Sunday, July 31, 2005

What Should We Be Teaching In HS Chemistry?

I doubt that there's a teacher for any subject that hasn't asked a question similar to the one addressed in the title to today's blog. They may not have been pondering chemistry but rather history, geography, math, etc., with specific regard to what it was that they should be focusing on to make for the best learning experience for their students, with the idea being to best prepare them for whatever future lies before them. This becomes a problem for many teachers, many of whom are convinced that what they know from their own past experience is what meets the need, though in the case of chemistry specifically there seems to be a disconnect between what high school instructors feel is important and what college instructors are looking for.

In chemistry there are two widely held perspectives regarding what the goal should be for a chemistry curriculum:

1. Preparing students for college chemistry.

2. Helping to mold a more scientifically aware and comfortable citizen.

Goal #2 is not divorced from goal #1, though when the curriculum focus is largely on prepping students for college chemistry (as opposed to just college) the emphasis that might otherwise be given to nurturing a more scientifically literate or aware citizen is very often subsumed, if not all together lost, in the quest for some ill-defined goal of college chemistry preparation. Deters (1) found that high school chemistry teachers were split about 50/50 on which of the two goals were most important.

Specifically it is found (1 - 4) that while the goal may be to create students who are best prepared for college chemistry, what this requires is not determined in concert with college instructors but otherwise based on the assumptions and beliefs of high school teachers, various levels of state education administrators, parents, and school committees/districts. Efforts have been made to identify and better understand this problem (3 - 4) in the past, and most recently by Kelly Deters (1 - 2). The following chart is an amalgam of information provided by Deters (1 & 2) based on the results of surveys of college instructors and high school teachers presented similar lists of topics. The college instructors represent 96 of 300 attendees at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in August 2002 at The University of Michigan (2). The instructors were asked to choose the top 5 topics from a list provided (shown in the table to the left.) The high school teachers represent 571 teachers located throughout the country who were in contact with Deters from her first article (1) and were asked what topics within chemistry that they were teaching.


What's most striking is the divergence in topics considered to be important by both groups. A comparison of the two shows that there's clearly a disconnect between what college instructors desire and what high school teachers feel that they should be providing to their students. Deters shares with us: "These surveys showed that while the high school teachers focused on content and knowledge, the college professors tended to focus on personality traits, higher order thinking skills, study skills, and interest" (1).

Mitchell (3 - 4) approached the topic differently from Deters but came to many similar conclusions (it should be noted that Mitchell's survey population of college instructors was larger than Deters, about 280.) Mitchell found that college instructors were more concerned that high school students come into the college environment with good study habits, reading skills, basic math skills, and some measure of interest in and understanding of science: "Higher level instructors prefer that lower level instructors concentrate on teaching students how to study and think in general, leaving the development of a specific knowledge base about the subject to the "experts""(3). The following points come through in the references cited:

1. College instructors do not feel that high school chemistry should be a mini-version of a college chemistry course (3).

2. There's little value in emphasizing more intricate/difficult chemistry topics, i.e. content, inasmuch as students lose much (up to 70% within a year) of what they learn after leaving the course (1, 3). Deters (1) quotes Marvin Gold (5) on this subject: "My plea is that we (all of us, high school and college teachers alike) attempt to create a better balance between the teaching of content and the development of cognitive skills. The students who do not take college chemistry will forget almost all of the content. Those who take some college chemistry will begin to forget it unless it is applied to their own careers. Who needs to know a lot of content? Practicing chemists, that's who, and they will learn the content as they continue on in upper level courses and in the day to day practice of their profession."

3. The ability of students in high school (research indicates that one half or more students fall into this category) to successfully grapple with and grasp the more abstract aspects of chemistry is limited by their mental development at the age they normally encounter a course such as chemistry (1). While much of the basic material can be dealt with easily enough by the vast majority of students, the more abstruse topic areas can be problematic and result in frustration for the student concerned.

4. Teachers are trying to teach more than they're able to given the time constraints placed on them - Deters' results showed that 75% of teachers (a total of 571 found throughout the nation) participating in her survey are not able to cover all the topics they would like to in their courses. Given that a significant amount of what they are teaching is not considered by collegiate educators as important preparation for college level courses, the question arises as to whether teachers might find themselves more productively using their time focusing more on the basics, real-life applications of chemistry, and inquiry-based learning which in the long-term may well encourage students into science related fields professionally (1).

