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Dead Birds, Data Mining, and Dark Matter

By Livia Gershon

We’re killing all the birds (New York Times)
by John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra
Since 1970, populations of wild birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by a third as humans have wrecked their habitats. Even scarier, we only know this because scientists have been counting birds for a long time. The study probably reflects an even bigger crisis that also includes many species that we don’t monitor as closely.

Data mining your medical records (Wired)
by Megan Molteni
The Mayo Clinic is working with Google on a plan that would mine enormous troves of patient records using AI. The effort could new yield ways to predict and prevent serious disease. It could also be a huge threat to patient privacy.

Studying physics and learning about bias (Public Books)
by Lawrence Ware
Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist who does pen-and-paper calculations to advance humanity’s understanding of dark matter. As a black woman, she’s also—perhaps inescapably—become an expert in the impact of racism and sexism in physics.

Why we all need to know statistics (Aeon)
by David Spiegelhalter
What’s the cost of being part of the EU? Just how bad for your health is bacon? Statistics isn’t always taught in ways that help us connect math to real-world problems, but when it is, it can help us understand the world, be better citizens—and even catch a serial killer.

Do strikes work? (The Washington Post)
by Laura C. Bucci
It’s not just the UAW—strikes are on the rise in the U.S. today. And there’s reason to believe they are becoming increasingly effective.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Pain, Prohibition, and #CursedImages

By The Editors

An emotional cure for pain (NPR)
by Patti Neighmond
For many chronic pain patients, standard cures do little good. Some are finding that what does help is delving into childhood traumas to reshape mental functioning.

Wait, did Prohibition actually work? (Vox)
by German Lopez
Everyone knows Prohibition failed, right? Actually, for all its problems, banning alcohol reduced drinking, improved some aspects of public health, and may have reduced violent crime. What does this suggest about drug and alcohol policy today?

Why we love to hate #CursedImages (Wired)
by Emma Grey Ellis
On the internet, #CursedImages are everywhere. Why do we click and share photos that disturb, confuse, and horrify us? It has to do with the appeal of novelty and the drive to investigate ambiguity and danger.

How wine shaped Marxism (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
Before Karl Marx was a revolutionary philosopher, he was a heavy-drinking, trouble-making student. In fact, his concern for the vineyards of the Mosel River Valley may have inspired his turn toward economic thinking.

The history of birthright citizenship (The Washington Post)
by Marixa Lasso
Birthright citizenship is under attack in the United States. To understand what that means, we need to look at how the concept was born—in Colombia and other nations emerging from Spanish colonialism—and how it spread to the U.S. That history has a lot to do with fighting racism and coping with the legacy of slavery.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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D-Day, Cricket Gourds, and Modern Lesbians

By The Editors

D-Day tricks and modern spycraft (The Washington Post)
by Danielle Lupton
Tricks and secrecy were crucial elements of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Seventy-five years later, reconnaissance satellites, drones, and social media make a strategy like that impossible to replicate.

Gourds were stages for private cricket concerts (Atlas Obscura)
by Claire Voon
Since the Tang Dynasty, some Chinese people have prized domesticated crickets for their songs. Artisans designed specially grown and intricately decorated gourds with the perfect acoustics to showcase the tiny musicians.

What does it mean to be a “modern lesbian”? (Longreads)
by Jeanna Kadlec
Anne Lister, the inspiration for the show Gentleman Jack, is sometimes called the first modern lesbian. What does that mean for our understanding of Lister and other women who loved, married, and had sex with women before the twentieth century?

Dancing toward understanding (Aeon)
by Kimerer LaMothe
Every human culture has a dance tradition. But why? Imitating and creating movements together may be a key to human survival and continuing adaptation.

Elephants have an astonishing sense of smell (The New York Times)
by Veronique Greenwood
When researchers want to see how well animals can estimate quantities, they typically give them two sets of objects to look at. But elephants can figure it out even with closed containers, just by sniffing with their trunks.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Hospital Bills, Intersectionality, and Civilizational Collapse

By The Editors

Where did that huge hospital bill come from? (The Conversation)
by Simon F. Haeder
Even people with good health insurance keep getting stuck with big medical bills. That’s the result of clashes between huge, consolidated medical and insurance companies where patients’ financial wellbeing can end up as collateral damage.

Intersectionality in theory and practice (Vox)
by Jane Coaston
“Intersectionality” is a buzzword on the left and a punching-bag on the right. But the way it’s represented today often bears little resemblance to its origins as a legal concept developed by the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Just how bad is the collapse of a civilization? (Aeon)
by Luke Kemp
Civilizational collapse sounds like a pretty bad thing, right? Actually, in many historical instances, it may not have been so bad for the masses of people who lived at the bottom rung of civilized societies.

