Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Probably Not the King Ranch

Overheard today at Farragut Square:
They're, like, the Goldman-Sachs of branding.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Firm Preference

As I turned up the block this evening, I saw neighbors sitting out on their steps, the husband on the porch steps, the wife and daughter on the steps down to the sidewalk. Next to the daughter was the little boy she shares a babysitter with; both children are about two and a half. The little boy was looking closely at an iPhone, which caught my attention. The wife began to catechize the boy:

W: What do you like better, a dump truck or a backhoe?
B: Backhoe. [Looking up, quite serious].
W: A fire truck or a backhoe?
B: Backhoe.

Apparently there is nothing on wheels or tracks that he prefers to a backhoe. This is a boy I saw watching the garbage truck with something like reverence this winter, so backhoes must be very important to him. He did allow that he liked something that sounded like "catch kids"; I'm guessing that this might be "Caterpillars"--he was gesturing down the block toward where a crew had repaired some pavement a few weeks ago.

This arose, my neighbor explained, because she had offered to draw something on the sidewalk for the boy, and he had asked for a picture of a backhoe. Not being schooled in the finer things in life, she had had to get her phone to find a picture; he had taken it over, and become absorbed in the picture or pictures.

I don't remember backhoes from my childhood. According to Wikipedia, they are not much older than I am, so they may not have been common then. More likely it was locomotives that held me in awe.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Challenge Index and Gilb's Law

Once again, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post has published his ranking of various schools according to his "challenge index", which is the ratio of the number of college-level tests given at the school to the number of students in the graduating class, a college-level test generally being Advanced Placement (AP), sometimes International Baccalaureate (IBB). A couple of Washington, DC, schools head his nationwide list of private schools: St. Anselm's Abbey School with an index of 8.533; and Washington International School with an index of 7.288.

St. Anselm's usual graduating class is in the upper 20s: if the number used is 30, that gives us 256 AP tests. These are generally taken by juniors and seniors, so there are probably about 60 to 65 boys taking them. Washington International School has about 900 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Figure that as being a bit heavier in the lower grades, and reckon between 60 and 70 students in a graduating class: a graduating class of 67 works out to 481. In both cases, the Post is giving us four digits of index for three digits of tests.

I imagine that the index can be useful as an indicator of aspirations. The school that has most of its students taking a couple of AP exams is likely to be asking more of them than the school that has almost no students taking such exams. After a certain level, though, I don't know how much it matters. I can name half a dozen or more high schools in the District of Columbia where it would be difficult to graduate without getting an excellent preparation for college. I know the challenge index only for the two above, and will likely forget it within the week.

In Peopleware, the software consultant Tom DeMarco summarizes a discussion he had with Tom Gilb, the author of Software Metrics. Gilb is or was a believer in measuring everything, DeMarco something of a skeptic. Neither man convinced the other, but DeMarco took away from the discussion what he calls "Gilb's Law":
Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Carpe Librum is On

Carpe Librum, "The City's Largest Pop-Up Book Sale" started today and will run through May 15 at 1030 17th St. NW, around the corner from the K St. entrance to the Farragut North Metro Station. The proceeds go to the DC Public Schools. In case there is any question, "Pop-Up" refers to not to the books but to the improvised locations--a couple of years ago in Foggy Bottom, now where the Washington Golf Center used to be.

The handout promises more than 50,000 books. Only so many will be on view at once, for the space is tight. At 5:30 this afternoon, $16 would have bought you four volumes of Henry James's short stories in the Library of America edition. Just more than double that would have bought you 30 copies of Eat, Pray, Love--29 paperback at $1 each, one hardback, all shelved together and impossible to miss.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Kennan on the Franco-Russian Alliance

Second Story Books yielded a copy of The Decline of Bismarck's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 by George Kennan. It is well written, as one would expect. It gives a clear account of the reasons that Russia gradually distanced itself from Germany and entered into alliance with France.

The book does not really define "Bismarck's European order", unless implicitly, in which case I would understand it as a system in which Germany was prepared for all likely contingencies. There is the mention of Bismarck's determination always to be one of three among the five major powers, but that is touched on lightly. Kennan writes of Bismarck's preference for avoiding involvement in the Balkans, among those he spoke of as "sheep-stealers", and at the same time the necessity he felt for maintaining Austria-Hungary.

