Apr 30, 2007

Department of Brilliant Ideas

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(Toledo, OH) I had to purchase an HP replacement printer cartridge today, as my children and their incessant desire to print out every interesting item they find on the Internet drained all the ink from the cartridge.

Just as I was about to print an important, time-sensitive document, but I digress.

The point to this post is that the new cartridge came with a self-addressed, no-postage-necessary envelope with which to place the spent cartridge. I thought that this was perhaps the most brilliant innovation I have seen from the corporate world since... well... the auto beverage cupholder or something.

Anyways - even the laziest of consumers no longer has an excuse to toss the old cartridge in the trash. Just stick it in the envelope, seal, and place in the nearest mailbox.

Kudos to Hewlett-Packard!

Premium Posts

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A weekly feature in which I link the most intriguing blog posts I came across this week. Part roundup, part link love, with the ultimate goal to simply increase awareness of the work of some excellent bloggers I have met.

ValBee has a lengthy rant about lunkheaded neighbors with loud music and a poor grasp of what it means to be a neighbor. Mike's Points has a thoughtful post on the ethics of photojournalism that is worth a read if you publish photography.

Humboldt'sClio has an intriguing post about the cultural diffusion of American fast food around the globe. New historian-blogger FrontierGhost has a review of Trails: Toward a New Western History for those of you who get bored reading my European and Asian book reviews.

Matt Sussman at the Futon Report provides a wry commentary about the phenomenal 2007 start of Alex Rodriguez in light of the regular dissing A-Rod receives from the New York media and some of his teammates. Finally, Lisa Renee weighs in on the Democratic debate last week.


Got a post you'd like to recommend? Email me at mbrooks AT utnet DOT utoledo DOT edu.

Apr 29, 2007

Book Review: Russia: Experiment with a People

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Russia: Experiment with a People by Robert ServiceService, Robert

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, 406 pages


Service is a Professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford, and he was one of the first Western academics to access state archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia: Experiment with a People examines the first decade in post-Soviet Russia, and the author attempted to present a balanced view of the successes and failures experienced by Russian leaders in the transition away from Soviet-style communism. The result is one of the most comprehensive surveys of post-Soviet Russia, a book that combines political, social, economic, and intellectual history with the author’s personal experiences as a Westerner traveling in the Russian landscape.

Service described a number of legacies from the Soviet era that continue to influence life in post-Communist Russia. In examining the failure of Boris Yeltsin’s government to prosecute Soviet officials (unlike post-Communist governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria), the author argued that there were “far too many people who had committed abuses” and that “the courts would have been overwhelmed” had such a judicial campaign been carried out. This created new opportunities for the nomenklaturschiki in the Yeltsin government and – more importantly – in the newly-created enterprises operated by the oligarchs. This new elite, argued Service, in many ways mirrored the Party elite who enjoyed a higher quality of life in the Soviet era. The author noted another Soviet legacy - that of the importance of individual leaders at each level of power – which continues in post-Soviet Russia, and he argued that clientelism promotes the continuation of a “culture of leadership” in which an “energetic, cunning leader” surrounds himself with supporters.

The newly independent Russia, argued Service, came into being “by anti-constitutional methods,” noting that the deal reached between Yeltsin and the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine violated the 1977 and 1990 Laws of Secession for the constituent Soviet republics. This created a paradox, as Yeltsin’s claims that these moves were necessary to overthrow a despotic state were, themselves, illegal, and thus the “regime of independent Russia was born in a communist wedlock.” Yeltsin’s extra-legal actions continued in September 1993, noted Service, with his decree suspending the Supreme Soviet and ordering the formation of a new parliament and constitution. Moreover, argued the author, by ordering tanks and artillery to shell the deputies in the White House in October 1993, Yeltsin used “brute force” in order to achieve a political victory, in essence destroying the old Constitution through military means. Service argued that the creation of the post-Soviet Russia “was induced by anti-constitutionality, violence, and corruption.”

Russian White House in MoscowLeft: the Russian White House in Moscow

Service displayed a pronounced sympathy toward the Russian leaders in their struggles with the Chechens, especially in the run-up to the First Chechen War. The author described the regime of Dzhokhar Dudayev as “a disgrace to minimal standards of political decency,” and argued that gun-running, rug-smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom were “local specialties,” as if Chechens somehow monopolized illegal activities of this sort. The author claimed that the Chechens were receiving financing from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and that Islamic volunteers arrived in Chechnya “to strengthen the military campaign against Russia and to spread the revolt across the other republics in the region.” In this respect Service appears all too willing to swallow whole the propaganda generated by war hawks such as Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and the author’s description of the devastation wrought on the Chechen countryside was limited to a few sentences.

Former Russian Defense Minister Pavel GrachevLeft: Former Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev

The author developed a profile of Russian President Vladimir Putin different from the trigger-happy, security-obsessed Chechen subjugator of Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell or the authoritarian, power-consolidating pragmatist found in Lilia Shevtsova’s Putin’s Russia. Service depicted Putin as a leader cognizant of international opportunities with the energy to use them for the benefit of Russia, as witnessed in his early support for the U.S.-led War on Terror after the September 11 attacks; the author praised Putin for his handling of the events as “an opportunity to justify Russian official behaviour and [to] enhance Russia’s status and influence.” Putin, argued Service, differed from Yeltsin in many respects, but his willingness to publicly recognize the successes of the Soviet era helped to “restore a linkage with the USSR.” Moreover – unlike Yeltsin - Putin understood the nostalgia that many Russian citizens still felt for the Soviet era, and Service praised his ability to integrate Soviet symbols and iconography into the official face of the new Russia.

