Archive for September, 2007

A Skip Gates Story

Posted on September 28th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Last week I attended a book party for “One Drop,” a new book by Bliss Broyard about her family’s hidden racial identity: her father, who died in 1990, was a light-skinned black man who “passed” for white for much of his life, and never told his children the truth about his ethnic identity.

Some of you may remember the story, which was originally publicized by Skip Gates in a New Yorker piece called “White Like Me—The Passing of Anatole Broyard.” (I believe Gates has since reprinted it in a collection.)

In One Drop, Broyard recounts the story of how Gates came to write that profile, and, if you’re interested in how Gates works, it is fascinating.

Broyard and Gates are originally introduced through a mutual friend, and Gates calls Broyard.

Broyard writes:

I started out the conversation pacing back and forth in front of the counter—I was anxious about sounding stupid or ill-informed—but his easygoing manner and a conversational style peppered with words like “dig,” “brother,” and “crazy motherfucker” soon relaxed me….. Skip asked me question after question….. After talking for almost an hour, Skip promised to put together a reading list for me and hung up.

Gates also encourages Broyard to write about her father, saying that it would make a wonderful and important story.

Before long, Gates calls and asks Broyard if she wants to have lunch. She agrees, but isn’t sure of his motives.

I wondered briefly if his interest was romantic…..

Then Gates cancels because (this is so typical, it’s a little funny), he has to go to Washington to receive an award. Then it turns out that he is interested in a different kind of seduction.

I‘ve got some good news, he says. Tina Brown wanted him to write about Anatole Broyard for a New Yorker profile.

Bliss Broyard isn’t happy—she wants to be the first to break the news of her father, and she isn’t ready to write about him.

We hung up at a crossroads. As he continued to call throughout the fall, trying to win my cooperation—and by extension, my family’s—my trash-talking buddy Skip rapidly disappeared. Messages from Henry Louis Gates, Professor Gates, Dr. Gates, and then finally Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. piled up on my answering machine. …Eventually Skip realized he was barking up the wrong tree.

When the article is published, it is not unsympathetic—I read it at the time and found it moving and fascinating, especially because the Broyards grew up down the street from my childhood home, and Bliss’ brother and I attended the same school—but it was still painful for the Broyards.

My family and I stood stiff with anger, blinded under the glare of this sudden spotlight. The characterization of my father as an obsessive seducer of women particularly upset my mother.

Some time later, Gates sent to Broyard a detailed genealogy, all the research that the New Yorker had done to establish the race of Anatole Broyard. A guilty conscience or the fulfillment of a promise to help Broyard write about her father?

As I read this, I don’t particularly think Gates did anything wrong. It’s arguable that he should have told Broyard in their first conversation that he was thinking of writing about Anatole Broyard, as he surely was, but on the other hand, lots of journalists troll for ideas in everyday conversations. (Pretty much all the time, in fact.)

But it’s nonetheless a fascinating and not very attractive portrait of the way that an ambitious journalist goes about his business, and how a person’s painful life story can be commodified both by an outsider and by a family member. (Because surely Bliss Broyard must have known what a fascinating book her father’s story would make, just the kind of thing that the American literary intelligentsia would snap up, and how her father’s life story could boost her own career.)

What makes this incident even more intriguing is that the New Yorker piece probably did help Bliss Broyard get her book contract, for more money than she would otherwise have gotten, I suspect.

So you see, journalism can be a pretty interesting business.

Yale Beats Harvard

Posted on September 27th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

Yale reports that its endowment increased by 28% last year….beating Harvard’s return by about five percent.

Yale’s 28% return easily exceeded the 17.5% average for foundations and endowments over the period and beat all other endowments with at least $1 billion in assets that have reported year-end results so far, according to the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service.

Of course, Yale’s endowment of $22.5 billion is only about 2/3 of Harvard’s $34.9 billion.

Yale’s investment manager, David Swensen, has been in charge of the university’s investments since 1988, and over the past decade he has beaten Harvard’s return by an average annual 2.8%.

Among the other endowments which did better than Harvard’s were Amherst, Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, Duke, Michigan, and Northwestern. No one did better than Yale….

Could this have anything to do with the departure of Mohammed El-Erian?

Lee Bollinger, Still on the Spot

Posted on September 26th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 15 Comments »

The New York Sun claims that there’s a backlash on campus against Columbia president Lee Bollinger.

A backlash against the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who on Monday delivered a harsh rebuke to President Ahmadinejad, is coming from faculty members and students who said he struck an “insulting tone” and that his remarks amounted to “schoolyard taunts.” The fierceness of Mr. Bollinger’s critique bought the Iranian some sympathy on campus that he didn’t deserve, the critics said, and amounted to a squandered opportunity to provide a lesson in diplomacy.A backlash against the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who on Monday delivered a harsh rebuke to President Ahmadinejad, is coming from faculty members and students who said he struck an “insulting tone” and that his remarks amounted to “schoolyard taunts.” The fierceness of Mr. Bollinger’s critique bought the Iranian some sympathy on campus that he didn’t deserve, the critics said, and amounted to a squandered opportunity to provide a lesson in diplomacy.

The Times reports
on the same thing.

Before Iran’s president took the stage at Columbia University on Monday, the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, sent out an early-morning e-mail message, calling on students and faculty “to live up to the best of Columbia’s traditions.” Yesterday, many critics questioned whether Mr. Bollinger had met that test himself.

On balance, did Bollinger come out ahead in the A-jad brouhaha?

