Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

who will be in this anthology? (idea)

That stylish and handsome Scotsman Andrew Gray (see, more compliments!) posts some of Stalin's poetry.

Someone should put together an anthology of dictators' "literary" work... I'm not sure if there are enough candidates. Maybe widen it to "politicians." The next one that springs to mind is Julius Caesar, but his writing is too widely-circulated to print again. It would also be best to avoid biographies, even if they're good. Any ideas? I remember something John Kerry said about writing a poem on a plane, not that he ever got the chance to be dictator.

(Just because I included that link, I have to include this one too.

will the "Jeff Gannon" story be as big as Dan Rather's?

I don't have the time, energy, or resources to summarize this story here... it's been moving in the blogosphere for about a week now and was just picked up by the New York Times. It's a short article -- read it, it's important.

This story, combined with that of payola pundits like Armstrong Williams, may be equally important as the Dan Rther dust-up. But will it be covered that way in newspapers and on TV? Some factors to consider.

1) The actual importance of the story. Dan Rather and CBS were wrong about a major story, but even if the story were true, it wouldn't have changed much in the election. Bush supporters understood that he wasn't a war hero, that he was lazy and got preferential treatment through his early life. This all fit in with the "born-again" story of Bush's life. This, on the other hand, is a story of actual corruption in the U.S. government, now. Which seems more important to me. I think it is obviously more important if you are only looking at the "media bias" angle. This story should get at least as much play as the post-election stories on Rather's resignation and the fallout at CBS.

2) The sex. Slacktivist discusses implications of the accusation that Gannon posted homoerotic pictures of himself online and might have worked as a male escort. Slacktivist argues that this angle is a "side-show"... I wonder how important it will be if/when this story hits TV. The NYT doesn't mention it, but they're far from representative.

3) The bloggers. From a old-media-versus-new perspective, this is the same story that was being told with Dan Rather. A bunch of bloggers got together and exposed people in power. Will that help or hurt the story in the mainstream press? Some conservatives argued that in addition to "liberal bias," the mainstream press was slow to cover the Dan Rather accusations because they made traditional media look bad. Will that make them want to bury this story? Or will they play it up because it fits the narrative that the Rather story established?

4) The "liberal media" question. Fox reporters are already blaming the liberal media for this story, even though it has hardly gotten any play yet. (Btw, interesting to hear "the liberal bloggers." I thought "Rathergate" established that bloggers were conservative revolutionaries?) But it seems more likely the recent "internatlization" of the liberal media critique would lead news orgs to play down the story. On the other hand, if they frame it as a lefty version of the Rather story ("Just six months after bloggers forced Dan Rather blah blah blah"), it might avoid the "liberal media" accusation altogether.

5) The investigation. As the NYT piece makes clear, the Democrats have launched an investigation, which reporters will have to cover whether they think the root story is important or not.

6) The (lack of) celebrity. The characters of this story will have to be established in the public mind. "Dan Rather screwed up" doesn't. On the other hand, the media will probably play up the connection to the Valerie Plame case (it was mentioned in the lead of the NYT piece), which might draw more eyeballs.

7) The security angle. One way to frame this story is "how did this guy get past the Secret Service." Of course, that question is a sham -- he got past because the administration wanted him there. In fact, that question shows that the corruption in this case must have been pretty serious. But since any story on national security will get more play, this might be one of the angles that shows up and pushes the story further.

I can't think of any more factors at the moment... it will be interesting to see how this plays out, tho. I'm guessing it will be one of the top stories of next week... the more interesting question is how it will be framed, and if it will be big enough to get anyone fired.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

what do we call the war? (meme)

That magnificent Scotsman Andrew Gray has some speculation. Google news reveals the following:

"iraq conflict" - 885
"iraqi conflict" - 142
"conflict in iraq" - 1,110
"iraq war" - 23,500
"iraqi war" - 455
"war in iraq" - 18,400 (18,000 when discounting "civil war in iraq")
"war on iraq" - 929 (although those are almost all talking about 2003)

To that we should probably add:

"war on terrorism" - 7,500
"war on terror" - 1,100
"global war on terror" - 767
"GWOT" - 25

To many Americans, these terms are synonymous. Talking about Iraq will make them think "war on terror" and vice versa. So I think they need to be thrown into the mix, whether or not they're accurate. Of course, lots of these references won't have anything to do with Iraq, plus using Google as evidence in arguments is fraught with difficulties anyway.

