Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A real fear I have

If you were to pull over a random teen ager and ask him about the history of the United States, you might (and I stress, might) hear mention of the fourth of July. In fact, if you started by asking that teen ager about the significance of July 4th, odds are, you would hear about fireworks, cook outs and maybe a day off from work for the parents. The idea that the United States has a "birthday" is difficult to connect to. It brings up the notion that the US could possibly not exist, that it did not exist at some point. For the random teen ager, this is a difficult idea. The aspect of the day which commemorates struggle and freedom from tyranny is lost among car sales and the All Star game. Well, it has been over 230 years, so I guess, after a while, existence is such an understood thing that the anniversary stops being an anniversary and takes on its own identity simply as celebration. Is this such a bad thing? I don't know. But I saw a parallel case this morning which scared me.

I work in a Jewish school. Not that the school is Jewish -- do you want to try and find where on a building to perform a circumcision? but that the school has a curriculum which includes religious education and stresses Zionism. This morning, we announced to students that the 29th of November marks the anniversary of the vote to partition the British mandate and create a Jewish state. Sixty-four years ago, Jews world-wide were huddled around radios in breathless anticipation of the fulfillment of a dream, maybe a prophecy, or at least an historic promise.

In the quiet conversation which broke out after the announcement in school, I heard a student ask "Who cares?"

The State of Israel is not 230 years old. It is not a super power. The idea of its nonexistence is not difficult to absorb -- it hasn't existed for much longer than it has existed. That the random teenager, who shouldn't be so random -- he has chosen to come to this school which should mean that he has a connection to Israel (or at least that we have inculcated such a connection if we have done our job), doesn't care to mark the moment when his own grandparents gained an aspect of their identity, is disheartening, and even frightening. We have no fireworks today. We have no cook outs or ball games. This anniversary has not been supplanted by some other form of expression which, at least in some way, sets the day apart. No, this student is simply happy to walk away from this date and expect that the state will be there for him when he decides to take a vacation and drop a few bucks at a tourist trap. But once we forget how we got here, what anchor do we have which will help us continue to exist?

Friday, November 25, 2011

What I did on my vacation

One thing I haven't used this blog for is to catalogue the trivial events of a particular day. I usually wait until I have some deep insight into the human condition before I type stuff up. Well, at least until I have some smarmy remark OR a deep insight.

Right now, I have neither, but I have the urge to list what I have done today.

I had a miserable night's sleep -- partially because my throat and head hurt and partially because I'm not very good at sleeping. I try every night, but haven't mastered it.

The internet at home is still out (3 years of complaints during which they insisted that the problem is in the wiring outside and now, suddenly, the problem is our modem) so I graded some papers. Not enough (I still have 5 more of the most pressing papers to grade, then 25 others). The throat started to even out but the headache has not quit. Tylenol does nothing and I'm resisting overloading on caffeine.

I went shopping this morning. That was good for my ego -- here I am, a balding, overweight, scruffy middle aged man and the woman working there calls me "sweetie" and "hon." I still got it. I also saved about 17% on my shopping costs by buying generic.

I tried a new vodka, bought an old favorite and got a haircut. "Leave me my dignity!" I insisted. Well, the follicles and his money are soon parted.

Went home. Tried to grade more papers. Still feel pretty awful, so I went out to an internet coffeehouse for a large cup of tea and a diet muffin. Neither has really lifted my spirits or made my head feel better.

So I'll be headed home now. More papers to grade and a few opportunities to be social on the horizon. And if this is what blogs are supposed to be for, then that's just stupid. I haven't learned a damn thing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I have a beef

I have lived many dreams. i have come to terms with what I want and I have gone out to get it. And now, a new scheme is taking its place in the queue of my desires.

If you are at all familiar with the process of producing kosher beef, you know that one of the ways in which a piece of meat must be prepared is through a process of soaking and salting in order to remove a certain percentage of the blood. I'm OK with that because I have never been a big fan of blood. But the down side is that the reputation of kosher meat is that it is salty.

There is another way. Meat that has been ritually slaughtered can be taken (pretty much immediately) and broiled over an open flame and it can be consumed as kosher. My plan springs from that.

