Saturday, May 23, 2020

Watch Out!

There is more than a little confusion about the history of watches.  More than one company claims it built the first pocket watch, the first wrist watch, and there is even more than one claimant for the distinction of being the first person to wear a wristwatch. 

This reminds me of the carefully crafted and massively funded old advertising campaign waged by Sony to convince the world that it had invented both the transistor and the compact disc.  The fact that this was nonsense, since Sony absolutely did not invent either, doesn’t matter anymore since about half the people who read that last sentance are asking, “What’s a transistor or a compact disc?”

While clocks date back to the 13th century, watches didn’t appear until the 16th century, and weren’t very common until the Calvinist Church in Switzerland banned the wearing of jewelry.  (“Look!  Someone is having fun!  Stone him!  Stone him!”)

Suddenly out of work, the Swiss jewelers switched to making watches, starting a national tradition of outstanding watchmaking that lasts to this day.  Though, even as I write this, I’’m sure Seiko is planning an ad campaign to prove it invented the watch.  (Actually, Seiko got its start importing Swiss watches to sell in Japan—but Seiko did invent the quartz watch.)

Watches have evolved frequently over the years, but usually because of fashion.  Because of their size, the first personal watches were worn as pendants, huge globular watches hanging on sturdy chains around the neck, but when Charles II introduced the waist coat, pocket watches became the new hit fashion trend.  Because watches at the time were just slightly smaller clocks, the pocket mandated a few changes:  watches slowly became flatter and with rounded edges to avoid snagging the sides of the cloth pocket. 

The beginning of the 17th century saw the addition of a minute hand and by the end of the century someone finally covered the face of the watch with a glass crystal to protect the delicate movement and the hands.  While there were more and better watches available, they were luxury items for the idle rich.

Over the next hundred years, watches saw a lot of technical improvements.  The second hand was added on a few, but didn’t become a standard until the 20th century.  The key necessary to wind a watch was replaced with a winding stem, then the self-winding watch was invented.  Slowly, watches became thinner, lighter, and made of better materials.  By the 19th century and the industrial revolution, watches were being mass produced bringing the cost down enough so that, for the first time, watches became the tools of the working class.

The growth of railroads not only spread the popularity of watches, but the need to run multiple trains on a single line necessitated accurate time pieces and an accepted universal time.  Sears got its start by selling watches to railroad men.  (And evidently, the railroads will be here long after Sears runs off the rails…)

You can pick your own favorite version of who wore the first watch.  One polite version has the Queen of Naples wearing a delicate little watch—about three inches across—on her wrist in 1812.  Another version says Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was in search of a watch that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls while timing flights.  He reached out to good friend Louis Cartier to come up with an alternative.  Cartier and his watchmaker Edmond Jaeger developed the Santos wristwatch, popularized by Santos-Dumont wearing it during his flights.

Both are good stories, but the truth is that neither is really correct.  First, special versions of pocket watches were made to be worn on the arm—literally called ‘arm watches—in the 18th century.  And though true wrist watches were available for women as early as 1812, these pieces were more decorative than functional.  Delicate little watches worn on the wrist were subject to accidental rough treatment, and rarely kept time.  This led to the infamous quote of Mark Twain, “Nothing is so ignorant as a man's left hand, except a lady's watch. The older we grow the greater becomes our wonder at how much ignorance one can contain without bursting one's clothes.”

Note.  I use that quote every time my wife, The Doc is late, and she usually hits me with her left hand.

It was the military that actually popularized the wrist watch.  By 1880, the German Navy was issuing them to officers, and by the First World War, every officer in all the armies was expected to own a waterproof watch with a luminous dial.  Further, since the officer was expected to purchase his own watch, every watch company advertised heavily in newspapers and magazines.  By the end of the war, more men were wearing wrist watches than pocket watches.

My father was a firm believer in wrist watches, and gave me the first of a long run of cheap Timex watches by the time I was eight.  (I think one of the reasons I was given a watch was that I was expected to be at the family car fifteen minutes after church ended if I wanted a ride home.)  About as fast as I received these watches, I usually cracked the crystal or tore the band off.  Eventually, I learned that if I wore my watch on the inside of my wrist, it suffered a little less damage.

I have been rather hard on watches over the years.  On one of the first dates with my future wife, I managed to have a watch ripped off my arm while skydiving.  I’ve always wondered how far underground that watch ended up.  With another watch, I discovered the term ‘waterproof’ was a relative marketing term that did not include scuba diving. 

In 1983, a close friend working at a jewelry store offered to sell me a really good watch at cost, and I bought a wonderful Seiko Quartz watch that was so accurate that it only lost about a minute a month.  I wore that watch everywhere, did everything with it, and literally beat the hell out of it.  I tore the band off first in a motor scooter crash, then, again while skiing, and then, a third time, during light construction.  Eventually, Seiko stopped making a metal band that fit the watch, and for a while it turned into a pocket watch.

