All posts by Gildas Hamel

deer at ucsc

As I was biking down from Cowell at UCSC, I stopped to contemplate this large herd of deer in the east meadow.

deer
deer in the east meadow

The photo, looking east, was taken from the same location as the one below, which looks south. This is the part of the meadow where the building of a family student complex and a privately operated childcare unit are being contemplated. The UC Regents just signed up on the privatized plan but the story is not over.

Hagar Drive, UCSC
looking south on the east meadow

building residences

The photo below was taken yesterday at the entrance to the McHenry Library at UCSC. Apparently, the Sundt construction company has won the contract for building 3,000+ bedrooms and apartments at UCSC. Go to the East Meadow Action Committee for specific news, meetings, letters, etc.

Billboard at McHenry library

More student residences are critically needed at UCSC. The main decisions on building more dorms at UCSC have not been transparent, however. Of course, an Environmental Impact Report has been filed and discussed, since it is a compulsory part of the project. It has become a useful screen at the hands of the remote deciders, because it grants the project an aura of openness and meticulousness in its adherence to the legal process. The essential decisions regarding financing, tax status, legal structures—the nature of the rental contract especially: length, fees and other costs—, the status of the so-called non-profit Private Partnership (the Capstone company) vs related for-profit contractors for siting, architecture, cost of infrastructure, rents, maintenance, all of these seem hidden to me. I’m left guessing, as I couldn’t find anything so far about the composition of the committees of the real deciders, the minutes of their meetings, the real length of the rental contract—is it fifteen, twenty, thirty years?—, the legal nature of the property—is it owned by UC as a public entity? How exactly is it structured? And of course, siting decisions may have been guided mostly by a concern for the bottom line: building where there is existing infrastructure, for instance.

These questions come up as one thinks of the money to be made. At about $1000 per capita per month, we are looking at a gross revenue stream of nearly 30 million dollars annually. If the rental contract extends to 30 years, after which UCSC would “own” the property outright, the potential gross revenue is about 900 million dollars. If the rental contract is for 15 years, it represents half of this considerable sum.

The non-profit nature of the investment doesn’t eliminate the potential for excellent profits by contractors chosen and managed by the non-profit private partnership. How would these contractors for planning, construction, maintenance, rent management, etc., be chosen? Would there be bids? Any regulations by UC itself? In all of those decisions, UCOP and UCSC seem to have decided to privatize. The decision to go with Bright Horizons, a private company, for childcare, for instance—with charges of $2000 to $3000 per month—rather than continuing what exists ($869 for full-day care) indicates that the university doesn’t want to deal with employees, pensions, health, and other benefits. See the letter on this subject by the UCSC Graduate Student Association.

If the real nature of the whole project is that of a for-profit enterprise somehow under cover of an non-profit, should it hide behind the tax-exempt nature of public universities? Shouldn’t it pay taxes to county, city, and state?

But I’m left guessing as I don’t have the documentation on these crucial questions. Perhaps the UCSC Academic Senate Committee on Planning and Budget has some answers. In any case, it seems clear that the state and UCOP authorities decided at the highest level that they were not going to fund the expansion, apparently, and suggested that a magic partnership with private investors was the solution. It seems that public universities that pride themselves on their history of openness are willing to go along with powerful interests to accelerate their own privatization.

bits of knowledge

In the last blog, I mentioned the publication of the UC Emeriti Association’s bulletin, Newsletter 1.3, and its article on the decision taken already in 2014 by the Executive Vice-Chancellor and the UCSC Librarian to transform the Science & Engineering Library (SEL) into a space that would accommodate more students. Below, I share some reflections upon finding out that books of interest to me in the history of ancient technology were not on its shelves or in the catalog any more.

In the summer of 2016, after consultation limited to top administrators and the Academic Senate’s Library Committee, the UCSC Library removed 83,577 volumes from the Science & Engineering Library. They were not stored elsewhere as for instance the UC Berkeley Moffitt Library did when doing its fourth story renovation. They were not sold or given to individuals or to other schools, steps that might have taken time and been more costly. They were apparently shredded. A few books were left on the lower floor. The list of titles was eventually made available in two lists: list 1 and list 2.

