Monthly Archives: February 2011

Everybody’s right, everybody’s wrong

The truth, it is said, is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and reality – and it cuts in all directions.

Lately the education system is in the news a lot. Specifically, Wisconsin and its government’s moves to reduce (or on the other side, protect) the power of the teacher’s unions is currently on display. And everyone is watching.

Most people (especially the politicians) are trying to simplify the argument.

  • Teacher benefits are out of control
  • Teachers are underpaid
  • Teachers are not achieving acceptable results from the students
  • Teachers are being evaluated against specious measures over which they have no control
  • My taxes are too high
  • Okay, nobody really argues that taxes are too low. But they want to raise them anyway.

Everything above is true.

Teacher benefits are pretty freakin’ good. As a corporate employee, I, for example, get a heck of a lot less vacation and put a heck of a lot more of my own pay into retirement and health care than teachers do. If I’m being honest, that bothers me and seems unfair. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that teachers are by and large underpaid. I have a degree in education and completed my student teaching time, which gives me a small insight into the true amount of work that goes into a successful teaching day – and I know that practically speaking I really was only exposed to the minimum of that reality. Even putting aside the time commitment, teachers are highly functional knowledge-workers – those who in the corporate sector command more pay, typically – and they’re generally not paid at that level. There’s plenty more that could go into that argument, as I’m not even touching on the variety of non-core-education related tasks that teachers are required to perform, but I’ll leave it for now.

Teachers aren’t getting great results. It’s true. A lot of students are getting through the system ill-prepared for their life outside of school. Low test scores abound in the US. Nobody can deny that. Is that the teachers’ faults? Yes and no. Some of it is. Some teachers let kids get through without having learned the skills they need to progress. There are bad teachers out there. But there are also teachers out there who are hamstrung by the situation in which they find themselves – and I’d venture to say that’s a larger percentage than the bad ones. The majority of the problem is unsupportive parents who don’t take their part in the education of their children seriously – but we can’t do anything to them, or even evaluate them. Public schools can’t say “if you’re not willing to play your part, we won’t take you as a client.” The same can be said of some of the kids; they just don’t want to put in the work. No matter how much the teachers encourage, cajole, or punish a student (and their options to do any of those are limited anyway) there are students who won’t do the work. But it’s the teachers who are held accountable when that happens, not the students, in many cases. If a teacher flunks a student, whether she deserves it or not, the teacher is closely evaluated on that decision, and sometimes overridden. I had that exact scenario happen to me as a student teacher. I flunked two students on a major paper that was a large part of their grade because they didn’t do the work – it was late, it was poorly written, and it didn’t follow the instructions, even on a superficial level – and yet my supervising teacher upgraded them to a D – not because they deserved it, but because flunking them would keep them from graduating in a few weeks, and it was obvious to me that that decision was based on a lifetime of administrative pressures on his shoulders, not because of his instincts as a teacher.

That’s admittedly anecdotal, but I think exemplifies some of the problem. Then there is also the fact that student test scores are a poor way to measure teacher results anyway. There may be correlation (not causation) in low test scores, however they cannot be used as the sole measure of a teacher. Too many other factors can contribute to failures, including the tests themselves.

“My taxes are too high.” No kidding. I’d love to lower my taxes. Heck, I’d be satisfied if my taxes would just stop rising. I’d also like it if groceries and gas would stop getting more expensive. I have serious doubts that any of those things are going to happen, however. This is the world. Economics is a harsh mistress. For things to get less expensive, the systems that support them have to get more efficient or change completely. For that to happen, disruption of the current system has to happen. People don’t like disruption. Somebody is always on the short end of the stick.

There is no perfect answer. There is no simple solution. All we can do is try to work together within the law to fix the problems. Sometimes it will work in your favor, sometimes it won’t. This time (assuming the Wisconsin Democrats return and do their jobs instead of petulantly taking their ball and going home) it looks like the Wisconsin teachers may end up taking a hit. That hurts, and it’s not fun, and it’s regrettable that it has to be that way, but that’s the way it is. It is then up to the teachers whether they want to continue in their current jobs or get other jobs – the same decision I and many others had to make as our employers froze our wages, decreased or eliminated their contributions to our retirement and health care plans, closed locations, or implemented any other number of cost-cutting measures over the last few years.

