Monthly Archives: January 2012

India’s First Female Photojournalist Captured a Nation in Transition

When I told my loving Indian parents I wanted to pursue a career in photojournalism, let’s just say they weren’t over the moon. Their immigrant dreams of producing a lawyer or doctor were replaced with images of an idealistic artist filled with wanderlust. I was young enough and stubborn enough to follow my convictions, but it took nearly a decade for them to appreciate my unconventional path.

Little did I know that Homai Vyarawalla had already blazed this trail, decades before I was born.

India's first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla (center), seen with other press photographers at a photo session with Indira Gandhi in Delhi.

India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla (center), seen with other press photographers at a photo session with Indira Gandhi in Delhi.

Vyarawalla, affectionately referred to as India’s first female photojournalist, died last weekend, leaving behind four decades of imagery documenting India’s independence and the transition that followed. She was 98.

Upon word of her passing, India’s news media hailed her “iconoclast life,” citing her keen admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, her favorite subject. “He was [India’s first] prime minister,” she recalled to Rediff.com’s reporter Sanchari Bhattacharya in March 2011, “the highest authority of the country. … Plus he was very photogenic.” The Times of Indiacalled her “the grand old lady” and mentioned her numerous accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, bestowed on her in 2010.

In 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy visited India as a guest of Prime Minister Nehru at the Teen Murti House, his residence, in Delhi. Here, Kennedy sits with Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who would serve as the country's third prime minister.

Born to humble Parsi parents in December 1913, Vyarawalla was the daughter of a theater-director father and a mother who ironically steered her away from a career in medicine. “She had seen doctors on late-night shifts and didn’t want me in a profession like that,” Vyarawalla recounts in a retrospective book of her work titled Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla. “Little did she realize that press photography would be far worse!”

In a career that spanned more than four decades, Vyarawalla stood, often the lone female photographer, on the front lines of a tumultuous transition from colonial rule to independence. Draped in a sari and lugging heavy photographic equipment, she photographed in an era when the media had unprecedented access and an ongoing camaraderie. “All of us helped each other,” she said of her male counterparts. “If someone was changing film, he would request another photographer to take an extra picture for him. We even traded negatives so that no one missed out on a good picture.”

Vyarawalla’s black-and-white images poetically captured monumental moments in India’s history, such as the first flag raising, the departure of British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten and the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as notable dignitaries who passed through Delhi, such as Jacqueline Kennedy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. She had the rare distinction of knowing her high-profile subjects intimately and never exploited that relationship. “They were comfortable with me because they knew that I would never ridicule them,” she said.

Lord Mountbatten's ceremonial buggy ride, from Rashtrapati Bhawan to the Parliament House, after being sworn in as governor general in Delhi on Aug. 15, 1947. Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India and was charged with overseeing the transition of British India to independence.

In 1966, when Indira Gandhi became India’s prime minister, the rules had suddenly shifted. Until then, Delhi photographers were able to gain intimate access without much effort. “I have taken photographs of presidents and prime ministers as close as 5 feet. We were never considered a security menace. From Indira Gandhi’s time, we had to stay at least 15 to 20 feet away while taking a picture,” noted Vyarawalla.

It was then that she decided she had done enough, feeling uninspired by the nation’s cynicism and leadership. “People changed. That graciousness and that dignity were just not there. When the graciousness was gone, my interest in photography was gone as well,” she said. She retired in the early 1970s, soon after her husband of 43 years died, moved away from Delhi and locked up her cameras.

Homai Vyarawalla poses with her Rolleiflex camera at her home in Vadodara, India, on March 6, 2006.

Homai Vyarawalla poses with her Rolleiflex camera at her home in Vadodara, India, on March 6, 2006.

Vyarawalla’s story of triumph and commitment would have faded away had it not been for an inquisitive Delhi-based photographer who noticed a lone female name in a long list of men in the Press Information Bureau records. He kept inquiring about her and, one fateful day in the early 1980s, met her at a camera repair shop. For two decades she had lived alone with the memories of an illustrious life, and in that moment a legend was born.