I have done some research (not much...just a webpage or two) and it seems that i can secure a full sized cow for something in the range of $1500. If I go to a kosher slaughterhouse in the midwest and "adopt" a cow, because I'm not taking a lien on all the parts which will not be sold to the kosher consumer, I can probably get away with shelling out a cool grand and calling it even. So, with my thou paid, I want to get the slaughterhouse to shecht me a cow and pull aside a bunch of the meat, prepare it to be steaks, and then have a big ol' cookout so I can eat that meat without the salting process. There will be more than enough meat, so I am throwing the door open for other investors. Some quick research shows that I can get 50 steaks of various cuts from the cow. Charge each guy (this will probably be only guys...) 30 bucks for his steak and my 1000 is covered. If each guy has to buy a plane ticket and a hotel room for (let's say) 3 nights -- enough time to get in on a Monday, eat the meat on Tuesday, mid afternoon and probably some of the fully kashered/salted meat on Wednesday night and then leave Thursday. The balance of the meat can be shipped back here and divvied up, or donated to a soup kitchen out west and the donation can serve as a deduction.

Yes, this plan needs some refining. Yes, it will cost some money. But there is some dream fulfillment, some charity and some male bonding.

If you are game (HA!) let me know. I figure sometime this summer is a reasonable goal.

I'mold [sick]

I have been doing some math this morning. That's a bad way to start a day or a week -- with math. But a thought popped in to my head and it required math. So, I foolishly did some math.

I have been teaching high school for about 18 years now. Five years at the first job, seven at the second, and now, I'm in year 6 (I think) at my current job. That's around 18. A student of mine who was a senior in my first year of teaching, had he gone straight to college and gotten married at the close of college (4 years later) and knocked up the missus immediately would have a child in the range of 13 years old right now. So this kid might start high school next September.

Let's think about this. In September next, I could have as a student, the child of a former student. That's ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


This morning, I discovered that I lost my cuff link. My left cuff link, though I grant that that label is somewhat arbitrary -- they are effectively interchangeable so for all I know, I lost my right cuff link precisely because I was wearing on the incorrect (i.e. left) cuff.

Since I discovered the loss, I have been wrestling with the sign I want to compose. Here's what I have:

"Lost, one cuff link. Grayish-blue, sort of triangley. It looks like my other cuff link. You know what? Odds are, you aren't going to find more than one cuff link on the ground today, so if you do find one, just assume it is mine and come find me. You already know what I look like."

I'm leaving out the left/right issue because I don't want someone saying that I deserved to lose my cuff link because I put it in the wrong cuff.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dear Anonymous

An open letter to the Anonymous collective.

Dear Anonymous,

You don't know me. That's ok; I don't know you. I have read stuff about you and theoretically, by you online and on the news but when you go by the name "anonymous" it is hard to know what is real and not.

When I first read stuff about I actually thought that what you were doing was somewhat righteous -- you were ensuring that information was available. You were standing up for the little guy. You hid behind the name anonymous both because you were a boat rocker and because the media wouldn't be as entranced by a force known collectively as "Ralph."

But, I have to say, the bloom is off the rose. First, it was your threats against Israel. Fact is, I'm an ardent supporter of Israel and don't think that internet piracy is a particularly moral direction for any group, especially when one is doing so for the sake of appearing to stand up for the little guy, history and facts be darned. But, though I disagree with your politics (and doubt you have any real, cohesive representative politics), I let that go. You have the right to be wrong.

Then I saw threats against Facebook. What? Really? Facebook is a voluntary activity for people. If you don't like it, don't join. But to threaten to let loose worms, viruses or trojans on Facebook (even if you have valid concerns about Facebook's privacy policies) is immature. No one forces anyone to be a part of Facebook so if you sign up, do so as an involved consumer who is getting a free service and has to stay informed of the consequences. Do we really need a knight in shining armor saving us from our own ignorance? Where lies personal responsibility?

Then I heard about this Mexico thing. Apparently, a member of your group was kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel. In response, Anonymous threatened to reveal the identities of the drug personnel. Then the hacker was released so Anonymous relented. Since the beginning of November, this narrative has become a bit muddled (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/02/anonymous-zetas-hacking-climbdown?newsfeed=true) so I don't know what to believe, except that you have, historically, gone after corporations, politicians (and the occasional nation state) but have NOT gone after patently criminal organizations.

You could be such a force for good, ignoring politics. You could expose drug cartels left and right if you wanted to. And for a moment, it seemed like you wanted to. But (either because you were afraid of reprisals, or your kidnap victim was released) so far you have done nothing to use your skills and power against the groups who are universally considered to be criminals. That is unforgivable. If you mixed in some real social conscience with your politics, your politics would seem all the more noble. But you haven't. It shouldn't take a kidnapping to motivate you, nor should your higher moral obligation be sacrificed when physical safety is on the line.

