Time to Walk the Walk

I am deeply frustrated with the sometimes closed atmosphere in academic life. I feel a profound discomfort when I encounter students and scholars who are paranoid that their research ideas will be stolen, that their sources will be discovered and, shock and horror, will be used by someone else. I’m simply incapable of sympathizing with them. I don’t like it when scholars pass around papers with bold warnings commanding me, “Do not circulate,” and I’m even less happy when I have been given handouts at a presentation only to have the speaker collect them again following the talk as if I was looking over instructor comments on a graded final exam. I feel my stomach churn as, to give a recent example, a professor opens up a database file of archival information and, smiling mischievously to the audience, declares that this is his “secret” source.

Such is life, people say to me, or else quote me some snotty French equivalent. That is the reality of this harsh academic world we live in. Well, perhaps I’m suffering from an early onset of old-age grumpiness, but I just don’t want to play that game. I don’t care that I’m still a graduate student, that job committees will look over everything they can find by me in search of sub-standard material, or that publishing firms will want me to explain why an earlier version of something I have submitted to them is available for download somewhere online. I don’t care if someone else finds some topic I have done some preliminary work on interesting, runs with it, and ends up publishing something on it. I may feel a momentary pang of regret that I didn’t get my own butt in gear and finish the project myself, but if they did a good job, then I really have no cause for complaint.

I’ve decided to just go ahead and start posting everything I produce academically, including short conference presentations and other research works in progress. You can find this material on a new research page here at Muninn.

History Job Market

I dropped in on a history department event for graduate students about the job market for the coming year. I didn’t stay for some of the reports from those who have seen the market and lived to tell the tale but essentially the main message of the opening session was: the market sucks, but you’ll be ok.

It appears that much of the bad news about the job market for history PhDs we heard comes from this article put out by the AHA.

Some of the main points from my notes: The last few years, hirings are very significantly down. However, the number of PhDs being awarded in history continues to rise, thus increasing the gap. The number of applicants for every history job has exploded. Some kind of federal funding that has helped float some departments for a while will run out this year, so next year (when I plan to complete my PhD) might even be worse than this year in terms of the drop in available jobs. Also there is a significant backlog of PhD grads who didn’t find jobs in the last few years who are still on the market for this year and next. There was an attempt to cheer us up with some good news: we “are the best history department in the country” (Comment: Fascinating claim, how exactly does one measure that?) and are “over performing” the market, as well as other departments here such as government, anthropology, English and other languages. Apparently this year we have placed 18 students in some kind of academic employment so far (tenure track jobs, one year lectureships, one year positions, or postdocs – I forgot to ask how many total grads we have this year).

After a few anomalous years when there were actually more positions advertised than PhD students coming out, helping many recent graduates I know get excellent positions at some great schools, things are “going back to the normal pattern” in which most of us will spend 1-3 years in other short-term positions while continuing to compete for the tenure track positions. Our department apparently still has an excellent record with over 90% eventually getting tenure track positions (Comment: I must have misheard that, the number seems really high – surely more than 10% of our department grads decide to do something else?) We were advised to be flexible in terms of location (Australia is doing ok, places like Hong Kong are an option, Canada not doing so well, British market has “crashed”) brush up our teaching portfolios and look for positions outside of our narrowly defined fields that might fit.

Looking at the above linked AHA article, I couldn’t help but notice the significant differences in the market between various regional specialities. Thinking of my own region, for example, job openings related to Asia continues to rise as a percentage of total and the trend for “world/transnational” historians isn’t nearly as bad as for European history. Also, the number of applicants per job opening is fairly low for Asian history compared to the average.

My best wishes go out to my friends who are on the job market now and to the rest of us who have to face what comes in the 2010-2011 academic year.

OmniOutliner AppleScript to Append a Note to Selected Rows

In the last of three postings I wrote on note taking for the dissertation about a year ago, I proposed a kind of a note taking software that would allow researchers to link the huge gap between our notes on individual sources and that which we do when outlining and structuring large writing projects.

