Friday links

Posted in Links at 11:38 pm by

Well, link (singular):

My friend Jill has said for years that I’m about 70 years old :P


Thoughts on the Names of the Clooney Twins

Posted in History, Life, السياسة at 2:21 am by

Apparently, the children of noted Lebanese-British international law and human rights barrister Amal Clooney (née Alamuddin) and her world-famous American actor and activist husband George arrived earlier this month. According to the Internet (aka a statement provided by the family to various media outlets), the twins, a girl and a boy, are named Ella and Alexander. (These are, I think, lovely names—in particular, my cousin and his wife named their daughter Ella earlier this year—and I never expected anything “strange”, like “Moonbeam” or “Apple”, from George Clooney.)

I learned of these things via a poignant and thought-provoking article from Duana, one of the writers at the Canadian celebrity gossip website LaineyGossip. The article is a great exploration of the naming (please, read the entire thing—it’s relatively short, and excellent), but the main point really resonated with me:

When all is said and done, this is what breaks my heart a little bit. The babies are half-Lebanese-British by birth and will be citizens of the world. Their names could have been anything, and people would have accepted them because George Clooney said so. […]

But the reason they’re worthy of comment, to me, is because I can’t shake the feeling that choosing such well-trodden ‘normal’ names sends an implicit message that Middle Eastern or Arabic names are not as desirable. That the name their mother has is not something to be emulated. […]

But in a time when we have such a massive lack of understanding of Middle Eastern and Arabic culture, I can’t help but wish there’d been a greater attempt to find the beauty in names from another culture.


It’s because representation matters. It’s because choosing Anglo names when one parent has a name that is “other” can be interpreted as feeling like there’s something to hide or be ashamed of. Names matter. And they continue to send a message long after the birth certificates have been signed.

(We do not know what, if any, middle names these children have; it’s certainly possible that they’re named “Ella Fairuz” and “Alexander Adil” or something along those lines, names that do mix their parents’ heritages. All we know at the moment is that the children have “normal”/“classic” English first names. Still, Duana’s point stands; the middle names, even if present and known, will not have the same prominence as the children’s first names.)

I will echo Duana from LaineyGossip in saying that it’s none of my business what the Clooneys choose to name their children, that these are lovely names, and that we have no idea what their thought-process might have been. But to someone who spent the bulk of his academic career focused on the Middle East, who is living in 2017, it does feel like a missed opportunity for two extremely high-profile, politically-aware and -active parents to make a quiet but lasting, positive statement about issues close to them.

Moving on, I have two additional thoughts to add to what Duana has already presented. The first is that when Amal Alamuddin married George Clooney, she took his surname. (In addition, she did not keep her birth surname as a post-marriage middle name, as is sometimes done in the Anglophone world.) Again, her choice and none of my business. But (not knowing her, or anything about her beyond what appears in standard short-form biographies of her), it still surprised me when it happened—I had, for no real reason, expected her to emulate 1990s-era Hillary Rodham Clinton and become “Amal Alamuddin Clooney” (as she was very briefly called in the media once her marriage became known but before it became known she was going by “Amal Clooney” instead). She had a reasonably high-profile and established career under her birth surname. Further, on occasion in the Middle East I’d been told that traditionally women did not take their husbands’ surnames on marriage, since the name represented his ancestry and one could not suddenly inherit that ancestry (how common this practice really is/was, I have no idea). It has been interesting—I’m not sure that is the right word—though definitely fruitless to wonder why she made that choice. It certainly was one of the things that popped into my mind, though, when I read the piece about the children’s names.

The second item is a story that my great-aunt Dorothy told during one of our family reunions years ago, about the thought and behavior patterns of immigrants (at least of her grandparents’ era). She said that the immigrants insisted that their children (her parents, in this case) were/be Americans; the immigrants did not teach their children (nor let them speak) Italian, and many things from the “old country” disappeared in favor of assimilation. Indeed, in our family, Stefano Serafino became “Steve S.” upon arrival in the United States, and his and Maria’s children were Katherine, Jennie, John, Clement, James, Marie, Adam, and Steve, “abandoning” family names like Domenica, Theresa, Giovanni, and Stefano. (Then, Aunt Dorothy continued, in the next generation, there was a reaction against that suppression of ancestry and culture; she and her siblings and cousins sought to learn about their heritage, where they were from, and so on, though by this time some things—including the ability to speak Italian [Piedmontese]—were lost altogether.)