One day, walking slowly down a sidewalk in Hong Kong (I was moving slowly because the same crash that tore the band off the watch had broken my ankle) I spotted a sign, “Seiko Repairs”.  That watch band wasn’t available in the states, but in Hong Kong, it took ten minutes and about as many dollars to secure a new one.

After thirty-seven years of wearing the same watch night and day…. the watch recently developed a few problems.  The light was so dim I couldn’t read the time at night, the Ping! of the alarm was too faint to hear (though my wife says that I’m too deaf), and it started losing several minutes a day.  Then it lost an hour a day.  Then, it stopped running unless I shook it.

The watch repair people said there was no hope of repair and that the watch was doomed.  Perhaps I should have made another trip to Hong Kong.  Then came the day when the minute hand just rotated freely, pointing to wherever gravity directed.  The watch was officially dead.

The Doc knew the kind of watch I wanted, and through a friend obtained a really nice new watch.  It’s a solar powered Citizen chronograph that’s waterproof to a depth that I’m unlikely to ever reach alive, and it has a super heavy band and a stop watch that works like magic.  And it keeps perfect time.

That was two months ago.  Since the day the new watch arrived, the old one has immediately started working again and has kept perfect time ever since.  The hands seem firmly attached and the old familiar watch seems to be in perfect order.  The Doc says that somewhere during the 37 years on my arm, it acquired some of the stubbornness of the owner.

So now, I have the dilemma.  Which watch do I wear?

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Education Catches the Virus

It has been predicted for years, but the time has finally come—universities as we know them are about to change, and it is about time.  Universities are about as eager to accept new ideas and innovate as a stalagmite is to relocate, but like the rest of society, education is being forcibly altered by the pandemic that is reshaping American life. 

There are four areas in which I believe college life is likely to change:

Run Like a Business?  For decades, universities have paid lip service to the idea that a campus should be run like a business, despite the fact that the average administrator has had less business experience than the night manager at Taco Bell.  The few changes imposed were usually along the lines of leasing out cafeteria services and the campus bookstore, resulting in higher prices and lower quality for the student in exchange for a guaranteed income for the institution.

The university gets nice kickbacks from the companies that fill the vending machines, sell graduation rings, rent caps and gowns, and all the other services for which the students pay too much.  It has been kind of amusing to read the email directed at graduating students suggesting that even though graduation ceremonies were cancelled, they might want to purchase a cap and gown anyway. 

If you doubt that universities aren’t trying to rip off the students, would you like to bet money that the university will lower the cost of parking fees this fall?  They have long maintained they had to keep the price of the permits high to eliminate overcrowding.  This fall, those lots should be empty enough to hold square dances—if that were allowed.  Do you really think they will lower the fee? 

Those are mild changes compared to what is coming.  Over the next decade, universities will undoubtedly start forging closer relationships with large corporations.  Universities want budget stability while corporations want more access to a market that traditionally has incredibly high gross profit margins. 

At first glance, high profit margins don’t seem to be a by-product of education, but these profits are soaked up by the exaggerated overhead of the bloated bureaucracy.  Hell, do the math yourself!  An Ivy League school charges roughly $5,000 for a single course that may have as many as 200 students in it.  That’s a gross income of $1 million per course, and even after a nice paycheck for the professor, and a generous overhead fee for the building….You’re looking at a profit margin well over 80%, which is about twice what Apple gets for an iPhone.  However, while Apple is good at controlling its overhead to maximize their net profit, universities throw money away with both hands and end up operating at a loss.

Corporations have noticed this, and will soon make their move towards this obvious economic opportunity.  Administrators will get higher pay checks and more opportunities for advancement, politicians will see a stabilized budget and a source for financial support for their campaigns, and even a few professors will see expanded research opportunities.  And the students?  Well, education was never about them, anyway.

Distance Education and Online Classes.  First off, online courses are a really poor way to teach a class.  While a few students do excel, these same students would probably do well no matter how high a barrier to learning was placed in front of them.  Lots of students—and most professors--like online courses because they perceive them as easier.   I have never met a professor who wanted to teach online because it was more effective than actually engaging their students in a classroom. 

Universities claim these courses use more resources and cost more—blatant lies—so they actually charge more in fees than they charge for a traditional face-to-face classroom experience.  Students are forced to pay more to receive less. 

There is an inherent flaw in universities’ moving towards online education.  If it really works—why do I need to go to Enema U or the local Cow State?  For that matter, why does any state need more than a single campus?  If you are looking for a cost-saving measure, eliminate redundant overhead.  These savings will not be passed on to students, who have long been viewed by universities as merely a resource to be milked.

At every campus that I’m aware of, the administration is actively satisfying its eternal Edifice Complex by constantly constructing new buildings—usually for an expanding administration.  If fewer students are going to be physically on campus, this trend will have to stop, and possibly even reverse.  Why maintain all those dorm rooms if the students stay at home? 

