Monthly Archives: February 2012

Georgetown University’s Dr. John O. Voll at North Dakota State University

Below are two short, unedited clips from a broader talk given at North Dakota State University (NDSU) on February 24, 2012 by Dr. John O. Voll, one of Georgetown University’s undisputed experts on Islamic history, and the associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The talk was hosted by NDSU’s Department of History, Philosophy, and Religious studies, (and publicized by the North Dakota Humanities Council) and in large part came together because NDSU’s Asian historian, Dr. Tracy Barrett, is friends with Dr. Voll. Tracy knows Dr. Voll because Tracy’s father, Dr. Roby Barrett, has known Dr. Voll for years (Roby has put in quite a few years with the Foreign Service, stationed in areas of Saudi Arabia and the Levant, or that former Ottoman Imperial stomping ground). In the business of history and anthropology, we often refer to how this all played out — how Voll ended up talking at NDSU — as the byproduct of kinship networks. You can also just call it relationships, too. In MBA Speak they often call it “networking.” (I don’t know why I’m using air-quotes with all these phrases.) The idea and follow through is pretty simple, though, and it plays out often without anyone ever knowing it’s playing out, at least until we look back on how those sorts of things played out.

In Dr. Voll’s lecture, he remarked on how the language of occupation has changed from the 19th, 20th and now 21st-centuries. In the 19th it was “To the Barricades!” and today, at least in 2011, it has taken on the term of occupation.  That the Arab Spring used the phrase pragmatic program (literally, the revolutionaries want things — government and institutions — to simply work) and that this came up in Voll’s talk, and because I’m a geek, I asked Voll whether Wael Ghonim or other educated elite revolutionaries were grounding the intellectual trajectory of their pragmatic program in, for example, chapter 2 of William James 1907 work, Pragmatism. Voll responded with, “No.” But then it fed into broader ideas about how we might conceive of as the West today, in the 21st century: it can be thought of more as an abstract idea than something that can be contained within a geopolitical boundary.

From left to right, John O. Voll, Angela Smith, Tracy Barrett, Dennis Cooley, and Tom Isern.

How words or definitions are appropriated and used throughout the world is another point of consideration, especially since a 21st century occupation in north Africa is going to have a couple similarities, but also many more differences when compared to a 21st century occupation in, for example, Portland, Oregon, or Wall Street. Yeah, occupations in North Africa are putting much more on the line, and Voll said the chaos from the revolutionaries might not at this early stage appear to have an ideological trajectory (then again, saying one does not have a philosophy is in fact a philosophy of not having a philosophy). But the most important thing to remember is how the seeming chaos brought on by revolutionaries are ways out of the existing (or former) strong-arm regimes (in the 1970s, John Lydon spear-headed a similar movement in Great Britain). Once the revolutionaries in North Africa get out from under these boots, they will continue articulating and charting their own courses for today and tomorrow. This, no doubt, begins at the grass roots level, or with what we call individual relationships, regardless (or, if I want to be annoying, irregardless) of whether we’re at North Dakota State University, Georgetown, or North Africa. Web 2.0 is helping it along indeed.

Mardi Gras and Grilling Meat in Fargo

New Orleans is often thought of as thee place to be on Mardi Gras. Yes, there’s reason for this, and it’s probably worth all of our while to at some point in our lives take in the Big Easy, at least once. There’s a website to plan for next year, and you can also tune in to Mike Rowe to see exactly how a krewe puts a float together, a tutorial on the specialized technique of inflating cow bladders to bang on said float and all. Calvin Trillin has a glimpse into Mardi Gras circa 1968 here. And apparently there are at least 5 big myths swirling around in non-New Orleans, one of which covers the truth and facts about momentarily disrobing at Mardi Gras.

The bottom round beef roast can be more sensibly priced than the skirt steak in northern Dakota. This may have to do with Bourdain, or due to the fact that there are not an abundance of French butchers, circa 2012, in the Red River Valley.

As a type of capstone to a localized Mardi Gras in Fargo (culture is portable, folks), we prepared a bunch of food. And it turns out that I didn’t even mean for this meal to coincide with the new moon in February, and it was only an after-the-2-day-marinating-started-thought that I asserted that the meal had original Mardi Gras intentions. Either way, I don’t think anyone cared. Just cook the food. We’re hungry.

