Tag Archives: books&journals

The abyss

20 Dec

A busy schedule at work, a new blog to (partially) take care of, an end-of-the-year mood which has to do with some concerns expressed earlier on this blog. What better opportunity for writing this post than to rely on:

– someone else’s blog, yet properly dealing with libraries and the idea of the “common good”;

– Marguerite Yourcenar’s wonderful novel L’oeuvre au noir – whose English translation has the same title I have chosen for this post, and where the following quote – aptly dealing with numbers and men – comes from: «Man is as yet an enterprise, beset by time and necessity, by chance, and by the stupid and ever increasing primacy of sheer numbers.[…] It is men who will kill off man» (from Farrar, Straus and Giraux’s edition of Yourcenar’s book, found here; as for the French original: «L’homme est une entreprise qui a contre elle le temps, la nécessité, la fortune, et l’imbécile et toujours croissante primauté du nombre […]. Les hommes tueront l’homme», p. 305 of Gallimard’s 1968 edition, available at the UvA Library).
scuolapubb_altan smallAltan privatizzare small
– a thorough inquiry, from the Department of Mathematics at the University of York, on the origin of the well-known saying “lies, damned lies and statistics”, which is to the point of this post’s mood as well;

– two witty cartoons from one of Italy’s best known and most appreciated children book’s illustrators and political cartoonists, Francesco Tullio Altan: not only a gripping visualization of some of the above mentioned concerns, but also a convenient link to a forthcoming post on the Blog Nostrum. As for the cartoons’ texts: the two ladies (found here), “We stand for State schools. You really are a bunch of losers!”. The two gentlemen (source), “Water privatization: it is just like privatizing air! Keep calm: one thing at a time”.

Season’s greetings from Amsterdam.

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Summer break (and readings)

10 Jul

On the eve of my summer leave, here follows two quotes (relevant for topics I addressed earlier on this blog) from books that might be worth taking in your luggage.

Milan Kundera, The book of laughter and forgetting
«The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten. In times when history still moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip. A historical event, though soon forgotten, sparkles the morning after with the dew of novelty. No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life». (pp. 7-8 of Penguin’s 1983 edition).

Communication overkill in the mass media: does this necessarily reduce news to a product, ever changing in order to provide the thrill of adventure to the ‘banality of private life’? Or can there still be – nowadays even more than at the time (1979) of Kundera’s book – mass media as a source of information to build knowledge from? Are periodicals such as Le Monde Diplomatique and Die Zeit examples of informative mass media?

newsPhoto from the News & events page of King’s College, London.

Marc Bloch, The historian’s craft
«What is it, exactly, that constitutes the legitimacy of an intellectual endeavor? No one today, I believe, would dare to say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action. Experience has surely taught us that it is impossible to decide in advance whether even the most abstract speculations may not eventually prove extraordinarily helpful in practice. It would inflict a strange mutilation upon humanity to deny it a right to appease its intellectual appetites apart from all consideration of its material welfare. Even were history obliged to be eternally indifferent to homo faber or to homo politicus, it would be sufficiently justified by its necessity for the full flowering of homo sapiens». (pp. 9-10 of Manchester University Press’ 1954 edition)

marc blochAs far as higher education and democracy are concerned, I think that few people better than French historian Marc Bloch embody the idea of critical thinking as essential to political freedom (and courage) and a healthy democracy. In case you don’t know: despite age and his position at the Sorbonne, Bloch not only volunteered for the French army at the outbreak of World War II, but also joined the Resistance in 1942. He was arrested, tortured and killed by the Nazis in 1944. Bloch was also a Jew «if not by religion, which I do not practise, no more than any other, at least by birth. […] I never claim my origins, with one exception: when facing an anti-Semite» (English translation – from Bloch’s L’Étrange défaite. Témoignage écrit en 1940 – is mine; original French text available online at the website of the Université du Québec à Quicoutimi).

Marc Bloch’s photo from the website of the Association Marc Bloch.

To measure, for profit (2) : (science) fiction

26 Jun

Just as with books, so with travels: the good ones always provide also a good starting point for further explorations. My visit to Prague a couple of months ago has been the occasion for me to undertake a voyage of discovery into 20th Century Czech literature.

Being imaginative power, which makes reading such a thrilling activity, at all times related to who I am (professionally, among other things), the imaginative reader and the information specialist go hand in hand through almost any book I happen to be reading. This explains why even such a theatre classic as Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots (the book to which we owe the meaning of ‘robot’) and an undeservedly less known Holocaust-inspired novel as Jiří Weil‘s Mendelssonh is on the roof (masterly in its combination of surrealist irony and violent tragedy), could provide the following two quotes to my ‘information specialist’s’ side, just at the time I was writing the previous post about the measurability of ‘lucrative’ higher education.

RURplayStageing of Rossum’s Universal Robot (source)

«DOMIN: […] A diesel engine needs no tassels and other fripperies, Miss Glory. And manufacturing artificial workmen is just like manufacturing diesel engines. Their production should be kept as simple as possible and the end product ought to be the best in purely practical terms. What do you reckon? What workman is the best in purely practical terms? HELENA: The best? Perhaps one who’s… who… provided he’s honest – and loyal… DOMIN: No, no, the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs. Young Rossum invented a workman with the fewest needs possible. He had to keep him simple. He jettisoned everything that didn’t contribute directly to the work process, and in so doing he effectively did away with the man and created the Robot» (quote from Hesperus Press edition of Čapek’s classic, p. 12).

weil «Finally Schlesinger had an idea. ‘Go around the statues again and look carefully at their noses. Whichever one has the biggest nose, that’s the Jew.’ Schlesinger was taking a course called World View, where they gave lectures on ‘racial science’ and showed slides. The slides showed a lot of noses, with measurements next to them. Every nose had been carefully measured. It was a very deep and complicated science, but its findings were simple. The upshot was that the biggest noses belonged to the Jews» (quote from Daunt Books English translation of Weil’s book, p. 6).