“It was after 50 years of having taken these pictures that I started to see the value of my work,” she wrote in March 2005. “I was just earning a living at that time with no thought of preserving it for posterity. In a country where a great man like Gandhiji has been forgotten, why would I be remembered?”

“All I want today is for people, especially the young, to see what it was like to live in those days. It was a different kind of world altogether.”

 

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, releases a pigeon at the National Stadium in Delhi in the mid-1950s. Vyarawalla's favorite subject was Nehru, whom she referred to as "photogenic."

 

Col. Sahi leads a misty morning fox hunt in Delhi in the early 1940s. This was one of Vyarawalla's favorite images. She recalled in the book "Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla" that she was nearly mauled by huge hunting dogs that day.

 

The first unfurling of the Indian flag at Red Fort, Delhi, by Prime Minister Nehru on Aug. 16, 1947. As an employee of the Far Eastern Bureau of British Information Services, Vyarawalla was on the front line of the nation's transition to independence.

 

Homai Vyarawalla with her wooden Pacemaker Speed Graphic camera.

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The 3 Biggest Biblical Misconceptions

My Take: the 3 biggest biblical misconceptions

Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of “Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.”

By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN

John Spong

The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.

First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.

The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.

Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?

Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.

This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.

For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.

In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.

The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.

Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?

The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.

The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.

The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.

It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.

The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.

It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.

One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.

Other CNN Belief Blogs to check out: 

Actually, that’s not in the Bible

My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?

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In China, Buick’s for the Chic

An interesting article from the NY Times last year that I just found while cleaning off my desk.  It shows the power of perspective; in other words, how perceptions of things change depending on where you were born, how you were raised, your life experiences, etc.  

By ANDREW JACOBS and ADAM CENTURY
Published: November 14, 2011

BEIJING — Cars in the United States tend to come fully equipped with stereotypes. Ford Crown Victoria: law enforcement professional. Toyota Prius: upscale yuppie environmentalist. Hummer: gas-guzzling egotist.

In China, where the market for imported passenger cars dates back only about three decades, an entirely alternate set of stereotypes is taking root — and the stakes have never been higher for foreign carmakers.

Take, for example, Mercedes-Benz, a brand that in much of the world suggests moneyed respectability. In China, many people think Mercedes-Benz is the domain of the retiree.

The Buick, long associated in the United States with drivers who have a soft spot for the early-bird special, is by contrast one of the hottest luxury cars in China.

But no vehicle in China has developed as ironclad a reputation as the Audi A6, the semiofficial choice of Chinese bureaucrats. From the country’s southern reaches to its northern capital, the A6’s slick frame and invariably tinted windows exude an aura of state privilege, authority and, to many ordinary citizens, a whiff of corruption.

“Audi is still the de facto car for government officials,” said Wang Zhi, a Beijing taxi driver who has been plying the capital’s gridlocked streets for 18 years. “It’s always best to yield to an Audi — you never know who you’re messing with, but chances are it’s someone self-important.”

With annual growth hovering above 30 percent in recent years, the Chinese auto market is rapidly surpassing the United States’ as the world’s most lucrative and strategically important. Last year alone, the Chinese bought an estimated 13.8 million passenger vehicles, handily topping the 11.6 million units sold in the United States. Foreign-origin brands, most of which are manufactured in China through joint ventures, accounted for 64 percent of total sales in 2010, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Even if Chinese brand associations can seem remote and perhaps amusing to those outside the country, Zhang Yu, managing director of Automotive Foresight, a Shanghai industry consultancy, says they will prove decisive to sales in coming decades. “China is already the largest automobile market in the world. No car company can afford to overlook its Chinese brand,” he said.

The lower rungs of the Chinese market are still dominated by domestic brands like Chery, whose name and numerous models suggest more than a passing resemblance to Chevy. The affluent, however, are flocking to an increasingly diverse array of foreign luxury offerings. The rapid market expansion has presented some foreign carmakers with a chance for brand reinvention, while posing public relations challenges to others.

“Because the market is so young, brand perceptions and a car’s face” — an idiom meaning prestige or repute — “are both critical,” said Mr. Zhang, pointing out that 80 percent of car purchases are made by first-time buyers.

