Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Things I Learned in Boston

We were in Boston at the end of last week. Having no duties to perform, I got to walk around and look at what interested me. I learned

  1. Why Kendall Square Research, the long-closed supercomputer company was so named: Kendall Square in Cambridge is bordered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so it is a fine place to locate a company that needs excellent engineers.
  2. That for some years I must have confused this with Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, "The Mushroom Capital of the World". I ceased to confuse them when I forgot about Kendall Square Research.
  3. What William James's house looks like. Now, though, I can tell you only that it has a blue plate on the fence out front, giving the dates of his residence.
  4. What the window of Ralph Waldo Emerson's dormitory room on Harvard Yard looks like. (A second-story window in a red brick wall.)
  5. That the Institute of Contemporary Art looks far better from the water side than from the street.
  6. That the T "Charlie Card" machines will not accept $5 bills of the older design.
  7. That you must press the touchscreen "CASH" button on these machines before dropping in the five $1 coins it gave you in change for the last transaction; otherwise those coins are gone for good. (The next traveler who dropped in coins has my apologies.)
  8. That Cambridge has more better bookstores close together than I remember to have seen, at least in some years. I don't now remember for sure whether the old Foreign Language Books on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown was comparable to Schoenhof's on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, but I think it must have been smaller. And Foreign Language Books is long gone from  Georgetown.
  9. That Boston's humidity toward the end of June is nothing to Washington's.
I'd happily visit again soon, but point 8 has increased my backlog of reading by several weeks.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Vanishing English Major

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in The New York Times of The Decline and Fall of the English Major. He has four points:
  1. His students do not write well.
  2. That were they better grounded in the humanities, they would write well, or at least better.
  3. That the teaching of the humanities (or perhaps the learning) has fallen on hard times.
  4. That this is in part because of societal pressure on students to study more profitable fields.
I agree with much of what he has to say, but would add a fifth point: the societal pressure on students to study more profitable fields is strongly correlated with the cost of college. Mr. Klinkenborg writes
In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.
Well, the freshmen of the Yale class of 1991 paid about $17 thousand in tuition, room and board; those of the class of 2012 paid about $47 thousand. Adjusted for inflation, the difference is smaller, for 1987 tuition in 2008 dollars is about $32 thousand: call it an 88% increase. Between the 1991-1992 school years and the 2010-2011 school years, average pay for a teacher in a secondary school increased in 2011 dollars from $54,615 to $55,241. A discrepancy like that in rates of increase could make a student think harder about majors.

(The inflation calculator is provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as are the statistics for teachers' salaries. The Yale tuition figures are from the Yale University Office of Institutional Research. Calculating the costs over four years, or the probability of a Yale graduate becoming a teacher in a secondary school, I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

Monday, June 17, 2013


A friend, just returned from Barcelona, said that he had heard that they are many more women than men there in fact three to one. He apparently found the estimate plausible. His companion thought that this might be because he just doesn't notice the men.

When I first moved to Washington, DC, I heard that there were many more women than men here. I believe that the ratio I heard was 2 to 1. In Thomas Pynchon's V, set in 1956, the ratio is given as 8 to 1. I can't say that I ever noticed any such disproportion, unless maybe once in the salad line at a lunch spot. Probably between 1942 and 1946 there were many more women than men, since the government was growing rapidly and the armed services were drafting any man who was fit to serve. The 2010 census found 100 women to every 89 men, a ratio not far off the national one.