What good is making art? (Pacific Standard)
by Michelle Weldon
For many people busy with work and family responsibilities, the idea of finding the time to make art might seem absurd. But research suggests just how valuable it can be.

Abortion and eugenics revisited (The Atlantic)
by Adam Cohen
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s recent concurring opinion on Indiana’s abortion law warned against abortion’s potential to be a tool of eugenics. But, as the author of a book on eugenics that Thomas cited explains, that’s not really the way that the history of eugenics ties into modern politics.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Chocolate Science, Boy Trees, and Robot Artists

By The Editors

The science of chocolate (The New York Times)
by Veronique Greenwood
Conching, the process of transforming gritty cacao powder into smooth chocolate, was invented in 1879. But, until a recent study, scientists didn’t totally understand how it works. Turns out, it’s a lot like mixing cement.

The trouble with boy trees (Atlas Obscura)
by Sabrina Imbler
Allergies driving you crazy? You may be a victim of “botanical sexism,” the exclusive planting of male trees, which plagues many cities.

When AI gets creative (Vox)
by Sigal Samuel
Computers can now create music that audiences can’t distinguish from Bach’s work. Artists might find that unsettling, but they could eventually find that AI is a good partner in their creative work.

Can aging be stopped? (Slate)
by Erika Hayasaki
A genetic disorder diagnosed mainly in Japan makes people show signs of old age while they’re still young. If scientists find a cure, could it help slow aging for all of us?

Life as a collective (The Cut)
by Katie Heaney
Multiple personality disorder is a controversial, much-misunderstood condition. What is it actually like to understand yourself as a group of individuals rather than a single point of view?

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Knotweed, Scary Sounds, and Mass Extinctions

By Livia Gershon

The knotweed invasion (Slate)
by Henry Grabar
It tears up homes’ foundations and creeps up through floors, wrecks native ecosystems, and has been accused of contributing to madness. It’s Japanese knotweed, and it’s spreading across much of the country.

Why that soundtrack is so scary (Quartz)
by Adam Epstein
In the soundtracks for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Game of Thrones, you’ve probably noticed that a sustained sound makes listeners tense up in expectation of something very bad. A musicologist explains the many uses of the “drone of dread.”

A million species on the brink (NBC News)
by Denise Chow
Over the past fifty years, species have gone extinct tens to hundreds of times as fast as they typically did over the previous ten million years. A new U.N. report anticipates a million more extinctions in the coming decades.

Is this the first climate change-driven epidemic? (Vox)
by Julia Belluz
Chronic kidney disease is on the rise in Central America—and in India, Southeast Asia, and possibly California and Florida too. Could rising temperatures be to blame?

A 1,000-year-old psychedelic brew (National Geographic)
by Erin Blakemore
A pouch found at an archeological site in Bolivia contains the earliest known materials for an ayahuasca psychoactive brew along the lines of what people in the Amazon basin continue to use today.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Pandas, Potlucks, and Planetary Cooling

By The Editors

For pandas, bamboo is like steak (The Atlantic)
by Ed Yong
Giant pandas can come across like a vegetarian stereotype, dopily chewing bamboo rather than feasting on flesh like their grizzly cousins. But it turns out the bits of bamboo they seek out are less like a salad than a high-protein Impossible Burger, allowing the pandas to feed their carnivore-ish digestive systems.

The potluck is political (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
Since before Stonewall, potluck meals have been a central feature in lesbian political organizing. Cheap food, often served in private settings, has helped catalyze movements of women who lacked financial and social resources in their larger communities.

Could a conspiracy cool the planet? (Pacific Standard)
by Dave Levitan
The world’s nations may never unite to fight climate change. What if a handful of billionaires decided to do it themselves, unilaterally shooting sulfur into the atmosphere to cool the planet, heedless of unintended consequences?

Moon-mania (The New Yorker)
by Rivka Galchen
Fifty years after the first manned moon landing—and forty-seven years after the most recent one—countries and companies around the world are racing to be part of lunar exploration. They are vying for opportunities to do basic scientific research, collect energy and other resources, and build a launch pad into deeper space.

Pursuing resilience by not drowning (Quartz)
by Natasha Frost
Want to cultivate resilience, self-compassion, and coaching skills? A two-minute exercise in your local swimming pool, making use of our instincts for surviving in the water, might help.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Root Canals, Cargo Cults, and Laser Mapping Notre Dame

By The Editors

Do you really need a root canal? (The Atlantic)
by Ferris Jabr
From the over-cautious scheduling of frequent cleanings to horror stories of unnecessary procedures, dental overtreatment is a common problem. Dentistry suffers from too little evidence to support specific procedures and too many incentives to err on the side of doing them anyway.

