Archive for category Miscellany

Frisco & Willers: The Adventure Continues

At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”

Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.

The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.

So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COMthen make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.

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Irregularly Scheduled Programming

Due to a death in the family, I’m postponing this week’s posts until next week, when all my thoughts about Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand will no doubt be old hat already.

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2:10 The Sign of the Dollar, “End with a Whimper”

PREVIOUSLY: A conceptually interesting book got unbearably shitty because the author sucked at writing plot and character and dialogue and prose. A blogger took the scenic route through the narrative doldrums while biding his time for the return of thought-provoking material in Part Three.

Dagny is on the Transcon train heading west, staring out the window at a barren, abandoned landscape that used to be the American heartland. This is depressing as shit so she decides to leave her private car and get some fresh air to help her snap out of it.

But as soon as she steps out she finds the conductor trying to throw a hobo off the moving train in the middle of nowhere. The hobo clutches his hobo-bag of hobo-stuff like a comfort blanket, so Dagny knows he believes in private property and thus deserves to live. I wish I were making this up. She invites him to dine with her in her car.

The hobo has table manners and acts generally respectable. He’s headed west to find work, if there is any, since in the east the Unification Board has a complete stranglehold on employment decisions and you need to know somebody to get anywhere. As he recounts his tragic backstory, Hobo Code here mentions that once upon a time he held the same job for twenty years, and it was glorious. Then the founder died, the heirs took over, and the place went to shit. That’s right, Hobo Code was the foreman at GM! The very same GM where Dagny found the abandoned protoype of the ion drive!

“I demand lower taxes for the wealthy!”

Not only that, but Hobo reveals that it was he and the other employees at GM who coined the term “Who is John Galt?” Dagny’s ears perk up, but not mine, because I stopped giving a shit about this ‘mystery’ about four hundred pages ago.

Despite my disinterest, Hobo recaps the whole story of how GM got converted to a socialist pay system where the most able were exploited and the neediest were over-privileged. The specifics descend even further into ridiculousness this time around, like how the company forbid some dude from sending his kids to college, or how one guy was denied money for his record collection so that the company could pay some chick to get a gold-plated grill. I don’t even know where to start.

The Hobo’s main gripe with this system was that it established a moral code by which “the honest ones paid, the dishonest ones collected,” which of course has never and could never occur under the profit-motivated morality of capitalism. Never!

Anyway, this recap of stuff we’ve already been told goes on for pages and pages and pages, and Hobo Code makes sure to lash out at ‘professors and leaders and thinkers’ for trying to dupe the world with a bullshit morality based on human compassion, which has so clearly and inevitably led to the destruction of everything good. I think Ayn’s brush is so broad that it’s basically a broom now, but…

Finally Hobo trails off at the point where GM went bankrupt and he was out of work, and Dagny is like, “Uh, weren’t you going to explain who John Galt is?” And he’s like “Oh, right. He was this genius kid who had just started at the factory when the communists took over, and he quit as soon as they announced the plan, and he said he would make it his personal mission to ‘stop the motor of the world.'”

“Shit, sounds ominous,” nobody says, and Hobo’s like “Yeah when everything started going to shit, we all remembered what he said and got pretty freaked out. And that’s how we came up with the saying ‘Who is John Galt?’

Dagny does not respond “Well fuck, I pretty much knew all of that already! Get out of my car,” because Dagny has literally fallen asleep. Even the characters have checked out, and here I am still reading like a sucker. Goddammit.

When she wakes up she remembers Hobo Code’s story and how she gave him a sleeping car on the train afterwards for all his troubles. But all of that drops out of her consciousness when she realizes the train is stopped! And it seems nobody is in board! What in tarnation is going on??

As desolate and barren as Ayn Rand’s soul.

Running through the cars for signs of life, she bumps into none other than Owen Kellogg, the very first undercover charismatic anarchist we encountered in the book. Dagny does not ask where he went after he dropped off the grid, but he confirms that the crew has abandoned the train — an increasingly common form of political protest against the economic dictatorship.

