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Archive for August, 2008

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Interview with Steven Cahn, Author of From Student to Scholar

Steven Cahn, From Student to ScholarThe following is an interview with Steven Cahn, author of the just-published From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor:

Q: What do you believe is the most important ingredient for success in graduate school?

Steven Cahn: I would choose “resiliency.” Most students who do not complete graduate study leave their departments voluntarily, discouraged by obstacles that seem insurmountable, such as course demands, qualifying examinations, and the dissertation. Those who succeed possess the power to persevere.

Q: What are the keys to success in completing a dissertation?

SC: I would emphasize two. First, you need a manageable topic that can be completed in a reasonable time. Second, you need a dissertation advisor who returns work promptly, offers constructive rather than destructive criticism, and encourages you to finish your work expeditiously.

Q: What is networking? Why is it important? What are the best ways to network in academia?

SC: Networking increases the range of your professional contacts. The more people who know you, the greater the chance your name will be mentioned in connection with a variety of academic opportunities. As in many areas of life, success depends as much on whom you know as on what you know. A common way to network in academia is to attend scholarly conferences related to your field. There you may present a paper or volunteer to serve as a moderator or commentator, thus bringing you to the attention of others in your field.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes candidates make in interviews?

SC: Some become passive, displaying little energy or enthusiasm. Others become aggressive and try to seize control of the situation. Both approaches lead to failure. Just be friendly, and display enthusiasm for whatever the interviewers want to discuss. Your goal is to persuade them that you don’t present any problems and can make a positive contribution to the success of their mission.

Q: Is research or teaching more important to obtaining tenure?

SC: A top-notch researcher who’s barely adequate in the classroom is far more likely to receive tenure than a superb teacher whose scholarly record is thin. The superb instructor is only a local celebrity, legendary perhaps on campus but unknown outside its gates. The celebrated scholar, however, focuses wide attention on the institution, and in the sciences as well as the social sciences attracts outside funding that contributes significantly to the school’s coffers. For that reason, leading researchers have leverage with the administration, while leading teachers do not.

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

The Art of War Translated by Victor Mair Ranked #1

The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods, translated by Victor MairRecently the Web site Sonshi, a site dedicated to Sun Zi’s The Art of War scholarship and interpretation, ranked Victor Mair’s translation of The Art of War as their most highly recommended translation of all the versions available.

Founded in 1999 in Atlanta, Sonshi.com is a network of professionals from various disciplines joined together by a common interest: Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Sonshi.com has since become the leading and largest website for The Art of War, and is the gathering place of Sun Tzu authors, scholars, and readers around the world. It is a prestigious honor to have Mair’s translation chosen as the best among the many translations available.

Sonshi’s news of the #1 ranking was posted simultaneously with a new interview with Victor Mair.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Shonshi.com: What do you think is the most misunderstood verse or idea in The Art of War by readers?

Mair: That’s a difficult question. After giving it some thought, however, I would say that the most poorly understood idea in the Sun Zi is that expressed in the celebrated statement that “Warfare is a way of deception.” Too many people think that this gives a license to lie. I would suggest, rather, that what Sun Zi was getting at here is not sheer mendacity, but the need for the general to conceal from the enemy his true intentions. The skilled general (or athlete, businessman, etc.) should lead his opponent into believing that he will surely adopt a certain course of action or movement, then surprise the daylights out of him by executing a totally different tack.

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

The Panorama: Past, Present, and Future / A Post by Alison Griffiths

Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View by Alison GriffithsThe following post is by Alison Griffiths, author of the just-published Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. You can also read an interview with Griffiths.

In his “State of the Art” column in the business section of the August 21, 2008 New York Times, David Pogue wrote about a new software application from Microsoft called Photosynth (previewable at www.photosynth.com), which allows you to create fully navigable 360-degree spaces with your own camera. While it’s been possible to create panoramic photographs since the invention of photography, and 360-degree panoramic images since the late eighteenth century when Scotsman Robert Barker patented the panorama (discussed at length in chapter two of Shivers), Photosynth brings the panorama to the masses and with several new features. Moreover, when compared to earlier uses of photography to create panoramas, Photosynth provides significantly greater flexibility in terms of allowing users to zoom into the photograph and look behind them.

Despite the fact that Photosynth, as Pogue points out, is similar to Apple’s QuickTime VR and before that to 360-degree imaging companies such as IPIX and Be Here (which I talk about in chapter 3 of Shivers), there are important differences such as the ability to zoom almost infinitely, the elimination of a 360-degree tripod, and enhanced mobility. Had Photosynth come out just a bit sooner it would doubtless have made it into the examples of immersive and interactive technologies of virtual transport I explore in Shivers Down Your Spine. While Pogue’s final assessment of Photosynth reads something like a glass half-full scenario—he calls it both “amazing” and “incredibly frustrating”—his feelings that it is definitely “wicked cool” raises an important question about where we’re headed (and where we’ve have been) with regards to immersive and interactive technologies.

Several things come to mind: first, unlike 360-degree panoramas in the nineteenth century, which were huge (both literally and in terms of their popularity) and let spectators walk around a virtual space such as a landscape or battleground, the current crop of 3-D, VR technologies require interaction on the part of the spectator in ways unimagined by spectators of their predecessors. You don’t just pay the entry fee and get an instant sensation: you have to visit the Web site, install the necessary Web browser plugin, start uploading photographs, and hope you’ve shot enough photographs of your chosen space so that you don’t end up with any blank spaces (a potential glitch). Second, we can never completely conceal the wizard behind the curtain; as Pogue explains, the “photoness” of the images is noticeable, which means “you see their outlines flicker as you move your mouse around the screen.” Plus you get blank space and white pixels (aka the “point cloud”) when you move to an adjoining photo, frustrating to say the least. But why should we be surprised?