Somewhere, there are state legislators faced with shrinking resources who are already thinking about the large pool of money currently being allocated to redundant campuses.   

The College Experience.  For decades now, campuses have hailed the benefits of the multicultural experience that campus life brings.  And college life does benefit students.  But, how do you transfer those benefits to a pajama clad student taking an online class from his parent’s house?  (There is a fascinating story today in the New York Times—that I read online—about how Amazon reports that the sale of pants has dropped, while the sale of pajamas is soaring.) 

There is indeed a benefit to going off to college for both the student and the parents.  I left home in San Antonio for the University of Houston, and cannot imagine how different my life would have been if I had not done so.  The “college experience” of leaving home and cutting yourself off from a previous life will remain for some students, but increasingly it will become something only the wealthy can afford to do. 

All of the progress universities have made over the last few decades to make college campuses more inclusive is likely to be largely reversed.  While the top fifty or so campuses will undoubtedly be able to use their endowments to continue without this radical change, the rest of public education will not be so lucky.

College Athletics.  Okay, this sacred cow probably won’t change that much.  While the myth of supportive alumni financing athletics is total bullshit—those alumni do fund the campaigns of the lawmakers whose votes control much of public education.  Simply put, the football programming of Enema U does far more to bolster the public image of the local Chevrolet dealership than it does to support education.  That’s not going to change.

It might, however, change the nature of the argument about college athletics.  While I have never met a professor who believes college athletics does anything but hinder education on campus, the administration has always maintained that athletics boost student enrollment. 

This specious argument has persisted even though there has never been any data to support it. There has never been any discernible link between enrollment and whether a campus has had a winning season, and, yet, the myth lives!  In fact, there is the obviously conflicting evidence that a few universities that have dropped football or that have dropped down a division have shown increased enrollment. 

Student attendance at sporting events has steadily declined, though it is hard to get access to the data as universities always inflate attendance records, in part by automatically selling season tickets to every student as part of some form of student fee. 

When the majority of students are taking courses online and can no longer be automatically counted among those in attendance at every home game—the discussion about the necessity of campus athletics will have to change.  This argument has never made much sense, anyway.  A student who elected to attend a university because it proudly had a long, long losing streak, was probably too stupid to graduate.

No one currently knows how long the crisis of the Coronavirus will be with us.  Will there be a vaccine?  Will the population slowly build up an immunity?  Will the virus mutate?  No one knows the answers to these questions.  We do know, however, that such major events in society inevitably trigger permanent changes in behavior.  It would be foolish to suppose that education will be exempt.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Most Public of Art

Right now, there is a truck in Gaza just waiting.  Full of tools, a generator, flood lights, saw horses and the ubiquitous yellow construction tape to block off a street, the vehicle is gassed up and ready to go on a moment’s notice.

It is not a rescue truck, per se:  this is a different kind of first response vehicle.   Sometime in the next few months, a shadowy, unknown person will furtively act in the middle of the night—an event that will send this truck and eager men to the scene as fast as possible.

Fortunately, this has nothing to with exploding bombs or acts of terrorism.  The men racing to an as yet unknown scene, are hoping to be among the first to arrive after a new piece of street art created by secretive street artist, Banksy who frequently, and clandestinely, puts up new work near the wall separating Jerusalem from Palestine.  These are not “art lovers” who race to the scene, but men hoping to remove the artwork—sometimes along with the wall it was stenciled on—for money.  There are galleries that have paid in six figures for a Banksy original and since the anonymous artist can hardly claim ownership, it is frequently a case of finders, keepers.

I really like Banksy.  Though our politics differ a little, I appreciate his humor, his use of satire to make his point, and even the way he ridicules the art world.

Banksy has certainly established a cultural and artistic identity, despite his being an anonymous artist.  (Well, mostly anonymousIn an age of omnipresent video cameras—especially in his home country of England—it is impossible to remain anonymous for long.  A few minutes with Google and you can find out about Banksy’s life, his wife, and his politics, and you can view videos of him working.)

I’m not sure that merely saying Banksy has a cultural identity does him justice:   He is a cultural icon with a vast public following on multiple public media sites.  When a new work is revealed, people rush from all over the world to view his latest creation.  There is a thriving market in his works (both authorized and pirated).  There is even a public debate on whether being selected as a site for his work is a blessing or a curse, considering the increased traffic and media attention each work generates. 

Banksy first started doing satirical street art in the Bristol area, where he switched to using stencils after being chased by the local police.  He claims to have gotten the idea from the stenciled serial number of the garbage truck he was hiding under.  His work is frequently anti-war, pro-Palestinian, anti-capital, or just generally anti-establishment.  His anti-capital work may be some of his best satire, since the artist has used an agent to sell his work since 2002.  Some art magazines have estimated that his annual income is approximately $20 million.

