Monday, December 26, 2005

Going for the Gold

Why not go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is? ~Frank Scully

Each weekday morning, for about 20 minutes, I listen to a local sports radio station because it comes into range just as I hit Birmingham's inbound traffic, and I can get the latest wreck report. The traffic reports are encased in a program called “Matt and Jay In The Morning”. The “Jay” of this duo is Jay Barker, former University of Alabama quarterback and career backup NFL quarterback. Jay, who seems to be a very nice person with an excellent radio voice, evidently was trained in the “Robert Siegel Meandering Mouth” school of radio announcing. This school has two fundamental principles. First, even one second's worth of dead air is evil. If you think anyone is going to stop talking, you must fill the gap even if you have to interrupt them. Second, to make your guests and/or co-hosts comfortable, don't tax them by asking simple questions. Ask long, meandering questions then answer the question for them so that all they have to say is “yes” or “no”.
Unfortunately, Jay has the meandering down so well, he can go on for five minutes asking questions, beginning to answer them, starting another question, finishing the answer to the first, starting a third question...well, it's something like this:
“Matt, do think Bronco Studley will decide to become a free agent? It's his option and I think that he certainly-- but if he gets hurt he'll diminish his value, so you might think he would want to take it easy this season-- I don't think he'll do that-- or he could renegotiate but that brings up his agent's role in the recent statements he's made and I don't think a guy should disrupt the clubhouse-- of course the team might not want him back if does that sort of thing so he might be doing it on purpose--. do you think so?”
Thus it was that I was amazed when he managed to tell a funny story about a former teammate the other morning, in order, without embroidery. I was also so entertained by the story, I thought I'd pass it along. You don't have to be a football fan to appreciate this story, just a person who, at one time or another, had a brilliant idea that turned out to have a slight flaw.
The sports show guys were talking about how college players get to bowl games. I always figured they all got into the same charter or commercial flight and arrived together. But, it doesn't work that way because bowl games occur around the holidays, and the players get time to go home, if the schedule allows it. So the players may be given a plane ticket to fly to the game site, or they may be given the cash to buy a ticket, or they may be given a mileage fee, if they choose to drive to the game.
Back in Jay's collegiate days, Alabama was a regular at bowl games, so players got this choice frequently. One year, teammate George Teague thought he had it made. Seems that his parents had moved overseas. George, therefore, figured he would claim mileage money from overseas to the bowl site! One can imagine his eyes alight at the prospect of pulling down 8,000 miles of mileage expense. Unfortunately, the NCAA explained in no uncertain terms that, since he was not driving across the Atlantic Ocean, he could only claim mileage from the airport to the game. George evidently decided that flying into New York and then driving from there just wasn't nearly as worthwhile, so he took the air fare.
You can't blame the guy for trying.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Fallacy of the “Internet Community”

O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand. ~William Penn

Years ago, the folks at Coca Cola, attempting to cash in on the love-peace-flower-power generation of the sixties created a lovely advertisement featuring lovely young people standing on a lovely mountain holding lovely bottles of Coke and singing about buying the world a Coke (thereby putting lots of lovely money in Coca Cola's coffers). The premise of the ad (aside from buy lots of Coke) was that if you could just bring people together, they could see past the differences of their governments and love and peace would rule (sing a fast chorus of “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”, then return to reading).
The ad actually got resurrected recently, but somehow it just didn't seem to have the impact this time around. I think the reason for this is that people are beginning to realize that the premise of the ad may have been a fine concept but was, in reality, hooey. The Internet is teaching us this the hard way.
The 'Net has many faces, but they're pretty familiar when you get right down to it. It's a mailman, the Sears catalog, and a huge magazine rack. Then there's this “Internet community” thing. If one is to believe the pundits, out there in cyberspace is an electronic equivalent of communes with people of like minds just exchanging great ideas and good vibes.
This is more hooey.
What the Internet “communities” are proving is that human beings are essentially anti-social, vulgar, ill-tempered, and xenophobic. It's nice to imagine that people are inherently good, but history, archaeology, and anthropology are showing a different story. Basically, small groups can get along with each other reasonably well, because they have few differences and their goals are pretty much the same. If someone steps out of line, he or she ends up starting their own little group.
Bring a couple of disparate groups together, and one of two things can happen. If the groups are pretty similar, and there are sufficient resources for both groups, they'll probably get together. If the groups are somewhat different or resources aren't adequate to support both, they'll fight with each other. This is caused by a reptilian remnant living in our brains. What curtails our killing strangers every time someone moves into the neighborhood are higher brain functions located in the main grey lumpy section called “morality” or “civilized behavior.”
So what about those Internet communities? Well, the 'Net can allow you to be anonymous. Or, you can at least feel confident that there's physical isolation from the people in the community. Either one of these situations seems to bring out the reptile brain in a lot of the community members. The sort of hate, bigotry, jingoism, and general nastiness that we see on the news each day gets manifested in forums, chat rooms, and web sites. Someone who hates the French is not only not going to understand them any better because a French person posts on Slashdot, but they will also take the occasion to respond to the “debate” in a manner every bit as vituperative and illogical as any racist argument in favor of the supremacy or inferiority of an ethnic group.
Now, if you're waiting for the punchline, whereby I magically solve the problem of humanity's inhumanity to itself, you're going to be disappointed. Well, probably not all that disappointed, because after all, it isn't costing you anything to read this. If you were paying for the privilege, now that would be a reason to be disappointed ... and probably really ticked off. Of course, if you were paying for this, then I have to resort to proofreading, researching, and actually attempting to write good stuff. So it's just as well, then, for everyone concerned.
Moving right along...
Since you're not paying, calm yourself. While I certainly don't have a magic solution, I do know one thing. We're going to have to stop expecting Coca Cola, the Internet, the media, or any other deus ex machina (look it up) to come and save us from ourselves.
It's our reptile, and it's up to each one of use to tame it.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Stupidity: Nurture Division