No virtual imaging technology can be anything other than virtual, which means it will have seams, edges, blurring, delays not unlike what goes on in our own visual field from time to time based on certain medical conditions, drug side-effects, hangovers, or other neurological conditions that affect perception. If Photosynth ends up being “less a virtual-reality tool than a glorified slideshow” (in Pogue’s words) then it simply joins a long list of still and moving imaging techniques and technologies, and, more to the point, the fantasies and aspirations of their inventors who in turn are motivated by the socio-cultural, political, and economic climate in which they work, to finds ways of slicing and dicing reality and reassembling it into a (profitable) cool-looking novelty.


Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Save on Titles in the Social Sciences and Environmental Studies

In conjunction with the recent conferences for the Ecological Society of America and The American Sociological Association, we are offering a 20% discount on dozens of titles in the social sciences and ecology and environmental studies.

Please visit our sales page for more details on the sale and how you can save 20% and get free shipping.

We will also be announcing our sale for political science titles in the next few days.

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Zhang Yimou … Filmmaker

Zhang YimouWith the Olympics now finished, we can look forward to Victor Cha’s Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia, which provides historical and political perspectives on the just-completed Games.For those more interested in the man behind the pageantry and aesthetics of the Olympics, CUP and its distributed presses have some titles that examine Zhang Yimou, the man behind the acclaimed opening and closing ceremonies.

China on Screen: Cinema and Nation by Christopher J. Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar, New Chinese Cinema: Challenging Representations by Sheila Cornelius, and Reinventing China: A Generation and its Films by Paul Clark all include lengthy discussions of Zhang Yimou, his films, and his influence on Chinese cinema.

Michael Berry’s Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers includes a discussion with Zhang. In the interview Zhang talks about his experiences living during the Cultural Revolution, the “Fifth Generation” filmmakers, his cinematic influences, working in Communist China, and the making of films such as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero.

In response to Michael Berry’s question concerning the challenges facing contemporary Chinese cinema, Zhang responds:

We need to give filmmakers more space and room for national cinema to develop and unfold.  System reform is the most pressing need for us in the film industry. I’m not sure if I will see it happen in my lifetime. I’m not sure if I will live to see true creative freedom in China and be able to realize my dream of exploring the Cultural Revolution through cinema. I don’t know. But I do know that this is the single most pressing problem.

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Measles Cases Grow in Numbers / Autism’s False Prophets

Paul Offit, Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a CureAs has been widely reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, cases of measles are on the rise in the United States and throughout the world. The Times writes that “more people had measles infections in the first seven months of this year than during any comparable period since 1996.” Public officials blame growing numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe vaccines cause autism.

As Dr. Paul Offit, shows in his forthcoming book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, there is no scientific evidence linking measles vaccine. His work aslo traces the ways in which lawyers, politicians, journalists, and celebrity spokespeople, have become “false prophets,” in their attempts to convince the public that vaccines are the cause of childhood autism.

Paul Offit, Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a CureWe’ll be posting more about this very important and much-needed book in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can also view a video of Offit discussing the book and the controversy surrounding childhood autism.

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Coming Soon from China: Dystopic Futures, the Next Steve Jobs, and a World Full of Drumming Androids

On MangoBot, a great blog dedicated to Asian futurism, Andrew Nathan,editor of How East Asians View Democracy, joined other experts to speculate on the future of China. In particular, Nathan was asked to offer a prediction regarding China’s political future for the next ten years. Hint—his answer is the dystopic future of the title.

More specifically, Nathan challenges the notion that democratization is an inevitable first step to total economic domination. He writes, “China has authoritarian resilience, if (the current regime) was not supposed to survive modernization, it’s proving very adaptable.” While the current regime will likely maintain its power as long as it remains efficient, natural disasters, terrorism, or bad political decisions could lead to its demise.

Other experts consider China’s use of wind power, its status as a showcase for architectural innovation, and who the next Steve Jobs might be.

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Saddleback a Comfy Fit for McCain – an op-ed by Alan Schroeder

Presidential DebatesIn an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe yesterday, Presidential Debates author Alan Schroeder explains how the appearance of both candidates over the weekend at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church sheds light on what to expect for the upcoming presidential debates on television.

McCain’s superior sense of showmanship could prove important in a debate, not just to journalists but to audiences as well. On Saturday night McCain directly addressed the folks in the church pews, whereas Obama engaged in an intellectual colloquy with the moderator, placing a filter between himself and the spectators. Though different formats will be employed in the fall debates, it is interesting that at Saddleback Obama opted for a relatively circumspect communication approach.

To read other posts by Alan Schroeder, including his take on the Vice-Presidential debates, click here.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Award News – Reworking Race

Reworking RaceEarlier this month at the American Sociological Association annual conference the Labor and Labor Movements Section named Reworking Race: The Making of Hawaii’s Interracial Labor Movement, by Moon-kie Jung the Best Book on Race, Labor, and Empire.

