You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2008.

Duncan Agnew, a professor in a university at the very edge of the American West, sends along this solution to the “Tufte I ain’t” problem. I like it. Thanks!

He says anyone can feel “free to use, reproduce, and display this figure in any way you wish, with or without attribution.” Happy new year!


Have any good resolutions you’d like to share? I’ve got a few, but they’re pretty boring: getting back into shape, not worrying too much about work things I can’t control, reading more fiction. Like I said, boring. If yours are better, I’ll be happy to resolve to do those as well. Unless you’ve got some real high-end, proprietary-type resolutions, in which case you can still share, but I’ll stick to mine, thanks.

But I’m willing to learn. Properly rebuked for slapdash graphing, I’ve tried to improve the representation of WPA expenditures that appeared in this post, using the Greensboro font from

I’d be delighted to hear further suggestions and critiques. One thing I want to do, but can’t figure out how for a graph like this one, is to figure out how to make the biggest line discontinuous—that way I could change the scale so you could make more meaningful distinctions among the other numbers, while still appreciating that the top expenditure goes way off the scale.

UPDATED: Here it is with a scale in billions, per suggestions.

My daughter received the DVD of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty for Christmas, which includes Disney’s Oscar-winning 1958 short Grand Canyon, with aerial photography of the eponymous chasm set to Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite.

I harbor a certain affection for Disney’s “high art for the common man” stuff. It strikes me as a wonderfully mid-century American ideal with no contemporary equivalent. Or am I wrong? Is there some modern parallel—with similar levels of exposure and plaudits—I’m not thinking of?

Yes, I know that picture isn’t from the movie. It’s the best I could do. Hey, we’re short-staffed, it’s the holidays, you know?

I got fired from the only parenting blog I ever contributed to — no, really, it’s a funny story* — so writer’s block occasionally compells me to post dad-related crap here and over at LGM.  Like this painting my 2-year old daughter threw up before lunch.


*  It’s not really that funny.  The site ran out of money to pay me, and the editors didn’t appreciate the fact that I’d occasionally post video clips of R. Budd Dwyer trepanating himself on live television.

The Spirit was not that good.

Harold Pinter—Undeserving Laureate of a Prize that Doesn’t Matter Anymore Because Who Still Reads Literature Anyway?—died yesterday after a long struggle with esophageal cancer.  He will be missed.  [Edited to remove an insensitive and unintentional pun.]

I think Maddow does controlled outrage very well. Pollitt is rather good also.

Also, Serwer on civil rights and cultural changes and, of all people, Richard Cohen.

I am confident Hillary Clinton’s election would have spared us this.

Also, is Barack Obama trolling Ivy League historians?

Below (or by download here) you can hear me on Virginia’s Only Statewide Public Radio Program, “With Good Reason”, discussing—what else?—the Great Depression and the New Deal. This time by studio ISDN line rather than telephone, so I just have to live with the notion that that’s what I sound like.

Also, if you missed it, I criticize the New Deal here. I discover belatedly I was slightly scooped by Samuel Brittan, who made a similar argument here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This is a guest post by my friend Jana Remy, a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Irvine and the founder of the Making History Podcast and Blog.  A longer, ramblier, vicodin-inspired version of this post first appeared here.

My left leg was propped up on the edge of the gurney as the ER doc sliced open the abscess on my calf to release the pus he needed for a bacterial culture. He started to chatting with me deflect the tension of the moment. As he grabbed various vials and swabbed the bleeding wound he asked me why I was traveling alone in Denver. My reply, “I’m getting a PhD, writing a dissertation chapter on 19th century medical history in the American West. I’ll be working in archives at the Historical Society this week.”

My dissertation research about 19th century medical history is fueled by my experiences as a medical patient. Most recently, for the past four months I’ve battled a mysterious antibiotic-resistant infection in my left leg (the jury is still out about whether the infection is MRSA or an atypical mycobacterium—just today I had an MRI scan and we hope to draw yet another wound culture by the end of the week).* I can’t help but draw parallels between my own rather gruesome ailment and the “suppurating wounds” full of “laudable pus” that I’ve read about in postbellum American medical journals. This situation truly came to head a few weeks ago while I was in Denver on a research trip and my infection recurred; I became a patient in one of the very hospitals that I aimed to study during my stint in town.

