Kirsten Fermaglich

 

On her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America

Cover Interview of June 12, 2019

Lastly

I hope that this book will encourage more American Jewish historians (and indeed more Americans) to consider the significance and the meaning of antisemitism in American life, particularly in thinking about the relationship between the state and private actors. We need context to understand the politics of our contemporary era.

I also hope that the book will encourage more historians to take names seriously in general. Too often we use names as mere markers, rather than historical subjects themselves. But names are historical documents, full of historical meaning, and have not been explored enough.

Finally, I hope that the book will encourage all readers to reconsider the name changing in their own lives, or in their families’ lives. Name changing has too frequently been understood either as a joke or as a shameful abandonment of community. I would like my book to help readers consider the real struggles faced by Jews in the middle of the twentieth century, and the ways that those struggles shaped Jewish life and community.




 


 

Sara Lodge

 

On her book Inventing Edward Lear

Cover Interview of May 30, 2019

Lastly

In my final chapter, I look at Lear’s life-long history of self-caricature – always as a small creature, a snail, a bee, a bird – and how his self-presentation as an object of amused sympathy has affected his reputation as a poet who is loved but has not until recently been accorded serious critical attention. Lear usually gave his illustrated letters, poems, songs, alphabets, and botanies, as gifts; they were only subsequently published. In his own words, he was an ‘Adopty Duncle.’ This, too, has affected how we approach Lear’s work. It remains in the realm of gift; Lear’s exuberant but self-deprecating, cartoon body is part of the gift. He became identified with his nonsense and was sometimes hailed as ‘Book of Nonsense’ by strangers in hotels. His nonsense is created in social dialogue; it creates a game for more than one player, a song for more than one voice.

I think we should value tremendously highly the personal, affectionate nature of the relationship Lear builds with each reader, while also treating him with the respect we give to other Victorian polymaths he knew – John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I would like my book to be a step in that direction.

To take entirely at face value the comic, small and ungainly figure of Lear that he promulgates in cartoons – the Lear who hangs on the horns of a mouflon or like a pupating caterpillar in a bag from a tree – runs the risk of re-creating in different form the patronage on which he depended during his lifetime. Lear performed dependency, just as he performed hanging from his inside-out umbrella when the wind sweeps him away, or as he performed the hapless protagonist of the comic song ‘Tea in the Arbour.’ If we assume that Lear’s poetry is always chiefly and directly about his feelings at the moment of composition, we are reading cabaret as soliloquy.

Lear was an intellectual who liked the company of other intellectuals. His closest friends included some of the foremost Cambridge scholars of their generation; the women whose company he preferred were authors, musicians, artists, travel writers, linguists, and translators. He read widely and thoughtfully all his life, consuming periodicals and books in several languages that included philosophy and religion, poetry, essays, biography, letters, natural history, travel, novels, and parliamentary reports. He was taller, slimmer, fitter, more capable, more attractive to others, less isolated than is often assumed. In many cases, we can read Lear only through the lens of his self-mockery – as it is such an essential part of his letters and diaries – but it is vital at least to recognize how effectively Lear created his nonsense persona. Only by recognizing Lear’s self-fashioning as a character and responding to his ideas, rather than merely to the pathos of his biography, can critics fully appreciate his art. For ‘Edward Lear’ has proved, in many ways, to be Lear’s greatest and most enduring invention.




 


 

Lesley A. Sharp

 

On her book Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science

Cover Interview of May 15, 2019

Lastly

One can never predict how one’s work will be received. What has intrigued me thus far, in the few months since the release of Animal Ethos, is the interest it has sparked among lab-based personnel, especially those whose day-to-day work concerns lab animal care and welfare. I have received requests to participate in discussions and initiatives about how to think creatively about lab practices as well as how to speak publicly about realms of research, and associated daily work, that involved parties assume are highly stigmatized.

More specifically, researchers and other lab personnel are reluctant to tell others—including close friends and family—about any work that involves animal experimentation. Their interest and invitations stand in stark contrast to my earlier work on organ transplantation: as I soon learned there, biomedical personnel express faint interest in reading analyses of their professional work, whereas involved lay parties, such as the recipients of transplanted organs and the kin of deceased donors, are avid readers, including anthropological studies of their lives.

