'More artistic than most typical official portraits'

Slate speaks to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture, about the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were unveiled recently

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists? 

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits. 

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired. 

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate? 

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress



A $60 million pop-up Olympic stadium

Pyeongchang’s Olympic stadium cost South Koreans $60 million dollars and will be used exactly four times. That’s by design. From Citylab

The 35,000-seat pentagonal Olympic Stadium is an extreme example of pop-up architecture, a mega-event venue with a planned lifespan shorter than the career of an aerial snowboarder. The stadium will be used four times in all—for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games and Paralympics. Then it’s slated to be torn down.

With its simple structure and open roof, the temporary structure was designed with demolition in mind—a technique that has been employed before in previous Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992. Given the sub-freezing temperatures expected, the unheated and roofless facility is perhaps less than ideal.

But the alternative—a more costly permanent structure—is probably an even worse idea, experts say. Pyeongchang is a rural outpost of around 45,000 people in one of the poorest areas of South Korea, a country where winter sports have a small following. If the stadium isn’t torn down, it would likely be fated to join a mighty herd of white elephants from Olympics past—infrastructure that has gone unused decades after the athletes went home, yet continue to drain public money in upkeep costs.

Reading Shakespeare: New source found for Bard's plays

From The Guardian: Scholar finds new sources for parts of Shakespeare’s plays. 

Independent scholar Dennis McCarthy and LaFayette College professor June Schlueter used WCopyfind software to compare passages from Shakespeare’s plays with George North’s 1576 unpublished manuscript, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion, about the dangers of rebelling against a king. They were able to trace more than 20 passages back to the essay, including Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, Macbeth’s comparison of dog breeds to different classes of men, the Fool’s Merlin prophecy in King Lear, and the events surrounding Jack Cade’s fatal fight with Alexander Iden in Henry VI.

Transcience: Washing those memories right out of your hair

From Harvard Health on transcience, one of the seven types of memory loss:


This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. You are most likely to forget information soon after you learn it. However, memory has a use-it-or-lose-it quality: memories that are called up and used frequently are least likely to be forgotten. Although transience might seem like a sign of memory weakness, brain scientists regard it as beneficial because it clears the brain of unused memories, making way for newer, more useful ones.

Daniel L. Schacter, author of the Seven Sins of Memory. on how transience may come about because memories aren't stored in our brains forever like a hard drive. Rather,  memories are most likely impermanent.

Discussions about the cause of long-term forgetting have focused on whether forgetting is attributable to actual loss of information from memory storage, to retrieval failure that can be reversed by provision of appropriate cues, or both. There is no doubt that retrieval failure plays an important role in forgetting. Some experiences may be rendered temporarily inaccessible because of interference from related experiences, and it is well-established that cues and hints can elicit recall of seemingly forgotten memories. Nonetheless, such findings need not indicate that all forgetting is attributable to access failure. The view that experiences are recorded permanently, with all forgetting attributable to access failure, is surprisingly common—even among psychologists. However, it seems likely that information is also lost from storage over time.

The tyranny of academic metrics

Jerry Z. Muller, a history professor at Catholic University, on the Tyranny of Metrics, on how colleges and universities lean on simple black-and-white statistics to determine important grey-area decisions like faculty hiring, retention and tenure. 

When individual faculty members, or whole departments, are judged by the number of publications, whether in the form of articles or books, the incentive is to produce more publications, rather than better ones. Really important books may take many years to research and write. But if the system rewards speed and volume, the result is likely to be a decline in truly significant scholarship. 


Even if you leave aside the accuracy and reliability of these metrics, consider the message they convey. Initiatives like the College Scorecard treat higher education in purely economic terms: Its sole concern is return on investment, understood as the relationship between the monetary costs of college and the increase in earnings that a degree will ultimately provide. Those are, of course, legitimate considerations. College costs eat up an increasing percentage of family income or require the student to take on debt; and making a living is among the most important tasks in life.

But it is not the only task in life, and it is an impoverished conception of college that regards it purely in terms of its ability to enhance earnings. If we distinguish training, which is oriented to production and survival, from education, which is oriented to making survival meaningful, then metrics are only about the former.




