Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bye Bayh

Reform from within or reform from without or, more likely, no reform at all. It's an age-old question. And it seems to permeate all our institutions, not just the patrician component of our federal legislature. Bring back Noblesse Oblige. It sure beats "what's in it for me?" David Brooks provides a critique in his latest column. My generation has produced gridlock instead of solutions. Perhaps we should become champions of half a loaf.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

So that's the problem

In all recorded history there has not been one economist who has had to worry about where the next meal would come from.
Peter Drucker
American (Austrian-born) management writer (1909 - 2005)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Maladies and Malaise

To incite insight,
We must recite re-sight.

I am shrinking. The last time I went to get my blood pressure checked they measured my height. I was six foot even. In high school, I was six foot one inch. I feel that I'm getting smaller internally as well - less mental energy, fewer ideas.

While I've got pains in the joints, what pains me most is to see my good friends and colleagues who work at the university in upper administration try to squeeze blood from a stone, making budget cuts while trying to preserve what is essential on Campus. They are wearing down, yet there is still a very long road ahead.

My sister-in-law's son passed away a couple of days ago. He was her first born, living in a facility rather than at home because he had severe birth defects. I met him once when on a Texas visit we drove up from San Antonio to Austin. His brother was very affectionate with him, that's what struck me most, but I couldn't understand a word he was saying. We got a call very early in the morning a couple of days ago. Pain and tears must be shared. Yet it is a blessing.

I've been (not) reading several books at the same time, most recently Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, as adults our raison d'etre. The concept seems right. The question is how to produce it. One of his students, Keith Sawyer, has written Group Genius, a book that argues for jazz-like improvisation as the way to achieve flow. That makes sense. There are stern requirements for putting together an effective ensemble. Our motley read group doesn't pass muster, at least not yet. We are just getting to know one another. I know how to make argument, but not how to riff. I don't even like the work riff; it is too alien for me. With friends, and students too, critique is a form of affection. At a minimum, it shows we're listening. We could, however, still be missing the point.

If not thinking of the context in which Joyce wrote Dubliners (I've done that in my prior posts), should we spend some time on the setting in which we are reading it? Mine is trying to make sense of what is happening now by looking back at what happened when I was a kid.

Yesterday I read Two Gallants. In each of the stories so far I've taken note of how Joyce forms his sentences in the first paragraph or two. They are invariably about setting. There is great economy of word use and metaphor in casting the picture of the relevant scene, definite lessons for the writer there. A little further into the story that narrative takes over and I lose track of the individual sentences and choice of words. Two Gallants is a bit different. The entire story seems a picture. The narrative is very spare.

I thought back to high school English, perhaps 10th or 11th grade, and maybe we were reading Green Mansions or The Ambassadors, neither of which stuck with me. In a bit of group think, the class decided it didn't like descriptive writing and wanted narrative only. Give us the story. The rest is just needless detail.

Where does this come from? As a younger kid my family went to the World's Fair, not too far from our house. My dad was fascinated with the International Pavilion and the artifacts from the various countries. I couldn't have cared less. I was there for the rides. In a few weeks both of my teenage sons and my wife will head to Disney World with the High School Band. Now that is just about the last place on earth that I'd like to be.

Stories get to us very early. Parents read to us before going to sleep, even parents who we don't otherwise see during the day because they are at work. Of course there was Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin. I had some stories my kids never got - Till Eulenspiegel and Baron Munchhausen. And there were Aesop's Fables. They had a moral to the story. Alan says (and many others do to) that school inculcates this sense of there being a right answer and our job is to reproduce it. Then when we can't, or won't, some sort of psychological reaction occurs. I think we should give school a break and look for the culprit in us. Grade school, at least it seems to me, is not so different from having bedtime stories. We want the stories. And we want the morals to them too.

Somewhere along the way school changes because we want kids to grow up. My thought is that as a society we're rushing that. Life expectancy is long enough nowadays that kids should take there time maturing. The impatience to do otherwise is us. We all game the system.

Mostly, the pictures that are important to me are in my head, images I can recall from time to time if not on command. Many of them are of my father; some are of friends. When I was in grad school I do recall going to the Art Institute and seeing a painting, I believe by Picasso before he embraced cubism, that was the face of Jesus, the most compassionate face I had ever seen. I've had some recent experiences with memory where it was clearly playing tricks on me because the thoughts were inconsistent. One then wonders if it is only a minor error or an entire fabrication. So I lack confidence in this memory, but I would like to see that picture again if it is exists. I'm interested in it for itself and it for my reaction. Mostly, though, I don't need or want things to look at to rekindle memories.

