Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taste as a Creative Spur

For some of us, the spur to creativity comes from an assault to our aesthetic sensibility. We see or hear or feel something ugly (and perhaps it's that worst ugliness of all, a void), and we must make it right. Nothing else matters as we begin, and only with effort can we be made to pause. This external motivation might not be as reliable or salable as the internal drive felt by those we consider artists. Yet we usually make the world every bit as beautiful as they do, even if our work won't be seen on a museum wall, read on a Kindle, or heard in an auditorium. (A thought that originated as I was putting down mulch over a large, chaotic spot next to my house just now).



Saturday, May 3, 2014

Google, I'm Playing the Field Now

I was a fairly early adopter of Google's stuff. In the fall of 2004, I received an invitation to Gmail from my brother. In those days, being invited was the only way you could get a Gmail account. It came with an unbelievable 2 GB of storage space. Both with their new email platform and their search engine, I trusted in Google's "Don't Be Evil" corporate shibboleth. They seemed cleaner, cooler, and more fun than Microsoft. I had no reservations about starting this blog here in 2006 on Blogger, a site then already owned by Google and subsequently integrated more fully into its "ecosystem." In 2011 I eagerly abandoned Facebook for Google+, hoping that it would provide a way to remain somewhat social while cutting me loose from the noise and inanity of having over 200 alleged friends on Facebook. My affections were also enhanced by a new form of self-interest: at this same time I was buying individual stocks for the first time in my life, and I'd purchased some Google shares.

Something had changed by earlier this year when I learned that Nest, the maker of my home thermostats, had been bought by Google. Instead of welcoming the further ease and convenience the acquisition might mean for me, I was creeped out. Google would know how I was setting my thermostat, in addition to everything else about my life that could be gleaned from scanning nearly a decade of my emails. I delayed any further consideration of installing Nest's new smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as a result. And a good thing, too, because not long after Nest stopped selling them when they discovered it was very easy for homeowners to accidentally turn off the smoke detectors. I was quietly gleeful at Nest's discontent.

I'd long since lost my financial self-interest in Google, having sold the shares to raise some money for extensive home renovations. Those shares exploded in value shortly after I sold them, yet I couldn't see myself holding onto them because the corporate founders were splitting the shares in such a way as to hold on to their power, and they didn't seem to care about the accounting difficulties that meant for us individual shareholders. It was clear they viewed shareholders as an annoyance, so I beat it.

The other day, Firefox announced version 29. I'd all but stopped using Firefox in favor of Google's Chrome some time ago when Firefox started having difficulty rendering Java charts on a financial web site. Chrome syncs up quite nicely across platforms and computers; for instance, all my bookmarks are available on my iPhone, iPad, and my work and office computers. I decided to have a look at the new Firefox, however, and found it aesthetically quite pleasing (even if one of the major changes, rounded tab edges, mimicked Chrome's appearance). I don't have a good way of testing this, but Firefox does now seem faster at loading web pages than Chrome, which negates one of Chrome's initial advantages. So with a new sense of speed, and a belief that I can short-circuit some of Google's data mining, I'm enjoying migrating my web life back to Firefox.

It's hard to imagine leaving Gmail. Although Google will let me download all my email and leave any time, I can't see that it's worth it. I'm never bothered by ads in Gmail, for one thing. For years I've been using adblock extensions for Chrome and Firefox that allow me to defeat Google's raison d'être of serving up advertising relevant to me personally, and therefore much more likely to be profitable for Google. A web expert once reckoned for me that this use of adblockers cost Google about $25 per year per user. Instead of feeling a little ashamed that I was freeloading, I was pleased that I was saving myself from the distraction of all Google's ads (after all, as someone has so perfectly put it: on the web, if you're not paying for it, you are the product).

I'm playing the field now, Google. You're designing scary glasses that will allow an unprecedented invasion of privacy in everyday life, driverless cars, and any number of other wacky things because you're afraid your core business of serving up relevant ads is shrinking, as your recent quarterly earnings report has shown (clicks on ads are up, but the revenue per ad has declined dramatically). Your migration to mobile platforms has not worked out so well, although your Android operating system has made sure that Apple will be forced to remain innovative. And, as an Apple user and stockholder, I thank you for that.




Saturday, April 12, 2014

Price Foraging

Recently I've had several experiences with service providers who quoted me what I thought were high prices for potential jobs. They all lowered their price once I declined by honestly stating that the price was more than I'd been expecting.

It became blindingly clear to me that for my whole life, and particularly in the past couple of years when I've owned a house, I've been paying more than I needed to because I didn't fly into a huff the instant the price was mentioned.

Theoretically, ever since I listened to a book on tape my father lent me about negotiating decades ago, I knew that the moment a price is mentioned you should react negatively -- at least you'll get something, if only a predilection for a lower price to come out of their mouths the next time they're bidding on a job. But you might get an extra, an add-on, or an upgrade at the very least. Or they might discover upon quick recalculation that they can "do better."

