Archive for December, 2005

2005, Meet 2006

Posted on December 31st, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I’m not going to do one of those year-end lists that you see everywhere else, mostly because you see them everywhere else. But it has been a fascinating year, hasn’t it? At Harvard, life went from a period of quiet, barely suppressed discontent to outright rebellion and then back again to quiet, barely suppressed discontent. Domestically, we seem to have had a pretty good economic year, even though most people don’t feel like it, largely because we’ve lost confidence in the president (those of us who ever had it) and the war has become a psychological albatross around our necks. The housing bubble has burst, although not so dramatically as some expected–deflated, really–and in New York City, bonuses will be dispensed soon to the Wall Street fatcats, who will presumably pour them into housing, which will send things right back up again. That, anyway, is the theory.

In sports, the Yankees and the Red Sox both had seasons that would be terrific for most teams, yet felt disappointing to them. But who couldn’t cheer the White Sox, winning their first World Series since 1620? Or thereabouts. Good for them, good for baseball. Next season, though, let’s get back to a Yankees-Red Sox championship series. That is excellent for baseball.

In films…well, in films I spent more and more time away from movie theaters, watching stuff at home or just, well, doing things. The theater experience hasn’t changed so much; it’s that the home video-watching experience has gotten so much better, we’re more aware of how annoying it is to pay $12 for a ticket, $8 for a bottle of water and popcorn, and then sit in a theater where half the people present don’t turn off their cell phones, cough on the back of your head, or bring their infant children to see incredibly violent films….

Nonetheless, I did like “A History of Violence” quite a lot, and “Capote,” and “King Kong,” and “Match Point”…there’s hope for American cinema yet.

I’m going to spend some time today pondering the year, and looking forward to next year, so perhaps I’ll share some more of those thoughts here. In the meantime, my best wishes to all for a happy, healthy and safe New Year’s Eve. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, Just keep passing those open windows!

In the Annals of Bad Music Writing

Posted on December 30th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

“[Strokes lead singer Julian] Casablancas seems to have grown the most, articulating the cycle of disillusionment and reillusionment and redisillusionment that defines New York hipster social life like Dorothy Parker in shredded Chuck Taylors. Yesterday they’ll talk about us/And tomorrow they won’t care, he sings on ’15 Minutes,’ kissing off coolness and sounding cooler than ever in the process.”
—Alex Pappademas, writing about the Strokes in the January GQ

Never mind that unfortunate image of Dorothy Parker in Converse sneakers. Never mind “reillusionment.” (Why would anyone say “disillusionment” rather than “disillusion” anyway?

A rock critic thinks it’s cool when a band sings about the transience of fame in a song called “15 Minutes”? I think we are lowering the bar for “growth” here…..

Of Gifts and Power

Posted on December 30th, 2005 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

For those of you interested in the ethics of gift-giving—or, in the case of the Summers-New wedding registration, gift-asking—here’s an interesting story: In Florida, the Republican speaker of the House has just proposed a complete ban on gift-giving to state legislators.

(Currently Wisconsin is the only state that bans such gifts, which tells you a little something about the state of state legislatures. )

In the 1990s, according to the St. Petersburg Times, “a scandal in which lobbyists provided lawmakers with free trips to hunting lodges, ski chalets and even the French Riviera led to nearly two dozen lawmakers being charged with misdemeanors. A chastened Legislature rewrote state law to compel disclosure of all gifts worth more than $25 and a ban on gifts worth more than $100.”

Of course, there are differences between lobbyists’ gifts to legislators and wedding gifts to a university president, but the ethical question is the same: People can give them for reasons of influence-peddling, and people who receive them can be influenced. I’m not suggesting that President Summers institute a ban on wedding gifts…just that he ask people to direct their gifts to Harvard. It’s an easy, appropriate step. Does he really need that $150 ice cream-maker anyway?

This is hardly Harvard’s most pressing issue. But sometimes these small incidents have bearing on larger issues of ethics and character.

The Harvard AIDS Scandal: Harvard’s Response

Posted on December 30th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

In the January issue of Boston Magazine, Harvard “Senior Communications Officer for University Science” B.D. Colen responds to that magazine’s recent article about the Harvard AIDS scandal. Because the letters section of the magazine isn’t online—Boston Magazine, if you’re reading this, you have a less-than-helpful website—I’ll reproduce it here.

