Monday, September 29, 2014
Here’s one view of life and of leadership, from the French writer and pilot Antoine de St-Exupery:
”A chief is a man who takes responsibility. He does not say, ‘my men were defeated,’ he says, ‘I was defeated.’”
Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
What a pathetic excuse for a leader.
Nor should anyone kid themselves to the effect that Hillary Clinton would take a significantly more responsible approach to the job of President, or that that she took a serious and responsible approach to her job as Secretary of State—see my post excusing failure by pleading incompetence. Neither Ms Clinton nor Mr Obama appears to have much understanding of what it actually means to be responsible for running an organization.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Cold Spring Shops reminds us of the political value of mockery, linking Instapundit and Sarah Hoyt, and cites, as a classic example of the effective use of mockery as a propaganda weapon. the 1943 Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer’s Face.
For your Sunday evening enjoyment and enlightenment, here it is.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
ELECTION DAY IS FAST APPROACHING
In addition to the advertising that they can explicitly buy with the money they get from contributions, the Democrats also have the advantage of overwhelming support from the media–indeed, a considerable % of news and editorial coverage consists basically of unpaid advertorials for Dem positions and Dem candidates.
If you care about the future of the United States, and are not happy with the “progressive” approach to government, as exemplified in the administration of Barack Obama, please consider maxing out your political contributions and doing it soon. If the Democrats keep control of the Senate, and especially if they are able to regain control of the House, the next two years may be very dark indeed, and the country may well slide into a place from which it will be very difficult to recover.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
CATALIST, "THE 480," AND THE REAL 480
There has been much discussion recently of Catalist, a database system being used by the Democratic Party to optimally target their electioneering efforts…see Jonathan’s post here. I’m reminded of Eugene Burdick’s 1964 novel, “The 480.” The book’s premise is that a group within the Republican party acquires the services of a computing company called Simulation Enterprises, intending to apply the latest technology and social sciences research in order to get their candidate elected. These party insiders have been inspired by the earlier work of the 1960 Kennedy campaign with a company called Simulmatics.
Simulmatics was a real company. It was founded by MIT professor Ithiel de Sola Pool, a pioneer in the application of computer technology to social science research. Data from 130,000 interviews was categorized into 480 demographic groups, and an IBM 704 computer was used to process this data and predict the likely effects of various alternative political tactics. One question the company was asked to address by the 1960 Democratic campaign, in the person of Robert F Kennedy, was: How best to deal with religion? There was considerable concern among some parts of the electorate about the prospect of choosing a Catholic as President. Would the JFK campaign do better by minimizing attention to this issue, or would they do better by addressing it directly and condemning as bigots those who would let Kennedy’s faith affect their vote?
Simulmatics concluded that “Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholocism. The simulation shows that there has already been a serious defection from Kennedy by Protestant voters. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to brush the religious issue under the rug. Kennedy has already suffered the disadvantages of the issue even though it is not embittered now–and without receiving compensating advantages inherent in it.” Quantitatively, the study predicted that Kennedy’s direct addressing of the religion issue would move eleven states, totaling 122 electoral votes, away from the Kennedy camp–but would pull six states, worth 132 electoral votes, into the Democratic column.
It is not clear how much this study influenced actual campaign decision-making…but less than three weeks after RFK received the Simulmatics report, JFK talked about faith before a gathering of ministers in Houston. ”I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,” Kennedy said, ”where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” (Burdick’s novel also suggests that the Kennedy campaign used Simulmatics to assess the effects of a more-forthright posture on civil rights by the campaign, and furthermore to analyze Kennedy’s optimal personality projection during the debates–I don’t know if these assertions are historically correct, but the religion analysis clearly was indeed performed.)
Considerable excitement was generated when, after the election, the Simulmatics project became publicly known. A Harper’s Magazine article referred to to the Simulmatics computer as “the people machine,” and quoted Dr Harold Lasswell of Yale as saying, “This is the A-bomb of the social sciences. The breakthrough here is comparable to what happened at Stagg Field.” But Pierre Salinger, speaking for the Kennedy campaign, asserted that “We did not use the machine.” (Salinger’s statement is called out as a lie in the recent book The Victory Lab: the secret science of winning campaigns.)