In this others seem to be different. I received the postcard from Barbara. Her prose on the other side was about the story Eveline. Barbara sees ideas through real photographs in a way I do not.

It did occur to me that Two Gallants was a painting drawn with words, just like a Toulouse-Lautrec. From a painter, we expect an interesting rendering of the image, but don't demand a moral to the story. Growing up, we had a painting or a print of a bum wearing a Fedora in our living room. I never asked why it was there, whether for compassion, or culture, or just an interesting face to look at.

It also occurred to me that we as readers have never known hunger, but many who were reading Dubliners at or around the time of its publication did. Our imperative now is to make meaning of our lives by providing for the betterment of others. That our essentials will be taken care of is understood. That the characters in the Two Gallants were hustlers a la Midnight Cowboy rather than productive types could be a morality lesson, but I really couldn't tell.

Barbara says in her post to let the prose draw you in for itself, not to feel impelled to produce something with it. It is hard to do that now. I did wake up this morning (way to early, though that is usually the case) and wonder whether I dream in pictures or as a narrative. Maybe that is something.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pining for Spring

It's been too much cabin fever, don't you know?
From a still too long winter, with way too much snow.

Graying and wrinkled so outwardly past our prime,
Nostalgic for our youth, we yearn for the national pastime.

We're die hard fans of different teams around the nation,
Harking back to the 1960s, when each made a sensation.

And with distinct histories that were rather stark,
Playing at Wrigley, Memorial or Yankee Stadiums, and Fenway Park.

This is the era where I learned to be a fan,
After the retirement of Ted Williams and Stan the Man.

Going to one game a year and watching the World Series on the tube in black and white,
Along with reading Sports Illustrated and collecting baseball cards, a true joy and delight.

In reverse chronological order I will now recollect,
To bring out these memories with maximum dramatic effect.

In 1969 the Miracle Mets from the Cubbies stole the crown,
Nonetheless it's now time for Ronnie Santo to head to Cooperstown.

Part of an All Star infield with Beckert, Kessinger, and Ernie Banks.
While in the other league it was the O's who were the class, not the Yanks.

Two years earlier an improbable run for Boston included Tony C. getting beaned.
But Yaz was tremendous and Dickie W. managed like a fiend.

With Rico and rookies like Reggie Smith and a Boomer named Scott,
They came from nowhere, the veritable long shot.

The difference maker really was Lonborg, who had a career year,
But the Cards took the series in seven, with Lonborg out of gas in the clincher, I fear.

Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, the last player to have done that.
Amazing it happened two years in a row, but that indeed is a fact.

The year before it was Frank Robinson who beat out the vacuum cleaner at third for MVP.
With more power from Boog Powell and with Blair and Belanger for great "D."

With young starters in Palmer, Bunker, and McNally caught ably by a receiver named Andy.
The job they did in the World Series, winning in four games, that sure was a dandy.

Yet the command performance was given by a forgotten old timer named Moe.
Striking out eleven in game one and thus stealing the show.

That World Series ended up being for Sandy Koufax a swan song.
The most imposing pitcher ever, though his career was not very long.

And with his leaving the once dominant Dodgers gave way to St. Louis.
With the base running of Brock, like Wills before him, a thrill for all of us.

Two years earlier the Cards edged the Phils in a tight pennant race.
While over in the American Leagues it was the Yankees who took first place.

Brothers Boyer, Ken and Clete, against each other were among the few.
Sibling rivalries in the World Series, not even duplicated by that threesome named Alou.

It was the last World Series of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford too.
They'd been regulars at the Fall Classic, then more than a decade long drought did ensue.

Yogi managed the Yankees, for the Cards it was Johnny Keane.
Afterward Berra was out, in a move that was truly obscene.

This was the first World Series I watched on TV, though the reasons weren't sinister.
The year before when Koufax beat the Yankees I was on my front lawn listening on my transistor.

Before that I don't really remember, though we should note one year after the decade had begun.
It was the most magical season of all, because during it Roger hit sixty one.

Rather than championing the accomplishment, it earned an asterisk given by Ford Frick.
Since this is a G-rated rhyme, I'll merely say the thought of it makes me sick.

