Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

5 Questions with Colin Koopman, Author of “How We Became Our Data”

July 29, 2019
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From banking to social media, our lives are becoming ever-more entwined with our data, and questions about the truthfulness and privacy of our records feel increasingly pressing. In his new book, How We Became Our Data, Colin Koopman takes us back to where this explosion of record-keeping all started. To understand more about our data and why it’s so important, we asked Colin a few questions. He shows us how central data is to so much of our lives and what it has to do with cultural phenomena from redlining to The Great Gatsby and Buzzfeed quizzes. First, can you give us a quick introduction to the “informational person” —who does this term describe? Informational persons live through, are recognized by, and reflect on themselves in terms of their data. How We Became Our Data describes how, in a period of a few quick decades in the early twentieth century, it became obligatory for us to live as informational persons. Why does this matter for us now? In short, because we are poignantly aware of how much of our lives are today transacted in terms of data. Consider social media selfhood and mass surveillance dossiers as two convenient exemplars. The . . .

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What Atari and the “Worst Video Game of all Time” Can Teach Us About the Crisis in American Public Service

July 24, 2019
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What does American public service have in common with a hastily produced video game adaptation of Spielberg’s E.T.? If you’ve endured the DMV—or, really, any overworked government office—you might find it difficult to identify which was described as “a confusing mess that left frustrated and disoriented.” No, this isn’t a Yelp review of the USPS; it’s NPR’s take on the 1982 video game, published on the film’s thirty-fifth anniversary. Like the American government, Atari had to defend against a serious reputation crisis. E.T. would change how people saw Atari, and the company found it difficult to correct that perception despite the later success of Q*bert and Ms. Pac-Man. Today, the government faces the similar challenge of changing people’s minds about the quality of public services with serious consequences in some cases for its continued ability to provide them, including to those without access to private-sector alternatives. The following is an excerpt from Good Enough for Government Work: The Public Reputation Crisis in America (And What We Can Do to Fix It) by Amy E. Lerman, where she describes what happened at Atari and what the “worst video game of all time” can teach us about American public service today. . . .

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Summer Book Club Feature: Five Questions with Jennifer Jordan, Author of “Edible Memory”

July 16, 2019
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Now that the dog days of summer are truly upon us, we hope you’re staying cool lakeside or under a shady umbrella with our summer #ReadUCP Twitter book club pick, Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods by Jennifer Jordan. And if you haven’t picked it up yet, it’s not too late! We’re reading throughout July and August, so there’s plenty of time for reading in-between watering your tomato and pepper plants or checking out the latest at the farmers’ market. (And there’s a handy discount code below.) Though we’ll soon be announcing dates for our Twitter chats with Jennifer, we decided to get things started with a few questions about what inspired her interest in heirloom foods and what’s next on her plate. Where did your interest in heirloom fruits and vegetables come from? I’d say it came from two sources, one personal, one sociological. I’ll submit this photo as evidence of the personal part. I grew up in California in the 70s, and my parents (both teachers) had a cooperative garden when I was tiny. Amazingly, one of the babies I grew up with ALSO became a sociology professor! So my childhood was surrounded . . .

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It’s Independence Day! Read an Excerpt from “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose”

July 4, 2019
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In the years after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling republic of America was viewed by many Europeans as a degenerate backwater, populated by subspecies weak and feeble. Chief among these naysayers was the French Count and world-renowned naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who wrote that the flora and fauna of America (humans included) were inferior to European specimens. Thomas Jefferson spent years countering the French conception of American degeneracy. The American moose, which Jefferson claimed was so enormous a European reindeer could walk under it, became the cornerstone of his defense. Convinced that the sight of such a magnificent beast would cause Buffon to revise his claims, Jefferson had the remains of a seven-foot ungulate shipped first class from New Hampshire to Paris. Unfortunately, Buffon died before he could make any revisions to his Histoire Naturelle, but the legend of the moose makes for a fascinating tale about Jefferson’s passion to prove that American nature deserved prestige. In Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, first published in 2009 and reissued in paperback this year, Lee Alan Dugatkin vividly recreates the origin and evolution of the debates about natural history in America and, in so doing, returns the prize moose to its rightful place in . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Edible Memory,” Our Summer Book Club Pick

July 1, 2019
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Today is the first day of our seasonal Twitter book club #ReadUCP. For our first pick, we invite you to join us throughout July and August to read and discuss Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Vegetables and Other Forgotten Foods by Jennifer A. Jordan, while sharing stories and photos from our gardens, markets, kitchens, and plates. To get things started, here’s a little homegrown taste of what you’ll find inside the pages. Forgetting Turnips What kinds of changes have vegetables undergone over time? And what are the fates of particular vegetables in this era of heirloom food? When I began my search in mainstream food writing for coverage of forgotten turnips, celery, and other less glamorous vegetables, I found very little. Particular blogs, authors, and chefs zeroed in on particular heirloom vegetables at various moments, but there was no comparison with the coverage of heirloom tomatoes or apples. My initial inclination was to think that this silence reflected forgetting. But in fact these supposedly forgotten vegetables inspire extremes of devotion in some seed savers, gardeners, and farmers, and it is to these people (more than to urban diners and famous chefs) that they owe their survival. My research into . . .

