Sunday, December 28, 2014

Time to raise the minimum wage

"American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance. That’s a direct taxpayer subsidy, the activists argue, for the fast-food industry."

"The differential between CEO and worker pay in fast food is higher than in any other domestic economic sector--1200 to 1."

That shit ain't right.

From this article in The New Yorker:

Monday, November 17, 2014

The more things change...

"All over the country, this month and next, most of the 28,800,000 pupils in the public schools are being given standardized year-end achievement tests. A question that both educators and parents will want to see answered by those tests is: Are our young citizens learning to use our language well enough?
This question has been more and more frequently asked in recent years. Parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly enough to read their own pen tracks. Businessmen have complained that they could not find [people] to write grammatical letters. Employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions.
Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students with average or better IQs who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools; the sixth-grade teacher has blamed the fourth-grade teacher; the fourth, the first; and all the teachers have now and then blamed parents, and with justice.
Our public schools have done a heroic job, during a period of enormous expansion and in the face of ever-tightening budgets, to maintain standards in the teaching of reading. The seriousness of purpose, the selflessness and the integrity of public-school teachers are manifest. Some children read very well indeed. However, grave reading problems exist. Educators are aware of them and are working hard to solve them."
-John Hersey, Life Magazine, May 24, 1954

That's right. This article is 60 years old.

Find the link to the article here.

A Confederacy of Dunces

A recent study of public perception found the US to be the second least informed nation out of the 14 studied (only Italy was worse). What's even more interesting to me is how our misinformation is biased. We overestimated (by a factor of 8!) how many teens get pregnant. We overestimated by a factor of 15 how many Muslims there are in the country. We had the most UNDERestimation of how many Christians there are in this country. We estimated that 56% were Christian, while the real number is 78%. What that seems to indicate is that 22% of the Christian population thinks we are less Christian than we really are. (Christianity is under attack! The war against Christmas!) We also overestimated by a factor of 2.5 how many immigrants we have in this country.

Take a look at the opinions expressed in the poll. According to the American people, we are a nation with ridiculously high numbers of teen moms, Muslims, atheists and immigrants. What political party does that sound like? No wonder the Republicans did so well in the last election.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Amazon book review just got rejected

I just tried to post a review for "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth," and Amazon wouldn't publish it. I have no idea why.

They said to check the review guidelines, but I did, and I can't see what policy I violated. Can you tell me what I did wrong?

Title: I wanted to like this book, but...

Body: I had a hard time reading this book for two reasons:

1) He skips all the good stuff: Just when he might get specific and tell us something interesting, he trails off in generalities. For instance, he writes "A certain personality type that was perfectly acceptable, even stereotypical, in the past--the real hard ass, say--is not wanted on the voyage when it is going to be a long one." (40) End of section. I would love to know what type of person IS wanted on the voyage--what they're looking for, what personality tests are given. But no. That's all we get. He does it again five pages later: "You'll need to master a lot of skills that seem arcane, or that you might never even get to use, or both." However, no specific skills are listed. This book is filled with generalities.

2) His words of wisdom are mundane: I thought this book might have some amazing insights from a man who has had some amazing experiences. Instead, I get flat platitudes that could come from any self-help book at Auntie's Bookstore. "Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying; it's productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn't a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind." (72) Another gem: "If you need to make a strong criticism, it's a bad idea to lash out wildly; be surgical, pinpoint the problem rather that attack the person. Never ridicule a colleague, even with an offhand remark, not matter how tempting it is or how hilarious the laugh line. The more senior you are, the greater the impact your flippant comment will have. Don't snap at the people who work with you. When you see red, count to 10." (111) That's not bad advice. Not at all. But I could get that same advice from Bob in personnel. There are few if any deep insights here.
WTF? Did they not accept my review because it was negative? Are they trying to keep negative reviews off Amazon so they can sell more books? I'm truly confused.

POSTSCRIPT (Nov. 17): They reviewed it and accepted it with no explanation as to why it was rejected the first time. I'm still confused.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sticky Lessons

The book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die recounts a study in which a group of “tappers” was tasked with tapping out the rhythm to 120 commonly known songs and a group of “listeners” was supposed to guess what songs were being tapped out.

Before the experiment, the tappers estimated that the learners would guess half the songs. They actually guessed two percent.

The authors, the Heath brothers, call this the Curse of Knowledge. That is, if we already know something, we have a difficult time imagining not knowing it. The tappers knew what song they were tapping, so they thought it would be obvious to a lot of people.