The myth and reality of cargo cults (Topic)
by Brooke Jarvis
“Cargo cults” were a major topic in twentieth-century anthropology, probably partly because white scholars could see them as proof of their own superior culture. But the term describes a range of real dynamic and complex belief systems, like the understanding of a mysterious man named John Frum in the Republic of Vanuatu.

The laser mapping that could help restore Notre Dame Cathedral (CNN)
by Michelle Lou and Brandon Griggs
In 2015, Vassar College art professor Andrew Tallon mapped Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral using 3D laser scanning. Now, his measurements could help in the restoration of the intricate building.

How drinking held an empire together (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
The South American Wari Empire, which came long before the rise of the Inca, was multiethnic, multilingual, and expansive. To hold the people together, Wari elites held summits at a brewery where leaders of diverse groups shared a spicy alcoholic brew while they talked politics.

Why puberty is starting younger (Scientific American)
by Virginia Sole-Smith
The age that girls enter puberty has dropped significantly in recent decades. Possible reasons include the rising use of plastics, calorie-dense diets, and trauma. The implications for girls’ lives in adolescence and beyond are worrying.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Black Holes, Plastic Bags, and AI Diets

By Livia Gershon

Beyond the black hole picture (FiveThirtyEight)
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
The world’s first picture of a black hole was made possible by some incredible technology and innovative methods of scientific collaboration. The process could change how researchers solve problems on Earth, too.

The trouble with bag bans (NPR)
by Greg Rosalsky
Banning plastic grocery bags is a good solution to unsightly plastic in fences and trees. But when it comes to large-scale environmental problems, the bans run into trouble.

Should you let a computer tell you what to eat? (The Cut)
by Edith Zimmerman
A diet that’s healthy for one person may be a bad idea for someone else. Artificial intelligence could help—if we’re willing to give it enormous amounts of data about ourselves.

Where Sudanese soldiers’ loyalty lies (Washington Post)
by Jean-Baptiste Gallopin
As protest shifts toward all-out popular uprising in Sudan, the outcome of the conflict may come down to which side individual members of military and police forces join. And that, previous conflicts suggest, will depend on who looks most likely to win.

What’s killing black abalone? (Hakai Magazine)
by Drew Harvell
As warming global temperatures and species extinctions disrupt ecosystems, diseases often find ways to spread more easily. In the ocean, where pathogens can swim in the water, it’s a particularly troubling problem.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Cat Names, Doubt Machines, and Christianity’s Future

By The Editors

Cats know more than they let on (Scientific American)
by Jim Daley
A new study finds that cats recognize their own names—at least from the mouths of their human companions. But that doesn’t mean they’ll come when called.

Building a doubt machine (Aeon)
by Hakwan Lau
One way of improving machine learning is pitting a network that generates images against another network that tries to determine whether they’re real or fake. This bears a striking resemblance to the way our minds use sensory perception and preexisting knowledge.

Christianity’s future is African (Quartz)
by Yomi Kazeem
By 2060, six African countries will be home to almost a quarter of the world’s Christians. Already, the growth of Christian institutions, including megachurches that are almost cities, is transforming much of the continent.

Do cooking and cleaning wreck our lungs? (The New Yorker)
by Nicola Twilley
Cooking Thanksgiving dinner generates levels of indoor pollution worse than outdoor air in the most polluted cities. Scientists are just beginning to understand the chemical reactions happening as we go about our days indoors, mopping, cooking, and just breathing.

Don’t worry about scientific literacy (Fivethirtyeight)
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
Did you hear about that survey that shows how many Americans don’t know basic science facts? It turns out it’s not as bad as you might think. More importantly, being science-savvy doesn’t lead to adopting science-backed policy ideas anyway.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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CRISPR Cows, Unscientific Medicine, and New Nuclear Energy

By The Editors

Livestock in the time of CRISPR (Wired)
by Gregory Barber
Emerging genetic engineering techniques could transform cattle and chickens, making the production of animal products more humane, or just more brutally efficient.

The trouble with mental illness (The Atlantic)
by Gary Greenberg
From inducing comas with insulin to prescribing Prozac, psychiatry has always offered solutions to mental illness without a clear model of how they were supposed to work. That’s a problem for practitioners who want to present their work as strictly scientific.

Will nuclear power make a comeback? (Pacific Standard)
by Kate Wheeling
U.S. public opinion turned against nuclear power in the wake of the Three Mile Island crisis. Could the threat of climate change convince us to embrace nuclear energy again?