There have been profound changes in Russian life since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, changes that affected every sphere of human interaction. Service maintained that the area that most differentiates life in the Soviet era from the post-communist years is what he described as the “scope of privacy.” The “popular fear of politicians and policemen,” argued Service, has significantly declined in the post-Soviet era. Religious and spiritual beliefs – anathema during the communist decades – are openly practiced without fear of official harassment. Even witchcraft and folk beliefs are tolerated in the new Russia, and Service wryly commented that “witchcraft is one of the few areas of economic growth in Russia since the fall of communism.” Behaviors formerly attacked as bourgeois selfishness, such as pet ownership and hobbies, now have millions of participants. There has also been the growth of a weight-loss industry in Russia, a cultural phenomenon that Service noted “seemed inconceivable” in the Soviet era. While malnutrition continues to plague many Russians, the rise of a weight-loss industry in post-Soviet Russia certainly reflects the fact that significant segments of the Russian population have a problem with consuming too much – rather than not enough – food.

Russian ad for a weight-loss program entitled 'Shaping Diet'Left: Russian ad for a weight-loss program entitled "Shaping Diet"

Service used a wide variety of sources in the preparation of this impressive text, drawing from traditional printed mateirals – such as books, periodicals, and archival documents – as well as such electronic sources as television programs, films, and websites. The footnoted text also includes a lengthy bibliography on post-Soviet Russia and a full-color collection of photographs, portraits, and advertisements related to the book topics. Russia: Experiment with a People can serve as an excellent introduction to non-specialists, and Service’s insights and analyses also make this text valuable to Russian scholars.

Apr 28, 2007

The Who - My Generation

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This clip is from a 1967 appearance by The Who on, of all places, the Smothers Brothers Show. Those of you who have seen the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright are familiar with this epic rendition of "My Generation."

During this performance, drummer Keith Moon detonated explosives in his drum kit near the end of the song. Unbeknownst to the rest of the band, though, Moon apparently packed an outrageous amount of gunpowder; watch the end of the video as a deafened Pete Townshend is trying to put out his hair, which caught fire.

Moon also received a serious gash on his arm from cymbal shrapnel.

The audience thought the bit was staged, but Tommy Smothers reportedly was quite agitated that The Who deliberately screwed with him during the interview and deviated in almost every imaginable way from the show's script.

Apr 27, 2007

On the Unlimited Resources of the State

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Years ago I owned a group of retail businesses, and I reached a point in the late 1990s where I could no longer justify pouring any more of my money (or my partner's) into what was becoming a fiscal sinkhole. We decided to dump the business after the franchisor wanted an unrealistic amount of money in franchise renewals and back royalties.

Live and learn, right?

Almost a decade goes by, and I had all but forgotten about my years as an entrepreneur. In the mail a few weeks ago came notice that I was being sued by the state for withholding taxes it claims my business owed from 1995 (most states - plus the federal government - retain the right to pursue officers of corporations for unpaid taxes).

Yes, that 1995. The one that ended twelve years ago.

Now, I paid my state withholding taxes as due, and we used payroll processing firms to keep track of taxes. Moreover, the amount of money we owed every month was hardly worth trying to screw the state out of, even if I were of such a mindset, which I was not.

Luckily for me, the state is suing everyone who ever had anything to do with the business: me (as former owner), the franchisor (who took over the retail outlets) and even the new owners, who never had anything to do with the disputed taxes.

Being fairly bright, and knowing at least how to follow "how-to" guides on legal pleadings, I answered the claim pro se. Lo and behold, the deep-pocketed franchisor's attorney called me the other day and offered to strike a deal on the $15,000 the state claims it is owed ($8,000 in "unpaid" taxes, and another $7,000 in interest, penalties, and other forms of governmental extortion).

For a mere $2,000 on my part (and contributions from the other parties), said barrister thinks he can convince the state to take a deal. Now, another factor in my favor is that I took the graduate student vow of poverty a couple of years ago, so even if the state were successful in its dubious claim, they would be waiting a long time to squeeze any nickels out of me.

So now I must decide what my time is worth. I could very well continue to represent myself and force the state to prove I owe them anything, but I run the risk of running up against a judge that will sympathize with the state's poor case (they have yet to even demonstrate the means by which they determined monies were owed, and are resting solely on a default judgment against the defunct corporation).

Or I could try to negotiate that number down, and hold out for some sort of indemnity from the state ("We agree that all state taxes are paid from Corporation X, and indemnify historymike from further harassment," etc.)

But part of me wants to fight this thing forever, because I know that I paid all of the corporate taxes in a timely fashion to the state, and it pisses me off that a bunch of bureaucrats with unlimited resources can hound an ex-business owner twelve years after the fact.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people--that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.
--James Thurber

Apr 26, 2007

Remembering Guernica

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1937 aerial photograph of the smoldering ruins of Guernica

Today was the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the town of Guernica by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. The air raid, which created a firestorm that destroyed most of the Basque city and left hundreds of civilians dead, was part of efforts by Hitler and Mussolini to support fellow fascist dictator Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

Guernica was the cultural and political center of the Basques, and the attack on this city was one of the early horrors of what would become the Second World War. German and Italian troops, in essence, used Guernica as a training ground for new weapons, vehicles, and strategies.

