End of Summer Reading: “The Spy Who Loved” by Clare Mulley!

Dear Commons Community,

If you are looking for an end of summer biography, I would highly recommend, The Spy Who Loved:  The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley.  Christine was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, the daughter of a Polish aristocrat and a wealthy Jewish heiress. She enjoyed a comfortable and uneventful upbringing; her main achievement being runner-up in the 1930 Miss Poland beauty contest.  However, once war broke out in Europe, she committed herself totally to the fight to oust Germany from her homeland.

She was in South Africa, the wife of a Polish diplomat, when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. She worked her way to London, presented herself to the British secret service and offered to ski over the Carpathian Mountains into Poland in order to take British propaganda into Nazi-occupied Warsaw. She adopted the name Christine Granville as part of her cover.

She was described as “absolutely fearless..” and a “flaming Polish patriot.”  She becomes even more fearless as the war progresses and became one of Britain’s top spies in France and helped disrupt German communications and transportation in preparation for the Allied invasion. She won medals for bravery from both Britain and France. I will not go into the fine points only to say that  the last third of the book is riveting providing many of the sad details of the war atrocities in Warsaw.

Men also found her irresistible, and she used her charms for her cause.  She survived the war only to be murdered a few years later by an obsessed former lover in the lobby of a London hotel.

In sum, a well-done biography of one of the little known heroes of World War II.




Denis Hamill: Are We Insane About Engaging in Another War in the Middle East?

Dear Commons Community,

As the saber-rattling over Syria’s use of chemical weapon on civilians escalates in Washington, D.C., Denis Hamill’ s piece in the New York Daily News begs the question:  Are we insane about engaging in another war in the Middle East?  Hamill starts by citing the grim statistics from the eleven years of the Iraq War – 4,500 U.S. troops killed; 32,000 U.S. troops wounded; 120,000 Iraqis killed; and a debt of more than $1 trillion that has hobbled our government and economy.   He then asks:

“How can we claim the moral high ground after years of torture and waterboarding in Iraq and Afghanistan? After dumping over 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, or dioxin, one of the most lethal chemical compounds known to humankind, on Vietnam — much of it poisoning our own troops?

How did we as a nation suddenly draw this chemical red line in the sand after recently published CIA documents prove that President Ronald Reagan knew that our then-ally Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war in the early 1980s? As we backed Iraq, and did nothing?”

His conclusion is we would be “insane” to become involved in a war in Syria!





De Blasio Surges Ahead of Democratic Rivals in New Quinnipiac Poll!

de Blasio PollClick to Enlarge

Dear Commons Community,

With about two weeks remaining before the primary elections, New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio has surged ahead in the mayoral race, coming close to the 40 percent threshold he’d need to avoid a runoff in the Democratic primary, according to a poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University.

De Blasio took 36 percent among likely Democratic primary voters, by far the largest share of the vote any candidate has garnered in polling so far. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former city comptroller Bill Thompson trailed at 21 and 20 percent, respectively. Three other candidates, former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), city comptroller John Liu and former city councilmember Sal Albanese, each polled in the single digits.

If there is a runoff, de Blasio would lead Quinn, 59 percent to 30 percent, and Thompson, 52 percent to 36 percent.

Although de Blasio had stronger support among men than women, he led among voters of both genders. He also held a lead regardless of racial group, taking 38 percent among white voters and 34 percent among black voters.

De Blasio did especially well among left-leaning New Yorkers, attracting the support of 50 percent of “very liberal” voters and 42 percent of “somewhat liberal” voters.


Using Chemical Weapons: The CIA and Saddam Hussein!

Dear Commons Community,

As Secretary of State John Kerry was stating yesterday that the use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria last week was undeniable and that the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable, a report was released that the CIA in the 1980s assisted Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with Iran to use chemical weaponsThe Huffington Post citing an article that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine and Agence France Press reported:

“The United States provided Iraq with intelligence on preparations for an Iranian offensive during the Iran-Iraq war even though it knew Baghdad would respond with chemical weapons, Foreign Policy magazine reported Monday.

Citing declassified CIA documents and interviews with former officials, the magazine reviewed the US record as Washington weighs military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons near Damascus last week.

The magazine said the US knew in 1983 that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would not hesitate to resort to shelling Iranian forces with sarin or mustard gas.

“As Iraqi attacks continue and intensify the chances increase that Iranian forces will acquire a shell containing mustard agent with Iraqi markings,” a top secret CIA report said in November 1983.

