Uber reviews for Charon, boatman of Hades

The taxi service Uber is taking Boston by force. With its mixed reviews in the media, riders wonder about their drivers as well as what services are offered outside Beantown. Lucky for us at the Core office, Professor Hamill left a copy of the New Yorker open to an article providing Uber  reviews for Charon, boatman of Hades, who offers rides to anyone seeking cheap cab fare across the River Styx.

His services were met with mixed reviews: one rider complained about Charon’s refusal to play Beyoncé, and another rider was frustrated about his being wrapped in shadows and stabbed with a thousand blunt daggers upon attempting to delete the Uber app from his phone. Another rider appreciated Charon’s acceptance of different forms of payment, including ancient drachmas, babies’ blood, and Chase QuickPay.

What do you think, Core-ites? Has Charon become more or less accommodating since Virgil described him all those years ago?

What Core prof was on the radio to talk Xmas carols?


Over at SoundCloud, the good folks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have posted an audio interview with one of their hosts asking a certain familiar Core personality all about a certain familiar holiday song… can you guess who it was? Can you guess what song? Give up? It’s Professor Hamill! It’s “Jingle Bells”! Minds are blown!

Earlier this month, Prof. Hamill — who in addition to teaching humanities at BU is a key member of the Medford Historical Society — was a call-in guest, talking to the CBC’s Chris walker about the strange history of the song “Jingle Bells” — a song never intended, by its creators, to be associated with the Christmas holiday; a song with roots in a pub in New England and a church in Savannah; a song that, believe it or not, has even been to outer space. (Professor Marscher, do you know anything about this?)

Happy listening, Core-kateers.

Holiday Magic and Cracked Nuts

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This past weekend, Professor David Eckel continued his favorite tradition of bringing a group of Core students to see the Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House. Read More »

Notes from the December 2014 EnCore Book Club: The Home of THE Many-Gables

7gables salem web

It’s that time of month. Tonight, EnCore-sters met to discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The House of THE Seven Gables. One of the club attendees, the lovely Kim Santo, took great issue with one nefarious, print-on-demand copy of the novel present at the meeting that clearly lacked the necessary article on the volume title (I’ll let you guess who brought that copy to the meeting). To make up for that frightening book’s omission, all references to the “THE” will now be capitalized.

Pooling our copies

Pooling our copies

The novel follows a few generations of two New England families, the Pyncheons and the Maules, detailing their blood-soaked history and insinuating the presence of a curse laid on the Pyncheons and their stagnant, stately home. Is Hawthorne’s novel unduly ignored in current book currents, shunted to the shadows of its more popular cousin The Scarlet Letter? Or is it a rightfully ignored, repetitious, impish rapier-thrust at colonial America’s values and the centuries of social battle engendered from our forefathers? Can we trust this mischievous narrator? And is Kim slightly crazy for wishing she could purchase and live in the House of THE Seven Gables?


All of these questions were explored, as we nommed Bertucci’s pizza (much love of sporkie was expressed at the outset of dinner) and drank copious amounts of red wine. We also dissected the very important topic of Hawthorne’s perceived hotness or, to use the technical term, “foxy-ness.”

From the start of the novel, we are treated to repetitious and heavy-handed descriptions of character features, and there was disagreement as to the necessity of this bloated prose. Do we NEED to hear 500 different times how a character’s scowl does not reflect her true nature, or how a man’s smile can be so sunny and “sultry” it dries the dirt in the road? While different readers had different reactions to the narrator’s florid and overgrown language, it led to the important topic of Hawthorne’s attitude towards puritanism, the aristocracy, and plebeianism. No one is (figuratively) left standing by the end of the novel.

When you stare into the void of Hawthorne's foxy eyes...does the void stare back?

When you stare into the void of Hawthorne’s foxy eyes…does the void stare back?

