Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Become a Member of Amazon Vine?

New Developments in the Tragic Death of Dr. Antonio Calvo

Read about new developments in the tragic death of Dr. Antonio Calvo here.


In keeping with my restive immigrant identity, I decided that I couldn't leave well enough alone and created a huge headache for myself with this move to WordPress. I realize that in a year or two, when this blog has even more visitors than the original one had, the drama I've created around this move today and yesterday will seem funny. But there's been drama, people. I barely managed to get any sleep at night, my hands are shaking, and my ears are buzzing. A book arrived that I'd been waiting for, and I barely cared. And I also just discovered that I forgot to eat today. This blog has been making me very happy, and I'm terrified of losing readers and visitors.

So please keep coming to Enter this new address into your Google Reader and blogroll. Bookmark it and link to it on your blog, Facebook page, or other resource.

The Wordpress Version

So here is the WordPress version of this blog:

Do check it out and tell me how you feel about it. Don't be too critical just yet because it already took me forever to establish it and move all the posts, pages, archives, and most of the comments to the new blog.

I know that everybody is going to hate it at first and it takes time to get used to the new format, etc. Believe me, I'm already freaked out about the entire thing. But it does seem like WordPress is more secure, it offers a lot more options for bloggers and there is a Blackberry app that will make blogging on the go even easier. 

Please visit and express opinions. What's good, what's bad, what's missing? 

Nothing is final yet and I can always cancel the transfer to WordPress.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Should I Back the Blog Up on Wordpress? Or Move Altogether?

After the Blogger collapse last week, Blogger is still not functioning properly. Several widgets on my blog are not working and it takes longer than usual to load. The Dashboard has been working poorly for several weeks now. Other people who blog with Blogger report continued issues with posting and commenting. After the unpleasant experience of Blogger being down for 23 hours last week, I have realized that I don't want to remain without my blog. I love blogging with a passion and want to continue doing it for a very long time to come. I'm only just getting started here, and I've got a lot more things to say. A real lot. 

So I've started thinking that maybe Blogger should not be relied on. I read that there is an option to export one's blog to WordPress and leave it there as a back-up option. In this case, if Blogger goes down again, readers will simply go to the WordPress version and continue reading there. Or is it a stupid idea?

Or maybe I should move the blog to WordPress altogether? Are there any distinctive advantages that WordPress has over Blogger? Or is it an even more stupid idea? 

Does it make sense to buy one's own domain name? What are the benefits of doing that?

Please help, people, I'm torn and confused. I'm placing a poll in the top right-hand corner and will also be grateful if you elaborate in the comments.

Clarissa's Frog Legs Soup: A Recipe

I love making soups because you can be as inventive as you want and use up all the stuff you have floating around the refrigerator. Today, I decided to make a soup of frog legs and fish. Once again, a Google search didn't offer any interesting recipes, so I decided to improvise. It turned out so good that I have already devoured two big bowls.

Here is what you will need:

3-4 pairs of frog legs
3-4 fish of any kind you like. The fish should be skinless but it is very important not to remove either the backbone or the tail. They are needed to make the broth less watery.
3 potatoes
2-3 carrots
salt, herbs, spices
some fresh sage

Here are the frog legs and the fish all ready for cooking. Separate frog leg pairs in two so that you have to separate legs. There is no need to chop them up onto smaller pieces.

You can use either fish stock or simply water if you have no stock handy. Place the chopped carrots and the frog legs into the broth (or water) and place the pan on high. You will need to bring it to the boiling point and then reduce the heat immediately.

Add a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and any herbs and spices you like. I added dry oregano, cumin seeds, several cloves, mustard seeds, and when the soup was almost ready, some fresh sage. Peel, cube and add potatoes to the soup. After 10 minutes or so, cut the fish into chunks of the same size and add them to the pot. Let the soup simmer on slow until the potatoes taste ready but not mushy. Here is how the soup ended up looking:

If you let it stand for a few hours after making it, the soup will taste even better.

Literary Characters Versus Real People

For years, my thesis adviser kept telling me, "Clarissa, these are not real people you are discussing. These are characters. You are not analyzing historical accounts or ideological manifestos but works of art." I had no idea what she was trying to tell me and kept getting annoyed.

And then I started reading criticism on female novel of development and realized that the following argument keeps being offered by the critics who write on the subject: "Novels reflect reality. The reality of women in the 19th century was that they were miserable, stunted, and oppressed. After the women's liberation movements achieved important successes in the 1970ies, women became liberated, happy and a lot less oppressed. Ergo, novels about women written in the 19th century will be populated by oppressed, miserable female characters who are incapable of developing. After the 1970ies, novels will show crowds of happy, fulfilled female protagonists." 

