Thursday, March 21, 2019

Well, if Thomas Südhof's wearing Birkenstock’s…

Paul Samuelson was a Nobel Prize winning economist, the founder of modern economics. But he was perhaps best known as co-author of the intro economics text book used pretty much by everyone who took intro to economics anytime between 1948 and 2010.

At one point, later in his career, Samuelson did an ad for a moving company. I’m pretty sure the ad was on the radio, and I seem to recall a print (small b&w) version. But I can’t remember the moving company. And I can’t remember whether the ad was local. (Samuelson was a professor at MIT.) But I distinctly remember that there was an ad, and that there was some blowback around it – if only because people made fun of it. I mean, what made Samuelson an expert on moving companies?

Once I got done making fun of the ad, which I did with my husband the economist, I forgot all about it.

That is, until I saw an ad for Birkenstock that just appeared in The New Yorker. Their spokesmodel? Nobel Prize winning biochemist Thomas Südhof.

Although, to some degree I fit their historic brainy, lefty, Cambridge-y profile, I’ve never owned a pair of Birks.

Some of my best friends, however, are Birkenstock wearers. And a few years back, when Birkenstocks had something of a brand bump, for a while becoming the “it” sandal, my sister(s) – I think both of them – got Birkenstocks, as did my niece Molly.

I don’t know what my holdout was. Maybe that they just didn’t look like they’d fit my feet (the only part of my anatomy that’s long and narrow).

Anyway, I was surprised see an ad for them in The New Yorker. Not that New Yorker readers don’t, at least some proportion of them, match up with the brainy, lefty, Cambridge-y profile I imagine. I’ll bet that Paul Samuelson wore Birkenstocks. But there’s also something of an urbanity about The New Yorker that doesn’t immediately scream Birkenstock.

Nevertheless, there it was, in the expensive upfront section, a full page, four-color ad for Birkenstocks featuring Thomas Südhof.

I had never heard of Thomas Südhof, but it’s never a surprise when I don’t know who the celebrity is who’s pictured in the ad for the pricey watch, the pricey car, the pricey hotel.

To begin with, I don’t have fabulous facial recognition – that was my husband’s bailiwick. We’d be watching a movie, and he’d see someone in the background and ask, “Is that Dana Wynter?” Since I could never remember whether Dana Wynter was a man or a woman – always getting him/her confused with Dana Andrews – I was no help there.

And then there are always celebrity holes in what is otherwise my fairly broad and not all that shallow name recognition – i.e., I’ve heard of them and vaguely know what they’re famous for - for famous people.

Seriously, until she and her husband cheated their kids’ way into USC, I was apparently the only person on the face of the earth who didn’t know who Lori Loughlin was.

Anyway, I was curious about what Birkenstock was up to with this ad, which featured an informal portrait of Südhof, wearing his black leather Birks, taken in his office at Stanford, as well as a close up of the sandals (off of his feet) that showed them to be well worn and sweat-stained.

Were there other famous people I’d never heard of out there touting their Birkenstocks?

Well, seems that Birkenstock is running what they’re calling a Personality Campaign:

The BIRKENSTOCK Personality Campaign

… is about diversity and character featuring authentic individuals in their own BIRKENSTOCKs.

Character? Authentic individuals? Well, I’ll be darned. That leaves Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo something-or-other out. (Not that I would have recognized them either. Nor would I have known their daughters who are, I guess, full-time influencers now that they’ve left USC to avoid anticipated scorn.)

BIRKENSTOCK is a truly universal brand; worn all over the world, by all kinds of people regardless of age, gender or race. Worn Birkenstocks take on the life of their owner, representing the many years and thousands of steps in one’s life. They become a part of your story. They are your story.

British photographer Jack Davison travelled around the world with the aim of capturing these stories. He created authentic and truly intimate portraits of real protagonists and their real Birkenstocks in their real surroundings.

Real protagonists?

I haven’t read such hooey since I picked up the J. Peterman catalog that a neighbor left in our building’s recycle basket.

Give me a real antagonist, any old day.

Anyway, here’s the list:

The portraits showcase photographer Ryan McGinley shot at his agent’s house in New York, his second home, actress Luna Picoli-Truffaut in her mother’s house in Paris, Ballerina Romany Pajdak in a training room in London, free skier Tom Leitner in his house, somewhere in Bavaria and New York filmmaker Sean Frank. Further portraits feature Thomas Südhof, Nobel Prize Laureate of Physiology or Medicine in his Stanford University office and Louise Constein in her favorite Berlin park.

