Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey

Glenn Gould was the first North American concerto pianist to visit Russia in the cold war era. He had an impact through his artistry, musicality, and historical perspective that gave many Russians musicians a glimpse of what the musical world is like in the west. I enjoyed this documentary very much.

Book: Campus Confidential by Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison

(Picture from Amazon.ca)

Score: 4/5

This book, written by professor Coates, the University of Waterloo’s Dean of Arts, and professor Morrison, caught my interest as it demystifies and reveals many things about the Canadian university system.  I recommend this book to prospective university students, parents, employers, and even policy makers.

Below are some of my favourites:

  • All Canadian universities are public institutions.  As such, available funding is smaller and they are obliged to adhere to political priorities, such as focusing on accessibility of education to all Canadians.  One consequence of this focus is low cost education and lower admission standards.
  • Traditional core disciplines from the 19th century, including literature, history, social, natural, and physical sciences are slowly giving way to other more lucrative, applied, or newer fields such as commerce, accounting, law, to name a few.  There is a tug of war between professors who advocates for the traditional disciplines (who dominate the decision committees) and professors, students, and employers who want a more interdisciplinary and flexible education.
  • Universities are incentivized to see students as customers and cater to their needs.  This sometimes run counter to the need of the workplace and national competitiveness.
  • Aboriginal students tend to put the need of their communities first and pursue areas of study that will directly benefit their communities.
  • The authors argue that the Internet with its abundance of piracy, is lowering the moral barrier to stealing intellectual properties, thus undermining intellectual integrity in universities.
  • Quebec universities are working closely with provincial government to transform the provincial economy with some success already.  An example is Montreal’s emergence as a Canadian leader in pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
  • Of the 10 provinces in Canada, Ontario ranks last in the amount of provincial funding to universities.  Of the 50 states and 10 provinces in North America, Ontario ranks 59th.  In Stats Canada’s ‘07 – ‘08 report, public funding for Alberta per student was $22,469.  Ontario?  $9,718.
  • The resources dedicated to research in technology and scientific innovation far exceeds resources for innovation research from the field of social sciences and humanities.  This leaves many important questions such as “how are innovation societies created and maintained?  Which forms of education best support industrial and economic innovation?  What impact do community structure, multiculturalism, and local heritage have on innovation” unanswered.
  • Harvard’s endowment fund per student is 100 times greater than that of U of Toronto’s.  This impacts the quality of research and professor to student ratio.
  • Canada’s quality of high school education is quite high.  According to OECD rankings, Canada ranks 3rd in science (US ranks 29th), 7th in math (per ‘06 ranking.  US ranks 35th), 4th in reading.  Canada isn’t doing as well in funding research, and especially in commercializing research efforts from private sectors.  Patents and commercialized products are examples of what Canada doesn’t have enough of.  With great education and somewhat lackluster basic research, and lacking commercialization, this hurts Canada’s national competitiveness.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Book: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

(Image from Amazon.ca)
Score: 4/5
While I was researching for my democracy essay, I learned that during the Renaissance period there was a shift in art form and societies to focus more on humans and their experiences rather than the stories of gods.  I kept wondering – how did this shift happen, and how did this contribute to cultural values of our time, the modern world?  This was my motivation for reading The Swerve.
This book is about how Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter in the 15th century, discovered an ancient Greek poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius.  This poem and the discovery of other ancient Roman and Greek texts laid the foundation for the mainstream thoughts of the Renaissance.
Europe in the Medieval times was very repressive.  The Church had much power and often influenced matter of the state.  It persecuted many who contradicted its teachings.  Curiosity was frowned upon, as Adam and Eve committed their sin out of curiosity.  The pursuit of pain is viewed as the way to a better afterlife, just as Jesus had suffered for eventual glory.  Discussion of textual material is strictly forbidden and book commenting is a privilege reserved for high authorities.
Lucretius’s poem, however, proposed that the world is made up of innumerable, small, and indestructible particles called atoms.  These atoms, without the guidance of a divine being, move unpredictably, constantly, and humans are made up just as everything else in the world is.  Humans are not unique, and gods, even if they existed, cared only for their own pleasure and not for humans’.  The poem extols the pursuit of pleasure, human sensations, and vindicates curiosity, as humans no longer should fear their exploration would inevitably bring on a god’s wrath.
Lucretius’s idea seem rather mild to us now, but as the book shows, it was very radical and dangerous at the time of its discovery by Poggio.  Though the book’s focus was more prior and during the time of discovery of this poem (thus not well suited for my question), I nevertheless enjoyed understanding the historic background.  The writing style can be a little daunting, but is beautifully written.
Below is one of my favourite parts of the book.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, owned at least 5 editions of Lucretius’s poem:
Jefferson took this ancient inheritance in a direction that Lucretius could not have anticipated but of which Thomas More, back in the early sixteenth century, had dreamed.  Jefferson had not, as the poet of On the Nature of Things urged, withdrawn from the fierce conflicts of public life.  Instead, he had given a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn.  The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve “the pursuit of Happiness.”  The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.