Thursday, October 3, 2013

Truth, Circa 30 A.D.

            Here’s a quick and dirty breakdown on modern Biblical thought. There are two (almost) all-encompassing camps: one that says the Bible is a moral and religious authority, and one that says the Bible isn’t. Those who say the Bible isn’t an authority aren’t saying the Bible can’t overlap whatever they use to cobble together their moral code or religion, but neither of those derive from the Bible. And then those who take the Bible as truth have a wonderfully complex and diverse opinion of what truth means. This essay will attempt to give an overview of this camp, but it should be noted that ‘Bible’ could really be replaced with any religious text out there; it’s just the one I happen to study. Oh, and remember how I said those two camps were only almost all-encompassing? Yeah, that’s because some people are boring and don’t think about religious questions at all so they have no opinion; we don’t like them.
            In the same week my Bible & its Interpreters course started discussion allegorical, synchronic, and diachronic readings of the Bible – big words that mean interpreting Scripture as all metaphor, only as it is understood in modern language, and as it was supposed to have been understood by its initial audience several thousand years ago – the pastor of the church I attend in Austin emphatically told the congregation that we must discern what the Bible means, not just what it means to us. He didn’t go into more detail to explain what that meant, unfortunately. Let’s use the Biblical creation story as an example. Is the beginning of Genesis just an artsy interpretation of the birth of the world, a history that states the earth was created in six 24-hour blocks of time, or a poetic explanation for creation using ‘days’ in a loose sense to just separate important events as it was taken to mean around the time of writing? What is truth?
            The entirety of Scripture isn’t this migraine-inducing, thankfully. Belief that there is a single God who provides salvation to those who come to Him through Jesus is written often enough and in clear enough language for everyone to get the gist of that statement. No allegory or deep interpretation necessary. The nature of Jesus, though, is a huge debate that I don’t even want to touch here, but that He is stated to be the conduit to God isn’t held in such contention as most of the Bible. Whether you believe all that or not is your choice, but it’s the clear message from the text.
            Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher whom I didn’t know about until a week before writing this essay and is now one of my favorite theological writers, constructed a very scientific-method-like exegesis method (again, unnecessary big word, ‘exegesis’ just means interpretation of a text). The Bible is first examined literally, then the parts that don’t make sense and aren’t asserted as fact elsewhere in the Bible are reframed allegorically, and the parts that still don’t make sense should be given up on. This is perfectly acceptable, in his opinion, because all the important stuff is clear. I believe he said interpreting everything else should just be “a hobby,” but don’t quote me on that.
            There are many other methods for exegesis out there. Spinoza just has my favorite method that I’ve encountered so far. I would say that individuals can try to interpret all Scripture, but they should never claim to have all the answers. Plenty of people are vain enough to say that, but I don’t think anyone is smart enough.
            Interpretation of Scripture really depends on the nature of God. If the nature of God is held to be more fluid, then interpretation of Scripture can be fluid as well. The more constant God is, the more those interested in His Word should attempt to discern what he meant in light of its original audience and culture. The fun part is that God’s nature is discerned through interpretation of Scripture, so it’s a circular statement.
            Unfortunately, I can’t give a concrete statement as to what my belief on how one should read the Bible is; I’ve given bits and pieces though. The more I study it, either independently or for class, the less certain I am about my preconceived notions. Spinoza’s method is definitely the path I’m leaning toward, but I still have, like, ten more weeks’ worth of theologians to read, so we’ll see what happens.

-Jason Rossiter

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

We the People?

            [This contains spoilers for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and V for Vendetta.]