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former. ~Albert Einstein

I have learned that, in order to actually maintain a blog with some semblance of regular posting, I have to prepare pieces when I think of something. If I sit down to specifically post a blog entry, my brain cramps up. Of course, the occasional reader of these contributions to the blogosphere might be convinced that brain cramping is a normal condition in my case, but no matter. The point is that I have a few posts “in the can” (quit snickering) so that I can maintain my semi-regular posting schedule.

All of that is lengthy preamble to my explanation that, having prepared my article about teaching, the instructor who inspired the article was felled by some stranger’s stupidity. By the time you read this, hopefully she will be healed up.

What happened is this: After our first class, our instructor, Lisa, went to a burger joint to have dinner. While she was there, a woman came in with four children in tow, one of whom was a two-year old who was just over the flu – or so this “good” mother thought. The reason Lisa knew all this is that the mother told her after the kid threw up all over Lisa. Better late than never, I guess.

Despite rushing back to her hotel, burning her clothes, showering at lobster-cooking temperatures with anti-bacterial astringents, in short doing everything short of drinking a bottle of Lysol, by 5 AM the next morning, Lisa was violently ill. So the class which had gotten off to such a great start had to be postponed for a month until a) she got better, and b) the facility would have a room available.

By the way, according to Lisa, you get much better service at those doc-in-a-box establishments if you puke in the waiting room. Not for the faint of heart, but you must admit it would have to be an effective way to get by Attila the Nurse at the reception desk.

Back to Typhoid Mother, though. My wife and I have raised a couple of kids. I have watched them go through fevers, sniffles, flu, chicken pox, measles, and various other forms of galloping crud. My wife handled these expertly, particularly the intestinal problems. She brought out the 7-Up, Jello water, saltines, and various other very light comestibles that had a reasonable chance of staying down. If they didn’t, they were mild enough not to be too horrific coming back up.

(Times change. My mother’s solution, which worked quite well, was garlic toast and hot, hot tea, accompanied by that staple of European health care, home made chicken soup. Upset stomachs never lasted long around my house.)

But, above all, Faye’s Rule One was that, just because the kid appears to be feeling better, you should not let your guard down. Kids live in the moment. If they’re not vomiting, coughing, or bleeding, kids tend to think everything is all right now. In the next moment, they’re candidates for the emergency room. Tough business being a parent.

Most assuredly, just because the kid gets through a meal, you don’t take them out to the grease burger joint and feed ‘em french fries. Believe me when I say that I have nothing against grease burgers. In fact, I can offer reasonably expert opinions on the best greasy burgers in Birmingham. But even a glutton like myself would not presume to have one right after recovering from stomach flu.

So what kind of noodle-brain was this woman anyway? Was she trying to convince the kid that she was okay? Was she trying to convince herself? Or was she trying to see how many people she could infect with the kids germs? I really don’t think that this woman was evil or abusive to her children. From all reports, the other three seemed happy and healthy. Of course, in her care, how long they’ll be healthy is an open question. Because basically, this woman is stupid.

