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Friday, April 26, 2002


So now there is, rightly, talk of removing priests who sexually molest youngsters. So can we please choose a term for this other than "defrock"?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

The Ticket is Punched

Today I have officially received my Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. What follows are some snippets from my graduate school experience:

Week Negative Thirty-Three
Respected professor after class: "Tony, what are you going to do next year?"

Me: "I'm trying to decide between law school and the FBI."

Professor: "You wouldn't be happy doing either of those. Have you thought about graduate school?"

I have not yet learned that academics have notoriously bad judgment. Outside of high school guidance counselors, the average professor may be the least qualified to give career advice.

Week One
Dr. Roy P. sees us two at a time in order to welcome us to graduate school, chat us up, and assign us each an advisor based on our interests. I go in with classmate Lowell B., with whom I've been talking in the hallway. Lowell is horrified by my support for school vouchers.

Dr. P: "So (looks at name on folder), Tony, let's start with you. What are your interests?"

Me: "Public policy, mostly. Housing, economic development..."

Dr. P: (Scowling) "Well, public policy is to political science what accounting is to mathematics." (Turning away) "So, Lowell, what are your interests?"

Lowell: "Economic growth in the Soviet Union."

This is followed by a thirty-minute discussion between Dr. P and Lowell about the economic strength and development of the Soviet Union, while I try not to feel like the red-headed bastard at the family reunion.

Dr. P: "Well, Lowell, your advisor will be Dr. L. And Tony, your advisor will be Dr. M. He's over in the (scowling again) Policy School. You'll want to speak with them soon, so they can help you select your first semester's classes. I think you'll both find that we have an open-door policy here, so don't be shy about introducing yourselves to the faculty; they're all eager to help."

So I make my way to the Policy School, to learn that Dr. M will be out of town until after classes start. As I wander down the hall, I notice that the door to world-renowned scholar Robert A. is slightly ajar. Remembering Dr. P's advice about getting chatty with the faculty, I tap on the door.

Dr. A: "What?"

Me: "Hi, I'm Tony [insert blather about being new, being glad to be here, having read Dr. A's book, wondering what classes to take]."

Dr. A: "Good. Good."

Me: "So I just thought I'd introduce myself." He hasn't taken his hands off his keyboard since I came in. He really wants me to leave.

Dr. A: "Good."

Me: "So I guess I'll see you around."

Dr. A: (Over his shoulder, as he turns back to his computer) "Good."

Week Fifty-Three
I meet Joan S., who will henceforth become my anti-voting guide. I no longer need to evaluate candidates or issues, I simply ask myself which candidate will be most likely to induce cerebral thrombosis in Joan, and vote accordingly. I've recently written an economic analysis of the local Kroger strike, in which employees demand a "living wage" for work that doesn't merit such pay. Joan has been leading the graduate contingent that is working the picket lines with the employees. We are at an afternoon cook-out, and Joan denounces me. We argue for a while, and then I turn to a different conversation. I hear one of the children of a classmate ask Joan what a union is.

Joan: "Well, honey, a union is what working mommies and daddies need so they can feed their children."

Another child: "Is my daddy in a union?"

Joan: "Yes, that's why he can afford to feed you."

Then Joan teaches them a cheer: "Yay Unions!"

I'm not making this up. As they walk around the party, shouting their little slogan, she gives me a smug look. That's when I decide to devote the rest of my life to building a political and social system that will cause her to commit suicide at an early and embittered age.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Forty-Seven
I have a sweet offer from the University of C., my dream job. I inexplicably accept an invitation to visit Mega-Corporation X, where the CEO meets with me personally and asks me to help him develop and implement his innovative management philosophy. I decide, on the flight back, that it might be good to get some experience in an organization before teaching about them for the rest of my life. I accept the job. A colleague where I am teaching, upon learning of my decision, cries out in a bitter voice: "And to think, you could have been at the University of C.!" She never speaks to me again for the remainder of my time there. This convinces me that I have made the right decision.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Three
A week before I fly back to Michigan to defend my dissertation, I send an email to my committee members, asking them to tell me if they've noticed any problems, so I can correct them before plunking down the semester's tuition (you have to enroll the semester you defend). I get no response, except from my favorite professor John K., who tells me how much he enjoyed reading my work.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Four
10:15 AM: I hand over a check for $3,300 to the University of Michigan for my semester's tuition.

