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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Much Should I Pay? The Answer Is In Our Blood

All economists will tell you that there is no such thing as inherent value.  That is, the price that is charged for a good or service is determined by both supply and demand; but this apparently simple equation is in fact very complex, particularly on the demand side. Our willingness to pay has as much to do with our personality – the way we are and how we see the world – as with dollars and cents.

One of my uncles used to spend hours on the phone and later on the computer trying to get the best price for everything he bought from screws and light bulbs to yews and Atlantic salmon.  He had been brought up on a Western farm during the Depression, and for him it was foolish if not downright stupid to pay anything more than rock-bottom prices.  His wife, who had grown up in easier circumstances and whose family had not struggled, grew irritated and impatient with him.  He could be making better use of his time, she hectored.  He spent so much time squirreled away in his office, his voice rumbling on about sales and percentages off, bulk buys, and two-for-one offers, that he squandered other, more remunerative opportunities.  He could have been a high-priced business consultant, she argued, and instead he was up there quibbling about saw blades and grass seed.

For him, items did indeed have absolute value – the lowest possible price; and there was no give in his conclusion.  Opportunity cost had no place in his economic ethos.  Consulting and niggling over price were two entirely different and separate issues.

This particular world view extended beyond the marketplace.  There was only one right way to travel from Point A to Point B – the shortest, least congested route, which would save gas, and wear and tear on the car.  He and his wife would pore over maps, AAA Trip Tiks, and travel logs to select the best possible route.  Again, there was absolutely no give in his calculations.  There was only one right way.

When I was about ready to leave for home after a visit, he always asked me how I was going to go. “You should take Arthur Boulevard to Rt. 350”, he said, “then take Fern Road”. I always replied in the same way, explaining that I was going to take the Parkway.  Although it was quite a bit longer, it was always fluid and uncongested and wound through wooded countryside.  Best of all, my route had few turnoffs. I could engage the cruise control, crank up the music, and let my mind wander. The value of this pleasant, simple, but longer route was worth the extra miles.

I should reconsider, my uncle insisted. “Here”, he said. “Look at the map”. He was stubborn, obdurate, and implacable, and cheap.

My parents were the exact opposite of Uncle Harry, and they did things that drove him nuts.  They bought a new car every two years – a Cadillac at that – despite the well-known rapid depreciation in value.  They ate in restaurants that my uncle considered ‘ridiculously overpriced’ – no food, the said, regardless of the care or artistry in its preparation or the liveliness and attractiveness of the venue, was worth what they charged.  My uncle scoffed at my parents who bought clothes at J.Press, Brooks Bros. and Neiman Marcus when perfectly good seconds could be had at Marshall’s or factory outlets.  My mother and father were profligates, wasters, and incorrigible spendthrifts.

Not at all, said my parents.  My mother understood that my father needed some unalloyed pleasures after a hard week’s work, and a $250 meal at La Rotonde was well worth the expense. Buying all his clothes at just a few familiar stores which were traditional enough to rarely change their styles, meant that my father never had to waste time thinking about fashion.  He needed to look good, and could be in and out of the store in a matter of minutes. 

I never balk at buying a first-rate, hundred dollar Pinot from Willamette Valley wine, because I don’t spend money on much else.  When I am in New York, I choose restaurants by their reputation, not by price.  I visit the city once or twice in five years, and the escape from the dull, drab, and banal offerings of Washington eateries is worth even twice what I pay in New York.  I drive old cars, wear shoes until they wear out, and read books from the library. I have money for foie gras and truffles. Value is relative.

Most Americans have an almost instinctive sense for pricing, and make purchases according to their upbringing and personal sense of value, cash flow, and perceived quality. More than that, Americans deeply understand variable pricing.  We know that the Exxon on the east side of Mass Ave charges one price per gallon, while the Shell on the west side charges another. We understand that the traffic flow on the east side catches the morning commute when people are looking for an excuse to delay work, so prices are higher than on the west side which services the homeward bound thinking only of two martinis, dinner, and a roll in the hay.

We don’t flinch at bananas at $2.00 apiece at a K Street vendor’s.  He understands that the health-conscious Thirty-somethings turn their noses up at the cheaper brats and half-smokes on the next block.  We are used to beach prices and end-of-year sales bargains.

My children thought it would be fun to make some extra money by washing cars.  The next door neighbor agreed, and for five dollars they began to wash and wax Mr. Deming’s 1970 Lincoln Continental, a car the size of a small yacht.  It took them forever.  They ran out of soap and wax, and had no time for play. “You didn’t charge him enough”, I said. “You need to figure in the actual cost of materials, value your labor time in terms of length, difficulty, and the lost opportunity to do other things, and then set a price.  I guarantee you it will be way more than five dollars, and Mr. Deming will be happy to pay it because whatever it is, it will be way below what the carwash charges”.  From then my children never undercharged – not in after-school or summer jobs, nor in their professional and business lives.  They had learned the American lesson, and it seeped deep into their pores.

At about the same time my children began to question the value of their allowance which was set in part as recompense for household chores.  “Why should I get the same amount as Jennifer?”, my son asked. “She vacuums the rugs while I clean the toilets.  Cleaning toilets is disgusting.  I should be paid more”. 

“No”, I replied. “Cleaning the toilets takes you half the time she spends vacuuming rugs.  You have the better deal.” My son thought about it.  Another lesson learned, and it seeped down even farther through the pores and into his bloodstream.

A number of years ago, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, I worked in Romania.  Going from a Communist economy where prices were fixed by government, and the laws of supply and demand did not apply, to one where any price was fair if you could get it was shocking, mystifying, and very disturbing.  People were adrift in a new world which operated according to different principles and rules. Not only did prices now fluctuate, but history was being revised, the cradle-to-grave welfare system dismantled, and tenets of science reconsidered.

In the early days after the fall of Ceausescu, some prices remained low while others increased.  The cost of a taxi ride was still the same as it had been under the Communists, but gas was more expensive.  Food was now approaching market levels, but wages were still low.  The new economy was out of joint. 

A taxi driver once complained about how little money he was earning, and now that he had to pay more for everything, he was becoming poor.  “Why don’t you charge more?”, I asked.  He did not reply.  He could not reply, for he had no sense of pricing in a market economy. He would soon learn of course, but it wasn’t easy. It was not in his blood.