I argued that one of the key elements of this new note taking software would be that every bullet point in one’s notes carried within itself information about where it came from: what its source was.1 This would allow a graduate student like me who is writing a dissertation or a scholar who is writing a book to drag and drop individual bullet points of notes made on a given source, such as an archival document into a broader outline of a chapter or dissertation without having to make an additional note as to what source I got that bullet point from.

This is particularly useful if, like me, you have dozens of pages of notes, taken from hundreds of archival documents, books, articles, etc. but you want to extract individual points from these sources and compile them into a larger outline as you plan the writing process.

While the tooth fairy never produced such software for me, I have created a little AppleScript hack for my favorite note taking software OmniOutliner that gets me closer to what I want. Simply put, the applescript assigns some text to the “note” field of a group of selected bullet points in an OmniOutliner document. Thus, if those bullet points are dragged and dropped into another document, they will always carry with them whatever source information you assigned to those bullet points.

I created two AppleScripts: One which takes whatever text is in the clipboard and sets the “note” of each selected row in your notes to that text. The second script ignores the clipboard and asks you directly in a dialog box what text you wish to put into the “note” of each selected row. You may download these two scripts from my Huginn script collection:

Set Note to Source

I don’t get it, why would you want to do this? Watch my screencast where I explain what I’m trying to do. If the youtube video below doesn’t appear, you can visit it directly on youtube through this link.

(Sorry about the poor sound quality)

How do you get this work?

1. Download the script.
2. Place the “Set Note to Source in Clipboard” script in one of your script folders (either that for OmniOutliner or in the [your home folder]/Library/Scripts/
3. Open OmniOutliner
4. Select some text that corresponds to the source of some notes that you took, and Copy it via the edit menu (or Command-C).
5. Select one or more rows that you wish assign this source to.
6. Choose the “Set Note to Source in Clipboard” script from the script menu. If your script menu is not visible in the menubar, turn it on.
7. If you find yourself doing this often, consider adding a keyboard shortcut for the script, using triggers for quicksilver or fastscripts or the like.

  1. I also suggested adding the ability to easily add tags to a bullet point and those bullet points under it. []

Google and the Pragmatic Idealist Response

Google has made an unprecedented threat to end the censorship of its search results in China and, if this is unacceptable to the Chinese government, even contemplate leaving the Chinese market. The announcement has been combined with the admission that there has been a massive coordinated attack on Google’s security and the potential targeting of private records of human rights activists.

It remains to be seen what Google will actually do in the near future. I am inspired to post something about this unusual moment in order to make two comments. First, I wish to respond to a kind of cynical reaction to Google’s announcement that I find frustrating. Second, I wish to argue that this is an opportunity for anyone who wants to see a China which one day permits the open, free, and competitive exchange of ideas. As such we need to think about how to amplify its potential impact.

The Google announcement has deservedly generated a huge response, even though it coincides roughly with the terrible news of the destruction in Haiti. The reactions are many, and I’m particularly interested in the variety of responses among Chinese which so far seem to range from complete shock, quiet or vocal support for Google, or a misguided anti-imperialist attitude of “good riddance.”

One of the responses I find incredibly unproductive. Two representative examples can be seen in this Techcrunch article and a posting by Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy. Their message is essentially a cynical one: It is foolish for us to pour praise on Google for what deceptively seems like a just moral stance – the corporation is merely acting out of pure calculated greed.

This is, in my opinion, a complete waste of words, an unnecessary attempt to dampen enthusiasm about what is potentially, but by no means guaranteed to be, a historic moment. No one should be surprised to discover that corporations act in the interest of their profits and shareholder benefits. No one should be surprised to learn that Google is doing a cost-benefit calculation with relation to its future in the Chinese market and we still don’t know what its final fate in China will be. These things should merely be accepted as the, “bloody obvious.”