On yet another front, I’ve been surprised by the responses I’ve encountered among members of my own profession: whereas successful anthropological field research is based on the premise of cultural relativism, a project that addresses the lives and deaths of research animals exposes a fragile line demarcating where one’s own moral principles can eclipse a professional ability to suspend one’s judgment of a specialized social domain. In several instances I’ve faced the perplexing question, “why don’t you tell us how to think?” My purpose, however, is not to craft others’ moral frameworks but, instead, to open up a world that is troubled on a daily basis by the messiness of the moral. The lesson here is that animals—especially research animals—inspire highly emotional responses in many of us, regardless of one’s training and profession.




 


 

William L. Silber

 

On his book The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World

Cover Interview of May 08, 2019

Lastly

Here are the main “takeaways” from the book: First, FDR ignored how the Silver Purchase Act inadvertently encouraged Japanese aggression in the 1930s, demonstrating the danger of formulating domestic policy without reference to international consequences. It is a cautionary lesson for putting America First today, especially since the fallout from such narrow-minded policymaking may not materialize until it is too late, just like back then.

Second, the ongoing world-wide experiment in fiat currency that began in 1971 has succeeded so far but 50 years is a heartbeat in world history. Uncontrolled spending by the federal government in a fully-employed economy suggests that precious metals like gold and silver belong in every portfolio to hedge against a failure by central bankers to avoid the political pressure to run a printing press.

Third, silver has been more than just an investment vehicle for Americans like Nelson Bunker Hunt and Warren Buffett; it has been part of the country’s monetary system since the founding of the Republic and is woven into the fabric of our history like the stars and stripes.

Fourth, investors like Warren Buffett discovered that silver is like a switch hitter in baseball, an industrial batter but also comfortable from the precious side of the plate. Silver soared like gold after Lehman’s bankruptcy in 2008, unlike copper and oil which collapsed along with the stock market.




 


 

Michelle Baddeley

 

On her book Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others... and When We Don't

Cover Interview of May 01, 2019

Lastly

To capture the overall point of the book, the final chapter argues that social media and online social networks have perverted our instincts to follow others. Social information and social feedback travel rapidly and in large volumes via our online social networks. Added to this, the anonymity of online interactions means that people do not have to take the same responsibility that they have to take when interacting in more traditional contexts.

The pre-online equivalents of Twitter trolls and cyber-bullies, for example, may have had the inclination to persecute others but the channels for their anti-social behaviors were limited, and the chances of being detected and suffering social sanctions were larger. More benignly, memes can circulate and multiply online in ways that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.

Online, we tend to gather in echo chambers; most of us are selective about who we follow online and we tend to follow those who share our opinions. In these echo chambers, herds of voters quickly reinforce each other’s social opinions and partisan political positions. So herds’ opinions are magnified much more quickly than in the past, tipping over into impactful, real-world choices– for example, voting patterns. We may dismiss online opinion as ephemeral and diffuse but when it generates herds of people reinforcing specific political and social positions, and if these online herd opinions change people’s behavior, there will be wide-reaching consequences.

One solution would be to institutionalise mechanisms to preserve contrarian opinion - for example by protecting mavericks and contrarians, including whistle-blowers, from vilification and ostracism. Given that humans are inclined to be copycats most of the time, our world urgently needs more contrarians to ensure that wrong-headed conventional wisdoms cannot persist for too long.




 


 

Mimi Sheller

 

On her book Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes

Cover Interview of April 24, 2019

Lastly

I believe that a full transition in the currently dominant fossil-fuel based automobility system will only take place when we simultaneously address the issues of social inequality that underpin the un-sustainability of the current system and we begin to promote mobility justice as integral to sustainability. Spatial and cultural contexts for dwelling and moving must be redesigned to promote both sustainable mobility and mobility justice. This may mean restricting or reducing the mobilities and energy consumption of the kinetic elite. Children around the world are currently mobilizing climate marches and school strikes to get politicians to listen to them. They tell us that we need to urgently change the way our current system works. I hope this book will contribute to that movement.