The Alamuddin family were immigrants to the United Kingdom, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War when Amal was very young. I wonder if her immigrant experiences—whether like my great-great-grandparents’ or something unique to her time and place—came into play when thinking about naming the children? At the end of the day, all we can do is speculate—and waste our time writing about our thoughts and speculations—until one of the Clooneys one day (if ever) addresses the subject directly. Still, though, in today’s world, representation matters, and for billions of non-Anglo-European or part-Anglo-European adults and children (and the hundreds of millions of them living in traditionally-Anglo-European societies), the Shireens and Hishams and Laylas and Iskanders, it may feel like still “there’s no one on TV like me” when this month there easily could have been.

Thoughts on an 80th Class Reunion

Posted in History, Life at 1:47 am by

The Franklin Township High School Class of 1937 recently held their 80th class reunion; both of its surviving graduates were in attendance.

For those like me who are mathematically challenged, that means two 98-year-olds—presumably both women, though I don’t know; I heard about it via my mother, who’d heard it from my father, who’d heard it from one of his old friends/classmates, who’d read it in the paper. It boggles my mind to think that 80 years after graduation, there are still graduates alive and able to get together for a reunion. I don’t know how many graduates were in the Class of 1937 (which would have been my grandfather’s class had he not been so stubborn), but my grandmother (Class of 1938) had 72 in hers, which was more than any of us here had expected, although still quite small by what we had experienced. And still two remain; amazing.

It’s nice to hear that they continued having reunions as the years progressed and the number of surviving members dwindled, and I hope those two remaining members of the Class of 1937 had a wonderful time. I hope my grandmother’s class has an 80th reunion next year, too—I’ll volunteer to scan her copy of the graduation program for them, in case none of the surviving graduates have theirs handy.

(And maybe by the time it’s time for my 80th high school class reunion, I’ll finally be ready to attend one ;-) )


A Strange Preparatory Footnote to the Fate of the Open Web

Posted in Open Source, Software at 5:16 pm by

…Or, what is Brent Simmons’s new project?

I’ve been meaning to write some thoughts about blogging and the open web in general for the past week or so, having seen Tim Bray’s Still Blogging in 2017 in mid-May when I went through my old “Blogs” folder in my bookmarks for the first time half-a-decade or so. (That post having been followed by Dave Winer’s Why I can’t/won’t point to Facebook blog posts yesterday, and John Gruber’s expletive-titled follow-on today. In addition, Gruber has several recent posts criticizing Google’s AMP alternative to HTML/the open web.) But I haven’t had the time to sit down and bang out my thoughts yet, and then yesterday I saw something else which would make a strange footnote to said as-yet-unwritten post…so, footnote first.

Yesterday, John Gruber “teased” the announcement of a new Brent Simmons open source software project in the Daring Fireball Linked List item for the latest episode of Gruber’s podcast. Since I think Brent Simmons is an interesting guy and often has useful things to say about software development, I was curious to see what his new project was. Since I am also a Luddite :-P and don’t listen to podcasts, I figured the project might have been (re)announced on his blog. I checked it last night, and again this afternoon…crickets. I remembered that Simmons also has a company with a website (once home to the great NetNewsWire) and eventually caused my brain to recall its name, Ranchero Software. The page has a nice heading for projects, but, no, nothing new there, either. Finally, I thought, being one of those indie Mac software guys, Simmons must tweet—and I guess he does, but not publicly. (I imagine he probably has a micro.blog, too, but at this point I was unwilling to spend time going down any more rabbit holes to learn what this new project was.)

Later, I checked out Dave Winer’s blog, Scripting News, and discovered he had made several posts about the new project, Evergreen, a new, open-source Mac feed reader (you can take away the NetNewsWire, but you just can’t keep Brent Simmons away from feed readers!).

All of which makes a funny story given the recent climate of fighting back for the open web and blogging—that the primary (and only, I suppose, unless you happen to follow Simmons on GitHub, or maybe on Twitter, at least until Winer posted) way of learning about Evergreen was to listen to a podcast! Emphasis on funny, or strange. To be clear, this is not a hit piece; it’s just telling a funny story. There may be many good reasons the project is not yet listed on Ranchero’s home page (a soft launch—it’s still very early in development—or he’s been too busy, or forgot, et cetera) or elsewhere. Indeed, had there not been this recent flurry of activity around the state of blogging and the open web, I likely would have forgotten all about the in-podcast announcement and never would have thought to write about this at all ;-)


In Memoriam

Posted in History, Life at 10:00 am by

For the first year since 1916 (the year my great-grandparents were married), none of the four Ardissons of Export—all of whom answered the call of their country and served overseas in branches of the United States Army and then were lucky enough to return home safely—are with us any longer.

