Category Archives: Breaking News
Hello all, I’ve been volunteering at my local library, trying to help them improve their sci-fi collection (their acquisitions have been pretty random in recent years). As one aspect of the project we came up with a short survey, which I hope you will take, about what factors are important when people check out speculative fiction books.
The survey can be found here: https://goo.gl/forms/dFl7IiSmWgyLstQL2
It only takes about 5 minutes and all questions are optional. The survey will stay open until at least the end of May 2018.
ps. Please note that this is a non-profit project in cooperation with a public library. I’ll release the results in a few weeks and post a link here.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned in a post that I was working on a Python script to automatically generate indexes of books written in the LaTex typesetting system. At the time I promised to post the script in “a couple of days”. Predictably, weeks have passed, my little script has ballooned into a full on open-source software project, and the code is now too long to post (or explain) in a single blog article. If you’re interested, however, you can now download my alpha release from sourceforge.
The package includes two Python programs. Indexmeister is a console utility which reads a file (in several formats, not just LaTex) and suggests terms for indexing. It uses three different methods to figure out which terms are important. Imbrowse is a Curses program which helps you interactively browse multi-file LaTex books and quickly insert the right tags to generate an index.
I made this video tutorial to show how the system works:
In the future I am thinking of adding a plug-in for LibreOffice, and possibly a graphical interface (probably using GTK bindings). Porting it to Windoze is not a priority, however.
I rarely post updates here for my YouTube show, Handyman Kevin–mainly because it has its own dedicated blog. I thought I should mention, however, that the first episode of my second season premiered a few minutes ago:
The first season focused mainly on general Handyman skills. This season will have more of a focus on workshop tools and techniques. As before, we are planning to release thirteen fifteen to twenty-five minute episodes, each with an accompanying blog post.
The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.
Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.
Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.
With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.
Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.
Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.
Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.
The past year and a half of focusing entirely on my writing has been intensely rewarding, but it’s time to start thinking about my formal education again. This morning I took the first steps in applying to CSUDH’s External MA in Humanities (HUX) program. The program seems flexible yet rigorous and I expect to write a thesis which will form the first draft of a future book.
So, fingers crossed and let’s hope that they will admit a business school guy/hack sci-fi writer like me.
One section of the CSU application asks for a personal statement describing my reasons “for pursuing graduate or postbaccalaureate study.” After looking at my statement I realized that it is pertinent to this blog, particularly my ongoing Great Books project, so I decided to post it here:
During the first half of my career I mainly saw education as a process of training in skills. I earned three business degrees, took years of engineering coursework, and completed several professional certifications–learning how to do many useful things. As time went on, however, I became aware of what I was missing. True education, as distinct from mere training, should be general and liberal. The vocational degrees and training programs I completed did little to teach me about the culture, history, and language of the society in which I live. All the knowledge I acquired was specific and targeted at getting and succeeding in specific jobs. It did not address larger more general questions of the human condition.
As I entered my thirties and began spending an increased portion of my time writing, the gaps in my knowledge were made obvious, especially in the areas of literature, history, and philosophy. In order to function, a writer needs to be able to draw from a broad and deep background of cultural knowledge. But my background was unbalanced and primarily technical. To address the problem, I then spent several years deliberately expanding my reading, especially of the so-called “great books” of the Western Cannon. I was aware from the beginning that this would be a poor substitute for a true liberal education. Autodidacticism, however personally rewarding, is inefficient. I know I can learn about the humanities much more effectively if I have teachers and a program with structure.
I am now ready, both financially and intellectually, to dedicate two years of my life to the full time study of the humanities. The external MA program at CSUDH is ideal, both because of the content and because I have always done well with distance learning in the past.
The second stage of the application, which goes to the department itself, requires a longer analytical essay which I will probably also post in a few days when I am finished writing it.
I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock. I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition. Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact. Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.
I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books. Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.
Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section. I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.
I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time. Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.
I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world. It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.
Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks. Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time. I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important. I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.
