On guns

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The second amendment of the United States constitution is traditionally and widely understood to protect the right for individuals to possess firearms. It was ratified on December 15, 1791 but it was only in 2008 that the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed for the first time that “the second amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home“.

People in the United States did not wait for this clarification to start owning firearms obviously. It is estimated by the Small Arms Survey that there were 120 firearms for every 100 civilians in the United States in 2017, for a population of 326 millions. Top of the list. 
Boy would you think homes are safe with such a ratio.

But you see, a gun can be as lethal to you when you are on the wrong side of its barrel as when you are on the right side of it, for a gun is effective as a life taking device, but not really as a threat. Indeed, when facing an imminent threat to your life, say an armed burglary, waving a gun and just threatening to use it will probably get you killed, as it gives the threat in front of you an extremely strong incentive to shoot first.  And the threat will not miss. You probably will. You are not that proficient at shooting, let’s face it. OK, you have a couple of guns you keep in a safe box, still, I bet you cannot even remember the last time you were at a shooting range.
But guess what, the imminent threat in front of you was there yesterday, and the day before, and will be there tomorrow. But not you if he sees his plans through, especially if you wave a gun at him. Or her. A gun does not have a sex.
It does not have a soul either. So be prepared to either take a soul with it or give one up. No compromise, no in-between.  

Finally, before you take the path to the dark side, think of this: less guns on the street means less chances of running into one and less likelihood to find yourself on the wrong side of a gun barrel. Or on the right side of it, but I guess it is all the same because neither will do you any good.

Let the board sound
and drop the gun

On dictators


Well here’s one with style: Gaius Julius Caesar, main antagonist in the “Asterix” comic series, also incidentally a Roman general and one whose legacy led to the relegation of the Roman republic to a mere slogan and the rise of an empire which would hold for the next 14 centuries. Not bad, considering that the next guy to seriously take a stab at a thousand year realm managed to uphold one for twelve only and went down in history as one of the greatest villain of all time.

But back to Caesar and his fellow Romans. Before the dawn of the Roman empire, ancient Rome was indeed a republic, with a senate, elected magistrates and a system of checks and vetoes to keep the powers in balance. It became a republic after having been a monarchy for centuries, when the seventh and last king of Rome was ousted and his Imperium or power bestowed upon two consuls elected yearly by the Roman citizens.
In extremely dire circumstances, when the republic was in jeopardy, the senate would call for the consuls to appoint a dictator to take the matter in hand. Dictatorship in ancient Rome, unlike what it became later in history, was a temporary and exceptional magistracy above all others, entrusted with the full authority of the state. All other magistrates were subordinated to its imperium, including the two elected consuls, and the powers conferred to it were nearly absolute. Kind of a last resort superhero summoned to save the republic when all else had failed. 
Given the extraordinary nature of the role and the risk it instilled on the state if misused, a dictator was to resign once his mission was accomplished or within a timeframe set by the senate, usually 6 months. As you would expect, some dictators would not abide by this rule. Julius Cesar managed to be appointed as dictator for life by the senate in 44 BC. It would only be the forth time he yielded such a formidable and unappealable power and the final step of a journey where he will have concentrated all the powers normally bestowed on different magistrates for a fixed term into his own hands and for life, essentially becoming an absolute ruler, a de facto emperor of what was until then a republic.

Cesar’s quest was a constant search for perpetual power and a constant justification of his entitlement to it. He would have to fight tremendous rivals who would rise between him and the destiny he saw for himself. Pompey the great, or Crassus, richest man in the Roman republic, or Cato the Younger, the incorruptible senator, to name a few. He would work around them through alliances and bribery or defeat them in battle, but all to no avail it would seem as in the end, his insatiable quest led to his demise. He would be ambushed and stabbed 23 times by a group of senators led by Brutus in 44 BC, an assassination which the intrigants will present as a tentative to save the republic from tyranny, but which would end up sparking a civil war and ushering the dawn of the Roman empire, with Octavian, Caesar’s heir, as its fist emperor under the name of Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus.

