall that Ferguson is 67% black. Police departments are seldom responsive to minority communities when policy and street-level enforcement decisions are made solely by whites. Moreover, minority distrust of the police is likely when few police officers are minority. The racial power disparity is evident in elected positions as well. As Jeff Smith (2014) wrote in the New York Times, “Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member.” Access to political positions and direct influence into policymaking tend to channel discontent into institutional arenas. Protest is a marker that a population is politically marginalized. Protest is inherently a response to blocked access and influence over the political system.

To what degree is Ferguson unique as opposed to being emblematic of race relations in America?

Ferguson is more typical than atypical. There remains in the United States deep and enduring racial disparities in socioeconomic status, wealth, and well-being. No other population in the United States has experienced the degree of residential segregation from whites as have blacks. We imprison black men at a staggering rate. What the Kerner Commission stated nearly 50 years ago remains true today: we are a “nation of two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” This inequality has been noted repeatedly by black residents in Ferguson who see the local governing regime as unresponsive, the police force as hostile, and the school system as abysmal. Ferguson also is typical in that it reveals how views of racial progress and incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown are racially polarized. In the New York Times/CBS News survey noted above, 49% of blacks thought that the protests in Ferguson were about right or did not go far enough — only 19% of whites held such views.

In two ways, however, Ferguson seems atypical. First, in Ferguson the growth in the black population relative to whites is a recent occurrence. In 1990, blacks comprised 25% of the city’s population but that percentage grew to 52% in 2000 and 67% in 2010. This demographic transition was not followed by a corresponding transition in black access to political positions, the police force, union representation, and the like. Sociologists speak of the “backlash hypothesis,” meaning that when whites feel threatened such as by increases in the minority population they respond with greater hostility to the “threatening” population. The recency of the demographic transition likely has altered the social and political dynamics of the city in ways that do not characterize other contemporary major cities in the United States especially those that are majority black like Detroit or Atlanta.

Ferguson,_Day_4,_Photo_26
Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, Ferguson is unusual in the degree that the city uses the municipal court system and the revenue it generates as a way to raise city funds. Court fines make up the second highest source of revenue for the city. This created a financial incentive to issue tickets and then impose excessive fees on people who did not pay. Data bear this out. Ferguson issued more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people in 2013 and this rate exceeds all other Missouri cities with a population larger than 10,000 people. To put this another way, Ferguson has a population of just over 21,000 people but issued more than 24,000 warrants which add up to three warrants per Ferguson household. Writes Frances Robles (2014) in the New York Times: “Young black men in Ferguson and surrounding cities routinely find themselves passed from jail to jail as they are picked up on warrants for unpaid fines.” Thus, in Ferguson the primary interaction between many black residents and the police take place because of these warrants. Recent work on social movements has argued that such daily insults and humiliations can play a strong role in motivating people to protest, and certainly serve to undermine trust in the local police and city policymakers.

What will be the likely short- and longer-term consequences of the Ferguson protests?

Understanding how policymakers and others respond to a protest — especially one that turns violent — is complex. There is no typical response and historically one could cite examples of elites either trying to ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to the protest or responding in a more punitive manner. Nonetheless, in the short term there are reasons to think that policymakers will respond in ways favorable to the local black community by addressing some of their grievances. As political scientist James Button has written, policymakers tend to respond more favorably to riots when riots are large enough to garner public and media attention but not so severe and widespread to cause major societal disruption. This describes the Ferguson riots, unlike, for instance, the riots during the late 1960s in the United States. Moreover, policymakers who are sympathetic to minorities tend to respond in ways more favorable to minorities than less receptive policymakers. Social movement scholars refer to this as a favorable “political opportunity structure.” In the United States, the former tend to come from the ranks of the Democratic Party while the latter from the ranks of the Republican Party. Thus the fact that the Ferguson protests occurred during the Obama administration suggests a more ameliorative than punitive response, at least at the national level. It is not surprising that three times more blacks, 60% to 20%, report being satisfied rather than unsatisfied with how President Obama has responded to the situation in Ferguson.

There is some evidence that policymakers are indeed responding in ways favorable to the local black community and their grievances. For instance, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced an independent investigation of the shooting and traveled to Ferguson to meet with investigators. Moreover, his office has started a civil rights investigation into whether the police have repeatedly violated the civil rights of residents. At the local level, some changes also are evident. The Ferguson City Council on 8 September agreed to establish a citizen review board to monitor the local police department. The city also has pledged that it would revamp its policy of using court fines to fund such a large share of its city budget. For instance, the city council has eliminated a $50 warrant recall fee and a $15 notification fee.

It is more of a leap of faith, however, to expect major long-term changes in Ferguson because of the insurgency. There remains, for instance, an on-going debate by scholars of the modern civil-rights movement (circa 1955-1968) as to whether the more than decade-long movement produced meaningful change in the lives of most blacks. If a decade of protests produced less than satisfactory change in the opinion of some, what chance do the Ferguson protests have? In particular, there is little reason to think that levels of black poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and educational disparities will improve noticeably in Ferguson unless other social forces are brought into play. These more substantive changes are more likely to be produced by years of community organizing, securing elected positions, joining governing political coalitions with sympathetic allies, and favorable economic conditions like the growth of blue-collar employment opportunities.

