“Snoop” in Smithsonian Magazine

Do your books, knick-knacks, music and wall décor reveal the essential makeup of your character? University of Texas at Austin psychologist Sam Gosling, who has studied the psychology of personal space for more than 10 years, says they do.

In his new book “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” (Basic Books, 2008), Gosling reveals some of the key findings from his research, a special brand of voyeurism he calls “snoopology.”

Smithsonian Magazine recently wrote about Gosling’s work in the Oct. 21 story “How to Be a Snoop.” Check it out and tell us what you think. Are you a snoop?

"Snoop" in Smithsonian Magazine

Do your books, knick-knacks, music and wall décor reveal the essential makeup of your character? University of Texas at Austin psychologist Sam Gosling, who has studied the psychology of personal space for more than 10 years, says they do.

In his new book “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” (Basic Books, 2008), Gosling reveals some of the key findings from his research, a special brand of voyeurism he calls “snoopology.”

Smithsonian Magazine recently wrote about Gosling’s work in the Oct. 21 story “How to Be a Snoop.” Check it out and tell us what you think. Are you a snoop?

Critique This Book: Longhorn Reviews

Although staff at UT Libraries don’t expect to see the death of the book in its traditional printed form anytime soon, they aren’t taking any chances. Staff members are constantly seeking new ways to integrate technology with long-standing library practices.

One new feature recently launched by the libraries is Longhorn Reviews, a Web 2.0 tool for the Library Catalog that allows users to submit reviews of titles housed at the university.

Matt Lisle, libraries information analyst and Longhorn Reviews project member, says user-generated reviews, a popular feature on commercial sites such as Amazon.com, have a natural home in the catalog.

“Our users appreciate their UT colleagues’ opinions on items that they’re browsing in the catalog,” Lisle says, citing a recent survey by Opinion Research Corporation that found 61 percent of respondents referenced reviews, blogs and other feedback before making purchase decisions.

Visitors to the online catalog can find reviews of items at the bottom of individual catalog records. If no review exists for the item, visitors are invited to submit one.

Longhorn Reviews complements other Web 2.0 features of the UT Libraries Web site, such as the embedded Google Book Search widget, LibraryThing tags and recommendations, and book cover images, all of which have been recently implemented to make the site more dynamic and interactive.

Law Professor Investigates the Preemption War

Three years ago, The New York Times tapped the expertise of regulatory law expert Thomas McGarity, professor in the School of Law at UT, for a story about the Bush Administration’s quiet strategy to limit lawsuits against product manufacturers by asserting the power of federal regulatory agencies.

The story eventually led McGarity to write “The Preemption War: When Federal Bureaucracies Trump Local Juries” (Yale University Press, 2008) about the decade-long preemption war in the courts, federal agencies and Congress—an issue he’d worked on as a member scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform.

While many people are unaware of the preemption war, the outcomes of these court battles will affect everyone, and consumers stand to be the biggest losers, McGarity says.

McGarity recently sat down to talk about his latest book, which hits bookstores on Dec. 2, as well as a high-profile preemption case currently pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a nutshell, what is the main claim that you make in the book and why?

The overall thrust of the book is that in our federal system, Congress and the courts should be very cautious about preempting common law claims. State and federal laws and regulations typically provide “protective justice.” They are meant to deter specific conduct.

The common law, on the other hand, provides “corrective justice,” a term that refers to the common law’s goal of forcing wrongdoers to compensate their victims. Since federal law rarely provides corrective justice, federal preemption of common law claims means that deserving victims will not be compensated. In my view, this is usually an unjust outcome.

You discuss many court cases in your book. Which one is going to have the most impact on consumers, depending on how the cases are decided?

The recent case with the greatest potential impact is Wyeth v. Levine, a case that the Supreme Court heard in early November. In that case, the question is whether approval of a drug label by the federal Food and Drug Administration impliedly preempts failure to warn claims at state common law. A broad holding by the Supreme Court will effectively throw out the vast majority of claims by patients injured by drugs because the drug company neglected to warn them and their doctors about adverse side effects.

The Supreme Court has on many cases stated that there is a presumption against preemption, but that presumption is often ignored in practice. One of my suggestions is that we take that presumption seriously. I hope the Supreme Court takes my advice.

In your book, you provide numerous examples and stories of particular battles in the preemption war. Could you describe one for us?

One of the most troublesome examples in the book is the case of Buddy Kuhl, a Kansas City resident whose primary care physician recommended that he see a heart specialist after he suffered a serious heart attack. Two different specialists recommended that Kuhl undergo heart surgery at a St. Louis hospital, but his medical benefit plan’s “utilization reviewer” refused to approve his pre-certification request.

Because he could not afford to pay for the operation out of his own pocket, the surgery was canceled. After a third specialist agreed that surgery in St. Louis was necessary, the plan finally did pre-certify the operation. But Kuhl’s heart had deteriorated by then to the point at which surgery was no longer a feasible option. When the specialist recommended a heart transplant instead, the plan refused to pre-certify that surgery as well.

