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Reading Blog - September 2023

Tags: books

History and Newark schools

I recently got through the prefaces and introductions for a stack of books, but without fully committing. I got the furthest into one book on nuclear proliferation, and a heavy book by Herbert Hoover… with luck it will appear in a blog soon. Strategically, I should focus on ones which could influence my travel, or maybe I should move reading hours over to study time?

The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? (Dale Russakoff, 2015)

In this book version of a New Yorker series, Russakoff covers Zuckerberg's philanthropy project in Newark schools. Looking back, this is a mostly forgotten 2010s story which continues to shape tech-education partnerships, Newark, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

We start with the history of Newark's political machine and the arrival of Cory Booker - I wasn't aware how much of his early political career was tied to breaking from mainstream Democrat PR on charter schools, blight, and drugs. This was at the peak of "disruption", the start of public consumed data viz like million-dollar blocks (which I saw still displayed at MoMA this month). These hint to the idealist candidate, philanthropist, or reader, that after every proposed fix has failed, the problem has been cornered right here in the analysis.

Booker circulated memos and consulting reports to Zuckerberg and then-Governor Christie (the state administered Newark's schools) about charter schools, vouchers, and performance-based contracts for teachers. The plan was rapidly proving this system and expanding it to other cities' schools. Anyone who thought the system needed more time and teacher buy-in was turned away as an obstruction.
More than 10% of the money would go to education consultants, only possible through private funds (and something of a reward to those who advised Christie and Booker).
These measures were reasonable only for a district where every past reasonable plan seemed to have failed.
On this rush to progress, Russakoff tries to get into Booker's head- was he social media savvy or vain? Chief fundraiser / cheerleader of Newark or selling a story to reach higher office?

Like other government response, when things are working, no one knows that you did anything at all. Changes to school registration and warnings for students at risk of not graduating were the type of administrative reforms that the system needed and quietly delivered on.

A Prophet Has Appeared: The Rise of Islam through Christian and Jewish Eyes (Stephen J. Shoemaker, 2021)

Shoemaker has multiple books with a historical-critical approach to Islamic history, similar to how Roman history is used to discuss early Christianity. This presents events in a way that's contrary to traditional Islamic history and core beliefs.

In A Prophet Has Appeared, the focus is the nature of Islam in its first century, including development into a distinct religion, Mohammed's biography, and the role of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Each chapter is a short passage from a historical source, with uncertainty and biases, but over several sources Shoemaker can paint a picture of what these have in common, and what is missing.

Arise Africa, Roar China: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century (Yunxiang Gao, 2021)

The US holds a popular image of African-American history separate from other past and present events - consider the surprise people express to find Ruby Bridges on Instagram, or debates within Audubon organizations over his role as an enslaver.
Dr. Gao, a history professor in Toronto, covers top Black American intellectuals (Du Bois, Robeson, Hughes) and two artists who traveled in both communities. Their views of Asia would be tested by World War II, the Nationalist-Maoist conflict, China's entry into the Korean War, suppression of leftists in America, and the schism between the USSR and China.

The book also sets down the longer historical context - consider Uncle Tom's Cabin stirring dissent against British imperialism (PM Zhou Enlai's daughter would direct an adaptation), or that revolutionary Chinese newspapers taunted Martin Luther King's nonviolent movement. And in the American Chinese community, businesses were open to Black customers. Langston Hughes wrote that in Reno he could eat only at the two Chinese restaurants.

W.E.B. Du Bois would visit China during the occupation of Manchuria, and again during the Great Famine (see the book Tombstone). During these later visits, he and his wife (Shirley Graham) were greatly impressed by China and Mao, and would promote them in the US and in Pan-Africa events as the foundation of a non-white socialist alliance. This globalized movement was something that African activists were receptive to after 1955's Bandung Conference. Shirley Graham noted gender equity in China's workforce at feminist events, and even settled in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Du Bois's support for Japan in Manchuria and opposition to the US entering World War II are interesting because they fit an interest in opposing specifically Western imperialism.

Paul Robeson made albums compiling liberation music from several cultures, and learned directly from Liu Liangmo, the architect of patriotic mass singing (more about him later). Together they produced a Chinese record Chee Lai in 1940 (the book claims this became popular in America's Chinese restaurants). Unlike DuBois, Robeson spoke out against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and also the "Jim Crow" status of Chinese in the Shanghai International Settlement and ports. In his petitions for peace in the Korean War, he urged a popular vote, and called for Black Americans to refuse being sent to fight Koreans and Chinese (I previously associated this with anti-Vietnam protests, but here it is).
Letters flew between Robeson's family and Pearl Buck's. He never visited China (due to seizure of his passport, and then US restrictions) but his music, movies, and biography by Shirley Graham Du Bois became popular there.

Inspired by American songbooks and his church, Liu Liangmo formed amateur choruses. Singing (and especially colonial jazz clubs) had been seen as sleazy, so Liu's patriotic groups (and Robeson's folk music) were a revelation. Liu's group would travel overland across China to lead the various armed resistances (against the Japanese) in cheers. This paired him up with the CCP too often for the Nationalists' comfort, and he was effectively exiled to New York, where he represented collective Chinese interests on the war / fundraising effort, and in ending the Chinese Exclusion Act. I had associated singing with the Cultural Revolution, so it was enlightening to see it went back further.

The final two chapters cover Si-Lan Chen's dance career and identity as Chinese-Trinidadian, and her relationship with Langston Hughes.

Updates to Previous Reads

The Chicago History Podcast covered Dan Goodwin, who climbed two skyscrapers in 1981. The fire chief used hoses to try and stop his second climb. Mayor Jane Byrne spoke to Goodwin and allowed him to continue if he accepted that he was continuing at his own risk.

Archaeologists uncovered a water pipe network in a city which pre-dates governmental organization.

Samuel T. Cohen, the creator of the neutron bomb, was mentioned in an Oklahoma City conspiracy TikTok that I saw =\ These views were not covered so much in his wiki.

Last year, Savannah removed Calhoun's name from a public park. In late August it got renamed for Susie King Taylor. On OpenStreetMap the park polygon was "locked" to its WikiData object, so an earlier editor had created a new point instead of renaming the park. I had to use a different device for the edit because my VPN IP cannot edit wiki domains.

There is some discussion in business news about China "hoarding" grain, in part to avoid any recurrences of famine

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has been dissolved by the Taliban government, but the members argued that the commission "belongs to the people of Afghanistan" and cannot be dismissed.

Columbia University is building oral histories from Obama officials, starting with climate topics. I got through a four-hour interview with Energy Secretary Steven Chu… it is distant enough in the past that he can be frank about newsworthy problems (Solyndra, Deepwater Horizon), other Cabinet members, and ideas which have replaced cap-and-trade.

See a Guardian article about Brčko, a shared city in Bosnia where people more readily adapted to a post-war integrated culture. A neutral zone village also exists in Cyprus, though last month it was near a conflict between the UN and Turkish builders.

A Hacker News comment introduced me to the so-called "Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics", where helping or engaging with a problem opens you up to more criticism for failures than if you had left the problem to fail on its own.

A Reddit thread discusses how Wikipedians from Indonesia and Bolivia have influenced who appears on the front page :

Map of divisions in the Holy Roman Empire (reminds me of Baarle-Hertog/Nassau),_1789_en.png

I thought the term high concept meant "complex and artistic" so would joke about a movie like The Princess Switch being high concept, but in actuality it means an easily graspable plot.

I found the little gear icon on Robinhood which compares my investments to if I invested the same amounts into an index fund at the same time (SPY and QQQ). It was a good find, but a bad result =(