Thoreau’s commute

ThoreausCommuteTwo weeks in the Maine woods, and  my morning commute is remarkable: I walk down a short gravel road to a pathway, then amble a mile to work through tall hemlocks and oaks. Mid-way, I mosey slowly across a long wooden bridge — the product of 20 years effort, I’m told.  I have to stop and watch Sandy Stream as it meanders down to the great green Atlantic, reflecting my world like lady with a liquid mirror.

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Welcome – Prof. Kovarik’s web

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These pages are for my students, who need a place to find links to their courses, and for anyone else who might be interested in my historical work or  links to experimental publishing projects.

By way of introduction, I’m posting this photo taken by Linda Burton at the Seattle museum of science fiction.  Gort was the robot from a movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still. Despite the uncanny resemblance, I’m the handsome one on your right. The museum is  extremely cool, and if you don’t see it next time you’re in Seattle, Gort will know where to find you.

Why do historians  like science fiction?  It has something to do with what history is and what it ought to be.

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Media history

Revolutions in Communication is a critically acclaimed survey of media history now available through  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher, Continuum International Press.  The book has topped the Amazon sales list for media history for two years and has now gone into a second printing.

The cover illustration is an 1883 solar powered printing press used to promote new ideas about energy.

The book is a social and technological history that explores four major epochs of the mass media through the technologies that characterized their development —   printing, imaging,  broadcasting and digital media.

The historical narrative in Revolutions in Communication centers around technological change — a common thread that unites global media history. This approach also provides an alternative to nationalistic and professionally oriented narratives that have guided media history in the past.

Revolutions in Communication  points out that communication technologies often change because an  older media does not speak in the voice of a newer generation. Innovators and  inventors then find ways to use new technology to circumvent the old barriers. Historians call this a social construction of technology.

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Happy Teapot Dome day!

On this day in 1924, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall is indicted for taking bribes from the oil industry to lease government owned oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming.   Before Watergate (1972-74), the Teapot Dome oil scandal was considered the most sensational in American politics, although many previous scandals had involved oil and politics.

MOOC content is a faculty concern

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Endangered species: Virginia college faculty.

By Bill Kovarik

The advent of what the Roanoke Times calls “Higher Education for the Masses” through  Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)  might be a hopeful sign for  colleges, as noted in this June 6th, 2003 editorial.

But there is a problem.

According to the Times, paraphrasing Larry Sabato, “universities must come up with a business model that ensures they don’t give away their intellectual [property] …”

(Ahem).   Whose  intellectual property?

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It’s the same old oil industry

By Bill Kovarik
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As a very young news reporter in Washington DC in 1979, I was invited to one of those  think tank “luncheons” where everyone chatted amiably about world oil reserves and the imminent collapse of the Persian Gulf.

Not surprisingly, all the speakers agreed that a shut-down of the Persian Gulf would be catastrophic and must be prevented at all costs. That is, all the speakers except one smiling Venezuelan named Alirio Parra, who was then oil minister.  The bottom line was: Don’t worry. Venezuela has more oil in the eastern Orinoco than all the Middle East. And, he strongly implied, your petroleum geologists should be more honest with you.

I remember the shouts of outrage from the assembled policy wonks, one of whom yelled that there was “a journalist here” in the same tone that a Victorian preacher might caution:  “ladies present.”

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A green Nixon doesn’t wash

Published in Environmental Health News, Jan. 9, 2013.

Richard Nixon would be 100 years old today, and on the anniversary of his birth, it’s tempting to portray the 37th U.S. president as a major environmental advocate.

That would be a mistake, for it would let modern-day politics trump an important history lesson.

Nixon did say and did things about the environment that seem courageous from today’s perspective:  “Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”

Such rhetoric has made Nixon’s environmental legacy a source of ongoing debate among environmentalists, scholars and reporters. Not long ago, Michael Lemonick of the news site Climate Central said Nixon was “a champion of protecting the environment, like no president before him since Teddy Roosevelt and like no president since.”

But Lemonick and others holding that view displace history with politics. One of history’s first lessons is the need to understand people and events in the context of their times…

What’s the press?