Franco initially denied that any German or Italian planes were in Spain at the time of the attack, and claimed the Basques had destroyed the town in an effort to discredit the fascists. Guernica was one of the first cities ever to be destroyed by an aerial bombing campaign, foreshadowing the nightmares that would later befall such cities as Coventry, Dresden, and Hiroshima.

Pablo Picasso's 1937 oil on canvas painting, Guernica Left: Pablo Picasso's 1937 oil on canvas painting, "Guernica" - click for larger image

The destruction of Guernica was also the inspiration for the dark imagery in the painting Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. It was through seeing a print of Guernica that I first learned of the horrors of the attack on innocent Basque civilians.

So I am thinking of Guernica today, thinking both of the savagery of modern war and those who enthusiastically support the bombardment of civilian targets as a means of state-sponsored terror.

And I am thinking of old women and young children in the markets of Guernica that Monday morning, oblivious to the airborne annihilation that was about to roar in over the hills.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

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Shameless self-promotion I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to learn that I have been awarded a three-year graduate fellowship by the University of Toledo. Only two are awarded by UT each year, so I suppose that I am in select company.

It is an odd sensation, though, for a guy who grew up on the west side of Detroit in a blue-collar, UAW neighborhood to think of himself as a "university fellow." Rare enough were the people in my neghborhood who actually went to college; most of the people I knew hoped to hit the employment lottery by getting one of the dwindling number of jobs in the auto factories.

And - given the fact that I have occasionally taken rhetorical aim at UT in editorials - I must admit that I thought my acerbic punditry might make me a bit of a longshot.

I can only surmise that my receipt of this prestigious award is due in large part to the letters of recommendation that my professors wrote, so I would like to publicly thank Dr. Carol Bresnahan, Dr. Michael Jakobson, and Dr. William O'Neal for what must have been some persuasive missives on my behalf.

The schizophrenic blatherings on this site must have been unavailable to the fellowship award committee, or I would have received a polite rejection letter, along with a recommendation to seek a prescription for lithium carbonate.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.
--Mark Twain

Apr 25, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: SALSUGINOUS

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

salsuginous (sahl-SOO-gihn-uhs) adj. (Botany) that which thrives in salty soil; growing in brackish water or in salt marches; growing naturally in soils that have a high salt content; surviving in a hostile environment.

The word salsuginous is derived from the Latin salsugo ("saltiness"). The term is occasionally used in a figurative sense to describe a person who succeeds where others fail.

Archaic definitions for salsuginous use the term as a synonym for "salty," but this use appears to be on the wane. Another botanical synonym for salsuginous is halophytic, which carries the same connotations.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Apr 24, 2007

Book Review - Political Corruption in Transition: A Skeptic’s Handbook

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Kotkin, Stephen and Sajó, András (editors)

Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002, 493 pages


The transition to market economies in Russia and Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era has brought to light frequent charges of corruption, often instigated by persons representing foreign businesses. Political Corruption in Transition is a collection of essays on corruption in Russia and, especially, the former Soviet satellite states in East Central Europe. The editors assembled the writings of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives in an effort to contextualize and comprehend corruption in its various guises.

An introductory essay by editor Sajó challenged Western readers to remove preconceptions about the nature of corruption, noting that “experts will never agree on any single definition.” What is perceived by some as contemporary corruption in Eastern Europe, the author argued, owes much to the clientelism that evolved under the previous communist nomenklatura, and actions that some consider to be corrupt are merely a continuation of formerly acceptable practices. Sajó noted that corruption – as defined in Western terms that evolved under the rule of law – is a structural phenomenon as opposed to the moral failings of individuals, and he described corruption as “the natural consequence of power in a clientelistic regime.” Moreover, argued Sajó, the civil servants of many post-Communist states are underpaid, increasing the likelihood that they will extort bribes, and supervisory personnel often place pressure on their subordinates to funnel revenue upwards in the hierarchical structure in what the author described as “shared extorted ransom.” Finally, Sajó held that weak states dominated by post-totalitarian bureaucracies perpetuate patterns of corruption, and that this type of “corruption facilitating, decision-making system is deliberately maintained” in order to continue the practice of “stealing the state,” a euphemism for using state power for private benefit.

Jacobs examined the efficacy of creating anti-corruption systems, noting that such efforts to reduce corruption have the ironic effect of reinforcing the very bureaucracy they were designed to reign in. He noted that a political system that is “hypersensitive to corruption” can produce a “dispirited and alienated citizenry” in much the same manner as a truly corrupt system. In addition, the author argued that the costs of implementing anti-corruption strategies might actually be greater than the corruption being attacked, and that anti-corruption efforts ca actually create less effective and efficient government. As a result, states must determine what the author termed as an “optimal level of corruption,” where the goal is to identify the most costly forms of corruption and the most cost-effective means of battling corruption.

Hutchcroft examined the usefulness of applying lessons to post-Communist governments that have been learned from studying corruption in developing nations. He identified a difficult paradox that exists in many weak states: the strong judicial, political, and administrative necessary to create and perpetuate market economies are often “themselves permeated by a market mentality,” and Hutchcroft added that “it is no boast, in other words, for a country to have ‘the best judiciary that money can buy.’” Moreover, argued the author, some forms of corruption actually promote economic development by increasing the responsiveness of civil servants, noting previous research that found that “speed payments” (payments that expedite a decision without influencing government policy) may actually improve efficiency. Hutchcroft also provided an intriguing quote from Samuel P. Huntington on the contradictions of corruption:
In terms of economic growth, the only thing worse than a society with a rigid, overcentralized, dishonest bureaucracy is one with a rigid, overcentralized honest bureaucracy.
Blankenburg examined the phenomena of what he termed the “scandal industry” as a contributing factor in popular perception of corruption in European politics. The author noted that existing traditions of clientelism allowed the types of bribery found in such examples as the various Lockheed scandals, and that Newsweek magazine – and its global coverage of the Lockheed scandals – brought established clientelistic behaviors into public view, ultimately destroying political regimes in Italy, Japan, and the Netherlands.