With people like this around, I keep wondering how the world ever got populated with billions of people. If she doesn’t put her own kids in the hospital, she’ll put a few dozen other people in intensive care with cramps, nausea, and bazooka-barfing. In the Neolithic, the tribe would have sent her away to be eaten by wolves before she could do any more harm. Today, she’s a soccer mom. (NOTE: Not all soccer moms are stupid, and not all stupid people are soccer moms. The preceding was inserted for humorous effect. Don’t shoot the blogger. Besides the image of wolves chasing a Neolithic soccer mom is kind of funny all by itself.)

Every day, I see ads for wonder drugs (that will kill you, if you’re unlucky, but they’re still wonderful) and hear of miraculous new cures for diseases I never heard of. They’ve got shots to prevent small pox, polio, measles, and facial wrinkles. But everyone is worried about the coming plague, the one that will ravage mankind and destroy civilization as we know it. Supposedly scientists are constantly searching for a way to prevent this coming catastrophe, but I’m not confident they’re on the right track.

I haven’t heard a single report of anyone working on a vaccine to prevent terminal stupidity.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Fun of Learning Stuff

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. ~Martin H. Fischer

I’m taking a class about database administration, which may seem as exciting as watching paint dry, but actually I’m enjoying it, for a number of reasons.

First, the location is unbelievable. It’s not someplace exotic (unless one considers Birmingham, Alabama, exotic, in which case I’ve got some swampland in my back yard I’d like to talk to you about), but it’s being held at a local company that has a fabulous facility. It’s not so much the training facilities, which are quite good, as the setting. This company is on top of a mountain. The view from the cafeteria is breathtaking. The facility itself is blended into the rocky landscape, surrounded by trees and immense boulders. I took a walk around the building on a flagstone path that encircles it most of the way and felt like I was out in the forest primeval. I thought Evangeline might come around the other corner at any time.

Second, I wanted to take the course. Over the many years I’ve been getting educated, I’ve probably wanted to take less than half the courses I had to. I realize that to take some of the good stuff, you’ve got to take some unpleasant stuff. For example, if you’re going to read and write intelligently, you’ve got to suffer through vocabulary and grammar classes. It ‘s just nice to get the reward for taking the dull stuff once in a while.

Third, the course is being taught by a good teacher. Now that’s a killer combination for learning. Location, desire, and good instruction doesn’t come together very often.

All of this gets me to thinking about what makes a good teacher. I ought to have some idea, having taught some professional courses in the past and getting good student reviews in the process. But, what success I had was in emulating certain traits of teachers I admired. Somehow, these teachers always got even the troublesome students to at least be less troublesome; sometimes, they even managed to get them interested, which is no mean feat when you consider just how dead-set some people are not to learn anything.

At any rate, for what little it’s worth, here are the traits I think are important to being a great teacher.

Passion and enthusiasm: If the teacher is excited about his subject, some of it will rub off in spite of even the most recalcitrant student’s resistance. I really don’t’ much care for poetry, but I had an English teacher in high school who could make you feel the sense of the verse. He wasn’t a particularly good reader; in fact, his Boston accent (how he ever got to Ohio, I’ll never know) was downright distracting at times. But somehow, he got the message through.

Imagination: Some teachers just have the knack. Whether it’s though a vivid example or a clever project, they make the subject more alive. One of my physics professors in college had a gift for pantomime. To demonstrate potential energy, he pretended to squash an immense spring against the wall. He said releasing the spring would release its kinetic energy, then jumped back as if letting the spring go. Everyone in the room ducked. Believe me, the entire class grasped the difference between potential and kinetic energy.

Expertise (and the willingness to find out): We like to think the teacher knows the subject very, very well. But, what’s even more impressive is the teacher that admits she doesn’t know but promises to find out. What’s even better is when she brings her own new learning back to the class. Too many teachers are forced into teaching subjects which is not in their field, due to shortages or scheduling issues. The good ones do the best they can to get up to speed and keep getting up to speed as the course goes on. The bad ones just read the book and let you founder. What’s worse, the bad ones give bad tests because they don’t understand the material well enough to design intelligent questions.

The worst teacher I ever had was a Library Sciences major who was forced to teach a Microeconomics course. Now, Micro is a tough subject which I had previously taken at another school, so I was familiar with it. She wasn’t, and it showed. Just to make sure, though, she told everyone she didn’t know anything about it and really didn’t want to be teaching it, but they had no one else.

