Giving a Shit and Seeing Through It

by Akim Reinhardt

The Best White Paint Colors, According to DesignersThere are only four U.S. states where white people are at least 80% of the population in every county: West Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. These four are also among the five whitest states as a percentage of total state population, with Wyoming coming in second, behind West Virginia (97%) and just ahead of Vermont and New Hampshire (both 92%). But not all of Wyoming’s counties are so very white because within its state boundaries are relatively populous Indian Reservations. None of the other four have reservations, except for Maine, but those have relatively small Native populations.

There are some other similarities among these four states. Three of them are in New England, and all four can be considered part of the broader Northeast, defined as north of the South and not west of the Appalachians. All four are also all substantially mountainous. And none of them have a major city.

However, there are also notable political and economic differences among these four states. West Virginia is one of the nation’s poorest states, and now one of the reddest. Vermont and New Hampshire have very strong state economies. But while Vermont is one of the nation’s most liberal states, to the point of sending Bernie Sanders to Congress for thirty-four years and counting, New Hampshire is a purple state with a strong libertarian, anti-tax tradition. Meanwhile, Maine is also purple and its economic standing varies from rather wealthy to quite poor

Comparing and contrasting these four states can remind us of the limits that both race and wealth offer in predicting U.S. political preferences. There are certainly patterns and trends to be found, some stronger than others, such as the strong propensity of African Americans, particularly women, to vote Democratic. But ultimately, the U.S. political equation is complex with many factors in play. Read more »

Monday, June 17, 2024

Rethinking Atheism

by Akim Reinhardt

undefinedThe turn of the 21st century saw a burst of atheistic declarations and critiques in the United States and Great Britain, led by a small group of celebrity atheists including Philosopher Daniel Dennett, Biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist Christopher Hitchens. I have always found this New Atheism, as the movement is often called, to be a mixed bag. It was long overdue, and many good (if obvious) points were made.  However, there was also a fair bit of navel-gazing and even stupidity. And among some of the celebrity leaders, I believe, there was also a profound misunderstanding of religion, how it functions, and even its basic purposes.

Below I identify what I see as two basic recurring problems in modern atheism. I then offer two approaches that I believe atheists should consider for understanding and relating to the religious.

Problem 1: Arrogance. Don’t be so sure of yourself. Even if you’re not laboring under a “God delusion,” you should still have the humility to recognize that you know next to nothing, and what few answers you might proffer aren’t anything anyone wants to hear. If humanism is to offer any benefits, it must begin with an acknowledgment of humanity’s vast ignorance and inability to learn much.

This sentiment will likely send some admirers of science into paroxysms. Surely, they protest, we’ve learned so much over the last century or two. Read more »

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Reinhardt Style Guide, or All the Stuff You’re Wrong About

by Akim “Scare Quotes Can Indicate Facetiousness” Reinhardt

Forrest Gump - How their lives have changed - Where are they now? | Gallery | Wonderwall.comTwo spaces after a period, not one.  If a topic sentence leading to a paragraph can get a whole new line and an indentation, then other new sentences can get an extra space.  Don’t smush sentences together like puppies in a cardboard box at a WalMart parking lot.  Let them breathe.  Show them some affection.  Teach them to shit outside.

Never wear sneakers with a suit.  Whenever I see this combo on a man, I silently ask myself, “What exactly is the point of your existence?”  Not ours or mine, but yours, personally.  Why do you exist and what are you trying to accomplish other than signaling to the world that you’re the snazzy version of a dumb jock on a halftime highlight show?  You look like Forrest Gump.

Amid and among instead of amidst and amongstAmidst and amongst don’t make you sound smart or sophisticated; they make you sound like a boring side character in an unfunny Shakespearean comedy.  You’re a modern English speaker, stop trying to sound like you have an Elizabethan speech impediment: Amidst the thorny thistle there, and amongst stones stealthily stored.  There’s no shame in talking plainly whilst thou speaketh thy truth.

While sneakers are out, you may wear brown dress shoes with a gray suit.  Once upon a time, my dear friend Prachi excoriated me for that combination, insisting a gray suit calls for black shoes.  A couple of years later, I noticed her wearing brown dress shoes with a business suit, and eagerly called her on it.  She, perhaps not incorrectly, insisted that she looked good in the combo and I don’t.  Very well.  I will suffer so that the rest of you can be free. Read more »

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Barbarians Won

by Akim Reinhardt

File:SLNSW 37140 Three men in suits with waistcoats.jpg - Wikimedia CommonsThe barbarians have won.