I may have heard of Sean Frank. Maybe. But I guess I just don’t known many authentic protagonists. And Louise Constein? Who dat? Her “bio”, later in the page, says that she’s a teenager. That’s it.

I googled and found out that she’s a model, but, she’s no Luna Picoli–Truffaut.

By the way, I didn’t see a ton of diversity. Sean Frank is the only person-of-color on the list.

Me? Think I’ll stick with my tried and true Clark’s. Plenty brainy, lefty, and Cambridge-y. And I don’t need to be an authentic protagonist to wear them. Or a teenager, either.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

As hobbies go…

Other than all these years writing my Pink Slip posts, I’ve never really been a hobbiest. No stamps. No coins. No butterflies. I don’t collect matchbook covers. I’m not an expert on the films of Truffaut. I’m more of a dabbler, I suppose: shallow-dive, transient interest in a lot of little things.

Nonetheless, I enjoy hearing about the hobbies of others. And the odder-ball the better.

Thus, I was delighted to learn of one Tim O’Donovan:

…who has meticulously tabulated the British royal family’s engagements with pencil and paper every day for 40 years. (Source: NY Times)

Mr. O’Donovan, who is 87, doesn’t hold an official position. He just keeps an eye out for who’s showing up for events like:

  • The Autumn Dinner of the Fishmongers’ Company,
  • The opening of the Pattern Weaving Shed in Peebles, Scotland
  • The opening of the Dumfries House Maze
  • The dedication of a window at the Church of St. Martin in the Bull Ring

Keeping up with the royals at “work” is a tough non-job, and nobody really has to do it. But Mr. O’ – a retired insurance broker – was, as a man of middle age, looking for a hobby.

He found his fodder in the Court Circular, an account of the royals’ engagements that appears in The Times of London. He decided to clip each one, paste it in a ledger and run the numbers, releasing his first results at the end of 1979.

“It was just a fascination with what they actually did,” he said. “Some of them work extremely hard.”

Mr. O’Donovan – despite the Irish name – sounds every bit the British gentlemen: a royal lover, a royal watcher, and someone who attends the same church as the Queen. (They have a nodding acquaintance.) When talking about himself, he even refers to himself as “one”.

“One started this thing because one was curious,” he said.

As one is.

“One has had a huge amount of enjoyment out of doing it.”

As one does.

“…because one has met people one would never have met before.

As one would.

“It has widened one’s life, in a way.”

Well, one is quite impressed by this, one might say.

Each year, Mr. O’Donovan publishes a table that shows what all the main royals – the Queen, Prince Philip, their children and spouses, Wills, Kate, Harry, and Meaghan – have been up to in terms of how many official appearances they’ve made. He does this because he believes it’s worthwhile to keep a chronicle of royal goings-and-comings. But he doesn’t approve of the way in which his list is used, which is to set off a tabloid firestorm about who’s dogging it.

One year it was Camilla who, with a mere 243 appearances, was dubbed the “laziest” member of the fam. Another year, when William’s position dropped down in the tables – a year in which he had a full-time job in the military and had two toddlers at home – he was snarkily criticized as being “Workshy Wills”.

Tut, tut.

Because the tabloids jump all over Mr. O’Donovan’s table each year, the royal family has in the past hinted that they’d prefer that he back off. But there has been no official request from Buckingham Palace that he cease and desist – a request that Mr. O’Donovan would honor – so he forges on.

Other than do an occasional ooh and aww over the kids of Kate and Wills, have an occasional chuckle over Prince Charles total stuff-shirtedness, and hold to my opinion that Harry is cuter than his brother, I’m not a particular royal watcher. (I’ll amend this statement: I am an avid watcher of the Netflix series, The Crown, which follows the life of Queen E.)

I get that royals are good for tourism. And that there’s nothing wrong with traditions – up to a point. But I’m just as glad to live in a country without a monarchy, and find the super-infatuation with the British royals pretty weird – especially when the infatuation is that of Americans and/or the Irish.

If I were a Brit, I’m pretty sure I’d be on the side of “let’s stop paying these lay-abouts and get with the 21st century.

