"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Hidden Mind Of The Machine

Most of us take our appliances for granted.  They either work or they don’t.  We are more concerned with reliability and performance than anything else.  We value toasters, microwaves, coffee makers, and blenders for their long, trouble-free life.  The last thing we want to do is to be on the phone to a call center in India and be asked to take apart our new vacuum cleaner, only to be told after an hour that it has to be returned for repair.

The last time I did this was with a beautiful new Dyson’s vacuum cleaner.

I bought it because it looked cool, and it really does suck well; but a few weeks later it stopped working.  The Dyson’s people in Manila were lovely.  Binky walked me through a few basic dummy items (Was it plugged in? Was the cord attached?), then proceeded through more complicated diagnostics until she concluded we would have to dismantle the unit and get to the principal sucking mechanism.  “I am not at all mechanical”, I told her.  “Are you sure we have to do this?”.  She responded that she would be there for me, and not to worry.

A half hour later all the parts of the Dyson’s were all over the floor. There was no way of knowing if the machine was fixed because right now it was a yard sale of spare parts.  She walked me through hose attachments, toggle switches, nozzles, and intake manifolds until the machine was back together again.  “Now, we shall see if unit is working”, said Binky.

“Yes”, I replied. “The moment of truth”.  The line went silent for a moment.  “You are asking if I am telling you the truth?”, asked Binky.  “Unit may or may not work; but one thing remains.  Dyson’s always tells the truth”.

I switched the machine on and nothing happened.  “So….?”, inquired Binky.  “Nothing.  Not even a quiver.  Not a sound, shake, or any signs of life”, I said. 

“Sir, this is not the end of the world.  We will send you return shipping label. Just put the D-360 in its original box, and send it back at no charge to you.  Within three months you will have brand new equipment”.

“But I don’t have the original box”, I replied.  I tore it up and used it for kindling for our Christmas Eve fire”.  This time there was a much longer silence on the other end of the line.

“Sir, let me get my supervisor”

You can imagine how the conversation went from there.  A long wait for the supervisor, an equally pleasant and chirpy young woman on the other end, but no resolution.  Bunny was stumped, stymied, and at a loss. A new box would have to be sent.

“Why don’t you just send me the new unit?”, I asked. “I will take send you back the old machine in the new box.”  This was way beyond anything she had ever dealt with before, and asked to put me on hold while she talked to her manager, who was as flummoxed as Bunny.  “Fuck it”, I said; and that was the end of the Dyson’s.

Few of us know or care what goes on inside these machines; and even after having seen all the guts of the Dyson’s splayed out on the floor, I only knew that Tab A went into Slot B, not why. I took it on faith that some whirring fans blew in reverse and pulled up dog hair, pebbles, and crackers.  The concept of ‘lift’ had also been explained to me, how air split as it went over the wings of an airplane; how the top flow had to speed up to catch up with the bottom, thus lifting the wings and the entire plane into thin air; but I had to again take it on faith, because the fact that a hundred-ton flying behemoth could make it up the ground was way beyond me.

I know that machines are smarter than ever and can be programmed for precision and personal preference.  I know that there are computer chips inside that somehow enable these sophisticated choices; and I vaguely understand how heating elements heat up and that freezers and air conditioners have something to do with condensers.  I presume that clothes washers have all kinds of clocks, thermostats, and regulators to make them go through their cycles; but any more than this rudimentary knowledge?  Very little.

Computers are from a completely separate universe. Most of us gave up understanding what makes them work a long time ago.  The Internet, an amazingly complex system of links, relays, servers, data banks, algorithms, and the cloud will never be understood.  It has now become completely routinized and internalized.  Despite occasional quivers and quavers or screen freeze-ups and intermittently slow connections, it is simply and always there.  We depend on it, marvel at it, and if we kick back and think for a few minutes, we will be astounded at its potential.  Some day, we reflect, mind and machine will be perfectly linked, and we will live in virtual worlds beyond our imagination.  The computer will drive for us, cook our meals, shop, pay our bills, handle our finances, and take out the dog.  Already the computer, via Amazon and Netflix, knows everything about our preferences in books, music, and film and can interact with us in intelligent, prescient ways.

Some of us are concerned with invasions of privacy, and are worried that as companies gather more and more information about us, our integrity is increasingly compromised; but we love our cookies, and the individualization of the commercial programs is a boon, not a bane.  We are willingly complicit in the mining of our personal data because we can see the benefits.  Amazon knows more about us than our wives and lovers.

Far fewer people are concerned about the impact of machines on our lives and environment.  Once the microwave has been purchased and once it starts heating up our coffee, buns, and pizza, we don’t stop to consider energy use, radiation, or heat exchange.  Once the snazzy Dyson starts sucking up dust and dirt, we forget about indoor air pollution, microbursts of mites and plastic, or our electric bill.  I am aware that I should not leave my computer, TV, DVD, PlayStation, and other devices on all the time; but, hey, how much juice can my laptop consume, especially when compared to my refrigerator/freezer which is brutal on energy and is on 24 hours a day?

If I were socially responsible, I would not only buy the most energy-efficient, least polluting, and least environmentally damaging appliances; but I would use them efficiently.  I would plug in judiciously.  I would put everything on timers.  I would set thermostats down, dim my lights, and eat off my plates more than once.  Living in a dim, funereal trailer would be a small price to pay for saving the planet.

Even if I were so disposed, I would run up against a lot of ethical conundrums.  Plastics are notoriously bad for the world (excluding consumers).  They take a lot of oil, are combined with PCBs, toxic polymers, and last forever in landfills.  If I have a choice between turning off my computer at night or avoiding anything plastic the answer is obvious.  Or is it?  In the struggle between individual vs. social benefit, the individual almost always wins out. The only way to equal the playing field between the opposing camps is to raise the price on energy, plastics, and industrial strength vacuums to include the costs of the despoiling of the environment – an option sometimes discussed and never acted upon. We want our computer on all the time; and we can’t do without plastic phones, carpets, wraps, toys, clothes, and upholstery.  We want it all, and unless and until we change our minds and ask for higher prices, little will change.

Which brings me to an article in the New York Times (3.31.13) by Evgeny Morazov who argues that producers have the moral and ethical responsibility to inform consumers of just what they are buying.

The hidden truth about many attempts to “bury” technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision. Pick any electrical appliance in your kitchen. The odds are that you have no idea how much electricity it consumes, let alone how it compares to other appliances and households. This ignorance is neither natural nor inevitable; it stems from a conscious decision by the designer of that kitchen appliance to free up your “cognitive resources” so that you can unleash your inner Oscar Wilde on “contemplating” other things. Multiply such ignorance by a few billion, and global warming no longer looks like a mystery.

Where does Morazov expect this social conscience to come from in an economic sector whose only raison d’etre is to sell products and to make a profit?  It is the manufacturers who produce, the consumers who must be vigilant, and the government who regulates the former and educates the latter.  In other words, it is up to consumers to opt for more environmentally responsible products and eat the higher cost in the name of the planet.  Manufacturers will respond to this new demand (and the higher profits it will generate) by making greener products.  Government will assure consumers that the products hawked by manufacturers really are green and will sanction product makers if they break the rules.

Morazov is suggesting, unrealistically, that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and the country’s thousands of local servers tell you that your personal preferences, habits, movements, and delights are being tracked.  Perhaps an annoying window with a 10 second video of Mark Zuckerberg telling you to beware, he’s watching you; or a screechy warning signal when you click ‘Like’? Or maybe nanny-state warnings.  As you put your key into the ignition of your new SUV, a voice intones “This car can cause death or serious injury”; or “Your new GE oven has been manufactured to the highest standards, but it is a gas range and can blow up at any time”

The worst would be more environmental hectoring.  As though we don’t already have enough of those insistent old ladies who keep hammering on about the water or the climate Doomsday-sayers, cloaked like the Grim Reaper and intoning about the coming apocalyptic end of the world as we know it.  Now, Morazov suggests, it is time that product manufacturers get in the act if not directly, than deviously:

Recently, designers in Germany built devices — “transformational products,” they call them — that engage users in “conversations without words.” My favorite is a caterpillar-shaped extension cord. If any of the devices plugged into it are left in standby mode, the “caterpillar” starts twisting as if it were in pain.

You can bet that Dyson’s, GE, or any other manufacturer of electrical products will stay leagues away from this perverse device, to say nothing of PEPCO, Virginia Power, or any other state energy company.  Reduce energy consumption when revenues are based on use?  Are you kidding?

There are only two possibilities here.  Either consumers are all very, very stupid; or very smart.  ‘Progressives’ assume that we are all too dumb, self-absorbed, selfish, and venal to even consider anything but ourselves; so government has to engineer social harmony and right living.  More objective critics understand that while some of us may be smarter than others, we are all able enough to make our own economic decisions.  If we live on the margins then we will always understandably purchase within the narrow confines of our own self-interest.  As we move up the socio-economic scale, we are likely to expand our horizons and think as much of community as of ourselves.  Hectoring or manipulating the poor is an insult; and banging on about goodness to the well-off is, well, rude and untimely.

All the information that Morazov suggests about manufactured products is there on the Internet.  Without much work, a consumer can find out exactly how much energy a vacuum cleaner uses in a light clean or a heavy-duty, big-time job.  Or how much juice it takes to keep a computer on, asleep, slow-mode, or off.  Or gas burned per mile, by speed, type of road, model, make, and year.  Consumers don’t need wriggling caterpillar cords to warn them of overuse.  If there is enough demand then Tyson’s can install the informational software available on most new cars – e.g. energy consumption by the minute – on its vacuums.