            I’ve mentioned my Government class covering US/Russian relations on QBA before (here, here, and here), and I’m going to do so again. Whenever I get the chance, I like to tout the importance and power of the masses. In class, I was given a writing assignment where I was to give my opinion on what caused the downfall of the Soviet Union: Gorbachev, Reagan, Containment, or the failure of Communism. Naturally (for me, at least), I argued that the USSR’s collapse was due to masses being fed up with the slipping living standards and life spans. I held a minority opinion; the class majority believed that Gorbachev all but single-handedly led the collapse of the Soviet Union through his ideas. It is not my intent to state my opinion on that topic here to make myself feel better about holding an unpopular opinion even if I was completely right in every way, but I wish to discuss if the masses have any real clout or if they’re just controlled by a small group of charismatic individuals. I hope you did your homework.
            The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for those of you who did not do your homework and don’t plan to, covers the revolution staged by a penal colony on the moon. The orchestrators of the revolution were not the masses on the moon, they were a small group of individuals led by the anarchistic Professor Bernardo de la Paz who lied to their own people and to their enemies, restricted freedoms, rigged elections, and intentionally misled people in order to appear as if they had majority support. In this instance, did the people’s wishes drive the change? They did not; the people were used as a mechanism to create the change individuals wanted. Although, in the end, even the Professor didn’t get the change he wanted, so perhaps the people can create their preferred change through individuals who wish for something else.
            V for Vendetta is another story where an individual carefully orchestrates an act of rebellion, using people as a weapon and a threat. However, the mastermind, V, was intentionally mysterious so he could be any individual who wanted to fight an oppressive. He could be an idea to strive for and embody. The problem with that is V was anything but an anybody. While he did embody an idea that everyone could put his or her own face on, the skill with which he manipulated Norsefire and the people could not easily be replicated.
            What can we see in these and real-life situations? A lot of ambiguity. People are an unfortunate facet of humanity. (Read the previous sentence again. Appreciate the contradiction.) For almost anything to be done, it requires the acceptance and participation of a large group, but that large group can be manipulated by a small one: Eisenhower and McCarthy in the Red Scare, Gorbachev in the downfall of the Soviet Union, even Bane and Gotham City for those of you who watch more movies than read books. However, those small groups leading large ones are susceptible to problems. More popular and powerful ideas and groups can overpower and destroy, like the opinion of the global community when the Nazi atrocities were revealed. And those charismatic leaders who seek control still need to appeal to human nature and natural law which is why fringe political and religious groups can be extremely fervent and persuasive yet still rub the wrong way.
            In conclusion, the masses have the power, but they can be quite complacent. Humanity is like an object subject to the laws of physics; it will remain at rest until given the tiniest push. On the other hand, the masses still have some discernment on what pushes to accept and which to reject, so it’s not like an object subject to the laws of physics at all. How wonderfully paradoxical.

-Jason Rossiter

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

I Am Spock

            If only.
            For years, I have been fascinated by the suggested advantages of operating in a purely logical, emotionless manner. Pain, or rather the lack thereof, tops the list. Physical pain is something that I have never had much trouble shutting off, manipulating, ignoring, but emotional pain is an entirely different and far trickier beast. At some point, I arrived at the conclusion that the most workable answer to this tenacious variety of pain was to cease to feel emotion – most logical, is it not? – if you cannot feel, you cannot feel pain. The appeal is obvious, and I endeavored through most of middle school to exercise complete control over my every thought and response. I like order, and I found my own mind’s failure to display it infuriating. By imposing unbreakable self-discipline, I could make myself into something machine-like, something perfect. (Middle school me spent a bit too much time reading old science fiction and not enough time interacting with actual people.)
            Needless to say, I failed.
            I am, after all, only human. Spock had his Vulcan side to help him out, and even he struggled continuously. I was, however, left with a question – what defines humanity and can that trait be lost – and a realization – dear God, I need to get out more.
            I think that pain is an integral part of what makes us human. We highly value social ties, and they define us to a great extent. Yet to care about another person is to invite their pain. To trust is to be vulnerable to betrayal, to love is to be vulnerable to rejection. To care is to feel the pain of another even when it is not directly your own. Society is founded on the sharing of pain, and relationships are founded on the belief that lowering your defenses and relinquishing some control is worth being able to get closer to someone. We tend to avoid pain when possible, but so much of our meaningful interaction with others seems to come down to risking and accepting it. And we tend to be happier around others.
            So when we lose the compassion that makes us capable of relating to others, when we lose the emotion that makes others capable of relating to us, do we cease to be human? Is it possible to be satisfied with feeling nothing and having no one? A truly logical, emotionless individual would be unquestionably alien to any of us. They could look completely human, they could perhaps have once been completely human, but their thoughts and actions, though we might be capable of comprehending them, would seem monstrous. Their lack of empathy and understanding would be infuriating and best and quite hurtful at worst. They would simply be too cold. Too inhuman. Were someone ever to truly achieve such a state, it would be only after every trace of their humanity had been burned away. Their logical perfection would be grotesque.
            And what would it be like to be such an individual? Lonely, no doubt. How could you stand to be around other people? Their laughter, their tears would strike you as pointless, false. You would watch them move through their lives as if from a distance, unable to touch them, and isolation rarely does good things to the mind. Logic would grow twisted and contradictory, even that shining tool you had so desperately wanted would turn against you. First you would hate them, then you would hate yourself. And having distanced yourself from everyone, who would there be to stop you from hitting self-destruct some day?
            Poor Spock. It seems so attractive, doesn’t it, the idea of eliminating needless interference, of exchanging senseless emotion for cold reason. A pity it does not work. A pity it will never work. A pity that making it work would destroy you. At least you have middle school me to commiserate with – she’s pretty disappointed too – assuming that either one of you is willing to admit that you feel disappointment.