10:30 AM: My defense begins.

Dr. J: "I've noticed some profound problems in your methodological chapter."

Me: "Oh." You mean the methods chapter I finished three years ago? The one I gave you forty-five drafts of? The one that was published last year in one of the top journals in my sub-field? The one that's the centerpiece of the dissertation that I emailed you about last freaking week to see if there were problems?

Dr. J: "You specify an equation that has . . . error terms aren't independent . . . variance measure doesn't take into account . . . eigenvector . . . vector auto-regression . . ."

Me: "Oh." I think I can kill him before they drag me off of his body.

Dr. J: ". . . and the way you account for the interaction of time and causality isn't properly specified . . ."

Me: "Oh." If I kill him, I will definitely fail. Must stay calm. Do not throw up. Do not throw up.

Dr. J: ". . . so there's no way your empirical results can be meaningful, given this specification."

Me: "Oh." Thirty-Three Hundred Dollars. Thirty-Three Hundred Freaking Dollars.

Dr. J: "I'm sorry, but this will require substantial revisions."

Me: "Oh."

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Five
A former classmate [name deleted to protect him] calls me up to hear the horror story first-hand.

Friend: "That f***. That f****** f***. That m************ f***. . . [insert various tenses and grammatical forms of the F-bomb]"

He knows just what to say to make me feel better. Some people are just gifted that way.

Week Forty-Seven Thousand Nine Hundred and Eight-Three
After approximately 900 revisions involving Monte Carlo simulations and numerous econometric re-specifications, which aren't so easy to produce when one is working full-time, Dr. J relents. My dissertation is much better, by the way. It would have been good to get his input when I was, say, still in graduate school, but I'm thankful nonetheless.

Week Forty-Seven Thousand Nine Hundred and Eight-Six
I write a $3,600 check to the University of Michigan.

I'm a doctor, though I won't let anyone call me that, because you shouldn't put "Dr." in front of your name unless you know what to do when Joan S. keels over in front of you with cerebral thrombosis. Sadly, should that happen on my watch, I'm afraid I'll be unable to help her. I've noticed, by the way, that outside of the academy, there is a negative correlation between the quality of one's degree and one's propensity to insist on being called "Doctor." But that's a topic for another time.

So here's the thing: I don't feel any smarter. I do feel wiser, and like I've matured and acquired some self-discipline, but the Marines could have produced the same result, and they would have paid me. As my colleague and fellow Ph.D. Art H. points out, however, I've gotten my "ticket punched." Maybe so.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, April 25, 2002

That Pesky Bill of "Rights"

Yesterday's Washington Post reported on the Supreme Court's recent decision making it easier for local governments to forbid building on private property without compensating owners for the loss in value. Check out some of Post reporter's language. He wrote that the Supreme Court decision "strengthens the hand of environmental regulators against the conservative-led 'property rights' movement."

You might recall my previous comments on the use of italics in a news article to derogate a point of view. Now, you can search until your eyes bleed and you won't find one reference in any of the Washington Post archives to "the liberal-led 'abortion rights' movement," "the liberal-led 'environmental' movement," or "the liberal-led 'progressive taxation' movement." In fact, odds are that you won't find the phrase "liberal-led" in front of anything that is derogated by italics.

And think about what this reporter has chosen to italicize: "property rights." Now go read the Bill of Rights, specifically, the Fifth freaking Amendment. My history's a little fuzzy, but I believe that the Founders called it "the Fifth freaking Amendment" as well. They thought it was that important. Here's a relevant snippet:

"No person . . . [shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

I could be mistaken, but that looks like the shadow of a definition of a property right. If one isn't sure, one could read, in conjunction with the Ninth Amendment ("The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.") the Federalist Papers, or perhaps the opening stanza of the freaking Constitution itself (again, I speak for the sake of historical accuracy), specifically that part about Liberty, or in Washington Post parlance, "liberty."

In other words, we really do have property rights in the U.S., at least for a while longer. They aren't property "rights", or "so-called" property rights, they are bona fide, Constitutionally established, I'll-shoot-you-if-you-try-to-steal-mine (Second Amendment, for you Washington Post staffers) claims to property.