One of the primary reasons for the rise of the scandal industry, argued Blankenburg, was the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which ended an era of anti-Communist cooperation among bourgeois political parties that turned former allies into adversaries. In addition, the author noted the growth of full-time investigative teams at many leading periodicals and broadcast media, with the simultaneous increase in competition between media outlets “to chase ever-new sensations,” and Blankenburg argued that globalization increased the pressure on governments to eliminate protectionist policies that often took the form of stable clientelism. Finally, the author maintained that the emergence of independent prosecutors and investigative judges created bureaucratic mechanisms not beholden to established clientele structures, and that these autonomous political actors often used anti-corruption investigations to further their own political aims.

Boris Berezovsky, poster-child of Russian corruptionBoris Berezovsky, poster-child of Russian corruption

Post-Soviet Russia is often cited by pundits as an example of the excesses of bureaucratic corruption, and certainly the presence and influence of such dubious characters as Boris Berezovsky and Sergey Mikhaylov in Russian politics does little to dissuade observers of this notion. Coulloudon, however, argued that a post-Communist state such as the Russian Federation actually suffers from the emergence of high-profile scandals:
The general argument is that the central Russian State – as weak as it is – provides a favorable background for nepotism, embezzlement, and abuses of power. Moreover, anticorruption campaigns generated in this institutional environment undermine the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the population and among officials. Such campaigns create a profound problem of confidence in the state structures and thus further weaken the capacity of the state, creating a vicious cycle.
Coulloudon noted the existence of widespread corruption in the last decades of the Soviet Union, and argued that this institutionalized corruption simply took new forms in the transition to a market economy in Russia. Industrial managers in the Soviet system, argued the author, had one overriding goal, which was to fullfill at any cost their portion of the five-year plans developed by state and party officials. Meeting production quotas meant that managers had to barter with other producers, purchase supplies on the black market, or even falsify output statistics to demonstrate their effectiveness. In addition, managers often developed “dead souls” – ficititious workers on the payroll lists of factories – who served to provide the capital needed to bribe regional officials or purchase items from the black market. Coulloudon argued that - despite the transition to a market economy - the post-Soviet government of Russia maintains three particular aspects “inherited from the Societ past,” including an “overpowerful executive branch; elite recruitment through cooptation; and an extremely secretive decision-making process.” These characteristics create an environment ripe for bribery, lawbreaking, and tax evasion in post-Soviet Russia.

Szilágyi analyzed a new form of corruption that has been especially prevalent in post-Communist Russia, which is the manifestation of the phenomenon known as kompromat (“compromising materials”). The use of kompromat is a means of blackmailing political opponents with the understood threat that public knowledge of such damaging material would destroy an individual or even bring that person before criminal charges; the insidious nature of kompromat reflects the fact that “compromising material” need not even be truthful, so long as it accomplishes the goal of political annhilation of opponents. Szilágyi provided an example of kompromat in action in which Russian Prime Minister Yvgeny Primakov was attacked by Boris Berezovsky through his media holdings. Primakov once posed for a photograph holding a bazooka at a Russian military exhibition, and after the motorcade of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was attacked by bazooka-wielding assasins, Berezovsky’s television and newspaper outlets broadcast the salacious charge that “Primakov ordered the attack on Shevardnadze” while providing the unrelated picture of Primakov with a bazooka.

One of the strengths of this collection of essays is the interdisciplinary experience of the authors, who hail from such fields as sociology, political science, history, and law. The editors provided detailed endnotes and a lengthy bibliography for further study, and there are a number of useful charts and graphs throughout the text. Readers – especially those whose knowledge of Eastern Europe and Russia are limited to occasional media reports – are forced to come to terms with their previous assumptions and biases about the nature of corruption and the importance of a contextual perspective, and one leaves this text with more questions than answers with regard to corruption in the post-Communist era. Subtitled The Sceptic’s Handbook, this text compels readers to question defintions of corruption, the actual prevalence of corruption in post-Communist regimes, and about the effects of a scandal industry in “creating” corruption where none may have previously been perceived.

Apr 23, 2007

Bye, Boris

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Boris Yeltsin presided over the dismantling of the Soviet system, and to many Westerners he represented an icon against the communism they had grown to fear. One of the most vivid images I can remember of Boris Yeltsin is that of the Russian president on a Soviet tank, "saving" the forces of democracy from reactionary communists.

Yeltsin, however, also presided over the crooked fire-sale and fencing of state assets, leading to a golden age for a few well-placed ex-communists-turned-oligarchs in a political system that I like to describe as "gangsterocracy." For most Russians, the era of Boris Yeltsin meant a significant decline in living standards, economic opportunities, and lifespans.

We should also remember that Yeltsin's bungling led to the ill-conceived and poorly executed First Chechen War, a conflict that continues to fester nearly 13 years later. There is now an entire generation of young Chechen men who know nothing but death and a burning desire to exact revenge on what they view as an imperialist Russia.