In pondering my intimate relationship with my research topic, I’ve considered the writings of ethnographers Ruth Behar and Greg Sarris. Weaving their personal stories with their histories adds a weight to their work that moves beyond a story frozen in time captured by an objective observer. It seems more than coincidence that the writers’ lives are so closely tied to those of their subjects. As Behar writes, “You don’t choose to write the books you write, any more than you choose your mother, your father, your brother, or your comadre” (Translated Woman, xi). Am I to imagine that the angel of history dropped down from the sky and offered me this gift of a story, as an offering to this poor graduate student struggling to prove the significance of her obscure research topic about medical practices at the dawning of the age of germ theory? Because of the closeness of my research to my current medical drama, I’m tempted to mirror some of Behar and Sarris’ techniques in my own work, weaving my story along with those I study. But I wonder at the possible folly of such an approach—historians who study the 19th century (or earlier eras) don’t tend to get personal with their subject matter. It seems the only acceptable approach is to bookend one’s “real research” with personal reflections, as do Bill Cronon and Martha Hodes.

Still, as I write my dissertation I aim to blur some of the traditional boundaries of the historical genre—adding literary elements and experimenting with the traditional textual form. Though at this point it seems too far outside of the sphere of the dissertation to inject my personal experiences anywhere except in the Intro, I will still infuse my text with my own morbid fascination for medical detail. Because how can I write a compelling vignette about battlefield surgery without injecting my freaky curiosity about the details of arterial ligature, techniques of amputation, and moist wound dressings? And, given that I may well be writing my next chapter during the hours I’ll be whiling away hooked up to an antibiotic IV drip, such details hit painfully close to home (I’m wondering if I should hold out for maggot therapy to debride the infected tissue—wouldn’t that be the perfect story to include in the intro to my first book?).


Antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA have a history, one that begins in the nineteenth century with the professionalization and routinization of allopathic medical practice. The use of antibiotics as a panacea for nearly any ailment became part of the performative “practice” of medicine by the late twentieth century—such antibiotics confidently prescribed by white-coated board-certified physicians who had little inkling of the consequences. Certainly they weren’t thinking of people like me, who have complex medical histories involving numerous necessary doses of antibiotics, and who are subsequently more susceptible to extra-resistant infections.

Thus, my fascination with medical history is profoundly personal. It’s an attempt to understand the terrain of my own body. It’s what I thought about for the hours I was recently an inpatient in my university’s hospital, where I was told I couldn’t bring any personal belongings (not even a book–the horror) because of rampant theft from patients. So I was a book-less, laptop-less, cellphone-less patient with not much more to consider than the view out the window (a back alley), the pain in my leg (tooth-gritting), and my research objectives.** I thought a lot about what it meant to write “professional” history and what it meant to tell stories. The paranoid hypochondriac part of me also worried whether I would ever get better and get on with my work, even as I realized that my own medical experiences aren’t just tangential to my work, they are at the heart of it. And, in one fashion or another, they will be a part of everything I write.

*The MRI showed that the mysterious infection that was encroaching on my tibia, necessitating immediate surgery. I documented my recovery on my soloblog.
**Actually, I also thought a lot about Foucault, which I found one can’t help but contemplate in a situation like mine—wondering whether one is in the “clinic” or the “prison.” But that, of course, is another story. And I should also note that there was a television in my corner of the ward, but I never turned it on because I haven’t watched TV in a few decades and I wasn’t about to start just because I was hospitalized, for crying out loud.

… with the RNA Biology journal.

Publication in the track will require a short manuscript, a high quality Stockholm alignment and at least one Wikipedia article

I imagine this requirement will not only put high-grade information in the (truly) public sphere instanter but also encourage researchers to explain their work in plain language.

It suddenly occurs to me, I guess I should do likewise even though no publisher of mine would ask it.

Via Ezra.

Not.  Cool.

(In a small classrroom, a young professor is discussing an R.P. Blackmur essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets with a group of twelve or so students.)

TEACHER: Blackmur claims “the hues attract, draw, steal men’s eyes, but penetrate, discombobolate, amaze the souls or psyches of women.” What does he mean by that?