I use the MacHenry Library almost daily for research and very rarely go to the Science and Engineering Library for history of technology items. It was December 2016 when I needed to consult a book on ancient technology. The book I was looking for is one of nine volumes by R. Forbes, a classic collection titled Studies in ancient technology. I knew exactly where it was supposed to be, as I had used the series a few times before. The whole collection was gone. The five large volumes of Singer’s History of Technology (1954–78) from Oxford University Press, or the valuable original French edition of Gille’s Histoire des techniques (Paris: la Pléiade, 1978), had also disappeared. When I learned about the removal of books, I wondered how many monographs in the history of techniques and technology had been weeded out. About two thousand items in my estimation, on the basis of the lists linked to above. More if one takes into account the fact that some of the one-line titles in the list of 83000 items removed from the collection represent multiple volumes. I looked into atlases also—there had been about 150 of them—and found by sampling that perhaps 65% had also been removed and destroyed. See my list of atlases.

My first questions regarding this particular removal of materials were about the quality of the selection and the availibility at other sites. I could see that important books had been removed, while what I thought were less useful books were still on the shelves. But de gustibus non est disputandum. The selection was apparently done on the basis of recent usage and acquisition (five years), which explains what to me looked like odd judgment calls. Everyone would probably agree that such a selection should not simply be made by quick mechanic means and that input from faculty and students should have been sought. Had there been a call to the faculty for input on the removal lists? Not that I know of.

Fortunately, those books or articles are still accessible in digital format or in print via Interlibrary Loan, ACLS Humanities E-books, WEST journal archives (Western Regional Storage Trust, part of the California Digital Library or CDL), JSTOR, JACS archives (Journal Archiving Campaigns, also part of the CDL), or Hathitrust.org (for texts before 1924). And fortunately also, since the library has switched to a user-defined needs after losing nearly all of its reference librarians or collection management personnel, I have been able to order new print books that I cannot find in the UC system or that are rare by using the recommend-a-purchase webpage.

This is relatively good news. As is good news—more broadly speaking—the fact that extraordinary open and free digital repositories and bibliographic tools are available universally. Examples of this are numerous: Perseus for classical texts and materials, the high-resolution photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Biblical materials, Neo-Assyrian documents, epigraphy collections, three-dimensional tools, etc. So, the abundance of digital tools—provided one knows what to look for—is a dream for anyone with limited access to printed books. Even more extraordinary is the instant, flexible access to scientific journals that university libraries provide.

But—to come back to the books culled from the Science & Engineering Library and available digitally—my experience is that it is not always convenient—compared to the quality provided by print—to read digital copies of books as page changes, size of images, column view for two-columned pages, difficulty of navigating indices, type of screen, make e-reading inherently cumbersome. Referencing page numbers in research is awkard and sometimes impossible. Permanent addresses for digital documents and digital object identifiers are only as good and persistent as the organizations behind the servers. Furthermore, some of the books and atlases that were removed are not accessible anymore in the other UC collections. For instance, one print copy of the Atlas Carta of Judaism in the Middle Ages exists at UCSB but is not circulating. The Singer volumes on technology mentioned above are available in digital format from five UC Library “groups,” but difficult to read in this format. I imagine that the use of the word “groups” means that each library system, for each campus of the University of California, has become a separate contracting unit trying to get a better deal from “knowledge-bundlers,” and that is a much broader problem.

The issue is not only the physical ease of consultation of the digital version or the print, if recalled from one of the repositories. There is also the financial and political matter of access, once university libraries begin to pay rent for digital pieces of knowledge rather than for the print version. Public and research libraries manage large collections of print materials. The acquisition of these materials in print gives certain rights to libraries and users. The libraries own the copies they bought and can use them with considerable freedom. In the past few years, however, libraries everywhere have been digitizing their holdings and purchasing limited rights to new digital works through contracts with distributors. The rights granted by the holders of these digital materials tend to be much more restrictive than the “first rights” associated with print copies. Typically, these digital copies are not sold but on loan (“license”). It is not clear how the commercial, legal, and copyright decisions are arrived at and what their parameters are. The universities have responded by encouraging the development of open source repositories (CDL, UC, etc.), but one wonders if they can scale up, especially given the financial and career pressures. The university is also trying to maintain universal open access as well as trying to control publishing expenses and subscription fees. On this difficult, moving target, see the recent failure of the negotiations with Elsevier. So, the rights of first use of the printed copy seem to be endangered by large bundling companies that prefer to rent knowledge for a short period of time and for a certain number of readers and have the means to impose their conditions on increasingly weakened libraries. The accessibility for the public at large is jeopardized because of security and cost concerns (no access to a Virtual Private Network or to university email, for instance). Richer and larger campuses can extract better conditions. The enlightenment’s ideal of common access to universal knowledge repositories is therefore threatened—not that it was ever achieved before—.

