Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I recently made a purchase at After the process of submitting my credit details, confirming the delivery address, and sending off the order, I was informed by a little box in the upper right hand corner of the screen that I could tell other people via Facebook, Twitter, or email that I had just purchased X.

I was quite fazed by this. What is this modern compulsion to tell the world what you are doing at any moment? Is it because of a misplaced sense of one’s own importance? Or because (at the opposite end of the ego scale) a feeling that one’s own existence can only be confirmed by the recognition of others? And why would anyone else care?

I have always had great abhorrence of people (I’m thinking especially of official types like college presidents) who gaze out at their audience from an auditorium platform and coyly state that they have “something to share” with us. When really they just want to tell us something. I have always been tempted to shout out, “Then give me half of your chocolate cake!”

So, I have desisted from sharing with you the details of my recent purchase.

Besides, I’ve eaten it all myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Model Family

Is there something about having a good set of cheekbones that dictates that there is nothing inside one’s skull?

I ask the question because about a week-and-a-half ago supermodel Vanessa Hessler in an interview with Italian magazine Diva e Donna spoke of the "very beautiful love story" she shared with one of the sons of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and explained to readers that "the Gaddafi family is not how they are being depicted, they are normal people." Yup. Jess folks—a supermodel’s updating of the nuclear family sittin’ around the old TV watchin’ re-runs of The Waltons.

Another model, a former girl friend of Mutassim Gaddafi, the dictator’s son, told the Daily Telegraph about being gifted with “the entire collection of Louis Vuitton bags.”

It’s amazing what near-anorexics will do for pieces of canvas and dead cow.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Shadowy Figures Behind It All

Harry Pearson (The Guardian, Oct. 21, 2011):

Former vice-president of Fifa Jack Warner is like a V1 rocket, he does the most damage when he falls silent. So it was a relief to us all this week when the Trinidadian announced that his recent tumble from grace was the result of a Zionist conspiracy.


Fifa, for those who’ve never kicked a soccer ball, is the acronym of the worldwide boss organization of what the rest of the world calls ”football,” Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The Association had been hit by many accusations of scandalous misbehavior (reacting with head-in-the-sand alacrity to deny all) before enough public evidence about bribes for World Cup votes caused Fifa earlier this year to act. It imposed bans on Fifa executive committee members from such sporting powerhouses as Tunisia, Mali, Tonga, and Botswana.

Further, two officials of loftier status, Jack Warner of sporting powerhouse Trinidad and Tobago and Mohamed Bin Hammam (President of the Asian Football Confederation) of equally-mighty Qatar, were suspended last May while Fifa undertook to investigate bribery charges against them (having to do with the election of the president of Fifa). Warner was at the time Fifa vice-president and president of the CONCACAF region, the association of North American, Central American, and Caribbean soccer nations. Considering that the United States and Mexico are the two most prominent members of CONCACAF, one can only guess at what shenanigans a person from such a small national association (and with such a smell about him*) was up to over the years to stay in power as head of CONCACAF for more than two decades.

At any rate, immediately after his suspension Warner tendered his resignation. Fifa’s official statement of acceptance is laughable**.

As Harry Pearson has noted, Warner has broken his silence. In response to an apparently incriminating video, he posted a letter last week to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, in which he says that he will in the future “talk about the Zionism, which probably is the most important reason why this acrid attack on Bin Hammam and me was mounted.”


Now is perhaps the appropriate time to update for the 21st century the famous proclamation by Dr. Johnson; the last refuge of a scoundrel is not patriotism—it is a conspiracy theory.


*See for instance:

** See:

Monday, September 19, 2011


Are you looking to buy a car? Well, there’s the FIAT 500, newly introduced to the States. FIAT had been absent from these shores for almost forty years (quality control, anybody?); indeed, Italian cars in general have been conspicuous by their absence—except for a handful of Ferraris for a few megabuck people and a Maserati for Johnny Sack on The Sopranos (forget about Alfas and Lancias).
But back to the FIAT 500: it’s a car so small that you could park it in your linen closet, with enough spare room for a few sheets and a bed sham. (And that sham probably has more horsepower.) Nevertheless, assuming you do want a 500, don’t go running down to your local car dealer begging for one--because, according to the FIAT ads in the New Yorker (where one would have expected instead to see glossy layouts for the latest Mercedes and BMWs), the little Tinker Toy car is “available at a FIAT Studio.”
Looking for further information about the car, I clicked onto the website for Autoweek magazine. Members of the staff had driven around in the 500 and the one thing they all seemed to agree on is that it’s “cute.”
Pretentiousness is bad enough—but pretentiousness and cuteness? That’s barfable.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ask the Wrong Question . . .