Which brings me to my second point: what are we going to do about? What potential impact, if any, can this have on a cause many of us care about?

Pragmatic Idealism

I couldn’t give a shit about the profits of Google, or what its real motivations are. I do care, however, what the reactions of the Chinese people are to this and what marginal influence this move can have on efforts within China to change the information environment in the near and the long term.

From that perspective, it is not obvious that Google dropping censorship and withdrawing from the Chinese market is in the best interests of freedom of information in China, even if it were followed by all other foreign companies. If the internet environment in China is dominated completely by Chinese companies who are perfectly willing to censor all of its content, this may result in a worse situation than one in which foreign search engines and some international social and media websites have limited, if censored, presence in China, with even a small percentage of the market share there. Coming from someone who studies traitors and treason, this seems to me to be the classic collaborator’s dilemma: will collaboration limit the damage? Will resistance result in a worse outcome?

The answer is not always that resistance is better – sometimes collaboration is better. Sometimes negotiating with evil produces more good. Sometimes subversion hidden behind compliance is the path to take. These things should be carefully evaluated according to circumstances. Clearly, however, in some cases resistance is the better choice and can move things perceivably towards a desired end.

The answer is not obvious, but I think in this case, if Google were to take a stand, it would matter: despite its low market share, Google has made a splash on the Chinese market, and young Chinese engineers and educated people all over the country recognize and respect the company – many of them dream sincerely of one day working at the corporation. Even some Chinese friends who use the competitor Baidu are disgusted with its corrupt history of manipulation of hits to promote advertising revenues, its occasionally substandard results (sometimes even with Chinese search terms!) and lack of innovation.

Having made its mark, having a well known brand, and then suddenly withdrawing in a blaze of glory—and while withdrawing for a short time removing censorship from its search results: at the very least this will likely produce a memorable reaction: some in China will feel shame, and others will embrace a defiance. Those who are defiant will be forced into the ridiculous position of claiming, “Ha! Be gone stupid imperialistic western company – if you refuse to hide things from us like our dictatorship tells you to, then you are just selfishly giving into those superior companies who are willing to be more submissive to our glorious Party and ever more powerful, if castrated, Nation.” Those who feel shame, will be reminded, yet again, of the contrast between what they are permitted to see, what they may see when they climb over the great firewall, and what most of the rest of the wired world can see, with a few notable exceptions.

However, this isn’t and shouldn’t be up to Google. It is up to us to make it matter: not by hailing Google for its courage, or setting up fan clubs for Google co-founder Sergey Brin. We should ask ourselves how we can maximize the impact of the decision, if Google follows through with it, to say no to collaboration with Chinese censors, then let us see if we can amplify the impact of that decision. There is now a brief moment of opportunity, a time when we can make something like this matter. Instead of cynically deriding Google for merely acting in its own interests, we should be debating how we might best amplify the impact of such a decision while minimizing the similar amplification of a Chinese nationalistic backlash that will inevitably accompany it. The goal is simple: to make the contradictions so obvious to many within China just that much clearer, to make the hypocrisies pointed out by activists within China that much easier to identify, and to increase the discomfort felt by Chinese government as well as institutions both foreign and domestic. It may result in only one of a “thousand cuts” in the farce that is Chinese media and internet policies, but that is how change is accomplished.

Two Conference Paper Proposals

I recently submitted two conference paper proposals. One is somewhat connected to one of the chapters of my dissertation, and the other is something of a prequel for a post-dissertation project I hope to work on.

If they are accepted, I have a foundation of notes to work off of, but there is some more research that needs to be done and I welcome any comments, suggestions, etc.

