Sunday, January 17, 2016

Appropriately modest desires

On Friday we arrived in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, where will be through early afternoon Wednesday.

That first evening we ate at a restaurant that serves really traditional Moldovan food, with musicians playing in the background (a mix of traditional tunes plus Hollywood or other familiar music repackaged in a more Balkan style). We were joined by students from the local university who shared their experiences and impressions.

Yesterday we had an outing to the countryside north of the capital, Chisinau. Our first stop was at Brăneşti winery, located in a limestone area with lots of tunnels carved into the earth.

The owner meets us at the gate
The proprietor told us that in a radius of 8 km, there are 1,000 km of tunnels. Some of the limestone pulled out in the tunneling process is used as a construction material.

Gouges in the wall from the tunneling machinery
Apparently there are foreigners - such as the former Chinese ambassador to Moldova - who rent space in the tunnels to cellar their wine.

Don't lean back: that's some sort of mold on the walls (and on the chandeliers), and it'll get on your clothes:

From the winery we went to a monastery carved into a rock outcropping nestled in the bend of a river (see the location marked "Monastirea Orheiul Vechi" on this map).
The view from the icy ledge outside the monk's cell.
Noticing good-luck coins wedged into crevices in the limestone
Atop the outcrop there's a stone cross with an ornamental figure in the center. The local custom is that if you make a wish while resting your hand on that figure, your wish will come true.
The wishing cross
After visiting the monastery and the cross and the church at the top of the ridge, we negotiated our way back down the icy hillside to the village at the bottom where we had another traditional Moldovan meal, this one in an "eco" restaurant where the family grows or raises many of the ingredients themselves. It was in a fixed-up traditional house, with the staff in sheep-skin vests and a kitty up in the rafters that later came down to walk among the legs of our chairs.

The students have been great about willingness to go with whatever's thrown their way, in terms of both experiences and food, sampling unfamiliar things and even liking several of them. But we thought it might be a good idea to give them a break from the cultural novelty and go for dinner at a pizza place that had been recommended to us.

"Yes!" said one of the students. "That's what I wished for at the cross! Pizza!"

I guess if you're going to go making wishes, there's something to be said for keeping it realistic. You're less likely to be disappointed asking for comfort food than pinning your hopes on, say, winning a Grammy.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if the cross wasn't a little put out by the whole thing. "Really? Pizza? People climb this icy slope to ask me to cure their crippled limbs or to make their child healthy, and you want pizza? OK, whatever - here's your pizza."

Still, keep it practical, and you just might get your wish.

FOX News Chisinau

The restaurant here at Chisinau Hotel in the capital of Moldova has a remarkable service, FOX News Live.

It takes the form of an American guest, aged about 60, from Colorado.

He and I were the only guests in the restaurant at breakfast this morning - I was just finishing mine, he had ordered his.

He got on his phone and I heard him ask the other party if they had laundry soap. We're looking for where to wash some clothes, so I thought I'd ask if he knew about a laundromat.

When his food came, I wished him bon appetit, and we exchanged pleasantries - where are you from, etc. Hearing I was from New York, he talked about growing up on Long Island, he couldn't remember if it was Valley Stream, or maybe it was Kew Gardens, and driving up to Canada.

"In those days all you needed was a driver's license, we didn't have all these problems."

And he was off:

We have a real lack of leadership (though he said the last two administrations).

Things went off the rails in the second Clinton administration, and from there a long disquisition on Lewinsky.

"And Cohen, the secretary of the Treasury ..."

"Wasn't Cohen the defense secretary?"

"Oh, that's right. Who was at Treasury?"

"Was it Summers?" I asked, uncertainly.

"No, not him."

"Wait, it was Rubin."

"That's right, Rubin." (Rubin/Cohen. Because who can tell one of them Jews from another, amirite?)

Over those 10 minutes I spoke little more than my part in the preceding exchange.

I learned that we the people didn't do adequate background work on Clinton before electing him. I learned that Clinton's taste in the women that he allegedly had brought to him was very poor, though in this man's view that also helped explain how he chose Hillary, with her big legs, "not to be disparaging." (Oh, no, not disparaging at all.)

I learned that Obama is incredibly weak and that (by implication from what this man thinks Obama should have done), we should now be at war with Russia over Crimea and China over some pissant islands a few miles off their coast.

