Friday, September 18, 2015

September 15, 2015

Spade strikes ground.

The ground begrudgingly accepts the spade and the sudden jarring stop is the gatekeeper saying, "only so far… and no further".

The minuscule split in the ground stokes a worry in the man on the other end of the shovel.  "This might take a while."  He looks to the dying light in the evening sky.  Anxiety wells up in him but it's a well worn emotion and he knows its power to motivate as well as to sap.  He stokes his determination; "This hole must be dug." He repositions.

Spade strikes ground.

Much the same effect is present but the earth's maw slightly widens and lengthens.  The man is calling forth an insatiable beast.  Leverage is no avail for the roots of the grass and the trees and the bushes live here and wish to keep right on living here but the work is begun and it must be finished.  

A void is required; ALL will be removed; gain via subtraction.

Spade strikes ground.

The man had never really stopped to observe it, but had seen it much of late; all mammals age similarly.  Dogs go grey.  Dogs get stiff.  Dogs grow old.  Dogs die.  

The dog in question was a tiny thing as dogs go, but a credit to his breed.  He was loved by his humans who kept him for 13 long years and tended to him the way a beloved pet ought to be tended to.  He aged from precocious learner, to faithful servant, to constant companion (as constant as the humans' circumstances would allow).  

The natural white of the bands of fur, striking against the black and brindle background, had begun to blur past the sharp distinctions of his youth.  His eyesight was affected, his joints not as spry, and his owners detected a lethargy creeping beneath the will to follow.  Entirely before the humans could even begin to wrestle with these changes and their implications the veterinarian was heard to mutter the label "geriatric" in his presence.  It was a powerful word: it could forgive much.  But the humans thought, he's still our dog, we can still see that spark, we still have time.  

Listen to me: we never have time.

The end was not totally unexpected; at least not as ends can sometimes be.  The waves of shock that shook awake the reckonings of the humans had been jarring at first in their implications: my dog is finite, and now were becoming jarring in their increasing rapidity: wave after wave, the dog is ever more infirm.  

The dog is getting old.  We're all getting old, though.

The end … is nearer than it's ever been before… Oh, THANKS Captain Obvious!

The end … might… be… never mind, he's fine, it's not worth saying.    

Oh my… he's having a LOT of trouble moving… the end might be near.

The man had not been present at the dog's last trip to the veterinarian.  No one knew it would be the last trip.  Similar fears had arisen recently and dark hours had passed; why not again?  There was hope the dog was still the dog; the dog was always the dog.  But the man could not help but notice new symptoms; troubling symptoms, and the man did what the man does, he turned to the Internet for answers because likely wrong answers seemed somehow more comforting (probably not the right word) than only questions.  Neurological damage.  

The vet concurred, "neurological damage". 

The call came.  The time has come.  Do you want to be here.  No.  I could do no good.  I could do no good.

The dog was a Boston Terrier in life, or, if you prefer, the "American Gentleman", or, my favorite, "Ol' Screw-tale Bulldog".  His was a thoroughly American breed, but the man determined that his handling, under these circumstances, would be anything but American in nature.  The humans decided he could not simply be left to be discarded, nor would he be cremated to ease the handling of his remains (probably too fresh was the loss to even think of the venomous word, remains).  He would be handled with love and respect, as the man saw it.  There was one last act of ownership, of service to a long-time companion.  And so:

Spade strikes ground. 

There was something strange about the tiny cardboard coffin.  The elegant penmanship drawn upon to scrawl in felt-tip pen across the top in flowery letters flanked by angels wings the name "Bentley", was well-appreciated by the man.  Not anonymous.  Not just another.  But something troubled the man since seeing the arrangements made by caring veterinarian and staff.  The coffin, narrow at the feet, angled to wide hip, narrowing to shoulders and neck and finally making room for head; was human-shaped; as coffins are.  Curious.

The man's boy, curious of the process, wanted to see Bentley one more time.  "Here he is… he's in this box."  

"Can we see him, I want to see what he looks like."

"No", says the woman.  "No.  Let's not.  I want to remember him as he was."  Explanation accepted, curiosity diverted, child ushered away.

