Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Memory lane….

Here’s a weird little side trip down memory lane:

Time magazine started coming off the presses in March 1923. In the first month one of the cover personalities was Stephen Sanford.

You know, Stephen Sanford.


OK. Sanford was a rich kid who inherited money and played polo. He was a real good polo player. He and his team (the “Hurricanes”) competed for 25 years in the U. S. Open Polo Championship (it’s still an annual event, by the way) and won several times. He also did fox hunting. He sat on the board of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, the family business.

Well, that’s it. This might be my last post on polo players. No offense to fans intended.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 30, 2015

When were the good old days, exactly?

President Herbert Hoover didn’t have his own email server. Obviously.

Also, he didn’t have a telephone at his desk when he took office on March 4, 1929.

Hoover was the first president to install a telephone in the Oval Office. Otherwise, he would have had to use the phone in the lobby just outside it.

A few weeks after Hoover began his term, an initially pesky instrument was wired up on his desk. At first, it wouldn’t work properly, but the White House crew put it right.

Let’s be fair: a telephone system and switchboard was installed in the White House in 1878, only two years after Alexander Graham Bell received his patent. However, the telegraph system was the dominant communications channel at that time.

The telegraph stayed in the No. 1 spot in the U. S. through the end of the 19th century—in 1900, almost all of the telephone traffic in America was confined to strictly local calls. The long-distance telephone network became a 20th century phenomenon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The wisdom of Abraham Lincoln (part 14)

Abraham Lincoln had a well-honed talent for plainly expressing so many deeply intuitive and elegantly sophisticated insights into human nature, our motivations, our culture and our communally shared experiences.

Often Lincoln would tell a folksy, pithy story to make his point. William Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time and perhaps long-suffering law partner, recalled that Old Abe responded to a question about his religion by comparing it to that of an old-timer named Glenn back in Indiana. The president said the old gent spoke at a church meeting, declaring “When I do good I feel good; when I do bad I feel bad; and that’s my religion.”

Our story-telling philosopher president packed a lot of ethics and theology and natural morality into that one.

Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 245.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 31.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

There was a time….

In Europe in the high Middle Ages, monasteries and religious orders were early adopters of the continuously evolving technology of timepieces and clocks, used to organize their devotional and productive activities such as agriculture and wine-making.

Of course, it was way too early for Bulova or Timex to come to the rescue. Even when the technology started to bloom in the middle of the 13th century, improvements were found only at a snail’s pace.

The clepsydra (water clock) had been in use for millennia, and sundials were familiar in Greece and Rome before the Christian era.

The first mechanical clocks were constructed in the mid-1200s. Spring-driven clocks showed up in the beginning of the 15th century. About 75 years later the first portable, personal timepiece was sold in Europe. The first pendulum clock was built in 1656. The booming tradecraft grew slowly and steadily.

The monks were serious about wanting better timekeepers. Some 12th century monks had bad dreams about sleeping through the bell ringing that summoned them to first prayers of the day, and their abbots earnestly worried about getting the bells rung at the prescribed proper times throughout the day.

David Landes, in his book Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, adds this footnote to clock history:
“…time-consciousness and discipline had become internalized. Missing matins was a serious matter, so serious that it has been immortalized for us by perhaps the best known of children’s songs”:

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines,
Ding, ding, dong; ding, ding, dong.

Let’s clear up a few things about “Frère Jacques.”

The endings “ing” and “ang” are not standard French usage, I prefer the common alternative “din, din, don” to “ding, ding, dong.”

Another thing is that the common English translation “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” is not right. “Jacques” is more properly translated as “Jacob” if we pay attention to its Latin roots.

Another thing is the third line of the song: it’s usually translated as “Morning bells are ringing.” Wrong again. The literal translation is “Ring the matins bells.” The song is an exhortation to Brother (or Friar) Jacob to get up and ring the bells to get the morning prayers started on time.

Reliance on the rooster was very old school by the time the song was introduced.

David Landes Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 66.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thar’s gold in them thar….

OK, OK, I admit I don’t really know where to “go” with this.

Human No. 2, it seems, could actually be No. 1. At least, the U. S. Geological Survey is inclined to say so.

The USGS recently reported it found gold, platinum and silver in treated human waste. A spokeswoman said the traces of gold found in human doo-doo is “at the level of a minimal mineral deposit.”

