TV: Parks and Recreation (season three)
American Civil War (audiocourse) by Gary W. Gallagher
This is the Teaching Company's massive 48-lecture series about the Civil War.
This is almost like the canonical Teaching Company course.
It's a very traditional subject, no doubt appealing to the "middle-aged suburban dads" part of their customer base. It was made in the year 2000, so there's nothing fancy to its production: it's an older white dude in a small room of Civil War mementos. He's got a lectern. He delivers lectures. Occasionally they bring up slides of historical figures or battles, and sometimes they superimpose simple bullet lists over the footage. And that's it.
But within that staunchly-traditional framework, the course works well. Dr. Gallagher is a good presenter with enthusiasm for his subject, and he organizes his material carefully. It's nothing novel or different: each lecture has an overall topic; he starts off noting what subtopics he'll cover; he covers those topics; he delivers some brief concluding remarks and segues to the next lecture.
Granted, some of the course material really isn't for me. Maybe a dozen of the forty-eight lectures focus on military tactics — the chess moves of the various generals maneuvering their way around Manassas, or Antietam, or Gettysburg. And it was always hard for me to pay close attention to those, partly because the march of technology has mooted a lot of the strategies employed there, but also because so many of the people making these tactical decisions were just tedious idiots. So many generals were political appointees, or drunkards, or Confederates-who-weren't-Lee, and as such their decisions are mostly sobering object lessons in what not to do.
Even with chess matches you occasionally get to see a move that merits a "!" in the notation. Civil War battles are riddled with "?" and "??"s.
That said, Dr. Gallagher spends most of his time off the battlefield, covering the sources of the war, the home front, the politics, and so on. He does great work here — specifically, he's willing to present complex, ambiguous ideas. Often he'll give the different "takes" on a historical question ("why did the average soldier volunteer to go off to war?") and then explain his own point of view, which usually synthesizes the viewpoints presented so far ("lots of different people had lots of different reasons").
And there was a lot of eye-opening material to present. I was shocked, and not in a good way, by how disgustingly racist every white person — Southerners, Northerners, abolitionists, *every* white person — was in America at the time. Along the same lines, while I knew the South was fighting for slavery, I hadn't known that, at several points, they were literally presented with the choice of, not even abolishing slavery, but changing slavery slightly to increase their odds of survival. But even when it was a choice between "give up a teensy bit of slavery so that the Confederacy can survive", they went with "hell no".
And just the idiotic gallantry of warfare was unsettling. Spectators went out on picnics to watch the early battles of the Civil War. Generals rode horses into fortified artillery. Public opinion hankered for stories of gloriously-fought battles, to the point that Grant's realization that "if we just grind down both sides relentlessly, the traitors will run out of men first" feels like a one-eyed man appearing in the land of the blind.
I grew up in Kentucky — think of it as 'the abattoir of the Civil War' — and this made a lot of the material unsettling from yet another angle. It's weird to hear Bowling Green, the little college town where I did a summer program in astronomy, referenced *anywhere*, let alone in blood-drenched war stories. Also weird: seeing the area's train companies, whose boxcars rattled through Pewee Valley daily, serve as pivotal points of contention in the war. And one nauseating thing: okay, I knew there was a lot of stuff named after Confederates in Kentucky, but good christ it was more than I thought.
And Kentucky sided with the Union!
On a related note, I am very glad Professor Gallagher spends a fair amount of time dispensing with the Lost Cause nonsense that has poisoned the American public's assessment of the war. He goes over how many participants went on to lie about their actions and opinions during the war, and lie extensively, and put in print exactly *why* they were lying. And throughout the course he picks off the Lost Cause canards as he goes, usually establishing that, yes, the truth is more nuanced than what you learned in high school, but good Christ the south's apologists are liars.
I also appreciated that the course felt, if not forward-thinking, then certainly more forward-thinking than you'd expect a stodgy old Civil War course to be. He takes time and care, for example, to point out that "Lincoln freed the slaves" is a gross oversimplification, and that enslaved Americans did a lot to free *themselves*. While he clearly loves to talk about combat maneuvers, his course emphasizes that most Americans were not riding horses and directing troops, and he makes sure to cover how *the country* experienced the war.
