Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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Tuesday, September 30, 2003  

A blogger who is a member of the U.S. military, serving in Iraq, has started a program to collect toys for Iraqi children. Details are here.

Note that you mail the toys to an APO address, which is a normal U.S. address--the actual transportation to Iraq is taken care of by the military. No need to figure out esoteric addresses, or to pay exorbitant postage rates.

Please pass this information on to your off-line friends. And, if you are a blogger, please pick up the link.

7:29 AM

Wednesday, September 24, 2003  

Prof Stanley Fish (who is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago), has an article in The New York Times(9/18) complaining about the financial "vise" in which he believes universities now find themselves.

"Moreover, the costs that neither tuition nor public dollars will cover are rising exponentially. Even if states impose salary and hiring freezes, they would be more than offset by increases no state government can control: raises mandated by union contracts, skyrocketing utility and insurance rates, the cost of replacing worn-out equipment, the cost of replacing equipment declared obsolete after three years, the cost of buying equipment that didn't exist 18 monts ago, the cost of maintaining a crumbling physical plant, the cost of security measures deemed necessary after 9/11."

Are these really increases "no state government can control"? Let's take a look at some of them:

1) replacing obsolete equipment, buying new equipment. In fact, many universities have been making massive expenditures on computers and other information technology equipment for which the need and the educational payoff are dubious at best. For example: is it really necessary for the computers in the library (used largely for accessing the catalog) to be replaced by new ones with expensive flat screen-displays? Maybe there is a case for this, but it's not an inevitability. The fact that someone wants to sell you something doesn't mean you have to buy it...a truism that trendy administrators seem to loose sight of.

2) raises mandated by union contracts. Who negotiated and signed these contracts--aliens from Neptune? No, they were negotiated and signed by authorized representatives of the state government. True, once they have been signed they must be honored..but that doesn't mean that salary spending is out of the control of the state government. Today's decisions determine tomorrow's expenditures. Suppose a person ran up excessive credit card bills every month, then argued that they were out of his control because once they were incurred they had to be paid. Prof Fish's argument seems to me to be quite similar to this.

And what about those salaries not covered by union contracts...like those of top administrators? Isn't there some discretion exercisable as to what these people are paid (and, even more, how many of them are to be employed?) What about the hiring of "superstar" professors who command exceptionally high salaries? All of these topics can be argued pro and con, but it is ridiculous to assert that these are not discretionary items.

3) cost of maintaining crumbling physical plant. This one is really disturbing. Who allowed it to crumble? Over past decades, universities have had billions and billions of dollars to work with. Is it true, as Prof Fish now seems to be telling us that over this time frame many administrators failed to properly maintain their facilities, spending the money on other things and passing along a deferred-maintenance problem to their successors? If this has really happened on a large scale, it seems to me to be morally (though probably not legally) similar to the actions of those companies who chose to capitalize items that should have been expensed, passing along their problems to the future rather than recognizing them in the present--actions for which people will very likely be going to jail.

4) Skyrocketing utility and insurance rates. How many universities have taken a really hard-nosed approach to driving down these costs? How many have employed truly flinty-hearted purchasing agents, such as one might find at General Motors or Caterpillar Tractor, to get better deals? How many have explored creative alternatives, such as the use of cogeneration to supplement utility power? My guess on all of these items is..relatively few.

Prof Fish objects to a proposed bill that would cut federal financing to colleges whose tuition increases are more than double the rate of inflation. If such a policy should be adopted, he asserts, terrible things will happen: "..offering fewer courses, sending students elsewhere, skimping on advising, hiring the pedagogical equivalent of migrant workers, eliminating remedial programs, ejecting the students for whom remedial programs are necessary, reducing health and counseling services, admitting fewer students..." This all reminds me of the standard small-town politician's response to any proposed budget cuts: threaten to close the fire department and shut down the high school football team.

The current issue of Forbes (10/13) has an interesting issue on cost reductions at IBM. This is a company which has been reasonably well-managed for some time--yet in a recent cost-cutting drive, it was able to come up with reductions of about $3 billion. Some of the changes:

(a) Stop using specialized consoles for zSeries mainframes; use ordinary ThinkPad laptops instead.
(b) Replace the four-color packaging for PCs with two-color packaging.
(c) Stop giving away free $2000 toolkits (which included silver-plated hammers) with each zSeries mainframe (one customer had eight of these freebies stacked up, all unopened).

