I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.
For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.
Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.
In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.
The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.
The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.
The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”
I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.
So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.
The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.
This is a huge problem for me, because I use Amazon a lot.
As an author, I frequently order my own books to give as gifts from Amazon, because of the company’s winning combination of low prices; fast, cheap shipping; very convenient website; and superb customer service. For my research, Amazon is my preferred way to get the reference material I need. More generally, when I know what I want — and even sometimes when I don’t — I often find that Amazon is the best way to go.
Last night I had a conversation with my local UPS dispatcher, because the GSM World phone that I was supposed to receive on Monday hadn’t arrived by Tuesday night. The dispatcher explained that the drivers were overworked, and that DOT regulations required that the drivers come off the roads after driving for the whole day. Fair enough.
“But surely my package, delayed from yesterday, will get priority today, won’t it?” I asked.
“No,” was the answer. Then the dispatcher told me that the driver still had 60 deliveries to make, which, he thought, would take 4 hours. It was 7:30pm. The driver would come off the road at 10:30pm. My package would probably be delayed a second time. True to their “We Love Logistics” slogan, the dispatcher knew exactly what was going on, and precisely why I might never get my stuff.
Now, it’s just a phone. (I want it because I’m traveling to Israel next week, and my current GSM phone doesn’t have a built-in GPS. I’m tired of getting lost in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, which is literally built in non-Euclidean space.) This obviously isn’t worth risking the welfare of the driver, and I told the dispatcher as much.
So on the one hand, this is a prime example of the much mocked “first-world problem.” As an author and scholar living comfortably in the suburbs of New York, I might not get a device of convenience dropped off at my door as quickly as I’d like.
But on the other hand, I’m worried, because I see this as part of an increasing trend that leaves critical infrastructure in the hands of private companies whose motive (quite legitimately) is profit, not service.
We used to rely on the United States Postal Service (USPS) to send things, because, at least since the Romans, we’ve known that the ability to mail things to each other is an important ingredient in civilized life. This is why the USPS offered first-class mail even to remote locations, and even at a loss.
Similarly, and for similar reasons, we used to use a regulated phone network to communicate. The phone lines in this country were built to service everyone. And, I just heard, the system was designed to work 99.999% of the time, which is to say that outages would be limited to about 5 minutes a year.
But now most people where I live use Internet phones and cell phones, so they rely on local cable and wireless providers for communication. These companies, while regulated, are not required to offer any particular level of service, the thinking being that “the market” will ensure high enough quality.
Surprisingly, everyone was surprised during Hurricane Sandy when so many people were unable to communicate. The cable and wireless providers, it turned out, were making a lot of money by skimping on reliability.
Likewise, I now find that my default way of doing my daily business is in the hands of a company that, by its own admission, isn’t up to the task.
I grew up grateful that I didn’t live in one of the many countries where things didn’t work. But is the U.S on the path to becoming one of those countries?
(Incidentally, Amazon apologized profusely for the delay — in spite of it not being their fault — and credited me what I would have paid for shipping. UPS didn’t apologize, and blamed the DOT regulations and the number of packages. More on this interesting difference soon.)
Right off the bat, a question presents itself: Why do we use a secular date to delineate this Jewish custom, when all of the others are based on the Jewish calendar? And secondly, what’s the magic behind December 5? The answers take us on a fascinating journey through Jewish text, nature, astronomy, history, infrastructure, and politics.
There are in fact two times we add a mention of rain to our service. The first, more familiar now, is the short insertion in the Amida prayer about God’s power: mashiv ha-ru’ach umorid ha-gashem. God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The second is an addition to the prayer petitioning God for bountiful produce: ten tal umatar livracha. Grant us the blessing of dew and rain.
The 1800-year-old Mishnah — the initial compilation of Jewish law and practice — discusses both of these in the chapter called Ta’anit (“fasting”), starting with the first one.
There was general agreement that the insertion should commence during the rainy season, roughly Sukkot. The Mishnah records a disagreement about the details. Rabbi Eliezer considered the first day of Sukkot a good time to start praying for rain, but Rabbi Yehoshua countered that no one wants rain on Sukkot, so it would be better to wait until the end of the holiday.
But Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when it was common to ascend to Jerusalem by foot. If we start praying for rain right after Sukkot, it might rain on those who are walking home.