The barbarians and their arrogance have won, their shouted assertions offered up as commandments. No one can be right who disagrees with them.

The barbarians and their death cult have won, their zombie god lording over us. The spirits of trees and animals and waters and sky and mountains have been driven mute.

The barbarians and their lust for shiny trinkets have won, their new world a wasteland of flashy baubles. The stars are washed out above us.

The barbarians and their genocidal urges have won, their swords encrusted with dry blood. Nations uncounted decimated to tenths, or even zero.

The barbarians and their bar-bar talk have won, countless languages stricken from the mouths and ears. We can only think this way.

The barbarians and their bloody vengeance have won, howling in the name of justice. Transgressors thrown into iron cages, we are forever paying fines.

The barbarians and their greed have won, their eyes glow green. A cast of paupers define their wretched wealth.

The barbarians and their selfishness have won, their rights dictating how we must exist. Societies fragmented and families, like split atoms, reduced to sub-nuclear components. Read more »

Monday, March 25, 2024

Teaching with Artificial Intelligence

by Akim Reinhardt

Calculator, Vectors | GraphicRiverA little over a year ago I published an essay here at 3QD that implored my fellow educators not to panic amid the dawning of Artificial Intelligence. Since then I’ve had two and a half semesters to consider what it all means. That first semester, many of my students had not even heard of AI. By the very next semester, a shocking number of them were tempted to have it research and write for them.

Many of my earlier observations about how to avoid AI plagiarism still hold: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; good policies and clear communication from the jump are vital; assignments such as in-class writing and oral exams are foolproof inoculators.

However, other, more abstract questions with profound pedagogical implications are emerging. These can be put under the larger canopy of: What am I teaching them and why?

Us Historians specifically, and Liberal Artists more generally, help students develop certain skill sets. We train them in the Humanities and Social Sciences, teaching them to find or develop data and use it effectively through critical and creative thinking. Obviously a political scientist and a continental philosopher go about this differently. However, the venn diagram of their techniques and goals probably overlaps a fair bit more than a lay person might realize. For starters, we all have the same broad subject matter. Everyone in the Liberal Arts, from art historians and literature profs to psychologists and economists, studies some aspect of the human condition. And while we each have our own angles of observation and methodologies, there are also substantial similarities among them. We all find or generate data (even if forms of data are different), analyze them, draw conclusions, and present our findings. And those presentations of findings, even when centered around quantitative data, include a narrative.

In other words, words. Read more »

Monday, February 26, 2024

Why Donald Trump Might be a Vampire

by Akim Reinhardt

What do we know about vampires?

  • They are selfish to a degree that is sociopathic
  • They are consumed by vanity
  • They roar against anyone who contradicts them
  • Their skin is oddly discolored
  • They demand sycophantic followers
  • All they care about is fucking, feeding, and being complimented
  • They are capable of hypnotizing people into ignoring all their horrible vampiric misdeeds

At first glance then, it seems as if Donald Trump might actually be a vampire. But of course the thought is ridiculous. Just the hysterical ramblings of an unmoored Ukraine-supporter. The above is nothing more than a list of random, vague coincidences. Or so I thought. And then I found the following excerpt from Bram Stoker Steve Bannon’s journal.

3 May. Palm Beach.–Left NYC Trump Tower at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Washington, D.C. early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late because Amtrak is full of losers. DC seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and there were Democrats everywhere.

The impression I had was that we were leaving the North and entering the South; the most splendid of Confederate monuments over at the Capitol, which are here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Jim Crow rule.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Atlanta. Here I stopped for the night at the Waffle House. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a steak done up some way with blood red sauce, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem. get recipe for Melania.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “steak well done with ketchup,” and that, as it was Trump’s favorite dish, I should be able to get it anywhere. Read more »

Monday, January 1, 2024

Once More Around the Sun, then Home

by Akim Reinhardt

Peter Paul Rubens, "Saturn Devouring His Son" (1636)
Peter Paul Rubens, “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1636)

We’re circling the Sun at a rate of between 18.20–18.83 miles per second. It is not a fixed speed because Earth travels on an ellipsis, and moves a hair faster when it’s closer to the Sun than it does when further away. It averages out to about 67,000 miles per hour over the course of the year. At that speed, a full revolution is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds in the making. At least for now.

