Posts tagged ‘Academics’

Rubik"s Cube

He was English, the fellow in the lobby. He had come from London the day before to see some kindred enlightened souls in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now he was on his way to certain other centers of adepts before reaching the Grand Canyon focal point of the Harmonic Convergence. (Not, thank God, on my flight.)

This flake was the kind I like least. He had learned every buzzword there was in every discipline known to man — his conversation was full of Descartes and expert systems and quarks — and had managed not to understand any of them. And when I managed to point out to him, for example, that “Cogito ergo sum” did not imply the existence of a Divine Being, he responded every time by shifting the universe of discourse to another subject, from molecular biology to Rubik’s Cube. (Lots of people, he told me loftily, could solve Rubik’s Cube; there was nothing remarkable in that. But when you had evolved as far as he had you could do it in your head. Actually, that sounded like a pretty impressive feat to me. But when I asked him if he could then take a real cube and quickly match up all the colors so other people could see, he looked at me with pity. Of course he could do that. But he would never bother. It would simply be too boring to him.)

There was another odd thing about him. I had noticed he was wearing earphones. In those pre-iPod days, I assumed it was some kind of industrial-strength hearing aid. It wasn’t. After a while I saw that he kept fumbling with some sort of gadget in a pocket, and discovered that he was taping everything we said. But before I could find out why he was doing that my transportation arrived, and I was out of there.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. I am not about to believe that when the ancient Mayans devised their calendar they were somehow able to foretell that a hot, wet Sunday in August would be the turning point for mankind. (If they were so smart, why did they let Cortes wipe them out?) I think the whole thing is pretty blackly, depressingly comical.

I also think it’s sad, though, because, my God, here are all those people who believe this nonsense, What’s more, they act on it. According to the papers some hundreds of thousands of people took anywhere from a few hours to a couple of weeks out of their lives simply to chant and relate to each and go, “ooooom.”

And if it happened again today, they’d do it again.

These aren’t bad people. They don’t blow up abortion clinics or sell handguns to teenage gangs. They don’t even put “Sarah Palin for President” bumper stickers on their cars; a lot of them don’t even drive cars, because they don’t want to add to the burden of carcinogens and acid rain.

All they want is to make the world peaceful, loving and as nearly stress-free as a human world can get and, gosh, I’m for all those things, too.

Even the airhead and the Brit, although their grasp on reality was tenuous, seemed sincere in saying that they wished no human being any possible harm at all, only the best of all that’s possible for everyone in the world. And if you add to them the Scientologists and the ests, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the transcendental meditators — all the people, in the aggregate the many millions of people, whose deepest desire is to clean up the mess in their own heads and then go on to help others to do the same — what a dedicated work force we are allowing to piddle away its energies on fantasies!

Just imagine what it would be like if each one of them would, say, expend all that energy on some worthwhile social project (by which, of course, I mean one I approve of) — for instance, teaching remedial English to American high-school graduating classes, so that the kids would learn how to spell, punctuate and parse and my wife wouldn’t spend her time swearing to herself as she corrects their freshman compositions. Illiteracy would disappear overnight.

And we’re letting them go to waste.

Do you see what I mean about reality being less plausible than science fiction? None of us would dare make up a race as lunacy-prone as Genus homo for a science-fiction story. No editor would buy it. No reader would believe it.

The Harmonic Convergence wasn’t the only thing of interest in that summer’s Chernobyl. book tour.

Continue reading ‘Through the Harmonic Convergence, Part 3’ »


By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

An important shibboleth of literacy when I was much younger was whether people could properly use, spell, and punctuate the common words to, two, and too. Likewise there, their and they’re, and it’s and its, and dozens of other often confused sets of words.

While a colleague and I were judging advanced-placement credit writing samples, she commented on how damaging spelling mistakes could be to the success of a short piece of writing, the kind on which we were making decisions of whether a student received credit and passed or faced the frustration of failure.

I’m very lucky that spelling always came very easily to me as a child, but I soon realized that it’s not the most important part of writing. That is, it’s necessary but not sufficient to achieve success.

A casual reader of a correctly spelled essay written in standard English grammar with conventional punctuation rarely notices its mechanical perfection. It’s the flaws that grab attention. We notice mistakes even more when we’re looking for a reason to reject what a writer is trying to say — when we dislike or don’t believe the point being made.

There are other ways to go wrong, of course, but to write effectively, you need to do a great many things right. Why distract your reader from your point with needless stumbling blocks to communication? Not everyone will agree with your point, even if you do such things perfectly and reason clearly and provide supporting evidence, but why make it harder to understand what that point is?

Yet I doubt that there’s a foolproof rule that governs the grammar of English that doesn’t have an exception. Wouldn’t people be better off if we could understand what our opponents really meant, in spite of the lame way they said it?