So regarding the second insertion, Rabbi Gamaliel says that we should wait until 15 days after Sukkot to start praying for rain, that half-month being a reasonable amount of time to walk back to the farthest extent of the Land of Israel.
The Talmud — the great codification of Jewish law and practice that contains the Mishnah and meandering commentary on it — expands on the Mishnah and explains that in Babylonia they didn’t start saying the prayer for rain until 60 days into the rainy season of fall.
Jewish geography is exceedingly simple. There are essentially only three places: Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the rest of the world. Therefore, we in New York live in the same place (“the rest of the world”) as the Babylonians, so we follow their custom. We start saying the prayer for rain 60 days after the equinox.
The equinox is either September 22 or September 23.
But the careful reader may notice that 60 days after September 22 or 23 is November 21 or 22, not December 5. So we keep digging.
Shmuel, in the Talmud section known as Eruvin, calculates the four seasons as each lasting 91 days and 7.5 hours, and assigns September 23 as the start of fall. Because his became the official Jewish secular calendar, the Jewish equinox is always September 23. But we still wonder why we don’t start praying for rain on November 22.
Shmuel’s year of four seasons lasted 364 days and 30 hours, or 365.25 days. The solar year, though, is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter. Because of this discrepancy, the Jewish equinox has slowly moved forward compared to the solar equinox, at the rate of approximately one day every 128 years.
The Catholic Church (by coincidence) also used Shmuel’s calendar, but unlike in Judaism, most of the Christian holidays are based on the solar date. By 1582, the official and solar calendars were 10 days out of sync, one result of which was that the springtime holiday of Easter was marching forward into summer.
So Pope Gregory fixed the calendar by doing two things. He dropped 10 days in October (the day after October 4 was October 15 that year), and, moving forward, he dropped 3 leap years every 400 years: years that are divisible by 100 would no longer be leap years unless they were also divisible by 400. (That’s why 2000 was a leap year even though 1900 wasn’t, and 2100 won’t be.)
In America and elsewhere in the world we use the Gregorian calendar.
The Jews, though, didn’t give a damn about Pope Gregory. So in 1582, the Jewish equinox moved ahead 10 days to October 3, the Gregorian equivalent of the Shmuelian September 23. Since then, 1700, 1800, and 1900 have been Shmuelian leap years but not Gregorian leap years. So now the Shmuelian equinox is the Gregorian October 6.
Sixty days after October 6 is December 5. And there you have it.
But don’t get too used to that date. In the year 2100 (a Shmuelian leap year) the day moves ahead to December 6.
[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple December 2012 bulletin.]
Astonishingly, that was the calm before the storm, though I didn’t know it at the time.
As night fell, the winds really picked up, roaring louder than any bit of nature I’ve ever heard, save perhaps thunder. A local radio station — my only link to anything beyond the walls around me — reported gusts of over 100 miles per hour: the very air I breathe was racing faster than I’ve ever driven.
Living essentially in the forest, I’ve spent many dark nights unable to communicate with the outside world. I’m prepared for power outages.
But I wasn’t prepared for this.
I wasn’t actually afraid for my own safety (though perhaps I should have been), but my pulse was racing and my heart pounding nonetheless. But for the cacophony outside, I’m sure I would actually have heard it.
In retrospect, I was reliving part of my past.
I re-experienced what my ancestors knew: Nature is awesome, not only in the modern “isn’t it amazing” and “I must take a picture” sense, but more along the lines of the transcendent “my greatest accomplishments pale in comparison,” and “I am both terrified of this and irresistibly drawn to see it.”
All in all, I was lucky. Dozens of people died, but I wasn’t harmed. A tree fell on my neighbor’s house, but mine is fine. (Other neighbors saw a tree fall on their backyard trampoline, voicing the opinion that it should have bounced.) Some not-too-distant communities were swept away, but I was unaffected by flooding.
Sandy left me with no water, heat, phones, electricity, cell reception, or Internet service, putting me in the category of the lucky ones.
Dear Mr. Morgan:
I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.
During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.
It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.
It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn’t accept homosexuality, it’s his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it’s dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible.
Similarly, if you don’t like homosexuality, it’s your right to say so on air. But I think it’s irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.
This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be “challenging.” Why didn’t you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?
I look forward to your response.
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