From The Economist:
JOSHUA KNOBE, a pioneer in the field of "experimental philosophy" at Yale, has contributed a fascinating piece to the New York Times' online philosophy forum on the intuitions of ordinary folk about what constitutes the "true self". Mr Knobe takes up the illustrative example of Mark Pierpont, a once-prominent figure in the evangelical Christian movement to "cure" homosexuality who (surprise!) felt himself strongly attracted to men. So, who's the "real" Mark Pierpont? Mr Knobe writes:

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”
But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

(Knobe’s original piece:


In his essay Knobe asks, “How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?” “Philosophical tradition,” Knobe says, has “a relatively straightforward answer”:

This answer . . . says that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.
But in contrast to the philosophical idea of the true self, Knobe says that people outside the field

are immediately drawn to the very opposite view. The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.
Knobe, himself, feels that neither of these definitions “fully captures the concept of a true self.” Knobe goes on to describe an experiment to test people’s ideas of a true self. To cut to the quick: the experiment determined that liberals thought that the true self was liberal and conservatives thought—well, you can guess. The findings of this study—a project of “the emerging interdisciplinary field of ‘experimental philosophy’”—Knobe says, “seem to point to an interesting new question.”

Does our ordinary notion of a “true self” simply pick out a certain part of the mind? Or is this notion actually wrapped up in some inextricable way with our own values and ideals?
(Those are two questions, but who’s counting?)


Well, ask a wrong question (or two) and you’ll get a wrong answer.

Knobe’s philosophical quest for the true self is grounded in the concept of “essentialism”—that is, there is underlying essence that defines the self and that is what makes it “true.”

But consider in contrast another New York Times essay, “What You See is the Real You” by psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin (Oct. 7, 1977). The essay begins as follows:

It was, I believe, the distinguished Nebraska financier Father Edward J. Flanagan who professed to having "never met a bad boy." Having, myself, met a remarkable number of bad boys, it might seem that either our experiences were drastically different or we were using the word "bad" differently. I suspect neither is true, but rather that the Father was appraising the "inner man," while I, in fact, do not acknowledge the existence of inner people. (Beautiful sarcasm, assuming you remember what Father Flanagan was all about.)
Gaylin goes on to confess that psychoanalysts have “unwittingly contributed” to a confusion that “has led to the prevalent tendency to think of the ‘inner’ man as the real man and the outer man as an illusion or pretender." We are asked to consider two cases. In the first case, a ninety-year-old man lies on his deathbed,

joyous and relieved over the success of his deception. For ninety years he has shielded his evil nature from public observation. For ninety years he has affected courtesy, kindness, and generosity -- suppressing all the malice he knew was within him while he calculatedly and artificially substituted grace and charity. All his life he had been fooling the world into believing he was a good man. This "evil" man will, I predict, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second case is that of a “young man who earns his pocket money by mugging old ladies.”

I will not be told [says Gaylin] that the young man . . . is "really" a good boy. Even my generous and expansive definition of goodness will not accommodate that particular form of self-advancement.
It does not count that beneath the rough exterior he has a heart—or, for that matter, an entire innards—of purest gold, locked away from human perception. You are for the most part what you seem to be, not what you would wish to be, nor, indeed, what you believe yourself to be.
And what you “seem to be” is determined by what you do. This is the existential answer to Knobe’s essentialist quest. Gaylin sums up:

The inner man is a fantasy. If it helps you to identify with one, by all means, do so; preserve it, cherish it, embrace it, but do not present it to others for evaluation or consideration, for excuse or exculpation, or, for that matter, for punishment or disapproval.
Like any fantasy, it serves your purposes alone. It has no standing in the real world which we share with each other. Those character traits, those attitudes, that behavior—that strange and alien stuff sticking out all over you—that's the real you!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Body of Knowledge

One of the biggest laughs I’ve had in recent days came when I was watching a DVD of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, the version with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple*. After opening the downstairs curtains to start the new day, the maid rushes upstairs to her mistress’ bedroom, knocks on the door, and after perfunctory invitation to enter, announces, “There’s a body in the library.” What a delicious send-up, I thought, of the artificiality of the upper-class countryside world in which Christie’s murder mysteries take place.