For the record, for 2018, Princess Anne was the champ-een royal worker bee, logging:

…a whopping 447 domestic appearances and another 71 overseas engagements throughout 2018, which is more than Prince William, Prince Harry and Duchess Kate combined. (Source: AOL)

Anne beat out her brother Charles, who was the top working dog in 2017. The top four was rounded out by bros Edward and Andrew.

No surprise that they’re edging out the old folks. Queen E is in her early 90’s, Prince Phillip is 97. And no surprise that the younger folks have other things to do with their lives.

And I guess, for all of them, it beats working at real jobs.

I know that smiling and nodding at the opening of the Pattern Weaving Shed in Peebles, Scotland, might be a wee bit boring. But you don’t have to put up with endless meetings, politicking, non-stop emails, market failures, commuting, underperforming underlings, and dreadful bosses (unless the Queen is more of a bee-yotch than she appears to be). Maybe they have to worry about when they’ll get their next raise, but they don’t have to worry about anyone competing, All About Eve-like, with someone gunning for their job.

Anyway, carry on Tim O’Donovan. For the Brits, I’m sure it’s useful to seeing in black and white just what they’re paying for.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The WWW and I

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee submitting his proposal for the creation of the World-Wide Web.

The Internet had been around for a while – since 1969 – but it was largely a collection of networked computers used by governments, researchers, and scientists. What Berners-Lee introduced was the notion of web pages, which made the Internet accessible and useful to the rest of us.

On the www anniversary, Berners-Lee was in the news for his comments warning of the need for action to address the web’s “downward plunge to a dysfunctional future.”

Sir Tim said people had realised how their data could be "manipulated" after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

However, he said he felt problems such as data breaches, hacking and misinformation could be tackled.

In an open letter also published on Monday, the web's creator acknowledged that many people doubted the web could be a force for good.

He had his own anxieties about the web's future, he told the BBC: "I'm very concerned about nastiness and misinformation spreading."

But he said he felt that people were beginning to better understand the risks they faced as web users.

In his letter, Sir Tim outlined three specific areas of "dysfunction" that he said were harming the web today:

  • malicious activity such as hacking and harassment
  • problematic system design such as business models that reward clickbait
  • unintended consequences, such as aggressive or polarised discussions

These things could be dealt with, in part, through new laws and systems that limit bad behaviour online, he said. (Source: The BBC)

I fear the same things Berners-Lee does. (What he said!) And I’m all in favor of having the Internet clean up its act. But the 30th anniversary also got me thinking about what it was like back in the early going.

Even before the Internet was a “thing” that we spoke about, there were networks, and you used them to access mainframe computers.

In the mid-1970’s, before I went back to business school, I worked as a gofer in a bank. One of the things I occasionally had to go for was economic data from a company called Data Resources, Inc. 

The first time I tried to get at some of that data – unemployment rates in New England states, as I recall – it was via a dial-up connection, using some sort of odd pre-PC terminal, the system crashed. I thought I had done something wrong.

Fast forward a couple of years, and, while in business school, I used a timesharing program, on the Internet (before I knew it was the Internet) to run forecasting models for an econometrics course I was taking. That course led to my first post-business school job: creating (really terrible) forecasting models for businesses.

We worked on paper-based computer terminals, attached to a mainframe computer. If we wanted to work from home over the weekend, we could tote a 40 pound terminal home and dial-up the mainframe at a really low-slow rate. The connection was always lousy, and it was nearly impossible to get work done. Plus there was the problem of hyper-extending all the muscles in your arms lugging the “portable” terminal around. 

Over time, the paper-based terminals gave way to screens. And then there were PC’s that we used in lieu of terminals. And there was something called client-server, in which some of the computing power moved from the mainframe to smaller computers known as servers.

But whether it was paper-terminal to mainframe, or PC to server, what we were mostly doing was communicating with a computer, not with each other. And we were doing all this communicating using command lines or lines of code, not via some spiffy easy-peasy interface (even after PC’s made things a bit easy-peasier and spiffier).

Somewhere in the middle of the shift from paper-based terminals to PCs, I went to a company – Wang – that had a wonderful internal email system. Sure, if we wanted to speak with a client or someone outside the fold, we picked up a phone. But if we wanted to reach out to anyone in the company, we sent them an email. It was just great.

During my next stop along the magical mystery tour that was my career, the World Wide Web was born.

It took us a while to figure out what to do with it.