In Burdick’s novel, the prospective Republican candidate is John Thatch, head of an international engineering and construction company. Thatch has achieved popular renown after courageously defusing a confrontation between Indians and Pakistanis over a bridge his company was building, thereby averting a probable war. Something about Thatch’s personality has struck the public imagination, and–despite his lack of political experience–he looks to be an attractive candidate. But initially, the Republicans see little hope of defeating the incumbent Kennedy–”the incumbent is surrounded by over four years of honorific words and rituals,” a psychologist explains. ”He seems as though he ought to be President. He assumes the mantle.” This outlook is deeply disturbing to a Republican senior statesman named Bookbinder, who strongly believes that defacto 8-year terms are bad for the country…but if it is true that Kennedy is unbeatable, then the best the Republicans can hope to do is lose as well as possible. Things change when Kennedy is assassinated and the election becomes a real contest.
Bookbinder and Levi, another Republican senior statesman, are introduced to Simulation Enterprises by a young lawyer named Madison (Mad) Curver and his psychologist associate (quoted above), a woman named Dr Devlin Mad and Dr Devlin explain that what Sim Enterprises does is different from the work done by garden-variety pollsters like the one they have just met, Dr Cotter:
“The pollster taps only a small fragment of the subject’s mind, attention, background, family influence, and habits. The Simulations thing, just because it can consider thousands of elements influencing the subject, even things he may not know himself, gets much better results.”
“And one further thing, Book,” Mad said. ”Simulations Enterprises can predict what people will do in a situation which they have never heard of before. That was the whole point of the UN in the Midwest example. No one has gone out there and asked them to vote on whether we should get out of the UN, but Dev outlined a procedure by which you can predict how they will react…if they ever do have to vote on it.
Again Bookbinder had the sharp sense of unreality. Unreal people were being asked invented questions and a result came out on green, white-lined paper…and when you got around to the real people six months later with the real question they would act the way the computer had said they would.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
Wishful science: ”if there’s little incentive to publish negative results, whatever reigning paradigm is operating in a given field will be very resistant to change”
Years ago, Arthur Koestler asserted that human beings are basically crazy and that maybe it would be possible to develop a sanity-improving drug and put it in everyone’s drinking water. I was reminded of Koestler’s suggestion by this: Should we all take a bit of lithium?
Thursday, September 18, 2014
THE GREAT UNRAVELLING...AND THE RE-WEAVING?
Your assignment for today, should you choose to accept it:
Read Roger Cohen’s much -discussed article The Great Unraveling, in which he looks back at our era from a hypothetical after-the-collapse/in-the-ruins future: ”It was a time of beheadings..it was a time of aggression…it was a time of breakup…it was a time of weakness…it was a time of hatred, fever, disorientation.”
Then read NeoNeocon’s take on this article, in which she notes that the people in Cohen’s circle seem to have been quite unaware of things which many of us have been following for years. See especially Geoffrey Britain’s comment about the specific and direct causes of each of several “unraveling” phenomena that Cohen cites.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
Ships, and many private yachts, carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which continuously transmits position data and static vessel information for the benefit of nearby ships, and in some cases also for shore-based traffic-control authorities.
MarineTraffic.org uses a worldwide network of volunteers to receive AIS transmissions from locations throughout the world and make this data available for display. You can look at a location or search for a specific vessel by name. AIS transmissions are fairly short-range, typically 15-60 miles dependent on antenna height, so there will be coverage gaps in the open ocean and in places where no volunteer receiver is nearby. Still, it looks like a significant % of the world’s coastlines and river mileage is covered.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
9/11 PLUS THIRTEEN YEARS
I guess I thought they were all gone, those types of monsters, stranded on reels of black and white film.
Bookworm: ”My life is divided into two parts: Before September 11, 2001 and after September 11, 2001.”