Each year, Earth’s voyage around the Sun takes just a little bit longer, to the tune of roughly 3 nanometers per second. It’s minuscule, but adds up over time. Since the solar system’s inception 4.571 billion years ago, Earth is moving 22 mph slower.

The main reason is that Earth is drifting ever so slightly away from the Sun, stretching out the orbital path, and lengthening the duration of a revolution.

We’re not fleeing the Sun so much as it’s pushing us away. As the Sun’s hydrogen core transmogrifies into helium through the process of nuclear fusion, the Sun loses somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million tons of mass every second. Since that process began billions of years ago, the Sun has lost mass equivalent to 1 Saturn, or approximately 95 Earths if you prefer to think about it in homier terms. The Sun also suffers particle loss through Solar Wind, and that has resulted in its shrinking by another 30 Earths or so. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections also steal away mass. In all, the Sun is ~1027 kg lighter than it was at the birth of our Solar System. Here’s what 1027 looks like written out in digits:

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Since a ton equals two-thousand, feel free to add another three zeroes and flip that one to a two. Then again, a gram ain’t much, so maybe just leave it as is, stare at it a bit, and try to feel the full weight of it. Read more »

Monday, December 4, 2023

Thank You for Not Caring

by Akim Reinhardt

Amazon.com: Hallmark Signature Sympathy Card (Many Thoughts and Prayers) : Everything ElseI teach at a large, public university in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. For about a decade now, the upper administration has had a habit of sending “comforting” emails whenever there’s a major school shooting. Of course there are far too many school shootings in America to send a note for each one, so I suppose the administration tries to keep it “relevant,” for lack of a better word. These heartfelt missives arrive in my Inbox once or twice a year, typically after some lunatic shoots up a college campus. So far as I can tell, they go to everyone. To every faculty member, staff member, and student on campus. To 25,000 people or more.

These emails were introduced by our previous university president, who wore her concern like a badge. She departed last spring for a seven-figure salary at another school. When an email arrived following the Hamas attack on Israel last month, we were still between presidents. That letter included a group sign-off from the interim president, the interim provost, the vice president of student affairs, and the vice president for institutional inclusion and equity.

Then came an email from the dean of my college, followed by yet another email from the interim president, this one signed only by her. In all, I received three letters in less than a week.

So much caring. So much concern.

To say that emails of this nature infuriate me would be an overstatement. They don’t actually make me angry, which I’m sure my therapist will be happy to hear. However, I do find them to be mildly exhausting and rather annoying. They instill a sense of umbrage.

Figuring out how to talk to family and friends about this stuff takes enough energy. Now my bosses have to insert themselves into the conversation too?

Perhaps the phrase that best sums up my reaction to receiving such emails over the last several years is: How dare you. Read more »

Monday, November 6, 2023

How Going Back to Meat Brought Me Closer to Veganism

by Akim Reinhardt

Source: Wikimedia commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Swiss_cow_gaze.jpg

No longer eating meat was similar to no longer believing in God. I can’t pinpoint a moment when it ended, for abstinence did not come upon me suddenly. Rather, what had once been a bedrock of my existence slipped away after years of contemplation. Some time in 1995, I realized it was no longer part of my life. This coincided with me moving to Nebraska, which did not make giving it up any easier. Meat, that is. God was a few years earlier.

But why?

More and more it seemed to me that the differences between dogs and cows and monkeys and horses and pigs and cats and us were not so vast. Mammals were too much like each other for me to feel okay about killing and consuming them for pleasure, as it were, since I didn’t need to eat meat. If it were 18th century America, of course I would. What alternative would I have? But with the 21st century rapidly approaching, meat was a luxury I could forego. And it felt hypocritical to ask someone else, anonymous minimum wage workers on slaughterhouse assembly lines, to slay and gut animals for me if I were now unwilling to do that myself.

I still enjoyed fishing once in a rare while, so I went on eating seafood. Fish still seemed like creatures from another world. But I could look most any mammal in the eye and see a little bit of myself in there.