In fact Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, all of the former Soviet bloc states learned very quickly indeed. New entrepreneurs knew where latent demand was emerging and priced accordingly.  They saw foreign investment generate jobs and wealth and found that they could charge more for goods and services.  Before long, the market economy was humming.  Some countries like Poland which had never been fully under the thumb of the Communists and thanks to the large Polish diaspora in the United States had both foreign exchange and access to capitalist ideas.  Others, like Russia stumbled along the way, went through periods of oligarchy rule and corrupt predatory economic behavior; but all in all, Eastern Europe made its way quickly forward.

A good case can be made that supply and demand “in our blood’ is not simply a metaphor, but may be part of our genetic or at least social makeup.  After all, cavemen bartered all the time – a jaw bone for a chunk of mastodon meat, for example – and the most primitive societies in the Amazon buy and sell goods and services and understand how to set prices given supply and demand. Americans have simply become very, very good at it.  Masters in fact. We are still the most successful economy and the most entrepreneurial because our young capitalists have an instinctive sense for what sells and how much to charge.

‘Engine’ Charlie Wilson, former CEO of General Motors once famously said, “The business of America is business”. He understood that the United States wasn’t simply a capitalist country.  It was the capitalist country.  We all lived and breathed money. We were passionate if not preoccupied about making it.  It was the be-all and end-all of life.  It was our culture, our philosophy.  It defined us as a nation.  We understood money better than anyone else.  Buying and selling is in our blood.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spying On Your Children–The Only Thing To Do?

“Dear Diary: Last night I had the most incredible sex with Jason. OMG. It was better than I ever imagined!! He did such wonderful things to me…eek! I’m still excited!  It felt soooooo good. Who would have thunk that such a short boy would have such a long thingie!!

We had an unwritten rule in our household never to spy on our children, and although we knew where our daughter kept her diary, we never looked through it.  I admit that the temptation was very, very strong.  Maybe there would be some clues about the raves she was going to, the drugs she might or not be taking, and the boys she was seeing.  Or some tidbits about us. “Dear Diary: My father is such a jerk!!! He doesn’t think anyone notices when he picks his nose in the car, and it is dis-gus-ting!! Molly said she saw him on Mass Ave digging for gold.  Yeccchhh.  How did I get such gross parents?”

The real reason for not consulting Jennifer’s diary was that she would eventually find out, and that discovery would undermine our credibility and show us to be devious, untrustworthy, and deceitful.  Even worse, it would reveal us as blatant hypocrites telling our daughter to be morally upright, honest, and worthy of trust and responsibility by day, and snooping, prying, and invading her privacy by night.  OK, we were a little spooky about what she might say about us, but that was not the real reason for leaving the diary under her old socks in the bottom drawer.

There is a fine line between trusting a child to do the right thing; and making sure that she does it by any means possible.  Most parents, especially in cities like Washington, are so panicked by what happens once little Jonathan leaves the house, that they put trust on the shelf.  Leave the flashers, molesters, and kidnappers aside.  Drugs, sex, and delinquency are the real enemies; and only with strategic and operational planning and a marshaling of all available resources, can victories in firefights and battlefield assaults be assured. Phalanxes of allies have to be assembled and armed.  Grandparents, teachers, and priests have to be drafted into service as spies, agents of misinformation, guerrilla fighters to neutralize potential danger.  There is no question that trust is a valuable commodity in warfare,but only as a practical means to gather information and to negotiate cease-fires.  It has no inherent higher value. It is a tool of manipulation.

Some parents reject this martial view of child-rearing and prefer to build the rapport, empathy, and respect between children and themselves that will serve everyone in the long run.  These parents run a big risk, however.  Adolescents are in a permanent Fuck You mode, and if parents are generic dickheads who can never be trusted, teenagers say, why pay any attention to them at all?.  Telling a kid not to do Ecstasy at a rave guarantees that he will do it….lots of it.

My children grew up in the pre-electronic era.  There were no cellphones and no GPS.  Computers were clunky and DOS-bound.  There were no tracking devices, and parents swallowed the bad image of pagers - as ghetto as pit bulls and bling - and use them for primitive locational positioning.  Parents might not know exactly where their children were at 1am, but at least they could confirm that they were alive and kicking.  Or so the argument went.   In reality teenagers ignored the pager and used it for what it was intended – arranging hookups and drug deals. In fact, the pager increased parental anxiety rather than allay it.  When Jonathan didn’t answer his page; and especially after there was no answer after five repeat calls; a crippling panic set in.

So, in those early days when Jonathan walked out the door, he entered a world of unknowable and uncontrollable deviants and criminals, bad influences, and an unhealthy mix of across-the-tracks dropouts, druggies, and sexual predators.  There was no way to track him.  Despite all the hoopla about trust vs. invasion of privacy, the irony was that trust was the only way to assure at least some protection in a bad world. You had to trust that your children had learned something about right behavior.

Things have changed.  The electronic era has ushered in a whole new world of spying whether on enemies and allies or on children as Judith Shulevitz reports in The New Republic (10.30.13)

AT&T, with another company, is about to introduce a snap-around-the-wrist, GPS-tracking, emergency-button-featuring, watch-like thingie for children. It’s called FiLIP, comes in bright colors, and has two-way calling and parent-to-child texting. It allows you to set safe zones, so that you’re alerted when your child enters or leaves a designated area.

It gets worse.

For the iPhone I will soon be buying [my son], I can get an iPhone Spy Stick, to be plugged into a USB port while he sleeps; it downloads Web histories, e-mails, and text messages, even the deleted ones. Or I can get Mobile Spy, software that would let me follow, in real time, his online activity and geographical location. Also available are an innocent-looking iPhone Dock Camera that would recharge his battery while surreptitiously recording video in his room, and a voice-activated audio monitor, presumably for the wild parties he’s going to throw when his father and I go out of town.

How did this happen?  How did parents go from debating the issues of privacy, trust, and credibility to all out invasive surveillance of their children?  Has the outside world gotten that much more perilous?  Have we become worrywarts, afraid of our own shadow?  Have we gone overboard on children, making them so much the center of our lives, the principal source of meaning and value that we are more desperate than ever to keep them out of harm’s way? Or is it simply a matter of IT?  Spy technology is available, cheap, and user-friendly, so why not use it?