Simply evil: Christopher Hitchens suggests that sometimes the simple and obvious explanation for an event is more accurate than an explanation which relies on an elaborate structure of “nuance”
Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney were F-16 pilots with an Air National Guard squadron. Their order was to bring down Flight 93 before the terrorists in control of it could create another disaster on the scale of the World Trade Center…but their aircraft were configured for training, with no live ammunition and no missiles. A video interview with Major Penney here
Joseph Fouché writes about how the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, and the murder of Ahmed Shah Masood on September 9 of that year, prefigured the 9/11 attacks.
The Diplomad posts a speech he gave on 9/14/01, when he was charge d’affaires at a U.S. embassy. You will not hear speeches like that being given by diplomats under the administration of Barack Obama.
On September 11, 2005, Rare Kate didn’t go to church. Follow the link to find out why. In my original post linking this, I said “What if American and British religious leaders had responded the depradations of Naziism in the spirit of this liturgy? Actually, some of them did. The impact on preparedness was certainly malign, and the people who took such positions certainly bear a share of moral resposibility for the deaths and devastation that took place. Ditto for those who are behaving in a similar way today.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an important leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany (executed in 1945), wrote the following:
Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearannce they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.
The refusal on the part of many individuals to face the seriousness of the radical Islamist threat to out civilization stems in significant part, I feel certain, from a desire to avoid the uncomfortable and even dangerous kind of clarity that Bonhoeffer was talking about.
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
GE HAS SOLD ITS APPLIANCE BUSINESS
…to Electrolux, for $3.3 billion.
Today’s WSJ story on the sale began with the words “General Electric, which commercialized the electric toaster and self-cleaning oven”…sounds sort of trivial Actually, household appliances have been an important factor in the liberation of human energies and in social change.
Owen Young, who was GE’s chairman from 1922-1939, grew up as a farm boy. To his biographer Ida Tarbell, he described what life had been like on each Monday–wash day:
He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.
Sunday, September 07, 2014
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
The biology of risk. Hormones and the Federal Reserve, among other things. A couple of years ago I briefly reviewed The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, written by the author of this article, John Coates.
Saturday, September 06, 2014
SYMBOL, TOY, BRAND
In World War I and especially in World War II, the phrase “GI Joe” became a generic term for US soldiers. In the early 1960s, GI Joe also became a toy (“action figure”) sold by Hasbro, and was later licensed to Paramount for film production.
This article tells the story of Mitchell Paige, a real US Marine whose face became the model for that of the GI Joe action figure. It also tells us that in a new movie, Paramount plans to make a change in GI Joe’s identity…specifically, he will be turned into an acronym. ”GI Joe” will now stand for “Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity,” a multinational force based in Brussels. The marketing geniuses at Paramount apparently believe it necessary to “eliminate Joe’s connection to the US military” for the film to succeed big time with international audiences.
Barack Obama and the Democrats have been quick to denounce as “unpatriotic” those American companies which modify their organization structures to take advantage of lower non-US tax rates. Do you think maybe they will denounce Paramount as unpatriotic for this genericization of an American symbol?
Thursday, September 04, 2014
WHY THE ATTRACTION TO JIHAD?
…on the part of significant numbers of young people in Britain, America, and other Western countries?
Although the Matt Lewis article refers specifically to “angry young MEN fleeing the steady comforts of the West for the violent jihad of the Midesast”, this phenomenon is by no means limited to the male sex. See Phyllis Chesler on Jihad Brides:
We live in dangerously unsettling times and, at such times, women especially seek out those men who may appear the strongest in terms of their ability to protect their women. If so, what might this tell us about the relationship between certain Western men and such women? And what might this tell us about the cultural literacy, self-worth, and rationality of such Western women?
Also, I again recommend Arthur Koestler’s 1950 novel The Age of Longing, which is basically about the West’s loss of civilizational self-confidence. I reviewed it here: Sleeping with the Enemy.
Monday, September 01, 2014
SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
(Thanks to Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz for reminding us of this anniversary. This post is a rerun. Note link at bottom to Sheila O’Malley’s extensive coverage of this topic.)
On September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive assault on Poland, thereby igniting the Second World War.