Yeltsin also ushered in an age of managed elections and rising authoritarianism. Far from a devotee of democracy, Boris Yeltsin had one primary goal: securing and strengthening the power of the Russian presidency, while simultaneously enriching himself and his cronies.

Pray for Boris, but do not worship him. This was a flawed and corrupt politician who contributed little to the well-being of most Russians, and whose term in office is remarkable only in that he was the first Russian since Nicholas II to willingly give up power.

Bye, Boris.

Premium Posts

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A weekly feature in which I link the most intriguing blog posts I came across this week. Part roundup, part link love, with the ultimate goal to simply increase awareness of the work of some excellent bloggers I have met.

Humboldt'sClio rants about the phenomena of teens, cell phones, and global priorities that is sure to spark debate. Liberal Dem made the sad announcement that he is taking a break, perhaps permanently, from blogging. This is a definite loss to the Toledo blogging community, and I hope that he returns.

Hooda Thunkit is still hammering away about Toledo's trash fee scandal. Historychic has a lengthy article on Jewish Physicians in the Holocaust that highlights a little known facet of European history.

Microdot discusses the French prohibition against political ads in the hours before an election, while taking us on a picturesque tour through the countryside near Badefols d'Ans. Finally, Lisa Renee wonders why there is a massive bee die-off around the globe, and offers informative links to the potentially catastrophic environmental change.

Got a post you'd like to recommend? Email me at mbrooks AT utnet DOT utoledo DOT edu.

Apr 22, 2007

Gargulls

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(Wyandotte, MI) These chicken-sized seagulls are perched atop a light fixture in Wyandotte's Bishop Park, which is located on the Detroit River.

They seemed to be standing guard over the happenings in the park, occasionally screeching at passing birds as they remained on the lookout for proffered hot dog buns or potato chips from parkgoers.

Or perhaps they are working with the Wyandotte Police, who drove through the park to tell my wife that our dogs Jimmy and Candy - like all canines - are not permitted in Bishop Park. This is the first public park I have encountered that bans pets, but who am I to argue with a uniformed officer?

We just pretended to take them out of the park, and then surreptitiously hid them under a table for another hour while we visited. Down with the man!

Rapid Rhetoric: EDULCORATE

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

edulcorate ee-DUHL-co-rayt n. to sweeten; to make sweeter in taste; to reduce in acidity.

The word edulcorate is derived from the Latin dulcorare ("to sweeten"). The term can also be used in a figurative sense, as in cheering up a sourpuss or charming another person. William Quick at DailyPundit developed an excellent example of this sense of edulcorate:

Desperately in need of a loan, Martin used every trick he knew to cajole, flatter, and edulcorate his well-heeled but frugal Aunt Clara.

Apr 21, 2007

Can We Declare It Spring Yet?

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(Toledo, OH) With temperatures in the mid-70s, and my freeze-stunted tulips starting to bloom, I think the answer to the titular question is an emphatic "yes."

Tulips are among my favorite flowers, and I enjoy the brief stay their colorful blooms share with us.

I had to get the lawn mower out today, dust it off, and start cutting the grass. It was only a week ago that we had an inch of snow fall here, but today feels almost like summer.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.
--Leopold von Ranke

How Much Are You Really Worth?

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All of us have wondered at some point what our true value is on the marketplace. Well, perhaps not Derek Jeter and other highly-paid sports figures, but you know what I mean.

SalaryBase, which bills itself as "The Internet Salary Calculator," offers personalized salary reports using a variety of search criteria that users can vary. SalaryBase collects anonymous and comprehensive up-to-date salary data and shares this knowledge with users around the world, with the ultimate goal of shifting power back to employees.

The site is heavy on technology-related fields, and I saw no entries for jobs such as "history professor" that might pique my personal interest. Still, if you work in a field for which the site has collected salary data, you might find out just how much the man is sticking it to you. This was a sponsored post.

Apr 20, 2007

Historymike Finally Joins Blogger Beta

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I really wanted to convert to Blogger Beta.

Over the last seven months I engaged in several attempts to convert this site from old Blogger to Blogger Beta. During my last two tries the conversion process hit virtual snafus, shut down the site for 4-6 hours, and generally ended with me raising my fist and cursing Google.

This morning when I logged in to Blogger a new prompt appeared, promising me a simplified conversion.

"What the heck," I thought, clicking the required icons. To my surprise, VOILA! Instantaneous conversion.

I must now take back all the angry missives and barbed invectives I hurled at the behemoth Google. Now: why couldn't the first conversion programs work like this one?

Book Review: Putin's Russia

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Shevtsova, Lilia

Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003, 306 pages


Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, and is also a professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs of the MFA of Russia. As an academic, Shevtsova came of age in the last years of the Soviet Union, and she has developed a reputation as an astute observer of post-Soviet Russia. Shevtsova is an unabashed supporter of Western-style democratic capitalism, works for organizations funded largely by Western sources, and Putin’s Russia reflects the author’s philosophical beliefs.

In those areas in which the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin mirror Shevtsova’s ideological proclivities, he merits praise from the author, but is likewise criticized for actions that deviate from what are perceived to be policies in line with modern capitalist and democratic models. Much like Fukuyama and his End of History arguments, Shevtsova is a true believer in the supremacy of American models of government and economy for postmodern civilizations.

