Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Reading Log - Lewis Is Wonderful Tonight

Just like in my last Reading Log entry, I'm still very slowly moving through two C.S. Lewis books.

I'm almost finished The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, book two in my single-volume collection of The Chronicles of Narnia. It's going slowly because I'm reading it as bedtime stories to my son, one chapter each evening. Usually one chapter each evening, at least - if he wants something else, or isn't feeling up to a story (he went through a pretty nasty cold over the last few weeks, and sometimes just wanted to go to sleep early), or has lost his bedtime stories for misbehaviour (depressingly common), then it slows our progress.

I'm also still plugging away at my second pass through Miracles, highlighting and making notes. That's going even slower, because I only glance at it occasionally for a minute or two before bed. I never go very far in a single session, for the silliest of reasons: the highlighter I use is drying out, and I can usually only highlight a few lines before the ink becomes too faint to see. At that point I put the cap back on, set the highlighter point-down, and leave it sitting until the next time, when it'll be good for a few more lines. Yes, I could just get another highlighter, but this one still serves my purpose and I'm in no hurry. I absorb far more of the material in these very small bites anyway.

Since my last Reading Log entry I've also read Wonderful Tonight by Pattie Boyd (with Penny Junor). Here's a tip: whenever you see a book whose cover trumpets in big letters that it's written by Some Person You've Heard Of, and "with Some Person You've Never Heard Of" appended below in much smaller print, the book was actually written by Some Person You've Never Heard Of. The famous alleged primary author may not have even bothered reading the book, much less have made any significant contribution to writing it.

I didn't care for this book. It was superficial and offered no particular insights. George Harrison was moody and introverted and Eric Clapton was an addict. I already knew these things, and didn't learn much more.

I was struck by how utterly insignificant Ms. Boyd seems to have been (even to herself), despite the amazing achievements of those around her. Yes, that is almost certainly unfair. She supported, nurtured and inspired Harrison and Clapton during amazingly creative periods, but even in her own version of events she comes off as having simply been present, making no actual contribution. When she speaks of the remarkable life she's led, I'm moved to respond that, no, the lives of those around her were remarkable. She was just there.

Yes, that's remarkable in and of itself, but having been witness to history is insignificant compared to having made history. Despite what anyone may think of Yoko Ono, or Linda McCartney for that matter, you could not tell the story of either of their husbands' lives without dealing directly with their roles. A biography of Harrison or Clapton could dispense with Ms. Boyd in a footnote, if her own book is anything to go by.

This book might as well have been titled How I Spent My Last Forty-Five Summer Vacations. It's a litany of going to parties, going to tropical resorts, eating fancy meals, riding in fancy cars, and being ignored by famous people. There is little drama, or indeed narrative, to be found. I was most interested in the fleeting mentions of Mike and Angie Rutherford; as a fan of Genesis, I would much rather read a book about their lives next time.

When Pattie realizes in the 1980s and 1990s that she is now alone with no useful skills and no real way of making her own way in the world, it comes as no surprise to the reader. Furthermore, given that she has presented herself as a mere reflection of the men in her life, we can feel little empathy for her. She seems less like an actual human being and more like a loudspeaker dedicated to trumpeting the accomplishments of whoever she's sleeping with.

Yes, this is all unfair. She may be a very nice person in her own right, and I have no doubt that she's an individual with dreams, goals, things to say, and contributions to make. However, none of that is evident in her book.

A recent trip into a used clothing store, of all places, that also had a rack of used books, has provided me with more grist for the mill. I'll hold off on those, though, as well as the order I just received from Chapters, until next time.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my now-dead dog. This one was taken in 2002.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Education Confrontation Part 2

Picking up right where I left off, before we were so rudely interrupted.

Actually, this will be a bit smaller in scope now, since I got to make many of the points that were intended for this part in the Interlude. You may not need a bathroom break in the middle of this one. Still, I'd go before we leave, just to be safe.

The principal proudly told us about the school's monthly "award assemblies", where certificates for various achievements are handed out to a significant percentage of the student body. She stressed the large number of awards dispensed. My wife looked more closely than I did at the slide depicting a batch of winners, and she got the impression that none of the certificates appeared to be for any particularly noteworthy achievement.

I don't have enough information yet to be certain that this school is another temple in the Cult of Self-Esteem, but I certainly have grounds for suspicion. I'd have to attend one of the award assemblies, or at least see a list of the recognized achievements, to make a more informed judgement.

For now, I have to at least consider the possibility. This is not a court of law, this is my son's upbringing. The stakes are too high to allow for any presumption of innocence. If someone is trying to involve themselves in my son's education, and I have the slightest reason to question their motives or methods, the burden of proof falls entirely on them to exonerate themselves in my eyes. Until they do so, I cannot afford to and will not trust them.

Of course it's obvious that actual achievement should be recognized. I would go a step further and say that any honest effort and / or improvement should also be recognized. Encouragement is important, for everyone, not just schoolchildren.

Those who have honestly excelled in any area, be it academic, athletic, or any other, should be publicly recognized. I would also recognize the "most improved" students, especially since the confidence boost will do more good for them than it would for the students who excel (they tend to get used to the recognition pretty quickly and so it loses its significance for them - trust me on this). The student who goes from a D to a B average has actually expended more effort and accomplished something more meaningful than the one who goes from an A to an A+, and that should be acknowledged.

However, rewards and accolades should not be doled out like Hallowe'en candy to those who have not earned them. At some point in the not-terribly-distant past, educational bureaucrats decided that building self-esteem in students should be a primary goal of the school system.

Their mistake has had dire consequences for all of society as more and more self-important brats and hoodlums grow up (chronologically, not mentally) with overinflated and unjustified egos and barge into an adult world that, despite their delusions, would have gotten along just fine without them.

My son has several "sound books" - storybooks with buttons on them that play sounds when pressed. Each button is illustrated with a picture that also appears inside the book, and the reader is meant to press a particular button whenever its picture is encountered, to provide a soundtrack to the story.

Most of them are fine, if a bit grinding when you hear a child's favourite sound over and over, ad nauseum. There's only one that bothers me. The book is about some sort of competitive endeavour - perhaps, if memory serves and mine often doesn't, a Clifford the Big Red Dog book about a dog show. One of the buttons triggers the sound of someone cheerfully proclaiming, "Everyone's a winner!"

No, not everyone is a winner, and it does children a disservice to teach them that sort of "lesson". People with talent, drive, ambition, and several other traits, luck very much among them, are winners. It is deeply wrong to teach children that "everyone's a winner", and giving them such a distorted worldview can have major implications for the rest of their life.

Now, some important qualifying points to this concept. First up, when I use the term "winner", I am referring only to the person (or team) who is the most successful in a specific situation where success can be objectively defined. The golfer with the lowest score, the last person standing at the spelling bee, the kid who can cram the most jelly beans into their ear. I am not using it in a more generalized sense (i.e., referring to someone who is generally prosperous as a "winner").

A "winner", as I am using the term, can only ever be the winner momentarily. As soon as a new competition of any sort begins - and pretty much everything in life is a competition of some sort - then the title is again up for grabs.

Second, there's absolutely nothing wrong with not finishing in first place. A person who goes through life consistently finishing what they start and accomplishing what they set out to accomplish never has anything to be ashamed of, even if they don't wind up getting a lot of blue ribbons pinned to their shirt.

Yes, the first person who ends up in first place has accomplished something noteworthy, but so has the person who finishes in fifth place, as long as they finished the race. The opposite of "winner" is not "loser". The opposite of "winner" is "person who didn't bother trying."

Handing out unearned accolades leads to an inflated sense of self-worth, which leads to an inflated sense of entitlement later in life. That immaculately groomed woman who shoved in front of you at the checkout counter at the corner store, yakking on her cell phone all the while, giving you a dirty look when you discreetly coughed to signal your existence, as though you should feel privileged to share the same oxygen as her - she was almost certainly assured throughout her childhood that she was Daddy's Princess and could do no wrong.

Time for a tangent, which also forms a bonus True Story From One Of My Jobs.

