The Atlantic, December 2010

Several interesting pieces this month.  I’d mention three.

Kenneth Brower is the son of environmentalist David Brower and has for decades been close to physicist and all-around genius Freeman Dyson.  In the last few years, Dyson has become the most prominent of scientists who are unconvinced that human-caused global warming represents a significant threat.  Brower’s piece in this issue asks what went wrong with Dyson.  I can’t entirely suppress a suspicion that Brower is being less than fair to Dyson, but the article is fun to read nonetheless.

James Parker wonders what the deal is with all those late-night talk shows where there’s a host who comes out, delivers a monologue, then chats with celebrities who take turns sitting on a couch next to his desk while the house band plays and the studio audience cheers.  Isn’t that an awfully tired format?  Evidently not too tired for the tastes of the American viewing public, as many such shows now command millions of eyeballs nightly.

At the end of a column about internet dating sites, Alexis Madrigal says that “It’s when people deviate from what we predict they’ll do that they prove they are individuals, set apart from all others of the human type.”  I tend to disagree.  If others are to work with us, they must be able to predict our behavior well enough to know our next move.  If we are to accomplish anything new by working together, that predictability will have to be the result of a deliberate creative process.  Indeed, I would say that the greatest of all creative challenges is the creation of predictability.

The Atlantic, June 2010

Several interesting pieces this time:

How the private sector could build railways again, and save neighborhood life in the USA in the process

Mark Bowden explains the Conficker worm and the threat it may represent to computers on and off the internet. 

A piece on the revival of some centuries-old recipes for mixed drinks at fashionable bars in London.  The “shrub” sounds alarming, but might be delicious. 

There are lots of witchcraft trials in the Central African Republic; here‘s an attempt to see the bright side of that state of affairs.

Benjamin Schwarz isn’t impressed with the “New Urbanism,” and tries to dismiss the reading of Jane Jacobs’ works that has inspired many in that movement. 

Michael Kinsley adds a column to the already enormous amount of coverage given to the political movement known as the “teabaggers.”   This paragraph contributes something of value to the discussion:

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

I suspect Kinsley is right and “Big Government” is needed to keep jobs in the USA and lower the cost of prescription drugs, but the big government we actually have doesn’t seem to be geared to accomplishing either of these goals.  Quite the contrary, in fact. 

James Parker tries to find something interesting to say about pop star Lady Gaga.  I don’t think he succeeds, but I do think that it’s a waste that someone who is not a drag queen has monopolized the name “Lady Gaga.”

The Wrong Man?

I continue my attempt to catch up on “Periodicals Notes” with this bit about the May issue of The Atlantic

The most widely discussed article in the issue was David Freed’s “The Wrong Man,” about Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.  When several envelopes containing anthrax were sent to American politicians and journalists in the fall of 2001, the FBI investigated Dr Hatfill.  The article makes it clear why; the anthrax in the envelopes came from Hatfill’s place of employment, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.  Hatfill was in Britain when one of the letters was mailed from Britain; he was in Florida when another letter was mailed from Florida.  Most intriguingly, though Hatfill is an American he served in the Rhodesian army defending white minority rule in that African country in the 1970s.  The unit in which Hatfill served, the Selous Scouts, operated in the area where a major anthrax outbreak killed more than 10,000 members of the tribes that most fiercely opposed white rule.  Freed points out that “a majority of the soldiers in the Rhodesian army, and in Hatfill’s unit, were black”; he does not pause to acknowledge that a black citizen of Rhodesia might have had a different motivation for joining the Rhodesian army than would an American.  Freed also says that “many well-respected scientists” concluded that the outbreak had an innocent explanation; this conclusion becomes a bit dubious when we see that a member of the Selous Scouts had been in the US Army’s elite Green Berets shortly before the outbreak and would wind up working at the Army’s chief bioweapons facility some years later.  Freed asserts Hatfill’s innocence throughout the article, but succeeds in showing why the FBI originally suspected him and why some might suspect that the investigation may have been short-circuited to cover up high-level misdeeds in which he was involved.

Elsewhere in the issue, Jon Zobenica recommends two books as anitdotes to the myth that American soldiers were models of chivalry during World War Two, Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed.  Leckie and Sledge both served in the Pacific as Marines, and neither man’s memoir gives an inch to romanticism or propaganda.  These two books formed much of the basis for a recent TV drama about the war in the Pacific.  Some commentators have praised the show for its gritty realism; having read the books, though, Zobenica can report that the producers sanitized the characters based on Sledge and Leckie in ways that the men never sanitized their own records.