Consumers do not have to be ill-informed or at the mercy of manufacturers who are, after all, simply doing their job.  Caveat emptor has always been a good principle.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ovid, Claudel, Bambara, And Learning Eight Languages

I learned my first foreign language when I was in the seventh grade – Latin; and went on to study it all the way through senior year in high school.  I never used a ‘trot’, for deciphering the complex grammar came easy to me.  I thought of majoring in Classics but was convinced that English Literature would be more practical.  I was not sure how studying Jonson, Sterne, and Trollope would give me any more of a leg up in the real world than Ovid, Cicero, and Catullus, but I deferred to the Dean.

I was at Yale during the era of New Criticism, and all I can remember was Christ imagery.  In every work from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Clifford Odets, Jesus was lurking somewhere.  There He was in “the outstretched arms of the elms”, in laments of loss, redemptive reconciliations, and suckling mothers.  We waited for the predictable, inevitable moment when the professor made one of his lame, tortuously devised references to Jesus and His family.

One professor, in his slavish bondage to the New Criticism, found Christ everywhere, and ruined what we all thought was a simple, straightforward poem of William Blake :

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

What immortal hand or eye could frame the tiger’s symmetry? God the Father, of course, who created fear and set the table for his redeeming Son.  Ah, yes, but was the tiger really created by God or simply myth, the burning desire of Man to express himself against this fulminating and vengeful God? Certainly Blake didn’t write “in the forests of the night” just to give the burning tiger a dramatic backdrop but meant that both the tiger and the night were burning, the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.  And why couldn’t God decide between using his hand or his eye to create the tiger? Because of the duality of vision and reality.  On and on.

As an antidote to this nonsense and in a desire to get back to foreign language territory where I was at home, I took a number of French courses.  The professors were all French and had not been infected by the New Criticism, and dealt with the works from a more understandable historical and dramatic perspective.  I did well in high school, so I was able to take the most advanced French courses as a freshman.  I studied works in Old and Middle French which was just like deciphering a Latin text.  In just one year I was able to trace the development of French from its first texts to modern usage, observe how an archaic, Latinate language morphed into a Romance one with so many words that I recognized.

I learned a lot in four years and read just about every major work in French drama and poetry.  I thought I knew the language well, because since I took all Senior courses, I  had to write long and involved term papers.  I was looking forward to my first trip to France a few years later.

I walked into a bar and confidently ordered a beer. “En bouteille ou sous pression?” the barman asked – did I want it in a bottle or from the tap.  I had no clue what he was talking about.  He repeated himself two or three times, each time speaking more loudly and with more emphasis.  When I still didn’t get it, he grabbed a bottle, jabbed his finger at it, and said, “Une bouteille”; and then jerking some beer from the tap said “Sous pression”. I could discuss Paul Claudel’s Catholicism in Les Souliers de Satin, but I couldn’t order a beer.  I had a lot to learn.

Another day and at another bar, I asked the waiter where I could find the bathroom.  I had practiced this and made sure that I got the right tense, endings, and pronunciation.  When I went in to the small toilet and shut the door, no light went on.  I opened the door, patted the walls, looked everywhere, but could not find the light switch.  “Sur le verrou”, the barman shouted.  Of course I had no idea that in France when you locked the verrou, the light would go on.  Not wanting to ask again, I had to decide to either piss in the dark or piss with the door open.  Neither case was a good one, so I decided that rather than spray the floor, I would keep the door open a crack and at least get a glimpse of my target.

I had no trouble understanding the comment from the bar. Oozing faux politeness and a surprisingly English sarcasm, the bartender said, “If the American gentleman feels more at home pissing on the floor in the dark, he is most welcome to do so”. I later learned that this fuck-you attitude had nothing to do with language.  I went to a men’s clothing store to buy a sports jacket.  I tried many on and they were all too small in the shoulders and too short in the sleeves.  After three or four tries, the salesman said very politely, “Perhaps the American gentleman would be happier if he bought his clothes back in America where the sizes are….” Here he hesitated, then went on, “…more…” Again a brief pause, “…appropriate”.  Meaning of course that no one made clothes for gorillas in France.

I never really got street fluent until I had put in a number of years in French Africa and Haiti.  I could imitate the local, lilting, sing-song accent of Cameroon, the harsher Arab pronunciation of the Moors in Mauritania, and the more correct French of Senegal.  I could mimic the Caribbean slave intonations of Haiti, and the clipped Malay-influenced language of Madagascar.  I learned early on that if you sounded good, people assumed that you were more fluent than you actually were and overlooked mistakes in grammar or phrasing.  This had a downside because as a conversation went along, the native speakers spoke more quickly and used a lot of slang, and you could get quickly lost.  

The worst was being with French Canadians.  They know how difficult it is for foreigners – even French people – to understand their honking and quacking and archaic curses, so they start off with Parisian French before descending into the local dialect, joual, a combination of 16th Century French and American slang. A good example is “rabattre ses ailes de moulin” – beat your arms like a windmill, i.e. talk with your hands; a combination of an old usage of ‘rabattre’ and an image recalling life of 400 years ago.

Elaborate religious references were used all the time. “Hostie, calvaire, tabernacle de char ne part pas”; or “Communion host, Christ on the Cross, Holy Tabernacle fucking car won’t start.” was my favorite.

The more I travelled, the more I learned about French and language itself.  From  accents and local usage I could trace history, origins, and influences.  The French word for computer, for example, is ‘ordinateur’ from the Latin meaning ‘to order or to organize’.  The English word ‘computer’ has a totally different and more active sense – to compute, to calculate. The French word for software is ‘logiciel’ referring to the internal logic of a program, rather than the English reference to the simple opposite of hardware.

After French I learned Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; and could manage reasonably well in Romanian; and I could compare grammar and usage among Romance languages.  Why, I wondered, was the passive voice so common in South American Spanish.  You never actually dropped an object, it dropped itself with you involved somehow (Se me cayo). Why did the Portuguese feel the need to add a future tense to the present and past subjunctives, or create a personal infinitive which agreed with the speaker?   Why did the early English decide that it was OK to drop most subjunctive uses altogether?Why did Italian have so many intensifiers to adjectives – small, smaller, really small? Why did Russian, for that matter, decide that the endings on nouns should change depending on the number of items referred to – e.g. whether you meant one house, two, three or more?

I noticed that I felt different speaking different languages.  I huffed and shrugged and oo-la-la’d when I spoke French; flailed away with my hands when I spoke Italian, vibrated my consonants and dropped endings when I spoke Spanish in the Caribbean, lisped them when I was in Bolivia, added an Italian intonation when I was in Argentina; wagged my head and used the unusual syncopation of Hindi.  Not only did I adjust accent, intonation, and body language; but I became Malian, Brazilian, or Dominican.  Language has always been for me method acting.  I became the person to whom I was speaking.

I always have a special thrill when a foreign language first comes out of my mouth.  When I finally could speak even rudimentary German, I was excited that I was speaking the language of Schiller, Goethe, and even Adolph Hitler.  A friend of mine at Yale who was studying German, laughed off our questions about why he was learning a Nazi language, an ugly, guttural, harsh, and military tongue.  He told us that he wanted to read us two texts.  In the first, he read with all the frenzied histrionics of Hitler.  He spat out the words, yelled them imperiously, harangued and beat us with them.  In the second, he read with grace and delicacy.  The words were soft and reassuring.  “Who wrote them?”, he asked.  We were sure that the first was Hitler; but the second must be a poet.  “Schiller wrote them both”, he said.

I was working in Kigali, Rwanda, and learned that an Indian restaurant had recently opened, and I decided to eat there.  The food was excellent and authentic, and reminded me of my long stay in India.  I told the manager that I wanted to meet the cook.  He was from Bihar, I was told, and he spoke no English.  That didn’t matter, I said, I still wanted to thank him. 

When the cook came out, wiped his hands on his apron, and namaste-ed me, I spoke to him in Hindi and thanked him for the meal.   I had seen the look on his face before.  He couldn’t quite grasp the fact that a white foreigner was speaking perfect Hindi, acting like an Indian, being an Indian no different from his employer or his landlord in Patna; and there I was in the middle of Africa speaking Hindi to an indentured Indian servant dragooned from his village and shipped 3000 miles to the Heart of Darkness.

I have always wanted to speak Arabic and to learn an African language.  I know I can  handle all the aspirates and glottal stops of Arabic, for I mastered enough Arabic words in Urdu, and I knew that the grammar could never be as difficult as German or Russian.  I chose Bambara as the African language I wanted to learn.  It is the the language most widely spoken in Mali – my favorite African country - and those surrounding; and despite the many linguistic differences of the region, there is a similarity to the sound, cadence, and feeling common to all of them.  I am not so interested in communicating as I am in speaking African, perhaps the greatest linguistic, racial, and cultural transformation of my career.

However, I think I am too old to learn any more languages.  It is not that I am afraid that my brain is not up to it.  I just can’t imagine, after so many years of travel, that I can gin up enough patience and durability to manage Africa.

People say I have a talent for language, and compliment me on my accent, as if that were the key to fluency.  I love language for its complexity and its variations.  I learn the most difficult aspects of grammar early on.  I want to be able to say “If I were able and if you could come, then I might….etc.”, employing all the conditionals, subjunctives, and ablative absolutes available.  I learn to be quick on my feet, to be agile in my phrasing, and colloquial in my usage.  Accent – sounding good – is the least of it.  In other words, I don’t so much have a talent for language as I do for logical analysis and quick thinking, and have a good stage presence.