Back to UCSC and the elimination of thousands of books from the SEL. Why did it happen? One can guess at the local reasons: the urgent need for space for a much larger population of students; the pressure on admissions from the central administration of UC (UCOP = University of California Office of the President); the competition for students; the absence of public capital for building more residences; the tremendous technological changes and the broad perception that scientific culture and aspirations can be framed and acceded digitally, the disregard for the print medium, etc. This perception is reinforced by the obscure way contracts for publications are structured by bottomline-driven information and media companies. And Congress played an important role in abandoning the notion of a Digital Public Library in the late nineties and in extending copyright in 1998 to 75 years—in practice 95 years for the materials published between 1924 and 1977, see copyright page, Hathitrust.org. The problem is exacerbated by the cost of access to public universities and the need felt by public institutions, including UC, to recharge expenses via units, departments, divisions, “groups” (i.e. UCB or UCLA vs UCR or UCSC). This is by default a “divide ut imperes” situation.

Given the seriousness of the political, financial, and intellectual issues I have alluded to above, I wish the leadership of the UCSC campus had engaged faculty and students in a much broader discussion before pulling the trigger on a radical transformation of the Science & Engineering Library.

pulp fiction

The UCSC Emeriti Association has just published its Newsletter 1.3. The UCSCEA newsletter is a much appreciated new feature started by the current President, Professor Todd Wipke, and maintained by volunteers. In this new issue, pages 5–8, Professor Wipke tells the extraordinary story of the secretive, inexplicably rushed, and incomprehensible management decisions—a series of them—that led to the botched selection and outrageous pulping of about 80,000 titles kept by the Science & Engineering Library (=SE Library).

Reading this article and the documents attached to it made me realize how risky and potentially ruinous management decisions have become in the new uncharted waters we find ourselves navigating presently—a public university on its way to privatization, among other things—and how much more important than ever it is to consult widely with faculty and staff. This is true of the series of decisions involving the SE Library as well as those behind the building of new residences by private partnerships. In the case of the SE Library, Wipke’s article makes clear that a major component of the catastrophic decisions was the absence of real consultation of the faculty.

The newsletter article reminded me of my own puzzlement and later shock at discovering in December 2016 that books in the history of ancient technology and historical atlases that I expected to find on the shelves had disappeared. I’ll tell that story in the coming hours. For now, I encourage readers to go to Professor Wipke’s newsletter article cited above.

a political center?

Where is the center in today’s capitalist politics? In yesterday’s NYT, Brooks argued that his own brand of conservatism is the only sane path between the equally nasty chaotic vulgarity of Trumpian associates, and the unrealistic ultra-liberal left. His efforts are symptomatic of the common search for an evanescent “middle.” There would be a way to avoid the two extremes and reach a wise, rational compromise based on community and moral values. Brooks’ position is absurd and naïve if not hypocritical. He defends the humaneness of capitalism and refuses to see that what he holds dear—moral values, care of the neighbor, community—is actually at cross purposes with capitalism and constantly under pressure of being destroyed by it. The greed exhibited by Trump and associates is not particular to them. The values of absolute freedom, infinite expansion of self, and spreading of desires as part of a market-based self-correcting machine—see already Pascal’s view on this in his Thoughts, no need to reach for your Ayn Rand—are actually destructive of trust, fidelity, cooperation, and community. And to equate the right—the extreme right actually—with the left side of the Democratic party makes no sense when the whole system of representation not only has long tilted right but has also become less representative of large urban segments of the population. What is called left wing in the US corresponds to the social democracy of several European countries. In response to the great depression of the thirties and two world wars, these national systems have controlled until now the most nefarious tendencies of capitalism by regulating it and ensuring basic universal systems of family support, education, health, retirement, and low military budgets. They represent a “middle” solution that Brooks sees as ultra left. One would expect his tendency to expound on morals and virtue to lead him to defend family support, a free public education of quality, a universal health system, a higher minimum salary, proper retirement, social security, a more rational use of the military, and environmental change. He doesn’t. The idea of a virtuous, rational middle he never stops peddling is a poor moralistic disguise and an excuse for more disastrous economic or political decisions and further wrecking of the communal and cooperative approach to life he considers most important.