In multiple conversations and about 4, 000 words of written responses to e-mailed questions, we described to reporter John Wolfson the history and current accomplishments of Harvard’s African AIDS relief program. But very little of this information made it into his anonymously sourced article….

To set the record straight: Before providing care to HIV-AIDS patients in three African countries, Harvard felt it important to create an infrastructure to ensure the success of this vitally important $115 million effort. Harvard appointed a program executive director with health experience in the developing world so that the scientists and clinicians could concentrate on the science while the administrator secures drug supply chains, hires staff, and handles the details that can, and do, quickly bog down such programs.

As a result, tens of thousands of people have been tested for HIV, and those found positive have been provided with care for AIDS-related illnesses until they become eligible to receive antiretroviral therapy. By the end of October, 3, 195 people in Botswana, about 10, 0000 people in Nigeria, and 3, 275 people in Tanzania were receiving AIDS drugs in the Harvard program. More than 3, 2000 healthcare providers have been trained, laboratories have been strengthened, and new labs established. Systems for monitoring care and treatment have been establishedin Nigeria and Tanzania, and Harvard is assisting Botswana in developing such a system.

These steps help explain why the project was able to do so much for so many people so quickly and effectively.

A couple of thoughts.

First, Harvard has played so fast and loose with its numbers in recent years that it’s hard to take these on face value, and I wouldn’t.

Second, what does it say about Harvard that the only person willing to publicly defend its actions is a P.R. flack? We take the ubiquitousness of “public relations” at universities for granted now. But Harvard stands for truth, right? That’s what it says on the crest. If Mass Hall really believes in what it did, shouldn’t either Larry Summers or Provost Steve Hyman rise to the defense of their handling of this AIDS money? Or is it more important that they cover their asses by disassociating themselves from the whole affair?

In any event, there are a couple of logical issues with Colen’s letter.

His main point is that, in order to keep the program from getting “bogged” down and losing time, Harvard took a long time—Colen conventiently declines to mention how long—to create an “infrastructure.” Which is to say that, in order to save time, Harvard took time—from six months to a year, depending on whom you believe. Time that the other recipients of the “emergency” federal AIDS money didn’t seem to require, something Colen also neglects to mention.

Second, Colen follows the fact of the program administrator with heaps of statistics, as if the cause and effect relationship is obvious and inevitable. But Colen doesn’t establish that all those statistics could not have been achieved without the long delay—which surely led to unnecessary deaths and unnecessary further spread of HIV.

John Wolfson’s original article hasn’t prompted the level of outrage that, in my opinion, it should have. (A federal inquiry into Harvard’s administration of the grant doesn’t seem unreasonable.) Nonetheless, I still think that the tragic delay in administering emergency care to African AIDS patients—a delay brought on by Larry Summers’ desire to control the grant and curtail the independence of the Harvard School of Public Health—is the darkest blot on Larry Summers’ presidency.

Perhaps if those Africans happened to be white and living in Cambridge, people would care more about the long months they spent waiting for medicine that never came.

Myths of Katrina

Posted on December 30th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Remember that terrible story about how someone in New Orleans shot at a helicopter trying to airlift sick people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? And the seven-year-old girl who was raped and killed in the Superdome? The stories of rampant lawlessness and rape, of gangs of thugs running amok at the very same Superdome?

Never happened, according to this excellent article in Reason magazine. None of it. Instead, there were rampant rumormongering, lousy journalism, and irresponsible public officials, like when Mayor Ray Nagin predicted that there’d be 10,000 New Orleans citizens dead from the hurricane. (The actual toll—still awful, of course—was about 900 at the time Reason went to press.)

The article doesn’t mention a pet peeve of mine, which I’ll bet my left pinkie could fall into this category of hysteria and hype: the reports of thousands of missing children which prompted CNN, in full milk-the-hurricane-for-every-rating-point-we-can mode, to run photos of “missing” children like an on-screen slide show.

Ethics and Etiquette: A Discussion

Posted on December 28th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Judging from your posts, some of you think that I’m being unfair to Larry Summers and Lisa New for suggesting that the establishment of a wedding registry opens the door to, in my word, “ass-kissing,” and that President Summers would do better to ask people who wish to celebrate his marriage to contribute money to Harvard.