None of these things are individually earth-shattering, but put enough of them together and they add up. Again, this is a company which is in a highly competitive field and has presumably been reasonably cost-conscious all along--probably much more so than most universities--yet still found dozens of items like the above, for $3 billion in total savings.

There are most likely things going on in most universities which are the academic equivalent of the $2000 toolkits and which could be eliminated without damaging the core educational mission.

Soaring tuition costs are causing real pain to many students and their families. College administrators do not have an unlimited claim on the assets of the people of this country. It's time for a reasonable approach to cost control, not for stonewalling.

6:50 AM

Tuesday, September 23, 2003  

Ralph Peters has an interesting perspective from which to view the candidacy of General Clark: he's actually worked for the man.

Peters, in case you're not familiar with him, is a former soldier, a Colonel who specialized in intelligence. He now writes astutely about terrorism and related subjects (and is also a novelist.)

Peters calls Clark "a man I like and respect," and has good things to say about "his raw intelligence, his service record and his unassailable patriotism." What concerns him about the General are his instincts and his intuition. He reminds Peters of one of his own former subordinates, a man who was "phenomenally intelligent...Smarter in every academic regard than any of his comrades, the officer should have been the star of our operation. But he lacked one essential quality: good instincts. He unfailingly called things wrong." (emphasis added)

Peters believes that Clark, despite his intelligence, is likely to "call things wrong" when it comes to national security and terrorism. "His pattern has been to trust his opponents' good will, only to find himself betrayed - whether by Serb generals or our Russian "partners." On security issues, he echoes Jimmy Carter, another man whose intelligence outpaced his practical grasp of the world.

Clark's judgment was at its worst during the buildup to and execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unaccountably, he just didn't seem to understand the stakes - and he still doesn't."

Peters suggests that the Democrats could run a Lieberman-Clark slate, with Lieberman in the top slot, but recognizes that it's not likely to happen given the dynamics of the campaign. "The media have served our country badly by favoring the silly and sensational over Lieberman's sober, mature and convincing stands on both domestic issues and foreign policy."

Peters' summary on Clark: "...until convinced otherwise, I cannot see the general as my president. He knows a great deal, but understands too little. And I do not believe he takes our enemies seriously."

7:29 PM

Monday, September 22, 2003  

Judge Don Walters, a federal judge from Shreveport, LA., was asked to serve as part of a 12 man team in Iraq to evaluate their justice system. His comments are summarized here. Sample:

I have seen the machines and places of torture. I will tell you one story
told to me by the Chief of Pediatrics at the Medical College in Basra. It
was one of the most shocking to me, but I heard worse. One of Saddam's
security agents was sent to question a Shiite in his home. The
interrogation took place in the living room in the presence of the man's
wife, who held their three month old child. A question was asked and the
thug did not like the answer; he asked it again, same answer. He grabbed
the baby from its mother and plucked its eye out. And then repeated his
question. Worse things happened with the knowledge, indeed with the
participation, of Saddam, his family and the Baathist regime.

This was the kind of thing that was happening, to real people and in real time, while many American journalists evidently focused their attention on gaining the favor of the regime (see the post below.)

12:16 PM

Monday, September 15, 2003  

Writing about the performance of journalists in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, NYT correspondent John Burns says: There is corruption in our business. He is talking about the many journalists who chose to play along with Saddam's regime in order to stay in Iraq and maintain their contacts with the regime.

Terror, totalitarian states, and their ways are nothing new to me, but I felt from the start that this was in a category by itself, with the possible exception in the present world of North Korea. I felt that that was the central truth that has to be told about this place. It was also the essential truth that was untold by the vast majority of correspondents here. Why? Because they judged that the only way they could keep themselves in play here was to pretend that it was okay....

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

Read the whole thing. As Glenn Reynolds says, This isn't journalism's Enron. It's journalism's Nuremberg. Or ought to be..

And, speaking of Nuremberg, there is a certain parallel here to the case of Leni Riefenstahl--sometimes called "Hitler's filmmaker"--who died a few days ago. (Lynn Crosbie has written a good article about this reprehensible individual--who was not, of course, tried at Nuremberg although she was imprisoned briefly after the war.) Riefenstahl claimed that she was not a committed Nazi: that what she was concerned with was her art. If this is true, then the fact that she was willing to work for the Third Reich meant that she rated her responsibility to her profession more highly than her responsibility as a human being. Is this so very different from the attitude of those journalists who rated their "access" more highly than their responsibility to tell the truth about what was really going on inside the human nightmare of Iraq?

