Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Snippets of conversation I overheard on the way home from work the other day:

A young woman dressed in black pants and black t-shirt was talking on her cell phone. She said "It's just that I worry about the transmission... the transmission of certain viruses, you know?" Her tone of voice rose at the word 'viruses,' like it was a question.

Two African-American women were sitting on the front porch of a house. One of them had a notebook computer open on her lap. They were asking another woman what time it was, but she was talking to someone in a double-parked car and didn't hear the question, even when it was repeated. "It's six o'clock," I told them as I passed by. They both laughed and said "Thank you!" in unison. This finally got the attention of the woman talking to the person in the car and she turned toward the porch. "We were asking you what time it was," one of the women on the porch said. "Oh," the other woman replied, "I'm sorry. I'm in my own little world here. You know I've been doing that sleep study."

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Once there was a ruler of a poor country who wanted to lead his people into a new age of knowledge and wealth. He loved his country, but wanted it to adopt the ways of the rich nations of western Europe, and for the people to base their decisions on rational science rather than their traditional superstition. He made his people give up their old hats, and wear ones like the Europeans wore. It would help them become more modern, he said. He told the tailors not to make any more baggy pants in the traditional way. 'Look at how much fabric is wasted,' he said. 'With the same cloth you could have made three pairs of modern pants! We are a poor country; we must develop our own industry, and not buy so much cloth from Europe. So from now on, only make modern pants.' The tailors did not know how to make modern pants, and besides, it was cheaper just to import them already made from Europe. But they wanted the best for their country, and did not want to offend their ruler, so they did as they were told.

The ruler had many things to set right. The modern way of government was not have a king, but a republic, and one of the first things he did as ruler was to set up an assembly where deputies from all over the country could argue over things and decide what laws to enact. He was elected president, and appointed one of his friends as Prime Minister. But some of the deputies were not sufficiently modern in their thinking. They had tried to take various powers away from the ruler, and some even plotted to murder him. The plot was discovered, however, and the would-be murderers hanged. After that, anyone else who questioned the ruler's ideas was immediately suspected of being another plotter. Soon, they learned to keep quiet, even if they disagreed, and only members of the ruler's political party were allowed in the parliament. It was an efficient system, where policies were decided on in private, and then agreed to in parliment, and the various deputies could compete among themselves to see who could offer the most flattering compliments to the president.

But then a terrible crisis arose in the country. Many people lost their jobs or businesses, and the already very poor country was getting poorer. The president did not think his party's ministers knew very much about how to run the government. What was needed, he thought, was another party, whose members could criticize government policies and help the ministers develop better policies. Accordingly, he asked one of his friends to be head of the new party, helped decide what policies the new party would call for, and then carefully selected which members of his party would defect to the new party. In the first local elections after the formation of the new party, it won a large number of offices. There were also riots in some towns. The people were very angry at the president's party, and showed their anger by throwing stones through the windows of government offices and threatening police officers. This was too much, so the president decided to forget about the new party, and just go back to having one party. A few months after it was formed, the new party was disbanded, and everyone belonged to one party again.

Eventually, many years after the president had died, the country did have a real election again, with more than one party. (There was a revolution a few years later, after the newly elected government had made a complete mess of the government's bank accounts.) The former president was widely praised for his foresight and wisdom in the creation of the modern country. He was, above all, said his biographer, a pragmatist.