One reader ventured that Hawthorne equally mocked all social classes, being the literary maverick that he was. Another pointed out that the playful mockery in the text was not just directed at political and social targets. Hawthorne goofs around with elements of the Gothic literary genre; as attendees of October’s book club might recognize, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, molding away in their lugubrious mansion, resemble nothing so much as a parodic version of the sibling tenants of Poe’s “House of Usher.”

Soon, we moved into the topic of morality. Clifford’s languid obsession with the Beautiful provided a fascinating clash with the dynamism and sometimes greedy actions of other characters. Where does virtue lie? The novel does not allow for simplistic moralizing, and that may be what keeps the story interesting (that and the mystery behind the family curse, and the burning question of whether ghosts are lurking in dark corners).

When we tired of intellectual discussion, we proceeded to mock the summary of the novel printed on the back of the nefarious POD edition. Here’s where some of the silliness led us:

“…the tenants of the many-gabled house…what? Many-gabled? Are you serious?”




And the clear winner:


If you want in on this fun, please do join us for January’s book club, taking place on Wednesday the 7th. We will be reading A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. A nice, swift read. Festive treats and boozes will be involved. And you don’t even need to read the book.

Rare sighting of Stephanie Nelson!

Rare sighting of Stephanie Nelson!

Teaching Essay-Writing in Pyongyang

To match Special Report KOREA-NORTH/FOOD

Do you ever feel like essay-writing can be tough? Me, too. Now just imagine being asked to write an essay when you have never heard of the concept of making an argument, and you don’t know what the internet is. Suki Kim taught English for six months at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea, and wrote a revealing memoir about her experiences with attempting to familiarize her students with the concept of an essay:

Essay was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.

Kim continually faced challenges teaching her students–not about the finer points of grammar, but about the basic framework of engaging with an audience, making an argument, and backing it up with evidence. She found that these were all concepts that, even in their late teens-early 20s, her students had never been exposed to before. At one point she described assigning her students a short paragraph about a kimchi-making tradition and receiving nationalist polemics in which nearly half the students proclaimed that “kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it.”

Interested? Read more here.

Pericles and the Perils of Perception


Pericles’ famous funeral oration honoring fallen soldiers in The Pelopponesian War is an ode to Athens. He proclaims the glories of the state in great depth and detail, and calls on the families of the dead to remain steadfast in their patriotism. One of the Athenian virtues he praises is that of the informed democratic citizen:

The very men who take care of public affairs look after their own at the same time; and even those who are devoted to their own businesses know enough about the city’s affairs…for we believe that what spoils action is not speeches, but going into action without first being instructed through speeches.

Being properly instructed before taking action is widely agreed to be wiser than charging into situations blindly. However, in Pericles’ time as well as today, it is at least equally as important to ask who is doing the instructing, and what informed citizenship really means. The US ranked second to last out of 14 countries who took part in the Ipsos Perils of Perception Quiz, a survey gauging the public’s awareness about basic domestic socio-political issues. This widespread ignorance about the basic state of affairs in our country is terrifying in its implications, especially in light of recent tragedies like the deaths of Michael BrownTamir RiceTrayvon MartinOscar Grant, and countless other unarmed young black men.

A 1990 study reported that while African Americans made up only 12% of the population, 41% of one week’s worth of news programs featuring African Americans were about crime, and that “while African Americans were over-represented as perpetrators of crime in comparison to arrest records, whites were under-represented as perpetrators but were over-represented as victims.” When these realities of media bias and social bias continue on to their logical conclusions, we see heightened stereotyping of young black men and African Americans in general, heightened juror bias against African American defendants, and a deeply racially biased criminal justice system with terrifying and unacceptable outcomes for a significant portion of America’s people.

Pericles called on the people of Athens to be informed about public affairs under the assumption that citizens are political actors with the power to enact change. We have not only the power but the responsibility to accurately inform ourselves, challenge misconceptions, and challenge social and political systems predicated on those misconceptions.

Want to find out where you stand? Take the quiz here.