Places to go when you can’t stay anywhere

None of the three pieces that I wanted to note were mentioned on the cover. 

The state of Florida has a long list of crimes that require a convict to be registered for life as a sex offender.  Registered sex offenders in the state are prohibited from being close to schools, playgrounds, and other areas where children congregate.  Some Florida towns decree that registered sex offenders must stay at least 1000 yards (914.4 meters) from such areas; most put the boundary at 2500 yards (2286m.)  Since the average town has quite a few child-friendly spaces, the consequence of these laws is that Floridian sex offenders cluster into little ghettoes.  Irina Aleksander spent some time following a man who runs a business that shepherds registered sex offenders into these ghettoes.  The man, himself a registered sex offender whose crime was watching a 19 year old girls perform a sex act on a 15 year old boy, is evidently getting pretty rich.  The neighborhoods where he send his clients tend to get very inexpensive very quickly.  He seems like a good person to know if you are a real estate developer and want to find a way to reduce startup costs for redevelopment projects in Florida…

A person who has a lot of anger might answer the question of where registered sex offenders should go by referring to another article in this issue.  A business in Switzerland has taken advantage of that country’s very lax laws on assisted suicide to offer foreigners an easy death.  Zurich has thus become the world’s capital of “suicide tourism.” 

French playwright and novelist Henry de Montherlant committed suicide in 1972.  Had he asked for assistance, one suspects he would have found no end of volunteers.  (more…)

The Origin of Superwoman

This issue of The Atlantic has been lying around our apartment for several weeks while I worked on my actual job; last night, I had time to read it.  The one thing I wanted to note was Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece about how her view of herself as a mother has changed in the aftermath of her divorce.  Partly because she’s now virtually homeless, partly because she’s been smeared as a symbol of neglectful parenting on “blogs large and small all across our fair nation” (oh, and in the Los Angeles Times as well,) Tsing Loh now takes a hard look at the ideals of motherhood into which she was once indoctrinated and which she can no longer hope to meet.  She turns for enlightenment to a pair of books that I remember seeing all over the place in the 1970s, but that have apparently become hard to find in the last couple of decades: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  She particularly recommends Greer’s chapter on “Family,” which traces the change from the traditional norm of a multigenerational extended family consisting of dozens of people related by blood who live and work together to the modern Western norm of the nuclear family, a couple and their children separated from their “stem families,” often by hundreds or thousands of miles.  Tsing Loh quotes Greer’s statement that the traditional family was a more stable system than the nuclear family because responsibility for its most crucial functions did not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.”     

Some months ago I quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s remark that, “When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ”You are not enough people!”  It seems that Vonnegut and Greer were thinking along the same lines in some ways.  Not in all ways; Vonnegut seems to be suggesting that we as humans, by our nature, can be nurtured only in the bosom of a close-knit multigenerational extended family, while Greer’s argument leaves open the possibility that our need for extended families is one side of a contradictory inheritance from our pre-capitalist past, and that we might in time be reshaped so that we can find happiness without returning to the days before capitalism.  That’s a big difference, of course.   And Vonnegut’s remarks leave out the main theme of Greer’s study, the inequality of the sexes in various forms of family structure.  Close-knit multigenerational extended family groupings are usually, perhaps always, strongly patriarchal; the nuclear family may dethrone  the paterfamilias, but it may also isolate a wife from other women during her marriage and throw her naked to the cold winds of the labor market in case of divorce. 

Still, where Vonnegut and Greer do agree is that the nuclear family does not put enough people under a roof to maintain a stable home life.  The Supermom ideal which Tsing Loh has bitterly learned she will never be able to meet is a symptom of this underpopulation.  The future Supermom is supposed to establish herself in “a cool Creative Class career, like Writer.”  Then, she adds to that career a second career, as Child Care Provider Extraordinaire.  “Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have… the personalities- and the creative aspirations- of elementary school teachers.  But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation.”  Unless your Creative Class career is as an elementary school teacher, you are almost certain to be like Tsing Loh.  Surely it would be a miracle of sorts if a person whose background was in one profession could, on the strength of no particular training, match a qualified and experienced professional in another profession, whatever her personality.     

