Monday, July 26, 2010

A dryly humorous intro to Josephus

Written in 1852, this review of the (then-new) Traill translation of Josephus highlights the virtues of Josephus' work (and the flaws of the Whiston translation!).

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The pathologically frugal meets the ecologically correct. (split straw
+moistened straw wrapper)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An open letter to Victoria Espinel

Victoria Espinel is the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator--unofficially, the "copyright czar" of the U.S.A. She was appointed to that position by Barack Obama last September, and confirmed by the Senate in December. She's the first holder of this position, a job which was created by the PRO-IP Act, a bill that passed through Congress in 2008 and increased civil and criminal penalties for copyright and trademark violation. The job of the "copyright czar" is to "formulate a Joint Strategic Plan for combating counterfeiting and piracy of intellectual property and for coordinating national and international enforcement efforts to protect intellectual property rights.(According to the Bill Summary). The document referred and linked to in the first sentence below is the first major product of her office; it was released a few weeks ago.

Dear Ms. Espinel,

I have recently received a copy of the 2010 Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement, and there is much in the document to be commended. In particular, its awareness of the benefits of fair use (p. 4) and its call for research into the actual effects of infringement (pp. 18-19) are highly laudable.

However, I was dismayed to find not a single mention of the public domain, much less any protection for it. The entire report focuses on governmental protection of private property holders, a necessary goal, to be sure, but who speaks for the public? It is the responsibility of the government to protect the public against those who would steal our common property away through false copyright claims.

If we are to use the analogy of theft, then the false claim of copyright on material in the public domain is akin to allowing individuals and corporations to enter our National Parks and take, not pictures, but trees. No, worse, it is to allow them to build vacation homes on the land, fence it off, and shoot trespassers.

Such activity is piracy and intellectual property theft of the most naked sort, and it robs every one of us. If the Executive Branch of the US Government does not speak for public property, who will?

With thanks for your consideration,


Monday, July 12, 2010


Scholars are always in danger of projecting their own images onto their research subjects. Erich Gruen, for example, is a great scholar; I have learned a ton from every one of his books and articles that I've read, and enjoyed them, too. His The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome is my go-to book for the expansion of Roman power in the Mediterranean, and his Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition was intensely influential in getting me to study what I'm writing a dissertation on: Hellenistic and Roman Judaism.

However, this latter book in particular may suffer from the fault of projection. Gruen deals with all the major Jewish writers, and the minor ones, too: from Josephus and Philo to Demetrius the Chronographer and Ezekiel the Tragedian. And, almost to a man, they come off startlingly like Gruen: Witty, intelligent, cosmopolitan, faithful without being dogmatic, even funny.

I've got two problems with this. First, I claim false advertising! I went to grad school expecting, on Gruen's analyses, to be reading the ancient equivalent of Noel Coward, and I'm stuck with…Andrew Lloyd Webber. I find these guys pedantic without learning, melodramatic without sympathy, and heavy-handed without relief. Josephus, I'm finding, has all the flaws of an absolutely terrible scholar: he fudges when he can't ascertain a fact, he relies too heavily on a few weak primary sources, he seems blissfully unaware of the secondary literature, and he's unclear even on his own methods, not to mention the methodologies of his peers and predecessors.

Which brings me to the second problem: what does this analysis say about me?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's Complicated

I recently posted on a popular social networking web site a link to this blog post by Randall Munroe, the funny and smart author of xkcd, pulling out as the money quote, "The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics." One commenter asked, "What's so complex?" and it's a good question. It's something that (working in the job I do) I've been steeped in long enough, and has come as a series of small discoveries or realizations, that it's good to step back and take a look at it and say what is so complicated about gender, since it does seem pretty straightforward in everyday life. Here's an attempt:

Gender (or sex; I'll use gender) has been a pretty useful concept for a long time. What it (and its subsets male, female, etc.) actually describes are a bunch of attributes that we (as a society) are slowly realizing aren't necessarily bundled together. "Maleness" has meant (in various times and places), the package (as it were) consisting of: a Y chromosome, a certain appearance of external genitalia, increased facial and body hair, deep voice, large size, increased risk of heart attack, capacity for logic, capacity for moral reason, capacity to own property, capacity to own slaves, closer connection to God, right to wear pants, right to kill, right to vote, right to drink fermented beverages, control over emotions, control over passions, privilege of wearing comfortable shoes, ability to run more than 800 meters, right to walk on the street unaccompanied, freedom from inherent pollution (whether every day or only sometimes), right (and/or obligation) to perform sexual penetration, right to be paid for work, right to have multiple sexual partners, right to have multiple spouses, ability to legislate, ability to ride a horse with a leg on either side, ability to drive a car, high-quality spatial reasoning, mathematical acuity, physical aggression, muted colors of clothing, bright colors of clothing, belts, short hair, long hair, large jaws, large noses, large ears, refusal to wear perfume or makeup, exclusive right to wear perfume or makeup, ability to inherit property, ability to pass on family name, right to wear no shirt at the beach, head hair that doesn't scare God or man, a lack of interest in shopping for clothing, a keen interest in automobiles,

Is this boring yet? Or has it turned into a fun party game?

The long and the short of it is that while some of these things are social, and some are biological, and some are legal, and some are stereotypical, none of these things has to come along with any other. Yes, it's often useful to have a tick box for 'male' or 'female' (though I'm told that in England 'male' and 'female' refer to non-human animals; we are 'men' and 'women.') but that doesn't quite sum it up.

The last fifty years (in the US), saw at first the slow realization that women are people, and only recently has it dawned on the academic class (and the knowledge is slowly spreading) that all people, in fact, are people, and insisting on dividing everyone into the categories of 'male' and 'female' does some of us a disservice, an injustice, or even an act of violence.

I'll draw a final analogy and then get off the pedagogical horse: The concept of "race" is now widely acknowledged to be far less useful than it used to be. We don't (legally) use racial demarcations to determine fitness for all sorts of things that we used to, just as we don't (legally) use sex to do so. And it is useful, for example when doing medical research, to keep track of race and sex. To plug another book I worked on, Stephen Epstein's Inclusion tells the story of how in the mid-20th century medical research was basically conducted on white guys--be they white guys in their fifties admitted to hospitals, or white young adults in college and graduate school--and this really screwed up some results because of how these white guys were and were not representative of everyone. There's a new model in medical research, which now particularizes (and monetizes!) difference, developing (and patenting and getting FDA approval for) heart disease drugs in African Americans.

So race, like gender, can be a useful, even a helpful concept. It can also be a frickin' disaster!