Reworking Race looks at the shift in Hawai’i in the mid-twentieth century to a more progressive culture and explains how Filipinos, Japanese, Portuguese, and others overcame entrenched racial divisions and successfully mobilized a mass working-class movement. Moon-Kie Jung teaches sociology and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

This book has also won:

2007 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award from the Political Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association.

2008 Book Award from the Asia and Asian America Section of the American Sociological Association

You can read an excerpt from the introduction here.

Friday, August 15th, 2008

The Georgian Crisis and Beijing´s Olympics

Victor Cha, Beyond the Final ScoreThe following post is by Victor Cha, the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and associate professor of government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming Beyond the Final Score. (Read his earlier post.)

As we enter the middle weekend of the Games, it is interesting that the political protests and complaints evident in the run-up to the Games have been quite muted. This was what the Chinese leadership probably had hoped for—grit one’s teeth and bear all the criticism in the run-up to the Games, betting that once the actual events started, all of the media coverage and public interest would be focused on the sports. This has pretty much proved true through the first week. While the run-up to the Games saw every media outlet filing stories on the political protests and China’s “disastrous Olympics” there have been noticeably fewer stories. A couple of papers, including the Daily Telegraph, have been filing stories on the designated “demonstration areas” that remain completely unused, and how those who have sought a permit to demonstrate have either run into yards of bureaucratic red tape or been detained. If the story of the eight or so pro-Tibet protestors who were manhandled by Chinese security had occurred before the Games, it would have been a major issue. Now, it barely gets noticed. What accounts for this? In part, I think it is the pure attraction and infatuation with the sport—after all, the Games come only once every four years and it is magical to watch. The first week has also seen U.S. athletes perform extremely well, from Phelps to the unbeatable beach volleyball duo to the “Redeem Team” which has dominated NBC’s coverage. Russia’s incursion into Georgia, while horrible, was probably a godsend from the Chinese leadership’s perspective—it put the political focus on Moscow rather than on Beijing. Predictions on a blog are dangerous, but I think the Chinese could be in for a rougher ride the second week as coverage of the Games will move beyond the initial infatuation with the events to a more critical look.

Anyone notice how some of the top tennis players are falling like flies? Federer, Blake, the Williams sisters. One might think that a loss in the Olympics would be somewhat comforting in the sense that the athletes could then head back to the United States to get their bodies readjusted to Eastern Standard time ahead of the U.S. Open. But many of them are still stuck in Beijing because they are still competing in doubles. This is presumably why some of the athletes, like Andy Roddick, chose to skip the Olympics in order to be better rested and prepared for the U.S. Open. We may see a lot more first/second round upsets from some jetlagged players at Flushing Meadow in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

The Insider Forum at NewsHour – Experts Answer Questions about China’s Olympic Moment

Beijing Olympic bannerYesterday Victor Cha, author of the forthcoming Beyond the Final Score, was invited to participate in the Insider’s Forum hosted by the website for NewsHour. The discussion between Victor Cha and Orville Schell of the Asia Society was hosted by Margaret Warner. You can listen to an audio download or read the transcript of the full interview here.

Here’s a highlight of Victor Cha’s comments:

“I’m of the view that China will not be the same country after these games. Certainly, it’s not going to make the liberalization transition and democratic transition that South Korea made in 1987 and ’88, but there is still something about exposing this concept of Olympism and the Olympics to 1.3 billion people that is bound to have some sort of effect on the regime.”

You can also read more of Victor Cha’s writings about the Olympics in a previous post and a round-up of his media appearances on this blog.



Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Day 6 of the Beijing Olympics – So Far, So Good….

Beyond the Final ScoreThe following post is by Victor Cha, the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and associate professor of government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming Beyond the Final Score.

This is my first blog entry on the Olympics.  The thoughts here do not come out of the forthcoming book, Beyond the Final Score, but they are certainly informed by them.  So here we are on day 6 of Olympic competitions, and thus far these Games have lived up to their billing.   The opening ceremonies were almost unanimously praised as the most spectacular ever in Olympic history.   Eighty-six heads of state were in attendance, unprecedented in the modern era of these Games.  President Bush’s decision way back in September 2007 to attend, for better or worse, gave cover to all of the other leaders to attend.  And so they sat there in the stultifying still humid stadium, jetlagged and perspiring through the four-hour plus ceremony.  Why didn’t Sarkozy take off his jacket?  The sweat was turning his powder blue shirt collar into a dark blue!

The Chinese need to hit four marks for these Games to work.  First their athletes need to win a lot of medals.  It will probably be between them and the U.S. for the gold medal and overall medal count totals.  The pressure on the Chinese teams and athletes must be enormous.  Second, they need to host the Games well in terms of logistics.  The standard the Chinese aspire to surpass is that of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which were widely regarded as one of the most well-hosted Games.  Unfortunately, the standard the Chinese do not want to meet are those of Atlanta in 1996 which did not go down in history as one of the better Games.  Third, the Chinese need clean air.  And fourth, they need to marginalize the political protests as best as they can. 

Suprisingly, the Chinese appear to be doing okay on all of these marks.  But then again, it is only day 6, so there is still lots of time for things to go wrong.  Personally I am surprised at how the spectacle of the opening ceremonies and the start of the events have drowned out much of the political activism and protest.   There have already been enough medal ceremonies shown to the public where the athletes are so happy for their achievement that a display of political protest by an athlete now would probably elicit more criticism than empathy (imagine a silver or bronze medalist standing next to US swimmer Michael Phelps suddenly unfurling a protest banner on the medal stand – don’t think there would be much empathy).   I am not surprised by how the environment has not been an issue through the first three days – this is because the expectations were set so low in the run-up to the Games that anything short of a pea-soup air day would have been considered a victory. 

