Dispatches from the House of Geeks
1 hour ago
A few days ago our editor, Joseph Bottum, observed with a shake of his head that none of the many Junior Fellows at First Things in recent years reads novels with any regularity.Now, I don't share Mr. McDaniel's hang up in this regard at all, though I do find that I don't read as much fiction as I used to as a teenager. But as I say, several good friends have surprised me by expressing similar opinions. Helene Hanff who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road and Q's Legacy, two of my favorite books about books, observes at one point in 84, "I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."
I had to confess I was no exception, thus perfecting his despair. “The dominant Western literary form for the past two hundred years” he said “but you all say, ‘Nope, we’re done with that.’”
Why is this? I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for my part, I just don’t get drawn into fictional narratives the way I did as a child.
I turned towards the philosophical and historic in my mid-teens, which gave me Plato’s kind of impatience with lying poets. At some point I found that I had to force myself to turn the next page because I really did not care in the least what happened to imaginary persons. The only narratives I now read with easy pleasure are travelogues, histories, and biographies, packed as they are with the red meat of the real.
But I’m making a good-faith effort to regain a taste for novels. I’ve started with Jane Austen, hoping that the goodly helping of edification will help me painlessly transition from my addiction to propositional truths to a healthy appreciation of the formal properties of a well-wrought story. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and am now in the middle of Persuasion. She’s quite as wise, perceptive, and delightfully ironic as everyone says, but I’m still having the hardest time staying interested in the plot.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this, at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy.If you haven't heard the original Hitchhikers, or if you did long ago but don't have them on MP3, you can find them here:
According to one study, only half of the high school students in the nation's 50 largest cities are graduating in four years, with a figure as low as 25% in Detroit. And while concern over dropouts isn't new, the problem now has officials outside of public education worried enough to get directly involved.Several things struck me reading this:
"In a global economy, the single most important issue facing our country is an educated work force," says Houston Mayor Bill White. "Somebody who lacks a high school education will have lifetime earnings that are only about 60% of those of somebody with that education. That's just the impact on personal income. There are the social costs as well."
Detroit has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the study, at 25%, according to America's Promise. Officials there are revamping the high schools. So far, the school system has started a high school redesign at five sites. Among the steps being taken are better counseling services and efforts to design curricula at schools in particular locations geared to industries in the same area.
"The number of students are falling away at such a large percentage that you can't point to any one factor or any one solution," says Steve Wasko, spokesman for the school system.
Houston has embarked on a wide-ranging plan, including a program called Reach Out to Dropouts, where volunteers, including Mayor White and school superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, visit the homes of students who haven't returned to school.
"Now I know what your question is, " said Ms. Garrison-Talbot. "Everybody always asks it. You must be worried about the baby's soft spot."
I was worried about hers. She turned the birth bucket on its side so the camera could pick up the interior.
"You have to put something soft in the bottom for the baby to land in. Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile dung. It's not available here in Massachusetts, but if you plan to give birth in the Gulf Coast area, your husband or the father of your child can gather it for you as mine did. It's a good way to test his supportiveness. Remember, though, it must be fresh dung. The best way to gather it is to wait behind a crocodile who is moving his or her bowels. When the dung emerges, thrust a skate board under the anus to catch it. Do not use plastic bags! Their crinkly sound tends to anger the crocodile."
"Is it possible to get the dung from zoos?" asked Polly.
Ms. Garrison-Talbot's eyes hardened. "The zoos have ben totally unsupportive."
"What are the chances of setting up a meaningful dialogue with zoo directors?"
"Nonexistent," Ms. Garrison-Talbot said grimly. "We've tried to get our dung through the proper channels but we met with mockery at every turn. My car was even defaced. Someone wrote 'baby sitter' on the windshield and a male veterinarian referred to me as the 'ding-dung' lady'."
Polly Bradshaw grimaced in disgust. "We'll never be free until they stop calling us ladies. Grace, what are your plans for the Birth Bucket League now?"
"Polly, we're going to fight for our rights to crocodile dung. We're setting up a letter-writing campaign to put pressure on the zoos, and my husband is chairing the Ad Hoc Dung Now committee from his hospital bed in Everglades Memorial. We're not going to give up until every woman is able to purchase crocodile dung from the zoo of her choice."
"Beautiful! Right on!" cheered Polly Bradshaw.
"In the meantime, I can recommend some substitutes for crocodile dung. Moldy bread is the best. Crumble it and line the bottom of your birth bucket with it. It's soft, and a natural source of penicillin, which means it's sterile. And best of all, it's easy to obtain -- every active, involved woman's kitchen is full of it.
When Moody published a statistical manual in 1900, followed by a system of rating securities with categories Aaa, Baa etc, and a series of investor-advice books, he provided reams of information to everyone, for just the price of a few books. These beginnings led to the development of Moody's Investor Services and other rating agencies. The securities rating system has now spread from the United States to the whole world, and helped make possible the capitalist explosion of growth and prosperity.I know little else of Moody other than that, but what the article says I found charming, and a little inspiring. We could use more like him.
Moody left behind an autobiography, "The Long Road Home," 1933, and so we can glean some of his motivations.
Though Moody was a democratizer, he was not acting out of populist philanthropic motives when he launched Moody's. As he makes very clear in his autobiography, he did it to make money. But there were other things he cared about besides making money. People asked him around 1900, why give away all this information so cheaply? They told him he might expect to make a lot more money as an underwriter, middleman or bond salesman. But he recognized that was not his personality, and that "there was that 'literary' or writing bent of mine. To bring out a book -- even a mere compilation -- fired my imagination far more than could any dreams of becoming a successful banker."
He called it a "writing bent" but as is plain from his autobiography, it might be considered an impulse to speak perspicaciously and openly to the people. A "writing bent," connotes an impulse to consider the interests of a broad reading public, and publishing tables of statistics and ratings, as well as the various investing advice books Moody wrote for retail investors, is just that.
Moody was not selfless but he cared about people, and he cared about ethics. His autobiography was filled with admonitions about speculative bubbles that draw in unsuspecting investors (as he himself had personally experienced). He wanted to provide the careful information that would prevent financial misfortune for the average family. He was obsessed with ethical behavior and musings about his traditional Roman Catholic religion. He wrote about moral dilemmas, and his refusal to accept money under terms that would bias his ratings.
But Buffett described a plan he thought of Thursday morning on the way to the Summit that would allow Treasury and private investors to buy assets together. He said his proposal would quickly kickstart demand for mortgage-backed securities and help find a market price for these troubled assets.
"One easy way to do part of the program is to say to anybody - hedge fund operators, Wall Street firms, or anybody else - that the Treasury will lend you 80% of the purchase cost of a bunch of distressed assets," he said, explaining the concept of his proposal. The investors benefit from borrowing at lower rates, but Treasury would get first claim on the sale of those assets, which means it would get its loan back plus interest and possibly turn a profit.
"Now you have someone with 20% skin in the game," he explained. "Believe me, I won't be overpaying if I'm buying with that kind of leverage. And you have someone [the investors] to manage the assets to the extent they need to be managed."