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Archive for December, 2008

That was fast

Evidently I got bitten by the bug to do work, so I spent the past couple of hours reading through and revising Chapter 7.

It’s actually not half-bad. It’s fairly coherent, and it doesn’t reek of a terrible cut-and-paste job like I feared, since I copied large chunks from both my articles and added some new sources, hoping it would somehow make sense.

I think it does fairly well. There are probably still some areas that need work, but I think it’s the sort of work I might do well to put off until I have the first draft done of the entire dissertation, since one of the areas I think needs improvement is making sure the major points and overall arguments run through the entire dissertation like a single, seamless narrative thread.

Also, revising did allow me to pad the length a little, but not quite to my purely arbitrary and non-essential goal. In other words, I’m up to 299 pages, and I’m only going to crack 300 today if I start a new document for the next chapter and slap the title of the chapter on top.

Hmm, now there’s an idea.

Here’s a better idea: I should relax and play some of those new video games I’ve neglected.

Or, (arguably) an even better idea: doing some preparation for my interview.

But that ding means it’s lunch, so all plans must be on hold.

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Evidently my resolution led me to put my nose to the grindstone, as I cranked out almost twenty pages yesterday, calling it a night with 298 pages and a first draft of Chapter 7 in the can.

Not quite 300 pages, but I’m sure I could stretch to reach that milestone if I chose to spend some time revising my draft, since I might need to clarify sections, or add in material I left out so far. Maybe if I’m feeling ambitious, though I should really turn my focus to preparing for Saturday’s interview.

Of course, I could also quickly and simply pass the 300-page mark if I decided to start Chapter 8. That sounds farfetched, except that as I lay in bed this morning, alternating between semi-consciousness and dream sleep, I kept having visions of what I’m going to write in Chapter 8 dancing in my head.

Probably I should take this as a sign that I need to stop writing for hours and hours right up until bed.

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It’s silly and arbitrary, not to mention of no consequence.

But I’d really like to hunker down today and tomorrow in the hopes of cracking the 300-page mark and/or finishing Chapter 7.

I began writing my dissertation on 2 July, so it’d provide me a nice sense of accomplishment if I could say I cranked out 300 pages and eight of the ten chapters in just six months — especially since I took off all of August and more than half of September.

Of course, it’d also be good to reach these milestones in the next couple of days so I can report on how close I am to completion when I go for my interview this weekend.

As it currently stands, I’m probably a little more than halfway through Chapter 7, with twenty-five and a half pages down in the chapter, on page 279 of the dissertation. It’s not unrealistic to think I can crank out another twenty-odd pages in two days, since I wrote almost twelve yesterday. I did find it a bit difficult to get back into the swing of things yesterday, since I hadn’t looked at my dissertation since Christmas Eve, which made it hard to pick up my train of thought and follow my incoherent notes for how I wanted to organize the chapter.

As for a resolution for next year? I don’t normally bother with such things, since I know they seldom last.

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Here’s a story with a hilarious lead about how the CEO of a high-end lawnmower manufacturer had a meeting with a Walmart veep at Wallyworld HQ and got to sit in leftover samples of lawn chairs.

What struck Jim Wier first, as he entered the Wal-Mart vice president’s office, was the seating area for visitors. “It was just some lawn chairs that some other peddler had left behind as samples.” The vice president’s office was furnished with a folding lawn chair and a chaise lounge.

Apparently it’s not good for the bottom line to spring for a proper set of folding chairs?

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Selling myself

Ugh. I’ve spent most of today trying to prepare for my job interview next weekend. It’s kind of grueling.

I’ve found a few web sites with tips and advice for how to prepare, questions to expect and the like. Mostly it’s stuff I’d expect based on my own experience on a search committee (albeit one that didn’t do interviews at the AHA):

  • Be prepared to talk about your research
  • Be prepared to talk about your teaching
  • Have some questions to ask the committee interviewing you

It’s not rocket science. There are even some questions and tips with more specificity that I should expect:

  • How would I characterize the state of my field? (Still breathing.)
  • Where do I think my field is going in the next few years? (Probably nowhere, otherwise it wouldn’t still be in East-Central Europe.)
  • What are some books that have influenced me? (The Brothers Karamazov made me tear up at the end; that was pretty influential.)