The answer is probably a combination of all the above. For the first time in human history children cost more than they are worth.  Parents rarely see any return on a six- or seven-figure investment in them.  They do a few chores, are snuggly and warm when they are little, leave home, and set up shop thousands of miles away.  Their success – Sidwell Friends, Harvard, and Yale Law School – is the only received value for parents. A successful child is like a new Porsche or a big house in Potomac.  Given the dark, sinister, and dangerous world outside the front door, spying is a necessity and an absolute, unquestionable given.  How easy it is to give a young child the gift of a FiLIP which she thinks is really cool; but which actually is a tracking device.  How mutually beneficial a cell phone which hooks the child up in multiple social networks; and which enables parents to track position in real time, then mine the day’s accumulated data to know what really went on.

Gadgets are available to track a car’s speed, location, number of passengers, radio stations listened to, attentiveness of the driver, and much more.  A parent need only download all the data collected and stored on the car’s black box, and he can know everything about his child’s performance, friends, and milieu.

Shulevitz concludes with advice and warning:

There’s another, possibly even more insidious, consequence of eavesdropping on our offspring. It sends the message that nothing and no one is to be trusted: not them, not us, and especially not the rest of the world. This is no way to live, but it is a way to destroy the bonds of mutual toleration that our children will need to keep our democracy limping along.

The problem is that it is very, very hard to resist the temptation to spy.  We are in this NSA mess not because our government has whirled out of control.  We are responsible for the uncontrollable spin.  We have, with nary a suspicious frown, accepted the intrusion of everyone in our lives.  We love our cookies and are happy that Amazon knows what books we like; or that Netflix, by understanding our preferences, saves us the time of weeding through hundreds of titles.  We are happy that surveillance cameras are everywhere because they reduce crime, slow down speeders, and deter terrorists.  We love smartphones and GPS because we can be in touch with friends, make easy dates, and arrange parties.  We love sharing photos of us on beaches, in shady bars, in outrageous outfits.  Surveillance is everywhere because we want it to be.  Of course there are those who bang on about civil rights, privacy, and individual integrity; but they are in the minority.

Given the complaisance of the consumer regarding electronic surveillance, the commercial opportunities for private business, and the delight of government to have a data Christmas thanks to all this, it is not surprising that parents spy on their children.

It is very hard indeed to strike a balance between parental control and loosening the tether; between the rights of the parents and the rights of children; between trust and expediency.  Spying on children, invading their privacy, tracking their every move can only be corrosive if not destructive to family relationships. Yes, there is a risk that Jonathan will go astray and he might not have if you had been more vigilant; but he probably will not.  He will learn how to deal with the world on his own which, of course, every adult eventually has to do.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Should You Bribe Your Kids?

In principle bribery is a bad thing.  It is corrupting for the person giving the bribe as well as for the one receiving it.  I never felt good about bribing my way in and out of the Luanda airport, but not paying meant getting a vaccination with a dirty needle to bring my Yellow Card into compliance; leaving my computer with the authorities; or worst of all, having to stay in that wretched, benighted city.

So I entered and left the airport with $50 bills stuck in my pockets for easy access, ready to grease the palm of the immigration officer shaking his head at my invalid WHO certificate of vaccination, the customs official insisting that my visa had expired, and the security agent who saw explosive residue in the X-Ray of my computer.

I got very good at deflecting bribery attempts or at least reducing the damage.  When asked by a corrupt customs official to show him my foreign currency, I would frown, shake my head, shrug my shoulders; and when I finally ‘understood’, I pulled out a few worthless and foul-smelling notes of local currency and handed them over.  I would always carry a few of these nasty francs, kwanzas, or gourds to hand over to the security guard after my pat-down.

When I drove in Kinshasa, I always carried a copy of my passport and visa.  The drunken police were too dumb and illiterate to know what they were, so when they stuck their rifles through the window and demanded to see my papers, I had them ready.  They twisted and turned them, held them up to the light pretending to read them, kept them, and waved us on.

Now, bribing children is an entirely different matter.  We all do it one way or another. Bribes are either positive (“If you eat your peas, you can have an extra dessert”) or negative (“Unless you finish your peas, you won’t get any dessert”), but they are still bribes. We give ‘rewards’ for good grades, hugs and kisses for good behavior (who said that parental affection is not the currency of parenting?), and allowances for cleaning the toilets. I was unashamedly bribed by my parents who gave me a trip out West to keep me away from Marilyn DiLoreto, a dark girl from across the tracks.  My niece got a My Little Pony set ostensibly for her great arabesques but really to keep her in ballet school and out of trouble. 

Parents make little distinction between bribery and reward.  You give kids things to shut them up, to motivate them, to accelerate them, and to keep them on the straight and narrow.  You take things away – reverse bribery – when they stray.

My children used to fight like cats and dogs on long trips and concentrating on driving was impossible, so we left early in the morning when they were still groggy and quiet.  When the stupor wore off and the fighting began, we fed them candy and cookies until they fell asleep. Now, processed sweets were verboten in our household, so at first the children couldn’t make heads nor tails of this unexpected and surprising bounty; but they asked no questions and gobbled the Snickers, Kit-Kats, and Oreos until they were addled.

To us this innocent bribery was no more than a simple ploy – an expedient and easy way out.  A lot of parents put their kids in front of the television when they started squalling.  Even though TV time was rationed in most families in my neighborhood, parents broke the rules when their patience was at an end.  What mother, home from work after a hard day at the office, needing a martini and some quiet time, could resist the TV solution?  It was far more benign than candy or cookies.  There would be time for the right way to teach children to be quiet – encouraging respect and responsibility – but Jesus Christ, not now!

There were parents I knew who made no bones about bribing their children to do well in school.  It was a jungle out there, and nobody got into Harvard with a B+ average; so they put complex pay-off systems into place. All parents paid by grade level, and most paid extra for increased performance; but some subtracted earnings relative to decreasing performance.  Each subject was tracked and monitored in an attempt to be strict but fair. Any deviation, favoritism, or weakness was exploited by their children.  Kids learn from an early age how to game the system, and if the bribery schemes had any positive by-product, it was the lesson that people can be had.

One of the debaters asked to participate in the New York Times (10.29.13) Room for Debate column agreed, and felt that bribery was not a good idea because children were too smart:

Soon enough everything becomes a negotiation over money. If I get a dollar to make my bed, how much to set the table? What if I make my sister’s bed, do I get her dollar? Fine, take away a dollar for not brushing my teeth, I’ll just make it up with extra math practice.