Once upon a time when I worked in a call centre, I got a call I'll never forget. I was taking inbound calls on an information line for a government department. Our lines were very busy, and the hold times were long. (Side tip: never, ever, phone anywhere that uses a phone menu system - banks, government agencies, most customer service lines, etc. - if you aren't prepared to spend at least 30 minutes on the phone, no matter how simple your query. Managing your expectations leads directly to managing your temper and not snapping at the poor schlub who finally talks to you.)

During this busy period, those of us answering the phones were routinely beginning each conversation with a quick apology to each caller for the wait times. One day I got a caller who wasn't satisfied with that. He whined and ranted about how valuable his time was and how he couldn't afford to wait 20 minutes to talk to someone. I went through all the standard sympathetic responses, but after several minutes of this fellow doing nothing but complaining, I had to get things moving along.

(Digression for another fun fact: the folks who answer when you call a government information line are under absolutely no obligation to listen to complaints or anything remotely abusive. They are completely within their rights to terminate any call where the caller seems to just be wasting their time. Most of these employees I've known - and I've known lots of them, having once been one of them - will actually put up with a lot more than required before doing so.)

I had been trying to gently prod this fellow toward his question, but to no avail. Around the eighth time he went over how unacceptable it was for someone as important as him to have waited almost twenty minutes, I said, "I'm sorry about that, sir, but I need to point out that now someone else is waiting while we talk about this."

His next words still ring in my ears, these many years later. Verbatim:

"I don't care about anyone else. I care that I had to wait."

I would have to completely reevaluate my life if I ever caught myself saying something like that.

Believe it or not, this story is on topic. That man was almost certainly surrounded during his formative years by people who were very concerned with his self-esteem. Congratulations, folks, you succeeded. You built a selfish, rude, possible borderline sociopath. Bravo.

I'm going to preface what I say next by saying that I'd like you, the home viewer, to withhold your emotional reaction until continuing on to read my explanation. Your immediate reaction to the next sentence is almost certain to be strong and negative (I know mine would be), but please let me explain before coming to your conclusion:

I've long believed that one of the most important lessons a parent can instill in their child is this: You're not special.

Has everybody put away the pitchforks and torches yet?

Good, then I'll clarify.

Of course each child is special and unique. To everyone around them, but especially to their parents. Children are the centre of a parent's life in a way that I could not have understood before becoming a parent myself. One of the great mysteries of Scripture, to me, is how God comforted Job by "replacing" his children. I can't imagine being consoled - distracted, yes, but not ultimately consoled - by having another child (or two) after having had a child die. Yes, the new children would be blessings of their own, and grief mercifully fades away over time (sometimes to resurge at unexpected moments), but there are scars that never completely heal.

While I'm waxing theological, it is also obvious, I should think, that each child (and indeed each person) is special and uniquely loved in God's eyes. The Bible is replete with this message. It may seem like a cliché from a thousand sermons, but it's become a cliché because it's true: even if you were the only person who needed salvation, Christ would still have gone to the cross to provide it, just for you.

So, then, what do I mean by "you're not special?"

I mean that you're not special in the sense I was talking about earlier. You're no better than anyone else. There is no grave injustice in your having had to wait for an operator to answer your call, or your having to wait in line for a cashier, or your having to take your turn in a playground game, or your having to sit down and listen like everyone else in the classroom. No matter how much your family and your friends love you, there are times that you need to exercise some humility, often in the form of sitting down and / or shutting up.

You are dearly loved and valued by God and (hopefully, but sadly not always) your friends and family. None of that in any way sets you above the "common herd" in social interactions.

The modern school system is very good at teaching self-esteem in a very bad sense. The unqualified "self-esteem" that modern society glorifies would have been recognized as arrogance and selfishness not so long ago. Humility and self-denial are infinitely greater virtues (as black is a darker colour than white), but are not so emphasized by the Department of Education.

To be fair, I doubt that there is an effective way to teach these virtues in a classroom setting to a large number of students. There is a line - not particularly fine, but a line nonetheless - between healthy humility and an incorrect sense of worthlessness that may be too easily crossed in such a teaching environment. Healthy humility needs to be taught by example, over the long term, in close relationships. In other words, children need to learn it at home. There is no substitute for this.

Parents can certainly teach this sort of healthy self-image to their children in the hours when those children are not at school, but it becomes much more difficult when much of the school curriculum is explicitly designed to subvert the concept. As a strong proponent of parental rights, I do not recognize that the state (i.e., the government-run school system) has any moral right to subvert parents in such matters.

I don't think for a moment that the school system intends to crank out sociopaths. I think the goal of the system's architects is laudable: to teach a healthy, non-defeatist self-image to students. However, healthy self-esteem can only reliably be taught the same way as a healthy humility. In fact, the two concepts are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. Attempting to teach them in a modern classroom setting is a futile task, and it's well past time to admit that the experiment has been a failure, as proven by increasing adult incarceration rates.

Quick side tangent: I can't remember where I've seen it most recently, and I'm too lazy to Google up an example at the moment, but there's a recurring meme in the left-wing blogosphere that cracks me up every time I see it. In an attempt to draw attention away from actual fascist states, people sometimes try to argue that the U.S. of A. has become a fascist state by pointing out that their incarceration rates are increasing even while crime rates are dropping. The implication - and sometimes outright claim - is that this proves that "dissenting" Americans are being locked up on bogus charges. Political prisoners, if you will. After all, if crime rates are dropping, how can the state justify locking more people up?

This, of course, fails a basic logic test. Does everybody see the problem?

I'll give you a hint: what would you, as (I hope) an intelligent person, expect to see happening to crime rates as police get better and more efficient at locking up actual criminals (and keeping them locked up)? Do you suppose that previously law-abiding citizens, seeing a void in the marketplace, would suddenly begin committing more crimes to keep the rates up?

End tangent.

This brings me to another pet issue about "self-esteem". Late in the last century when I was a university social sciences student, a quantum shift was happening in regards to research into violent offenders. It had long been assumed that violent behaviour, from playground bullying to first-degree murder, frequently stemmed from low self-esteem. Much of the school system's self-esteem emphasis stems from this belief. The problem is, that belief is entirely wrong.

It is the nature of social sciences that one can always find counter-examples. Yes, you can think of a bully you know who had low self-esteem. However, actual research into the issue shows that violent people do not, as a rule (and feel free to insert that disclaimer into any social sciences statement you ever encounter), have low self-esteem. They are instead narcissists, believing that their wants are more important than the needs of others. Any challenge to this unrealistic self-image can lead to terrible retaliation.

I believe it's possible that low self-esteem may be a factor in those people who get pushed too far - by the bullies with self-esteem to spare - and snap. Think, the kid who gets shoved around for years until one day they bring a rifle to school and settle some scores. Every time I hear about one of those cases, once the initial horror subsides, I hope that every bully who sees nothing wrong with shoving that smaller, weaker, nerdly kid around is thinking about it - and that they're scared. Unfortunately, I don't think the bullies are that thoughtful. Narcissism and introspection do not do not tend to peaceably co-exist.

I'd be very interested in seeing some well-done research into this aspect of the issue. This story on CNN is an interesting case study.

By trying to build self-esteem in students - a task for which they are simply not equipped - educators have instead been churning out legions of sociopaths. The worst part is, there are still an awful lot of people who do not understand this and are not interested in finding out the truth (because they're convinced that they already know the truth, and aren't interested in having their beliefs challenged - hey, we've come full circle!), and many of them are in positions of authority over children.

Oh, and if you'd prefer to see some of the research on this, instead of blindly taking my word for it (which you should never do), click on any of the coloured words in this sentence. Each of them links to a different article on this subject. If you have any influence whatsoever in the life of any child and you still think that bullying is caused by low self-esteem, please click on all of them.

So, to sum up this entry: I'm not sure what I think of the school's "awards assemblies". They may be benign or even beneficial, if handled extremely carefully, but if they're reinforcing the wrong behaviours, they could be very damaging. I'll need to look into their exact nature more closely.

It occurs to me that if I had just written that in the first place, this could have been posted a long time ago.