Teachers face the Curse of Knowledge every day. Maybe we have taught the scientific method for 20 years so we can’t imagine it would take more than a review before we move on. Maybe we have read The Great Gatsby so many times we can’t imagine the students can’t see the Holy Grail motif. Maybe we have solved this exact equation so many times we can do it with our left hemisphere tied behind our backs.

So we present the material, and we expect the students to understand it. We tap out the song, and we hear it in our head, so we imagine everyone else can hear it too.

If I looked at my practice, I bet I’d see too much tapping, and not enough teaching.

How can I combat this? 1) We make my lessons “sticky.” That is, make them simple, unexpected, concrete, and rich with stories/anecdotes as good examples. 2) Check for understanding OFTEN. 3) Ask students to teach each other. This helps by A) making sure the “teacher” knows it, and B) making sure the “teacher” is a peer who might know better what makes a lesson sticky for another teenager.

Friday, April 11, 2014

An unease sinking deep into everyone

From an insightful review by George Packer of Iraq War literature:

"The new war literature is intensely interested in the return home. The essential scene of First World War writing is the mass slaughter of the trenches. In the archetypal Vietnam story, a grunt who can never find the enemy walks into physical and moral peril. In much of the writing about Iraq, the moment of truth is a reunion scene at an airport or a military base—families holding signs, troops looking for their loved ones, an unease sinking deep into everyone."

Find the entire article at

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

12 years of choice

"The Art Of Sleeping Alone chronicles Fontanel’s decision to give up sex for 12 years, and also examines other people’s reactions to her self-enforced celibacy."

"There’s a phrase “we made love all night long”. But who wants to make love all night, without sleeping or talking? That’s the sort of thing I deal with, the sort of thing that needs to be talked about. It’s the sort of sexuality that is terrifying for women – and for men, because it’s they who must maintain the erection. When my book came out, a number of men told me they were glad I’d written it, that it was liberating for them too.

Some people assumed she’d given up because she was getting no pleasure from it, which she says wasn’t the case; her dissatisfaction was gradual, not triggered by a single incident, and to do with a failure to find 'the whole package’ – a physical relationship that would live up to her hopes and dreams.

No sex, she concluded, was preferable to bad sex"

Read the article here.

See the book here: The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex

Friday, April 05, 2013

Sports build character

I went with the family to a hockey game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Detroit Red Wings. We were rooting for the home Coyotes.
Red Wings fans packed our section. They were wearing hats and autographed sweaters. When Detroit scored the fist goal, they got smug. 1-0 after one period. The second period was a different story.
The Coyotes came out and scored three goals. 3-1 at the end of the second period.
By the closing minutes of the third period, Detroit fans in front of us were talking loud enough for us to hear, gloating about their team's past achievements, consoling themselves on the imminent loss.
On the way out, a Detroit fan, a grown man, leaned into my daughter's face and shouted "How many Stanley Cups do you have?"
What a douche.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The need to teach extemporaneus speaking

I just heard this sentence on a podcast, and my nose started to bleed. This is from a head writer of a television show. I'm sure he's a very intelligent man. But lord almighty, we teachers need to begin teaching extemporaneous speaking, or even or brightest writers will speak like this:

"Well I think that, uh, mmm, you know, I think that he[his dad], uh, you know, it's, I don't know he, you know, I honestly should ask him about like when, you know, because, when I experience, when I was a kid, he my dad was also, he was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary which is in Pasadena, which is also a very sort of conservative theological, like, but, like, you know, I don't know, well, well-regarded but like cray [?], like fully like you know conservative, but he was the like the professor of like media so he would write like film reviews for Christianity Today."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Cold Blood

Inspired by listening to an online lecture series about Literary Nonfiction, I began reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  It's an amazing book, with many wonderful moments of reporting and description, and I am most floored by its craft. My favorite part so far begins on page 107 of my hardcover edition. The passage is describing Perry and Dick's flight from their crime.

"The car was parked on a promontory where Perry and Dick had stopped to picnic. It was noon. Dick scanned the view through a pair of binoculars. Mountains. Hawks wheeling in a white sky. A dusty road winding into and out of a white and dusty village. Today was his second day in Mexico, and so far he liked it fine--even the food.....
'Know what I think?" said Perry. 'I think there must be something wrong with us. To do what we did.'
'Did what?"
'Out there.'
Dick dropped the binoculars into a leather case.... He was annoyed. Annoyed as hell. Why the hell couldn't Perry shut up?"

From there, Capote takes a few pages to describe Dick's reaction to the conversation. Dick disputes Perry's story about killing a man with a bike chain earlier in his life.