I ran into this situation exactly when my son complained that his bribe (payment) for cleaning the toilets was far too low since his sister got the same amount of money for a far less disgusting task, vacuuming the rugs. I argued that the time spent on toilets was far less than on rugs; but he argued that I had not considered the ‘disgust factor’. 

My son learned an important economic lesson – how to value labor – and I learned that bribery was the wrong way to go. Sharing family responsibility voluntarily – everyone pitching in to help with no reward – was the whole point; not simply getting the house cleaned.  I then had to fight a battle on two fronts – the resistance to having the bribes removed; and the inability to understand why ‘pitching in’ shouldn’t be compensated.

Other parents were by no means convinced. “Why not bribe?”, they asked rhetorically.  After all, they did all kinds of semi-dishonest things to help their children get into Andover, St. Albans, and Harvard, so direct bribes to children were no big problem.  What father would not lean on his K Street colleagues to put in a good word for little Johnny even though the kid was a slacker? Parents wrote college essays for their children all the time and helped them pad their applications with high-sounding but worthless extra-curricular activities.  I remember that a Yale recruiter was very impressed with the fact that Bobby Parker was Chairman of the Chapel Committee at my prep school; but also that his parents had deliberately chosen that meaningless post for him because it looked good and required no work at all.

Except for the trip to California to get away from Marilyn DiLoreto, I was never bribed by my parents.  They were first generation Italians who had struggled to get where they were in a rough neighborhood where nobody did you any favors and bribery was a kick in the slats.  To his credit my father never threatened me with the razor strop like a lot of guinea parents.  He ground his teeth and threw my report card in the trash if I didn’t get all A’s, but held his temper.  I knew from his clenched fists and popped-out neck veins, however, that he meant business.  I got few bad report cards.

The guests on the Times panel were all creative in their responses to bribery.  My favorite was this:

As a known "mean mom" with a reputation that extends outward into my children's communities, I always have an easy response to the "if I feed the dog, what do I get?" line: You get to not spend the rest of the evening in your room.

Most of the pro-bribery contributors were not exactly happy about their choice and felt that it was simply a common and innocuous part of early childhood parenting. There are no lasting lessons to be learned from bribery, nor any ethical damage done to children, so why not do it?  Most of the anti-bribery advocates were not harshly critical of the practice and seemed to understand why parents sometimes resorted to it, but they preferred to hold the line.

There is clearly a fine line between bribery and just reward; but under ideal circumstances reward is an unexpected gift – an acknowledgement of success or performance after the fact.  It is the best possible transaction.  The student has worked because of the inherent value of the effort; and has had her performance recognized by others whom she respects. Next is the expected reward – a gift that is promised for excellence, a kind of mutual recognition of the importance of the achievement.  Worst is the pay-for-performance ethic.  Only the wrong lessons are taught.  No bond of mutual respect is fostered, no family integrity, no lesson on the importance of right action and individual responsibility.

The problem is that we are all descendants of B.F. Skinner, behaviorists at heart.  We know that rewards work for people as well as rats; and we know that if we keep a child’s mouth full of Oreos he can’t yap. We are simply too busy and preoccupied to be worried about ethics and lessons of respect.  It is not our fault that our kids are whining complainers.  Something got crossed in mating, and little Jonathan got his grandfather’s spite and bile.

Since we live in an era of plenty when the cost of raising children far outweighs the benefits of having them – i.e. there is no need for their labor for survival or social benefits – we stress secondary attributes.  If little Jonathan gets into Harvard, it will reflect well on us, let alone him.  So why not beg, borrow, steal and bribe to get him in?

We all bribe our kids, so don’t look so glum.  Just keep it to a minimum and hope for the best.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A World Without Television??

With the advent of streaming, more and more people are watching movies, sitcoms, and reruns of Top Chef on their I-Pads…by themselves.  Alas, says Emma Brockes in The Guardian (10.28.13), no more shared culture.

I grew up in the early days of television, and sitting around the TV in the evening was indeed a family affair. Of course in those days there were only three channels to watch with very little programming difference among them, so breaking off from the herd was not an issue.  Television sets were expensive, and even if there were a lot more variety, few families would have been able to afford one for the living room and one for Sis in her bedroom.  And finally, in most small towns in America back in the Fifties, there simply wasn’t much else to do but watch TV. There was Bowl-a-Rama, Bette Davis down at the Rialto, getting drunk at The Hedges, but not much else.  Besides, all these outings cost money.  TV was cheap, and so was credit; so for very little you could tune in.  At the beginning of the Fifties when television first entered American homes, there were only a few programs produced; but by the end of the decade there were 840.  There was really very little reason to leave the house.

There was very little diversity among these shows, however because there was very little diversity I America – especially among those who could afford a TV.  Everyone loved Arthur Godfrey, and Arthur Murray; Dragnet, and Have Gun Will Travel. Producers didn’t have to worry about black audiences who were still invisible.  There were few Latinos; and Italians, Poles, and Irish immigrants, anxious to become real Americans, quickly caught on to Ralph Cramden and Ed Sullivan.

Early television was indeed a shared culture – both by families and the nation.  Every Thursday morning, chat around the water cooler and in the ladies room was about I Love Lucy or I’ve Got a Secret.  While some shows, most notably Playhouse 90, had adult themes, the sitcoms, variety shows, and dramas were for everybody. Parents and children both could laugh at Red Skelton.  Advertisers soon got wise to the fact that ‘serious’ drama and cleansers didn’t go well together, and soon adult crises were gone so that the medium could carry out its real purpose – selling things.  Silly shows and silly commercials went well together.  In any case, the likes of Playhouse 90 and all highbrow programming of early television would have disappeared anyway.  People wanted escape.

I used to go to Bollywood films in India many years ago, and even the four-hour, predictable marathons were never enough for Indian audiences. Moviegoers had to be pulled out of their seats as the final heraldic music and love scenes in the Vale of Kashmir faded, not surprising at all when the painful reality of Bombay lay just outside the theatre doors. We Americans may like to think that we are more sophisticated in our tastes, but the ‘art films’ of the Fifties and Sixties quickly went the way of Playhouse 90 to be replaced by adventure, horror, explosions, and romance.