Of course, that may be more than we can expect a Washington Post "news" reporter to be able to figure out.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

On Forgiving

I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness, about what it means for someone who has wronged another to have the audacity to ask that person to put down his rightful claim of vengeance. It's not in our nature to forgive, yet somehow it is in our nature to ask for forgiveness. We are programmed to ask for a miracle, for someone to overlook that which is evil in us in order to repair what was once good. Dag Hammarskjold wrote:

"Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again."

What a wonderful, terrible thing to know that we all have that ability to create or deny a miracle to those we love, or at times to those we don't even know. It is wonderful because there are so few ways to give, with our fumbling, sinful hands, something of everlasting value to another human being. It is terrible because when we deny it, especially to someone who loves us, we turn our backs on the opportunity to be, if only for a fleeting moment, like a Savior.

So those of you who are harboring a grievance against someone you love, no matter how much you are in the right, no matter how much you are hurt, remember that to which your love has committed you:

    "What power has love but forgiveness?
     In other words
     by its intervention 
     what has been done 
     can be undone. 
     What good is it otherwise?"
               * William Carlos Williams

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Ooh, Now We're Really Scared

The Palestinian security chief has announced that it will no longer be one of his priorities to prevent suicide bombings in Israel. In related headlines, Atlantic City announced that it was ending its anti-gambling campaign, and the head of the North American Man-Boy Love Association declared that he would no longer work to protect youngsters from molestation.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Entrepreneurs vs. Mechanics

The New York Times reports on this innovative idea for alleviating the city's parking problem, which the budding entrepreneur in the story rightly conceptualizes as a trading opportunity. His idea in a nutshell is to link people who are leaving a parking space with people in the area looking for a space, via his "trading floor."

The most revealing part of the story, however, has nothing to do with the idea: "... a quick-eyed auto mechanic named Tommy Gleeson spotted her and deftly maneuvered his beige BMW into striking position for the spot."

Auto mechanic. Beige BMW.

Yet another piece of evidence that graduate school was a waste of time.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, April 22, 2002

Why Can't Women Be More Like Reader's Digest?

I've observed that many women have an approach to storytelling akin to Kevin Costner's philosophy in Wyatt Earp, which is to take as long to relate the story as it took for the story to actually happen. Many men, on the other hand, prefer just to hit the major points, under the theory that most experiences not involving food or sex are boring enough the first time, and barely worth the retelling, except insofar as not sharing them with one's mate can impact the probability of having food and sex in the future.

I've always been curious about why this is, and I think part of the answer lies in the fact that many women seem to be more empathetic than men. During a recent restaurant outing my wife told me about a conversation between two of our married friends, and she was actually speaking as if she were the wife in the story:

Wife: "So she said (adopts a loud, angry tone) 'if you think I'm going to pick up your dirty underwear and keep my mouth shut while you ignore me and our children, you've got the wrong idea about marriage!'"

Me: "Honey, do you realize that everyone within a 20-foot radius thinks you were talking to me, and that they are all now speculating on exactly how dirty my underwear is?"

Moments like this can be acutely humiliating. But my wife doesn't mean any harm, she simply feels the emotions of the people in her story. So when she tells me about a conversation with the grocery store clerk, or how some children behaved in the park, she is reliving it, which compels her to describe details and nuances that I wouldn't bother to communicate were it my story.

This can have other interesting consequences. For example, our church has a prayer chain, which is simply a group of women who call each other, one after the other, to pass along any immediate requests for prayer that surface throughout the week in our church community. The problem is that the more people talk, the more embellishments and inaccuracies creep into a story. Because women tend to take longer to tell a story, this creates more opportunities for a predicament being prayed over to become increasingly grave. Last year a fellow who fell off a ladder and broke his leg ended up with his foot amputated by the time the prayer chain women got done with him. Had it been men passing along the story, his leg would have healed miraculously and he would have gotten off with just a "stinger," which is football parlance for "some undefined but manly pain." I've instructed my wife, should I ever get sick, that she is not to put it on the prayer chain unless she is confident that she and the kids can get by on my life insurance money.

So men and women are different. (Isn't it interesting, by the way, that it took the apparently androgynous author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to tell us that?) And even though we men don't listen, and nod repeatedly to get them to hurry up, women still faithfully persist in telling us their unabridged stories. I think that's one reason we love them, because they put up with us when what we really deserve is a punch in the nose.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)