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February 27, 2006

Marvel for the ages

I had a bit of a triumph today when I realized that I am working on similar issues in all of my courses. Comparative Literature Professor Marinos Pourgouris humbled me when he asked me to present my interpretation of Book XIII of the Odyssey to our "Odysseus Across the Centuries" class today. From Fagles' traslation:

But now Poseidon, god of the earthquake, never once forgetting the first threats he leveled at the hero, probed almighty Zeus to learn his plans in full: "Zeus, Father, I will lose all my honor now among the immortals, now there are mortal men who show me no respect-- Phaeacians, too, born of my own loins! I said myself that Odysseus would suffer long and hard before he made it home, but I never dreamed of blocking his return, not absolutely at least, once you had pledged your word and bowed your head. But now they've swept him across the sea in their swift ship, they've set him down in Ithaca, sound asleep, and loaded the man with boundless gifts-- bronze and hoards of gold and robes-- aye, more plunder than he could have ever won from Troy if Odysseus had returned intact with ihs fair share!"
"Incredible, Zeus who marshals the thunderheads replied. "Earth-Shaker, you with your massive power, why moaning so? The gods don't disrespect you. What a stir there'd be if they flung abuse at the oldest, noblest of them all. Those mortals? If any man, so lost in his strength and prowess, pays you no respect-- just pay him back. The power is always yours. Do what you like. Whatever warms your heart."
"King of the dark cloud," the earthquake god agreed, "I'd like to avenge myself at once, as you advise, but I've always feared you wrath and shied away. But now I'll crush that fine Phaeacian cutter out on the misty sea, now on her homeward run from the latest convoy. They will learn at last to cease and desist from escorting every man alive-- I'll pile a huge mountain round about their port!"
"Wait, dear brother," Zeus who collects the clouds had second thoughts. "Here's what seems best to me. As the people all lean down from the city heights to watch her speeding home, strike her into a rock that looks like a racing vessel, just offshore-- amaze all men with a marvel for the ages. Then pile your huge mountain round about their port.
Hearing that from Zeus, the god of the earthquake sped to Scheria now, the Phaeacians' island home, and waited there till the ship came sweeping in, scudding lightly along-- surging close abreast, the earthquake god with one flat stroke of his hand struck her to stone, rooted her to the ocean floor and made for open sea.
The Phaeacians, aghast, those lords of the long oars, the master mariners traded startled glances, sudden outcries: "Look-- who's pinned our swift ship to the sea?"
"Just racing home!"
"Just hove into plain view!"

And my analysis:

Poseidon, no stranger to vengeance, saved his most mordant move in this tale for the overwhelming moment of Odysseus’ landing at Ithaca. The return from war for a king of his stature should be triumphant and proud. Instead, the episode is confusing, tragic and cloaked in mist and ignorance. Rather than recognize his home turf, which he could only dream about for the two decades he was away from it (I can only imagine he knew every cave, hill and stream of it), Odysseus awakes in a haze, despairing that he has been delivered on yet another alien shore. At this point, whether the inhabitants of the island are hostile or friendly, he could expect the same grinding fate. Odysseus is doubly ignorant of the fate of his saviors. Across the sea, the Phaeacians are being tormented on his account. Next to the Trojans, the disaster they suffer as a civilization is unparalleled. With the people brimming with pride on shore, the gods conspire to smash their ship in full view, an intentionally horrifying act that resonates in our age of symbolic violence (like the delay between hijacked planes flying into the World Trade Center). But Poseidon’s terrorism has two parts, for he is not content merely to shock the Phaeacians for their unbounded generosity. The mountain he deposits in their harbor undoes their civilization, a sailing people who may, mere generations later, behold their “winnowing fans” with as much disbelief as the highlanders Odysseus is fated to find. And as those people who most warmly treasured the wayward hero—who cleaned and fed him before sending him home laden with treasure, setting him to rest on his land with extreme care—are enduring their cataclysm, Odysseus hurls idle insults at them for their stinginess. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the scene is its brevity. In a breath, the narrator violates the most beloved and devoted, the most gracious and dimensional characters of the epic. They represent the half blessed, half cursed legacy that Odysseus bears, a survivor who inspires confidence and compassion but also invites chaos and death. They were his captivated audience, and after Poseidon’s assault, their love for Odysseus, which made them so noble, must melt to agony.

Not 20 minutes earlier, I had been discussing the same issue with Professor Kay Warren after our Violence & the Media class. I'm writing a paper on the topic "Connected to Violence" that addresses the strategies of performed violence, essentially as terrorism. It was striking to see the father of the gods doing in the great epic what brutally effective terrorists do today.