When you start reading actual female Bildungsromane, you discover that both novels and reality are a lot more complex than such facile definitions allow us to imagine. These works of fiction do not conform to the critical expectations in the least. Often, they present the exact opposite of what the above-mentioned argument leads us to expect.

This is probably the rule of literary criticism that it took me the longest to learn: characters are not real people.

A Helpful Insight From a Fellow Blogger

It is uncanny how helpful reading blogs can be to a person. I've been putting off the moment when I will stop looking for more and more and ever more sources for a new chapter I want to add to my book and will finally start writing. The search for sources took so long that I have now completely forgotten what I read in the sources that I had found at the beginning of this protracted search. When the summer holidays began, I decided to inaugurate them with yet another search for sources. In the meanwhile, I kept congratulating myself on how hard-working and productive I was being.

And then, as I was browsing through some older entries on one of my favorite blogs, I saw a very short post that seemed to be directed at me personally. It said something like this, "Stop reading already. You have read everything you need on your topic. Now just start writing." 

"Hmm," I thought. "This kind of makes sense." So this morning I woke up early and finally started writing. And I already have 491 words in my new chapter. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's more than I had written during all that time I was searching for sources.

I'm thinking of ordering a poster with this beautiful insight and sticking it in front of my desk. These three short sentences probably encompass the best piece of advice one can give to any academic.

The Demise of the Soap Opera

The genre of the soap opera is facing an inevitable death. Soap operas that have run for decades are being cancelled. ABC recently announced the cancellation of All My Children and One Life to Live. Guiding Light, my favorite soap opera, was slashed in 2009. (Notice the date, it's important.) As the World Turns was killed by CBS last Fall. There are rumors that even General Hospital is about to be replaced with a Katie Couric show.

If you look at the time-frame of these massive cancellations of soap operas, you will see that they are very obviously linked to the economic crisis that hit this country in 2008. The crisis hit industries that have traditionally been dominated by men the hardest. As a result, men who can afford a full-time housewife have become few and far between. I blogged before about the fact that, paradoxically, this crisis might end up being a positive development in terms of women's rights. Historically, the greatest pushes towards women's liberation came during moments of crisis. World War I brought women into the workplace and led them to demand the right to vote even more insistently than before. The turbulent sixties in the US inspired the women's liberation movement to fight against the patriarchy and finally defeat it an many important aspects. The collapse of the Soviet Union made Soviet women discover the word feminism and generate an interest towards it.

As the demise of the soap genre demonstrates, women who can be sure of always being at home in the afternoon with little enough to do but watch soaps are disappearing. More and more women are finally getting outside of their kitchens and into the workforce. While one might want to dismiss the cancellation of the soaps as a trivial event, it is evidence of profound transformations that are taking place in our society. Žižek loves quoting Mao Zedong's words: "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent." As traumatic as this crisis have been, it has done a lot to push women towards freedom.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Google Books on Kindle

In case you have also been taken in by Google's stories about how you can't read Google Books on Kindle, I have great news for you: it's simply not true. For some weird reason, I kept believing Google's claims and never checked it out for myself. Now, I finally decided to look into it and discovered that Google lies like a college administrator. Converting Google Books that come in e-pub format to Kindle's MOBI format is extremely easy and completely free. 

All you need to do is download Calibre (for free) from here, install it, and it will convert all your e-pub Google Books to the Kindle format in the matter of minutes. Then, you can either have the program send the converted books to your Kindle by e-mail, or just download them to the Kindle yourself via your USB cord. It's beyond simple, people.

I just downloaded three XIXth century Spanish novels that my library couldn't get for me for love or money. Did I mention how I adore my Kindle?

Funny 2

Another hilarious comment from my husband.

We are walking around the neighborhood and, once again, a nasty little dog runs up to me and starts barking its head off.

"And that's a nasty, horrible part of the American dream," my supportive spouse says.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


After reading on my Twitter what President Obama's wealth amounts to, I decided to share this knowledge with my husband.

"Can you guess how much money Obama has?" I asked him.



"Well, that depends on whether he has a huge mortgage on his house," he responded completely seriously.

P.S. The number I saw in the tweet in question was $3.8 million.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Ernesto Laclau's On Populist Reason: A Review

I have to confess that I'm extremely disappointed by Laclau's 2005 book On Populist Reason. One thing you need to figure out before you start writing is what your audience will be like. Are you trying to address the specialists in your field or do you want the book to be accessible to any reasonably educated person? Once you have decided who it is that you are writing for, then you need to make sure that both the ideas you express and the language you use to transmit them are on the same level.

In On Populist Reason, Laclau seems to have forgotten how important it is to know your audience. He uses extremely complex, jargon-ridden writing style to transmit ideas that are beyond basic. If I am to struggle through the author's convoluted sentences and displays of erudition, I expect his argument to lead me to something better than the kind of trivialities that Laclau offers in this book.