I would like to put a historical spin on this question, though: what will the Iraq war (and the Afghanistan war, for that matter) be called 50 years from now? What variables would affect the name we (or our children) choose?

Also, someone remind me to post my essay defending the term "9/11."

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

should cities provide wireless internet access?

I think about this every time I try to work on my computer on the El. Apparently CTA actually is going to install some sort of cell-phone service, which Chicagoist rightly slams (I don't just rehash Chicagoist posts, I swear).

Many people view government-provided wireless as inevitable, and some cities have already gotten in on the act. But telecommunications companies have cited the plans as anti-competitive or even illegal. The latest case has been in Philadelphia, where laws were amended to provide for municipal wireless service.

My first reaction was "cool!" But the wireless companies have a point -- everyone likes pizza, but the government doesn't open pizza parlors on every corner. So why wireless?

Well, there are a few obvious answers. Government should provide wireless where it already encourages internet use -- the library. Hot spots in parks and on public transportation are also clear choices, since private companies would have no reason to compete there. But I am skeptical that the "one big hot spot" idea would actually be useful. Presumably the proponents of these policies want to bridge "the digital divide." But the expensive part of wireless access isn't the signal -- it's the hardware. If the government has limited resources to spend on this sort of thing -- and what city doesn't? -- it might be more effective to improve internet access in libraries and fund programs that donate computers to the poor. City governments could also sponsor hot spots in poor neighborhoods, perhaps as part of an urban development program. It would be a great negotiating tool with companies like Verizon -- sure, we'll let you put cell phone towers here, but you have to provide free wireless to this poor community.

I'm still quite uncertain about this, tho... will anyone (perhaps a Philadelphian) make the case for all-city wireless?

when is it right to copyright public art? (meme)

This one has an answer, as far as I'm concerned: never. Chicagoist, following a Reader story, cites harassment of photographers at Millenium Park and urges people to post photos of "the bean."

what does it mean to "sneed"? (meme)

It's not to be something that all people need.

According to this post at Chicagoist, "to be behind the times." (Tho I had never heard of the "Burger King/Burger Delight" controversy they cite, which I suppose makes me worse than the Sneed herself. You would think this mental space would have already been occupied by Jackie Harvey, but his name doesn't verb as well.

Monday, February 07, 2005

wondering where that comma goes, guv'nah? (meme)

this Wikipedia entry is a useful and thorough guide to differences between American and British English. It helped me settle a copy-editing question, and I must therefore promote it.

This is also a good chance to promote The Economist's style guide, particularly the section on Americanisms.

"Gubernatorial is an ugly word that can almost always be avoided."
"Make a deep study or a study in depth, but not an in-depth study."
"Try not to verb nouns of adjective them."

Also, take the style quiz. I got nine out of twelve the first time-- missed a hyphen rule, a plurality rule, and a rule about "last" vs. "latest." Not an awful score, but it doesn't bode well for my future as a copy-editor, growl.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Jaquandor on silly search engine requests (meme)

who else wants to see this (meme/personal)


Lindsay and I have been waiting for this artist to come to Chicago for a while... come with us if you dare. I am so taking my camera.

are you a god? (meme)


"Ray, if someone asks if you're a god, you say YES."


how should one hyphenate this phrase?

with no hyphens:

"late nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers"

MLA, AP stylebook and, presumably, the normal rules of grammar would say that you have to at least hyphenate centuries-- they're compound adjectives. So "twentieth-century thinkers." It is also common to use this construction: "mid- to late-twentieth century" in newspapers and academic writing. So I think there should also be a hyphen *and* a space at the end of "nineteenth." Should "late" and "early" be hyphenated to the numbers? Probably-- they're describing the part of the century, not the thinkers. So that would seem to result in

"late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century thinkers"

which looks atrocious. On the other hand, since most of these thinkers probably worked in *both* periods, maybe it should *all* be hyphenated

"late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century thinkers"

but that also looks atrocious. This may be one one of those situations that is so egregious that we ought to abandon hyphens entirely (a la "peanut butter and jelly sandwich"). That or we should just write "thinkers in the late nineteenth and eary twenieth centuries." Harumph.

how can video games be used in education?