Supermom, by dint of her miraculous gift for childhood education, then shepherds her children into Creative Class careers of their own.  And the requirements for membership in the Creative Class are unforgivingly narrow; “We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums.”  It’s all well and good if your kids are writers or artists or whatever, but if their degrees are from humble adult education programs like the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley, it doesn’t count, apparently.  You’re still a flop as a mother.  The Creative Class Supermom not only guides her children into this fantastically narrow mold, she does it  without stifling their individuality; “the last thing she wants to be is a 1950s style nag.” 

For those who accept defeat in the contest to be Supermom, there is consolation in the works of D. W. Winnicott, a 1950s psychoanalyst who developed a concept of the “good enough” mother.  Tsing Loh finds that Winnicott’s “good enough” mother is “actually pretty close to perfect.”  

Supermom is devoted to her children; so devoted, in fact, that she is racked with guilt if she suspects that she loves their father more than she loves them.  This, to Tsing Loh’s disappointment, is why Ayelet Waldman titles her memoir Bad Mother.  While Tsing Loh fears that she is a bad mother because she left her husband for another man, Waldman fears that she is a bad mother because she can’t keep her hands off her husband, her children’s biological father.  Tsing Loh says that this isn’t so crazy; after all, “The very success of the modern American family- where kids get punctually to SAT tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget- surely depends on spouses not being in love.”  Being in love simply takes up too much time and attention to meet all of Supermom’s, or for that matter Superdad’s, obligations. 

This is where it becomes crucial that “You are not enough people.”  Not only are spouses dissatisfied with a marriage that only gives them one more person to talk to, and that person a member of the opposite sex, but children are dissatisfied too.  Without grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, all under the same roof, they direct all their demands to their parents.  Without their own parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, parents direct all of their aspirations to their children.  Because each person is only one person, nothing parent or child does can satisfy the other’s need for a bigger group.  What the parents do have to offer is chauffeur service, fees for tutoring, and entry into structured activities led by adults who wear whistles around their necks.  What the children have to offer is the good opinion of such adults.  These goods can only for a moment quiet the longing for a larger kinship group, and so each side demands ever more of them.  The two beleaguered parents insist on providing ever more education to their children; they pride themselves on it, to the point where it becomes inconceivable for them not to judge other parents based on the lengths to which they have gone in playing this particular game.

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2009

atlantic october 2009Mark Bowden starts his piece, “The Story Behind the Story,”  by recounting TV coverage of the announcement that President Obama had nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court.  Within minutes of the announcement, Bowden turned on Faux News and was impressed by the depth of their reporting.  He then turned to MSNBC, which was airing precisely the same report, using precisely the same quotes from Judge Sotomayor.  Flipping through the channels, he found that every station was airing the same report.  Curious, he looked into the matter.  The report apparently originated as a post on a conservative blog called verumserum, which not only did the TV channels’ work for them, but even did a better job of trying to be fair to the judge, giving far more of the context in which she made her remarks than did any of the broadcasters. 

Andrew Sullivan asks George W Bush to apologize for promoting torture.  Sullivan is oh-so-sure that Bush didn’t know what was being done in his name.  It reminded me of something about Cuba I read in Reader’s Digest when I was a teenager.  The reporter described ordinary Cubans’ habit of looking at injustices and sighing “If only Fidel knew.”  I had the reaction I was supposed to have, which was to feel sorry for those poor benighted victims of tyranny and certain that Americans would never delude themselves into letting a leader off the hook that way.  Whether there was any truth to Reader’s Digest‘s  description of Cuba I don’t know, but I do now know that we in the USA are not immune from the delusion it attributed to the people of that island. 

Benjamin Schwarz’ review of some new books about the economic slump of the 1930s contains an intriguing sentence, “The defining characteristic of the middle classes has always been their orientation toward the future.”  That sounds like the summary of some sociological theory.  Mrs Acilius is a sociologist; I should ask her if she recognizes the summary and can identify the school of thought in which such a claim might have arisen.  The backbone of his piece is a discussion of Robert Stoughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s 1937 study of life in Muncie, Indiana, Middletown in Transition:

The seminal book—really the starting point for the others—is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown in Transition (1937). The Lynds, husband-and-wife sociologists, had first descended on “Middletown”—the then-prosperous if stratified city of Muncie, Indiana—with their team of researchers in 1924, during the boom years. For the next 18 months, they dissected the everyday lives, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants, concentrating on the middle classes. The book that resulted, Middletown (1929), remains a classic of immersive sociology and the most incisive and complete portrait of American bourgeois life in the 1920s. Having taken this minute snapshot, Robert Lynd and a smaller team returned to Muncie 10 years later to see what had changed in the intervening period, which included the darkest years of the Depression. They interviewed the city’s industrial barons, plant workers, and prostitutes; chatted up its teachers, prosecutors, and real-estate agents (although all sources were anonymous, this much of their identities can be gleaned); and pored over its newspaper files and tax rolls. Mostly, they seem to have gossiped, lingered over dinners, and played bridge with the members of a stratum that ran from the “less-secure business class” to the engineers and middle managers, the young married set, and the well-established doctors, lawyers, and executives in the lower-upper class. The fruit of their sojourn, Middletown in Transition, reveals, fact by fact, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, the “staggering, traumatic effect” of “the great knife of the depression,” which “cut down impartially through the entire population, cleaving open the lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.”

The Atlantic, September 2009

atlantic september 2009David Goldhill’s piece about health policy identifies the main problem with the current US system as health insurance.  Not the fact that so many people lack health insurance, or the way health insurers operate, or any of the usual complaints, but in the sheer fact that Americans pay for health care primarily by means of health insurance.  Goldhill argues that this payment system strips patients of the ability to make informed decisions about their own care, subjects health care providers to a regime of incentives that are unrelated to the rationality of the marketplace, and inflates the costs of health care to unsustainable levels.  Goldhill proposes a far-reaching plan to replace this system. 

Under Goldhill’s plan, the government would operate an insurance plan that would provide coverage to every American who faced catastrophic health care expenses; that plan would, in time, “ultimately replace Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.”  It would pay only for genuinely catastrophic expenses.  Goldhill acknowledges that it would be difficult to define the limit of “catastrophic,” and discusses various dollar amounts that might be used as a cutoff.  Perhaps a percentage of national median income would be a better determinant than any absolute number of dollars, but Goldhill doesn’t bring that up. 

The second part of Goldhill’s plan are Health Savings Accounts.  Already in existence, these tax-sheltered accounts would under Goldhill’s plan be mandatory for all Americans, and would be the source from which virtually all health care would be paid.  Goldhill proposes that the government should subsidize low-income Americans with direct payments to their Health Savings Accounts, so that everyone would have at least as much money in his or her Health Savings Account as any patient would likely be able to claim from Medicare or Medicaid today.  The difference is that under Goldhill’s system, the patients themselves would be the ones writing the checks to health care providers.  The providers would then have to compete for patients.  That competition would take the mystery out of health care prices, and would give health care providers an economic incentive to keep prices down and quality of service up. 

Goldhill’s system would also give health-care providers an incentive to adopt best practices, breaking down resistance from entrenched stakeholders.  As an example of such resistance, Goldhill opens the piece with the story of his father’s death from a hospital-borne infection in 2007.  Remarking that about 100,000 Americans die of hospital-borne infections annually, Goldhill brings up Dr. Peter Pronovost, who has developed a checklist of simple disinfection procedures.  Hospitals which have adopted Dr Pronovost’s checklist have seen deaths by hospital-borne infection decline by about 2/3.  Yet most hospitals have refused to adopt the checklist, backing down in the face of doctors who are offended that anyone would suggest they need to be reminded to keep clean.  Goldhill closes the piece by asking us:

Imagine my father’s hospital had to present the bill for his “care” not to a government bureaucracy, but to my grieving mother. Do you really believe that the hospital—forced to face the victim of its poor-quality service, forced to collect the bill from the real customer—wouldn’t have figured out how to make its doctors wash their hands?


The Atlantic, July/ August 2009

the atlantic july and august 2009We as a species are currently dumping massive amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere.  Average temperatures around the world are rising at an alarming rate, evidently at least in part as a consequence of this dumping.  No movement is in prospect that would stop the dumping, or even reduce it substantially.  So, what to do?  Some scientists and engineers want to remake the rest of the earth’s climate to accommodate our carbon dumping habit.  How could this be done?  There are several possible methods. 