I have to admit that I was flummoxed by German and Russian; and never made the progress in them as I did in all my other languages. Perhaps I had grown cocky as I moved through all the Romance languages which are similar enough to making the going easy.  I simply had to figure out the essential differences between Portuguese and Spanish; how Spanish words were transformed into Portuguese ones; and how tense structure were formulated.  I got stuck in Romanian because although 70 percent of its vocabulary is Romance-based, the 30 percent Slavic and Turkish always got in the way.  I followed a conversation until Slavic intruded, got lost, and could not recover.  I used my own Rosetta Stone and learned the fifty or so Slavic words that were key to most sentences.  Using this system I was never lost.

German and particularly Russian are perverse.  As I first began my studies of Russian, I  asked a Russian colleague in Kiev to give me the basics of the language – how to say “I go”, for example.  He replied, “How do you want to travel?”.  I said I didn’t care and it didn’t matter.  I just wanted to go.  “In Russian, the verb is different if you go by car, by foot, or by plane”.  I knew I was in for it; and never did manage to get all the tenses, inflections, conjugations, and peculiarities of the language.  When I had the same difficulties with German, an English friend of mine who had spent many years in Germany and was definitely not a linguist, told me to relax and stop trying to figure it out, just listen. 

I know that few people learn languages as well as I do.  Many critics hammer the American educational system.  Even Danish taxi drivers speak good English, they say, so why can’t we learn like them? The answer is as simple as the observation – the Danes and Dutch have learned excellent English because no one speaks their languages, and rather than be isolated in their small lands, they speak the premier world tongue.  Eastern Europeans now speak excellent English, for it has been a sine qua non of integration into the social, political, and especially economic life of the EU.  We Americans have never needed to learn languages.  We have always considered ourselves a self-contained, powerful nation.  If other weaker and less important countries wanted to communicate with us, they could bloody well learn English.

I doubt this will change.  Critics have banged on for decades about our refusal to adopt the metric system, and we still hang on happily to our feet and inches; so there is even less hope that our diplomats, aid workers, and businessmen will do business in anything else but English. In these days of austerity and educational refocus, it is likely that language courses will be the first to go in favor of communications and business.  Language software programs, thanks to big data and advances in artificial intelligence, make decent electronic simultaneous translation possible. 

My hero has always been Sir Richard Francis Burton.  He was an adventurer, diplomat, accomplished writer and ethnographer; and he spoke 29 languages.  He was fluent in so many that he could choose the one that would allow him the best cover when he penetrated the Holy of Holies in Mecca.  He decided that he looked more like an Afghan than anything else, so spoke Pashtu and did just fine.  I will stop at nine (six fluently); but know that at least I understand how Burton did what he did.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Young Generation–Thinking Too Much?

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (3.29.13) reflects on the attitudes of the new crop of seniors graduating from college; and finds that they have lost the idealism that has characterized other generations of young people in the past.  Turning more to empirical analysis rather than larger “ethical and idealistic” vocabularies, they have lost the very bearings needed to guide them in an increasingly complex world. 

Brooks quotes liberally from the paper of one of his students at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale:

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came the Bush years and the disillusionment that came from foreign interventionism and the supremely naïve and arrogant statement by the President after 9/11: ““Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”  The Neo-Cons and their aggressive idealism to spread democracy and the American way of life seemed out of touch – an idealism without a grounding in practicality - and smart young people began to see that while Ronald Reagan’s branding the Soviet Union ‘The Evil Empire’ was necessary to provide the high moral context needed to mobilize national and international opinion and to put irresistible pressure on the Communist regime, the Neo-Cons’ words were empty.  Reagan’s words were backed up by action – not precipitous military action like Bush’s in Iraq, but a deliberate, purposeful American military buildup which would force a similar armament in the Soviet Union which would eventually bankrupt it and bring it down.

The events of 9/11 and the wars which followed; the financial crisis precipitated by what young people saw as excessive greed within a broken, rogue system; and the growth of worthy, driven, and realistically purposeful competitors like the Chinese put young people off.  Idealism had been tarnished, and the world had changed.  America was no longer Reagan’s “beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”; but a troubled nation whose actions no longer matched its words.

Young people, say Brooks and his young student, have withdrawn from this tarnished and ineffectual idealistic posturing to a much more mechanistic and empirical approach to the world. This approach, however, without any guiding moral or philosophical beacon, can easily be reduced to relativism and scatter-shot policies.  While the State Department may never arrive at a Unified Field Theory of public diplomacy, it should at least be guided by principle; and if young, smart, and talented Yale graduates are retreating from global affairs, and are abandoning their traditional position as visionaries, we are in trouble.

Here is where I disagree.  There are more George W. Bushes in the world than Ronald Reagan’s and Reagan was as much a beneficiary of circumstance as he was a true visionary.  The Soviet Union was already collapsing from within and the CIA never knew it.  If there had not been a parallel visionary on the other side of the Iron Curtain – Gorbachev – and had not his country been in dire straits, Reagan’s lofty rhetoric might have been only that – an old man banging on about traditional Republican themes.

Lyndon Johnson invented a casus belli in the Gulf of Tonkin, and American presidents are always spoiling for war.  George W. Bush did the same with yellowcake and WMD. Even a desultory look at history shows that many if not most of our wars – Mexican-American, Spanish-American, War of 1812 to choose just a few – were fought more for a venal national interests than for any larger ideal.  World history is filled with thousands more examples of kings, monarchs, and emperors who invaded other lands for nothing other than personal gain, power, and an extension of territory.

The issue is not idealism vs. empiricism; it is how to deal with irrational regimes without resorting to adventurism.  The world is asymmetrical in many ways, especially the discordance between Western rationalism and Middle Eastern illogic and faith-based politics. What we do not need is a new moral Crusade against Islam, a cause as compelling as that which inspired Christian soldiers on their way to Jerusalem.  We simply have to figure out how to root out al-Qaeda, how to reform our military strategy from its currently Pollyannaish civilian-friendly, casualty-averse position to a more amoral one much more similar to that of the enemy.  That is, we need to lose our idealism about the greatness of the American dream, and to learn how to fight down and dirty.

What kind of idealistic, moral diplomacy can work with the theocrats of Iran? What persuasive, reasonable, and moderate words of compromise can have any effect on al-Qaeda whatsoever?  The job of the State Department is exactly that for which the Yale graduates are preparing – an overhaul of our practical international military/diplomatic strategy based on reality not idealism.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

This is a good thing, not a bad one. Admittedly, as Buhler goes on to say, such logical exegesis and analysis can lead to inaction – the ‘on the one hand and on the other’ of dithering economists – but only if it is done within the wrong or inappropriate framework.  If such rigorous study will produce information concerning the whereabouts of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, assess their potential risk to American interests, and rationally determine the likelihood of military or counter-insurgency interventions, then it is the right approach. It doesn’t take a Parmenides or Plato to figure out that al-Qaeda is the enemy of the age or to decipher its intentions; but it does take a Bacon, Locke, or Mill to look at the empirical evidence, to decipher it, and to come up with logical conclusions.

On a less philosophical plane, young people need to be practical, empirical, and resolutely logical in this modern age of data, information, powerful research algorithms, social media, and parallel computing.  They need to figure things out, not to reflect upon their meaning in a higher order of being.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

Sorry, Mr. Brooks, but this is exactly what we need.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Leave It To The Handyman

I don’t do any man things around the house.  I don’t fix things, hang things, screw or hammer things.  I hate any kind of fix-‘em-up, do-it-yourself chores.  I have never grouted a bathtub, fixed a dodgy lamp, climbed on a roof, or repaired a toilet.  That’s what handymen are for.

We called Mr.Glenn Superman because he could fix anything and fix it quickly. We assembled a list of things that needed repair – sticky door jambs, running toilets, shelves to be put up, washers to be replaced, and linoleum to be laid – and when the list got over a page long, we called Mr. Glenn, a retired government worker who was handy and liked to stay active,   He came and went like a whirlwind. Jobs I couldn’t even consider doing he managed without a second’s hesitations.  He came equipped with his own power drill, tool belt, and flashlight, and slipped out to Home Depot if he needed supplies.  Before you could say Jack Robinson, Mr. Gould had zipped down the list and was asking for more.

When he first came to work, he asked to see my workbench and tools.  He wanted to take an inventory so that he could know what he needed to bring the next time.  “This is it?”, he asked when I took him to the back corner of the basement to the area where a few old screwdrivers and hammers were strewn on the half-rotten picnic table that had been left in the house by the previous owners.  I had no drills, and only a scattered, unorganized assortment of nails and screws.  There was only an incomplete set of wrenches and a stiff paintbrush.

I came by this indifference to fixing things naturally.  My father always called for help at the first sign of trouble.  He hadn’t worked his way out of the Italian ghetto to drop back down there and work with his hands.  That’s what the Polacks were for.  So, there was no long list of to-do items on the refrigerator.  If the toilet leaked, you called the plumber.  If the tube lights flickered, you called the electrician.  We had people to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, shovel the driveway, unclog the toilets, clean the gutters, and take the squeak out of doors, cabinets, and closets. 

As fate would have it, my wife comes from a family which is the polar opposite of mine. Her father never called for help, no matter how complex the task.  He could take apart a dishwasher and fix the heating element; dismantle the air conditioner and replace the condenser.  He could rewire the kitchen, reconfigure the garden, insulate the roof, and fix the garbage disposal. He was so ingenious about his repairs that he often jiggered the machine and jerry-rigged it to run perfectly well but only not the way the manufacturers had intended.  Every appliance had instructional stickers on it to explain to family and stray guests how it operated.  If you didn’t follow his elaborate instructions the appliance either wouldn’t turn on or the motor would never shut off and burn up.