Okay, okay, this is a hackneyed question, and we've been playing Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego and Where's Mario for years. But an interview with Will Wright in The Onion made me start thinking about it again. (There is a similarly interesting interview with Howard Scott Warshaw. It's nice to see that The Onion has added a video games section.)

Wright is the mind behind games like SimCity, SimEarth and, of course, The Sims. I never got into that last one, but I spent much of my childhood playing nearly every Sim game that existed at the time. In hindsight, I realize that most of the concepts in no way resembled my ideas of what a game would include-- I would have never thought that running an ant colony or a skyscraper would be interesting. But as a result of playing these games,I actually learned a lot about them.

After reading the interview with Wright, I now realize this might have been one of the games' purposes. He says that most of his ideas for games are based on some natural or social process that intrigues him, that he wants to teach other people about. This is the reason I became a journalist and why I want to be a teacher... it is also a reason why I am interested in metaphors. Wright's remark reminded me of something Adam Hochschild said when he was here -- he said an important park of being a good journalist or nonfiction author was allowing yourself to become obsessed with a subject, then figuring out *why* you were obsessed, then using that feeling to construct a narrative. It sounds like Wright does a similar thing with games.

Anyway, I would argue that "simulation" games like SimAnt and SimTower teach us much more than "trivia" games like Carmen Sandiego. (Where does Oregon Trail lie? It's not open-ended enough to be a sim or even an RPG...) The games would seem to promote a nontraditional philosophy of education, though, maybe something closer to Montessori. It's much harder to stick to any sort of lesson plan. After all, you don't *have* to learn about urban planning principles when you play SimCity-- you can just destroy New York again and again and again. Still, I feel like students would learn more -- or at least learn how to learn more -- if we had played SimCity instead of, say, Algeblaster.

Another interesting question is how these games can be used to teach history. This doesn't seem like an obvious application -- social and natural processes are easily adapted to models, whereas history is notoriously difficult to model, and it is particularly important than things went one way and not the hundreds of other possible ones. Yet one of the problems with contemporary history education is we don't emphasize contingency, the idea that history could have gone a different way. (People always bring up Harry Turtledove when I talk about this, but I'd prefer a more sophisticated approach.) There are a few examples, like this BBC simultion of the Battle of Hastings, which would be good for individual lessons. But what could approach the dynamism of the Sim games?

There have always been games like Civilization, one of my personal favorites. But I have never thought that Civ (or even games with a smaller historical frame, like Caesar) were good historical models. Civ, for example, overemphasizes the importance of technology. It doesn't do a very good job of teaching contingency, as there are fairly simple strategies for winning and, unlike the Sim games, winning is defined (even if there are a few different ways of doing it). A better example from the Sid Meier line might be Railroad Tycoon-- now that I am studying the history of railroads a bit, it seems right on. Another good one is Aerobiz, which is like Railroad Tycoon for the skies. But the problem with all these games is that they put you in the role of god, the general, the ruler, the CEO. This isn't a good way to think about history, especially social history.

A better model might be the RPG (role-playing game). Another game I played a lot as a kid was Uncharted Waters: New Horizons. This game was set during the 16th century-- the "Age of Exploration." You could be an explorer, pirate or merchant. While you had a lot of control over what your ship or character was doing at any given moment, you still had to react to real historical events like the Spanish Armada. Most of what you learned from the game wasn't names and dates, though, but what it might have actually been like to be a 16th-century navigator. So maybe that's a better model for teaching what history would have been like for normal people.

I've about thought myself out on this one... perhapse more later...