My delight in Christie’s self-parody (for such is what I thought it) continued with the reaction of the master of the house to the news of the corpse:

(Quoting the novel itself here) “Do you mean to tell me,” demanded Colonel Bantry, “that there’s a dead body in my library—my library!”

The butler coughed.

“Perhaps, sir, you would like to see for yourself.”


“It’s frightfully awkward, Mater, but I’m afraid there’s a

dead body in the library.”

“Not now, Blotto. We have guests.”

Such is the beginning of Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter, Simon Brett’s spoof of the Christie-esque genre of British gentry murder and adventure novels. The scene ends with aristocratic twit Blotto addressing the butler:

“Bit of bother in the library.”

“What kind of bother?”

“Dead body.”

“I will deal with it at once, milord.”


In a previous blog entry, “In Character” (February, 2011), I discussed the rigidity of character that allows others to type us and to laugh at us. Not just a rigidity of character, but also a rigidity of style is open to the laughter of others. And since as the 18th Century French author Georges Leclerc, Comte De Buffon declared, Le style est l'homme même” (“The style is the man himself”), the laughter directed at a rigidity of style is ultimately laughter against the person himself.

Simon Brett’s parody of Christie interests me less than what I took to be Christie’s self-parody. That is because deliberate self-parody implies self-knowledge. Engraved on a pillar at the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi was the admonition “Know Thyself.” And perhaps there is no greater way of demonstrating self-knowledge than deliberate self-parody.

As time has moved on, I have had increasing doubts that the self-parody was deliberate. But I really hope that it was, and that Christie had the self-awareness (at least in one novel) to laugh at herself.


*Avoid the more recent dramatic version of the novel starring Geraldine McEwan, who is totally miscast as Jane Marple. To see McEwan at her best, check out The Barchester Chronicles, which also features great acting by Donald Pleasance, Clive Swift, and especially Alan Rickman as the shifty-eyed Mr. Slope.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Drop the Puck

On Wednesday evening for the third time in the forty-year history of their National Hockey League franchise, the Vancouver Canucks were defeated (this time by the Boston Bruins) in the finals of the Stanley Cup playoff (they have never won the Cup, the ultimate prize in ice hockey). And for the second time in the Canucks’ Stanley Cup playoff history, after the defeat a riot ensued in downtown Vancouver. According to The Canadian Press, “Rioters burned cars, smashed windows and looted stores in the city centre for several hours on Wednesday. . . .The riot caused millions of dollars in damage, left at least 150 injured, including nine police officers.”

Who was to blame for the riot?

Again quoting The Canadian Press (via

Goaltender Roberto Luongo said it was disturbing to watch images of Wednesday's riot.

"It was disappointing. Those were not the real Vancouver fans that were doing that," said Luongo.

"I think it was isolated groups. It was tough to watch that something like that happened to the city."

Other players echoed Luongo's comments that the team's devoted fans couldn't have had anything to do with the riot.

The responses of the Canucks players were following the line set down by the team’s management. General Manager Mike Gillis claimed, "Those aren't our fans who were doing that."


Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again." Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."

Antony Flew, Thinking about Thinking (1975)


Flew has given the name “No-true-Scotsman move” to the attempts by debaters to shift the boundaries of evidence to exclude from one’s side all examples that would reflect negatively on one’s argument. And it is a very popular ploy. As the philosopher Julian Baggini has stated:

One reason why the no-true-Scotsman move is so tempting is because none of us likes to think that we keep company with people we find abhorrent.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why "normalvision"?

George Bernard Shaw relates to the readers of the Preface to his first collection of plays (Plays Unpleasant) an anecdote about a visit to his physician. His physician was pleased to inform Shaw that his eyesight was “normal.”

I naturally took this to mean that it was like every­body else's; but he rejected this construction as paradoxical, and hastened to explain to me that I was an exceptional and highly fortunate person optically, normal sight conferring the power of seeing things accurately and being enjoyed by only about ten per cent of the population, the remaining ninety per cent being abnormal. I immediately perceived the explana­tion of my want of success in fiction. My mind's eye, like my body's, was “normal”: it saw things differently from other people's eyes, and saw them better.
Shaw’s ironic stance is the opposite of another great ironist, Socrates. The latter did not claim the knowledge that “normal” vision granted; just the opposite—he insisted that he knew nothing, an assertion that allowed him to question (and prove wrong) those who laid claim to knowledge.

