Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

I have spent a significant part of this summer reading Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.

My (limited) knowledge of this book came primarily from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Andy Dufresne recommends Monte Cristo to a fellow inmate because it describes an escape from prison. As I read the book, I enjoyed the way that certain plot details reminded me of Shawshank; it became clear that Stephen King referenced Dumas's classic for more than the surface level reference and follow-up joke.

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I started the book by listening to it while gardening.

I quickly gathered that Edmond Dantès is unjustly imprisoned after having been framed by three jealous acquaintances (Danglars, Caderousse and Mondego). The context for Dantès's alleged crime is Napoleon's plot, from Elba, to regain power from the Bourbon monarchy. I enjoyed the way that Dumas weaves historical characters and events into the story's plot.

Eventually, Dantès escapes from prison and recovers a hidden treasure whose location is revealed to him by a fellow inmate (Abbe Faria). Dantès returns to society under several new identities, including most famously the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. He tracks down the men who ruined his life and -- in a very roundabout way -- aims to ruin theirs.


Having listened to the first several chapters of the book, I made two incorrect assumptions: (1) this is primarily an adventure story and (2) the novel is of a typical length (300 - 500 pages). 

In truth -- with reference to my first assumption -- Monte Cristo became a classic because the straightforward revenge plot is overlaid with deeper questions about justice and forgiveness. To wit, Dantès struggles with whether to forgive his first love, Mercedes, who eventually gave up hope of ever seeing him again and married another man (Mondego). There are also questions about whether revenge can fairly be taken on the family members of those who have done wrong. One reviewer said that Dumas is ultimately exploring the distinction between justice meted out by man and justice that comes from God.

With respect to my second assumption, a lasting memory of this summer will be first seeing the novel on the bookshelf of the Crozet Library. It is 1,200 pages long!! I have never read a novel so long, and as much as I enjoyed Monte Cristo I don't think I could have survived its entire length. Dumas's level of detail can be windy and tedious; this is explained by Umberto Eco as stemming from his being paid by the word while the story was serialized. 

Fortunately, I found an abridged version at Barnes & Noble (approximately 600 pages). I'm not a fast reader, so even finishing the short version feels like a major accomplishment.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Detention of Central American Migrants

The treatment of Central American immigrants continues to be a major issue.

Many of the immigrants make claims for asylum. They are being held for long periods of time in detention centers which some Democrats have described, this summer, as concentration camps.


Yesterday, Mike Pence visited a facility in McAllen, Texas, which Wikipedia describes as the largest such facility in the country. I was curious about McAllen's location; it is very close to the Gulf of Mexico, at the far eastern point of Texas. Is McAllen where many of the migrants actually arrive, or are they transported there from other crossing points?

Here's an excerpt from this morning's article in the Post:
When Pence visited a migrant detention center here Friday, he saw nearly 400 men crammed behind caged fences with not enough room for them all to lie down on the concrete ground. There were no mats or pillows for those who found the space to rest. A stench from body odor hung stale in the air. 
When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they’d been held there 40 days, some longer. They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the Border Patrol agents to drink. 
... Pence said it was heartbreaking to hear from children who had walked two or three months to come to America and cross the border illegally, but he ultimately blamed Congress for failing to pass legislation that would deal with the influx of migrants at the southern border.
This is a photo of the inside of the McAllen detention center.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Oedipus Rex: The Question of Fate

Since high school (or college?), I've been vaguely aware of Oedipus Rex by virtue of Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex. I remember being shocked and confused when someone first explained the idea to me; its weirdness probably served to color my later impression of Freudian theory more generally. Prior to this summer, I had never read the actual play.

Reading the text, I was initially struck by its brevity: less than 100 pages (many of which are quite short because of the back and forth dialogue).

Also, the action begins almost at its climax, as Oedipus asks the people of Thebes to help him solve the mystery of who killed Laius. In truth, I was quite confused with the dearth of background or context, wondering if I had skipped an earlier scene in which the characters and backstory are introduced.

In some ways, the brevity (and climactic-beginning structure) of Oedipus make it very different from Hamlet, in which Shakespeare (and his protagonist!) takes his time at every step of the story. I think part of the reason that I was so surprised with Oedipus is that I assume these famous works of canonical literature must be dense with details and development -- like the Shakespearean tragedies.