Yesterday, a health-care provider miraculously dropped the price for an optional, high-margin service when I refused it after previously (unaware of the price) having agreed to it. He cut his offer in half. Another service provider knocked 10% off a quote for his part of the work around my house when I decided to pull the plug on the project because the costs were too high.

You wonder why they don't give you their best price right away. And I know the reason is that they don't want to leave any money in my pocket that I might have been willing to hand over to them. Yet for someone of my temperament (think Butters on South Park, and you won't be far off), the negotiating process is one of fear, anxiety, and anger. I prefer the department-store, fixed-price model. And I don't mind paying a little more for something tangibly better (I shop at Target, not Wal-Mart).

The alternative scenario for service providers isn't a happy one for me. I can get them bidding against each other. But do I really want the low bidder? They're likely to resent the lengths they've had to go to in order to get the job, and cut corners. I can choose a bidder in the middle, but then I'm left wondering whether I'm making a donation to their bank account that could just as easily have remained in mine, since they, too, might be less concerned about doing a great job given that they were bidding competitively.

I have this sense as a professional that I should do my services for my clients (students, in my case) to the best of my ability for a fixed fee published in advance of their coming to me. There's no residual emotion left during the performance of services from the haggling and negotiating phase, which often involves shading the truth and downright lying.

Freedom -- in this case, the freedom to negotiate prices -- once more turns out not to be free.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy Day, June 1998

Photo by Michael Thomason

For now, this will have to suffice as my happiest memory of Lenny Macaluso, who died last week at the age of 71. He had been awarded the football, signed by all the members of the History Department, in honor of his just-concluded year of service as our acting chairman.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toys and Other Killers

If you're going to worry about the potential harm from firearms in schools, nothing I or anyone else can say will help. But I'd like to make a plea for perspective. It's not even close to the top non-organic cause of childhood deaths in the U.S. These are, instead: automobile accidents (over 5,000 per year here alone); drowning; fires; pedestrian accidents; poisoning; toys.

So along with asking for as much attention on shoddy mental health care and for an end to stigma for mental illness, can I also request more righteous anger at cars, pools, household chemicals, toys, and careless drivers? This is yet another case where all our attention is being focused on the most dramatic and recent factor rather than the most important.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why We Read All Manner of Stuff

Everyone's favorite Italian, Beppe Severgnini, answered this question the other day in the Milan newspaper Corriere della sera. It deserved to be read in English, at least somewhere, so I've translated it and included it below. I  intend to try to use it as a metaphor to help my students understand the need to be versatile with their reading skills. What he says about book length reading also goes for shorter historical passages using modes of thinking and expression we can find odd or dense today.

I'm 17: Did Your Generation Read?

Dearest Beppe,

I'm 17 and in the 11th grade. I'm always amazed when I notice how little room those of my age make for reading in their lives. I'm amazed and alarmed even more by the fact that in high school none of our teachers has ever made the reading of a book part of the lesson plan. Now, am I paranoid or is the fact that kids practically don't read anymore worrying? What do you think? Did your generation read?

My generation read, and in most cases, reads. You're right, Maria: it's a good habit, useful first in school and then at work. Extracting the substance from a long text, or the emotional essence from a novel, is an act of synthesis; and synthesizing is the key to understanding the world. Your generation is often wary of this long reading while it's amazing with short reading (texts, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, chat, etc.). Many people my age scoff at or play down your abilities in this regard; and they're wrong. Let's put it like this. You guys know how to run the 100 meters and need to find the stamina for the 10,000; we stick to the 10,000, but have to learn the release for the 100 meters. Whoever knows how to run both distances is a mental athlete, ready for all races.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Relative Superiority

Thanks to my recent entrance into Twitter, I read a story about the cultural context of the upcoming BCS national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama. It explored the usual trope about backward Alabamians and their inferiority complex toward anything north of Kentucky. The alleged complex involves a standard defense mechanism: hypersensitivity regarding any real or perceived slights. Wrap this up with college football, and you have the makings of a story that will get noticed. As of this moment, the story has 1,865 comments.

There will always be cultural differences that give rise to mirth and self-satisfaction. The thrifty New Englander is one of our most enduring, for example. Yet the pokes at Alabama, and the reflexive counterattacks by Alabamians (myself included), are both especially strong and, in one important way, misguided.

Take away the image of Alabama and other Southern states as being especially poor and the stereotypes lose their heft. On an international level, no one makes fun of people from the world's richest countries (per capita) . Likewise, it's hard for me to believe if Alabama were regarded as being among the world's leaders in per capita GDP that it would have to endure so many mean-spirited slights. Yet the statistical tables tell us just that. If you don't believe it, you can Google it just like I did.

If Alabama were an independent nation, its GDP would rank it on a world list just slightly below France, and just slightly above Japan. There are all sorts of amusing images that people outside of France and Japan share about those two countries, but none of them are based on an alleged self-satisfied wallowing in poverty, filth, and ignorance. If there were a recognition that, to twist Popeye Doyle's famous phrase, it's better to be a fire hydrant in Birmingham, Little Rock, or Shreveport than to be well off in most places in the world, we might be a little bit more united and a little less defensive toward our countrymen.

