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  • Archive for June, 2014

    Literature, Literary Criticism, and the American College Student

    Posted by David Foster on 5th June 2014 (All posts by )

    True Blue writes about his younger cousin, who just graduated from Columbia University. Previously, she attended a high school associated with the University of Chicago (where both of her parents are professors.).

    Walking through a bookstore the other day, she asked me if “Dickens is worth reading.” I thought she was joking. Dear readers, I was very wrong. It so happens, through all of high school and college, she had never been assigned Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Austen, or Melville! The list went on and on. Needless to say, nary a Bible was cracked during all this time either.  

    Effectively, my cousin was raised without a heritage. Her American/English-speaking birthright was denied her. Though she thought herself in possession of a stellar academic background, she knows worse than nothing about her civilization. I say “worse than nothing” because her head has been crammed full of multi-culti garbage.

    It will come as no surprise when I tell you that she read Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison in high school.

    Personally, I don’t have much useful to say about Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison; I’ve read very little by either of them and with what I’ve read, I was not very impressed. I have, however, heard some of Maya Angelou’s work referenced in very positive terms by people whose literary judgments I respect.  I think the point here is not that there’s anything bad about reading contemporary authors, but there’s plenty bad about reading contemporary (and highly trendy) authors to the exclusion of all other literature.

    Thomas Bertonneau writes about his experiences teaching literary criticism in college:

    Increasingly in our post-literate society, however, few students at the undergraduate level (and surprisingly few even at the master’s-degree level) bring with them much in the way of exposure to literature.  Today’s students have read few books. What they have read is typically the topical, published-yesterday fiction that the hucksters of the scholastic book market sell to the middle schools and high schools as “edgy,” “with it,” or “out-of-the-headlines” portrayals of teenage anxiety…

    Since I occasionally teach my department’s Introduction to Literary Criticism, I have had to think the problem through. When I recently received the assignment to teach the course again, I moved “proactively.” 

    A survey on the first day of class confirmed my expectations. Among them, the sixteen students could produce the titles of only eight novels that they had read (but that not all of them had read). Of the three most-mentioned (five students had read all three) were Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008), its sequel Catching Fire (2009), and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005).  Four students listed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925); one listed Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Four out of the ten coeds, but none of the men, had read Jay Asher’s adolescent female suicide-story Thirteen Reasons Why(2007). A few students had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but none had read Hamlet or The Tempest. No student could name a poem by William Wordsworth, John Keats, or Robert Frost.

    Read the whole article to learn how Prof Bertonneau approached the problem of teaching literary criticism to these kids.

     

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Education, Lit Crit, USA | 8 Comments »

    How the Voting Rights Act Was Gutted and Why It Should Stay that Way

    Posted by David McFadden on 4th June 2014 (All posts by )

    The word that liberals are assigned to use when writing about what the Supreme Court did to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last term in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), is “gut.” The Supreme Court “gutted” the Voting Rights Act, countless editorials, blogs, and articles say, while urgently pressing Congress to repair the damage. It’s not such a bad metaphor, actually, as gutting can mean removing the parts of a dead fish that are unwanted.

    In the case of the Voting Rights Act, what the Court removed was Section 4(b) of the Act, an anachronistic test for the application of an extraordinarily intrusive (and theoretically temporary) provision, Section 5. Critics of Shelby County v. Holder obscure what those two sections actually say and do. If a state or political subdivision is covered by Section 5, it must obtain a declaration from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia or the attorney general of the United States that any change in a “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting” does not abridge voting rights. Without that declaration, no one “shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure.” Despite its text, this provision has been interpreted to mean that any change in a covered jurisdiction’s election law has to get preclearance from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia—including laws that draw electoral districts, which are not a “procedure with respect to voting” and do not deny anyone the right to vote for failure to comply with them. (A voter can’t comply—or not comply—with an ordinance that says councilman shall be elected at large.)

    Section 5 was supposed to be a temporary, emergency provision expiring five years after the Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965. It applied to states and political subdivisions that met two criteria set out in Section 4(b). The first was that the attorney general determined that on November 1, 1964, the jurisdiction had a “test or device” requiring a voter to prove his education, character, or morals. The second was that less than 50% of voting age citizens in the jurisdiction were registered on November 1, 1964 or less than 50% of such persons voted in the 1964 presidential election. At the time, this coverage formula was a good measure of whether blacks were being kept from voting. Southern states had been very resourceful in finding ways to do that without violating earlier civil rights laws.

