Archive for February, 2015


Saturday, February 28th, 2015

Carnevale comes from the Latin words ‘carnem’ and ‘vale,’ meaning ‘meat’ and ‘farewell’…. and so when Ash Wednesday and Lent came, it was time to leave Venice for work in Florence. Needless to say, any opportunity to visit Florence is a treat… but this working visit was much, much too brief!

There were 27 engineers in this GE ‘Oil & Gas University’ session, from 20 different countries – and given their background, they were particularly interested when we discussed the recent ‘stranded assets’ debate. A couple of years ago, Bill McKibben wrote an article in Rolling Stone entitled: “Global Warmings’ Terrifying New Math,” which suggested that companies would not be able to burn all of the fossil fuel reserves that are included in their stock market valuations if the world were to meet its 2oC global warming target. This subject is now getting academic attention, as was evident in a paper last month in the somewhat more authoritative journal Nature. One of its authors was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “In 2013, fossil fuel companies spent some $670bn on exploring for new oil and gas resources. One might ask why they are doing this when there is more in the ground than we can afford to burn.”

Carnevale di Venezia

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

“Did you ever read Henry James? He was a great writer who came to Venice and looked out the window and smoked his cigar and thought.”

Not a bad tribute, I figured, & something definitely worth emulating – especially since that accolade was written by Ernest Hemingway. And so I packed away some Venetian-oriented Henry James [NB: not hard to do, since both Italian Hours and The Aspern Papers are available free on Kindle], and we made our way — albeit without the cigars — to that beautiful city.

I’m not sure that Mr. James was the best guide for this particular visit, however. The run-up to Lent is the crucial time of year in Rio and New Orleans, and Venice’s Carnival is equally well known – especially for its costumes and masks. Mr. James was not its strongest proponent, however, given his experience in another Italian city:

The scene was striking, in a word; but somehow not as I had dreamed of its being. I stood regardful, I suppose, but with a peculiarly tempting blankness of visage, for in a moment I received half a bushel of flour on my too-philosophic head. Decidedly it was an ignoble form of humor…. The Carnival had received its deathblow in my imagination.

Hanging around at the Carnevale di Venezia (…and no, that’s not me!)

Luckily for us, the scene was still striking, as Venice was filled (almost literally!) with revelers and partiers…. and the very worst that I had to do was comb multi-colored confetti (not flour) out of my own hair.

But this Venice trip wasn’t only about Henry James. One (modern) writer whose books I usually buy as soon as they come out is Steven Johnson, the author of such works as Emergence, The Ghost Map, and The Invention of Air — all works that I’ve cited in my courses. The first chapter in his latest book, How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, sees Venice not so much a victim of modernity (the lament of James, Ruskin, & many others) – but rather its creator. The key setting was Murano, the Venetian island that is world renowned for its glass-making industry and arts. Johnson sees the island as a sort of 13th Century ‘Silicon Valley’, and he traces the glass-making art from Turkish refugees fleeing to Venice after the Fall of Constantinople in 1204, through lenses and eyeglasses and mirrors – and ultimately to telescopes, microscopes, fiber-optic cables, iPhone screens and flat screen TVs.


As a bit of a respite from the crowds and celebrations, we took a pleasant trip over to Murano, to check out a glass-making factory and the island’s famous shops. That trip also visited two other islands: Burano, known for its lace industry and colorful domiciles, and which was “celebrated for its beautiful women and rapacious children,” according to James; and Torcello, with its “deeply interesting little cathedral of the eighth century,” and its “perfect bath of light” that so influenced the city’s painters.

Even though he didn’t especially like Carnival, James’ affection for Venice is readily evident…. and given his approach, it seems more than appropriate to give him the last word:

Reading Ruskin is good; reading the old records is perhaps better; but the best thing of all is simply staying on. The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it is to give her a chance to touch you often – to linger and remain and return.

A ‘perfect bath of light’?

Orange County

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

We made our annual winter-time trek to California to see my oldest daughter & her family – and avoided cold & nasty weather in New Jersey for sunshine & warm breezes. Not a bad trade at all!

Mystery from Sanxingdui

During the stay we took in a fascinating exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana entitled ‘China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui’…. and what a mystery it is! The exhibit shows the findings of archeological digs located near Chengdu in Sichuan Province, and the artifacts found there are unlike anything else found in the country. Indeed, it would be easy to mistake them for Pre-Columbian statues found in Central/Latin America rather than Chinese antiquities. They are so strange that the museum teased on its website: “Ancestors or Aliens?” Sanxingdui represents a Bronze Age site dating from about 1200 BCE, and its relics have managed to raise questions about the validity of traditional historical narratives concerning China’s development.

HNC video

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

We had a movie crew visit HNC last Fall, and they prepared a short video describing life at the Center which is being used for student recruitment. It was recently posted on YouTube… and you can catch yours truly at 2:19. Don’t blink, though, or you’ll miss me! (…it’s more like 0.87 seconds – rather than 15 minutes – of fame!)


Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Library of Congress Reading Room

After an extremely busy semester at HNC, I headed to Washington DC to take part in several days of Joint Academic Committee (JAC) meetings at SAIS. The JAC consists of representatives from Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nanjing University and HNC – and it is where all of the issues regarding degree requirements, course work, faculty evaluations, and similar HNC academic matters are discussed and resolved. Surprisingly for a ‘rookie’, I served as the representative of the HNC’s international faculty.

It wasn’t all work, however – SAIS also arranged a tour of the Capitol and the Library of Congress for the visiting Chinese delegation, and so we were able to visit the House Chamber just a few days after seeing it on TV (as President Obama gave his State of the Union address there). We also visited the spectacular Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, and the Reading Room, with its statue of Michelangelo (very small in the photo, but mid-center-right, along the balustrade with red background) looking down on visiting scholars.

The Great Hall