Some interesting notes: 

NBC’s coverage has been noticeably apolitical.  The network has come under criticism in the past by academics and China sympathizers for “biased” broadcasting. NBC did well to add a “substance” guy to complement Bob Costas and Matt Lauer during the opening ceremony commentary.  Joshua Ramo offered a interesting diversions from the otherwise straight forward commentary by the other pair. 

INDIA: Of all the delegations, did anyone notice how small the Indian delegation was?  One of the biggest countries in the world, but such a tiny delegation.  It was nice to see their rifleman Bindra win India’s first individual gold medal ever on Tuesday.  

SOUTH KOREA: The South Korean swimmer Park Tae-hwan’s gold and silver medals are a pleasant surprise.  Apparently he is Korean-born and trained unlike many of the Korean LPGA golfers who are Korean-born and American-trained.  But you know what this means.  Every parent in Korea is going to start their kids on swimming programs – so watch out Phelps! 

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Review of Hyping Health Risks in the Wall Street Journal

Hyping Health RisksYesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a review of Geoffrey Kabat’s new book, Hyping Health Risks. The review says of the book:

In “Hyping Health Risks,” Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist himself, shows how activists, regulators and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks. He duly notes the accomplishments of epidemiology, such as uncovering the risks of tobacco smoking and the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride and asbestos. And he acknowledges that industry has attempted to manipulate science. But he is concerned about a less reported problem: “The highly charged climate surrounding environmental health risks can create powerful pressure for scientists to conform and to fall into line with a particular position.”

You can read the full review here


Monday, August 11th, 2008

Victor Mair interviewed on The Art of War

Cover Art of WarRecently, Victor Mair, the translator of our new edition of Sun Zi’s classic work, The Art of War, was interviewed by Marty Moss-Coane on Philadelphia NPR station WHYY. Listen to the interview, which discusses whether Sun Zi was in fact the true author of The Art of War and the modern impact of this ancient Chinese text.

Victor Mair is a graduate of Dartmouth College, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and Harvard University. He is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania and is the founder and editor of Sino-Platonic Papers, an academic journal that examines diverse aspects of Chinese language, script, and culture, paying particular attention to historical relationships with other societies in Eurasia. For the past two decades, he has led a major international investigation of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age peoples of Eastern Central Asia, a project that has resulted in numerous publications and several films. His Columbia books include The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature and The Columbia History of Chinese Literature.

Friday, August 8th, 2008

The power of the Olympics to bring democracy to China

Olympic opening ceremony






This week C.U.P. authors have been hitting the pavement to discuss on tv, radio, and in print the prospect of China becoming more democratic as a result of the Olympic games that open tonight in Beijing. Since Beijing was announced as the host city debate has been raging about whether having the Olympics in China would help or hurt the democratic process unfold in the communist nation.

Today we bring you a multi-media round-up of three Asia experts and their opinion of the democratic effects that the Olympics will have on China.

First up – Victor D. Cha is the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and associate professor of government in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the author of Beyond the Final Score.

Watch video footage of Victor Cha on the Today Show or listen to him on NPR’s Morning Edition. We’ve posted additional commentary here.

Second up – Andrew J. Nathan is the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and co-editor of How East Asians View Democracy.

Read the transcript from Andy Nathan’s recent appearance on CNN Lou Dobbs Tonight.

Third up – Bruce Gilley is assistant professor of political science in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University and author of China’s Democratic Future.

In a post in the Wall Street Journal Asia, Bruce Gilley argues that the Olympics are a positive force for democratization in China.


Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Interview with Geoffrey C. Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks

cover Hyping Health RisksThe following is an interview with Geoffrey C. Kabat, who is senior epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology.

Question: How do these scares get started?

Geoffrey Kabat: Health scares of the kind I examine can arise in different ways.  In some cases, the publication of a scientific report can provide the initial impetus.  This happened in the case of electromagnetic fields and childhood cancer, which really was put on the map, so to speak, by the publication of a paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1979.  It was a study with a number of major weaknesses, and yet it seized the imagination of scientists.  It was not substantiated by later studies.  But it created concern and this led to lawsuits against electric power companies, further scientific studies, a great deal of media attention, and increased concern.

In other cases, a scare can arise due to anecdotal reports of adverse health effects, in the absence of any scientific studies.  This was the case with silicone breast implants.  Once large, well-designed studies were carried out, they did not support the claims of adverse effects.

Q: Who is responsible for what you call the “manufacture” of certain health hazards?

GK: A variety of different actors can, for different reasons, contribute to manufacture of a health risk, or to its inflating. Of course, this includes the media, but also scientists eager to promote their results; health and regulatory agencies, which will take up an issue once there is a certain level of scientific and public concern; and advocates with a stake in a specific health issue.  In addition, lawyers and politicians may play a role.  Depending on the health hazard in question, these actors may play more or less central roles. But what tends to happen is that certain aspects of the evidence tend to get emphasized while others, which may be equally important, tend to get ignored.

Q: What are the consequences of inflating health hazards?  Why should we care?