The text focuses primarily on the period from 1999-2002, the first three years of the Putin presidency, although Shevtsova provided readers with several chapters at the beginning of the book that recounted the last years of Kremlin politics with Boris Yeltsin at the helm. The author followed a chronological approach to the topic, with essays that flow together almost in the fashion that might befit a political diary. Shevtsova provided footnoted material on her sources, which are largely drawn from periodicals and personal interviews.

Shevtsova argued that responsibility for the 1998 financial meltdown in Russia should not placed solely at the feet of former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, during whose tenure inflation reached 84 percent, the ruble’s value imploded, and dozens of Russian banks closed. Instead, the author chose to highlight the Victor Chernomyrdin’s Gosudarstvennoe Kratkosrochnoe Obyazatelstvo (GKO) bond scheme, which Shevtsova likened to an investment pyramid. By the end of 1998, the author noted, the Yeltsin government needed 113 billion rubles to pay interest on the GKOs and related bonds, in a year in which tax revenues were not likely to exceed 164.6 billion rubles. It is in the aftermath of the 1998 Russian financial crisis – and the political fallout associated with millions of Russians losing their life savings – that Yeltsin began to groom the previously-little known Vladimir Putin as his successor.

Left: Boris Yeltsin

Quoting from Yeltsin’s memoirs, the author noted that the Russian president was “amazed by Putin’s lightning reflexes,” and that Putin “was ready for absolutely anything in life, he would respond to any challenge clearly and distinctly.” Putin’s comment to Yeltsin that he would “work wherever you assign me,” argued Shevtsova, reassured Yeltsin, accustomed as he was to Kremlin intrigues and power-seeking subordinates. Putin’s acceptance by Yeltsin and his “Family” – the term used to describe Yeltsin’s inner circle – had other reasons beyond the superficial, argued Shevtsova:
After a long and tortuous selection process involving the testing of numerous pretenders to the throne, the ruling team saw in Vladimir Vladimirovich something that made it believe he would not sell them out, that they could trust him and be assured of their future. And they had ample reason to worry about the future – because of the allegations of corruption, because they had acquired so many enemies, because they were blamed for all the country’s ills.
Appointed by Yeltsin to the position of Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin faced his first challenges almost immediately with a series of attacks on residential buildings in Moscow and several other Russian cities. Arguing that Chechen separatists were responsible, Putin ordered the resumption of full-scale military activities in Chechnya, an act that Shevtsova argued ingratiated him to the Russian populace:
He stated that his goal was “to defend the population from bandits.” He said what millions of citizens expected from a leader. When he spoke from the podium of the Duma, the Russian audience saw what it finally wanted – a determined, willful face, the springy walk of an athlete, and...very cold eyes. Many decided that a man with eyes like that had to be strong. And a majority of Russians wanted a strong man in the Kremlin. They were tired of watching Yeltsin fall apart.
Putin represented what Shevtsova described as the traditional “Russian System,” with power manifest in a political leader who “has taken all the levers in his hands and could rule unchecked, with no accountability.” Like Yeltsin, his predecessor, Putin was the latest appearance of a “leader-arbiter” who stayed “above the fray” leading a nation built on a “fusion of state and society, of politics and economy,” and based on paternalism. Putin, as leader of the Russian state, was “power personified,” reigning over a vertically-oriented system of subordination and patron-client connections.

To maintain this system, argued Shevtsova, required that Putin concentrate power at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy, demand total loyalty from his subordinates, and proactively attack potential rivals and threats to the regime. Putin quickly focused on Vladimir Gusinsky, the powerful Russian oligarch and head of the Media-Most holding company. Four days after Putin’s inauguration as President in May 2000, police raided Gusinsky’s corporate offices and took over the Most-Bank. Shevtsova maintained that Putin’s attacks on Russian oligarchs such as Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky were meant to send a message to Russian elites: groups that expressed discontent with the Putin regime would become the targets of the state prosecutors and court systems.

Left: Boris Berezovsky

Shevtsova credits Putin for his ability to recognize that post-Soviet Russia could no longer be considered a world power on par with the United States. Moreover, argued the author, Putin successfully presided over a nation that still believed in its equality with the United States on the world’s stage; this belief was especially pervasive among many Kremlin officials:
The new people Putin brought into the Kremlin were sick of their country’s weakness. They had been brought up believing in Russia’s exceptionality and greatness. They wanted to be respected, and they wanted their country to be respected and taken into account again – and perhaps, if not feared as before, at least regarded with some wariness.
Shevtsova is most critical of Putin with regard to the Russian President’s curbing of individual freedoms and his creation of what she termed “managed democracy.” Putin’s 2000 reforms of the Federation Council – especially the seats directly appointed by the President – created “an obedient parliament that had existed only in Yeltsin’s dreams.” The executive branch, argued Shevtsova, now could view the parliament as “an extension of itself; the Soviet tradition of unanimity had been restored.” Such deviations from American models of democratic governance clearly worried Shevtsova:
A combination of mild authoritarianism and economic liberalization is perfectly adequate for dragging a peasant country onto the road of industrialization. To meet postindustrial challenges, however, to move toward a high-technology society, a new type of regime is needed, one that makes room for social initiatives, local self-government, and individual freedom.
Yet, while noting her obvious affinity for and citation of American models of “ideal” governance, Shevtsova fails to convince this reviewer that Putin’s methods will be unsuccessful without imitating his counterparts in Washington. Admittedly, the Russian economy has benefited from the higher oil prices in the past five years, but certainly Putin’s rule should receive credit for raising the standard of living for the average Russian citizen. The Russian Federation ended the year 2006 with its eighth straight year of growth, averaging 6.7% annually since the financial implosion in 1998, while foreign debt has fallen to 31 percent of GDP. Russian foreign currency reserves rose from $12 billion in 1999 to approximately $315 billion at the end of 2006.