What does it mean to be educated about sex? (Nursing Clio)
by Joseph Gamble
The new show “Sex Education” reveals how much conventional Sex Ed misses about where sexuality fits into the complicated lives of young people.

The new-body gene (The New York Times)
by Heather Murphy
The master control gene known as E.G.R. helps transform a worm cut into thirds into three worms. It probably won’t help people grow new limbs, or a whole new body, anytime soon, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Weekend Reading: Good Luck This Semester Edition

By Jason B. Jones

boat painted "you don't need luck if u r good"

By this time next week I think just about everyone on the semester system will have started classes, which means the summer’s over and campuses are once again full of activity. Whether you’ve been teaching or working all summer, doing research, or recharging for the long winter, here’s hoping everything goes well in 2018-19!

On to this week’s links:

  • Miriam Elizabeth Burstein did some quiet looking into the question of superstar advisors and their advisees’ placements: The American letter of reference is a notoriously bizarre genre, because of course you are not supposed to say anything negative about one’s student. (Also notoriously, letters from the UK and the Continent, perhaps sensibly enough, do not adhere to this protocol. Tales of the accidentally disastrous results are legion.)
  • Austin Kleon’s very simple rule gets harder as the nights get longer, but it does make sense: Don’t think too much about your life after dinnertime. Thinking too much at the end of the day is a recipe for despair.
  • Paris Martineau recommends putting your phone in Do Not Disturb mode . . . forever. (Which not every one can do, obviously, but it is amazing that people have notifications on for, hypothetically, Instagram likes.): long-term use of Do Not Disturb mode doesn’t leave me stuck bouncing from app to app in order to gauge what I missed. All of the dumb texts, emails, and reminders are there, waiting to be read; they just look a little different a couple of hours after the fact. They feel less overwhelmingly urgent and more like what they actually are: words on a screen that can be dealt, according to urgency, when you have the time.
  • I really like Supercomputer, a new podcast by Alex Cox and Matthew Cassinelli. The most recent episode, on morning routines, was pretty helpful!
  • Also, and though I don’t usually recommend paywalled articles here, Paige Morgan’s “The Consequences of Framing Digital Humanities Tools As Easy to Use” strikes too close to home for me not to link (Update: Thanks to friend-of-ProfHacker Paige for providing an open-access link as well!: It argues that attempts to couch powerful tools in what is often false familiarity, directly undermines the goal of encouraging scholarly innovation and risk taking. The consequences of framing digital tools as either easy or more difficult shapes the relationship between librarians and the students and faculty whose research they support, and, more broadly, the role and viability of libraries as spaces devoted to skill acquisition.
  • For this week’s video, here’s Julien Baker’s cover of The Mountain Goats’s “No Children”:

    Alt track: Ibeyi’s #hamildrop track, “Rise Up Wise Up Eyes Up”

    Photo “You Don’t Need Luck if U R Good” by Flickr user momo / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

Weekend Reading – Rediscovering Blogging Edition

By Lee Skallerup Bessette


Blogs are back! At least, they seem to be making a resurgence as we try to disentangle ourselves from the predatory social media platforms that took all the words many of us used to write on blogs. I’ll admit, I started my own tinyletter in part because I wanted to find an audience again that was a little more personal that what gets lost in the algorithmic facebook feed and the firehose that is Twitter.  My blog (which is my domain) is kind of an experiment in long-form writing now. I’m working at another Domains school, so we are thinking about how students are using their domains, owning their own data, and writing publicly.

  • Dan Cohen wrote about going Back to The Blog as well as Going Indie on Social Media: “Meanwhile, thinking globally but acting locally is the little bit that we can personally do. Teaching young people how to set up sites and maintain their own identities is one good way to increase and reinforce the open web. And for those of us who are no longer young, writing more under our own banner may model a better way for those who are to come.”

  • Mark Sample, on how Facebook Killed the Feed: “Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.”

  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick on Connections and Feeds and Gardens: “These are real challenges, I think, a few among the many that social media platforms have utterly fumbled: finding ways to be open to the web while safe from harassment; finding ways to maintain ownership of one’s content while being open to discussion; finding ways to develop and extend community without endangering the very thing we’re trying to create. Finding ways to care for one’s plot, in other words, without winding up in a walled garden. I’m looking forward to seeing how a decentralized, distributed, interconnected web might find new ways to approach these challenges.”

  • Chris Aldrich, responding to Kathleen: “I’ll suspect she’ll be even more impressed when she realizes that there’s a forthcoming wave of feed readers that will allow her to read others’ content in a reader which has an integrated micropub client in it so that she can reply to posts directly in her feed reader, then the responses get posted directly to her own website which then, in turn, send webmentions to the sites she’s responding to so that the conversational loop can be completely closed.”

