26 August 2010

First week in Pittsburgh – some impressions

I wouldn’t say that I’m very much acclimated at all yet to the city – I’m sure I shall be eventually, but I’m still in my honeymoon stage of culture shock yet with the cliff of the distress-disorientation phase looming on the horizon. I exaggerate here somewhat – the culture here actually is refreshingly similar to my farther-Midwestern roots; but unlike the Midwest or Rhode Island, there’s terrain in Pittsburgh. Terrain which does not accommodate itself easily to city planning, that is. There are hills and valleys which require overpasses and sharp climbs (the busways and train tracks all require bridges of some sort – in this sense it reminds me almost of Beijing, except the necessity of such bridges is natural rather than synthetic, and the oppressive all-pervading road traffic is missing here), the roads seem to change names, disappear, bend in excess of 180 degrees while crossing themselves, &c. to appease the landscape. My own neighbourhood is in a rhombus-shaped ‘grid’ of roads, the vertex at which my daily bus ride arrives being home to a six-way intersection (only four of which have usable pedestrian crossings). That said, much of the city is still very accessible thanks to the extensive public transport system. So getting around is tricky but inexpensive; the same cannot be said of buying groceries (the local Giant Eagle is very nearby, but prices are a bit higher than I imagined they would be).

The air here is supposedly some of the most polluted in the country, but the only evidence of this that I have experienced in any depth is in the black patina of coal-soot that coats a certain number of the city’s edifices. (My gold-standards for air pollution are still Beijing and the major cities of Shaanxi Province in China.) That said, I have been exposed to some aspects of the city’s culture: I have gone to a game in PNC Park to watch the Bucs go up against the Marlins (the park was beautiful; the game was… less than inspiring), and I have gone to numerous restaurants and pubs in the area and tried the Yuengling (the local lager, which is quite good) and the German-inspired fares at the Hofbräuhaus (where I met some of my fellow GSPIAns – they seem like a good group, all told). As far as local history goes, the (not-so-)little Anglophile in me fell head-over-heels in love with Pittsburgh when he learned that it was among the only cities to resist the Americanisation of place-names at the turn of the century by the US Board on Geographic Names, restoring the name from ‘Pittsburg’ to the more correct (Scots-)English ‘Pittsburgh’ in 1911. I still have yet to visit old Fort Pitt, the redoubt from the Seven Years’ War, but that’s certainly on my list of things-to-do here.

As readers of my blog and other Episcopal blogs may be aware, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was pretty much Ground Zero for the late unpleasantness regarding the controversy over inclusion of homosexuals in Church life, and the schism which followed. The Church I am currently attending – Calvary Episcopal Church on Shady and Walnut – came down fairly firmly on the side of the established Episcopal Church, though in spite of such a catholic leaning the liturgy was a bit Lower than I would have hoped. All the same, I enjoyed the sermon immensely (on the countercultural aspects of keeping the discipline of the Sabbath as a day of rest); more to the point, though, I was welcomed with open arms and promptly invited to join choir practices by three separate parishioners. I think I’m going to greatly enjoy worshipping and singing there.

Started doing some readings for classes, and I’ve cracked open a few of my ridiculously-expensive textbooks, but mostly I’ve been doing fun-reading while I still have the opportunity: Athens and Jerusalem, a collection of essays by and about the Canadian political philosopher and theologian George Grant. I certainly appreciate many of his views on the shortcomings of modernity, technology and capitalism, particularly in their relation to education and the national character of Canada. It’s also interesting to see different authors paint very different views of the man: some see him as a socialist or a social democrat making common cause with the CCF / early NDP over the welfare state, economic egalitarianism and opposition to militarism, while others see him as an arch-conservative attempting to reclaim the nomenclature of ‘conservatism’ for the interrupted tradition of political philosophy which includes Jonathan Swift, Dr Samuel Johnson and the High Romantics, and away from the progeny of John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. The interesting thing is that they both appear to be true.

… So, that’s what I’ve been up to the past few days. Orientation tomorrow; classes start Monday.

23 August 2010

A kill-switch for intellectual integrity in the humanities

It is incredibly rare that I read a New York Times article that sends cold shivers down my spine the way no horror movie can, but the recent one about how the Wikipedia model might be changing the rules of peer review in academic journals made me literally cringe.

