Let us record my characteristic prescience [solipsism? – Ed.] by noting that my latest piece, on the rigors of re-learning math, is accompanied by two articles on math education:

I don’t recall being bad at math until high school. It reminds me a bit of how, when I started Little League at age seven or eight, I was pretty good, and remained so (at least in the rosy mists of memory) until about age twelve. All of a sudden, pitches seemed very difficult to hit, if not murderous. So I stopped playing, and gradually lost interest in baseball.

I’ll pause while you dry your eyes.


Anyway, high school math was like that for me. And if you factor into the equation (get it?!) the possibility that I approached my secondary education with something less than ardent devotion, well… I became one of those people who says (with fair accuracy in my case) he’s bad at math.

I do remember being surprised when a high school history teacher mentioned, in an aside during a lesson on the Enlightenment, that mathematicians were attracted to the subject by its beauty. It seemed, then anyway, such a dissonant statement, like declaring the beauty of plumbing.

Factoring polynomials won’t supplant my crossword, nor will the Fields Medal folks be calling (I’m forty-two, dammit), but I do wish I’d seen math’s beauty earlier.


Problems of Leadership in a Submarine


“If the Nazis had started the war with as many submarines… as they had in March 1945… they might have won it.”

Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War


Last night I watched Black Sea, a heist movie about a multinational crew in an old Russian submarine attempting to retrieve gold from a sunken Nazi submarine. I liked it. The crew’s, uh, difficulties – radix malorem and all that – led me to recall a lecture I once came across.

Problems of Leadership in a Submarine* was lectured by Captain Wolfgang Lüth, a U-Boat ace. I found it intriguing for a few reasons, one of them being that his remarks seem to indicate he was not wholly inhumane.

E.g. he’s quite compassionate when talking about discipline:

  • In almost every case the purpose of punishment is to educate the man, not to destroy him. The chance to redeem himself is often a strong incentive for such a man.
  • After you have had a heart to heart talk with them you reproach yourself for not having talked with them before to help solve their problems.


Then there was some stuff I just found amusing:

  • The officers must be inventive in order to keep up the men’s enthusiasm, particularly on long trips. (The examples are entertaining, my favorite being: a lying contest, and everybody had to tell the story over the loud-speaker that he would tell at home at his father’s beer table… We got some really wonderful tall stories, some of them fit to print.)
  • I had an officer who had such a dry sense of humour and was so calm that he fell sound asleep during a depth-charge attack. He only woke up when the instruments started to fall on his head. Since this was his off-duty period, he actually went right back to sleep and only mumbled something about ‘turbulent times.’ When we surfaced and found ourselves in a minefield, I asked him whether he thought we should keep more starboard or port. He gave me an honest answer. ‘It doesn’t matter; if we wake up tomorrow we have steered right.’


Lüth gave the lecture in the final days of 1943, by when it should have been clear – at least to someone so evidently wise – that the war would not end in Nazi victory.

You know what else surprised me? The circumstances of his death. According to Wikipedia:

Returning blind drunk in the night of 13/14 May 1945, Lüth failed to respond to the sentry’s challenge and was shot in the head by 18-year-old Matrose (seaman) Mathias Gottlob, a German guard. 

Live by the Kriegsmarine, die by the Kriegsmarine, I guess.

And who knew: a U-Boat commander could still have a state funeral eight days after the Third Reich’s surrender.


*This title reminds me of Lt. Aldo Raine’s line in Inglourious Basterds: “You know, fightin’ in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you’re fightin’ in a basement!”



L’Esprit de l’Escalier

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.

That’s from “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems,” an essay by Courtney Martin. While reading it I was reminded of Aiding Violence by Peter Uvin, about the development industry’s contribution to the genocide in (Uganda’s neighbor) Rwanda.

I read it many years ago, and what’s always stuck with me is, of all things, a footnote:

Although it is politically correct to affirm that underdevelopment also exists at home, I know of few organizations or persons that take this seriously in practice. The reason is simple: at home, we realize how difficult it is to overcome apathy, fear, racism, poverty, distrust, alienation, violence, bureaucratic inertia, and so forth. We know about the historical legacies of problems, the way they are deeply ingrained in relations of power, in ideologies, and in social systems. In far-away places, about which we know little, we can pretend that these problems do not exist and that we can promote development through some simple actions. Ignorance is truly what allows us to act.