The heroes of the book are the professional diplomats, notably N.K. Giers, the Russian foreign minister, and Bismarck. Giers I had never read of before; he was of Swedish descent, the son of a border-town postmaster, with little to depend on but his own abilities, and the tsars' sometimes shaky support. Kennan speaks well of Bismarck's management. He does mention Bismarck's odd anxiety that the Catholic powers would unite against Germany: odd because the Italian government was on bad terms with the Vatican then and for years, the French governments were during much of the time bitterly anti-clerical, and Austria-Hungary was neither especially strong nor very stable. But Kennan quotes a prescient admonition of Bismarck's to Alexander III:
Never before, Bismarck concluded, had the great monarchies of Europe has greater interest in avoiding war. Someone, after all, had to lose a war; and peoples were now in the habit of holding their governments responsible for such reverses.
The villains, or anyway those who are not helpful, tend to be the nationalists. The Russian editor Katkov exemplifies the tendency, sure that Russia's misfortunes in the Balkans are to be blamed on the Germans and Austrians. The French had their share of revanchists in the press and government. The Hungarians, though not looking for war, seemed to have had a skill at saying things that enraged the Russians. And the military establishments and their leaders had a weakness for war scares: in Germany Moltke and Waldersee, in France both Boulanger and his enemies, in Russia various members of the general staff.

Kennan spent many years of his Foreign Service career in Germany and Russia. In the early stages of World War II, before the U.S. entered the war, he was stationed in Berlin, where he knew Moltke's great-grandnephew Helmut von Moltke, and had extensive conversations with him; the state security apparatus would have been unhappy with the fact, let alone the content.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Memoirists: Wilfrid Sheed

A few years ago, I happened on a copy of Wilfrid Sheed's In Love with Daylight, which I read with interest but then gave away. More recently, I happened on another copy, and bought it, though I may give that copy away too. I had not quite forgotten how good it is, but even so the reminder was welcome.

The subtitle of the book is "A Memoir of Recovery", and the book relates three recoveries: from polio, from alcohol and anti-depressant dependency, and from oral cancer. I have the impression that at least the second of these is much written of these days. I doubt it often is with the skill that Sheed brought.  The temptation when writing of Sheed is to just quote him, and why bother to resist?

On Ativan:
Ativan turned out to be a perfect little Jeeves among pills, tactful and anonymous, tucking one into bed every night and slippering out of the room.without leaving a trace.... Zooming the lens back to that period, I'd have to say that Ativan played fair, in the sense that Agatha Christie played fair, scattering clues in my path that I easily might have picked up on if I'd wanted to.
On carrying on while falling apart:
 It has always been a notion of mine that sanity is like a clearing in the jungle where humans agree to meet from time to time and carry on in certain fixed ways that even a baboon could master, like Englishmen dressing for dinner in the tropics. But I'd never realized how little you could bring to the meeting. Proceeding virtually on automatic pilot, I was apparently able to produce a good enough replica of a normal human being to fool the average onlooker indefinitely.
On giving up alcohol:
Closer inspection sugggested that the giant wave was something of an illusion. What I was actually being hit by was a series of incredibly bad moments, unbearable but brief, and with a small but perceptible breathing space in between. And what I did with this space was the key. If I panicked, the panic would join the moments together, the way the mind's eye joins frames film into a movie; if I tried to escape, I would be hit again on the way out, and again and again, seemingly faster and faster after that.  And if I tried to look on the bright side, I would really have my face mashed in.
  The trick I finally tumbled to that night and the next could alternately be described as passive resistance or steering into the skid.
In the end, Sheed survived his booze, pills, and oral cancer by almost 25 years.

Of his novels, I have read The Boys of Winter, which I thought entertaining, and Max Jameson, which I did not. Today I passed up another novel of his on one of Second Story Books's outside carts. All three, not surprisingly, are set in the publishing world where he spent his professional life. Sheed is in what I have read steadily breezy--lapidary prose is not what he is after. I do mean to find and read his Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

New York Times Crucible Watch

Some months ago, I noticed that a headline writer at The New York Times had come up with the expression "Forged in a Crucible". More recently, there was "Cultivating Control in a Nation's Crucible" (a review of a book on Thomas Jefferson). Today, the headline on an article about the Memphis school system is "Crucible of Change in Memphis as State Takes on Failing Schools."

The first two at least suggested a familiarity with crucibles derived from the drama club rather than the chemistry lab. The third story does manage to work in "petri dish" ("a veritable petri dish of practices"),  "ground zero", and "kinetic energy".