Audi’s party technocrat associations are a result partly of the car’s early market entry and its longstanding place on the government’s coveted purchasing list. Audi, the German automaker, gained access to the Chinese market in 1988 when its owner, Volkswagen, struck a joint venture with Yiqi, a Chinese carmaker. By contrast, BMW’s first domestic factory opened in 2003, giving Audi 15 years to establish itself as the premier vehicle for China’s elite.

This early advantage has helped Audi to dominate China’s lucrative government-car market, with 20 percent of its China revenue in 2009 drawn directly from government sales. Each year, the Procurement Center of the Central People’s Government releases a list of the cars and models acceptable for government purchase. While the A6 has long been a mainstay on the list, which had 38 brands in 2010, BMW made the cut only in 2009.

“When people see government officials in BMWs, they automatically suspect corruption or malfeasance — but Audis are to be expected,” said Jessica Wu, a public relations professional with almost a decade of experience in the Chinese car industry. A basic model Audi A6 costs 355,000 renminbi, or $56,000, while the BMW 5 series Li costs about 428,000 renminbi, or $67,520.

Such market positioning has brought significant financial results for Audi — in 2010, the company sold 227,938 vehicles in China, more than double the number in the United States.

The Munich-based automaker BMW, on the other hand, has found itself in a contrary position. Since entering the Chinese market, BMW has acquired a reputation as a vehicle for the arrogant and the rash, making it largely off-limits to wealthy officials who prefer a low-key public image.

Part of this stereotype is rooted in a 2003 incident in which a young female driver in the northeastern city of Harbin intentionally ran over and killed an impoverished man who had accidentally dented her BMW X5. Despite the transparent nature of the case — a clear motive and numerous eyewitnesses — the case was settled out of court for $11,000. The incident was seen as driving a wedge between China’s rich and poor, damaging BMW’s nascent image.

More recently, a driver in a BMW M6 struck and killed a pedestrian in May during an illegal street race in the city of Nanjing, setting off a public outcry.

“If it hadn’t been a BMW, I don’t think it would have been as big of a deal,” said a young man who had taken part in the race and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was awaiting trial. “Had it been all Toyotas, Mitsubishis or even Audis, I don’t think it would have provoked as dire a reaction.”

Despite such public relations travails, BMW has posted strong sales in China, selling 121,614 units in the first two quarters of 2011, or 27 percent of the company’s total sales during that period.

The American carmaker General Motors has found the Chinese market to be a life-saving opportunity for the reinvention of the Buick brand. Since 2005, when Bob Lutz, the vice chairman of G.M., famously declared Buick a “damaged brand,” America’s oldest surviving automobile make has successfully positioned itself in China as a top-tier luxury carmaker.

Largely the result of effective marketing and remodeling, China’s romance with the Buick also has historical roots. The last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, was the proud owner of two Buicks, as was the country’s first provisional president, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The black Buick 8 driven by a onetime premier, Zhou Enlai, is still displayed at his former residence in Shanghai, now a museum.

In 2010, Buick sold over 550,000 cars in China, more than triple its sales in the United States.

“We joke that our market revived Buick from the dead — it’s only partly a joke,” said Liu Wen, a reporter for China Auto News.

On Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging service, a recent posting tried to sum up the car clichés. “A gathering of Mercedes indicates a get-together for old folks,” the writer said. “A group of BMWs means young nouveaux riches are about to run someone over and have a party; several Audis, and you know it’s a government meeting.”

 

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Why Do So Many Have Trouble Believing In Evolution?

So, I was just sitting here drinking my coffee, trying to push off the start of the school day as much as possible, when I came across this article.  It addresses an issue that I find puzzling:  Why is it so hard for people to believe in a creator god and the natural process of evolution at the same time?  I personally feel that the processes of evolution do not scientifically need a grand designer to function, but honestly, I do not see why  the two must stand at odds with each other (but then again, maybe that’s just the mediator in me coming to the surface…)

I think that the main reason so many people are against evolution is that they simply do not understand it.  And for many, the idea that “we came from monkeys” is absurd and a disgrace.  Eh, even if that were as true and simple as it sounds, I wouldn’t really have a problem with it.  But framing it in the “we came from monkeys” framework vastly oversimplifies the different processes of evolutionary that contribute to the progress of our species.

