23 April 2016

Another Attempt at a Re-Start

I've had a couple of people ask me over the last few years why I stopped writing.  There are lots of reasons, but they all turn out to be excuses.  So, I'm hoping that I can re-start some sort of writing in this place where I blogged for a number of years.  Hopefully the Blogger / Blogspot platform doesn't get "googled" in the sense of being shut down without any apparent reason to us outsiders.

08 August 2011

A Public Service Announcement from Michael Moore

When the going gets tough, the clueless and frustrated get authoritarian.  That’s the message from a Washington Times article about Michael Moore and his Tweets.  Apparently, Mr. Moore thinks that President Obama should “arrest the CEO of Standard & Poors” because, in part, S&P downgraded the United States’ credit rating on 5 August.  Like a good, budding authoritarian, Mr. Moore linked S&P to former president Bush – the scapegoat for virtually everything that has gone wrong during the past three years.

So, that’s the medicine put forth by Mr. Moore, darling pseudo-documentarian of the Left.  Given his adoration of Cuba, Venezuela, Castro and Chavez, there’s no wondering where he picked up his professed, preferred method of dealing with entities he finds counterproductive.  Hopefully President Obama does not subscribe to Mr. Moore’s prescription for dealing with “this big, messy, tough democracy.”

04 August 2011

Change, Really...Just Not Quite Yet

Yesterday, President Obama said, among other things, "When I said 'change we can believe in' I didn't say 'change we can believe in tomorrow.' Not change we can believe in next week. We knew this was going to take time because we've got this big, messy, tough democracy."  But that's not really the case.

When he was touting his "change we can believe in" mantra, he pushed it with words that indicated the "change" would begin immediately.  Evidence this famous - for lack of a more polite term - statement, made in June of 2008:  "...generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."

Yet it has not taken generations for us to be able to look back and realize that the summer of 2008 was not the low point, the valley from which statist policies would lead us to greater heights.  Our government has gotten much larger - even after President G.W. Bush bloated it; the sick have had legislation enacted so as to make them words of the state; unemployment and longer term unemployment are much higher; we've added a war of sorts in Lybia to go along with Iraq and Afghanistan.  I can't speak to the earth healing or slowing ocean rise (however odd that sounds) - but it doesn't seem that installing fixes for those were within the purview or power of the US government.

So Mr. Obama now wants to push that change is coming...just wait for it.  Really.  But we have seen the change that comes with statist policies - and it's not good for the bulk of us.  Sadly, Mr. Obama may be right; the "real" change may still be yet to come.  And that would prove to be a very scary prospect, indeed.

29 July 2011

Encounters with Functional Illiteracy – The Burger Joint

Once is an instance.  Twice is a coincidence.  Last night, my lovely wife planted the idea in my head to go get a burger from a non-fast-food burger joint.  After about fifteen minutes of thought, I decided it was indeed a good idea.  The young lady, who, much like the young man at the butcher counter must have been about 18 years old, was working the register.  Like him, she was probably not far removed from a time where basic arithmetic in various classes should have been a common activity.

She took my order; the total was $7.52.  I handed her $8.  She took my money, hit a button on her register, and paused.  She reached below the counter and her hand emerged holding a calculator.  I got curious.  Why the need for a calculator?  She said that she hit the “exact change” button on the register - and implied by grabbing the calculator that she was unable to figure out in her head that the change due was 48 cents.

The young lady punched a few numbers into the calculator and then said, “Eight, right?”  I informed her that I did indeed give her eight dollars.  She replied that she means eight cents; that I am due eight cents in change.  I don’t know what my face said, but my mouth said, “Sure.”  I put the three pennies and one nickel in the tip jar, which was where the 48 cents would have ended up anyway, and walked away a bit bewildered and more than a little sad.

I don’t think that I’m noticing these instances because I’m looking for them.  They just occur and I happen to be there.  And I fear they’re far from anomalies.

26 July 2011

Encounters with Functional Illiteracy – The Butcher’s Counter

This morning, I stopped by a local grocery store in order to pick up the basics for dinner for the next two nights.  That amounts to meat to put on the grill and frozen vegetables.  I was greeted by a young man working the butcher’s counter; he was perhaps 18 years old, maybe a bit younger.  In any case, he was certainly young enough that his high school level mathematics should have been still tucked somewhere near his recent experience at the grocery store and his common sense.