The child is his father's son.  The man wants to see as well.  He lifts the lid but does not see dog, instead a form in a black plastic bag.  Through plastic bag the man can feel the form of his old beloved friend.  Skinny now.  He can feel the ribs he petted so many times.  He gently traces the form of the body, petting through plastic barrier.  Curiosity and need met, he closes the box.

Spade strikes ground.  

(The man is aware that the sound is telling.  It can only be the rhythmic sound of digging.  Recognizable by all.)

Spade strikes ground.

Hole dug, the tiny cardboard coffin is laid within.  The three: grieving man, grieving woman and curious child, begin to shovel back on clumps of dirt.  The dirt bangs against the cardboard top as if banging against a drum.  It is entropy's own drumbeat.

The pounding shakes loose in the man the sense of loss that anxious activity had covered, and with it come tears, the vanguard of a legion of such.  

Moreover, the drumming shakes loose a thought.  A thought the man can't marshall whenever he looks in the mirror and sees the greying streaks of hair on his temple.  A thought when he wonders, where did my little boy go; whence was he replaced by this little man?  The man thinks: I am a mammal.    

Spade strikes ground.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Here's the thing...

I forgive Adam Lanza.

It's seems the ultimate hubris.  In some real way I can't forgive the shooter of 20 innocent children and 6 adults including his mother.  Nevertheless, I do.  Let me tell you how I get the nerve.

Adam Lanza is my enemy.  He is the embodiment of evil and it's none too hard to imagine that he might just have well have killed my beautiful child, or the love of my life; herself a teacher.  There is no language strong enough to tell you how much I abhor what Adam has done, and I feel the HATRED that would swallow us all. 

But I believe that my abhoration for this act of evil; this travesty, is no smaller than the abhoration that God has for all our many sins, as individuals and as a society; and it must be ESPECIALLY acute knowing that he sent his son who SACRIFICED himself for all of us. 

So, the forgiveness that I've received is the forgiveness that I extend. 

It's too late for Adam.  Adam is dead and we must tend to the living and the grieving. It is right and it is just to do so.  It is critical to do so.  It is critical to count what we've lost, what we are still losing day to day, and to think how we can make it better; a little at a time.

But I feel a deep sadness.  I feel the sadness for everyone whom I've ignored and I haven't done everything I could to reach out to.  I'm sad for the suffering, I'm sad for the sick, I'm sad for the downtrodden, the abused, and the used.

We need healing in our society, so let it start with me.  Dear Lord, as you welcome the innocent into heaven and judge the guilty, here is my prayer; forgive me for the selfish times when I've put myself first, and continue to send me occasions in which my actions, my care and my compassion can make a difference.  I want to be last and least.  Let me live for the well-being of others, and in the example of Jesus.  Amen. 

Monday, December 3, 2012


I love GeekandSundry so much and I especially love TableTop.  Episode 4 may be my favorite, but they are all quite good.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Alabama Football!

There are really two University of Alabama's.  The one is the academic institution, the other is the athletic (primarily football) institution.  They share a name, and *perhaps* some funding.  I have a lot of coginitive dissonance and unresolved issues about being both a fan of football and well, you know, a rational human being.

The two so often seem at odds when I reflect back.

Here's what an old friend of mine said on Facebook after Auburn University lost a close one to Clemson and Alabama annihilated Michigan tonight:

"F*** Alabama!"  (The original was not censored.)

Here's what I wanted to say:

"Awe, how are those grapes?   A little sour I guess.  Well, perhaps Auburn could borrow one of our four top-notch running backs.  Nah, on second thought, we're using them ALL."

I managed, instead to say:

"Heh.  Music to my ears."

I should have said, well, nothing at all.

I'm not writing this blog post TO that person.  I think it's best just to let it go; but if they follow the link over here, so be it.  

I felt really bad... feel really bad  about the oaks at Toomer's Corner.  I do.  That was abhorrent behavior; beyond abhorrent.  AND, the cringe inducing (for me, anyway) sign at ESPN College Gameday this morning making fun of the incident was even more abhorant and damning.  I've seen Alabama fans act like fools SO many times.  I grew up on the other side of this argument, as an Auburn fan.  I've been there.  I don't largely like Alabama fans.  But I'm here to tell you that no fan base in the SEC is above reproach even if each one thinks it is.  And, even if one or the other fan bases is "worse" than any other, a claim I find dubious in the extreme, the way that each fan base rationalizes their horrible behavior by pointing to how badly they themselves have been treated self-nullifies the claim of moral superiority.

