Friday, May 31

Okay, One More

I should be loading the car, but this one is too good to let go. Jeff Goldstein offers a brilliant commentary on James Lileks' close reading of Dr. Seuss's Ten Apples Up On Top. Not having read the work in question, I will refrain from further comment (though noting that that didn't stop Goldstein). All I'll say is that from now on I'll be reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish with a much more critical eye.

Wine of the Week

Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah 1990: The wine has been in its bottle for ten years—the label reveals that it was bottled in May 1992—and yet the passage of time has had virtually no effect on its appearance, which remains a deep, almost inky purple. This is without doubt a bruiser of a wine, with leather, anise, and plum scents and an intense, almost bitter midpalate of coffee, tar, and anise that overwhelms the initial red fruit flavors. The fruit re-emerges on the finish, when the firm tannins also make their presence felt. In short, ten years has done little to tame the wine. This is not a wine for the faint of heart, but it is an excellent example of the powerful, rough style of petite sirah. I enjoy this style every once in awhile,but I wouldn’t want to drink wine like this regularly.

Vacation Alert

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm starting a vacation today. I'll be incommunicado at least until Sunday. After that, I'll have intermittent internet access, but given a choice between blogging and golf or the beach, I have a feeling I know what my choice will be. If I do post, it will likely be about vacation-appropriate subjects (I have a few things in mind).

Thanks to those who visited this week. I hope a few of you will return when I do on June 10.

Thursday, May 30

Of course, not all counter-arguments are so easily dismissed. Jeff Sackmann responds to my post of yesterday by fleshing out his argument that public universities should respond to reduced state funding by reducing their enrollment. I'm still not entirely convinced by his argments, but at least I understand his thinking better now.

I'd love to respond, but regrettably I'm in the midst of day-before-vacation madness--I've already spent far more time here today than I really have time for. This exchange shows, I think, both what's enjoyable and what's frustrating about the blogosphere. Mr. Sackmann dashed off a quick thought, as is the nature of the blog genre; I explored it, at greater length but still using a highly simplified model; Mr. Sackmann responded at length by adding more complexity to the model; a response from me would add still more complexity. And of course we both write without having actual data at hand. Ultimately, I think we probably would arrive at a common understanding. By then, though, we'd also probably have a publishable paper. And that's not really what blogs are for—by that point we each would undoubtedly have scared off whatever small audiences we might have (I know mine is small, anyway).

Jeff, with your indulgence, I may pursue this by email at another time. Meanwhile, I think that here I'll lay the subject to rest.

Off to prepare for my departure.

I see I've received my first negative link, commenting on my post about the "American Jihad" speech at Harvard:

Whoops, sorry, broke kayfabe there for a minute. Next, I'll be claiming that all Arabs aren't fanatical terrorists, or even suggesting that there's no fucking reason to expect all Muslims to condemn terrorism unless you think they're all terrorists, or something equally absurd. [The link to my post appears at the words "no fucking reason."]

Holy misinterpretation, Batman! I never suggested that all Muslims need to condemn terrorism, and I would never do so. What I suggested was that this particular Muslim, in this particular context, choosing to lecture a multifaith and multi-ethnic audience about the signficance of jihad in American life less than nine months after thousands of Americans (and scores of people of other nationalities) were killed in the name of jihad, owes it to his audience to make clear that he condemns terrorism. And if he is unwilling to do so, Harvard should not give him a platform.

That wasn't so complicated, was it?

Eugene Volokh has just finished grading final exams. Lucky bastard. I'm done with Products Liability, but I'm still plowing through the large stack of Civil Procedure II exams, which, I regret to say, are mostly dismal.

Something was definitely different this year. I'm not sure exactly what it was. Perhaps people were thrown off track early in the year by September 11 and its aftermath. I certainly was more distracted than usual, thanks to my (ultimately successful) application for tenure, not to mention Noah's arrival. But I've now been at this for six years, and I like to think I'm at least moderately good at it. Yet time after time, I find myself encountering the same foolish mistake, as students repeatedly ignore, forget, or misinterpret points that I know I stressed in class, posted to the class's web page, and reiterated in the review session.