The two dishes prepared were a shrimp-rice jambalaya, and marinated and grilled steak. The latter recipe made its way into my brain via Rick Gion, who marinated and grilled a skirt steak for beef fajitas. It was delicious. After discussing pricing with Gion, I wondered if Tony Bourdain’s nod to and popularization of hanger, skirt and flank steaks has driven up the price? Locally, in Fargo, skirt steak can go for something like $8.00/pound. For the Tuesday meal, I decided to get a chunk of bottom round beef roast, slice it in half, and then marinade it in an equatorial spice, lime and beer blend (the recipe is a variation on this). It turned out tender, but not as tender as the skirt steak Gion brought over a couple nights ago.

The skirt steak from a couple nights prior.

The Ides of February: State and National Politics in Fargo, North Dakota

On February 15, 2012, Ryan Taylor (D), a candidate running in the North Dakota gubernatorial race, held a press release at the Depot in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, and later that evening Rick Santorum, a GOP candidate vying for the Republican presidential nomination, appeared at the Holiday Inn also in Fargo. For the sake of Digital History and Web 2.0, below are two clips I captured from both events. The first is a two minute clip of Ryan Taylor, and his thoughts on the directions North Dakota might take — primarily to make the political situation more inclusive on the northern Plains. Taylor ends with some paraphrased remarks from one of his favorite philosophers, Will Rogers. The second clip is less-than 20 seconds in length, and it was taken from the east side of a room increasingly filling with individuals waiting to take in a Rick Santorum (R) appearance. While I did not get any coverage of Santorum himself, Kevin Cramer and Jack Dalrymple did provide the introductory remarks (I only captured still photographs of Cramer and Dalrymple). Here is a link to some post-stage remarks between Rick Santorum and KFGO’s Joel Heitkamp.

Electric Wine Openers: Progress As Novelty, or Novelty as Hilarity

Over the holidays this electric wine opener made it into the apartment. After several wine openings, a pattern has emerged: as it opens bottles of wine it also induces and triggers hoots and howls (especially when it is de-corking, which is what it is doing in the video). I’m uncertain how much inanimate or stored energy goes into driving the electric motor that uncorks bottles of wine in this device. But I sometimes wonder where the energy was first harnessed to do so: via huge wind turbines, or lignite fuel, or hydroelectricity at some dam, or nuke power from Minnesota. When I think of this it does not make me want to take up raging Deep Ecology, move to a shack in the Rockies and start up on some righteous tangent about how humans are or are not a part of the natural world and how I now speak for the trees and mammals (I’m fairly anthropocentric, but also ask that all mammals be treated decently). But the electric wine opener does make me both laugh and think. And then laugh some more. And then think some more about notions of efficiency and progress, or “efficiency” and “progress.” I’m going to go pour a glass and log off for the evening. Click on the video. Let me know if this triggers laughter. I digress. 

Thinking About Shining Diamonds and the High Technology of Rhetoric

Some years ago I remember remarking to a professor that academics and scholars suffering from some kind of existentialist crises ought to take Jared Diamond’s publicity model and apply it to their own work. The thought stemmed from the otherwise old ideas in Diamond’s work of historical fatalism that were brought to a broad public through those even older ideas explored in Aristotle’s rhetoric.

For example (one must always provide concrete examples), in his Rhetoric and Poetics, Aristotle said that because there are malicious individuals who use rhetoric to advance their positions means it is just as important for logicians and ethically-minded folks to use rhetoric to battle those Darth Vader-types. In Book 1, Chapter 1 (at least in my Edward P.J. Corbett translation), Aristotle says there are 4 reasons why rhetoric is useful:

  • 1) …because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites, so that if the decisions of judges are not what they ought to be, the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves, and they must be blamed accordingly.
  • 2) …we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody, as we observed in the Topics when dealing with the way to handle a popular audience.
  • 3) …we must be able to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may be able to confute him. No other of the arts draws opposite conclusions: dialectic and rhetoric alone do this… things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in.
  • 4) …it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.

Might may crush the annoying opposition, but that might is not automatically right, and might is also a slippery slope: pretty soon the strongest woman or man on the planet will be the only one left if they take to fighting rather than using discourse — the technology of language — to reason, argue, prove and concede one point after another. In the first half of the twentieth-century, the Might is Right crowd often had funny mustaches, raging egos and long s*&t lists. They were megalomaniacs with large industrial armies. They sucked, to put it mildly.