  • And finally, because it is alluded to in Kathleen’s title, and he says himself that this is one of the best things he’s written, Mike Caulfield on The Garden and The Stream: “Whereas the garden is integrative, the Stream is self-assertive. It’s persuasion, it’s argument, it’s advocacy. It’s personal and personalized and immediate. It’s invigorating. And as we may see in a minute it’s also profoundly unsuited to some of the uses we put it to.”

Sing along to Rainbow Connection to start your weekend!

Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Weekend Reading: What Do You Mean, “Late Summer”? Edition

By Jason B. Jones

landscape photo with stunning sky

The World Cup is over. Transfer season is well and truly upon us . . . it can only mean that there’s about six weeks left until Labor Day and the traditional start of the fall semester. Hmm. You know what? Let’s just try to get through the weekend–have a good one!

  • Donna Laclos gave a keynote talk last month called “Who Gets to Use ILL?”, and it’s an interesting look at the assumptions any library makes about its users and resources: Who is the “user?”–there are internal and external systems, and scholars usually only see the latter. But the ways the former works have an impact on the work that’s done. The limits of the internal systems can be passed on in the form of policies, even if those limits are not inherent to the practices of scholarship per se. . . . I continue to hear in library and edtech circles about the value of “seamlessness”–But the “seamless” delivery of material, regardless of how you get it, has its own cost, of invisibility and–devalued labor.
  • Ute Kreplin casts a discerning eye over the scientific evidence for meditation’s benefits: The utilisation of meditation techniques by large corporations such as Google or Nike has created growing tensions within the wider community of individuals who practise and endorse its benefits. Those of a more traditional bent argue that meditation without the ethical teachings can lead into the wrong kind of meditation . . . . But what if meditation doesn’t work for you? Or worse, what if it makes you feel depressed, anxious or psychotic?
  • Automators 2 is a great new podcast by David Sparks and Rose Orchid about automating digital tasks. The show notes from the second episode, about automating email, give a good flavor of the kind of support and detail they provide.
  • Reading Dr. Rubella’s post about “Post-Doc-ing While Pregnant” gave me a *lot* of flashbacks: I say all of this to say if you have a pregnant student or postdoc or other early career researcher in your lab or building, be kind because its likely they are having similar feelings, thoughts and emotions and a little extra kindness goes a long way.
  • Douglas Rushkoff explains that the rich don’t really have the same concerns as the rest of us: They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

“Bruises: The Data We Don’t See” is a compelling work of “data humanism” by Kaki King and Giorgia Lupi. It’s distressing in places, but well worth a listen/watch:

In lieu of a bonus video, a couple of trailers: I’m really looking forward to hosting screenings of two movies this fall: Paywall: The Business of Scholarship” and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Photo “36273306_1136839243125542_8865018296596955136_n” by Flickr user Keresztényi Péter Photography / Public Domain

Weekend Reading: Midsummer Edition

By Anastasia Salter

For those of us on a May-August academic calendar, summer is quickly vanishing: I for one cannot believe July is nearly upon us. This time of year is a great opportunity to reflect on the spring semester at a comfortable distance, and start ramping up for next year. If you’re contemplating changes in your work, profession, or policy in the coming term, here’s a few recent articles that might be of interest:

  • A series of guests posts from Dr. Terri Givens on The Professor Is In addresses her experience leaving academia, and particularly some of the challenges she observed when operating within academic and administrative spaces: “It is true that the opportunities for public scholarship have improved greatly, but I will feel much more comfortable about being outspoken regarding current issues when I’m no longer in an institution that frowns on such actions. I have felt even more constrained when I have been in administrative positions where the things that I say may be construed as official positions of the college. It will take me a while to develop the muscles that will allow me to be more vocal, and to figure out how I want to use the platform that I have in a positive way.”

  • An article by Stephen Noonoo at EdSurge looks at recent research on Makerspaces, and particularly the lack of diversity and challenges these spaces face for meaningful success: “In general, the most successful makerspaces were the ones that approached these topics intentionally and had a plan in place that takes into account realities around funding and physical space. Kim likens the process to building a house from scratch and knowing where to start. ‘If you don’t think about culture when you’re building a makerspace, you’re forgetting the foundation,’ he says. ‘You might have something that’s visible but not very solid.’”

  • Alexandra Witze’s article in Nature on recent research on sexual harassment in academic science department includes many suggestions for moving forward: “The report’s many recommendations include: that research institutions should act to reduce the power differential between students and faculty members, perhaps by introducing group-based advising; that the government should prohibit confidentiality in settlement agreements, so that harassers cannot switch jobs without their new employer knowing about past behaviour; and that research organizations should treat sexual harassment at least as seriously as research misconduct.”