The Case Against Sushi

Posted on September 26th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Demand for bluefin tuna has the species on the verge of extinction

The Coop Controversy

Posted on September 26th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 11 Comments »

The Globe covers the simmering battle between and the Harvard Coop.

For the students, this is a fight about the cheapest access to information.

“We’re not out to be at war with the Coop,” said Jon Staff, director of, who passed out fliers advertising the site outside the Coop yesterday. “It’s sad that students have to choose which classes they take based on the overall cost of the textbooks.”

And for the Coop, it’s about the value of information that it works to compile.

Coop president Jeremiah Murphy said the store’s reading list is proprietary information. The staff spends considerable time compiling the list, collecting the names of books required by professors and sorting books by course, he said.

“The issue is, why should we give it out to anybody, particularly the competitors?” Murphy said.

It’s really a classic fight of the Internet era, in which information wants to be cheap and old monopolies dig in their heels to try to maintain profit levels. Sorry, Coop—right or wrong, you know how this is going to go. Cut your prices or die…..

Is the Blogger Slacking Off?

Posted on September 25th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Sorry it’s been quiet here today, folks. Turned in the book manuscript yesterday, and I suppose it’s fair to say that I was a bit lazy today.

Quote of the Day

Posted on September 24th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 15 Comments »

“Mr President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”

—Columbia president Lee Bollinger to Iranian president A-jad.

Lee Bollinger on the Spot

Posted on September 24th, 2007 in Uncategorized | 18 Comments »

I went to BAM yesterday to see Ian McKellen in King Lear—wow!—and before the play one of my friends spotted Lee Bollinger sitting down (fourth row, center). That takes some chutzpah, I thought. Going to Lear the day before Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s controversial speech on your campus.

The Wall Street Journal blasts Bollinger today (surprise!) for inviting A-jad, as we will now call him, to Columbia, accusing Bollinger of hypocrisy for banning military recruiting at Columbia while inviting A-jad to speak.

Mr. Bollinger’s position might at least be coherent were he not now invoking the same principles to justify his invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose offenses to gay rights and any other form of human dignity considerably exceed the Pentagon’s. After promising that he would introduce the president “with a series of sharp challenges” — including Iran’s “reported support” for international terrorism — he went on to say that “it is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their expression.

I have a couple of thoughts about all this. One is that Bollinger really is an eloquent advocate for the First Amendment, and especially these days, I’m glad of that; the country seems to need reminding. Two, given that the White House seems determined to go to war against Iran, this speech actually seems useful. Might as well know all we can before the bombs drop, right? Three, Bollinger’s got some guts—and an ego to boot. One thinks he’s rather enjoying all this.

Finally, it’s interesting to ponder this brouhaha in the context of the idea of the university president and the bully pulpit. Lee Bollinger has, since becoming president of Columbia, probably made himself the most prominent university president in the country. That’s the role that Larry Summers was supposed to occupy, and one that Drew Faust so far shows no intention of competing for.

Would Harvard have been better off had it chosen Lee Bollinger instead of Larry Summers, as it almost did? I don’t know. But it is fascinating to watch Bollinger and wonder what might have been.

Was Larry Summers Right?

Posted on September 23rd, 2007 in Uncategorized | 34 Comments »

Men are smartest and dumbest,” according to the Times of London.

Psychologists have found a justification for the male strangehold on Nobel prizes – there are twice as many men as women in the brightest 2% of the population.

But although men may win the top prizes, they cannot claim a clear-cut victory in an intellectual battle of the sexes. The study shows that men also cluster at the opposite extreme, with twice as many men as women stuck in the least intelligent 2%.

I have suggested in the past that Harvard, in some form, apologize to Cornel West. I wonder if, in the interests of fairness, there is not also some apology owed to Lawrence Summers. Not for his eventual ouster, which I think was inevitable and, at that point, necessary, and as a result of general failings in leadership style—but for the vilification he took for making the women-in-science remarks. At the very least, reports such as the one above suggest that, right or wrong, Summers was hardly beyond the bounds of appropriate conversation in that NBER talk….

Where’s Marcia When You Need Her?

Posted on September 23rd, 2007 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Nick Summers and Chris Beam, editors of Ivygate (and 02138 contributors) write in the Washington Post about college sex.

What can college kids expect—and parents fear?

...They’ll be gettin’ some. Literally — some. As in, a medium amount.

…Improbably, it’s a recent comedy — a movie whose plot turns on vomit, penis art and a fake ID issued to one Mr. McLovin — that gets it right. Next to “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” “Superbad” is nothing less than a documentary of our time. The story of two best friends on the eve of college, it nails how our generation’s culture really is based on drinking and hookups — but also how at the end of the night, even with girls who are eager and boys who score booze, sex remains elusive.

Vomit also plays an important role, as it probably should, in college drinking, according to Daniela Deane in WashPo, who tells of how her college student son got drunk and puked on a nice chair she bought him. Whoops!

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching — and the cushion incident only made matters worse. Have my husband and I been too permissive, hostages to our own upbringing? Did we give these boys too much credit for knowing when enough is enough?

Soul-searching turned into researching, though, and what I found actually quieted my anxious heart. Despite the headlines, the truth is that drinking among college students has decreased. And young people’s attitudes about drinking and driving have changed, too, with many of them much more reluctant to get behind the wheel after imbibing.

Hmmmm. Has anyone considered the possibility that college students are having less sex because sometimes, when you’re young and a bit nervous, it helps to be a little looped?