Understanding semicolons

Mary Norris writes about the meanings and usage of semicolons, always a fascinating topic, in The New Yorker:

So the semicolon is exactly what it looks like: a subtle hybrid of colon and comma. Actually, in ancient Greek, the same symbol was used to indicate a question.

And it still seems to have a vestigial interrogative quality to it, a cue to the reader that the writer is not finished yet; she is holding her breath.

If you find this to be the least bit interesting (which is not a given, I admit), be sure not to miss Ben Dolnick’s article in The New York Times that Norris refers to at the outset: “Semicolons: A Love Story”.

Min forskarsommar

För första gången på väldigt länge tog jag i år ut delar av min semester under våren. I gengäld har jag de senaste fyra veckorna haft vad jag kallar min “forskarsommar”, vilket betyder att jag gått till jobbet alldeles som vanligt trots att nästan alla kolleger nu har (mycket välförtjänt) semester. Alltså är det nästan helt tomt på min institution, vilket ibland kan kännas en aning spöklikt och i längden nog hade blivit tämligen påfrestande. Under lagom lång tid är det emellertid alldeles förträffliga förutsättningar för koncentrerat läsande och skrivande, vilket man behöver då och då som forskare.

Det ligger många förhoppningar och, medger jag, ett kanske lite idylliskt skimmer över ordet “forskarsommar”. När den nu är slut och jag går på två veckors ledighet innan hösten drar igång, känner jag mig dock väldigt nöjd med utfallet trots att det (som alltid) inte riktigt gick som planerat. Så mycket läst har det inte blivit och över huvud taget gick det väldigt trögt att alls komma igång den första veckan. Det var ännu en påminnelse om att den här typen av arbete oftast inte är något man snabbt och enkelt växlar in i och ut ur. Det tar helt enkelt tid att komma in i ett projekt när man varit borta från det länge (eller om det är helt nytt) och några genvägar finns inte heller. Det är bara att ligga i.

Till slut kom jag ändå igång och även om jag knappt har läst något har jag skrivit desto mer efter den första veckans motighet. Det känns väldigt bra. Dels handlar det om att få klart saker som påbörjats tidigare, dels om att göra vissa förberedelser inför käll- och litteraturinsamling under det kommande året. För den sistnämnda behövde jag skriva ihop ett nytt synopsis för mitt Löflingprojekt och bygga upp en struktur för att hantera det material jag kommer att samla in. Det krävde i sin tur en hel del arbete med det som ska bli inledningskapitlet i den bok jag hoppas skriva i projektet.

Om jag summerar “produktionen” under de senaste fyra veckorna har jag:

1) reviderat mitt projektabstract, sammanställt en första mycket rå version av utkast till inledningskapitel och skapat ett skelettartat synopsis för övriga kapitel;

2) grundligt reviderat en längre lärobokstext om ca 30 sidor som nu i princip är helt färdig att lämna in i den slutversion som går till sakkunniggranskning;

3) utifrån tidigare insamlat material författat två kortare lärobokstexter om totalt ca 11 sidor och skickat dem till sakkunniggranskning; samt

4) efter förfrågan från Historisk tidskrift i våras skrivit en bokrecension om ca 2 sidor och skickat till dem.

Nu ser jag fram emot lite ledighet. Under den hoppas jag verkligen läsa en del, men kanske inte så mycket som har direkt med min egen forskning att göra. Det är viktigt att få inspiration från helt andra håll också. Vi ses!

Predicting usefulness

Robert McMillan of Wired has interviewed Robert Taylor, formerly of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later Xerox PARC, regarding the recent discussion about the early history of the internet:

“The origins of the internet include work both sponsored by the government and Xerox PARC, so you can’t say that the internet was invented by either one alone,” [Taylor] says.

So would the internet have been invented without the government? “That’s a tough question,” he says. “Private industry does not like to start brand new directions in technology. Private industry is conservative by nature. So the ARPAnet probably could not have been built by private industry. It was deemed to be a crazy idea at the time.”

In other words: What is a mere curiosity (or “crazy idea”) today may turn out to be a very useful innovation tomorrow, but there is no way of telling in advance.

This is why publicly funded research should be allowed to be experimental and free-ranging, not driven by short-term commercial pressures. An obvious and very simple truth that politicians everywhere seem unable to accept, as they shut down funding to research not deemed to be “useful” or “profitable” enough. The internet has turned out to be quite useful, don’t you think?

Universities as brands

Siva Vaidhyanathan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost. I suppose university presidents lapse into such language to placate the MBA’s on their boards. But the challenges and duties of private firms do not in any way resemble the challenges or duties of universities. So we must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”

Lessons from Norway

Two days ago the foreign minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, had an op-ed in the New York Times about the lessons to be learned from the tragedy on Utøya and in Oslo on 22 July 2011. He believes there are implications here for the global war on terrorism:

Osama bin Laden successfully provoked the West into using exceptional powers in ways that sometimes have been in conflict with its commitment to human rights and democracy. This only strengthened the case of extremists, and it shows that we should try to avoid exceptionalism and instead trust in the open system we are defending.

This is not a soft approach. It requires and allows for tough security measures. But it is firmly anchored in the rule of law and the values of democracy and accountability.

I agree. We all have much to learn from the manner in which Norwegians have handled the aftermath of last year’s horrific events. It has been dignified, determined and literally awe-inspiring in every conceivable way.

If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Libraries without books

David A. Bell of Princeton has a thorough piece on the future of libraries in the New Republic, where he argues that major change is unavoidable:

This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.

It is a balanced, well-informed analysis and Bell is probably as right as anyone can be in assessing the way forward for libraries, but I feel very sad at the thought of physical books gradually being pushed to the sidelines and even “phased out” entirely. A world that means a lot to many is on the brink of disappearing.

A curious and useful life

What follows is an abstract of the research project I am currently working on. It is scheduled to run until early 2015 and is funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond). The preliminary title of the project is A Curious and Useful Life: Pehr Löfling and the Globalization of Knowledge, 1729–1756. If you read Swedish, there is more information on the project blog. And if you are working on anything even remotely related I would be happy to hear from you – please contact me!

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Pehr Löfling (1729–1756) was one of the most prominent students of naturalist Carl Linnaeus. During a brief life spent in Sweden, Spain and South America, he became deeply involved in the globalization of knowledge that Linnaean natural history represented from the middle of the eighteenth century. He was directly engaged in the formulation of some of his teacher’s new principles and methods; he contributed to spreading them in the European Republic of Letters; and he was given a rare chance of applying the Linnaean ideas in a colonial context, where they both challenged and were challenged by indigenous epistemologies.

The goal of my research is to understand how different stages and aspects of the globalization of knowledge impacted on and were affected by individual lives such as Löfling’s. Based on an approach that David Livingstone has called “life geography”, I will primarily analyse three encounters and the spaces (literally situations) in which they occurred: between Löfling as a young man and the Linnaean circle in Uppsala; between him as a Linnaean “apostle” and Spanish botanists in Madrid; and between him as a European colonial naturalist and the Amerindians of the Orinoco region in present-day Venezuela.

Some of the questions I hope to address are: What do these exchanges and their outcomes tell us about the theory and practice of Linnaean natural history? How did space, location, place affect the allegedly universal science that Löfling represented? Finally, what role did the motives of curiosity and utility play in his scientific work as it evolved over the years?