Putin’s Russia provides general readers and non-specialists with insightful analyses of the era of Vladimir Vladimirovich, although the text rarely moves far from the Kremlin and Putin’s circle of advisors. This is a book narrowly focused on political intrigue and powerful elites, and those seeking answers to questions about the effects of the Putin presidency on the average Russian citizen will have to settle for the occasional poll or economic indicator from which Shevtsova quotes. Still, the text is useful for its knowledgeable analyses of the structure and operation of Putin’s Kremlin, and is an excellent starting point for scholars desirous of understanding twenty-first century Russia.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.
--Franz Kafka

It's Time to Forget Cho Seung-Hui

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Memorial service for victims of the Virginia Tech massacreMemorial service for victims of the Virginia Tech massacre

The massacre at Virginia Tech came as a shock to most Americans, especially given the fact that we consider our universities to be safe havens for learning. The demented mind of mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui, however, forced us to consider that there are no sanctuaries from violence.

Since the disclosure on Tuesday of the identity of Cho Seung-Hui, there has been an informational feeding frenzy to learn why this killer took the lives of so many innocent people. The discovery of Cho Seung-Hui's venomous manifesto, though, took the public's obsession with the dead sociopath to a higher level.

It is time now for us to forget this disturbed young man whose delusional rage resulted in the deaths of 32 members of the Virginia Tech community. Let's relegate Cho Seung-Hui to a dusty shelf in the corners of our minds, and instead remember people like:
Ross Abdallah Alameddine
James Christopher Bishop
Brian Roy Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee
Liviu Librescu
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain
Daniel Patrick O'Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Daniel Alejandro Perez
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Nicole White

Apr 19, 2007

Book Review: Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne

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Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne, John BurnellBurnell, John

Nendeln, Lichtenstein: Hakluyt Society/Kraus Reprint, Ltd., 1933, 192 pages


Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne is a travel narrative that is part of the Hakluyt Society's Second Series. Little is known about Burnell beyond what the author discloses in his narrative, which was composed in the early eighteenth century. He was an ensign in the service of the British East India Company who arrived in Bombay perhaps as early as 1709, and who traveled on a Company ship to Madras in 1711. The Madras Consultation Book provided a brief biography of Burnell:
Having never an ensign fit to do duty in this garrison, we have entertained Mr. John Burnell, late ending at Bombay, who came hither on account of his health, a person well skill’d in drawing and who has some knowledge in fortification.
Burnell fell afoul of the authorities in Madras, according to the following summary of a disciplinary proceeding at Fort St. George 27 May 1712:
Ensign John Burnell having been guilty of several disorders, such as intemperate drinking, abusing the freemen and Company’s servants, and disobedience to his superior officers, and the President acquainting the Board that he had severall times pardoned him in hopes of amendment, but in vain: Ordered that he be dismissed from the Service and rendered uncapable for the future.
The miscreant Burnell then traveled to Bengal before disappearing from official records.

Jan Van Ryne, 1754,Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast1754 painting by of Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast


Burnell composed Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne between 1710 and 1713, approximately four decades after the East India Company first leased Bombay from the Crown. The author wrote to an unknown reader – perhaps his father - he only noted as “Sir,” concluding passages with the phrase “Your obedient son, J.” The text records Burnell’s observations about the geography, trade, inhabitants, and flora and fauna of the regions surrounding Bombay and Bengal.

The author observed that the life expectancy for Europeans was poor, and one gets a sense of his wry sense of humor in the following passage describing medical care in Bombay:
The Hospital… is seldom empty, occasioned from the unhealthiness of the place. It is enough to make a man die with the thoughts of going into it, for it stands hardly fifty yards off of a high grave… Few enter it above the degrees of soldiers and sailors, especially of the former; so many have gone in ill and come out so well that they never ailed of anything after. Tho’ yearly supplied with chests of fresh doses, yet I am too sensible that many of my fraternity going under their hands, never lived to tell of the excellency of their medicines.
Burnell documented the presence of Jesuit and Franciscan priests and missionaries in Bombay in the early eighteenth century. In the description of a procession of the Cross, Burnell’s disdain for Catholicism appears, as he is dismayed to find that the demonstrative “crying and shewing such contrition” of the participants at the iconography caused the author to wonder “if they really took the image for the glorious body it represented.” Burnell excoriated the brand of Christianity being promulgated by the Portuguese Catholics:
In such a blind faith do these fathers train their disciples that their devotion is nothing but downright idolatry, having nothing but the name of Christians to distinguish them from the heathens.

