My tenure at the University of Michigan as an English major wouldn’t have meant anything if I hadn’t taken a class by the brilliant Ralph Williams. Williams was the kind of professor that was able to touch you without any obvious effort; the kind of teacher who stays with you, even four years after you took his classes. The first time I met the man was at a small departmental reading of Paradise Lost. Compared to the students participating (including myself), Williams had this command of the text that hinted at oneness with it. Where I might trip on the cadence, Williams would read it masterfully. (This would also be the first time that I’d meet the other professor that shaped my experience, Eric S. Rabkin).
The easiest thing to remember about Williams was that he didn’t merely just recite the text in class and then orate on the themes or the tropes or the historical traditions; he would make the text come alive. It wasn’t just his voice, filled as it was with raw emotive power and a tremor that stressed the gravity of the text. It was his hands that enunciated and flew in every direction.
The things that are more difficult to remember, as if the memories must be guarded and accounted for every now and then like a buried treasure, are the ways that he was personal. The force of his personality was such that it overpowers the other things, and makes them, and by extension you, feel small. Every morning before class he would, of course, run up and down the aisles and shake people’s hands, count the people in the class, shout hellos and “caio!” as he stormed along. He was on a permanent caffeine high, or so it seemed, and his energy was infectious. I remember I had been sick for a few weeks with pneumonia during his English 401 “The Bible as Literature” class. When I finally returned to the class after the sickness had passed he stopped and looked me in the eyes with such intensity. I am a sinister person, as I joke, being left-hand dominant. The very nature of the academic auditorium compels me to sit at the left edge of a row to make use of the table fixture without contorting my body.
Says Williams, “I’ve missed you these past few weeks. The class was less without your presence.”
Says me, stunned, “Er, well, ah, thank you, professor. I’m happy to be back.”
Williams returned a smile that was genuine in every sense.
I’m sure he didn’t actually know who I was, but in a class that numbered no less than two hundred with several people in the community who were invited to attend, I was very touched. But that was Williams; it was his life to reach out to people and communicate the passion that literature stirred in him, and along the way make you feel like you fit into something great.
Before he’d begin the lecture, after his greetings and his traditional “Good morning [or afternoon], and a rich welcome to you. Are there any questions for me before we begin, for oh is the wind so ever up,” he’d announce what he called “rubrics” for each class. He’d list every major point he’d be discussing with us, and it wasn’t always obvious how they would connect to the literature (be it Beowulf or the Bible). The one that I remember, apart from the jokes about his essential Canadian character and how it made him bashful about discussing King David’s sex life, was the reference to Bertrand Russel’s recollection that entailed that the planet was supported on the back of a giant turtle, and that it was turtles “all the way down.” I’m rather ashamed to say that I can’t remember what this rubric connected to with regard to our reading of the book of Genesis, but what I do remember was the zeal with which he said it.
I never got the opportunity to take his Shakespeare class (instead taking Douglas Trevor’s class). The U of M Department of English has added a nine part series of lectures by Williams onto the U of M College of Literature Science and the Arts Youtube channel wherein he talks about Shakespeare.
In “Ralph Williams on Shakespeare, Part 1″ Williams introduces the series and gives some background on the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the video is how he covers Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He gives two distinct readings of the monologue with different intonations that hint at the possible motivations Hamlet might have. This language, lack of stage direction opening Hamlet to multiple interpretations, and what Williams calls the “appalling honesty” of Shakespeare’s “moral imagination” create, as Williams explains, “the greatest drama in history.”
I encourage anyone interesting in Shakespeare to watch all nine parts. Even if you disagree with Williams (which I admit happens every now and then), he gives you many rich ideas to ponder as you read and reread the plays.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t plug the 2011 movie “Answer This!” which stars Ralph Williams playing himself (with a different name). There’s a great scene where he introduces the new students to his Bible as literature class which I had heard directly from him when I took it. The movie itself is pretty good, and can be found on Netflix.
As a geek I’m naturally a huge fan of the xkcd webcomic. It’s a witty take on math and science and is generally accessible to people who are not experts in either field (I have a passing familiarity compared to the grand and complete wealth of the knowledge that exists).
