Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sunday Reading

Geniuses Don’t Tell — James Fallows in The Atlantic on speaking of intelligence.

I’ve never met or interviewed Donald Trump, though like most of the world I feel amply exposed to his outlooks and styles of expression. So I can’t say whether, in person, he somehow conveys the edge, the sparkle, the ability to connect, the layers of meaning that we usually associate with both emotional and analytical intelligence.But I have had the chance over the years to meet and interview a large sampling of people whom the world views the way Trump views himself. That is, according to this morning’s dispatches, as “like, really smart,” and “genius.”In current circumstances it’s relevant to mention what I’ve learned this way.

Trump tweeted a defense of his mental stability Saturday morning. (Screenshot from Twitter)
(Screenshot from Twitter)

I once spent weeks on interviews for a magazine profile of a man who had won a Nobel prize in medicine while in his forties. Back in my college days, one afternoon our biology professor passed around Dixie cups full of champagne before beginning the day’s classroom lecture, because of news that he had just won the Nobel prize. In decades of reporting on the tech industry, I’ve interviewed people—Gates, Jobs, Musk, Page—whose names have become shorthands for their respective forms of brilliance, plus several more Nobel winners, plus others who are not famous but deserve to be.

During a brief stint of actually working at a tech company, I learned that some of the engineers and coders were viewed as just operating on a different plane: the code they wrote was better, tighter, and more elegant than other people’s, and they could write it much more quickly.I’ve had the chance to interview and help select winners of fancy scholarships. Recently, in Shanghai, I interviewed a Chinese woman now in her early twenties who became the women’s world chess champion at age 16—and we were speaking in English.If you report long enough on politics and public life, even there you will see examples of exceptional strategic, analytic, and bargaining intelligence, along with a lot of clownishness.

In short (as Lloyd Bentsen might once have put it): I’ve known some very smart people. Some very smart people have been friends of mine. And Donald Trump…

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Here are three traits I would report from a long trail of meeting and interviewing people who by any reckoning are very intelligent.

  • They all know it. A lifetime of quietly comparing their ease in handling intellectual challenges—at the chess board, in the classroom, in the debating or writing arena—with the efforts of other people gave them the message.
  • Virtually none of them (need to) say it. There are a few prominent exceptions, of talented people who annoyingly go out of their way to announce that fact. Muhammed Ali is the charming extreme exception illustrating the rule: he said he was The Greatest, and was. Most greats don’t need to say so. It would be like Roger Federer introducing himself with, “You know, I’m quite graceful and gifted.” Or Meryl Streep asking, “Have you seen my awards?”
  • They know what they don’t know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence. The more acute someone’s ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits. These include the unevenness of any one person’s talents; the specific areas of weakness—social awkwardness, musical tin ear, being stronger with numbers than with words, or vice versa; and the incomparable vastness of what any individual person can never know. To read books seriously is to be staggered by the knowledge of how many more books will remain beyond your ken. It’s like looking up at the star-filled sky.We can think of exceptions—the people who are eminent in one field and try unwisely to stretch that to another. (Celebrated scientists or artists who become ordinary pundits; Michael Jordan the basketball genius becoming Michael Jordan the minor-league baseball player.) But generally the cliche is true: the clearest mark of intelligence, even “genius,” is awareness of one’s limits and ignorance.

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On the other hand, we have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”

Odds are that the world’s most flamboyant illustration of this dangerous mis-perception, despite his claimed omniscience, would not even recognize the term, nor its ominous implications in his case.

Crumbling Schools — Edwin Rios in Mother Jones on the state of school buildings in America.

This week, as the “bomb cyclone” ravaged cities along the East Coast, schools across the northeastern and southern United States were forced to shut down due to inclement weather and freezing temperatures. But Baltimore schools remained open during the first half of the week despite broken heating systems that caused some classroom temperatures to dip below 40 degrees. And although schools closed on Thursday and Friday, the debate over who’s responsible for the inadequate heating and water systems in the city’s aging school buildings—and how to fix the underlying problem—rages on.The plight of Baltimore students first reached national consciousness on Wednesday, when a video of students discussing the conditions with former NFL linebacker turned elementary school teacher Aaron Maybin went viral. “What’s the day been like for you today?” Maybin asked. “Cold!” the kids, some in jackets and hoodies, shouted together. Parents and teachers shared images of kids bundled in coats and thermostats on social media.On Wednesday, after the district closed four schools and dismissed two others early, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a Facebook video that 60 school buildings—a third of the district—reported problems that included broken boilers and water pipes. The decision to close schools, though, wasn’t made lightly. Santelises noted in the video that in the district, where nearly 87 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, administrators were forced to try to find a balance between the students’ need for food and safety with an impossibly cold learning environment.