Britain and France were both bound by treaty to come to Poland’s assistance. On September 2, Neville Chamberlain’s government sent a message to Germany proposing that hostilities should cease and that there should be an immediate conference among Britain, France, Poland, Germany, and Italy..and that the British government would be bound to take action unless German forces were withdrawn from Poland. “If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces, then His Majesty’s Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.”
According to General Edward Spears, who was then a member of Parliament, the assembly had been expecting a declaration of war. Few were happy with this temporizing by the Chamberlain government. Spears describes the scene:
Arthur Greenwood got up, tall, lanky, his dank, fair hair hanging to either side of his forehead. He swayed a little as he clutched at the box in front of him and gazed through his glasses at Chamberlain sitting opposite him, bolt-upright as usual. There was a moment’s silence, then something very astonishing happened.
Leo Amery, sitting in the corner seat of the third bench below the gangway on the government side, voiced in three words his own pent-up anguish and fury, as well as the repudiation by the whole House of a policy of surrender. Standing up he shouted across to Greenwood: “Speak for England!” It was clear that this great patriot sought at this crucial moment to proclaim that no loyalty had any meaning if it was in conflict with the country’s honour. What in effect he said was: “The Prime Minister has not spoken for Britain, then let the socialists do so. Let the lead go to anyone who will.” That shout was a cry of defiance. It meant that the house and the country would neither surrender nor accept a leader who might be prepared to trifle with the nation’s pledged word.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
THE BEST OF TIMES
In rare moments in history, ordinary men and women have been uncommonly contented. By contented I mean precisely what those men and women meant: This is not my judgment of them; it is their judgment of themselves, reflected in their letters and their arts. They were contented with their social and political lives. They found their daily activities pleasurable. They considered themselves remarkably fortunate to be alive at that very moment, in that very place. They were sunny in disposition, at peace with themselves, and above all, optimistic.
She identifies six historical situations, ranging from Rome in 160-220 AD to the United States in 1952-1963, in which she believes this condition existed, and analyzes the factors involved.
Ricochet (which is where Claire’s post appears) is a membership site; comments may be read by all but comments may only be added by members.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: MENACE IN EUROPE
by Claire Berlinski
I read this book shortly after it came out in 1996, and just re-read it in the light of the anti-Semitic ranting and violence which is now ranging across Europe. It is an important book, deserving of a wide readership.
The author’s preferred title was “Blackmailed by History,” but the publisher insisted on “Menace.” Whatever the title, the book is informative, thought-provoking, and disturbing. Berlinski is good at melding philosophical thinking with direct observation. She holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford, and has lived and worked in Britain, France, and Turkey, among other countries. (Dr Berlinski, may I call you Claire?)
The book’s dark tour of Europe begins in the Netherlands, where the murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim upset at the content of a film was quickly followed by the cancellation of that movie’s planned appearance at a film festival–and where an artist’s street mural with the legend “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was destroyed by order of the mayor of Rotterdam, eager to avoid giving offense to Muslims. (“Self-Extinguishing Tolerance” is the title of the chapter on Holland.) Claire moves on to Britain and analyzes the reasons why Muslim immigrants there have much higher unemployment and lower levels of assimilation than do Muslim immigrants to the US, and also discusses the unhinged levels of anti-Americanism that she finds among British elites. (Novelist Margaret Drabble: “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux…”) While there has always been a certain amount of anti-Americanism in Britain, the author notes that “traditionally, Britain’s anti-American elites have been vocal, but they have generally been marginalized as chattering donkeys” but that now, with 1.6 million Muslim immigrants in Britain (more worshippers at mosques than at the Church of England), the impact of these anti-Americans can be greatly amplified. (Today, there are apparently more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than serving in the British armed forces.)
One of the book’s most interesting chapters is centered around the French farmer and anti-globalization leader Jose Bove, whose philosophy Berlinski summarizes as “crop worship”….”European men and women still confront the same existential questions, the same suffering as everyone who has ever been born. They are suspicious now of the Church and of grand political ideologies, but they nonetheless yearn for the transcendent. And so they worship other things–crops, for example, which certain Europeans, like certain tribal animists, have come to regard with superstitious awe.”