Here’s one situation that tests my patience:  Someone else and I are discussing life and evolution comes up:

Other person: “Oh yeah – if we came from monkeys, HOW COME THERE ARE STILL MONKEYS?” (And then they sit there with a smug smile on their face, as if they have just issued an intellectual check-mate, boo-ya! Now whatcha gonna say, Mr. Smarty McScience-pants?!)

And then I usually get a smug smile on my face, for two reasons: #1 to try to hide the fact that I, too, once thought this was the Achilles Heel of Evolutionary theory; #2, because that statement reveals that that person doesn’t understand even the basics of evolution. (Of course, you might not necessarily be able to blame them – they could have been like me – I went to a school in which evolution was hastily mentioned one day in science class, and that was when the teacher told us “Just so you know there is a theory out there called evolution.  If you want to know about it, you’ll have to read about it on your own; we’re not going to learn about it here because it goes against the Bible.”)

To simplify what I’ve learned after high school: Evolution is not a process of replacement; it is made up of different, branching processes.  That’s why humans did not “come from” monkeys to “replace” them.  Different apes and primates share a common ancestor, which we all branched from.  Sometime in the past, we branched off from that ancestor because we had evolved some type of advantageous difference.  That’s why humans and apes/monkeys can coexist.

And to address the other “slam dunk” against evolution:  It’s just a “theory.” Well, let it suffice to say that a scientific theory is much different than your theory of where the other sock goes in the drier.  Without even going into all of the experiments, results, facts, etc. that the scientific process uses to back up its theories, here’s a little example to show just how solid “theories” can be.  Evolution is a theory just as gravity is a theory.  WHAT?  GRAVITY? THEORY? Yeah.  No one can prove that one day we won’t drop the apple and it will fall up instead of down.  And since that can’t be proven, theory is a gravity.  Evolution shares the same “theoretical” standing as the theory that is keeping us glued to the Earth right now.

AND, I’ve just realized that I’m up on my soapbox and halfway through a rant, which was not my intention (this coffee must be stronger than I thought!).  So, I’m going to stand down now, and leave you with two things.  First is a short YouTube video in which a scientists explains the process of change known as evolution.  It helped me understand it a lot better; maybe you can benefit too.

And as far as the evolution vs. God thing: I have my opinion, but I guess that’s a personal decision.  I’m not sure how anyone can look at the evidence and not have to rethink how they’ve been interpreting the Bible…and I’m not sure why people think God couldn’t or wouldn’t use a million-year long, intricate, beautiful, and awe-inspiring process to ensure that life on the planet progressed…Anyways, I digress.  On to the video and the NPR article!

And now the NPR article: 

by MARCELO GLEISER, NPR.com, 1/19/12

The evidence is clear, as in a February 2009 Gallup Poll, taken on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, that reported only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way.

The same poll correlated belief in evolution with educational level: 21 percent of people with a high school education or less believed in evolution. That number rose to 41 percent for people with some college attendance, 53 percent for college graduates, and 74 percent for people with a postgraduate education.

Clearly, the level of education has an impact on how people feel about evolution.

Another variable investigated by the same poll was how belief in evolution correlates with church attendance. Of those who believe in evolution, 24 percent go to church weekly, 30 percent go nearly weekly/monthly, and 55 percent seldom or never go.

Not surprisingly, and rather unfortunately, religious belief interferes with people’s understanding of what the theory of evolution says.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s in the fossil record, carefully dated using radioactivity, the release of particles from radioactive isotopic decay, which works like a very precise clock. Rocks from volcanic eruptions (igneous rocks) buried near a fossil carry certain amounts of radioactive material, unstable atomic nuclei that emit different kinds of radiation, like tiny bullets. The most common is Uranium-235, which decays into Lead-207. Analyzing the ratio of Uranium-235 to Lead-207 in a sample, and knowing how frequently Uranium-235 emits particles (its half-life is 704 million years, the amount half a sample decays into Lead), scientists can get a very accurate measure of the age of a fossil.

