Friday links, late August edition

Posted in History, Links at 6:00 pm by

Well, link (singular), again:

  • Enlightenment Technology [ongoing by Tim Bray]

    Tim Bray provides a review and commentary on economic historian Joel Mokyr’s 2016 A Cul­ture of Growth: The Ori­gins of the Modern Econ­o­my (which attempts to explain the origins of the belief that progress was a good thing and why the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not in Asia, given that, circa 1500, both regions were more or less on the same level technologically—short version, according to Bray’s reading, mostly a series of “for­tu­nate his­tor­i­cal ac­ci­dents”).

    I wasn’t familiar with the book—I’m sure, had I remained in academia, I would have had to slog through it—and I’m sure there are some great reviews from historians to recommend, but I felt the 15 or 20 minutes reading Bray’s piece was well worth the time.


Aunt Dorothy at 100

Posted in History, Life at 12:00 pm by

Dorothy Anna Ardisson, US Army Nurse Corps, circa 1942
Dorothy Anna Ardisson, circa 1942
Lieutenant, US Army Nurse Corps, World War II

One hundred years ago today, on August 20, 1917, my great-aunt Dorothy Anna Ardisson was born in her parents’ second-floor apartment in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. She was the first child and only daughter of John Ardisson and his wife, Maria Julia Oswald, and was the oldest grandchild of her Oswald grandparents (Anton and Mary Adamic Oswald, immigrants from Slovenia) and second grandchild1 of her Ardisson grandparents (Stefano/Étienne/Steve and Maria Silva Ardisson, immigrants from Italy). The nations of old Europe were then still locked in the terrible combat of the Great War, which the United States had entered on the side of the Allies2 only a few months prior (April 6th).

Steve Ardisson Family, ca. 1919
Steve Ardisson Family, ca. 1919
This is the first picture of Aunt Dorothy I am aware of; she is the middle child, seated on an aunt’s lap, about two years old.

Aunt Dorothy (about whom I have already written once this year, for Women’s History Month) inherited the determination of her parents. She attended high school, graduating with high honors, even though her father thought girls did not need a high school education. Early in her life, she had decided she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up; she finished nursing school at St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing just in time for the start of what we now call World War II, and she joined the US Army Nurse Corps. After a few stateside postings (including at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC), she and a few fellow nurses decided they wanted to see more action and sought transfers to a unit being shipped overseas. There, she worked in a field hospital near Oran, Algeria, during the invasion of North Africa, helping in the civilized world’s fight against Nazis and Fascists.

After the war, Aunt Dorothy took advantage of the GI Bill and obtained a BS in Nursing Education from the University of Pittsburgh (later on, she also obtained an MA in Education from the University of Michigan). She then took a head nurse position at Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit, where she was responsible for training new nurses, and then served as a professor in the nursing department at Mercy College until her retirement. In her early years at Mercy, she shared an office with Kay Wenzel. At one point, both women needed new cars, and Aunt Dorothy had a house but needed living room furniture, while Kay had furniture and needed a new place to live. To save money, the officemates became housemates, and then lifelong best friends, as a two-year arrangement continued for several years, and then off-and-on again until Kay’s death nearly half a century later. During those many years, Aunt Dorothy also welcomed her nieces and nephews to Michigan each summer for a week of fun and family, and she continued travelling the country (visiting all 50 states) and the world—including a trip “back” to Baldissero Canavese, the village north of Turin from which her Italian grandparents had emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century.

Because I lived in Georgia and Aunt Dorothy lived in Michigan for most of the years we shared on this earth, I didn’t see her very often or know her very well. Still, she would send a card at Christmas and on my birthday, and sometimes a small gift or bit of knowledge. Aunt Dorothy was not responsible for my love of genealogy—I had always been curious about the world and where I was “from”—but she was most definitely responsible for much of my success in it. The Christmas I was 12, she sent me a genealogy workbook, into which she had inserted, between the relevant pages, handwritten notes about her parents and grandparents. While I was young, I did not work in earnest on the book, but I did enough to keep filling in blanks and wanting to discover more. Later, Aunt Dorothy organized two Ardisson family reunions, started collecting and labeling various family pictures, and eventually started corresponding with a distant nephew in France, who in turn was in contact with Ardissone and Silva cousins in Italy, and she funneled each new discovery to me. When she moved back home to Pennsylvania after Kay died in 1997, I got to see Aunt Dorothy a bit more often, and we also continued to correspond with genealogy updates. On one particular family trip to Pennsylvania, she and my grandfather took me around to the various cemeteries in Export, Delmont, and Denmark Manor where their parents and grandparents are buried, ensuring someone would know where to find them in the years to come.