    Early on, these provisions were found to be within Congress’s constitutional powers. The Fifteenth Amendment says that the right of citizens to vote “shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race. . . .” Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment gives Congress the power to enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation.” In 1966, the Supreme Court held that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, although “an uncommon exercise of congressional power,” was appropriate under the “unique circumstances” of the time, namely, pervasive defiance of voting rights that previous congressional remedies had been unable to stop. South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 309-10, 335 (1966). The Court found that Section 4(b)’s coverage formula “was relevant to the problem of voting discrimination” and was “rational in practice and theory.”

    It did not remain rational in practice or in theory. Section 5, the eternal temporary provision, was renewed in 1970, 1975, 1982, and finally was renewed once more in 2006—until 2032! Although Congress repeatedly renewed Section 5, it never updated the coverage formula in the sense of basing it on recent conditions alone. In the first two renewals, Congress overlaid upon Section 4(b) the same tests with different years. So in 1970 jurisdictions that had a literacy test in November 1968 or less than 50% registration and turnout in the 1968 presidential election became subject to preclearance, in addition to jurisdictions already covered. In 1975, jurisdictions that had a literacy test in November 1972 and less than 50% registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election also became subject to preclearance, in addition to jurisdictions already covered. The coverage formula was not changed when Section 5 was renewed in 1982 and 2006. All of the tests, including those based upon events long past, remained in effect.

    The only way a jurisdiction entrapped by one of the tests could get out was to prove to the satisfaction of the D.C. District Court that no test or device had been used in the jurisdiction for ten years, that it had not committed any other voting rights violation, and that it had made an effort to eliminate intimidation and harassment of voters.

    This “bail out” provision allowed the Supreme Court to avoid deciding whether the preclearance requirement was still appropriate in 2009. That happened after a Texas utility district filed suit in the D.C. District Court seeking a declaration that it could bail out or, in the alternative, that Section 5’s preclearance requirement was unconstitutional. On appeal, the Supreme Court held in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009), that the utility district was eligible to bail out and, as a result, avoided deciding whether Section 5 or Section 4(b) was constitutional. But the Court had plenty to say about it nonetheless. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts cast doubt on the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement. The chief justice discussed the dramatic increases in registration and election of minorities (for which the Act deserves credit), the substantial federalism costs imposed by preclearance, and the antiquity of the coverage formula. Justice Thomas, concurring in part and dissenting in part, contended that the Court should have reached the constitutional questions and held Section 5 unconstitutional. No one wrote separately to defend Section 5. Justice Thomas wrote, “The Court quite properly alerts Congress that § 5 tests the outer boundaries of its Fifteenth Amendment enforcement authority and may not be constitutional.”

    Congress ignored the warning and left Section 5’s preclearance requirement and Section 4(b)’s coverage formula unchanged. Rep. Robert Scott (Democrat of Virginia) even issued an obtuse press release boasting that the decision validated Congress’s work in establishing the continuing need for Section 5.

    The issue returned to the Court four years later in a case brought by a county that was ineligible to bail out. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court could not avoid the constitutional issues, or not all of them.

    The Court wasn’t ready to declare Section 5 preclearance unconstitutional (although Justice Thomas was), but it did declare Section 4(b)’s coverage formula for preclearance unconstitutional. Again Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion. He said that preclearance is extraordinarily intrusive into the reserved powers of the states under the Tenth Amendment. It reverses the burden of proof, requiring some of the states to come, hat in hand, before the civil rights division of the Justice Department or a distant court to prove that a new law does not violate the Act and to beg for permission to implement it. Only some states are subject to this indignity despite the equal sovereignty of the states.

    The purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment (often ignored in discussions of the Voting Rights Act) is to prevent denial of suffrage based on race. “To serve that purpose,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in the light of current conditions.” Apparently that’s the standard of review the Court used. If so, the Court side-stepped a question the lower courts debated and Northwest Austin acknowledged. The Court’s precedent had suggested that the test for whether a law was within Congress’s power under section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment was either that the law was congruent and proportional to the constitutional violation or just that it was a rational means to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. Foregoing the choice between the two, the Court seems to have created a special test for laws that divide the states, i.e., they must “makes sense in the light of current conditions.”