Part 3 is coming. There will almost certainly be some other stuff first.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a snout.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finish That Quote

It's well established that even the Devil can quote Scripture when it suits his purposes. However, in the Scriptural examples of his doing so, he takes the Scriptures out of context, twists their meaning, and tries to use them to manipulate a genuine follower of God into following him instead.

Nothing has changed in the centuries since Christ was tempted in the wilderness. Followers of the Devil still try to twist the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Not being as wise or as versed in the Scriptures as Jesus of Nazareth, I can't respond as cleverly as He did when Satan tried to misuse God's word. However, I've found one simple phrase to be very effective when dealing with those who would distort the meaning of the Bible to support an anti-Christian agenda:

"Finish that quote."

When someone tries to misuse the words of Scripture to subvert their actual meaning, ask them to put the words in their context. They usually won't be able to. They will only have memorized those few words which, when taken out of context, could seem to support their evil viewpoint.

Here's an easy example. Most believing Christians will, at some point, have had the words "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (or some easily recognizable variant thereof - as always, exact wordings may vary depending on your preferred Bible version) sniffed at them by a relativist seeking to justify sin - or at least stop discussion of it. It's only human nature - which is inherently sinful, remember - to want to squirm our way out of it when a light is being shone upon our guilt.

You probably already know the story, from John 8. It's one of the most famous passages in the Bible, partly because of the misuse. We all love being able to justify our own sin, don't we?

So, when a moral issue is under discussion and those words get smugly tossed out, simply reply, "Finish that quote."

Most people probably won't be able to. Most modern, open-minded, politically correct, worldly folks think that well-known story ends there, with Jesus making the gathered crowd slink away sheepishly. It doesn't.

After the crowd disperses, Jesus turns to the accused sinner and in parting tells her, "Go, and sin no more."

In an entirely unscientific experiment, I just ran two phrases through Google to see how common they are online. Here are the results:

"without sin cast the first stone" - 143,000 hits.

"go and sin no more" - 87,700 hits.

Slightly over half as many uses of the second phrase as the first. Food for thought.

"Go, and sin no more." Beautiful words, and the words of One who truly loves. Yes, God loves us as we are, but He loves us far too much to leave us that way. He wants better for us.

This is true in human relationships as well. Far too often we think that love means being unconditionally supportive of every action taken by a loved one (see my recent discussion of the Fallacy of Family), no matter how misguided or destructive. That is not love, that is sycophancy. It is an odd - indeed, cruel - love that approves every action of the beloved without question and does not seek their betterment.

When I read the story of the woman caught in adultery, I can relate to both sides in the dispute. Yes, there are times when I have needed to be told to put the rocks away and go sit down. There have been far more times, however, when I have been convicted of sin and needed to be told to "go, and sin no more".

I've gotten off on a tangential sermon here. Back to a summary of the point: when someone tries to misuse Scripture to support a distinctly anti-Scriptural position, don't be afraid to challenge them by questioning their actual comprehension of what they just said. Chances are they have little to none. Pray for them, that they may gain some.

There are several other fun passages with which to play "Finish That Quote." I may come back to this topic and write about some more another time - in the meantime, feel free to come up with (and share!) your own examples.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of me leaning on a table.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

If You Laugh At This, You're A Bad Person

I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. Now that was funny!

Enough rambling. Here's a blurry picture of my living room.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More Analytic Fun

As I've mentioned before, I really enjoy looking over the Google Analytics analysis of this website's traffic. I check it every day to see how many visitors I've had, what pages were the most read, and where people are visiting from.

Google Analytics offers a really neat feature called Map Overlay. It shows a map of the world with countries from which people have visited the site shaded in green. The darker the shade, the more visitors I've had from that country. I can then zoom in to get more specific, right down to the level of what city people are visiting from (or at least where their ISP / the last proxy they hopped through is located), but the world map is the one that I find most interesting.

This is what I love most about the Internet. In the last month, I've had visitors from 20 different countries. I don't think we really appreciate what an amazing communications tool is available to us. This inconsequential website, composed of jokes, rants, sermons, and comic book reviews, is a platform for my personal views that has been read by residents of 20 different nations. Think about how staggering that would have seemed only a generation ago.

Over 80% of my visitors are from Canada, of course. A depressingly large percentage of my readers live in my house. The U.S. of A comes in second, with the United Kingdom coming in a distant third.

No great surprises there, but I wouldn't have expected what comes next: Australia, in a close fourth. I guess it's not that odd that they're in fourth; I'm more surprised by how close the margin is. Maybe Australians really enjoy their zombies. After that we get into many-way ties with very few visitors each, but I'm impressed by the diversity on display. I've had visitors from (among others) Guam, Vietnam, Hungary, Greece, Sudan, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, and India. I think that's pretty cool.

I'm even more interested in what brings people here. Google records what terms people punched into the search engine to land here. Lots and lots of them are variations on Walking Dead # 48 reviews; that may give you an idea what I'll be writing about when Walking Dead # 49 comes out.

I also got quite a few hits from the article about Demonoid, mostly apparently from people worried about whether it's a setup to catch filesharers, which I discussed (most of the searches include combinations of "Demonoid", "RIAA", "honeypot" and / or "trap").

Other hits have come from people searching for "zirbert", "irritable saint", or variations thereof. These are folks who have been here before but can't remember the exact address, I'd guess.

Some other notable searches that have brought people here include:

  • "Cassy Fiano"
  • "Jeff Healey" (including several variations)
  • "Kodak printer" (and variations)
  • "Jeopardy tryout"
  • "lightning bolt Blogspot" (not sure I want to know)
  • "persuasive essay on wearing seatbelts" (sorry; I'm sure you didn't find what you were looking for)
  • "American Life League"
  • "tipping servers"
  • "irritable stomach and tightening"
  • "quick & snow" (Huh?)
  • "when seconds count the police are minutes away" (always worth remembering)

My bar-none favourite search, though, was this:
  • "i need to put the word bureaucracy in a sentence for homework help"

Heh. Here's why you shouldn't let Google do your homework, kids. If this unfortunate individual actually copied a sentence from this blog that used the word bureaucracy, I'm guessing his or her (let's face it, probably his) teacher wasn't impressed with its content. At least I have the consolation of knowing that the sentence was probably grammatically sound.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my kitchen curtain and the apartment building beyond.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Bible Is Funny

The Bible has a reputation as being humourless, but I think there's comedy in the Bible if you know where to look and read it in the right frame of mind. Here's my favourite bit of Biblical comedy, I Samuel 21: 10-14, courtesy of Bible Gateway as usual (emphasis on the funniest part added):

That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath. But the servants of Achish said to him, "Isn't this David, the king of the land? Isn't he the one they sing about in their dances:
" 'Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands'?"

David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath. So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.

Achish said to his servants, "Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?"

This passage cracks me up every time I read it. If you can't amuse at least yourself by reading this aloud, then you're not trying very hard.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a hand and chip cans.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Post Delays And Placeholders

Sigh. I really do want to get back to my series about the big kindergarten introduction day. I also have a couple of other substantial pieces in the works (started, but not even all the way to a first draft). However, circumstances are not supporting those goals at present.

Over the weekend, Rueben got very sick. Rueben is my older computer, the one I use almost exclusively, including for pretty much all blogging. My newer one, Simeon, has a lot more gaming muscle, and so is pretty close to being a dedicated Neverwinter Nights station for my addicted wife. (Can anybody guess what my next computer will be named?)

I nursed Rueben back to health, but at the cost of a corrupted administrator profile and sundry other problems. The root cause was running *completely* out of space on the boot drive, to the point where the PC couldn't even load Windows. Suffice it to say that some boot disk tricks were required - and Rueben has no floppy drive.

Then, the last few days have been consumed with planning what happens with my son in the fall. I'll probably write about it at more length, but for now the summary is this: there was what seemed to be a very good development, then a major complication, and today we had what seems to be a very bad development. I have to qualify everything with "seems like" for the time being. I'll have more perspective later, but for now it's pretty chaotic.

Things would be so much simpler if my emotionally unstable critic was right and I wasn't concerned with my son's eduction....

Some of my close friends are also going through some pretty heavy health / family issues that make our little educational quandaries seem completely insignificant. And, I've been reading about a woman in New Brunswick whose life has been completely torn apart in the last couple of weeks. Go read the story if you want to both feel awful for someone and have your own troubles snapped into perspective.