It didn’t take long for local politicians to start sparring over the issue: On Thursday, when Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford tweeted that if his kids were in Baltimore’s schools, he would be at the superintendent’s office “seeking answers,” former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, shot back, replying that “all Maryland kids” are Rutherford’s kids. “Will we see you at the Superintendent’s office seeking answers for your kids?” he tweeted. Jealous wrote later on Facebook that Rutherford didn’t show up, adding: “Had he, I would have told him our administrators and teachers are not to blame and that it’s time we fully fund our schools.”

In a statement to CNN, Santelises expressed frustration with the lack of funding for school infrastructure.

“[T]oo many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation, and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements,” she said. In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, Kimberly Mooney, a teacher in Baltimore, also argued that the schools’ faltering pipes were just one example of the minimal financial support from the state to resolve Baltimore’s “crumbling infrastructure.”

In 2012, a report commissioned by Baltimore City Public Schools found that 69 percent of the district’s campuses were in “very poor condition,” and it would take an estimated $2.5 billion to bring buildings up to adequate standards. The Baltimore Sunreported on Thursday that the city’s schools have had to return $66 million in state funding to fix heating systems and make building repairs after they delayed projects for too long or the projects became too costly. Lawmakers called for changes to how money was awarded for projects,  and Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan said he was “outraged at the failures in Baltimore City” and blasted officials’ “ineptness and mismanagement” regarding the funding.

The debate in Baltimore reflects longstanding infrastructure woes schools face throughout the country. Beyond roads and highways, these 100,000 public schools—many of which are housed by aging buildings in desperate need of repairs and modernization—make up the second largest infrastructure system in the United States. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded in its annual report card last year that more than half of the nation’s public schools needed investments just to bring the building conditions to “good.” High-quality school facilities have been linked to better academic achievement for students, fewer suspensions, and better staff retention.

The problem has been brewing for decades. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 1995 that America’s schools needed a collective $112 billion to “repair or upgrade their facilities to good condition.” That number has ballooned to an estimated $145 billion per year, including an additional $46 billion each year on construction and maintenance to bring facilities up to modern standards, according to a 2016 “State of Our Schools” report.

Currently, the federal government spends little on improving school infrastructure, leaving the bulk of the financing to come from the state and local governments. In fact, local taxpayer dollars account for, on average, only 45 percent of funding toward maintenance and operations. But budgets are tight: After the 2008 recession, most states reduced school funding, putting pressure on local districts to make up the difference. In 2015, 29 states still had less overall state funding than they did in the 2008 school year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, even as student enrollment grew.

Meanwhile, the capital funds, which are used to renovate and build new schools and to shore up technological infrastructure, dropped 31 percent from 2008 to 2015. The ASCE 2017 report card noted that the constricted budgets have led to “accelerating deterioration of heating, cooling, and lighting systems.”  And much of the capital construction investment on school facilities—82 percent—comes down to how much school districts can raise from taxpayers, the 2016 “State of Our Schools” joint report noted. “Because the large majority of capital construction is funded by local taxpayers, the ability of school districts to pay for major renewals or new construction is tied to the wealth of their community, perpetuating inequity in school facility conditions,” the authors wrote.

One 2006 study found that projects at schools in wealthier areas spent three times more capital funds than projects in schools in poorer areas—where infrastructure investment is needed the most. In the 2012-2013 school year, 60 percent of schools with some of the poorest student populations, where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, needed repairs. That’s 12 percentage points higher than those in wealthier communities, according to theNational Education Center for Statistics. 

It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump, with his longpromised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, will keep his pledge to “rebuild our roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Last January, Senate Democrats introduced their own 10-year infrastructure proposal that included $75 billion toward shoring up schools, and it’s been lying dormant in Congress ever since. For now, some citizens are taking action—a college student’s GoFundMe campaign to provide space heaters and jackets for the Baltimore students far exceeded its $20,000 goal.

“Hamilton” In London — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The New Yorker takes in the show back in the land that sparked it.

The night that I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, in 2015, the Vice-President at the time, Joe Biden, happened to be sitting down the row. It was a mixed blessing: his entourage jammed the bathroom lines at intermission, but his presence lent the musical, about the American Revolution and its aftermath, an additional thrill. Watching Alexander Hamilton rap against a series of antagonistic Vice-Presidents—Adams, Jefferson, Burr—with Biden just a few seats away felt as close as I’d ever come to seeing “Macbeth” in 1606 with Banquo’s supposed descendant, King James I, at my elbow.