Ardisson siblings, 1943
Eugene, Edward, Gerald, and Dorothy Ardisson
Uncle Clem’s farm, Delmont, 1943

My great-uncle Gene, the youngest and last of the four siblings, passed away in December after falling while playing with his great-grandchildren. Many, many years ago, in March 1943, he was the first married man from Export to be drafted. Trained as an artilleryman, he landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day and later marched down the Champs-Élysées after the liberation of Paris. Sometime in 1944 he was transferred to another unit, which in December was part of the Allied counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge; sadly, his original unit was also involved in the Battle of the Bulge, but it was all but wiped out, losing 90% of its men. From there, he moved across Germany, eventually linking up with the Russians on the Elbe before ending the war pointed towards Berlin.

This Memorial Day, not only do we reflect on the life and service of these brave men and women, but especially all of those—like Uncle Gene’s comrades-in-arms in his original unit, decimated in the Battle of the Bulge—who did not make it home to live out their lives, to see children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. We remember, and honor, the fallen.


A Few Words on Dr Lawler

Posted in History, Life at 5:36 pm by

Dr Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College (a small college nestled in the hills of northwest Georgia, and my undergraduate alma mater) passed away quite suddenly earlier this week. When I arrived at Berry some decades ago, Dr Lawler was already a towering figure at the school and its most high-profile scholar. He was a standout in the field of American political philosophy who additionally worked on bioethics and the future of higher education, and he was also an exemplar of a manner of postmodern conservatism.

I did not know Dr Lawler well, although I had many interactions with him during my time at Berry (beginning my freshman year when I went begging to various departments for funds to support Berry’s new-born Model Arab League delegation), but he was, for a large number of my collegiate friends, one of, if not the, most significant professors and intellectual influences in their academic lives. Through them, as well as his presence on campus and in the department, he still managed to permeate my life.

I remember one day in the fall of my junior year, as I was walking through Evans Hall between classes, Dr Lawler flagged me down (“Oh, no, what have I done?” I wondered) to inform me that he wanted to nominate me for the Truman Scholarship. It was shocking to me at the time, though I was to realize it was part and parcel of the kind of professor and person he was, that he was familiar with, and thought highly enough of, someone who had never taken any of his classes and who, by then, had abandoned the department’s majors entirely, to select me to be a Berry nominee for this prestigious scholarship.

In one of the stranger interactions, in the spring of my senior year, my Honors Thesis committee commandeered his office for my thesis defense, it being large enough to accomodate all of us (and, at the time, not terribly far removed from the move from Green Hall, quite tidy by Lawlerian standards). Later that spring I was belatedly inducted into Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society (I began my time at Berry as one of the then-Political Science Department’s international studies majors, was inducted into the “rival” history honor society, Phi Alpha Theta, my sophomore year, and left the international studies major about the same time, although I continued to take government and international studies courses throughout my time at Berry); I remember Dr Lawler’s befuddlement at the fact that I had not been inducted earlier and his apology for my having been missed.

When I think back on Dr Lawler, I remember his quiet, thoughtful voice, his constant conversations with students—in his office, in the halls, wherever they may meet—and the admiration and respect with which my friends always spoke of him and his classes; as my friend and former Berry Model Arab League colleague Dan Alban wrote earlier this week, Dr Lawler’s classes were more intellectually challenging than Dan’s later studies at Harvard Law School. Dr Lawler was a kind of gentle giant, a renowned scholar yet equally at home in the classroom and Rome’s various cafés and porches. There was no ivory tower around Dr Lawler. He was always accessible and committed to our education and success—even those of us who were on the periphery of his field and department.

So the untimely passing of Dr Lawler comes as a great blow, not just to his family, the Berry community, and his former students and those who knew him, but also to humanity, which has lost a great mind, a champion of virtue, and wonderful human being.


Courtyard and Minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo

Posted in History, Travel at 12:17 am by

I’m privileged to have some very talented photographers among my friends, but my photos are generally rather pedestrian. However, this is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken (in spite of having cut off the top of the arch).

Courtyard and Minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
Courtyard and Minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
Cairo, Egypt, June 27, 1994

Taken with a mid-1980s point-and-shoot Kodak VR35 K10(?) on Ektrachrome

Scanned in the mid-to-late-1990s, probably with Photoshop 5 on some version of a Nikon Coolscan, in an era when when 640×480 screens were pretty standard and 1024×786 was positively huge, hard disks were measured in megabytes, and no-one foresaw Retina or 4K displays (so, sorry it’s so small :-P It filled about ⅓ of a standard screen back then)

More information about what’s depicted can be found on my Egypt pictures page.