In any case, where was I? Oh, yes, back to the shining Diamond and his ability to use rhetoric to advance broad ecological ideas concerning global history. Whenever I think of Diamond, I immediately think of Orin G. Libby and the scholarship he completed at University of Wisconsin-Madison back in the day (June 1894). Entitled The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution, 1787-8, Libby said he put this study together based off one of his seminars (or seminary, as Frederick Jackson Turner, Libby’s adviser, called them) in American history, and it took account of the political and economic climates that played out relative to individual colonies/states, and how that figured in to the eventual vote on the broader national constitution.

The geographic distribution in Libby's work.

In the words of Turner’s introduction to Libby’s work, he said, “Physiographic conditions have facilitated the rapid evolution of some areas and have retarded others, so that the complexity of this grouping has been increased.” Turner also used the phrase “ultra-democratical ideas” a couple paragraphs later, which for some reason is awesomely geeky. All of this broadly is a non-sexy way of saying Guns, Germs and Steel, or technology and industrial advances and biology, have caused societies to materialize and then decay, or fall away, from that materialization.

This idea works until we look more closely at, for example, Italia, or Mexico. One may say “Where did all the Romans go?!?” when in Italy just as one might say “Where did all the Incas and Aztecs go?!?” when in Mexico City. The answer is that they did not go anywhere, and you just have to look around you because Italians and Mexicans today are localized, contemporary, cross-cultural hybrids of global historical forces. They always have been the byproducts of historical globalization just like anyone reading this blog is the byproduct of historical globalization, regardless of what 19th-century nation we pay homage (or disdain) to.

Looks like Aristotle was correct, at least on the points of rhetoric. If you hear the dismissive phrase, “Ah, that’s just rhetoric!” it is okay to ask the individual who said this to expand. Maybe it is time to put Aristotle’s work more firmly on the required reading lists of public schooling? Perhaps. That will have to be argued at those individual, localized levels, and this often takes economics and physiography into account — at least that in addition to human ingenuity. These are processes that occur not through individual genius alone, but through a variety of societal causes and effects, none of which I will go into now. Yes, this is primarily rhetoric. But rhetoric in itself is a piece of high technology.

Blogging the Bakken Part 2: Settlement Patterns

Construction, population resurgence, and in-migration. These are all words and phrases that reflect what is going on up on the surface above the Bakken on the northern Great Plains, North America. Numerous settlement patterns are emerging throughout western North Dakota because of this oil boom. During my February 4, 2012 Tour de Bakken, I snapped some photos of the trailer and mobile home suburbs. Order and patterns are materializing from the chaos. The first photo is pulled from the North Dakota Department of Natural Resources GIS oil rig location map. The second is of Main Street in Watford City, North Dakota. Other photos are snap shots of the new camper and mobile home suburbs popping up here and there.

Also, while uploading these photos to this blog, two thoughts about context struck me. From the context of the individuals that lived here before the onset of the oil boom, this influx of people is considered an increase in the busyness of the place. On the other hand, when contrasted with 35-W (Minneapolis) or Las Vegas or Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia or Beijing, China traffic, this western North Dakota traffic is incredibly tame (or, to be provocative, lame; or, to be diplomatic, laid back).

Oil Rig Locations in Western North Dakota as of February 6, 2012

A Saturday afternoon photo of Main Street in Watford City, North Dakota. Vehicles associated with oil work are plenty, but also note the semi hauling hay, a nod to cattle ranching and red meat.

Snapped toward the early evening, this photo looks south through Alexander, North Dakota. Semi trucks lined the right side of the street, and a block or two up and to the left is a "Sweet Burrito" roach coach. Perhaps a Brazilian churrascaria roach coach is on the way? Alexander is where the late North Dakota governor Arthur A. Link (1914-2010) hailed from.

An incredibly interesting camper grouping nestled into a shelter belt north of Dickinson, North Dakota. Plywood is often (or always) put around the perimeter of the campers, this to block the cold and wind, keeping the camper warmer during the winter months.

Another incredibly interesting photo, this of a mobile home grouping south of Watford City, North Dakota.