The ‘Democratic Police’ under US Military Occupation: Torture and Reform in Korea and Japan, 1945-48

The reform ideals of every postwar United States military occupation have faced one of their greatest tests in the question of how to address the pre-occupation institution of the police: Are they to be preserved largely intact in order to carry out the essential duties of preserving public order, and guarding against new insurgent forces? Or are their post-conflict remnants to be completely dismantled or at least thoroughly purged for having been the most efficient tools of state oppression? This paper examines and compares the attempt by US occupation authorities in early postwar Korea and Japan to balance its strategic need to preserve social stability and its desire to eliminate the worst symbols of police brutality and oppression. It focuses on the campaign to bring about an institutional rebirth in the form of the new ‘Democratic Police’ and the responses to it within the Japanese and Korean police establishment. US occupation officials and post-occupation advisors were forced to acknowledge, often with embarrassment, the failure to eradicate torture. However, the United States police forces that supplied advisors and instructors for the occupation were no distant strangers to brutality themselves, with torture, or “third degree” interrogations reported widespread in the 1931 Wickersham Commission’s “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.” Despite a genuine disgust with brutal methods, the very willingness of US forces to quickly disassociate themselves from the ‘dirty work’ of occupation security guaranteed the persistence of such methods by Japanese, and in a more politically violent environment, especially the Korean police.

Pan-Asianism or World Federalism? Raja Mahendra Pratap and the Japanese Empire, 1925-1945

A number of Indians opposed to British colonial rule made their way to Japan and found their voices welcome among Japan’s leading pan-Asianist thinkers. The most famous of these figures include Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose, former president of the Indian National Congress and eventual commander of the Japanese supported Indian National Army. The collaboration between these Indian nationalists, sworn to an anti-imperialist cause, and Japan’s own brutal empire has been of great interest to historians. The more eclectic figure Raja Mahendra Pratap, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932, was also a fervent activist against British colonial rule in India and likewise turned to Japan for support, but Pratap also developed a highly evolved and spiritually charged conception of world federalism. Pratap found some support for his ideas in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, where he raised money and corresponded with intellectuals long before the idea of World Federalism would briefly enjoy widespread interest in Japan and around the world from 1945-1947. This presentation will show how Pratap worked to prevent his conception of a world federation from clashing with Japan’s imperialist conception of pan-Asian union and suggest the ways in which his exploration of the relationship between the regional and the global foreshadowed postwar and contemporary debates of a similar nature.

Update: The first proposal was rejected and I delivered the second presentation at Columbia University. I’ll try again with the first proposal for another conference in the fall.

Scrivener for Dissertation Chunk Drafting

A favorite procrastination technique of dissertation writers is to waste time searching for that perfect tool for writing the dissertation in a more efficient manner. I indulged in this sinful habit a bit two nights ago and revisited the software “Scrivener” for OS X. I’m impressed and encourage my fellow PhD students to give it a closer look as a possible environment in which to compose and collect chunks of writing for ‘da diss.’

When I last looked at the software, I didn’t think it had anything striking to offer and seemed like a kind of bizarre combination of clip collection software like Yojimbo1 and the writer’s software Copywrite.2 However, after being prodded to give the software another look by a friend, I now believe there are some features in Scrivener that are worth considering by students or scholars writing longer research papers or one’s dissertation.

Obviously, a simple word processor and citation management software may be best for most dissertation or other academic projects. It may be justly argued that I have hopelessly over-organized my life in the digital medium, with hundreds of note files in OmniOutliner, all my tasks and snippets of ideas stored in OmniFocus, mind maps for my writing ideas in NovaMind, serial numbers, short reference files, and screenshots of webpages stored in Yojimbo, a diary written in MacJournal, thousands of pictures, PDFs, and documents tagged and organized with Leap, various personal data tracked in a Bento database, and flashcards for the various languages I have studied daily reviewed in Anki. And so on. My name is Konrad, and I am an organizational software addict. The irony of this is only truly appreciated by friends of mine who know how disorganized I am.

