You don’t need a weatherman…

I have been following the exploits of Vladimir Vladimirovich in Crimea with great interest of late. As a Latvian I can see which way the wind is blowing, so I’m changing my Gravatar image:



I’m hoping this new image helps me fit in with the new look.

The power of positive thinking

Manuel and Jorge Fazú were two brothers, born just 18 months apart, and as close as twins. They grew up in a run-down flop house in an impoverished district of an anonymous city in Brazil. Seeing them as boys in their surroundings, no one would have thought anything would come of them.

But the Fazú brothers had a dream. They wanted to be musicians, and work their way out of the slums, and into the great world outside. Manuel learned to play guitar, and Jorge sang; they worked the busker circuits in their town, and eventually hitchhiked to Rio, where they reinvented themselves as the Fabulous Fazús. In no time, their logo, FF, could be seen spray painted all over town. It became the question of the hour: who or what was FF? It was an ingenious advertising gambit, and it worked wonders. The time came, carefully calculated, when they began to reveal who they were. There was only one problem.

They weren’t very good. In the first club they played, they didn’t even get through the first set before the manager threw them out, refusing to pay them. Worse, the scene was repeated in every first and second tier club in Rio, until the only gigs they could get were in the lowest dives on skid row, where patrons got a kick out of laughing at them, and throwing bottles.

Jorge grew discouraged, and wanted to quit, but Manuel talked him out of it. He was sure that, now that they were in the big city, there would be lots of opportunities to improve. He dragged Jorge to the clubs they were ejected from, where they sat and listened through the night to the bands who played there regularly. Afterwards, Manuel doggedly practiced, and Jorge did his best to maintain his spirits and practice along.

But it was no use. After a several months, Jorge confronted Manuel.

“Listen, we’re just no good. I’m quitting. I’ve got a chance of a job gardening for some rich family up town. I’m out of here.”

Manuel was devastated.

“You’re quitting now? Just when we’re starting to get somewhere?”

“We’re not starting anything. We’re no better than we were when we left home. We just don’t have any talent, bro, face it!”

“Talent?” said Manuel, “What’s talent? We got heart, man. And hard work. Come on, stop talking crazy, we got three new songs to learn before our gig tonight.”

‘Gig!” Jorge spat the word out, like rotten vegetables. “They only let us play there so people can make fun of us! And they don’t pay anything!”

“So what? We pass the hat, we do okay. That’s how all the great bands started, man.”

But it was no use; Jorge had had enough, and left that very day to take the gardening job.

But Manuel? Manuel had a dream, and he refused to let it go. One furious night, he went around to all the walls of the city and obliterated the second F from every place he found their logo. Then he realized he could simply call himself Fabulous Fazú without the plural, and went back and put it back in. Now it looked like F●F, which he thought was an improvement.

Anyway, he continued to work and dream, practicing until his fingers bled and his voice grew hoarse, playing the dives on his own, determined to prove to Jorge that he could make it.

Twenty years passed. Jorge was still working as a gardener. He had saved up his wages and started his own landscaping business, but, basically, he was still a gardener.

And Manuel? Manuel died of a heroin overdose in an alley behind one of the dives he played at.

Such is the power of positive thinking.


Another tale from my dubious youth.  As usual, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Among the questionable movements of the hippy era was back-to-the-land romanticism, sustainable only if you had a paying job that left you enough time to muck about with gardening, a grant whose results didn’t fall due for a few years, or parents who thought you were studying to be an engineer.  My friend, call him Ned, fell into the first category.  He worked as a construction laborer, a job he described as being a human mule, and which scrubbed a good many romantic scales from his eyes.  I remember someone telling him admiringly what a healthy life physical labor was.  When he asked what she meant, she explained that you always see these old men on construction sites, obviously of advanced age, but still able to do the strenuous work required, as opposed to aging men with sedentary jobs.  Ned patiently explained that those men were only in their thirties, they just looked old, worn down by lives of hard labor and dubious choices.

Nevertheless, Ned, an eagle scout, kept a romantic edge on the idea of self reliance, to the point that he rented a house in the country from a farmer who had moved into a subdivision, having tired of the “simple life.”  He diverted water from a nearby stream for his use in the house, and heated it with a wood stove (albeit a state-of-the-art Swedish one).  He also kept a kitchen garden, and raised a few goats;  by and by he acquired a cow.  Because he earned a reasonably nice paycheck from the construction industry, he was able to make a go of it without going bankrupt.

One of the goats was a young billy who was constant trouble.  He was particularly adept at escaping the pen and eating up all the produce in the garden.  Ned devised more and more complicated ways of keeping him in, which he always defeated.  To make matters worse, he delighted in charging the legs of Ned’s friends when they were about, earning him the name Bucky.  He was especially frightening for children, who had no height or weight advantage in these confrontations.

Eventually, Ned got tired of it, shot Bucky in the head with a handgun he kept for security, and announced there was to be a goat roast.  A friend who had read somewhere how to do such things offered to clean and prepare the goat for cooking, and Ned got on to digging a pit for charcoal and rigging up a reasonable facsimile of a spit.