On the other hand, here’s another dictator with no less style:

Back in the early days of the republic, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was an old patrician who had fallen in disfavor and made to sell most of his estate and retire from public life. He was nevertheless called by the Senate to assume the dictatorial magistracy in 458 BC when the republic was facing dire military hardships. He embraced this formidable power, went on to heroically defeat the Aequi at the Battle of Mount Algidus against all odds and relinquished his Imperium a mere 16 days after it has been granted to him, having brought the mission to a close. He would be appointed as Dictator again in 439 BC only to resign his dictatorship 21 days later upon mission success, in a near similar reenactment of his first dictatorship.

Cincinnatus was held in very high esteem by ancient Romans even centuries after his time. His legacy lived on and even today, there are numerous places which bear his name and stand as testament to his integrity, civic virtue and leadership, the least known of which not being the city of Cincinnati in the United States. 
He was most probably an inspiration to George Washington, first president of the United States of America and later a president of the Society of the Cincinnati, who surrendered his command of the continental army after the treaty of Paris was signed and later refused to run for a third term as president of the United States, which he could have certainly secured had he bothered to run for it, setting by that a precedent to which all later presidents but one will abide, until it would eventually be made into law. Washington was “first in war, first in peace and first in the heart of his countrymen” as per Henry Lee’s eulogy of him. And still is the titular figure on the one dollar bill, but no more than that it would seem, at least since January 6, 2021. 
Alas, his legacy seems to have been forgotten, as 224 years after the father of the nation stepped down as president at the end of his second term, America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, would tear itself apart over a man’s ambition, much like Rome many centuries earlier, over the legacy of a man whose thirst for power would dry out a republic and quench an empire for 14 centuries.

Let the board sound,


On the Ivy League and success

According to a study done in 2014, the University of Pennsylvania produced more billionaires than any other university in the world.  Numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the list were Ivy League institutions as well.

Photo by McElspeth

The Ivy League refers to 8 universities among the most prestigious higher education institutions in the Unites States and in the world: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. 

Across the ocean, the Grandes Ecoles in France are the pinnacle of higher education. Presidents Sadi Carnot and Albert Lebrun attended the Ecole Polytechnique, arguably the top engineering Grande Ecole in France. Other presidents like François Hollande or Jacques Chirac attended  the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or ENA, one of the most selective and prestigious school, the Route 66 to high (actually very high) positions in the public sector.  President Valery Giscard d’Estaing attended both.

Getting into any of these venerable institutions is like reaching a straight 15 lane highway leading to success it would seem, and the statistics vouch for this statement. It is true that Ivy League or Grandes Ecoles alumni, to take the United States and France as examples, are disproportionately represented in fortune 500 or CAC 40 CEOs, Supreme Court judges, governors, Nobel price laureates, presidents and billionaires. Students at these institutions will have already found a dream job before graduating, on which they will pass, to aim for higher and get there thanks to the powers conferred to them by the word Yale. Or ENA if you are reading from France. Or Bocconi for our Italian friends.

We must however not forget that admission rates into these temples of knowledge are so narrow that only the most prepared, the most clever, the most versatile people will make it through the cut. The tuition fees at many of these institutions are through the roof, which tips the statistics in favor of the rich at universities like Harvard. Rich and clever. Are these not already markers of success in the world we live in? 

Besides, the practice of legacy preference at many of these schools favors the offspring of alumni, and if your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking, then it is summertime all year long and the living is as easy as it gets.

So where do we stand… If you are very clever, very rich and well prepared, and your parents have preceded you on the path you plan to walk, then… will the education you get at Harvard, as excellent as it is, get you significantly closer to being a CEO or a billionaire? Or is it rather the network of alumni who look and dress and talk like you and the titles these institutions confer to you?

The question I ask is this: what part of success do you owe to the school name and what part to your hard work? What part do you owe to prestige and what part to your intellect? What part do you own to your choices and what part to the path on which your parents preceded you?

I do not have answers and God knows if anyone has, but I can sure make a case for less elitism: the Ivy League is not the only league. If God or Fate or the Cosmic Dice bestowed gifts upon our youth, intelligence be it or wealth, then why on earth would we want those gifts sealed behind a gate with a Yale lock? And why would we keep otherwise gifted people locked outside?

Why a Lock at all?

But also, why the rant could you ask? I don’t mind, I can hear that too…

Let the board sound