So why is an application like Scrivener useful for dissertation or research paper writing? Read on for more detail, but if you want the quick and dirty tips on what to look for download the trial and especially consider the following: 1) the corkboard for organizing writing chunks, 2) the “edit scrivenings” for immediately reassembling several writing chunks 3) the multi-level hierarchical writing chunk organization with the possibility for separate synopsis, notes, and tags 4) the “snapshot” feature for document versioning. 5) links for creating internal links between documents or documents and note snippets (not a full personal wiki like the excellent VoodooPad but close) 6) a “Research” dumping ground for various file formats that can serve as a kind of mini-Yojimbo/Evernote 7) A status and label feature for writing chunks. 8) Possibility of two pane viewing for simultaneously editing two chunks or combining a writing chunk with the corkboard view.

It is actually hard to appreciate Scrivener because it is an unusual hybrid. Users of the other applications mentioned above will note many features it has in common with other programs out there.

Most importantly, at its most simple Scrivener is a kind of basic word processor with a beautiful full screen mode that allows you to write without distraction. The full screen mode is highly customizable and a delight to work in.

At the next level, being explicitly designed for writers of larger structured works, it provides an environment in which you may divide and hierarchically organize chunks of writing as one might in outlining software. The “binder” on the left of the screen divides everything into a “Draft” and “Research.” The former contains only text chunks which, at the conclusion of the drafting process may be “compiled” and exported to a word processor. The latter is a place where one may drop snippets and various files such as images and PDFs for you to refer to as you write.

The Binder and Documents – One nice aspect of the files in the binder is that they may be multiple levels deep, like any good outlining software. One’s “draft” may be made up of folders (chapters, for example) which have sections that themselves have sections with sections.

Each section can be viewed as its own document alone or sharing the screen horizontally or vertically with another panel in which you may display another document or, as we shall see an outline or corkboard. These individual documents have a nice word count at the bottom and, via a small target icon, the easy ability to establish a word count target for each section. Also, these individual documents may have their own title, a “synopsis,” as well as “Document Notes,” reference links to other documents, tags (keywords), colored labels, and a customizable status (draft, complete, etc.)

The Outline and the Corkboard – In addition to viewing any document in the binder directly in one of the viewing panes, as one might in a program like Yojimbo, there are two other views. The Outline view displays a list of documents along with their synopsis, labels, and status. I have yet to find this very useful given the appearance of the resulting outline. The corkboard, on the other hand, is one of Scrivener’s best features. Once it has been stripped away, via the preferences, of its silly looking pins, blue lines, and corkboard background appearance (this cheesy look was one of the things that turned me immediately off from Scrivener the first time I downloaded it, but it can be easily removed), this view allows you to view a collection of writing chunks (their title and synopsis) as cards across the screen. Somehow, I find this view much more useful than an outline view. I can order and reorder these large notecards, with their synopsis displayed in one pane, while I read or edit the content of the chunk in question in a second pane below it. The visual juxtaposition of them feels closer to a mind map view and thus stimulates the thinking process in fresh ways (one could always dream of an ultimate application that could seamlessly combine the powers of NovaMind, OmniOutliner, OmniFocus, Zotero/Sente and a writing application like Scrivener or at least allowed a smooth drag and drop relations between elements of these various apps but we ask too much).

Edit Scrivenings – This is a brilliant feature that allows you to experiment putting different chunks together or edit them together as a whole. When you have written several separate chunks of text that are displayed by their title in the “draft” section of your “binder” to the left, you may select several chunks from the list arbitrarily or consecutively, and press the “Edit scrivenings.” This temporarily combines the texts in a pane for you to see them together and allows you to edit them each directly (they are visually distinguishable by a slight variation of background color. Note that you may not edit across two chunks, but only within each chunk separately).

Versioning – One of the features I loved about the software Copywrite was that you could work on a chunk of writing, and then at any time easily save a “version” of it. You could then edit the document at will and easily return to any previously saved version of it, as displayed in a list at the right, not entirely unlike software versioning software. The Scrivener equivalent to this is Snapshot. You can create a snapshot of any chunk of writing and restore it at a later time.