Laclau begins his study of populism with an overview of the existing definitions of this concept. He points out that  the perception of populism as something that is a priori negative is the only reason why such definitions only succeed in demonizing populism in terms that are as negative as they are vague. Instead of analyzing populism, political theorists attempt to demonstrate how much they condemn it and then allow this condemnation to taint every conclusion they make. Laclau attempts to move away from such facile definitions and offer a more profound analysis of populism. However, he fails at that task quite spectacularly.

More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning. Here is one of the many examples:
The complexes which we call 'discursive or hegemonic formations', which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results froman indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions.
This statement concludes over 100 pages of a very convoluted discussion and does nothing more than announce in this extremely technical language that communities are bound together not just by reason but also by emotions. Well, duh. This idea has been studied, discussed and argued ad nauseam for over 100 years now. There is hardly any need to convince those of us who are capable of reading Laclau's texts of something so banal.

In a similar way, Laclau offers a very plodding discussion that is supposed to lead his readers to the earth-shattering conclusion that - believe it or not - populist movements can exist both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum. I am sure that there are people who are unaware of this fact but these are not the same people who can get through 40 pages on floating signifiers.

I have also discovered from On Populist Reason that in the US populism has been hijacked by the Right that, against all reason, managed to convince farmers and blue-collar workers that the Republicans represent the interests of the regular folks as opposed to the Democrats who supposedly only defend the rights of the long-haired East Coast elites. I know that you must have already yawned twice as you have been reading this paragraph. We all know this, we have all heard this said a gazillion times. Why Laclau believes that it needs to be pointed out yet again is beyond me.

The book is filled to the brim with inanities of the most disturbing kind. On page 177 (close to the end of the book), we find out that in order for the populist appeal to be effective, there have to exist some problems in society. A society where institutional stability is complete, will not respond to populism. But, of course, perfect societies do not exist, so this situation is completely hypothetic. "Surprise, surprise!" I wrote on the margins when I read this. For the most part, this was my reaction to the entire book.

Coco Louco Restaurant in St. Louis: A Review

Now that I have discovered N. Euclid Ave in St. Louis, I can't stop going there. It even reminds me of Montreal a little in spite of being as empty as the rest of the city. And that's the highest compliment I can pay to a city. So yesterday we went to a Brazilian restaurant called Coco Louco. In the reviews I read before going there, people almost unanimously agreed that the food there was fantastic while the service was abysmal. In my experience, however, the food at Coco Louco could be a lot better while service was impeccable. (It's not like I'm doing this on purpose, people, but I never manage to agree with the popular opinion on anything.)
As you can see, the restaurant was pretty empty.
It was a Sunday, of course, but I
find it impossible to believe that there are
people in this city any day of the week
Our waiter's name was Benya and he turned out to be a Russian-speaker. That's one of the things I love about this country. You go to a Brazilian restaurant in the Midwest and get served by a Russian-speaking waiter. How cool is that?

As for the food, one thing that I can recommend highly is the appetizer plate for $14. Here it is:

The appetizer plate contains these great meat and cheese filled pastries that are called "pastel." The best kind is the beef pastel. It as so good that we ordered several extra ones to take home with us. As for the main courses, I wouldn't say that the ones we tried are really worth the price. I had the red snapper that you can see on the picture here:

It is quite good but it really didn't feel like it was worth the $27 the restaurant charges for it. 

Then, there was espeto mixto wihich is different kinds of meat grilled on a skewer. Brazilian cuisine is almost as famous for its meat as the Argentinean, but this meat was quite a disappointment. It was simply mediocre and unworthy of the famed name of Brazilian meat. You can see the skewer with some remnants of the espeto mixto on the picture here:

The dessert was really good. It's a mango mousse and we got it on the house. Here it is:

Overall, we had a splendid time because we always enjoy discovering new restaurants. The food, however, didn't really do justice to the great Brazilian cuisine. If the weather is nice next weekend, we will probably go back to St. Louis, and I will share with you a review of an Indian restaurant they have on N. Euclid.

China and Internet

You know what I just noticed? I've had visitors from pretty much all over the world on this blog. Just today there was one visitor from the Palestinian Territories, one from Cambodia, four from Serbia, two from Saudi Arabia, one from Tanzania, thirteen from Indonesia, one from Bahrain, and so on.

I haven't had a single visitor from China, though. Not just today but ever. I don't remember ever seeing a single visitor from China here. Are all these reports about the growing popularity of the Internet and blogging in China just lies? I know that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are banned, but are people even prevented from using Google?

The saddest thing, of course, is that now, when the US owes over a trillion to China, nobody will even try to mention human rights violations in that country.

