Right Said Fred

I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or what, but the above tweet had some resonance. (NB in the Walter Mitty sense; I have neither the interest nor, probably, disposition to be an assassin.)

I’ve been working on a short story and remain displeased with the opening sentence. It’s fine and all, but it ain’t this:

It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.


PS I got my copy of “The superthriller of the year!” at the Havre Book Exchange. I bet brand new, though, it started out in a spinner rack. Remember those? Here’s the unhappy tale of how they were coldly executed.


Man, Interrupting

“Tell me I’m not your man from Porlock. I’d never forgive myself.”


I read that in David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue and was like: huh? So I looked it up. Jeepers!

Shared it with my friends, and one one of them, Jim, proposed the term be employed à la Good Will Hunting badinage, e.g. “I was working on my proof when @#&$% Captain Porlock here…”


Lost and Found

When I first started teaching, I received the gift of a plant for my classroom. It joined me from school to school, from Washington State to New York State to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Then, when my dad went into an old folks home, I moved it to his room, where, after a few months, it died. As I put it in the dumpster, I hoped there was no metaphorical significance.

A few years ago a colleague gave me her classroom plant, for she had found a new job. Funny story about this colleague. One time a condolence card was being passed round, and she wrote I am sorry for your loss! I suggested this sentiment could perhaps be better conveyed unexclamatorily. Thereafter, when she’d ask me for help, I’d say stuff like I was busy writing lyrics to the musical “I Am Sorry For Your Loss!” No, I don’t know why she found a new job either.

Anyway, I stupidly forgot to bring the plant home with me for the quarantine. When they let teachers back into school for an hour last week, I prepared to find its corpse. (Again, metaphorical significance was unhappily considered.) But by golly, it was alive! This quite cheered me. Although, in the event, I did have the perfect text to send that colleague.


Now that the weather is less ghastly, I’m going to get out for a bit. See you in a few months. Be well.

Shows Effort

… [Jean-François] Champollion had been fascinated with the ancient Near East; he had a gift for learning languages and went on to study, among others, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Aramaic, Syriac (a form of Aramaic), and even Chinese. But his passion soon became Coptic, the language still spoken by a religious minority in Egypt. During his early studies at Grenoble, Champollion had made the acquaintance of a Syrian monk who had spent time in Egypt. The monk reported favorably the Copts’ own claim that their language was actually a later form of the now-lost language of ancient Egypt; he urged Champollion to study that language as well. The young man followed this advice and soon authored a paper offering evidence in support of the Coptic-is-ancient-Egyptian hypothesis, which he submitted to the Academy of Grenoble in 1807. He was sixteen years old.

– How to Read the Bible, James Kugel

Question Time

When I was doing teacher training in New York, one evening we had to attend a lecture by a panel of administrators. I remember two things. First was discovering the multiple galaxies of responsibility that principals have. (It’s bananas. I wouldn’t last a week.) Second was an Assistant Principal who ranted that if a student is ever absent, upon their return you absolutely had to demand “Where were you?” and make a big deal out of it. You should convey the absence was not only a detriment but an affront. I have tried to do this since.* (Obviously, alas, these days that trick isn’t much good.)

At SeaTac last summer, the TSA agent checking IDs all of a sudden knelt and, pointing at me, asked Twin 1: “Who’s this guy?” Then he asked her where we were going. He repeated these questions with Twin 2. He did it quite artfully – they thought he was being playful – but I realized he was making sure I wasn’t a kidnapper. I was really impressed. I even wrote the TSA, thanking them for doing this. I thought they mostly looked out for the combustibly shod.

Where were you? Who is he? Simple questions, powerful queries. Another that comes to mind is how, at the doctor’s office, they always ask “Do you feel safe at home?” What are some other good questions? Let me know. When I am king I shall increase my subjects’ weal by decreeing they be asked.


* E.g. if they say they missed the bus, I peer down at their shoes and say “Hmm. They seem OK. Is the problem with your feet?” This is hilarious!

Bright Ideas

1. Dress Blues

This teacher intends to write “The Ballad of Draper James.”


2. Apart From That, Mr. Easterly

Part of my youth was misspent studying economics. I remember this one class in development economics where I barely passed the final. The professor wrote in the blue book that it was a shame I didn’t understand the subject, because I wrote well (he was certainly correct about the former). It all came back to me – it being my confusion – reading this:

There is simply no accepted recipe for how to make poor countries achieve permanently high growth. Even the experts seem to have accepted this. In 2006, the World Bank asked the economist Michael Spence to lead a commission on economic growth. In its final report, the group recognized that there are no general principles for growth and that no two instances of economic expansion are quite alike. [Economist William] Easterly described their efforts in less charitable terms: “After two years of work by the commission of 21 world leaders and experts, an 11-member working group, 300 academic experts, 12 workshops, 13 consultations, and a budget of $4m, the experts’ answer to the question of how to attain high growth was roughly: we do not know, but trust experts to figure it out.”

– “How Poverty Ends,” Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020


3. The Good Intentions Paving Co.

Continue reading “Bright Ideas”

John Prine


I saw him play in Boston a few years back. I’d recently had eye surgery, and kept having to put drops in, so it was like seeing him through tears. I left the show early because I wanted to get home to check on the puppy – it was the longest Roosevelt had ever been left alone. He’d managed to get out of his cage, whereupon he expansively moved his bowels. As I scrubbed the floors, I remember thinking: this is like a John Prine song.

The next summer I was in a NICU holding two tiny, tiny infants. Fatherhood found me woefully unsupplied with lullabies, so I’d sing my favorite songs softly as I held them. I sang this one a lot.


Rest in peace, sir.

African MiGs

I developed an interest years ago after seeing one take off in Guinea.

The first volume, alas, I left at my quarantined school, but here are three interesting sentences from the second:

Canada, keen to gain a foothold in Tanzania since 1963, took the place of West Germany and in 1965 launched a project worth USD10.5 million with the aim of bolstering the JWTZ [Tanzania People’s Defence Force].

For most of the 1990s, between 30 and 60 Iraqi pilots and technicians served in Sudan, particularly with the air force, and they frequently became involved in combat against the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army].

In 1981, when Somalia began its cooperation with the US, a small group of pilots from the USAF’s then secret 4477th Tactical Evaluation Flight ‘Red Eagles’ spent several weeks in the country for a joint exercise with the CCS [Somali Air Force].

The second volume is worth it alone for the Addenda/Errata section, which features extensive comment from Lt Col Eduardo Gonzalez of the Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force:

Regarding the South African claim of 300 Cuban casualties and 30 damaged and destroyed tanks during the clash near Tchipa on 26 June 1988, Gonzalez commented wryly:

That goes into the same ditch as those claims for ‘40 South African aircraft shot down’ claimed by the Angolans. From wherever they come, I cannot stand lies – even those cooked up in my backyard!

If you’re unsure why you’d want to read two volumes about Soviet-era aircraft in Sub-Saharan Africa, I’d make some variation of Tyler Cowen’s argument on why you should read art books.


PS check out the roundels! (A roundel is each air force’s ripoff of the Who logo.) My personal favorite is from the former People’s Republic of Benin – understated yet distinctive. Uganda’s, distinctive yet not understated, is a close second.

PPS pop quiz: There are baseballs in circulation that are each signed by George HW Bush, Ted Williams, and which former chief of an air force on the African continent? (h/t Dan Shaughnessy)