  • In an article in The Atlanic, Carolina A. Miranda examines the transformative consequences of automated labor: “Sometimes, this can result in an awkward dance between the human world and the automated one. At many supermarkets and big box stores, for example, space once allotted to a checkout station has been replaced by a row of self-checkout systems. The cashier, who previously had a designated spot behind the counter, now stands at the end of this row, ready to assist when customers get confused or if the machines fail. At stores such as Target, the staffer often has no dedicated workstation. A position once tied to a physical location has become unmoored.”

Have a favorite recent academic read? Share it in the comments!

["Deskboarding." by Matt_Briston is licensed under CC PDM]

A Parallax Reading of Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”

By Mark Sample

Are you sick of parallax scrolling yet? You know, the way the foreground and background on a web page, iPhone screen, or Super Mario Brothers move at different speeds, giving the illusion of depth? Parallax scrolling is a gimmick. Take it away and not much changes. Your videogame might be a tad less immersive, but come on, how immersive was it in the first place? Turn off parallax scrolling on your phone and your battery life might actually improve. Parallax scrolling is ornamental, a hallmark of what will eventually be known as the Baroque Digital Age.

So it’s with hesitation that I’m attempting to recuperate the word parallax here. In my defense I’m using the word metaphorically, to describe a certain kind of hermeneutical approach to textual material.

Here it is: parallax reading, an interpretive maneuver that keeps both close and distant reading in focus at the same time.

If you’re just tuning in to the digital humanities, there’s a pretty much bogus IMHO tension between close and distant reading. Close reading is that thing we were all taught to do in high school English, paying attention to individual words and the subtle nuances of a text. Distant reading zooms out to look at a text—or even better, a massive body of texts—from a distance. In Franco Moretti’s memorable words, distance is “not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns.”[note]Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees 2: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review, vol. 26, no. March-April, 2004, p. 94.[/note]

Cool, patterns.

“Parallax reading” is a fancy way of saying why not combine close and distant reading. And to be clear, no one is saying you can’t. Again, it’s a bogus tension, a straw man. I’m not proposing anything new here. I’m just giving it a name. And in a bit, a demo.

A parallax reading is the opposite of the “lenticular logic” that, as Tara McPherson explains, separates the two images on a 3D postcard, making it impossible to see them simultaneously. Whereas lenticular vision flips between two distinct representations, parallax reading holds multiple distances in view at once. Like its visual counterpart, parallax reading conveys a sense of depth. Unlike parallax scrolling, though, this is depth that actually matters, a depth that complicates our understanding of texts.

What would a parallax reading look like?

As a case study let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz.” Written from the perspective of a young boy, the sixteen line poem captures a possibly tender, possibly terrifying moment, as his boozy father mock waltzes him “off to bed.” The whiskey on his father’s breath makes the boy “dizzy.” His mother looks on, barely tolerating the nonsense. The boy is so small he only comes up to his father’s waist; his dad’s belt buckle scrapes his ear with “every step.” As the boy goes to bed “still clinging” to his father’s shirt it’s not clear whether he’s clinging out of fear or love, or maybe both.

“My Papa’s Waltz” was published in 1942 and by the mid-50s was already widely anthologized. It’s a great poem, and I love teaching it. And so do other people. There’s a lot going on under its deceptively simple surface. In The Literature Workshop  (a book every teacher of literature should study), Sheridan Blau uses “My Papa’s Waltz” to confront two questions that often arise in literature classes: where does meaning come from, and how the hell do we know which meaning is the right one?

Blau observes that for twenty years or so he taught “My Papa’s Waltz” and students overwhelmingly read it as nostalgic, the fond recollection of a grown man of his gruff but loving father. Then, sometime in mid-80s, Blau’s students began to read the poem more darkly, a vivid childhood memory about abuse and a dysfunctional family.

What happened? How can the poem mean both things? At this point you might be thinking, ah, so a parallax reading is simply holding two opposing meanings of the poem in place at the same time. This is what sophisticated readers and writers do all the time. For example, Sherman Alexie describes “My Papa’s Waltz” as

incredibly sad and violent, and its sadness and violence is underscored by its gentle rhymes and rhythms. It’s Mother Goose on acid, maybe. I think that its gentle music is a form of denial about the terror contained in the poem, or maybe it’s the way kids think, huh?

A love poem about, as Alexie says later on, “the unpredictability of the alcoholic father.” Two seemingly incompatible interpretations—incompatible, that is, to a naive reader. Is this what I mean by parallax reading? Are two competing perspectives we keep in simultaneous focus what parallax reading is all about?