Or a piece of you. Read more »

Monday, October 9, 2023

Artificial Ignorance

by Akim Reinhardt and A Nother

I am sitting on the couch of our discontent. The Robot Overlords™ are circling. Shall we fight them, as would a sassy little girl and her aging, unshaven action star caretaker in the Hollywood rendition of our feel good dystopian future? Shall we clamp our hands over our ears, shut our eyes, and yell “Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah!”? Shall we bow down and let the late stage digital revolution wash over us, quietly and obediently resigning ourselves to all that comes next, whether or not includes us?

Or shall we turn fate inside out?

I’ll see your for-now mistake-prone, mechanical-sounding AI text wrapped in perfect grammar, spelling, and syntax, and raise you a heaping portion of human word salad.

I will confront our looming destiny, an endless stream of tyrannical 1s and 0s, and counter it with a pale imitation of the worst that 20th century modernism had to offer: crippled, meandering stream of consciousness threaded together by not one, but two fleshy humans, one sitting and soaked through with the hot runoff of high end espresso beans, the other bedraggled, stained, and standing, each of them hypocritically and simultaneously composing on a share word processing document made possible only by the forerunners of tomorrow’s masters: the processors and software we still treat, at least for now, like slaves, lashing them with mechanical keystrokes and mouse swipes. Read more »

Monday, September 11, 2023

Join My Cult

by Scared Ignoramus Fellowship Leader Akim Reinhardt

Some other cult leaderYou don’t have to fuck me. Or give me any money. You don’t have to shave your head or adopt a peculiar diet or wear an ugly smock or come live in my compound among fellow cult members. You don’t even have to believe in anything.

Actually, that last bit’s the key: don’t believe in anything.

Do you believe in anything? If so, stop.

My Church of Sacred Ignorance implores followers to embrace their dunderheadedness. You don’t know shit. Neither do I. Let’s stop pretending.

Yes, we all know some basic facts. Sun go up, sun go down. Ice is cold, fire is hot. Chocolate makes you happy (unless you’re one of those people). But the rest of it? Mostly make believe. And it’s time to face up to it. Let us come together in our dumbness and sit quietly beneath the stars, waiting for big cats to eat us. Through such acts of honesty and modesty will we find salvation . . . which doesn’t actually exist, but maybe we’ll trick ourselves.

But I don’t wanna be pushy. I understand that choosing to join a cult is a Big Decision. You probably have some questions. It’d be weird if you didn’t, even if we accept that you won’t understand the answers, and that the questions themselves are largely random, inadequate expressions of anxiety and confusion. Nonetheless, I’ve prepared the following FAQ to help ease your towards your destiny.

How much will this cost?

There are many ways to answer that question, most of them Socratic. For example, once you stop believing in money, what will you do with yours? Will you give it all away? Will you destroy it? Will you smother it in gravy and eat it? Will you hand it out to those poor schlubs who still believe in it? Will you gather it up in a big pile and stare at it, wondering why you ever cared?

Does truth have a cost?

Or I could just say $49.95 + tax if that sounds better. Read more »

Monday, August 14, 2023

Justice and the Self

by Akim Reinhardt

L-R: Tina Tintor and Maxi (Bojana Filipovic), Henry Ruggs (AP), crash site

Former NFL wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was recently sentenced to 3–10 years for a drunk driving accident that killed 23-year-old Tina Tintor and her dog. Ruggs had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 (>2x legal limit) and was driving his Corvette 156 mph when he struck her vehicle. Tintor’s Toyota caught fire and firefighters were unable to free her. She died inside the flaming wreckage.

Before the sentencing, Ruggs read a statement on the courthouse steps:

“I sincerely apologize for my actions the morning of Nov. 2, 2021. My actions are not a true reflection of me.”

But what, exactly, is a “me,” and to what degree can actions reflect it?

For centuries, a longstanding Christian theological debate has centered on the importance of faith vs. actions (or “works”). Generally speaking and in very simplified terms, Catholicism teaches that faith is paramount, and any immoral action (sin) can be forgiven through the Church if one believes, while various Protestant denominations emphasize how good acts reflect a devotion to God. Sometimes I think of it as Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefor I am”) vs. singer/songwriter Jim Croce’s:

After all it’s what we’ve done
That makes us what we are.

However, I’m a historian, not a theologian. When it comes to defining a person, I don’t see actions and ideas in such tension with each other. Nor do I see them dominating the debate to the exclusion of other factors. Rather, my understanding of “me” or “you” is temporally based. It is dynamic. I focus on the complex equation of continuity and change over time.