After calming the scattered passengers who remain, all of whom are whiny and unappreciative of course, Dagny and Kellogg leave Hobo Code in charge of the train and set off for the nearest emergency phone station along the track. As they walk, Dagny bemoans how everything was better in Nat Taggart’s Gilded Age, and Owen Kellogg responds:

…[Nat Taggart] represented a code of existence which—for a brief span in all human history—drove slavery out of the civilized world.

Which is so historically wrong and factually meaningless as to be offensive, but no time to dwell because it just now occurs to Dagny to ask where this dude has been for the past… what, three years of story time?

When Kellogg shrugs and answers vaguely, she quickly realizes that he’s on the same shadow team as Francisco and The Destroyer. They arrive at the phone box but it’s broken, and they have to walk another five miles. Kellogg sighs and takes out a pack of cigarettes — $tamped cigarettes!

Dagny demands more information, and Kellogg goes on some rant about American exceptionalism and how calling money evil is itself evil. I punch myself in the nuts to stay awake. Special K wraps up the monologue and gives Dagny the rest of his cigarette$ as a token of good will. Let’s pick up the pace here:

“I’m just borrowing it to chase a mad scientist across an inhospitable wasteland. It’ll be back in mint condition, I promise.”

At the next phone box, Dagny calls the local Peter Principle and expends a lot of effort getting him to send a crew to help them restart the train. Some building is glowing a couple miles in the distance and she asks what it is. Peter Principle says it’s an airstrip. This gets Dags’ attention, seeing as she’s now running out of time to reach Q and save their research on the ion drive. Kellogg knowingly encourages her to do what she needs to do; he’ll make sure the train gets running again.

So Dagny commandeers one of the planes at the airstrip and flies all through the night across the Rocky Mountains. She thinks redundantly about Thematic Issues some more until she lands at Q’s airstrip in Utah just as another plane is taking off. She jumps out of her plane all “I’m looking for Q!” and some guy is like “You just missed him, he’s in that plane that just took off! Him and a mysterious, charismatic gentleman!”

Dagny knows immediately that The Destroyer has stolen Q and her last hope of saving society along with him. In a fury she takes right back off and follows The Destroyer’s plane into the treacherous heights of the Rockies once more. Right in the most uninhabitable dangerous patch of peaks, the nefarious plane descends out of sight. Turning the corner, Dagny is flabbergasted: there’s nothing but a jagged valley of rocks. Where did they go? Did they crash?

She descends too, to get a closer look, but something’s weird. The craggy expanse below her is almost like a mirage… Suddenly there’s a flash of light and her motor cuts out. She is now below the craggy rockface — it was a CLOAKING DEVICE! OH SNAP!

But with no motor, her plane drops like a stone to the grassy valley floor below, and as she braces herself to die in a giant fireball, Dagny cries out “Fuck you John Galt, Fuck Yoooooouuuuuu!!!”

The end.

REFLECTIONS ON PART TWO: Ayn Rand as an Unreliable Narrator

NEXT — 3:1 Utopia, “Meet John Galt”

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Programming Notes

Just some quick updates about the upcoming blogging schedule:

*No post on Memorial Day. The last chapter of Part 2 will go up the first week of June.

*The rest of June will cover Part Two Review and various bits of commentary that will auto-post while I go on real-life vacation. I’ll also tidy up the blog, fix broken links, etc, in preparation for…

*Part Three, starting July 2nd. I have a LOT to say about Part Three and might take more than one week to break down certain chapters — for those familiar with the book, expect a lot of commentary on Galt’s Gulch and (obviously) The Speech.

See y’all in June…

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Applied Randology #4: Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm

Well, Our L’il Aynie got her first (probably not last) dose of media attention this election season when potential Romney Veep Paul Ryan disavowed his formerly effusive love for her, an image-moderating act that signaled he wants on the ticket.