I’ve been reading the “what if?” blog attached to the webcomic for a while now, and I figured I’d just go ahead and make a short post to share it. what if? is a fantastic take on hypothetical science questions ranging from how many data punch cards google’s datacenters would take to what would happen if you tried to fly a plan in different Solar System atmospheres.
One of my favorites is one about orbital speed. Randall Munroe somehow makes some of the dry topics of physics and makes them interesting and comical, not to mention easy to understand because he includes very cool graphics in his own unique art style. For instance:
It’s a good way for someone, like me, who loves science to get introduced to new ideas that they can learn about in more detail later.
I was recently introduced to Scott Lynch‘s Gentleman Bastard series by Anastasia Klimchynskaya, my t’hy’la. I have a love/hate relationship with fantasy as a genre, in that I love the promise, but hate that few books actually meet their potential (notable exceptions include, but are not limited to, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe). For every book like The Hobbit there are ten books like Twilight.
I wasn’t immediately stricken by The Lies of Locke Lamora, but the story and Lynch’s writing style eventually grew on me. It was much easier to get into the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, partly because the characters, style, and setting were already developed. The third book in the series, The Republic of Thieves, presents a completely novel scenario for protagonist/thief Locke Lamora and stalwart companion Jean Tannen, and as thieves, their role as advisers for the “Deep Roots” party is a perfect fit for their talents.
In the third volume, we’re introduced to Sabetha Belacoros as an actual character, and I feel that she represents a strong female role model. She is, perhaps, cleverer than Locke and just as stubborn and unafraid. Most of the time she bests him in the battle of wits, and it seems to me that she has a firmer grip on her emotions and has more strength in this regard than does Locke. I like that she has the strength to make difficult decisions and be unapologetic for them. As the adviser for the Black Iris party she gives Locke more than a run for his money and it is genuinely touching to see them reconcile their feelings for each other with their assigned roles (which carry severe consequences should they not deliver). What Locke can actually hold over her is a kind of experience that he gained in the first two books that are unique to his particular narrative which I believe that Sabetha will eventually match.
I really liked how well-written the political aspects of Karthain’s Five-Year Game are written. Some of it was a heavy-handed commentary of the American political system (at least, that’s how I interpreted it). The Five-Year Game is what the Magi of Karthain call the election process of the ungifted, those that cannot use magic, to the Konseil of Karthain, the governmental body that serves as a facade for the purposes of the Magi.
Particularly pleasing was how well the flashbacks to the Gentleman Bastards of yesteryear fit into the events that were unfolding in the main narrative. It was also good to see the return of Calo and Galdo and get a fresh dose of their antics as the Asino brothers, even if it was bittersweet because of their ultimate fate.
One of the largest disappointments of The Republic of Thieves, however, was that the book was so focused on Locke and Sabetha that Jean was relegated to a minor role with little development. After Red Seas Under Red Skies, where Jean gets a lot of focus and development, I felt like one of the best characters in the series was robbed. I hope that he plays a larger role in The Thorn of Emerblain because there is a lot to like about his character, his intelligence and loyalty being two of the most important. Indeed, there was a lot of room in this book for Lynch to explore the consequences of the events surrounding Ezri in Red Seas Under Red Skies and their lasting effects on Jean.
With that said, the book has a lot to offer. The dialogue is as sharp and witty as ever, and the complex, winding relationship between Locke and Sabetha is laid as bare as it is going to get. The twist about Locke’s identity leaves a huge mystery for the reader to ponder, and the return of an old enemy from The Lies of Locke Lamora just makes you hunger for more. Plus, one of the most unreasonable and annoying aspects of the first two book, the magi, was explored and explained enough for the idea to finally work without feeling like there’s a huge deus ex machina hanging over the story.
The Republic of Thieves offers a very satisfying reading experience and some of the best worldbuilding since George R.R. Martin. While some mysteries brought up in the first two books are answered (some only partially), many more are raised in this book.