Kuhl died three months later. His family sued the medical benefit plan for botching the job so badly, but a federal court held that the claim was preempted. (See Kuhl v. Lincoln National Health Plan of Kansas City Inc., 999 F.2d 298 (8th Cir. 1993)).

What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

First, I hope the general reader will take away an understanding of how federal preemption works and the unique status of state common law in the context of preemption. Second, I would like the reader to appreciate how very important these issues are to all of us who purchase products and services in a vigorous national economy.

None of us knows when he or she might be injured by some defective product or negligent practice, and all of us expect justice when that happens. We need to be aware of how federal agency preemption of state common law undermines this expectation.

“Dream City” Novelist at BookPeople

Michener Center graduate Brendan Short (MFA ’05) will be at BookPeople this Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. to read from his debut novel, “Dream City” (MacAdam/Cage, 2008).

Set in Depression-era Chicago, “Dream City” tells the story of a young boy’s obsession with comic book heroes, and his life-long attempt to recapture the innocence of his childhood.

Library Journal called the novel “an impressively mature first effort..complex and compelling…Highly recommended” in its Aug. 15 review. Check out more reviews of “Dream City” at Short’s Web site.

"Dream City" Novelist at BookPeople

Michener Center graduate Brendan Short (MFA ’05) will be at BookPeople this Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. to read from his debut novel, “Dream City” (MacAdam/Cage, 2008).

Set in Depression-era Chicago, “Dream City” tells the story of a young boy’s obsession with comic book heroes, and his life-long attempt to recapture the innocence of his childhood.

Library Journal called the novel “an impressively mature first effort..complex and compelling…Highly recommended” in its Aug. 15 review. Check out more reviews of “Dream City” at Short’s Web site.

When Writing Met Art

Bibliophiles may spend a lot of time thinking about writing, but that generally means the writing we see as we flip the pages of a book, not going back to the clay tablets and artifacts found in the ancient Near East.

To understand those beginning forms of written communication, there is no better source than Denise Schmandt-Besserat, professor emerita in the Departments of Art and Art History and Middle Eastern Studies.

Schmandt-Besserat is credited with discovering the origins of writing. Her most recent book, “When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story” (University of Texas Press, 2007) looks at what happened when writing and art began to interact and shape each other.

The book won the $10,000 grand prize at the university’s prestigious Hamilton Book Awards this year.

“Art was age-old when writing began,” writes Schmandt-Besserat. Writing didn’t arrive until more than three millennia after art, and when it did, it was an accounting device used to keep track of goods such as measures of grains. When art and writing start to interface, both forms evolved.

Full of photos and illustrations, “When Writing Met Art” traces how writing was transformed from accounting device to a means of visual communication, opening up the possibility of sharing law, narrative, and history.

It was awhile before we’d be turning the pages of “War and Peace,” but we were on our way.

Hamilton Book Award runners-up for 2008 include:
Carlton Erickson for “The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment;”
James Loehlin for “Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard;”
John Markert for “Physics for Engineers and Scientists, 3rd edition;”
Kurt Weyland for “Bounded Rationality and Policy Diffusion: Social Sector Reform in Latin America.”

Books Offer New Perspectives on American Indian Identity

November is a time of year when popular culture often revisits stereotypes about American Indians via mythologized depictions of the first thanksgiving in the New World. However, the historical facts don’t always match the picture painted in elementary school celebrations.

Scholars at The University of Texas at Austin whose research overturns these stereotypes include Steven Hoelscher, chair of the Department of American Studies, and Erika Bsumek, assistant professor of history.

Both of these faculty members have new books out this fall that examine issues of Native American identity and culture.

Hoelscher’s “Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) traces the many-layered relationship between white photographer H.H. Bennett and the Ho-Chunk Nation. Learn more about the Ho-Chunk people.

While Bsumek’s “Indian-Made: Navajo Culture in the Marketplace, 1868-1940” (University Press of Kansas, 2008) explores the complex links between Indian identity, the emergence of tourism in the Southwest, and the meanings behind the brand “Indian-made.”

Hoelscher and Bsumerk will discuss their work and sign copies of their books at Follett’s Intellectual Property this Thursday, Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m.

Still want to learn more current American Indian cultural issues? Delve into other recent faculty books on this topic, such as:

• “Muting White Noise: Native American and European Novel Traditions” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006) by James Cox, assistant professor of English;
• “New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations” (University of Nebraska Press, 2006) by Pauline Turner Strong, associate professor of anthropology; and
• “Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives” (Westview Press, 2000) also by Turner Strong.

For more background on Thanksgiving myths, check out “The Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving” published by the History News Network at George Mason University.

Alum’s Science Fiction Book Tackles Dangers of Global Warming

Imagine a world where ungodly temperatures create a hell on Earth for mankind. This heat leads to a frightening evolution of living things.

Animals grow at astronomical rates; monstrous creatures roam the Earth. The power of photosynthesis rises to new heights. Giant plant-life towers to the skies and challenges the agricultural industry. The city of Dallas becomes so polluted that humans must live underground where they can escape the mighty beasts.

