From the diary of Pedro de los Palos, late of the caravel Pinta, 11 October 1492.

Day 34 since we embarked from San Sebastién on the pitiful island of La Gomera.  As barbaric as it was, I wish I’d have stayed.   Of course, I admit that even this is better than shoveling horse shit for Don Carlos back home, but the Italian is completely mad.  It’s all very well to say China is just over the horizon, but the horizon keeps moving, and is new each day.  Only that imbecile Rodrigo still climbs the mast every night, hoping to claim the pension promised to the first man to sight land.  Even if he does see it, does he think the fancy men will let him take it?  It will be a fight among the pilots over that juicy plum, no doubt!  No matter; we’ll never make it anyway.

So far, it’s just muttering.  The grog makes it just possible to hold down the hard tack and salt grub, but it won’t last forever.  If poor old Inigo ever sobers up before he gets his silk shirt, he’ll kill everybody on the boat.  We all agree, except for Don Martín, of course, that we ought to turn around.  I think he would agree as well, but for his position as master of the ship, but it’s up to those fancy Genoese on the Sta. María.  Those bastards would sooner change their pants before they’d change their minds.  That’s why Colombo stays on that ship.  If he ever got next to a proper Spanish crew there’d be hell to pay, I’m telling you.

Things will change soon, in any case, if we don’t get any wind.  Not that we’re short of butt wind, with these rations.  Those fancy pants with Colombo hold their farts.  I swear they’ll blow up like balloons and float away one day.

Then let the last man point his ass to the sunset, and blow us all back home, God willing.


Today, I walked past a public basketball court, one of those ubiquitous chain link and asphalt affairs. Three young men were shooting hoops, shouting and posturing, probably wishing for a fourth to show up, so they could get up a game of two on two. As an old fart, I was, of course, invisible to them. A couple in middle age took a hasty glance in their direction, then hurried by. Better safe than sorry, they seemed to be saying.

Me, I was unexpectedly overcome with a flood of memories, of childhood alleyways and pickup games. Where I grew up, every block had at least one goal attached to a garage. Sometimes it was a sturdy plywood backboard, sometimes, the plies had long since begun to separate, the hoop sagging forward at an inviting angle for attempted dunks. Sometimes it was just a hoop, nailed at an arbitrarily convenient height. There was almost never a net, although now and then, a new net would mysteriously appear, the talk of the alleys for at least a week, by which time it had already begun to fall into tatters.

The only relevant attribute among these places was the presence of other kids; it was nice to play at one of the better garages, but if there was a kid or two at a lesser one, that’s where the action went. The ownership of these places was equally unimportant. Some places were attached to known neighborhood kids, but others seemed relics of bygone days; only the ghosts of children played there. In any case, I do not remember ever being run off by an owner, though it must have happened.

The skills I learned at alley ball were not directly transferable to organized team basketball. The official courts were too big, requiring way too much running, and too smooth; the crucial skill of hitting the cracks in the surface just right when dribbling had no place there. The official balls were all the same size and uniformly inflated; no critical in-game adjustment for equipment was required at all. Worse yet, you had to use the ball provided, and couldn’t bring your own lop-sided, hyper-inflated ball, the one you practiced with so earnestly at home.

But by far the worse aspect of official team basketball was the presence of coaches and referees. In alley ball, kids learned to be fine judges of character and excellent negotiators, none of which was the least bit of use to referees, who always insisted on having the last word. They weren’t even interested in hearing the opinions of the players before making a decision, which was apparently based on inflexible rules which took no account of the immediate circumstances of the game, let alone who was playing.

And coaches, as near as I could tell, were concerned only with making you run around the gym while they yelled at you.

What that was good for, I’ll never know.

A management crisis

At the university where I used to work, there was a change in management not too long ago.  The old president left abruptly, without explanation, under a cloud.  The official reasons, time for a change, etc., left us thinking it had to do with either money or sex, possibly both.  In any case, an opportunity presented itself for a change of direction, since our erstwhile leader had championed a thoroughly capitalist model, which included, not surprisingly, lots of money for himself.  And so, with great fanfare, a search was begun for a new leader and, presumably, a new direction.