-Emma Foster

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

lol ttyl Part 2

     Sometimes, I turn into an angry-old-man-persona and get very falsely nostalgic for how good things used to be and how everything is deteriorating now. My essay about how technology is making interpersonal connection harder was very much that type of discussion, and I have to stop and remind myself at times like that that we as humans are rational beings; we wouldn't do something if it didn't have any upsides, or even if convenience were the only upside. If you talk about what you have lost, you must stop and consider what you have gained as well.
     Have you ever written someone a letter? I think the single biggest differentiating factor between older communication mediums and modern mediums of communication is time. Time to write a letter, time to send it to someone or wait until you see them and can hand it to them, time while they write a response, time until they send you their response or wait until they see you and can hand it to you or respond in person. Maybe this amounts to time to wallow in your emotions, time to angst over what is happening on the other end of the line of communication. There's a definite sense of vulnerability that is required and emphasized by older forms of communication, a sense of having no control over what is going on with the other person. This lack of control, this vulnerability, I believe, leads to a heightened level of emotional or mental response one way or the other. I mean, imagine you sent someone a letter confessing your love for them: can you imagine how stressed you would be by the time the other person got your letter and responded to it and you got their response? If you got the answer you wanted, you'd be on the verge of euphoria; if you got the opposite answer, you'd be miserable.
     Younger people can experience this feeling too, in at least one circumstance; by the time colleges review and respond to college applications, possibly months have gone by. I had firsthand experiences with acceptance and rejection from colleges, and those were some of the most intense feelings both me and many of my peers had thus far experienced.
     So what does taking that much time out of the equation do? I think it gets rid of that vulnerability, to a certain extent, but increases reciprocity. It turns communication into a mutual conversation.
     For example, in the love letter example from above, imagine if you had revealed your feelings over Facebook; the ability to tell someone you love them for the first time and hear back that they love you too within minutes doesn't lend itself to erecting barriers between yourself and the other person; it rather turns that admission of love into a mutual discussion and reassurance. If you told someone you loved them and had to wait for days before you could hear back from them, you're likely to do anything to manipulate the situation in your favor; if you wait forever to hear back from colleges, you're likely to hang your self-worth on whether you get in or not. When the response is immediate, the emotion is closer to the reality of the situation, and it gives you a CHANCE at happiness. Immediacy lends itself to honesty. I believe that older forms of communication, while intensifying emotions and thoughts and ideas and stuff and allowing you to maintain control (over yourself, at any rate) and present the you that you want to present, can very definitely erect a barrier between people; while you may be happier with the illusions that are inherent to the older forms of communication, I think they give you too much power to remove yourself from reality, which newer mediums of communication try to get rid of.
     Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green says that "love is just a shout into the void." I think, generally speaking, all attempts to connect with someone else through communication is a shout into the void; I always picture it like we're all trying to climb out of own personal abyss, and maybe, if we try hard enough to make it to the top, and the person next to us tries hard enough to make it to the top, we can both make it there and actually reach each other and talk and connect. I think that, while modern communication has forgone idyllic extremes for lukewarm realities, it brings us closer together by creating a sense of immediacy and urgency that demands honesty with both others and ourselves, and this makes the abyss we have to escape just a little less deep.