GK: Inflating a health hazard or manufacturing one where none exists can have very tangible and harmful consequences.  First, it creates needless anxiety.  This happened in the case of parents being worried about how power lines adjacent to their children’s school might affect their children’s health, to give one example.  Secondly, it creates confusion about what well-established and substantial health risks people should pay attention to.  Third, well-intentioned policies can be promoted by agencies which feel the need to respond to an alleged hazard.  In some cases, these policies have had more harmful effects than the hazard they were intended to address.  One example of this is that the narrow focus on fat in the diet as a risk led to ill-conceived policies which in turn led to increased consumption of calories from carbohydrates, and this is believed to have contributed to the increase in obesity in recent years.

Q: In parts of your book you seem to be saying that we should not worry about environmental pollution – is that the message you mean to convey?

GK: Quite the contrary.  Degradation of the environment, whether it is local or on a continental or global scale, is enormously important and requires our increasing attention.  It represents an enormous challenge both to monitor its extent and health effects and to design rational policies to address it.   We stand a better chance of doing this if we don’t get carried away by things that are not real problems.

My point is merely that we need to make distinctions between exposures that are so low that they are unlikely to have any effect and those that are of much greater magnitude and where intervening is likely to have a tangible effect.  Again, one has to have a sense of perspective, of proportion.  

Q: Epidemiology has recently been criticized by the science writer Gary Taubes for getting things wrong and for possibly doing more harm than good to the public’s health.  What is your response to this criticism?   

GK: I think that, starting with his influential article in Science magazine in 1995, Taubes performed a real service by drawing attention to the problem of the reporting of inconsistent results from epidemiologic studies and the confusion this creates in the public.  More recently Taubes has pointed out that overstating the evidence on certain questions – like policies promoting a low-fat diet starting in the 1990s – may have done more harm than good. 

Where I think Taubes goes off the rails is that he attributes these errors to the fact that epidemiology is mainly an observational science.  I would argue that these errors are not due to the flawed nature of epidemiology but rather to people overstating the evidence due to agendas which have little to do with science.   This is why I attempt to describe what I have referred to as “the sociology of health risks.”

Also, Taubes does not seem to have any appreciation for the fact that epidemiology has a long list of achievements, or that the results of epidemiologic studies need to be considered in conjunction with evidence from laboratory studies and from other disciplines.  Big advances often involve a convergence of evidence from a variety of fields.  Taubes’ inability to acknowledge the accomplishments of epidemiology and his apparent animus against the discipline is hard to understand.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

GK: In the early 1990s I noticed that certain issues in epidemiology seemed to be distorted or exaggerated and that the public was being given the wrong idea.  So, I tuned in to a number of these issues, some of which I was doing primary research on.  I tried to assess what the evidence actually indicated and where certain agency reports or partisan interpretations seemed to be overstating the evidence.

You can also read the introduction to the book.

This is a Caravan book.

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008


cover art Intelligence WorkThe following post is by Jonathan Kahana, author of Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary 

This is the third in a series of postings by Jonathan Kahana: read his first post and second post

In his recent review of Man on Wire, the documentary about the French tightrope walker who crossed between the World Trade Center towers, New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott praises the film’s “unobtrusive” re-enactments, by which he means, I suppose, that the film’s restaging of events for which no actuality footage exists don’t get in the way of something integral to the film’s structure and flow or the viewer’s experience. To put this the other way round: what is it about documentary film that would be interrupted by re-enactment?

This is a question that I do not address directly in Intelligence Work, even though the age-old question for documentary film scholars and critics – what is a documentary? – is posed throughout the book. A major artistic and pedagogical device in documentary for most of its history, re-enactment got a bad name in the 1960s, with the rise of the cinéma vérité technique that, for better or worse, has come to be identified as the “most” documentary of styles. Any sense that the “social actors,” as some have called documentary’s dramatis personae, are performing, or that their performances are organized and rehearsed for the camera became anathema to some documentarians in the 1960s. The prejudice against what was, for decades, a perfectly acceptable method for representing the past and the present has stuck. (If you need a reminder that even observational documentary relies on acting for its power, watch Cindy Yu Shui’s eloquent gestures and facial expressions in Yung Chang’s recent Up The Yangtze, which is now in theatres, a tremendous non-professional performance which was nonetheless the result of direction from the – what’s the term? – director.)

Before I had even put Intelligence Work to bed, it became clear to me that a.) you can’t fit everything into a single book, and b.) the things you leave out of the book are probably not going to let you forget them. It didn’t help that everywhere I looked, I was seeing re-enactment: network and cable television, theatrical feature documentaries, art galleries and museums. So out of a mixture of guilt, fascination, and a desire to re-do the past, I turned to the history of documentary re-enactment. (As it turns out, these are precisely the reasons that filmmakers have employed re-enactment: see, for instance, the early films of Italian neo-realism, or the re-enactments in Guy Maddin’s brilliant new documentary My Winnipeg, where Maddin re-stages his childhood home with actors playing his mother and siblings, engaging in therapeutic reconstructions of formative struggles over the orientation of the hallway rug and other traumas. For the sake of continuity, I have to mention, since I began these blog posts by talking about documentary and the amenities of commercial air travel, this surprising development in documentary distribution: this summer, passengers on Air Canada can watch My Winnipeg on the back of the headrest in front of them, which is where I saw the film for the second time.) A series of conference papers and panels at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and Visible Evidence conferences have come out of this work; a dossier of this work, which I am assembling for an upcoming issue of Framework, is on the way.