All things considered, life is very good, but I can't predict exactly when I'll get to devote enough time to finish another large article. Soon, I hope. In the meantime, if I think of any more easy-to-type-up jokes, you'll be the first to know.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a mailbox.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why I'm Barred From The Symphony Hall

"Hey, woodwinds! You're supposed to blow, not suck!"

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the view from the building where a friend of mine works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Diabetic Socks

I was in a store not long ago and saw a big display of "diabetic socks." I don't know what diabetic socks are, but I'm pretty sure I once owned a pair of hypoglycemic sweat pants.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a mock ship battle. The battle was mock, not the ship.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Another Reason Why Newspapers Are Dying

Just another quickie today. The Education Confrontation series is still an ongoing concern - the first draft of part 2 is well underway - but it got quite sidetracked in dealing with the troll.

(Oh, and note to RebelAngel, who I like: Yep, I'm a dude. No bluffing about it. I'm a bad enough looking guy, but I would make one horribly ugly woman. Everyone around me should be grateful, for aesthetic reasons if nothing else, that the coin came up the way it did when my gender was determined.)

Today I'm going to quickly note another reason why newspapers are dying. This may become yet another ongoing theme for this blog. Every time I read a paper lately (I generally read at least one each day, and often more) I wind up feeling like I'm looking at one of my son's "What's Wrong With This Picture" puzzles.

This was an honest-to-goodness front page, above-the-fold headline in a recent New Brunswick newspaper (also available online, with the error gleefully intact):

Record 373 centimetres of snow fell on Miramichi

Then, from the article. This part was still on the front page. Emphasis added:

....a record 373 centimetres (147 inches, or 12.25 feet) of snowfall between Jan. 1-March 31 — the largest snowfall since 1967, when 483 centimetres fell.

Someone got paid to write this, and someone else got paid to edit it. Note to all involved: The word "record" does not mean what you think it means.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my kitchen as seen from my computer room (the exact view I would see by turning my head 90 degrees to the right as I type this). Those things all over the side of the stove are magnetic jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

CNN Breaking Straight Line Alert

This is the entire body text of a Breaking News e-mail bulletin I got from CNN today:

-- Texas Rangers meet with and then release a man suspected of abusing a teenage girl at a polygamist compound.
I don't know anything about this situation, but I'm completely baffled as to what a baseball team's doing in the middle of it.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a hand and a catalogue.

Demonoid Is Back!

Education Confrontation Part 2 is taking a while to coalesce. I'm well into its first draft, but it won't be up tonight and I won't work on it tomorrow (Sunday), so we're looking at Monday night or quite possibly later.

In the meantime, I received very good news from my old friend The Shoeless Wonder today: Demonoid is back!

Until it was forced out of operation last year, Demonoid had risen to the top of the file-sharing pyramid. Now it's back up and running, and all old accounts are still valid. My ratio was even intact when I logged in.

All the old torrents, many of which seemed to be lost forever when they went offline, are amazingly still active and seeded.

I've seen some speculation that it might be a trap - a honeypot set up by the MPAA / CRIA / RIAA / other thuggish dinosaurs. However, according to info on the Slyck forums, Demonoid is now hosted in the Ukraine and its domain name was registered in Brazil. Neither of those countries are renowned for draconian copyright legislation, and that would be an awful lot of hoops for the bad guys to jump through. If it was a honeypot, it's more likely we would see it back up with its former Canadian host and registration.

Disclaimer for any intellectual property law enforcement personnel who may be reading this: I, of course, would only ever use torrent technology to download Linux ISOs (I'm partial to Ubuntu) or public domain educational films from the 1950s. You can never be too prepared to duck and cover when the Reds start dropping bombs.

(While we're talking about filesharing, if anybody knows what's going on with JPGR, please fill me in.)

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a pretty funny response to certain aspects of the current Canadian political climate. Thanks to Five Feet Of Fury (They could use your help. Click on the link for more info), where I cribbed this image.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Education Confrontation - The Interlude

Since putting up my last post, I experienced a blogger's rite of passage: I got my first comment that consists of hateful and hysterical personal attacks. I consider it a badge of honour. I had been feeling neglected by the absence of such posts. Maybe if I work hard, one day I can actually make it into the big leagues and get onto Richard Warmans' AntiChristmas card list!

Note to RebelAngel: I tip my hat to you for stepping into the fray. I had already written the first draft of this post before reading your comment, and I wish I could have made the points below as eloquently and succinctly as you did.

I'd like to be able to say that I reacted to the hostile comment with grace and maturity from the outset. However, that would not be true. I have to admit that I had two immediate reactions, neither of which I'm proud of.

First I considered just deleting it, on the "my house, my rules" principle. That impulse only lasted a second, though. The comment, although certainly hysterical, is not profane and actually makes some attempt to deal with at least one issue raised in my post. The spelling and grammar are pretty good. These facts move the comment head and shoulders above what I see surfing around some of my favourite sites hosted by conservatives. Looking around the web I often wonder whether liberalism breeds illiteracy, or illiteracy breeds liberalism. My angry commenter is certainly hateful and irrational, but not illiterate.

Second, for a longer moment that I care to admit, I considered doing a full-on sarcastic takedown of the post, responding to each point with barbed wit and insults. That is, respond to it in kind. Instead, I realized that the high road, the right thing to do, would be to dial down my snark level. I've tried to do that, but readers will probably detect the passages where it becomes a strain.

As I've noted before, crankiness is my weakness. I am certainly capable of hurtful words - I'm quite adept with them, in fact - but I'm trying very hard to put them behind me. I am going to respond to the comment, because I believe in dialogue and because I hope that I can help my anonymous critic, or perhaps others with similar anger management issues, to face their own anger and, dare I hope, maybe even start thinking about more constructive ways to deal with people with whom they disagree. I really enjoy columns by Dr. Mike Adams. However, once I set aside my unseemly amusement, I don't find his sarcastic takedowns of his critics constructive. I don't see how his barbs could encourage introspection and personal growth of the part of his readers/victims. As much as I like Dr. Adams' columns, I do not wish to emulate that aspect of his writing.

I'll be responding to the comment as though its writer were the reader (that is, in second person). I don't believe that will be the case. Short of severe masochism, I can't imagine why they would come back to read any more on a site that upset them so. This is the Internet, though, and some people seem to take perverse satisfaction in such maladaptive behaviours.

I will not believe that any further comments that claim to be from the original writer actually are so. There's no way for someone to prove to me, after having left an anonymous comment, that they are the same person back again. If this person had actually been interested in any constructive dialogue, rather than drive-by hate spewing, they would have signed their comment.

On to what they wrote (the indented bits):

As someone who has been a college professor and was raised in a family of teachers,

I have several family members who work in the educational system as well. Some are teachers, some serve in other roles. That doesn't change my opinion of the system they work in. It does, however, allow me frequent glimpses behind the curtain.

Let's deal with a logical fallacy at this point. Maybe it has a more formal name (which I would be pleased to learn), but I'll call it the Fallacy of Family. It goes something like this: My (Loved One X) is / does (Topic Of Discussion Y). Therefore, (Topic Of Discussion Y) cannot be wrong. In fact, (Topic of Discussion Y) is immune to all criticism, and any attempted criticism will be responded to as an attack on (Loved One X).

Thank you for providing us with a textbook example of the Fallacy of Family. I had always intended to write about it sometime, but hadn't yet contrived an example.

My loved ones sometimes use their freedom in ways I don't like. I disagree with plenty of political and religious opinions that are strongly held by people I hold dear. There are people who love me, and there's not a single one of them who would say they wholeheartedly agree with every one of my opinions.

The fact that your relatives are teachers, while it explains some of your vitriol onto which I'm about to shine a light, doesn't change anything.

In fact, and I mean this without a trace of sarcasm (it's hard to tell on the Internet sometimes), I sincerely hope that your relatives are / were among the good ones. There are lots of great teachers out there, who inspire their students to greatness of their own. I admire those teachers very much and wish we had a whole lot more of them. I very fondly remember one of my high school teachers, and speak well of him at every opportunity.