Have some principles. Don't go after faceless corporations because they can't do anything back. Don't go after governments because you think that they are doing wrong on some grand opinionated scale (there are plenty of governments doing all sorts of evil right now so your choice of any one will smack of some favoritism or subjectivity), go after the people who are causing real problems in the world and we all know it. Be the savior, not the trouble maker. Have some guts to do what we all know is right and needed. Otherwise, you come off as a bunch of petty wonks who pick on people who can't or won't defend themselves.

I have no way of knowing if you will see this, answer me, or decide that I, sitting in front of my cheap-o netbook pose any real threat to your veneer of importance and your self-image and must, therefore, be dealt with. I just think that you could reach respectability and acceptance by doing some simple "good" stuff instead of going for the controversial splash which is sure to make people think less of you.

Sincerely yours,
Dan. But you knew that. My name's right there, Ralph.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Vindication of the Rightness of Me

Back when I was in elementary school, I was so busy watching reruns of Monty Python and new episodes of Uncle Floyd and Georgia Championship Wrestling that I never quite got around to watching college athletics. I followed a few professional teams but between the Saturday games and the vast number of schools involved with ever changing line ups of teen agers, I couldn't find the energy to follow college sports.

By the time high school rolled around, I understood that I was supposed to care about college teams, but my own distaste for high school jocks soured the entire topic. A bunch of guys who got away with stuff outside of class, and weren't held to the standards I was, because they took of their free time to play sports. How noble. They made me mad. Kids who should be failing. Kids who didn't follow rules. Teachers who bent rules, administrators who showed preference for certain groups, and a school more interested in the newest trophy than in giving proper academic guidance. I hated jocks.

In college, I was able to step out from behind my own inability to play sports and base my revulsion on more real and reasonable grounds. I saw the abuses first hand -- the alcohol consumption both condoned and facilitated by coaches. The classes missed by team members because of practices and long trips. The lower academic expectations applied to incoming and current students on many teams (but not all -- I knew students on the baseball team who seemed to work hard...unless that was just because the classes I found easy were a real challenge to them...). The artificial stress by the school on tournaments and games with results sent out to alums to instill pride when the bulk of the student body was busy writing papers and getting no glory for being hard working, intellectual beings. Every time I walked past someone's dorm room and he was watching a college game on a Saturday afternoon, all I could think of was "don't those guys have a test on Monday or a paper due for a History class this week?"

Bottom line was that it made me angry.

After college, I saw the flaws in the system even more starkly. Alumni giving spurred on by athletics; programming and other educational opportunities slashed while the sacred cows of jockdom remained; applicants for jobs who graduated without basic skills because of their presence on teams and the reduced expectations that that allowed for.

I have never liked college sports.

This whole Penn State scandal should have no bearing on my feelings. I condemn violence against and abuse of anyone so I see that the assistant was criminally wrong and those who didn't not stand up to bring him to justice should be punished. But, theoretically, this has no connection to my feelings about the entirety of athletic programs. So when I started reading articles which expanded the critique from an attack on pedophiles and institutional cover ups into an expose on college athletics, I jumped for joy. Metaphorically -- as stated, I'm not overly athletic.

This sad state of affairs has allowed writers to question the whole notion of sports programs. Yes, they give opportunities to students who otherwise might not have had any, but I'm not sure that that is a good thing. Need based and academic scholarships can be more effective motivators and if the money funneled into new stadiums (stadia?), uniforms, PR and staffing for teams had been donated to other school causes, the rest of those scholarships and grants could exist. We should be encouraging high schoolers to get good grades and value their learning. Their evenings shouldn't be about a game, but a book. For most of them, their sporting lives won't become a career and won't equip them with the skills or knowledge to help them move into another field. Sure, the Ivy League players will still have the name of an Ivy League school on the diploma, and sure, some players have the smarts or the built in opportunity to succeed, but the majority of students who mortgage their educational futures to play ball will have their opportunities foreclosed upon.

This is how I have felt all along. Maybe it was because of my own limited time, or energy, or ability. maybe it was because of my experiences with the system. Whatever it is, it seems to have taken the mainstream media a while to get around to it -- pity that it takes so long, and such a horrible act of violence for people to wake up and feel empowered to question bigger systems. Welcome to the curve. I've been waiting just ahead for the rest of you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupations in the Wall Street Journal

Over the last 2 days, the Wall Street Journal has published two articles which are particularly dumb. Both seem to have the same aim, and both make the kinds of logical leaps that offend people who think.

