About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.

Splendor in the Grass

Report from the front. The oceanfront. Our associate editor Lynn writes from Cape Cod on the epic battle to repair bare spots in the lawn, as Nature intended. (NOTE: the word “grass” here refers to the East Coast, not the West Coast presumption of definition)

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For weeks I’ve been annoyed by our landscaper ignoring my repeated requests to patch some bare spots in our lawn, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. After all, my dad taught me how to handle that…

It wasn’t all that easy, though.

First I needed to get some topsoil, grass seed and mulch. The grass seed, no problem. But wouldn’t you know the smallest bag of topsoil was 25 lbs. and mulch was 30 lbs. Undaunted, I drove them home and headed for the wheelbarrow.

Uh oh, the tire was flat. I went to the office and announced to Tim that I needed his truck so I could buy a new wheelbarrow. He told me not to be ridiculous and pumped up the tire for me. I didn’t know we had a pump.

(Ed. Note: Lynn’s dad once bought a new electric lawnmower rather than go through all the fuss of getting the blade sharpened on his old one.)

Once I had wheeled the 55 lbs of soil and mulch (plus grass seed and garden claw) down to the lawn, I earned bonus aches and pains over the weekend clawing, adding soil, seeding, mulching and watering. Afterwards, I wheeled the remaining 40 lbs of soil, mulch, seed and claw back to the garage, where it will sit until Tim does his autumn garage cleaning and throws it out (that’s how we roll).

It was worth it, though… this morning I saw tiny little grass shoots peeping through the mulch like a green five o’clock shadow!

Soon the grass will flourish. Then the landscapers will finally arrive, look at each other, and say – “It looks okay. What is she bitching about?)

Folding Money

So on the eve of a rumored extinction – the last days of reading and writing via the printed word – here comes another electronic post from The Horse to you, our 631st over the past seven years. Ironically, this one is about the invention of paper and its impact on the course of civilization.

The prompt to explore this subject is a new book by Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: the unexpected history of the world’s greatest invention. Dumb title.

In Monro and elsewhere, paper’s invention is attributed to a Chinese civil servant named Cai Lun, who in 109 AD (or thereabouts) figured out how to macerate mulberry bark and other plant fibers into a pulp, then dry and press the pulp into sheets.

Unlike clay or stone tablets, papyrus, animal hide parchments, or uterine vellum, these new sheets could be cheaply produced in quantity.

Rudimentary printing techniques soon followed.

Monro’s consuming interest is the role of paper in spreading knowledge, culture, and religion – moving from the Chinese to the Arabs, thence to the Europeans, where the new paper intersected with Gutenberg’s moveable type for a second great efflorescence of the printed word.

Though not part of Monro’s thesis, it would have been worth mentioning that, along the way, the proliferation of paper also leveraged two other deeply entrenched human tendencies – to liquidity and inflation, the seemingly magical pathways to magnifying wealth.

It had taken the Chinese less than a hundred years from the invention of paper to the realization that this new material was the perfect matrix for money – far more convenient than precious metals or any of the other units of commodities or livestock in prior use as a medium of exchange or a store of value.

This quickly led to the wondrous discovery that you could print as much money as you could possibly want.

By 200 AD parts of China were deluged by inflation, and paper was abandoned as a currency.

Paper and printing did not make inflation possible, just faster and easier. Debasement of gold and silver coinage was already a chronic government malady, from ancient times to the day before yesterday – as the Romans showed in the sad case of the denarius,

Introduced in 211 BC as a 96% silver coin of the realm (worth 10 asses), the denarius was progressively cheapened over 250 years until its silver content was a small fraction of one percent – a an early shadow of Rome’s irreversible decline.

As for liquidity, it used to be that if you owned 600 acres on the island of Skye, you might be able to swap some of it for sheep, but if what you really wanted was a house in London or a boat in the Mediterranean, the trade would be difficult to impossible.

Paper money and paper instruments of various kinds – deeds, titles, contracts, letters of credit, promissory notes, stock shares, bonds – have made assets of almost any kind, anywhere, readily convertible to almost any other.

These days much if not most of this traffic is electronic, and over half the activity on the stock exchanges consists of algorithm-driven high-frequency trading. Thousands, soon millions, of transactions per second leave regulators wondering how they can ever monitor much less control the soundness, integrity, accuracy, and crash-resistance of such a system.

Paper’s share of civilization’s business, leisure, culture, and religion may keep shrinking, but rumors of its extinction are surely premature.

Noncompete Claws

Colette Buser worked as a camp counselor for three years, then – at age 19 – moved to a different camp. But the job offer was abruptly withdrawn. It seems Colette’s previous employer had a noncompete clause in her contract and threatened to sue.

You know how jealously those companies have to guard their intellectual property. What if a competitor – or the NSA or hackers from the Chinese Army –were to get hold of the technology for sharpening sticks to toast marshmallows?