Ardisson Family Thanksgiving, November 2007
Ardisson Family Thanksgiving, Murrysville, PA, November 22, 2007
This is the last picture I have of Aunt Dorothy (seated, middle), when we brought her over to my grandparents’ house for a family Thanksgiving in 2007.

Like all people, eventually age caught up with Aunt Dorothy, and she passed away on August 15, 2009, five days before her 92nd birthday, leaving behind a legacy as a much-loved educator, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, and great-aunt. In those 91 years and 360 days, she 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.

She continues giving gifts even now. In the past few days, I came into possession of the trunk Aunt Dorothy’s grandmother Maria Silva Ardisson brought with her when she came over from Italy; among the items found inside was a framed Steve Ardisson family portrait, circa 1919 (above). My parents and I could identify about half of the people in the photo, but the other half were a mystery (we had guesses, but some turned out to be wildly incorrect). As I searched through my files, I found that after one of my visits, Aunt Dorothy had sent me high-quality photocopies of a handful of significant family photos, including that one, and she had sent along a sheet of captions, making it possible to correctly identify everyone from now until the picture ceases to exist. Thank you, Aunt Dorothy, for all you have done for the world and the Ardisson/Silva/Oswald families, and happy 100th birthday! ♥


1 After the tragic death of her older cousin Mary Elizabeth Bertolina at age 6 in June 1919, Aunt Dorothy became the oldest surviving Ardisson grandchild as well. ↩︎

2 In fact, Aunt Dorothy’s great-uncle Tony’s eldest son John Ardison, a French-born Italian citizen who grew up in America, saw service with the American forces in Europe. ↩︎


Needlessly Misquoted Tennyson

Posted in History, Life at 7:49 am by

Twice within the span of a few days, I’ve heard Tennyson’s famous lines from In Memoriam A.H.H. misquoted on TV, both times with the same error, the second infinitive split by “never.” One of the occasions specifically identified the quotation as Tennyson; surely if you know your character is supposed to be quoting Tennyson, you can make sure you put the correct wording of the quote into the script? It seems not. (Or perhaps the actor flubbed the line and the director didn’t catch it?)

For the record, the correct quotation of the lines from stanza 4 of Canto XXVII (infinitives not split) is:

’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


Friday links redux

Posted in History, Links at 6:36 pm by

  • The Loyal Engineers Steering NASA’s Voyager Probes Across the Universe [The New York Times]

    I found this piece incredibly moving: the dedication of these engineers—some now in their 80s!—to one of humankind’s greatest scientific endeavours, in the face of ever-shrinking resources, changing priorities, and the passage of time in which the knowledge and skills needed to keep the Voyagers working are becoming one more of humanity’s “lost arts.”

  • Dellinger Grist Mill

    The Times piece reminded me of another of humanity’s lost arts, which in this particular case also has a connection with our space program. In the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina sits the Dellinger Grist Mill, the last small, water-powered stone mill left in North Carolina, dating from the turn of the last century (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998). Jack Dellinger, fourth-generation Dellinger miller, restored the mill and operates it today in retirement. In the 1950s, Dellinger left the family farm and mill, served in the Korean War, and then became a software engineer for IBM. There, he wrote control software in Huntsville, AL, under the direction of Wernher von Braun, for the Saturn V rockets used in the moon landing, before finally returning home in the late 1990s and putting generations-old, nearly-vanished milling techniques back into production.

    Jack Dellinger currently offers informative tours touching on rural life in NC, milling, historic restoration, and the space program, and grinds local corn into meal, grits, and polenta; if you’re going to be in the area, consult the calendar on the website or email him to see if the Mill is open. Highly recommended!

  • What It’s Like Growing Up as a Girl in the Gaza Strip [National Geographic]

    Switching gears, last weekend’s National Geographic photo-roundup email included this story about a photojournalist’s work documenting the lives of girls and young women in Gaza. There’s also a Kickstarter campaign to get a book of her project published (there’s currently about a week-and-a-half left in the campaign and the book is already almost three-quarters funded).


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 ;-) )


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, التصوير 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!