Three Simple Suggestions for the Developer:

1. Sometimes I get stuck in a view and find myself a bit lost, trying to get back to the body of text for a document. This usually happens when I click on a text chunk in the binder and find myself with an empty outline view. The trick is to “deselect” the outline view in the toolbar (or press Command 1 again). It would be better if there was an explicit “Text View” which feels more natural than getting back to the text view by deselecting the outline view.

2. The snapshot feature works great, but I don’t think it belongs only in a separate window at the universal level of the application. It should be, as it is in CopyWrite, displayed at the level of the document or writing chunk. In the “inspector” we can choose between “notes,” “references,” and “keywords” panels – why not add a “snapshots” panel here so that we can immediately see, for any document, what previous snapshots there are for each document here.

3. Allow a view of the corkboard with only the titles of the writing chunks displayed (and not the synopsis as well) and which has a “free” mode to allow full and free movement about of the cards or, even better, rudimentary mind mapping features.

One Power Feature Suggestion

Implementing the following would, I believe, instantly quadruple the value of the application for dissertation writers:

Currently, when you create a new “link” in a text document or chunk for the first time, a new folder appears called “notes” which seem to be something separate and distinct from the normal writing chunk documents in the draft.

This is where my theory of medium level organization for dissertation writing could be perfectly applied if Scriviner strived to expand this “notes” feature a little more.

Here is how this could be done, and you will see this follows from the ideas laid out in the third of my series of postings on the topic:

1. Make the “notes” a much more robust feature-packed section of the Scrivener binder separate and distinct from the writing chunks in the ‘draft’ section of the binder. Allow the user to very easily create hundreds, if not thousands of small notecards which may each be tagged using Scriviner’s keyword feature. Allow them to be attached to a “source” (separate from its tag or keyword) such that all cards can potentially belong to a source and notes deeper in a hierarchy can inherit the “source” of cards higher up the chain. As in the case of “Draft” documents – allow multiple levels of hierarchy and folders for further organization. Allow the inheritance of tags to note cards at lower levels.

2. Allow each of these notes to be linked to writing chunks where the writer wants to deploy them. (this can already be done)

3. Allow the notes to have a status – or more simply a check mark to indicate when the idea or content they have has been incorporated into the main writing.

4. Allows the notecards to be viewed in the “corkboard” mode or ideally assembled in a more visually complex form (ie. mind maps)

5. Allow easy creation of “smart outlines” (See my post for an explanation of this)

6. Allow easy access to a list of “sources” – ideally connected in some relational way to an external citation management software.

One Difficult Challenge:

This is a great environment to bang out quick chunks of writing for the dissertation, but despite the fact there is a simple inline footnote feature, many dissertation writers will want to do their footnoting as they write that first draft and, if they use a citation manager such as Zotero, Sente, or Endnote, this will mean that they will want to do even their drafts directly in an application which can interface with these applications (Word for Endnote, Word or OpenOffice for Zotero, or Word, Apple Pages, and Mellel for native support with Sente). For those writers, Scriviner will never be able to sufficiently draw them in.

For the rest of us who don’t mind revisiting this process after getting a good draft going, you can draft up a chapter in Scrivener, making simple notes to yourself with the Scrivener inline footnote feature and then add the real citations with your favorite citation software after you “compile” the draft into a word processor document of the desired format.

  1. Evernote, Together, Devon Think, and other examples abound, but Yojimbo is my favorite []
  2. Journler, MacJournal, StoryMill, and WriteRoom are also tools for writers I have looked at which have various strengths[]

The Power of the Ellipsis

Anyone who has written for or about media, politics, or in fields like history know the power of the ellipsis to shave away important context. I came across this today when assembling some quotes on Churchill’s evolving views on employing terror as a matter of military strategic policy. Among them, one in particular is yet another demonstration of this.