A major theme of Oedipus is the role of destiny in our lives, and it's a fascinating theme at that. Tiresias (a prophet of Apollo) argues to Oedipus that humans cannot escape their destiny, and it's unclear to me whether Sophocles agrees or not. I guess this gets to the crux of the play and its lasting importance: can we shape our own destiny, or are certain things playing out at a level one step removed?

631. It's scary to think that our fate is pre-written, and that if we try to anticipate and change our fate we can actually bring tragedy into our lives. I'm unclear what the ancient Greeks believed about fate: if they were fatalists, how did they manage to create such a dynamic, important culture? I'm also curious to learn more about the attitudes and beliefs, within Christianity and the other major religions, about fate and destiny.

632. What are the various ways in which subsequent authors reference and build-on the themes and ideas from Oedipus? How has it become such a foundational text in Western cultures?

“Fear? What has a man to do with fear? Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.”

Friday, July 5, 2019

Sonia Sotomayor's "My Beloved World" (2013)


When traveling to New York City last week, I wanted to read a book with a New York setting. I chose Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World.

I have enjoyed this book because it is sprinkled with advice about living a meaningful life, with a major focus on two elements: relationships and education.

Sotomayor's writing style is straightforward, and her passion for living comes across vividly. She frequently writes about how much she enjoys talking to people. I imagine (and am happy to think) that she has forged close relationships with the other Supreme Court justices -- even those with whom she disagrees.
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Justice Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx. Her family came originally from Puerto Rico, and her extended family plays a major role in her childhood:
The world that I was born into was a tiny microcosm of Hispanic New York City. A tight few blocks in the South Bronx bounded the lives of my extended family: my grandmother, matriarch of the tribe, and her second husband, Gallego, daughters and sons. My playmates were my cousins. We spoke Spanish at home, and many in my family spoke virtually no English. 
My parents had both come to New York from Puerto Rico in 1944 [Sotomayor was born in 1954], my mother in the Women's Army Corps, my father with his family in search of work as part of a huge migration from the island, driven by economic hardship.
Her father, who struggled with alcoholism, died when Sotomayor was only nine years old. While she struggled to come to grips with his passing, she turned to books as a source of strength.

She writes a lot about her experiences in school (she eventually attended Princeton), and I particularly enjoyed a passage about being open to learning from each and every person that enters your life:
It was then, in Mrs. Reilly's class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique: how, while she was reading, she underlined important facts and took notes to condense information into smaller bits that were easier to remember; how, the night before a test, she would reread the relevant chapter. Obvious things once you've learned them, but at the time deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel 
... The critical lesson I learned is still one too many kids never figure out: don't be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I've sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in every friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.
This passage reminds me of how much my students are learning from each other. As their teacher, one of my most important jobs is to create and nurture an environment where those interactions can thrive.

I miss President Obama's smile!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Lee Iacocca (1924-2019)


Lee Iacocca died yesterday at the age of 94.

When I was a child, Iacocca was the first businessman of whom I became aware. He was an outsized personality and I recall our family telling jokes with the loud punchline of "I'm Lee Iacocca!!".

Mom, in particular, used to talk about him a lot. I think she admired his self-confidence and positivity. I noticed in his obituary that he was born in Allentown, so perhaps she also liked the Pennsylvania connection. I'm curious to ask her why she was fascinated by Iacocca.

According to the article in this morning's Post (here), Iacocca was a central figure in the American economy of the 1970's and 1980's. He first worked for Ford, where he was noticed and promoted by Robert McNamara. Here's a great anecdote that helps explain Iacocca's knack for sales and marketing:
“I decided that any customer who bought a new 1956 Ford should be able to do so for a modest down payment of 20 percent followed by three years of monthly payments of $56,” Mr. Iacocca wrote in his memoir. “I called my idea ’56 for ’56.’ ” 
The plan was so successful that in three months, sales of Fords in the Philadelphia district shot to first place from last. McNamara so liked the idea that he made it part of Ford’s national marketing strategy. The company later estimated that the idea was responsible for selling 75,000 additional cars.
After clashing with Henry Ford II, Iacocca became the chairman of Chrysler in 1978. He convinced Jimmy Carter to approve a bailout of Chrysler in 1980, and then he promptly repaid the government's loan seven years ahead of schedule!