Having failed two of the three criteria, she decided to go for Imagination when she gave her mid-term. I don’t recall how many questions there were, but virtually all of them would qualify as trick questions (supply-and-demand curves with only one point, that sort of thing). Being that I’d had the material before, I could spot the tricks and finished the exam very quickly. The rest of the class went down in flames. Soon after that, I moved to a new job, so I didn’t finish the course, but I always wondered if any of my former classmates ever carried through with some of their threats.

I doubt they did; burning at the stake was never very big in Ohio.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Ford's Folly

You can be sincere and still be stupid. ~Charles F. Kettering

My son came into my den the other day to ask me if I realized that there was a member of the Ford family named "Edsel". Sure, I said. Why not? Steph exclaimed, "They named someone after that car that was such a flop?" Given that my son is 32, that was a reminder of how old I am in that I recall that it was the car that was originally named after a member of the Ford family, not the other way around.

I have always been easily moved to reminiscence, and mention of the one-time costliest business disaster in U.S. history is just the sort of thing to get me to recall intriguing trivia, like how the Edsel got its name. It's a fitting topic at a time when GM is laying off 30,000, Delphi is laying off 24,000 (and a merry christmas to all you automotive workers), and all three U.S. auto makers seem to be totally unprepared to offer the public the fuel-efficient cars they actually want.

[Aside] The auto makers have been bragging how fast they can bring out new models. Now might be a good time to prove it.

However, let us get into the Wayback Machine (patent pending) and go back to the mid-1950's when the auto makers could do no wrong, car sales were through the roof, and truly if they built it, the buyers would come. Ford was about to burst that bubble.
[NOTE: My memory isn't that good. I owe much of this reminiscence to a book by John Brooks called Business Adventures, published by Weybright and Talley in 1969. It's a very entertaining book that also has chapters on Xerox, GE, and Piggly Wiggly to show how far it ranges.]

Ford had a problem, despite all the happiness in the auto industry. GM had an ownership progression. A guy might start out with a Chevy, move up to a Buick or Oldsmobile as he got more successful, then graduate to a Cadillac in his mature and presumably wealthy years. Similarly, Chrysler owners could start with a Dodge, move up to a New Yorker, then cruise along in an Imperial (although they didn't; Cadillac mopped the market floor with Imperial). With Ford, there was the basic Ford then a quantum leap to the Lincoln. They tried to make Mercury an intermediate link in the chain, but somehow the Merc became the young man's hot rod, from which he moved to a Ford. When he got outgrew that, the natural step was to Olds, because Ford didn't have anything in that range.

Thus was born the E-car ("E" stood for experimental, supposedly). The E-car would have models that would fill the gap from Ford to Lincoln. It would be a wonderous engineering triumph that would lure drivers from GM and Chrysler in droves. But, as engineering progressed and release time came near, it needed a name.

Ford executives, for some reason, wished to call the car "Edsel" after the only son of Henry Ford, who had died in 1943. Edsel's sons, though, were staunchly against it because they felt their father "might not have cared to have his name spinning on a million hubcaps." For all of you too young to know, hubcaps came before wheel covers. They were solid, kept crud out of your brakes, kept your lugnuts from rusting solid, and frequently had a logo on them. What a concept! At any rate, the marketing gang, led by one David Wallace were back to square one. And time was a wasting. His first take, based on the advice of one his junior assistants, was to come up with gems like -- and this straight from Brooks' book -- "Utopian Turtletop", "Pastelogram", or, for the musically incline drivers, "Andante con molto."

So the marketoids started evaluating these and many other names. Much of the evaluation was done through endless flipchart sessions. The names were written on giant tablets. An audience then sat while someone flipped through them, seemingly for hours on end. They were then quizzed on which ones made an impression. At one such mind-numbing session, according to Brooks,"somebody suddenly called a halt to the card-flipping and asked, in an incredulous tone, 'Didn't I see "Buick" go by two or three cards back?' Everybody looked at Wallace, the impressario of the sessions. He puffed on his pipe, smiled an academic smile, and nodded."

Despite such birlliant methods, the sessions were fruitless. So Ford execs called on Foote, Cone & Belding, a major Madison Avenue advertising firm to come up with names. And so they did. They delivered a massive printout with 6,000 names on it!