“Tehran would take such evidence to the UN and charge US complicity in violating international law,” the agency warned.

In late 1987, US satellite imagery showed that Iran was concentrating a large force east of the southern Iraqi port city of Basra in preparation for a spring offensive.

The images also showed that the Iranians had identified a strategic weakness in the Iraqi defenses.

The report, titled “At the Gates of Basra,” was shown to president Ronald Regan, who wrote a note in the margins that said, “An Iranian victory is unacceptable,” according to Foreign Policy.

The United States decided to inform Baghdad of its findings and help the Iraqis with intelligence on Iranian logistics centers and anti-aircraft defenses.

Saddam’s forces smashed the Iranian buildup before it could get off the ground, launching a vast offensive in April 1988, backed by bombardments with chemical weapons, on the Fao Peninsula.

Chemical agents were used four times, each time killing between hundreds and thousands of Iranian troops, according to the CIA.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” said retired Air Force colonel Rick Francona, a military attache in Baghdad during the 1988 attacks.”


Hunter College Announces $25 Million Gift!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York media are abuzz with the announcement that Leon G. Cooperman and his wife, Toby, will be donating $25 million to their alma mater, Hunter College. The Coopermans met while attending Hunter in the early 1960s. The gift, the largest in Hunter’s history, will be split between the institution’s library and a scholarship fund for gifted, needy students who have exhausted other financial-aid options.

The Coopermans, both Bronx natives, married in 1964 after graduating from Hunter.  Mr. Cooperman is the chairman of the New York hedge fund Omega Advisors.

Bless them for their generosity and congratulations to President Jennifer Raab for her stewardship of this gift.


David Autor and David Dorn on Technology and the Middle Class!

Dear Commons Community

David H. Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and David Dorn,  an assistant professor of economics at the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies in Madrid, have a featured article in today’s New York Times on technology, the economy and employment.  The focus of the article is on technology and the changing the nature of work in this country.    For example:

“…the United States has two million fewer jobs than before the [The Great Recession] downturn, the unemployment rate is stuck at levels not seen since the early 1990s and the proportion of adults who are working is four percentage points off its peak in 2000.

This job drought has spurred pundits to wonder whether a profound employment sickness has overtaken us. And from there, it’s only a short leap to ask whether that illness isn’t productivity itself. Have we mechanized and computerized ourselves into obsolescence?

Are we in danger of losing the “race against the machine,” as the M.I.T. scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book? Are we becoming enslaved to our “robot overlords,” as the journalist Kevin Drum warned in Mother Jones? Do “smart machines” threaten us with “long-term misery,” as the economists Jeffrey D. Sachs and Laurence J. Kotlikoff prophesied earlier this year? Have we reached “the end of labor,” as Noah Smith laments in The Atlantic?

The simplest answer to these questions is basically “yes’.

What do we, especially young people, do about it?

“A starting point for discussion is the observation that although computers are ubiquitous, they cannot do everything. A computer’s ability to accomplish a task quickly and cheaply depends upon a human programmer’s ability to write procedures or rules that direct the machine to take the correct steps at each contingency. Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.

Logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities. Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.”

Autor and Dorn make the following recommendations:

“…computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers. Demand for highly educated workers who excel in abstract tasks is robust, but the middle of the labor market, where the routine task-intensive jobs lie, is sagging. Workers without college education therefore concentrate in manual task-intensive jobs — like food services, cleaning and security — which are numerous but offer low wages, precarious job security and few prospects for upward mobility. This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.

How can we help workers ride the wave of technological change rather than be swamped by it? One common recommendation is that citizens should invest more in their education. Spurred by growing demand for workers performing abstract job tasks, the payoff for college and professional degrees has soared; despite its formidable price tag, higher education has perhaps never been a better investment. But it is far from a comprehensive solution to our labor market problems. Not all high school graduates — let alone displaced mid- and late-career workers — are academically or temperamentally prepared to pursue a four-year college degree. Only 40 percent of Americans enroll in a four-year college after graduating from high school, and more than 30 percent of those who enroll do not complete the degree within eight years.”

There are important suggestions in this article.  Those of us in higher education need to be cognizant of what we are doing for our students especially in how we advise them on majors and careers.  And perhaps most important in how we assist them in graduating.


Paul Krugman: Microsoft, Apple and the Decline of E-Empires!