I excused myself by explaining that I had some reading to do (which is true, so I should wrap this up now) but I had a question, which is whether he knew of a laundromat, since I'd heard him on the phone ask about laundry soap.

Unfortunately, he was talking to a friend who's letting him use his machine in his apartment.

And in parting I said I thought Bush had weakened us incredibly by getting us into a war we shouldn't have been in, and that Obama had been doing a reasonable job of trying to clean up that mess. (I'd already showed my hand earlier when he'd referred to "the occupant of the White House," and I'd interjected, "You mean, the President?")

He parted friendly enough, we're each entitled to our opinions, etc. etc.

But maybe I'll just stay here in Moldova. A little change of insanity does a person good.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How much are we spending, really?

A colleague linked to a New York Times article on the high cost of higher education.

Particularly in the case of public colleges and universities, people have blamed at least part of the rise on a decrease in government support.

The article's main contention is that there has been no such drop in support. "It is a fairy tale in the worst sense, in that it is not merely false, but rather almost the inverse of the truth."

"In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher. 

"In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000."

There are a few things wrong here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Your money where your mouth is (Day 5)

One of the early works in the canon of Russian opera is Glinka’s A life for the Tsar, set during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s. A Polish army is on its way to Moscow to help Polish troops already occupying the Russian capital.

They stop in a village to get someone to guide them further on their way, and Ivan Susanin, a village elder, takes the responsibility. But instead of leading them to Moscow, he leads them into the woods and intentionally gets them lost.

As a snow storm closes in around them, the Polish soldiers realize they’ve been tricked. They kill Susanin, but they themselves die, lost in the storm. Without the extra troops, the Polish army in Moscow has to give up. The city is liberated, the new Romanov dynasty is saved, the Time of Troubles is brought to an end, and on stage at the Bolshoi Opera, the new tsar rides out of the Archangel gate of the Kremlin on an honest to goodness, live, white horse.

For a Russian, anyone who leads you the wrong way is a “Susanin.” Keep that in mind.

This morning we checked out of our hotel (not before I snapped some pictures of it in the morning light) and walked a couple of blocks to where Victor was waiting for us with the bus.

2nd-floor balcony outside hotel rooms,
overlooking the hotel atrium

Sitting area outside 2nd-floor rooms

Ornament on the Writers' Union building

The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba
Well, some of us walked a couple of blocks. As students gathered in the lobby, we explained where the bus was and told those who were ready to head over to it. When we finished up paying and walked to the bus ourselves, we were unnerved to find that many students who’d left the hotel before us had not yet arrived.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A critical review

Hartwick does what are known as "360-degree reviews" for its administrators (vice presidents, directors of offices, that sort of role).

As a faculty person who has interacted extensively with some administrators at different times, I tend to get asked for my input in these performance evaluations.

That input usually takes the form of answers to various questions on a 1-to-5 scale ("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"). There's also a box for free-form comment on each area of questioning.

I completed one a while ago, and some of the questions just pushed my buttons.

Note that I don't mean this as a dig at our director of human resources. I've worked with her on a college committee and respect the work that she does. My sense is that in this instance she is doing a good job implementing what is "best practice." My beef is with this particular iteration of "best practice," trying to quantify things that may be better left unquantified.

Here are some of the characterizations with which I was asked to agree or disagree, followed by the free-form comments I provided. I hope they help. :)

“Embraces change quickly and easily.”
“Is positive and enthusiastic toward change.”

If I may be permitted to editorialize, part of why I dislike forms like this is that it's not always a good thing to be enthusiastic toward change. We're really interested in whether someone does their job well. Sometimes that entails being enthusiastic toward change, sometimes it requires resisting it, because the proposed change is destructive. The questions seem to embody a too-abstract view of what constitutes doing good work.

“Analyzes complex situations, breaking each into its constituent parts.”

See my previous comments on the nature of these questions. There's a role for analytical thinking, but there's a role for holistic thinking as well. I'm more interested in whether someone can craft a good solution to a problem, less in prescribing how they should reach that solution, and even less in participating in a process that has the prospect of dinging them for not approaching their work in a way that an outside observer deems appropriate.

“Is enthusiastic and positive.”