As for the many others...let's just say they were in the majority.

Another point that I hadn't yet made explicit (remember, this article was part 1) is that I don't assume all school systems are the same. Maybe some places are better than here. I hope you're in one of those places, and that's why you're so quick to condemn dissent. Maybe you don't understand it because you've never seen a really dysfunctional, broken public educational system firsthand. If so, I envy you, and I urge you to stay there for their sake if you have children, because you could be somewhere far worse.

I'm talking about the school system where I am. I came up through it, I have friends and family working in it (and they are very supportive of private schools or homeschooling; that should tell you something), and I'm dealing with it firsthand on a regular basis as my son gets ready to (maybe) enter it. It's broken. Irrevocably, unacceptably broken. I'm not happy about that, and if I could wave a magic wand to fix it I would, but that's not an option.

I think there are a lot of good teachers. Not a majority by any stretch, but they're out there and they're trying. Sometimes they even succeed. However, the system does not help. The good they do is almost entirely in spite of the bureaucracy that surrounds them. They work and sweat and weep and bleed for their students, but ultimately they're only one cog in the meat grinder.

I really do hope that's not the case for any of your family.

As for you being a former college professor, I certainly hope that you handled contrary opinions from your students with more grace and maturity that you handled mine. Your post - and I say this not out of reciprocal hostility but out of honesty - was nothing short of a tantrum. You wished personal harm on me, over a political disagreement. That is not how civil adults behave. I hope your post was out of character and that you would have the humility to regret it after some contemplation.

If this was an example of how you dealt with disagreement from your students, then all I can say is that's why organizations like FIRE are so important. Far too many "educators" want to tell their students what to think, as opposed to help teach them how to think. I'm glad that most of my university professors were in the latter category (I graduated with Dean's List standing from the top-ranked university in Canada, so I had occasion to spend many hours under the direct tutelage of many fine professors).

I'd just like to say that while I visited this blog expecting to read your "Walking Dead" review,
Which you got, assuming you also read that post. If you were dissatisfied, by all means feel free to ask the cashier for a refund on your way out.

(That may well be the only joke I put in this entire post, and it's not much of one. I ask the forbearance of my readers for the momentary indulgence.)

And, hey, what did you think of the book? I didn't see a comment from you on that post.

My condolences if your further reading led to your seeing opinions contrary to your own, because they evidently upset you a great deal. Unfortunately, that's the way the world is, and the Internet is even more like that than most places.

what I got was an entirely different sort of brain-dead zombie, and further proof some people shouldn't breed.
Here begin the hateful and entirely uncalled for personal attacks. Again, you and I disagree on some political and philosophical matters. I'm honestly not sure why you would feel the need to be so hostile over that, and I hope this isn't what you're like in real life.

You are utterly unwilling to help the teachers educate your child, to the extent of ignoring homework (which by the way, always has been sent home; I had some in kindergarten as well, back in 1974) and undermining the teachers and faculty. Well done, pal.

No, no, no. You've missed the point (which I admit hasn't been fully made yet - Part 1, remember). I am entirely willing to help the teachers, when they are actually teaching. I will undermine them wherever and insofar as they attempt to undermine my parental rights. The good teachers will have my full co-operation. And I fully intend to stay abreast of what my son is learning, largely by getting him to review with me what he learned each day at school. I won't, however, pretend that educational bureaucrats have any right to determine how he spends his time outside school.

And you apparently didn't read the next section, where I discussed situations when homework is arguably appropriate.

I didn't fully discuss how and why I came to my positions in my article. That wasn't the purpose of the article. I just intended to write about what happened on that one day, not to present any philosophical treatises. However, in hopes of lowering your blood pressure a bit, I'll elaborate on the homework issue just a bit.

My position on homework came as a surprise to me as well. I hadn't thought about the matter in many years, and had blandly accepted homework as part of the natural order of things. It was only when I really thought through the matter from my current perspective, with the knowledge that comes from life experience that the state is not always right or just, that I realized the implications of public schools being permitted to assign homework. I was not entirely comfortable with the conclusion - no homework just seems a bit wrong somehow, but I think it's only because we've been raised to think so and the idea is very rarely challenged. A goldfish does not envision life outside the bowl.

Being opposed to homework was simply the logical conclusion of the principles I understand to be valid. I have to follow the logic where it leads me, whether I like it or not. Failing to do so is nothing more than intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy.

My larger concern now is whether my justifications for some homework in some situations (the part you don't seem to have read) is a cop-out. Whenever I compromise a principle, it comes back to bite me. I'll have to deal with this more fully at some point, but not today.

Your kid will likely be a juvenile delinquent whose dad thinks teachers can do nothing right, and whose bad behavior undercuts the other students who try to learn.
Now an attack on my child. Very nice.

As I've stated repeatedly already (I'm not going to keep doing this every time, so the reader should feel free to insert repetitions of my earlier points as necessary throughout this article), there are lots of good teachers. There are far more bad ones. (By the way, feel free to replace the word "teachers" in the first sentence of this paragraph with absolutely any other profession. The point will hold true.)

The good ones deserve full respect and cooperation, and I will ensure that my son is aware of that. The bad ones deserve nothing, but I make a point of not expressing that to him. I'm teaching him to play the game and get along (although hopefully without teaching the overt cynicism).

He is as yet too young for such concepts.When he is old enough, I decidedly will teach him more caution and discernment. It will break my heart to do so. Now he is innocent. He believes that people are good and trustworthy, especially if they're in some position of authority. The truth is that life isn't like that. Some people, even people you should have been able to trust the most, do not deserve your trust.

Even some people with backgrounds as college professors, who should be rational and comfortable with intellectual exchange and different ideas, will launch into personal attacks over differences of opinion.

You seem like a mouthy jerk and a poster child for birth control.
Again, unwarranted personal attacks. You are not helping yourself seem mature or persuasive.

While I'm a libertarian who believes in smaller government and less rules,
See, at this point I have to confront you directly. That sentence is a lie, as proven by the rest of what you wrote.

Libertarians respect differences of opinion. They do not launch into personal attacks without personal provocation. They understand that different people may choose different paths and envision different ideals for the education of their children, and are not threatened by those differences of opinion. They believe in freedom of thought, freedom of belief and freedom of expression.

Granted, that's in the abstract. Libertarians are as prone to failings and lapses as anyone else. Still, unless your screed was truly out of character, your hysteria and hatred over a difference of opinion are far from libertarian.

Second, the educational system around here (as noted earlier, your area may vary, which may explain your drastic overreaction) is the antithesis of smaller government and less rules. What could be more intrusive than the government demanding control of your child's activities, not just during school hours but beyond? How could the state possibly make any more effort to micromanage your household - your sovereign realm - than to dictate where you send your child after school, what they can eat for lunch, or whether and how they pray in the morning?

A total overhaul of the school system (in those geographical regions where overhaul is needed - I hate to keep repeating points, but I have a feeling they won't be heard otherwise) with proper recognition of parental authority may not be the top priority for true libertarians, but it's high up on a very short list.

believe me, I will point to your essay as to why some parents should face criminal charges for neglect when they actively ignore or undermine the schools they send their kids to by their own choice.
Your grammar is ambiguous in this sentence. I'm not sure whether "by your own choice" modifies "ignore and undermine" or "schools they send their kids to".

If it's the latter, then you're missing my point. Most people have no choice in what school their children attend. Private school and home schooling are not options that are feasible for everyone. Most people have to accept whatever school is dictated by their residence address. School choice, or more accurately the lack thereof, is a major issue in the United States. Liberals are fighting it tooth and nail, insisting that the state knows better, in all cases, than a child's own parents. Most Canadians are too complacent to care, but the same problem is in full effect here.

If it's the former, then, sure, I'll proudly plead guilty to choosing to deliberately ignore or undermine the schools where appropriate. I am not a sheep, and lies do not become truth just because spoken by a bureaucrat. People like me are who keep this society somewhat sane and functional by refusing to blindly follow so-called authority. I'd be proud to have "Did not suffer fools gladly" as my epitaph.

Now, though, I have to deal with the disturbing hyperbole.