Ferguson Day 6 Picture 53 by By Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Ferguson Day 6 Picture 53 by By Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Have white police shootings of minorities (or African-Americans) become more or less common in recent years?

This is an empirical question and the relevant data are limited. There are no national data on police shootings that do not result in death.  National data on police shootings that result in death come from three sources: the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  However, data from each of these sources are limited. The FBI collects data on “justifiable homicide” by police as a voluntary component of the Supplemental Homicide Report data collected from police departments nationwide. Unfortunately few departments (less than 5%) voluntarily provide these data, leaving obvious questions about their representativeness and utility.  Moreover, even if they were complete, these data would tell us little beyond the demographics of those killed. Particularly, we cannot discern the degree to which these incidents represent excessive use of force by police. BJS collects similar data on deaths that occur during an arrest. These data are collected at the state level and then reported to BJS. Compliance is better, with 48 states reporting. But it is not clear how complete or comparable the data from each state are.

Despite these short-comings, there is one inescapable conclusion: blacks are disproportionately killed in police shootings. For instance, blacks comprise 13% of the US population but represent 32% of those killed by police between 2003 and 2009The CDC compiles data from all death certificates nationwide, which includes data on “deaths by legal intervention.” Using the online query system for firearm deaths by legal intervention from 1999-2011, the average rate at which blacks are killed is more than double that of whites (0.2/100,000 compared to 0.1/100,000).

Is there anything else you think we can learn about race relations or racially motivated social movements in the United States from the case of Ferguson?

A few lessons. First, we often talk about the civil rights movement in the past tense. We think of it as something that happened; we might even debate why it “ended” and what it accomplished. But Ferguson reminds us that the struggle for racial justice continues. It is not always so newsworthy, but everyday many blacks and black advocacy organizations struggle to overcome racial barriers. Second, it underscores the deep racial divide in the United States. White and black views, especially concerning racial matters, are often polar opposite. Where whites see progress, blacks see setbacks. Where whites see black advancement, blacks see persistent racial disparities. Especially polarized are views on the criminal justice system and police. Third, there are costs to a society when a population is politically and economically marginalized. These costs may not always be apparent to outsiders nor make national headlines. But the price we pay for racial disparities is that violent protests will continue to be an enduring feature of the US landscape. The national memory of the Ferguson riots will fade only to be replaced by the next Ferguson-style protest. The question becomes what are we as individuals and as a collective willing to do to eradicate the racial inequality that motivates such protest?

Heading image: Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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23. Organizing in time

Organizing and organizations have largely been seen as spatial constructs. Organizing has been seen as the connecting of individuals and technologies through various mechanisms, whereas organizations have been construed as semi-stable entities circumscribed by boundaries that separate them from their external environments. The spatial view enables us to appreciate the difference between Microsoft and Apple, between Manchester United and Liverpool, between a family and a firm, and between the government of Iraq and the government of France, as they are made up of different actors, exhibit different patterns of actions, pursue different strategies, and relate to different external stakeholders.

A spatial view is a powerful one, mainly by enabling correspondence. By looking at the pattern of the way that Manchester United plays their matches during a certain period of time, the team can be distinguished from its rivals. It also enables analysis of how it plays differently from how it has played during earlier times, which again may be held up against the results of the matches. When a certain team formation appears successful, it becomes associated with the wins and ascribed the manager who implemented the formation. The manager is then seen as the person who had the ability to conceive and implement the formation, which confers particular qualities upon him. Those qualities prevail until the results begin to degrade, in which case alternative ways are found to explain the limitations of the formation, as well the manager’s abilities to make it work. In order for this way of making sense, a line of separation is drawn between the manager and the team in order to make for a correspondence that explains the variation in results over time. The overall picture becomes a mosaic numerous little pieces, neatly arranged, make up a plausible story of wins and defeats. Although the overall picture may change, the pieces remain small self-contained pieces.

Wayne Rooney, by cortexena13. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Wayne Rooney, by cortexena13. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

When they are moved around to make another picture, the new formation is seen as different and distinct from the previous one. It is seen at a different instant, and the state in which it is seen as assumed to prevail as a sort of averaged out state for the duration of the period associated with that state. The change is the difference between the images. To see a changing thing at two different instants and making the inferences based on the differences between the instants is what the French philosopher Henry Bergson referred to as a series of immobilities. What is seen is a succession of images, where each image represents a static situation. A problem with such a view is that it is an incomplete rendering of what actually takes place, because it tells little or nothing about actual movement that takes place. As Bergson pointed out, what characterizes movement is precisely that it cannot be divided into imaginary stops, because it is indivisible. On the contrary, it leaves us with what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘simple location’. Simple location conveys an image of a process consisting of inert matter moved along in a series of mysterious jumps. We see that the mosaic has changed, but we know nothing about the process of changing it.