The title of this chapter is “Black-Market Religion: The Nine Lives of Jose Bove,” and Berlinski sees the current Jose Bove as merely one in a long line of historical figures who hawked similar ideologies. They range from a man of unknown name born in Bourges circa AD 560, to Talchem of Antwerp in 1112, through Hans the Piper of Niklashausen in the late 1400s, and on to the “dreamy, gentle, and lunatic Cathars” of Languedoc and finally to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Berlinski sees all these people as being basically Christian heretics, with multiple factors in common. They tend appeal to those whose status or economic position is threatened, and to link the economic anxieties of their followers with spiritual ones. Quite a few of them have been hermits at some stage in their lives. Most of them have been strongly anti-Semitic. And many of the “Boves” have been concerned deeply with purity…Bove coined the neologism malbouffe, which according to Google Translate means “junk food,” but Berlinski says that translation “does not capture the full horror of bad bouffe, with its intimation of contamination, pollution, poison.” She observes that “the passionate terror of malbouffe–well founded or not–is also no accident; it recalls the fanatic religious and ritualistic search for purity of the Middle Ages, ethnic purity included. The fear of poisoning was widespread among the millenarians…” (See also this interesting piece on environmentalist ritualism as a means of coping with anxiety and perceived disorder.)
continued at Chicago Boyz
Monday, August 25, 2014
THE CALENDAR IS STILL NOT OMNIPOTENT
Barack Obama responded to the murder by ISIS/ISIL of James Foley by stating, among other things, that “a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.”
Which paralleled his lecture about Vlad Putin’s actions, earlier this year: ”…because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country – that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.” Hey, what are you going to believe–Obama’s theories, or your lying eyes?
My response here to Obama’s comments concerning Putin are equally applicable to his more recent statement concerning ISIS/ISIL, aka the Islamic State…
The idea that the mere passage of time has some automatic magical effect on national behavior…on human behavior…is simplistic, and more than a little odd. I don’t know how much history Obama and Kerry actually studied during their college years, but 100 years ago..in early 1914…there were many, many people convinced that a major war could not happen…because we were now in the twentieth century, with international trade and with railroads and steamships and telegraph networks and electric lights and all. And just 25 years after that, quite a few people refused to believe that concentration camps devoted to systematic murder could exist in the advanced mid-20th century, in the heart of Europe.
Especially simplistic is the idea that, because there had been no military territory-grabs by first-rank powers for a long time, that the era of such territory-grabs was over. George Eliot neatly disposed of this idea many years ago, in a passage in her novel Silas Marner:
The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.
Or, as Mark Steyn put it much more recently:
‘Stability’ is a surface illusion, like a frozen river: underneath, the currents are moving, and to the casual observer the ice looks equally ‘stable’ whether there’s a foot of it or just two inches. There is no status quo in world affairs: ‘stability’ is a fancy term to dignify laziness and complacency as sophistication.
Obama also frequently refers to the Cold War, and argues that it is in the past. But the pursuit of force-based territorial gain by nations long predates the Cold War, and it has not always had much to do with economic rationality. The medieval baron with designs on his neighbor’s land didn’t necessarily care about improving his own standard of living, let alone that of his peasants–what he was after, in many cases, was mainly the ego charge of being top dog.
Human nature was not repealed by the existence of steam engines and electricity in 1914…nor even by the broad Western acceptance of Christianity in that year…nor is it repealed in 2014 by computers and the Internet or by sermons about “multiculturalism” and bumper stickers calling for “coexistence.”
American Digest just linked a very interesting analysis of the famous “long telegram” sent by George Kennan in 1947: George Kennan, Vladimir Putin, and the Appetites of Men. In this document, Kennan argued that Soviet behavior must be understood not only through the prism of Communist ideology, but also in terms of the desire of leaders to establish and maintain personal power.