From 2004 to 2006, Banksy produced hundreds of counterfeit £10 notes, issued by the “Banksy of England”, with the likeness of Princess Diana replacing the likeness of Queen Elizabeth.  Wads of the bills were simply thrown into crowds at sporting events or street carnivals.  While the naive tried to spend them in stores, the more astute sold them on Ebay for much more than face value.  Fake copies of the counterfeit bills sell for about $20, but an original Banksy counterfeit now sells for $700.  In 2015, Banksy “issued” similar £20 notes at his Dismaland installation, a fake version of Disneyland that was sort of a cross between a poor county fair and a nightmare by Stephen King.

In 2006, Banksy created Well Hung Lover (right) on the side of a sexual health clinic in Bristol.  Besides the obvious humor in both the piece and its location, the work is important for helping to establish Banksy’s position as a ‘legitimate’ street artist.  While the city of Bristol was engaged in a public war against graffiti at the time, public support for the piece was so strong that the city reversed itself, granting retroactive permission for the work (the first legal street art mural in English history).

And, of course, I have to include the framed painting of Balloon Girl from 2018.  A stenciled work, inside a frame made by the artist, within seconds of being sold at Sotheby’s Auction House for £1.04 million, a shredder mounted inside the frame began destroying the bottom third of the painting.  Simultaneously, Banksy’s Instagram account signaled, “Going, going, gone.”  Banksy has since revealed that the original intention was to completely destroy the work and that the mechanism’s stopping was an unexplained malfunction.

Banksy intended to make a statement about the commercialization of art and its transitory existence.  He later misquoted it as Picasso’s (it was actually Bakunin’s originally), “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”  Obviously, Banksy was correct since papers around the world heralded his newest triumph, while the greatest prank in art history resulted in effectively doubling the market price of the work for the new owner.  Not to be outdone, Sotheby’s now claims that it was the first time in history that a major work of art was created during an auction.  The satire continues, the work has since been retitled Love is In the Bin.

Banksy is in the news right now because of his latest work, created back in his home base of England.  A ten-meter square drawing of a child playing with an action figure of a caped nurse (his having discarded similar figures of Batman and Superman back to the toy box), was found hanging on a hospital wall in Southampton.  Simultaneously, on one of Banksy’s recognized social media accounts, a message appeared: “Thanks for all you're doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it's only black and white."  Someday soon, the hospital should be able to auction off the piece for millions.

Like I said, I like Banksy.

There is a problem, however:  Banksy is glorifying “street art” (which is just a glorified way of saying, “graffiti”).   Most of the famous street artists—Banksy, Basquiat, David Choe, and Lee Quiñonesall got their starts by doing the kind of graffiti that someone else has to remove with turpentine and elbow grease.   Basquiat allegedly got his start tagging the A train in New York City.  This year alone, the New York City Transit Authority has budgeted over $600,000 for graffiti removal from railroad cars.

At its most common level, street art is vandalism against private and public property.  This year alone, various government agencies will spend in total $15 billion to remove public graffiti.  That is more funding than the National Endowment for the Arts has received since its inception, with enough left over to fund the organization for the next fifty years.  The cost of graffiti removal by the private sector is many times that amount. 

The world is full of starving (well, at least hungry) young artists who firmly believe it’s the government’s duty to support their art with grants—too bad that much of the funding is going to clean up graffiti, instead.

In terms of dollar expenditures, the single most impressive amounts by which our society “supports the arts” is not in grants to our museums, or to NPR, or to the NEA...And it’s not in money given to Big Bird, or to Minnesota Public Radio:  It is in cleaning up after young vandals with cans of spray paint.  Unfortunately, none of them, so far, has demonstrated the kind of talent needed to succeed Banksy.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Money, Money, Money

There I was in my car, doing the very best in social distancing.  This meant I sat in the car while The Doc’s cat, Dust Bunny, was in the vet’s office getting a shot.  The Vet’s assistants were providing curbside service, allowing me to read a book in peace and quiet.  Not everything about the quarantine is all that bad.

At a knock, I hit the button to lower the window.  “Bunny’s ready to leave, they will bring him out in just a minute.  All you have to pay is for the cost of the vitamin shot, $3.50,” said the young assistant standing just outside the passenger window.

“Great,” I answered while fumbling my wallet open.  “Have you got change for a sawbuck?” She looked at me as if I was speaking Ferengi.

I blame Rex Stout’s book, Buried Caesar, which is the one of his very best (although the dialogue is from America during the Great Depression).  This happens every time I read a good book: by the time I finish it, my vocabulary changes and I start talking like the protagonist.  Once, after re-reading Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I spent an entire week lecturing about the battles of Alexander the Great, but delivered the lectures in pidgin English with a handful of Chinese profanity.