The first article http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203733504577026212798573518.html?mod=googlenews_wsj is entitled "Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay". It goes on to explain how students are shying away from Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors because of the difficulty of their courses, and opting for social science courses even though jobs in fields which those majors traditionally populate pay less. Insulting on many, many levels. Let's walk through the basic problem.

Who is to say that certain majors are "easier"? The article looks at the number of hours used for studying and GPA's to support that a Psych major is easier. Hogwash. Maybe it has to do with the nature of the topic. Maybe it has to do with the natural skill of the students. Maybe it has to do with the attitude of the professor. To generalize this as an inherent quality of the discipline is ridiculous. You take someone who has been studying the hard sciences for a few years, and ask him to write a 3-5 page paper in an hour and he'll balk. He'll need a lot more time and find it really tough. I'll be done with half an hour to spare. Does that make it "easier"? Or maybe it makes it "more along the lines of what I should be doing". And science is what he is hard wired for, so it is "easier." When I was a cosci major (for that glorious semester) and I spent hours in the computer lab writing programs, I found the work easier than my history course, because it made more sense without as much thought. More hours did not reflect "difficulty". An artist can spend days in the studio perfecting a piece but that doesn't make his work easy or hard.

Maybe, just maybe, not as many people are cut out for the hard sciences but have historically been toughing it out due to external pressure or the lure of better salaries. Many have reported their majors harder because they were, academically, swimming upstream. Maybe, if we rewarded people for doing what they love, there would be fewer people in the STEM fields, but they would be the right ones. Same with law. Same with medicine. Same with education. Instead, people get in to fields for all the wrong reasons and then we have these false conclusions about what is tough and what is easy.

The article further relates that the Georgia Institute of Technology split its computer science courses up and made one section more about practical applications than about theory. More people passed and this is supposed to be about "ease." Maybe, just maybe, the goal of education is about the practical application and memorization of the arcane not only takes more hours of study, but is harder to accomplish -- and yet, not nearly as important in the actual world. So the "easy" was actually code for "more authentic and useful." More people passed because the class was designed to tap into a way of learning which unlocked potential more effectively.

The second article in entitled "Public School Teachers Aren't Underpaid." http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203687504576655352353046120.html?mod=googlenews_wsj This article attempts at one point to take salary and correlate it to educational background to normalize salaries for comparison. It does other things, like look at days off, and considers he summer, when teachers can take longer vacations and make extra money at another job -- this is foolishness for a few reasons, detailed below. But back to education. The article states "Education is widely regarded by researchers and college students alike as one of the easiest fields of study..."

Really? I found my courses in English really easy. My siblings breezed through some science courses. My Ed. classes included psych (so i guess psych is an easy field of study). I don't know who the researchers are who think education courses or programs are easy, but maybe (yes, just maybe) the people who go in to it are a self selecting lot who are cut out for education so they find the course work straightforward. Some of the "course work" is actually being in front of a class -- teachers generally don't find actual teaching to be "easy" so I'm not sure this was included.

Or maybe, just maybe, more mediocre students think they can be good teachers and go through and do well in the classes, but make for miserable teachers because the course work is not an accurate preparation for teaching (thus the high turn over and all the criticism of teachers). Is taking notes in an organic chemistry class a good indicator of who will make an effective surgeon? Maybe taking notes and passing a memorization test is easy, therefore doctors are paid too much? Or maybe, salary is based on the ability to do the job, not just pass the class.

As to the question of teaching days and trying to equate salaries by taking out summer time and normalizing that way, that's ridiculous. A teacher gets paid for the year. During the summer there is an expectation that the teacher prepares for the school year. Why does the teacher take another job? Because often, the salaries are so woefully low. Why does the teacher take vacation over the summer? Because during the school year, the stress level of dealing with 150 students every day and being accountable to parents, bosses, board members, kids and the media is demanding, especially considering the salary.

The article does say that it speaks of averages not the exceptional teacher, but I think that the conclusions drawn about the "average" teacher, and the formulas used to equate salaries to "private sector" jobs are just plain nuts. I think that one of the best ways to make this case is to have the authors stop burying their heads in their math books and try to teach a class for a year. Meet the expectations of external tests. Keep the students engaged. Satisfy the expectations of parents and bosses. Prepare, execute and assess constantly. Do all that and look at the salary. Then decide how the entire experience stacks up against a random "private sector" job in terms of demand and salary.