The bigger pain, perhaps is trying to have some fairly specific prospective classes I’d want to teach or would be willing to teach. I’m fortunate in that I have two syllabi for the classes I’m teaching the next two quarters, though they aren’t exactly what I’d be teaching primarily if I get this job. Of course, because I’d probably be teaching surveys of East-Central Europe most of the time, I should have a good sense of how I would construct those courses.

Now, it’s not as though I don’t have an idea of how I’d design a course in my own field. I’ve given some thought to it before. But I also think I should probably have at least three or four different course in my field I can teach, especially since I’ll probably have to teach a couple of different classes each semester, and I’ll probably also have to vary my offerings from semester to semester.

Really, the problem is, I’ve taken classes and done fieldwork before the twentieth century, but most of my work and all of my research concerns the twentieth century, especially the post-Second World War period. There just aren’t a lot of good books and sources on those earlier periods, which is part of the reason they aren’t quite so interesting to me.

Anyway, I’ve been trying hastily to construct the rough outlines of different courses, which mostly means I’ve tried to figure out books I might assign and themes I might emphasize. Part of me wants to say it matters little, since I won’t fill out the specifics of any course until I know for certain that I’m teaching it, since there are plenty of variables involved. But, of course, this is one of those areas where I’m supposed to wow my prospective employer with my brilliance. Or something.

It’s also challenging trying to construct answers that convey the groundbreaking nature of my dissertation but are succinct enough not to require more than a couple of minutes to spit out. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get it down to that approximate time limit (any longer and I’m likely to bore the committee), and whenever I get that to a satisfactory state, I’ll get to spend the rest of the week trying to commit it more or less to memory.

My natural inclination is to think about these things, review my notes a few times and trust I’m smart enough on my feet to say what I want to say. But there’s too much at stake for me to feel comfortable winging it the way I would ordinarily.

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By means of strange coincidences, I’ve spotted multiple commercials this past week portraying Romania as a land of largely pre-modern, isolated, subsistence farming villagers.

First, there are various Burger King commercials seeking out people from what implicitly must be the most rural, backward, desolate parts of the world, including Transylvanian farmers from Budesti, Romania.

These folks are supposed to provide the “purest,” most optimal blind taste test possible, since they’ve never seen a hamburger in their quaintly eighteenth-century way of life, so surely we should value their unprejudiced assessment of whether the Whopper or the Big Mac is better.

(More on the controversy, with video of some of the commercials here.)

The other commercial I saw recently was for Folgers, showing a U.S. Aid worker stationed in an unspecified part of Romania who receives a care package from home for the holidays. The young girl and two elderly villagers (who look far, far too old to be the girl’s parents) look almost perplexed by things like the snowman card and the wrapped present. Then our heroic U.S. aid worker finds the package of Folgers instant coffee, which clearly kindles some sort of fond memory of home. So he fashions a crude coffee filter out of what looks like cheesecloth hanging from a hook, fills the crude coffee filter with instant coffee and drapes the apparatus over a glass pitcher, boils some water atop an iron stove to pour over the coffee, and voila, he can enjoy a taste of home and enlighten these backward folks to the wonders of Folgers.

Now, I’ve never visited Romania, and I’m not an expert on Romanian history. But I’ve been in the region enough, and have a good enough pulse on it to know that while there are undoubtedly plenty of rural villagers living in what looks like pre-industrial squalor, it’s also debatable that they’re so completely unaware of the big, modern world around them.

In fact, were I to hazard a guess, I’d suspect that most villagers have some form of electricity and a hot plate, so they’d either be using the electric kettles ubiquitous throughout Europe, or they’d at least boil the water on a hot plate. It’s not so farfetched, especially since the U.S. aid worker is driving what looks like a pretty modern SUV. If he can tool around rural Romania in such a gas guzzler, then there are probably areas of settlement not too far from the village with petrol stations and other modern conveniences.

