Sunday, February 12, 2017

You Could Do That Then, Part II

Some time ago I wrote of things one could do once but no longer, and mentioned among them the simultaneous holding of drivers licenses from multiple states and the quick replacement of a lost license. I never held or wished to hold multiple licenses, but I thought it an example of a certain freedom now lost that one could once do so, and certainly the quick replacement made my life much simpler once.

This past week, during an ESL class, we reached an exercise in which the participant describes himself: clothing, accessories, eye color, hair color. When I look in the mirror it is generally to shave, so I don't make much eye contact with myself. It seemed to me that my eyes are green and brown, though. It struck me that my driver's license might note this, and I took it from my wallet. The license does not give my eye color, or for that matter my hair cover. It does give height and weight. It also gives its expiration date: my most recent birthday, some months ago.

Friday, we went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Georgetown. At the entrance we found that I had failed to mention, and my wife had failed to notice, the requirement that she provide an official document showing her Social Security number. She will have to find a W-2 and go back: fortunately she has several months in which to do this, for her license is not yet expired. We filled out forms, we presented documents. I left with perforations punched in my current drivers license, and a printed form stating that I have a "Real ID" license in the works. The form has my picture, my height and weight, but does not mention hair or eye color.

The new license will arrive in the mail. This seems to me to contradict the whole "Read ID" premise of improved security, for mail does not always arrive where it should. Our neighborhood's letter carrier is reliable, but like anyone might fall ill or take a vacation. We receive now and then neighbors' mail and know that mail sent us hasn't arrived. So it is possible that the new license, to get which I proffered an old license, a current passport, my Social Security card, a mortgage statement, and a telephone bill, will be delivered to somebody who has never met me. In that case, the best outcome would be that the recipient leaves it with us; second-best that the recipient throws it into the trash; and worse and unlikely but still possible, that the recipient reserves the license for occasions on which he is caught speeding or running red lights.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Last week at Kramerbooks, I noticed on the shelves Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, by James Schall, S.J., and bought it. The Jesuits, I thought, have put some thought into the conditions of teaching and learning, and here is one who has something to say about them. Having read the book through, I don't regret the purchase, though I suspect that Schall has written better books.

Many of the essays in Docilitas were delivered as lectures, and therein lies some of the weakness of the book. Lectures, to be taken in by ear, must be more repetitive and diffuse than essays written to be read. One notices some of that in the various chapters.They are also delivered to a particular audience, gathered in one place at one time. Some of the lectures were delivered in New England, some in the Midwest, others on the West Coast, and all over a range of a dozen years or so. In print, they run to not quite 200 pages, and the reader thinks, Yes, you said that a few pages ago.

Lectures may also come to be transcribed more or less accurately. I don't know how these came to be written down, whether from stenographers' transcripts or from Schall's own copies, but omitted words and confusing formulations occasionally suggest the former. In any case, it is a distraction when one reads a sentence a couple of times, and finally concludes that a pronoun has been omitted. This happens now and then, and if I re-read the book, I will mark such places.

There are other signs of carelessness. A passage from Johnson is ascribed to Boswell. The date of an utterance of Johnson's becomes the date of The Life of Johnson. "The Sound of Silence" is a song by the Beatles. There are typographical errors in English and Latin. (One might say in Spanish, too, for the last page of the book gives the author's city of residence as "Los Gator", California.)

Schall writes well, though. To take a trivial example, I have been in the habit of cringing when a homilist introduces a quotation from Peanuts, but Schall usually makes his quotations from Peanuts apposite and effective. (Perhaps the ability to quote Peanuts effectively is distinctly Jesuit, for I remember from forty years ago an essay in America that proposed the following challenge for those aspiring to practice hermeneutics: explain a Peanuts strip to a German.) He is as deft with quotations from Aristotle, St. Augustine, or Goethe as he is with those from Charles Schultz.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was running through the McKenney Hills neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland, when I heard a voice that seemed to come from below my feet. I saw an uncovered manhole, the cover beside it, and I leaned down to call, Who's down there? A boy of ten or twelve came in to view. He and a couple of friends were down there, he said. "There" clearly was "in the storm sewers". I said that I didn't think it safe to be down there. Oh, he said, it was safe. They came down and explored all the time. They had been as far as the middle school. (Sligo Middle School, that was, about a mile east of this manhole.)