But the Atlas Society, which advocates for Objectivism, made sure the world knew it still supports Ryan’s budget proposals, and released audio of Ryan calling Rand his number one philosophical influence and the reason he became a politician (which is an… interesting interpretation of her text).

Nonetheless Ryan now claims he rejects Rand’s atheist philosophy: “On epistemology,” he says, “Give me Thomas Aquinas… Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

Of course, as far as Ryan’s job as Chairman of the House Budget Committee is concerned, the relevant tenets of Objectivism are in economics and politics, not the more abstract area of epistemology. So that’s really a clever elision on his part — in reality it makes sense that Rand’s true believers can blithely dismiss his epistemic apostacy; his policy agenda is strictly by the book (in this case, Atlas Shrugged).

So to speak, anyway. It’s worth noting that in the book pretty much every single person who actively spends time or money on democratic political processes is a despicable soulless monster. In the Randverse, those involved with governance either preach liberal ideas as a form of denial about the damage they inflict, or are completely cynical two-faced operators.

To be fair, Paul Ryan might be a two-faced operator — all politicians are — but he’s not cynical. He, like Rand’s archetypal ‘evil progressive,’ is an ideologue in denial about the danger of his ideas; Ryan just comes by his ideology honestly.

And there are some other notable discrepancies between Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand: Ayn believes all religion is an exercise in covert nihilism; Paul is a well-read Catholic. Ayn believes all politics is an exercise in corruption; Paul is a politician. Ayn believed Objectivism as a whole “single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle” (atlassociety.org); Paul thinks he can selectively accept her conclusions about politics while rejecting the deeper philosophical premises on which those conclusions are based.

I think all this speaks to the factional tensions in the Republican party quite well. The party of old time religion has an economic agenda based on the philosophy of a radical atheist! Rather than render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17), the theocratic wing of the GOP would render Caesar unto God, and the Rand-friendly wing would make a God of those things that ought be rendered to Caesar.

Rand, in her absolutism, poses a serious problem for those such as Ryan who would pick and choose from Objectivism like it was a buffet and not prix fixe. Hell, she poses problems for those like myself who would agree to disagree and just appreciate her as a champion of innovation, progress, and the spirit of willful individualism. The problem is summed up nicely by the caption on this XKCD comic:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.’ -Randall Munroe, xkcd

Commenting on that comic, Ari Kohen, who’s read Atlas, offers this critique:

Rand understood her novels to set the table for her Objectivist philosophy and, as a result, she intended for people who read her books to live their lives like [John Galt] … to think of other people as parasites and reject the idea that a political community binds people together in some morally meaningful way… One must be careful with this sort of thing because novels present their commentary and their conclusions without argument… she attempts to shape the way that people think about and interact with the world around them — to do political philosophy — without actually making any arguments for what are, ultimately, policy preferences with serious personal and societal consequences.

This is what is so alarming about the modern Republican agenda. It’s like the party is campaigning to bring about the Randverse, except the Randverse climaxes in economic apocalypse! To go back to a point I’ve made before (not to mention earlier in this post), politicians who employ rhetoric about restoring economic growth and making America great again even as they pursue policies that they must at least unconsciously know will cause society to collapse? They’re represented in Atlas Shrugged. They’re the villains.

You may say that this is painting with an extremely broad brush, but if you combine Paul Ryan’s draconian budget proposals with Grover Norquist’s perverse approach to tax reform (which he leads from an office at ‘Americans for Tax Reform’ in truly Orwellian fashion), the inevitable consequence is not fiscal responsibility but reckless debts and deficits, even default, that will provoke political and economic crisis. You cannot starve the beast and put it on a balanced diet at the same time.

To paint with a finer brush, it’s worth nothing that liberals too have grand thinkers who consider their approach the natural evolution of Western political philosophy. John Rawls, for instance, is a hugely influential high liberal philosopher who advocates for a low- or no-growth socialized economy to better realize an ideal of justice as fairness.