Similarly, while I don’t doubt there are villagers in Transylvania who might never have seen or eaten a burger in their lives, there’s a decent chance they’ve heard of burgers or at least a Big Mac, and might have seen a McDonald’s. After all, the Golden Arches, at least has considerable penetration in Romania, including all the main cities in the area around Budesti. Granted, the villagers have probably never seen or heard of Burger King, since the closest Burger King locations are probably in Austria or Italy, so they would be true “Whopper virgins,” but that would also be true of probably the overwhelming majority of Europeans, including those living in major, cosmopolitan, ultramodern cities.

It saddens me to see such stereotyping, especially when I know enough and can find out enough with only modest digging to determine that the representation bears little semblance to reality. But, ad campaigns like this are obvious predicated on ignorance (such as ignorance of how much both burgers suck).

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Just when I thought the Red Sox had become worse than the Yankees …

Mark Teixeira has reached agreement with the Yankees on an eight-year contract worth more than $170 million, two sources involved in the negotiations report.

On the bright side, I’m not sure this really makes the Yankees that much better (ditto the CC Sabathia signing), and it does mean they’ll be shelling out close to $100 million a year for four players.

Of course, this also increases the likelihood the Red Sox feel compelled to further skew the salary gap by making some ridiculous acquisition of their own, since the long-running Boston-New York pissing match is showing no signs of slowing.

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super-paper-marioSuper Paper Mario

This game harks back to the old school Mario Bros. platformers. In fact, some of the structure of the game (being organized into eight worlds you traverse in order) is very reminiscent of the original Super Mario Bros.

Naturally, this makes it a lot of fun.

The premise is close to the original theme of trying to rescue a captured princess. There’s a bit of a twist on it, which I won’t spoil here, but you’ll recognize the gist of it.

This is also another of the Paper Mario titles, with which I was largely unfamiliar previously (I did buy the GameCube version of Paper Mario, but never got deeply into it). But, the basic premise is that Mario is truly 2D, in that he’s made of paper and thus flat. How does this differ from the older Mario titles (or any other video game, really)? Well, there are times when Mario has to “flip” into 3D. Instead of sticking exclusively to the side-scrolling action characteristic of platformers, at times the perspective shifts and Mario has to go forward into a vanishing-perspective environment.

How this works is that Mario acquires several “skills” through the course of the game that allow him to do things turn sideways into 3D and effectively disappear from view (just think of the joke about rail-thin supermodels disappearing when they turn sideways, and you’ll get the idea), or summon a little helper who will provide information about on-screen items and elements when you point the Wiimote cursor at them, and so on. You need this different skills to overcome the obstacles that arise from time to time. For instance, in a room with a spike-laden ceiling lowering and raising at regular intervals, flipping sideways allows you to hide in the interstices between spikes until the ceiling rises once more. And, at times, you have to flip the environment into 3D to find some item or character necessary to pass the level.

Another element that makes the game interesting and adds a small degree of difficulty is that over the course of the game additional characters join Mario in his quest, and each character has a particular skill set. Mario is of course the all-around character who doesn’t necessarily excel in any one thing, but is good at pretty much everything. Luigi is a bit faster as a runner, and also has hops, which makes him essential for levels that require jumping to very high perches. Princess Peach is, sadly, like most of the female characters in the Mario/Nintendo universe in that she’s not very good at most things, but she can use her umbrella to float through the air — a handy skill for jumping over wide gaps — or to protect her from some attacks. Finally, Bowser is, admittedly uneasily, a part of the quest. His girth makes him slow of foot and a poor jumper, but he does have the ability to breathe fire, and periodically that can be a helpful skill to have in life … or at least in Super Paper Mario.