Shortly after I returned from Rwanda, I was temping at a financial services firm. One of the partners – who struck me as quite intelligent – told me, entirely seriously, that the genocide could have been prevented if Rwanda had had the equivalent of the Second Amendment. He even lamented that the US had not air-dropped Kalashnikovs.

What I wish I’d said is something to the effect of the genocide having occurred not for lack of well regulated militias.

Instead, I think I replied: “Huh!”


Commercial Break

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion on booking bands. It was at the Bell House, a venue around the corner from where I lived in Brooklyn. Two things I remember:

1. In New York, the days of the week matter less for clubs. I.e. Monday might spell low ticket sales in a provincial backwater like Boston, but not so in Gotham. (It is “The City That Never Sleeps,” apparently.)

2. No one makes money off tickets. The club’s profit is from drinks, the band’s is from merchandise, and ticket sales just cover costs. So, from an economic perspective, the performance is superfluous: a concert is background music for the operation of a t-shirt table in proximity to a bar.


What has always intrigued me about commerce is the practice of deriving the main profit from something other than the main activity. E.g. movie theaters making their money off concessions, car dealers off financing, electronics stores off extended warranties, etc. I remember being surprised to read somewhere that McDonald’s makes its money not by selling Big Macs, but from leasing buildings to franchisees.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: I make an awful lot from colleagues’ pocketbooks. (Joke!!! Promise. I don’t make all that much.)





I’m reading the second volume of The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, a graphic novel trilogy by Riad Sattouf. The first one, which is excellent, is out in English; I’m muddling through the second, which is excellent, under the power of my four-cylinder French.


These frames are uncanny in their depiction of a typical day in my classroom.





Game On

The recent drop in temperature recalled to mind a reality TV show I once invented: Cold Enough for Ya?!


Premise: The host, who should be suitably disagreeable, drives around in a luxury automobile on a frigid winter day. Upon spotting someone waiting at a bus stop, trudging down an icy sidewalk, or performing manual labor, he pulls up alongside, rolls down the window, and shouts… well, you guessed it, didn’t you! Then he peels out, cackling all the way. Ideally, each episode would end with the luxury automobile being chased out of town by an angry mob. (Obviously the show’s summer season would be titled Hot Enough for Ya?! and maintain a similar spirit.)

Funny stuff, right? And that’s the one that ended up on the cutting room floor! The other one, you ask? Well, it’s in a short story I recently finished. You’ll have to read it there, whenever it comes out. (Unless you’re a network executive, in which case give me a call.)


Now then. Here’s something that wasn’t funny at all. It happened a couple years ago. I’d spent the morning writing that very same short story (the gestational period of my stories averages about a term in the senate; a novel would take me centuries), and came home to find the latest issue of the New Yorker in the mail.

“By gum,” said I, “There’s an article on Guinea!” (For my story is set in Guinea, you see.)

Upon reading the following passage, I threw the magazine across the room. (For, you see, much of that very morning had been spent writing dialogue in which one character addresses another as “Father Christmas.”)

Each time that Cilins flew from France to Guinea, he brought gifts—MP3 players, cell phones, perfumes—which he disbursed among his contacts. They came to think of him as “Father Christmas,” he told Fox. 

I’ll pause while you roll down your window and shout “Coincidence enough for ya?!” But that’s all the head start you’re getting.

Annual Performance Review

As we come to the end of 2015, let us pause to record my triumphs.

  • Happening upon a double rainbow one morning with my friend Steve.


  • Shoveling a ton of snow. (Quite possibly an actual ton)

The Snow Shoveler

  • Changing and wrapping dolls to an extent probably best estimated using scientific notation. (Twin 1 conducts a typical inspection below. She and Twin 2 are known to erupt in Lee Ermey-with-a-case-of-the-Mondays rages if dissatisfied)


  • Upholding a resolution to visit my friend Will in Rhode Island once a month. (About the other resolutions, the less said the better; as for Will, he’s gone and moved to California, dammit. The only one more distraught than I is Roosevelt, who appears as a white dot next to Will in the photo below)

Will and Rosie


May the new year bring you, Gentle Reader, multiple rainbows, minimal snow, and lots of walks to the outdoor rink to throw the ball around with Dinner & Rosie.