For most of us, the WWW and the Internet – which had now pretty much fused in our brains – meant that we needed to have a web presence. That meant putting up a couple of crude pages that provided the world with some basic information on your company and its products. (I can still remember what that first website for that company looked like. Dark, gloomy and ugly.)

Soon enough, the designs got better, web developer became a job category, and sites became more elaborate. But they were still primarily for providing marketing information online. eCommerce? Say what?

At the same time, Internet-based email systems were being introduced. Suddenly, you could communicate not just with your colleagues within the walls, but with customers, partners, vendors, and your friends and family. Exciting at first, but quickly taken for granted.

My next stop was at a company – BBN Planet –> GTE Internetworking –> Genuity that, in fact, was instrumental in the invention and development of the Internet back in the late 1960’s. (And was also the place where the @ sign for use in emails was first deployed.)

By the time I got there – the late 90’s – the World Wide Web, pushed along, by the way, by porn sites demanding better bandwidth and better graphics, eCommerce was starting to be a thing.

And despite all the spectacular failures –, – that eCommerce thing finally started to catch on. And even if you didn’t sell your wares online – and I always worked for companies with technology-based products with big price tags and long sales cycles, so not candidates for online commerce – your website was a lot more than just informational. It was for relationship building, for customer support, and for anything else you could think of.

And now? Even though you no longer have to type “www” in, the World-Wide Web is just about everything. It’s how we communicate with everyone, learn stuff, figure out answers to questions ultra-trivial and ultra-important, buy stuff, sell stuff, entertain ourselves, keep up with the news, stay in touch with everyone and everything.

I don’t miss the old days of primitive dial ups and ugly informational websites in the least. The Internet/World-Wide Web is great, and the benefits mostly outweigh the downsides. But those downsides are out there. And they’re big. And they’re really downside-y.

We need to listen very clearly to Tim Berners-Lee.

Meanwhile, thanks for the web, Tim.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Time to start wearing a burqa grocery shopping

I do my best to ignore them, but I really despise the ads that pop up whenever and wherever you are on line.

Oh, I don’t mind if Amazon suggests a book purchase. Sometimes it’s actual useful. But most of it… Just because I searched for something doesn’t mean that my interest has sustained itself beyond the nanosecond where I was curious, and had my curiosity satisfied by finding something about something. Please don’t keep reminding me. And that includes the cylindrical pillow I looked for on Wayfair a few weeks ago. Unless you’re capable of delivering me an orange cylindrical pillow that’s 14” long – and it doesn’t seem to me that even Wayfair, with a stockpile of virtual goodies that seems to stretch to infinity and beyond, can deliver this particular good – stop with the cylindrical pillow popups, why don’t you?

I find myself increasingly refraining from doing an in-the-moment, ad hoc search – especially if it’s a bit walk-on-the-wild-side-y – just so I won’t get inundated with ads.

Fortunately, I’m off of Facebook, which spares me those ad assaults.

But I do order stuff on line with some frequency. And you’d think that, if I ordered a pair of sneakers, surely the Internet – in its infinite wisdom – should be aware that I don’t want to order the exact same thing the day after. Or are they preying on the elderly, hoping that I won’t remember that I ordered aqua and purple sneakers, and go ahead and purchase the same thing 24 hours later? Then when two pairs of them show up on my doorstep, I’ll just figure what the hell. I now have a lifetime supply of aqua and purple sneakers.

I don’t like being spied on, thanks. And I don’t like those spying on me to make suggestions to me based on their mindless, indiscriminate sleuthing.

If I don’t like it online, I’m really not enamored with the idea of it happening IRL when I’m actually in a store.

A few years ago, the big worry was that, when you were walking around checking out the merch, you’d start getting info coming at your via your smartphone. Then there were the talking shelves that were going to figure out who you were because you were carrying a store card that you’d swiped each time you checked out – in hopes of actually achieving the mythic goal of getting a discount – and were going to start whispering sweet buy-me nothings as you strolled by.

Not to mention the spycams on every corner, which are great if you’re trying to catch a thief, but are pretty creepy if you’re not.

Well, things are about to get worse. Much worse.

An article by Hiawatha Bray in The Boston Globe the other day details what’s next up, now that we’ve becoming inured to the idea of someone picking our brains so they can pick our pockets:

…a Chicago company called Cooler Screens figures you won’t mind if they put cameras into the refrigerated display cases in retail stores. The cameras aren’t there to prevent you from stealing soda pop. Instead, they’re part of a facial-profiling system that tries to guess what you’ll buy next, based on how you look.