Final rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)
The last two days I’ve been convalescing from a nasty upper respiratory bug and have had an excess of time to waste. This will be a relatively short post so I can just, you know, geek out about the fantasy/sci-fi hybrid show Doctor Who. I haven’t done much to hide my love for the show, even if I haven’t necessarily talked that much about it. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to say about the show, as well as much to criticize (the role of women (or lack of role of women) in the story next to the Doctor is one such thing). With that said, I really enjoyed The Day of the Doctor.
Doctor Who is one of the rare things in my life I don’t want to think too deeply about. Maybe this is because I like how whimsical and funny it is, and I don’t want to complicate that with other concerns. I’m okay with that.
Anyway, I came across a couple of posters advertising the Christmas special and season eight with Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor (well, really, thirteenth).
I’m going to be sad to see Matt Smith go, but I look forward to seeing what Peter Capaldi can bring to the role.
Before I go, I’d like to leave this entertaining video made by Peter Davidson called “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.” Enjoy (if you like Doctor Who you’ve probably already seen it–so–um–I guess that means that I’m behind).
I’ve finally crossed the finish line for National Novel Writing Month and it feels good. Well, emotionally I feel excellent, but my body is protesting. My knees hurt and my legs ache and I think my eyes are bleeding (not really, artistic license).
The novel I’ve been working on, which I titled “The Rebel Thief” in a fit of dramatic flair, isn’t complete yet. I think I have about 50,000 more words to go before it’s finished and I’ve already planned out two more books to really take advantage of all of the energies I’ve put into worldbuilding (which have been considering since I’ve made five distinct political systems and civilizations that span the known galaxy).
I looked back at the original synopsis I wrote for the story when I began writing, and it still amazes me what the story has grown into. Here it is:
In a galaxy teeming with guilds of professional hit men, thieves, and mercenaries, Clark stands alone. Known as The Rebel Thief, he scratches out a living stealing identities, running cons, and simple fast-finger work. Clark has been running from a dark past while dodging authorities from the ever-warring Five Great Civilizations.
His past eventually catches up with him in the form of Alex Lumens, his former subordinate and lover. When she barges into his life carrying a shocking secret, Clark realizes that his activities have drawn the ire of one of the biggest guilds of thieves, Temorous Guild.
To save his own skin and, perhaps, Alex, Clark has to get to the bottom of a conspiracy that could alter the balance of power in the galaxy.
The story only resembles this in basic plot facts: the guilds are there, as well as Alex and her back story. I completely eliminated the last bit about a conspiracy and expanded it into something that’s less like a conspiracy theory but just as mysterious. Temorous Guild is now Temerous Guild because of a typo, but I’m okay with that.
Suffice it to say, however, that this synopsis no longer fits what the story has become and I’m very proud of that. There’s something majestic when you can feel creative energy flowing through you, feeding on the original spark of creation and growing into something much more meaningful than you could have imagined. I just love it when a character starts as a mere sketch on paper and becomes a living being with a psychology that responds naturally to any situation. It got to the point where I could write Clark’s dialogue without thinking.
This is really what I love about writing, apart from the process. The story is alive, in a sense, and the writer is the conduit for that.
Anyway, I’ve got some other things to write for this blog and I’m sure you’ve had enough of my tired philosophical waxing (and waning). I’ll try to participate next year, and who knows? Maybe I’ll write something that isn’t science fiction.
A recent story in the Lansing State Journal reports that vaccination of children in mid-Michigan is down, but that overall more teenagers are getting vaccinated (“Vaccinations down in mid-Michigan, but trends are improving“).
I’ve done a lot of research on vaccination because of the rise of the anti-science anti-vaccination movement, which was led for a time by former Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy. The website Anti-Vaccine Body Count may sound a little crass, but it has up-to-date and reliable numbers on the toll that the movement has taken so far. If you’re shocked by the number of preventable illnesses (124757) as a result of people not vaccinating their children, you haven’t been paying attention.