TEACHER: Break his sentence down. What does “discombobulate” mean?

STUDENT #1: Bored?

TEACHER: So Shakespeare’s language penetrates the souls of women by boring them? (two engineering majors giggle) How do you amaze someone by boring them?

STUDENT #2: (confidently) It’s a technical term from Switzerland. Watchmakers call the tiny gears inside a watch “bobulates” (beaming) and what a watchmaker does is he brings the bobulates together, and “com” is the Latin for “together.” So the proper technical term for this watch here (points to his wrist), or any working watch, is to say it’s “combobulated.” But over the life of a watch, it gets knocked around, and the gears get unaligned, and when that happens the watch becomes “discombobulated.”

TEACHER: Not “disbobulated”?

STUDENT #2: That’s what I said, but he told me–

TEACHER: He who?

STUDENT #2: My rabbi.


STUDENT #2: He said the Swiss wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t keep the Latin in there, because “bobulate” sounds silly enough without the Latin prefix.

TEACHER: Isn’t “dis” a Latin prefix?

STUDENT #2: I didn’t know that then.

TEACHER: So what do you think Blackmur meant?

STUDENT #2: …?

I still don’t know what Blackmur meant—nor why my rabbi conspired with The Future to punk me—but as the MLA approaches, I’m increasingly convinced that the first time I ever spoke up in class foreshadowed some ominous end to my academic career.*  So while I’m not exactly sure what end this start augurs, I take comfort in the fact that Dickens didn’t know what he’d foreshadowed for Pip when he wrote the first installment of Great Expectations.**  (Or he wouldn’t have written two endings.)


*The other lesson?  Never trust the Jews.
**Not that scholars have written much about this.  The only exception I can think of is about Buffybut that might be because I only dipped my toe in Dickensian waters.  (Work on Wharton’s serialized novels focuses on how she altered the plot or how she mimicked James, so even though I should’ve encountered something about it researching my Wharton chapter, I didn’t.)

You know what trick is tired? Submitting work by email but “accidentally” attaching either the wrong file or no file at all. The prof emails to let you know, but you are– by amazing coincidence– “away from email” for a long time. Then the real thing shows up with “I’m so sorry but you see I thought I handed it in on time so you can’t possibly penalize me.”

Seriously, this happens a couple of times each semester. I’m sure some are legit (just as some grandmothers really do die) but it’s one of those too-clever-by-half sorts of moves where (I imagine) the student thinks he’s getting away with something and the prof thinks, Christ what an asshole, let me look for reasons to inflict pain.

Updated cranky thoughts: one funny aspect of this is how students’ abilities vary with the task at hand. It amazes me that the same student who cannot grasp even the rudiments of JS Mill’s thought can argue in very sophisticated ways that the syllabus contains a subtle ambiguity that somehow works out in his favor.

There’s a polite fiction that says that anybody can get into national politics and succeed, and it’s periodically true (man walks on fucking moon…), but it’s also true that having a famous name or pedigree helps.   (Off the top of my head:  Clinton, Dodd, Kennedy, Casey, Bush, McCain.. we could keep going.)  

And there’s an argument that the help offered by famous family is often innocuous, especially if the person is also talented, because having lots of smart mentors around to help you break into the family business and have you avoid stupid mistakes.   No one worries too much about the plumber whose dad was a plumber, or the philosopher whose dad was an academic.  

And Caroline Kennedy seems to be a relatively talented fundraiser, and she might even be a good Senator.  Yet the prospect that she could be appointed really sticks in my craw.  Two reasons.  At least the other favored sons and daughters had to be elected, which depending on your amount of cynicism, allows us to judge the instincts of their parents powerful friends and confirm or reject them, or it allows us to believe a little longer in the polite fiction that Mr. Smith could go to Washington.    

But the second reason is hinted at in this article:  it seems that this is about baby boomers fearing that the government won’t actually work if there isn’t a Kennedy in the Senate.     We’d just gotten them past the point of thinking that every Presidential election had to be decided by Vietnam (though with all the cries about Obama and socialism/Communism, they were really trying), and here they are nostalgic over ponies named Macaroni.

