What do all these people do all day?

This essay by Cal Newport proposes that, since the work of a professor should be to engage in deep thinking, universities should take a stand by reversing the fairly recent (forty years?) trend to burden professors with administrative tasks, since those displace the more valuable work professors are being paid to do, and they aren’t very good at them anyway. It’s a strange piece of thinking, well executed and reasonable and, I think, delusional. Newport proposes that the administrative work should be offloaded onto people who are good at it and paid appropriately—fair enough in itself—but never asks whether the work is worth doing, or where it came from in the first place.

By ignoring the question, I assume he assumes that this is what it takes to run a university—or maybe he just chooses not to dig deeper as a way of staying focused on his particular goal, since he does say this in passing:

Another factor driving the professoriate’s drift into middle management is a significant increase in administrative demands. In part, this is due to the growth of university bureaucracy, which, once established, inevitably consumes the time and attention of its subjects to justify its existence.

I can understand that Newport would zero in on the more achievable (though still pie-in-the-sky) goal of shifting the burden to assistants rather than dismantling the machinery that creates the burden. But I can’t imagine that his proposal would work even if universities embraced it, since it isn’t clear to me that universities put much value on having their professors think deeply—and to the extent that there’s value in it, the appearance of deep thinking is probably sufficient.

Perhaps I’ve just read too much David Graeber. His book on the nature of modern work is excellent, and you can get the gist of his argument from the essay which inspired the book. It gives a good solid answer to a question that occurred to me early in my corporate days, as I was walking through a large open-plan office in the vast research building of the vast central campus of the multi-campus Texas Instruments. I knew more or less what Texas Instruments produced, and had a rough idea of how many and what sort of people it would take to make those things, and walked by row after row of people sitting at desks who were clearly not making those things, and wondered: what do these people do all day?


“Solipsistic Boomers”

At some point I’ll get it together and write one or more blog posts about the many newsletters I now subscribe to. Until then, here’s a nice passage from one, written by Aaron Renn.

It’s difficult for the solipsitic Boomers to understand or accept that subsequent generations have a generally negative view of them. Generation X folks like myself tend to be ambivalent. On the one hand, our parents are Boomers. On the other, we personally watched the Boomers pull up the ladder after themselves. The Millennials seem to be increasingly blaming the Boomers for their problems. Here are a couple of recent examples. First, a recent Saturday Night Live skit called “Millennial Millions” that’s hilarious. Second, a Vox interview with the author of a book on the Boomers called A Generation of Sociopaths.

Renn thinks it makes sense to divide the Boomers into two cohorts.

The early cohort Boomers, born 1942-1954, were the ones whose lives were heavily shaped by the 60s and the threat of Vietnam. The late cohort Boomers, born 1955-1964, were children of the 1970s and are culturally different in many ways. In particular, the Vietnam War was far less formative in their lives. To generalize, the early cohort Boomers were the parents of Generation X who brought us workaholic fathers and “latch key” kids; the late cohort Boomers were the parents of the early Millennials, who gave us helicopter parenting and “Baby on Board.”

That sounds right to me. And having been born in 1954 I’m right on the cusp of the early/late divide, and can relate to both camps.

Renn also points out that the reign of the Boomers is nowhere near over.

We are on track for a minimum of 28 consecutive years of Baby Boomers as President – and could easily have Boomers in office for another 12-16 more after that since the late cohort Boomers have barely started getting their own shot at the title.

If subsequent generations can somehow pry Boomer hands from the levers of power before this, I’m all for it.

Widows, by Steve McQueen

I just finished watching the new film by Steve McQueen, Widows, and I liked it a lot! It’s R rated, so much profanity and a bit of gratuitous nudity/sex, but surprisingly un-gruesome in its action sequences—I’ve seen way worse in some recent PG-13 films. If you plan to see it, you’ll probably want to skip my reflections, which are mildly spoiler-ish.