One aspect of the shared TV experience of the Fifties was not mentioned by Brockes.  The real value of TV was that it was electronic wallpaper – it was always there, always on, filling voids and uncomfortable silences. It made communication easier. It nipped disagreement in the bud.  Conversation could start and stop, begin and end comfortably.  Thoughts were put on hold when the plot thickened, reanimated during the love scenes.  More family interaction happened because of television than despite it.  Radio was a different medium altogether.  You had to pay attention.  McLuhan described it as a ‘hot’ medium because it could not be ignored.  In the days before radio, families might have sat together, but they did individual things – Dad read the paper, Mom knitted, and Sis played with her dolls. In the Fifties den or rec room, families interacted because of TV.  They commented on, laughed at, or joked about what was going on onscreen. 

As programming time expanded, audiences became segmented.   Kids watched Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings.  Housewives were glued to the TV for the afternoon soaps – which was where, by the way, they got their adult content of hospitals, unwanted pregnancies, death, dying, and miserable relationships.  Men watched the Saturday Night Fights and afternoon baseball. At the same time, however, families and society were glued together by prime time TV – we all watched the same shows.

Emma Brockes laments the passing of this shared culture; but it really was no more than a time-bound phenomenon.  Because America was homogeneous society, still predominantly rural where entertainment sources were limited; and one in which family values (two-parent households, well-knit family groups) still reigned, it is not surprising that television quickly became the center of American life.

At the same time it is incorrect to assume that smartphones, tablets, and streaming have destroyed common media culture.  Millions of 30-somethings watch Breaking Bad or The Wire regardless of the electronic device; and share reactions at the yoga studio or gym. The programs have changed, and the way they were viewed has; but the shared experience has not.

Collective live viewing is still in. Look at any beer commercial, and you will see the same 30-somethings watching football on TV together, male bonding at its best.  Beer, nachos, and the NFL. Men watch sports a lot and often do it together – at each other’s apartments or at sports bars.  There is nothing more culturally common than American sports.  Men have always shared that particular love with each other, regardless of team allegiance or market.  They love the games, the players, the energy, the violence, and the competition; and whether they watch the Broncos together or apart, they have all watched it together.

There has been a lot written about how the social media are destroying just about everything.  Young people are becoming more isolated, more individualistic, and less community-oriented.  They live more in a virtual world than in a real one. Their avatar, carefully crafted and modeled to represent what they would like to be rather than what they are, has taken place of their pimply, uncertain selves. 

This, of course, is all wrong.  Except for the socially retarded, most young people use the social media to expand their social circles, not to limit them.  They use them to hook up, not to stay in.  The Internet fuels the content of YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.  Tragedy and the absurd rocket around the web in milliseconds.  The Talking Dog goes viral and gets tens of millions of hits on YouTube. Causes are promoted and consolidated on the media and virtual groups are formed to promote biking, yoga, environmentalism, health eating, gay rights, anti-capitalism, and many other popular issues.  In a literal way, each person advocating these causes is doing so from his or her own device, and thus is doing so alone; but in reality the shared experience is a thousand times greater and hundreds of times more rewarding.  You are not just sitting around the TV with family and friends watching Wild Kingdom, you are communicating with millions around the world.

So, no need to lament the demise of TV or the shared culture it represented in the Fifties.  The world has moved on to an even more socially shared electronic space; and that is a good thing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Private Schools Are Always Better Than Public

Why are private school teachers paid far less than those in public schools? Supply and demand, says Ben Orlin writing in The Atlantic (10.25.13). Public school systems are huge in comparison to networks of private schools; and since they require specific teacher accreditation and licensing, the number of qualified teachers is always below the number required, thus raising salaries.  Powerful, entrenched labor unions use muscle and strike for even higher pay.

Private school salaries are low either because the reverse is true.  Since there are no licensing requirements, private institutions can hire whomever they please.  Anyone can be a private school teacher so the pool of applicants, particularly in poor job markets, is large.  Supply exceeds demand, so salaries are low.

On the other hand, private school teachers may consider their salaries quite acceptable and commensurate with the demands of the job.  Teaching smart, motivated, disciplined children is far better than being a prison guard in a ghetto lockup.

It seems as though the salary system is working fairly.  Teachers who are no more than prison trusties, subjected to insult, injury, and indifference deserve more money.  A DC teacher’s salary is not inflated, because it includes hazard pay.  A private school teacher, looked up to, listened to, and respected by his students gets more than enough non-economic rewards to compensate for his low wages.

There are inconsistencies as always.  A teacher who has done her Iraq time in the deep slums of the city and who gets transferred to a school in the white, wealthy ward gets paid the same as she did in the war zone.  In principle, she should be paid less for her tour of duty in a school that looks more private than public; but no one complains, for it is just recompense for her previous service.  Parents even put up with – for a while – transferred teachers’ inability to teach students who are eager to learn.  They have been trained to be MPs and a prison guards, not teachers, so they are cut a lot of slack.

My children went to a neighborhood school in wealthy area of a major city, attended by the sons and daughters of lawyers, lobbyists, and corporate managers.  When Mrs. Perkins took over the Second Grade at the Jeffries School, she was greeted by 20 eager, patient, and well-behaved little students.  She couldn’t believe her good fortune, for she had come from one of the worst schools in the city. By the second grade in her former school, children of dysfunctional families who had been provided no discipline, no culture of respect and achievement, and no sense whatsoever of the value of learning, had become totally and irremediably unsocialized. They were as close to feral children as possible; and while Mrs. Perkins knew she had to stay her hand, she thrived in the grey area around the law.  She shut kids up in the broom closet, berated them, screwed her face up into scary masks of threat and torture, and let them have it with torrents of scorn and abuse. Only by frightening her charges with a kind of mad menace could she maintain a modicum of order in the classroom.

No one cared about her unorthodox habits, especially the principal.  He wasn’t going to censure Mrs. Perkins when she was one of the best teachers he had.  In the context of George Bellows Elementary  she was exactly what was required.  She was a brutal disciplinarian who trucked no abuse or disorder.  She understood and carried out her marching orders with obedience and conviction.  She was to keep order, not to teach. Students were always to be moved up and out.  After sixth grade, they were someone else’s problem.