A short description of where I'm headed with that paper, from email correspondence:

I'm writing about connections to (and disconnections from) violence as a major determining factor in how it can be carried out despite awareness by witnesses, perpetrators, etc. This is a theme in Nordstrom (among the many readings that deal with this) and resonates strongly in the Vincent Chin story and in Crash. I'm also excited about integrating a few outside sources: Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about alienation and fundamental compassion; there are ancient and contemporary examples of how violence can be set very intentionally before an audience. So I'm really talking about how violence is something we feel because we know that we are all more similar than different, and I'm talking about how that connection can be both smothered or exploited with catastrophic effects.
I think I may have a unique interpretation of the relationship between stereotypes and representational strategies (at least, I'm a little unsure that I'm seeing it in the terms that the questions suggests). As I alluded to before, I see the portrayals we've looked at as products of strategies by editors, directors, actors, lawyers, and everyone who is acting as an advocate of some POV and interpretation. I see a number of stereotypes that fit into these narratives (a whole slate of victims are thoroughly recast: Vincent Chin, Rodney King, poachers, and even Ethel Rosenberg today, who becomes a witch, harder to kill than her husband, extra-human). Am I right to fit stereotypes into these strategies, and to connect them to wider issues of (re)interpretation practiced by all story-tellers?

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 07:39 PM | TrackBack

February 25, 2006

Brunelleschi be damned?

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Is the epoch of the solitary master craftsman over? [sco/Flickr]

The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond

We're trying to understand the cultural and technological roots of the internet, and we've been reading testimony from people who have shaped it, people who see it as a work in progress that has hardly reached maturity. Our work at Open Source has us looking at blogs, which may seem a far cry from the sophisticated world of hacking described in Raymond's paper. The lessons that hackers brought to the fore, however-- about how to use the internet to facilitate the creation and dispersion of the most useful tools-- are similar to the principles of openness and collaboration that seem to unite bloggers.

Raymond's assertion may seem radical, idealistic, and unfounded, but it is as clear as it is beautiful: programs work better when their production is open to user modification from start to finish. Rather than treating a program like a work of fine art that can only be executed by a small team of experts, people ought to do just the opposite. Using Linux has his chief example, he explains that this radically open approach to programming showed the great potential of collaboration over the internet. The implication is that few problems are too big to be undertaken as long as there are enough people looking at them from every conceivable angle, fixing every little thing that they can, never more than a keystroke away from the Newer, Better version.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 11:08 AM | TrackBack

February 15, 2006

Accra to Ulaanbaatar

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From Ghana... [Stig Nygaard/Flickr]

Fifty years ago, communication between Ghana and Mongolia would have taken months and transpired via postal mail. Ten years ago, it would have required international phone calls costing several US dollars a minute and required the intervention of international operators to connect the two telephones. Today, Ethan and Andrew are able to communicate over immense distances, across dozens of national borders, with near-zero cost, no human assistance, and mere seconds of lag-time between the transmission and receipt of the message.

What happened? And how is this possible?

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... to Mongolia in a split second. [tiarescott/Flickr]

Ethan Zuckerman and Andrew McLaughlin's paper Introduction to Internet Architecture and Institutions provides a foundation for understanding how the internet works and what it means for people around the world who want to communicate.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 06:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Our friend from China

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There are some people you meet who you will never forget and may never see again. Until this week, I couldn't help but feel Krace Zhou was one of those people for me. She came to Brown in November as a delegate to the Strait Talk Symposium on US-China-Taiwan relations. We had a great five days of conversations, party-hopping, and marshmallow roasting at Buxton House (in addition to the intense program of speeches, panels and discussions). On the last night of the symposium, we had an emotional goodbye, promising that we would try to see eachother again.

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We never imagined that our reunion would be so soon. Krace is back in the States to attend the Harvard Model UN, and she decided to stop in Providence for a few days. We had a great group dinner at Oceans Cafe on Waterman.

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Posted by Henry Shepherd at 05:15 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 10, 2006

Ronald Reagan and a Week in Review

Open Source producers are working on a wide range of shows today. An example of how diverse the show topics are here: Greta is researching online dating for a Valentine's Day show; I'm researching Richard Reeves' book about Ronald Reagan.

Reeves' book and a few other new sources represent a shift in the tone concerning Reagan. Enough time has passed for major trends-- in behavior, like Reagan's disposition as a performer, and in policy, like nonproliferation and bravery in the face of the Communist threat. We're developing a possible show that would include Reeves and Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis.

Here is an interesting interview with Gaddis, from Frontline, about the background of the current political situation. I also found a more topical (and less sophistocated) interview he did on the Cold War with the Cable News Network.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 02:21 PM | TrackBack

February 05, 2006

Chipping away

The view of downtown Providence from the Rock is a worthy background for a Sunday spent immersed in great questions.