There’s not a tremendous level of difficulty to this game. In fact, I think the hardest part was that I made it through about seven of the eight worlds, then got sidetracked from the game for several months with getting married and traveling, and it was only after a lengthy delay that I resumed my quest, which meant I had forgotten a lot of the skills and tricks for playing the game. What I like about this game is that much of the difficulty is a matter of problem-solving and trying to puzzle out what skill or character is needed to surmount a particular obstacle, or even what dimension might be necessary to overcome a particular level. There’s a very modest learning curve in terms of executing the actual maneuvers needed to pass these obstacles, which makes it considerably less frustrating than a lot of platformers and other games where knowing the right maneuver means little because executing said maneuver is well nigh impossible.

Consequently, I’d peg Super Paper Mario as an excellent title for families with younger gamers, particularly pre-teens who might not have the patience or coordination for more complicated games. I’d liken it to the level of difficulty of the original Super Mario Bros. that came with the NES, except that I failed repeatedly and miserably as a kid to get past the final couple of levels, and it was only nearly twenty years later as an adult that I beat it at last. Still, this is a good game for the kids (I recommended it for some cousins getting a Wii for Christmas), but it’s also sufficiently fun, deep and challenging to provide hours of enjoyment and entertainment for the adults.

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Actually, I think I already made that joke. Oh, bother. I can’t be arsed to look it up.

I finished the first, rough draft of Chapter 6 late last night. The final section and conclusion came pretty quickly over a couple of days, in part because I wound up cutting some of the smaller sections, at least from this chapter.

Most of today I goofed off. I spent a good three hours playing NHL 2K9 and Mario Kart on the Wii, and otherwise spent the day sitting on my duff. After dinner I finally brought myself to read through the forty pages of my first draft.

I cut about four pages from the introduction, mainly because I copied wrote them back before I realized this chapter needed to be split in two. Since a good chunk of the introductory section came from an article on the federalization debate, and I decided to make the federalization debate a chapter unto itself, I cut a big swath of the introduction and pasted it into the first draft of Chapter 7. Then I went through the rest of the chapter, made changes as appropriate, corrected a couple of typos, and decided it was suitable for the time being. It wound up being thirty-eight pages with the additions, which included another paragraph or so in the introduction so it makes sense in light of the way I had to rework this chapter and where I split it.

So, that puts me up to 253 pages through Chapter 6, plus the first four pages of Chapter 7.

At some point this weekend, maybe tomorrow, I’ll sit down and figure out how to incorporate the archival and other sources I collected last year into my first article so I can call it Chapter 7. I have no clue how long it’ll take to do that and write the actual draft. The last chapter I thought would be based principally on something I wrote before wound up taking me the better part of two or three weeks, although I wasn’t working straight through that entire period, plus I was cribbing from a seminar paper.

By contrast, at least this next chapter corresponds substantially to an article I actually published, which means it’s been extensively edited and vetted. Still, there’s probably scads of sources I still need to incorporate, and I’m also going to need to figure out a good way to carve out new sections for it. I don’t relish the thought of having to read carefully through my article plus my notes for about 150 sources, then figure out how to organize the sections and where to incorporate new material. It also means I have no clue how long the chapter will run (fifty or sixty pages?), though that’s less of a concern. But, once I get through the requisite pre-writing, I can knock this out relatively quickly, I hope.

Of course, there’s the irresistible pull of the Wii and other diversions …

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The Times biology columnist Olivia Judson has an interesting personal account this week of her experiences trying to manage her research electronically using Zotero (you can see my take on Zotero on the “Tech of Diss” tab), along with a Mac program called Papers intended to organize PDFs of downloaded scientific papers and journal articles sort of like iTunes.

I can’t speak from personal experience about Papers — and, frankly, I don’t find it that difficult to rename PDFs from the meaningless string of letters and numbers that comes up as the default file name to something more meaningful. I’m not inclined to spend forty bucks for a program that remains imperfect, especially since it’s geared toward scientists. Granted, it probably works reasonably well for scholars in non-scientific disciplines, but it might be a bit more of a chore if it was written with scientific researchers in mind, as opposed to historians or scholars in the humanities. Moreover, I think Zotero (or probably its commercial counterpart EndNote) offers a lot of the same features of Pages, if not the specific functionality, since Zotero allows you to tag articles with bibliographical information, abstracts, personal notes, and even links to the actual file (whether the format is PDF, image or document).