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Nine Tips from Wendy Laura Belcher, author of “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks”

June 25, 2019
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January 1 might be the traditional time for resolutions, but the summer often brings on the warm-weather resolve to finally get some writing done, especially from those who see a dip in workload or other requirements this time of year. At the same time, the summer is full of distractions that offer easy excuses to put writing goals off until another day—sometimes until Labor Day suddenly arrives. Wendy Laura Belcher is the author of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks and is an expert on helping academics finish their writing projects. Here she offers nine tips on how to motivate yourself to finally sit down and get writing. Many academics find sitting down at the computer and starting to write to be the most difficult challenge facing them. One of the reasons for this, as one of my students put it so well, is that “if I never start, then I never fail.” Another is getting out of the habit of writing—or never having had a writing habit. While tough to overcome, this obstacle does have some straightforward solutions. Make other tasks contingent on writing An excellent way of dealing with the difficulty of getting started is to make . . .

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Five Question for Jennifer A. Jones, author of “The Browning of the New South”

June 20, 2019
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Studies of immigration to the United States have traditionally focused on a few key states and urban centers, but recent shifts in nonwhite settlement mean that these studies no longer paint the whole picture. Many Latino newcomers are flocking to places like the Southeast, where typically few such immigrants have settled, resulting in rapidly redrawn communities. In this historic moment, Jennifer A. Jones brings forth an ethnographic look at changing racial identities in one Southern city: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  To get a better sense of what inspired Jones to focus her book on this particular city, we sent her a few questions recently about her research. How did you come to follow the line of research that forms the backbone of The Browning of the New South?  In some ways, I came to the research that forms the backbone of The Browning of the New South by accident. I consider myself a race scholar, and for my MA research I had done some ethnographic research on group identity formation among multiracials. I was really interested in how race gets made and wanted to pursue another project that helped me explore that process. I came to Winston-Salem to do research because . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Redefining Success in America: A New Theory of Happiness and Human Development”

June 17, 2019
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In recent months, the news has been filled with the ongoing fallout of a college admissions scandal in which dozens of wealthy parents—including Hollywood stars—stand accused of bribing their children’s way into elite undergraduate institutions, presumably in a bid to guarantee them long-term success. But while the salacious combination of celebrity, money, and crime has consumed our attention, we’ve ignored some important central questions: Are the beliefs that motivated the purported crimes based in reality? Do an elite education and a successful career really guarantee a fulfilled, happy life? In his timely new book, interdisciplinary psychologist Michael B. Kaufman shows us that the answer is an emphatic “No.” Returning to the legendary Harvard Student Study of undergraduates from the 1960s and interviewing participants almost fifty years later, Kaufman reveals that formative experiences in family, school, and community largely shape a future adult’s worldview and well-being by late adolescence, and that fundamental change in adulthood, when it occurs, is shaped by adult family experiences, not by ever-greater competitive success. As the Harvard Class of 1964 at the heart of the study celebrates fifty-five years since graduation, and as controversy continues to swirl over college admissions and the long-term value of an . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound”

May 23, 2019
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Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg is an expert in interspecies music. He has a long history of making live music with the sounds of nature, including birds, whales, and bugs. Now, with a new book and CD, Rothenberg turns his attention to the elusive figure of the nightingale. Rather than try to capture a sound not made for humans to understand, Rothenberg seeks these musical creatures out, clarinet in tow, and makes a new sound with them. He takes us to the urban landscape of Berlin—longtime home to nightingale colonies where the birds sing ever louder in order to be heard—and invites us to listen in on their remarkable collaboration as birds and instruments riff off of each other’s sounds. Rothenberg has released two albums that chronicle his music-making with the nightingales. Listen along while you read for the ultimate moment of zen. Are you surprised there are nightingales in Berlin? They have flown thousands of miles to get here, up from Africa and over the sea like refugees of the air. They sing from wells of silence, their voices piercing the urban noise. Each has his chosen perch to come back to each year. We know they will return, . . .

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Six Questions for Hollis Clayson, author of Illuminated Paris

May 18, 2019
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Six Questions for Hollis Clayson, author of Illuminated Paris

To celebrate International Museum Day on May 18th, we sent professor of art history and the Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University, Hollis Clayson, a handful of questions about art and the city of light. Let’s start at the beginning: what sparked your interest in the nighttime illumination of Paris? Was there an artwork, or a trip to the city, that started your research? The book grew out of my interest in the topic of Americans especially artists in Paris which of course grew out of my experiences (from wonderful to terrible) as an American in Paris, an American billing herself as an “expert” on French culture. At the beginning of the enterprise, I was initially focused exclusively on Mary Cassatt (who figures prominently in the book and in other essays of mine), but the light angle only really dawned when I saw a painting in storage at the old Terra Foundation Museum of American Art on Michigan Ave., which is on the cover of the book: Charles Courtney Curran, Paris at Night, 1889.   It made me start asking questions about the American imagination of the Paris night and how it differed from the conception of the modernity . . .

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