Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 9, 2014

Wednesday Link Encyclopedia, and Thoughts on the Passing Scene

1. The staff of Ars Technica select their least favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes. There’s no surprise that a lot of season 1 episodes make the list — most of the episodes of the first season display a various mixtures of clunkiness, cheesiness, and preachiness. But there were candidates in other seasons too. For example, “Darmok,” the second episode of season 5 (all emphasis in original):

The setup is unexceptional: Picard is captured by a race of aliens that the Federation is unable to communicate with, and he is placed on a hostile planet with the alien captain, Dathon. Normal aliens can be processed by the universal translator, but not these ones. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” Dathon says, leaving Picard nonplussed.

Of course, our esteemed captain realizes that the aliens speak in metaphor and reference. Darmok and Jalad fought a common foe together at Tanagra, just as he and Dathon must fight the monsters on the planet they’re stranded on. Dathon is killed, Picard is rescued, and the communications breakthrough is made. The aliens aren’t necessarily friends… but they’re not enemies either.

So look, here’s the thing. This is just nonsense. It doesn’t work. For an allusion to a story to communicate anything, both parties must know what the story is. And that means telling the story. It means verbs and nouns and adjectives and all the normal words.

You know: all the stuff that the universal translator can cope with. And in fact does cope with, thereby enabling Picard to tell Dathon a brief summary of the epic of Gilgamesh. The entire premise of the episode is complete crap, and we see them undermine it and demonstrate it to be drivel before our very eyes.

I will confess that I have a soft spot for “Darmok” simply because of Patrick Stewart’s recitation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But I readily agree that the premise of the alien language in this episode was half-baked and does not stand up to even moderate scrutiny.

2. I went to see the new Captain America movie on Saturday. I went into the theater with no especially high expectations, and so I was pleased. It seemed like a good action movie, a decent super-hero flick. They managed to make Falcon not-lame, and the Captain’s use of his shield as a weapon was well done. Most of all, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow got more screen time, more development, and generally more stuff to do than in The Avengers — Johansson’s portrayal was probably the best part of the film. And I liked the small notebook where Steve Rogers lists the cultural references he needs to learn for living in 21st Century America (e.g., “Nirvana (band),” “Rocky,” etc.).

I’m sure I could list come critiques of the movie as a whole, but not without venturing into spoiler territory. (I never saw the first Captain America film, so I can’t compare; some people have told me the first one was a stronger movie.)

3. I’ve noticed a few different restaurants adding mango to various dishes lately. Is this a new trend, or is it just that I am only now noticing it? (Or maybe it’s just new to East Tennessee, and has been trending for a while elsewhere?) Avocado too, it seems. I like mango and avocado, so I don’t mind — no complaints here — just wondering if this is a recent development.

4. Dana Stevens: why do teens love dystopian fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games? Because “post-apocalyptic societies governed by remote authoritarian entities and rigidly divided into warring factions” remind them of high school.

See also Laura Hudson in Wired, “The Divergent Movie Is Social Commentary for Simpletons.”

And Ari Laurel looks at the diversity of the heroines in Young Adult dystopian novels.

Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845 (location map scheme)-en

5. Paul Musgrave: “The Successes of the Failed State of Texas” (emphasis added):

From the vantage point of the United States, the history of territorial expansion is rather boring, even foreordained. The U.S. got rich; it attracted immigrants; and it expanded into lands occupied by Indians and weakly held by the Mexicans after a short and relatively forgettable war. But this omits practically everything interesting in the case. In my dissertation, I focus on the domestic politics of expansion, in particular why the U.S. congress was so loath for so long to support presidents like John Tyler in their expansionist policies. (There’s an even more interesting question about why a great many people–including almost all Northern Whigs–resisted most or almost all expansionist schemes, but that’s a post for another day.) In putting that case together, however, I had to learn something about Mexico. And when we look at the history of North American geopolitics from the standpoint of the other post-colonial federal state on the continent, the history looks rather different.

If we think of the real story of the nineteenth century as the disintegration of Mexico and consequent opportunistic predation by the United States, we are now a little closer to the truth. But still, actually, not quite there. Mexico did disintegrate, and the United States did engage in opportunistic predation. But the story isn’t quite as simple as a nefarious U.S. government deciding to aggrandize its country at the expense of Mexico. The causal chain begins with internal Mexican strife, which led to the Anglo-Texans’ decision to secede. The initial Texan victory was surprising. It’s altogether possible that a slightly luckier Mexican general, or a rather less competent Texan general, would have resulted in a rout of the Texan army and the removal of the American settlers from Coahuila.

The Texas government was brittle, bankrupt, and disordered. But it wasn’t the only potential breakaway republic. The Republic of the Rio Grande and the Yucatan were equally interested in secession and independence. Yet the Republic of the Rio Grande was defeated and the Yucatan eventually reconciled to Mexican rule. Why did Mexico fail to retake Texas? We might think the answer is military. Its militia proved capable of competent defensive operations. But its real defenses against Mexico were diplomatic (the shadow of U.S. intervention and the increasing interest of London and Paris in preserving a bulwark against U.S. expansion) and, even more, the failure of the Mexican federation to create a durable state capable of sustaining popular operations.

Interesting throughout.

6. Joe Hardenbrook on the rationale behind book deselection in academic libraries.

7. Translating Manuel José Arce.

8. Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney.

Image Credits: (1) Trees, somewhere near Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Jason Brackin, March 2005. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Source: Flickr. (2) Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845. Map by Giggette. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Wikimedia Commons.



  1. I think Dana is onto something there. Glad for the Cap endorsement; hoping to make it this weekend (my 9yo doesn’t sit through 2-hr films). You should def watch the 1st one, very well done. Tho I guess you won’t get too attached to Bucky now.

    • I guess not. Hazards of not watching films in order, I suppose. 🙂

    • Well, it’s not like reading Hamlet backward, thats fo sho. Cap 1 is better than the Thor movies or IM3 or Hulk, I would say; it’s probably as good as IM1 and IM2, except IM2 has Scarlett & she breaks the tiebreaker ….

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