Recommendations for December 2, 2013

1 Dec

So, obviously I have not been keeping up with these very well. I’m going to go ahead with this week’s, and hopefully get back on schedule from here on out. Some of these are a bit older than usual because I chose them a couple of weeks ago, but hopefully they will still be new for some.

Article: “The Secret World of Container Ships” by Rose George

I am kind of fascinated by the modern shipping container. I like, as I have said here before, standardization; the idea that we can agree on a single size or pattern or protocol for doing or making something, and I’m interested in the ways in which standards both constrain and, by constraining, inspire creativity. But the shipping container seems to me like kind of a special case, if only because “shipping” or “transport” seems like such a huge and abstract thing to standardize. Standardized containers have led to increases in efficiency of an order of magnitude; according to George, you can now ship a sweater halfway around the world for 2.5 cents. That efficiency, though, means that there is much less monitoring of what is in the containers, if only because there simply isn’t time to check them; ships are in and out of port with remarkable speed. As with so many things, progress and problems come together.

 

Images: “Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns”

I have been fascinated by chaos theory for years— ever since I read Jurassic Park, to tell the truth. The theory is presented as kind of magical in that book, and either because of that or because of my total inability to grasp even the rudiments of the math involved, it still seems that way to me. Fractals are a case in point; a pattern, or maybe class of patterns, that describes an incredible percentage of the natural world— how can that not be fascinating? Plus, they look really cool. This is just a selection of images of natural fractals, but that will get me to click every time.

A favorite:

 

Article: “Death of a Professor” by L.V. Anderson

Any news story that starts a twitter hashtag makes me suspicious; could there be any clearer signal that a story has been simplified, perhaps at the cost of veracity? Margaret Mary Vojtko was an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, a private Catholic liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. She was found dead, of a heart attack, on the street only a few hundred feet from her home; she had recently been fired (or, technically, not rehired, since adjuncts are only hired on a class-by-class basis in any case). She had no health insurance, and had been suffering from cancer. She was 83, and had continued working because she had no retirement savings or pension. Her death, not surprisingly, became a rallying cry, and Duquesne came under heavy criticism for firing an old woman who had taught there for decades when she had no other resources to draw upon.

But, of course, there’s more to it than that. Vojtko was, let’s say, a difficult employee, as well as a hoarder who would let no one into her home, even to fix her broken furnace in the dead of winter. She refused help from the university and from friends on a number of occasions, spending her nights in a 24-hour diner rather than “lose her independence.”

And the bigger point, for me, is that Duquesne didn’t do anything that ALL other American universities are not doing. The all hire adjuncts, and virtually none of them give any of them— or, I should say, any of us, since I am one myself— anything like job security, health benefits, pension, etc. Anderson does a very good job here of showing that, while Duquesne could have handled things better, the problem at the heart of this story is systemic, not individual. Adjunct and non-tenure track faculty now teach 75% of courses at American universities, and earn, on average, between $1500 and $5000 per course; at three courses per semester, means somewhere between $9000 and $30000 per year before taxes, with no benefits and no job security (and few can count on three courses per semester). This is an important story, but I mostly admire the way Anderson manages to balance the element personal tragedy with the larger picture, showing how both contributed to Vojtko’s sad end.

 

Article: “The Dream Boat” by Luke Mogelson

Anyone who has ever said, or thought, that people become illegal immigrants because they are looking for an easier option will have that view corrected by this piece. Mogelson, who is clearly a gifted journalist and, just as clearly, out of his mind, poses with a photographer as a Georgian refugee, trying to get from Afghanistan (where he lives— see what I mean?) to Australia. They go the whole way, flying to Indonesia, staying in a squat for days with other refugees awaiting for the weather and who knows what else to align just so, then taking a rickety boat for days on the open ocean to get from Java to Australia’s Christmas Island. There, most of the refugees will be sent to remote detention centers in other countries, where they may spend years waiting for their cases to be evaluated and their petition for asylum most likely rejected. Mogelson makes the mix of denial and desperation that characterizes refugees clear:

…one thing was certain: neither Youssef nor Rashid, nor Anoush nor Shahla, were going to get to the place they believed they were going. Rashid would never be reunited with his wife and sons in some quaint Australian suburb; Youssef would never see his children “get a position” there; Anoush would never become an Australian policeman; Shahla would never benefit from a secular, Western education. What they had to look forward to instead — after the perilous voyage, and after months, maybe years, locked up in an isolated detention center — was resettlement on the barren carcass of a defunct strip mine, more than 70 percent of which is uninhabitable (Nauru), or resettlement on a destitute and crime-ridden island nation known for its high rates of murder and sexual violence (Papua New Guinea).

How do you tell that to someone who has severed himself utterly from his country, in order to reach another? It was impossible. They wouldn’t believe it.

It’s not a cheerful story, certainly, but too often refugees, asylum seekers, “boat people” are reduced to a faceless problem to be solved, distinguished only by their quantity. Mogelson puts the issue back in perspective. This is also, by the way, a great example of effective web design, in which the photos really add to the story without distracting from it.

 

Article: “TV Eats Itself” by Andy Greenwald

Also fairly pessimistic but with much lower stakes, Greenwald argues that the “golden age” of television is probably over, and that it contained the seeds of its own destruction. Basically his argument is that, because of the success of path-breaking shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, networks are now turning the characteristics that made those shows surprising into formulae, hoping to repeat their success by reproducing them. He captures the dynamic succinctly, comparing the adventurousness of recent TV to the flowering of American cinema in the 1970s, which gave way to the era of the blockbuster, in which studio finances are increasingly dependent on making a few movies that make a lot of money, with the result that they cannot afford to take risks on new or challenging projects (unless they are dirt cheap to produce). TV, he argues, is starting to follow the same pattern:

In Hollywood, then and now, success doesn’t beget success so much as it instills a deep and profound terror of failure.

There’s a note of hope, though, in streaming services like Netflix, which have to take risks and do something new to win viewers away from traditional outlets. Whether they will pick up the slack remains to be seen, but Greenwald is certain that, for a while anyway, new TV shows will look a lot more like old ones.

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