    Section 4(b) failed that test miserably. The House Report acknowledged progress made in minority registration, turnout, and office holding; yet Congress reauthorized the same requirements and coverage formula as if nothing had changed. Congress compiled a voluminous record full of stories about “second-generation barriers,” that is, electoral districts that allegedly dilute minority voting strength. Those so-called barriers did not bar anyone from voting and aren’t even prohibited by the terms of the Voting Rights Act. More to the point, such barriers as there are today did not inform the design of the test. The coverage formula based upon literacy tests no longer in force and turnout in the 1964-72 presidential elections was reenacted as if out of habit.

    While that’s hardly sensible policy, how it adds up to a violation of some constitutional provision or other is not exactly clear. After completing his critique of the coverage formula and relating the unheeded warning in Northwest Austin, the chief justice simply announces that Congress’s “failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional.” We’re not told if by some measure Congress exceeded its power under the Fifteenth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment or if Section 4(b) violated the Tenth Amendment, which Shelby County also argued. In this respect, the opinion is as bad as the one the Court rendered the next day in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), in which Justice Kennedy follows his social and sentimental objections to the Defense of Marriage Act with “legalistic argle-bargle” abruptly leading to the conclusion that the Defense of Marriage Act violated the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause or of the Fourteenth Amendment, or something like that.

    The declaration of the unconstitutionality of Section 4(b) is followed by dicta that have been misinterpreted as an “invitation” to Congress to come up with a better formula. Actually, the Court said, “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. Such a formula is a prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an ‘extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.’” Shelby County, 133 S. Ct. at 2631 (quoting Presley v. Etowah County Comm’n, 502 U.S. 491, 500-501 (1992)). A new coverage formula is not a goal the Court is setting for Congress; it’s a prerequisite to deciding whether Section 5’s preclearance requirement remains constitutional even with a sensible test for its application. If Congress were to establish that prerequisite by devising a new coverage formula and then the Court were to strike down the whole preclearance edifice, the howls of the Left that the Court had played whack-a-mole with the civil rights community would be entertaining indeed.

    The president has shown uncharacteristic respect for the separation of powers by refraining from enacting a new coverage formula by his own fiat. And true to form, the 113th Congress, one of the best Congresses ever (using the correct metric of fewest bills passed), hasn’t enacted anything either.

    There have been proposals, though, ranging from the ridiculous to the not terrible. On the ridiculous end of the spectrum, Michael Lind in Salon and Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog imagined that the Court would have no choice but to uphold blanket coverage of all fifty states. On the contrary, the Court’s choice would be easy: imposition of the extraordinary burdens of Section 5 on each state, regardless of whether pervasive violations of the Fifteenth Amendment or none at all occurred in the state, would not survive any constitutional standard that the Court would apply.

    More seriously, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Republican of Wisconsin) introduced in January a bill (S. 1945 and H.R. 3899) prescribing a coverage formula based on violations of the Voting Rights Act and low turnout in the last fifteen years. Violations resulting from a requirement that voters present a photo ID would not count. That’s a welcome concession, but Republicans should insist that the bill clarify that statutory voter ID requirements are not a violation of the Voting Rights Act at all. To its discredit, the bill also imposes on the states meddlesome reporting requirements regarding polling places, changes in election laws, registration, and election results.

    In March the bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. Neither committee has held hearings. That’s just as well. It is past time to allow Section 5 to expire, but Congress has never had the courage to let that happen. Inaction on the coverage formula is the next best thing, at least until Republicans control more than the House of Representatives. What we need now is a do-nothing Congress.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Elections, Law | 5 Comments »

    “Government Employee” is Not a Synonym for “Saint”

    Posted by David Foster on 4th June 2014 (All posts by )

    A good piece by Glenn Reynolds at USA Today: Greedy Socialism.

    The reality, of course, is that government employees, be they cabinet officials or low-level clerks, are motivated by the same kinds of desires that motivate people in other walks of life: money, security, power over others, creativity, status, ego-feeding and public adulation, in addition to the satisfactions of doing good work and providing value to others…with the individuals weights of these factors of course varying from person to person. The principal-agent problem does not disappear just because the agent works for the government.

    I particularly like this passage from Glenn’s article:

    The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing. And when that happens, ordinary people pay the price. Keep that in mind, when people suggest that free-market systems are somehow morally inferior to socialism.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Leftism, Political Philosophy | 2 Comments »

    Wag the Dog?