But evidence for evolution is also much more palpable, for example in the risks of overprescribing antibiotics: the more we (and farm animals) take antibiotics, the higher the chance that a microbe will mutate into one resistant to the drug. This is in-your-face evolution, species mutating at the genetic level and adapting to a new environment (in this case, an environment contaminated with antibiotics). The proof of this can be easily achieved in the laboratory (see link above), by comparing original strands of bacteria with those subjected to different doses of antibiotics. It’s simple and conclusive, since the changes in the genetic code of the resistant mutant can be identified and studied.

However, there are creationist scientists who claim that mutation is not the true mechanism of resistance. Instead, they claim that bacteria already had those genes in some sort of dormant state, which were then activated by their exposure to antibiotics. For example, Dr. Georgia Purdom argues that this inbuilt mechanism is “a testimony to the wonderful design God gave bacteria, master adapters and survivors in a sin-cursed world.” I couldn’t identify any data to back her hypothesis that bacterial resistance to antibiotics comes from horizontal gene swap and not mutation.

Does evolution really need to be such a stumbling block for so many? Is it really that bad that we descended from monkeys? Doesn’t that make us even more amazing, primates that can write poetry and design scientific experiments? Behind this strong resistance to evolution there is a deep dislike for a scientific understanding of how nature works. The problem seems to be related to the age-old God-of-the-Gaps agenda, that the more we understand of the world the less room there is for a creator God. This is bad theology, as it links belief to the development of science.

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TED Talks

Here’s a link to a website that I love :  TED Talks.  It’s a simply awesome collection of speeches, talks, and conversations that last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes – perfect for our culture whose attention span has diminished since the onslaught of Twitter, Facebook statuses and 2-minute sound bites.

The topics of the talks run the gamut – from technology, to religion, to business, to adventure and compassion.  You click on the topic and TED.com will bring up all videos related to that theme.  And then you sit back and absorb some wisdom from some of the planet’s most brilliant, creative (and perhaps idealistic, but then again, what’s wrong with being idealistic) minds.  I’m hoping I can find one or two that fit into my class this semester and I can share them with my students.

The website began with offering just the twenty minute clips, but now they have TED Conventions, TED Conversations, and even TED grants and fellowships.  TED.com also offers iTunes Podcasts for free:  Here.

From the About TED webpage:

“TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.”

 

Here are a couple of TED Talks that I found interesting this morning while drinking my tea:

Lakshmi Pratury on Letter Writing: 

For any of you out there who still cling to the idea that Islam is only a religion of violence, please educate yourself. Also, these 16 and a half minutes may shed some light on just how central a role Jesus plays in Islam. As Imam Rauf implies, it’s time to let go of our egos and practice Compassion…

 

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Religion, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Historians Ponder the State of the Job Market

Following is an article that is extremely relevant to me and all of my fellow History PhDs….It makes me think of another article that I read several months ago: Strangers on a Train.  Is a life in the Ivory Tower the only “worthy” career path for someone with a doctorate in History?  

I’m beginning to think that if we don’t quickly make ours skills and tools of the trade  more explicitly relevant and useful in everyday life (serving as advisors, public officials, etc), then our funding may be cut completely and the Ivory Tower will become abandoned.  Hopefully I’m wrong. 

 

CHICAGO — The history of the history profession may provide some guidance to those trying to figure out the terrible job market, said panelists Friday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.

In the last year, there have been frequent calls, including one by AHA leaders, for job candidates to develop alternative career paths, because the academic job market is not going to bounce back to pre-recession levels any time soon.

A paper presented at the session by Thomas Bender, a professor of history at New York University, suggested that even though nonacademic careers may be the obvious direction to go, a shift in thinking can only come about when the leading history departments in the country begin to actively back this kind of thinking. “Without that leadership, the changes proposed will be considered something subpar and thus not the thing for an aspiring department or student,” Bender said in his paper. He said research by the AHA Committee on Doctoral Education has shown that graduates students are afraid to tell their advisers that they are contemplating careers outside the academe.

“Such students preferred to pursue the profession of history in museums, historical societies, film making, and the park service, among other possibilities,” according to the paper. But the students fear that if and when their advisers find out their plans, they will not be supportive. That’s why a radical change is needed in the way history departments think: not only acceptance of a new normal, but also a realization that the market may even worsen in the years to come.