Believe it or not, Ford execs were not pleased. This demanding group thought that paying thousands of 1950's dollars ought to result in some culling. Sent back to their drawing boards, the agency came up with a culled list of four names: Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger. Hearing these, Ford execs, called up Henry Ford II (who was on vacation), and said, essentially (but probably more politically correctly) all the names we have suck. Please let us call the car Edsel! After talking to other family members, Henry II acquiesced. (In other versions of this story, the family was not informed until the press conference was called, thus making it too late for them to do anything about it. Personally, that sounds more like the thing executives would do, but who am I to argue with John Brooks.)

The rest, as they say, is history. The design process went much as the naming process. The car ended up taking too long to get to market, arriving at the start of a recession. It was also the wrong car for the market. It seems that there were few drivers looking for an overweight, ugly, and mechanically unreliable car. I'm not sure there's ever been a right time for that sort of car, but evidently Ford thought there might have been so they went ahead and released it anyway. As Brooks put it, "... in a way, the Edsel wasn't so bad. It embodied much of the spirit of its time -- or at least of the time when it was designed, early in 1955. It was clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well-meaning..."

So was Tugboat Annie, but I wouldn't have wanted to date her.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

One Last Word on Fishing

Nothing makes a fish bigger than almost being caught. ~Author Unknown

I've explained the reasons I quit fishing, but I must admit that I still have the occasional hankering, because, when the skiers were still asleep, the tournaments were elsewhere, and the boat worked right, fishing was just plain fun.

I liked fishing alone because it allowed for contemplation, revitalization, and the opportunity to lie like a rug about the size of the fish I caught (or almost caught). Besides, having a good fishing partner can make the experience even more fun. When I lived in Virginia, I used to fish fairly regularly with two gentlemen who, while both good fishing companions, were as different as night and day.

The first was a serious, extremely knowledgeable fisherman who taught me most of what I know about fishing and all of what I know about boats. Despite being dedicated to catching big largemouth bass, he had a sense of humor coupled with an "aw-shucks" sort of personality that made him easy to like. This is "Moon" who I introduced in an earlier piece.

I have expressed my opinion about tournament fishing, but I have to admit to having fished in some myself. Moon and I, in fact, partnered in a couple of actual real-money prize tournaments, and actually won one of them. The bass tournament in question was sponsored by a beer company and winning got us $800 and a small boat (which we sold), so this was cool. The reason we won is that Moon is one heckuva fisherman.

We caught 29 lbs. of bass, winning by 2 lbs. Our company newsletter writer, always desperate for material, asked Moon about how we won it. Ol' Moon waxed eloquent about how "we" caught all these fish. Well, the truth must out. Yes, "we" caught all those bass. Moon caught over 20 lbs. of them, and I caught the rest (frankly 9 lbs. was a pretty good day for me). When I saw him, I asked Moon why he was being so modest. He said, "Look, my catch would have been good for fifth place. You caught the margin of victory! We couldn't have won it without you!"

They don't make many people like that anymore.

The other fellow was Hal, who felt he was an outdoorsman in the mold of Daniel Boone. Unfortunately, he was more an outdoorsman in the mold of Pat Boone. His greatest claim to fame was a constant stream of stories about catching huge bass, shooting monster bucks, and killing b'ars on such and such a tree. These things were always done without witnesses about, or at least none that could be contacted for verification.

Hal bought a boat that he ended up calling the Hesperus, as in "The Wreck of the". For $1500, he bought a boat that had apparently been used as a PT boat in Korea, based on its scars. It was an inboard-outboard. It is a bad sign when the "outboard" portion is resting on the floor of the boat. Despite this, Hal was sure he had a purchased a gem, that just needed a little work. He put $2000 into repairing it, which is not my definitions of "a little work." . After the repairs, he had a boat which had its transmission reversed (throttle forward, boat backward; not a good thing). He got that corrected, only to have the alternator fall off while cruising along, which would have seemed funny if I had not been along with him on that occasion. After that I declined the pleasure of his craft. He found that there had been some badly patched spots in the hull, which had only showed themselves as the trapped water froze over the winter and cracked the fibreglass. That little revelation cost him another thou or so.

He sold the boat for $1700 and considered himself lucky.

Hal's constant storytelling could get annoying sometimes, because he always tried to "one-up" any story he heard. We were driving to a lake one day, and I was telling some fish stories, some about me and some about other folks. After each one, Hal had to say how he had had a similar experience only his fish was bigger, or the storm he was in was worse, and so on. Finally, I got exasperated.

"Hal," I said, "If I told you I went to Canada and shot a blue moose, you'd tell me you got one with polka dots and had to eat it on the way out!"

He looked at me very seriously and said, "Yes. Yes, I would."

You just can't get mad at such an honest liar.