Everybody’s right; there is a real problem with education and the payment and evaluation of our teaching staff. And everybody’s wrong; there is no simple way to fix it that doesn’t involve somebody – possibly everybody – getting shafted one way or another, and we’re ALL part of the problem because no one wants to give up what they have.

Valentines Day!

Generally speaking, women are nuts for Valentines Day. Generally speaking, men don’t get it. We participate, frequently against our will, but we don’t really get it.

Why is there a specific day when everyone in the world is supposed to buy flowers/chocolate/some other extravagant gift for women? Do they deserve these things? Absolutely. Women (just like men) deserve to feel special and wanted. But why turn it into a commercial event?

That question answers itself, actually. It is a commercial, money-generating event. Huge amounts of cash are spent on this “Hallmark holiday.” Check out this infographic:

Cost of Valentines Day Infographic

$13 Billion. Billion. With a B.

That’s a lot of coerced love.

Some interesting things from that graphic:

Men spend twice as much as women. Is this surprising? No. Men are still typically the primary money-makers and therefore are statistically more likely to spend than women. But this also speaks to a culture of entitlement this “holiday” is inculcating in women. If men don’t buy something for the women in their lives, there will frequently be trouble, and they know it (thankfully, this isn’t the case with my wife, and I truly appreciate that (and yes, I did get her something)).

15% of women send themselves flowers. That surprised me. It’s sad, really. Women even feel the need to give themselves gifts on this holiday – I presume to maintain their self-esteem. That speaks to the huge amount of pressure culture places on women, especially in relation to this day. It’s unfair, and annoying, to say the least.

Well, I’ve said just about enough to get me in trouble with the female readership here, but perhaps that last bit will buy me some good will, so it’s about time for me to shut up.

Commercial goodness

So on Sunday there was this huge block of mostly new commercials, periodically interrupted by some guys running back and forth on a field and knocking each other over for no really good reason.

This is a time when companies throw huge amounts of money at making their best commercials. Every one I’ve talked to, and every poll I’ve seen has this Volkswagon ad as the clear winner for best commercial of the night. I agree. This thing is great. So predictable, but so well played and cute you gotta love it.

Seriously, give that kid credit for selling that. It wouldn’t have worked if he had underacted. Here’s a bit on him from the “Today” show.

That wasn’t the only cool commercial, obviously. Here are my picks for the rest of the top 5.

What were your favorites?

The most awesome thing to come out of India – ever

Like The Matrix, you cannot be told what this is. Words cannot describe it. It must be experienced. You must immerse yourself in it to feel the awesomeness.

Soak it in:

Seriously, this is one of the most inventive things I’ve seen in action movies in a long time. Hats off to the creators. Total, unabashed cheese that somehow transcends itself and becomes a beacon of awesomeness. Even with out understanding anything they’re saying, I can actually follow what’s going on, too. With the visuals that’s completely unnecessary in order to appreciate it, but it is a nice bonus.

This is what the SyFy channel should be doing with its movie dollars.

Miracles DO happen!

Last week I showed you something embarrassing: my desk.

messy desk

My "Workstation"

I promised that I would show you a clean desk by Tuesday. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would happen. I have a less than stellar record when it comes to cleaning. But I knew it had to be done, and I wanted to pressure myself into completing it.

Through the 4-hour effort, here are some of the things I found:

  • Bills and statements from 2008.
  • CDs, DVDs, and computer games I had lost track of.
  • Lots of drawings from my kids.
  • Mechanical pencil sets I had since replaced.
  • Expired coupons.
  • About a foot of dust.
  • Jimmy Hoffa.

Okay, just kidding about that last one. I’m not kidding about the dust, though. There were times that moving papers from the back of the desk to the trash bag disturbed enough dust that I thought it might be a good idea to get a mask.

Here’s how it looks now:

My clean desk

Clean desk

Quite a difference! Many thanks to my wife for helping out. I’m hoping to keep it at least to close to this level of clean for at least a month. I’d like to go longer than that, but let’s not go crazy. One month would be a record as it is.

Even if it does get more cluttered, I really am going to try very hard not to let it get as bad as it was.

Peer into the mists of the future – 7 day challenge

This is it, the final day of the 7 day challenge! Today’s topic is: Share hints or details of what I intend to write about in the future.