Iacocca's death, along with George Bush's death last winter, marks the passing of a generation of American leaders. For all his cockiness and bravado, I greatly admire his work ethic and old-fashioned values (such as his pride that Chrysler repaid its loan early).

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Extremely Tall Skyscrapers Under Construction in NYC

A photo from my evening stroll in Central Park

Accommodations for my conference in New York City were at St. Thomas Choir School, on 58th Street just south of Central Park. I had a couple of lovely strolls through the park.

During my time in the city, my eye was repeatedly drawn towards two skyscrapers under construction. Both towers struck me as extremely tall. However, the general enormity of all things New York made it hard to know if my small town perspective was exaggerating their actual height.

Eventually I did some research -- and I learned that both buildings, are (in fact) high, even by Manhattan standards.

The first tower is being built next door to St. Thomas Choir School, at 225 West 57th Street. It's called the Central Park Tower; construction began in 2014 and the overall cost is $3 billion. Once complete, it will rise 1,550 feet (131 stories). This means it will be North America's second-tallest skyscraper (even taller than the Sears Tower)!


There's some interesting legal wrangling related to the Central Park Tower. The project's developer, Extell, paid $31 million for 6,000 square feet of air rights and the ability to build a cantilever that extends above a neighboring building owned by the New York Art Students' League. 

The purpose of the cantilever is to maximize views of Central Park. Some members of the Art Students' League filed a lawsuit objecting to the sale of the air rights and cantilever, but their claims were dismissed.

The second tower will be located at 111 57th Street, and it will be 1,428 feet tall. I kept noticing that the top of this building seems especially narrow, and my research indicated that it will indeed be the skinniest of New York's major skyscrapers.

I also learned that 57th Street is nicknamed Billionaires' Row. These two new skyscrapers are definitely going to solidify that reputation!

On Friday, I visited an exhibition at the Art Students' League (Perhaps I was curious to see if there were any lingering signs of the litigation?!). This was one of the paintings.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

National Geographic's Article About Wildlife Tourism


Yesterday morning I read a National Geographic article (by Natasha Dalyhere) about wildlife tourism. The article is well written and very, very sad.

Instagram and selfie culture have led to a huge increase in the phenomenon of people wanting to pose for photos with wild animals. An industry of elephant, tiger, and dolphin "parks" has arisen (there are places for other animals as well, but these are especially popular), in which tourists pay to interact with the animals.

At most of these places, the animals are treated poorly, including by the tourists. The images accompanying the article provide a window into humans' egos -- and our blindness to the unthinking (at times cruel) ways in which we often treat God's creation.

I appreciated that Daly's article is pointed in its critique (National Geographic's writing continues to be strong on both emotional and intellectual levels). It made me wonder about the ways in which I could do better.



Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Newsstands Without News


I moved from New York City in June 2019, twenty years ago. I’ve returned only a couple of times since then (I am here this week for a seminar about teaching world religions).

Whenever I am in the city, I am astounded by the way it’s an entire universe unto itself. The physical, cultural and human geography of the streets of Manhattan is unlike anything else in America. Walking north from Penn Station yesterday, I realized New York is one of the few places where I don’t seem to notice the plants – probably because all my senses are overwhelmed by other details.

I recently read an article about the way in which newsstands no longer sell newspapers (since so few people buy the physical version). One company is trying to rebrand some of the stands as a mix between an Apple store and a bodega. Yesterday, I saw evidence that this trend is real.

I was amazed at how few newspapers and magazines were displayed at the newsstands. They’d been replaced by snacks, trinkets, and lots of electronics. It was a bit sad to see. During my time living in Boston and New York, I loved the view of a newsstand displaying hundreds of magazines (the one in Harvard Square was the absolute best) – it was a chance to see the world’s variety in miniature, on the covers of the various papers and magazines.