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 3rd June 2014 (All posts by )

    I know, it was a bitterly ironic movie, and the novel it was based upon was even more bitterly ironic (Trust me, I read the darned thing –eh – moderately funny, but I fear that the only thing that the move took away from it was the premise) but what we may have here *assuming Strother Martin voice* is called a failure to communicate. I mean the imbroglio with returning Bowe Bergdahl, the only recorded POW from the war in Afghanistan to the bosom of his family, after languishing in durance vile for five long years. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Conservatism, Current Events, Islam, Military Affairs, Obama, Terrorism, The Press, USA, War and Peace | 19 Comments »

    “Grant and Lee at Cold Harbor”

    Posted by Jonathan on 3rd June 2014 (All posts by )

    An explication of the exchange of messages between the commanders, concerning retrieval of dead and wounded soldiers from the battlefield.

    (Via Rand Simberg on Twitter.)

    Posted in History, Military Affairs, Rhetoric, USA, War and Peace | 1 Comment »

    A Compendium of Useful Reminders to be Consulted in Moments of Confusion

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 1st June 2014 (All posts by )

    Judging by what I see communicated by many of my longtime friends, there are a whole lot of confused people out there these days. Here is a helpful list for them:

    1. Only a small minority of projects, even in relatively successful organizations in highly competitive industries, deliver their promised scope, on time, within budget. A large majority are drastically scaled back, incur huge cost overruns, deliver years later than intended, or are canceled outright. Anything nefarious either fails or is publicized by whistle-blowers or investigators. There are no secret, vast criminal enterprises pulling the wool over the eyes of the populace, and the best-known entities in society, both public and private, can be astonishingly inept.
    2. Large publicly-funded initiatives, other than those intimately connected to the physical survival of the societies in which they are undertaken, are quite likely to be mainly for show, irrespective of their supposedly spectacular significance. The current American example is the ACA, which has not resulted (and almost certainly will not result) in either greater insurance coverage or lower costs, is notoriously not a fully government-operated, “single-payer” system, and has no pathway to lead to one. None of this matters; indeed, many of its provisions, if they ever go into effect, will do so only after the current Administration has departed from the scene. All that matters is that its perpetrators get to claim to have passed “historic” legislation ostensibly providing “universal” health care. For an example from an earlier generation, see the Space Shuttle, which was supposed to fly 50-60 times per year at $5.5 million per launch. The actual flight rate hovered around a tenth of what was promised, and each launch cost nearly a hundred times the original projection. Hilariously, President Obama is now being criticized for ending this, even though it was collapsing from its own weight and consisted mainly of workfare jobs in Republican congressional districts.
    3. Notwithstanding phenomena like the above, the United States is probably the most successful large-population country in the world due to its sheer realism, in particular the relative openness and process orientation of English common law, which (to quote myself) “rather than construct elegant theories and then shoehorn (or bludgeon) societies into an unchanging mold,” exhibits “a willingness to work with the world and human nature as it is.”
    4. Even ignoring the fantastic technological advances, quality of life in the US has improved immensely in the past two decades. Social pathologies have plummeted. The rates of some categories of crime are down 90%, to all-time recorded lows. There are now fewer abortions per capita than at the time of Roe v Wade. Probably three-quarters of Americans live in neighborhoods where violent crime is effectively nonexistent. And the worst labor market in 80 years has done nothing to reverse these trends.
    5. Large-scale, institutionalized technologies range from the very safe (electric-power generation [including nuclear] and transmission) to the so-safe-there-is-no-instance-of-recorded-harm (agricultural genetic engineering). The problem is that in much of the real (that is, Third) world, they are insufficiently available to provide the thoughtless, comfortable existence that pervades most of the West. Living “off the grid” / following a soi–disant “natural” lifestyle is a plaything of rich people who can slink away into town whenever they get tired of hewing wood and drawing water. Especially water with enterotoxigenic E. coli in it.
    6. Pharmaceutical companies are not trying to kill you, nor to provoke health crises to sell new drugs. They may in some instances be trying to convince you that your life depends on continuing to purchase their products, whether it actually does or not. Then again, so is the “health food” store down the street, and in all likelihood, what it’s pushing is far more dangerous.
    7. All religions are not equal. The general heuristic is to judge them by their effects, or at least by their efforts. Those prescribing global expansion through conquest and coercive displacement, and those (especially if they don’t refer to themselves as religions) prescribing the extermination of followers of other religions, are particularly problematic.
    8. Any conspiracy theory that mentions the Mossad, Rothschilds, etc, is every bit as viciously anti-Semitic as Mein Kampf and should be treated as such. Anyone expressing admiration for Marxist notions and personages is no better. Conspiracy theories involving the CIA quaintly ignore the NSA (which is ~6x larger) and, in any case, descend from Stalinist and Maoist propaganda during the early Cold War and the Korean War. Facile anger about the NSA, however, ignores its well-publicized activities with the analog wireline telecommunications of 30-40 years ago, as amply documented in Bamford’s The Puzzle Palace. The phenomena of Wikileaks and Snowden’s massive data theft are an existence proof that such activities can neither be kept secret nor have much influence on real-world events; as someone who read through the supposedly devastating Wikileaks cables remarked, “[American diplomats] sound like Canadians with better access.”
    9. No amount of “smart diplomacy” or supposed avoidance of provocation will protect a country from attack. Only a convincing ability to make an attack more trouble than it could possibly be worth can do that, and even such an ability may be insufficient to deter non-state actors and small groups. In combination with steadily declining costs of dual-use technologies, a more-or-less freelance WMD attack somewhere in the world seems inevitable. When it occurs, the greatest hazards to the immediate survivors will be 1) official overreaction, as by ordering the evacuation of a far larger area than was actually affected and 2) popular derangement, which in the worst-case scenario may create a conspiracy theory popular enough to put an extremist political movement in power, even in a large, democratic nation.