I started with this quote, condemning terror polices, taken from a speech of his in parliament, as Secretary of State for War in the aftermath of the Amritsar Massacre in British colonial India:

“There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called ‘frightfulness.’ What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.” (1920)

I skipped his 1940 “and now set Europe ablaze” directive when establishing the British wartime SOE since it is a more complex case and made note of his often quoted 1942 statement:

“All the same, it would be a mistake to cast aside our original thought which, it may be mentioned, is also strong in American minds, namely, that the severe, ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort, including U-boat and aircraft production, but will create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” (1942)

I then moved on to his famous post-Dresden 1945 statement in a draft letter he wrote:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)

Now, almost every version of this quote I have seen online or in books, places an ellipsis before “The destruction of Dresden” and thus leaves us with the impression that Churchill was shocked at the scale of terror and that this is what lies at the heart of the justification for the “serious query” against terror bombing.

Now, let us fill in that quote with what has been removed:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because of some temporary provisions would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)

I would argue that this radically changes our interpretation of this quote. Churchill here points to the practical difficulties of running an occupation in a “ruined land” and the need to devote much needed provisions for the Germans – not an ounce of sympathy is shown in this full quote for the suffering of civilians or doubt shown for the moral underpinnings of terror bombing.

On a side note: am I missing other important quotes by Churchill for this little collection (related, for example, to 1920s Iraq, India, or during WWII with respect to bombing etc.?).

Comments on Katyn

I watched the Polish movie Katyń (2007) on the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish military officers in 1940.

I felt the acting was mediocre, the “shaky camera” technique used annoying at times, and the background music rather primitive, but there were also many strengths to the movie. It had some excellent scenes that capture the Polish dilemma with remembering this pivotal event of 1940 or—as the Soviets would have them believe until official admission to the crime in 1990— 1941.

One thing that particularly impressed me was the portrayal of the process of the massacre itself. Most of us are familiar, desensitized even, to portrayals of massacre in the many films on the Holocaust or World War II in general. There are certain aspects of these scenes that seem almost required: images of angry shouting soldiers herding a crowd of helpless victims, the evil officer given ample chance to fully personify the diabolical, and so on.

Katyń initially passes the point of the massacre without any depiction of it whatsoever, letting it instead hang over all the scenes to follow and allowing the audience to only imagine what has transpired. We then return to the actual scene of killing at the close of the film.

I thought the depiction of the killing was done wonderfully, if one can use such a word to comment on the cinematography of massacre. With the exception of Soviet officers confirming the identity of some high-ranking officers, the perpetrators hardly speak and are generally without expression. Instead, the soldiers simply carry out their terrible task in a quiet and methodical fashion. The killings proceed smoothly and as part of a highly mechanical procedure. Instead of sacrificing an opportunity to vilify the Soviets who carried out Stalin’s orders, this approach, I believe, adds to the horror felt by the viewer, and reminds us of how this process may have been seen by soldiers for whom executions of reactionary elements were thought a natural and necessary component of the revolution.

One after another, we are shown the Polish officers taken to the killing grounds in a truck, individually unloaded, tied, shot, and finally covered with others in the mass grave. In the case of some officers killed separately, the rapid procession of killings in an abandoned forest house is interrupted only by the splash of a bucket of water upon the blood covered concrete basement floor, the expulsion of the corpse through a shoot into a waiting truck outside, and a newly loaded gun being handed to the executioner.

I’ll close these comments by sharing one of the fragments of dialogue which describes the dilemma of collaboration in the postwar Soviet dominated Poland and in so many other places seen, as it was at the time, as a stark choice between silent acquiescence and open resistance. It takes place in a graveyard between the wife and a sister of the slain. Magdalena has a gravestone for her brother made with the forbidden 1940 death year carved on the stone, while the other, Róża, the wife of a dead general, keeps her mourning to herself, finds work as an art teacher, and tries to plead reason with Magdalena:

Magdalena: You’ve found a place in this new world of yours, whereas I am whole in that where Piotr is. If I must choose, I stay with him.

Róża: You choose the dead, which is morbid.