I appreciate the benefits of enthusiasm and a positive attitude, but as with some earlier questions, I feel the shadow of someone's preconceptions of what constitutes good work. Depending on the mood in which one reads the question, it could be taken as an entirely inappropriate injunction for the employee to correct their inner world, a realm which is none of the employer's damn business.

“Avoids inappropriate situations that put the organization at risk.”

I guess I could have answered "Strongly agree" on avoiding inappropriate situations. I didn't witness her have even have the opportunity to avoid any such situations, but maybe that's because she was so good at avoiding them.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Facades and interiors (Day 4)

The calm center of this day was an afternoon stroll, first to Parque Serafín Sánchez in the middle of town, then a few blocks north to Parque Maceo.

This is a comfortable, modest square, with a yellow baroque church occupying a long corner of the space. I sat myself down on a park bench with the church to my right.

Opposite the church there was a pair of houses, mismatched in style, but both porticoed, in a way that suggested a small town rather than a provincial capital.

Across the square from me was an informal traffic hub, where taxis, horse-drawn taxis, and buses traded passengers.

A group of five boys are playing soccer on the square in front of the church—only one of the group had shoes on. The goal is the side of the steps that lead up to the church. There is a shot that gets way past the goalie and up onto the platform where a group of six elders is standing, talking, perhaps waiting for the church to open.

The ball hits one woman in the head. It doesn’t look like that hard a blow, but she’s dizzied and moves closer to the doorway to support herself. One of the boys comes up to apologize. The woman turns to scold him, but can’t persist long in the face of him taking responsibility for his action. She turns away and he reaches up to pat her head where she’s holding her hand, but he doesn’t quite touch her.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Pissing in the wind

You may have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal being negotiated among 11 countries around the Pacific, a deal so marvelous that we can't be allowed to know what's in it.

Beyond the high degree of general skepticism warranted by such secrecy, there are very troubling specifics that can be gleaned from passages that have been leaked.

Among them, the Sierra Club identifies this one:
The investment chapter of the TPP—one of three leaked TPP chapters—would give corporations expansive new rights, including the right to sue governments in non-transparent trade tribunals over public interest regulations that corporations allege would reduce their expected profits.

Using rules similar to those that included in the TPP, corporations such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Occidental Oil, have launched more than 500 cases against 95 governments. Approximately 60 percent of the time, the corporation wins or the case settles, often with a concession to the corporation. [p. 1]
In other words, measures that would force certain amounts of fossil fuels to be kept in the ground and not burned, might be overturned as an illegitimate diminution of a corporation's profits. Of course, they might not be overturned. But the thing is, we're not allowed to see the text, so it's hard to even lay eyes on it.

Today I got an email from Organizing for America (OFA), the outfit that had been Obama for America until he won the presidency. The email was telling me what a great thing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Actually, it was talking about trade-promotion authority, better known as "fast-track," which means that when the president submits a trade agreement to Congress, they can only vote yes or no, they can't insist on changes.

But in essence, OFA is pushing the TPP. Their argument is:
It's pretty important for working families and for the economy that we get this right. U.S. exports—supported by expanding trade—have contributed nearly a third of our economic growth in the recovery, supporting more than 11.7 million jobs according to the International Trade ​Administration​​, and almost 300,000 small and medium-sized businesses in every state according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative​.​
But it doesn't follow that this trade deal is a good one. But wait, there's more:
The good news is that this bill [i.e., fast-track] ensures progressive values, like enforceable labor and environment standards, will be part of the agreement—and that the entire process is transparent.
Hmm, "transparent" as in, "No, you can't see the text we're negotiating"?

And sure, it's nice that the bill ensures that things called enforceable labor and environment standards will be part of the agreement. But what about the investment chapter? Will it or won't it allow corporations to sue governments if governments set rules on how much fossil fuel has to stay in the ground?

If it will allow such actions, it's hard to see what other virtues could possibly justify the agreement.

Shortly after the pitch from OFA, I wrote back:
I was just contacted by OFA about fast-track for the TPP.

There's an argument that TPP would allow fossil-fuel companies to sue if future climate regulations force them to leave carbon in the ground.

Given that the TPP text is secret, what can you do to convince people that this argument isn't true?

And if the argument IS true, how can people take Obama seriously on climate if he's supporting TPP?

What is your agenda, anyway?
I think I know the answer to that last question.

It felt very much like pissing in the wind, but at least now the bile is all over me rather than bottled up on the inside.