Embracing ambivalent or contradictory interpretations is nothing new. Hopefully, literary scholars practice this—and teach it—all the time. (If anything, we celebrate ambiguity a little too much, when what the world needs now is some rock solid truth, right?) Anyway, a parallax reading is not about the interpretative outcomes, it’s about the methodological process. It’s about simultaneously negotiating close and distant readings.

Think about “My Papa’s Waltz” from a close reading perspective (the foreground of the parallax). An array of historical evidence might suggest which interpretation of his poem Roethke himself preferred. For example, we could look at drafts of the poem, which indicate several significant revisions. In one draft, the small boy is a girl and the “right ear” scraping a buckle is the less particular “forehead.”

Draft manuscript of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," showing that "small boy" was originally "small girl."
Roethke’s draft of “My Papa’s Waltz.” Courtesy of the Theodore Roethke Manuscripts Collection at the University of Washington in Seattle

Changing the gender of the speaker recasts the the father-son relationship as a father-daughter relationship. We might be less likely to read biographical details of Roethke’s own life into the poem: his father ran a gigantic greenhouse, worked with his hands, and died of cancer when Roethke was 14-years-old. Would any of that matter if the speaker is a girl? Would any of it matter either way?

We could also listen to Roethke’s own delivery of the poem. At least two recordings are available online. One features Roethke reading in a sing-song voice that bears no trace of fear or resentment. Another Roethke reading is somber, the accent on the words “you” in the third stanza and “beat” in the fourth stanza possibly ominous, possibly not.

Or—and this is novel—we could actually read the poem. Here’s what I did last time I taught “My Papa’s Waltz.” (I wasn’t teaching Roethke’s poem per se, I was teaching Blau’s book, in a grad class on the pedagogy of teaching literature.) I’m a fan of reading aloud in class, and that’s what we did. As we read, I asked students to point—literally, point with their index finger—to the words that were most freighted with abuse. “Scraped” and “beat” drew some attention from the students, but invariably the word with the strongest connotation of abuse for the students was “battered.” Roethke uses “battered” to describe the father’s hand—it was “battered on one knuckle”—but students couldn’t help displacing the word onto the small boy himself. It’s as if by metonymical extension the boy too was battered and bruised.

With “battered” coming into focus during our close reading as a key marker of abuse, let’s shift to a distant reading of “My Papa’s Waltz”—the background of the parallax. But how can we zoom out from a single poem? From a distance, what’s there to look at? If one poem is a drop of water, what’s the ocean of words that contains it?

One possible ocean is Google Books. Google ngrams offers a snazzy interface for tracking word frequency over time, based on Google Books’ dataset, a staggering 155 billion words in American English. Since my students found “battered” to be the center of traumatic gravity of “My Papa’s Waltz” I plugged that word into Google ngrams:

Which is honestly not that useful. Ngrams can show the rise and fall of certain terms, but they’re inadequate for more nuanced inquires. There are at least three reasons the Google ngram viewer fails here: (1) Google ngrams limits searches by collocates, that is, immediately preceding and succeeding words; (2) Google ngrams can’t search for parts of speech; and most significantly (3) Google ngrams provides no context for the words—no sentence context, no source context, nothing.

This is where the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) comes in. COHA is a dataset of 400 million words from 1810 through 2009. Established by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, COHA includes fiction (including texts from Project Gutenberg, scanned books, and scanned movie scripts) and nonfiction (including scanned newspapers and magazines). COHA is a smaller dataset than Google Books, but it holds several critical advantages over Google Books. You can search for phrases that aren’t necessarily collocated right next to each other. You can specify what part of speech you want to search for. That’s really important if you’re looking for a word like, oh, I don’t know, “trump,” which can be a verb, noun, proper noun, and a few other things. Finally, COHA provides context for its searches.

For the time period of the 1950s, when “My Papa’s Waltz” had already been widely anthologized, COHA includes nearly 12 million words from fiction sources, 5.7 millions words from popular magazines, 3.5 million words from newspapers, and just over 3 million words from nonfiction books. That’s a total of 24 million words from the 1950s, which gives us a representative view of how language was being used across a number of domains at the time. This is the ocean of words that surrounds “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Let’s check out “battered” in COHA, to see how the word was being used during Roethke’s time and afterward.

Here are our search parameters, which tell COHA to find any occurrence of “battered” followed within five words by a noun (that’s the [nn*] in the Collocates box). This search acknowledges that the frequency of “battered” isn’t as important as its context.

Search Window for COHA
Search Window for COHA

The results are immediately striking. We have the kind of patterns Moretti seeks in distant reading.