    Commenters are encouraged to provide additional examples and corollaries.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Anti-Americanism, Civil Society, Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Health Care, History, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Management, Military Affairs, National Security, Organizational Analysis, Predictions, Religion, Society, Terrorism, USA, War and Peace | 17 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review: To the Last Salute, by Georg von Trapp

    Posted by David Foster on 1st June 2014 (All posts by )

    If you’ve seen The Sound of Music–and who hasn’t?–you’ll remember Captain von Trapp.  The real Captain’s real-life children were not thrilled with the way he was portrayed in the movie–according to them, he was by no means that rigid disciplinarian who summoned the children with a bosun’s whistle and required them to line up in military formation.  (The bosun’s whistle was real, but only for communication purposes on the large estate…no lining-up involved.)

    The movie was indeed correct that Captain von Trapp was a former naval officer whose services were much desired by the Nazis after their takeover of Germany and, later, Austria…and that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. His memoir, To the Last Salute, was originally published in German in 1935 and later translated into French; an English translation has only become available fairly recently.

    Captain von Trapp could not be called a brilliant writer, but he does achieve some nice descriptive and reflective passages. Here, he is returning from a patrol very early in the First World War, when he was commanding a torpedo boat:

    We had been out all night searching for enemy ships that had been reported, but once again, had found nothing.  Far out in the Adriatic we had investigated, looked, and looked, and again came back disappointed through the “Incoronate,” the rocky, barren island,s that extend in front of the harbor at Sebenico…These islands look bleak; nevertheless, years ago people found them and still live there…It is a heavenly trip there between the islands with the many large and small inlets swarming with fish. But it is most beautiful in the wind still nights, which are uniquely animated.

    From one place or another, red and white lights flash on and off. They are the beacons that flash their warnings to the ships. Out of the many inlets merge innumerable fishermen’s boats. Some are under sail, hauling big nets; others, sculled about almost silently by heavy steering rudders, search the water with strong lanterns…As they put out to sea, the people always sing their ancient folk songs: ballads with countless verses, wild war cries, soft, wistful love songs…

    The war broke into this peaceful world. Traveling between the islands changed overnight…The singing has become silent, for fishing is forbidden, and the men are fighting in the war…Mines lie between the islands.  At any moment an enemy periscope, or a plane with bombs, could appear, and the nights have become exceptionally interesting; there are no more beacons. The war has extinguished them.

    Soon, Captain von Trapp was reassigned to command of a submarine,the U-5.  This boat was one of a type that was extremely primitive, even by WWI standards. Propulsion for running on the surface was not a diesel but a gasoline engine, and gasoline fumes were a constant headache, often in a very literal sense.

    The Captain seems not to have thought a great deal about the rights and wrongs of the war.  As a professional, at this stage he also felt no animus toward the men it was his duty to attack; quite the contrary. Here, after sinking a French cruiser:

    I quickly scan the horizon. Is there absolutely no escort ship? Did they let the ship travel all alone? Without a destroyer? WIthout a torpedo boat? No, there is nothing in sight, only five lifeboats adrift in the water.