Hatred is bad people.  Grudges are worse, and worse of all are the grudges for entire institutions and people groups, blindly applied. 

I'm pretty sure football is bad for people.  I'm pretty sure I can't stop loving it.

Cognitive.  Dissonance.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Filling Pails or Lighting Fires

I posted about the issue this blog post is going to address on Facebook already.  Most of the time, when I find a disturbing bit of news on the internet, I can post a few words about it on Facebook and that will somehow satiate my need for people not to be wrong.  Believe me, people are wrong on the internet all the time; it's important to have a pressure valve, especially if you're me and you just really hate people's inability to come to rational rather than knee-jerk conclusions.

Unfortunately, Facebook didn't work as a palliative this time.  The issue has gotten under my skin and I need to "scratch", if you will.  So, I've come here to do it.

The State of Louisiana, under Governor Bobby Jindal, has decided that it's basically going to outsource (probably I should say, privatize) it's education system, at least in part, via the largest school voucher system in America.

Let me start by saying I think you should be able to school your children in the way that seems fit to you.  For one, I believe in competition as a driving force for improvement.  Let me then say, I think it's obvious that you should want to have your children in public school.

Let me explain.  I often go to de Tocqueville because I believe he put it best when he argued that in a democracy, the people get ONLY the government that they deserve.  It's in the best interest of all it citizens that the country's young people, inexorably marching toward voting age, become educated, capable (in academia, the arts, etc.), and most of all, discerning.  (Incidentally, that's also what's best for the children themselves. )  You don't want idiots for citizens because idiots deserve an idiot government.  In short, as goes the education system, and in particular, as goes the public education system, so goes the democracy.

The public education system works best when all of the citizens and their children (such as they have any) are invested co-partners.

Vouchers are harmful to this system, because they lure away capable students, and they draw money away from the public education system itself.  Period.  Full stop.

They are most dreadfully harmful, as is the case with Louisiana, when they are directed away from the public school system, whose goal should always be to produce well-educated, discerning students, to institutions who make no pretence about being anything but driven by this or that demagoguery.  (Incidentally, I understand, better than most readers of this blog, the short-comings of the current public education system; more bogged down and nearly drowning in bureaucratically motivated testing for testings' sake than it is interested in fulfilling it's purpose.  After all, I deal with college freshman every year.  But again, how are vouchers supposed to make the system better?  How is leaving the system, giving up, supposed to make it better?).

Louisiana tax dollars are going to institutions that have bought so called "text books" that are just plain shameful.  This link does a good job of giving you the rundown: here.  How can it be in the best interest of the citizens of Louisiana (or of the Unites States for that matter) for their future citizens to be thus wilfully misinformed?

I'm a Christian.  I understand that, even though I believe that I experience a personal relationship with a living God, their is an inherent element of faith that I must possess in that.  I also understand that that last sentence sounds like utter nonsense to my readers and friends who aren't Christian and who not only think that I don't have a relationship with God, but also that there is no God and that I'm just deluding myself.  I accept that.  I accept it, even as I hope you might one day come around to seeing things my way.  There is room for respect for each others beliefs.  But what there is not is room for the denial of evidence based facts to fit a dogma that is laughably conflated with religion.  It's not what Christians are called to do, and it's not what Christ did.  It's just plain dangerous.  It's dangerous to our very democracy, our very ability to worship (or not) however we choose.

The most common thing you hear about vouchers is when parents say, 'well, I'm glad we live in a free country where I can choose to school my child wherever and however I want.  I like vouchers because it means we won't have to pay for school twice.'

I'm glad we live in a free country too.  I wouldn't think I'd have to say that, but you seem to think I'm against personal liberty somehow.  I'm not.  But, as to the part about vouchers just meaning you won't have to pay twice, wrong.

You don't have any more argument there than would a person who has no children, or one whose children are grown.  You and them and I have something in common.  We're not paying taxes for our children to go to school, we're paying for EVERYONE'S children to go to school, because it's in our best interest that they do.