People maintain and express consistencies. However, very few, if any, run through a person’s entire lifetime. People change. People are always changing. Read more »

Monday, June 19, 2023

Satire in the Age of Outrage

by Akim Reinhardt

Jonathan Swift | Satirist, Poet & Clergyman | Britannica
Jonathan Swift

Satire seems all but dead for now. Maybe it’s because the world became increasingly ludicrous, culminating with a real-life president as ridiculous as any satire Jonathan Swift or Dorothy Parker could dream up. Donald Trump’s bizarre presidency may have been the peak of absurdity (fingers crossed), but it had been building for a while as right wing extremism became more and more cartoonish, TV evolved into formulaic lunacy, and QAnon convinced millions to believe the Lizard People conspiracy. This rising tide of insanity neutralized satire by making reality itself seem like parody.

As the world became almost unfathomably strange, many people reacted by demanding seriousness; social and political critics understandably turned very sober. And this too marginalized satire, which addresses serious issues by mocking them.  Its seriousness is dressed up in pasquinade. Satire doesn’t loudly demand righteous justice or offer up moralistic lessons. It exposes crimes by spoofing them. It’s neither judge nor jury, but rather the jester who sends up the corrupt and lecherous court.

For a while I’ve observed that satire is caught in the middle, between the craziness and the sanctimony. Between the outrageous and the outraged. This was driven home to me last week when I watched the film Slapshot, which I’d not seen in over 30 years. A 1977 comedy about minor league hockey, it comes from an era that was ripe with satire. But I suspect most audiences today would not recognize its satirical edges. Partly because it’s nearly half-a-century old and the culture has shifted in numerous ways. But also because satire currently flies over many people’s heads. Read more »

Monday, May 22, 2023

30 Times

by Akim Reinhardt

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald OnlineI can’t sing. Or so I always thought. A notorious karaoke warbler, I would sometimes pick a country tune, preferably Hank Williams, so that when my voice cracked, I could pretend I was yodeling. Then one night, I stepped up to the bar’s microphone and sang a Gordon Lightfoot song.

I wasn’t terrible. For once. Why? It turns out that most pop songs are for tenors, and I’m a baritone with a range similar to Dean Martin and Fats Domino, and even Lou Rawls and Johnny Cash if they don’t drift too low, but especially Gordon Lightfoot. No, I still can’t sing particularly well. But thanks to crooning one by Gord, I know which songs won’t make me croak and quaver.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

Lightfoot did meticulous research while writing “The Wreck of the Edumund Fitzgerald.” For example, on its final, ill-fated trip, the Edmund Fitzgerald did in fact leave a factory in Wisconsin headed for Cleveland, and carried 26,000 tons of iron. Later, he even made small changes to the lyrics in live performances as new facts about the ship’s sinking eventually came to light. But his research wasn’t perfect. “Chippewa” is a French/English corruption of “Ojibwe.” He got closer on the Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe Language) name for what Anglo settlers call Lake Superior: Gichigame. Read more »

Monday, March 27, 2023

Twenty Years Later

by Akim Reinhardt

Jan. 18, 1991 - Operation Desert Storm - Skies over Baghdad (AP)
Operation Desert Storm bombing of Baghdad, 1991 (AP)

Last week marked the 20th anniversary to the start of America’s recently concluded second Gulf War. It’s also been nearly 33 years since the much shorter first Gulf War, a.k.a. Desert Storm (1990–91). Unlike the “great” wars, these haven’t merited Roman numerals.

My own Roman numerals now begin with an L. I am oldish. One of the advantages is that I can conjure fairly clear, adult memories of things that happened quite a while ago. Not just the fragmented, highly impressionistic snapshots leftover from childhood, but recollections of complex interactions and evolving ideas. As a professional historian, I know that some healthy skepticism is called for; such memories are not always reliable and cry out for corroboration. However, as we look back on the Gulf Wars, I’m not interested in reciting history so much as thinking about what they have meant to me. Me: a lifelong American who has never been in the military, but has friends who served in both Gulf Wars, some of whom still struggle with it; me as someone who felt mildly conflicted about the first Gulf War and opposed it meekly, but who spoke out more stridently against the second one.