The problem for Shaw (which he alludes to in the above quotation, “my want of success in fiction”) is that if the overwhelming majority of people (having blurred vision) do not see things as clearly as you do, they are not going to believe you, but their own vision. Shaw said that in order to get a hearing, he tricked his audience by donning the cap and bells of a court jester, thereby following the example of the great Roman satirist Horace, ridentam dicere verum—to tell the truth laughing.


I am too vain, even for the purposes of satire, to adopt the pose of a Socratic ironist, pretending that I know nothing. I have, however, appropriated Shaw's idea of a "mind's eye [that sees] things differently from other people's eyes, and [sees] them better" and become "normalvision." But being particularly myopic in actual fact, when I see the truth, it is all rather blurred. So, when I don the attire of a court jester, think "fool."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Be Prepared

“You must have been a Boy Scout,” said the nurse, “because you came prepared." No, I was never a Scout, but if I’m going to have to wait (say, at a doctor’s office), I always have a book with me. And if I’m going to have a lot of down time, then I not only have a book but also my Discman and headphones. Sometimes, however, I am fooled--when I think I’m going to be taken care of quickly and leave my stuff behind. Last year, for example, because I trusted the words “You will be the first patient,” without anything to read, I was forced to endure an endless infomercial about a toothbrush on a waiting room TV.

The other day at the local hospital I was, as the nurse observed, prepared. I had to undergo a five-minute procedure that, because of the prior paperwork and subsequent recovery/observation period, took from six in the morning until one o’clock in the afternoon. But I had my book and my music. It was while I was resting after the procedure, listening to Bach through my headphones, that I noticed that someone had sneaked up beside my bed and delivered a tray of food, very welcome as I hadn’t eaten since seven the previous evening. And what was the delicacy underneath the black plastic cover? French toast. I hate French toast, and I don’t drink coffee, which was in the Styrofoam cup beside it.

French toast and coffee! Clearly, the hospital had adopted the Halloween Diet*.

*If you haven't already, read the previous blog entry..

Monday, April 11, 2011

Take It Off

Although it’s half a year away, Halloween has been on my mind recently. Certainly more on my mind than it generally is along about the end of October. And that is because in my neck of the woods Halloween has been a non-event. No little ghosts or witches have rung my doorbell for at least a decade. Back in the days when, though, I developed the perfect (for me at least) idea of how to prepare for the costumed crowd. I would not purchase Mars bars or M&Ms to distribute—because they would never make it to the door; I would, quite naturally, eat them all before the 31st. Instead, I loaded up on packs of Fruit Stripe gum. There was no way that that product, which never passed my yuck test, would ever pass my lips. So I could unbegrudgingly distribute it at my door.
Which brings me back to why I have been thinking about Halloween so out of season. The reasoning behind my former Halloween purchases of that icky gum has led me to develop the perfect diet—the Halloween Diet. Simply put: if you bring into your house only foods that you would never (short of an absolute famine in the land) let enter your mouth (in my case, mussels, sushi, macaroni-and-cheese, and rice pudding), you would be bound to lose weight.
Alas, I can’t help visualizing how good a container of chocolate chip ice cream, a Hebrew National salami, an Entenmann’s cheese strudel, and a couple of bagels look in my shopping cart.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Remote Controlled

A question I liked to pose to incoming freshmen when I was a member of the committee concocting topics for a writing sample was:

“Soon our television will be offering us 500 channels of broadcasting. Will that result in an Eden of cultural quality or a great cultural wasteland?

I was reminded of that question when my cable company obligingly sent me their latest channel lineup,. It seems I underestimated the number of channels we were going to be allowed to choose from. What with music channels and high definition duplications, I can access over 900 channels with a flick of my remote. I have to admit, though, that I am not the right person to definitively answer the question I posed above, for I watch barely a handful of the available channels and, thus, have no idea if what lies beyond my little patch of viewing is a lush land or a desert.