For me, one of the appeals of this topic is that it allows me to return to the films of Errol Morris, which get short shrift in Intelligence Work. (See excuse a., above.) As is the case in many of Morris’s re-enactments, this would be a “return” to something that didn’t exactly happen in the first place: The Thin Blue Line is one of the reasons I became interested in the study of documentary film, but it is a film about which I have probably not written more than ten words for publication. And there is a startling lack of scholarly writing about Morris. Although one can find Morris’s influence everywhere in documentary, fiction film, and advertising today, his work still has the power to obtrude. The criticism heaped on Morris’s recent Standard Operating Procedure for its use of cinematographic, dramatic, and aural techniques more common in mainstream film and television than in the Iraq war documentary cycle is a kind of tribute, one might say, to this tendency. One of my colleagues, referring to Manohla Dargis’s screed against the film in the Times, astutely diagnosed this approach as “protecting Team Hollywood”: that is, drawing a line in the sand between the spectacle and artistry of entertainment cinema and the socially-responsible – read: artless – efforts of documentarians. I tend to side with Morris, who asked me rhetorically after the Washington, DC premiere of S.O.P. “why should documentaries look like shit?”

But in addition to looking and sounding good – not usually something that film critics object to in a movie – the other reason that Morris’s film left so many critics cold, I suspect, is that it bucks the trend in the Iraq war documentary, which is to claim that documentary can (or should) uncover a truth, one that can be discovered intact beneath layers of official perfidy. One of the reasons I prefer S.O.P. to well-meaning and well-researched documentary films like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, Robert Greenwald’s muckracking video broadsides, or even the baroquely conspiratorial British television epic The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (without American distribution, but free and worth watching at the Internet Archive and elsewhere) is that S.O.P. doesn’t claim to explain or, really, even to understand Why We Are In Iraq, an understanding that many other current films about the war presume can be gained if you just talk to the right insiders. Otherwise, these films imply, god help you make sense of the political.

Although Morris is clearly concerned with the big questions (as he has emphasized in his writing and speaking about the film and the war), it’s their iteration on the small human scale that makes the film so compelling, as well as their movement from one topic to another: from the question of why someone would pose for a photograph with a dead prisoner to those of why people smile and give the thumbs-up in photos, and how does a digital camera work, anyway? This aleatory, digressive, essayistic movement of thought is what makes documentary an artform, and different in the first and last place (as the documentary pioneer John Grierson never tired of pointing out) from newsreels, travelogues, instructional films, and other forms of informational media. Morris’s films are among the best contemporary examples of the documentary prerogative of curiosity, a disposition that is composed in equal parts of suspicion and wonder. I borrow the idea of documentary curiosity from Oliver Gaycken, who is, as we speak, using it to talk about the interest that André Bazin had in the science films of Jean Painlevé. (Earlier this week, Gaycken was part of a panel about documentary cinephilia organized by Joshua Malitsky at this summer’s edition of Visible Evidence.) But it is no less useful for describing what is of interest in documentary today, even – or especially – when it borders on fiction, as it cannot help but do when it deals with the most basic and profound mysteries of life.

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Vice Presidential Candidates and the Debates: A Post by Alan Schroeder

Presidential DebatesThe following post is by Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV

In selecting their running mates, Barack Obama and John McCain will choose not just a prospective vice president, but also a vice presidential debater.  Ultimately this designation may be of little consequence, but for political junkies and the media there is much to look forward to in these junior varsity match-ups.

Historically vice presidential candidates have been assigned the role of attack dog. Their mission is to say things the loftier half of the ticket cannot, to raise doubts that might be unseemly coming from on high.  For this reason vice presidential debates have generally made better theater than their first-tier counterparts.  Think of Bob Dole and Walter Mondale in 1976; Geraldine Ferraro and George H.W. Bush in 1984; Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in 1988; Quayle, Al Gore, and James Stockdale in 1992; and Dick Cheney’s debates with Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004.  The lower stakes and looser style rendered each of these events compellingly watchable, more watchable in many instances than the top-of-the-ticket debates.

Which brings us to the current race.  What factors should Barack Obama and John McCain take into account when deciding on a vice presidential debater?

First of all, any v-p candidate must understand that his or her objective is to plead the negative case against the opponent, leaving the affirmative case to the person at the top of the ticket.  This requires sublimation of the ego, not always an easy task for high-profile politicians.  It also demands a willingness to “take one for the team” by going on the offensive, even at the expense of one’s own affability.

At the same time, running mates must use the debate to position themselves as plausible presidents.  By the end of the program the viewing audience should be comfortable with the idea of number two stepping into the role of number one if such an event becomes necessary.  Dan Quayle’s inability to make that case – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – stands as an object lesson for all veep debaters.

John McCain’s vice presidential debater ought to be someone with first-rate television chops in order to offset the boss’s deficiencies in that department.  The Republicans’ strategy in the debate will be to pit their v-p candidate against Barack Obama, not the Democrat onstage.  To pull off this maneuver, McCain’s number two must know how to wield a surgical knife rather than a meat cleaver, and be able to perform the evisceration with a smile.