Another change I noticed is the proliferation of bike rental stations along the streets. I don’t quite understand how the economics of bike (or scooter) rental can work in a smaller town like Charlottesville, but it makes a ton of sense in New York City. I hope that we move quickly towards a European model in which bikes play a more prominent role in how we get around.

A third change is the dominance of financial institutions along New York’s streets, including global banks like Barclay’s and BNP Paribas. Perhaps banks have always been a major part of the urban landscape and I just didn’t notice it when I was younger? In either event, the ubiquity of banking strikes me as a metaphor for both the changing American economy (and its domination by financial and other service institutions) and the problem of inequality.

I closed my afternoon in the peace of Central Park (the Sheep Meadow, specifically). Once there, I did start to notice the plants. For his efforts to preserve natural places in our big cities, Frederick Law Olmsted has to take the prize as one of America’s great visionaries!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898)


I'm riding the train to New York City, and I've just finished reading (and listening to) The Turn of the Screw.

Of the three classics I've read this summer, this was the densest and most challenging. Henry James writes extremely long sentences. Clauses are embedded within clauses, and it's a real process to suss out the verbs and follow the train of thought. One essay aptly describes James's writing style as Rococo.

The narrator is "the governess", who is hired to care for two children (Miles, age 10 and Flora, age 8) by their guardian uncle. The story takes place at a country manor called Bly, where the previous governess (Miss Jessel) and valet (Peter Quint) engaged in some kind of illicit or inappropriate activity (what they did is not specifically described).

Quint and Miss Jessel both died before the governess's arrival, but they appear as ghosts and continue to interact with the children.

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The central mystery of The Turn of the Screw is whether the ghosts are real or merely imagined by the governess. Mrs. Grose (a fellow servant) never sees them, and neither child acknowledges their reality. Even the governess is less concerned about the ghosts physically harming the children and more worried about the possibility of "corruption". James leaves the meaning of corruption ambiguous; the commentary I've read says that the term is probably a stand-in for knowledge of sexual acts.

My hunch is that James intended his readers to interpret the ghosts as the psychological invention/imagining of the governess. However, I will need to learn more about him in order to understand what he believed about the supernatural and whether he may have believed in the reality of ghosts.

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When I selected The Turn of the Screw as my third book for the summer, I had no idea that ghosts played a major role in the story. Just a few weeks ago, I made the point (about Hamlet, here) that writers don't explore the idea of ghosts as much as they should. Now, I'm quickly proven wrong!

The ghosts in Turn are definitely more foreboding than the ghost of Hamlet's father. They are more within the mold of "haunted" or "evil" souls.

However, it is an interesting plot point to have Miles's death come at the hands of the governess (as she tries to protect him from Quint's ghost). Perhaps James is aiming to tell us that our fear of ghosts (rather than ghosts themselves) is the true problem.

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A final ghost connection: I recently started to read Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography, My Beloved World. Sotomayor describes parties at her grandmother's house during which, after the children have gone to sleep, the adults partake in a ritual in which they communicate with spirits of the deceased (Sotomayor is curious and tries to watch and listen from a neighboring room).

Ghosts, ghosts everywhere, in the literary world of 2019!!

Here's a photo I just took, as the train departed Washington's Union Station.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Senegal and the Challenges of Rapid Urbanization


Sub-Saharan Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing place on Earth.

An article in this morning's Post (here) focuses on Senegal. Danielle Paquette writes that President Macky Sall has prioritized construction and that leaders there hope to cash-in on its budding reputation for beach tourism.

Dakar and other cities are growing so quickly that there are few outdoor places where children can play:
What politicians cast as progress can feel suffocating to children in rapidly developing nations, who tend to live in cramped homes and yearn to roam. They don’t have smartphones or iPads. Adults occupy televisions with soccer matches or Indian soap operas dubbed into the local language. Playgrounds are scarce.
This is causing the children to head to the beach, where there are few lifeguards. Last year, 50 people drowned.

The article explains that economists used to believe that children in rural areas were worse off than those in cities. However, urbanization is happening so quickly in the developing world -- without the necessary government policies accompanying it -- that urban kids now face more problems.