In the conclusion of the book I call for “commoning mobility” or creating a “mobile commons” as a possible way forward toward more just and sustainable mobilities. I hope to develop this concept further in my next project, and I hope to find others who want to work on this. I describe commoning mobility as a verb: the enactment of cooperative social territories and shared infrastructures for moving, sharing, and conserving places. Mobile commons have been cooperatively produced by human relation to others, both human and more-than-human, through common passage, translation, and co-usage over time. Commoning mobility empowers assemblages of people-plants-animals-places to exercise generative forms of autonomous social cooperation outside of capitalism. How can we build on and sustain the mobile commons and take our world back from extractivist capitalism and the violent security state?




 


 

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

 

On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019

Lastly

I intended the book to be a call for vigilance. America’s leaders, or those who act on our behalf, possess no innate moral or ethical lodestar that predisposes them to respect human dignity or rights. To the contrary, the American political system rests on the recognition that Americans, like all other human beings, have the capacity, even the inclination, to abuse power. The oft-repeated claim that the United States is a “nation of laws” is a concise expression of the Founders’ aspiration to channel and temper the exercise of power with rules, procedures, and constraints. Yet despite the Founders’ fear of an oppressive government, the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions have proved far more hospitable to torture than many Americans assume.

Bedrock elements of American democracy have arguably both fostered torture and hindered efforts to curtail it. Dispersed authority across multiple layers of local, state, and federal government along with the tradition of popular democracy and localism may have protected citizens from the tyranny of the national government. But that same decentralized power gave license to countless legal and self-declared agents of the state to wield the power of petty despots. Consequently, Americans should be vigilant against abuses of power in all severely hierarchical state institutions or wherever extreme inequality have been tolerated, even defended, in the name of the public good, tradition, or a consequence of human nature.




 


 

Dean Keith Simonton

 

On his book The Genius Checklist: Nine Paradoxical Tips on How You Can Become a Creative Genius

Cover Interview of April 10, 2019

Lastly

Authors are probably overly inclined to engage in big fantasies about the consequences of their work. After all, even a book that’s only a few hundred pages took a lot of effort to write. Going through the copyediting and proof-correcting phases is by no means fun. Hence, the writer has to look for some compensation down the line.

There are always the forthcoming royalty checks. But here I do not have high expectations. University presses seldom publish bestsellers. Indeed, I’ve long ago stopped visiting Amazon.com to see what my best sellers rank might be. Darn, I was just tempted to look, and right now there are more than 100,000 books that are higher ranked!

Luckily, as a scientist I put a bigger premium on influence. I want the Genius Checklist to exert an impact on what people know about the science of genius. I’d like to get them beyond the popular myths and stereotypes associated with world-class creators. And insofar as the scientific results have any practical use, then may this book lead to real-world applications. Such as helping parents who find themselves with a highly gifted child, or teachers who find that same child disrupting their classroom, or prospective employers who are grappling with a job applicant with a rather unusual résumé once that child grows up.

Who knows? The volume might even enjoy a positive influence on future research as well. A reader might be a scientist who becomes inspired by one of the paradoxical tips to conduct original inquires. Or the book might be assigned in an undergraduate course that then has repercussions when a student later goes to graduate school and selects some issue for their doctoral thesis and later research program—like I did more than four decades ago.

Am I fantasizing again? It’s way too early to know, given the recent publication date. But I’m hopeful. I just learned that the book will be translated into Mandarin and Japanese. So right there I have a substantial increase in potential bookstore and online browsers. Besides, the worst-case scenario is not all that bad anyway. I wrote a book that needed to be written. It was put out by a prestigious publisher that did excellent production and promotion. Plus, I received an invitation for this interview!




 


 

Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

 

On her book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice

Cover Interview of April 03, 2019

Lastly

The last decade has seen the transformation of the public debate about cultural heritage, art and its intentional destruction, the responsibilities of museums, and the challenges of restitution. The Missing Pages builds on these debates. It uses the litigation in Los Angeles and the gripping story of a single manuscript, to delve into these complex and overlapping issues in a substantive way.

Questions of restitution will likely increase and become more pressing worldwide in the future. I believe we will see more struggles between powerful institutions and communities over the control of cultural patrimony. American museums have already had to change the way in which they react to these challenges — the public today is showing little tolerance of the condescending, tone-deaf, and Eurocentric attitudes that used to be common. Many tensions remain, however, as we are seeing in the debate on the proposed restitution of African art held by French museums that is unfolding now. I am heartened to see that some museums are taking proactive steps towards the whole issue of restitution; they are making great efforts at being inclusive and approachable, even decolonial, and some art museums are even integrating painful histories into their exhibitions in innovative ways. However, we still have a long way to go.

The book, I hope, will prompt deeper reflection and action on cultural heritage and human rights, as well as on the whole issue of restitution and reparation at all levels. There is no one-size-fits-all model. In the case of the Zeytun Gospels, a settlement was reached in 2015. The Getty acknowledged the Armenian Church’s historical ownership of the pages, and the church donated the pages to the Getty Museum. The ownership is acknowledged, the pages are preserved, and they are available to the public to view in Los Angeles, where as many as 500,000 people of Armenian extraction live, many of them descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. In this case, both sides made concessions, and both sides achieved some of their original goals. The art press hailed the settlement as an important precedent in disputes between museums and religious communities. However, it is also critical to acknowledge that there are tremendous asymmetries of power and that restitution and reparation are very difficult to achieve in most cases. For the Zeytun Gospels, there could not be a return to the past, and the injuries of war and genocide can never be repaired. Ultimately, the greatest impact of settlements like this is that they help develop greater collaboration between museums and communities over the appreciation of works of art and the telling of difficult histories.




 


 

David L. Hu

 

On his book How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future

Cover Interview of March 27, 2019

Lastly

The topics in this book have potential applications in the field of robotics.

Robots have long been relegated to perform repetitive tasks such as assembling parts of a car in factories. In the future, however, robots will leave the factories and enter our everyday lives. Many of the environments that need robots are outdoor environments, such as the open ocean and the sandy surface of Mars. Designing machines to tackle many of these environments can be difficult, due to the physics of the varying medium which still cannot be well predicted on computers.

One shortcut to designing machines that can move with speed and good gas mileage is by looking at how animals move through these environments. To traverse natural terrain, robots may need multiple legs like an insect, or no legs at all like a snake. Robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments are already showing resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics pose unbreakable constraints that influence what kind of motion is most effective.

This book has been a big hit among young audiences. Animal motion is one of the most accessible and interesting subjects around. And it applies to multiple subject areas such as physics, biology, and material science to satisfy anyone’s curiosity. In the book, I spend equal time going through the science behind the discoveries as well as the excitement and thought process of the scientists at work. I hope this book shows that science can be fun and that anyone can be a scientist.




 


 

Gary C. Jacobson

 

On his book Presidents and Parties in the Public Mind

Cover Interview of March 20, 2019

Lastly

The central implications of my research are inherent in the findings themselves: Whether intentional or not, a president’s words and actions profoundly affect how the public regards his party on virtually every dimension (and, if only by contrast, the rival party as well). Presidents who govern well (as the public sees it) benefit their parties—and therefore themselves if they care about reelection or historical reputation—which is a good thing insofar as it gives them an incentive to govern well. Presidents who do not govern successfully or who otherwise manage to alienate large portions of the public weaken their parties at least temporarily and potentially long after they are gone. This puts their fellow partisans in something of a quandary: They have every reason to help their president enhance his public standing if they can, and panning his words and actions will not help. But individual and collective affirmation of an unpopular president may compromise their own and their party’s political futures. Watching this quandary play out in real time is fascinating and, at times, more than a little unnerving.




 


 

Ralph James Savarese

 

On his book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Cover Interview of March 13, 2019

Lastly

I want readers to consider the advantages of a “difference” model (not a “deficit” one) when approaching autism generally and reading fiction specifically. In an opinion piece, I once wrote, “It’s early in the 21st century, and we still have no idea what autistic people can do.” By that I meant: we’re only now beginning to see autistic strengths by discarding the deeply pathological “all-deficits-all-the-time” lens, and we’re only now beginning to recognize how plastic autistic brains are—as plastic as non-autistic ones. Both neurotypes are capable of growing and changing in dynamic ways. The danger of the autistics-are-good-at-math stereotype is that it encourages us to exclude autistic young people from language arts classrooms and, later, to steer them toward jobs in engineering, say, or computers. We don’t have a narrow sense of nonautistic talent or potential. We don’t categorically recommend that every nonautistic person head for one sort of field and stay away from all others. Yes, students have natural predispositions or proclivities, but our job as educators is not to foster them exclusively. Rather, it is to expose students to a wide range of subjects in the hope that they might discover an unlikely or improbable passion. When reading short stories with Temple Grandin, I learned that her favorite course in college was a literature course, a course that she was certain she would hate and do poorly in. Fifty years after that class, she was still able to talk articulately about Dante’s Inferno and to recite, from memory, lines of poetry by William Wordsworth. Who knew? I hope that my book, which I purposefully wrote in an accessible style, will persuade educators to think differently about autism and literature.




 


 

Simon Lailvaux

 

On his book Feats of Strength: How Evolution Shapes Animal Athletic Abilities

Cover Interview of March 05, 2019

Lastly

I wrote this book in such a way that it is (hopefully) accessible to anyone with an interest in evolution, the animal world, or terrible Sylvester Stallone movies. Having said that, I did have a potential target audience in mind, and that is students who are considering or actively embarking upon graduate studies in ecology and evolution. There is more opportunity than ever to do really interesting and integrative research on performance and all of the areas that performance intersects with, and I would be pleased indeed if something in my book sparks the imagination of a young scientist searching for a dissertation topic. I even rigged the odds of this happening in my favor. Over the years I have filled a notebook with ideas for research projects that I will likely never get around to executing. Many of those ideas are dreadful, but several of the more lucid ones made their way into this book. So, there you have it: if you are interested in research questions that another scientist you’ve never heard of hasn’t bothered to follow up on, this book is for you!

However, I also very much hope that anyone who reads it, regardless of their background, goals, or interests, learns a little bit more about the natural world, about evolution, and about how and why we do science. It’s difficult to write something that will appeal to more than one audience, so in the end I just wrote something that appeals to me. I’m happy to say, this it does, even though all I can see when I open it now are problems and things I could have done better. With any luck, nobody else will notice them!




 


 

Tim Lomas

 

On his book Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being

Cover Interview of February 27, 2019

Lastly

I firmly believe that untranslatable words have the power to uplift and alter our reality in numerous ways. To begin with, they provide a window onto lives in other cultures, revealing something about their traditions, values, and experiences. In this fragmented and divisive age, that kind of empathic connection is vital. But these words are not only valuable in what they tell us about other places, other people. They can also illuminate our own lives, providing us with new language to articulate our experiences. They can even lead us into unglimpsed existential territory, revealing new dimensions of life, of ourselves. So, I would encourage everyone to enquire into this mysterious realm of untranslatability, doing so with a spirit of respect and gratitude for the cultures that created these varied words.

Beyond the book, I hope that readers will take the time to look at the evolving lexicography on my website or on the myriad other website dedicated to this topic. And go further still, chat to people who speak other languages, asking them what discoveries are to be found in their lexicons. You may become transported to new worlds; at the very least you’ll probably have an interesting conversation. Language is a wonderful and mysterious thing, and untranslatable words are among its most profound secrets. A world of discovery awaits.


 

Alastair Bonnett

 

On his book Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias

Cover Interview of February 20, 2019

Lastly

There is a growing feeling that the replacement of unique and distinct places by generic blandscapes is severing us from something important. If only in a small way, I hope Beyond the Map contributes to this pushback. Both this book and its prequel, Unruly Places, have been widely translated, finding readers in Korea and China, as well as in Germany and Spain. As the tide of globalization and urban change sweeps the planet so too does a fascination with unique, intriguing, storied places. They have become redoubts of the imagination. We need these places, and the sooner planners, developers, authorities of all sorts, get that and stop shredding our landscapes and our memories, the better.

Another task I want to aid in Beyond the Map is the reinvention of exploration. Exploration is a rather tarnished concept because it conjures images of colonialism and one group of people pushing another out of the picture. But the desire to explore cannot be defined around one historical event or period. It is an innate human attribute and one of our species’ most glorious qualities. For me, exploration today means understanding that, despite the best efforts of Google Earth, our world is still full of the unexpected and uncharted. Such regions may be beneath the waves or nearby; they may require long, difficult journeys or we may walk straight past them every day. The distance traveled is irrelevant: real exploration does not test our wallets or our shoe leather but our imagination.