Sure, you could still tease us about our drawls, as we might you about your flat tones, inability to pronounce the letter "r," or mania to complete one sentence and move onto the next. On average, we may move a little too slowly for your taste (but drive on the interstates of Birmingham, Montgomery, or Mobile at rush hour if you want to feel more at home). And as a group we assuredly don't eat very healthily. But the only way to feel truly superior to us is to ignore the rest of the planet and humanity, and you're way too smart to do that.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Long National Nightmare, Italian Style

We all have our versions of what Gerald Ford called "long national nightmares." For a colleague, it's the idea that Alabama will win another national championship in football. For me, it was eight years of recent American history, far longer than the two years of Watergate that Ford was ending.

Since 1994, Italians have been enjoying or enduring the political presence of one of their wealthiest and most colorful entrepreneurs, Silvio Berlusconi. He was espeically active in the first decade of our current century. To his followers and supporters, he appeared to bring a can-do spirit to the Italian Second Republic in its formative years. He stressed "liberty," lower taxes, and a live-and-let live attitude toward his personal and legal transgressions that mirrored many Italians' desire to be left alone by an intrusive bureaucracy and justice system.

To his detractors, at home and abroad, Berlusconi's endurance has been an Italian national nightmare as powerful as any since the Second World War. His wealth, based first on shady real estate holdings and then on a media empire including many national TV channels, is the means by which Berlusconi founds and controls political parties built around his personality. He is coarse, crude, and childish, attributes offensive to many Italians of style and discernment, but endearing to a vast swath of the populace that doesn't shop on the via Monte Napoleone or have an advanced education. He has turned the office of Italian prime minister into a way of stalling and staving off criminal prosecutions for corruption and soliciting a minor for prostitution. He is a buffoon at international gatherings, once keeping German chancellor Merkel waiting at a formal event because he decided to take a cell phone call in plain sight of her. She was just standing there for minutes, baffled.

Now he's back. But his popularity has faded dramatically, just as his make-up artists are having an increasingly difficult job of hiding his approach to his 80s. A French leftist newspaper ridiculed his decision to seek the prime minister's position with a headline proclaiming "The Return of the Mummy":


It would be surprising to see Berlusconi serve another term as prime minister. He may "persuade" his former allies in the Northern League (Italy's northern regional separatist party) to join in a coalition with his PDL, but it's hard to foresee the PDL-League alliance gaining more than a quarter of the vote at best under current conditions.

So what we have is not so much a full-length movie about a revivified mummy terrifying the helpless, but that brief moment at the end of so many thrillers when a villain earlier thought dead returns to provide the hero one last moment of righteous vengeance. Berlusconi will likely run out the clock on his judicial troubles without ever spending a day in jail, but will now have to do so without involving the entire national political system in his sad little dramas. The Italian national nightmare isn't quite over, but thanks to Berlusconi's decision to seek office again, it will be the voters who have a chance to play the hero in the ultimate scene.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Is this a blog, or a cemetery?

I dunno. Over the past year, the things I've had to say haven't required a blog in order to be expressed. So that I don't lose all hope of keeping these pages alive, here at least is a list of the ten favorite books or essays I read in 2012:

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
Theodore Dalyymple, Life at the Bottom and Second Opinion
William Poundstone, Priceless
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Morgan Housel, 50 Years in the Making
Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
William March, Company K
Carlo Cipolla, Allegro -- ma non troppo (English: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity)
Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Case for More Guns" (The Atlantic)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

One Year On: An Accounting of a Novice's Dive into Stocks

On May 27, 2011, I purchased shares of an individual stock for the first time. Previously all my investing had been through mutual funds.

I chose Apple. Several months prior to my decision to buy Apple's stock, I'd bought a fourth -- and, still today, latest -- edition of the iPod Touch. After years of incomprehension or ignorant nay-saying, I finally understood what the fuss concerning Apple was about. When I reached the point where I was ready to jump into the stock market via the shares of a single company, Apple was the one I felt most comfortable with.

It wasn't only because Apple makes good stuff. Their stock was, and remains, undervalued. I bought at the price of $334.80. As of yesterday, the price was $562.29, making for an annualized return of over 68% for that first block of shares. I've continued to purchase Apple shares, and good thing, that -- because other decisions I made in the name of diversifying my holdings didn't turn out so well (Northrop Grumman, CSX, Sanofi, and Chevron, I'm talking about you!). Yet one good decision, to begin buying Apple and to keep reinvesting in it if the price continued to seem good after looking at its earnings, made up for many poor ones. While the S&P 500 is up a scant 0.24% on an annualized basis, the stocks I bought over the past twelve months are up 23.64% on that same annualized basis. It's been a good year.

Oh, I'd be remiss not to also thank Google for doing so well. And Accenture -- well, at least you didn't go down.