This is perhaps the worst part of grading. It's not just that the essays are badly written and substantively off-track. Seeing the same mistakes again and again, I can't help but feel that I have failed in a task to which I devoted significant time and energy over the course of several months. And that's a miserable feeling.

Wednesday, May 29

I see that Glenn Reynolds has just linked to Meryl Yourish, who in turn linked to my post yesterday about the "American Jihad" commencement speech at Harvard (thanks, Meryl). I'm eager to see if there's an InstaPundit echo effect around here.
Jeff Sackmann, who is soon to enter a Ph.D. program at a prestigious Midwestern university, notes an article describing the financial bind in which many public universities find themselves, as costs increase and state funding stays flat or decreases. The result, at a large number of schools, is a double-digit percentage increase in tuition, one that threatens the ability of some prospective students to attend. Jeff proffers a partial solution:

One of the major problems facing cash-strapped public universities is the growing enrollment numbers. Rather than raise tuition (which slims enrollment by making college too expensive for some), get more selective. Take those kids who really deserve a shot and give them the scholarship money they need. Reject more, and focus the resources on the more-select few.

Jeff suggests that this will not happen, because doing so would likely have the effect of either reducing minority enrollment or increasing the use of "quotas and double standards."

I agree with Jeff that his proposed solution will not be implemented, although I think the reason has nothing to do with concerns about minority enrollment. I'm simply confused by his reasoning. He suggests that public universities face problems as a result of growing enrollments, but then asserts that universities that raise tuition face lower enrollments. Which is it? Moreover, I'm not sure why higher enrollments, if they are indeed happening, are a problem: they yield increased costs, in all likelihood, but they also increase revenue. And the size of college enrollments is driven by more than simply administrators' supposed desire for larger enrollments and limitations imposed by tuition increases. At least two additional forces spring readily to mind: demographics and the economy.

I was born in 1964, in what is generally considered the last year of the baby boom (which I've always thought strange, given that both my parents were under ten years of age when World War II ended). When I entered kindergarten, the town in New Jersey where I grew up had eight elementary schools; by the time my younger brother, born in 1969, finished sixth grade, three of those schools had closed because of the "baby bust" that followed the end of the boom. Jump ahead to the mid-1980s, when I graduated from college, and you see that many colleges, far from expanding, had a great deal of difficulty sustaining their enrollments.

The results weren't pretty for those who entered graduate school as I did in 1987. We were told that, dismal though the job market for Ph.D.s was at the time, it was sure to improve, because the generation of professors that obtained their doctorates following the war would be retiring. By 1993, when those few of my history classmates who had persisted in their studies began receiving their degrees (I had long since abandoned history for law), many of the older generation had indeed retired, and yet there were no jobs to be found: in the midst of both a recession and a demographic trough, most universities had decided to reduce their faculty size rather than fill their vacancies.

In recent years, the children of the baby boomers have themselves begun reaching college age, creating a demographic echo that has allowed enrollments to rise again.

The economy plays a role in enrollments as well. When jobs are plentiful, employment can seem like an attractive option to higher education; when jobs are scarce, education becomes a way of both improving one's credentials and avoiding the tight labor market for a time. As a result, applications increase. We certainly see this in professional schools—the school where I teach saw a dramatic increase in applications this year, mostly from 22- and 23-year-olds facing a bruising job market. I suspect colleges experience a similar phenomenon. If enrollments are rising, then (and I admittedly don't have any data on the subject handy), there appear to be underlying reasons above and beyond the increasingly-voiced notion that a college degree is essential to succeed in today's economy.

This is, in part, why I am rather confused by Jeff's proposal. With the college-age population growing in size, and economic conditions directing people into education rather than employment, how would public universities improve their finances by reducing their enrollments? Doing so might improve the overall caliber of a school's student body. But even if one accepts that the role of a public university is to educate only the most promising students—a debatable proposition—the competition over such students already is fierce; shrinking the size of undergraduate programs would only make it fiercer.

What's more, I don't see how reducing enrollments would help public universities out of their financial crunch. Public universities have large fixed costs associated with the maintenance of their facilities; unless some of the properties are sold off, reducing enrollments will do little to reduce these costs. Many public universities have already undertaken substantial measures to reduce their other costs—in particular, they are relying more and more on poorly-paid adjunct professors rather than full-salaried tenure-track hires to fill their teaching needs. All this at a time when state funding is flat or in decline create pressures that can't be improved by becoming more selective in admissions.