I explained that a sawbuck was a ten-dollar bill.  By the time I got the cat home, I had made a mental list of a lot of old obsolete terms for money.  Sort of a history of money list.

The sawbuck is relatively easy.  As you can see, the very first $10 bill, issued in 1861, used a Roman numeral for ten on the reverse of the bill.  The X resembled the sawbuck used to hold logs while they were cut into convenient length.  For the same reason, a double sawbuck is $20.  It is fascinating that even though this design was dropped in 1880, even after almost a century and a half, the term is still being used, except by veterinarian assistants.  From the photo at right, you can also see where we get the term “greenback”.

For longevity, few terms have stayed around as long as ‘buck’ for a single dollar.  This word traces it origins back to early colonial days when deerskins were used as a form of medium of exchange in places where hard currency was hard to come by.  The earliest written reference is a 1748 journal entry by Pennsylvania pioneer Conrad Weiser. The trader used the term frequently, with the first occasion being on page 41 of the journal when he wrote that "a cask of whiskey shall be sold to you for five bucks." 

During the colonial period, specie (coins) were relatively rare, and British coins were especially hard to come by.  Spain was bringing vast quantities of silver out of Mexico, so the Spanish Dollar was widely used around the world.  So many of them were used in the colonies that not only did the fledgling United States eventually mint dollars instead of pounds, but since the colonists cut the Spanish Dollars into eight pie-shaped pieces to make smaller denominations, to this day we use “two-bits” to mean a quarter.  Now you know what the pirates meant by pieces of eight.

Americans weren’t the only people to physically cut money into pieces to make smaller denominations.  The practice in England dates back to the 14th century and is why we refer to rich people as being in the chips

Lots of slang terms for money derive from poor translations from other languages.  A fin is $5, because in High German, a finuff is a five-pound-note, and has been used in the United States since the early nineteenth century.  A duck is a $2 dollar bill (and the two of clubs in Pinochle) because of the French word deux, most likely entering the vernacular from Louisiana.  Gelt, moola, and masuma are all Yiddish term for money, lucre is 14th century Old French word, but my favorite has to be “wad”, as in a wad of cash.  It started out as the Latin wadda, meaning a bundle, changed into the Old English wadde, for a bundle of cash.  But, for the best truly international mishmash of foreign words, it is hard to beat simoleons, a mixture of simon—a British slang for a six-pence, and Napoleons—a French currency.

Note.  Yes, I can work Napoleon into just about any topic.  At least I didn’t mention Wellington.  Oh, wait, that’s a British slang for a five pound note.

Some of the slang from other countries is downright bizarre.  The Canadians talk bout Loonies and Toonies, the Australians have lobsters and pineapples, and in England, it takes twenty ponies to make one monkey.  In Greece, you can get paid in spoondolicks while in Denmark a toad means a thousand Euros.   In Spain, you can pay for your dinner with pasta, a local term for money.   

There is one term for money that we have all heard about, but few know what it really means.  At long last, it is time to explain what gold-pressed-latinum really is.  Latinum, as any fan of Star Trek knows, is a rare silver-colored liquid metal that was used as currency by the Ferengi Alliance, the Cardassians, and many other worlds. 

The silver liquid metal was so hard to measure, that for convenience, latinum was suspended within lumps of worthless gold.  The result was as pleasing to the touch as it was to look at. Gold-Pressed-Latinum is the ultimate money, or as it says in the 75th Rule of Acquisition: "Home is where the heart is but the stars are made of latinum." 

All of this reminds me of a very old joke.  A psychiatrist visited a local restaurant and asked to speak to the manager.  Speaking quietly, in a corner, the doctor explained that he ran a nearby sanitarium where he had a special group of patients that needed an outing, a field trip.  The doctor explained that the patients behaved normally, and to all outward appearances were perfectly normal people.

The manager, reassured by the doctor’s words, agreed to reserve a table for the large group, and they set a date.  Then the doctor explained, that there was one small peculiar trait, that he asked the restaurant to ignore.

“At the end of the meal,” the doctor explained.  “All the patients will want to individually pay you in bottle caps.  Please, whatever you do, don’t say anything, just accept the bottle caps as if they were money, and I’ll settle the bill with you once they are on the bus.”

The manager agreed to the strange request, and less than a week later a dozen patients and the doctor arrived for their meal.  The manager was quite pleased that everyone was having a great time, the patients manners were excellent, and the only observable difference from any other group was the excellent caliber of table talk during the meal.

After the last plate was cleared, and the after dinner coffee enjoyed, the manager presented each patient with a check, and just as the doctor had predicted, he was paid in an assortment of bottle caps, with a generous pile of caps left on the table as a tip.  Then the patients filed out of the restaurant and boarded the sanitarium bus parked in front of the restaurant.

As the manager hands the check for the evening to the doctor, he says, “This was a great night, I would have never known any of those people were patients.  I truly hope you return soon.”