I'll be back next May 27 to report on how it looks after two years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ah, Democracy

For Super Tuesday, a collection of thoughts on democracy and voting:
To govern according to the sense and agreement of the interests of the people is a great and glorious object of governance. This object cannot be obtained but through the medium of popular election, and popular election is a mighty evil. Edmund Burke 
An election is nothing more than the advanced auction of stolen goods. Ambrose Bierce 
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill 
Democracy is rule by the collective wisdom of those who believe, all statistical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that their individual votes make a difference. Or that their votes matter in some spiritual or ethical context, as if God or Immanuel Kant were watching on Election Day. And yet they complain when they get bad government. Me 
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Churchill, again

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ten Memorable Books Read in 2011

The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb
Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell
Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner
On Desire, by William B. Irvine
Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson
Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink
The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
Spingendo la notte più in là, by Mario Calabresi

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mess

The world is a mess. Always has been. Always will be.

I can't claim this as an original insight. I read it long ago and have enjoyed recalling it whenever politics, economics, the weather, scandals, and outrages combine in a particularly nasty way. I've been thinking about the idea a lot lately.

The Euro is hovering at the edge of a precipice. If it goes, it will take the world's economy with it. The Republicans have assembled quite a circus of potential presidents and are trying them out. A couple of them look like fine people; the rest can only scare anyone with a brain, or, as one of them said in a debate, a heart. The Democratic nominee-apparent, the incumbent, did not prove up to much of the hope placed in him (and evoked deliberately by his most famous campaign poster). He was said to have been reading about fellow-Illinoisan Lincoln in the days leading up to his inauguration in 2009. He's tried Lincoln's ceaseless patience with his political foes, and ended up with some accomplishments to show for it. But he's as reviled as Lincoln at the low moments of the Civil War. He may end up remembered more like another Illinoisan, Ulysses Grant, who squandered his promise and came to be regarded as a horrible president, one of the worst in polls of historians.

Alabama, my home state and birth state, has embarrassed itself badly with an immigration statute designed to reverse the rise in its Hispanic population. Yesterday, a visiting German manager from Mercedes was arrested for not having his papers with him while driving (oh, historical irony, thank you for that good chuckle). The governor's office called nearly instantly to try to fix the problem. I'm betting no Guatemalans will be extended that courtesy.

I could go on and on about the banking system, the world's climate and population explosion, the stagnant American economy, the collection of thieves and ignoramuses elected to the U.S. House and Senate, and the even worse crew in Alabama's government (I speak in a truly bipartisan spirit: Democrats pillaged for decades in Alabama while they were a monopoly and became a machine whose sole purpose was keeping itself in power and skimming money off the top of tax receipts; it's simply the Republicans' turn now).

On an everyday level, it looks much different. This is our salvation, and maybe a lesson about what's truly important. While the world is a mess, many people in it are wonderful. True, they have their quirks, lies, skeletons, and selfish moments. Yet most of them, most of the time, are a pleasure to deal with or can, if we choose, be pitied for what they're suffering rather than hated for how their pain manifests itself as fear and anger toward others.

The "news" is always going to be mostly bad. It's created, commoditized, and distributed in order to make a profit. Bad stories about particular incidents grab far more eyes, and thus money, than good stories about general trends at the micro level. We won't read or view reports about how usually people are going about their lives showing at least a modicum of respect for each other and not deliberately trying to inflict harm in order to please the false gods of money, fame, or power. Maybe that's why the stories about politicians are so fascinating. Their behavior is so aberrant compared to anything we witness, would practice, or could get away with.

That such people rule and do harm from selfishness is not truly "news" -- how could it be when it's not at all new? We just can't predict who exactly will act in such ways while we less assertive sorts are going about our daily business. The "news" is therefore but a freak show skewing rather than uncovering reality. I'll likely continue to read and watch, fascinated as I am by the fixation on destruction exhibited by the allegedly powerful. You might say I have my own fixation, on the blind and predictable choices made by those who can't or won't develop a meaningful and helpful philosophy of life and a long-term view on events. I'll also know they will, as they always have, botch their jobs and push us repeatedly to the brink. I'd like to hope for better, but I haven't seen that humans are capable of it.

That's the way of the world and of people. I don't see the point in being upset about it. Do you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is Europe Burning?

Much of Europe is on fire and can do nothing about it -- long ago they used all their water for swimming pools. Germany has lots because it saved its water for just such a contingency. It's proud of the sacrifices, but resents the implication that it should sacrifice even more by retroactively saving those who could have saved themselves. But will the fire make this moral distinction upon reaching the German border?

Who will buy German goods if all of southern Europe defaults on its loans because the European Central Bank is tied to an anti-inflationary policy at German insistence?