Let's take a quick example, and out of necessity I'll keep the math simple. (I hit the mathematics wall in intermediate calculus, when the teaching assistant handed around three-dimensional models of four-dimensional equations and told us to think of them as the equivalent of depictions on paper of three-dimensional objects. My brain balked at the necessary leap, and my math skills have atrophied dramatically since then.) Suppose that a university currently has a class of 1,000 students, a tuition of $10,000, and $2,000,000 worth of scholarship funds. The net tuition income will be $8,000,000, taking into account the scholarship funds. Now assume that, in the following year, the university experiences a $1,000,000 increase in expenses and receives no increase in state funding. The university now has several choices: it can add 100 more students to its class (assuming—in all likelihood falsely—that this results in no additional expenses), cut its scholarship funding by $1,000,000, or increase its tuition by $1,000 (or some lesser combination of these elements).

Now suppose that in the face of the increased costs, the university decides to cut its class to 800 students. Under Jeff's proposal, we would want to keep the $2,000,000 in scholarship money intact, so that it could make the greatest possible difference for "those kids who really deserve a shot." If the tuition is kept at $10,000, the school's net income from tuition, following scholarships, will be $6,000,000. If the tuition is increased to $11,000, the net would be $6,800,000. If the tuition were increased even more, to $12,000, the net income of $7,600,000 would still require that the university slash costs. Inevitably, that means fewer faculty for the reduced number of students.

All of which may be fair enough. But it leads me, ultimately, to the real reason I'm puzzled by Jeff's suggestion. Jeff, once you've completed your Ph.D., don't you want a job?

Tuesday, May 28

With Harvard's commencement approaching next week, there has been a fair bit of controversy, well documented by graduating seniors Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Kinen, surrounding this year's student speaker, Zayed Yasin. Mr. Yasin was the president of the Harvard Islamic Society, which in itself is unobjectionable. The difficulty with the selection of Mr. Yasin as a commencement speaker is the title of his address: "American Jihad." One might think that, less than nine months after September 11, and with our troops in Afghanistan still in pursuit of forces that have declared holy war on the United States, the insensitivity (to say the least) of presenting such a talk at what is supposed to be a celebratory event would be self-evident. Regrettably, at least when it comes to the Harvard administration, one would be wrong.

I don't teach at Harvard—if I did, I would hardly characterize my current position as "the middle floor of the Ivory Tower." But I did obtain my undergraduate degree there sixteen years ago. At the time, Harvard was in the midst of a sustained student campaign to persuade the university to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. The most visible manifestation of the campaign was a shanty town erected in Harvard Yard, in front of the statue of John Harvard. And Harvard took the position that the shanties should be removed before commencement, in part because the space they occupied was needed to enable the movement of people during the crowded commencement exercises, but also in part because (and here I operate from admittedly hazy memory) commencement was an inappropriate time for such a protest. How the school that reached such a conclusion could subsequently approve a speech invoking jihad, at a time when the country still reels from the loss of thousands killed under the banner of that word, is beyond me.

I understand that Mr. Yasin does not intend to use his speech to advocate anti-Western violence but rather intends to focus on jihad as the struggle for righteousness internal to each individual. Indeed, I understand the frustration many Muslims must feel that a concept central to their faith has been perverted by a radical minority. None of this strikes me as relevant to the central question. However much Mr. Yasin may oppose the radical Islamists' conception of jihad (a question that must be deemed open in light of his support for the Holy Land Foundation—an organization with ties to Hamas—as well as reports that he does not intend to denounce terrorism in his speech), the word has by now acquired a distinct meaning among the American public and therefore is bound to provoke a strong response from members of the audience some of whom will have lost friends or family members in the September 11 attacks. Such a provocation is inappropriate for a commencement setting.