Tillich, not Peterson

The media has made much of a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for the perceived conservatism of his ethic and political views. Jordan Peterson’s ideas are built in part on neurological, cognitive theory and in part on a Biblical and Christian message that has been recast in the Jungian mode, as far as I can see. I looked at the site where he advertises his lectures, but was immediately alarmed by the all too quick definitions with which he introduces the stories of Genesis. He sees something primordial in them, reads the gospel of John into them as a long tradition has done before him, and eliminates history. If history is an artificial catalogue of facts and events hanging on a chronological frame, indeed, why take that route, but as good scholars show (beginning with L’Hour 2015), Genesis 1 actually introduces the audience or readership to an open, dynamic history rather than to a mythic structure that helps submit generations to ever-renewed forms of exploitation by hearking back to an idealized past as the only possible future. That is, the author of the text of Genesis is eminently aware of the historical conditions of human existence and tries to formulate answers believed to be revealed or at least adumbrated by an ineffable divinity. In other words, for the author(s) of Genesis 1–11, history and theology are two sides of the same hand. I hope I’m in the spirit of Tillich in saying that. In The socialist decision, published in early 1933 when Hitler grabs power, Tillich writes that “Human life involves more than a mere development of what already is. Through the demand [of the other] humanity is directed to what ought to be.” The first three chapters of Genesis and more generally 1–11 are anti-mythic in that precise sense. Gen 1 is in prose, not verse like all other epics of creation. It opposes the golden repetitions of incantatory myths. It refuses to fix humans as servants of past, immutable greatness. It refuses to MAGA as it refuses fake glories. Rather than looking backward, it invites humans to create the timely order in which life can expand as being and consciousness of it.

Claire et moi

In the sad film Claire et moi, after a sweet meeting with his father about relationship choices, the moi of the story is in a train and reads passages from a book he was just given by his dad. It is the famous passage from Rilke’s Letter to a young poet about what goes into enabling the first line of a verse. Long experience of the world, depths of observation, of scientific inquiry, and complete immersion in the world of others. My take on the story is that passion love, something that was finally considered within the grasp of multitudes with industrialization and fragmentation of traditional kinship and social networks, at least by the mid-twentieth century, comes to be regarded as an insufficient basis for proper relationships. Both characters are passionately drawn to each other and even abandon some of their selfishness by the end of the story. Will they learn to live their whimsical, inventive, physical passion in caring for a gravely ill person (she is HIV positive) and accepting other demanding tasks? A little opening is left at the end, or so it seems to me. I thought that the most important moment in the film was this reading of Rilke’s enduring wisdom in the train. Though I cannot make a grandiose appeal to science, world-traveling experience, life with others, yet his words give expression to something I feel—daily I dare think—, and that is the trust put into the grace of a world lived in all its dimensions, and especially the trust that the articulation of air, gestures, thoughts, will, is part of this adequate world, that it will occur and be communed.

dishwasher

We have entered the twentieth century and bought a dishwasher. I’m surprised by its power consumption. It does take less water than I do when doing dishes by hand and gives a bright shine to the wares. When there are six or more guests at the table, to load the machine is more discreet than to do tons of dishes in full sight of everyone. I cannot think of any other advantage. The machine transforms into a much more complex network of invisible relationships a working moment that had so far remained relatively simple: dishes and silverware washed in a sink, running hot or cold water, all things locally provided and repairable by oneself. But with my new Bosch 500 something, I have become part of a more complicated knotting of myself to the world. I can’t see any time or energy savings. It still strikes me as a luxury object by which I signify to everyone that I’m ready to move away from utilitarian, slightly noisier and messier ways of cleaning my plate, towards a dilatory, invisible purification. We’ll see if it becomes an object of necessity. One thing is sure: doing the dishes cannot be proposed as a choice to children who are reluctant to practice their music instrument. Given the alternative of doing the dishes as being their share of the house chores or practicing music, they might well be tempted to chose the miraculous machine.