Burning of A Hindoo Widow, by James Peggs1832 drawing of "Burning of A Hindoo Widow," by James Peggs

Burnell found that the practice of sati was still in existence in the early eighteenth century, despite efforts by the Portuguese to exterminate the ritual. Hindus continued the custom despite the fact that, according to Burnell, “those barbarous actions are detested by the Moors under whose government they mostly live.” The author provided a description of a typical sati ritual, although it is unclear whether Burnell actually witnessed such an event, or if he simply recounted his account from something he heard or read:
There you shall see… a beautiful young creature earnestly supplicating and imploring to be burned with her husband which, if her request is granted, she goeth attended with all signs of mirth and gladness, being richly adorned and attended with all her consorts, who follow her with songs and praise… When she hath mounted the pile and embraceth her dead husband, they fasten her down with a cord lest she repent her bargain and leap out of the fire and so leave the husband to burn by himself. When she is fast, they set fire to the wood, the smoke of which presently suffocates her, where they consume together… she that refuseth to burn hath immediately her head shaved, which to a woman is the greatest reproach, and she is turned out from among her relations and becomes ever after a despicable object.
Bombay in the Days of Queen Anne provides readers with an eyewitness view of Bombay and the Indian subcontinent in the decades before the East India Company became such a dominant force in the region. Burnell’s place names, often spelled phonetically, sometimes pose difficulty for modern readers, but the editors provided modern spellings and alternate names for most of the places described by the author. Finally, as often the case in a travel account, one learns as much about the biases and beliefs of the author as the people and places being described, and the personage of John Burnell provides insight into the formation of the British imperial mindset.

PC Backup: Taking Matters into Your Own Hands

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Last year my trusty laptop crashed, taking with it many hundreds of hours worth of work. While the two-year-old machine was worth, at best, only a couple of hundred dollars at the time, even at $15 per hour my lost work easily represented over 20 thousand dollars worth of effort.

Luckily, my most important documents (thesis, dissertation, articles in progress) had been backed up on a stick drive, but I lost hundreds of PowerPoint lectures, articles, and essays.

Online backup is easier than you think, and Data Deposit Box™ can help you secure your data and intellectual property for as little as $2 per month per GB. You can be set up and running in under 5 minutes, and you can be assured of security, since all data is encrypted before it leaves your PC.

The company stores your data in this encrypted form, and the authentication traffic between your PC and the data center is also encrypted. Should you ever need to restore your data, the Data Deposit Box™ web interface uses the same state-of-the-art encryption technology to update your computer.

Apr 18, 2007

Killers Like Cho Seung Hui Lurking Among Us

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Photo of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman suspected in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people deadLeft: Photo of Cho Seung-Hui (click for larger image)

The tragedy of the massacre at Virginia Tech forces us to consider the fact that no one is imuune to the possibility that a sociopath such as Cho Seung-Hui could very well be sitting in the next chair in our classrooms, or in the next cubicle in the office.

I think back a few years to an odd student who attended the University of Toledo (I'll call him Mr. X). This individual - who majored in the humanities - developed a reputation for stalking female students and professors, writing disturbing prose, and generally creeping out those who associated with him. On two occasions I was called upon - being a tall, physically imposing, and occasionally reckless sort - to provide a bit of muscle should Mr. X become dangerous.

I once had to call the campus police about Mr. X after a particularly difficult experience in which he stormed out of a meeting with a female administrator, shouting "F**k this place!" when he did not get his way. Being several years ago, our first thoughts were of the Columbine tragedy, and we commiserated with each other about the disturbing prospect that Mr. X might one day turn out to be a killer.

I occasionally run a Google search on Mr. X to see if he has yet crossed over the edge. For all I know he might just be an angry person who manages to get through life without hurting anyone, but I am crossing my fingers while writing this.

Unfortunately, we all likely know someone who seems to be the proverbial ticking time bomb. There lurk among us more than a few demented characters like Cho Seung-Hui, and it is only a matter of time before the next horrific attack like the violence wrought upon the Virginia Tech community.

While I cannot prevent Mr. X from carrying out acts of murder, I will at least know that - in my own small way - I did not sit back and pretend this individual was not a threat. Of course, for all I know, he might turn out to be a fine citizen one day, and my fears turn out to be misplaced.

And yet, even the interventions by faculty and staff at Virginia Tech were not enough to prevent Cho Seung Hui from unleashing his fury on innocent students and faculty. I can only pray that the potential killers lurking near us do not target those whom I love.

Apr 17, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui: Driver's License Photo

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Driver's license photo of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman suspected in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people deadLeft: Driver's license photo of Cho Seung-Hui (click for larger image)

This photo, provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia DMV, shows an image of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman suspected in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead.

Law enforcement sources told the Washington Post that Cho died with the words "Ismail Ax" scrawled in red ink on one of his arms, but that they did not know what the words meant.

Police identified Cho, a South Korean native and a resident alien who lived in Centerville, Va., as the shooter by linking the fingerprints at the scene to those on his immigration documents. Cho entered the country through Detroit with his family in 1992, at the age of eight.

Cho Seung-Hui graduated from Westfield High School, a Fairfax County public school, in 2003.

The photo was taken in 2003, when Cho Seung-Hui last renewed his green card as a legal permanent resident alien. More information about Cho Seung-Hui is available on an earlier post on the killer and the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Cho Seung-Hui - Green Card Photo

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Green card photo of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman suspected in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people deadLeft: Picture of Cho Seung-Hui (click for larger image)

This photo, provided by the Department of Homeland Security, shows Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman suspected in the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead.

Law enforcement sources told the Washington Post that Cho died with the words "Ismail Ax" scrawled in red ink on one of his arms, but that they did not know what the words meant.

Police identified Cho, a South Korean native and a resident alien who lived in Centerville, Va., as the shooter by linking the fingerprints at the scene to those on his immigration documents. Cho entered the country through Detroit with his family in 1992, at the age of eight.

Cho Seung-Hui graduated from Westfield High School, a Fairfax County public school, in 2003.

The photo was taken in 2003, when Cho Seung-Hui last renewed his green card as a legal permanent resident alien. More information about Cho Seung-Hui is available on an earlier post on the killer and the Virginia Tech tragedy.