Grandma Porczak at 90

Posted in History, Life at 11:21 pm by

Today would have been my Grandma Porczak’s 90th birthday, had she not been ripped from us far, far too soon by cancer.

Effel Gertrude (Benner) Wright with Jean (age 2)
Effel Gertrude (Benner) Wright with Jean (age 2), July 13, 1929

Jean Wright high school graduation portrait
Jean Wright high school graduation portrait, ca. 1945

Norbert R. Porczak and Jean Wright wedding portrait
Norbert R. Porczak and Jean Wright wedding portrait, outside St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Newark, OH, June 6,1948

Porczak Girls, Easter 1963
Porczak girls outside Grandma and Grandpa Wright’s house on Prospect St., Newark, OH, Easter 1963

Porczak family, July 1990
Porczak family, Mansfield, OH, July 1990

Happy 90th birthday, Grandma!


In Memoriam: Dr John Ruedy

Posted in History, Life at 3:10 pm by

I learned recently that one of my favorite professors from Georgetown, Dr John D. “Jack” Ruedy, had passed away last fall. I have managed to corral some of my many thoughts and memories of my years knowing him and try to pay tribute to him here.

Dr Ruedy was my first human contact with Georgetown. I still remember calling him from my room in the Georgetown Holiday Inn when I was in town for the National Model Arab League in April after being accepted to the Master of Arts in Arab Studies-PhD in History joint program. Although our schedules didn’t align for an in-person meeting, he nevertheless started putting me at ease over graduate school. When I arrived in the fall, he was a familiar face, or, rather, voice in the midst of everything new, and I soon found myself enrolled in one of his classes. Early that fall semester, we connected over both my long-ago Classics background and a love of soccer. Major League Soccer was at that time a young, small league, with no team near my hometown, so while I enjoyed watching, I had no team affiliation. Dr Ruedy, however, was a committed DC United fan, and United were making another run at the championship that fall, so class always began with a quick recap. At one point Dr Ruedy suggested our class, along with a freshman dorm floor he was mentoring, might attend a playoff match, and I was tasked with investigating the feasibility. Sadly, ticket prices, availability, and scheduling all conspired against us, but it is because of Dr Ruedy that “my team” became, and remains, the Black-and-Red.

I don’t know if Dr Ruedy thought I might become a North Africanist (I had done a little bit of work on Algeria in college), but unlike many of my previous professors and teachers, he never tried to sway or strong-arm me into pursuing his field while ignoring my interests, which meant a great deal to me. As my field of study drifted further back in time and south of the Sahara, Dr Ruedy was always supportive and encouraging. He made sure I had the benefit of his North African expertise in topics where the two regions were connected. The closest thing to a disagreement I can remember is one semester when he was my advisor, Dr Ruedy lobbied for me to take his good friend Dr Michael Hudson’s seminal Arab Politics class, while I opted to take an Arabic literature class to help round out my collateral field instead (in retrospect, I wish I had let him persuade me).

Dr Ruedy made sure that we as graduate students were well-rounded people; our graduate-only sessions in “under/over” classes, as well as many of our major field seminar classes, always included wine and cheese; I remain grateful to him for expanding my cheese palate. Sometimes, too, class would take place over a meal at The Tombs, knowledge exchanged with food and fellowship. Although Dr Ruedy was a long-established professor and doyen of the American scholars of North Africa, he lived in our world, from his daily morning runs (even if they sometimes were on the banks of the Tigris or the shores of the Mediterranean rather than just around his neighborhood) to the way he valued every student and every question. Dr Ruedy was always excited about teaching; my memories of his arms moving, rising like a crescendo, as he made a point, are vivid to this day. He had the ability to open your mind to new and different ideas and interpretations in compelling fashion. One of my favorite memories of his teaching, though, is the way he would explain the concept of isnād (chain of transmission of Islamic knowledge) to his undergraduates, mentioning that the information they were receiving came from Gustave von Grunebaum via Nikki Keddie and thence through Dr Ruedy himself. Those of us in the field of Middle East studies know that his was an isnād of the highest quality.