The use of "battered" in printed works, 1930-2000
“battered” with nn* 0/5

The second most common noun following “battered” is women, as in “battered women.” This frequency would appear to support the idea that “battered” in “My Papa’s Waltz” is an indicator of abuse. At the very least, its appearance is ominous.

Yet dig deeper and notice that the variants of “battered…women” do not become prevalent until 1980 (with 16 occurrences) and peak in the 1990s with 46 occurrences. Prior to 1970, “battered” is rarely used in the context of physical abuse against women.

So what does “battered” typically describe when Roethke published the poem in 1942 and in the years immediately afterward? In the 1940s the most common collocate was “hat”: “a battered black stovepipe hat,” “a battered greasy hat,” “his battered hat,” “a disreputable, battered hat”—all uses that suggest a knocked-about, down-on-one’s-luck man. Here’s the KWIC (Keyword In Context) display for “battered…hat” in the 1950s:

"hat" KWIC in COHA
“battered…hat” Keyword in Context

And look at the third most common noun associated with “battered.” It’s “face,” peaking in the 1950s. This detail might appear to support the negative interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz.” But again, look at the keyword in context.

"battered...face" in the 1950s KWIC
“battered…face” in the 1950s KWIC

The battered face here is predominantly a male face, battered by wind, hard living, and frequently, war. This is likely the kind of “battered” Roethke had in mind when he described the rough hands of the boy’s father in the poem.

Contrast this with how battered appears in the 1990s, when it is associated most frequently with “women”:

"Battered...women" in the 1990s Keyword in Context
“battered…women” in the 1990s Keyword in Context

Here we find “battered” being used the way today’s students would understand the word, associated with the physical abuse of women by men. (Grammar fun: “battered” is technically a participial adjective. It’s an adjective that started out as a participial phrase, but was shortened. Like “there were no shelters for battered women in Michigan” (the first example from the KWIC above) really means “there were no shelters for women who were battered by men in Michigan.” The agent—the men inflicting the battering—drops out of the sentence and we’re left with inexplicably battered women, and no party to take responsibility. Basically it’s passive voice in disguise, a way for abusive men to get off scott-free, linguistically speaking.)

So, a theory: “battered” is what I would call a cusp word—a word teetering on the cusp between two opposing meanings. On one side, the word suggests strength and resilience. It’s gendered masculine in this context. On the other side it suggests helplessness and victimization. It’s gendered female in this case. In other words, once associated with men at the mercy of the elements or men who have endured hardship, “battered” is now associated with women who have suffered—though this part is kept hidden by the participial adjective—at the hands of men.

We still occasionally encounter the older meaning of the word. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (1992) comes to mind:

From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Here “the battered heart of Chevrolet” is a stand-in for Rust Belt America, the industrial wasteland that left blue collar working men out of work. Or “stiffed,” as Susan Faludi put it in her eponymous diagnosis of 20th century masculinity.[note]Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Harper Perennial, 1999.[/note] I’m no sociologist, but it’s not difficult to imagine that “the battered heart of Chevrolet” contributed to a sense of helplessness in men that found expression in violence against women. Emasculated men beating their way to empowerment. Thus battered souls lead to battered bodies.

We can’t know for certain, of course, but it makes sense that Roethke’s description of the father’s hands as “battered” is a kind of tribute to the man. An acknowledgment of hard work and sacrifice. Roethke’s vocabulary was shaped by the Great Depression and World Wars, an era of stoic endurance (even if that stoicism was a myth). People reading the poem today, however, see in “battered” the ugly side of human nature. Desperation, rage, brutality.

In his explanation of his students’ changing interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz”: Blau suggests that “a change in the culture made a particular reading available that had not been culturally available before.”[note]Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Heinemann, 2003, p. 73.[/note] Blau’s exactly right. That shift in meaning began in the 1980s, concomitant with growing social awareness of domestic abuse. What Blau doesn’t say—because the tools weren’t culturally available to him at the time—is that thanks to a distant reading, we can find evidence of that shift within a single word of Roethke’s poem.

What’s important for a parallax reading is that neither foreground nor background disappear entirely. In fact, they only make sense when considered together. That’s where the sense of depth comes from. Armed with knowledge gleaned from distant reading we can go back to the poem and read it again. And maybe, recursively, find other words to track across time, or to contextualize historically. But we always return to the poem.

Will a parallax reading definitively answer the question, what’s “My Papa’s Waltz” about? No. The beauty of literature and language more generally is its ambiguity (argh, though again, maybe we tolerate a little too much ambiguity). But, I have discovered evidence that complicates our interpretation of the poem. At the very least, it should shock us out of our presentist approach to language, assuming the way we use words is the way those words have always been used. And even more importantly, it’s not that I have found answers about the poem. It’s that I found a new way to ask questions.