Aaron Barlow's blog

"Breaking" or Broken?

In 1972, I spent a summer as a copyboy for The New York Times, working nightside in the newsroom.  Often, after the Late City edition was out, there wouldn’t be that much to do, not unless the bells on the news-service printers at one end of the room started ringing.  They alerted us that something significant had occurred, something important enough that a decision might be made to stop the presses for an update to the edition.  This happened often: we had plane hijackings, the shooting of George Wallace, and a number of other events that (among other things) gained me valuable overtime when they were not resolved until the wee hours of the morning.

Traitors and Enemies

Yesterday, we visited the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River side of Manhattan. I discovered that the Intrepid was one of the aircraft carriers whose planes my father may have directed to refueling stations as a radio operator on Leyte Island during the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf (while the battle for the island was going on around him). We also toured the Growler, a submarine in use in the early 1960s.

While watching a video in line to get on the sub, I was struck by a section on the history of submarines. After talking about the lack of success of the Turtle in the Revolution (an attempt to find a way to break the British blockade), the story turned to another blockade of American coasts, almost a century later. The blockaders were explicitly compared to those British of the earlier war and were not named as anything other than “the enemy.” The hero of the segment was a “Confederate planter” identified as a “patriot,” a man named H. L. Hunley. My jaw dropped.

How could anyone, there, at a museum dedicated to the armed services of the United States, find it acceptable to refer to the United States Navy as “the enemy” and call a rebel against the country a “patriot”?

London: The Result of Removing Hope

Read Tony Wikrent's piece about what's going on in London.  Then read the one by Brian Alexander on the MSNBC site.

I no longer know what to say about what goes on in the world.  The fact that the people of Wisconsin do not see that the rich (the Republicans) do not represent their interests, that they believe they are going to end up on the up side of the divide between the rich and everyone else that is our world... well, that just confirms the depression I've felt since the Tea Party started stealing my heritage (my 5-greats-grandfather, for whom I'm named, fought in the American Revolution).

The fact that few people in the US or in England, or in any place where there is a vibrant middle class, no longer realize that they are able to be that middle class because their cultures pay some attention to the poor... well, it seems to be forgotten.

All-Time All-American Musicians

During this week of great political frustration, perhaps it is best to turn our attention elsewhere for a moment. So...

The other day, I heard someone say that Aaron Copeland's Symphony No. 3 is the quintessential piece of American music. I couldn't agree. Classical music, even if it tries to incorporate "American" musical themes, never can be American at its core. It just doesn't grow out of the people here, no matter how much some of us may love it.

But the statement got me asking: Just who or what is best representative of American music? I flipped through a dozen or so answers, starting with Louis Armstrong and including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. I wasn't looking necessarily for the best, or even the most influential, but for the one (or ones) who best exemplify this country, its good as well as its bad.

Eventually, I came up with two (I could not bring it down to one--America just isn't that simple), one male, one female. One black, one white. One exquisite songwriter, one stupendous performer. One from country & western, one from the blues.

Beyond the Blogosphere

Down the rabbit hole. Over the rainbow.

Whatever you call it, we seem to have stepped beyond the solid ground of yesterday and into a fantasyland of our own imaginings.

Like everybody else, I've been watching the train wreck going on in Washington, where people are trying to impose their beliefs on reality, tailoring the latter to fit the former.

Yeah, I know: That's impossible. But that's what's going on.

False Equivalency and Anders Breivik

"Well, he did the same thing!"

We've all heard that.  And we are all getting rather sick of seeing it, again and again, in our political discourse.

At least, I am.

Writing in today's New York Times, Ross Douthat tries to blunt criticism of the Norway Madman's connection to American right-wing crazies.  The Times, in another story, says Breivik was "deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam."  Douthat seems to believe that pointing this out is the equivalent of finding similarities in things the Unabomber wrote with Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.

What Douthat conveniently forgets is that there is no sign that Theodore Kazcynski was ever influenced by Al Gore. The same is not true of Breivik and right-wing bloggers.

Testing and the Wisdom of Crowds

The other day, I gave my Advanced Technical Writing students a quiz. One question: "Name three things you should do before starting any research project."

The answers weren't in their text. I had not told them what these things should be in prior classes. In fact, the question had not come up--which is one reason I asked it.

What I was doing was something of an experiment on the wisdom of crowds and an attempt to make a point about authority and the weakness of the multiple-choice test when it is the sole means of evaluation.

Teaching, Tenure, and Academic Freedom

In The New York Times a couple of days ago, Stanley Fish offered an article with the title "Vocationalism, Academic Freedom and Tenure."  He is responding to a book, The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For  by Naomi Schaefer Riley.  He writes:

What Riley shows is that vocation-oriented teaching, teaching beholden to corporations and politically inflected teaching do not square with the picture of academic labor assumed by the institutions of tenure and academic freedom.

I agree with Fish in part when, in response to Riley's point, he writes:

I say, and have been saying for years, that colleges and universities should stop moving in those directions — toward relevance, bottom-line contributions and social justice — and go back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification.

But I do think he views things to narrowly.  Academic inquiry is not simply its own justification, but is a necessary basis for higher-level teaching, which itself is not the "thing" his article (and, I assume, Riley's book) imagine it to be, but is itself a dynamic requiring academic freedom every bit as much as research does.