Bender, in his paper, said that the idea that academe is the only suitable option for Ph.D students in history took hold in the mid-1950s. “Oddly, not only was this narrowing nourished by the flush times of the so-called academic ‘Golden Age’ that ended in the early 1970s, but it even accelerated during the hard times since,” he said.

Bender called out to historians to recover the deep roots of history beyond the world of academics.  He even tackled what many would call the elephant in the room by calling for departments to produce fewer Ph.D.s. and suggesting that the AHA encourage the shutting down of subpar programs.

To expand the field of history, he suggested collaborations with professional schools, including business schools. That means developing the right courses. History of the Constitution, anyone? Or legal history for undergraduates, or a joint B.A. in history and a M.A. in public affairs. History as a discipline could play a significant part in educating those opting to take up careers in civics or business, he said. “Advanced training as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership, and I hope we recover that forgotten legacy as we go forward,” according to Bender. “Those students who seek nonacademic careers deserve as much moral and practical support as those who seek to emulate their professors. Both are important and enriching career choices.”

But will history departments take the all-important step of trying to reduce enrollments in their graduate programs like Bender suggests? James Axtell, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, who presented a paper at the session called “A Long View: Graduate Education in America” does not seem to think so. “In a competitive climate of rankings and relative prestige, precious few universities are willing to take the first step toward reducing their graduate enrollments because reduction smacks of entropy and loss of face; some governors, trustees, and state boards of higher education seem less reluctant,” he said. But change is imperative and is needed, he said. Greater costs and sky-high debts demand that hard questions be asked about entrenched processes in the academic world.

Robert B. Townsend, the author of a recent report about the job market for graduate students in history and a deputy director at the AHA, said he is beginning to notice changes in the way doctoral students think about the market.

“In the 90s, many graduate students in history seemed to be angry, and there were frequent calls for shutting down programs. I think now, they are focusing on the positive and concentrating on the jobs they can have,” he said.


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Exploring Stephen Hawking’s ‘Unfettered Mind’

NPR – January 3, 2012

By NPR staff

Make a list of the world’s most popular scientists, and Stephen Hawking’s name will be near or at the very top of the list.

Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time and a professor at the University of Cambridge, is known as much for his contributions to theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity as for his willingness to make science accessible for the general public, says science writer Kitty Ferguson.

“It’s not dumbing down [science]; it’s really making it accessible, hopefully, to a lot of people,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

Ferguson, who helped Hawking edit his 2001 book The Universe in a Nutshell, is the author of a new Hawking biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind. Written with Hawking’s blessing, the book traces his life from childhood to Oxford, and then to his graduate work at Cambridge in the early 1960s, where he was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease and given less than two years to live.

But Hawking’s disease has progressed slowly, while his personal and professional life has flourished. He celebrates his 70th birthday this January, says Ferguson, and continues to work on projects despite having very limited use of his physical body. (He communicates using a voice synthesizer, which he controls using a muscle in his cheek.)

“It’s just so interesting to see how he came to terms with [his illness],” says Ferguson. “What he says is that it wasn’t courage. [He says] ‘I just did what I had to do.’ … He took to listening to a lot of Richard Wagner, thinking of himself as a rather tragic hero. His mind went through all kinds of ways of dealing with that type of problem, but eventually, I think, he realized that theoretical physics was kind of a great escape from it.”

Science writer Kitty Ferguson sits next to Stephen Hawking in this undated photograph. Ferguson is the author of several books about physics, including Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything and Black Holes in Spacetime.

Hawking Radiation And A Unified Theory Of Everything

In the 1970s, Hawking discovered what is now called “Hawking radiation.” At the time, his discovery was controversial because many scientists — including Hawking — had believed that nothing could ever come out of a black hole, so a black hole could never get any smaller.

But Hawking postulated that if two individual particles were right at the edge of a black hole, and one of them happened to fall into the black hole, then the other particle could escape out into space, and appear as radiation being emitted from the black hole. Therefore, black holes could lose both mass and energy — and could, in fact, grow smaller.

Hawking’s discovery raised many questions about what goes on inside black holes and our universe itself, says Ferguson.