629. Which country is growing fastest right now?

630. I watched part of a Netflix documentary about Brazil this week (The Edge of Democracy). The film includes a clip of President Obama embracing Lula and describing him as the most popular politician on Earth (at the time, he was overseeing tremendous expansion in Brazil, which I described in a 2009 post). Right now, which politicians are the most widely supported in their countries? Who is viewed as providing the best kind of leadership that serves the broadest segment of their population?

This is a photo from the article, by Jane Hahn.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Miracle of Bodo's

Bodo's is one of our family's favorite restaurants. Their bagels are consistently delicious, and the atmosphere is welcoming and happy.

Yesterday I realized that the cost of lunch has increased, across the board. Whereas a restaurant sandwich (or a salad, or a burger and fries at a fast food restaurant) used to cost $5.00 to $6.00, the same meal is now $7.00 to $9.00. I'm uncertain about the timeframe that this increase has occurred, but probably within the past 4-5 years.

The change in prices holds true everywhere, from chain restaurants to various local establishments.

EXCEPT for one amazing exception: Bodo's.

Somehow, a bagel sandwich at Bodo's still costs $5.00, and it's still every bit as good as it was ten years ago. How have they managed to hold their prices steady? (Meanwhile, they also continue to have a very loyal workforce -- I often recognize employees that have worked there for at least a decade)


Speaking of questions about the economy, and taking the lens to a national scale, I remain curious about when the stock market will finally run out of steam.

After its short-term correction last fall, the market is again charging ahead (up about 15% year-to-date). I just don't see how the economy's growth can continue, and I anticipate a more significant market decline within the next six months.

Here's a chart showing the S&P 500's year-to-date performance.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Ambient Privacy

Last night I came across an essay by Maciej Cegłowski (here) about the dangerous decline of privacy.

Cegłowski argues that we need a new conceptual framework for thinking about privacy. Too often, he says, "privacy still means what it did in the eighteenth century—protecting specific categories of personal data, or communications between individuals, from unauthorized disclosure."

This definition is too limited, given the current reality of the Internet. 

For the most part, we don't need to worry about our private conversations being disclosed to others. In fact, Google and the other tech behemoths spend considerable money making sure that doesn't happen.

Cegłowski writes that we should worry, however, about a more pervasive intrusion into our personal lives. He coins the phrase "ambient privacy" to describe the (large) part of our lives that we used to rightly consider our own. I love his explanation:
Ambient privacy is the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered.  
What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition. 
Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. 
Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. Today computers have given us that power.
This is a great insight. One of the massive changes wrought by the Internet is the way in which our lives have "gone public" -- if not for others to actually read and review, then at least to be stored and potentially retrieved for commercial purposes (ie, our browsing history).

Cegłowski continues by arguing that tech companies claim that people are ok with the new reality. In fact, individuals are powerless to make a decision one way or the other:
Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it. 
That is not consent.
Cegłowski compares privacy law to environmental law, which has taken decades to slowly but inevitably evolve. I wonder whether politicians will, at some point, begin advocating for a new legal (and conceptual) framework to restore a sense of "ambient privacy." At this point in the digital revolution, I am pessimistic.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Pride and Prejudice // The Edge of Anarchy


In my effort to read canonical literature this summer, I'm reading Pride and Prejudice.

To mix things up, I'm also reading The Edge of Anarchy (by Jack Kelly), the nonfiction account of a railway workers' strike in 1894.

The stories told in these two books provide fascinating contrasts.

Pride and Prejudice is the story of Eliza Bennet and her family. It was written in 1813. To demonstrate my lack of knowledge about Jane Austen, I'd always thought that she wrote her novels in the 1870's and 1880's. In truth, she lived and wrote much earlier in the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was just barely getting started.

It's a story about the five sisters' efforts to find a suitable spouse, interwoven with all sorts of analysis of class and family relationships. There is a considerable amount of humor in Austen's writing, with characters like the pompous blowhard William Collins and the fretting, vacuous Mrs. Bennet. It also contains one of the most thorough accounts of falling in love that I've ever read: whereas most movies (and lots of novels, too) skim over the conversations that cause people to fall in love, Jane Austen devotes many pages to the evolving relationship between Eliza and Mr. Darcy.