I will concede that I’m a stickler for ethics, and that given the possibility of impropriety, it’s best to be cautious. It’s hard to say where this came from exactly—many sources, I’m sure—but I do remember one incident that affected me deeply.

After my sophomore year in college, I volunteered for a congressman in Washington, New Haven Democrat Bruce Morrison. I did the usual routine stuff—answered letters, wrote a bill to try to get New Haven on a postage stamp (it didn’t pass), that kind of thing.

Like all congressional offices, ours would receive bundles of gifts from lobbyists and trade associations who wished to curry favor with the congressman and his staff. (The one I remember particularly well was a case of beer from Anheiser-Busch.) Every other office that I knew of was more than happy to take these gifts. The congressmen, who tended to underpay their staffs, knew that these little gifts could boost office morale, and didn’t like to think that the staffs could be influenced by them—though of course they could be, and were.

But Morrison had run as a reformer, and he was serious about that; he made us return every single gift that came to the office. On one level, I was none too happy about that policy; I wasn’t getting paid a dime to work there, and as a result, I rose at 5:00 AM on weekend mornings to work as a phone operator at the Washington Post. (Taking calls from angry subscribers who didn’t receive their papers, or their comics sections—but that’s another story.)

On another level, though, I admired Morrison for his position. I could see that these gifts did have an impact on the other congressional offices; you’d be surprised how little it takes to bribe someone, to create a feeling of indebtedness. (“Oh, come on, we should meet with these guys, they sent us that great case of beer….”) If it didn’t work, the lobbyists wouldn’t have done it.

To some, Morrison’s policy might have seemed priggish. But on balance, I think he was right. The gifts were designed to influence, and at least some of the time, they did. Better not to take the chance.

Now, of course, there are significant differences between gifts to a congressional office and gifts to newlyweds. But my point is twofold. First, that’s one example of why I think about such things. And second, every act of giving becomes more loaded when you are giving to someone in power, someone who can do things for you. If you don’t believe that, then you are living an unexamined life.

Ultimately, it’s really the responsibility of the person in power to think about the issues involved…and the responsibility of the rest of us to discuss them. I’ve never resented it when people have discussed various ethical conundrums I’ve gotten into, partly because I always thought I was right, partly because the discussions had the potential to be interesting.

Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps I’m over-reacting. But how could the discussion be a bad thing?

Andrew Has a Point

Posted on December 28th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I generally disagree with Andrew Sullivan’s diatribes against “the left,” mostly because I think the left is so marginal and irrelevant that it’s hardly worth getting upset about. But I do enjoy his year-end “Moore Awards,” named after Michael Moore.

(Did Jane Smiley really say that? What a dolt.)

Check ’em out…..but remember that if one were to compile a similar list making fun of right-wing excesses in 2005, it would be equally entertaining, and considerably longer. And the scary part is, when the left-wing rants, everyone gives ’em a good kick until they’re silent. When the right-wing rants, Karl Rove picks up the phone…..

P.S. Oh, wait—Andrew does compile some right-wing rants. Quite funny. (Just keep scrolling….)

At Yale, a Radical Departure

Posted on December 28th, 2005 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The Times has this interesting story on anthropologist David Graeber, an associate professor who did not receive tenure at Yale and blames that fact on his left-wing politicking. It’s one of those stories where it’s impossible to know whom to believe: the folks at Yale, who say that Graeber frequently showed up late to class; Graeber, who says older professors didn’t appreciate his support for a grad student union (a truly dumb idea, in my opinion, but never mind); or the former Yale prof who says it’s all the result of a system by which young professors at Yale get screwed. I imagine it’s a bit of everything.

There is one little detail that makes me wonder about Graeber. Early in the article, he holds up a rubber bullet that he says was fired at him by Canadian police during an anti-globalization protest. The bullet, according to Graeber, grazed his head.

Given the difficulty of recovering a bullet that has grazed but not hit one in the head, I wonder if Graeber isn’t taking a little artistic license here….

On the other hand, Graeber does give this quote, which, based on my own experience in graduate school and reporting Harvard Rules, seems exactly right:

“So many academics lead such frightened lives,” he said. “The whole system sometimes seems designed to encourage paranoia and timidity. I wasn’t willing to live like that.”