Regarding the current Russian/Crimean situation, the author of the linked article (Tod Worner) says:
In the current crisis, many will quibble about the historical, geopolitical complexities surrounding the relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. They will debate whether Crimea’s former inclusion in the Russian Empire or Crimea’s restive Russian population justifies secession especially with a strong Russian hand involved. Papers will be written. Conferences will be convened. Experts will be consulted. Perhaps these are all prudent and thoughtful notions to consider and actions to undertake. Perhaps.
But perhaps we should, like George Kennan, return to the same questions we have been asking about human nature since the beginning of time. Maybe we are, at times, overthinking things. Perhaps we would do well to step back and consider something more fundamental, something more base, something more reliable than the calculus of geopolitics and ideology…Perhaps we ignore the simple math that is often before our very eyes. May we open our eyes to the appetites of men.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, August 17, 2014
SIX HUNDRED MILLION YEARS IN K-12
(Millions of kids are already headed back to school, making it an appropriate time to again rerun this post from 2012)
Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now a vice chairman at Citigroup, thinks it would be a good idea to cut back on summer school vacations for kids, arguing that this would both improve academics and reduce obesity.
I’m with Jeremy Lott: But to look at the vast wasteland that is American public education — the poor teaching, the awful curriculum, the low standards, the anemic achievement, the institutional resistance to needed reform — and say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind.
I wrote about the war on summer vacation back in 2006, after stopping at a store in Georgia on the first day of August and discovering that this was the first day of school for the local children. In this post, I said:
The truth is, most public K-12 schools make very poor use of the time of their students. They waste huge proportions of the millions of hours which have been entrusted to them–waste them through the mindless implementation of fads and theories, waste them through inappropriate teacher-credentialing processes, waste them through refusal to maintain high standards of performance and behavior.
When an organization or institution proves itself to be a poor steward of the resources that have been entrusted to it, the right answer is not to give it more resources to waste.
Orszag and similar thinkers seem to have no concept that good things can happen to children’s development outside of an institutional setting. Plenty of kids develop and pursue interests in science, literature, art, music…plus, there is plenty to be learned simply by interacting with friends in an unstructured environment.
Would the world be better off if Steve Wozniak and Jeri Ellsworth..to name only two of many, many examples..had their noses held constantly to the school grindstone rather than having time to develop their interests in electronics?
Lewis E Lawes, who was warden of Sing Sing prison from 1915 to 1941, wrote an interesting book titled Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. The title refers to the aggregate lengths of the sentences of the men in the prison at a typical particular point in time.
Twenty-five hundred men saddled with an aggregate of twenty thousand years! Within such cycles worlds are born, die, and are reborn. That span has witnessed the evolution of the intelligence of mortal man. And we know that twenty thousand years have seen nations run their courses, perish, and give way to their successors. Twenty thousand years in my keeping. What will they evolve?
Following the same approach, the aggregate length of the terms to be spent in K-12 schools by their current students is more than 600,000,000 years. What proportion of this time is actually used productively?
And how many of the officials who supervise and run the public schools, and the ed-school professors who influence their policies, think about this 600,000,000 years in the same serious and reflective way that Lawes thought about the 20,000 years under his supervision? Some do, of course, but a disturbing percentage of them seem to be simply going through the bureaucratic motions.
And the politicians and officials of the Democratic Party are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: NICE WORK
What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory?
This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain. It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox. Vic is not thrilled when his boss (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request.
Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked. The way the program works is that Robyn will be Vic’s “shadow,” joining him at the plant every Wednesday, sitting in on his regular activities, and learning just a bit about what is involved in managing a business.
Vic is a self-made man, not well-educated and with few interests outside work. He is acutely aware of the danger that faces Pringle’s under the current economic climate, and is resolved that his factory will not join the long list of those that have been tossed on the scrapheap.
There is nothing quite so forlorn as a closed factory–Vic Wilcox knows, having supervised a shutdown himself in his time. A factory is sustained by the energy of its own functioning, the throb and whine of machinery, the unceasing motion of assembly lines, the ebb and flow of workers changing shifts, the hiss of airbrakes and the growl of diesel engines from wagons delivering raw materials at one gate, taking away finished goods at the other. When you put a stop to all that, when the place is silent and empty, all that is left is a large, ramshackle shed–cold, filthy and depressing. Well, that won’t happen at Pringle’s, hopefully, as they say. Hopefully.