Blogging the Bakken, Part 1: Man Camp in Dunn County, North Dakota

This video was taken on February 4, 2012, and it is a drive into the entry way of what was described by the security guard (self-identified as Joel) as a Man Camp in the south portion of Dunn County, North Dakota (to the southwest of the corner of 27th Street SW and the road that runs north out of Dickinson). While man camps provide quick nomadic housing, it seems that more attention  is intentionally or inadvertently drawn to said camps by the emplacement of chain-link fence topped with barb-wire and security guards outfitted in fatigues and jack boots — this is sometimes referred to as “negative publicity.” The impression and imagery suggests and reflects a type of lock-down or even penal colony atmosphere. I couldn’t help but to generally think of Mad Max or post-apocalyptic nuclear-winter type films while driving in to this specific man camp. Perhaps in the future the companies that put these up might also work with public relations and landscape architecture professionals. My reasoning is fairly simple: a place that appears as a penal colony will invite attention, and this is regardless of whether or not it intentionally was designed to function like a penal colony.

As well, if a company wants the work force to behave like a professional work force, they may also consider that individuals are often reflections of their environs. This means that if architects design and put you in a built environment that suggests you are a caged and corporate animal working in an oil field for nothing more than the bottom line, then indeed you will behave accordingly to your mercenary co-workers and the locals. Perhaps we might begin considering how to develop labor housing that is more conducive and constructive to a — ahem — culture in and of western North Dakota, or the Bakken field in general. Cultures ultimately require families (which invites grass-roots governance that ultimately develops into public governance and stability). This man camp is arguably the nomadic and initial shock wave to a settlement pattern that is only just developing. Perhaps the families are just around the corner…

North Dakota Cold War Nuke Bunkers

The tentative plan for this weekend is to depart the Red River Valley in east-central North Dakota, maneuver up to the northeastern part of the state, and then work my way back down to Bismarck, taking a small detour by the abandoned Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard complex (SRMS complex) just outside of Nekoma, North Dakota. This complex was initially or eventually tied in with some super bunker located — as the reality and lore goes — somewhere deep in the granite mountains that are the Colorado Rockies. In any case, since 2007 I have referred to the SRMS complex in North Dakota as The Nixon Bunker.

A Google Earth image of the pyramid Stanley Mickelson complex (at left) and wind turbines and shadows (at right).

At some point between 2002 and 2005 (I have to check dates — I know at least it was between 2002 and 2008), I was assigned to a crew that conducted linear pedestrian archaeological surface investigations (aka, walking mile after mile in a straight line while looking at the ground), and these surveys fell within visual orbit of the SRMS complex. Perhaps paradoxically, or ironically — or neither or both — in the first decade of the 21st century while walking in a linear survey corridor I found myself surveying and thinking the following: while Green Energy wind turbines were on the proposed construction docket, all of this would be installed right near a former vestige or reflection of potentially imminent nuclear holocaust. Today in 2012 the SRMS complex appears as though it belongs in some kind of zombie flick. There is a thought as well that in 15,000 years, when anthropologists and archaeologists from a completely different culture come across this pyramid, they will infer that it was built for religious reasons. No doubt, conspiracy theorists will by then have asserted that aliens were ultimately responsible for it, and the Pink Floyd equivalent will hold a rock concert (or whatever they will call it in 15,000 years) at the pyramid base, complete with light show and sand (since climate change will have turned this part of North Dakota into a Hudson’s Bay beach by this point).

Classic "Spies Like Us" (1985 or thereabouts) poster.

Pontification is fun that way. Back to reality: the steady winds in the central part of North America are as good a place as any to install wind turbines and nuke bunkers. This particular location has been a point of interest for that reason: on the one hand, it was isolated from major population centers and provided a fairly direct route over the North Pole to the now former USSR (which is why B-52 bomber wings were respectively attached to the Minot and Grand Forks air force bases); and on the other hand this local is a highway for the wind tunnel that rips where ever it wants through the northern Great Plains (or North American Steppe in general).

Scholarship on all of this continues. In one protracted study, Dr. David Mills recognized the monetary benefits of this installation, at least as it pertained to the immediate area. In other national contexts, several Hollywood films incorporated this late-1960s Soviet ICBM interception system into fictional screen plays. Perhaps one of the most notable (at least in my formative adolescent years in the 1980s) was the Cold War Comedy, “Spies Like Us” (1985), which made the otherwise understandable paranoid social psyche of the world manageable by couching potential nuclear armageddon in humor and ridiculousness — thank you Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, true Cold War patriots.

Anyhow, future updates and photos from this reconnaissance are pending.