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I like the organizing framework of The Edge of Anarchy: in order to describe and explain the labor unrest of the 1880's, Jack Kelly first presents short biographies of Eugene Debs and George Pullman.

I learned about Debs in my 11th grade US History class (Mr. Martin emphasized his five Presidential candidacies, via the Socialist Party of America), but I have not thought or read much about him in the years since.

Born in 1855, Debs worked for railroad companies while young, scrubbing grease from the engines, cleaning the other cars, and serving as a locomotive fireman.

After first becoming involved with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs decided that the various railroad workers' unions were too segregated from each other, which prevented any single union from becoming truly powerful. His solution was to organize the American Railway Union, which welcomed all different kinds of railroad workers -- those with specialized skills and those whose work was considered menial.

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At first glance, these two books seem utterly different because the stakes are so small in the one and so large in the other. The characters in Pride and Prejudice have nothing more to worry about then whether they are wearing the correct clothes or speaking in the socially-appropriate manner, whereas Debs and Pullman are struggling to dictate the terms of American capitalism -- a struggle which will affect the lives of millions of people. 

To put it differently, Austen is dealing with trivialities, while Kelly is exploring deep questions of inequality, injustice, and the proper means of effecting political change.

And yet, Eliza and her compatriots are, on a deeper level, engaged in one of the deepest human endeavors: trying to live a life that is both happy and meaningful. This is the same kind of life that Debs wants to achieve for the members of the American Railway Union, and the working class more generally. 

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For me, one of the key takeaways of Pride and Prejudice is that relationships take time and effort. At a time when digital technology is overwhelming and distracting us, when life's list of tasks sometimes makes the days speed past, this book is a reminder to appreciate the slowly evolving conversation, the (seemingly) mundane details of our surroundings, and the necessity of appreciating every person (including the proud and prejudicial) for his or her own uniqueness.

I love this P&P character map. 
It's a good reminder to me that visual aids can be incredibly helpful when trying to process information.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Raptors Win the NBA Championship

The Raptors won the NBA championship last night, 4 games to 2 over the Warriors.

The score of Game 6 was 114-110; Steph Curry missed a last second three that would have given the Warriors the lead (the extra points for the Raptors came from a technical against Draymond Green, who called a timeout without having one).


I watched parts of several of the games in this series. It was definitely not played at the same high level as some of the Warriors/Cavs series the past few years, but I particularly enjoyed the efforts of two players: Klay Thompson for Golden State and Fred Vanvleet for Toronto.

Thompson is my favorite kind of athlete: driven, intense, artistic in his athleticism, team-focused, and humble. He is not as soft-spoken as Tim Duncan (or Kawhi Leonard, who won the series MVP), but I love the way that he puts the game first, rather than focusing all the energy on himself. He reminds me of Art Monk -- or perhaps Gary Clark, who was a bit more voluble than Monk, but with a similar seriousness of purpose about the game.

Thompson's shots are graceful in a way that Curry's, for some reason, are not. He makes basketball look effortless, but you just know that there must be hours and hours of practice and diligence that go into it.

Towards the end of last night's game, Thompson injured his knee (a possible torn ACL), which followed a string of injuries to other Warriors.


Fred Vanvleet, on the otherhand, does not have the "effortless" factor. I had forgotten about Vanvleet, who played a leading role on the Wichita State Final Four team. I gather from listening to Bill Simmons that he has really risen to the occasion of this year's playoffs (as his wife gave birth to a son!). He had not been known as a star, but he has been shooting the lights out (five three-pointers in last night's game, for example) and he made a significant contribution to the Raptors' victories over the Magic, the 76ers, the Bucks and now the Warriors.

Late June through mid August becomes the "quiet time" for sports, although I am looking forward to watching the Women's World Cup with the kids. Team USA won its first game 13-0 over Thailand, and I was surprised that the coach allowed the team to run-up the score to that extent -- a thirteen goal differential strikes me as unnecessary/preventable.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Elephants in Botswana


The Post's long form reporting continues to be exceptional.

I love the range of topics and issues that the newspaper is exploring. I have mixed feelings about Jeff Bezos and his impact on the American economy, but there's no doubting that his ownership of the Washington Post -- and his willingness to pay for good reporting and deep stories -- has been a huge plus.