Linda Greenhouse who covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times has been following a particular debate over the legal status of the press.

What, today, is “the press” anyway? It’s a question without a simple answer, either in today’s chaotic and rapidly changing media landscape or in Supreme Court doctrine.

The First Amendment prohibits Congress (and, by later interpretive expansion, the states) from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Do the dual references to speech and press amount to one and the same, or does the amendment place “the press” in a special position, with rights not accorded to other speakers? The Supreme Court has never fully resolved this question.

Free speech and international law

Konrad Lorenz and his dog.

Austrian psychology professor Konrad Lorenz used to tell a story about his dog.  On their regular walks, his dog would always run along a neighborhood wall and bark at another dog that was on the inside of the wall.

The two dogs continued this  behavior for years, barking and snarling at each other every day,  until — one day — an accident took out part of the wall.   That day, the two dogs raced along the wall as usual but then came to the broken spot. And  the two dogs faced each other for the first time. After a moment of confusion, they quickly returned to their respective sides of the wall  and started barking across the wall again.

So the lesson, Lorenz said in his 1955 book Man Meets Dog, is that this ability to moderate aggression is a survival skill that animals seem to have.  Could we learn something from their example that applies to our communication problems today?   Continue reading

Appalachia’s Lorax passes into legend

(Published in Earth Island Journal, Sept. 11, 2012)

Radford University journalism students are challenged by Larry Gibson during a 2008 mountaintop mining tour.

Larry Gibson’s parents never worried about finding him, when, as a boy, he wandered out into the forest. All they had to do was spot the hawk that followed him from the air. That’s how close Gibson was to the West Virginia mountains.

He pined for those mountains after his family joined the exodus from Appalachia, moving to where the jobs were, into Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the 1950s. But finally, in the 1990s, he was able to move back to a small cabin on the land owned by his family for generations.

By that time, the nearby town of Kayford was nearly gone. And the hills where he once roamed trembled under gigantic bulldozers and leviathan drag lines that were pushing back the woods, reaching down into the earth, and tearing out the coal.

Mountaintop removal mining tore something out of him, too, but he found a way to fight back. And in the process, Larry Gibson became something unexpected, a unique species of Appalachian Lorax, a small man in bib overalls who could elevate your vision with a few dozen words. Continue reading

Enduring legacy: Women and the Environment

By Bill Kovarik, for Radford Women’s Forum, March 9, 2010

Appreciation for the history of women, minorities, labor and social movements is long overdue, since these stories are just as close to the heart of the democratic experience, or perhaps closer, than many found in traditional American history textbooks.

Especially interesting is the leading role women played in the nation’s early environmental movement. This movement began at least a century and a half ago, peaked in the Progressive era of the 1890s, and then declined during the war years in the early- to mid-20th century. Continue reading

Appalachian issues

The Blue Ridge Mountains where we live are on the border of a region called “Appalachia.”   The area is rich in culture and natural history, but extraordinarily poor in terms of economic development and political leadership.

  • Appalachian Feudalism New York Times, April 14, 2010  — Why are [mine disasters] happening? Three factors stand out: Appalachian people are have been historically oppressed, with ugly stereotypes used to justify their mistreatment. The history of coal mining in Appalachia shows over a century of constant violence against those who have stood up for human rights, for labor unions and for other reforms… And the external costs of coal, in terms of human health or the natural environment, have never been reflected in what consumers pay to keep the lights on.
  • Second battle of Blair Mountain continues, Earth Island Journal, June 2, 2011 — The marchers who will take to the roads of West Virginia next week to try to stop the demolition of yet another mountain for the coal underneath will be following the same route that more than 10,000 well-armed miners took 90 years ago…
  • Stone’s Throw:  Earth Island Journal, Autumn, 2007 –  High in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, on a small island of green above a desert of rock and mud, a man in blue jean overalls wanders through an overgrown cemetery and struggles to contain his emotions. What happened to the graves down here?” the man asks. “There were three graves over here and one over here.” Continue reading