I say, print extra money just this once, kick the offenders out of the Euro, and then give up on the notion of a close political union between peoples with thousands of years of distinct cultural development. Free trade is good; the Schengen agreement on unrestricted travel is important; and a shared labor market helps everyone. Some cross-border issues like the environment require uniform regulation. But we've learned that fiscal policies cannot be harmonized, and thus a single currency cannot work.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sinite parvulos et nolite eos prohibere ad me venire

The revelations about Penn State's football program have stunned me as much as anyone. I can't understand how the chief witness, a 28-year-old member of the coaching staff, could have observed the rape of a child, done nothing to help, and then gone home to tell his father first and only then, the next day, speak with his boss/head coach rather than the police. How do you live with yourself for the next decade knowing that you didn't help that boy and that other boys may have subsequently been raped?

That being said...I seriously doubt pedophilia has increased as drastically in the last decades as the media would make it appear. It must have been far more prevalent when it could be hidden in a fog of shame and humiliation that authorities were reluctant to try to penetrate. Yet, as this clip by my favorite comedian, Bill Burr, makes plain, the cost is borne also by children to whom the rest of us may feel we can no longer be nice:




Women don't face this problem. A few years back, I saw what looked like a lost child in the hallway outside our classrooms. He (or she, I can't remember now) was just standing there by the window, a place where young children shouldn't have been loitering unsupervised. I wondered if the child was in trouble. Rather than approach myself, I asked one of my female co-workers to see if help was needed. It wasn't -- the child's parent had irresponsibly left him or her in the hallway while attending a class and had simply told the child to wait there. By then maybe I'd seen this riff by Burr, or perhaps I already knew the score: an unknown man approaching a child was likely to encounter from the child not the truth, but the stunned silence and averted gaze of one ingrained with the fear of stranger danger.

I like to think that I would have rushed into that shower to help that boy. Or called the police. Or both. It's too easy for me to ponder the issue when I didn't face it. Yet I do know for certain that I only rarely speak to children I don't know, and when I do, I usually encounter reflexive defensiveness rather than the curious wonder I think I always projected in my youth. I can't recall being warned often, or at all, about not talking to strangers. Maybe my parents gave me the standard talk about not going away with people I didn't know. If so, it had no impact on my view of adults. I think I was so flattered by their attention and so eager to learn from them that I wouldn't have recoiled if one spoke to me, rubbed my head, or gave me a smile.

I wouldn't want to grow up today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Laudat venales qui vult extrudere merces

A good number of years ago I was part of a group making a hiring decision. The choice came down to a few applicants we interviewed in person. One we could scratch because his written application had fooled us; he was clueless in person. But we had a very difficult time choosing from the others. As I believe is bound to happen in these group decisions, each of our intuitions made our decisions for us. Only then the reasonable parts of our mind began to concoct a story to justify our intuitive reaction.

One of the people I liked most was distrusted by another of our group. She said this applicant had too often been vouching for his own integrity and honesty. At the time, this was a new one on me. I couldn't see a problem. All these years later, though, I know I would react just as my colleague did.

Unlike my colleague -- who carried her point in the discussion -- I hadn't been fooled enough yet by people who talked themselves up. The honest person knows how difficult it is to be honest. He or she realizes that dishonor and disgrace, at least in our own minds, are but a single moment's lapse away should we misbehave. Telling someone you're honest is to spout words you may quickly have to eat.

The dishonest person, the one who doesn't actively think about the fine line to be trodden between right and wrong, has no problem constructing and narrating a story about his or her honesty. They'll fool people like the me of many years ago who never see through the deception, and they'll fool a lot of dishonest people in the bargain, because they're blind to their own problem. That leaves those of us who try hard, but sometimes fail, to be upright to watch out for themselves and those close to them. If you vouch for your character in front of me, don't be surprised if I put my hand on my wallet and start walking backwards, never taking my eye off you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nimium ne crede colori

I'm no more skilled at avoiding the deception of good looks than anyone else. Yet even as I've beheld thousands of people who appear physically attractive to me, I've come to feel sorry for them if they also seem equally attractive to everyone else. We've all heard how people who are perceived as good-looking get better jobs, faster promotions, more unsolicited offers of assistance, etc. No good-looking woman in search of a drink ever has to pay for it. No good-looking guy has to do more than say "hi" to pique the interest of someone he's interested in.

It's all unearned -- and that's the problem. They learn nothing from alleged successes that have required no work, no sacrifices, and no mistakes along the way. Think of the supermodel who claims that modeling is "hard work." How would she know? How would she fare if her looks vanished for some reason?

Bette Davis explored this dilemma in one of her lesser known films, "Mr. Skeffington." She obtained all she thought she wanted, and got away with mistreating everyone around her, because she was seen as ravishing. She hadn't understood her husband, a man she'd married only for his money, when he'd told her "A woman is beautiful when she's loved, and only then."

An illness destroys her good looks overnight, just as she's entering middle age, and she's abandoned by everyone who had sought her out solely to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure she radiated. I won't spoil the movie any further. I think it should be required viewing in high school: it gives a warning to the good-looking, and hope to the rest.

It's only natural to want to stare at something you perceive as beautiful. There must be a chemical signal in the brain rewarding us intensely, telling us that we want to mate with that (or at least benefit from being close to it). So I've begun to deliberately look away on some occasions, just for practice. I also want to do them a favor in any interaction by being a little more demanding than usual, so that they experience what it's like to have to use reason and empathy to guide their relations with the less aesthetically advantaged.