People in other professions, of course, have made similar choices. In his mammoth novel Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon tells the story of a German rocket scientist named Franz Poekler. The character is fictional, of course, but there were many like him.

Poekler--a likeable if weak man--is assigned to work on the development of the V-2 missile. He does so not because of any particular affinity with Naziism, but because rocket development is his profession; he finds it intellectually interesting. (He is given an added incentive by the fact that his daughter is being held hostage by a Nazi official--but it seems clear to me that he would have willingly worked on the rocket even without this factor.)

As is well-known, the V-2 was used to attack civilians in London. As is less well-known, the very production of this weapon involved an atrocity. Substantial parts of it were manufactured by slave laborers, prisoners at the Dora concentration camp--adjacent to the facilities at which Franz Poekler carries out his design tasks. In the novel, Poekler is vaguely aware of this, but prefers not to think about it.

As the war ends, Poekler walks into Dora, and is confronted with the reality of the V-2 project on which he has worked:

The odors of shit, death, sweat, skckness, mildew, piss, the breathing of Dora, wrapped him as he crept in...All his vacuums, his labyrinths, had been the other side of this. While he lived and drew marks on paper, this invisible kingdom had kept on, in the darkness outside...

And while journalists in Iraq lived and drew marks on paper, or on video or computer screens, the invisible kingdom of Saddam's torturers kept on.

In Pynchon's novel, Poekler makes a small act of contrition:

Where it was darkest and smelled the worst, Poekler found a woman lying, a random woman. He sat for half an hour holding her bone hand. She was breathing. Before he left, he took off his gold wedding ring and put it on the woman's thin finger, curling her hand to keep it from sliding off. If she lived, the ring would be good for a few meals, or a blanket, or a night indoors, or a ride home...

It's not much. But it's more than Riefenstahl ever did--and more, one suspects, than will ever be done by the journalists of whom Burns writes.

5:55 PM

Saturday, September 13, 2003  

As almost everyone knows by now, former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney has been appointed by Cornell University as Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor. The Cornell Daily Sun has a piece about reactions on campus. Although some professors are appalled, the appointment also has significant support among the faculty. Her appointment came after 11 faculty members wrote letters of support, more than for any other appointee of an endowed professorship except former Attorney General Janet Reno.

And Prof. Ronald Herring, government, indicated that has not followed the controversy closely. However, he said, it may be overblown.

"There's a huge gap between the knowledge of University faculty, especially in the social sciences, as opposed to those who watch Fox News, which is a source for the public," Herring said. "They are not overwhelmed by three-word slogans and bumper stickers."

Read that last paragraph a couple of times in order to get the full flavor of the arrogance it contains.

And then consider this. The people of Mckinney's former (Georgia) Congressional district decided that they did not wish to be associated with her. The powers that be at Cornell University made the contrary decision. Who really has more knowledge and understanding?

(hat tip: Best of the Web)

7:48 AM

Friday, September 12, 2003  

William Ian Miller has a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education on academic pomposity (he has a forthcoming book titled Faking It.) The Chronicle piece is subscription-only; however, Erin O'Connor has summarized it here. Sample:

So distasteful is the style, given democratic assumptions, why on earth would any American adopt it? Here is one reason that transcends the cultural: I have found over the years that students tend to confuse pomposity with knowledge, nastiness with smarts. Students thus force otherwise indifferently kind and modest teachers into being mean windbags to get the respect they crave. It may be less that pompous power generates toadies than that toadyism generates pompous power.

Undoubtedly, there's far too much pomposity in universities--but I don't think the phenomenon is limited to academia. Pomposity seems to be on the rise in American society in general. I've even observed it lately in business-to-business television ads. It's a strange phenomenon in a democratic society, as Miller says--certainly, there have always been pompous people in this country, but there has also been a vigorous tradition of skewering the pompous. Many people now seem more willing to take the pompous at their own over-inflated self-estimate than was perhaps previously the case.