Well, we got the new leader.  In the wisdom of the Trustees, we also got two or three entirely new six-figure salaried administrative positions.  One of them was for a local contender for president who had failed to be selected; he was given a newly created job as, well, no one really knew what, except that he now made the second highest salary in the university.  All in all, when the dust settled, the ten highest paid people in the university collectively pulled down about$2.5 million, in a university with just about 5,000 students on the home campus.  True, there are numerous outposts worldwide, but they are generally self supporting.  We know this because if they are not, they are unceremoniously axed.

I suppose this would be fine, except for the fact that over 80% of the faculty at this university are adjunct, or, officially, part time.  That means extremely low wages.  An adjunct professor teaching ten courses per year can barely pull down $25,000.  You will note that this is hardly part time, as it is rather a heavy teaching load even for regular, tenure track professors.  It is also less than an average full time hourly employee at Walmart gets, and because it is officially part time, there is no retirement package, no health care, no benefits of any kind.  Even at Walmart, they get to buy into a health care program; not here.  Pressed for an explanation of how such a teaching load can be considered part time, the administration has proposed cracking down on the number of courses an adjunct can teach by simply hiring more of them; how thoughtful.  One adjunct teaching ten courses will cost exactly the same as ten adjuncts teaching one course each, since no training is required, and no benefits are given.  The net result will be more adjuncts teaching at multiple institutions in the city, more “freeway flyers,” as they’re called.  The regular full-time faculty only pay lip service to reforms, as they are worried about getting shipped out themselves, at least the ones who don’t consider themselves superior for having landed the meager allotment of full-time jobs.

This situation might seem beyond the interest of the average American workers, who have problems of their own, and who tend to think teaching isn’t real work anyway.  They would be wrong, because they are, indeed, in the exact same situation themselves: a mentality that decrees that when times are tough, increase management compensation and lay off or decrease the compensation  of the people who actually produce.  It’s the arrogance of the “job creators.”  How did we allow things to come to this?

It goes full circle back to the university.  At our institution, the one school where faculty are remunerated at anything like their value is the business school; it is also, not coincidentally, the biggest money maker.  Yet, as far as I know, there is not one single course offered in how to make anything, or even how to increase the efficiency of making anything, and the same applies to services.  What do they teach, then?

They teach people how to manipulate money, along with major doses of how important they are.  A couple of decades ago, managers were complaining that people coming out of business schools with MBAs didn’t know anything about how to actually produce anything of value.  Well, those old managers are gone, and only the B-school trained golden boys are left, and they make sure they get the lion’s share of the money.  In turn, the revolving door between business and the academy is well oiled and functioning smoothly.

But surely, you say, they’re creating jobs, aren’t they?  Isn’t that how capitalism works?  Well, actually, they’ve got it completely backwards.

Capital does not create jobs, demand creates jobs.  It follows that it’s not capitalists who are job creators, but consumers.  The role of capitalists is to facilitate the meeting of demand and supply.  Even in those cases where apparently new demand is created, it fills some need in society at large, and it still needs consumers to actualize the demand.

But isn’t the job of business to maximize profits?  Well, yes, as far as it goes.  It’s true that the job of business is to maximize profits, but it’s not the job of society.  The job of society is to ensure the maximum welfare of its members.  But didn’t Adam Smith teach us that unconstrained commerce will benefit the most of us?  Again, not exactly.  He did champion the free market, but he also warned that businessmen will collude for their own benefit if left to themselves, effectively trying to control the market instead of allowing it free operation.  True, he despaired of government effectively stopping such collusion.  But he was writing at the end of the 18th century, in a commercial climate that was far different from that today, and with no democratic governments anywhere in the world.  The Wealth of Nations is not a sacred text in any case, and we are as free to disagree with it as with any other.