I know they must be terrified inside to consider what life will be like once the good looks fade and ultimately vanish. By not looking or by being a little brusque and businesslike, I'm giving them a foretaste so that they can realize it won't be all that bad to have to earn, minute by minute and success by success, everything they achieve.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I've seen the future, and it's ugly

An article in today's New York Times makes plain that Greece should have defaulted on its government debt long ago. Three things kept this from happening. (1) Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, refused to believe that a Euro state could be allowed to default. He was influenced toward his view by the increasing amount of Greek debt the ECB had purchased to stem the growing crisis. (2) Many European and American banks were holders of the debt, and in their still anemic state, might collapse if forced to write off most or all of the loans, leading to worldwide recession/depression. (3) Many of the loans were hedged (insured) using the infamous credit default swaps familiar to us from the mortgage debacle still underway. If Greece goes into a state of default without the permission of its creditors, the swaps are triggered. No one seems to know who all has sold the swaps, and who has bought them, with the result being fear of a panic if they're triggered and the solvency of major financial players is put into doubt. As in 2008, credit would stop, and our system, which depends on credit to continually roll over short-term debt, would collapse.

The only reasonable, if still painful solutions left are these: (1) The Euro states that can afford it buy a lot of the debt. This would be a political and moral disaster. Wealthier and more productive states that took difficult steps to rein in their debt years ago would have to bail out the Greeks, who lied repeatedly in order to keep the loans coming and not face the political consequences of reducing their borrowing. Or (2) the European Central Bank buys the debt by increasing the money supply ("printing money") in order to fund the purchases. It is currently forbidden to do this, so a rule would have to be changed or ignored. The price would be a drop in the Euro, inflation in Europe, and a transfer of wealth from those with assets denominated in Euros to those holding other forms of real wealth (land, real estate, stocks, etc.). 

This means either German taxpayers would pay quite openly and would likely rebel, or Europeans in general would pay with a bout of inflation. Such an inflation would also make it more difficult for non-Europeans to sell their goods in Europe, since the Euro would fall relative to other currencies, making European goods cheap elsewhere, and imports more costly.

Welcome to Our New World.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lenior et melior fis, accedente senecta

Not too long ago, I reconceived my life so that it no longer had only two ages (young and old), but four. There was to be a prelude, which was my childhood and adolescence. Then Act 1, the first half of adulthood (18-48), the era of striving. Act 2 would be the era of wisdom (48-78). The postlude will be whatever time is left, assuming I make it that far in the first place.

It's hardly a coincidence that this decision came in my 48th year. For some time I'd been feeling better and better about being older and older. Yet I couldn't get my mind around the concept of all the wisdom and serenity being packed into such a tiny portion of my life. At some point I must have realized that I should no longer say that my entire life is well over half gone, but that my adult life has just entered into its second half. This presupposes that I'll live to be as old as my father, who recently died at 80. It's as good a number as any to plan with. That gives Act 1 thirty years, and Act 2 the same. It's as if I'm starting a new life in these very days, and the metaphor pleases me.

For a few years, I'd been realizing I was caring less or not at all about any number of things that used to motivate or interest me (for example: sports, movies, politics, pay raises, what other people thought about me). Books, Italian, writing, and my dog have supplanted them. It took a while, but my divorce transformed me into a profoundly happy man, and these four things make me happiest. I hope to pursue them in an atmosphere of serenity and joy. I'm making a good start, and beginning to feel certain of something I've long haltingly believed: it's not despite my living alone, it's because I live alone.

I had terrible "luck" dating after my divorce. I finally realized it wasn't luck, but my sabotaging the process by looking for the wrong person. This wrong person was very likely any person. It's not that I'm opposed to being around the same woman a lot. It's simply that the odds of her being someone I could stand and who could stand me are so long, and the trouble in finding her immense. It's much more peaceful and joyful to enjoy my freedom as it is rather than look for a way to change it dramatically. If it comes yet, fine. If not, finer.

Then there's also the matter of my bad hearing, which is combining with my introversion in a particularly powerful way to lead me to avoid any gatherings where more than one person speaks at a time. If you're going to do that, then you're going to be by yourself a lot. I went to two weddings last weekend, strained to hear at the receptions, and felt so bad about it that I left as early as I politely could. My specific kind of introversion isn't about shyness. On social occasions it has much more to do with being largely silent while trying with intense concentration to figure out second-by-second the person or people I'm with, a process which absorbs almost all my energy and attention. If I can't hear, it messes everything up. I leave feeling exhausted and defeated, at least until I reach the sanctuary of my car and drive off. Then everything's better, instantly. It's as if the quiet and solitude are themselves a source of energy.

Horace wrote, "You become milder and better as old age advances." While this is true for me, I'd add this: "And milder and better still if you can align your inner and outer lives harmoniously."