“Thank you,” replied the psychiatrist.  “I think everything went superbly, you have no idea how much you have helped them in their treatment.”

Looking down at the bill in his hand, the doctor said, “Everything seems to be in order here.  I wonder, do you have change for a manhole cover?”

I have to take the cat back for a shot next week.  I wonder what would happen if I paid them in bottle caps.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Going to College During a Pandemic

Though the numbers are only preliminary, already the data doesn’t look very good.  Fewer students will be returning to the universities this fall and the majority of institutions of higher learning are in a panic.  While the Ivy League schools are not worried—they have more applicants than they can admit (as well as large endowments)—public colleges depend on high enrollments to defray their costs.  And while public universities depend on state budgets for their base support, the revenue from student tuition is very important.

Students, however, are increasingly staying away because of the rising costs of tuition and books.  Suddenly, a lifetime of debt to repay the cost of a degree in Art History (my current major) doesn’t sound quite as attractive as it once was.  The cost of obtaining some university degrees far exceeds the average salary of any likely employment in that specialty.

I once showed a class of graduate history students a slide depicting the current salaries of faculty at junior colleges across the United States.  The horrified looks on their faces were exactly what you would expect if you told a group of kindergarten students that their parents had killed Santa Claus by beating him to death with the Easter Bunny. 

I have two quick solutions for this problem:  First, every university should be required to post statistics about how many of its graduates find employment in the field of their major and what their average income is.  This is similar to the crime statistics that the federal government already requires universities to publish.  Second, those greedy universities so eager to help students obtain the massive student loans that will later cripple their economic lives, should be required to cosign those loans.

Many students may just decide to sit out what will likely be a problematic year.  Recent surveys of graduating high school seniors show a record low number of students who plan on continuing their education.  Other surveys show a rise in the number of students planning a gap year before enrolling in college.  No one knows yet how many students will decide to wait out the pandemic by staying at home and skipping one or more semesters.

This coming year promises to be particularly difficult for Enema U.  Our state coffers are highly dependent on oil revenue, which has not only dried up, but is in danger of blowing away.  Already a state notoriously unfriendly (read that as “hostile”) towards business, because of an extended (though necessary) quarantine, it is likely to suffer an economic recession that will drastically reduce tax revenues and cause even greater unemployment.  It is inevitable that state budgets will be cut, and, if history is any guide, education budgets will not be spared.

The universities are already hurting.  As I write this, the entire university is teaching all of its classes online—a relatively poor method of teaching, at best—and even some of the best faculty members have little experience in this method.  (You can imagine the Herculean task of trying to teach a lab course online). 

Note.  I don’t know what is going on in the rest of the university, but I can tell you that the example set by the Art Department in carrying on in spite of the difficulties is inspiring.  One of my current classes is a lab course in conservation, and my instructor has done more than humanly possible to maintain the high quality of her excellent class.  All of the instructors, as well as the departmental secretary, have done the almost impossible—teaching art online.

Students are evidently and understandably a little skeptical about returning for the fall semester.  No one knows whether the dorms will be open or whether students will be able to use the labs and the libraries.  Will the school be able to hold sporting events and, if so, will the students be allowed to attend the games?  Will all the classes be online?  How many classes will be cancelled for lack of students?

Already, there are changes:  Graduation ceremonies for the spring have been cancelled, as are all festivities associated with them.  While a graduating student can still purchase a cap and gown—God alone knows why student would want to—it will have to be shipped as the campus bookstore remains closed for the foreseeable future.

The campus is something of a ghost town.  You can see a few people wandering around, but no one is allowed in most of the buildings without a pass.  Few faculty have seen their offices in less than several weeks.

In light of this ongoing crisis, the university regents of Enema U met and discussed the current problems, and then weighed and balanced the various avenues still open to them.  How can the school attract more students and support the faculty in its quest to deliver quality education?  What leadership role should Enema U play in the ongoing pandemic?

After lengthy debate, the regents reached a unanimous solution:  They raised tuition by the maximum allowable percentage.  Period.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Who is That Masked Man?

As I write this, the World Health Organization has several pages of its website devoted  to instructing non-health professionals how to wear a face mask, which it says you don’t need, but which you should wear whenever you leave the house, but won’t protect you in any way, but is essential.  This organization should change their name from W.H.O. to W.H.A.T.?  (World Health Alarmist Twits)

I’m not a health professional, but my wife is and The Doc made me a mask, so I am using it whenever I leave the house, even though I cannot stop humming the William Tell Overture. My mask may not help, but it won’t hurt.  After all, if all you have is a placebo, the correct prescription is to double the dose.

This blog post has nothing to do with whether you should wear a mask, or how to wear a mask, or anything of the sort.  (Though in all fairness, I’d probably be more accurate than the folks from W.H.E.N.—Whiny Hordes Enabling Nothing).