There wasn't much I could do. I couldn't descend and catch them, and if I could have caught them, I couldn't have retrieved them. Not knowing their names, I couldn't speak to their parents. There was no neighborhood listserv, or at least I wasn't on it,  so I couldn't alarm the neighborhood by posting an account. In any case the sky suggested no imminent rain that might endanger them. I did what I could, which was to mind my own business and continue my run.

I still don't think it was a good idea for the boys to explore the storm sewers. (Though at ten or twelve I might have thought it a fine idea.) But it speaks to a level of enterprise and freedom that some suggest has been bred out of the middle class children of today. Are the children of McKenney Hills still exploring? I don't know; I seldom get out that way now, and would be unlikely to know in any case. But I wouldn't be surprised.

(A piece on the sewers of Paris over at Book Haven brought this story to mind.)

Thursday, February 2, 2017


We went to the movies yesterday evening. The movie was fine, but while the trailers ran I spent most of the time with my fingers in my ears. The trailer for the coming movie about Dunkirk was not louder at peak volume than the trailer for domestic, and as far as I could tell non-violent dramas. Why? Why should a domestic drama have a trailer with bass notes at the volume of a freight train at twenty yards, or of a jet airplane heard from a house under the approach to the runway?

Do the studios wish to advertise their sound effects? Do they think that we lapse into a daze while advertisements and trailers run, and must be awakened to notice the name of the movie? It hardly matters. I'm too old to worry about how I look covering my ears in a darkened theater.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Reply All

In the morning, while brewing my coffee, I use my phone to look at the emails that have arrived in my work account overnight. Generally there are about a dozen, most of them from automated jobs. In most cases, I can judge from the subject line whether I can delete the email or must read it and follow up.

Friday morning, there were about 370 emails. After I read a few, I understood what had happened. Somebody at NetApp, which makes the storage units we use, had sent out a bulletin using the CC field rather than the BCC field. A few techies sent out a reply to all, and then more sent replies to ask what was going on, or to ask others to quit replying. One ordinarily imagines techies as understanding the pitfalls of using Reply All; and perhaps we are less apt to do so, but for a sufficiently large mailing list it doesn't take a large percentage to create this sort of storm.

The incident did show the ubiquity of NetApp gear. I saw replies in French, Italian, Russian, German, and perhaps would have found more languages still if I hadn't been in a hurry to get rid of them. A young and mobile systems administrator could have built up a list of organizations to apply to, and perhaps of responsible parties within them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Doing It Yourself

Last Saturday's New York Times had a picture of the inaugural guests and functionaries gathered at the west front of the Capitol. It caught my eye because of the remarkable number of guests who appeared to be taking cell phone pictures or videos: on the left side of the picture, I counted about 25 out of about 150. On the right side, there seemed to be a few more guests but fewer cell phones. I did notice that none of the clerics, robed justices, or military officers appeared to have phone in hand.

I find it hard to imagine anything more thoroughly photographed and filmed than an American presidential inauguration Cell phone and tablet cameras have improved remarkably over the last decade. But can the quality compare with what a professional gets from his gear?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

He Bears No Grudges

Not long ago, I read The Nichomachean Ethics, which I hadn't read through before. A couple of passages in Book IV caught my attention. On the Perseus website, they run
[The great-souled man] is not prone to admiration, since nothing is great to him. He does not bear a grudge, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them. He is no gossip, for he will not talk either about himself or about another, as he neither wants to receive compliments nor to hear other people run down (nor is he lavish of praise either); and so he is not given to speaking evil himself, even of his enemies, except when he deliberately intends to give offence. In troubles that cannot be avoided or trifling mishaps he will never cry out or ask for help, since to do so would imply that he took them to heart. He likes to own beautiful and useless things, rather than useful things that bring in a return, since the former show his independence more.
The vain on the other hand are foolish persons, who are deficient in self-knowledge and expose their defect: they undertake honorable responsibilities of which they are not worthy, and then are found out. They are ostentatious in dress, manner and so on. They want people to know how well off they are, and talk about it, imagining that this will make them respected.