The Ugliest Cake Ever

Is it just me or is it the ugliest cake you have ever seen, too?

I wonder what the cake is supposed to symbolize. A jail for Snickers bars? I'm also curious what a psychoanalyst would say to a person who actually gave this monstrosity to their mother for Mother's Day. 

I found the picture of the ugly cake here. There are many other repulsive cakes on that blog but this one is the definite winner.

Vegetarian: Clarissa's Vegetable Ragout

Recently, I felt a craving for a good, colorful vegetable ragout. However, a long Internet search didn't result in a single recipe that didn't look boring or monochromatic and didn't include either meat or canned vegetables. So I had to invent my own recipe. Some of the ingredients of this vegetarian ragout were things that I'd never tried before, like eggplants. (Yes, I'd never eaten eggplant in any form in my life.) I really loved the result and decided to share it with my readers.

Here is what my Vegetable Ragout ended looking like:

I'm folding the detailed description of how to make it under the jump break to spare those who aren't interested the trouble of scrolling through endless photos of diced vegetables.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Copyrighting Blog Photos

What I find very weird is that many people go to the trouble of posting angry warnings that all photos on their personal blogs are copyrighted and shouldn't be used without the owner's permission. I'm not talking about any kind of artwork here. Just regular, completely unprofessional photos everybody snaps on a daily basis. I don't know what possesses people to feel so protective about stuff that they choose to post online. 

As for me, if I post a photo on my blog, this means that I want people to use it. If somebody finds my clumsy pictures useful for any purpose, that's great, I'm happy. Free exchange of information is the best thing about the Internet. 

A Weird Article on College Education in the New York Times

While I agree that trying to impose the business model on academia is wrong and that high standards of education should be maintained at all costs, I am often baffled by how people go about defending these useful ideas. Take, for example, the recent article in The New York Times titled "Your So-Called Education." After reading it, I realized that, according to the article's authors, the greatest problem in higher ed is me. Let's look at some of the points the article makes.

The quality of college education is slipping because:

1. "In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week."

I must be a real underachiever because in my undergraduate courses, I never assign more that 30 pages of reading a week in any given course. I teach literature and culture, so reading is pretty much all we do. However, my goal is not to get the students to skim through as many pages as possible. I want them to read critically, to engage with the text, to try to go through it slowly. If you read 3 pages a week but manage to come up with some analysis of it, it's a lot more useful than gulping down 100 pages of a text just to fulfill some silly requirement.

2. "50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester."

In my trademark course on Hispanic Civilization, students write several short essays that come up to less than 20 pages per semester. The writing component is crucial to that course. (Because I decided that it should be.) However, I don't see how it helps anybody to get the students to hand in reams of poorly written garbage. If a student manages to produce a single beautifully written page at the end of the semester, I will believe that my goal in the course has been accomplished. Students come to this Freshman course with no understanding of what distinguishes good and bad writing. Giving them humongous writing assignments will only lead them to reproduce the same horrible writing techniques they brought to college from their high schools.

3. "The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying."

I wonder if anybody has counted how many of those hours a student in the 1960 spent hunting for information and doing manually all those things that today are simplified to an incredible degree by the Internet and text processing. If we take into account how much faster the writing becomes thanks to text editors, I'm sure we will arrive at a conclusion that today students work more.  

4. "Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college."

I must have poor critical thinking skills myself because I truly fail to understand how critical thinking and complex reasoning can be measured on "a traditional 0-to-100 point range." The authors of this article bemoan the fact that the business model has been imposed on academia, but they fail to notice to what incredible degree they have been infected by this very model. Good reading and good writing for them are about a number of pages. Complex reasoning is about a number of points. In short, numbers rule supreme.

5. "Expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude."

The idea that educators would somehow benefit from having even more helicopter parents buzzing around them is bizarre. Has anybody ever developed their critical thinking skills because they were afraid their parents might scold them in case they didn't? 

6. "Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades."

The idea that professors who demand little and hand out easy grades are the ones who get good student evaluations is completely misguided. If I told you what percentage of students I fail each semester, I think you'd agree that I'm anything but an easy grader. My evaluations, though, have always been fantastic. Students actually don't like professors who ask too little of them. In my teaching experience, the only way to get students to evaluate you highly is to demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter is profound.

7. "And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education."

Given that primary and secondary education in this country have gone completely to the dogs in the past couple of decades, this suggestion really mystified me. "Longitudinal data on learning outcomes" is the bureaucracy-speak version of teaching to the test. This model inflicted untold damage on our secondary education on a daily basis, but now we are to inflict it on higher education as well.

In short, even when The New York Times is trying to do something good, it ends up  producing the exact opposite.