When I think back on my post-high school career, and how differently I thought as I left high school from when I left college, and how AmeriCorps and even Peace Corps changed even those views as I was continually exposed to more and deeper knowledge in communities of people who were struggling with the very same questions and issues (even if I completely disagreed with those people), I’ve come to understand how vital it is from a purely intellectual point-of-view to form those connexions. The sciences and the academic disciplines function similarly – you present a piece of work to your peers: people who have both experience with and an interest in the academic question or the scientific hypothesis you are posing; people who know your real name and who are willing to give you criticism (constructive or otherwise) under their own real names.

There are downsides to the process, naturally. Egos get involved. Academic battles and enmities arise. Though I do not know the specifics of the debate in geochemistry in which my father is primarily concerned, his views are immensely unpopular within his own circles and have extreme difficulty gaining traction. But the downsides of having academic debates contained within communities of people who have an understanding and a material interest in the field are vastly outweighed by the benefits. Criticisms are civil, for the most part. Criticisms conform to accepted standards of logic and reasoning. Criticisms are based in fact and according to the best understandings we have within the field.

Transferring these academic debates out of peer circles and onto the Internet is thus a monstrously terrible idea. Perhaps Dr Cohen, the George Mason University professor interviewed in the article who advocates such measures, would care to instruct himself in the subject beginning with this public service announcement (provided by a group of entertainers with a very clear and cogent understanding of how the Internet works to promote civility, rationality, community and factual debate).

A number of good points to be made here. Wikipedia editors are free to edit anonymously – with some exceptions, they don’t even need usernames, just IP addresses. The only reason Wikipedia is not a total wasteland is because they have bots and an active and dedicated team of professional editors who keep it relatively sane by reversing malicious edits and refereeing flame wars between interested parties on their discussion pages, but even Wikipedia is not really reliable for anything more than the most superficial information on any given subject, unless it is extensively sourced – and if you’re going to keep a dedicated team of professional editors who do just such selection of criticism, you might as well give them a break and keep your articles peer-reviewed anyway.

The deeper issue, though, is that of academia willingly subjecting itself to creationists, global-warming deniers and other such ignoramuses. Thankfully, the article was referencing only a certain number of journals in the humanities (the sciences so far seem exempt, and it is my sincere hope that they are wise, secure, sincere and self-aware enough never to attempt such a misguided stunt as this), but it is troubling all the same. The humanities are ostensibly academic disciplines which pose questions about what it means to be human; God help us all if we allow authority over such questions to fall into the hands of people who are insecure enough in their own humanity to spew vitriol and ignorance anonymously over the Internet.

15 August 2010

Last Sunday in Rhode Island – the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

I’ve finished packing for Pittsburgh, for the most part – I leave for the iron city on Tuesday morning. I am glad, though, that before I had to leave I was able to stay for the Feast of the Assumption at S Stephen’s – I enjoyed the Mass immensely, particularly the procession through Our Lady Chapel to pay our respects to the Blessed Virgin. At times before I had criticised Catholic Mariology as giving Mary too great a Docetic gloss, paying too much attention to her divinity and perfection, and not enough to her humanity; I found, though, that (on the contrary) the Catholic devotions we use in the High Church tradition put me for one in greater mind of her very human vulnerability. The story of the revelation to Mary of her role in the grand design, even her song of praise in the Gospel of St Luke, is brimming with both the existential wonder and terror of her humanity before a God who had placed her very firmly ‘on the spot’. Part of the conceit of asking for Mary’s intercession, as well, is the emphasis on her closeness to us as the ‘advance representative’ of humanity in a state of salvation (as Fr Alexander put it in his sermon today). Of course, the socialist in me is quick to point out that God chose as the vehicle for bearing humankind’s salvation the teenage peasant bride of a lowly working-class woodworker – a socially marginal figure in multiple respects.

Actually it was a bit hard for me to ask her prayers of intercession even today; I feel blessed at the opportunities I do have now with grad school before me, in spite of my own past failed endeavours, and I thought it fit only to seek after just a small portion of the Blessed Virgin’s strength in the event that I too am placed ‘on the spot’. I’m simply grateful for being put in mind of that.

Tuesday: I plan to move in, get settled in, perhaps see a Pirates game with my dad before he goes up to take my sister Catherine back to Beloit College for her junior year. Then to get acquainted with the city and with my future classmates! So far, they seem like a good crew. I’ll be sure to keep my gentle readers in touch with my impressions of Pittsburgh.

