Saturday, August 31, 2019

Any organization abandons some of the projects it begins. An organization the size of the United States government need not abandon a large proportion of its projects to leave many abandoned. Nor is there necessarily blame attached to leaving work undone, for events may have overtaken them. One hears of great quantities of materiel left behind at the end of WW II.

Some years back, the government decided that it would be an excellent idea to provide information freely on-line, the starting point to be There is an astonishing volume of data there, of varying freshness and quality. My impression from a brief visit to the Department of Homeland Security's section is that it provides the data to map pretty much anything you'd like. The shape files probably do not include ones for every manhole cover and fire hydrant in the US, but on the other hand I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

On the other hand, there are traces of projects begun with hopes, then abandoned. The links on the Local Government section have dates in 2014 and 2015. Clicking on some of the links for Department of Labor's website brings up error pages stating that the linked server,, does not exist. Then Friday many other links returned a server error message.

It would be wonderful if had lived up to the hopes of five or six years ago. Much of it, though, is like a used bookstore run by someone who is overwhelmed--anything could be there, but one has no way to tell.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Various Newmans

In John Henry Newman, Ian Ker quotes Newman steadily throughout, as who would not:
I have quoted generously from the letters, only for the literary reasons I have already implied [that he was "one of the most remarkable and prolific letter-writers in the English language"] but because my object has been to write the life of Newman rather than a book about him.
Occasionally Ker gives the impression of unnecessarily prompting the reader to admire an irony or pointed sentence. Still, he holds the attention through 750 pages, excluding front matter and index. The book is long, but Newman lived to be 89 and actively taught, preached, and wrote through more than sixty years: Ker cites thirty-six works of Newman's, some running to several volumes. One can read through the book in a couple of weeks, though no doubt prior acquaintance with some of the major works helps in this.

Ker edited and introduced the Penguin edition of Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which takes Newman through early middle age. The autobiographical element of the Apologia bears almost entirely on the development of Newman's theological opinions, which of course constituted most of Newman's interest to the world, and really much of Newman's occupation.

Avery Dulles, like Newman a convert, theologian, and cardinal, wrote a handy short account of Newman's work, John Henry Newman, with a foreword by Ker. Dulles gave about a tenth of his book, fifteen pages, to the biographical element, and otherwise concentrated on Newman's thought. He wrote that he aimed "to survey Newman's teaching about the classical theological questions in a comprehensive and systematic way."

The order in which I encountered the books was accidental, but seems good to me: Apologia Pro Vita Sua, then Dulles, then Ker. The writing in the Apologia is such to make one wish to read more by and about Newman. Dulles gives a concise account of Newman's thought, extracted from the matrix of biography. Ker fills out the picture of Newman's Anglican years, and provides an account of the Catholic half of Newman's life, something hardly glanced at in the Apologia.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Beneficiary

My wife's book club read The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott, for their July meeting. This left the book available when I was in between books, so that I read most of it. I found it moderately interesting, but more depressing.

The Beneficiary traces the fortunes of the Montgomery and Scott families, who over about a century made a fair bit of money in railroads, investing, and banking in Pennsylvania, and hung on to a good deal of the money for some years more. The details of their work are not much fleshed out, but one learns a lot about some of their marriages and about their drinking. The marriages were not always happy or enduring, and the drinking had something to do with that.

The author is of a generation that left the Philadelphia Main Line. Her father necessarily takes up a great  deal of the book. He seems to have been a more than competent museum executive, but what a museum executive does, other than scramble for money, one does not learn. One learns a great deal about his drinking, which shortened his life and helped to alienate some of his family. Robert Scott routinely consumed three liters of wine a day, often with cocktails as well. Montaigne in his essay "On Drunkenness" mentions a nobleman who routinely consumed "scarcely less than ten quarts" at a meal, without losing his acuity: but was his acuity mentioned against that of the sober? Robert Scott apparently was not fit for business after lunch many days.

I ended the book not entirely sure why I should care about the fortunes of the Montgomerys and Scotts, including Robert Scott. That his daughter should is natural. The rest of us need a reason, which I didn't quite find. Yet the book is short enough, and well enough written  that I didn't resent reaching this conclusion.

Friday, August 9, 2019

White-Shoe Boiler Rooms

The other evening I happened to be near the phone when it rang. The display said "Covington Burling". Now, Covington and Burling is a well-known law firm. I would expect it to communicate with such as me via registered letters or process servers. I didn't really believe the display. Still, I picked up the phone..

The voice on the line was looking for "senior homeowners", a class I belong to. But as far as I could tell, this was a cheesy AI voice-response system. Its responses to my questions were inconsequent, and when I said, "Are you telling me that you are calling from Covington and Burling?",  there was silence on the line. I hung up.