Feel free to point anyone you like to my essay. I could easily point to your response as an example of hysterical leftist ranting. I don't think there's any question which one of us is coming off as more rational and reasonable in this exchange. Not an attack, just a fact.

Do you even realize the enormity of what you wrote? You have suggested that I should face criminal charges - the wrath of the state - because you disagree with my educational philosophies.

You would like armed, uniformed government agents to seize me by force and incarcerate me because you don't like something I wrote.

Read that again, and hang your head in shame.

To put it very lightly, your wishes do not square at all with your claim to be a small-government libertarian. Instead, you're taking an utterly fascist stance that owes far more to Hillary Clinton than Ronald Reagan. It doesn't even approach the middle of the road, unless the road is in Saudi Arabia.

Do us all a favor, and home-school the kid so you can convince him the Earth is 6,000 years old and dinosaur bones are a trick the Devil played to make us believe in evolution.
Funny, I don't remember bringing up the age of the earth or evolution. In fact, I could probably write a hundred essays about the broken educational system (and I may) without touching on those topics. You're projecting your prejudices onto me. Remember the bumper sticker: "Home Schooling: Not Just For Crazy Fundamentalists Anymore!"

I hope you don't honestly think that any objection to the derelict state of our educational system is attributable solely to religious fundamentalism. Pointing out that the emperor is naked doesn't mean you want him to burn in Hell for exposing himself.

Granted, that is an easy way to dismiss all legitimate citations of the hypocrisy and incompetence that runs rampant in the school board office (it should be noticed, although you didn't seem to and perhaps wouldn't care, that the vast majority of my criticisms are aimed squarely at bureaucrats who never set foot in a classroom, not the teachers). Write them all off as non-issues, only cared about by extremists who think the Earth is flat. "There's no reason to listen to anything those folks say - they believe differently from us." Unfortunately, discrediting the messenger actually works to discredit the message for many people who don't understand the concept of critical thought.

You sicken me.
That's interesting. We've never met, and even if you read over every post on this blog, you really know very little about me.

My personal opinion of you is not particularly negative, despite your repeated personal attacks. I expect that if we were to meet in person, I could quite enjoy a fairly deep conversation about political and philosophical matters with you. I'm not threatened by those who disagree with me, and I expect you'd be considerably more civil in person.

For one thing, I suspect you'd be much less likely to insult me and wish specific harm on my family, as you do in a passage I'll quote (hopefully to your embarassment if you've come back) shortly. You're probably less likely to get that bold when face to face with someone who could punch you in the mouth (which as an adult and a respecter of differences of opinion I would never do, no matter how deserved - but the thought might cross your mind and encourage you to keep a civil tongue in your head).

It's more likely you're providing an example of John Gabriel's Greater Internet theory. I won't link to it, since I try to keep even my links to PG-13 or lower. It's pretty well known around the web and very easy to Google up, with what I've given you, if you don't already know what it states.

I note too that you posted anonymously, which does not indicate that you have the courage of your convictions. Yes, I'm using a pseudonym, but I use it consistently (including on websites other than this blog). You could probably deduce my e-mail address pretty quickly by putting a couple of facts together (I keep meaning to actually put it on here anyway). I'm easy to find. Part of why I use a pseudonym is that I anticipated some great proponents of diversity might latch onto some of my opinions and wish harm on my family on that basis. Seems I was right. I see no compelling reason to give people who wish my family harm a map to our front door.

I see jerks like you make caring teachers like my Mom and Dad work far too hard to educate kids whom you don't even care enough about to assist when they need to learn. You have a role, too, in your child's education, and ignoring his homework is child abuse, pure and simple.
Again, I really do hope your parents are good teachers. Their son or daughter (you gave no indication of your gender, and it's not relevant for this discussion anyway) certainly hasn't retained any lessons about tolerance for differing views, or manners, but that can't be placed solely on their shoulders.

Second, you're not paying attention. I'm actually far more concerned with my son's education, and far more willing to be directly involved, than most parents I know personally. I'm 100% behind the good teachers. I just wish there were more of them.

I certainly do have a role in my children's education. A primary role, in fact, far more important than that of the school. School is to teach socialization (good until confused with conformity), adherence to routine, and other such virtues. My personal experience was that I learned very little, in the academic sense, at school. I was a reader, and my parents took an interest in my education. By the time we got around to discussing a subject at school, it was already old news for me. That was fine with me; I was a very quiet, compliant child, and would never have dreamed of being the least bit disruptive for the first decade or so of my formal education. I often found it unnerving, though, that it was very often clear that the teacher did not understand the subject as well as I did. Again, to stress: I would not have dreamed of pointing that out. I just found it puzzling and worrisome, rather like being on board an airplane and hearing the pilot ask if anyone knows how to land one of these things.

My role in the education of my children is crucial and central. I am absolutely committed to working with anyone else who is trying to teach my children, be they bureaucrat or teacher, who realizes and respects that. The ones that I will fight (and I will fight them, make no mistake) are the ones who want to shut me out of the process, thinking they know better for my child. They don't.

They know statistics and averages and the results of the latest controlled longitudinal studies. So do I. I'm not getting too far into my educational credentials, partly because I'm not interested in revealing a whole lot of my personal identifying information, and partly because by doing so I'd feel a bit like I was in a "let's drop our pants and get a ruler" competition. Let's just say that I own - and, yes, have read, understood, and frequently been tested on my knowledge of, a whole lot of books with various combinations of words like "educational", "developmental", "methods", and "theory" in their titles.

Those are fine starting points, and that sort of knowledge will suffice for teaching most students. Once a child is more than a standard deviation or so away from the mean in any characteristic, though, they need individualized attention that the public school system is simply not equipped to provide. Being one kid in an overcrowded classroom with an overstressed teacher doesn't cut it for anyone who is exceptional in any way, and just about everybody is exceptional in some way. Almost every family I know has a story about how one of their children "almost fell through the cracks" in one way or another. Some have stories where there's no "almost" about it.

Around these parts they practice "mainstreaming". This means that all kids of the same age are crammed into one classroom like clowns into a Volkswagon, regardless of academic capability. There are no special programs of any kind for anyone, from the profoundly mentally handicapped to those who would have been something special given some opportunities. And everyone advances to the next grade the next year, no matter what. Each teacher - and they have my sympathy, they really do - needs to try to give the same curriculum to every student. This guarantees that some will be overwhelmed, some will be desperately bored, and only the truly mediocre will thrive. For a while, that is, until they get a bit ahead of the curve (which is good), get bored, and drift back to the mean. Then the cycle repeats, ad infinitum. No one is well served by this.

That, not evolution, not school prayer, not sex education, not any of the other boogeymen that may be conjured up, is probably my single biggest problem with the current educational system.

The kids who give your parents headaches are not the ones with parents like me (unless your parents are bad teachers, and there is no reason for me to assume that they are. Even if they were, I would be far more trouble for them than my children). The kids who give your parents headaches are the kids who are bored and need more challenge, the kids who are struggling and need extra help, the kids who have never been disciplined, the kids who have had no principle instilled into them more strongly than self-esteem and so think the whole world should revolve around them, and the kids of parents who simply do not give a damn.

(Apologies to my readers for the cuss. It's part of the language, though, and sometimes nothing else conveys quite the same nuanced meaning. I had a really hard time not saying "I call B.S." - uncensored, of course - in response to the earlier claim of small-government libertarianism. This is also not a licence for people to start talking like the cast of the Sopranos in comments.)

And it simply makes you sound foolish to equate "neglecting homework" with "child abuse". Why not go all the way and say I'm just like Hitler?

Darn. I'm using up my material that was intended for Part 2. Oh, well, it'll be shorter now.

You should be arrested, your wife should leave you, and you should lose custody of your child. Do us a favor: Don't breed again.


Another hysterical, hyperbolic (I hope; surely you aren't this completely irrational) personal attack. This one is truly hateful, and expresses an explicit wish that my family be harmed.

You may not even know how hurtful your closing words are (which again suggests that you would be much less rash in person). For all you know, I may buried a child and the one I'm talking about here is the only one I have left. I hope for your sake and the sake of those around you that you practice a bit more humanity in your daily life, and I'm willing to extend the full benefit of the doubt that that is the case.