Two years and one Presidential election later—and a little more than a year after Biden’s successor, Mike Pence, attended the show and was beseeched from the stage to represent “the diverse America,” as the musical’s multiethnic cast aspires to do—I saw “Hamilton” in London, on its opening night, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The mood was similarly charged, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the much heralded son of a Pakistani bus driver, shaking hands in the lobby. It felt like a long way from the Obama-Biden years. American and British electorates didn’t follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s script, voting against the inclusive immigrant narrative and cosmopolitan cultural energy that “Hamilton” had come to embody for many (though not for some left-wing critics, who have labelled the show “Founders Chic” and said that it merely dresses up the Great Men of American history in hip-hop robes). Would it be the same show across the Atlantic, in the era of Trump and Brexit?

Miranda has a knack for cultural synthesis; in a press conference before the London opening, he placed his verse drama in a tradition that runs back to Shakespeare and noted that he’d made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Bard’s birthplace. He has also played up Hamilton’s ties to Britain’s current orphan hero: Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr “is basically Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy,” he wrote in his notes to the published script. On her way to a post-show reception, Helena Bonham Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange in the Potter films, said that she’d like to play Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, powerfully incarnated at the Victoria Palace by Rachel John. On the day of the opening, the London “Hamilton” company released a promotional video that features a mashup of Angelica’s showstopping “Satisfied” with the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At intermission, I had to step over the long legs of Keith Richards, who sat next to the Miranda family.

There were a few tweaks: Miranda said in an interview that he’d rewritten a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the U.K. than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.

“Macbeth” has had a decent run outside the Jacobean court, and “Hamilton,” too, looks poised to thrive through future administrations. When the newcomer Jamael Westman, as a laser-focussed Hamilton, a head taller and a decade younger than Miranda, rapped, “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me your position, show me where the ammunition is!” the audience erupted. The ovation for the veteran Giles Terera, a canny Burr, stopped the show after “The Room Where It Happens,” his declaration of lust for insider politics, and Obioma Ugoala brought down the house with George Washington’s preacherly farewell address, “One Last Time.” Alex Lacamoire, the show’s music director, said, at intermission, “I thought about changing a few things, but then I decided, nah, it’s pretty good.” The one difference, he explained, was the speed with which the London actors learned the score. They’d all listened to the original cast recording—the highest-débuting Broadway album on the Billboard 200 chart in half a century—and came into rehearsal with the music memorized. The same seemed to be true for the audience, which obeyed King George III’s command to sing the chorus to his catchy number “You’ll Be Back” along with him. “It’s not common for an audience to come to a première already knowing all the songs,” Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer, told me. “Spotify changed everything.” (Seller added that he expected “Hamilton” to be translated into Spanish and, perhaps, German.)

King George, the home-town antihero played by Michael Jibson, resplendent and glowering at his errant subjects in the audience, got the biggest cheer of the night. (“We did spiff up the King’s outfit,” Miranda said. “He’s got a much bling-ier garter because we were in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and he was looking a bit dingy.”) But Hamilton’s complaint that “Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly” sparked a loud laugh, too, and the revolutionaries’ victory over the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown prompted mid-song applause. “It seemed a bit double-barrelled,” the Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book is the basis for the musical, reflected after the show. “The audience cheered for King George and then enjoyed the satire.” A British fan, waiting for an autograph from Jason Pennycooke, who plays a gleefully showboating Thomas Jefferson, said that the King wasn’t a villain—“he’s just comic relief.”

The most knowing laughter came at King George’s caution to the newly independent colonies: “Oceans rise / Empires fall / It’s much harder when it’s all your call / All alone, across the sea / When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.” Was this a prophecy of Donald Trump’s spiralling isolationism—the travel ban, the broken accords, the looming wall—or an admonition to Brexit leaders fumbling after the British Conservative Party’s recent electoral setback? Miranda made the connection explicit before the show: “When you see the King singing about ‘You’ll be back; it’s harder on your own,’ given what you’re going through with Brexit, those lines ping off in all these different directions.”

A three-star review that ran in the right-wing Daily Mail, an outlier among widespread five-star rapture, asked whether Hamilton, as an architect of national sovereignty, might have actually supported the Leave vote; the other skeptical review, from the Sunday Times, compared Hamilton’s economic élitism to the leadership of the European Union. Barack Obama used to joke that “Hamilton” was the only thing that he and Dick Cheney could agree on; what sounded like a bipartisan endorsement also served as a reminder that works of art are susceptible to more than one ideology. “Hamilton,” after all, is a reflection on the contingency of historical narratives—its final chorus sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Chernow said that he hoped the show would remind Britain that, even in the age of Trump, America could represent diversity and inclusion, a force for good.

Doonesbury — No pain…