Yet, organizing is a vibrant process in which each instant plays a role. It is an infinitely complex world of encounters, instants and events, all taking place in time. To better understand how organizing works as a process, the very notion of time needs to be given its due attention. Unfortunately, although time and space have been seen as constituting an interwoven continuum in physics for nearly a century, in the social sciences they have been kept apart in a sort of Newtonian conception of the world. A process orientation to time, on the other hand, treats time as the very essences from which experience is made. Rather than being seen as a Newtonian inert framework against which movement is measured, time takes the role of mattering. Time matters, not just in the sense of being important, but by shaping the matter at hand, such as football players, teams, and leagues.

It is in the flow of time that organisations carve out their temporal existence. It is this ‘carving out’ that provides them with a temporal sense of where they come from and where that may be heading. The ‘carving out’ is done in a state of constant suspension between past and future, and is enacted at many instants. Streams of acts, decisions, emails, tweets, chats and many other types instants make up the temporal mosaic of the organization and contribute towards its becoming in time. Thus the formation of the football team is not a static entity, but a living process of instantiations as the match is played. In this view the formation does not make the acts, but the acts make the formation. Such a view does not deny formation as a spatial image. During a match a specific formation may be pursued. What it does, is explain the work of sustaining the formation. It explains how the formation, rather than just existing as an inert template, is given life. It confers temporal direction upon the formation and invites questions about its past and possible future, in the moment it is being played out.

Headline image credit: Stocks Reservoir, Forest of Bowland. Panoramic by MatthewSavage.Photography. CC-By-2.0 via Flickr.

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24. Religious organizations in the public health paradigm

If you think about big public health challenges of our day — the Ebola virus in Africa, the rising rates of suicide among the middle-aged in the United States, the HIV epidemic everywhere — religions are playing a role. When I speak, I ask audiences, “What was the first thing you heard about the Ebola crisis?”, and they always say “The missionaries who got it were taken to Emory.” “That makes my point,” I say. “You didn’t know anything about it up until that moment, but they did.” Those missionaries, and the faith-based organizations they worked for (Samaritan’s Purse and Serving in Mission) were already there on the ground along with other faith-based organizations, volunteering their time, putting their lives in danger, and providing valuable resources of equipment, supplies, and knowledgeable helping hands to try to contain the outbreak.

In another challenge, the crisis of rising suicides among US veterans and Baby Boomers, religion’s role is more in the background, but no less important. Since sociologist Emile Durkheim first studied the subject in late 19th century France, researchers have consistently found that individuals with more social ties – particularly to religious groups — are more protected from suicide. Religious ties provide caring, support, warmth, and intimacy — the “carrots” of social interaction. They also provide rules for living and guidance for behavior that often require individuals to sacrifice their self-interest for the good of the group. These are the “sticks” of social interaction, which Durkheim argued were just as necessary as the “carrots” in keeping individuals from taking their own lives. So here are two quite different roles that religions play in public health: first in the foreground, deploying resources and religious social capital as partners with public health authorities in countries around the world, and also in the background, providing the sustenance of social integration and regulation that prevents the tailspin of suicide.

But religions are complicated, and in the HIV epidemic we have seen faith traditions playing all of these roles and other less helpful ones as well. One positive thing that religions do — very effectively through religious ritual and practice — is to give individuals a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves; they bestow a social identity that marks individuals as valued members of a group, with all of that group’s rights, privileges, and responsibilities. But group membership by its very nature implies that there are other individuals and groups — outsiders — who are not members, who may be less valued. This is an obvious source of conflict around the world and can lead to violence on a small or large scale. This too, sad to say, is an instance of religions taking a role in determining the health of populations, but not in a good way. And at a less extreme level, if an individual violates the norms of the group, or breaks its rules, it can lead to sanctions, punishment, or even being cast out from membership. So in the HIV epidemic, individuals who were victimized by the disease first, in many cases experienced a secondary victimization of being stigmatized by religious groups who perceived that the disease was a sign of forbidden behaviors, and therefore a just punishment.

Public health organizations and religious organizations are both looking to promote the well-being of their communities. In many cases those interests are perfectly aligned and the two institutions function, implicitly or explicitly, as partners. When they do not, it makes sense that two powerful forces should identify all of the ways in which they can work together, finding a way around the contentious issues to leverage each other’s constructive responses. Religion, along with income inequality, education, and political structures, is one of the social determinants of public health in countries around the world, despite its usual exclusion from the public health paradigm.

Headline image credit: The fight against Ebola in West Africa. ©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser. CC BY-ND 2.0 via European Commission DG ECHO, EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Flickr.

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25. The 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth

On 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales. He is widely regarded as one the most significant Welsh writers of the 20th century.Thomas’s popular reputation has continued to grow after his death on 9th November, 1953, despite some critics describing his work as too ‘florid‘. He wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime but is arguably best known for his poetry. His poem The hand that signed the paper is taken from Jon Stallworthy’s edited collection The Oxford Book of War Poetry, and can be found below:

DYLAN THOMAS

1914–1953

The hand that signed the paper

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Dylan_Swansea
Statue of Dylan Thomas, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, by Tony in Devon. CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,

The finger joints are cramped with chalk;

A goose’s quill has put an end to murder

That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,

And famine grew, and locusts came;

Great is the hand that holds dominion over

Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften

The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                                            1936

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