Cover of Weil’s original Czech text (source)

To measure, for profit (1): education and democracy

19 Jun

“The numbers tell the tale”: this inveterate saying, which I addressed last year on this blog and whose practical consequences I sometimes come across in working life, it’s not irrelevant to philosopher Martha Nussbaum‘s arguments in her thrilling book Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities.

Dont’be fooled by the book’s subtitle nor by my own academic background in, and partiality to the Humanities: Nussbaum’s passionate plea for a much broader commitment to higher education concerns not only social sciences as well, but university as a whole. «The pressure for economic growth has led many political leaders in Europe to recast the entirety of university education – both teaching and research – along growth-oriented lines, asking about the contribution of each discipline and each researcher to the economy» (p. 127). Just think about the times you have heard politicians’ speeches or have read ‘authoritative’ newspapers’ editorials bragging about the university curricula which can be regarded as economically relevant, and therefore worth the investment of (public) funds.

nussbaum2011Photo from Nussbaum’s personal page at the University of Chicago.

One thing for which I am most grateful to my university studies is that they helped me open up my mind and develop as a critical thinker: critical thinking and broad-mindedness being not exclusive to specific disciplines (no matter how lucrative these might be) but a key rationale of higher education. «Distracted by the pursuit of wealth, we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens. Under pressure to cut costs, we prune away just those parts of the educational endeavor that are crucial to preserving a healthy society. What will we have, if these trends continue? Nations of technically trained people who do not kwow how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations» (pp. 141-142).

critical-thinking-deficitPhoto from www.about.com Political humor page.

As with most good books, and all the more so if you are a reference citations-addicted librarian, Not for profit provided also a good starting point for further readings: while I am still waiting to read one of Johann Gottfried von Herder‘s Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität (English translation is currently on loan at the UvA-library; more in a forthcoming post), and while Christopher R. Browning‘s Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland gave me additional insight on the relationships between the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and their inconspicuously normal social background and life, it is with a 2009 New York Times article by Harvard University President’s Drew Gilpin Faust’s that I wish to end appropriately:

«Higher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable. […] Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to».

P.S.: it is by sheer chance that professor Nussbaum is giving a lecture this coming Saturday in Amsterdam. The Dutch translation of her book The new religious intolerance: overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age will be presented on juni 22nd at 8pm at De Nieuwe Liefde.

E-books : the revenge

16 May

After an absence from my blog which has been longer than I expected or wished for, I take the liberty of an associative cinematographic title to address briefly again (see the ‘first episode’ from december 2010) the topic of how to use e-books.

Supplier Dawsonera‘s lately renovated website has namely given me the opportunity for rewriting the demo I made in 2010 to help users getting familiar with (Dawsonera’s) digital books.

Having the slides’ number dropped from eighteen in 2010 to eleven today, I guess this must say something about my powerpoint/summarizing skills and/or about Dawsonera’s improved interface: gladly I do leave the arduous verdict to posterity («Ai posteri l’ardua sentenza»), to quote from 19th Century Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni’s ode Il cinque maggio (May the Fifth, vv. 31-32), by which I’m also able to end the post with books whereas I started with movies.

P.S.: next to what the demo explains, access restrictions to e-books are possible off-campus. If you are UvA-student or staff, please check the UvA-library site for information on off-campus access.

Open-air library

5 Jul

It’s books, it’s art, it’s an Italian artist, it’s in a vineyard, it’s in beautiful Gent. Almost too many temptations to name, let alone to resist mentioning it: enjoy!

PS: for more photos and information about the artwork, its author, and the cultural event it belongs to, have a look at the site of TRACK

Social capital and intellectual property: UvA-sociology publications and the library

5 Jun

Bram Lancee’s book Immigrant Performance in the Labour Market: Bonding and Bridging Social Capital, published by Amsterdam University Press, is available open access at OAPEN Open Access Publishing in European Networks.

Lancee – whose academic interests include social capital and social participation, inequality, ethnic minorities and the labour market, attitudes towards immigration and ethnic diversity – is researcher both at the UvA (post-doc) and at the WZB Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Humboldt fellow). The present publication focuses on the concept (& theory) of social capital and its role with regard to immigrants’ integration and achievements in the labour market. The Netherlands and Germany are taken as case studies.

The International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, available online through the UvA-library, contains an entry on social capital.

Olga Sezneva is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the UvA. Her academic interests include migration, urban studies, qualitative methods of research and cultural sociology. It is to the latter that her research activities on intellectual property and global media markets belong.

Sezneva’s article The pirates of Nevskii Prospekt: Intellectual property, piracy and institutional diffusion in Russia, lately published in the interdisciplinary journal Poetics, online available through the UvA-library, focuses on the Russian case study earlier addressed by Sezneva in her contribution to Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, a report published in 2011 by the SSRC Social Science Research Council, an independent, nonprofit international organization promoting innovative research in the social sciences.

When phrase searching the new UvA-library search engine for “intellectual property”, the sheer variety of contexts and issues at stake with this concept is evident even when limiting the results only to the books available at the Bushuis library: from Chinese counterfeit goods to hip-hop artists, and from indigenous people to HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries, this latter still being a controversial topic more than ten years after Nelson Mandela’s denouncing the price policy of pharmaceutical companies for such drugs.

Photo’s taken from both researchers’ personal websites: http://www.bramlancee.eu/ en http://olgasezneva.net/