What we teach in high school is heavily influenced by what we've always done and an apparently mistaken belief, reflected in the content heavy curriculums of the science teachers surveyed, that heavily content laden courses are the best route for college prep of students. Deters (1) makes the following point:

"As many surveys of college professors indicate that content is less important than process skills, study skills, interest, and lack of fear in the subject, then high school teachers would better prepare their students by setting these as their goals and using content as the avenue through which to meet these goals."

Where the line should be drawn in content, how much emphasis should be placed on process skills, where inquiry-based teaching and learning should fit into the overall plan (Deters found that while most chemistry teachers believe this is an important tool in the teaching toolbox, about 45% of the teaching population is not using it (1)), how we should convince those in charge that, as Deters puts it, "... that less can be more ...", and how we can work to increase interest and reduce fear in chemistry in particular and science in general, all stand as some of the more pressing challenges for chemistry teachers today.

1. Deters, K. Accepted for and pending publication J. Chem. Educ. as of Aug 2005. What Are We Teaching in High School Chemistry?
2. Deters, K. J. Chem. Educ. 2003, 80,1153. What Should We Teach in High School hemistry?
3. Mitchell, T. J. Chem. Educ. 1989, 66, 563. What Do Instructors Expect from Beginning Chemistry Students? Part I
4. Mitchell, I. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 116. What Do Instructors Expect from Beginning Chemistry Students? Part II
5. Gold, M. J. Chem. Educ. 1988, 65, 781. Chemical Education: An Obsession with Content.
Note: Blogger is willing to send the articles (collectively about 1 megabyte) to anyone interested who sends an email request (not a request through the comment section of the blog) to science_teach(at)cox(dot)net.

Friday, July 29, 2005

What's in a Name?

This once was Jimmy, then Jim, and now he's James

This has been on my mind lately, the name thing. My name, as many others, runs naturally to a diminutive and, again like many others, a childish one at that (put "ie" or "y" after a given name and you have a child's name, which I've come to find happens in Farsi, the language of Iranians, too, so my guess is that this is likely a cultural rule of thumb of some sort.) In the days when I was a young boy growing up James was invariably turned into Jimmy. I don't recall having a problem with that, and inasmuch as my father was "Jim" it didn't seem out of place to me. Eventually I, too, became Jim, and somehow James was relegated to signatures and roll calls, but otherwise never spoken as a personal identifier. That said, my mother still calls me "Jimmy", a luxury conferred only upon her at this point in my life.

Believe it or not it took my getting out of the Navy to change that. I don't recall when, it was a few years before I actually got out, but I started to see myself more as a James than a Jim. I
can't say what specifically drove me to that, though part of it was a correspondence with a wonderful friend in Saudi Arabia who flat out said, "I can't begin to think of calling you Jim; you're James to me." That declaration got me thinking. Somayya, my Saudi friend, never explained why this was so, i.e. why to her I was a James vice a Jim, but there was no mistaking the fact that the more I thought about it the more I realized that I preferred James over Jim.
So James I became.

Transitioning out of the Navy made this a bit easier as it made for a huge change in many aspects of my life. People I was involved with professionally, who heretofore knew me as Jim, I no longer saw every day and with my traveling and their eventual transfer to other commands
(we military people are a decidedly nomadic lot) I found that I was interacting with fewer and fewer people who knew me as Jim, and new people were introduced to me as James. There are many in my past who know me as Jim and that's how they'll always know me, though my wife and our friends here all know me as James. It sort of creates a split social existence, but that's ok especially since I find that many friends and relatives who once called me Jim (I do not force the Jim to James thing with them, with my seeing it as not their problem given that this is how they knew me for many, many years) begin to call me James when they see that this is what my wife calls me.

You don't run into many James', though today it's more common than 20 or 30 years ago. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's too much a name of King's - the King James Bible. Or too otherwise pretentious in some odd British way; saying you were Sir Jim somehow doesn't have the same verve as Sir James. Whatever the reason it's not common to hear "James" and then from there not take it to Jim; my life is now studded with, "I'm sorry, but I go by James, not Jim." Jim, or better yet Jimmy, is perceived to be more common, more a "people's" name. It's not that I don't see myself as common, or a people, but rather that I more prefer James to Jim and according to my birth certificate I'm entitled to be called what I prefer.

What I find interesting are the number of people who automatically call you Jim. If you write to them and sign off your email/letter as James, they'll respond to you with "Dear Jim". You'll be introduced to someone as James, and immediately they'll respond to you with, "It's nice to meet you Jim." Now the latter I can more easily understand, people do what they naturally do and most take James and turn it into Jim. But when someone signs off their name as James you'd think that the person who's responding would take the hint, take notice of how someone identifies themselves in their sign off --- frequently no, they don't.