Climb out of the abyss and connect.

- Adarsh Nednur

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Guard Your Privates

            In light of recent events that have blown up the front vehemently disagreevehementlypage of one of my favorite sites, Reddit, and that have inspired work from some of my favorite web comic artists like Randall Munroe, Dave McElfatrick, and Zach Weinersmith, I feel the need to explain why innocent people don’t like being creeped on by their government. Also, I need to amend statements made in Big Brother: Down to Size since we now have more information on what governments think they can get away with and why people end up blowing whistles for the world to hear.
            Early in June, news sources (at least the ones I pay attention to) exploded with information stemming from a leak in the National Security Agency which exposed a program, PRISM, which had been in place since 2007. Slides pertaining to this program claim that it accesses important information directly from the servers of companies like Microsoft, Apple, and AOL. The companies in question deny any knowledge of such a program despite leaked information claiming they are involved. The government’s response is that PRISM is used within the United States because this is where most internet traffic passes through, and that it is used for locating national threats and terrorists not protected by the Constitution.
            Here is why people vehemently oppose this: perspective. Governments are inherently paranoid; someone always wants to usurp power. Therefore, even the smallest inkling of a threat must be dealt with. Given today’s interconnection via the web, many people are probably Facebook friends with someone who’s friends with someone who’s of interest to some political entity. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s the price for being able to converse with someone across the globe with similar interests and for being able to arrange the get-together of the year and change the start time four times the morning of and still have everyone make it. Given motive, namely paranoia, and manpower, I believe many nonexistent or accidental connections between individuals could easily become “proof” that one is a national threat because he or she was in a Facebook group for a college dorm with someone who later attempted a terrorist attack or something of the like.
            Extreme example? Yup. Likely? I don’t know. That’s something that wouldn’t be discussed out in the open because it sounds as ridiculous as it sounds.
            The solution, in my uneducated and idealistic opinion, is not more security and fear, but less 1984 impersonations and more ability for problems and solutions to be openly discussed. The main reason for violent protest is the belief that one’s words are not being listened to. Our political system has become, to borrow a saying from South Park, a collection of “giant douches and turd sandwiches” who do what is necessary to take office and stay there. Privacy and rights of the people are secondary to security of one’s position in the government. That is inherent in our two-party system.
            A word of warning when taking my opinion; what do I know? Everyone has legitimate concerns about the safety of his or her culture, and upping security will make catching terrorists and dangers quicker than having less security would. However, upping security will cause more people to become terrorists or dangers. I'd rather take my chances with people who vehemently  disagree with me but feel respectfully listened to than take my chances with a police state.
            Now, on to the painful reflection on the faults of an earlier essay of mine. I said in my essay on 1984 that an Orwellian state would be impossible to sustain because people within the Party (or governing body, for the general case) would find it in their best interest to squeal or throw their superiors under the bus to usurp power. However, it has become apparent that an Orwellian state is possible to sustain for enough time to be a pain as long as nobody notices. I asked on my Facebook page how many people considered themselves knowledgeable of politics in their country, and more than half of the responses in my sample too small to draw any conclusions from said they were not. With enough wordy fluff to keep everyone except lawyers completely unaware of the fact that the government can be climbin’ in yo’ servers and snatchin’ yo’ emails up, and with, “Because terrorists,” as an acceptable response to any attempt to check the government’s power, it is possible to believe one is freer than he or she really is. This brings to mind another of Orwell’s classic books, Animal Farm.
            An optimistic change to be made to my essay, however, is due to the reason for the PRISM. Edward Snowden, the loved or hated whistle blower depending on who pays your bills, leaked information because he believed that what the government was doing was wrong. In an interview he gave while holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden said that he accepted the fact that he may never see his family or his girlfriend again, but it was worth the price to pay to be the kind of leader he was hoping he’d be able to follow. Altruism; I guess there’s hope for us yet.