War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita


Wendy Doniger’s War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita is possibly best described as a biography of the Bhagavad Gita. She explores the book’s history and the somewhat contradictory way an epic call to battle has come to be something of a pacifist icon.

The Gita incorporates into its seven hundred verses many different sorts of insights, which people use to argue many different, often contradictory, ideas. We might divide them into two broad groups: what I would call the warrior’s Gita, about engaging in the world, and the philosopher’s Gita, about disengaging. The Gita’s theology—the god’s transfiguration of the warrior’s life—binds the two points of view in an uneasy tension that has persisted through the centuries.

Doniger traces the book’s  place within the wider landscape of Hindu literature, and chronicles how major political and philosophical thinkers from Gandhi to Modi to Walt Whitman have grappled with and reinterpreted the text over the ages. Interested? Read more here.


Notes from the November 2014 EnCore Book Club: Angela Carter


Hard-Core alums gathered on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th) to discuss Angela Carter’s award-winning novel, Nights at the Circus. Over delicious El Pelon Mexican fare and several bottles of wine and beer, we bantered about Cockney accents, multiple voice narratives, and fin-de-siecle Europe’s fascination with the freaky, the sleazy, and the revolutionary.

Is Fevvers (supposed to sound like “Feathers”), the Winged Victory, the virginal Flying Lady, the toast of Europe, a big fraud (both in terms of her girth and the magnitude of her deception)? Hard to say, since we can’t be sure we can trust any of the witnesses to her Grand Tour through London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia.

After Morrison, Poe, and Carter, we will be taking one last plunge into Gothic lit with our December 3rd choice: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.

Join us at 6pm on the first Wednesday of the month for free food, boozes, and talkiness. No need to read the book, just come with some conversation to contribute.

7gables salem web

“The Meaning of Human Existence”


Biologist Edward O. Wilson has spent his life studying evolutionary biology, writing books, and winning Pulitzer prizes, among other things. He is still going strong at 85 years old, and recently published “The Meaning of Human Existence,” a book intended to explain and convince the general public of the scientific theory of evolution. Drawing on analyses of evolutionary processes,    Wilson constructs a unique social commentary centering around what he calls the

“Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society.” Among other ways in which our genetic adaptations ill suit us for contemporary conditions, he notes our penchant for racism, our refusal to curb population growth, our failure to cooperate with one another on a scale commensurate with the challenges we face and our devastation of the natural environment.

In between comparing human altruism to ant behavior and speculating on the value of religion in society, Wilson “appeals to reason and imagination in hopes of enlightening us about our nature and inspiring us to change our destructive ways.”

Interested?Read more here!

“The Intelligent Plant”


Vegetarianism and veganism have been on the rise in recent years, and adherents often cite consideration of animal rights as a motivation. But what if they heard that plants can also feel pain? It is already well-known that plants respond to external stimuli such as sunlight, air quality, and other basic factors, but a mysterious CIA study said to have been conducted in the late 1960s reportedly found that plants also “listened” and responded to the actions and even thoughts of those around them, including displaying signs of stress and pain on witnessing violence against themselves or other life forms. Although this research has since been discredited by several expert plant scientists, it sparked the imagination of the nation and provoked a lively public debate on the issue. A controversial 2006 article published in a plant science journal attempted to explain what scientists know about so-called “plant neurobiology:”

Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coordinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.

The scientific community in general acknowledges that plants have advanced sensory systems, and there have been several intriguing experiments which provide a window into plants’  chemical “communication” systems and even evidence that plants can “learn” behaviors within their lifetime. However many see the anthropomorphizing of plants as being an embarrassment to the field of plant study as a whole, and “the use of the word “neurobiology” in the absence of actual neurons was apparently more than many scientists could bear.” However an incorrigible fascination with “plant intelligence” stretching all the way back to Charles Darwin to continues to fuel interesting research on the subject.

Find out more here, and give us your feedback below!