Another crew of experts (how does one get to be an expert in this kind of thing?) estimated that the stuff that Americans flush down the toilet in a year contains valuable metals worth $13 per person.
Who knew?

And it’s not like it’s a unprecedented concept.

Back in the 1500s or so, poor folks in Europe sold their urine to tanneries that needed the uric acid for leather processing. The very poorest of the poor were shut out of this modest transaction because they “didn’t have a pot to piss in.”

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

Book review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2008
406 pages

This is a book I could put down. I did.

I give it good marks for subject, elegant delivery of good information, prose style and the author’s literate assessment of primary sources.

Lincoln is the most written-about president, with good reason.

Kaplan offers a well-informed, systematic investigation of Lincoln’s reading habits and writing skills.

I know a published author who widely and deeply savored the exploration of Lincoln’s love affair with language and meaning. Likewise, I’m a writer and I was intrigued by much of what Kaplan offered in the first 100 pages or so.

I’m a historian. I am intuitively drawn to the longue durée concept of history and historical analysis, and its emphasis on the complex dynamics of deeply rooted, persistent structure underlying social, economic and political transformations.

I explicitly reject the “great man” theory of history and historical analysis. I am actually disinclined to give credence to a biographer’s undocumented assertions that his subject “might have given credence to” anything in particular, or that his subject “must have believed” something or other, or that his subject “embraced as his own the melancholy of [Gray’s] ‘Elegy,’ [but] did not share, as a young man, its dark stoicism.” 

Kaplan’s text is filled with statements like these. They aren’t to my taste. After 100 pages or so, I put the book down.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

180 days of school…sez who?

Why 180 days of public school?

The short answer is: there’s no particular reason, it isn’t based on any educational theory, it’s just a political compromise.

It’s more or less common knowledge that the September-June school year with summers off is a vestige of America’s largely agricultural society in the 18th and 19th centuries, when kids were needed to do farm work in the busy seasons.

However, it ain’t necessarily so, according to Rebecca Steinitz in the Boston Globe Magazine  on March 22, 2015.

Well into the 19th century, some rural states opened schools for only a couple months during summer and winter, and kids helped with planting and harvesting in spring and fall. Some cities extended the school year to as long as 245 days (e.g. New York City in 1842) to maximize school attendance.

In time, nationwide efforts to establish education standards embraced extension of the scope of public education to include high school, adoption of a common curriculum, and agreement on the length of the school year—the 180-day schedule was a compromise between the two rural and urban extremes, and nothing more.

So, in fact, slavish commitment to “get in 180 days of instruction” has no particular pedagogical rationale.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 23, 2015

The wisdom of Voltaire

“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)
His nom de plume was Voltaire

So often the explanation for perplexing behavior—as by voters and non-voters—is some variation of this derisive insight from the Enlightenment philosopher who was, au fond, more of a populist than he was an elitist.

The deep truth of Voltaire’s epigram haunts my efforts to understand the motivations of most of my fellow citizens. It exposes a flaw in the conceptual foundation of a representative democracy.

(Thanks to my trusted personal advisor for this one.)

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The wisdom of the old farmer (part 14)

“Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.”

Overheard in the milking barn

I confess, I’ve waited too long to mention this snippet of wisdom from the old farmer.

Not that I had any doubts about it, I think it’s rare, insightful, obvious, elusively common-sensical….

I think I thought I was waiting for “the right time” to apply it to some current event or issue of public policy or debate on stuff that matters.

Every time I say it out loud, it feels right.

So, now’s the right time.

What fences are you building these days?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Non-voters are part of the problem....

“The government” is considered to be the top problem in America, according to the Gallup organization.

About 18% of adults pointed to government as the “most important” problem in a recent survey, and 11% named the economy as the second worst problem.

Admittedly, 18% is an obvious minority, but this finding underscores what I think of as the most important problem in our country: our elected representatives really aren't doing any governing.

And while we're on the subject, I’ll offer my candidate for “most puzzling” problem in the United States: why aren’t more folks admitting that the “most important” problem is that they didn’t bother to vote in the last election?

The “government” problem—the failure of our democracy—isn’t going to be fixed until a lot more people start voting.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Things change.

Things change in Boston, especially if you’re in the taxi biz.

A year ago a Boston taxi medallion (license) sold in the open market for $700,000. Yup, five zeroes.

Last month one of the 1,825 taxi medallions issued long ago in Boston was knocked down for only $350,000 at a foreclosure auction.