  • I love heist movies, and this was one, but the structure was very different than others in the genre, which made it fresh for me.
  • I like the new trend of genre movies (and TV shows) centering on female characters, and I cut them a lot of slack because they are trying to do something new and difficult—simply substituting women for men in the old formulas won’t work. So part of what I enjoy is watching them find their way. For example, I enjoyed Ocean’s 8 far more than I would have enjoyed a male-centered version of that story (kind of skimpy, I thought), and some of the turns that would have been misses for me in a male-centered version intrigued me instead—was that the better choice for a group of women? Does that make more sense from the female viewer’s perspective? But, good news, Widows does things differently because of the women but still has a solid and satisfying structure—and even better, at least one of the plot points depends critically on them being women.
  • I loved how this heist film minimized the actual heist—not that it wasn’t the most exciting sequence in the movie—but it was way into the movie, shorter than I expected, and not at all gimmicky. Which left lots and lots of time for Steve McQueen to explore the very rich setting he created. Another movie would have dropped the scene meeting with the preacher at his church since it doesn’t really move the plot forward—but I thought it did some pretty heavy lifting in making the Chicago-politics angle of the story feel real.
  • This is the first Steve McQueen film I’ve seen, and I very much like his directing. Several of the scenes are shot in ways I’ve never seen and which never would have occurred to me, but for me they only added to the experience rather than bringing attention to themselves.
  • Widows is based on a 1980s BBC series, and was remade once about 15 years ago. I don’t know how much of the plot from either was carried over—the setting was definitely changed—but at several points key points I found myself thinking, wow, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) definitely co-wrote this script! Several twists, very well done.
  • Samuel L. Jackson dissed Jordan Peele for casting Daniel Kaluuya (a British actor) as the African-American protagonist of Get Out, saying the part should have gone to an American actor. Wonder what he thinks of Kaluuya’s performance in this one? (I thought he was great in both, as well as his Black Mirror episode.)


The only thing that ever intrigued me about Twitter was the 140-character limit (now doubled, I think). For a couple of years I used it to post aphorisms, a few that were my own but mostly ones I came across and liked. Then I decided to delete my Twitter account, but was careful to download all my tweets before I did. But I wasn’t careful to put that file somewhere that was safe from computer upgrades, and somewhere along the way my nice file of aphorisms disappeared—at least I haven’t found it yet.

And now I’ve discovered a stack of index cards I made during my italic handwriting days, on at least some of which I copied some of those aphorisms. Someone asked if I was still pursuing this, and the answer is not actively but maybe again someday, and that in any case it had done what I wanted, namely improved my handwriting. Here’s one of the cards—my original thought, for what it’s worth, as well as a good example of what my handwriting looks like these days.

While I was taking this not-very-good photo with one of my testing phones I noticed a nice photo in the archives, which I will now share with you.

Chris at age 14 or 15, practicing his Scruggs-style banjo picking
while very young Elizabeth and Jerry look on

Turning 65

It’ll happen for me in a few weeks, and it’s less of a milestone than I expected. Retirement age, as defined by Social Security, has been bumped up to 66 for me (and 67 for folks not much younger than me). Which doesn’t matter much to me, anyway, since I plan to defer enrolling until I’m 70, so as to maximize the benefit amount. Did you know that for each year you do that, to a maximum of 70, the benefit increases by about 8%? Mine will be made roughly 30% larger by waiting, especially important because Debbie is seven years younger than me and so will be receiving that payment for many, many years.

I did sign up for Medicare, which was trivial enough. Hospitalization expenses are covered for free, but to cover outpatient costs (80% of them, anyway) you need to sign up for Part B, which costs about $135/month. I dithered over that for awhile, since I don’t go to the doctor and don’t plan to start. But there’s always the risk of some condition I would elect to have treated—an injury, say—which would require outpatient care. So I sighed, and signed on the dotted line. There is additional insurance you can buy, of course, the big one being prescription drug coverage, but I draw the line there—the few drugs that seem useful to me are cheap enough.

The deluge of mail started a few months ago, most trying to sell me Medicare supplemental insurance, most of the rest hearing aids. But one nice letter came in the mail Thursday from the state government, of all people—seems that in Kentucky you’re eligible for a homestead exemption when you turn 65, which reduces the assessed value of your home—in our case by about 25%—which reduces your property taxes accordingly. The letter was surprisingly brief, clear, and friendly. And since I don’t think they were required to notify me, and it’s not to their advantage that I take the exemption, I had a rare moment of gratitude toward the government.