I chose two steaks.  The young man put them on a standard foam tray, the kind ubiquitously found in meat and poultry departments everywhere, and placed them on the electronic scale.  The steaks weighed in at a pound and a half.  I glanced down and noticed the price: $11.99 a pound.  So, $18 in rough numbers.

When the electronic scale spit out $3.25 at the young man, he simply hit a button, wrapped the steaks in clear wrapping, carefully set the printed price tag on the wrapping and handed me the steaks while kindly asking if I would like anything else.  I said no, took the steaks, and walked away.  I made it three feet before my conscious and curiosity (thankfully) got the better of me.

I returned to the counter – I was the only one there – informed the young man that I thought he had made a mistake and asked him if he was sure he put the correct price on the steaks.  He looked confused; he asked how much I wanted to pay.  I informed him that the steaks were supposed to be $11.99 per pound.  He took the steaks, put them back on the scale, punched in some numbers, and magically came up with another amount, which was again far less than the $18 I expected.  I verbally prodded him to do a little “math in public.”  $11.99 per pound, 1.5 pounds.  He looked at me confusedly and asked again how much I would like to pay.  I informed him that $18 was close to the correct price.  Somehow, he managed to punch the correct numbers into the scale to produce a total close to that.  I thanked him and walked away.

What I find sad is that this young man appeared to be functionally illiterate when it comes to numbers and simultaneously unable to detect errors that, due to their magnitude, should immediately make one question things.  Yet he plodded along, punching numbers into a computer, accepting whatever numbers the all-knowing computer returned to him, and pleasantly going along with his job – oblivious to what the numbers mean and unable to reach a correct answer without the “expert” knowledge of an electronic aid.

Sadly, this young man’s situation is not isolated.  I wonder how he was taught math in grade school; I wonder if he was required to memorize multiplication tables, write simple arithmetic equations in endless repetition.  Probably not.  Doing so would be to use outdated methods in a modern time, or so some would have us believe.  Yet “repetition is the mother of pedagogy;” those foundational elements learned by heart are not easily forgotten.  The young man in this case, and many others besides, would have greatly benefitted from such outdated methods, methods which allow for greater, deeper, more reliable building of knowledge as one grows older.

23 April 2011

Technology and Underpants Gnomes

A rather funny (and not too offensive) episode of South Park involves a pack of gnomes who "collect" underpants at night.  Their motive is profit.  The problem is that there is no bridge between the two; "phase two" is missing.  I bring this up because it seemed particularly fitting of a conversation about using technology in high school classrooms.  In some (and probably in many) states, there is a legal requirement for teachers to use technology in the classroom, the assumed end being that doing so will result in better educated students.  What "phase two" is, what it consists of, no one can say for sure.  But there is it: the means and the dreamt-of end.  One thing the underpants gnomes have over administrative and state education officials is that their "phase one" (underpants) are tangible.  In many districts, it would be a stretch to say that there is enough technology (largely measured by numbers of computers) to even pretend to meet mandates.

But to be locked into that conversation - how much technology must be used - means ignoring another, more fundamental question: what purpose does a bit of technology - be it a computer, internet access, a "smart" board, etc. - serve the classroom it is in?  For instance, is it more effective for a student to read an article, a short story, or a novel on a computer screen or on low-tech paper?  I would argue that paper is far superior.  Reading from a CRT monitor is hard on the eyes, flat panels a bit less so but more expensive (unless we're building from zero).  Paper is easy on the eyes.  Paper is also portable.  Students can write on paper.  Put those two together - students can write on and take their studies with them.  That sounds like a great combination for teaching and learning.

Of course, low-tech generally means low cost, and low "wow" factor.  A video of, say, a classroom full of kids discussing a story and referencing notes taken on their own copies of the story doesn't make for a scintillating presentation if the audience has already determined that technology is "phase one" for better educated students.

Both options, paper and various technologies, are rather parts of "phase two" techniques.  They are methods of delivery, of communication, and each has advantages and drawbacks.  If the goal is to teach grade school kids fundamental math, what would be the point of mandating the use of technology?  Do mouse clicks help young students memorize their multiplication tables?  If the goal is to teach high school students geography, where might technology be of use and where might it be a hindrance?  But if the goal is to teach students to use technology - and this seems to be the only plausible educational goal of technology mandates - then technology becomes the subject, the class, the focus.  Using other classes to primarily teach technology is to substitute a goal with a means, and that is a mistake.