I really do hope you understand this point, if nothing else: my primary concern here is that each child be given the education best for them and that the rights of their parents be respected (these points are strongly correlated). Those things do not happen in the current educational system, at least where I live. They are barely even possible under the structures and procedures now in place.

You claim to be a small-government libertarian, but express hope that I will be incarcerated by agents of the state for daring to question authority (or, perhaps more accurately, for offending your apparently delicate sensibilities). That's a lot like claiming to be a strict vegetarian but eating a steak dinner every night. The claim and the stated position cannot peacefully coexist without causing a great deal of stressful cognitive dissonance. For the sake of your mental health, I hope you can work through this, one way or the other. That will mean either learning to tolerate differing opinions, or admitting to and embracing the fascism you espouse. In the latter case I would oppose you, but I could respect your integrity.

My anonymous friend, here is what I truly wish for you: to be allowed to raise your family in peace, as you see fit. If ceding responsibility (and therefore rights, since they must always go together) for your child's education to the state-run school system is what you want - and I'm not saying it is, I don't know you and could not say that - then I would stand up for you and defend your right to do so.

I would stand up and defend your right to whatever positions you may hold on such matters, regardless of how antithetical they may be to my own, without casting aspersions or hatred on you.

I would not wish you any harm whatsoever, despite our obvious differences of opinion as to how much involvement the state should have in the raising of children.

Why do I not merit the same respect from you?

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of Timbits.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Education Confrontation Part 1

Yesterday my wife and I took our son to a pre-kindergarten information / evaluation session at the school he will probably be attending next fall. I promised my wife beforehand that I'd try to behave, and I'm pleased to report that for the most part I did.

The promise was necessary because I have, shall we say, serious reservations about the public educational system, and I'm not shy about voicing them. Which is to say that I think it's a complete disaster that needs to be bulldozed and started afresh if there's to be any hope for future generations. I could, and very well may, write much more about this, but that'll serve to convey the idea for now.

As we walked up the path to the school, I could feel my stomach tightening into knots. I realized that I'd almost rather sign my boy over to a seminary dedicated solely to indoctrinating him into the cults of secular humanism and socialism than this. Then I realized that there's no "rather" and no analogy about it: that's exactly what I am doing to him.

Fighting back the sickness I felt, we joined the small crowd of other parents and children standing by the school entrance. The scheduled starting time, 12:00 noon, came and went. I said to my wife, "Apparently punctuality isn't an issue at this school. If it's OK for them to start this session late, then it better be OK for our son to show up five minutes late for class every day." This was the first of many times throughout the day that she shushed me. I said I behaved myself, not that I had a personalityectomy that morning.

Before long, somebody (all bureaucrats look alike to me) came out of the school and suggested that we could go in to the office and take care of some of the administrative registration work while we waited. A few of us did.

My family were the last to finish up in the office. When we went back outside, we found that everyone else had gotten onto a nearby school bus and were receiving a presentation from the driver. We walked over to the bus and I rapped on the door. The driver opened it, and as we passed by her I said, "Thanks for waiting for us." Another shush from the Missus.

The only thing I took from the bus session was that school buses still don't have seat belts. I had thought that the school boards were all sued into compliance on that issue long ago, but apparently the one here got missed. That must mean that I don't need to put seat belts on children in my car either, right?

This brings me to a side tangent: I hate penny-ante bureaucracy for several reasons. One is the woefully incorrect assumption by power-drunk bureaucrats that they are somehow above the rules, regulations and petty morals that apply to everyone else. See, either seat belts improve safety and should be mandated, or not. There's no way that anyone can say (while maintaining any credibility or moral authority whatsoever) that I should be required to make children in my car wear seat belts (which I would anyway, law or no law - the legal coercion is what's at issue here) but it's fine for kids to be bouncing around loose on board a school bus. The second someone tries to justify this hypocrisy, no matter what desperate rationalizations they bring to the table, they go straight into my "Silly Person - To Be Ignored And / Or Mocked" file. It's pretty extensive, but still there is room.

Back to the bus. The session concluded, and I bit back the urge to respond to the call for questions by asking the driver to go back over the part we missed because of her starting without us. (She knew full well we were there, as did the bureaucrat who told her to go ahead and start while we were still - at the suggestion of the same or a similar bureaucrat - inside filling out useless paperwork.)

We went inside and handed our son over to some nice people in a gymnasium. My understanding is that they were to put him through his paces like a trained poodle while we were distracted elsewhere, to see what labels they can slap on him to get more money from the government. Luckily, we've trained him better than to cooperate with such shenanigans. I don't know exactly what they did (or tried to do) with him, though - more about that to come.

My wife and I sat in a classroom listening first to the school principal. She seemed very nice, reasonably intelligent, and fairly harmless overall. This makes my task of undermining her at every point of conflict more difficult. I hate having my enemies humanized. It's much easier to shred a faceless foe.

The presentations to the parents went far more smoothly than I had expected. The first problem I noted was that this school seems to think it's acceptable to send homework home with five-year-olds. Nope. My employer doesn't get to send homework home with me. If the job doesn't get done in the time they already pay me for, then either (A) I'm not pulling my weight and I get fired, or (B) they (not I) have a resource management problem. Since I very rarely get fired, (B) would be my gut instinct.

So, I doubt that I'll ever check my son's homework, or care if the school sends a note home about it not being done. (That note I'd just ignore. There are others I expect that, if sent, I'll return to them in such a way that they'll need a skilled proctologist to retrieve.)

Lesson for educational bureaucrats (and this is another reason why I hate the school system): you do not own the students. They are not your indentured servants. You have no claim on their time outside school hours. Get that through your tiny-but-remarkably-impenetrable skulls.

A case could be made for allowing homework at the high school level. University students do most of their serious work outside class hours, and so some homework while in high school may serve to prepare students for what lies ahead. However, that means it's only useful for those students who are going on to post-secondary education. There's no reason for the future career fry cooks to spend their own time finishing up what the teacher didn't plan well enough to cover during class time. (And the "homework" in university is an entirely separate proposition, because university is non-compulsory and paid for largely by the students. If you don't want to do independent academic work, don't go to university. The public K-12 school system has no comparable opt-out mechanism.)

The principal then gave an overview of a normal day in her school's kindergarten. They start off with the national anthem, of course, but she made a special point of going over the fact that students can be excused (I'm not sure whether they leave the room or just don't stand up) if they (or more accurately, their parents) wish.

I strongly suspect she made this emphasis because there was a kerfuffle last year over a New Brunswick student refusing to stand for the anthem. I'm not sure where all the chips from that incident ultimately fell, but I know that a whole lot of people were shocked to learn that "freedom" means more than just "freedom to conform", and there is no law, rule, or regulation requiring students to stand for the anthem. I'm glad there isn't, as you may have inferred from the swipe in the previous sentence. For the word "freedom" to be meaningful, it must include the right - the freedom - to disagree with you or me. Wherever there is freedom, there will always be people who exercise their freedom in ways of which others disapprove.

That being said, I always stand for the anthem, and my son has been taught to do the same. As his father, I have the right to mandate his behaviour to that degree. The state does not. I'm deeply concerned with the limits of state authority, even when I agree with their position.

The principal then told us something that really surprised me: they still recite the Lord's Prayer each morning. The same opt-out rule is in effect (again, as it should be).

The Lord's Prayer will certainly be nothing new to my son. I've taught it to him (although I don't think he's quite got it memorized) as I do my best to teach him the Scriptures and the ways of God. However, I'm not thrilled that it will be recited in his school each morning, for a few reasons.

First up, daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer risks making it something that's recited by rote without thinking about its meaning. This is, I freely confess, a problem for me as well. Many times I have recited it, thought, "There, that's prayer out of the way", and gone on my sinful way without a moment's reflection. I firmly believe, in the Protestant manner, that individualized prayer is far more meaningful. Making the Lord's Prayer a daily element of the school day may trivialize it.