What happens when the house that capitalism built burns down

From the introduction to the Intellectual Origins of the [2008] Global Financial Crisis, Roger Berkowitz explains how he uses the example of Hannah Arendt's study of totalitarianism to better understand why our economic system melted down a decade ago.  

Arendt didn't want to understand or explain totalitarianism from a historical point of view, which would have not only made it seem natural and premeditated, but also would have normalized it. (In a way you can normalize or justify any action from the past.) You have to look at the issue in a new light, and (he quotes Arendt) “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to,
and resisting of, reality— whatever it may be.” We need to Berkowitz quotes again "think about what we are doing."

To look at the 2008 financial straight in the eye, Berkowitz found it was born not from easy money, nor the allure of easy money or the lack of regulations, although each of them played a part. Rather, Berkowitz took the problem and made it larger: The 2008 global financial meltdown was caused by capitalism taking over our lives. 

At the heart of Max Weber’s account is his claim that the rise of an unnatural and specifically capitalist ethic—to earn more and more money
combined with the a strong work ethic that limits the spontaneous enjoyment of life outside of work— is rooted in the increasing rationalization
of society, culture, and humanity itself. What capitalist rationality demands is that humans act according to the reason of profit and loss.

Capitalist rationality is enormously powerful in allocating resources efficiently and increasing general prosperity. But such rationalization is
also dehumanizing. For if humans must act rationally, they must abandon spontaneous feelings, passions, instincts, even commonsense moral sensations— all of which are rejected as irrational. Th e great paradox that Weber discovered in capitalism is that the pure rationalism of capitalist activity is irrational. And yet, the power of capitalist rationality is, it seems, irresistible.

The irresistibility of capitalism is part and parcel of the demand for certainty. Capitalism offers the certainty of a balanced ledger and the clarity of profit and loss. Capitalism thus offers objective criteria on which to rationally evaluate all decisions. In its promise of objective certainty, capitalism is a symptom of what Hannah Arendt calls the experience of homelessness. Our world, the world defined by the loss of the authority
of religions and the decay of traditions, is also a world defined by the loss of a spiritual home. Capitalism— the social system that defines good and bad, winners and losers, status and power, by clear and certain criteria of salary and wealth— is one way that a homeless humanity sets itself on a
certain and stable foundation, albeit one of its own making.

The biggest threat in US-Russia relations

Ivo H. Daalder, writing in Foreign Affairs, on the difference between the last period of US-Russia combativeness and competitiveness and this one. 

Speaking almost a decade after Putin lambasted nato and the United States at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev returned to the same podium last year to lament that “we have slid back into a new Cold War.” But the current confrontation is very different from the actual Cold War, an ideological clash that extended to every part of the world. Huge armies were deployed on either side of the Iron Curtain, many thousands of nuclear weapons were ready to launch at a moment’s notice, and proxy wars were fought as far away as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today’s confrontation lacks the intensity, scale, and ideological divisiveness of that earlier, deadlier conflict.

Moreover, the biggest threat today is not a deliberate war, as it was then, but the possibility of miscalculation. One worry is that Russia might not believe that nato would actually come to the defense of its most exposed allies-which is why strong statements of reassurance and commitment by all nato countries, and not least the United States, are so vital.

Michael Stipe & REM, the 1980s and growing up in public

Michael Stipe, former singer of former band REM, spoke to The Guardian about the favorite songs he wrote and sang. During a conversation about the band’s World Leader Pretend, Stipe had this to say about REM’s early days: 

Being in REM through the 80s meant growing up in public, Stipe says. It also meant learning what being in a group entailed. “I didn’t know the bass player made the low notes until the second album – I was that naive about music and how it’s made.” By the time of Green, the slightly nerdy group from Athens, Georgia, had become stars, and the intensely shy Stipe had to change the way he worked, especially live. “We didn’t have LED screens, so I started dressing in brighter clothes on stage. I started allowing gestures to be larger, which I wouldn’t in the early 80s because I thought it was fake and stupid and popstarish.”



Can you have a single culture in populations dominated by expats?

By official estimates, the population of Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates is 80 percent expatriate and 20 percent Emirati. How do you create a common identity -- a common culture -- in a nation of hyperpolyglots. 