Friday, February 04, 2005

interesting flash animation (meme)


Other than just being fun, this could be a useful form for other media. One of the Poynter online people suggests it could be used to adjust the level of detail in a news story. I wonder if it could be adapted to other art forms.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

what does "the soul" do in the Buffyverse?

Here's proof that new blog is not entirely serious. Not that there aren't plenty of people who try to take Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Angel) seriously. I think that's all right -- I was *really* upset about the death of a major character in season 6 -- as long as people realize it doesn't have to be taken seriously, and probably shouldn't be most of the time.

But I do have a question that might be serious to those who love the show and its universe. Joss Whedon fits into a group of writers who I've started thinking of as "the new gnostics." This label seems appropriate because all these writers, who usually lack a clear religious identity, seem to return to the topics of God, good and evil, heaven and earth, again and again. Through most of literary history this wouldn't be so notable -- these used to be standard topics -- but "the new gnostics" are distinct because 1) they are mostly ignored by a "legitimate" literary community that has mostly ignored these topics, 2) they tend to use nontraditional forms or work in nontraditional genres and 3) their visions, while bearing some resemblence to gnosticism or romanticism, seem strikingly original. My running list would be Whedon, Terry Prachett, Neil Gaiman (both his novels and Sandman), Phillip Pullman and James Morrow. Ray Bradbury might be an avuncular figure. Orson Scott Card could be included depending on how important you consider his Mormonism. And I'm sure the list could go on (though I would *not* include Dan Brown, hmph).

So what are the gnostic features of Whedon's Buffy? They are similar to many of those presented by many of the authors: absolute authority, even when instituted in the name of good, tends to corrupt absolutely; God is hopelessly distant, but religion still matters; entry-level angels and demons have more in common with each other than their employers; there is some sort of heaven and some sort of hell, but the government of either is about as well organized as the Earth's; sin may exist, but unrelenting guilt is a weapon of primal evil; gender often plays a role -- particularly in Buffy, where our heroine often fights against the restraints of the Old (Mostly) Boys Club of the Watchers' Council.

You would think that a show with such interesting ideas about every other aspect of religion would come up with a new way of thinking about the soul. But unfortunately, the soul in the Buffyverse is little more than a prop. Some background: the first time the soul is important on the show is when we meet Angel, "the vampire with a soul." From his storyline we learn that 1) vampires are demons inhabiting human bodies and minds, 2) vampires have no souls but 3) these souls continue to exist somewhere and can be restored through extraordinary magic (like a gypsy curse). What are the qualities of this soul? Clearly not personality or intelligence, which vampires retain after the soul leaves (that is, they retain the memories and superficial traits of their bodies... whether it is really "them" is another legitimate question about the show). But we do find out that the soul is what gives someone a conscience. When Angel regains his soul in the 19th century, he goes mad for decades and is left with a permanent "broody" character.

So we know that a "soul" in the Buffyverse is something like a conscience. We also know that human beings can survive without one -- one episode of Angel features a possessed boy who had no soul before the demon took him, and suggests that a person without a soul is some kind of abomination. But there are a few problems with this. The first is demons themselves. There are all sorts of varieties of demons in the Buffyverse. Some of them are quite polite, and a few are heroic. But it would seem that according to the rules of this world, they can't have souls. This is further complicated by the question of Anya, a character from the latter half of Buffy. Anya is a vengeance demon who usually takes human form and leaves her demon "essence" outside her body somewhere. The "essence" is destroyed, so Anya is stuck in the body of a teenager. So does this mean Anya has a soul? While she is not the nicest person in the world, she seems to have some sort of conscience, certainly more than soulless boy in "Angel."