           Fun Facts: Obama, the NSA, the Department of Justice, and Verizon are being sued for $3 billion in a class-action lawsuit due to PRISM, and 1984 sales on Amazon have increased 126% as of 10 p.m. on June 10th.

-Jason Rossiter

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Believe in the Green Light

     So, it's no secret that The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, and I think it has a LOT to offer in the way of themes. It deals with the idea of understanding other people complexly instead of turning them into symbols or concepts (which I dealt with in some depth here) and how that affects love; it famously deals with the ideas of materialism and self-indulgence and hedonism and what they do to human nature; it has a lot to say about the importance of living an active life and "engaging as deeply in the miracle of human consciousness as possible", as John Green says, rather than living passively. But I think the main theme has to do with what The Great Gatsby has to say about hope. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)
     There is an old discussion (and you can find it in a lot of older QBA essays too, if you look for it) about whether it is better to live at the extremes of emotion or at a medium. In other words, is it better to hope, to want things so strongly that you experience euphoria when you get them and misery when you don't, or is it better to go through life distanced and removed from everything so you always exist at some moderate level of apathetic contentment?
     A lot of people have entered this discussion. Here's the wonderful spoken word poet Sarah Kay saying that she's learned that being happy is worth being sad. On the other side, Shakespeare's most famous "romance", Romeo and Juliet, is actually practically a satire extolling the dangers of living at the extremes of impulsive desire and misery. And in the middle, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, the character Paul D shares his wisdom that one should love everything just a little bit, so that when it leaves there's more love left for the next time.
     Fitzgerald doesn't give a straight answer to the question, of course; he argues for both sides. (As Fitzgerald himself said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.") Gatsby symbolizes hope, pure unadulterated hope, even in the impossible. The first description we get of him, in fact, is that he had "an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again." Fitzgerald unravels the dichotomy of the theme in the very first chapter: on the one hand, "Gatsby turned out all right at the end," but on the other, "it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."
     On first reading, one might consider The Great Gatsby the story of the tragic end of Gatsby himself. He does, of course, wind up dead in a pool after being abandoned by the love of his life to whom he has dedicated his entire being and shot for another man's crime. On the other hand, he spent his whole life hopeful, idealistic, certain of an impending happiness, even if it was a belief in a long-lost past and a never-coming future that carried him through his life with that faith. So, one might consider that Gatsby lost a physical battle but won an emotional one, meaning that the novel might not be a tragedy after all. Seems like the score for hope vs. detachment is all tied up at present.
     Maybe we could look at Nick's character arc to figure out what Fitzgerald thinks; after all, contrary to popular belief, Nick is in fact the novel's protagonist, not the title character. Nick starts off sick of "reserving judgments", which is a matter of "infinite hope", as he says. Throughout the course of the novel, though, he embraces Gatsby's ideology more and more; he pursues Jordan when his living vicariously through Gatsby becomes insufficient, when he feels like taking a risk, abandoning his role as "the tired" to become "the pursuing". He compliments Gatsby for the first time just before Gatsby's death, saying he's worth the whole damn lot of the passive, jaded, disillusioned generation of his party guests. Jordan even says that she was wrong about his being a "careful" person, and that he is actually "careless" as well; he takes his chances by the end, he risks his happiness. On the other hand, he recognizes the miserable reality of Gatsby's life at his funeral, and he becomes disenchanted with Gatsby's hopeful nature as well, and moves back west, unable to deal with the reality which contrasts so strongly with Gatsby's dream. Nick seems to have believed, for a time, in the power of hope, but he eventually finds himself unable to escape the reality of the world. The reader generally identifies with Nick pretty strongly, because we also are often caught up in the promise of a better tomorrow but eventually unable to fool ourselves any longer, unlike Gatsby whose optimism is endless and who can fool himself indefinitely.
     I believe, personally, that Fitzgerald's genius is not in which answer he gives to the debate, but in the fact that he reaches a different conclusion altogether: Hope is inevitable. He suggests, I believe, that the argument of whether it is better to hope or not is a moot point, because it is not a choice we can make. He seems to say that hope is inherent to the human condition, that it is impossible for humans to escape from desire and still live meaningful lives. Put another way, in the words of a friend of mine, "Humans always want things. It's very intrinsically human." No character in the whole story is without desire. Gatsby wants to relive some beautiful, if imaginary, moment in the past through Daisy, Daisy wants reciprocation in a relationship which translates loosely to a need for adulation and connection, Tom wants to achieve the level of dominance and glory he once had, Nick wants to believe in hope. (We really understand what Nick wants once we realize that Gatsby is to Nick what Daisy is to Gatsby, at least when Gatsby and Nick first meet: a larger than life ideal to aspire to, a figure to believe in. Nick's arc spans everything from accepting the hope that Gatsby symbolizes to facing Gatsby's reality, the reality that he is just a man, and a naive one at that.) Not one of the characters really gets what they want, but that doesn't stop them from wanting it, and it is notable that the only one who is really happy until the end is Gatsby, the only one who never gives up hope on his desire, despite its impossibility. Once we realize that hope is inevitable, we can learn how to be happier, how to deal with misery, and how to keep faith through it all. We can learn to believe in the green light as Gatsby did, bring what it may.