Well, let’s peer into my crystal ball and see what fate awaits us…

Anybody know how to turn this thing on? All I’m seeing is my reflection.

Wait, wait… I’m getting something… it looks like… yeah, it’s… oh, crap it’s just re-runs of “What’s Happening Now?!”

I knew I shouldn’t have gotten this thing from Craig’s List.

Okay, well, then I guess I’ll have to think about it for a second.

Hold on, hold on… I’m thinking…

Okay, I got a few ideas.

First and foremost, I’ll be writing about whatever strikes me at the time. I have no real plan, which should shock no one. I do however, have some things I’m thinking about trying. I would sincerely appreciate your thoughts about these ideas in the comments.

Back on the first day of this challenge I mentioned I was looking for a fun outlet for my creative side. These are some of the things I’m considering:

  • Writing a story (fiction) “live” on the blog, where each entry would be a short chapter. Can’t promise it would be good, but I think it would be fun (hopefully for both you and me).
  • The same as above, except I’d allow you to choose the direction the story would take. Note: that would require you to participate.
  • I’ve been playing with a recording of me singing 4 part harmony with myself. Not sure if I’ll finish it, or if I’ll do others, but possibly posting what I’ve gotten done.
  • A podcast. Preferably with someone else – possibly even my wife, who surprisingly didn’t run screaming from the room when I mentioned the idea before.

I might try to pull some more technology related posts together. I’ve gotten away from that and kind of miss it. Other than that, though, I’m not really sure where I want to focus the topics. I’m kind of in a place now where nothing is really catching my interest all that much, which is a bit annoying. I imagine entertainment commentary is always going to hold a spot here, but not sure what form that will take.

Back to the bullets above for a second… I’m not promising to actually do any of those things. They’re just ideas. Some of them I’ve been considering for a long time. A LONG time. As much as I think they would be fun, they also make me nervous. Some of them are things that I could end up being too invested in, and I’m not sure I’d be as open to comment on them as I should be to release them in an open forum like this.

That said, I’d love to know if you have any interest at all in any of that. And for that matter, is there anything I haven’t mentioned that you be interested in hearing from me?

Finally, since this is the last day, I’d like to thank Andrew for coming up with this challenge. It really has been motivational for me and I appreciate the thought that went into its creation.

(This is specifically for Paul: one thing I keep saying I’m going to put up is that practical joke. I just looked for it earlier this week, and I can’t find it. I’ll keep looking because I can’t believe I got rid of it, but it’s not where I thought it would be. Sorry. I have a sinking feeling it’s on a 3.5″ floppy somewhere.)

By the way, did I mention there’s a comment section down below where you can provide me with some feedback? Okay, just checking. Thanks.

Plastic People – 7 day challenge

In the 7 day challenge, today’s topic is: Create a blog post on a subject I’ve never blogged about here before.

Maybe this one is cheating. I don’t know. It depends on how you define the subject of this post. I’m choosing to look at it as either about self-worth or “What Not to Wear” – neither of which I’ve touched on before to my knowledge.

Yes, “What Not to Wear.” I’ve watched it. Shut up. Don’t judge me, man.

I usually only half-watch it while my wife has it on. She really likes the hair and make-up sections. Every once in a while something funny happens, so it manages to keep my interest from time to time.

Anyway… last night’s episode took the cake. Actually it looked like the woman on the show took the cake, spread all the icing all over herself, absorbed all the fake sweetness, and presented her “super-cute” self to the world.

For about 5 seconds it was funny.

Then I realized that this was really her. This was how she lived her life. It was amazingly sad, actually, and rather painful. Watch this clip (I wish I could find a better version):

Yeah, see it’s kind of funny when you first watch it. But that’s her goal. She wants you to laugh so you can’t see how scared she is. Watch it again. But listen to her. She’s telling the truth, I think. She doesn’t “know who she is.” The point is made at other times of the show that she’s wearing costumes to keep from living in the real world. Her entire persona is carefully created to shield herself from reality. Look at the way she’s holding her lips. She does that every single second of her life. She’s not just playing around. She even speaks with a huge, conscious affectation.

She is self-aware in this. She’s aware that she’s a caricature of a person – as Clinton says at one point, she’s in on the joke, even as she is the joke. She just isn’t able to admit that, though you can see it in her eyes when he says it. What does she do when she’s alone, without the makeup or hair extensions, with no one to perform for? Does she go so far as to perform for herself? Does she try to fool herself as well?