In a similar case, hair stylist Daniel McKinnon left his salon job but then was prevented by a noncompete clause from taking a new job – and he hadn’t even quit.

He had been fired because of friction with his manager. They must have feared that in retribution he would reveal the secret of how to do a spit curl without expectorating.

Whatever their psychosis, the judge agreed that McKinnon’s ex-employers had Massachusetts law on their side (though Governor Deval Patrick is now trying to change it). Why do state legislatures enact laws so exploitative of workers and contemptuous of their rights?

Could it be this simple — that camp counselors and hair stylists have no political PACs and no lobbyists?

These are not isolated cases. Noncompete clauses are a hot trend, reports the New York Times (where these two episodes were cited) –not just for engineers and scientists with highly sensitive inside knowledge but also for chefs, stock clerks, green grocers, lawn trimmers, yoga teachers, beauticians, and grunts on the shop floor.

Many states, though far from all, insist that noncompetes be narrowly limited and serve a legitimate business interest. A majority of economists, labor experts, and venture capitalists see noncompetes as suppressing competition (obviously) and stifling innovation – and they point to Silicon Valley as the kind of dynamic that can flourish in the absence of noncompetes — which are banned in California.

“Where noncompetes are not enforced, there’s a more open labor market,” says Matthew Marx, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT. “Companies compete for talent.”

Companies compete for talent. Can you imagine? Sounds almost like free market capitalism.

What Would an Economist Think?

My old friend Dave Barbour once met an academic-looking gentleman at a party and asked him what kind of work he did. “I teach writing,” the professor said, “to engineers.”

Dave was aghast. “You mean you TEACH them to write that way?”

That was decades ago and, come to think of it, must have been about the time an enterprise called The Great Courses got started, hitchhiking on The Great Books concept out of the University of Chicago.

I just saw an announcement from The Great Courses, appearing in the cunning camouflage of a full page ad in The Economist magazine (which ought to be a little more discriminating). The Great Courses logo looks like the United Fund torch logo, so l guess they steal from anyone and everyone, and their offerings have obviously failed to advance. This one advertises a book/DVD/CD,

Thinking Like an Economist

In DVD format, the book was $199.95. Now it’s $39.95, so we can be sure that demand for learning to think like an economist is none too brisk. The $134.95 CD is now $24.95.

I haven’t seen the book or played the DVD, but they show a list of the lecture titles, which get off to a rousing start with 6 principles and three core concepts, then “the myth of True Value,” the economics of ignorance, a few others, and finally the deeply subversive “Acting Like an Economist.”

So, yes – it’s true – they actually TEACH them to think that way!

Hence all the wacko forecasts on housing starts and consumer prices and unemployment and interest rates and all the urgings on CNBC to load up on equities in the fall of 2007, just before the stock market went through the floor.

I’ve known and/or read a few really good economists – Krugman, Stiglitz, Sunstein, Thaler, Al Blumstein, the late Richard Bernstein, The Economist magazine as a whole, and Mark (one of our editors) – and what sets them apart is that they know how to think beyond economics.

The Great Courses’ current ad doesn’t list its other course offerings, but I know they’re there. At a guess, I would expect,

Dancing Like an Armadillo
Gubernatorial Orating
Add and Subtract Like Einstein
(on golf) Putting Like Mr. Magoo
(on baseball) How to Throw Like a Girl
(on tennis) Serve Like Sophie Tucker

I know, I know. I’m being entirely too hard on The Great Courses. The trouble started when I took their course on writing book reviews.

Zombie Alert

Talk about asymmetric warfare! Gordon Lubold of Foreign Policy dug into the Defense Department’s trove of contingency plans and found that the military strategists have counter-measures ready for every conceivable menace — and possibly some inconceivable ones:

Including how to deal with a Zombie Apocalypse.

It’s titled “CONOP 8888, Counter-Zombie Dominance.” Should hordes of slow-walking flesh eaters launch an attack, the Army will be ready — a) Isolate and b) Eradicate the Living Dead.

They’re even ready to protect humankind from the more exotic forms of Zombie “life” – Chicken Zombies, Vegetarian Zombies (threatening our crops) or EMZs – Evil Magic Zombies created by occult practices.

Are they serious? No. And Yes.

In order to draw up a contingency plan, military tacticians with the Strategic Command Center have to name a hypothetical enemy. They’ve often used Tunisia or Nigeria as designated foes, but in this age of leaked documents that could be disastrously misunderstood – e.g., by Tunisia or Nigeria – or by Americans who might think they meant it. As imaginary antagonists, Zombies seemed a safe alternative.

I sympathize. As a lowly first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, for three years I participated in summer combat maneuvers with the 304th Tank Battalion. Our enemies for mock battle were the “Aggressor Forces,” and for some reason I was named commander of the Aggressors every year. Nice fella like me?