Except no real liberal politician would dare hijack American institutions in the name of a radical socialism, no matter what Fox News wants you to believe, because capitalism is too well-loved in our democracy for that to be politically viable. The ideological reverse, however…

There is a sane middle ground here. An overlap between the merits of libertarian economic efficiency and the virtues of the liberal commitment to democratic legitimacy. This space is explored in John Tomasi’s recent book Free Market Fairness.

Tomasi’s goal is conceptually ambitious but modest in its particulars and prescriptions. He builds a philosophically coherent argument that economic liberty and the democratic social contract need not be mutually exclusive propositions, need not be in contradiction. In fact, as the historical record shows, they are two great tastes that go great together.

Down that middle path lies the potential for compromises superior to either side’s unilateral positions, and that will be the subject of the next Applied post. But for now, I think it must be stated firmly and without equivocation that objectively speaking, it is the radical ideological purity demanded by Republicans, even as they insist that the compromising, weak-willed Democrats are the covert ideological radicals, that is the primary cause of our inability to achieve civic reforms and a stronger economic recovery. Furthermore, in their obstructionism the Republicans are performing the role of the looters from Atlas Shrugged, only with an inverted looter ideology that loots from the public coffers of a legitimate democracy, rather than from private coffers in the name of an illegitimate kleptocracy.

And Paul Ryan exemplifies this problem in that he is substantively committed to Objectivist values even as he maintains nominal adherence to a religion with a doctrinal tradition of social justice. Although he would make a great Republican VP candidate with his rep for fiscal responsibility, his specific plans (particularly in conjunction with Grover Norquist’s monopoly on tax reform) are not fiscally responsible. And that is what actually makes Ryan the perfect poster boy for today’s Republican Party: he seems like what’s right about it, when in fact he’s what’s wrong.

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Pardon the Interruption

Sorry, no new posts this week! 2:2 is a huge chapter with the second most important speech in the book (Frankie D, represent!). Since I was already crunched for time and don’t want to half-ass this one, I decided to give myself an extra week to tackle it properly.

Atlas Clubbed will return on April 2nd to examine the relationship between money and morality. Oooh, substantive…

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“Part One: Non-Contradiction” Recap

Last “season” on ATLAS CLUBBED:

Our Heroine: Dagny "Dags" Taggart

America faces a dark and vaguely science-fictional time. Nations all over the world have turned to socialism because nobody can deny any longer that the planet is running out of fossil fuels and important mineral resources, and somebody has to ration the remaining supplies. …right?

Luckily, in the U.S. the libertarian state of Colorado has kept the American tradition of innovation alive. Gas prices have been kept in check because a self-made man named Ellis Wyatt has developed frakking techniques to tap fresh oil near the Rockies. A small car company has sprung up in the mountain west to fill the void after GM went under without a government bailout ten years ago. Colorado is, in short, the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — last hope for saving post-industrial civilization from collapse.

Hank Rearden: Steve Jobs of the Randverse

Into this dire picture, enter Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Rearden has just invented a new alloy, rMetal, that is stronger and lighter than steel and will last three times as long. It’s a revolution in sustainable development, and Dagny, VP of Operations at the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, wants to refit her Colorado line with Rearden’s game-changing product. Because the energy crisis has hobbled the auto industry and commercial flight, the railroads of the previous century are still America’s main mode of transportation, and updating them with high-speed tracks and trains could be a huge boost to the economy.

Jim Taggart, Uncertainly Principled

Unfortunately, the president of Taggart Transcon is Dagny’s brother Jim, a cowardly man with a vicious entitlement streak and no creative vision. Terrified of the future, he and a small group of CEOs from the country’s other major corporations decide to flood Washington with well-funded lobbyists and strings-attached campaign donations, in order to buy laws that favor their interests. These laws effectively give the largest corporations government-sponsored monopolies, and confiscate resources from the creative Rearden to hobble him in the “free” market and prevent him from toppling their older businesses.