Raging Chicken Launches

Journalists, professional (paid) ones, still like to disparage "citizen journalism," though it has been half a decade since citizen journalists rocketed into American media consciousness, pushing aside some of the moribund aspects of traditional journalism, injecting a new enthusiasm into the fourth estate, providing new means of reaching readers, and making what had once been primarily a one-way conduit into a round-robin of conversation.  There's still a sense, in some quarters, that the professionals are somehow "better" than the "citizens"--or that a distinction between the two is unneeded.  But the professionals have only shown they are "better" in terms of training, not performance, and the distinction allows the dedicated amateur to keep away from the monetary motivation of those who depend on activity in journalism to keep bread on the table.

ePluribus Media, since its founding five years ago, has been an important forum for, and promoter of, citizen journalism.  We speak out loudly on those issues that bring us to our own citizen journalism, provide tools that citizen journalists can use to improve the stories they produce, and promote other sites engaging in citizen journalism.

Another of these, Raging Chicken Press, launched this week, proving that citizen journalism continues to be a strong contributor to our local, state, and national discourses.  The nay-sayers may continue to rage against the amateurs, but it is the amateurs who now provide the dynamic in American journalism--even though the professionals (look at what has happened to Huffington Post) continue to try to horn in.

Makin' It New

Years ago, there was a kid I would read to regularly. By the time he was four, we had progressed to E. Nesbit's 1899 book The Treasure Seekers. When we were done with that, and it having been a success, I cast around for something in a similar vein, and settled on C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. We started with The Magician's Nephew, for that, chronologically, is the first in the series.

At the very beginning, we ran across a reference to Nesbit's book. The kid was beside himself. He got the connection and was wildly impressed that another book contained a mention of something he was already familiar with.

A few days ago, in The New York Times, A. O. Scott offered an article called “Catch That Reference?: There'll Be a Quiz.” He's dealing with the references found in the current crop of summer movies, but the topic extends far beyond just that.

Writing for Yourself

The other day, when I should have been doing something else, I Googled myself.  One of the pages I found was on Writing Skills for a site called Paper Due.  At first, I was flattered, thinking someone was actually using something I had written to aid others in developing their prose style.

Then I was, well, "horrified" would be too strong a word.  "Bemused," perhaps too weak.  Anyway, I realized that the site is selling papers on the topic of "writing skills."  Potential writing teachers can buy them, using them to satisfy their own teachers that they know a little about what they might, one day, be doing.

Except, of course, they won't.

Keeping It Short

Did I say "short"?

Maybe I meant "dwarfish."  All I could think of, as I watched the seven Republican hopefuls "debate" in New Hampshire, was of Doc (Ron Paul), Grumpy (Newt  Gingrich), Happy (Mitt Romney), Sleepy (Tim Pawlenty), Bashful (Rick Santorum), Sneezy (Herman Cain), and Dopey (Michele Bachmann).

Oh yes, and about the format, part of which makes them all so small.  The New York Times, in an editorial, calls the mash-up "full of historical error, economic obfuscation, avoidance of hard truths and even outright bigotry."  That it was, but that it was meant to be.  The ability to delve deeply into a topic, to consider anything of any real size or importance, has long been stripped from televised American presidential debates in favor of the show.  We've even reduced it to the level of the "reality" show, trotting out so-called 'average citizens' to ask questions.

Business and Value: Groupon?

For fourteen years, I ran a store in Brooklyn, NY called Shakespeare's Sister. In the back, at first, we had a cafe. Later, I turned it into an art gallery and retreat... and eventually into additional sales space for the gift store which occupied the rest of the space. Naturally, I learned a great deal about retail. Now a teacher, I still keep an eye on what is happening in the world I left.

The other day, I came across a blog post, "Groupon is a Straight-Up Ponzi Scheme."  Though I think it's a little more complicated than that, I think the author may be right.

Let me explain.

Oh, How Helpful!

In his 1973 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney demolished the idea that outsiders can come to Third World countries and bring them out into the developed world.  Our "help," as that help is almost always offered, is almost always counterproductive, leading to a culture of dependency, not enabling independence and growth, as the helpers might believe.  I discovered the truth of that during my own time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1980s, and wrote about it with another former Peace Corps Volunteer, Bronwyn Hughes, a few years later.  

We described how it was best that outsiders from the developed world seek initiative locally and support it rather than bringing in their own ideas about what would work for a community not their own.  Our piece first appeared in an online journal that no longer exists.  Later, in 2007, it was republished in the ePluribus Media Journal.  Called "Nothing New: A Small Enterprise Development Project in West Africa," it can be found here.

A Silly Season Upon Us?

The supposed "scandal" related to Representative Anthony Weiner's Twitter account is allowing this rather outspoken congressperson's many enemies to try to give legs to something that fell apart almost as soon as it was attempted.  This is where our politics has returned, to its low point in the early days of the Republic when the purpose was to trash, not to convince.

No one was fooled by this silly attempt to tar Weiner, not even his political enemies.  Yet they are still trying to use it to tarnish his reputation.