When the managers of the Lake Bancroft community informed all waterfront residents that they were going to raise the water level by three feet, my father-in-law decided to raise the back forty himself.  This meant going to the C&O Railroad to buy used railroad ties, haul them on a rental truck to the property, spread the 1000 tons of topsoil up to the rebuilt seawall, seed the whole thing, weed and water it, all in time for the summer season. It was herculean.

He painted the house, regraveled the driveway, refinished the basement, and added a floor to the house all by himself.  His workroom was better equipped than the Stanley Tools showroom in New Britain, Connecticut.

Needless to say, my wife assumed that all men could do what her father did, and indeed her expectations were high.  I told her from the very beginning that I was no good at this kind of thing, and since we had the money, we could hire people who knew what to do.

There is probably no greater source of dissension in marriages than money.  The husband turns out to be a wastrel and spends his paycheck at the track.  The wife is a clothes horse who can’t resist another pair of shoes.  These weaknesses, however, are nothing compared to a much more fundamental issue – the valuation of things.  In my family, value was relative and opportunity cost reigned supreme.  The last thing my father would ever do would be to waste a perfectly good Sunday golf game fixing broken shit.  For my father-in-law, hiring someone to do something you could do by yourself was a dereliction of duty, an irresponsible act, and a waste of money.  It was almost immoral, he averred, referring to his severe Scottish ancestors, Cotton Mather, and the Puritans.

My wife finally gave up, for she soon realized that having something hammered on cockeyed was far worse than not having it hammered in at all; and so Mr. Gould entered the scene.

Andy Hines, writing in The Atlantic (3.28.13) grew up in a family just like my wife’s":

Up until the time my parents were approaching retirement age, I can hardly recall a "professional" ever working on any of the houses they owned over the years. Dad built walls and sidewalks, installed woodstoves, laid tile, added electrical circuits and plumbing fixtures, fixed furnaces, and, at the cabin, ten years after it was first built, contrived an indoor plumbing system featuring an elaborate pump rig that sent the waste up the mountain to a septic tank. His only training in construction and mechanical work had been summer jobs on the railroad and growing up in a time and place where men didn't own things they couldn't fix.

Hines followed in his father’s footsteps and became as adept at building, restoring, and fixing things as his father. As he grew older his skills became a hobby and then a resource for his friends. He was more than happy to go over and fix a toilet for a buddy.

The more he offered his assistance, however, the more he found that men were ashamed of their inability to fix things:

There are three reactions I've grown familiar with that suggest there's often anxiety about letting another guy do your "man jobs." The first is sheepishness and self-deprecation. I don't know how many times I've had men apologize to me for being inept at home improvements. I reassure them that hanging cabinets and repairing termite damage is not supposed to be encoded in their DNA. I've also been in the position of taking over a project that a man had started and then aborted once he realized he was in over his head. This can be particularly shameful and embarrassing to some guys. While I must admit that part of me sometimes wants to say, "It's okay, little buddy, Daddy's here now."

As you can see from what I have written above, I do not fall into this category of guilt-suffering males.  I could care less about 3/4” wrenches, drill bits, levels, or putty.  I more than compensate for my indifference to household repairs.  Marriage, after all, is a contract and I fulfill my end of the bargain in other ways.  I was cooking all the meals and taking care of the kids in the 70s, long before the New Age Sensitive Guy was all the rage.

I can appreciate what Hines is talking about.  We men have been raised with certain expectations, and those of us of a certain age were trained by our parents to build and fix things not flutter around the kitchen; so it is natural to have at least some residual feelings of male inferiority for not being able to hammer straight or use a power stapler.  Yet, fixing things is so BORING. Why would anyone prefer to spend their time putting in a new light fixture when they could be doing anything else?

I insist to my children that I never deliberately hammered nails in so they would bend; or drove in screws until the plaster cracked; or dripped paint all over the Persian rug; but they don’t believe me.  My son, who takes after his grandfather, has always said when I demurred on undertaking any task that required practical skill, “Daddy, you can do it.  Just be patient”.  Perhaps; and maybe I did ram the screw in crooked so that the plaster would crack and we could call Mr. Gould.  But I don’t think so.

Food Stamps, Food Shows, And Whole Foods

Suzanne Moore writing in The Guardian (3.27.13) has observed that food is the new class signifier; i.e., people are labeled and put in a socio-economic bin based on what they eat and how they pay for it. Those who receive food stamps are at the bottom of the heap, vilified as welfare queens and idle layabouts; and those foodies at the top of food chain who pay high prices at Whole Foods for organic produce and free-range chickens; and who photograph their painterly creations.  In the middle are the foodie wannabees who watch television cooking shows.  They may not have a whisk in the kitchen, but won’t miss an episode of Iron Chef.

Food, of course, has always been a class signifier. Ancient Greek heroes ate well and were attended by vestal virgins:

Aristocratic Romans were always lounged in great halls, were served figs and grapes by Nubian slaves, drank wine out of silver goblets, and ate meat, fish, fowl, and game.

The commoners, of course, had to make do with bread and circuses, the odd vegetable, rancid wine made from the dregs of the rich, and stringy, old goat.

Nothing much changed over the years.  In medieval England kings and their courtiers pulled at great joints of meat with their hands, ate with their fingers, and wiped them on the dog; but they still ate well with plenty of food and drink:

Later, the French kings raised food to an art form.  Louis XIV was one of the first locavores since he forbade the importation of non-French cheeses.

I am sure that cavemen had a pecking order.  The strongest, most able hunters got the best piece of killed meat; and the most beautiful woman got tossed a chunk of liver.

So, we modern-day foodies have a long tradition on which to base our lifestyles; and there are still plenty of poor who eat cornbread, fatback, McDonalds, and chitlins. Nothing much has changed since the days of the Romans, Henry I, or Louis XIV except that today we have a vast middle class which remembers all too well the fried catfish and dumplings of its youth, tucks in routinely to pot roast and mashed potatoes, but aspires to seared foie gras with a raspberry coulis and organic mission figs shown on TV.

Ms. Moore doesn’t like this state of affairs and laments the lot of the poor.  They not only have been marginalized and dismissed as unproductive, irresponsible social parasites; but have been treated in the most patronizing way.  Food stamps are the ultimate disgraceful act of indifference.  The rich simply cannot bear the thought of direct economic subsidies to the poor to alleviate their poverty, and must provide them with ‘in-kind’ contributions.  Government can put restrictions, codicils, and conditionalities on food stamps (no alcohol, snacks, soda, or chewing gum) while giving cash transfers is tantamount to waste, fraud, and misuse. 

There are really only three ways to deal with food and the poor.  First, continue the food stamp program, and continue to engineer it – ‘coercive compassion’ as it has been called – so that recipients are directed away from unhealthy food choices.  This is a particularly bad option because nutrition advocates can be very rabid and stubborn (viz. Michael Bloomberg), the definition of proper nutrition seems to change every few years with new scientific discoveries, and it is an unwarranted intrusion into individuals’ lives. Wealthy or poor, Americans should be free to choose and suffer the consequences or reap the benefits of their choices.  It is up to them to assess risk, cost-benefit, and comparative advantage.

Second, one could drop the food stamp program altogether for most people and reserve it for the poorest of the poor – i.e. those who have no chance to move up and out of the miserable and unfortunate conditions in which they live.  Those who have lived off government welfare would have to fend for themselves, and might have more incentive to do this if they had no food stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, or welfare checks in the mail.

Third, government could increase its Earned Income Tax Credit program which is a direct cash transfer program.  Low-income individuals who are employed get a tax credit based on their income and number of children, and the program is set up to start off high, plateau, and then taper off.  Thus, a very low income family gets maximum tax credits, keeps them as they rise in income (incentive to advance), reach a plateau, then see the benefits tapers off (disincentive to work less).  The program has had solid bipartisan support. Moore cites Harvard economist Edward Glaeser who is very much in favor:

But the added cost of relying on in-kind transfers is that, unlike our cash-based programs, these efforts are rarely well- designed to limit the adverse incentives that come from anti- poverty programs. Any assistance program that channels aid to people who earn less creates an incentive to work less hard. Any aid that is asset-tested destroys the incentive to accumulate capital.

Well-designed programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, do as much as possible to limit these negative incentives and even create some positive effects. That credit initially increases with earnings, creating an incentive to go to work; benefits taper off slowly, which limits the tendency to work too little. The design is smart, and the program seems to have encouraged employment substantially (Bloomberg.com February 2012)

Glaeser goes on to say that all in-kind programs should go.  They are riddled with inefficiencies, lack of coordination, and rife with possibilities for misuse.  Worse, they are disincentives for employment and economic advancement.

There is a natural solution: Combine our disparate aid efforts into a single program that delivers cash assistance and minimizes perverse incentives. We may still want some in-kind assistance, particularly for health care, and that could be handled by issuing vouchers. But for most aid, the Friedman solution of cash still seems right. By combining our aid programs and primarily giving cash, we can have a more efficient welfare system that provides more freedom and better incentives for aid recipients.

This is a sensible, well-thought out position.  It is based on rational economic analysis, eliminates irrational government decision-making, removes the stigma of welfare from poor families, and avoids any name-calling and castigation of the rich. There will always be class distinctions in society, and food will always be an important signifier.  It is more important to do as Glaeser has done – suggest an economically sensible, politically acceptable, and sociologically reasonable solution to a persistent problem – rather than jump on foodies or Iron Chef addicts for their excesses.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Talmud, Thomas Aquinas, And Obesity

I have heard it all now that I have read Rabbi Jonathan Crane’s article on turning to religious instruction to stop gaining weight. Writing in the New York Times (3.27.13) he says,

Christianity, especially through the teachings of Pope Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas, identifies gluttony as a mortal sin. More than just excessive desire for food, gluttony involves eating irregularly (snacking), being preoccupied with eating, consuming costly (sumptuous or unhealthy) foodstuffs and being fastidious about food. And the Koran insists that improper and wasteful eating incurs God’s wrath. Eat well and live well, Islam teaches.