The next subchapter begins, on page 110:

"Mountains. Hawks wheeling in a white sky.
When Perry asked Dick, "Know what I think?' he knew he was beginning a conversation that would displease Dick.."

Notice the repetition of the description, first disorienting us [haven't we heard this before?], then orienting us to Perry's point of view of the same conversation, through which we find out "There was some truth in the story. Perry had known, under the circumstances stated, a Negro named King. But if the man was dead today it was none of Perry's doing; he'd never raised a hand against him. For all he knew, King might still be lying abed somewhere, fanning himself and sipping beer."

The same conversation from two perspectives, connected elegantly and clearly. It's a masterful work.

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Open Letter to "This American Life"

As This American Life often does when it discusses sex in a podcast, it begins with the caveat that the segment might not be appropriate for small children as it “acknowledges the existence of sex.” The warning seems to say: What kind of parent is so protective that he wouldn’t let a child listen to a story that simply acknowledges that sex exists? For instance, let’s say a gay couple got married in my home state of Washington, and that night they had sex. That’s acknowledging that sex exists. I’m OK with that, as I think most parents would be. I think most kids in our public schools already know what sex is, so acknowledging that it exists is not a big deal.

However, a segment in a recent episode does a lot more than that. It acknowledges that there are things called “sex clubs for men”. It acknowledges the existence of anal sex with another man. It acknowledges unsafe sex. It acknowledges that the existence of a “giver” in a homosexual relationship. It acknowledges “sex with an anonymous, casual or internet partner.” It acknowledges sex with someone who injects drugs. It acknowledges the existence of a porno room in which every surface is made of black rubber. This is much more than acknowledging the existence of sex.

If I were being an enlightened parent and letting my child listen to this story, my child might have a lot of uncomfortable questions at the end of this episode. "What is a sex club for men? What is anal sex? What does 'giver' mean? What is porno? Why is every surface covered with rubber?"  I’m not offended by this episode or any of this content. It’s a good story. But this story does a lot more than just acknowledge that sex exists. So drop the smarmy disclaimer ("it acknowledges the existence of sex") in future episodes. Just say it’s inappropriate for kids and leave it at that.
Lately I have been collecting Costanza Moments. I got the name from the Seinfeld episode when George Costanza puts money in the tip jar, only to find the tipee did not see the deposit. George is presented with a conundrum: leave and appear that he did not tip the man, or take the money out when the employee is not looking and put it back again when he IS looking.

Of course, George chooses the second option and is caught, but my interest is in the dilemma itself. That is, those Catch-22 moments where you are put in a position where either option is awkward.

A recent Costanza moment concerns a gift. A friend's daughter recently graduated from high school, and we gave her a card with $50 in it. When the recipient sent a thank you card, she thanked us for coming to her party, and for the card. But there was no mention of the money.

Now, I know she got the money. If she got the card, she got the money. But did she know that it was from us? Did the money go into an undifferentiated pile? Did she think we just gave her a card and no money? If we had given her a check, we could have checked to see if it had been deposited. Alas, we gave her cash.

Do we let it go? If so, she may (MAY) think we skimped and didn't give her a gift. Not the worst thing in the world, but we DID give her a gift, and we want to make sure she knows we gave it to her. We want her to know we are not the kind of people who would just give her a card for graduation. (Again, the inner Costanza shining through--what's wrong with just giving a card? Nothing!)

If we choose to pursue the inquiry further, how do we ask her? Do we message her and ask if she got our $50? Because we KNOW she got it. After all, we know for a fact she DID receive the card, and the money was in the card. So we can't ask if she got the money because we know she did.

Here's how it could go.

"Did you get our $50?"
Option 1:
"Yes, thank you. I sent you a thank you card, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did, but you didn't mention the money."
"Oh, sorry [you petty little people]."
Option 2:
"I'm not sure. It was a pretty big day for me, and I don't really remember. But if you did, thank you very much [you petty little people] and I'm sorry for not acknowledging your gift. I had a lot on my mind that day."
Option 3:
"I don't think so. Did you give me money?"
"Yes we did. $50."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I feel terrible for not acknowledging your gift. [I'm such a jerk] Thank you so much."

Is there any way to make sure she knows we gave her money without appearing like jerks? And really, one of the hallmarks of a Costanza moment is that it doesn't really matter if she knows we gave her the money. That's not the point of giving gifts. But we all have a little Costanza in us, that part of us that frets and can't let things go.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Audition

I auditioned for a commercial today. Well, I didn't actually audition. I went to the audition. I entered the building. When I got to the lobby of the production studio, it was empty. I was asked to sign in. All eight or so people who had signed in before me had filled out their names, their agents (!) and their phone numbers. I was the only one so far who had written "N/A" under agent.

