Thursday, March 17, 2005

Back in London

It's good to be back in London. Grey and depressing though it is. I spent the day in London's wonderful Imperial War Museum, where I'm conducting archival research on the history of military costumes. I think I've got the makings of an "unputdownable" coffee-table book on the topic.

Back in London

It's good to be back in London. Grey and depressing though it is. I spent the day in London's wonderful Imperial War Museum, where I'm conducting archival research on the history of military costumes. I think I've got the makings of an "unputdownable" coffee-table book on the topic.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Dirk Hennig

We now know that "Gustav Szathmary" was the invention-a brilliant invention, I would add (having invented a character or two myself)-of the mysterious artist Dirk Hennig.

Larry Summers Takes a Hit

So the faculty at Harvard have voted (218-185) a lack of confidence in their esteemed leader. No doubt the press reports will get the story all wrong again. Here's the inside skinny from a friend on the faculty:

Dear Dave:

Thought you might be interested in today's vote. It was splendid theater--the faculty all packed into Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street with a gaggle of reporters and cameramen outside. I arrived late and had to force my way past a bunch of them who tried to interview me. I was all set to vote against the motions of lack of confidence--a sweeping motion from Randy Matory and a more qualified one from Theda Skocpol. After a pathetic effort (probably orchestrated by our hapless Dean) to get the motions set aside on the grounds that they were "too divisive"--Stanley Hoffman nicely squelched that maneuver by arguing that if people didn't like the motions they could vote against them or abstain--we got down to business. I certainly expected both motions to fail. The trouble is that Larry's supporters are so politically inept and/or repellent. Basically the only people who got up to speak on his behalf were the economists, Steve Pinker, and the anti-PC right. The economists are rhetorically-challenged and no one likes them, so they weren't much help. (The most gifted speaker amongst the economists--a black conservative woman (don't know her name)--berated Larry at the last meeting for treating the faculty like shit.) This left right-wingers like Stephen Thernstrom and Ruth Wisse to carry the bag. I reckon they cost him thirty votes a piece. Thernstrom charged Larry's critics with "McCarthyism." He then managed to piss-off all the women by criticizing Nancy Hopkins and poo-pooing the idea that women scientists at Harvard are made to feel "vulnerable." Then up pops Ruth Wisse to blame all of Larry's troubles on the politically-correct left who wish to curtail academic freedom of speech. She quoted a great gobload of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty at us. (I wondered at the time why she didn't choose something from one of Mill's speeches censuring Governor Eyre, a man of not dissimilar temperament to our President.) Finally, Steve Pinker took the mike to tell us that Larry's critics were voting to reject the "truths" of science. By this stage, I'd decided that I wasn't voting on the same side as that lot. Their arguments all missed the point. Harvard faculty--despite what a lot of right-wing loonies outside Harvard believe--are not that PC. Most people object to Larry either because they think he's an arrogant prick who deserves to be taken down a peg, or because they think he's funnelling money in the wrong direction. A lot of junior faculty in the humanities and social sciences, for instance, voted against him simply because they're sick of earning 50,000 bucks in a job where there's little hope of tenure, no affordable childcare, and they can't pay Cambridge rents. The vote was taken and to everyone's amazement the motion passed. So what happens now? I don't think anything will change. Larry's going to promise to transform his personality (fat chance). But I suspect he will lie low for a few months, let the hapless Dean do something for a while, and then plus ça change baby...


And here's the perfectly reasonable opinion of Lubos Motl who voted the other way from my correspondent.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Tale of Two Airlines

I had to take two long flights last week. One on Alaskan Airlines and one on Nortwestern Airlines. I've long had a deep dislike for Northwest. In my extensive experience-I once lived in one of their hub cities-their planes were the oldest; their Flight Attendants (FA's) the ugliest; and their In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) the poorest. It richly deserved its reputation as "Northworst Airlines." Alaskan Airlines, in contrast, has an excellent reputation. I was thus dreading my long transatlantic flight from Amsterdam, and looking forward to my Alaskan Airlines flight to the West Coast. Boy, was I wrong.

Alaskan Airlines, I discovered, does not deign to serve its transcontinental passengers anything resembling a full meal. All we got on a 6 hour flight was a crappy sandwich. The IFE comes as a small portable DVD player that costs 10 bucks. But the particular feature of the Airline that pissed me off was the little Christian verse they include on each meal tray. I know this is America, where God-fearing zealots control the government. But inflicting Christianity on a captive audience of fee-paying passengers is just too much.

Northwest Airlines has finally bought some new planes. The planes they run on their domestic routes are still for the most part cruddy. But my transatlantic flight from Amsterdam was on a new A330 Airbus. More importantly. Northwest now has the best IFE currently available in Coach. You get to choose from about a dozen movies that you can play, pause, and rewind at your own pleasure. The wine was free; and the food wasn't bad either.

UPDATE: Here's some more from a column in Salon last year on Alaskan Airlines' Infliction of Christianity:

If you're inclined to send a complaint Alaska's way, be prepared for the following:

"The meal prayer card has been a simple tradition on our flights for over 20 years. The quotes have application across many Judeo-Christian beliefs and are shared as a gesture of thanks which reflect the beliefs of this country's founding as in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Pledge of Allegiance and every U.S. coin and dollar you handle. Alaska Airlines is an international carrier with very diverse customers, and we have no intentions of offending anyone or their beliefs. An overwhelming majority of our customers have indicated they appreciate the gesture, and those who don't are not forced to read it. We do appreciate hearing from you, and look forward to welcoming you on board another flight in the future."

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Joys of Bremen: Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler and Gustav Szathmary

Just spent the weekend in Bremen on some travel industry related junket. You wouldn't think that a wet weekend in Bremen had much to recommend it. You'd be wrong. Bremen (about an hour south of Hamburg and an hour north of Hannover)is a city of about 650,000 people with a pretty decent football team (Werder Bremen), a great wooded park in the City Centre (Burger Park), a spectacular C16 Town Hall, and--best of all--a couple of very good art museums. The most interesting of these two museums is the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bottcherstrasse--a passageway off the Marktplatz. Most of the paintings are those of Paula Modersohn Becker herself. These are fine, if a bit derivative. Much more interesting are the paintings and drawings of Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899-1940) and the photographs of Gustav Szathmary (who was Modersohn Becker's lover). Chris Bertram has, I see, written something interesting and valuable about Szathmary. But Lohse Wächtler is equally deserving of more attention, particularly if you are interested in German expressionism. Many of her drawings--some graphically sexual in nature--focus on the life of prostitutes in Hamburg's red-light district. Lohse Wächtler led a brief and tragic life. Throughout the 1930's, she was in and out of psychiatric hospital. She was forcibly sterilized in 1935 and in 1940 was murdered by the Nazis in their "T4" euthanasia program. Her work remains on display at the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum until April 3 2005. It's well worth a visit.

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