The doors on a Cooler Screens refrigerator are LCD video screens that display images of the items inside the case, so a customer can see what’s available. The screens also show animated ads, like the ones that pop up on a Web browser. They decide which ads to show by studying video images of the customers. (Source: Boston Globe)

The possibilities Bray outlined in his article were uncanny. Was I among a select group of Globe readers who saw this spot-on scenario in the article, or did every reader see this:

A middle-age woman might see a suggestion that she pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to go with her Diet Coke.

All I can say is that I rarely buy Diet Coke anymore, and it’s Ben & Jerry’s fro-yo. Cherry Garcia, if you must know.

I guess this is just an indication of how paranoid I’ve become that someone could actually get me to believe that The Globe knows it’s online readers so well that we’ll be getting customized add-ish power-of-suggestion embeds in our articles. (Hope I’m not giving them any idea. It’s really just a matter of time…)

Cooler Screens it testing its concept in a number of stores. Fortunately, their Boston outlets are not among the chosen few. Yet.

Me? I’m thinking of getting myself a outfitted with a shopping burqa. And note to self: start wearing sunglasses when I’m pushing my shopping cart around. Hopefully that will stymie the retinal scanning that some marketer would like to do.

Seriously, is there anyplace where our privacy is intact anymore? Guess I’ll have to go ask Alexa…

Friday, March 15, 2019

It’s the Ides of March. Other than at Pink Slip, where it’s the Eve of the Eve of Paddy’s Day

I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in any big way. I haven’t been to the parade in years. I haven’t made a corned beef and cabbage dinner in decades. I may or may not wear anything green on the day itself. If I take a walk, and it’s pleasant out, I’ll wear my Red Sox cap with the green B and the shamrock on the back. Probably.

But over the weekend, I’m sure I’ll drink a cup of Barry’s tea. I’m sure I’ll have a slab of soda bread. I’m sure I’ll play all sorts of Irish music – from the cornball but always entertaining Clancy Brothers to the rockin’ and heartbreaking Cranberries. From the polished but wonderful Chieftains to authentic session recordings from Ti Neachtain in Galway

If you want to read what I think about Ireland, about being Irish American (half), about St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll find it here – my last year’s post, which includes links to all of Pink Slip’s Paddy’s Day pieces. (Some are pretty good.)

And as a gift in honor of the day, here’s a recipe for Barm Brack, an Irish teacake that was known in my family as Daddy’s Favorite:

Pour 2 cups of boiling water over one pound of raisins. Cool.

After it’s cool, add 2 teaspoons baking soda to the raisins & water.

Mix: 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons shortening (I used Crisco), and 2 eggs.

Drain the raisins & water, saving the water. Add the water to the batter and mix well.

Add 3 cups of flour. Mix well.

Add the raisins and 1/2 cup of walnuts.

Bake for approximately 1 hour at either 350 degrees or 375 degrees, in a 13x9” pan. The temperature will depend on your oven, and/or your pan. I used the higher temp, as I was using a metal pan. The brack took 55 minutes to bake.

Once the cake cools, you may want to sprinkle/sift a small amount of confectioner’s sugar on the cake.

This is a really simple and tasty little recipe. It reminds me of my father. It reminds me of home. And, more recently, it reminds me of Ireland.

I never knew it was called barm brack until a couple of years ago when, after all these trips to Ireland, I finally decided to order it in an Irish tea room. I took one look, and then one bite, and realized that what I was eating was Daddy’s Favorite. Who knew?

The recipe above is my non-Irish mother’s, but I’m guessing it originated with my grandmother or one of my Irish great grandmothers.

Anyway, I made a pan last week.

I was going to an elderly friend’s house for lunch. There are three of us who do this regularly. We used to go out, but our friend is a bit frail – nearing 90 – so these days, we bring lunch and eat in. It was my turn to make desert, and I knew that the main course was going to be Shepherd’s Pie. So I thought I’d keep with the Irish theme. Thus, the brack.

I used my mother’s handwritten recipe. I used my mother’s large Pyrex “Early American” (cocoa-brown with eagles on it) mixing bowl to mix everything up in, and her 13x9” aluminum baking pan to bake it in.