Canada Guy

It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but well wishers still stop me on the street to encourage my candidacy for prime minister of Canada. No amount of protest on my part – I’m happy with my current job, it’s increasingly unlikely I could obtain even a plurality in the House of Commons, etc – dissuades their enthusiasm.

From now on I’m going to refer these good people to Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes, his account of returning to Canada to enter politics and his subsequent bid to run the place. I really liked it, and would have finished it in one sitting if not for the usual nonsense that interrupts one’s happy reading.

Some memorable points (though not necessarily the most important. E.g. he writes well about persuasion, but go read the book yourself):

  • The most underrated skill in politics? Listening. “Often, listening is all you can do… People will accept you cannot solve their problems if you give them all of your attention, looking into their eyes, never over their shoulder at the next person in line.” (If you watch clips of JFK in action, he was very good at shaking hands and looking back as he continued to the next person, as if to indicate he was only reluctantly moving on. The first few seconds of this one below give the idea.)
  • “…nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena… You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences, and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count.”
  • ” Every community wants recognition of its own distinctiveness but is reluctant to grant it to others… Once you see a country as a sustained, everyday act of will, you understand why politicians matter.”
  • “…the two national debates on television, one in French, the other in English…” (NB that’s “in French” not as in “subtitled in French,” but as in en français.)
  • He also makes a few references to the country’s enormous size. Duh, right? Well, I once got my own introduction to Canada Big while driving from Seattle to Boston. I’d taken Route 2 (highly recommended) to the edge of Lake Superior, then decided to drive around the lake on the Canadian side (less recommended) before re-entering the US. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe I should check out Ottawa!” and asked a motel clerk at a lakeside town how long the drive was. “I think it’s about fifteen hours,” came the reply.  I did not check out Ottawa.


And this story made me chuckle:

My father loved government but he steered clear of party politics, and the stories he told laid bare the difference between the instincts of politicians and of civil servants like himself. He told me about taking notes at a meeting in 1944 between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a deputation of women – Daughters of the Empire – who were concerned about the impact of pornography (Betty Grable pin-ups and stronger stuff) on the morale of Canadian troops. About a dozen women took their places in King’s office and each proceeded to tell him about the terrible effects of pornography. King listened patiently, then stood and went to each and shook their hands gravely, repeating that he had rarely been privileged to have such an important meeting. When the women had been ushered out and silence descended in the prime minister’s office, my father cleared his throat and asked Mr. King what actions he wished to authorize. “Get back to work,” the PM growled, and waved him out.

All Together Now

1. Irony 101

(Author’s note: this is the earnest, teacher-y part of the post.)

Irony is one of the literary devices I teach my 6th graders, and I keep it to pretty obvious examples: a “no smoking” sign in a cigarette factory, getting run over by an ambulance, etc.

Last year I added to our repertoire this British ad, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce:

I showed students the clip with no introduction, then read passages from Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting, then we watched the clip once more.

Next week we’ll do it again. We’ll also listen to this episode of BBC’s Witness, which aired last Christmas Eve.


2: Nobody Beats the Wiz! (Except the Pogues and the Waitresses and some others as well)

Having spent quite possibly years of my life listening to the radio, I was surprised to hear of a popular Christmas song I’d never heard, or even heard of: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard.  Nick Lowe mentioned it in an interview, saying it’s on heavy rotation over there.

My Christmas #1 alternates, depending on mood, between “Fairytale of New York” and “Christmas Wrapping,” but I could easily make room in the top ten for this one. And the video is certainly a, uh, treat for the eyes:


PS speaking of Yuletide eyestrain, in the course of writing this post I had occasion to view the video for “All Together Now,” a song I remember dimly from high school, also about the Christmas Truce. (The song, I mean. High school was about unremitting trench warfare.) The video is slightly horrifying, and not in the way you’d perhaps expect, given the subject:


To the Birds

I recently happened upon the most charming work of art I’ve ever seen:

I say “happened upon” because I got very lost on the way to the restroom in the basement of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

O, that all puzzlement would resolve so happily!


PS O, that all b-sides were as rad as “To the Birds”!