Thoughts on the Demise of Radar

Posted on December 28th, 2005 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

I haven’t written about Radar, the new magazine more read about than read, because its founding editor, Maer Roshan, is an acquaintance, and I didn’t think the magazine was very good. But I also believe that new magazines take some time—and deserve some time—to find their voice. You really can’t judge a magazine on three issues, particularly one that was operating under a short financial leash and with a constantly uncertain future.

Now Radar is, well, under the radar: financier Mort Zuckerman pulled the plug on a promised $12 million investment after just three issues. The magazine’s abrupt end has prompted some unfortunate sniping, with the magazine’s young staffers making unfortunate jokes about Zuckerman (“What’s small and pulls out in a hurry?”) and Zuckerman behaving more professionally, pointing out that the magazine was losing money hand over fist. An angry Roshan has publicly taken exception to Zuckerman’s version of events, which strikes me as a mistake, because when something like this happens, you should always be thinking about your next employer, not your last one. To his credit, though, Maer was passionate about his magazine, and I’m sure this has been tough on him—you can’t blame the guy for being upset.

I think there were a couple of forces in play here that haven’t really been talked about.

The first is that Radar was the wrong magazine for the time we’re living in. Its obsession with celebrity—not in an US magazine-like way, but filtered celebrity—felt very ’90s to me, very Talk. The covers were horrible: Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise, and…well, I don’t think I even saw the third issue. It all felt vaguely warmed-over and unserious, falling into a gray area between escapist rubbish and a serious magazine. And, I think, Maer made the mistake of believing that what plays well with inside-the-media media—Page Six, Gawker—mattered to anyone outside of a couple of Manhattan zip codes.

Second, the mainstream media right now is controlled by Baby Boomers, and they have been extremely reluctant to hand over the reins to the younger generation. (Is it X? Y? I can’t remember.) That is, for example, the unwritten theme of Timothy O’Brien’s interesting profile of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. By contrast, it’s very hard to think of a national magazine edited by someone under 45. The New Republic, I suppose, and maybe Men’s Health. (If that counts.) Instead, the younger people are making their inroads at new magazines or on the web—one reason why Radar’s website was the only part of the magazine that seemed to be having any impact.

Radar represented a media youth movement of sorts, but I’m not sure that Maer was the best ambassador of his generation. I suspect the rap against him—that he focuses more on public relations than on editing—is probably right, and the business side of things never seemed to interest him much. Perhaps because Maer’s search for funding was so well-publicized, there was about Radar always an air of children playing with their parents’ money. Maybe ten years ago, that would have worked; people were throwing money around more carelessly then. But now, there just seemed something pathetic about it.

On the one hand, I’ll miss Radar, because I believe in magazines and want there to be more of them. On the other hand, I wish there could be more magazines that make our culture more serious, and Radar was not one of them. Maybe, had it been given time, it would have been.

‘Tis the Season, Apparently

Posted on December 27th, 2005 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Want to curry favor with the president of Harvard and his wife? Well, here’s one way to do it: Send them a gift from their Williams-Sonoma registry. (Follow the link and type in Elisa New.)

By my count, there are 35 different items that the new couple would like—and some more than one of—ranging from a $12 set of marisol napkins to a “Provence platter” for $199. There’s also a wafflemaker ($59.95) and an ice cream maker ($149.95). Also, quite a lot of wine glasses.
Apparently the Summers-New household plans to do a lot of entertaining: Note that they’re asking for three sets of 16-piece dinnerware, at $169 a set.

I am not enough of an etiquette expert to pass judgment on whether one is supposed to do this sort of thing for a second wedding (for both), or when the combined income of the new household is in the range of $750,000 a year, not to mention the free housing and the use of a car and driver. (It’s almost enough to make one wonder if the new couple is expecting to be looking for new housing in the near future.)

But I do know that this kind of thing can lead to gifts being given for the wrong reasons. In Washington, they’d call it influence-buying, but in Cambridge, they can just call it ass-kissing.

Here’s a suggestion for President Summers: Get rid of the wedding registration—surely you can afford your own ice cream maker—and announce that anyone who would like to celebrate your marriage with a gift could do so with a contribution to Harvard’s financial aid fund. Wouldn’t a gesture of pro-Harvard generosity create some much-needed goodwill?

On the positive side, Lisa New has good taste in homewares….