I hope it’s clear that my goal here is not to make fun of her. I really, honestly feel bad for her. There’s a real person in there somewhere terrified to come out.

To some extent, though, we all do this. Billy Joel even wrote a song (and won a Grammy) about it back in the ’70s. “We all have a face that we hide away forever, and we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.” We all have masks that we wear: different faces we show to different people. When the faces become this literal, though, and figuratively transparent, it’s a whole different ball game.

I’ve met a couple people like that before in real life, though no one quite that far advanced into becoming a cartoon. It’s a surreal experience. They can be very intelligent, really – every once in a while something slips through that shows that – but they’re all damaged by their past in some way that allowing people to get to know the real person is something they both desperately want and can’t allow to happen.

It’s just incredibly sad. I wish she found someone to give her therapy instead of fashion advice.

Telling Time – 7 day challenge

In the 7 day challenge, today’s topic is: Embed a legal youtube clip that I either found today or created myself. Then tell everyone about the clip and related information.

I considered a bunch of different options for today’s post. One was a video of some birds eating berries in the snow in my backyard, but they flew away by the time I got the camera. Probably for the best, though. It would have looked nice, but been boring.

Another idea was to create a video of my wife and I discussing a topic, but I couldn’t come down on which topic and I’m not sure I could have convinced her to do it, honestly.

A few other ideas flitted through my brain, but while I was working yesterday my wife rediscovered a video from a few years ago that we took of the girls one night soon after they had gotten watches. They were constantly telling us what time it was for a while.

The result this time was a bit unexpected.

Can you tell which of the kids is the comedian?

(hey, by the way, remember back on the first day of this challenge, when I said I wasn’t going to pay attention to the 300-400 words requirement? This is me, being rebellious. I’m living right there on the edge. I’m not even going to include filler text or nothing. Nope. No filler text here. You won’t see it, so don’t even look for it. Were I to include it, it might be right around this point in the post, but as I said, I’m not going to bother putting filler text in here. Because, what would be the point, really? Does it add to the discussion? I say no. You may of course feel free to disagree, but I stand my ground on this one. Nope. No filler text will be included.)

What I see every day – 7 day challenge

In the 7 day challenge, today’s topic is: Share a photo I took this week and tell you about it.

This is actually getting out of hand. It’s a little embarrassing.

messy desk

My "Workstation"

This is where I sit all day. You can only see the front portion of the desk here. The half of the desk behind the screens is almost as cluttered.

I’ve always had a messy desk. Always. Just ask my college roommate (or my parents). He was constantly amazed that I could find anything on my desk, but I always could, usually in seconds, even if it was under another pile of stuff. I lived the adage that a cluttered desk was the sign of an ordered mind.

At some point, however, I have to admit that it’s gone too far. I’m at that point now. Not only are things getting lost in the piles, the piles themselves are precarious. If I go looking for something I have to be careful not to knock another pile over – which is hard because some of them are now overlapping, which itself is an indication that my “filing system” is degenerating.

It’s hard for me to take notes on paper (luckily I take most notes electronically) because there’s no room to put a pad down to write. Heck, there’s just enough room next to each keyboard to move the mouse around (barely). Finding room to stand that phone handset on the desk is sometimes a challenge.

The junk on the desk is also dictating the position of the keyboard and laptop, which in turn dictates where I sit to work. At this point, that’s with my knees up against the drawers, which is causing me to twist and sit in weird ways, which is aggravating my back problems.

Any normal person would by now have cleaned this up and would be living a normal life. Not me. I keep putting it off for some unknown reason. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it – something I hate to admit. It makes me feel busy and important to have this stuff around, even though it’s got nothing to do with that (and I know it).

So here’s what I’ve done: I’ve put this picture here on my blog. I’ve explained the situation, embarrassing though it is. And I’m making a promise. By this time next week, I’ll have this cleaned up. Hopefully my wife will help, ’cause honestly it feels kind of daunting at the moment (and I know she wants it cleaned even more than I do, but she’s letting me “run” this room). Who knows, it may even be sooner, but by next Tuesday night definitely it will be clean. If there’s no picture of the clean desk on this blog by Wednesday morning I want somebody to call me on it. Please.