Friday, May 7, 2021

Anthony Aveni's "Creation Stories"

Anthony Aveni, the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University, helped develop the field of archaeoastronomy and is widely considered one of the founders of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy. He is the author of Star Stories: Constellations and People and In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses.

Aveni applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Creation Stories: Landscapes and the Human Imagination, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Creation Stories readers find are immersed in the exciting tale of Tlingit origins. Raven, the traveling transformer, is the hero- trickster who performs magical feats as he paddles his canoe along the northwest Pacific coast of a yet unformed world. He has just befriended Kan’ugu, guardian of sweet water, who greedily hoards his treasure in a tank in the middle of his house, doling it out sparingly to the coastal inhabitants. Kan’ugu invites him to live with him and perform some household chores. One day, while his host is napping, Raven collects a bit of animal excrement and smears it on Kan’ugu’s robe. “Brother, you have soiled yourself”, he exclaims. You must run off to the woods and wash yourself with fresh urine or you will have bad luck for the rest of your life. Meanwhile Raven dashes back to the house, pierces the tank and drinks all the sweet water his belly can hold, with the intent of bringing it back to the coastal people. (You’ll need to turn the page to find out what happens next.)

Creation Stories examines ways cultures around the world have attempted to explain their origins and what roles the natural environment plays in shaping these narratives. I intend it as a celebration of the human imagination. Nature’s varied backdrops comprise sections of the book: Mountains (including chapters on Creation Battles in the Inca Highlands and Power Politics on Mount Olympus); Waterways (Tlingit Origins and The Mande and the River Niger); Caves (An Underworld Battle and the Maya Dawn of Life and A Dreamtime Creation from South Australia): Islands(How Maui Dredged Up the Hawaiian Islands and a Shinto Story: How Our Islands Were Made), and Extremes (Norse Creation: Murder on Ice and Tierra del Fuego: Where the Seas Clash).

Creation stories, well told, are not mere myths waiting for science to debunk; rather they capture valid essential truths about the human experience. One of my generous endorsers commented that The Secret of Life is not only found in the biological sciences. Creation Stories offers another sort of code breaker: It compels us to share how people live.

By opening to page 99--or indeed any other page of Creation Stories--readers should get a very good idea of what the book is about. The segment of the story told there is one of many from around the world that showcases the role of landscape in telling stories with legs.
Visit Anthony Aveni's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Colin Jerolmack's "Up to Heaven and Down to Hell"

Colin Jerolmack is Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at New York University and the author of The Global Pigeon.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town, and reported the following:
Page 99 of the book begins a new section of the chapter called “My Land.” It begins, “Private land leasing, as it turned out, routinely violated the Lockean proviso by creating spillover effects that worsened the well-being of others in the community and infringed on their freedom to benefit from their own property. Just ask Scott McClain, who created a Facebook page to document how his ‘beautiful parcel of land’ was being damaged by petroleum companies operating on land leased by Poor Shot Hunting Camp.” The rest of the page details how Scott granted his neighbors up the mountain an easement to use his driveway, seeing it as the neighborly thing to do, but how this led to major problems when his neighbors leased their land for gas drilling: all the heavy truck traffic servicing the mountaintop gas wells rumbled right by his house, cracking its foundation and crumbling its chimney.

Page 99 is a strong candidate for one of the better pages to introduce readers to what the book is about. At the center of my book is the peculiar fact that America is the only country in the world where property rights commonly extend “up to heaven and down to hell.” I detail how American property law was influenced by John Locke, who believed that property rights should be unrestricted. The only caveat, in Locke’s perspective, is if exercising property rights undermines others’ ability to enjoy their own property. This is the so-called Lockean proviso. Landowners are granted the liberty to lease their mineral estate for fracking without seeking permission from neighbors, but I argue they should not be because leasing violates the Lockean proviso by producing spillover effects that harm neighbors’ ability to enjoy their own property. Readers of page 99 alone would not know what the Lockean proviso is, so context would be missing. But it is the moment where I link this central idea of the Lockean proviso to the argument of why mineral rights should be restricted, which is a central moment of the book. And the book tries to situate big ideas in narrative stories of people’s everyday experiences. This page does that.
Learn more about Up to Heaven and Down to Hell at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Thomas Nail's "Theory of the Earth"

Thomas Nail is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Being and Motion (2018).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Theory of the Earth, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Energy continually flows into a region from the periphery and then releases a portion of that energy outward. It then re-accumulates enough energy to repeat the process. This is what I am calling kinetic reproduction. In physics, it is called a “self-organized” or “dissipative” system.
Page 99 of Theory of the Earth is about how earth systems are “metastable” systems.

I think Page 99 is a better than average synthesis of the book compared to more than half the pages in the book.