Today there's an article (here) about elephants in Botswana. I had to remind myself of the country's location, which is shown on the map below. The population of Botswana is approximately 2 million.


About one-third of Africa's elephants live in Botswana, and the number of elephants has increased dramatically: from 80,000 in 1996 to 130,000 in 2014. The reason is that the government committed to strict anti-poaching policies, with a goal of building a thriving eco-tourism industry.

The policies succeeded, and now there is a backlash among black Botswanans. They claim that the elephants (and accompanying tourism) are benefiting whites but harming them. In particular, the animals wreak havoc on the crops and land of small-scale black farmers.

I just did a bit of research about elephant poaching at the World Wildlife Fund website. The tusks are the most sought after part of the elephants, with the ivory being used for ornaments and jewelry (it's especially popular in China).

Botswana's new president is Mokgweetsi Masisi. He was appointed last year and stands for election this fall. This is the fascinating part of the Post's article: Masisi argues that Botswana needs to re-balance its approach towards elephants. He believes that they are “far more elephants than Botswana’s fragile environment, already stressed by drought and other effects of climate change, can safely accommodate." In addition, Masisi views the elephants through the lens of race, and he wants to ensure that the economic benefits of tourism are shared more broadly.

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This is a fascinating article. Wildlife conservation is generally seen as an unqualified good, but the article is a reminder that even the most well-meaning policies can harm some people while helping others.

This is an aerial view of Chobe Enclave in Botswana.

This is a woman whose husband was killed by an elephant in 2014.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Hamlet (Part 2)

As I continue to read Hamlet, I've decided that the Ghost is a major reason the play is so compelling for people. Although he only appears in a few scenes, his words are the motivating factor for Hamlet's angst (and eventually for Hamlet's actions).

627. Why did Shakespeare decide to call him simply "The Ghost" rather than "The Ghost of Old Hamlet"? Was he trying to create ambiguity about the reality of The Ghost?

628. What percentage of Americans believe in ghosts? I just did some quick research, and it looks like about 40% of us think ghosts are real.

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Ghosts do not frequently appear in famous works of literature. I recall an August Wilson play (The Piano Lesson, I believe) with a ghost, and Toni Morrison's Beloved explores the ideas of ghosts.

All things considered, however, they are less present in literature than you'd expect. I'd posit that plenty of people are at least open to the possibility of ghosts and spirits ("ghost agnostics"?), so you'd think that famous authors might incorporate them into stories more often.

This is Paul Scofield, who plays The Ghost in the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet that I've been periodically watching as I read the play.

Shakespeare's willingness to think about ghosts, therefore, may be a reason that people are fascinated by Hamlet's story. In particular, readers (and theater goers) are probably interested in the idea of the ghost of a deceased parent coming back to advise and guide a distraught child.

I've been listening to lectures about the play by Peter Saccio (he teaches at Dartmouth, and I am feeling considerable regret that I didn't take his course about Shakespeare). Saccio explains that in pre-modern Europe there were three competing theories about ghosts:
  1. Catholics believed that ghosts visited from Purgatory. They were the actual spirits of the once-living humans they claimed to be, and they made requests of the living that would help speed them along to Heaven.
  2. Protestants believed that ghosts were demons. They were not who they claimed to be; rather, they were agents of evil attempting to corrupt the living.
  3. Skeptics believed that ghosts were hallucinations.
Saccio argues that Shakespeare brilliantly does not choose between the three theories. The Ghost claims to be visiting from Purgatory, but Hamlet considers the possibility that he is a demon, while Gertrude and Horatio consider him a hallucination. By creating ambiguity about the reality of The Ghost, Shakespeare forces the reader to consider his own beliefs about ghosts (and, more generally, about the afterlife).

This is fantastic analysis, and it goes back to the reason that I think The Ghost is such a crucial part of the play. Among its various other themes, Hamlet is concerned with the afterlife, and Shakespeare uses The Ghost to raise deep, fascinating questions about what happens to us when we die.

I'll close with a quote from The Ghost, both eerie and powerful:

I am thy father’s spirit

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

Here's a painting by British artist John Absolon, showing Hamlet and The Ghost.