Odd thing is, we tended not to be isolated or eradicated. We never lost so much as a skirmish, much less a battle.

I wasn’t watching the mail for a Congressional Medal of Honor, though. The fact was, our opponents – the good guys – were cursed with having to manage all the expensive equipment: M-1 Tanks with 90 mm guns and 50 caliber machine guns plus range-finders and $8,000 two-way radios (twitters, cell phones, and snap-chats awaited invention).

They had a terrible time getting any of this terrifying gadgetry to work properly. So their tanks would approach an objective – say, a hill that we Aggressors were defending – and suddenly turn sideways on some misinterpreted radio cue, completely exposing them to my anti-tank guns.

Even if they happened to get their guns aimed at us, they wouldn’t fire.

That was because blank rounds of 90 mm ammunition were notorious for dirtying the inside of a gun tube. So instead of going out for dinner and drinks after the battle, the tank crew would have to spend the evening swabbing out the barrel so they could turn in the tank.

Better not to fire in anger.

As for my Aggressor anti-tank guns, they were just yellow flags. Red flags represented machine guns. Wave the flag, and you were judged to have fired the gun. I would set up a perimeter defense, and if I needed to move an emplacement or reverse a command, all I had to do was yell at a couple of guys.

We were invincible.

So, as a former Aggressor commander, I can endorse the creation of fictional adversaries – except when Congressmen do it to keep useless military bases in their districts or to waste even more billions on obsolete weapons sold by their most lavish benefactors among the defense contractors.

I mean, waving red and yellow flags – or plotting the defeat of a Zombie uprising – is something taxpayers can cheerfully afford.

NOTES & QUOTES

This from an ad, of all things, for Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue:

“My books are water. Those of the great geniuses are wine.

“Everybody drinks water.”

– Mark Twain

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And a reminder from three quarters of a century ago that detective stories need not be one-dimensional genre fiction. Archie Goodwin, sent by Nero Wolfe to size up a diamond theft in a dance and fencing studio, meets the owner and his wife:

“He was small and thin but wiry looking and had black eyes and hair and a moustache which pointed due east and west. He looked and acted harassed, and as soon as he shook hands with me darted off somewhere. His wife, in spite of her New York clothes and hair-do, looked like one of those color pictures in the National Geographic entitled, Peasant Woman of Wcczibbrcy Leading a Bear to Church.”

— Rex Stout,
in Over My Dead Body

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Finally, from Barb, who has been rummaging around in the annals of etymology:

In 1770, English explorer Captain James Cook landed in Australia and asked the Aborigines what they called the large marsupials indigenous to the continent. He was told “kangaroo”, which, unbeknownst to Cook, is Aborigine for “I don’t know”.

– Joe Green

“That’s Me Told, Then.”

I like reading Jenny Diski, an expert in not much of anything but always interesting in terms of her original takes and quirky turns of phrase.

She is a British born boomer who came of age, and out of a fractured home, in the 1960s and did everything that her generation was presumed to be doing (drugs, free love, socialism, communes, protests, riots) though, in truth, few had the nerve.

Last week she was writing about aging and reviewing various books on the subject in the London Review of Books (She mentions India Knight’s In Your Prime: How to Age Disgracefully)

Says Jenny Diski:

“I’m of the cohort which lived inside a gilded bubble when young, and made a proper song and dance about it … but is now clearly thinking of itself as old, and you can be sure this won’t happen quietly.”

Last year, at age 66, she referred to herself as old in a newspaper piece and was immediately taken severely to task by a Swedish nurse who works with people in their mid-80’s “who think of people your age as young and who never refer to themselves as old.” At the same time, she notices how store clerks and her hair dresser treat her as old or otherwise largely beside the point.

“That’s me told, then, every which way,” she concludes.

“People are going to be cross with you for declaring agedness too soon as well as too late, but it’s not that easy to identify the right moment. According to Scientific American, we ought to be able to sniff out where we are at.”

The principal book she is sniffing out is Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, which devotes a good deal of attention to the so-called war between generations. As Jenny Diski sums the party line, “Our pensions, the medical expertise and equipment, the time and energy needed to care and cater for a disproportionately large aged population: all this, the young have been told, is coming out of their earnings and limiting their wellbeing.

“Those who become ill or develop age-related conditions are to blame for failing to keep themselves bright and sparky … dependency with increasing age becomes something about which the old should apologize.”

Since oldsters have been paying into Social Security and Medicare all of their long lives — and working and scrimping to raise their kids and their kids — neither Diski nor Segal is buying these “political lies and half-truths.”

Nor does either blame the young for being angry; they blame the media for uncritically perpetuating distorted statistics and political cover stories — ideological excuses for the congressmen who have been misappropriating all those Social Security and Medicare contributions for all those years and misusing the money to solidify their own power.