So, if you want a refund, fine.  The best you could possibly argue for would be to take the pittance of your total taxes that actually goes to education, divide it by the number of children in public school, and then you may have the sad amount that you paid for your own child.  Hardly worth it I'd say.

(As an aside, note that this is very different than what vouchers actually accomplish, where effectively state governments like Louisiana's are subsidising private institutions so that those institutions can lower their tuition costs, effectively outsourcing education whole cloth.)

There's a reason why private school is so expensive.  No one in their right mind who isn't wholly committed to making a real difference for our future society would go into public education as a career.  By in large the teachers who work with our children in the public system are getting used and abused and they know it, and they come to work and do their dead level best anyway.  In my book, that's the first step to sainthood.  How does starving an already under-funded future help?  Not only that, but it's wrong to abuse such a group of people just because despite the enormous amount of lip-service we pay to the need for better education, what we really mean is better education for me and mine alone and I'd really like to spend as much of our money somewhere else as we can. 

So, send your children to private school if you must.  (There's probably a whole other post in me about how for the life of me I don't see the benefit of a non-public education over a public one, but it's late and I'm tired).  I know and like a lot of well meaning people who do just that.  But, if you do I think you're making a mistake; for all of us.  What's more, it shouldn't even be an issue where the government collected taxes ought to rightly go.      

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Of Shakes and Semantics

"What size drink would you like?", is one of those questions to which there is no right answer.  I've long thought that I could easily do with one uniform cup size.  Consider the two situations.  In the first scenario you are staying inside to eat, in which case rare is the establishment that doesn't offer free refills.  After all, you don't expect to be asked what size drink you would like when you go to a "sit-down" establishment (as opposed to "fast food").  In the second scenario you are eating (and drinking) on the run.  In which case, again, who cares how big the cup is.  It's sure to be big enough to contain enough fluid to wash down the food you'll be eating, and regardless of how big the cup is, you're sure to drink until it's empty, and the variation between 16 and 32 oz is a mere 16 measly ounces.  Not enough to be concerned with, especially considering that most of what you'll get is ice anyway.  If you don't stop to psych yourself out, if you don't spend time thinking about it, then the cup size will be absolutely meaningless to you.

But that's just it.  We are forced to think about it.  Why ARE there three (or sometimes four) sizes to choose from.  Am I supposed to worry about value?  I'm paying about a 200% markup for soda regardless.  What does it MEAN to me and to others around me if I choose one size over the other.  How thirsty AM I?  Well, I'm thirsty til I'm not... so...

Effectively, when you're driving, the cup is a distraction.  Additionally, no matter how much drink you have, you will be thirsty again.  So you always have simultaneously too much and too little to drink.  

And the kicker, for me at least, is that when the drive-through speaker blares back at you asking what size drink you would like, the options are meaningless.  What size is "small"?  How does "medium" differ from "small", aside from the obvious.  What's the next size after "medium".  In fact, what even is the WORD for the next size after "medium"?  There's no standardization, not even lexically, much less in terms of actual quantifiability.

People like options.  But cup size is a difference that doesn't make one.  It's variety theatre instead of variety in actuality, and I'd actually rather not be asked what size I'd like.   

I've developed a trick to expedite having to deal with the meaningless decision of deciding on cup size.  It's a trick that leverages the built in ambiguity of semantics. 

"What size drink would you like?'

"I'll have regular."

This almost always works.  What's "regular" you might ask?  Well, occasionally the establishment might actually have a "regular" size, but even if they don't, WHO CARES!?  The employee likely has an idea what "regular" is, and that's perfectly acceptable to me.

But today, at Sonic, the drive through operator, after I told her I wanted "regular" came back with, "We have small, medium, large and route 44 sizes, sir."  Really?  Are THOSE the sizes you have?  Well that's fascinating!  I'll take "regular" please.  But no.  My bluff had been called, and I was forced to make an actual choice.  I went with "medium".

Then, we we get to the window, Tabitha's drink comes through the window first, and it's completely devoid of ice.  When next the window opened, out flung my beverage, and in mid sentence I was cut off with the slamming window as she went to force the next customer to choose a cup size. 