Think Uber. Think Lyft.

Boston has capped the city-authorized taxi medallions, so there are 1,825 city-authorized and city-inspected taxis on the streets. I’m not sure how many Uber and Lyft drivers there are. I’ve never had a ride with any of them, not sure if I would if I had the chance.

The point is: there’s no particularly good reason why the number of cabs in Boston should be capped at 1,825, it’s a legacy thing from the time Boston started regulating taxis in the 1930s. Why should the city protect a monopoly that benefits a small number of medallion owners? The city fathers should think about authorizing more medallions with a modest annual fee, for drivers who would charge lower fares.

On the other hand, I think a good argument can be made that all the Uber and Lyft and other private-transaction “taxis” should be inspected and thus authorized as insured carriers by the city, for the protection of passengers.

Here’s more stuff: Boston’s high cab fares make it one of the five most expensive cities in America for taxi customers.

The average cabbie doesn’t own a medallion ($350,000!), and the average cabbie clears about $25,000 a year after paying for gas and insurance, and paying the medallion owner for the privilege of driving a licensed cab—some drivers pay more than $100 per 12-hour shift.

The medallion owners basically have to cover the cost of buying and maintaining the vehicle, and apparently they’ve been making out OK for many years.

One man reportedly owns almost one-quarter of the Boston taxi medallions.

In case you were wondering, only four cities in the U.S. have more taxis than Boston, which is the 24th largest city in America. In fact, Boston has twice as many city taxis per capita as New York City, that is, roughly one Boston cab for every 345 Bostonians. Apparently, the taxi patrons in Boston want even more of them.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015

Old people rule!

Well, OK, it’s a stretch to say that old people rule, “elders” don’t get nearly as much respect as they did in previous generations, and there may be some good reasons for that….

Fact is, though, there are lots of old people, a whole lot more than there were in the young United States after the Revolutionary War.

By the way, I’m using the words “old people” advisedly—the United Nations officially says that around the world, age 65 is commonly a threshold point to distinguish “young” people from “old” people. When you hit 65, accept the senior discount when you’re buying your train and theater tickets, feel good about it, get used to it….

In 1790 there weren’t very many 65+ folks around, only about 2% of the population lived long enough to achieve that exalted status. Average life expectancy at birth was about 35 years.

Now there are 7 times more old folks than in 1790. Today, about 14% of the U.S. population is 65 or older. Imagine that 85% of these old folks could disappear tomorrow—that’s what 1790 looked like.(1)

Part of the explanation is that in 1950, life expectancy at birth was about 68 years. Today, it’s close to 80 years.

(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 18.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mark Twain’s advice to little girls (part 3)

“You ought never to take your little brother’s chewing-gum away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

It goes without saying that this 150-year-old advice from Mark Twain is rampantly criminal drivel, why, the very idea….

Or is it the kind of thing that happens all the time?

And here’s the other thing: the little brother probably would have agreed to a lesser amount, say, the first dollar and a quarter found floating…etc.

It’s important to take maximum learning from these insights, and to admit nothing.

In particular, don't admit that you don't know what a grindstone is.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The wisdom of a friend

“Do not fold, spindilate or mutil.”

Alright, it wasn’t my friend’s best day, there had been drinking, he was trying to make a funny….

Still, I think there is core wisdom here.

The messages are:

Take your time.

Don’t start shouting right away.

Measure twice.

Re-read that long email message before you hit "SEND"

Hang in there, baby.

Do your best, even if you can’t say it right.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Open letter to Gov. Scott in Florida

Did you tell your EPA
there are words they cannot say?

Um, “climate change,” the very ones
they aren’t allowed to mention?

Is this goofy ignorant thing entirely your invention?

There’s nothing smart about it,
Guv’nor, really, not a whit.

Is it really true you did it?....seems like chickenstuff.

Keystone pipeline?....GOP pants on fire

"Out of the mouths of..."

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Have you “seen the elephant”?

Here’s one you probably don’t know:

Which came first, the Revolutionary War or the first elephant in America?

Think April 13, 1796.

That’s the day Capt. Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, MA, unloaded an Asian elephant from Calcutta in New York City. He sold it to a showman for $10,000 (almost $180,000 in current dollars).

President John Adams and crowds of Americans flocked to see “Old Bet,” a 2-year-old female who grandly toured throughout the United States for the next nine years. President Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “elephantine mammoths” as the hardy explorers were scouting new routes through the American West.