08 August 2010

Much ado about nothing

It is incredibly strange to me exactly how much irrational sentiment has been stirred up by the proposed building of the Córdoba House at the Park 51 site in Manhattan. Nate Silver makes some good factual points in his blog post on the subject: Park 51 is not at Ground Zero but rather two city blocks north on a parallel street, nor is it even visible from Ground Zero; and a plurality of Manhattan residents support the project (though majorities of New York residents and American citizens, for one reason or another, oppose it). For my own part, I honestly think it shouldn’t be a controversial issue at all. I can see why some might be upset about it, but the Córdoba Initiative has legal title to the land, and they are guaranteed under the Constitution the right to build a religious community centre there, full stop. So much the better if they want to use their community centre to promote interfaith dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths; I’m always game for that, particularly if there are caffeinated beverages involved.

But sadly, as is so often the case in our political culture, the issue has blown up into a complete drama fest. Radical-right gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino said he would use eminent domain to halt the project even as NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg leapt to its defence; the ADL came out publicly against the project because it might potentially offend the sensibilities of New Yorkers; Fareed Zakaria went on CNN eloquently defending the centre and then announcing that he would return the ADL’s Hubert Humphrey Prize awarded to him in defence of First Amendment freedoms (kudos for integrity, but not for discretion); Abraham Foxman of the ADL declared himself ‘saddened’ and ‘stunned’ by Zakaria’s return of the prize; and so on and so forth.

As amusing as all this political theatre is, may I make a suggestion à la Alan Tudyk that we as a society please start showing some rudiments of maturity and class and start talking about some real foreign policy issues relating to outreach to Islamic nations rather than doing all this pointless posturing over a completely legal religious project at home?

EDIT: Oh, and let’s start reading mediaeval Spanish history properly, what say? (Hat-tip to Michael Bérubé at Crooked Timber.)

07 August 2010

A fun toy programme

Okay, my geekiness being obvious by this point I figure I may out myself entirely - I must admit to a fascination with entirely useless, trivial and superficial computer programmes that serve no other purpose than entertainment. In this case I'm not talking about a computer game - I've recently discovered a tool called Super Analyser, a programme which takes your iTunes library, breaks it down and spits back out statistical trivia about what your listening habits are like, information such as: which genres, years and decades are best-represented in your library; which genres, years and decades you most like to listen to; which artists and albums are your most-played; what file-types your library uses (by percentage); even what times of day you tend to listen to music most and what the most popular words in titles of songs in your library are. Not really a time-waster, but kind of fun to see how it breaks down.

Some samples from my own library, for the interested:

Which genres are best represented in my library - by far and away dominated by soundtracks and rock music (I guess I shouldn't be surprised, many of my soundtracks are multi-disc affairs), and I do have a fair bit of rock music. It does gratify my High Tory sensibilities that classical music is so well-represented, but at the same time I'm all too aware that classical albums can be just as long as soundtracks. On the other hand...

By this account, I'm a fairly devout metalhead - specifically a symphonic, nü and gothic metalhead. A bit mortifying, actually, that classical music fell to seventh place below dance music (but Daft Punk's just that good). Speaking of which:

No surprises here. Nightwish, SLOT, Edenbridge, Ozzy. And (guilty pleasure) Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Kinda makes sense that I listen most between 8 and 9 PM, though apparently I don't rock out all night - I do need my sleep, after all. Anyway, cool statistical toy.

05 August 2010

You tell 'em, Bernie.

Once again, Bernie Sanders at his best, marshalling his impressive logical skills and mastery of fact to the pressing economic issues of our day. It's actually kind of a shame that he's one of the very few who is willing to really broach and engage with the issue of the broadening wealth gap between the richest 1% and practically everyone else, rather than ignoring it or pretending it doesn't exist. His solutions for infrastructure and health-care are partial, certainly not silver bullets when we consider some of the cultural factors relevant to our health-care expenses (our unhealthy social priorities and general consumerist lifestyle, for example), but I think we would do well to consider them seriously. And you have to admire a guy who expresses the level-headed common sense common to the Champlain Valley in an unapologetic Leafer accent.

(And that's not my pro-Vermont bias talking at all. Nope.)