Of course, I think Judson’s recollections of the “old” ways of doing research (before journals and other repositories of knowledge went largely digital) suggests one of the advantages of being relatively young, since the internet and electronic databases have always been a part of my academic career. Consequently, I don’t think I really get the sense of feeling “lost” that Judson describes for her and her colleagues. I just take it for granted, for the most part, that I can get the information (and often the actual sources) from my laptop, no matter where in the world I happen to be. It really is empowering, since it made it possible for me to get a lot of dissertation work done while I was abroad, and having my dissertation research almost entirely digitized (save for a few photocopies but also all those pesky books that still aren’t, for the most part, available electronically in a full-text format). Indeed, I’ve managed to write probably close to eighty pages away from home in the past month, since I have (almost) everything on my laptop, and this is in addition to the first seventy-three pages of dissertation I wrote holed up in our flat in Prague over the summer.

The upshot is that I also know well how important it is to organize new sources and downloaded articles are I obtain them, so I know to rename PDFs with a more descriptive file name, to create hierarchies of folders with PDFs on my hard drive, and to make notes on my computer of what’s important for each source. It’s unavoidable that I have to read through my notes every time I come back to my sources cold, but I don’t have to go to the trouble of “re-researching” and downloading the same articles all over again the way Judson does.

(An aside: Many times I’ve wondered what it must have been like for academic types like myself to have searched for books, articles and other materials in the days before that information was catalogued electronically. The concept of the card catalog isn’t completely foreign to me, since we had card catalogs in our elementary and junior high school libraries. But I was never very skilled at using those to find sources, and it was still moot because I could always go to the public library and use its electronic catalog to find sources. Of course, I also have a fair sense of the experience of having to go to a bricks-and-mortar library to get information from all the hours I’ve spent reading forty-year-old newspapers on crappy microfilm readers, or thumbing through the yellowing, brittle pages of the actual newspapers, and having to spend hours sifting through finding aids in foreign archives because they haven’t digitized their complete catalogs.)

On the other hand, I definitely agree with Judson’s characterization of Zotero as “a bit buggy.” While Zotero is a powerful tool and has made my life a lot easier in terms of trying to organize and manage 1,200 or so sources with all my notes on them, it’s not quite all it could be. For one thing, I still have to input bibliographic information manually, save for the occasional book or article I can find in a library catalog (and since relatively few of my sources fit that description, I usually just add the citation info for those manually as well, since it takes less time than it would to fire up the library catalog, find the material, and extract and import the data into Zotero). Then there’s the problem of it lacking customizable reference fields. There’s the single field for “Location in archive,” which takes a sort of “one size fits all” approach to archival materials. It’d be a lot easier on me if I could just create fields for “fond,” “carton,” “bundle,” “folder,” “folio” and so forth. The various archival collections I used don’t used a standardized format for locating individual documents, or even the same system, which makes the approach of one size fits all used in Zotero less than optimal for my purposes. Consequently, I’ve opted not to use Zotero to create my actual footnotes, even though in theory it’s fully compatible with Word and should make my citations a lot easier. That might be the case in theory, but it practice I have to tailor my citations to the organization system used for that particular archival collection, and since Zotero can’t do that for me (at least not in an easy, obvious manner), I find, yet again, it’s easier just to do it my hand.

Really, there’s still a lot of ground out there for reference management software to cover. I suppose any program is going to have its shortcomings, unless you have the chops as a programmer to create your own software customized for your needs (or can tailor an open-source application like Zotero to fit those needs). Since I don’t, and don’t think it’s a productive use of my time to learn how to write my own software, I remain at the mercy of others.

Then again, plenty of scholars wrote dissertations, articles and books without benefit of a computer, let alone electronic reference management software and online catalogs. So, we’re still ahead of the game, living in this modern era.

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