(season 6 & 7 spoiler follows... beware)

The final problem is Spike, the once-vicioius vampire whose violent habits have been curtailed by a government chip in his brain. Throughout season six, the scripts constantly suggest that Spike and Anya are in the same metaphysical condition -- they both feel evil is natural but impossible in their situation, and they are troubled by "pangs of good." These feelings are usually motivated by love toward another character -- Anya for Xander, Spike for Buffy. Both of these romances end rather violenty, and it might be that we should infer that a soul is necessary for true love. Spike certainly thinks so, because he travels all the way around the world to get one. Yet Spike's transformation once he is "soulified" is not nearly as traumatic as Angel's. Sure, Spike is crazy for a while, but we don't even know if it's his soul or The First talking (The First Evil, which cannot take corporeal form but can appear as any deceased person -- she works on Angel too). And he certainly doesn't show the radical change in personality that Angel does when he becomes evil. So are we meant to understand that Angel and Spike simply have different personalities? And what's the deal with soulified Spike saving the world in the end? And why, if he met such a righteous end, does it make sense for Spike to come back as a ghost?

I'm not sure if any of this matters outside fanboyland, but I guess to sum up, I would have a few questions for Joss Whedon about the soul: what exactly is it, and what does it do? Was "the soul" just a prop on Buffy/Angel, or does he actually want to make statements about it, as he did with good and evil, family, loyalty, gender, etc.? Finally, was the ambiguity around the soul *intentional*, or are they are still thwacking their heads about the plot inconsistencies. Let's hope Joss has better things to do than think about this stuff. :-)

what does it mean to be rural?

The obvious answer would be "of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture" (Merriam Webster). You could flesh this out with legal definitions (outside an incorporated city) or statistics (living in an area with population density less than x). Wikipedia's definition touches on a few different aspects.

But the reason I asked this question is that I want to know if there is a rural "way of life." An American political pundit would certainly say yes, and that "way of life" is related to the idea of being a "red state." County-by-county analyses would seem to support this -- Kerry and Bush won only a slight difference in population, but the counties Bush won take up five times as much land as Kerry's.

But still, what does rural mean, in this context? Those who believe in the red state myth would tell us that it means hard work, being close to the land, something like that. But it seems that especially in the 21st century United States, increasing unemployment would be one of the salient features of being "rural." I suppose you could make some sort of argument about being closer to the land (a hunting culture, for instance). Yet the idea of a unified "rural" space still bugs me, mostly for historical reasons. For most of human history, being "rural" meant that you were a peasant, sharecropper, serf or slave. I suppose the United States is the exception again here, since we like to think of ourselves as a nation of freeholders. This still seems to be skirting around the problem, though.

I suppose what I want to know is to what extent 21st century American rural life resembles either its earlier American version or rural life in other cultures. Maybe I need to turn to a sociologist, but I would like to know more about how rural life is actually lived -- not just one person's story about their farm, but structures of communities all across the country. In this sort of analysis, Wal-Mart should play just a much a role as the old farm (if it still exists, which seems doubtful). Local media and politics would be considered alongside "local traditions." I think that what we would find is that the actual way that rural life is lived hardly resembles any past definition of the word. But if this is true, what is the feature of rural areas that made Bush so attractive to them. And if it has nothing to do with population density or a relationship with the land, might it be that the "rural vs. urban" distinction in 2000 and 2004 is not as telling as we think?

If anyone has some books that could help with this, I'd appreciate it.

starting again

Welcome to the new Just Curious. My old blog, which existed at Graham's nores domain, was overcome with spam comments. This space, while less independent, seems more stable.

This is intended to be something a little more than a personal blog, but it's not going to be anything "important." I have no intention of posting every day. It is unlikely that any of my posts will reveal anything about my personal life. However, I think that my infrequent posts should be somewhat useful, maybe a little more to people who already know me.

The main purpose of the blog is to ask questions (hence the name). If I have a question that 1) I can't answer worth a damn or 2) seems like a question whose answer would be useful or 3) both, I'll post it here, and count on the limitless power of the internet (cough) to answer it. At the least, I hope to draw some interesting speculation.

This blog will also take over the "idea bank" page that existed (or still exists, depending on the date) on my Northwestern site. The bank itself was a good idea (thanks to Julia for the name) but it makes more sense in the blog format.

I will also use this blog to do what most blogs do -- push memes. If there is a piece of data, online or off, that I think people should be aware of, I will acknowledge it here.

Finally, this will be a space for short writing that doesn't belong anywhere else, cries for help, notes in bottles, public threats, miscellaneous announcements, and possibly even poetry.