Magdalena: No. I choose the murdered, not the murderers.

Damage Report: China Box Disaster 2009

I have been doing research in Asia for two years and during this time I have sent back about twenty boxes to the US. Most of these have contained books and a few, especially from Korea, contained important documents that I photocopied in the archives.

Before sending them, I take pictures of their contents, make a little inventory, and in the case of documents, create an index with each document numbered.

I am very happy about the fact that since 2004, none of the many boxes I have sent back from Japan, Korea, or Taiwan have been missing, or their contents suffered more than the occasional dented book spine.

This year, however, I had a bit of a disaster. I sent two boxes back from Jinan, China. I sent them in official China Post boxes to New York state via sea.

Altogether my boxes contained about 60 books, with padding of a blanket and a few sweaters. Many of the books make up a series on Shandong during Sino-Japanese and civil wars. Perhaps half of them were out of print used books I had spent several days hunting down in various used book sellers in Jinan.

Neither of the original boxes arrived. Instead two new, smaller and very much lighter boxes arrived, containing a collection of about 20 mangled and, in some cases, ripped books. It was stamped “Arrived damaged, New Jersey”

I guess I should be grateful that about 20/60 of my books arrived. I’m also very glad that I hand carried the 20 or so volumes of published but long out of print and restricted distribution (內部) historical documents most important for my dissertation.

While the US postal system is hardly worthy of praise, I have never had more than bruised corners on the many other boxes I have sent back from Asia. Thus, a warning to those of you studying in China: hand carry out the most important stuff.

The Grapes of Canaan

“They inquired about the development of production in the light metal industry, like children asking the exact size of the grapes of Canaan.” – Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon

I now have a Russian aunt. Together with her son, from a previous marriage, she has added a wonderful new multi-cultural dimension to my trips back to my hometown in Stavanger, Norway, where I stay in my mother’s apartment just under my uncle’s house. I have enjoyed my many chances to talk to them both and learn more about Russia and Russian. This was made simple given the fact my aunt speaks fluent English and her son increasingly fluent Norwegian, even though the two of them have lived in Norway less than a year.

This summer, my aunt Lena’s parents, both doctors, visited from Russia. I met them first in my uncle’s garden, which they immediately – and spontaneously – assumed supervision of, and I took a liking to both of them immediately. They were both incredibly active, healthy, full of childish vigor, and curious about the country they were visiting.


Granpa Alex on the ropes, with my aunt Lena and cousin Max outside my uncle’s house in Stavanger, Norway.

Communication was always difficult, however, since I don’t speak Russian yet and neither of them speak any English. When my uncle and my aunt left for a week of vacation, my daily interaction with them mostly consisted of some dozen greeting related phrases of Russian I had learned, quick single word lookups in a Russian-English dictionary I had on my iPod Touch, and a few random German words we hoped the other would be able to understand.

We started with greater ambitions. I spent my first evening with the couple mostly with Alex, the father, and we tried to teach eachother some English and Russian, respectively, with the use of a well-worn phrase book he had brought with him from Russia:


Русско-английский разговорник

(Russian-English phrasebook)

Guessing from the first pages, it looks like it was published originally in 1957 and reprinted as late as 1991.

Most of the phrases were very basic and still good choices for a phrase book of this kind. “How are you,” and “I have a cold,” for example. However, in this small pocket booklet of perhaps 150 pages things quickly got more technical, with some fascinating entries which really have a classic Soviet appeal.

You can view a collection of my favorite pages from the book here, but here are a just few phrases that were included in this beginner’s phrase book:

-We want to see the new types of reinforced concrete (metal) structures)

-Show us the agricultural machinery.

-What is the capacity of the lathe?

-We should like to see designs of apartment houses (industrial buildings).

-What special combine harvesters have you?

-Are you a member of the National Farmer’s Union?

-We should like to meet some members of Parliament.

-What is the membership of the National Union of Railwaymen (the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union)?