For Obama, a vice presidential debater will need different talents: an ability to connect with the audience on a folksy level and a knack for playing defense.  Folksiness will serve to counterbalance the media stereotype of Obama’s aloofness – it’s a quality the press is likely to be looking for in his running mate.  Strong defensive skills will be required to deflect incoming fire from the Republican vice-presidential nominee, who will undoubtedly attempt to make the debate a referendum on Barack Obama.

In the last analysis, vice presidential debates do not determine the outcome of elections.  They do, however, offer vital political information to tens of millions of voters, educating and entertaining at the same time.  For the media, they act as plot points, game-changing moments that can drive coverage for days on end.  With these factors in mind, the October 2nd vice presidential debate looms large as the two campaigns finalize their picks.

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs

cover The Lives of Sri AurobindoThe following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

How do you write about a man who is known to some as a politician, to others as a poet and critic, to still others as a philosopher, and to a not inconsiderable number as an incarnation of God? This is one of the problems a biographer of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) has to face. Known in the West mostly to specialized audiences (people interested in South Asian history, literature, philosophy, and spirituality), Aurobindo is renowned in his native India as one of the most outstanding, and most many-sided men of the twentieth century. This has not prevented his legacy from being bitterly disputed.

Some historians and politicians see him as one of the forerunners of Mahatma Gandhi, others as a precursor of today’s aggressive Hindu nationalists. Admirers of his writings see his epic in iambic pentameter as the harbinger of a new kind of poetry, but most contemporary poets and critics dismiss it as a throwback to the Victorian era. The opinions of amateur and professional philosophers are polarized along the same lines. There is general agreement among students of religion that Aurobindo was a remarkable mystic, but few are willing to swallow the claim of some of his followers that he was an avatar, like Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ.

In The Lives of Sri Aurobindo I made Aurobindo’s many-sidedness the foundation of the structure of the book. Each of the five parts deals with one of his “lives”: the family man, the scholar, the revolutionary, the yogi and philosopher, and the spiritual guide. The first three go together pretty well, since the conventions of literary and political biography are similar. The writer is expected to present the significant events of a notable life in a chronological narrative, supporting the story with a scholarly apparatus based on primary sources. It was easy for me to do this when I wrote about Aurobindo’s life in politics. Discussing his role at the Surat Congress of 1907, for example, I was able to draw on government files, police reports, newspaper stories, Aurobindo’s reminiscences, and the reminiscences of others in English, Bengali, and Gujarati. But what was I to do with the information that a few days after the Congress, Aurobindo sat with a guru who taught him a meditation technique, and that, as Aurobindo later put it, “In three days – really in one, my mind became full of an eternal silence” – by which he meant the mental stillness and freedom from ego known as Nirvana.

It certainly is legitimate to cite Aurobindo’s own statements about this and other inner experiences. But personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what sort of objective data was I to look for? (Nobody knew what was going on in Aurobindo’s head.) If I wanted to discuss this inner event, did I have to switch (in mid stream) from the conventions of scholarly biography to the conventions of spiritual biography, that is, hagiography? Or could I get beyond the conventions of both genres?

Hagiography in its original sense, writing about the lives of saints, has been practiced since the first century CE (the Gospels, the Buddhacarita). What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to. Few modern non-Catholic readers are likely to take seriously the claims of Angelo Pastrovicchi that Joseph of Cupertino could fly. On the other hand, Pastrovicchi’s eighteenth-century work remains a vital source for any anyone wishing to write about the Italian saint. A scholar may reject levitation as inconsistent with what we know about gravity but still accept that Joseph had visions, as Pastrovicchi claims.

Aurobindo spent the last forty years of his life immersed in the practice of yoga. He wrote about his yogic experiences in a diary, the Record of Yoga, and in letters to his followers. Are these the sort of sources that a scholarly biographer can cite? It certainly would be uncritical to accept at face value all that Aurobindo wrote about his inner life; but it would be a different sort of negligence to refuse to consider accounts of inner experience a priori grounds, or to explain them away according to the assumptions of one or another social-scientific orthodoxy.

I think that William James had the right approach to this sort of material. “One cannot criticize the vision of a mystic,” he wrote in “A Pluralistic Mystic,” “one can but pass it by, or else accept it as having some amount of evidential weight.” I couldn’t simply close my eyes to Aurobindo’s accounts of his mystical experiences, so I accepted them as evidence of a vivid, if sometimes enigmatic inner life. I wonder however whether James got it right when he said we “cannot criticize the vision of a mystic.” Many spiritual traditions – the Catholic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist, for example – recognize a distinction between true and misleading visions. I don’t have the necessary discernment to criticize Aurobindo’s visions as visions; but I recognize – as Aurobindo himself did – that inner visions and experiences are open to different interpretations.

What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other. The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation, but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory, and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter. People will continue to differ about the significance of his work, but its very mass is there for all to see. His life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon. I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one.

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Hard-To-Find Classic Documentaries: A Post from Jonathan Kahana

Intelligence Work by Jonathan Kahana Jonathan Kahana is assistant professor of cinema studies at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and author of the just-published Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary.

My first post to this blog listed the “best documentary films of all time,” which is not the kind of heading I would normally use in my work. But the “work” in this case was an assignment from the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. The author of the article was particularly interested in films that flyers could imagine watching on DVD, where “imagine” can be translated as “type into the search box on Amazon.com or Netflix.” Now, I have nothing against either of these vendors. When I need a copy of Getting to Yes and want to pay only $0.06 plus shipping, Amazon is the first place I look. And when I need to watch the first ten minutes of the latest disappointment by Wes Anderson, Netflix is my source. But it is good to be reminded from time to time that there are other places to find artifacts of the history of documentary film. This post concludes with some examples of films that, as far as I know, are not available on DVD, despite being of great value as examples of documentary film art.