Second, I'm a bit of an odd Evangelical in that I don't care much about school prayer. Students should be free to pray independently and non-disruptively, but I don't need or want it mandated by the state. My son will be taught prayer at home, not at school. The less input the state has into his spiritual formation, the better.

Third, it's empty lip service. By getting the students to recite some hollow words they aren't encouraged to think about, the school board gains a thin veneer of (illegitimate) defense against Christian criticism. The public school system as a whole certainly does teach a religion, and demand orthodoxy from its charges, as fervently as any parochial school or seminary: secular humanism (which most definitely is a comprehensive belief system - i.e., religion - regardless of any feeble claims to the contrary).

By throwing the bone of sticking the Lord's Prayer into the morning chaos, the state gains the ability to attempt to negate all accusations of anti-Christian teachings by whining, "But we say the Lord's Prayer every day! How can we be anti-Christian?" This gives them licence to preach as much secular humanism and involuntary socialism (more on that distinction another day, perhaps) as they like. The sad part is, this will work on a great many people. Bloggers and newspaper editors will say "There's no pleasing those nutty fundamentalists", and excuse the many other blatant sins being crammed down the throats of our children.

Fourth and finally, I don't want the state teaching religion to children. Not Christianity, not secular humanism, not Islam, not Flying Spaghetti Monsterism. Even if I were hoping for theocracy, which I'm definitely not, I would never trust the state to teach Christianity well, since they don't seem to be able to teach anything else well. As it stands, a frightening percentage of high school graduates are functionally illiterate. That only messes up the rest of their life. I wouldn't for a second trust the state to teach faith, where people could wind up eternally lost because of the incompetence of their teachers. Think about how many people you know personally who never read novels anymore because an insufferably arrogant English teacher put them off reading for the rest of their life. Now imagine people being repelled from Jesus the same way.

It was around this time (according to the notes I took) that I noticed the screen on which the principal was displaying her Powerpoint presentations - a wall-mounted, big-screen "smartboard" which served as a touch-sensitive monitor. She was advancing her slides by touching the corner of the screen, rather than using the connected PC directly. Very nice, very expensive technology. She said there is one of those boards in each classroom. I'm not sure whether she meant in the entire school, or just in the kindergarten classrooms, since they were the focus of the presentation. That aforementioned attached PC was ancient, as were all the computers I saw during our trip. I'm guessing most were early Pentium (probably under 1 GHz).

Then she talked about reading development. The school district uses a series of books that have each been designed to be at a specific level. Those levels are designated with the letters A through (at least) N, with A being the easiest to read and getting progressively more complicated from there. Their goal is that by the end of the kindergarten year, the kids will be able to read the A level books.

They passed around sample books, and the A level book had a page with a picture of a large cone of red ice cream, and the words "This is red ice cream." The principal stressed that the child may, at the A level, use the picture as a cue. In other words, at the A level they aren't going for actual reading so much as word/image association (which is a perfectly acceptable precursor to actual reading for those children who need it).

My wife and I found this pretty funny as a goal; our son could read more difficult passages than that well before his second birthday. We never pushed him at all. No flash card drills ever took place in our home. We just provided lots of books and toys with letters on them, set an example (his Mom and I both read constantly, including in front of him), and got out of his way.

When he was around 18 months old, he got a Fridge Phonics set - just the basic set, single capital letters only. The inside of our front door is metal, and a great spot to set up magnetic toys. He immediately went completely nuts for the Fridge Phonics and within a couple of weeks knew all the letters with their associated sounds, and was trying to spell every word he heard. Driving anywhere with him during that period was cute but a bit tedious, as he shouted out every letter (and very soon every word) he saw on road signs from the time we left the house until the time we got back.

By his second birthday he was reading lots of words, and by his third birthday he was reading pretty much anything he saw. We've been used to it for a long time, but it's still fun to watch strangers be surprised by it when he starts casually reading everything in sight when we go somewhere.

So, the A level books are clearly going to be no challenge whatsoever for him. We looked over the entire line that were available in the classroom, and the N books (highest level they had) might give him a bit of trouble. I doubt it, though. I only foresee him having to find out what a few new vocabulary words mean, and after he's told once, he'll have no further problems. That would be true for most ostensibly literate adults as well. Needing to occasionally look up the definition of an unfamiliar word is no indication of deficiency in reading ability.

On that topic, I recently purchased an illustrated dictionary for my son. Again, no pushing; I just thought he'd enjoy it. I was right. He immediately sat down with it and began browsing, fascinated. Now he learns a new word each day and we mark it on the calendar (this was as much his idea as ours). He learns the word, its pronunciation, its part of speech (he's fascinated by adjectives in particular for some reason - he frequently makes up original sentences and quizzes any nearby adult on which word in the sentence is an adjective), and how to use it in a sentence.

To make a long story short, I'm not particularly concerned about him being able to handle the academic demands of kindergarten.

There was plenty of blah-blah-blah that I'm not bothering with here. The next thing that stood out for me was the principal's statement that the hardest part of a kindergarten teacher's day is the end. Trying to get all the children onto the correct buses is apparently quite a logistic challenge. (My son shouldn't be a problem for them - the current plan is that my wife will drop him off each morning and pick him up at the end of each day.)

I see the principal's point, but she went too far and lost my sympathy. She talked about understanding that what with shift work, afterschool care programs that don't run every day, etc., a child may not go to the same place every day after school. However, that makes things much more complicated for the school staff. I understood, and agreed with her request that, if at all possible, a child's routine be left unchanged from day to day.

That is, I agreed the first time she said it.

The second time, I was OK with it, but thought, "Umm, you already said that."

By the fifth or so time that she whined through how it makes her job sooooo much harder when students take different buses occasionally, I had lost all sympathy. Like most bureaucrats, she has clearly lost track of who her clients are (in this case, the students and their parents) and that her role - her job, which she is paid to perform - is to serve them. I'll spell this point out as simply as possible for the benefit of her and any other like-minded individuals:

It is not my job to make your job easier.

As a general rule I won't go out of my way to make anyone's job - or day, or life, for that matter - any harder without a very good reason (making a point that clearly needs to be made to someone qualifies as a very good reason. Education, unlike most of what goes on in public schools, is important.). I will in fact usually go well out of my way to help whenever possible. But the moment that someone demands or expresses a sense of entitlement to my accommodation, which would otherwise have been freely offered, the situation becomes a game with the whiner as my opponent.

The principal's repeated complaints, which were all about her own convenience and not one bit about the desirability of stability in a child's routine or risk of error, made me wish that my son would be taking the bus, so that I could send a note each day changing his dropoff destination, with "P.S.: Deal with it" appended.

This is going to go on for a while yet. I'm stopping here, in the interest of getting something posted today and getting to bed at a reasonable hour tonight. Part 2 to follow soon (hopefully tomorrow, but no promises).

Coming up in Part 2 - Self-Esteem, The End of the Food Police, and Holding Your Kids Incommunicado!

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a foot.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A True Story From One Of My Jobs

Hey, kids! It's time for another True Story From One Of My Jobs!

My office has just announced a friendly competition to encourage employee fitness. It's reportedly modelled after a game show - sorry, "reality show" - called The Biggest Loser. (Incidentally, if you really want to upset people who take TV way too seriously, refer to people appearing on American Idol as "game show contestants" - which they are.)

Here's the plan: participation is completely voluntary (which, as with any self-improvement initiative, means that those most in need of it won't take part). Participants weigh themselves periodically. Anybody who has gained weight kicks a dollar per pound into the pot. Whoever loses the most weight over the duration of the game takes all. Or possibly takes half, with the rest going to charity - that's usually how they work these things, to their credit. Having little interest in that section of the rules, I didn't read them too closely.

The funny part is that these rules incentivize some rather antisocial behaviour. You see, there are two complementary paths to victory. You can try to lose as much weight as possible yourself, but to maximize your winnings and increase your chances of victory, you should also encourage your co-workers to gain weight.

I foresee lots of saboteurs putting cheesecakes and pies on display with big cheerful "Help Yourself!" signs. This pleases me. I may not need to take lunch with me for a while.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the CN tower, as seen from the building where a friend of mine works. (That friend has threatened to begin a blog of his own, so I have to use up his pictures before he gets a chance to start using them.)