The actual gutting and cleaning, along with the subsequent hide tanning, is a whole other story, fraught with missteps and near disasters, that I won’t go into here, as it eventually was successful.  Suffice it to say that I will never forget the taste of fresh goat liver omelet for breakfast as long as I live.

The day of the party arrived, and guests along with it.  I have to say, it was as varied a group of individuals as you will see.  There were hippies, academics, construction workers, and people from foreign countries, reflecting Ned’s multifarious interests and genuinely diverse community of friends.  Among the merry-makers was his current girlfriend, with her five-year-old daughter, whom we shall call Robin.

Beer flowed like … beer, and the country air was hazy with cannabis.  Everyone gathered around the pit, taking turns turning the spit and arguing about whether the goat was done yet.  It didn’t take long for Robin to figure things out.  In the midst of one of the discussions, she turned to Ned.

“Is that Bucky?” she asked, pointing to the sizzling roast.

Ned took a moment, no doubt turning over in his mind exactly how to approach the topic of death and the food chain to a five-year-old.  Eventually, he cleared his throat.

“Yes, it is,'” he said.

“Good!” she replied.


Alma Mater, Bursa Pater

The purpose of the University is simple.  It is to further the careers of academicians.

For administrators, this means graduating as many people in lucrative fields as possible, so they can donate generously to the endowment as alumni.  This is mutually beneficial, since a large endowment enhances the reputation of the university, and, by reflection, that of its graduates, all the while assuring princely salaries for top administrators.

To achieve a similar impact in less lucrative fields, for example, in the humanities, requires significantly larger numbers of graduates, since each one will be able to contribute significantly less to the endowment.  This, in turn, is reflected in the salaries of the faculty.  By far, the largest salaries are generally paid to faculty in the professional schools: Medicine, law, and even that johnny-come-lately, business.  Funds for educational programs in the various schools are distributed in similar proportions.  Literature, history, and other such poorly remunerated fields suffer accordingly; a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since these graduates are more likely to find work in the university system which trained them, where they will get paid relatively little.  This is especially true in these times, when such faculty are increasingly part time, at truly pathetic salaries with no benefits.

For faculty, career advancement requires an entirely different set of principles.  The motive here is to ensure a slow, but steady supply of young colleagues who will not upend years of pronouncements by established faculty.  This is accomplished in two ways.

The first is to act as gate keepers.  Faculty hiring committees sift through applications for open positions, discarding obviously unqualified candidates, then sparring over how to rank the rest.  This usually breaks down along adherence to schools of thought within the discipline; factions, in other words.  Structuralists will want other structuralists, post-modernists will want more of their kind, and so on.  Almost no one will favor applicants whose work calls into question any of the prevailing factions in the department.  There is some honor among academics, after all.  In this way, serene advancement through a career is ensured without problematic disagreement, except along acceptable factional lines.  The process is disturbingly similar to the way acolytes move up through religious ranks.

The second way is similar; it works through the peer review system for publication of papers.  For professors, advancement occurs through just one avenue: publication in peer reviewed journals.  I don’t think I need to go into detail on the difficulties of publishing a serious objection to accepted dogma, when that publication depends on favorable reviews by the very people who have built their reputations on that dogma.

It’s worth noting the increasing trend to circumvent this entire process by hiring only “adjunct” faculty, a process wryly called “adjunctivitis.”  Adjuncts are hired as part time employees, or as contractors, thereby absolving the institution of any requirements for minimum compensation, especially with regard to health insurance, retirement , and so on.  They are usually hired en masse to teach the large lower-level courses established faculty find so tiring.  This is obviously beneficial for administrators, as it frees up much more money for their own bloated salaries, but many short-sighted faculty also fall into line as well.  Adjunct faculty are no threat to the established faculty, because, in spite of technically being part-time, they are forced to teach so many courses to make ends meet, that they have no time left for the kind of research that leads to publication and career enhancement.  I say short-sighted, because this will inevitably lead to further erosion of prestige for university faculty in general, affecting the upper echelons as well as the lowest.  Of course, some, at the end of their relatively lucrative careers and ready for retirement, hardly care.

The wily reader will have noticed that at no point was the welfare of students, or the contribution to knowledge brought up.  Let me just remind you that we have spent the last few decades selling higher education exclusively as the gateway to lucrative jobs.  The inescapable conclusion is that it is the paper, not the process, which has any true value.

Surprise!  Welcome to our brave new world.

Poll: 49% of Americans are in the minority

Here are the results of the latest Nosie-Snupes poll:

  • 78% of Americans believe that if only we got rid of the intelligence community, bad people would leave us alone.
  • 56% believe that if we stopped regulating businesses, everything would be cheaper and better.
  • 42% believe criminals would have a change of heart and go straight, if only there were less government.
  • 60% believe the Tooth Fairy’s cousin Louie fills potholes for free at night.
  • 42% believe the government wants to take away their ED medications.
  • 39% think guns make them irresistible to the opposite sex.
  • 48% think guns make them irresistible to the same sex.
  • 98% believe that government aid that they get is only sensible.
  • 98% believe that government aid that someone else gets is graft and corruption.

That’s the latest from America’s chief poll-takers, the Nosie-Snupes Foundation, a subsidiary of WTF Industries.