I've been very, very fortunate.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Error qui non resistitur approbatur

Any aspiring professor who could be shown the total mass of written work to be graded in succeeding decades would tremble. Some might turn away and never return. The piles of a single semester's midterms, term papers, and finals are such to make every other routine task (dishes, vacuuming, cleaning out the septic tank, brushing the dog's teeth) an urgent matter requiring immediate attention.

Some disciplines have it easier with grading, but perhaps harder in other ways. Subjects that use almost exclusively multiple-choice exams might, for example, face far more pressure to bring in external funding for research. So I'm not complaining about either how much, or what kind of tests I have to grade. I do get paid to do it, and I knew it was coming because they were the same kinds of tests I'd always had as an undergrad and grad student.

What was most difficult shortly after beginning my career, and then for a long time after, was knowing exactly what kind of issues on written work I wanted to grapple with and bring to the students' attention. Some instances were always clear-cut. I'd be shirking my duties, for instance, if I didn't point out errors of historical fact or the failure to provide enough specific evidence to support an essay's thesis. But every single spelling mistake? Unclear antecedents of pronouns? Run-on or comma-spliced sentences? Repeating the same noun or adjective three times in two sentences?

At first, if I erred, it was on the side of marking anything that I wouldn't have knowingly submitted in my own work. I've never forgotten the reaction of a student in the back of one of my earliest upper-level classes on the day I returned term papers. As he leafed through his paper, he asked a friend, loudly enough for me to hear, "is this an English class?" My not forgetting is a sign that somehow the sarcastic query wounded me. I have to admit I'd never had a class or any kind of instruction on what to mark and what not to bother with on history essays. I must have felt insecure, revealed as a fraud who didn't realize that in all other history classes students looking over their marked essays would never have seen such corrections as "the man that started the First World War" (I always insist on "who" in these cases). If the student got reasonably close to the spelling of Gavrilo Princip, then maybe I was supposed to keep my stylistic advice to myself.

My biggest insecurity, the one that led me to mark every error I perceived, of whatever nature, was being seen as someone who'd allowed a mistake to slip past him. My father, once a self-employed accountant and tax preparer, had hired me to check his work for precisely this reason: I loved catching others' mistakes and being seen as smarter for having found them out. Normally, my father hated it when I did that to him (although I'm certain it's a trait I copied from him). Yet he knew the consequences of making a mistake on a client's taxes were so high that his ego could no longer afford to overrule his good sense. Meanwhile, I'd work for the minimum wage of slightly over $3 an hour and the pleasure of an occasional triumph.

Potentially being viewed as slipshod, ignorant, or the dupe of a student who'd run a mistake right under my nose motivated me to keep my pen ready for action at every instant while I graded an essay. Even if my insecurities were groundless, there was the potential professional malfeasance of condoning a mistake or harmful stylistic quirk by failing to mark it. As the years wear on, it's this reason rather than any other that keeps me marking misspellings, who/whom confusions, sentence fragments, and other distractions from the flow of the paper. I'm now happy to allow students to believe they've put one over on me in many settings (well, usually). But I can't bring myself to approve their writing mistakes by passing them in hurried silence. They deserve to be taken seriously as long as they've put some effort into their writing. Pointing out that their words were read with care and found wanting in places, rather than being seen as officious meddling by a history professor, should actually be taken as a sign that the students were viewed as as a colleague while I was reading the essay, someone to whom I owed my fullest attention.

No, it's not an English class. But we like to understand you all the same.

Friday, October 7, 2011

My Immigration Quandary

I may be one of the few Alabamians tugged both ways in the debate over my state's new immigration law. The driving influence behind the law is not economic, but cultural. It's a xenophobia born of too little contact with the outside world, and too little empathy. I despise the police-state tactics associated with the law's enforcement.

Yet...what's really happening? The state has volunteered to accept and pay for what's usually a federal responsibility: enforcing immigration laws. There are millions of people residing in the United States in violation of the law. If I were to try to live in another country past my visa deadline, or with no visa at all, I wouldn't feel abused if I were caught and deported. Just unfortunate. It's the way the world works. I'm puzzled why enforcing the nearly universal principle of sovereign control of borders is somehow, on its face, wrong.

I'm still more bothered by having laws that are widely flouted and underenforced, as are our federal immigration laws. If a law's not effective, it should be repealed or its enforcement redoubled, but it can't simply be ignored without risking popular contempt for the rule of law.

One of the unintended consequences of such new state-level immigration laws, should they take hold and spread, will be rising food prices. Weirdly, I regard this as partly a good effect. The assembly line slaughter and butchering of cows and chickens is made possible by cheap immigrant labor fueling the demand for the meat through lower prices in the grocery store. I'm not so happy that fresh fruit and vegetables will be made more expensive, I'll admit. But I've been disconcerted to realize that I've been saving a buck on the back of someone stooped over in a field all day earning far less than a legal worker would.