We could shoot sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.  That would be remarkably affordable- for as little as a billion dollars, it could end global warming.  The drawback is that eventually sulphur would rain down from the sky, and if we stopped shooting new sulphur dioxide up there global temperatures would increase dramatically in a very short period.  Also it would cause severe droughts throughout central Africa, a region which has not exactly been among the big winners of industrialization to start with, so that seems unfair. 

Also we could dump iron powder in the Antarctic Ocean, causing a huge plankton colony to bloom and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  We’d have to be a bit careful about that- half a supertanker’s worth of iron powder could feed a big enough plankton bloom to trigger a new Ice Age.  And when plankton dies, it releases methane, which is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

There are also people who would like to block sunlight by shooting millions of clay discs at the Lagrange point between the earth and sun.  These skeets might well reduce average temperatures on the earth, but they could also stop the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.  And without an ozone layer, life as we know it could not exist on the surface of the earth.  So that’s a little bit on the risky side too.  So it seems like reducing carbon emissions might be worthwhile after all. 


The Atlantic Monthly, June 2009

the atlantic june 2009It’s hard to make South African president Jacob Zuma seem an attractive figure, and the profile of him here doesn’t try.  What intrigued me was its description of an art Zuma has mastered, Zulu stick fighting:

During my November 2007 visit to his homestead, I spoke with one of his brothers, Mike. As we stood by an enclosure where an ox had been slaughtered earlier in the day, Mike told me that his brother was clever, and should never be counted out. He said that from an early age, Zuma had been a masterful practitioner of traditional Zulu stick fighting. His distinctive technique had been to forego the formalities and hold his stick casually, as if he was on a lark. He’d turn away from his opponent, crack a joke, and smile. When it was least expected, he would sweep the other boy off his feet. Stick fighting is essentially a test of balance, not brute strength, in which one turns an adversary’s lunging attacks back on him.

That sounds like a martial art anyone with the makings of a successful politician would be well suited to practice. 

An article called “Do CEOs Matter?” describes the classification of corporate leaders into two major categories, “Unconstrained Managers” and Titular Figureheads.”  The men who coined these phrases were Professors Donald Hambrick and Sydney Finkelstein.  In the article where they introduced the dichotomy, Hambrick and Finkelstein wrote that “If we had to choose as a society between doing away with Figureheads or Unconstrained Managers, clearly it is the Figureheads we would keep.” 


The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009

atlantic-may-2009Recently attempts have been made to launch spacecraft that would sail on the force of photons emanating from the sun.  “Solar sailing” may be a technology that will make it possible to achieve very high speeds, perhaps more than half the speed of light.   An article describes these efforts and the history behind them.  The first place I heard of solar sailing was in a story by Arthur C. Clarke, who according to the article was a major figure in the drive to build them.  Clarke suggested that solar sails might power the first probes intentionally sent to the stars.  The article also mentions the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who argued that solar sailing was impossible for the same reasons that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Once advocates manage to get a sail out of the atmosphere, we should find out whether Gold was right and solar sailing is a physical absurdity, or Clarke was right and it is the royal road to deep space.     

In a review of recent books on the Holocaust, Benjamin Schwarz points out that ordinary Germans knew a great deal about the slaughter of European Jewry as it was going on.  Not only was the genocide too vast to be truly secret, but the leaders of the Nazi regime may actually have wanted a certain degree of knowledge of their worst crimes to leak out:

By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Did the German population perceive the killing of the Jews as a crime, or were they so far gone in their anti-semitism that it seemed like a reasonable thing to do?  Apparently a psychologist named Michael Müller-Claudius conducted interviewed senior Nazi party members in 1938 about their attitudes towards Jews.  He found that 5% of these “fully rejected antisemitism,” while another 69% would not admit to being hostile towards Jews.  If even senior Nazis hesitated to embrace their party’s official antisemitism, one would expect the population at large to have very queasy consciences about the Holocaust.  Schwarz closes his piece with discussion of a line by Goebbels, “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”  I have no idea whether the Nazi regime really did play this coy game with the German public, but the thought that they might have is the sort of idea I tend to find irresistible.   

Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother writes a piece about Edward Upward, who for a little while in the 1930s was perhaps England’s most influential man of letters.  By the time Upward died this February at the age of 105, he had outlived all the authors on whom he was an influence; certainly his name was not familiar as theirs still are (Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNiece, Cecil Day-Lewis, among others.)  I note the piece here because of its reference to “Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written.”  I might want to read that some day.