Why is this happening? I don't claim to have a full analysis, but I suspect it's tied up with the rise of credentialism--which is, in turn, connected to the proliferation of occupations in which people's performance is basically unmeasurable or at least unmeasured.

3:43 PM

Thursday, September 11, 2003  

Sheila watched the PBS special on the World Trade Center, and what she saw was disturbing. Apparently, many of the "experts" on the show used the destruction of the WTC as a platform for pseudo-philosophical observations of a particularly sophomoric and offensive variety. Sample of Sheila's comments

"Take a drink every time you hear the word "hubris". You would be SMASHED before the first hour was out.

The implication was that those buildings were asking for it. They were asking for it even before they were built. We were asking for it. You know what happens to people who have hubris! The Greeks taught us that! Hubris is punished!

The way all of the "experts" talked, September 11 was a done deal from Day One of the project 30-something years ago. They were talking as architects. They spoke abstractly.

They spoke of symbols. They spoke of globalization (and they all took the position, as if there were no possible fair-minded question about it, that globalization was a bad thing). They spoke of symbols of globalization. They spoke of hubristic symbols of globalization".

And now a direct quote from the special:

"And if you look at the dynamics of the collapse, what you find is that in both cases it was the paper fire that was sustained long enough, because of the amount of paper in there, to cause the steel to weaken, to cause the collapse and the hammering down in both cases. I mean, paper on that day was a constant presence. It rained down on the city, as if in mockery of the kind of business that was done at the Trade Center. "Here, have some of the paper." And it burned, and it brought the buildings down."

And, as Sheila says: "Now let's look at that quote again. "It rained down on the city, as if in mockery of the kind of business that was done at the Trade Center."

"As if in". "As if in". Three little one-syllable words, but they can be so dangerous, when put in the wrong hands. Like the hands of Mr. Langewiesche.

"As if in mockery of the kind of business that was done at the Trade Center."

There's so much that is wrong with that."

Indeed there is. Mr. Langewiesche is a fine writer who has written many interesting things in the past ; he should be above such jejune commentary.

Go and read the whole thing. Sheila is really a very fine writer. Also read Jeff Jarvis: The PBSification of 9.11.

UPDATE: Jeff now also has an article on this subject in The New York Post.

9:10 AM

Wednesday, September 10, 2003  

Howard Dean says that the U.S. should not "take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Senator Joe Lieberman responded as follows: "If this is a well-thought-out position, it's a mistake, and a major break from a half a century of American foreign policy...If it's not, it's very important for Howard Dean, as a candidate for president, to think before he talks."

And how did Dean respond to Lieberman's response? In the words of The Washington Post: He specifically struck back at Lieberman, who is emerging as Dean's harshest critic on the campaign trail. "For Joe to raise this as a divisive issue in the Democratic Party is a major error on his part," he said. "I am deeply disappointed in him." What a strange idea. Dean has proposed essentially abandoning a U.S. ally and taking a policy position that seems certain to encourage terrorism--and he accuses Lieberman of being divisive?

If there is any honor left in the Democratic Party, then Dean has just terminated his run as a serious candidate.

7:43 AM

Sunday, September 07, 2003  

Every day, there are stories about the failures of American public education. So, I was happy to see an article about a successful public school. Today's Washington Post has a review of School of Dreams, by Edward Humes. The book is about Whitney High School, in California--"the top-rated public high school in California, arguably in the nation." But reading the review turned out not to be a cheering experience.

The school itself sounds great. But many of the parents sound just awful.

A student named "Cecelia" is a National Merit Scholar, with a GPA of 3.8 and a combined SAT of 1450. She has also a talented artist. So how do her parents react to her accomplishments? They want her to go to Harvard, Stanford, or Berkeley. When she spoke to them about becoming an artist, they threw her portfolio into the street, then made her wait half an hour while cars ran over an entire year's work. Evidently, "artist" was not an acceptable career choice, in their view of the world.

And when a sensitive girl named "Angela" asked for a sewing machine, her parents ridiculed her, reminding her that they hadn't sacrificed so that she could become a "seamstress".

There's more. "Christine" has been ordered by her parents to become a doctor--"anything else and the thankless girl will simply break their hearts."

More on this later.