Despite this corporate/government conspiracy to cling desperately to the unsustainable status quo, Dagny and Rearden manage to build one railroad made of rMetal to ship Ellis Wyatt’s oil out of Colorado to the rest of the country, buying everybody more time to solve the industrial crisis.

Cyberpunk tech in a steampunk world.

On the day their track opens, Dagny and Rearden finally give in to their mutual attraction and begin an affair that wracks the unhappily married Rearden with guilt. But in the wake of their commercial success the freshly-minted lovers go on a secret road trip through the midwest to celebrate, and there, in the barren ghost towns around GM, they discover the junked prototype of a brilliant invention: a motor that could literally run on air — the static electricity in the air — solving all the world’s energy, environmental, and economic problems in one fell swoop… if it hadn’t been gutted and left for dead.

While Rearden returns home to make sure his marriage is still falling apart, our all-business Dags stays on the case of the miracle engine.

Unfortunately for Dagny's investigation, the Randverse does not have GPS.

The trail leads her to a philosophy professor slumming it as a short order cook out west. He is just one of many elites from around the country who have abruptly disappeared from the public eye in the past ten years or so — about the same time the motor was invented and GM collapsed. It is only now that the energy crisis has become severe that a hidden pattern has begun to emerge out of their mysterious absences.

Francisco "Definitely not Batman" D'Anconia

If nothing else, Dagny knows that there is some kind of shadow game being played among the country’s leaders. And perhaps the biggest wild card on the table is her former lover, Francisco D’Anconia. He was once as driven and ambitious as she was, but he’s spent the last decade doing nothing but blowing his family’s centuries-old fortune on gaudy luxury and partying.

Now he has re-entered Dagny’s life, and he’s acting very strangely, even laughing his ass off while his own business collapses. Dagny suspects he has sabotaged his own company and the global economy on purpose, by joining with corrupt Jim and his cronies on major investments that he knew would fail.

Before Dagny can pursue her leads any further, Congress grants absolute power to the former lobbyist Wesley Mouch to take over the Colorado economy. In retaliation the oil man Ellis Wyatt sets fire to his own fields and joins the ranks of the disappeared.

Why is Francisco inflating and popping market bubbles for no explicable reason? What unspoken philosophical schism could be driving America’s elites into covert camps that wage war over an irreconcilable divide?

"It's you and me against the world, babe. Literally."

And most urgently of all, can Hank & Dagny still save the country now that the oil supply has been torched by the supplier himself?

What does it all mean, man??

All these questions and more will be answered over the next 10 weeks, as we dive further into the alternate-but-uncomfortably-familiar universe of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

NEXT — 2:1, “Storms A’brewin”

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Great Minds Blog Alike

It just so happens that last night as I was drafting today’s post, titled “Objectionisms,” a fellow blogger named Benjamin commented on one of the Chapter 7 posts.

Turns out he’s writing a blog called Objectionism, in which he fisks various works by Ayn Rand (he apparently has just started reading Atlas Shrugged).

So if you’re following this project, I encourage you to check him out too; he has also been added to the blogroll at the bottom of the page.

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About the Book

Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and promptly received a critical panning, because as a piece of literature it has the poetic sensibility of an instruction manual. But as a parable designed to promote a specific philosophical argument it is undeniably gangbusters.

Atlas, of course, is unlike most parables in that it’s as thick as a phone book instead of living comfortably as a short story. It is like most parables in that it isn’t known for its complex characterization. Taken together, these two features make the book pretty lame as an aesthetic endeavor. This has not at all stopped it from becoming a perennial bestseller and ideological bible for millions of impressed readers.

With that in mind, the novel and the philosophy it espouses are clearly inseparable. That philosophy is Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s personal invention, and I will briefly synopsize it now in categorial bullet points. For those without any philosophical background, don’t worry about the jargon here, it’ll all come up far more organically as we go:

* Metaphysically, Objectivism is atheistic and materialistic.