14 April 2011

Better Health Through Coercion

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mark Bittman attempts to show how $1 trillion might be saved by the federal government by "preventing disease instead of treating it."  He cites alarming statistics about how many Americans have largely preventable health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.  He then relates each of these to dollars spent - "more than one seventh of our GDP" - to cure them.  His point is that it would cost far less if preventative measures were pursued, like improving diet and increasing exercise at an individual level.  A valid point, indeed, especially as it appears to be a result of individual choice and improvement; the money saved is the result of changes by individuals.

However, that is not the case.  In Mr. Bittman's view, the individual is the thing to be managed, the cog to be turned by coercive forces so as to benefit the whole, and the whole will pay in the form of higher taxes so that the individual can be coerced.

The first indication that Mr. Bittman prefers, whether he recognizes it or not, coercive methods to pursue better, healthier eating occurs when he claims that money can be saved "if an alliance of insurers, government, individuals - maybe even Big Food, if it's pushed  hard enough - moves us toward better eating."  First there is the obvious reference to pushing Big Food to do what Mr. Bittman surely feels it ought to do, the connotation that any "Big" industry not only needs coercion but deserves it as well.  No, the more subtle portion of his statement is also more telling of just how far he feels the state should go toward enforcing better health habits.  Mr. Bittman wants government and other entities to "move us" to do what is deemed to be the right thing.  He does not use a more gentle term, like entice or encourage.   The use of "move" implies actions upon the individual; the individual needs to be moved.  So Mr. Bittman really means that his "alliance  of insurers, government, [and] individuals" (individuals who we may assume include folks like him) must coerce the Big Individual into doing the right thing, that is eating as the "alliance" sees fit.  No individual liberty or personal accountability to be found there.

But this coercion doesn't come on the cheap.  That, however, is not an issue when the coercive power of government is brought to bear.  Mr. Bittman quite simply states that the "investment" - forcing people to ear healthy diets - is one for which "you must spend money to make or save money.  (Yes, taxes will go up, but whose taxes?)"  When only about half of American households don't pay federal income taxes, it's an easy bet that only half of the population will pay into this "investment" in coercive behavior.  Big Food and Big Whateverelse will also get the bill.  But it's an "investment" in people's health that will save money - so what's the worry?

In order to get away from the question of actually paying for coercing individuals into taking proper care of themselves, Mr. Bittman uses a now-common false comparison which is meant to evoke both nostalgia and a sense of self-loathing.  He claims, "if we can put a man on the moon, we can create an environment in which an apple is a better and more accessible choice than a Pop-Tart."  Of course, the Apollo Project has absolutely nothing to do with proper diet and exercise, but that's of no consequence for Mr. Bittman.  What is more important for the reader is the level of stupidity he expects of you.  How does he figure that apples are rare finds in supermarkets?  Does he think that his readers, or Americans in general, do their grocery shopping primarily or exclusively at locations which cater in boxed food that is grabbed on the go, like gas stations?  What's more is that he thinks there is a need to "create an environment in which an apple is a better...choice" than a boxed, sugary pastry.  Mr. Bittman insults everyone's intelligence if he really thinks that the average human being needs to be told that an apple is a better bit of food than a frosted pastry.  Yet, he would use the coercive force of government to drive this and other healthy points home.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and Mr. Bittman has good intentions.  No decent human being would want others to suffer from diabetes or heart disease.  But where Mr. Bittman makes his downward turn is in his belief that the answer rests in government "investment" in coercing individuals to practice healthier living.

What I believe Mr. Bittman either refuses or is unable (due to his statist leaning) to recognize is that the coercive power of government has limitations - indeed, many folks may argue that it can do no social good.   The taking from some in order to "help" others who are somehow unwilling to help themselves is a path of folly.  For the vast majority of people, a decent diet and a modicum of exercise are well within their grasp.  What must not be allowed into the conversation are excuses which are groundless - No one told me that honey bun was bad for me; I live just down the street from a fast food joint and I'm "addicted" - I'm too tired / sore / fat / unmotivated to exercise.  If individuals are relieved of the responsibility for their own health - their own care and feeding - then they will have truly become children of the state.  And we will all pay the price, higher taxes being most certainly the least consequential.  For a society in which individuals who are supposed to be adults turn to the government for direction on what to eat is a society which has no soul, no will, and no hope.