    After discussing the matter with his exec and determining that there was no feasible way to take the survivors on board:

    With a heavy heart, I order the engines to be turned on, and I set a course for the Gulf of Cattaro. “They let our men from the Zenta drown, too,” I hear one of the men say.  The man is right, but I cannot bear to hear that yet.  With a sudden movement I turn away. I feel a choking in my throat. I want to be alone.

    I feel as if something were strangling me…So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession. Approximately seven hundred men must have sunk with the ship!

    On returning to base, von Trapp found numerous letters of congratulation waiting for him, one from an eighth-grade Viennese schoolgirl.  To thank her for the letter, he arranged to have a Pruegelkrapfen from a noted confectioner to be delivered to her.  “The outcome of all this is unexpected. Suddenly it seems all the Viennese schoolgirls have gotten the writing bug because it rains little letters from schoolgirls who are sooo happy and so on.  But such a Pruegelgrapfen is expensive and, at the moment, I don’t have time to open a bakery myself.”

    On one patrol, U-5 met up with an allied German U-boat, and von Trapp had an opportunity to go on board.  He was quite impressed with the diesel engine, compartmentalization of the boat, the electrically-adjustable periscopes, and even creature comforts like tables for dining.  “It’s like being in Wonderland…”  The German commander’s comment, on visiting U-5, was “I would refuse to travel in this crate.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Europe, Germany, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Transportation, USA, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    I Give Advice… And They Don’t Take It

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st June 2014 (All posts by )

    For many years I worked as a consultant across a variety of industries. While there are many ways to describe the type of work I did, my favorite (when talking to a teenager or child) was

    I give advice, and they don’t take it

    This article from Today’s NY Times titled “Why You Hate Work” provided a pithy antecdote that summarized this situation:

    Several years ago, we did a pilot program with 150 accountants in the middle of their firm’s busy tax season. Historically, employees work extremely long hours during these demanding periods, and are measured and evaluated based on how many hours they put in.

    Recognizing the value of intermittent rest, we persuaded this firm to allow one group of accountants to work in a different way — alternating highly focused and uninterrupted 90-minute periods of work with 10-to-15-minute breaks in between, and a full one-hour break in the late afternoon, when our tendency to fall into a slump is higher. Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.

    With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us. Recently, we got a call from the same firm. “Could you come back?” one of the partners asked. “Our people are still getting burned out during tax season.”

    This brief example has it all:
    1) the client has diagnosed the situation (people are getting burned out and quit)
    2) the consulting firm develops an alternative course of action
    3) the pilot was successful
    4) the client disregards the recommendation (over some period of time) and is back where they started

    While there are many jokes about consultants such as “they borrow your watch and tell you the time” it is important to note that every consultant needs a client and the clients are the “root” of the problem. Why commission a study if you don’t intend to follow through on the results?

    Lots of reasons. For starters – the act of “trying to do something” or “conducting an analysis” buys time and inaction, which is a precious commodity at most companies. It is very difficult to get something done, and it is even MORE difficult to get something done when an alternative hypothesis is under way (such as a consulting effort). In the end, usually the client knows how to solve the underlying problem, but the effort that it would take and the corresponding rewards to those managers tasked with carrying out the solution is too meager to justify the organizational resistance that will occur.

    All of these organizational problems are compounded by short-term thinking; executives want results NOW, this quarter, not improved performance 2-3 years down the road. They may talk about the long term, but the short term consumes 90% of their waking hours, and the next quarterly earnings release. Changing a culture or implementing a wrenching solution that differs from the status quo 1) is hard 2) takes time 3) is met with systemic and subtle resistance at every turn. The final bullet in change internally are external events; even if you can somehow make progress against your current ills, a “new” external shock will take away the focus and organizational oxygen from YOUR issue unless you can implement a rapid and permanent solution (i.e. close something down, sell it, “burn the ships”) before your organizational capital melts away.

    Here’s the part where someone often asks “what’s the solution?” and tries to summarize it all up. I don’t know. It is hard enough to figure out the long term arc of consulting, a multi billion dollar business, and how it survives jibes and efforts to extinguish it, without trying to think about how to make it better.

    Generally the types of corporations that rely on consultants to do their thinking for them don’t last long, unless they are somehow protected from competition (government, non-profit, unionized, utilities, much of financial services, etc…). It is these sorts of enterprise, along with the dying, that provide much of the consultants’ income. You don’t hear Google and Amazon or even GE talk about how consultants are helping them; they solve their own problems. I guess this is the underlying solution – be a better company.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Business | 4 Comments »