(Perhaps a compromise is in order.  Caroline Kennedy could get a reality show where cameras followed her around filming her doing good deeds, and the producers could intersperse the segments with pictures of her as a little girl.   We could someone with legislative experience for the Senate seat.  And then Kennedy could run in 2010 if she wanted.)

Am I the only one this bothers?  I just figure if we’re going to have an aristocracy with family Senate seats, we should call it that, and make them wear togas with purple stripes.

See update, below.

Because Matt W. asked, and we don’t diss Matt W. here, if we can help it.

A quick effort at determining the incidence of “God” in the New York Times from 1/1/1901-12/31/2005. (Couldn’t think of a way to limit it just to the editorial page.) I searched ProQuest’s NYT historical database for the word “God” and recorded the number of articles in which it occurred for each calendar year. Then to control for maybe different sizes of NYT over time, I did the same for the word “January”, and created a ratio of number of articles containing “God” to number of articles containing “January”. (I got this method from this paper.)

Here you go; click on it to see it bigger.


Well, Vance made me doubt the suitability of “January” as a denominator, so I went back and tried two others: no search term, which should capture all articles in the database, and “the”. Results below.

It looks to me like there’s no huge difference made by different denominators.

Mark Helprin—author of my favorite novel when I was a naive fourteen—published another well-written, ur-conservative editorials in the Wall Street Journal today.  You can (and will) disagree with the sentiment, but you must admit that the man can control his clauses:

The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; and had we taken strong and effective measures for our domestic protection while striving to stay within constitutional limits and eloquently explaining the necessity—as has always been the case in war—for sometimes exceeding them.

The children on the Corner think otherwise.  According to Peter Wehner, Helprin’s editorial is both wrong and chock-full of “very sloppy writing.”  The above soundly refutes the sloppiness argument, but you should know better than to expect sound arguments from people who think “Charles Krauthammer [is] America’s best columnist and one of our finest geopolitical thinkers.”  My favorite bits:

This is an example of very sloppy writing on the part of Helprin

I gather that Helprin is lamenting the fact that we did not attack Iraq immediately after 9/11.  But we could barely attack Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, and Afghanistan required a strategic innovation that Halperin totally ignores…

Reading between the lines, his use of the word “eloquently” probably translates into “we need more speeches written by Mark Halperin.” It’s worth recalling, then, that Helprin’s most notable speechwriting achievement to date was penning Robert Dole’s 1996 acceptance speech, arguing that Dole would be our Bridge to the Past. The speech was a bust, and helped contribute to Dole’s loss to Bill Clinton…

Helprin is right that many Democrats have been feckless.  But if everyone from George W. Bush to Democrats have been feckless—and surely Helprin would throw in every other global ally on that spectrum, too—then Halperin is saying everybody, but him, has got it wrong. This is akin to the man on the highway who is going the wrong way and talks to his wife on the phone about how many morons are going the wrong way.

However would he know what that feels like?

So a few weeks back, a small package arrived in my department mailbox.

“Willikers!” I thought. “Another interesting book I won’t ever have time to read!”

Sure enough, I discovered this catchy little fellow tucked inside the envelope. Figuring I’d ordered it as a desk copy because (a) everyone knows you have to suck up to Rauchway on this blog, and (b) I’m too cheap to fork over the $6.87 for a used copy, I placed it on top of the “I’d Read You if I Didn’t Have a Toddler, Seriously I Would” pile, superseding Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, which is much, much longer and written by someone who, to my knowledge, was never photographed in a wetsuit.

Earlier this week, as fate would have it, I received a phone call from one of my favorite students. He’s planning to take my historiography and methods course next semester, and he was wondering which of the books we’d be reading first. I told him we’d be looking at History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova, followed by a shitload of articles, then History on Trial by Gary Nash and friends, then another shitload of articles, then . . . I dunno. Haven’t decided yet.

“What about this shorter book?” he asked.

Blood Done Sign my Name?”

“No, the other one,” he said. “I got my list here — oh, yeah, Blessed Among Nations.”

“I assigned that?” I asked. “Good to know!”

So I forget things like this from time to time — things like, you know, what I’m actually assigning to my students. But that’s not actually the point of the story. The point of the story, rather, is two-fold:

(1) Eric should give me a kickback on this. (There are five students enrolled in the class.)
(2) There is no #2.

This is officially an award-winning blog

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