Control your own satiety, he says, inspired by this long religious tradition.  Find your personal set-point, know when to push away from the table, and don’t tuck into the second bag of chips.

This approach is personalized: everyone is empowered to be in control of his own satiety. It is adaptable, changing as a person ages and ails. And although it is not exactly nonhierarchical if you believe it’s God’s will, at least it is not imposed by any human government. Finally, it is sustainable, as it promotes a culture that views limitless consumption with suspicion. Capitalism may abhor contentedness, but our bodies need us to heed it.

I first learned of the Seven Deadly Sins when I was a child; I always got them mixed up with the Ten Commandments, and never really understood them. Take wrath, for example.  Now, what did that actually mean?  “It is getting really mad”, explained my father; but this had nothing to do with the Biblical wrath described by Father Murphy on Sundays.  When God got really mad, he threw lightning bolts down from the firmament, roiled the seas into tempests, caused raging fires, catastrophic earthquakes, devastating floods, pestilence, locusts, and burning heat.  So, my wrath was not the problem here; it was keeping God happy.

Greed was another good one.  I understood that one better because I heard it all the time.  “Don’t get greedy”, said my mother as I snatched the last cupcake from the dish before my little sister could get to it.  Greed, according to my father, was the sin of all business people, especially Jews.  They were so greedy, he said, that they were avaricious misers, slaves to Mammon, who cackled over their gold at night and returned to their jewelry stores, furriers, and haberdasheries by day to exact their pound of flesh from the rest of us.  “That’s what greed is”, my father yelled.

I saw none of that.  Mr. Bernstein who ran Jimmy’s Smoke Shop always let us take a peek at the girlie magazines he had in the back of the store.  Mr. Schwartz always told my mother that he could get my new trousers wholesale and was doing her a special favor.  And Dr. Berman sewed me up for nothing when I tripped over a flagstone on his walk he had never fixed and split my lip. From the warnings of my parents, I assumed that greed was everywhere – from cupcakes to Wall Street – and again concluded that it really was nothing that I had to worry about since everybody did it.

Sloth was something that I could never have because growing up at home was worse than the most austere Scottish boarding school.  I was never allowed to sleep more than 7 hours a night.  My first generation Italian-American mother got this bad advice from some Parade article about “WASPs in America”.  Apparently WASPs, following the English Puritanical tradition believed in parsimony, hard work, discipline, and very little sleep.  Not like Italians who took siestas; or the Irish who were drunken grifters who passed out; or the Polacks who were too dumb to do anything but sleep.  I was always tired, but if I started to fall asleep over my homework, some inner prod jabbed me awake.  I was conditioned for life.

Lust was something I had in abundance.  I couldn’t stop looking up Nancy Booth’s dress, peeping at the bare titties at Jimmy’s, or  trying to get a look at Mrs. Vibberts’ when she went to have a pee. Every other boy I knew was in the same irons – we all were trapped in this horrible and painful frustration.  We were too young to know exactly what we wanted or what it looked like, but we knew it was underneath girls’ clothes.

Envy was like greed.  As far as I could see, everyone envied everyone else. “So, the Carlsons just bought themselves a fancy new Cadillac”, my mother would say, turning her nose up at the gloriously chromed and finned El Dorado in their driveway; and a few months later we had one with even more do-dads and leather than theirs.  I wanted a baseball glove just like Herbie Long; my sister pestered my mother because Susie Brown had a two-wheeler; and I wished I had rich Florida relatives like Bruce Barker who got a roomful of presents for his birthday every year from them.

I had no clue about pride except that my father said he was proud of me when I got good grades, when I walked away from a fight, when I went to Mass without complaining, and when I did what he said.  Pride was a good thing as far as I could tell, and I couldn’t imagine how too much of it could suddenly make it bad.

Which brings us to gluttony. My mother told me stories of how her uncles would stuff themselves on lasagna, eggplant, and ham pies, go throw up in the bathroom, and, emptied, come back for more food.  “An old Roman tradition”, my mother reported with disgust.

I used to eat so much food at Easter at my Aunt Leona’s that I would get a stomach ache. I couldn’t stop eating seconds and thirds of antipasto, my Aunt Angie’s manicotti, Aunt Carmen’s corn fritters; the main courses of ham and turkey; and ricotta pie for dessert. No one ever told me that I was a glutton, and everyone at the table ate as much as I did. Nor did anyone ever suggest to me that eating too much distended my stomach, overworked my intestines and bowels, and turned me into a hyena on the veldt who ripped and tore at his meat until he was so stuffed he couldn’t roll over.

It wasn’t just religious thinkers who inveighed against gluttony, reminds Rabbi Crane:

The Greeks, for example, worried that excessive consumption would disrupt the four humors constituting the human body. They, like the ancient Buddhist and Confucian traditions, encouraged moderation as the golden mean.

So, Crane concludes, we should pay more attention to these enduring philosophical and religious precepts – moderation, satiety, discipline, and self-awareness will make us more appreciative of what we have and how much we need.

Among these old arguments is the novel idea of eating less than what fills one’s belly. The Talmud teaches that people should eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty. (A hadith in the Islamic tradition also teaches this.) Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, interpreted the Talmud to mean that the final empty third is necessary so that the body can metabolize emotions. If one ate until one’s belly was completely full, there’d be no room left to manage one’s emotions and one would burst asunder.

Now this is a compelling argument.  It links at least two of the deadly sins.  If you ate too much (gluttony), your emotions would explode (wrath) and except for lust (who can think of sex on a bloated stomach?) the rest would probably follow.  Gluttony was, in this view, the central sin; and if one could avoid it, the road to purity and salvation would be easy. In my experience, refusing a third helping of lasagna was far easier than stanching my envy of Bruce Barker’s birthday haul or looking down Nancy Booth’s blouse.

In practical, social terms – the serious contention of Rabbi Crane’s piece – this ascetic approach is very definitely un-American.  In our materialistic, individualistic, acquisitive, and commercial world more is always better.  If it weren’t for greed we wouldn’t amass wealth; and if it were not for envy, marketers would come up empty.  Sex sells and without tits-and-ass, the economy would be more hurting than it already is.  Satiety? Hell, we don’t even know the meaning of the term.

The old WASPs of my neighborhood would have been Rabbi Crane’s heroes if they hadn’t kept Jews out of the Country Club.  They were abstemious, restrained, wore sweaters and drove old cars, ate tiny portions of simple food, and were models of rectitude and old-fashioned propriety.  Above all, they were not fat.  In fact, many of them were stringy.  My mother used to sniff at Mrs. Porter.  “There she goes in that ratty car, dressed in her doughty clothes, scrawny as a scarecrow when she has the wealth of Croesus in the bank”.  Envy, jealousy, wrath, pride all rolled into one; but Mrs. Porter was the ideal to which my mother aspired, and thanks to her, my sister and I are lean and hungry.

The WASPs are just about all gone.  My wife likes to point out that the Cosmos Club and the Society of the Cincinnati are still features of Washington; and old-line ladies still dodder about various women’s clubs; but they are a fading breed, and with them any hope of moderation, discipline, and satiety.

We have to realize that enough is enough. We should stop asking ourselves, “Am I full?” and start asking, “Am I satisfied?”

It all depends on what ‘satisfied’ means.  A good, red-blooded American will defiantly say ‘Never!’ and we cheer his ambition, drive, desire, and will to attain.  How about something simpler like, “Hey, fatty, stop eating so much”.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Have Murder Rates Gone Down? Not Because Of Gun Control

A short time after Washington, DC liberalized its gun laws – some of the most restrictive in the nation – I was surprised to find that the most registered guns were in one of the wealthiest and most crime-free ZIP codes of the city; and that the most crime-ridden areas had far fewer.  It only took me a few minutes to realize that only law-abiding citizens register their guns, and the rest buy them illegally.

The DC homicide rate for guns is the highest in the nation; and is also tops for robberies with guns. At the same time, violent crime is down by 50 percent since 1995, a trend which has been seen in other major metropolitan areas as well.  In other words, illegal guns are still very much a part of life in DC, but the city is far safer than it was almost twenty years ago.

David Brooks (New York Times 3.26.13) has suggested that the reason murder rates and other violent crimes have decreased has nothing to do with gun control.  The number of guns has actually gone up over the same period during which violence has gone down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did an analysis of 51 studies of a series of gun control regulations. It could not find evidence to prove the effectiveness of gun control laws. A 2012 study conducted at Arizona State University and the University of Cincinnati found that waiting periods and background checks had little statistical effect on gun crimes.

Brooks suggests that the reduction in violence is due to a range of other factors, and that the focus on guns, gun control, and gun crimes has diverted attention from far more important measures for public safety.

Over the last 25 years, American authorities have tried to interrupt that killing chain at almost every link except one. In a hodgepodge but organic manner, there have been vast changes in proactive policing, mentoring programs, gang eradication programs, incarceration rates, cultural attitudes and so on. The only step in the killing chain that we haven’t really touched is gun acquisition. Federal gun control laws have become more permissive over the last several years.

This de facto approach — influencing the whole killing chain except gun acquisition — has nonetheless contributed to a phenomenal decline in violence. Murder rates over all have fallen by about 50 percent, back to levels not seen since the Kennedy administration. There are thousands of people alive today because homicide rates dropped so precipitously.