The protection of the Babe's legacy was unnecessary; the diminishment of the new record a shame.
Now with almost fifty years of hindsight, it's time to put Roger Maris where he belongs, in the Hall of Fame!

That decade was the last for the contractual concept known as the reserve clause.
A time when players were players and teams were teams, the thought of which must give us pause.

We don't begrudge the players their free agency; in fact we wish them the best of luck.
Though we pine for the days when you could buy bleacher sets at Wrigley and spend only a couple of bucks.

Nostalgia is ok, though at the risk of being uncouth.
Comparing baseball with today, I'd have to say it was better in my youth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Is this relevant for reading Dubliners?

I confess that this was entirely off my radar, but then I heard a report on the BBC a little while ago and it occurred ot me it might be relevant. The Wikipedia page say the abuses go back only to 1975. But if that is only a matter of documentation at that the abuses went back to the time of Joyce, and if it were common knowledge even if not well documented, then surely the book should be read with that thought in the background.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Are we preparing kids for the reality they will live?

This rather depressing piece from the Atlantic makes the point that young adults who enter the labor force during a severe bout of unemployment have a tough lifetime ahead of them. I don't think we're readying them for that.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A reading of a Chapter from Dubliners - An Encounter

I did a reading of a story in Dubliners today, recording it in Audacity and posting the MP3 to my campus account. I recorded it in chunks, partly just to give my voice a break, and partly because I'm not very good at it - making little errors, afraid I'd make some more. I cut out some of the real clunkers, but there are plenty of other flubbed lines still there.

I wondered, if you do this sort of thing, and can give a good voicing of the story and also try to understand what is going on with the story at the same time. Early on I couldn't do that and I found myself wishing just to read it normally, so I could pause when I felt like it. It did get a little easier. I wonder if reading aloud non-great works would be useful as a way to better retain the ideas that are there. Certainly, there is more effort doing it this way.

The end of the story reminded me of an incident when I was an adolescent. I was mugged in High School on the stairwell, while with a friend. I thought the school should have done more to prevent it from happening. It was very frightening during, even more so afterward.

P.S. I've got no clue if recording this reading aloud is an egregious copyright violation. What I read I got online.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Humans + Computers better than each individually

This is a fascinating read. Kasparov, a former world chess champion, able to write much of the review in the first person. I especially liked this bit near the end of the piece, where there was a tournament with humans using computers to play chess.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and "coaching" their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Avoiding Eye Contact

Is it all right to openly express emotion? Think about it for a bit before giving your answer. Does it matter if the emotion is anger?

For the last several days I've been part of a flurry of email from a grass roots effort to start a group reading of James Joyce's Dubliners, entitled MotleyRead. Barbara was one of the folks doing the inviting and I knew some others being copied on the emails. So I agreed. Yesterday, I read the introduction by Brenda Maddox from the Bantam Classics version and the first story, Sisters. Maddox tells us that Joyce was angry, very angry. He was angry at the Irish, for the personal harm he had suffered, because all the real talent of prior generations had emigrated elsewhere, and those who remained seemed stuck in the mire. Yet I didn't see anger in Sisters. That could be me as a reader. Joyce is notoriously hard to decipher according to Maddox, though Dubliners is his most accessible work. I come at this with no schooling whatsoever. So my take away may very well be off the mark.

Sisters seems to be a child's perspective on the empty lives of adults, two sisters whose brother has passed on, he a Priest with some unspecified, perhaps illicit behaviors, and one explicit habit that personally I found revolting; he consumed snuff. (I've got an older friend who now seems to be withering away who used to consume chewing tobacco, absolutely dreadful.) The sisters appear to have no life of their own. But Joyce doesn't seem to be angry at them. It's more that he feels sorry for them.

Yet anger remains on my mind. While I was starting on Dubliners I was finishing How Markets Fail, by John Cassidy (economics reporter for the New Yorker). I saw Cassidy and Andrew Ross Sorkin on the News Hour during the Winter Holiday, which is how I became aware of the book. There has also been a flurry of activity on a variety of econ blogs talking about a piece Cassidy had in the New Yorker from mid January on the Decline of the Chicago School. So I was intrigued. Indeed the first third of the book is a decent intellectual history of classical and neo-classical economics a la the Chicago School. The middle part of the book is an equally decent treatment of the rather traditional economics of market failure, along with the critique of homo economicus by Kahneman and Tversky. None of this is particularly upsetting nor new ground, at least for me.