Yes, the incomes of seniors increased slightly over the past decade – but from what level? Twenty to thirty percent of them live in poverty.

There’s more, though much of it – for both author and reviewer – is preoccupied with demolishing prissy confusions and squirmy attitudes concerning sex and health for aging women, none of which lends itself to tidy summations here by an ignorant male writer. Get the book.

Or don’t. Chances are, it won’t be on the final.

The Putin Doctrine

When Russia moved in on Crimea, then stirred up pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin justified the actions based on his country’s responsibility to Russian-speaking people wherever they were.

Last week, along with other sane observers, the Economist dismissed the idea. But then, being from England and all, the editors took another look in this week’s issue.

On second thought, they rather liked the idea of getting back the United States, Canada, and Australia, along with a fair chunk of colonial Africa.

Redrawing the world map using the Putin Doctrine, Portugal reclaims Brazil and Spain regains Argentina plus most of South and Central America, including Mexico. The Vikings reconquer Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland, but nobody has much claim on the Finns.

Since Hindi and Urdu are both mixtures of Persian and Sanskrit, India and Pakistan lay claim to each other, as usual.

Putin may have a tough sell ahead.

Illegal to Lie in Ohio

We’ve lost track of proceedings in some important court cases – maybe you can help us out with an update? We apologize, but we have an excuse from our mother country, whose Supreme Court has five conservative justices who have lost track of the entire Constitution.

But back to specifics:

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Tommy the chimpanzee and three other primates have filed for writs of habeas corpus to gain their freedom so they can retire to sanctuaries.

Tommy’s lawsuit was scheduled for filing in December in a New York county court, and other cases for Kiko, Hercules, and Leo were headed for Niagara Falls and Suffolk County jurisdictions.

Acting for the chimps is The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which reputedly enjoys the support of Jane Goodall. The group’s president, Steven Wise, says these actions will later be followed by more chimpanzee suits in other states and by petitions on behalf of whales, dolphins, elephants, and great apes.

The chimpanzees were rescued from miserable conditions in the entertainment industry and given homes by several good samaritans who now find themselves being sued as if they were kidnappers.

We at The Horse have conflicted feelings about these cases, but we can’t wait to hear the Supreme Court explain how a corporation is a person, but a chimpanzee – which shares 97% of the same genes as the chief justice – doesn’t get a black robe and doesn’t even qualify as a person.

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Elsewhere in Criminal Justice, Ohio’s legendary legislature has passed a law making it a crime – punishable by jail time and a $5,000 fine – to lie about a candidate running for office.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in late April. A brief filed by satirist P.J. O’Rourke (author of Don’t Vote – It Just Encourages the Bastards) and the Koch-funded, right wing/libertarian Cato Institute (which lies beyond the boundaries of satire) claims the law is a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

As The Economist notes: “Mudslingers are outraged.”

O’Rourke’s argument: “Disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic) are cornerstones of American democracy.”

After all, he asks, “Where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag burners who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America …… while Republicans are assault weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation?”

Though not party to the filing, The Economist offered its judgment from across the pond: “Government is ill-suited to deciding when a statement crosses the line into falsehood. Forbidding “lies” will not produce political discourse filled with accuracy and brilliance; it will produce silence.”

Well, what’s wrong with that?

Fleurs du Mal

I thought Jean Genet had written Flowers of Evil but was reminded when I checked that this was a book of poems by Baudelaire and also the name of a rock band, several albums, a manga, a play, and films from America, France, and South Korea. Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers.

What sent me on this goose chase was a report in Thursday’s Times on Flowers Foods, which turns out to be the nation’s most lopsided corporate political donor — 99% to Republicans over the past three decades. Democratic congressmen get $2 on their birthdays.

“Flowers of Evil” springs naturally to mind.

Not even Koch Industries is that one-sided in its smug philanthropies. Nor Charles Schwab, who donates alongside the Koch brothers in the worst of their right wing crusades and vendettas.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, coined the term, “edible foodlike substances” (think Twinkies), referring to the avalanche of synthetic snacks and “foods” consisting largely of fillers, preservatives, refined sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings.

Flowers Foods makes TastyKakes and Wonderbread, so it’s just business-as-usual when they support “corruptible legislator-like zombies” for political office. Likewise, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store gives 80% of its political money to Republicans, which won’t surprise anyone who has tasted their New England Clam Chowder – an obvious scheme to destroy leftist New England. It should carry an FDA warming label, “tainted by penchant for oligarchy”

But Flowers takes the Kake.

Only one Flowers officer is known ever to have given a substantial contribution to a Democrat — $500 to Georgia democrat Stanford Bishop from Robert Crozier, then a Flowers executive (“a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,” in the words of Ed King’s song)

Wonder what became of Mr. Crozier?