Last night my new contemporary fantasy short story went live on Amazon. You can buy it right here:
The folks at Creative Minority were good enough to do a news blurb about it on their website. Just to be clear, this story is was not actually published by Creative Minority. Anyway, I think their post sums things up fairly well:
NON-FICTION WRITER BRANCHES INTO FANTASY
Montrose, CA, May, 19, 2015
Kevin A. Straight, best known for blogging about literature and history and for his monograph Freight Forwarding Cost Estimation: An Analogy Based Approach (2014), ventured into new territory, self-publishing The Phylactery, a contemporary fantasy short story.
“I’ve actually been writing fiction, including fantasy, since 4th grade,” explains Mr. Straight, “I thought it was probably time some of it saw the light of day.”
When asked why he chose a to self-publish instead of following a more traditional route, he replied, “I think soon most short fiction, especially genre fiction, is going to be self published. There are relatively few magazines left that handle speculative fiction, and most of them are trying to position themselves in a more literary way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it means that there aren’t really any good intermediaries for pulp sci-fi and fantasy. If you want to sell it, you’re better off selling directly to the readers. Ultimately, I think disintermediation will be a good thing, because readers will have better access and writers will get to keep more of the value from the product.”
The Phylactery is set in a slightly fictionalized Riverside, CA in the present day and follows the misadventures of an evil wizard trying to salvage an evil scheme in which everything seems to be going wrong. It is available world-wide in the Amazon Kindle Store.
Kevin A. Straight is currently writing a non-fiction book, 14/2: A History of Outside Scholarship and the Fourteenth Amendment, which will be published by Creative Minority Productions in 2017.
About an hour ago you may have gotten a large number of emails about “new” posts. I am in the process of merging several of my older blogs, and I didn’t realize that WordPress was publicizing posts every time I moved them. (As I always say, I’m a writer, not a web master).
All of the posts listed will eventually be available on kevinastraight.com, but only after I’ve had time to edit them.
Again, sorry for the large amount of email.
Last week I placed a new academic working paper on Academia.edu that roughly parallels Chapter 11 of my upcoming book. The version in the book will be written at a different reading level and without the math equations, but this is still a pretty good taste of what is coming.
Scholars like to post these preliminary drafts for several reasons. The most important one for an independent researcher like myself is to receive feedback and suggestions prior to submission. Another reason is to make findings available to the community sooner. The average turn-around time to publish a journal article is two or three years and the field may have moved on by the time the paper hits the presses.
I probably don’t need to worry about obsolescence with this particular article, since the events with which it deals happened back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My book will be a study of the role of outside scholars in our society and, in particular, their ability to shape public policy. Outside Scholars, in my usage, are people who engage in research and knowledge creation without being formally affiliated with the dominant academic community. This particular article/chapter deals with an outside scholar named Victor Sharrow who devoted his life to arguing for what he saw as the “correct” interpretation on the Fourteenth Amendment. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but I feel his career provides several intriguing insights as a characteristic outside scholar narrative.
Sharrow saw the Fourteenth Amendment as the key to dismantling the Jim Crow system in the South. In the months prior to the 1958 election he mounted an intense one-man lobbying campaign to sway Dwight Eisenhower and other politicians to his views. In my article I examine several of his arguments from a standpoint of modern data science.
Those of you who read my posts on data science and Python programming might be interested in the simulation models I describe in the paper. I would be happy to send my spreadsheet and code to anyone who is interested. Just e-mail me or message my Facebook page.
If all goes well, the book should be released in late 2016 or early 2017.
As I have mentioned before, I host a how-to show on YouTube. I’m not in the habit of publicizing it on this site, mainly because it has its own dedicated blog. The new teaser for next season dropped over the weekend, though, and I’m too excited not to share it.
Handyman Kevin started life nearly two years ago as a low risk way for my publisher and I to learn about video production and play with some transmedia techniques. It has since taken on a bit of a life of its own. If you enjoy my other writing, you may also want to subscribe to the Handyman Kevin blog, YouTube channel, or both.