It was yummy.

Beware the Ides of March, but have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Hipsters all look alike? Snap, snap.

A Brandeis mathematician recently completed some dense, equation-filled analysis that led to the conclusion that:

…in a bid to make that all-important "countercultural statement", hipsters can end up looking alike. (Source: The Register, by way of my brother-in-law Rick. So a doff of the beanie to Rick.)

As someone who lives in a hipster-rich area – I mean, we’re no Brooklyn, but Boston/Cambridge/Somerville does have its share of hipsters – I am here to tell you that those Brandeis researchers could have saved themselves the time and trouble of doing all that work (and writing it up in a 34 page paper, yet) and just shown a few denizens of hipster-ville a couple of lineups and ask if they could distinguish one hipster from the other.

A summary of the research was published in The MIT Review, along with an image of, well, a generic hipster.

Shortly after their article appeared, The Review heard from an aggrieved reader:

"We promptly got a furious email from a man who said he was the guy in the photo that ran with the story. He accused us of slandering him, presumably by implying he was a hipster, and of using the pic without his permission. (He wasn't too complimentary about the story, either.)"

I don’t know if calling someone a hipster counts as slander, exactly. It’s not like calling some guy an incel or a Bernie bro. But still, the young man felt that he and his image – a stock photo from Getty of a good looking guy in a flannel shirt and knit cap (the sort of knit cap that is of late known as a beanie) had been used and abused.

By the way, back in the day, a knit cap was called a watch cap. A knit cap with a pom-pom was called a pom-pom hat. And a beanie was something worn by a college freshman who might have been a classmate of Dobie Gillis, or by Catholic school girls.

But now watch caps, knit caps, and pom-pom hats all seem to be called beanie. As a grammar school parochial school beanie wearer, I’m not buying it.

(I’m still having a picture issue with my blog, but in the post below, I’ve included a couple of beanie beanies, along with the generic hipster pic that appeared in The Review.)

But. I. Digress.

After The Review received the complaint from the don’t-call-me-a-hipster guy, editor Giden Lichfield wanted to make sure that they’d used the image properly. So his folks reviewed the image license, and then contacted Getty to make sure that the model had officially released use of his image:

The stock photo giant checked the model release and lo! The guy in the image wasn't even the same dude who was complaining. "He'd misidentified himself," Lichfield said.

Sure, sometimes in a crowd scene, or fuzzy snapshot, or photo from ancient history, you may think that you’re looking at a picture of yourself. Or not. But seriously. How often have you looked at what is a really clear current picture and not recognized yourself. Talk about face blind.

"All of which just proves the story we ran: hipsters look so much alike that they can’t even tell themselves apart from each other."

Hah! I say, hah, hah! (That, or I’m snapping my fingers, Beatnik hipster style. Snap, snap.)


Hiawatha Bray of The Boston Globe had an interesting article on this subject in which he gets into the neural network underpinnings of the research. If you’re interested in more than just making fun of hipsters, it’s worth a read.

That's no beanie, that's a watch cap

Here's the mistaken identity hipster picture from Getty images:

That looks to me like a knit cap, a watch cap. NOT A BEANIE.

This is what a beanie looks like, from the old college try beanie era:

And here's what parochial school girls' beanies looked like in the 1950's:

This is not the church-of-my-youth. Way too modern. This looks postwar suburban to me. That light wood. The modern lines of the pews. And that's not my grammar school, either. But close enough. Our jumpers had a U-shaped neck. And our bow-ties were different. Plus our beanies had a patch on them that said OLA (for Our Lady of the Angels) on it, rather than the directly embroidered on look here.  But, dammit, those girls are wearing BEANIES!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Affirmative Action for rich folks

Felicity Huffman’s kids. Lori Loughlin’s kids. The children of the hedge fund managers, the white-shoe law firm attorneys. These kids already have plenty of advantages.

From pre-school on through high school, they go to great private schools or great public schools. They have tutors, if they need them. They go to SAT prep classes. They have books in the house. They travel. They go to museums. They get tickets to Hamilton. They have private lessons for whatever they want to take up (or that their parents want them to take up): tennis, violin, etc. Thanks to their parents, they have built-in networks, so by the time they’re juniors or senior in high school, there’s someone who’s willing to take them under their wing and set them up with a specious internship.