I should be clear that my objection is not to the fact that a religious concept apparently will form the centerpiece of the address. In this, I somewhat surprise myself—as a member of a religious minority, and one that has been targeted for conversion time and again, I tend to be highly sensitive to religious messages delivered at inappropriate times and places. (An aside here: as a member of my local Jewish Community Relations Council, I've been involved in lobbying the state legislature against various bills that would permit or require posting the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses, and other public buildings. Many legislators are baffled to find that a Jewish group would oppose displays of Ten Commandments: "But they're from the Old Testament!" Yes, well, that's not the point. As a religious minority, we are sensitive to the message sent to other religious minorities—or to atheists, for that matter—when the government endorses a religious text, any religious text. Besides, the plaques and other displays that would be posted pursuant to these bills invariably get the Commandments themselves wrong.) Central to most religions are themes that, if handled sensitively, are capable of being universalized. Not all religious concepts can be handled in such a way, of course: a speech that informed its audience that the only route to true personal fulfillment was to accept Jesus Christ as one's personal savior could not help but offend large portions of the audience. But it seems to me that, in the abstract, a skilled orator could build an effective, and inoffensive, speech around the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—"repairing the world." Such a speech would have to downplay the Jewishness of the concept, but it could work even if the speaker explicitly invoked the Hebrew phrase, as long as it was not proclaimed as a uniquely or especially Jewish idea. And the same might be possible with a speech built around the struggle for personal righeousness that most of us go through, even if we do not all label it "jihad."

But not here, not now. I strongly suspect that Muslims (and those non-Muslims who, misguidedly in my view, support the Palestinian intifadah against Israel) would not presently welcome an address from a Jewish speaker on the theme of tikkun olam, regardless of its content, because they would inevitably filter the speech through their perception of Israeli-Palestinian relations. They should not be surprised, then, if Jews and others who have been targeted by radical Islamists balk at the notion of being lectured about jihad. Regardless of its content (but especially if it does not include an explicit denunciation of terrorism), "American Jihad" is the wrong speech at the wrong time. The Harvard Committee on Orations should reconsider its decision.

(Update: Oops, my ass has been fact-checked. Matthew Yglesias is a member of the class of 2003. Sorry if I seemed to be hurrying you out the door, Matthew.)

Monday, May 27

This Memorial Day, I remember my first-cousin-once-removed, who fought in Europe during World War II, was captured, and spent time in a Nazi prison camp. He survived--indeed, he lived into my own adulthood, although I saw more of him when I was a child--but he was badly damaged by his wartime experience. It is not much of a stretch to say that he gave his life for his country.

I also think of one of my students, a tanker pilot in the Air Force Reserves who was called up to active duty in the wake of September 11. Shortly after he was activated and sent overseas, he sent me an email to let me know that he was doing well and looking forward to returning to law school. He doesn’t need to be memorialized this day, but I am grateful for the service that he, like so many others, has given for all of us.

Tal G. refers to a Ha'aretz article suggesting that Arafat has managed to infuriate not only the Israeli and American governments but the Saudis as well. The article notes that, despite Crown Prince Abdullah's apparent effort to persuade Arafat to forswear suicide bombings, recent attacks within Israel have been linked to Tanzim and the Al-Asqua Martyrs Brigade, two organizations with ties to Arafat's Fatah movement.

The article goes on to suggest a quite plausible reason for Arafat's continued use of terror: Arafat hopes to provoke another strong Israeli response in order to put off proposed elections and bolster his own standing.

Since being released from his headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat has had a rough time: his "victory tour" of the West Bank produced only small, unenthusiastic crowds; he's been subject to growing calls from within his own government for substantial reform of the PA; polls have shown that a majority of Palestinians do not view him favorably. Arafat's primary interest is, and has always been, his own survival and the enhancement of his power. It should not be surprising that he once again seems to have decided that the role that best suits him is not responsible leader but defiant victim, and has taken steps to return himself to that role.

Tal is now reporting another bombing in Israel, with at least two dead and 50 wounded.

Sunday, May 26

One of the difficult things about starting a weblog at this relatively late date (as opposed to, say, three months ago) is that regardless of what you think you might write, it seems like someone else not only has thought of it, but has written it better than you could hope you write it yourself. So I will simply link to Charles Murtaugh's post, prompted by today's New York Times story about the final hours on the upper floors of the World Trade Center (which I noted late last night). Dr. Murtaugh, like me, is a Democrat deeply frustrated by the Bush Administration because of the ever-increasing incoherence of its pursuit of the war on terror. He notes the opportunity for a forceful Democratic response to the administration and uses the last few episodes of The West Wing to suggest that many Democrats are ready and eager for such a response.