One of the most effective measures adopted by many cities – DC and Boston in particular – is to deploy police to areas which experience the most violent crimes.

As can be seen from this map, almost all homicides occur east of Rock Creek Park, and especially in the neighborhoods in Anacostia and Congress Heights; and the MPD is convinced that its more visible and muscular presence in these areas has reduced the crime rate.  This phenomenon is not restricted to DC:

For example, as Heather Mac Donald of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, points out, 75 percent of the shootings in Boston over the past 30 years have occurred in 4.5 percent of its area, while 88.5 percent of the city’s street segments had not had a single shooting. So how can we focus police resources on those few areas that host most of the killing?

Why this obvious, targeted approach was not used in the past is because of politics.  Past DC Administrations did not want to ‘stigmatize’ the majority black populations in these areas and was concerned that pictures of cops (especially white and Latino ones) searching, questioning, and arresting black residents would smack of South African apartheid.  Liberal whites were concerned about what they saw as constitutional issues associated with aggressive policing in minority neighborhoods.  The ACLU recently objected to successful ‘Jump Out’ squads deployed in high-crime areas of Wilmington, DE for these same reasons.  Targeted police action in majority black neighborhoods is tantamount to the racial profiling of an entire group, critics say. .

It is clear that gun control is not likely to happen any time soon. We are a gun-loving nation and we are attached to our guns for practical, economic, and ideological reasons.  Not only do we legitimately use guns to hunt, for self-defense, and for pastime; gun ownership, as enshrined in the Second Amendment, is a political statement; and in the mind of many is the last bastion of individual liberty. 

Not only that, but as the CDC statistics indicate, there is no correlation between gun control and murder.  As I have shown in the case of DC, the most draconian rules in the nation have done nothing to curb gun-related violence.

Past efforts to control guns have not dramatically reduced violence. The Gun Control Act of 1968, the Brady Act of 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 all failed to reduce homicides significantly. The Brady law, for example, led to a drop in suicides for those age 55 and older, but a 2000 study commissioned by the American Medical Association found that it did not lead to a reduction in the overall murder rate.

It is very hard for gun control advocates to consider the larger picture of gun-related violence in the country; and for them nothing will suffice except for a complete ban on all kinds of handguns and assault weapons.  Their efforts and considerable financial resources have been spent on a losing cause.  If only a fraction of these funds had been spent on other promising interventions to reduce violent crime, the rates might have dropped even further. Just as gun ownership is a symbol of liberty, self-reliance, independence, and fundamental American values for some; it is considered the evil center of an anti-‘progressive’ society, one which favors individualism over community and collective action.  Just as the NRA hardens its position, the anti-gun lobby hardens theirs, and the ideological wars continue.

There seems to be one reasonable not of compromise between the two – universal background checks; but this will hardly make a dent in gun-related violence because most such violence is committed with illegal firearms.  The only way to reduce gun-related crime is to reduce the crime; and this, as Brooks has shown, can happen only if a more intelligent, apolitical, and rational deployment of police is carried out; and much more investigation, testing, and analysis needs to be carried out to find out the best and most promising means to enhance policing. For example:  

Robert Maranto of the University of Arkansas points out, in New York police chiefs and precinct leaders are held accountable for changes in the murder rate in their areas. New York has seen an 80 percent drop in the homicide rate.

Why shouldn’t this approach be applied much more widely?

More fundamentally, the roots of crime are in the dysfunctional families and neighborhoods in Anacostia and the inner cities of other American metropolitan areas.  Unless local community and religious leaders address anti-social behavior, condemn violence, refuse entitlements, and accept majority social norms, the violence will continue.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Man Who Polished His Balls

A gym is never just a gym, and in my first few days of membership I stared at the freak show of pendulous man-tits, hippo thighs; scrawny, neurasthenic, skeletal women; and saw more protuberances, cavities, declivities, carbuncles, warts, stroke-grimaces, hammer toes, and scabies than I ever thought possible. Who would have ever imagined what misshapen, horribly flabby, distended bodies were covered by Brooks Brothers, Armani, and J.Press?

There seemed to be a lot more circus items in the old days when I first joined.  The Gerbil, for example, is long gone.  He looked exactly like a rat, with a small head, pointy nose, receding chin, and tiny little eyes.  He had spindly legs and arms, and when he got on the treadmill, he pumped them so fast that he looked like he was working the exercise wheel in a hamster cage. Jabba the Hut weighed at least 400 pounds and maxed out the whirlpool, displacing so much water that all the intake valves and jets stopped working when he got in.  He had gastric bypass surgery, which got him down to about 275, and compared to his former bulk, he looked just great.  Except for his right leg which, for some reason, never went down.  He was a normal-looking man other than this giant elephantitis leg which he had to haul in and out of the pool.  He had to have special pants made.

There was Death, a sallow, greyish scarecrow who worked the elliptical with an intensity and a far-away look so vacant that I thought she was staring into the next world.  It turned out that she was just nuts, not dying of cancer as it seemed, but only trying to get her weight down into negative figures, and she simply could not stop working out.  She was always on the machine when I walked in and was still on it, looking even more gaunt and desperate, when I left.

Hot Shit is still there, barking about her triathlons, biathlons, and Iron Woman over-70  endurance events. She barks so loud that everyone in the gym can hear her statistics – heart rate, number of reps on the bench press, stress test results, miles biked, run, walked, or swum.  She looks like a scarecrow, down to the straw-looking hair.  She is tall, scrawny, and totally full of shit.  My wife, who recently joined the gym told me that a few days ago she saw her naked in the locker room.  It was scary, and she had to look away.  I can only imagine a full frontal view of the woman and her shrunken dugs, parchment-like skin, and wizened other parts.

Nothing can compare, however, with The Man Who Polishes His Balls.  At first glance you would think nothing of him.  He is late middle aged, hairier than most, with a kind of monkey fur all over his back which is slightly humped.  He is bald, has very twiggy legs; but other than that, one of the crowd.  One day I had gotten out of the shower at the same time as he, and watched him dry his balls.  He took his towel, put it between his legs, grabbed one end from the front and the other from the back, assumed a Maori All-Black stance, and started whipping it back and forth as fast as a shoeshine man at Grand Central.  Whip, whip, SLAP.  Whip, whip, SLAP.  First on one side of his balls, then the other. He did it for so long and with such speed and vigor that I was sure that his balls must have become tough and leathery.  For most of us, a few quick swishes of the towel and we are as dry as we need to be; but he pumped and whacked until every possible drop of moisture was out from between his crack, thighs, and legs. 

His father probably got him started when he was very young.  “Now, Bobby, listen very carefully. I am going to teach you a lesson that you will remember your whole life”, and with that he took one of the tea towels from the powder room and showed his little son how to flip it back and forth around his pea-sack to get everything very, very dry. 

Once you get started so young, especially if you have been instructed by your father, you can never stop.  And so Bobby the man, whipped and snapped the towel at the gym, polishing his balls, and getting them very, very dry.

After that, I thought I had seen everything; but today I saw a young man, buck naked, ironing his shirt.  I would be afraid that if I ever did that I would roast my wiener on the iron, so just seeing him getting the wrinkles out (he was very good, and the steam iron hissed and gurgled as he expertly stood it up at the end of the board while he turned his shirt) made me cringe.

Now I can rest and stop writing about the gym.  I hardly notice the sexual fantasies of the mid-life, pre-menopause women straddled by the big black trainers, and panting, “Am I doing it right?  Should I be doing it harder? Tell me.  Please.” I pay little attention to the jerks who talk to their trainers about skiing at Gstaad and eating foie gras paired with an Alsatian Riesling.  These poor trainers live in fucking Gaithersburg, take the Red Line down to the gym, listen to nonsense like his all day, then go home to drink beer, get their wives to turn over, watch some football, and start the next day all over again.  Or the older women who jabber on about their gardens, their grandchildren, or their knees.  Very little actual training is done, a few pushes and pumps here and there, but not much else.  The members get fatter and fatter and wonder why since they are doing personal training three days a week; and the trainers have the easiest job going.  Shit salary to be sure, but very little work.

I am very regular about going to the gym. I can’t say I like it, now that I have gotten blasé about the circus sideshows, and am there just for business; but like everyone my age I need to keep the joints and muscles in working order, stretching this, strengthening that, so I go regularly.  I get my heart rate up, huff and puff enough to break a sweat, pump some iron, and then as a reward, shvitz in the steam room, soak in the whirlpool, and bake in the sauna.

I am sure that despite my diffidence, Ringling Bros. will come by again and there will be more and better sideshows than ever; but for the time being, it’s just a gym.

Why Are States So Different?

Bill Keller wonders in the New York Times (3.25.13) why states are so different from each other.  How is it that Colorado could have such a permissive marijuana law while in neighboring Wyoming you can get thrown in jail for a year for small possession.  Or why North Dakota has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation while South Dakota has a far less onerous one. He concludes that the principal reason is not a real difference between states, despite current theories of ‘sorting’, geographic self-selection into red and blue areas, and rural-urban splits, but because of nature of state legislatures themselves:

“People who participate in state and local government tend not to be representative of the masses at all,” Abrams told me. “They tend to be highly engaged political elites — 15 percent of the population who think they’re fighting this culture war. They’ll see an opening. They’ll see a judge, they’ll see a legislature that looks amenable to something, and they’ll try to push it through and build a groundswell around that.”