Robyn and Vic dislike each other on first meeting: Vic sees Robyn’s profession as useless, which Robyn sees Vic’s managerial role as brutal and greedy. She is appalled by what she sees in her first tour of the factory..especially the foundry:
They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom. This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced…The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand. The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof. Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lave trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor…It was the most terrible place she had ever been in her life. To say that to herself restored the original meaning of the word “terrible”: it provoked terror, even a kind of awe. To think of being that man, wrestling with the heavy awkward lumps of metal in that maelstrom of heat, dust and stench, deafened by the unspeakable noise of the vibrating grid, working like that for hour after hour, day after day….That he was black seemed the final indignity: her heart swelled with the recognition of the spectacle’s powerful symbolism.
The situation was so bizarre, so totally unlike her usual environment, that there was a kind of exhilaration to be found in it…She thought of what her colleagues and students might be doing this Wednesday morning–earnestly discussing the poetry of John Donne or the novels of Jane Austen or the nature of modernism, in centrally heated, carpeted rooms…Penny Black would be feeding more statistics on wife-beating in the West Midlands into her data-based, and Robyn’s mother would be giving a coffee morning for some charitable cause…What would they all think if they could see her now?
Vic and Robyn’s association does not get off to a good start: Robyn almost causes a wildcat strike in her misguided attempt to save an employee who is in danger of being fired–and they argue incessantly about almost everything–Robyn for example is offended by the pin-ups that appear throughout the factory. But the two soon develop a grudging respect for one another.
Vic is married, though not very satisfactorily so, and had in recent years found himself increasingly disconnected from his children. Robyn is in a long-term relationship with another academic, Charles: she is clearly on track to be more successful than he, which fact does not appear to bother him. They live apart, for career reasons but also because of Robyn’s lack of commitment to the relationship, staying together sometimes on weekends and holidays. Via another woman he is attracted to, Charles develops an interest in the financial activities of the City. (He sees it as analogous to literary deconstructionism: ”…exchanging one semiotic system for another, the literary for the numerical, a game with high philosophical stakes for a game with high monetary stakes…but a game in each case,” whereas Vic has low regard for the finance industry: “It’s all paper. Moving bits of paper about. Whereas we make things, thing that weren’t there till we made ‘em.”)
Vic finds himself increasingly intrigued by Robyn and begins reading literature, going so far as to borrow one of his daughter’s schoolbooks. And Robyn finds herself noticing and thinking about things that she wouldn’t have noticed before. When looking down from the plane on a business trip with Vic:
People crammed into rush-hour buses and trains, or sitting at the wheels of their cars in traffic jams, or washing up breakfast things in the kitchens of pebble-dashed semis. All inhabiting their own little worlds, oblivious of how they fitted into the total picture. The housewife, switching on her electric kettle to make another cup of tea, gave no thought to the immense complex of operations that made that simple action possible: the building and maintenance of the power station that produced the electricity, the mining of coal or pumping of oil to fuel the generators, the laying of miles of cable to carry the current to her house, the digging and smelting and milling of ore or bauxite into sheets of steel or aluminum, the cutting and pressing of the metal into the kettle’s shell, spout and handle, the assembling of these parts with scores of other components…The housewife gave no thought to all this as she switched on her kettle. Neither had Robyn until this moment, and it would never have occured to her to do so before she met Vic Wilcox.
**will Vic be able to save Pringle’s?
**as part of this effort, will he be able to get rid of his sleazy and low-performing Marketing Director…who is apparently being protected by someone at a higher corporate level?
**will he be able to acquire the automated core-blowing machine (Altenhofer 22EX, with Siemens electronic controls) which he needs to preserve the foundry part of the business–but which is priced higher than he can afford?
**will Robyn and Vic become romantically involved?
At Chicago Boyz we’ve often discussed novels and films which deal realistically with work, and the relative paucity of such. Nice Work is a significant accomplishment in this area, and very well worth reading.