Needless to say, Mrs. Perkins had a difficult transition to our school. Harsh discipline was in her bones, and she didn’t know what do do when her charges shook and quaked every time she came over to their desks and stuck her gnarly face in theirs and blew her rancid breath at them.  She backed off and began to enjoy her tenure.  She had originally been trained as a real teacher and could manage multiplication tables and a few field trips, so the principal kept his distance.  He knew the game, having come up through the ranks, and willingly suffered the abuse of startled and incredulous parents because he knew that his bread was buttered ‘Downtown’ and nothing they did could even dent his political armor.

We bailed our kids out of the public school system after the sixth grade.  There was no way that we were going to send them on to the public junior high school.  Even though it was located in the neighborhood, it took children from a far wider catchment area than just Hydewood Park.  It had metal detectors, armed city police stationed at the doors at opening and closing time, and specially-trained security guards who patrolled the halls.

The private schools we sent them to were exactly what we had hoped for – a community of like-minded students and parents – all smart, motivated, ambitious, and committed to education; and smart, talented, and engaging teachers. It was much like my own experience many years before at a private New England boarding school.  Teachers had graduated from Amherst, Williams, and Dartmouth and taught English with a passion. There was a kind of tenure system at the school, so even the most eccentric teachers were kept on.  The only cause for dismissal was bad teaching, and the headmaster demanded, monitored, and judged performance to assure quality.

All of this made for a great place to live and study. Who could beat eager young teachers with a premier college education; eccentric older ones who gave the school a certain cachet – a feeder to Yale and Harvard but with an ironic twist; and a headmaster with discipline but humor?

Of course our teachers accepted low pay.  The assignment was ideal and by no means permanent. In his article Orlin notes how the turnover at private schools today is very high (24 percent in the first three years) compared to public; but that is never an issue.  One bright, motivated, and talented Amherst graduate is pretty much the same as any other; and given the supply-and-demand scenario, there are plenty to choose from.

Orlin concludes by saying:

The moral is that not all teaching jobs are alike. Different school environments make for radically different work, and many teachers find private schools offer a more rewarding experience. Attracting and retaining teachers, then, means more than just raising salaries. It means taking disciplinary obstacles and bureaucratic nonsense out of teachers’ paths.

There is no way, however, that public schools can compete with private ones.  Private schools are free from intrusive government supervision and from the abusive power of venal and corrupt labor unions.  They are free to develop and apply their own curricula which are flexible enough to be modified and updated every year; and best of all they can select both students and teachers on the basis of intelligence, aptitude, and performance.

There is of course a great range of quality in private education. Many parochial schools are little better than public ones, and although the Catholic Church – the leader in private, religious education – attempts to maintain certain standards of excellence; many smaller church-affiliated schools are more Christian madrassas than places of learning.  Nevertheless, parents do not have to send their children there.

I would never choose to send my children to public school if I could afford the alternative; and I feel that every parent in every ward of the city – rich or poor – should have the same option.  Voucher programs enable the most motivated parents to get out of the miasma of dismal public education, and even if they enroll their children in a parochial school of modest reputation, it is still a giant step up.

I don’t envy public school teachers in the ghetto wards of my city; and never begrudge them their pay. However, I would like to see the entire public school system dismantled and the field opened to competitive private choice.  Reform has not worked.  Our school system  has gotten worse over the years, not better.  While I blame acquisitive unions, corrupt politicians, and indifferent school boards, the real culprits are parents themselves.  No teacher can teach children from dysfunctional homes; and unless communities begin to accept responsibility, accept majority norms of behavior and aspire to the same goals, education is not possible.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shakespeare In The Shenandoahs II (Edited)

I am in Staunton, Virginia, home to the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), attending a conference of over 200 academics who are here to present papers.  So far I have heard scholars give sessions on Richard III – Portrait of a Serial Killer, Eavesdropping Scenes in Shakespeare, Where’s a Parking Lot When You Need one: What Really Happens to the Princes in the Tower? and dozens more like them.  After 400 years of analyzing Shakespeare, modern students have had to pick over a bin of discards to find defendable theses, so it is not surprising that PhD dissertations are based on the farthest-fetched and cockamamie ideas ever.  But find them they do, and from the turnout of graduate students and young assistant professors here in Staunton, the discipline is alive and well. 

Blackfriars Theatre, American Shakespeare Center

There is, however, another way to read Shakespeare – to try to understand why characters act the way they do and whether or not they are basically the same – marching to the universal beat of human nature – or indisputably unique, more tragic, admirable, or pitiable. 

Richard III, Iago, Macbeth, Dionyza, Tamora, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are compelling because they are amoral characters.  Nietzsche believed that in a meaningless life lived in a meaningless world, only the assertion of individual will, the perfect expression of innate human power and potential, was meaningful.  I admire Iago, Richard, and others because they are indomitable, incessant, and totally unstoppable.  They may be destroyed in the end, but the exertion of Will justifies the effort. For them the end is irrelevant.  Only the means count. I cannot turn away.

Rosalind, Beatrice, Cleopatra, and Isabel run rings around the men in their lives and display a steely feminine determination and a canny ability to negotiate masculine waters successfully.  Women have not changed in 400 years, it seems, and even though they have achieved parity with men, their loves, jealousies, and ability and willingness to use sex and sexuality to their advantage.  Some women in Shakespeare, like Imogen, are totally innocent but called trollops by their husbands.  Others, like Cressida, are no saints at all.  She cannily maneuvers between Greece and Troy using her charm and allure without a second thought.  Others still, like Desdemona are innocent but sexual.  She is attracted to Othello for his dash, daring, and potency; but in her precocity unwittingly provokes him and contributes to his downfall. 

In two conferences here in Staunton, I have heard no such reflections. My basic questions - was Desdemona complicit in Othello’s downfall; did Cleopatra really love Antony or was she, like most of Shakespeare’s women, interested only in manipulating men to secure power; how does the cynicism about love, family, and intimate relationships common in Shakespeare’s plays square with the head-over-heels love that the poet expresses for his Young Man in the Sonnets – never come up.  Academics consider them far too obvious for consideration; and while they are at the heart of the plays and express Shakespeare’s obsession with the character of human nature, they are ignored.