In New Statesman, Sukriti Yadava explores

Because no matter how one defines culture – a unique set of behaviours and traditions ingrained into the people of the nation; the group of histories and events that a nation chooses to identify with – it is always rooted in the past.

In the case of Dubai, however, most expats seem to practice the ideal of “living in the present”. Dubai’s modern cultural markers aren’t particularly visible or tangible, and they aren’t pegged to the past: old cobblestone streets, or pierogi recipes passed from grandmother to granddaughter, or kitschy memorabilia from old movies.

Instead, the culture of Dubai is more psychological, a utopian vision shared by its nomadic residents, at times naïve, but reportedly happy. And while this modern culture brewing in Dubai may seem invisible, it exists all the same.

How academic libraries can boost OER and affordable content on campus

Libraries interested in establishing a new OER or affordable course content program, partnering on an existing one, or focusing one on student success will likely find an environmental scan useful...It is likely that individual faculty, or even program-level faculty cohorts are using open resources or engaged in strategies to reduce costs to their students. Leveraging those initiatives, but more importantly, the faculty champions behind them can prove vital to the success of the program. It can also help to avoid the sense among earlier adopters that the new initiative is seeking to fix a problem that does not exist. Finally, highlighting local examples can make the creation or adaptation of OER or the adoption of OER and affordable alternatives seem much more feasible in the local environment. It facilitates being able to answer questions pertaining to the local culture and institutional policies related to intellectual property and licensing, documenting the work involved in creating or adopting OER or affordable content for tenure and promotion, and the workflow for creating, storing, and making discovering OER.

During the environmental scan, librarians should also be on the lookout for programmatic partners interested in supporting open licensing and/or finding ways to reduce student costs. This could be as simple as reaching out to the university bookstore to working with specific departments or even student-facing entities like academic computing. You never know how these organizations may already be supporting OER or affordable content programs. 

The paper Open Pathways to Student Success: Academic Library Partnerships for Open Educational Resource and Affordable Course Content Creation and Adoption
is found in the The Journal of Academic Librarianship

Educators report difficulty finding suitable OER materials

Finding suitable open license educational resources is difficult for teachers, according to a survey conducted by the OER Hub (with funding by the Hewlett Foundation). 

These results were reported in the chapter "What Can OER Do for Me? Evaluating the Claims for OER" from the book Open:  e Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. 

For all users, the biggest barrier to use of OER was  finding suitable resources, and OER repositories were used very little compared with resources such as YouTube, Khan Academy, and TED talks. Another  nding that was consistent across all groups was the comparatively high level of adaptation.  is might be expected to be high amongst educators (79.8%), but was also found in formal learners (77.3%), and informal learners (84.7%). What constitutes adaptation varies for these users, and is an area that requires further investigation.  is is in contrast to other research which found previously low levels of adaptation.8 For some users adaptation means using the resources as inspiration for creating their own material, as this quote illustrates:
‘What I do is I look at a lot of free resources but I don’t usually give them directly to my students because I usually don’t like them as much as some- thing I would create, so what I do is I get a lot of ideas.’

People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East

It was late last year I finished Joris Luyenddijk's People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East. It's the story of a Dutch speaker who moves to Egypt to learn Arabic and then stumbles his way into becoming a Middle East correspondent for Dutch media. The first part of the book deals with his  wrestles over the fact that just because he knows Arabic doesn't make him an expert on Egypt, much less the Middle East. 

He gives readers the inside scoop on how reporters fake expertise, mostly by standing firmly behind a set of (mostly made up) statistics and each correspondent interviewing the same 'experts' in each country. He also wrestles with the fact that covering newsy items in the Middle East doesn't give his readers any insight on how people are there, how people live there, etc. 

One issue that makes it very hard to explain how people live and think is that (at that time) most of the people living where he covered lived under the thumb of dictatorships. No one living in Syria, Saddam-era Iraq and Egypt were going to tell him the truth -- about anything. At least on the record. And most certainly didn't want to be seen speaking with a reporter. 