I'm certain he could have gone further in this direction; I'm glad he went as far as he did.
All in all, this isn't my favorite course, but it's very solidly-presented, and I came out of this with a better understanding of the war. And it was more relevant than I expected — though I shouldn't be surprised that a war over racism and slavery reverberates today.
An Introduction to Infectious Diseases by Barry C. Fox
This is the 2015 Teaching Company course about infectious disease. It's currently available for free viewing on their website.
This is another perfectly-okay Teaching Company course. Like it says on the tin, it's a good overview of the field of infectious disease. It covers the basic categories of human pathogens¹, the main ways the body fights them off, and the different types of antibiotics in use today.
And that's pretty much it. It's not quite "reading wikipedia entries aloud", but it's in the vicinity. There aren't overall thematic through-lines to the course; it won't blow your mind by dismantling any long-accepted preconceptions. It's just the basic information, presented in a slideshow lecture.
This is not to say the course is *bad*. The organization of the lectures makes sense. The presenter does fine, although he does tend to overpronounce words and speak far more presentationally than conversationally.² He gets the information across clearly, and peppers it with a surprising number of colorful anecdotes about his own family coming down with various illnesses.
As far as I could tell, everything seemed accurate. It covered a lot of basic biology I already knew, but spent most of its time in territory where I kinda hazily remembered things. Yeah, IgG is a thing, but... what does it do? And it did a great job building on pieces of knowledge I already had. For instance, I knew that AIDS patients had to take 'cocktails' of multiple antiviral drugs, but I didn't realize they were specifically antiretrovirals, and I had no idea how those medications actually work.
The course also seemed more-or-less up-to-date. It's five years old — the prof mentions coronaviruses while theorizing about what emerging diseases might be coming for us, but it's all peacefully pre-pandemic.
So: it's informative, it's pleasant enough, but it's not entertaining in and of itself. If you want a good overview of infectious disease, it's a good place to start. And, hey, it's free!
Parks and Recreation (season three)
This is the 2012 season of the Greg Daniels/Mike Schur mockumentary show about the parks department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana.
This is a trippy show to watch in 2020.
To be clear, it's definitely a great show, and one that deserves all the accolades it's gotten. You're seeing a workplace comedy at the top of its game. Parks has *tertiary* characters with more personality than the *leads* of most sitcoms. It does world-building better than most *sci-fi* shows. They rely on years of experience with The Office and their own show to make the mockumentary format sing, with jokes that are hilarious, and concise, and relentless. By this point, someone can enter the office, deliver one line, and suddenly everywhere you look onscreen is a character reacting to that line hilariously.
And it's *about* something. It has a warmhearted point of view that Americans, no matter how varied their opinions and backgrounds, can come together in government to do good things.
And that, my friends, is *not* a heartwarming thing to see in 2020. I agree that by all rights it *should* be heartwarming. Instead, it's sort of like watching a couple enjoy a summer day on an idyllic lake, out on a sailboat, while you yourself are sinking on the Titanic. It's not that what the show espouses is wrong, it's that it's from eight years ago — and as such, it's so, so far removed from our current experience that you wind up thinking about that *difference* instead of about the story. You feel happy that this fiction exists, but even sadder about the straits we're in.
Even watching people cheerfully gather in crowds, or treat 'flu season' like it's no big deal, is a little weird. Again, it's a little escape from this incompetent and diseased timeline, but also a reminder of how far from that we've gone. It's so strange to visit a world where your biggest problem is "my boss might find out I'm dating my coworker".
So: good, but weird-feeling.
For next week: no backlog! What a relief. I'm watching the first season of Sherman's Showcase on hulu. I'm reading a book about race and a quite challenging Spanish-language sci-fi book. Still sorting out what to listen to next on The Great Courses.
¹ ... though only brief mentions of prion diseases, which seemed odd.
² I won't harp on this too much, though. I suspect the man is fighting a stammer and doing his best.