“[His discovery raised questions like] ‘What happens to the star that collapsed that formed the black hole? What happens to all of that when the black hole disappears entirely?’ ” she says. “And does this mean that this information is completely lost to our universe? And if it is … to physics, that’s a huge problem. Because if information can be lost from the universe, that’s a violation of a law that says it can’t disappear.”

Hawking has also pursued what is called “theory of everything,” which is conceptually an idea that there should be one theory from which everything else in the universe can be explained or derived.

“He has been predicting for most of his career that we will find it,” says Ferguson. “Recently he has decided that it’s probably going to be impossible for anybody, ever, to find the theory of everything. And this is a huge turnaround. He thinks we’ll come up with some theories that are approximations … but we’ll never be able to know the underlying mysterious theory that would really explain the entire universe.”

Interview Highlights

On time travel

“Someone recently asked him, ‘If time travel were possible, what would you go back to in your life?’ And you would expect him to say his discovery of Hawking radiation or a big prize [he’d won]. What he said was he would go back to the birth of his first child, his son Robert.”

On how Hawking communicates

“When he sees the part of the screen that has the word that he’s looking for, he punches a little mouse. Then the screen changes and we see lines of words scrolling down, and those are the words from that part of the screen. Then when he sees the word he wants, he activates his little switch again. Then you see the screen changing again and you see the words, and when he sees the next word he wants, he punches the device again. Then that word goes across the bottom of the screen. And he builds his sentence at the bottom of a screen. When he gets the sentence completed, he makes another movement, which indicates that his synthetic voice should speak that sentence. … It sounds simple, but it’s not simple. It moves at the speed of a video game, and very often he misses a word or misses the line, and then the whole thing has to start over. What that means is that working with him can be frustrating. Very often, you know what word he’s after. You know what word he wants to capture. But protocol says you do not second-guess him. You do not move ahead and say, ‘Stephen, I know what you’re trying to say.’ You let him finish. Because he’s going to finish anyway. It would be impolite, as it would be to interrupt anybody talking.”

On Hawking’s singularity theory and no-boundary proposal

“He likes to describe that as though you were traveling backward on a globe of the Earth. When you get to the South Pole, the concept of ‘south’ no longer means anything. You don’t say an airplane flew south of the South Pole. So it’s the same thing — time becomes meaningless. Now when you start to think about that, first of all, Hawking says that relieves us of need for creator. There doesn’t have to be a creation. It just started. And it was all kind of space dimensions, no time dimensions. What I find really interesting about that is that it’s not a new idea. It’s an idea you find in early Christian and Jewish philosophers like Philo of Alexandria or Augustine. They both conceived of a universe in which time didn’t exist outside of our creation. Time was part of the creator. And God exists outside of time in the eternal now. It’s the same idea. It was not new to theology, not new to philosophy, but very new to physics.”

On Hawking’s popularity

“He is popular because he deals with things right on the border of human knowledge. The origin of the universe, black holes — these are questions that are out on the edge, on the frontier between the known and unknown and the possibly unknowable. I love the phrase of what Wheeler, the American physicist, called the flaming ramparts of the world. [Hawking] tries to take us with him on this adventure, and it is fun and it’s mind-blowing and wonderful.”

On the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson particle

“He has placed a bet that the Higgs particle will not be found. … One of the mysteries in physics is what gives elementary particles — electrons, quarks — their mass. Mass, we often define as how many matter particles there are in an object. That becomes a little stupid when we’re talking about a thing that is just one matter particle itself. So there’s another definition for mass, which is: the resistance you feel if you push against something … and where does that resistance come from? That’s the mystery that the Higgs particle would solve. … That’s what we’re looking for, this Higgs field. The Large Hadron Collider, what it does is accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light and then slams them together in these head-on collisons, and hopefully in the debris of one of those collisions — just in a split second — a minuscule part of the Higgs field will break away and that will be the Higgs particle. … So far, they have pretty good evidence that they may have seen it, but it’s not definitive yet.”

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Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs

By JASON DePARLE

NY Times:  January 4, 2012

WASHINGTON — Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Republican candidate for president, warned this fall that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America.” National Review, a conservative thought leader, wrote that “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.” Even Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that “mobility from the very bottom up” is “where the United States lags behind.”