So why do parents act like this? Many of the examples cited in the review sound rather extreme--but the attitudes behind some of these behaviors, even if manifested with somewhat more moderation, seem to occur fairly often. I think there are several factors contributing to this kind of thing:

1) Too many parents view the success of their children in school--and in other endeavours--in terms of the external "trophies" that they acquire (grade point, club presidencies, etc) rather than their internal character development--things like self-motivation, creativity, ability to overcome setbacks, passion for a subject. Perhaps they don't understand just how limited the shelf life of the "trophies" actually is. A year after their kid is hired for his first real job, he's probably going to get his first real performance appraisal. The manager doing the appraisal isn't going to be very interested in hearing once again about how the kid was once the Drama Club President. He's going to be interested in what he has accomplished, and what he's likely to accomplish--based on his demonstrated performance--in the near future. These things are largely a function of internalized character--the development of which is not helped when a parent mocks a child's passion, or drives him into a field that does not interest him, or continually intervenes with school officials to get his grades raised.

2) Indeed, education itself has become--to an increasing extent--a "trophy." More and more, the value of education seems to be perceived mainly in terms of the acquisition of a credential, rather than either learning for the sake of learning or learning for the sake of a useable practical skill. The irresponsible manner in which the educational establishment has sold the expansion of education--focusing on the necessity of obtaining "a degree" rather than on the value of what you can learn--has certainly contributed to this unwholesome trend.

3) There seems to be a tremendous amount of raw fear--fear that if the child does not get the trophies, does not get into the elite college, then his life will be a failure. It as if we lived in the England of Jane Austin, when one's entire future could be determined by matters of legacy and fortunate marriage--and if you lost out on these, you were doomed to penury and low status. America in 2003 is a much more fluid society. There are plenty of ways to make money and do enjoyable work, even if you aren't a Harvard graduate. It's true that there are ominous social trends--mainly, the growth in credentialism--which work against today's levels of social mobility, and these need to be watched carefully. But they are certainly nothing to panic about. Again, many kids would be well-served if their parents would devote less attention to getting them into Harvard and more into developing the internalized characteristics which will help them whatever they do.

4) Finally, there is a flavor of simple snobbishness about all this. Note the negative parental reactions both to the girl who wanted to paint and to the girl who wanted to sew. Both skills, of course, involve the use of one's hands--and that, to some people, may imply a loss of status. (There's probably a relationship here to the decline of high school shop courses, which I wrote about earlier.) Much is lost through this attitude. In his autobiography, Peter Drucker--illustrious writer on management and society, professor of subjects from statistics to Oriental Art--writes of his own elementary school experience. "...even Miss Sophie could not make a craftsman out of me...But I took from her a lifelong appreciation of craftsmanship, an enjoyment of clean honest work, and respect for the task. My fingers have never forgotten the feel of well-planed and sanded wood, cut with rather than against the grain, which Miss Sophy--her hand on mine and guiding my fingers--made me sense." Experiences such as that of which Prof Drucker writes are today being denied to countless students as the result of trophy-hunting, snobbishness, and pseudo-intellectualism.

Educators and "experts" would do well to help parents take a balanced view of the things that are important to their childrens' development, rather than feeding panic and status anxiety. And parents themselves would do well to lighten up a bit and take a longer view of things.

8:19 AM

Thursday, September 04, 2003  

Melanie Phillips has a chilling article on the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain. Excerpt:

Shortly before the war on Iraq, I took part in another BBC program, this time on radio, which was broadcast in front of an audience in Wokingham, Berkshire, the very heartland of Conservative Britain. One of my fellow panelists was Tariq Ali, a veteran revolutionary socialist. He delivered the speech he has made for years—that America was the fount of all evil, that President Bush was more of a threat to peace than Saddam Hussein and that if there was a rogue state equipped with nuclear arms to be dealt with, it was Israel. To my astonishment, the audience cheered and clapped, particularly when he made the crack about Israel. When it was my turn to speak, I said the opposite; for which I was, once again, hissed.

She blames these attitudes largely on the influence of the political left, which has captured the Establishment: the media, politics, civil service, legal profession and the churches. As a result, its worldview has increasingly become the received wisdom of the public. And it is the left which now openly promulgates the opinions that Israel should not exist, that it is a Nazi state and that the Jews control America.

Go and read the whole thing.

8:01 AM

Wednesday, September 03, 2003  

A view of what's really going on in Baghdad, from the Rev Ken Joseph.

7:39 AM

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