This is an interesting but facile conclusion. Anyone who has travelled by car through the United States knows within a few miles that he is in a different state.  Although Mississippi and Alabama are often lumped together by political analysts who see them similar in their political cast and social indicators, they are vastly different places.  Mississippi has the Mississippi River and the rich Delta bottom land where vast cotton plantations were established. The legacy of slavery, the industrialization of cotton, and the outflow of capital over the years left the Delta the poorest area of the state. Mississippi has the highest percentage of blacks of any in the country, and the Delta counties the highest percentage of all . At the same time, many of the descendants of King Cotton era plantations never left Mississippi contributing to its social conservatism. 

Alabama, on the other hand, while sharing much of Mississippi’s history was far less reliant on cotton.  Without rich delta lands, newcomers turned to forestry or river trade.  Alabama has always had an important deep-water port, Mobile, while Mississippi had to rely on New Orleans.  Alabama has far fewer blacks than Mississippi (26 percent compared to 38).  In short, its geography and history have given it its own uniqueness.

The same can be said for my native state of Connecticut.  While it shares much with neighboring Massachusetts, no one could confuse the two.  Boston dominated the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and was a major engine of Northern economy in the early days of the Republic. Boston was an important hub of the Three Cornered Trade and became a major economic and financial center. Connecticut grew because of small industry and farming along its major rivers. The Colonial and post-Revolutionary history and politics of the two states were quite different beginning with the characters of the modest Thomas Hooker of Connecticut and the important Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Both states today have distinct geographic and socio-economic areas. Fairfield County, a bedroom community of New York City is one of the wealthiest in the nation. Far eastern counties near Rhode Island are relatively poor.  Western Massachusetts has little in common with the eastern, maritime region. Although similar in their socio-economic and cultural diversity, the differences are different; and the character of each state is made up of these distinctions.

While the landscape of eastern Texas looks much like that of western Louisiana for 100 miles or less, the traveller soon realizes that he is in a very different state indeed.  Northern California has much of the same rugged coastline as that of Oregon, but one soon recognizes that their history and geography, migration, and climate make them distinct and unique. The same can be said of most if not all states in the Union.

Therefore, one cannot easily dismiss the importance of these socio-economic and other factors when assessing states’ political character.

Recent publications by Morris Fiorina and Bill Bishop have sought other factors that contribute to the phenomenon of red and blue states and why they seem never to change.  In fact, except for the major political shift of the South from blue to red in the era of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’, there have been few other significant dislocations.  I have written recently (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/02/are-we-really-polarized-nation.html) about political polarization and find no evidence as other have of a more unified, or at least less divided country.  Only demographics will change the calculus of the Southern red states, for example.  The percentage of blacks in Mississippi will only continue to rise and with it an erosion of white conservative strength.  Hispanics will move quickly into the state as they have elsewhere in the South when economic opportunities arise.  States like Mississippi, largely because of demographic shifts, may become swing states because of a black-white split, just as others like Ohio, Florida, etc. have split for geo-economic ones.

The divisions in political expressions, then, can be explained by reflecting on and analyzing the social, demographic, economic, and cultural trends of any state and predict how they will vote on any particular issue.  While there is no doubt that the configurations of state and local political bodies are more susceptible to extremist ideas, their positions do not come about solely because of the functional disconnect between legislator and governed. There has to be something about the idea itself that is generated from within the state.

There is one important, if not seminal factor that is almost never raised when discussing political divisions and polarity; and that is between those who base their assumptions on logic, and those who don’t. Not only is Mississippi the poorest state in the Union and the most politically conservative, but it has one of the highest numbers of Christian fundamentalists.  Most surveys indicate that over 60 percent of Americans are fundamentalists, and that number is significantly higher in the South and higher still in Mississippi.

Most fundamentalists are ‘fundamental’ because they believe in ‘Biblical inerrancy’ – the literal and absolute truth of the Bible. In other words, the Bible has primacy when it comes to sorting out world affairs.  The lyrics of the old country song, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so” remain even more pertinent than ever.  In an increasingly complex and modernizing age, the Bible for many is the only place to which to turn for certainty (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/03/why-we-are-unable-to-compromisebrain.html).  In fact, early fundamentalists became militant in reaction to a modern world which they saw as eroding Christian values.

Christian fundamentalism refers to a movement begun in the late 19th and early 20th century British and American Protestant denominations among evangelicals who reacted energetically against theological and cultural modernism. Fundamentalists argued that 19th century modernist theologians had misinterpreted or rejected certain doctrines, especially biblical inerrancy, which evangelicals viewed as the fundamentals of Christian faith (Wikipedia)

It is no surprise that a state like Mississippi, which is so fundamentalist Christian, votes extremely conservatively on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights, reproductive rights, the teaching of Evolution, and even civil rights.  Looking at the electoral map, the same phenomenon is true across the board – the more fundamentalist the population, the more predictably socially conservative the voting patterns.  Within a fundamentalist society there is no process of logical exegesis – reviewing contradictory claims, subjecting them to a disciplined, objective analysis, and arriving at a conclusion.  There is no question that abortion is wrong because the Bible says it is wrong to take a life.  No one needs to debate the nature of life, the origin of life, or whether the fetus is a sentient being or not, or whether it even matters.  Abortion is simply and always wrong.

Many researchers on conspiracy theories (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html) have observed that once an individual subscribes to one illogical theory, it becomes far easier to accept a second or more; and eventually to conflate all into one grand unified theory – They Are Out To Get Us.  So it is with Biblical inerrancy.  Once one rejects objective analysis for faith-based (illogical) conclusions codified in the Bible, then it is not so hard to jump to unsubstantiated theories about creeping socialism, international cabals, unholy alliances, and the coming nuclear apocalypse.

In conclusion, if one really wants to predict how a particular state will vote on a particular issue, look first to the number of fundamentalist Christians on the rolls.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Beware Of Frankenfish!! OMG!

There is an unwritten rule about technology – ‘There is no going back’. Although people have reacted with shock and horror at new technology, there is no way to un-discover it. Socrates once warned about the dangers of writing:

“The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it,” said Socrates, “They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered.” (www.memebox.com)

The same was said of the computer and word processing.  The ability to draft endlessly, edit, and produce endless revisions would erode mental discipline and the hard-won ability to analyze, organize, and synthesize.  The electric light would destroy the natural harmony between man and the cycles of nature.  The telephone would open the home to unwanted intrusion and invasions of privacy; and it would disembody the very personality of human relations.  The Iron Horse would despoil the peaceful, God-given plains of the West, scare buffalo and antelope, shake the foundation of millennia-old mesas, cloud the azure heavens with infernal blackness.  Airplanes violated the most sacrosanct and pure of God’s creation – the air – and would eventually create a jungle of metal, noise, and contraption.

The first discoveries of Watson and Crick were greeted with panic – Man was playing God – and the chorus of dissenters and doomsday prophets has only gotten louder and more strident.  When Dolly the Sheep was cloned, the prophets said, “See”, and predicted the deformation of the human race, the commercialization of God’s image, and a satanic manipulation of us all.  The mapping of the human genome increased the wailing and renting of garments.  This, said the naysayers, was a blueprint for disaster.  Conspiracy theorists created weird plots of government –controlled, mindless and amoral soldiers, engineered to kill without compassion or judgment.  Pastors banged on from pulpits across the country about distorting God’s will, cited Biblical injunctions against such apostasy and heresy.  Every Commandment was broken, they said.  The First because Man was assuming the role of God.  The second because interfering in God’s plan was idolatry.  The Fifth because soon there would be no fathers and mothers to honor since life would begin in a test tube, then deformed in Man’s image.

Computer science and Information Technology are well on the way to perfecting a virtual reality and an electronic interface between mind and computer has already been achieved, although in simple experiments.  Eventually and in the not too distant future, a complete interface will be achieved.  Our thoughts will be mediated via the computer, and each of us will have immediate and complete access to all information ever generated.  We will be able to create our own virtual world, drawing from our fantasies and coloring them with historical facts.  Our virtual world will be indistinguishable from the real one.

The idea is anathema to many, another perversion of God’s laws by Man.  There is a sanctity to the fundament.  It says so in the Bible:

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

A virtual world will deny Creation, upset the order of the universe, create an imaginary, perverse world only imaginable by the Devil himself.

Yet, can anyone imagine that these genies will ever go back into the bottle? Who can imagine that anyone would ever reject a virtual world of one’s own making, a world of exotic pleasures, excitement, travel.  It might seem weird at first to plug your head into the computer, but as soon as the bright new world of limitless possibilities opens when you push Enter, you will have a very hard time indeed returning in time to walk the dog.

Can anyone imagine refusing the option to create an offspring with the mind of Einstein, the body and athletic prowess of Michael Jordan, and the allure of Brad Pitt? Or to pluck out an offending gene as you would a hair from your soup?  Or to change personality weekly?

Once the technology train has left the station, there is no stopping it.  Human beings have always, persistently and predictably, quaked and howled at innovation.  We are nothing but self-protective, conservative, narrow-minded beings, and we always will.  But most of us get on the train once we realize that it will not return and its destination is a happy one.

There is an entire industry of naysayers in America today as there has been in the past. Men and women who have invested their life and their careers on stopping progress in the name of some indefinable higher good.  Through their eyes everything has a destructive and fearsome downside.  All nuclear plants will explode, spewing radioactivity around the globe creating generations of mutants.  All oil pipelines will burst, covering the pristine prairies with black sludge. Recombinant DNA science will soon go awry, creating cats that bark and fish that fly.  The world will end soon in an environmental Armageddon, black with soot and pollution, hot with radiation, and covered with a slime of bad water.

These apocalyptic preachers have weighed in on genetically-modified foods (GMO) and despite the conclusions of the scientific community that these foods will be a boon to the world, feeding tens of millions who would otherwise go hungry; will help cleanse the planet of polluting pesticides and fertilizers; and will reduce food costs to the poor, they won’t quit.