*Epistemologically, it rejects the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon and opposes epistemological skepticism (this bullet point is where I fundamentally disagree with Rand, by the way).

*Ethically, it promotes rational selfishness as the highest moral good and vilifies altruism as counterproductive, which is delightfully counterintuitive if not a little overboard.

*Politically, it is radically libertarian.

*Aesthetically, it provides what I consider a necessary but insufficient definition of art, “a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” which, by the way, means that Atlas Shrugged is an artistic tour de force by its own author’s definition. Seriously.

And honestly I think I could have just put that last bullet point at the head of the page and called it a day, because for good or ill that nicely sums up everything you need to know as you sit down to crack open Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

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About the Author

According to an anecdote on Wikipedia in Anne Heller’s 2009 book Ayn Rand and the World She Made
 when 20-year old Soviet emigre Alisa Rosenbaum arrived in New York harbor in 1925 and first saw the Manhattan skyline, she wept. “Tears of splendor,” is the direct quote.  And while there are many things about this woman that I find ridiculous, you can’t really argue with the pure American beauty of an immigrant story like that.

By then Alisa had already adopted Ayn Rand as her pen name and self-identified as a firm atheist rationalist. So let’s call her precocious. But of course she had her reasons to be opinionated — raised in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, 12-year old Alisa saw her father’s business confiscated by the Bolsheviks and her family forced into exile in the Crimea. After completing high school there, Alisa spent the third act of her bildungsroman back in St. Petersburg — now Petrograd — where she lived in the destitution wrought by Soviet rule.

In spite of the poor economic conditions, she attended Petrograd State (Go Grizzlies!) in one of the first co-ed classes admitted. She thrived at school, studying social pedagogy, and then just in case she had any lingering doubts about how much communism sucked, the university helpfully attempted to boot her and the other bourgeois students out just before graduation. It didn’t stick, and she matriculated in 1924 followed by a year of film school in Leningrad during which she was first published. Not long after that she would be going by her nom de plume and crying at the sight of America.

That picture-perfect image of Alisa in transition casts an interpretive shadow over the rest of Rand’s life. Just like a native-born U.S. citizen, she decided to cross a continent and pull herself up by her bootstraps in the most meritocratic of American mileu: Hollywood. There she met her future husband, Frank O’Connor, the man who was the love of her life except for that one time she had a decade-long affair with a younger dude. But both her husband and her lover’s wife knew about that and “consented,” which I’ll feel free to interpret as “went along quietly in fear of the terrible consequences to their social networks and personal lifestyles that would inevitably follow taking a stand.” You know, rational self-interest. Anyway, this is a radical tangent. Where were we?

Rand and Frank became political activists in 1940 when she discovered how much she loved shooting down hecklers at campaign events. Her writing career finally took off in the ’50s on the strength of two successful books, The Fountainhead and the subject of this blog, Atlas Shrugged. Naturally that whole second-love-of-her-life character entered the picture along with the fame and riches.

In the notes she kept while writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand remarks, “I seem to be both a theoretical philosopher and a fiction writer. But it is the last that interests me most; the first is only the means… the fiction story is the end.” And it sure was, in that after the book’s success she stopped writing fiction entirely and focused on her philosophy, codifying it into a dogma called Objectivism, with which she then led a cult of personality complete with unseemly polyamorous intrigue (see above), even claiming in a televised interview with Mike Wallace in 1959 that she was “the most creative thinker alive,” going on to add that she had tiger blood and Adonis DNA, etc.


Rand and her kept man broke up in a real burning bridges kind of way in the mid-60s. She and Frank stayed together until he passed in 1979, so maybe he was cool with the  cuckold thing after all. Ayn herself died in ’81, decidedly not from lack of fulfilled ambitions. But I like to imagine that her last words were a muttered “Rosenbaum,” in the style of Charles Foster Kane, as a snow globe tumbled from her hands and images of young, starry-eyed scholar Alisa flashed before her steely grays.

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