Despite being completely ignorant when it comes to things medical….I have noticed a few “peculiar” things about the way people are wearing their masks.  My mailman wears gloves, but while we were talking at the mailbox (at the approved social distance, of course), he used them to scratch his face twice.  And when I took The Doc’s cat to the vet today (where they wisely have you sit in the car while your pet is taken inside), I spotted masked patrons almost constantly scratching their faces and adjusting their apparently uncomfortable masks. 

If you google for “photos of people wearing their masks wrong”, the result is astounding.  People have cut eating holes through their masks, have worn them over their eyes, and (my personal favorite), one prominent senator had his mask positioned below his nose at a press conference about wearing masks.

That’s when it hit me—people aren’t wearing their masks for medical reasons, they are wearing them as magical gris-gris. 

If you aren’t up to date on your Voodoo, a gris-gris is a magical amulet usually consisting of a small bag on a string that is worn around the neck and used to bring good luck or to ward off evil spirits.  In Western Africa, where the custom originated, the bag usually contained verses from the Koran written on small strips of paper.  In Africa, the gris-gris was frequently used as a form of birth control among people who were called ‘parents’.

The custom came to the New World with slavery where it slowly changed over time becoming part of both VooDoo or, in some areas, the Church of Santería.  Slaves occasionally wore them to bring bad luck to their masters, and likenesses of the amulets can be found on a few slaves’ tombstones. In parts of Louisiana, a gris-gris is associated with dark magic, while in Haiti, a gris-gris is a good luck charm.   (And back in Senegal, a gris-gris is still one of the more popular forms of birth control, used by more mothers than the pill.)

Note.  I spent a couple of hours online reading about various folk remedies for birth control, wondering why people kept using a system that obviously failed.  Eventually, it dawned on me that magical birth control works exactly like socialism—when it inevitably fails, the reason is because it “just wasn’t done right” 

In popular parlance, a gris-gris is anything the wearer believes will keep away evil or will attract good luck.  Magical charms for protection seem to be universal, especially those that offer protection from bullets.

In Thailand, the Buddhists believe in Lek Lai, a metal amulet that protects the wearer from knives and bullets.  Magicians regularly demonstrate the effectiveness, and just as regularly—but not quite as often—get killed in the process when someone forgets to palm the actual cartridge for the specially prepared wax substitute.

During the Philippine Resistance, the U.S. Army ran up against the native Filipino troops, who lacking modern guns, confidently launched attacks armed with machetes, believing they were protected by the magic anting-anting charms they wore.  Though the Filipinos still lost—spectacularly—their fanaticism did help convince the Army to stop using a puny .38 revolver and adopt the powerful .45 automatic.

In Nigeria, magical charms known as odeshi are so regularly sold by shamans to ward off bullets that both the local police and the army tie small pieces of red cloth around the barrels of their firearms, which is the only known antidote to the odeshi charm.  Nor are the shamans indulging in fraud—they truly believe in their charms as testified to by the numerous online videos of shamans being slaughtered while demonstrating their wares.

Currently, there is a particularly gruesome video of a shaman who was profoundly bewildered after he shot his own jaw off.  The video doesn’t show it, but there was evidently a tiny piece of red cloth tied to the barrel of his revolver.

Closer to home, a number of Native American tribes believed that the right charm would protect them against bullets.  Tecumseh, the chief of the Shawnee, supposedly swallowed a small black lodestone (mąz-ni’ąp in Shawnee) that made him so impervious to bullets, that during battle he had to loosen his belt to discard the accumulated lead balls trapped between his skin and his shirt.  According to his tribe’s tradition, shortly before his death, the chief managed to cough up the stone and presented it to his son.  Somehow, the tribe’s tradition do not jive with the historical facts—Tecumseh died after being shot in the chest. 

A similar fate was met by the Lakota, who placed their belief—and lives—in the Ghost Shirts used in the latter part of the 19th century.  The Lakota believed that the shirts made the wearers impervious to bullets, and the U.S. Army, terrified that a newly confident Lakota might resume their war, promptly attacked first.  At Wounded Knee, at least 200 believers were killed or wounded despite their shirts.

I suppose that the most important aspect of any magical charm is that if the wearer believes in it, it probably works...At least until it doesn’t.  So, I’m going to keep wearing my mask.  Maybe it is magic.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

What’s a Little Fig Leaf Between Friends?

By the start of the nineteenth century, Antonio Canova was the undoubtedly the most famous and accomplished artist in Europe.  Certainly, a talented neoclassical sculptor, Canova was also a good businessman, for he published engravings of his work, garnering him patrons from all of the royal families of Europe (and even a few among the new presidents of the United States).