I have encountered such calls before, ones that talk right past "Are you a robot?" or will not answer when asked, "Who is the majority leader of the Senate?" But I have not run across any from a source so bold as to pretend to be a white-shoe law firm. I doubt that Covington and Burling can avenge itself on the callers; but I'd pleased to hear that it did.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Summer Class

This summer I spent a number of evenings in a class in Spanish as a Second Language (SSL). This was offered through St. Matthew's Cathedral. As is usual in such classes, volunteers taught, and most of the cost went to the textbook. I learned a certain amount of Spanish, and hope to retain much  of what I learned.

Over the last several years, I have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) one night a week through a parish program. A number of contrasts were obvious:
  • The texts our ESL program has used, most recently the Cambridge Ventures series, are aimed at immediate practical use. The SSL text proceeds in the order familiar from school: here are the conjugations, here the declensions, let us proceed from the present indicative.
  • Those seeking instruction in Spanish are on the whole more prosperous and longer schooled than those seeking instruction in English. Our class included three engineers, a lawyer and a law student, and an employee of the IMF.
I think the text, Complete Spanish Step-by-Step by Barbara Bregstein, pretty good, with some reservations. It lacks a vocabulary of any part of speech but verbs: for a forgotten noun or adjective, one must guess the chapter in which it might have been defined and look through the word lists there, or resort to a dictionary. I encountered a number of words in the exercises that I'm fairly sure never appeared with a translation. The book does not consistently alphabetize the verbs in its lists of regular and irregular conjugations, which is not positively an obstacle, but still a nuisance. It lacks completeness in its lists of exceptions: apparently one is supposed to infer that  the participle for "poner" is "puesto" because the participle for "volver" is "vuelto". And it refers to the subjunctive and conditional as tenses.

The text does have many exercises, with proposed answers in the back of the book. It is meant to be used over a semester or a year, I gather, for it returns to many topics--the subjunctive, the preterit, the imperfect. I find that useful.

Many of us found the pace a bit overwhelming. One man, married to a woman of South American birth, said that he would go home and vent to her. His interlocutor, who may have been one of the students with a Spanish-speaking boyfriend or family, felt much the same. Around the Fourth of July, I found myself thinking of the fellow mentioned in the newspaper for winning hot dog eating contests. Can one suffer indigestion from learning the conjugation of too many tenses too quickly?

I also found myself thinking of The Caine Mutiny, a book I haven't opened in nearly fifty years. Early on, the protagonist, an officer candidate in a Navy program, encounters a lesson on the "frictionless bearing". It means nothing to him, but he reads and reviews the material until he has all but memorized it, and he passes with high marks the test on the bearing. This does much to give him grace when he piles up many demerits later on. But I infer that Willie Keith knew nothing at all about the principles of the frictionless bearing, and that in six months if not six weeks would have had no idea about it.

Willie Keith lacked context for understanding the bearing, which physical intuition should have provided--physical intuition available to the naturally gifted or the well trained. I lack context for Spanish: I guess I will have to get it through the newspapers, radio, and conversation.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Commonest and Most Primitive Kind of Competition

A visit to the outside carts at Second Story Books yesterday, mostly in hopes of getting change for a $20 bill, succeeded beyond expectation when a volume on the last cart turned out to be The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 by Edmund Wilson. There are a number of very good essays--on the Holmes-Laski correspondence, on books by Dawn Powell and George Kennan, one on "My Fifty Years with Grammars and Dictionaries". But what I must quote is from "Donsmanship", a review of Stephen Potter's Supermanship, or How to Continue to Stay on Top without Actually Falling Apart. Having given a sketch of Potter's work, Wilson moves on to a matter Potter had so far neglected, one-upmanship in academic circles.
The commonest and most primitive kind of competition that goes on among American professors is to top one another in reading. I was once told of a conversation between Irving Babbitt and someone else of equal competence in the field of romantic literature which soon reduced itself entirely to an exchange of the titles of books. In this game, the opponent is supposed to show by a brief appropriate comment that he has read the book named by the other. Of course it is easy to cheat if the opponent does not press too far. One may actually know something about the book without having actually read it, and so risk a  non-committal response that cannot be to far wide of the mark. But if the question is cleverly put and searchingly followed up, it may reduce the opponent to a confession of his ignorance. One of the high scores is driving one's opponent--this is quite difficult to do--to a confession that he has not only not read the book but has not even heard of it. The highest points of all--and I have heard of this happening at Harvard--are scored by inventing a non-existent book and getting the other man to pretend that he has read it. The most reliable way, I should say from my own experience, for the non-academic person to counter a well-equipped scholar, who has scrutinized and read more than he has, is to cut in with some opinion, offhandedly and freely expressed, which is quite outside the scholar's gambits and will cause him to gasp and sulk.... I now exploit these shock tactics deliberately.
 The Library of America offers three volumes of Wilson's work, but so far they end with the 1940s. I suppose it will get around to the 1950s and on someday.