We waited.  When the window opened up we asked for a cup of ice.  The window closed, again.  In the mean time, we noticed I had not been allotted a straw.  The window opened again and out flew another cup.  With an urgency in our request we managed to keep the window from slamming again, barely, before closing without our request being registered.  The look we received... the contempt in the eye-roll... the aggravation with us, the oh-so-troubling customers.  Well, I didn't like it.  Not. At. All. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Value Added

In 2004, Ken Jennings won 75 consecutive matches of T.V.'s Jeopardy quiz show, winning over two and a half million dollars before being bested by another contestant.  Jennings, most recently, was called out of Jeopardy past player's exile in 2011, along with all-time Jeopardy money winner Brad Rutter, to compete against, and summarily be trounced by, an IBM supercomputer called Watson built expressly for the purpose of playing Jeopardy against humans.  

(Incidentally, if you missed out on watching history in the making, or you simply want to learn more about the cutting edge computing and artificial intelligence embodied in Watson, then I highly recommend you watch the following episode of PBS's NOVA: The Smartest Machine on Earth.)

Anyway, when Jennings isn't appearing on T.V. as one of the best Jeopardy players (statistically speaking) of all-time, he's busy parleying his fifteen minutes of trivial fame into a successful career as an author.

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed his first book about (what else) trivia and trivia buffs, entitled Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.  Jennings is a funny and insightful author who writes books that anyone can find enjoyable, even if they tend to be about topics many people wouldn't normally be interested in.

I'm currently reading his second book entitled, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.  The book is about... well, admittedly I could probably better tell you what it's about once I finish it, but generally, it's about the importance of maps, cartography and geography to humanity now and across the ages.

I was reading this book when I came across the following passage, which I'd like to briefly recreate for you here:

Imagine the poor geographer trying to explain to someone at a campus cocktail party (or even to an unsympathetic administrator) exactly what it is he or she studies.

"'Geography' is Greek for 'writing about the Earth.'  We study the Earth"

"Right, like Geologists."

"Well, yes, but we're interested in the whole world, not just the rocky bits. Geographers also study oceans, lakes, the water cycle..."

"So it's like oceanography or hydrology."

"And the atmosphere."

"Meteorology, climatology ..."

"It's broader than just physical geography.  We're also interested in how humans relate to their planet."

"How is that different from ecology or environmental science?"

"Well, it encompasses them.  Aspects of them.  But we also study the social and economic  and cultural and geopolitical sides of --"

"Sociology, economics, cultural studies, poli sci."

"Some geographers specialize in different world regions."

"Ah, right, we have Asian and African and Latin American studies programs here.  But I didn't know they were part of the geography department."

"They're not."

(Long pause.)

"So, uh, what is it you do study, then?"

And... scene.

I think Jennings has hit here, explaining the plight of the poor misunderstood geographer, on an important misconception amongst all of academia that I've been ruminating on for quite a while. In academia, 'what do you study?' is what the Buddhists would call a question wrongly put (vlogbrothers / John Green shout out!).  The disciplines in academia all seek the same thing; to understand how the world (the universe?) works and how that knowledge can inform us and our decisions.

Ken Jennings goes on to say:

(Geography is)... made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place.  Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning -- there are geographers studying all these subjects and aspects of geography taught in all of them.

I think, then, that the question rightly put would be, 'What is the lens through which you have chosen to see the world?'  This is what I want my college students to know, degrees are little more than marketing ploys invented by colleges and universities to entice prospective students; no different from ploys like whitening agents, or mint flavoring in toothpaste.  The power (and saleability and value) of your educational experience is directly proportional to how well you learn to explore questions from far and wide through the lens or lenses associated with your field of study.  Geographers use the lens of place and spatial relation while chemists explore the same fundamental questions through the lens of chemical interactions and computer scientists look through the lens of information theory.   

Computer science students (and software enigneers and M.I.S. professionals) are not primarily valuable because they can write programs, or use computers better than someone self-taught at these things; but because they can help society (and their bosses) better and more deeply understand the complexities (and occasionally the answers to) problems that have nothing inherently to do with math, or programming, or even computers at all.

In academia, there might be room to argue about the power of our respective lenses (a tempting but, I think, dangerous prospect), but there's no room to argue about how well we've carved out our fields or how important our areas of study are, because our true areas of study, thought about complexly, must necessarily completely overlap.