This is where I started to get uncomfortable. Actually, I started to get uncomfortable at home when I popped the top button on my dress shirt trying to loosen it so that my fat neck didn't cause me to lose circulation to my head and, thus, die. I had to wear a tie to this audition, and instead of changing my shirt, I asked my wife to fasten my collar with a safety pin. I felt classy. Then, as I was about to leave, my wife said, "Those pants are short.... But they look fine." Classier still.

After I signed my name, the receptionist asked me to wait downstairs in the kitchen area. When I got to the kitchen, I was surprised to find at least 15 people waiting to audition. (Why weren't all of their names on the sign-in sheet? Was there more than one sign-in sheet?) Even worse, more than half of them were men in ties clearly auditioning for the same part that I was. It was 3:45 and the auditions would be continuing until 9.

I didn't really want to audition. I was asked to come by the casting director, a friend, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I've been in a few commercials and one children's theater play, but I cannot call myself an actor. Not at all. But the others in the room were actors, as could be evidenced by the fact that everybody in the room had headshots with them. Everybody but me. Mr. Safetypin.

It could have been the stress, or it could have been the fact that I hadn't worn a dress shirt and pants in two months, or it could have even been the five or six men clearly more handsome than I am--but the sweat began to pour. I was wiping my forehead at 30 second intervals. I went upstairs, crossed my name off the list, and I left.

I'm not an actor. And I don't know how anybody could be.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Haunting Image

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Are Cheap College Degrees like Gay Marriage?

This article argues that giving scholarships and degrees to athletes who can barely read devalues everyone else's college degrees from that same institution.

While I agree that the practice described is deplorable, my first thought was that the argument is the same as the anti-gay marriage argument: in other words, someone else's degree devalues my degree in the same way that someone else's marriage devalues my marriage (or the institution of marriage).

These are not similar. If I get a degree from UW, and it hits the papers that the athletic department was giving away degrees, my degree actually looks less valuable, and I might be less likely to get into a good grad school or find a good job. Therefore, someone else's degree might actually have a material effect on me.

However, another person's marriage has no material effect on me. Even if I take the Rick Santorum analogy a step further, and say that the slippery slope of marriage will lead to people marrying animals, that outcome will not in any way affect my desire to get married, nor will it affect the quality of my marriage. In fact, while I think gay marriage has no effect on marriage as a whole, bad marriages DO have an effect.

That is, if I love someone and decide I might want to get married, if I survey the landscape and see gay people married, that will not affect my plan to spend the rest of my life with the person I love. However, if I look around and see a sea of shipwrecked marriages, it might make me think twice about getting anchored. And THAT would harm the institution of marriage.

So, I guess my point is, I hope that Congress passes a Constitutional amendment banning bad marriage.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The new marriage

It's amazing how some of these desires have changed. For instance, chastity certainly has dropped as a desired characteristic. Is that the American man beginning to assume or even accept the fact that spouses will stray?

Read the article here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another reason not to eat meat

This article is gross and kind of scary.

"Houseflies...are vectors of what we leave behind, carrying it back to us, as though to say, “Over here! You forgot something…” They are the messenger nobody asked for, bearing the messages nobody wants, whether about the overuse of antibiotics or some other of our failings."

Read the entire article here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Can American education replicate Finland's success?

I was reading an article about why Finland's school system is the envy of the world when I came across a telling paragraph. First, a little background.

Apparently (I haven't seen the movie yet), Waiting for Superman, the documentary about the "failure" of the American education system, holds Finland up as the model for effective education. The statistics tell the story. According to the article, "In 2000, ...a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science." The country's results pay off later too: "Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States."

These numbers are so impressive that Smithsonian Magazine attempted to find out what made the system so great. See if you can figure out why America will never replicate Finland's success:
It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.
That's right. We'll never replicate their success because Finland practices Socialism, and every red-blooded American knows that Socialism doesn't work!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

So let me get this straight...

I'm trying to figure this out. Correct me if I'm wrong.

The reason Congress had so much trouble getting an agreement on the debt ceiling was that Republicans were opposed to raising taxes. Their mantra was, and is, "Don't Raise Taxes."

Now, they are proposing raising taxes on 47% of all Americans.

They can't have it both ways. They are being complete hypocrites. Or am I missing something?