One channel that I do watch a lot is Fox Soccer Channel, which I like for two reasons: it broadcasts matches of the English Premier League (the top level of that nation’s game) and FSC’s California-based hosts have to get up pre-dawn to introduce the shows. Now, it must be admitted that FSC is not one of this nation’s prime sports broadcasters. And that is borne out by the fact that the major advertisers on other sports networks—the greasemeister hamburger and chicken mega-corporations and what Harry Pearson (in The Guardian) called “the gassy I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Piss excuse for beer” purveyors—are mostly absent. Instead, the commercials on FSC seem to be aimed at three distinct groups: the credit-challenged, who are enticed to pay for reports that they entitled to get for free; immigrants, who are invited to phone overseas by a small-print-loving telephone company (which at one point had—and perhaps still has—as an executive a former New Jersey Republican politician one wouldn’t touch with a barge pole); and the dermatologically-flawed, represented in the commercials by young women (all seemingly named Pam or Dawn) who slather on white gook that we can have shipped to us free thanks to an apparently never-ending limited-time offer. Recently, the Pams and Dawns were joined in the gook commercials by another young woman, one who looked as if she was created by Pixar. This unreal personage is apparently a non-celebrity celebrity (you know, one who has to be identified, so we know it’s a “celebrity” hawking the product), identified as “singer/songwriter Katy Perry.” Now, I must admit here was a true non-celebrity for me. I had never heard her name before, much less heard her sing. But the other day that all changed. I was trapped in a medical waiting room that had a ‘light rock” radio station piped in (the kind of offensively inoffensive noise that makes your gums bleed), when the announcer proclaimed that the next number would be by the above-cited K. Perry. Who sounded like nothing other than a skinned cat.

There are a few things in life I understand, but one of them isn’t the thinking of advertisers. Oh, I get it that the credit-challenged probably have no jobs and are glued to the TV all day watching whatever and that immigrants (more than us native-borns) love what the rest of the world calls “football”—but what I can’t figure out is how many acned young women would spend a Wednesday afternoon watching the replay of a game between Wigan Athletic and Stoke City.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Character

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequence.


We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen. In Moliere's plays how many comic scenes can be reduced to this simple type: A CHARACTER FOLLOWING UP HIS ONE IDEA, and continually recurring to it in spite of incessant interruptions! The transition seems to take place imperceptibly from the man who will listen to nothing to the one who will see nothing, and from this latter to the one who sees only what he wants to see. A stubborn spirit ends by adjusting things to its own way of thinking, instead of accommodating its thoughts to the things.

Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic


We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.

Robert Ezra Park, Race and Culture


Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday

Who could hang a name on you?

When you change with every new day . . . .

The Rolling Stones


Thumbing my way recently through the pages of DVDs that has generously offered as recommendations for my taste (I Wake Up Screaming, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, et al), I instantly glommed onto a cover that I didn’t have to read to know the contents of the DVD: in profile, a figure with a sharp, down-pointing nose, prominent chin, smoking a curved pipe, and wearing a deerstalker’s cap. Sherlock Holmes. But what if the profile on the cover had been that of Holmes’ associate, Dr. Watson? I think I can speak for everyone in saying that none of us would have the least notion of what awaited us in the DVD box.

Holmes, not just because of his appearance, but because of his nature, is one of the most recognizable characters in literature: rational, arrogant, dismissive of others, unemotional. But Dr Watson? Is his the bumbling persona of Nigel Bruce’s portrayals or the level-headed persona of Edward Hardwicke’s?

In life as in art, one achieves character by being consistent. In fact, the more consistent one becomes, the more one becomes a “character,” someone whose described actions evoke one’s name and whose name calls up one’s actions and reactions. That is because we turn loose, in the words of Bergson, the “ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically.” Think of Alceste (of The Misanthrope). Think of his friend Philinte standing by, raising his eyebrows, silently acknowledging, “There he goes again!”

The consistency of character is also a good thing. “He showed great character”—what a phrase of praise! When the mechanical element refuses to depart from its path under the influence of dubious, dangerous or evil pressures, one can become heroic. Even poor muddled Alceste, whom we have been giving a hard time to over several blogs, had his noble side. The estimable Eliante asserted:

“The honesty in which he takes such pride

Has—to my mind—its noble, heroic side.”

That “honesty,” which he mechanically (and foolishly) applied against the molehills of court manners, was noble in his refusal to capitulate to the mountainous corruption of the legal system.

The essence of character is not split between the noble and the foolish, the heroic and the comic. It is of one piece. To have a name—to be able to be named by others—one must be consistent up to the borderlands of the comic. And must not be surprised when one steps over the edge and becomes laughable.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What do you do, Dad (Mom)?

Most parents at one time or another have probably been faced by a question similar to the title query by their offspring. If we follow the logic of James R. Hagerty (
html), since “Coca-Cola Co. and General Motors Co. don't have to explain to the outside world what they make,” all a parent would have to do was to say, “Drink up the fizzy water I made, son,” or, “See that car over there, dear . . . ?”