I was making elevator conversation with a stranger the other day on the to, too, two confusion, and my fellow person-on-the-way-to the-fourth-floor mentioned that the debate brought up tutus in her mind, because she taught ballet. Context matters.

How do we ever expect mere human beings to understand one another well enough to reach solutions to the problems facing our nation and our planet, such as how to solve the health-care situation in the U.S. or what can we do to mitigate the damage scientists predict global warming will produce?

Allen R. Sanderson

Allen R. Sanderson

According to the economist Allen R. Sanderson, writing in Chicago Life, about 40 percent of college graduates have taken at least one economics course and 5 percent have majored in it. Good news, you say? Maybe because you think that a clear understanding of the various flows of money can prevent our ever again having a crippling disaster like the Great Depression, or even a close encounter like what happened to us in 2008 again?

Maybe so, but the really bad news for economics professors, according to Sanderson, is that polls show that “there is no discernible difference in understanding basic concepts between those who have taken economics and those who haven’t.”

What economics teaches us spot on, nearly all the time, is how to use resources efficiently to maximize output. That’s probably a good thing if you’re a manufacturer and make a profit on every phoithboinder your plants turn out. Unfortunately for that view, most of us aren’t manufacturers, although maybe we work for the people who are.

We should pay close attention to the Occupiers, because what they want, they say, is simply fairness. Which economics does not measure.

And we might give an ear to old John Maynard Keynes, too, who said, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if every college course in economics would allow now and then some random Occupier to tell them how money really flows, and what it accomplishes?

By the time the dozen or so of us hungry MidAmeriCon-goers got desperate about food we learned that the Kansas City Rot had spread through the whole city. The hotel’s own coffee shop would take no reservations before midnight, and their fancier restaurant had already closed its doors. Still, one person among us claimed to know a great restaurant no more than a block away. Since all of us were by then beginning to feel rapid emaciation starting to occur in our bodies, we headed there.

We had no trouble finding the place. Unfortunately, when we got to that great restaurant no more than a block away the doors were closed and the lights were out.

Bad luck; but it wasn’t a major setback because we could all see another restaurant a block or two away, and that one was brightly lit with hospitable-looking tables set out by the curb. But to get there required a few minutes walk, and as we were heading there people were coming out the door, looking disgracefully well-fed, and walking away. And the lights were beginning to go out and the tables were being taken in until, when we arrived, it was as dark and unwelcoming as the first place.

And that was only the beginning.

I don’t remember how many places we tried, but, one after another, they all declined our custom. In the few whose doors were open at all their kitchen had just closed and their chefs were on their way home, or they had run out of the ingredients for most kinds of meals entirely.

At last we found a restaurateur willing to take pity on us. Well, reasonably willing. The best the proprietor said he could do was give us a few wooden chairs and tables scattered around an unused dance floor, but, of course, one that was also lacking in musicians or ballroom-type lights.

By then our yearning for gracious service and perhaps a candle or two was outvoted by our famished condition. We placed the most cursory orders we could imagine, and then pleaded with the waiter to tell us what foul event had turned Kansas City hosts into misanthropes. The waiter, as well as his partner in the folded-menu business, helping our guy out because the plague had scared away customers, too, was pleased to fill us in. That’s when we learned that the precipitating event had been the 1976 Republican National Convention, charged with the task of nominating candidates for the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency of the United States, to do battle with the Democratic candidates for those same offices in the November elections.

Since the Presidential candidate they nominated was the incumbent, Gerald Ford, who hadn’t much wanted to be President in the first place and wasn’t particularly good at running a nation-wide election, since he had never experienced one of his own — and who went on in November to lose to a nearly unknown Georgia peanut farmer — they might as well not have bothered.

But, of course, they didn’t know that at the time. Exuberant after hearing themselves telling each other that they couldn’t lose, the delegates wanted to celebrate the impending victory. Celebrate they then did, and in the course of doing so they laid waste to Kansas City’s entertainment industry in a blizzard of bum checks and invalid credit cards and mouths that were adrool for food and drink, mainly drink.

Continue reading ‘Arrival, Part 3: KC in the GOP’s Wake’ »

Fred and Cathy

Fred and Cathy (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes)

Cathy Pizarro, Betty’s oldest daughter, who helps Betty and me deal with computer malfunctions and much else, came back to live with us years ago after her husband, Tony Pizarro, was hit and killed by an unlicensed driver in a stolen car in New York. Among other things, she took herself back to college, earning her first degree of Associate in Arts.

(We don’t know how we ever got along without her!)