From Jared Diamond: why did some people shift, albeit slowly and unknowingly, from hunting and gathering to domestication (including herding) and agriculture? From Cynthia Weber: why do International Relations theories appear to be based in truth/explain the world? From W.B. Stanford, in Ulysses Theme: how is Odysseus a unique hero, and one whose traits have been inherited, questioned, challenged and embraced by numerous schools, philosophies and societies since Homer immortalized him?

I seem to have done quite a number to my page formatting. Like a Mesoamerican cultivating wild corn, I started by adding a Technorati search tag to the sidebar. Then I decided to move the calendar a little lower...of course, that blunder had an impact on the rest of the sidebar. A few clicks later, and I'd pretty much mucked everything up. At least it is readable as it stands now. I've conscripted the help of our webmaster, who I hope will be sympathetic to my very genuine interest in code mechanics.

Finally, while I have absolutely no idea how it happened, I seem to have connected with an avid reader, thousands of miles away in the savannah of southern Guyana. My aunt, Alice, is living there with her son and husband. You can see her feeback by clicking on the Comments link at the bottom of my earlier posts. Maybe she'll have something to say about the development of agriculture among the residents of Yupukari.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 06:50 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 04, 2006

A down day

One of the most captivating stories of the past few days involves a neo-nazi hate crime that ended in a killing spree a thousand miles away. I'll get into the details at some point; this is a story that, like Columbine, could signal an assault on internet culture. The killer in this situation is a teenage from New Bedford who maintained a very creepy myspace profile, where his friends have been posting notes of support and disbelief and encouragement and sadness for the last few days.

The main event today was Ethan Zuckerman and Andy McLaughlin's article on internet architecture and development. It is excellent reading for someone who is new to all of this, particularly because it makes the turn from the technical to the historical to the progressive (if that is a coherent construction). The authors describe the asymmetrical relationship between internet users/providers in developing nations and those in the US and EU. I hope I learn more about where this issue stands today; it would be excellent to get involved.

Also on my desk: Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, which I was reading over break and now have picked up again as background on my research for Open Source's research on genetic sleuthing; Political Philosophy reader for David Estlund's lecture; Violence and the Media reader for Kay Warren's lecture; Robert Fagles' translation of the Odyssey, for "Odysseus Across the Centuries," with visiting professor Marinos Pourgouris; and International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, by Cynthia Weber, for this independent study. I am looking forward to posting on all of those topics as I access them.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 11:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 03, 2006

From the Open Source Office

We find ourselves on this eerily warm, rainy day in the Radio Open Source studio, 15 Mt. Auburn, Cambridge. It is a pretty typical Friday here at Open Source; the show is only Monday-Thursday, so Friday is dedicated to long-term planning for Monday, the next week and the major issues for the weeks and month to come.

Without giving away too much, I can report that the crew is working on Al Jazeera (Greta) and genetic genealogy (Henry), as well as highway development and Frank Rich. I stumbled into a constellation of books by scientists and other people that get into the Xs and Ys of biological geography. A few tidbits, according to widely circulated studies: half of Ashkenazi Jews can be traced back to the mtDNA of four women; and roughly 16 million people across Central Asia can be traced, through their Y-chromosomes, to Genghis Khan. Rape and pillage, indeed.

I think the most fascinating part of this work is the connection between the genetic investigation and the greater body of accepted historical knowledge. The data these sleuths mined through didn't include a tag that says "Genghis was here." And yet, when they traced predominant genetic factors back to their origin, they ended up in the same time and place as one of the world's most infamous strongmen (and his kingly sons). Another eddy I slipped into suggested that something like a twelth of Irish men can be traced to some character called Niall of the Nine Hostages.

I, for one, am a member of this 21st century community. My parents and I contributed to a genetic study on Ashkenazi Jews who (seem to) have a family history of Crohn's Disease, of which I am a proud bearer. It doesn't promise any benefits to me or my family, but I was happy to become a statistic in this way, another data point in the picture of my disease.

There is so much to write about and I am very wary of becoming someone who spends more time analyzing and reccounting than living. However, I am very intruiged to see what I can make of this. So stay tuned.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 03:11 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 02, 2006

Syllabus approved

We were informed this morning that our syllabus for this independent study was approved by the department head. That means I'm headed to the bookstore for International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction.

I started The Language of New Media, by Lev Manovich, last night. It is incredible how quickly the writing about "new" media seems old; when was the last time you heard someone talking about CD-ROMs? Manovich's book is about as close as I've seen to standing the test of time. He describes the process by which all media-- written, filmed, or photographed-- have been folded into the digital. This, he says, makes them all new media.

More soon.

Posted by Henry Shepherd at 04:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack