Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Obama's relationship with black universities

This is a [rather scathing] commentary on President Obama's rocky relationship with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  I am not in the circle of people who went to HBCUs nor do I have many friends who did, so the whole background of the cultural milieu of these universities and the President's lack of familiarity with them, coming himself from a more Northern upbringing, was new and interesting for me.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Syntactic analysis of rap

This is a really fascinating video about the different rhyme and rhythmic schemes of very skilled rappers.  My familiarity conks out around the year 2000, which tells me I need to check out Kendrick Lamar and MF Doom.


Monday, May 16, 2016

La voragine

I just finished reading the Colombian novel La voragine (The vortex) by Jose Eustasio Rivera, written in 1924.  This is considered by many to be the most important Colombian novel ever written.  I know, I know, Garcia Marquez has a whole opus of amazing books, many of them probably better than La Voragine.  But Garcia Marquez is a world writer, his work is set in Colombia but really part of the global canon.  He captures many aspects of Colombia perfectly, but you don't have to be Colombian to appreciate him.  Rivera's work, on the other hand, is definitively, idiosyncratically Colombian, so much so that I'm not sure of how much it would resonate for someone unfamiliar with the country.

Anyway, I would highly recommend La voragine.  It deftly embodies that odd mix of unparalleled, almost Classical Antiquity sophistication on the one hand and impulsive, reasonless savagery on the other that define for me a major part of the Colombian collective character.  Rivera's isolated, semi-literate peasants, like many real peasants of present-day Colombia, speak with florid metaphors, profound critical analysis, and Age of Chivalry formality.  Then they enslave Indians, hack people with machetes, plunge into orgies of drink and gambling and sex, temporarily immune to any rational thought. 

If you're looking for an understanding of Indian culture or the interpretation of events from an indigenous person's point of view, this is not the book for you.  The Native Americans are a poorly-understood, alien lot in this story; often abused, sometimes aggressive, always squalid, disgusting, and incomprehensible.  The narrative point of view is decidedly that of the mestizo colonos, the white and black Colombians that seek their fortune or at least their mere subsistence in the jungle. 

And the landscapes, they are perhaps the main character in the story.  Rivera evokes the boundless horizons of Colombia's Eastern Plains, their rolling, sweltering prairies, the cattle roundups, the oases of dense forest that spring up around rivers and watering holes.  And in the chapters on the rainforest, he fully captures the sense of gloomy green monotony, the lonely, endless rows of tree trunks and sunless canopy overhead that inspire dread in the sons of the cool, high mountain panoramas of central Colombia.

The book is long and sometimes a hard slog with all the flowery language, but it's well worth a read, especially if you want to know about Colombia.  I've never been to any of the places the author describes, but I feel like I have after reading his descriptions.  And the people struggling in these exotic settings, all of them transplanted from elsewhere in the country, ring totally true to my experience of the Colombians I've known.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Another special day I forgot to mention

For those of you who don't know, May 6 was International Affairs Day in the US.  My understanding is that this day is dedicated to the diplomats who represent our country abroad.  Like the military, they are called to leave the familiar surroundings of their mother country and work for the greater good of that country in far-off lands.  They are often assigned to the same dangerous places as are soldiers, but diplomats don't get a gun to defend themselves! 

Anyway, it's too late for the formal celebration, but if you have a chance, go out and thank a diplomat.  I've met a few in my life, and they are admirable in that they are often quite ordinary people, even doing ordinary things like office work and admin stuff, but in extraordinary settings and circumstances.  I'm sure it can be a very rewarding job, but also demanding and difficult.  If you don't know any diplomats personally, at least check out the State Department's or USAID's website and learn about what they are doing. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Excellent commentary on international development from Teju Cole

This is a nuanced, insightful article from Teju Cole (whose novels I've not yet read, though I think I really should) about international development, privilege, and how an individual can be a good person and even be correct on their surface-level analysis of a situation, while at the same time unthinkingly contributing to very bad larger trends and being totally mistaken in their response when seen in a larger, more complex context of things.  The author calls for his First-World readers to have more respect for the agency (read the ability to help themselves) of those in the developing world, while also beseeching his readers to act in their own contexts, pressuring their own governments and companies to cease doing wrong in the rest of the world.  In the end Cole is not advocating against contributing to a noble campaign or emergency relief effort, but rather he advocates in favor of keeping the larger structural issues in mind even as you make the best immediate decisions and actions that you can.