The exhibition of “Old Bet” was such a marvelous spectacle that folks who saw her talked about “seeing the elephant,” and even the folks who were waiting to see her—or missed the opportunity—helped to add those mundane words to the American lexicon. Later, Civil War soldiers added the darker dimension to the phrase as we know it today, when they guardedly recounted the grisly horror of combat with a sanitized acknowledgment that they had “seen the elephant.”

Elephants and circuses are as American as apple pie. Almost 100 years after “Old Bet,” P. T. Barnum did his fantastic best to promote “Jumbo,” a 12-foot-tall African elephant who weighed in at about 12,000 pounds.

Too bad that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced this week that the troupe of 13 elephants now appearing with its traveling shows will be retired in the next few years, and won’t be replaced.

When you were a kid, did you “see the elephant”? And, hey, did you get to do the elephant ride when the circus came to your town?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Jared Sparks, first American historian

We can think of Jared Sparks (1789-1866) as the first American historian.

Obviously he wasn’t the first person to write about American history. You may recall that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32 and then went home to France to write De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America).

Sparks was the first American with public recognition as a scholar of American history. In 1838 he was selected as the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University, and he served in that post until 1849. He was the first academic historian doing original research, and did pioneering work in the collection of primary documentary materials. Sparks also served as president of Harvard during 1849-53.

The first history prof wrote The Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols.) in 1834-37.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 9, 2015

When “the poorhouse” was a place….

Before the middle of the 20th century, "the poorhouse" wasn’t an abstract concept.

Through the World War II era, mostly county governments in the U. S. provided much of the care for the indigent and elderly folks who could not afford medical care or couldn’t take care of themselves. 

The facilities—“poorhouses” or, in some areas, “poor farms”—were often marginal or wretched.
They were systematically closed by mid-century, in tandem with a massive, federally-sponsored buildout of hospitals after WWII. In 1954 the federal government started providing funds so hospitals could build separate custodial units for patients who needed an extended period of “recovery,” and people who couldn’t take care of themselves increasingly ended up in extended stays in the expanded hospital facilities. That was the beginning of modern nursing homes.(1)

In the present time, economic constraints in the hospital health care system are reducing a patient’s time in hospital, and steadily pushing the indigent, elderly, helpless and terminal people toward retirement homes, nursing homes, hospice care, private care or no care.

(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 68-71.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Not a lot of “tools” on campus these days….

I confess that I went to college so long ago that I was called a “tool” by my fellow students, and, truth is, it wasn’t a particularly opprobrious observation, at the time….

I burned the midnight oil, reading, studying, turning in all the assignments on time, prepping for the exams.

Most of the students I knew put some decent hours in, hitting the books to prepare for class and do the assignments. Here’s a little kicker: our standard course load was 5 courses per semester, 40 courses to complete the requirements for a B.A. or B.S.

A new study reported by NewRepublic.com reconfirms what everybody knows: college students today aren’t working as hard as their parents and grandparents did.

In the 1960s the average full-time collegian was in class at least 15 hours a week, and spent about 25 hours studying and doing homework.

Research in recent years indicates that students are spending about the same amount of time in class—actually, I question this finding, based on my recent personal experience on campus and the current 32-course regimen—but are putting in only about 12 hours doing out-of-class work.

Something besides study hours has been squeezed.

Current learning outcomes reflect the reduced input from our young scholars.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The wisdom of Atul Gawande

“We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do.
             But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do…                                    there’s always something.”

Dr. Atul Gawande (b. 1965)
American surgeon, author

Dr. Gawande continues the thought, observing that more “treatment” often is incompatible with a terminally ill patient’s personal desires and expectations about how to spend the remaining time in ways that are most satisfying, for the patient and for loved ones.(1)

This is his message: more treatment doesn’t necessarily make life better or longer.

Read his book.

If you can, read it before you get to your own end time.

Then talk about it, with your doctor, your friends and your family.


(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 173-74.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Let’s play “Government”….

Just a note for the record:

On Tuesday the U. S. House of Representatives voted 257-167 to authorize funding this year for the Department of Homeland Security. The Senate had previously passed the funding bill, so it’s a done deal.

Republicans shouldn't claim much credit for this event, which easily qualifies as a routine act of good government.