Austin Kleon offers 5 thoughts on self-help

Among the email newsletters I receive is one from artist and writer Austin Kleon—in fact it may be the one that started me on my current newsletter binge. His first book, Steal Like an Artist, sold well, and he started seeing it in the self-help section of bookstores, which led him to think about self-help as a genre. Here’s a longish but very good post with 5 thoughts on the matter. I especially liked two passages. The first points out that the genre was kicked off by a book (called Self-Help) whose intent was fairly noble and mostly at odds with what self-help has become:

Self-Help was actually a sort of noble reaction to “various movements [of the 19th century] that promoted panaceas to cure all of society’s ills: phrenologists, teetotalers, vegetarians, hydrotherapy advocates… and on and on—all promising simple, quick fixes that would lead to utopian harmony.”

Smiles rejected all of that; the key to success, he argues in Self-Help, is knowledge and hard-work. “Men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing,” he writes, “and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.”

Dickey says the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to: enter the world of pop neuroscience books, which Isaac Chotiner called, “laboratory-approved self-help…self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.”

The second passage quotes a critic of self-help, then points out that it can be taken constructively:

Dickey pulls out what could, very possibly, be the formula for a self-help book proposal or dust jacket flap:

This is the foundation of self-help, after all: unlock the secrets that make me better, and then tell me what to do. Give me actionable intelligence, make me more creative, increase the percentage of solutions I’m able to devise. Give me a plan because I’m incapable of making my own; give me a plan because mine isn’t working.

One of my favorite things about criticism like this is that it’s actually great ammo for the criticized: for instance, reading criticism of self-help can actually make you a better or more successful self-help author, with formulas revealed and alternate possibilities suggested. Whether you use the knowledge for good or evil, whether you try to improve or harness and amplify what’s already there is up to you.

I definitely agree with Dickey’s criticism—”Just tell me what to do!” seems to be the despairing cry of the age, and exactly the wrong approach to digging yourself out of whatever hole you’re in. But I like how Kleon turns it on its head, reminding us of the obvious—just because you’re being mocked doesn’t mean the criticisms aren’t accurate, and facing your flaws honestly usually leads to better things.

Flu shots

I don’t think I’ve ever had a flu shot, and I don’t expect to ever get one. I’m not anti-vaccine, but I’m very skeptical of the medical-industrial complex, and when they’re pushing something I’ve never used my initial reaction is “No, thanks.” I’m at a fairly low risk of contracting the flu, since I work at home and rarely come into contact with other sick folks. And, well, flu is unpleasant, but it’s just an illness, one I’m pretty likely to survive. So I take my chances.

But I wonder how much longer I’ll be allowed that choice. I just received an email (five emails in a row, actually) from Aetna, our Medicaid provider, which goes like this:

It’s not too late — help protect the ones you love

Want to do something nice for your friends and family this winter? Get a flu shot. This will help you avoid spreading a fever, cough or any other aches and pains of the flu. Getting the flu shot shows you really care — about yourself and those around you. Visit the Personal Health section on our website to learn more about  staying safe during flu season.

And, as they helpfully point out, it’s so easy:

Get your shot — at no cost to you

You can get a flu shot at any of the network pharmacies below, or at your participating independent pharmacist. Just drop by with your Aetna® ID card. It’s a great way to help protect yourself and your loved ones all winter long.

Of course I’ve seen flu shot promos for years, but this is the first one I’ve seen which mentions responsibilities to others. Mentions of herd immunity are on the rise, not always in a positive way—not just “do it for others”, but sometimes “look what you did to others” in the case of, say, a measles outbreak. This seems new to me.

It’s not anything that worries me, just another trend I’m keeping my eye on. As in so many other areas, I do my best to fly under the radar—but if the radar catches me, I comply. When they make me get a flu shot, I’ll get one. I’ll just be the kid in the anecdote I heard from James Dobson years ago, whose father insisted that he SIT DOWN … and he did, but also said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”