The last 40 percent of the book covers his burnout from working and living in Egypt and moving to a different country (Lebanon) and finally to the West Bank. This latter move was the biggest of all. Professionally he went from a mostly anonymous Middle East correspondent into reporting on the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, where every word he wrote was filtered through these two hyper critical lenses. In the early years, he was lucky to receive any feedback through letters to the editor. In those later years, he was lucky if a single story didn't create an avalanche of nasty letters. He spends a bit of time explaining why Israel is winning this ever-so-important media war. 

From his early years: 

The most surreal thing was my own job. Students riots broke outings Iran, and I had to every them from Cairo because Tehran kept its gates closed. How many readers and listeners would know that I couldn’t even place a direct phone call to Iran from Egypt, and that Cairo was about the least-suitable place on earth from where to follow these disturbances? Not many, I hoped, and it really couldn’t come out that I know precisely six words of Persian. 

I am a former journalist, and it's been a long time since I read a good, honest account of the sometimes debilitating worries reporters have of being found out as fraudsters. I was told by the person who recommended the book that it wasn't going to change my thinking in any way. It didn't. But his reminisces and arguments feel so close to what I experienced -- just in another part of the world. 

2016 Florida student textbook & course materials survey

"The financial burden that students must bear for textbooks and course materials — and its impact on their academic choices and success — is a mounting concern for Florida’s higher education community," write the authors of the 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey from the University of Florida Office of distance Learning & Student Services. 

The survey, conducted in March and April 2016, counted results from more than 22,000 students. 

Three of the findings include:

The high cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access, success, and completion. The findings suggest that the cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access to required materials (66.6% did not purchase the required textbook) and learning (37.6% earn a poor grade; 19.8% fail a course). Time to graduation and/or access to courses is also impacted by cost. Students reported that they occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (47.6%); do not register for a course (45.5%); drop a course (26.1%), or withdraw from courses (20.7%).

Required textbooks are purchased but not always used in course instruction. The average survey participant purchased 2.6 textbooks that were not used during his or her academic career. That is a statistically significant increase from the 1.6 textbooks indicated in the 2012 survey.

Students in Associate or Bachelor’s degree programs spent more on textbooks than students in Master’s or Doctorate degree programs. For those students seeking an Associate degree, Bachelor’s degree with 0-60 credit hours, or Bachelor’s degree with 61 or more credit hours, 54.6%, 57.8% and 55.0%, respectively, reported having spent $301 or more on textbooks. By comparison, 38% of students seeking a Master’s degree, and 45% of students seeking a Doctorate degree, reported having spent $301 or more.

Repeat drunk driving offenders in 12 US states

From the United States, more context regarding drunk driving.

A 2014 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated statistics on the level of drunk driving recidivism by investigating data from 12 states and calculating the chance of being a repeat drunk driving offender depending on the type of charge: arrests, convictions and license suspensions. 

In 1995, researchers found that one-third of all drivers convicted of DWI were repeat offenders. This study looked to re-explore and update repeat offender tallies. 

In the United States, the amount of DWI arrests has dropped 25 percent since 1995, but drunk driving remains more common than other offenses, such as property crime, drug abuse violations, larceny-theft and assaults. 

The researchers found, “although DWI arrests have decreased, DWI repeat offenders are still believed to make up a sizeable proportion of DWI arrests.”

Looking at data from 12 states, researchers calculated the amount of repeat offenders and compared them against other states. Each group was weighted against the type of drunk driving charges. 

Arrests: DWI recidivism ranged from 11 to 41%, the median was 25% and the weighted mean was 25%. Minnesota had the highest percentage of repeat DWI offenders with 41%, and Mississippi had the lowest percentage of repeat DWI offenders with 11%. The number of drivers arrested for DWI in each State varied significantly, but there was no relationship between the number of drivers arrested and the per - centage of repeat offenders. 

Convictions: DWI recidivism ranged from 11 to 69%, the median was 29.5% and the weighted mean was 30%. Pennsylvania had the highest percent - age of repeat DWI offenders with 69%, and Mississippi had the lowest percentage of DWI offenders with 11%. 

Suspensions: DWI recidivism ranged from 11–73%, the median was 34% and the weighted mean was 32%. Vermont had the highest percentage of repeat DWI offenders with 73%, and Mississippi had the lowest percentage of DWI offenders with 11%.