I suppose in one respect it's odd for me to decide that I wish to be called something other than what I've normally been called most of my life, especially when given the choice the average person will take James and turn it into Jim - so what if James is your name, the "rules" say we can call you something else. Well, yes, I suppose it's odd, but then it's sort of nice, it's not often you get to re-discover your name, and then find that you prefer it to the one you've been living by for the past 45 some years, and moreover make it the name you go by. I suppose it's never too late to find some part of yourself.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

What Kind of War is it When We All Don't Feel the Pain?

All Quiet on the Home Front, and Some Soldiers Are Asking Why by Thom Shanker ran on Sunday. From the article:

From bases in Iraq and across the United States to the Pentagon and the military's war colleges, officers and enlisted personnel quietly raise a question for political leaders: if America is truly on a war footing, why is so little sacrifice asked of the nation at large?

There is no serious talk of a draft to share the burden of fighting across the broad citizenry, and neither Republicans nor Democrats are pressing for a tax increase to force Americans to cover the $5 billion a month in costs from Iraq, Afghanistan and new counterterrorism missions.

There are not even concerted efforts like the savings-bond drives or gasoline rationing that helped to unite the country behind its fighting forces in wars past.

"Nobody in America is asked to sacrifice, except us," said one officer just back from a yearlong tour in Iraq, voicing a frustration now drawing the attention of academic specialists in military sociology.

You'd think that with a war on that's up to this point sucked up over $200 billion dollars at a point in our fiscal history when we've actually cut taxes (we're spending more at a rate we didn't anticipate and still can't anticipate, but cutting back on the taxes that we use to finance that spending --- I'll never figure this out), that something would be asked of us, to help us share the pain in this endeavor. But that's the point, there's no pain to be felt, there's not much being asked of you and me, and for those with family members who've been killed or maimed in the war they're small potatoes and they don't count, at least not to the extent that the rest of us come close to feeling whatever they've had to go through and they sure as heck don't make enough of a political constituency to make any sort of blip on a congressperson's or senator's radar screen.

I read or hear people talking about a possible draft --- it's not going to happen, I'd bet money on it. The reason for that is first the military doesn't want it (it takes far too much to train new recruits that you only get to keep for four years vice the minimum of four you get with volunteers), and lastly, and more importantly, it would indeed force ALL Americans to look at what they have to sacrifice in support of misguided endeavors such as the one we're in now. Frankly that's likely a good thing, but politicians like Bush aren't about to go there; he doesn't want you to feel any pain at all.

Bush's answer to this sense of disproportionate sacrifice is to build a volunteer corps, to wit:

In an interview, Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, said that discussions had begun on a program to seek commitments from bankers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, electricians, plumbers and solid-waste disposal experts to deploy to conflict zones for months at a time on reconstruction assignments, to relieve pressure on the military.

When President Bush last addressed the issue of nationwide support for the war effort in a formal speech, he asked Americans to use the Fourth of July as a time to "find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field or helping the military family down the street."

In the speech, at Fort Bragg, N.C., on June 28, Mr. Bush mentioned a Defense Department Web site,, where people can learn about private-sector efforts to bolster the morale of the troops. He also urged those considering a career in the military to enlist because "there is no higher calling than service in our armed forces."

Well, gee, let's just roll out the volunteer wagon and scoop us up some lawyers, electricians, and solid-waste disposal experts (correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't most of those guys in the mob, or have I been watching too many episodes of the Sopranos?), ship them over to Iraq where they, too, can get pissed off about working elbow to elbow with contractors doing the same thing but who are being paid megabucks, on our collective tax dollar, for being there. I'd guess that they're just beating all those volunteers with sticks there's so many of them.

We're building up an extraordinary debt due to this "war", a debt that will more likely than not be passed down to our children, and the men and women actually fighting the war or in other ways making significant sacrifices (a supply clerk, who may never "see action", in Iraq is still in a dangerous environment and if they're a reservist they're away from home and their job, not an insignificant sacrifice) are legitimately starting to ask why in the world are they the only ones expected to give up something, and mind you in their cases it's very possibly their lives we're talking about here, to support this war on terror?