Liberal commentators have long emphasized class, but the attention on the right is largely new.

“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.

Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.

John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush who helped start Opportunity Nation, an effort to seek policy solutions, said he was “shocked” by the international comparisons. “Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality,” Mr. Bridgeland said. “But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility — a lack of access to the American Dream.”

While Europe differs from the United States in culture and demographics, a more telling comparison may be with Canada, a neighbor with significant ethnic diversity. Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, found that just 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans. Similarly, 26 percent of American men raised at the top tenth stayed there, but just 18 percent of Canadians.

“Family background plays more of a role in the U.S. than in most comparable countries,” Professor Corak said in an interview.

Skeptics caution that the studies measure “relative mobility” — how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. That is different from asking whether they have more money. Most Americans have higher incomes than their parents because the country has grown richer.

Some conservatives say this measure, called absolute mobility, is a better gauge of opportunity. A Pew study found that 81 percent of Americans have higher incomes than their parents (after accounting for family size). There is no comparable data on other countries.

Since they require two generations of data, the studies also omit immigrants, whose upward movement has long been considered an American strength. “If America is so poor in economic mobility, maybe someone should tell all these people who still want to come to the U.S.,” said Stuart M. Butler, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The income compression in rival countries may also make them seem more mobile. Reihan Salam, a writer for The Daily and National Review Online, has calculated that a Danish family can move from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile with $45,000 of additional earnings, while an American family would need an additional $93,000.

Even by measures of relative mobility, Middle America remains fluid. About 36 percent of Americans raised in the middle fifth move up as adults, while 23 percent stay on the same rung and 41 percent move down, according to Pew research. The “stickiness” appears at the top and bottom, as affluent families transmit their advantages and poor families stay trapped.

While Americans have boasted of casting off class since Poor Richard’s Almanac, until recently there has been little data.

Pioneering work in the early 1980s by Gary S. Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, found only a mild relationship between fathers’ earnings and those of their sons. But when better data became available a decade later, another prominent economist, Gary Solon, found the bond twice as strong. Most researchers now estimate the “elasticity” of father-son earnings at 0.5, which means if one man earns $100,000 more than another, his sons would earn $50,000 more on average than the sons of the poorer man.

In 2006 Professor Corak reviewed more than 50 studies of nine countries. He ranked Canada, Norway, Finland and Denmark as the most mobile, with the United States and Britain roughly tied at the other extreme. Sweden, Germany, and France were scattered across the middle.

The causes of America’s mobility problem are a topic of dispute — starting with the debates over poverty. The United States maintains a thinner safety net than other rich countries, leaving more children vulnerable to debilitating hardships.

Poor Americans are also more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.

“The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who wrote thearticle for National Review. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”

A second distinguishing American trait is the pay tilt toward educated workers. While in theory that could help poor children rise — good learners can become high earners — more often it favors the children of the educated and affluent, who have access to better schools and arrive in them more prepared to learn.

“Upper-income families can invest more in their children’s education and they may have a better understanding of what it takes to get a good education,” said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gives grants to social scientists.

The United States is also less unionized than many of its peers, which may lower wages among the least skilled, and has public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment.

Perhaps another brake on American mobility is the sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest — the theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which emphasize the power of the privileged to protect their interests. Countries with less equality generally have less mobility.

Mr. Salam recently wrote that relative mobility “is overrated as a social policy goal” compared with raising incomes across the board. Parents naturally try to help their children, and a completely mobile society would mean complete insecurity: anyone could tumble any time.

But he finds the stagnation at the bottom alarming and warns that it will worsen. Most of the studies end with people born before 1970, while wage gaps, single motherhood and incarceration increased later. Until more recent data arrives, he said, “we don’t know the half of it.”

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Et cetera

In the shower is where I do most of my best thinking and planning…

I always knew Satan was a college professor by trade..

Thank goodness I haven’t had this problem over the Xmas break!

How true…

 

AND SOME PEOPLE JUST DON’T GET IT! 

 

Okay, time to get a little political…

Pretty much sums it up:

I love Stephen Colbert!

Short, Sweet, and To The Point: 

Perfect: 

 

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