Page 99 gives a general description of how metastable states emerge and reproduce. The focus of page 99 is on atmospheric systems, but its definition is also broad enough to describe how all Earth systems work. A metastable system absorbs energy and releases it at a relatively steady rate to maintain its existence. A whirlpool is a metastable state that persists as long as energy moves through it at a specific rate. The Earth is a metastable system composed of metastable systems. This is one of the critical interpretive ideas of Theory of the Earth. The book uses dynamic systems theory, new materialist philosophy, and thermodynamics to think about the origins of the cosmos, Earth’s history, the origin of life, evolution, and the ethics of climate change.
Visit Thomas Nail's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Steven Feldstein's "The Rise of Digital Repression"

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. Previously, he was the holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs and an associate professor at Boise State University. He served in the Obama administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor with responsibility for Africa policy, international labor affairs, and international religious freedom, and as Director of Policy at the US Agency for International Development. He has also served as Counsel on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee under former chairmen Joe Biden and John Kerry. He received his B.A. from Princeton and his J.D. from Berkeley Law.

Feldstein applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance, and reported the following:
Excerpt from page 99:
than the result of a concerted Chinese program to proliferate advanced authoritarian technology.

My research in Thailand led to some unexpected insights.

First, the government is both lenient and harsh in how it chooses to deploy digital repression. The vast majority of Thais have access to a wide variety of information— particularly juxtaposed with comparable regimes in the region. While the government blocks certain websites that contain prohibited content— largely related to the monarchy or to gambling/ pornography— and monitors what people say (particularly Thai “influencers”), the Thai state generally leaves the bulk of its citizens alone. I repeatedly heard both civil society activists and government officials insist that “we are not China,” and that they have no desire to go in China’s direction. However, for a special category of people whom the regime views as a threat, it is adopting increasingly hardline tactics. In the past year, Thai pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm “Tar” Satsaksit, a fierce critic of the military and monarchy, was abducted by unidentified gunmen in Cambodia, three more activists “vanished” during a trip to Vietnam, and a prominent academic critic, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, was attacked with chemical spray at his home in Japan. This troubling behavior is also occurring within Thailand. Another well- known activist, Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanicha, was assaulted by pipe-wielding pro-government thugs for publishing Facebook posts about planned protests. Likewise, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat was sent to the hospital after being beaten with baseball bats by four men the evening before a planned pro-democracy rally. From time to time, the government also makes examples of ordinary citizens as a pointed reminder of the costs of defying the state.

The government complements its digital repression tools with an extensive set of repressive laws and directives that provide wide discretion to suppress dissent and tamp down challenges to the state. Since 2017, the government has enacted a range of new provisions (supplementing existing lèse-majesté and defamation laws) that criminalize actions that violate public morals or run afoul of national security or public order. These laws represent a transition from an informal system of “door knocking”— used by government agents to carry out surveillance or censorship goals— to more formalized legal repression.

Second, key partners in the government’s program of repression are royalist and conservative civil society organizations. Groups such as Social Sanction and the Rubbish Collection Organization have created group pages on Facebook and other social media sites where they “share the personal profiles of alleged lèse majesté offenders” for public bullying. They also report suspected offenders to the police. Among those who are targeted are political opponents (particularly Future Forward members), scholars, journalists, and human rights activists. Reports indicate that the government has trained over one hundred thousand students as part of a “cyber scouts” program intended not only to surveil fellow
The “page 99 test” works well for my book. On page 99, I lay out several main findings from my Thailand case-study — one of the book’s three chapters about what digital repression looks like on the ground (the other chapters feature the Philippines and Ethiopia). The case-studies took months to prepare and represented the culmination of several years of desk research. Thailand was the first country I visited and I really wasn’t sure what to expect — both in terms of whether my expectations for digital repression would bear out, but also how responsive interviewees would be to answering my questions. In fact, I remember being nervous enough about the trip that I planned a back-up field visit to the Philippines in case the Thailand research didn’t pan out. As it turned out, the Thailand research went exceptionally well (as did the Philippines visit; so I included both countries in the book). Once I landed in Bangkok, I was able to secure most of the meetings I sought, including audiences with senior Thai policymakers and intelligence officials who discussed sensitive issues at length — from the Thai state’s motivations for deploying digital tech tools against perceived threats, to Thailand’s sensitive relationship with China. Another interesting fact about the Thailand chapter is that it was the first chapter I wrote. Rather than write the book in consecutive order from introduction to conclusion, I jumped straight to writing the Thailand chapter — I wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose any of the details from that research trip! In that sense, page 99 has a higher degree of relevance than I would’ve anticipated.

Overall, my book makes the argument that governments are leveraging technology against challenges to their rule in new and unexpected ways. From China’s techno-repression campaign in Xinjiang and internet shutdowns in Myanmar and India, to Russia’s struggles to contain protestors who turn to YouTube to outflank the government, activists are in a cat-and-mouse struggle with governments for political control. Even in liberal democracies like the United States, there are disturbing examples of law enforcement agencies abusing facial recognition and surveillance technology for dubious purposes. As the book documents, the digital repression trend is not just relevant to authoritarian states, it also represents a growing threat to democracies.
Learn more about The Rise of Digital Repression at the Oxford University Press website, and follow Steven Feldstein on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 3, 2021

Gail Crowther's "Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz"

Gail Crowther is a freelance writer, researcher, and academic. She is the author of The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath and the coauthor of Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning and These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Crowther divides her time between the North of England with her dog, George, and London. As a feminist vegan she engages with politics concerning gender, power, and animal rights.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz discusses the tensions and challenges for Sylvia Plath trying to negotiate her way through the world being a wife, a mother, and a writer. It also explores the crippling panic bird of her writer’s block and how this was linked to location and circumstances. Certain aspects of her marriage to Ted Hughes were unorthodox, but as page 99 highlights: “For all the unconventional aspects of their marriage, and for all of Plath’s ambivalence about which of society’s norms she would reject or accept, there were still elements of tradition that stuck.”