On some level you have to give people like Bush credit when they manage to take on huge endeavors that they don't ask the average Jane or John to worry about, in particular with having to pay for it. As I said, Bush doesn't want you to feel pain, he doesn't want to inconvenience your day-to-day life, he'd rather you make your pain and inconvenience an inheritance, something you can pass along to the next generation. That's Bush gets away with this is nothing shy of amazing, but that we let him, in all the ways that he's managing to do it, says a lot about us that's not very good to consider and sure and heck will be hard to explain to our kids and grandkids.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Carnival of Education

I was just reading Hedwig's Blog, who's a wonderful and very prolific writer, and she reminded me that I didn't give a plug to the The Carnival of Education - Week 24, where I managed to actually have something accepted. There's a new Carnival coming up this week, likely tomorrow. Good stuff, and worth checking into if you want to have some clue about what's going on in the world of education.


I took a trip into school yesterday to get a feel for what awaits me in the classroom --- that didn't exactly make me happy, but hey, I keep telling myself that it can only go up from here. I have no clue what I have with regards to glassware, what of it I should keep since a lot of it has chemicals etched into the glass, things are put away in no particular order, and I have no sense of what this guy was up to, though he didn't lack for stuff to do it with, some of it over 40 years old.

But that's not what I'm here to report, no, it's another incident of road rage. That makes two in the last two months, the last time was in early June, and I'm beginning to wonder if I should be really concerned about living, or at least driving here in Rhode Island. The problem with this incident is that for the life of me I have zero clue as to what brought it on. I hadn't done anything as near as I could tell. Of course that doesn't exclude the possibility that I did something very reckless or potentially dangerous and wasn't mindful of it, but that's not my normal modus operandi and as a rule of thumb if I've done something dumb I'm pretty much aware of it.

I'm driving on route 1 north, heading home, and I hear someone beeping their horn as we all come to a stop light. I look to my right and there's a black pick up truck, driven by a redneck-looking guy who's very agitated and sticking his head out his window to yell somewhat apoplectically at me, "You better learn how to drive!" I'm a bit stunned, I have no clue what has
brought this on. I suppose my next response wasn't especially helpful as, noticing the light changing, I nod my head yes, and raise my right hand and flutter my fingers at him as if to say, "Toodles!", and then pull away. He wasn't going to have any of this, no siree, so the next thing I hear is a mild thud against the back of my car --- he threw his chicken salad sandwich at the
back of my car! I can see pieces of lettuce and streaks of mayo, and some particulate matter that I was later able to make out to be something akin to chicken, splayed across my back window.

Fortunately I had a good lead on him, at least three cars, because it was pretty clear that he was looking to get up behind me. At one point he went so far as to almost drive around the car behind me by passing it on the left hand side --- mind you, we were all in the left lane at that point so there wasn't any "road" to pass on. I made my way over to the right hand lane where I could wedge myself into other cars to avoid this Neanderthal, and as it turned out the traffic flow was such that he wasn't able to get over to where I was, instead finding himself passing me by, which I'd guess was what I had somehow stopped him from doing earlier without being aware of it.

As I watch this cretin turn off the road to get to wherever his presence was so urgently required, I'm sitting there thinking to myself "What in the world did I do that merited someone throwing their lunch at me? And "I'm" the bad driver? This butthead is dining and driving, throwing leftovers at whomever pisses him off, and making a general road nuisance of himself all in one fell swoop."

There's no accounting for someone like this, they just happen to you like the dog turd you step in when you're not watching. This time I kept my presence of mind, though the finger fluttering (I never showed a curse finger at anytime) likely didn't help --- he probably considered this my being disrespectful after he so kindly attempted to correct my driving skills. I was mindful of the ever ready cell phone, and made a point of taking his license plate down as he was forced to move ahead of me, so I was prepared to deal with this more sensibly and likely with a more satisfactory resolution than the first time should it have come down to that. But really, what in the world is it that causes people to act like this? It's ridiculous, you can't control your rage, you let yourself get angry over something that on the whole you should assume happened without the least bit deliberateness to you, i.e. the other person may have done something stupid but there's no reason to think it was done solely for your benefit and therefore there's zero reason to take it personally. Or maybe finger flutters are more derogatory and nasty than I ever thought --- I better learn to control those fingers. Let me tell you, mayonnaise cooked onto your back window in the summer sun is a pain in the butt to clean off.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Capitalism Ain't User-Friendly.


Taken from the minimum wage by a work year of 50, 40-hour weeks gives the annual earnings that can be expected from a minimum wage job. The red line is the poverty level annual income for a family of four. Minimum wages have never been sufficient to raise a family out of poverty, if only one member of the family works [Blogger's note: the red and blue values have been adjusted for inflation to allow for a comparison of annual wages and the poverty level over a span of the years since the poverty level was introduced as a government income measure in 1959.]