Dear Commons Community,

New York Times columnist, has a piece today that examines the rise and fall of technology companies.  Using Microsoft and Apple as examples:

“The trouble for Microsoft came with the rise of new devices whose importance it famously failed to grasp. “There’s no chance,” declared CEO Steve Ballmer in 2007, “that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

How could Microsoft have been so blind? [Krugman cites] Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Islamic philosopher who basically invented what we would now call the social sciences. And one insight he had, based on the history of his native North Africa, was that there was a rhythm to the rise and fall of dynasties.

Desert tribesmen, he argued, always have more courage and social cohesion than settled, civilized folk, so every once in a while they will sweep in and conquer lands whose rulers have become corrupt and complacent. They create a new dynasty — and, over time, become corrupt and complacent themselves, ready to be overrun by a new set of barbarians…

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply this story to Microsoft, a company that did so well with its operating-system monopoly that it lost focus, while Apple — still wandering in the wilderness after all those years — was alert to new opportunities. And so the barbarians swept in from the desert…

Anyway, the funny thing is that Apple’s position in mobile devices now bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft’s former position in operating systems. True, Apple produces high-quality products. But they are, by most accounts, little if any better than those of rivals, while selling at premium prices.”

These are provocative comparison.  There are a number of other tech companies (IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, Tandy Corporation, Atari) that once dominated a segment of the tech market and now are shells of their former selves.


New York Times Endorses Quinn and Lhota in the Upcoming Primaries!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times endorsed Christine Quinn and Joseph Lhota in their respective party’s mayoral primaries.  The endorsement of Quinn was the more complicated because the field of candidates is strong.  The Times editorial board had honorable mention for Bill de Blasio and William Thompson but in the end considered Quinn as the best person for the job.

In the case of de Blasio  the editorial seemed to be saying that he had the best ideas but that he would not be able to get the cooperation of the New York State Legislature in order to implement them.

The editorial stated that Thompson, who nearly defeated Mr. Bloomberg four years ago, ran a thoughtful campaign grounded on the insights he gained in important elective and appointed posts in New York City.  “A former president of the old Board of Education, Mr. Thompson argues that he is the best candidate to fix the city schools, but his close ties to the United Federation of Teachers, not always a friend of needed reforms, give us pause”.

Joseph Lhota was a no brainer given the weak field of candidates.  Lhota has had a lot of experience in City Hall having been Rudy Giuilani’s deputy mayor and right-hand man.  Lhota’s connection to Giuliani makes him a shoo-in for the primary but will be a liability in the general election.  Lhota when asked by The Times to name his favorite mayor, said Fiorello La Guardia. It sounds like Lhota knows he has a Giuliani problem.


Interview with Jean-Claude Brizard: Former Head of Chicago Schools/Potential Candidate for NYC Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard in an interview published by the Thomas Fordham Institute Thursday, reflected on his experiences working for Mayor Rahm Emanuel while leading CPS during the historic teacher strike in 2012. In the interview, he made it pretty clear there wasn’t too much love lost between him and Emanuel.  The former CPS head said he and the Emanuel administration “severely underestimated” the Chicago Teachers Union’s ability to mobilize for the strike.

Brizard called Emanuel an “interesting man” who was “always ‘on’ and a master at managing media.” He added that the mayor is “frustrated by the challenges of a school system in crisis and a crime situation that is making international headlines” and described Emanuel’s biggest challenge as “to learn to let go and allow his managers to lead.”

To improve education in this country, Brizard comments:

“…the current structure is not working and is unsustainable. Let’s start by believing that the school is the unit of change. Therefore our reform efforts must pivot on the school-building leader who must understand that s/he is the primary human capital manager.

In the absence of a compelling reason to retain control centrally, school leaders, as the primary agents of change, should have freedom and flexibility over how best to use their resources (time, people, and money) to create meaningful changes that directly impact students. Let’s start by believing that operating within a clear framework of standards for student success, highly effective school leaders must use their resources to develop effective practices and innovative school designs, to best meet the needs of their students. Let’s start by believing that highly effective teachers must reinforce high expectations for all students and that they are responsible for (and should be supported to) provide instruction that is standards-aligned, student-centered, engaging, and data-informed.”

Brizard, who was handpicked by Emanuel in 2011 and then replaced following the teacher strike by Barbara Byrd-Bennett in 2012, now works as a senior advisor at the College Board in Washington, D.C.   NBC Chicago notes, he is considered by many to be a possible future contender for New York City Public Schools chancellor.