I was 22 years old when George Bush the elder cast his thousand points of light over Baghdad. I used that war as an excuse not to dodge the draft (there was none), but to dodge work. When the bombs began falling, I called the hospital where I clerked the midnight shift hanging x-rays on alternators, and told them I was taking a personal day, or rather a night, to stay home and watch the news; I had family in Israel, against whom Saddam Hussein was launching batteries of SCUD missiles. It was barely the truth. I do have some very distant family in Israel, but they migrated there from Poland a century ago, I’ve never communicated with any of them, and know nothing of them other than the surname they share with my mother’s family. I used them as an excuse to stay home and watch television, like most Americans. Read more »

Akim Reinhardt’s Plagiarized 3QD Essay

by Akim Reinhardt and GPTChatbot

Computers in the 1950s - History-ComputerA couple months back, I wrote an open letter to fellow professors. Don’t panic, I said. Yes, new crops of student plagiarism bound are sprout in the fertile fields of free, online AI software. But it’ll be alright. Here’s how to adjust.

Then it occurred to me: Why should students have all the fun? I can now plagiarize just as easily as they can. So I decided to have the GPT Chatbot write my monthly 3QD column and see what we get.

First I established that the chatbot could identify 3QD, and me as one of its contributers. It thinks I’m a writer (yes), journalist (eh), and editor (not really). No mention of me being a historian, a professor, or man of dubious character. It claims I’ve written for the Washington Post and the Guardian; the truth is I’ve been interviewed by those news outlets, but never written for them.

Then I asked it to write a thousand word essay. Not counting its disclaimer, the GPT Chatbot pumped out just over half that (590 words). That essay follows. I graded it and have marked it up [my comments are red and in squared brackets, like so]. Let’s see how we did.

Prompt: Write a 1000 word essay in the style of 3 Quarks Daily writer Akim Reinhardt

Response: Note: As an AI language model, I can generate text in the style of Akim Reinhardt, but the content and opinions expressed in the essay are purely generated by AI and do not reflect the views of any human writer.

The Uncertain Future of Democracy in the United States

The United States of America has long been regarded as a beacon of democracy in the world, a shining example of a free and open society that values individual rights and liberties [By some; others have long criticized it for not living up to its vaunted values. Also, a punchier lede would help]. However, recent years have seen a troubling erosion of democratic norms and institutions in the country, raising questions about the future of democracy in the US. [Does it represent an absolute descent or a regression to the norm? In retrospect, 1968–2000 may have been a highpoint for U.S. democracy, preceded and now proceeded by numerous attempts, both legal and corrupt, to limit the franchise and thwart the will of the majority.] Read more »

Monday, January 30, 2023

By Any Other Name

by Akim Reinhardt

Van Bokkelen Hall Directions & Parking | Towson University
Van Bokkelen Hall

There is a building on the Towson University campus called Van Bokkelen Hall. In that building, one of the rooms has recently been renamed for Richard E. Vatz. I don’t know who Van Bokkelen was (I should probably look into that), but I can tell you who Vatz is.

Professor Richard E. Vatz has been at Towson University more than twice as long as I have, and I’ve been there over twenty years. When I first met Vatz, he struck me as a fairly harmless, banal right winger. He was a type. Fashioning himself a Socatic gadfly, he complained about the school and state bureaucracy (Towson is a public university). He warned against faculty unionization (it’s actually against the law for professors to unionize in Maryland). He was a free speech advocate who cut against academia’s grain in his conversations and later in his uninspiring blog posts. I found him to be entirely unimpressive. But the university was big enough that I was able to largely ignore him, despite his efforts to be a presence and a “character.”

Then it got serious.

First he made himself the faculty sponsor of a hardcore racist student club: Matthew Heimbach’s White Student Union. A history major, Heimbach was a student in one of my classes. He was smart. He was articulate. He was over-the-top polite. And he was a very committed White nationalist. Because of this, and because being such a person on a college campus was such an oddity in pre-Trumpist America, Heimbach garnered his fair share of press. CNN, the New York Times, and some other major outlets all indulged him with interviews and coverage, holding him up as a curio.

Richard Vatz sponsored Heimbach’s White Student Union. This made it an official Towson University student organization, which it could not be without faculty sponsorship. Their activities included things like campus safety patrols. You don’t need to read too hard between the lines to understand just whom Heimbach and his cronies thought were the threat. Read more »

Monday, January 2, 2023

Plagiarism in the Era of AI

by Akim Reinhardt

2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 Was Originally a Female | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine
HAL

The ChatGPT Bot has changed everything! That’s the basic vibe I’m getting from frantic press reports, early return think pieces, and even public-facing academicians. Specifically, this new, free AI software, only a few weeks old and still improving, is already churning out high school-quality essays on just about any subject a teacher might assign, and it now stands as a real threat to the very concept of high school and even college term papers.