Smith did get one thing right, though: commerce depends on the consumer, and not vice-versa.

Bottom line, as they like to say: if consumers are strapped for cash, the capitalists will eventually have no money to manipulate.  I know of no B-school course where that is taught.

Letter found in a drain tile

Dear Donald,

Hoping this letter is still legible, after 80 years in the agreed upon place for communications. If, indeed, you even exist. I have to tell you I’m in a bind.

I know, we agreed that, in going back to 1934 in the time machine we invented, I would have to be super careful not to do anything that might change the course of events, that I was to be an observer only, and that the only way to do that was to be as inconspicuous as possible. We thought that should be easy enough, given my natural tendency to disappear into the wallpaper.

Well, something has come up, and I need you to transfer me back to 2014 ASAP.

Remember how we made sure I had plenty of money, and how we thought ordinary dollars would be fine, since the dollar was the same currency then as it is now (or in my case, now as it will be then, or something)? Well, we forgot something.

See, I’m in prison for trying to pass counterfeit currency. Not only that, but I’m a laughingstock for making such obviously fake bills, that they had colors other than green, and were dated in the 21st century.

Actually, not a complete laughingstock. Some people here believe I’m from the future, and are working to spring me, convinced I’ve been sent here to save them. From what isn’t clear, but there it is. Then there are others, who I suspect are completely capable of imprisoning me and capitalizing on this by forging writings they will purport to have come from me.  I know, I know, I can’t write a thank you note to Aunt Sally, let alone a book, but nobody knows that here.

So I’m caught in this situation where, to keep from inadvertently making a big whoopsie change to the future (where you and I live, or, rather, where I used to live, and you may not ever have even been born), I have to try to convince people that I’m not really from the future. Of course, that would mean I’m a counterfeiter, and not a very good one at that.

Already, I’m anything but inconspicuous, but, can you imagine if they manage to spring me?

Please, please, bring me back immediately. If you don’t do it soon, I’ll be stuck here, and, who knows, I might become the center of some kind of weird cult, or something.

In sincere hope you’ll find this,
L. Ron Hubbard

The curmudgeon’s retort

I quit Facebook a couple of years ago; I decided I just wasn’t cut out for it.  I suffer from the inability to let egregious errors slide, especially when the topic is an important one.  It’s not that I think I’m always right; I’m open to correction with a good argument.  Unfortunately, that’s not a response I got very often.  Most of the time, the responses were couched in personal terms: I was a troll, I was being too picky, or, in one case, I was making a ridiculous fool of myself for disagreeing.

Maybe they’re right.  I’ve had similar reactions on Twitter, although I’ve learned to just withdraw at the first sign of it.  What I find oddly disturbing, though, is how often a simple disagreement is characterized as a lack of respect.  Have we really come to the point where we think it’s disrespectful to openly disagree?

Social media seem to be seen as places where anyone gets to express their opinion, no matter how misinformed, or, indeed, insulting, without the fear of being exposed to contradiction.  If I don’t think something you’ve posted is correct, fine; I get to post my own opinion, but not in response to yours.  As a result, we, as a people, can happily continue shouting at each other without engaging in any meaningful discussion.

Nothing wrong with this, where mere opinion is concerned, I suppose, but the line between opinion and verifiable fact has all but disappeared in our discourse.  And that’s very dangerous in a democracy, because it leaves us open to all kinds of manipulation.  Not the least of which is the illusion that the majority of the nation feels exactly as we do on all the issues of importance, because we never allow ourselves to hear anything different.  As a result, when an election goes astray from what we perceive as the inevitable result, we’re convinced it’s because of corruption, or worse, a conspiracy.  And who’s to tell us otherwise?

If there’s a single word to describe this trend it’s this: childish. It goes along with our fascination  with the simple black/white dichotomies of the comic-book movies we’re inundated with, and “extreme” sports, also straight out of the comics.  Are we doomed to continue this prolonged adolescence forever?