Two-thirds of the Republicans in the House voted AGAINST the bill, because it didn’t include a nastily partisan attack on President Obama’s recent moves to limit deportations of immigrants. You know that story.

The bill passed with the “Yes” votes of only 75 Republicans….every Democrat voted for it.

So Speaker Boehner should be stepping up to the microphone and proudly describing his “hands-across-the-aisle” leadership in coordinating the vital support of our Democratic representatives.

Do you know when that press conference is scheduled? I haven’t heard anything….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Armor-piercing bullets?....Why?

Why does the American sportsman—or any private citizen—need armor-piercing bullets that can be fired from handguns?

The federal government has proposed a ban on the manufacture and sale of popular armor-piercing bullets.

The response of many gun owners was to rush to gun shops and buy up the stocks of this ammo still legally on the shelves.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives plans to shut off the supply of armor-piercing 5.56 mm “M855 green tip” bullets—previously used only for rifles—because new handguns on the market also can fire these bullets. Millions of these inexpensive cartridges have been purchased annually.

The new handgun threat to law enforcement personnel wearing “bullet-proof” vests was all too obvious.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation—it’s a firearms industry trade association—opposes the proposed ban. The NRA described the restriction as “dismantling of the Second Amendment.”
There are plenty of other kinds of bullets available for use by rifle owners who like hunting and target shooting.

Why does the American sportsman—or any private citizen—need armor-piercing bullets that can be fired from handguns that are aimed at police or aimed at anything else?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Zombies….it’s not all bad news….

The next zombie outbreak won’t necessarily be bad news for the folks who take the trouble now to prepare.

Do the right thing for your family—buy one of these zombie-proof log cabin kits, sure, it costs
$113,000 plus about $30,000 for installation and such, but, hey, aren’t your loved ones worth it? It has Xbox, water cannon, satellite TV, toilet, microwave and it’s guaranteed for 10 years!

And speaking of zombie outbreaks, some grad students at Cornell University have been using statistical mechanics to model how these doggone brain-eating, really ugly creatures get the party started, and the research team has good news:

Figure out your quickest route to Glacier National Park in northern Montana. The zombies have a lot of trouble getting out of the big cities and moving into remote areas where the pickin’s aren’t so good….

Really, your best bet is to get one of those anti-zombie log cabins. Otherwise, get moving to the boonies and travel with a small group of folks, say 5 or 6, so there’s no problem keeping up the rotating guard duty for that 24-hour  zombie watch….

Hey, they’re out there.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

The wisdom of Van Wyck Brooks

No one is fit to judge a book until he has rounded Cape Horn in a sailing vessel,
    until he has bumped into two or three icebergs,
       until he has been lost in the sands of the desert,
           until he has spent a few years in the House of the Dead.

Van Wyck Brooks(1886-1963)
American literary critic, historian

Too bad we don’t get guidance like this any more from leaders who incline to be intellectual.

Too bad there aren’t enough folks like Brooks in today’s marketplace of ideas—imagine what a guy like him could do to your typical TV talk show host.

I feel better now.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Textbooks, over the top….

Here’s another thing we need to consider as we struggle to reduce the godawful high price of a college education:

Textbooks are too expensive and too expendable.

For starters, the National Association of College Stores reports that the average textbook cost $68 in 2012. The College Board recommends that students budget up to $1,328 per year for books and supplies (by the way, for community college students, that could be almost half as much as what they spend on tuition!).

Here’s a kicker: college textbook prices have jumped 812 per cent since 1978.

I’ve been looking at textbooks, as an MBA student and as an adjunct professor, for the last 25 years, and I’m thinking textbooks didn’t get 812 per cent better since 1978.

Here’s another kicker: in my experience, most students don’t really use the textbooks much, and I defy anyone to prove that most students do the required reading. I think a typical student buys the book because the instructor says it’s required in a slightly “Make my day!” kind of voice.

And here’s another kicker: colleges and professors share the blame for the galloping cost of books. College book stores typically are profit centers. Textbook publishers for years have been adding “features” to textbooks that make the instructor’s job easier: a typical instructor’s version of a  text includes a CD or online component with graphic materials, PowerPoint slides, detailed discussion guides with questions and lengthy text responses, and high-tech test materials and question/answer banks. Publishers in general are offering a measurable amount of the materials that professors prepared all by themselves in the old days.

Let’s face it. The folks who benefit most from college textbooks are the folks who sell them and the folks who make them a course requirement.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015