As Canova was justifiably famous, it was only natural that Napoleon Bonaparte, who was already looting—er, make that “collecting” art from conquered countries for his Musée Napoléon (now the Louvre), would want to commission the artist for creation of a statue of himself.  This was a problem for Canova, for while he welcomed the general’s money—he made busts and statues of Napoleon’s mother, both wives, and infamously, the reclining nude statue of his sister, Pauline—Canova didn’t like Napoleon.  He didn’t like that the general had invaded Venice, his home.  He didn’t like the way that stolen art treasure was steadily making its way to France.  The devout artist hated the way Napoleon treated the Pope, and he especially didn’t like that Napoleon was going to use his marble statue for official propaganda.

Though he didn’t like Napoleon, Canova had little choice but to show up in 1802, but he did impose a few conditions.  Though Napoleon wanted to be depicted wearing the uniform of a French general, Canova insisted on depicting Napoleon as “Mars the Peacekeeper”, a classical figure, made more than twice life size.  Napoleon agreed, and even “sat” for the artist a total of four times.

Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Amiens, halting the war with England.  Perhaps the idea of being depicted as a pacifist suited his political aims at the time.  Or maybe, he just liked the idea of a statue 11 feet tall.  (In fact, despite common belief, Napoleon wasn’t especially short.  The French inch was a little different from the English version, so he was actually 5’ 5”, about an inch shorter than the average of the day.)

It took four years for the statue to be completed, by which time the “keeper of peace” was once again engaged in war.  So, the statue remained in Venice.  Various French diplomats who viewed the statue, pronounced it as magnificent and one even recommended that the peace be placed just inside the entrance to the Musée Napoléon, so that it would be the first work a visitor saw after entering.

Due to various military engagements…a battle here, a fleet lost there, an invasion or two, etc., it was not until 1811 that Napoleon finally gazed upward at his statue, the day before it was to debut at the Musée Napoléon.  Canova’s statue depicts a well-proportioned nude Mars, who has set his breastplate and sword aside, holding in one hand, instead, a globe surmounted by winged victory and in the other, the staff of rule.  Napoleon as Mars is walking forward while turning his head to look to one side, almost as if the statue is unsure of his actions. 

Try to picture the scene, a middle-aged Napoleon, more than a little thick around the waist, is staring at a young, nude, muscular man who seems to be mocking him.  The fact that the man’s genitalia is exactly at his eye level probably didn’t help.

“Too athletic,” Napoleon said and ordered the statue to be hidden from sight.  The statue vanished for years.

Napoleon’s sister obviously disagreed.  Pauline Bonaparte Borghese said “If one could make statues by caressing marble, I would say that this statue was formed by wearing out the marble that surrounded it with caresses and kisses.”  Perhaps we should take the eccentric sister’s opinions at a discount, since she was just a trifle ahead of her time.  Years later, after she had insisted that Canova create a life-size statue of her as a reclining Venus, she was asked if she had felt uncomfortable posing in the nude.  “No,” she replied.  “There was a nice fire in the room and I was quite warm.”

Note.  A century and a half later, Marilyn Monroe was asked what she had on while her Playboy centerfold photo was taken.  “The radio,” she answered.  I’ve seen photos of both—Pauline wins.

After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington first viewed the statue in Paris.  Already championing the cause of returning the artwork stolen by Napoleon to the rightful owners, Wellington was also collecting the work of Canova, though it is not known if he was interested in obtaining the Napoleon statue.

France, desperate for cash, began selling off some of Napoleon’s legitimate artwork.  Though Canova eagerly offered to repurchase the statue, France sold the marble to England’s Prince Regent for 66,000 thousand francs (about $240,000 today).  And the Prince gifted the statue to the Duke of Wellington.

I’m not sure that too many people would find a 11-foot statue of a nude man—much less a former enemy—much of a gift, but supposedly Wellington was pleased with the gift, even though he had to have the floor of his home’s foyer specially reinforced to handle the stress of the 3-ton statue.  Wellington always spoke respectfully of Napoleon, though once the statue was installed in his home, the general had a removable fig leaf strategically added.  (And if you’re wondering, Wellington was 5’ 9”, so yeah, it still would have been right about eye level for him, too.)

Regardless of what the Duke thought of the statue, his friends were not quite as respectful since the records of the house indicate that visitors usually hung their hanways (umbrellas) on the statue to dry.  The home remained in the family until after World War II, when it was gifted to the National Trust (though the family still maintains an apartment in the building).  Later Dukes, and their families, used the statue as a bicycle stand. 

It is amazing how many times history replays the same tune.  Though London has changed over the years, today, Apsley House still links Greek Park to Hyde Park.  Just to the north of the mansion, one can find an even larger bronze statue of Achilles, the Greek Warrior, by the famous English sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott, who had studied under Canova.  Though few remember today, the statue was commissioned by a group of upper-class ladies to honor the Duke of Wellington as a war hero.  When the statue was unveiled, the public, shocked to discover a large nude figure, laughed and made jokes about the statue.  Embarrassed, once again Wellington had a fig leaf strategically placed.  This one is not removable.