The last third of the book, which chronicles the history of the recent financial crisis from the perspective of the myriad players, is a different story. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and I'm still quite angry about it. The train wreck that is the financial crisis is about to happen yet it is full steam ahead with no application of the brakes till it is far too late. Principal culprit in this tragedy is Alan Greenspan, former Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, who gets spanked by Cassidy on two counts. He kept interest rates too low for far too long, well after the economy had recovered from the original bubble and perhaps the Fed was responsible for that earlier bubble too. More importantly, Greenspan over extended the teachings of Adam Smith, who warned that financial markets were unlike other markets and prone to instability without adequate regulation, the Invisible Hand be damned. Greenspan argued that these market were self-regulating, in a manner far more effective than anything governments might do. He therefore ignored much evidence of a situation spiraling out of control.

Greenspan as the overlord of of the entire mess is first in line for blame. But there is plenty to pass around. The CEOs of the various big banks and financial houses get their share, though Cassidy takes pains to explain the "Prisoner's Dilemma" they were operating under and that they almost had to go into high risk-high yield real estate securities or be accused of seriously under performing the market relative to their competitor financial houses. I buy this argument not very much. A better argument for me is that even people at the top didn't appreciate the risk their companies were taking on. Either way, through a combination of myopia, hubris, enormous greed (the incomes these people made is truly infuriating) and a prior of riding the bubble these people let their "too big to fail" institutions march to the brink. And then there are the other players, the issuers of the deceptive and predatory loans who cared about their origination fees but nothing else, and the borrowers with the bad credit histories with eyes bigger than their stomachs, taking out mortgages on homes they knew they couldn't afford. Surely, the financial crisis is our current day Sodom and Gomorrah.

As we are all aware, with the unemployment rate hovering around 10% and state government budgets shriveling into nothingness, the damage caused by the defaults on loans in the housing market have created cycle after cycle of destruction elsewhere in the economy. My Campus is feeling it bad now. So we have to shrink, in staff if not in students, perhaps damaging the essential character of the place in way that may be very hard to remedy. And some of of the current problem is because leadership on this campus, as elsewhere, suffered from the same bubble mindset that prevailed in the financial markets. So we lived beyond our means even before the dam burst. People feel smarter than they actually are when they feel they can print money. Witnessing that, how can one not feel aggrieved?

Feeling angry, I look for soothing alternatives. I had recorded Mozart and the Whale on a lark, watched a bit of that and then put it aside. So I turned it back on after finishing Cassidy and watched the rest. It is a love story about two people who have Asperger's Syndrome, a subject close to me because one of my children probably has it, and perhaps I have it too. The male lead struggles with eye contact, something I had problems with, particularly as an adolescent. There is a poignant scene where he tells the girl its awkward and he doesn't know what to say, a heroic trumpeting that breaks your heart. For me the problem, with authority or with girls or with somebody I didn't know, is that I would know what to say if I were off on my own and without the pressure of the moment. Then I might say it very well. But it took a lot of nerve to stay in the moment, so often I didn't or I flubbed it.

The movie starts to charm you and opens up seeming possibility that you wouldn't think is there. Then there is self-destruction. The culprit is anger. Overt expressions thereof become a deluge in Shangri-la. What is beautiful comes to an end. This is the reason to keep anger concealed. It wrecks, everything. Some things we may think are already a wreck, but if we look closer there is possibility. Knowing we may not have looked hard at first, we should be loath to destroy what might bud and flower.

Maddox tells us that Joyce while expatriate becomes homesick for Ireland and the friendliness of the people. The exasperation he felt as a young artist vanishes as a more mature yet somewhat broken adult, to be replaced by nostalgia and a warm glow.

We, who are clumsy in expression may then think twice about saying anything at all, let alone doing it with a righteous tone. I have not figured out why, if the task is to discuss Dubliners, there has been little or nothing posted so far on the substance of what Joyce wrote but instead the whole chazzerei on how the group should communicate via snail mail and how to obtain the book in its various forms. Yet the others likely have more people intelligence than I and may also have more personal attachment to these stories. So let the fun begin, even while I repress some sharpness of tongue and peer at the group effort though remaining in the periphery.