A reader turning to this page would get a good idea of some of the main themes of the book; the difficulties facing women in the 1950s who wanted to succeed in a male-dominated literary discipline, and how difficult that was if combined with marriage and motherhood. But equally the book fails the page 99 test because Anne Sexton is missing (she reappears on page 100). So thematically, the test works, but in terms of subject matter, half is absent. Perhaps this is rather inevitable with a dual biography.

Although the book moves between the two women, the main aim is to weave their stories together and show all the ways in which Plath and Sexton led both parallel but often wildly divergent lives. Having met for the first time in a poetry workshop run by Robert Lowell at Boston University, just for a short period of time, the two women’s lives collided. On a Tuesday after class Sexton would drive them to The Ritz in her old Ford to drink three martinis and talk intensely about life, poetry, suicide, and death. Over dishes of free potato chips they would balance their books and papers on the table, hoping to be mistaken for Hollywood types. Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz uses these confessional drinking afternoons as the launching point to explore the lives of Plath and Sexton who, back then in 1959, were aspiring poets. But they were aspiring poets in a cultural moment that did not like ambitious women, or really know what to do with them. Sexton wrote in a letter that she felt as though she was “kicking at the door of fame” which men owned the password for and would not share. This book argues that both women kicked that door down anyway paving a bold and progressive path that the rest of us can follow.
Visit Gail Crowther's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Jo Napolitano's "The School I Deserve"

Jo Napolitano, a journalist for more than 20 years, has written extensively for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday. A Northwestern University graduate and Columbia University Fellow, hers was an unusual path: Napolitano was born in Bogota, Colombia, abandoned at birth, placed in an orphanage and nearly died of starvation before she was adopted to the States. Her book, The School I Deserve: Six Young Refugees and Their Fight for Equality in America, chronicles the civil rights battle waged across the country on behalf of immigrant children turned away from the nation’s public schools.

Napolitano applied the “Page 99 Test” to The School I Deserve and reported the following:
The book tells the story of a young Sudanese refugee named Khadidja Issa who was forced to sue her local school district for the right to enroll. The case went to trial in the summer of 2016 in the swing state of Pennsylvania on the eve of the most contentious presidential election in modern American history, one in which immigrants, particularly young Muslim refugees like Khadidja, were openly derided. In this passage, found on page 99, one of her attorneys calls into question the school district’s decision to send Khadidja and other young refugees to a for-profit alternative school called Phoenix Academy. Aimed at credit recovery, Phoenix offered a no-frills education to students looking to speed up their education to graduate quickly:
The notion that these newcomer students, who spoke almost no English, would somehow gain something by starting their education with sped-up instruction—the only type offered at the alternative campus—made no sense, he said.

Rothschild’s argument was solid and he appeared to be gaining ground. In what seemed like an early breakthrough, Judge Smith started to question the value of graduating a student who might not have the education or skills they needed to succeed in life. “I’m also curious as to the relationship between getting that piece of paper known as a diploma, and actually, truly, educating someone, such that they could be a productive member of our society,” the judge said.

Here was the opening Rothschild had been looking for all morning. It was his chance to plant the seed that Phoenix wasn’t living up to its promise.

Rothschild said that in order to judge the merits of the alternative program, the court must consider the Castañeda v. Pickard court case. Filed against the Raymondville Independent School District in Texas by Roy Castañeda, a father of two Mexican American children, the case was tried in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1978. Castañeda, through his attorneys, argued that the district grouped children in such a way that those with Mexican heritage received a sub-standard education.

A major outcome was a three-pronged test to determine whether schools were taking “appropriate action” to address the needs of English language learners as required by the Equal Education Opportunities Act. According to the Castañeda standard, educational programs for non-English–speaking students must be based on a sound educational theory, implemented effectively with sufficient resources and personnel, and evaluated to determine whether they are effective in helping students overcome language barriers.

Phoenix failed by every measure, Rothschild told the court. And the diploma its graduates received at the end of their time there was dubious because many could not read or write English and had not advanced in their other coursework because of it, leaving them unprepared for the future, whether they wanted to attend college or join the workforce.
Page 99 reflects the central aspect of the book: what do we owe immigrant kids in terms of their education? If a child arrives to the States in their late teens unable to speak English, what can we expect of them as their eligibility for a free education winds down? It gives a glimpse into the courtroom drama of this entire matter.
Visit Jo Napolitano's website.

--Marshal Zeringue