The CDC monitored the trends in the pertussis outbreaks in 2012 (it’s declined this year) and found that the number of cases increased in forty-nine states. In Dallas, 329 cases had been reported as of November 14 (that’s 329 more cases than should be reported if people vaccinated as they should). The pertussis vaccine can wane over time, and with a breakdown of herd immunity as a result of the anti-vaccination movement giving people misinformation about how vaccinations work and bad information about their side effects outbreaks like is are all but inevitable.
Here’s the information you need to know: the MMR vaccine, or any other vaccine for that matter, has never been tied to autism. The papers published by Andrew Wakefield in the medical journal The Lancet that first reported the link between MMR and autism were completely retracted, as reported by the Guardian.
Sarah Boseley writes:
The medical journal’s editor, Richard Horton, told the Guardian today that he realised as soon as he read the GMC findings that the paper, published in February 1998, had to be retracted. “It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false,” he said. “I feel I was deceived.”
Despite repeated attempts to find a connection by people who support Wakefield or are generally paranoid about the pharmaceutical industry (and trust me when I say I have my own problems with them), no connection has been found in legitimate peer-reviewed studies. In fact, there has recently been some rumbling about a series of court cases that have “proven” that there is a link, but for some reason it’s being kept quiet. It’s all very hush-hush, you see, but the link is there.
They did not even rule that the MMR causes Ryan’s injury, only that compensation is appropriate under their rules. Further, Ryan did not have autism. He had encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) which caused brain injury. This can cause symptoms which superficially might resemble autism (to a non-expert), but it’s not autism.
Natural News is further reporting this as a vindication of Andrew Wakefield, when it is nothing of the sort. Wakefield’s faked science remains utterly discredited.
After addressing the facts of childhood encephalitis, Novella further states:
There is no clear evidence that vaccines increase the risk of encephalitis. In fact, they clearly decrease the risk of encephalitis caused by the infections they prevent. There is a net and very large advantage to being vaccinated in terms of encephalitis risk, even if we assume that cases of encephalitis occurring after vaccination were caused by the vaccination. We know statistically this cannot be true in all cases, and it is possible that it is true in no cases.
There is also sufficient evidence to show that vaccines do not cause autism. Further, encephalitis, while possibly causing brain injury, does not cause autism.
So, the question naturally arises: with all of this conflicting information, who can you trust? My advice would be to trust medical professionals and trained individuals. What’s a medical professional or trained individual? A doctor is a good start (and your best source), and anyone with an advanced degree in microbiology or immunology. This sounds like an appeal to authority, but based on my own scientific background and knowledge, I can say that this is a highly specialized topic that requires years of training to fully understand.
Getting back to the article from the Lansing State Journal, under Michigan State Law it is required for children to be immunized before attending public or private schools. This is an extremely good policy as it maintains herd immunity and keeps children relatively safe from most of the worst kinds of infectious diseases.
I think the best thing we can do is to correct the misinformation about vaccines and push to make the public aware of the kinds of diseases that vaccines prevent. I’ll do my part:
Clinical Examples of Pertussis (warning: the video shows very young children suffering from whooping cough)
Short story: get your children vaccinated and keep up with your own! It saves lives.
Simple as that.
Nidhi is pursuing a PhD in English at The University of Western Ontario. Of her studies, she writes:
I am interested in the representations of rape and sexual violence in India from the Partition to the contemporary times, especially in lieu of the recent polemic cases that have taken place in India. Specifically, I want to address the themes of silence and honour and the ways in which these elements shape a middle class Indian woman’s subjectivity through a close analysis of novels, films, and online media.
Cultural Critic in the Making showcases her thoughts relating to her chosen field of study in a way that isn’t as impenetrable as esoteric fields can be. Of particular interest is a post entitled “Domestic Violence In India : Critical Analysis of A Forgotten Film – Ashok Gaikwad’s Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat (1997)“, which presents a Bollywood movie and analyzes with particular attention on domestic violence in India.
Nidhi first introduced me to Bollywood movies a few years ago with the movie “3 Idiots.” Anyone who appreciates Bollywood movies and the cultural and social commentaries that they can contain will probably appreciate her blog. I encourage anyone interested in current events in India, as well as ago-old issues of sex, race, gender, and otherness, to read Cultural Critic in the Making.