These are strange days, in which the Washington divide between Republicans and Democrats seems increasingly unrepresentative of what is going on in America. I can't help but think that a major political realignment is bubbling under the surface. It will be interested to see how it plays out, because the parties have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. They have well-established fundraising schemes dependent on certain issues and certain depictions of their opponents--issues and depictions that are increasingly out of step with the direction in which events are taking us. A move that shakes up this existing state of affairs could bring tremendous gains to the party that attempts it, or it could backfire spectacularly. As the party in power, the Republicans seem unlikely to attempt such a move. Regrettably, the Democrats, who have the most to gain, seem too timid to try.

Wines of the Week

Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron Pauillac 1988, Chateau Rausan-Segla Margaux 1988

The 1988 vintage occupies an awkward place in recent Bordeaux history. Initially regarded as a very good vintage--certainly better than the immediately-preceding 1987--1988 was almost immediately overshadowed by the spectacular 1989, which was in turn eclipsed by the stupendous 1990. By comparison to the concentrated, fully ripe 1989s and 1990s, the 1988s were generally seen as more traditionally styled wines, with firmer tannins and leaner fruit. Such wines, of course, aren't much fun to drink when young (as opposed to the 1989s and 1990s, which were fruit bombs when first released). But time has now passed. So, when my father and step-mother came from New York two weeks ago to visit their grandson, I decided to take advantage of the situation to open two 1988s of which I have mutliple bottles, Chateau Pichon-Baron and Chateau Rausan-Segla.

When I first started collecting Bordeaux about eleven years ago, Pichon-Baron and Rausan-Segla quickly became favorites. In the former case, I was influenced strongly by Robert Parker, who wrote glowingly about the quality of the wines the chateau was producing at time, as well as by the fact that the winemaking was overseen by Jean-Michel Cazes (the winemaker at the first chateau whose wines I came to know and love by name, Lynch-Bages). As for Rausan-Segla, I admit to being drawn to the wines initially by my then-roommate Art's observation that the chateau's name sounded like something from a Japanese monster movie: Godzilla versus Rausan-Segla! (In recent years the estate has returned to its traditional spelling, "Rauzan-Segla," which somehow seems even more monstrous). But the wine was classified as a second-growth in the famous 1855 classification of Medoc chateaux (as was Pichon-Baron)--and, again, Parker liked it--so it seemed a respectable choice.

Fourteen years after bud-break and more than a decade after their release onto the market, these wines should now be fully mature, or at least nearly so. And the Pichon-Baron put in a good showing, with a fullsih licorice, cedar, and blackcurrant aroma and lean (not to say austere) blackcurrant flavors over a good tannic structure. It was served with filet, which it complemented well, and it disappeared rapidly over the course of dinner. At that level, it was certainly a success. But it also wasn't terribly memorable--it was a good Pauillac from a good year, but I've had more memorable wines from Pichon-Baron (the 1989 is mind-boggling), and I've had more memorable cabernet-based 1988 wines from elsewhere in the globe (one of which I'll write about next week).

The Rausan-Segla, unfortunately, was a disappointment. Showing predominantly red fruit (plum) rather than black fruit flavors, and more acidic than the Pichon-Baron, it remained somewhat astringent, the flavors smothered under a heavy layer of tannin. It was drinkable, to be sure--especially once the Pichon-Baron was gone--but it paled in comparison even to that good but unspectacular wine. When I first tasted the 1988 Rausan-Segla in 1994, I made similar observations and hoped that I was simply encountering the wine during a dumb phase, a not-uncommon period in the evolution of an ageworthy red wine in which the initial blast of youthful fruit has dissipated but the tannins have not yet mellowed and the more complex flavors of a mature red have not yet emerged. In the eight years since that tasting, however, the wine doesn't seem to have budged. Perhaps not coincidentally, I've had a similar experience with the Rausan-Segla from 1993, a vintage that bears a certain resemblance to 1988 throughout the Medoc. Needless to say, this leads me to question whether Rauzan-Segla really belongs on my shopping list.