Whole Foods is getting on the bandwagon and has banned GMO fish, and in this self-serving statement aimed at its green, ‘progressive’, wealthy audience said:

"We believe all farmed animals -- whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes."

How absolutely ridiculous.  Breeding programs should not just produce fish, but attend to their welfare.  Who cares? What about salmon breeding pens where salmon, used to roaming free in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, have to live cheek by gill with thousands of other shoving, jostling neighbors. And why is that any worse than the ‘wild caught’ tuna which is reeled in with a huge hook in its mouth, then stuck with a harpoon to get it aboard, then knocked silly before tossing it into the deep freeze?

My Uncle Guido is the only person who doesn’t seem to care that chickens are bred to have gigantic breasts, so pendulous and heavy that their spindly little legs won’t hold them up so they have be trussed in special gear so that they can peck while permanently hoisted.  He knows that they are the stupidest creatures on God’s green earth and they wouldn’t know if they were ranging freely or pecking while suspended on pulleys.  The same goes for salmon.  He reminded me that there have been no experiments so far to show that salmon are particularly intelligent, and as long as there is enough oxygen in the water and enough food to eat, then who cares about unruly neighbors?  I don’t think a dog knows or cares much whether he eats kibble twice a day, 365 days a year, as long as there is plenty of it; and he is happy for two squares while his wild wolf cousin has to spend a lot of time in the cold just to catch a measly rabbit.

Now, let’s assume for a minute that some of these breeding practices do affect the psyche of the salmon or fish.  That somewhere in their pea brains they sense that something is missing or that something is not right.  What has being a GMO fish have to do with it?  One of the advantages of GMO salmon is that they grow to maturity in half the time of regular salmon, thus increasing supply and keeping costs low.  The fish has no way of knowing that he is getting very fat very quickly.  He is never hungry because the breeder keeps him well fed, and as far as the neighbors are concerned?  Well, bumping into fat fish is not too much different than bumping into skinny ones, especially if you are also fat.

The statement of Whole Foods is as cynical as they come.  They don’t give a flying fuck about the welfare of their salmon beyond the narrow confines of the market.  They have no doubt that genetic modification is a boon for them. They know from their breeder suppliers that there is no such thing as a happy salmon or an unhappy one for that matter, so if the oversensitive rich green ‘progressives’ want to maintain the illusion and the fantasy that letting dumb salmon breed more slowly is a good thing, then let them pay for the extra cost.  Whole Foods has no difficulty whatsoever in passing on the cost to the consumer, especially if he feels that the extra dollar per pound is saving the environment.  It’s one big joke, and these misguided, misdirected, and self-contented ‘progressives’ are the brunt of it.

The Whole Foods proclamation is to be expected and the ban on GMO fish will only be temporary.  Consumers will get over their freaky freezy opposition as soon as they

realize that with every Dorito, candy bar, Drake’s Cake, and Hostess Twinkie they are eating GMO corn products.  They will soon see that the GMO train has already left the station, and while it might feel good to bid it good riddance for now, it will be back on its next scheduled run, and they will be sure to get on.

All this goes to show that good, green ‘progressives’ do not have enough to do.  There is enough to worry about in the world today without having to worry about the welfare of chickens or fish and whether GMO salmon will break out of their Icelandic pens and turn the whole North Atlantic into freaks:

‘Progressives’ are really Regressives, and they are like every Bible-thumping, Armageddon-preaching, Doomsday-saying, Apocalypse-forewarning worrywart of the past. Get over it and get used to it.  The GMO genie is out of the bottle.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Working From Home

I can’t imagine why anyone would work in an office from 9-5.  There is nothing more dispiriting, deadening, and mind-numbing to be in an airless glass shaft for eight hours, poking out only to chat with the girls over tuna melt.  Gone are the good old days of the  civilized three-martini lunch spent in downtown men’s clubs where one discussed golf, private schools, and business. Gone too are the cinq a sept liaisons; the post-affair cocktails at the Mayflower, Hays-Adams, or Jockey Club.  Life was more civilized then, and going to the office was fun.  Men got to fight in a gladiatorial ring for market share or a corner office and then spread their seed widely.  A little squash at the Club if Nancy or Jane or Melissa were unavailable; and work that counted – decision-making, hard choices, hanging out on the ledge, fighting it out in the pit, and making bloody money. Women got to show a little thigh and catch a man – a sport easier than making money, given how susceptible men are to a little pussy, but competition nonetheless.  A girl couldn’t put out too much or too often, and had to trump up her credentials beyond the ken of the secretarial pool.

I never worked during the Golden Age of office work, the famous Mad Men Fifties, but I did work at the World Bank in the early Eighties which, thanks to its older European personnel, was still ranging a few decades back. There were five-week Tuscan holidays, long lunches in the Executive Dining Room, and plenty of attractive and available Jamaican, Somalian and Palestinian Project Officers on every floor.

There were also secretaries – not Administrative Assistants or Associates – who typed in a typing pool, who smoked, and who survived the class-structured, type-and-keep-your-mouth-shut through elaborate, byzantine, games.

Barbara East was my hero.  She was a secretary in my division of the Infrastructure Department of the Bank.  She was, like Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, and just as smart.  She never made it past high school, a prisoner of the class system, and resented every Englishman who crossed her path.  Our division chief had won a special prize and had gone up to Oxford, but Barbara never let him forget that he was the son of railroad people, no better than her, worse actually because he affected a plummy accent and tried to deny his roots while she proudly honked and quacked hers, dropped her aitches, and used gutter slang. 

Barbara knew that in the very English and European Bank, she would never make it beyond Administrative Secretary.  She found her job boring, demeaning, and insulting and needed to find a pastime to help her make it through the day.  Hers was to get dirt on everybody in the division.  Who was fucking whom, who was gay, who hated his wife, and who wanted to kill Hermann Goetz, the Nazi Division Chief who ran his office like the Gestapo.  She worked on me for the four years that I managed to stay at the Bank, and never managed to find my smoking gun.  I led her down blind alleys, primrose paths, deviant passageways, dark and mysterious arcades, but never to the truth.  Whatever peccadilloes I was hiding, I never let on.  It didn’t matter to Barbara, for the fun was in the hunt.  The ‘gotcha’ was only the frosting on the cake.

Which leads me to the present day.  My last job was at a bottom-line, take-no-prisoners, private firm out to make a killing by bidding on everything, winning a third, and managing successful bids by keeping costs low.  One way they did this was by working their young, idealistic, recent MPH graduates to the bone.  Once they had reduced them, through 14-hour days, weekends, and no vacations, to quivering wrecks, they quit; and the firm hired another round of eager, idealistic, and ambitious youngsters.

The 9-5 had morphed into the 9-7 long before I arrived.  Lunches were eaten in, not out; and if a minion managed a break, it was at the Subway across the street watching the clock. Cinq a sept liaisons were relics, and sex was reserved for weekend debauches when the twenty-somethings, on furlough from Angola Prison, let all hell break loose. I was the beneficiary of some of this frustrated largesse, and I can attest that there was one hell of a lot of frustration built up in these girls.

The minions complained long and loud about the work-life imbalance, but the firm, reaping plenty of profits for stockholders with its grind-‘em-down-until-they-leave-and-hire-new-ones business model would have none of it. They told middle management that they would have to acknowledge the hard work of their subordinates, take them out for a chili dinner once and a while, but hew to the party line. 

As part of the discussion about work-life balance the subject of working at home was raised. Life would be a lot easier, said the minions, if they could participate in virtual meetings, cranked out drafts from their home computers, and checked in periodically with their bosses.  The company tried it out on a limited basis.

I loved the idea.  Except for this job, the one at the World Bank, and an earlier one in the mist of my early ‘career’, I had been on my own – a private consultant, Lone Ranger interloper, and international part-time bon vivant, part-time problem-solver. Working from home?  I could deal with that.

I have crazy hours.  I normally wake up and am at my best at 4am.  I do my best work between 4-10 in the morning.  I have the tunnel vision common to most early-risers. We are preternaturally alert in the dark before anyone else is up.  I figured I could work my normal circadian schedule and game the system at the same time. I sent out reams of emails at 4am, attached commentaries on proposals, and gave directions to my staff in four countries. When I left at 3pm to ‘work at home’ no one doubted me, and everyone assumed that I worked the same 14 hour day that they did.  The truth was that I got more work done between 4-7am than they could ever imagine in their long, dull day; so I got to play between 7-9 and after 3pm. In fact, when I left the company, I was considered a model employee for having given so much to the company.

The fact is that in the few hours of the day that I actually worked, I produced high-quality outcomes. I was value-added to the company, for they assumed that anything from an alter kocker at the end of this career was gravy, and instead got K Street magic. I worked the work-from-home system to maximum advantage.

Of course top executives are unhappy with the move towards out-of-office experiences. They know that when we are patched in on a conference call, we push the ‘Mute’ button and go stir the soup; and that most of us, what with bawling, shitty diaper babies, and doorbells, can’t really do a lick of work; but the tide has turned. Virtual reality is here to stay.  Sitting in interminable meetings with dumb bosses and dumber colleagues is so yesterday.  Social media and the IT revolution mean that WE rule, set our own agenda, interact at our own speed

I for one have milked the system good and proper.  I was a consultant in a venal and corrupted international development system, so no one noticed if I was out fucking Esmeralda.  I came and went at the World Bank because they were antediluvian and retrograde in their social policies; and I was a hero at my private Washington firm because I ‘worked so hard for the poor’.

Here’s to all who work at home, want to work at home, or even aspire to an independent work life and a reasonable work-life balance.  Bonne chance!!