Nor do I have a vendetta against DVD, although there are good reasons to dislike DVD, including its notorious instability as a storage medium, which, as everyone knows, has a fraction of the shelf-life of film or tape. If you know where to look, there is a lot of good documentary cinema available on DVD these days, although – for better and worse – this situation is no more reliable than the medium itself: what’s in print today is out of print tomorrow, and vice versa. I myself recently contributed liner notes to the first DVD edition of Emile de Antonio’s Underground (1976), an under-appreciated and under-seen example of radical documentary of the 1970s. Underground wasn’t being distributed in any video format when I wrote about it for chapter three of Intelligence Work. Now, for no good commercial reason, the film has been re-issued as part of a box set produced by de Antonio’s filmic executor, Ron Mann. (You can find this set under the ponderous title Emile de Antonio: Films of the Radical Saint, a pair of terms de Antonio would no doubt have hated.) These new versions have the imprint of Home Vision, a boutique distributor that specialized in restored editions of classic films, recently swallowed up by Image Entertainment; no one seems to know whether Image will continue to re-issue the kind of documentary classics Home Vision was known for.

Another case in (counter-)point: the intrepid art-film video distributor Facets is about to release the first DVD edition of Two Laws, the legendary 1981 documentary by Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan, in collaboration with the Borraloola Aboriginal community, about Aboriginal land claims in Australia. Two Laws is one of those films that scholars and cinephiles know by reputation and hearsay better than by first-hand experience, since it was available only as a faded 16mm print for decades; indeed, people have been writing about it for years without ever having seen it. The DVD edition is produced by Jill Godmilow, a filmmaker who is no stranger to the roller-coaster of documentary distribution.

A list of films in the state that Underground and Two Laws were in before guardian angels like Mann and Godmilow rescued them – that is, fondly remembered but rarely seen – would be plenty longer than Columbia has room for on this blog. The handful of titles I’ve compiled below is simply intended as a starting point. There are any number of documentary films about which one can ask: why aren’t these films available, given their reputation, or that of their makers? Perhaps someone will pluck these films from the mists of bootleg VHS copies, vinegar-y classroom prints, and YouTube bowdlerizations.

Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age (Robert Flaherty, 1926). Oh, it’s only the film for which the term “documentary” was invented, and the first feature film shot with panchromatic stock. And speaking of technology, what better contraption for harvesting coconuts has ever been invented than the strip of bark that Moana’s little buddy straps around his ankles to shimmy up the tree with? If you can explain to me why this film hasn’t been digitally mastered to a lavish three-disc edition of Flaherty’s documentary work (including his lovely little film The Pottery Maker, from 1925, and his bizarre remake of every New Deal documentary film, The Land, shelved by the U.S. government in 1941), I’ll let you tattoo my back with the Criterion Collection logo.

Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939). A beautiful little slice of life of ordinary Englishmen and women, engaged in various rituals of leisure and recreation – awkwardly marching, playing instruments more or less on key, drinking, dancing – Spare Time establishes a model for the British Free Cinema movement, and for the American, Canadian, and French experiments in cinéma vérité of the 1960s. Unaccountably left off of the various re-packagings of British Documentary Movement films (including the brand new BFI collection Land of Promise, which is otherwise a godsend for anyone who has suffered through screenings of the terrible MoMA print of Housing Problems).

Gente del Po (People of the Po) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1947). A beautiful little black and white documentary about the melancholy lives of people living on the banks of the Po river, and how the river inspires them in their daily rounds. The shot of a boat chugging upstream, spewing gorgeous black smoke into the sky, makes you feel like swearing to increase your carbon footprint and never watch An Inconvenient Truth again.

Letter From Siberia (Chris Marker, 1957). True confession: I have never seen this film on anything better than a third-generation videotape. But I am in good company. Letter From Siberia is like the Velvet Underground of experimental documentary: Marker’s use of lyrical, self-reflexive narration together with biting ideological analysis (of capitalism and Stalinist communism), and a quilt of formal styles, including animation and sardonic sound-image mismatching, have influenced an entire generation of post-modern documentarists.

An American Family
(Craig Gilbert, 1973). All reality TV can be traced back to this fascinating 12-part public television series about the Loud family of Santa Barbara. No one has a good explanation for why it has never been commercially available, although the oft-repeated rumor is that the rights are tied up in a dispute between the film’s producer, Craig Gilbert, and the filmmakers credited as its directors, Susan and Alan Raymond.

Attica (Cinda Firestone, 1974). The most important film about the Attica uprising of 1971, Attica was an international cause célèbre when it was released. (Michel Foucault wrote the subtitles for the French version.) The subject of a preservation effort funded by the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and the New York Public Library, the film was shown three times at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, and hasn’t been seen since. Keep your fingers crossed that the right distributor will make the filmmaker an offer she can’t refuse.

Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, 1986). A landmark work about so-called “race riots” in the UK during the 1980s, Handsworth Songs – an exemplary product of the black British film collectives that emerged under and in response to Thatcher – unites the critical perspectives of British cultural studies and the aesthetic sensibilities of British punk. The subject of a famous debate between Stuart Hall and Salman Rushdie.