How to Make Paper Flowers


After the war — that’s World War II, I’m talking about, what did you think? — I went to work as copywriter for a tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency called Thwing & Altman. It wasn’t a boring job, and one of the things I liked about it was that one of my favorite over-the-top novelists, Tiffany Thayer, was among my predecessors in holding it. But I turned out to be good at that kind of work, and they weren’t paying me particularly well, so before long I was studying the Help Wanted pages in the Times again.

It was still a boom time for the unemployed. Jobs were begging for people to fill them as America got back in the business of business. There was one particular listing which seemed to be addressed to me almost by name — I no longer remember what it was in the specifications that seemed to bear my initials, but the moment I saw the ad I lusted for it. The ad had been placed by an employment agency, so I called them up, made an appointment, sneaked out of the office with some of my roughs under my arm and laid them proudly before the man who had agreed to see me.

“Um,” he said. “Not too bad. Have you made a resume?” Of course I had, but when I handed it to him he looked puzzled. He gave me a dubious glance, studied the resume one more time and then said, “It doesn’t name the college you went to.”

At times in the past I had wondered if that question might ever handicap me in my chosen career. But no one who ever hired me for anything had ever asked about it before, so his comment rather surprised me. “Óh,” I said, “I never went to a college. I dropped out of high school as soon as I was seventeen.”

That got a reaction out of him. He gave me a scowl of repugnance, stuffed all my papers back into their folder and said, “You’ve wasted my time. This is a good job with a very important publishing company. Naturally they’re not going to hire anyone without at least a bachelor’s degree.” And I crept out of his office in humility, hardly daring to look at even the receptionist out of my high-school-dropout eyes.

But the ad was still in the paper on the next Sunday, as well as the as the Sunday after that. Moreover, although there were plenty of other jobs on offer, there weren’t any that seemed to be calling me by name, so I got back on the phone. “I called,” I said, after identifying myself and feeling the temperature drop when I did, “because I noticed that ad was still running, and I wondered — ”

“Mr. Pohl,” he said severely, “I told you that you’re simply not qualified for a job of this caliber. If anything comes up that might suit you I’ll keep you in mind. Goodbye.”

I hung up, meditating violence. But time passed and I cooled down. And, more important, the ad continued to run. So a few weeks later I called again. My account executive was beginning to sound tired of the subject, but he admitted they had run out of candidates. “All right,” he said. “I don’t suppose it would hurt anything if I let you try your luck. It’s the Popular Science Publishing Company, on Fourth Avenue around 28th Street. The man you want to see is their advertising director for circulation and books, and his name is George Spoerer. I’ll give him a call to say you’re coming — ”

“Well, no,” I said. “Let’s not do that. I’ll call him for an appointment myself. And, don’t worry, I won’t forget about your commission on my first week’s salary.”

I had been worrying a little myself about what this hard to please Mr. Spoerer might be like, but on the phone he sounded like a reasonable human being and when I got to his office he looked and acted that way too. Not only that, but, when I showed him some of the house ads I’d written at Popular Publications, he revealed himself as at least a part-time science-fiction fan. And when George Spoerer had decided I could do the job he walked me into the office of his boss, the Circulation Manager of the company, Eugene Watson, and he wasn’t bad either. And twenty minutes later I had the job.

I didn’t know how my account executive at the employment agency would take that news. When I phoned he just sighed a long sigh and began reminding me that, under New York law, their commission was a collectible debt and they would expect weekly checks from me until it was paid off. “All right,” I said, and hung up.”

I had intended at least to say “thank you,” but it no longer sounded appropriate.

I forgot to mention that, as I was leaving, George said, “Did I tell you about your other jobs?” And when I said an apprehensive no he said, “Don’t look so apprehensive. One is Subscription Fulfillment Manager, and all that requires is that you let Old Jim tell you what’s going on in that department so you can answer any questions the higher brass might ask. That’s where we have twenty-five young girls to type out the addressograph stencils that make labels for subscribers. Old Jim is the actual boss of the department because he’s too old and too religious to cause any trouble with those twenty-five young girls. But he’s hopeless when he tries to talk to a vice president.”

As I had never talked to a corporate vice president myself I crossed my fingers and went on to the next point. “And the other job?”

“That’s no sweat, too. The title is Book Editor for books published by our two magazines, Popular Science and Outdoor Life. We make a good thing out of mail-order books for home handymen and sport fishers. Since the magazines buy all rights we take material that appears in the magazines and retread it for how-to books.

“You don’t do that work yourself, of course. You hire an editor to do it, and you just make sure it’s done right — I’ll show you how it’s done over the table at the Gramercy Park, if you’ll have lunch with me on Monday.”

“A week from Monday, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I’d like to give Mr. Altman a little notice.” And a week from Monday it was.

Continue reading ‘My Life as Book Editor for Popular Science’ »