But all those advantages might not have been enough to get them into Harvard, or Stanford, or Georgetown, or USC.

Parents working the system to get their kids admitted to elite schools is nothing new. The alumni interviewer is an old friend, who puts in a word for your kid. You buddy up with the prep school guidance counselor who works hand in glove with admissions officers to come up with the slate of students that will be recommended as the best fit for Ivy College.  You make a mega donation – like Jared Kushner’s father did to get him admitted to Harvard.

But Operation Varsity Blues has revealed an entirely different level of “leverage.” And yesterday, the scam that were the brainchild of one William “Rick” Singer was exposed.

Federal prosecutors charged dozens of people on Tuesday in a major college admission scandal that involved wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

Thirty-three parents were charged in the case and prosecutors said there could be additional indictments to come. Also implicated were top college coaches, who were accused of accepting millions of dollars to help admit students to Wake Forest, Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California and other schools, regardless of their academic or sports ability, officials said. (Source: NY Times)

There were a number of different elements to the scheme.

In some cases, parents hired stand-ins to take the SATs and ACTs for their kids, using an away-from-home test center where their kids wouldn’t be recognized. Or they had their kids take the tests at special centers, where someone in on the inside job corrected the forms before they were submitted.

Some parents concocted fake achievements for their kids, going so far as to use fake photos of their kids participating in sports for fake teams. The kids were accepted even if they had lower boards and grades than the norm. This is often the case at elite schools where, as long as the jocks aren’t totally out of range grade and score-wise, they get in. So being an athlete is an edge.

A number of coaches – included the now-former Stanford sailing coach – have been implicated. But the big “winner” – until he got caught – was Singer:

Parents paid Mr. Singer about $25 million from 2011 until February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as recruited athletes, which effectively ensured their admission, according to the indictment.

Singer, who had a business doing college consulting – what a honeypot that was – worked on a sliding scale. One couple paid Singer $1.2M to get their little darling into Yale.

There’s also in IRS overlay to the fraud, as Singer often got paid by having parents donate to a non-profit he had set up. Parents got the deduction, Singer got the cash.

No student has been charged, and there’s only one mention of a student actually being even marginally implicated in the scheme. But I really wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of anyone whose parents have been charged. It’s not clear what the schools are going to do with the students who were cheated in. Even if they’re not asked to leave, how completely humiliating. And if they weren’t in implicit cahoots with their parents – and there’s knowing and then there’s knowing – I can’t imagine how furious these kids will be at their folks. Or they’ll just dismiss it as “everybody’s doing it. This is how the game is played.” Shrug.

Thirty-three parents have been named in the indictment, but Singer has been recording saying that 800 students have gotten into prime schools through what he calls the “side door.”

William Macy was not indicted in the scheme, but his wife, Felicity Huffman, the mother of his daughters – was. So I’m guessing Macy, an actor whose work I admire, was somehow in the know.

One of Macy’s great characters is Frank Gallagher, the paterfamilias on “Shameless”, a show about a totally dysfunctional working class (on their best days) South Side Chicago family.

Frank Gallagher is an alcoholic. He’s a drug addict. He’s a liar. A thief. A mooch. A lout. A lay-about. A thoroughly nasty a-hole who’s let his six kids pretty much drag themselves up, largely thanks to the goodness and selflessness of his oldest child, Fiona (who is also the queen of personal dysfunction, only with a heart of gold). He’s also a complete schemer, always looking for the easy way out, some angle he can play so that he doesn’t have to work or otherwise take care of his family. (The mother, Monica, also an addict, is dead.)

I’m thinking of the fictional Gallagher kids. Fiona. Lip (for Philip). Ian. Debbie. Carl. Liam.

They’re all fierce and funny, weird and wonderful. And each has a little well of goodness that’s completely absent in their father.

I’m a supporter of Affirmative Action. After all, there’s always been some sort of Affirmative Action for the powerful and the rich  – legacy admissions, all those coaches and after-school programs, buying that building. But I believe there should be class element to it, not just a racial one. I’d like to see economically disadvantaged kids get a leg up, too.

All those Gallagher kids out there. All those African American, Hispanic, and Native American kids who start off way behind the starting line. Underprivileged. Unprivileged.

I know that, and understand why, parents will do what they can to make sure that their children succeed. But enough it enough.

Fuck these cheaters, these scam artists. Nothing more to say…