I dare you.

No one has ever taken me up on that dare. No one ever will. No one who doesn't already want to teach, wants to teach. And only a small percentage of those who do teach, do it well. The WSJ has done a disservice to educators who put their all into a career with daily, serious real world implications. It has demeaned a profession, minimized a struggle and poisoned the well of public opinion by wallowing in ignorance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Timations on Mortality

When I was finishing up college, I had a chance to work as an unpaid intern at a big name radio station in NYC. Those two summers provided some of the most amazing experiences. I got to meet important people; I saw how content was created, scheduled and programmed; I got my hands on oodles of swag. Pretty neat.

In the programming office/music library, I worked with two wonderful women -- Amy Winslow and Lorraine Carruso (apologies for misspellings). They taught me what to look out for, what conclusions to draw and how to make good (political) decisions. It was (and I can't stress this enough) a really good experience.

Those 2 summers, between my Junior and Senior years of college, and between Senior year and grad school, were in 1990 and 1991. I was about 21 years old. How old were these 2 women? I don't know -- at the time, age seemed so irrelevant, but looking back on it, they must have been in their upper 20's, maybe low 30's. Both unmarried, both living the rock and roll lifestyle: parties, concerts, nights out drinking and who knows what else. They were the epitome of cool. They knew the right people and dropped the right names, and still got their work (their VERY COOL work) done.

That was 20 summers ago. I'm a middle aged man now and sometimes I think about those people I worked with. They must be nearing (or right beyond) 50. That's not young anymore. That's not cool anymore. The other interns I worked with, there and at other stations, must have families and kids approaching high school age. The bosses, already in middle age when I was but a lad, are beyond 60, possibly significantly so.

It isn't just that I spend my days realizing how much closer to the end I am than to the beginning, but it is the realization that all the people I looked up to when I was really making connections to the world, are now, I guess, "done." The camp directors when I was a counselor, the professors when I was a student, the barbers from my childhood when I still had hair. All these pieces of my memory have not only grown up or old, but have started to go away. That's sad and scary. They are no longer how I remember them, if they "are" at all. I figure I must have changed also, and yet I still feel like that young guy. A heavier, more bald, creaky "young guy." Do Amy and Lorraine still see themselves as the cool ones? Or are they grandparents who go to dinner at 4:30 (which is starting to sound like a better and better idea to me...) and can't listen to music because it doesn't make sense and is too loud.

I don't want to be cryogenically frozen when I die. I want to be frozen when I was 22 years old and defrosted when they find a cure for growing up.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What hath Gore Wrought?

I spend way too much time (according to some) on internet message boards and such answering questions and engaging in arguments about theology and politics. If you are familiar with the cartoon http://www.mattcutts.com/images/duty_calls.png then consider me THAT guy.

But why do I do it? I blame the internet.

The web has had an incredible egalitarian effect on the world. Anyone with an opinion can present his unfiltered view out there and the masses can stumble upon it. Gone are the days of fact checking and where only the official representatives of a group had a loud enough voice and could issue edicts, challenges or other statements which could then be dissected, rejected or perfected by other experts of other groups.

But the web has leveled the playing field. Now, the foot soldiers -- the man on the virtual street can wade into the fray. When I post a message on a forum, you might be tempted to ask me "why argue with that idiot? He knows nothing and its not like he is speaking on behalf of anyone else." But that's wrong. He might know nothing but on screens around the world, his words have the same weight as someone who knows a lot. Since we can't verify CV's before we answer, and we all operate under the quasi anonymity of the web, every posting and message has the same ability to influence, confuse or educate.

Maybe it used to be that the top guys argued with the top guys and the lower down guys sat around and led their lives. But now, the little guys can shout just as loud, and the other little guys need to shout right back, so that the people on neither team hear a full story.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Well, the big snow storm over this past weekend pushed us to the limit. Our cable went out. After the initial shock, the family banded together and came up with a strategy to avoid any further interaction. We rejcted family game night, or listening to music and opted for "to each his own." We each went to an individual computer and immersed ourselves in the internet. Email, websites and streaming TV served admirably as a replacement for regular TV.

It wasn't easy but we made it through, and we did it as a family. A family of people all dedicated to th same ideal - totally ignoring each other.

Now, 4 days later, as we share the war stories of the "16 hours without the remote" as we will someday like to call it, we have lost electricity. This means, of course, no television. We decided to eat all of our ice cream and drive to some friends' house to use their cable.