I was saddened to learn of Dr Ruedy’s passing last fall. During my time at Georgetown, I was privileged to have him at various points as my professor, my boss as both a research and a teaching assistant, and my advisor; however, it often felt as if he was more of a “third grandfather” (like both of mine, Dr Ruedy was a World War II veteran) because of his warmth, caring demeanor, and good-natured comments. He was a renowned scholar and a great man; he leaves behind an enduring legacy, at Georgetown and beyond, and I believe he lives on through the thousands of us, his students, whose knowledge of the Middle East comes with the illustrious von Grunebaum-Keddie-Ruedy isnād.

My thoughts go out to Dr Ruedy’s wife, Nancy, and the rest of his family, and to all who knew and cherished him.


Dr Ruedy at the CCAS summer teachers workshop, ca. 2004

I filched this photo from the CCAS website long ago; to me, it captures Dr Ruedy at his best, teaching, with a smile. This was one of the Center’s annual summer workshops for high school teachers, where he was always a popular speaker—this one perhaps was even after Dr Ruedy had retired.


Women’s History Month: Dorothy Anna Ardisson

Posted in History, Life at 4:05 pm by

My friend Liz has been publishing a daily series of vignettes on Facebook in honor of Women’s History Month. After seeing the beginning of the series, I thought “This is interesting, and moving, and important—and maybe I could do something like it.” After all, as the historian in my family, and the unofficial family historian, I know or have access to lots of stories about the many remarkable women in the family. As it turns out, though, among other things, it is not an easy task to go from information and stories to a tight vignette a single time, let alone multiple times—particularly when one is not prone to brevity ;-) So instead of my own series, I decided I would do one in-depth portrait of a special woman I loved and admired, who is, as you will see, the reason I can tell these stories at all, and who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. #WomensHistoryMonth (P.S. Thanks for the inspiration, Liz!)

Dorothy Anna Ardisson, US Army Nurse Corps, circa 1942

Here’s to my great aunt, then-Lt. Dorothy Anna Ardisson, United States Army Nurse Corps (circa 1942),

who was born in rural western Pennsylvania east of Pittsburgh 100 years ago this August, the eldest child and only daughter of first-generation Italian- and Slovene-Americans;

who knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, having seen WWI nurses and their long, flowing capes in pictures at her veteran relatives’ houses;

who, with the help of her mother, prevailed against her father (who believed girls did not need a high school education) and attended high school, graduating with high honors;

who, if my recollection is correct, taught her brothers how to drive;

who achieved her dream of becoming a nurse, graduating from St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing in Pittsburgh (after having first been turned down by another hospital for being too short!);

who, like her three brothers, then served her country in the Second World War, and who, desiring more action, sought a transfer that led to service as a nurse near Oran during the invasion of North Africa;

who, after the war, obtained a BS in nursing education from the University of Pittsburgh (and later a MA in education from the University of Michigan) and then became a head nurse and a professor of nursing at Mercy College in Detroit, where she taught for many years;

who, each summer for many years, welcomed her nieces and nephews for a week of fun and family in Michigan;

who enjoyed travelling to see relatives and friends, at home and abroad, with her best friend Kay or fellow combat nurse Lucia, among others, including visits to all 50 states, Germany, Cairo, and Baldissero Canavese, the village north of Turin from which her Italian grandparents emigrated;

who, through her gentle forcefulness kept the Ardisson family together when her brothers, in their stubborn forcefulness, were not speaking to each other;

who both nourished a love of history and genealogy in a certain grandnephew and also kick-started his research by sending him a workbook and handwritten notes containing information on her parents and grandparents, at age 12 (which in turn allowed him to collect much valuable information before his own grandparents and other relatives of that generation passed away);

who curated a collection of family photos and had the foresight to write down a brief history of both her and her parents’ lives, and persuaded her brothers and nieces and nephews to do the same, so that the history of the John Ardisson family would not easily vanish (which history I consulted heavily while writing this);

who, as matriarch of the John Ardisson family after the death of her mother, organized two family reunions in her later years, bringing the entire family together once again and thawing the relations between her brothers;

who helped reconnect the American Ardissons with their French and Italian cousins, and who passed on each new bit of family information that came in;

who was one of many who proudly contributed to the funding for the construction of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery);

who, in her later years never stopped learning, teaching, and volunteering, including as a guide/re-enactor at Historic Hanna’s Town;

who was another example of just how small the world really is, as a granddaughter of the family with whom she lodged when she first moved to Detroit also was one of my college classmates;

who had made such an impression on her students that one drove several hours just to attend her viewing;

who, in her 91 years and 360 days, lived and worked as a single woman, carving her own path in a world which for many of those years was not quite ready for the idea of an unmarried career woman, and served as a quiet example to those of us who knew and loved her. ♥