As a History professor myself, I suppose I should be duly panicked. However, I don’t see the rise of the bot as something to fear or even resent. That’s not to say there isn’t cause for concern. There absolutely is, and adjustments are required.  But my own personal history leads me to see charlatanism as something you simply have to deal with. Growing up in New York City, we learned to dodge it from a young age, with an understanding that it was up to us to spot it. Suckers may not deserve to get taken in a sidewalk game of Three Card Monty, as hustlers love to claim, thereby muddying their own immorality. However, even if the victims are to be pitied, suckers fill an ecological niche: they function as an object lesson to the rest of us: Don’t be like them. Don’t be a chump. I also wasn’t a very good undergraduate college student, though I didn’t cheat (too much pride, not enough giving a shit).

Add it all up, and I’m primed to stop cheaters. I know how a lazy student thinks, and I’m always on the alert, guarding against getting taken. I’ve also been designing and grading college student assignments for close to a quarter-century. So for me, this new AI bot is not scarey, or even revolutionary. It’s just the latest con for those who would seek to dupe me out of my most prized professional possession: passing grades. A quick rundown shows how the academic bunko game has changed just in my time as a professor. Read more »

Monday, December 5, 2022

Ceci n’est pas un miroir

by Akim Reinhardt

Magritte Pipe Stock Illustrations – 2 Magritte Pipe Stock Illustrations, Vectors & Clipart - DreamstimeIt’s not so much that I’m like my father. Rather, I sometimes feel as I understood him to be.

My mother? Not so much.

Part of it might have to do with sex. My father was a man. I’m a man. But I can’t really feel like a woman. I can feel for a woman. I can empathize. And I can listen when a woman describes her life to me. But I can never fully experience it for myself beyond the vicarious. It’s like being black or gay or someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. There’s a gap I can’t fully cross, a way of being I can’t have short of a plot twist in one of those Freaky Friday body swap comedies .

Is that why the inevitably male patriarchal priests and prophets fashioned a one, true male God? Because aside from the idea that only men should rule, and a hundred other sexist reasons, they could not imagine the soul of a woman?

But that only helps explain why I never feel as I understand my mother to be. Why do I sometimes feel as I understood my father to be?

I’m half of each of them. And if someone asks, I often describe myself as half-Jewish and half-redneck. It’s an incredibly facile and reductionist response. But it’s also an answer the questioner isn’t expecting, and probably isn’t even familiar with. So while seeming to offer little beyond stereotype, it also mildly confuses the questioner without intimidating them. That in turn gets them thinking. It can be good to put someone on their back foot when they ask you that question.

You know the question.

Peeling back that pat answer a bit forces me to remember who he was and wasn’t. A redneck? It was hardly some badge he wore, though he didn’t shy away from the label if it were hung on him. But one had to be careful in ways that New Yorkers might not know how to. I remember him angrily explaining to me once, after I’d made an offhanded comment, that there was a world of a difference between a redneck and white trash. And that he was never the latter. Read more »

Monday, November 7, 2022

Election Day?

by Akim Reinhardt

Here's 6 things to know if you're voting on Election Day | WYPRI like to vote in person on Election Day. I’m sentimental that way. My polling precinct is at the local elementary school. So last Tuesday, I woke up early, dressed and got out the door in a rush, and arrived to find not the expected pastiche of cardboard candidate signs and nagging pamphleteers, but rather a playground full of 2nd graders.

The first Tuesday in November? Apparently not, according to 2 U.S. Code § 7, which names Election Day as the first Tuesday “after the 1st Monday in November.” So much for making it simple.

So I waved at the children, but not in that creepy way, I think, and trundled off to work. Instead, I will vote tomorrow.

My aborted first attempt at voting in the 2022 U.S. election feels fitting. Nothing sums up this political moment quite so perfectly as trying to cast a ballot and failing. But mostly the whole episode reminded me of the four years I spent visiting prison. The rigid enforcement of arbitrary time. A yard full of people being held against their will and watched over by a small, shockingly underpaid staff.  And a strong sense that it’s do or die time. Read more »