The Week in Commentary
When did 'interdisciplinary' become the adjective we can't live without?
Anatoly Liberman, a professor at the University of Minnesota, takes aim at a buzzword that shows up in academic and other settings.
"Read the ads for the few openings in the humanities, and you will see that colleges will hire only specialists with an interdisciplinary focus and the propensity for critical thinking. ...
"Now that I am an old man I am mildly interdisciplinary and know something about general linguistics, literature, folklore and a few other things. Yet I feel acutely how ignorant I am of the many areas connected with my field (or fields?). For example, I have published almost nothing on grammar, nothing at all on speech perception, typology, and a host of other well-developed subjects.
"But when I read in ads that a beginning assistant professor should demonstrate his or her commitment to interdisciplinary studies, I feel nothing but indignation. Yesterday's graduate students, even the best of them, could not possibly become acquainted with more than a tiny piece of the material pertaining even to their immediate topics. Although everybody is aware of this fact, the poor guys' resumes should demonstrate enviable breadth, something that either doesn't (cannot!) exist or is a grandiloquent synonym for superficiality. ...
"Is there a remedy for this nonsense? Not until many scholars with great names or at least those who use famous letterhead (which is not the same thing) unite against the fad will the bubble burst. If it ever does, the world will be amazed at the heresy it trusted so long and so faithfully."
New Uptown Theater sparks nostalgia for the old one
Euan Kerr, an arts reporter for Minnesota Public Radio News, greets the newly refurbished Uptown Theater with mixed feelings.
"The owners had just spent a million bucks spiffing up the place, and it is magnificent, with deep, cushioned seats, a spacious lobby and, most importantly, the bright razor-sharp image shining on the huge screen. The murals on the inside and the carvings on the outside have been restored. The beacon high atop the tower has been re-lit.
"Yet I know I was not alone among the guests at the opening reception who felt surprising nostalgia for the old Uptown — the place with the lumpy cushions and unkind springs, the floor sticky from an ocean of spilled sugary drinks. In the old days you climbed to the balcony with a sense of unease and looked over the railing with a feeling of danger. It seemed too low to be of any use, until you sat down and found it was a perfect height for a footrest. ...
"My beloved and I used to live a few blocks away and sometimes we went there a couple of times a week. We were such regulars that we knew where to find the 'safe' seats, as in sturdy and non-injurious. Over the years we saw a lot of great art film. Occasionally we wallowed in the B-movie trash that the alchemy of hipsterism resurrected as cinematic treasure.
"All movie theaters elicit a sense of adventure. It's a cliche, but these are the places we go to join gangsters and pirates, scoundrels, and heroes. And there is the wonderful human element too. The simple human connection of sitting in a crowd sharing an experience, whether it be laughter, terror, or sadness is one of the joys of being alive."
Success of 'Fifty Shades' is a bitter pill for an author who's losing money
Author Ann Bauer shares what it's like to write books and try to sell them in a marketplace with changing tastes.
"I'd had a week of bad writing days, all related to the fact that I wonder if the work I produce simply has no relevance today. It certainly has no value. I will, for the first time in my life, spend more on writing this year than I make. This is partly due to falling rates but also to the fact that literary folk simply don't, or can't, pay their bills. ...
"I darted through the crowd, thinking I'd escape them, and opened the door of the Starbucks. Inside, it was like a Who concert. Smashingly loud, every surface covered, people lined up three-wide out the mall door. ...
" 'They've been camping out here since last night,' the girl told me, her eyes gray with fatigue. 'I opened at 5:30 and they were banging on the doors.'
" 'What's the reading?' I asked, recalling my own reading at this very Barnes and Noble where I was THRILLED to see 35 faces in the crowd.
" 'Have you ever heard of "Fifty Shades of Grey"?' the girl asked earnestly. Then she whispered, 'I think it's porn.' ...
"So here I am, howling about this in writing. Which is, of course, what I do. But I've also had time to calm myself and decide that fighting this tide is ridiculous. And there is — whether I can see it or not — value in a book that speaks to more than 5 million people worldwide. I just don't know where that leaves me, and the other quiet, literary writers I know. Do we operate at a loss, book after book, or give up and become florists?"
"Isn't it ignorant to comment on something you haven't read? I don't know how you can say that a book that exposes new types of relationships closes off inquiry and reinforces ignorance." -- Kevin Lohmann, Eden Prairie
"I'm really tired of SO many people believing that you can 'do what you love and the money will follow.' Most of us just have to work at a job we can find to pay the bills. Do what you love on the side and get over it." -- Pam Pommer, Bloomington
"This book, or set of books, is merely a symbol of our collective superficiality and materialism. In quiet rebellion, I will continue to read Ann Bauer's words, bake my own bread, avoid smart phones and television, and search for real things, real experiences." -- Ben F, Fargo, N.D.
"Kevin L, you say: 'Isn't it ignorant to comment on something you haven't read?' Well, I haven't tried meth, and I think I will condemn it all I want. I've heard enough of '50 Shades' to know I wouldn't waste my time or money on it." -- Wally F, South Dakota
With 'Silent Spring,' Rachel Carson started an argument that endures to this day
William Souder, the author of a new book on Rachel Carson, describes her lasting effect on the environmental movement in the United States.
"Let's begin with the woman who started it all. Rachel Carson was born in 1907 near Pittsburgh. Poor but a brilliant student, Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University.
"But science was only one of Carson's passions. The other was writing. ...
"The subject of 'Silent Spring' was pesticides, notably DDT and a group of related insecticides that came into wide use after World War II. These chemical poisons were effective in controlling insects that damaged forests and food crops, and others that transmitted diseases such as typhus and malaria. DDT's inventor won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.
"But the widespread use of synthetic pesticides had unintended consequences, as these compounds turned out to be toxic to many species of wildlife, especially birds and fish. The same pesticides also threatened human health in ways that we were slow to detect and that are uncertain even now. ...
"The chemicals industry — and its allies in government — fought back against 'Silent Spring.' Critics dismissed the book as hysterical and one-sided. Its author, meanwhile, was described as an agent of the far left, and probably a Communist. Carson's critics saw 'Silent Spring' as inimical to U.S. economic interests and therefore fundamentally un-American. "Here, then, was the source of the bitter, right/left divide that has animated the environmental debate ever since."
"And now, here we are, 50 years later, and the birds are fine, the frogs are fine, the animals are fine ... and yet, the leftists cannot bring themselves to admit they were wrong and that the book was a hysterical, one-sided exaggeration of the facts." -- terry franklin
Twin Cities region has a good start in robotics; let's capitalize on it
Andrew Borene, executive director of Robotics Alley and an executive at ReconRobotics in Edina, argues the strength of the Twin Cities as a center for the development of robot technology and business.
"Robots are moving into our personal lives by cleaning living room floors, handling hazardous materials, parking cars and saving lives in roles from security to medicine. The world's emerging robotics industry has vast potential to benefit the quality of life for people all over the world, creating millions of high-paying jobs in the process.
"In the international picture, the United States will make decisions to either be a net exporter or a net importer of robots in coming decades. Locally, our home can serve as a hub of activity in this exciting industrial transformation.
"There are leading local companies in established robotics markets like PaR Systems, Polaris Defense, NPC Robotics and ReconRobotics. More upstarts remain to be discovered or advertised in fields like agriculture, transportation and medicine. ...
"Robotics can be a high-paying, job-creation industry for the Twin Cities region. The exciting opportunities in robotics and automation technologies fit our regional DNA for economic and business growth."