But what do you say to your child if you work for a company that describes itself as:

"world leader in creating and sustaining safe, comfortable and efficient environments";

Or, "the global leader in motion and control technologies.";

Or, “the global leader in active and passive safety";

Or, "a leading products and service distributor focused on adding value and total cost savings solutions to MRO and OEM customers in virtually every industry since 1908";

Or, "a global leader in providing customer contact management solutions and services in the business process outsourcing (BPO) arena";

Or, “leverage[s] an innovative outcome-based, managed services engagement model with committed productivity benefits over the long term."
[Examples supplied by Hagerty.]

If you work for one of the above companies and your child asks the question, just order another round of fries to go with the Coke. That might shut them up.


As to what I do? Why, I am a global leader in supplying software-generated content packages for the literate world distributed to consumers by means of state-of-the-art information technology.

And if any of my grandchildren says another word, they’re out of my will.

Monday, January 3, 2011


For my sins (I must have had a lot of them) I had to attend a good number of English Department meetings (when I was chairman, I made sure to keep them short). At one of those meetings, as we were discussing some screw-up or other (probably the same one that we had discussed at my first meeting many years before), one of the department harridans exclaimed, “Parkinson’s Law!” I was more than happy to (a) deflate said harridan and (b) demonstrate anew to the others my superior knowledge by proclaiming, “You mean Murphy’s Law—“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong’; Parkinson’s Law states that ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’”

Considering that when it appeared in book form (it had first been a magazine article) the short essay “Parkinson’s Law or the Rising Pyramid” was accompanied by whimsical line drawings by Robert C. Osborn, one might think that the author, one C. Northcote Parkinson, Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, was a spoof nom de plume and the essay a mere comic bagatelle. But the author was real enough, as were the statistics he used to reach his serious conclusions. Two examples:

1—Between the years 1914 and 1928 the number of British warships declined by over 67 percent, while the number of officials at the Admiralty increased by more than 78 percent;

2—In the two decades between 1935 and 1954 the number of officials at the Colonial Office in Great Britain increased from 372 to 1661, even though in the later years the responsibility of the Office (in terms of territory and population) decreased as more and more colonies achieved independent nationhood.

“Officials,” Parkinson states, “ make work for each other,” and since work, “especially paperwork,” is “elastic in its demands on time,” there is no (or little) relationship between the number of staff and amount of work to be done. Thus, work can expand to fill the time available for its completion.

While Parkinson is serious in his analysis of bureaucratic expansion, he satirically claims that his work has “no political value,” being “a purely scientific discovery.” He concludes:

It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.


But it is actually another of Parkinson’s essays in the book Parkinson’s Law and other Studies in Administration that I wish to focus on: “Plans and Plants or The Administration Block.”

Consider this story from the New York Times: “Dispute Over Succession Clouds Megachurch” (available at
It tells how Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, “which many church historians,” says the Times, “call the nation’s first modern megachurch,” has incurred a $43 million debt and has filed for bankruptcy protection. “The 10,664 windows did not get washed this year . . . . And its renowned Christmas pageant — with live camels and horses, and angels flying overhead on cables — has been canceled for now.”

Parkinson’s essay deals with other cathedrals, palaces, and monumental edifices. What he shows is that famous structures which seem in their pomp to perfectly symbolize the height of the prestige and power of their institutions were actually constructed during times of decay and waning influence. He contrasts the decline of Papal power with the buildings of the Vatican:

The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.

Likewise, he cites the Palace of Nations (of the League of Nations) and the Palace of Versailles, both of which were completed after the power and prestige that generated them were gone.

In contrast to stillborn monumentality Parkinson points out that “During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters.” If his book had been written some decades after 1957, Parkinson would surely have cited those pioneers of the silicon age who cobbled together their innovative technologies in their backyard garages and other such structures. As it is, Parkinson writes about “lively and productive” institutions, such as

A research establishment . . . housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden.


When institutions stop to think about their image, their grandeur, their importance, then it is time to worry about them. I was recently watching (on television) a hockey game being played at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Wait a minute, I thought to myself, since when is it the “Wells Fargo” Center? I recalled the arena being otherly-named. So I looked it up on Wikipedia:

The arena was formerly known as Spectrum II (prior to construction), CoreStates Center, First Union Center and Wachovia Center.

One eaten-up bank after another. (As an aside, consider that the Mets' new ballpark in Flushing got tagged with the Citibank label during the height of the recent financial crisis.)

But perhaps the event that best illustrates the link between institutional grandeur-seeking and collapse took place in Houston, Texas in 2001, when they hauled down from the Houston Artros’ ballpark the name that celebrated one of the city’s leading corporations—Enron.