So, ideally, we'd either legalize the immigrant labor we need in order to produce food at prices we find acceptable, or we'd enforce the existing laws more rigorously, ask more legal residents and citizens to consider working in the fields, and cope with the reduction in our ability to consume non-food items. The status quo ante was unacceptable in its inconsistency, and we shouldn't be surprised that someone would step forward to adjust it, either toward regularizing and legalizing more immigration, or trying to throttle illegal immigration.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Breakdown: Three Questionable Criminal Acts

Amanda Knox
My interest in most things Italian and in true crime has led me to contemplate the acquittals of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in comparison to two famous murder defendants in the U.S. about whose guilt many questions have been raised.


Amanda Knox
Lee H. Oswald
O.J. Simpson
Motive
No
No
Yes
Means
Yes
Yes
Yes
Opportunity
Uncertain
Yes
Yes
Reliable evidence linked to defendant
No
Yes
Yes
Suspicious post-crime behavior
Yes
Yes
Yes
Good police work
No
Yes
No

In Knox's case, the suspicious post-crime behavior (turning cartwheels, a browbeaten and concocted "confession," buying lingerie) is easily explained away. Not so for Oswald (he murdered a policeman) and Simpson (contemplated suicide and fled). If the police work had been better for Simpson, or the motive clearer for Oswald, there would be very little doubt about their guilt by anyone. What lingered for Simpson should have been removed when photos of him wearing Bruno Magli shoes emerged after his criminal trial (rare and expensive shoes identified from the crime scene, but not linked to Simpson until his civil trial). If you're one of the 80 percent of Americans who believe Oswald didn't act alone, then of course I don't expect facts and evidence to matter anyway.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to Save Euroland (Choose One)


Solution 1: German and other northern European taxpayers bail out Greece, then Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, perhaps through the mechanism of Eurobonds that will internationalize the bad debt and lower the interest payments (bad for Germans et al and therefore for the future of the European unification process)

Solution 2: European banks and the ECB take the proposed "haircut" on their loans to Greece and eventually loans to other profligate countries (worse, due to the prospects of a systemic banking crisis that leads to another credit freeze worldwide, as banks collapse when their loans to Greece et al have to be written down or off)

Solution 3: Greece defaults in a disorderly process (a worse variant of Solution 2), and then leaves or is tossed out of Euroland. It can then start fresh with the drachma and inflate its way out of any future debt crises (worse still, because Greek banks will collapse when every Euro now on deposit is withdrawn in a panic because Greeks fear their money will be forcibly converted to drachmas).

So, unless I'm missing something, the northwestern Europeans are going to have to foot the bill, and then figure out how to establish a European-wide fiscal policy that is ironclad and will prevent future excessive borrowing by member states. Good luck with that. But remember that it's still a lot cheaper than the wars that recurred every decade or so before 1945.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two Things I'll Never Say

You'll never hear me say, or see me write, either of these: "I'm sorry for your loss" to someone whose friend or relative has just died, or "Thank you for your service" to someone in the military. These utterances are anodyne, clichéd, and timid. Every TV homicide detective says "I'm sorry for your loss" to the victim's loved ones before asking them where they were when it happened. Every member of our military hears "Thank you for your service" when they're in uniform in public.

Instead, how about "I was so sorry to hear about your father's death?" or "It must have taken a lot of sacrifices to go to Iraq and Afghanistan?" You know, something specific. Vagueness is recognized immediately for what it is: the fear of giving offense that, paradoxically, does offend because it treats the recipient as a commodity. They are treated as one of the "bereaved" or a "soldier, sailor, or airman" rather than an individual. I'd go so far, at least concerning "sorry for your loss," as to maintain it's better to say nothing at all.

I can't say how a member of the military might feel about "thank you for your service," but I've read that that they hear it so frequently as to be bewildered about how to respond meaningfully. It must feel very good to hear the phrase the first time, just as every beer bought for you in an airport terminal on your way to an assignment must taste good no matter how many times a civilian picks up the tab. In the latter case, though, at least the civilian made a sacrifice. In the former instance, they made themselves feel better at the cost of putting the service member on the spot. I can't know for sure, but I think a smile and a nod might be more welcome.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Avatar Next Door

Imagine if Christianity had emerged from the Arian-Athansian dispute of the 4th century with a different winner. Imagine, that is, Jesus was a man and a prophet to Christians and the world -- but no more a God incarnate than any of the rest of us.

One of the big advantages would be the ability to see the avatars among us more clearly. As it is, Western civilization has accustomed itself either to regarding Jesus as part of a Trinity that includes another mysterious sub-division, the Holy Ghost, or it has moved into apathy and atheism. In both cases, we fail to notice those around us, and perhaps even ourselves, when we exhibit the same kind of flashes of insight as Jesus about matters that are today too easily brushed aside. They intrude into the realm of settled theology, or they seem spiritual in a world that would only scoff. Everyone's offended, and no one hears a word.

This article in The Onion nails it: every day, there must be thousands of Jesuses dying all over the world who never knew what they had to offer, or felt constrained to hide and downplay it. One day we'll push past both religion and atheism and find a way to listen to what they have to offer.