Monday, June 3, 2019

New Construction in Charlottesville: 3TWENTY3


While walking to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning, we noticed a very large crane at the corner of Garrett and 4th Streets. I was curious about the new building and did some research over the weekend.

This illustration is from the site's brochure. I like the abundance of glass!
The project is called 3TWENTY3 Charlottesville, and it includes the space that McGuire Woods is moving into. It will have five stories atop a 200 space parking garage (!), although I'm unclear whether the garage is partially or totally underground.

A company named Co-Construct is leasing about one-third of the space. I hadn't heard of Co-Construct before; I gather that they are a homebuilding software company that helps with management of construction projects.

The Charlottesville building boom that re-started around 2015 appears to have plenty of momentum, particularly in terms of commercial space. Of course, the unfinished Landmark Hotel remains a major exception.

I continue to hope that other new buildings don't follow the example of the apartment behemoths along West Main Street, which really have swallowed that part of town.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tiananmen Square, Thirty Years Later


The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on my 16th birthday. I remember watching the news during the days before and after June 4 and knowing that the events were momentous, but not having any sense of how things would eventually play out. The images that I remember most vividly are of young men biking around the Square and of the particular man who stood in the path of a tank while holding grocery bags.

There's a good article in today's Post (here) that summarizes the evolution of China from 1989 to today. The primary takeaway is that China's leadership -- beginning with Deng Xiaoping and continuing through to Xi Jinping, has granted the Chinese people increasing economic freedom while consistently cracking down on their political rights and freedom.

The result is that -- despite its tremendous economic growth -- China is probably more repressive now than it was in 1989. Suppression of religious minorities (especially Muslims) and censorship of the internet are two dramatic examples.

Incredibly, however, per capita income has increased from $311 (in 1989) to $8,826 (today).

625. Should the United States feel ashamed that we have not done more to encourage democracy and political freedom in China? Or, to take the opposing viewpoint, have we been wisely realistic not to get overly involved (while making the mistake of becoming overly involved in various Middle Eastern nations)?

626. Will democracy come to China in the next 30 years? Or are they locked into their current path of limited freedom and authoritarian leadership?

Friday, May 31, 2019

Virginia's 57th District: Kathy Galvin and Sally Hudson Make Their Case


The Democratic primary for the state's 57th District is scheduled for June 11. David Toscano, who has represented the district since 2005, is retiring. There's a competitive race to succeed him, between UVa statistics professor Sally Hudson and architect/City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

I have a lot of admiration for David Toscano and his work in the legislature. He brings the right combination of pragmatism and faithfulness to his principles. Also, it must be incredibly hard to be a part-time legislator (I talked to Jeff Yarbro about this recently), and I am very grateful for those who choose to serve. In addition, David talked to me around 2004-2005, when I was thinking about the Charlottesville City School Board, and I always appreciated his time and counsel.

David Toscano
The race between Hudson and Galvin is interesting. David Toscano endorsed Galvin, but a number of other Democratic politicians endorsed Hudson.

It strikes me as an "establishment" (Galvin) versus "insurgency" (Hudson) type of race, although it's a bit tricky to sort out the substantive differences. Hudson is very focused on electoral reform, and she started a group called FairVote VA which advocates for ranked choice voting.

I've read a bit about the ranked choice system used in Maine, and it seems like a (potentially) helpful reform to "mix things up" and get more fresh voices involved in democracy.

Hudson also wants Virginia to offer a statewide public health care option, which would be built on the existing Medicaid system.

Galvin, meanwhile, is focused on housing, education, and transportation funding. In particular, she'd like Virginia to invest more in its community colleges, which sounds excellent to me.

If I lived in the 57th District, I'm not sure who I'd vote for; I hope (and believe) that either candidate will be a worthy successor to Toscano.

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The electoral stakes are high, this year, in Virginia. If the Democrats gain one more seat in the House of Delegates, they gain control. This would be the first time, in my adult life, that the Democrats would control the House, and I'd be fascinated to see which issues they prioritize.

We went to see a movie at the Violet Crown on Wednesday night. 
The Mall felt as vibrant as ever, with lots of people strolling and enjoying.