I had an interesting discussion about Hamlet with a young scholar at a reception given by the doyen of the ASC at his home the day before the conference.  I mentioned to the scholar that I thought Oliver’s production of Hamlet was the best I had ever seen because it focused on the central issue of the play – Hamlet’s indecisiveness.  I believed Olivier when he wrote that Hamlet’s incestuous desires for his mother and sexual jealousy of his uncle was at the core of his dilemma.  He wanted to kill his mother out of sexual frustration and rage and ignored the more understandable murder-for-revenge that one would expect of a prince.  His cruel dismissal of Ophelia is also a product of his sexual frustration, and he has transferred his love/hate for his mother to his lover.  It all makes perfect sense.

In any case the scholar, who the next day presented a paper as academic as you can possibly imagine, Proscenia in Stuart England – Depth vs. Context, debated long and hard on the subject of Hamlet’s motivations.  It meant something both to him and to me.  Are we men really all so Oedipal, so driven by incestuous lust and driven mad by sexual frustration?  Othello, Leontes, Troilus – all jealous to the point of violence – are no different.  There is something acquisitive, self-serving, and psychologically twisted in men who must fight to keep down the rage of jealousy; and the most interesting are unable to do so.

The scholar, a reputable academic, had never considered that the violent confrontation with Ophelia and the incestuous but frustrated desire for his mother were related. He had been so involved with deconstructing text, researching meter, reconstructing original staging, and parsing metaphor, that he had focused too much on kingship.  The central issue for him was whether or not the ghost was real – i.e. did the text support that interpretation.  If not, then Hamlet’s dithering was only due to his very lawyer-like desire to get the facts and act only when the case has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. .

I have no doubt that most Shakespeare scholars have at one time in their careers pondered these basic questions; but the pressure to innovate and publish is so intense that they have little time to consider and debate them further.  The academic interest in Olivier’s Hamlet and Ian McKellen’s Richard III has more to do with editing than with meaning.  I have heard three interesting papers on how and why directors cut the plays of Shakespeare.  The scholars have focused more on how the directors did damage to the play rather than the good that they did.

There is a scene in Coriolanus, for example, between two minor characters who are not seen before or after their brief encounter.  Little relating to the plot is discussed between them; but the scene has a very definite reason for inclusion, and Shakespeare had a very definite purpose in mind.  In this case the scene serves as a transition between the incendiary situation in Rome and the perilous mission of Coriolanus to the Volsces.  The scene is there for reasons of tone, pacing, and ambience. Cutting threw off Shakespeare’s delicate balance.

On the other hand Olivier cut nearly half of Hamlet to focus on the relationship between Hamlet and his mother; and McKellen cut half of Richard III to focus on his twisted, if not evil nature.  Both directors/actors were interested more in meaning than completeness. They wanted to strip the plays of their theatrical accoutrements and get to the heart of the matter. This was a good thing.

Adult students are very receptive to a focus on character.  They are far less interested in the fine points of meter, staging, or textual incongruence than they are meaning.  What do the relationships between Othello and Desdemona, Antony and Cleopatra, or Kate and Petruchio mean to them?  This is true for other playwrights as well. The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are as powerful and compelling as those in Shakespeare and students are interested in them because their dramas, weaknesses, frustrations, and ploys are the students’ own.  They are not interested in history or historicism, social context, or gender.  They only want to know: What is going on here? Do they love each other or not? This is a good thing.

There has been enough literary criticism of Shakespeare over the years to fill thousands of Walmart warehouses.  There is no subject that has been ignored, no line not parsed, no production left dangling.  Shakespeare has been an academic gold mine whose mother lode is still rich. Some of the criticism, especially that which looks at characters and their dilemmas from very different perspectives, is helpful.  Feminists, Post-Modernists, Deconstructionists, New Historians, Deaf scholars, Marxists, and Queer Studies academics have all done one good thing.  They have shaken up previous canons and forced us all to look at relationships through different lenses.

I part company, however, with those who reduce Shakespeare to minutiae and who are not happy until they have sucked all the vital juices out of his verse.  Which is why I spend more time eating ribs and drinking local IPA here in Staunton then I do attending conference sessions.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Superstition–We All Do It

When my daughter was little she believed that passing a cemetery without holding her breath was extremely bad luck; and that seeing a black house unless it was followed by two white ones was even worse. Superstition changes with the times, and her generation knew nothing of black cats or walking under ladders, but they were no strangers to warding off evil spirits in their own way.

As in all human behavior there is a range of expression – some people are very superstitious and others are not at all.  There was a woman who walked the block between 114th and 115th Street on Broadway with perfect, precise, military turns.  As she reached the end of the block on the right hand side of the sidewalk, she pivoted like a marine, then walked up the other side.  After years of practice, her gait was measured and sure.  She stepped on no lines or cracks but never looked down, and didn’t seem to tire.  Night or day she was there, marching to her own drummer, eyes fixed, ramrod straight, and oblivious to the fruit stands, bolts of schwarma, taquerias, coffee shops, newspaper kiosks, and Columbia students out for a break.  She was completely nuts – an obsessive compulsive who believed that if she stopped her routine, life would end.

Once they got used to her people in the neighborhood were generous.  They passed her cups of water like spectators at a marathon.  They placed old shoes under the awning of the deli for her to wear when hers wore out.  Although the shoes always disappeared and all merchants kept a watch over them, no one ever saw ‘Block Lady’ take them.  I could only imagine the terror she must have had to keep up such a routine.  She must have had a similar ritual deep into the night when she slept.  Perhaps she slept standing up, first on one leg, then the other; or with her arms crossed left over right; or with her shoes reversed.

In an article in The Atlantic (10.23.13) Stuart Vyse writes about superstition and the varied and unusual forms it takes.  Nancy Reagan, for example, who infamously relied on a horoscope to set the President’s schedule, saw nothing unusual in her actions.  After all, she said, Hollywood people take superstition as a matter of course.  She explained herself in her memoir, My Turn.

Another reason I was open to astrology was that I have spent most of my life in the company of show-business people, where superstitions and other nonscientific beliefs are widespread and commonly accepted. Maybe it's because the entertainment business is so unpredictable and impervious to logic, but starting with my mother, who was an actress, just about every performer I have known has been at least mildly superstitious. For example: It's bad luck to whistle in the dressing room. Never throw your hat on the bed. And never keep your shoes on a shelf that's higher than your head.