Believe in the green light.
- Adarsh Nednur

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

School Year in Review

            My stomach hasn’t quite completely untied itself after being hit by the stress of finals and the realization that this is my last summer as a teenager; my bags are as unpacked and stowed away as they will get, and the grades have been turned in. My summer is beginning, so it is time for my semesterly (I made that word up, but it should be real) update. I normally do this via Facebook because I usually only talk about boring personal details, but a year of college has caused some interesting and thought-provoking tweaks to my personal philosophy. QBA will be a wonderful platform to share them from. As usual, a warning: the following is the opinion of one who has only spent a year in college. What could I possibly know about how the world really works?
            I have been a very vocal proponent of extremely limited government and supporter of a gradual progression toward anarchy. Those are still my beliefs, but every class I’ve taken has shown me that the level of government control appears cyclical and that the acceptance of status quo ideology is so internalized that higher education needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to not just escape from the inefficient society we have now, but to ensure that it does not return. Government and Economics classes showed the benefit in lying to the public to minimize loss and casualty based on situations created by the current governmental and financial systems. An overview of conspiracy theories taught by a Sociology professor showed me how easy it is to and how often people lie to escape a world of uncertainty instead of facing and fixing it. Roman history has shown how similar our ideals and plans were to the Romans’ and how similar our faults are. We’re in a self-perpetuating machine of governance that fluctuates between bounds of oppressive (but not as oppressive as 1984) and liberating (but not anarchistic), and we’re all taught that there is no other viable option.
            Beyond this is the fact that people (myself included) can be blissfully unaware, immature, and simply feigning intelligence. The level of ethical reasoning one is expected to enter higher education with is appalling, and many of the readings I’ve had assigned use thousands of big words to state ideas that could be stated in a page and a half (the average length of a QBA essay in size 12 Times New Roman font… just sayin’), and our writing assignments are intended to teach us to replicate such behavior. Not only does this waste every student’s time, it doesn’t teach the material, and it makes it much more difficult for the armchair intellectual to learn anything worthwhile because he or she must wade through copious magnitudes of frivolous prodigalities.
            On a purely personal note, I’ve noticed how easy it is for me to be miserly. It’s worrying to end the school year with a surplus of funds ear-marked to be used for food since the only benefit that brought me was skipping several meals. Church, my friends, and my girlfriend especially enjoy pointed out the fact that money is for spending to increase one’s own enjoyment and that of those around him or her. I’m extremely curious on what my transformation in this area will look like if there is any, and it’s also interesting because this seems to be a unique problem. I know very few people who pinch as many pennies as I do, and I wonder what makes me so abnormal in this respect.
            The idea of limited government will be touched on again as well as revolution and the true power of the masses in my next essay unless something new and exciting pops up so be sure to watch V for Vendetta and read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Adarsh is planning to discuss The Great Gatsby, so read it. Most of you educated in America probably have a copy collecting dust somewhere anyway. I’ll have a less philosophical School Year in Review on Facebook for anyone who actually cares.
            For those of you still in school for the year, good luck!

-Jason Rossiter

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