This is the scenario in University of Texas at Austin alumna Perla Sarabia Johnson’s (BJ ’83) first book, the science fiction thriller “Global WarNing” (PublishAmerica, 2008). Against this dire backdrop, protagonist Dustin Jones works valiantly to protect mankind from Mother Nature’s revenge when he finds comfort in Heidi Hendricks, an attractive woman with a mysterious past.

Sarabia Johnson will be in Round Rock this Saturday, Nov. 22, for a book signing from noon to 2 p.m. at the Hastings Books & Music Video (2200 South I-35, behind Walgreen’s).

While conducting research for the book, she interviewed several experts in their field including Fabien JG Laurier, program officer for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program; Dan Ton, grid integration team leader of the Solar Energy Technologies Program; Samuel Ariaratnam, professor of construction management at Arizona State University; Stephen King, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University; and Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution.

Erica Yeager, publisher of Richardson Living Magazine, says “Perla Sarabia Johnson tackles an important issue in a creative and imaginative way.”

Interview with a Vampire Expert

Fans of the “Twilight” vampire/romance series by Stephanie Meyer don’t have long to wait for their next Edward fix. The film based on The New York Times bestselling books opens this Friday, Nov. 21.

Since the release of the concluding book in the saga, “Breaking Dawn,” vampire expert Thomas Garza, chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the university, has been helping the media make sense of the series’ appeal.

We asked Dr. Garza a few questions to help readers decode the popularity of the vampire. Keep reading to learn why the legend of the vampire has never died.

What’s the story behind the popularity of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series?

My impression from the first volume is that these are quite well written novels of slight complexity, but quite good characterizations, especially for younger readers. They are, by Meyer’s own admission, based on larger literary tropes from the great Western canon, such as Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”), Emily Bronte (“Wuthering Heights”) and Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”), so they capitalize on known successful literary “recipes.” They are certainly harmless and are quite reasonable reads, especially for the pre-teen set.

How do modern incarnations of vampires (such as Meyer’s) differ from historical depictions?

Historically, the basic rule is: A vampire is a creature that takes its sustenance from another living creature, and in doing so, weakens or kills it. Everything else is literary and historic license. True, most of the trappings of vampire stories have their roots in historic fact: garlic, wolfbane and other herbs were used to cover the smell of a decomposing corpse (thus the undead would not like these…). In many cultures, heretics were considered to be vampires after death, hence the repulsion to crosses; a “soul-less” creature like the undead would neither cast a shadow, nor be reflected in a mirror.

Fangs come about only after the vampire bat is discovered in the New World. More traditionally, a vampire bite would simply be animalistic, getting through the flesh to the blood, so retractable fangs seem to me to be a bit of a Hollywood stretch (i.e., it looks good on film!). My only qualm with the recent spate of new novels and films is that the vampire backstories are very uncharacteristically “western,” rather than having a more invested “global” history, involving Asia, Africa, and then Europe. In this regard, Anne Rice does a very good job.

Why are Americans in particular so fascinated by the concept of the vampire at this point in our history?

At the base of the romance with the vampire is an essential question of life and death: What happens to us after we die? And, crucially, is there any way to cheat death? We love to think of extending our youthful love of life for all eternity, and that’s precisely what the modern vampire is all about. Indeed, since Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula,” not only is the vampire immortal, s/he’s suave, sophisticated, attractive and — very importantly — foreign! Bela Lugosi starts the trend picked up by Christopher Lee, Raul Julia, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to make the vampire both romantic and attractive. After all, what better way to take a victim over to the dark side than through seduction!

What does the legend of the vampire reveal about Slavic history and culture?

There are many Slavic historical documents that focus on the origins of the vampire story, beginning as early as 1047. From literature, though, classic Russian vampire stories from the 19th-century, like Gogol’s “Viy,” Turgenev’s “Phantoms,” AK Tolstoy’s “The Family of the Vurdalak,” and 20th-century works such as Pelevin’s “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” and Lukyanenko’s “Night Watch” trilogy show the longevity of the subject in the literature. There are also many non-Slavic “revisitings” of the original stories, like Stoker’s “Dracula” (based on the Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula of Romania), and Rice’s “Vampire Armand” (based on a Kievan vampire story).

Why are you as a scholar so fascinated by the legend of the vampire?

After visiting the Transylvanian ruins of Castle Dracula in 1989 as a Foreign Service Language Supervisor, I was genuinely affected by the place and the story of Vlad Tepes. My childhood fascination with Dracula now had a historical base and I decided then to read as much as I could find on the subject. Since then, I created the “Vampire in Slavic Cultures” course to try to get students interested in our region and to see the intricate connections between religion, history, culture, literature and film in telling this amazing story in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Professor Garza is chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREEES). He has served as an expert consultant for the History Channel’s docudrama “Vampire Secrets,” HBO’s vampire documentary “True Bloodlines,” and the feature film “30 Days of Night.” Learn more in the story “Vampires Never Die.