Indians, of course, take astrology very, very seriously; and everyone from presidents to coolies rely on it religiously.  Parents of prospective marriage partners routinely have the children’s horoscopes cast and consulted to determine compatibility.  Many a potential bride or groom have been dismissed because of a bad astrological news.  There is nothing strange about consulting an astrologer, and the wife of a Prime Minister would never have to explain the presence of the Merlin-like advisor frequently seen at his side.

Indians consider astrology as a blend of physics and mysticism. Human actions and events are influenced by the position of the planets and the forces they exert, but this system necessarily falls within the larger scope of karma, dharma, and reincarnation.

Nancy Reagan may have seen the hand of God in all this as he banged planetary billiard balls around the universe according to his design, and for her deciphering planetary movements was indeed a spiritual enterprise; but I doubt it.  It was Mars ascendant aligned with Jupiter in the House of Andromeda which was responsible for her husband’s misfortunes.

Lucky charms, rituals, and talismans belong to a different ethos and are far removed from astrology.  They have nothing to do with the configurations of the universe and the movement of celestial bodies.  They are the result of perceived patterns.  I once read of a baseball shortstop back in the 40s who hit .425 over a two week span, the exact time period during which he wore a new batting glove.  It must be the glove responsible for his good fortune, he reasoned, and even if it wasn’t, why take a chance?  He not only wore the batting glove every time at the plate, but as his hitting streak continued, he began to sleep with it under his pillow.  When he inevitably slumped back to his career average of .260 despite wearing the glove, he did not dismiss the superstition at all, but believed that the glove indeed helped him to excel, if only for a short time.

There was a television series in the 50s called Twilight Zone, and one of the scariest episodes was called The Monkey’s Paw. A farmer who found the paw read a scrawled note that said that it gave him three wishes.  He squandered the first on a new tractor and the second on a few bushels of corn; but then he and his wife decided to get serious for the third, and they wished for their dead son to come back to life.  He had been caught in the blades of a thresher, and sliced to death.  One night they heard an uneven, thumping walk and then a knock on the door.  It was the dead son, alive again but as chopped up and mangled as the day he fell under the thresher. 

The shortstop’s glove had the same magical powers as the monkey’s paw.

I never thought that I was superstitious until I started to travel to the most benighted places on earth; and for years I waited in fetid, mosquito-infested, chaotic African baggage claim areas waiting for my luggage.  The chances of it arriving were not good, given the inefficiency and corruption of the ground staff in Luanda, N’Djamena, or Ouagadougou. However, I found that crossing my fingers on both hands improved my chances of getting my bags; but the practice only worked if I waited the right amount of time.  If I crossed them too early when the first bags came tumbling out of the chute, it would not work; or at the very least it would diminish the potency of the charm.  I had to wait until at least half of the waiting passengers had gotten their luggage.  Then it worked.

Many sports teams have collective superstitions.  No one on a baseball team for example, will never mention the fact that their pitcher is throwing a no-hitter. Discipline is strict, inflexible, and absolutely enforced.  Since very few pitchers ever throw a no-hitter, you would think that this peculiar prohibition would fall by the wayside; but it is as universally applied as ever.  If it works sometimes, baseball players reason, that it might work the next time.

Gambling has the most superstitions, perhaps because it is a game of chance.  There is nothing you can physically do to influence the draw of the cards or the throw of the dice; so many resort to strange practices:

The most popular theory of dice-throwing holds that the number rolled is positively correlated with the velocity of the throw. A soft touch brings a low number; a hard throw brings a high one. Other methods of “controlling” the dice include taking one’s time between rolls and “talking to the dice.” This last strategy is often employed at the moment the dice are released, when one shouts out the desired number.

Again, if it works sometimes, then it might work the next time; so why not try it.  You have absolutely nothing to lose.

Vyse reports that players and gamblers feel that a superstition can be boosted by mental energy.  Citing the work of James Henslin (1967), Vyse writes:

To retain control over the dice, the shooter had to "take it easy" and "take his time." Henslin pointed out that this view of confidence is very similar to one frequently promoted in competitive sports. Athletes are told not to "get shook," because a lack of confidence would interfere with their self-control and ability to concentrate.

Women are much more influenced by superstition than men:

A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. For example, the 2007 Gallup poll found that women were over twice as likely to be bothered by staying on the 13th floor of a hotel (18 percent for women versus 8 percent for men) and almost three times as likely to ask for a room on a different floor (14 percent of women versus 5 percent of men) Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups.

No one can explain this difference without getting into hot water.  Women traditionally have been thought to be more ‘right brain’, sympathetic, and perceptive than men, quicker to pick up subtle behavioral clues and to sense ‘vibes’ in social scenes.  While the notion that women are hardwired this way has been largely dismissed, most critics agreed that historically women were socially restricted, deprived of equal education, and unable to develop the same critical, analytical, and cognitive skills as men.  They had to develop other ways of negotiating their way in a complex world. Even as social equality has become a reality in the West, women may still retain vestiges of the old way of thinking.

To superstition, astrology, and luck, one must add magical realism. Latin American authors in particular have been given to this blend of the real and the imagined.  Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are works of magical realism, and the playgoer is asked – and willingly complies – with the poet’s request to leave your reason at the door.  Animist religions believed that spirits resided in trees and mountains, and that God himself ruled with thunder and lightning.  The Catholic Mass is as magical as you can get, for Christ himself is thought to be called down to the altar at the moment of consecration. 

Prayer, too, is a form of superstition. A friend of mine a number of years ago was a member of a religious cult which believed that Armageddon was nigh and the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.  The spiritual leader of the church even gave the day of destruction.  When that day came and went, the leader was undaunted and was in fact ebullient and proud. Prayer, she said, had worked.  Prayer postponed the fiery end of the world. Who could argue with that logic? 

As with any other superstition, if prayer works once, it could easily work again, so why not continue it.  If you pray for an ‘A’ in math and you get it, then you might as well pray for high grades in English.  If God chooses not to listen, He must have his own reasons; but that is no reason why He shouldn’t listen next time.

In other words, whether we admit it or not, we live in a world of superstition, magic, fantasy, and hopeful illusion.  Even the most painfully logical of us admit to crossing our fingers or avoiding the black cat on the walk. What is surprising is that superstition – even in our hyper-logical, data-driven age – is so prevalent.  My guess is that reality will never be enough to satisfy us, and what harm does it do to blow on the dice when times get tough?