Today's subject came to me as I was skimming through the Times a few days ago and saw the following article in the top 25 emailed articles list that the online version of the paper runs:
How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart
; in fact it was running in the number 1 position as the most emailed article and continued to do so until sometime on Sunday - it's still in the top 10 as of this blog posting. This reminded me of a piece I listened to about a year ago on NPR, and I went looking for it and, lo and behold found it: NPR : Costco's Business Philosophy Questioned on Wall Street.

How an oxymoron like "Working Poor" can exist in the one superpower on the planet is a bit hard for me to understand, but I guess I'm just that kinda guy. What's the working poor, you may ask? People who are out there working, trying to stay off welfare and any sort of public subsistence, but find themselves in jobs that pay the U.S. minimum wage, which for those not
familiar with it is $5.15/hr (for a 40 hour week that's $206/week, $10,712/year, before taxes), can't make it on that wage (wow, really?). Of course this requires them to get an additional job, and if they have kids they now incur the cost of childcare, and ...well, you get the idea. To put a finer point on it, in 2003 if you made an income equal to or greater than $18,400 you were above the poverty level for a family of four --- of course you can't make that on a minimum wage income, and it also bears knowing that the common belief is that you would need a minimum income of about $35,000/year to adequately support a family of four.

There are many working poor in this country, especially without any healthcare. The healthcare issue is important - if the working poor get sick and they can't afford healthcare the fact is that it can't be refused to them, something has to be done for help them get well. Guess who gets to pay for that? Yep, you and I, the taxpayer. When Wal-Mart/Sam's [for those not in the know, Sam's owns Wal-Mart] makes it too expensive for their employees to buy into healthcare in reality the company's pushing the cost for that employee's ill-health, and their kid's ill-health, on us; it does make it easier for you to buy things more cheaply, though.

What amazes me is that it's not that by and large the working poor are willing to work hard, they just can't find a job that will pay them a decent wage and benefits for their efforts. Why is that? Well in this country we're more interested in pleasing Wall St. and corporate investors than we are in making sure people have a decent wage and coverage for things like health and dental care. But, alas, not all corporations seem to live by this rule of business. Here's how the introduction to the NPR report reads:

"The membership discount store Costco is doing incredibly well in terms of sales. Customers seem pleased with low prices and employees like the fact that they're paid more than the industry average. But some Wall Street observers say shareholders should be receiving more benefits from the company."

One Costco worker interviewed said that he'd been working at the drug chain CVS for ten years and left with an hourly wage of $7/hr after that time. After 7 years at Costco he was making $17. A starting cashier makes $10.50/hr, and after three years with promotions and bonuses could be making close to $45,000/yr. Moreover employees receive reasonable and affordable dental and medical coverage, with affordable family benefits; needless to say these are livable wages. If you read "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich, you learn how she had a terrible time trying to get by on what she was being paid at Wal-Mart and medical benefits for herself, much less for a family if she had one to worry about, were simply not affordable.

The NPR reporter talks to a couple of financial analysts about Costco and why Wall Street has a problem with it. One tells us that if you work or shop at Costco there's absolutely nothing not to love about the company. But if you were a shareholder there's a lot not to love in that the company doesn't wring the most it can out of salaries, benefits and health care costs, unlike
Wal-Mart/Sam's. The analyst goes onto say that the company's stock would be more attractive if the company wasn't so eager to please its employees and customers. A specific bone of contention was that the health care provisions for employees were far too generous, and the costs that were going to this could otherwise be diverted to investors. I sat there listening to this woman talk about healthcare benefits that were too expensive and thought to myself that her healthcare package likely well exceeds that of a Costco employee, but I'm sure in her mind she's entitled to this because she has an MBA.

A similar point is made in the Times article:

But not everyone is happy with Costco's business strategy. Some Wall Street analysts assert that Mr. Sinegal [Blogger's note: the company CEO] is overly generous not only to Costco's customers but to its workers as well.

Costco's average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco "it's better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder."

Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street's assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street's profit demands.

Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."

Is it good for business? Well the article tells us this:

IF shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal's philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco's stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart's has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19. Mr. Dreher said Costco's share price was so high because so many people love the company. "It's a cult stock," he said.

So the stock is doing better than Wal-Mart/Sam's, the stockholders seem to love it, and this guy at Deutsche bank, who I'm sure is a bright person who's very capable and all that, poo poos all this by labeling Costco as a "cult stock". Wow. It's not that Costco uses a business model that
validates and rewards its human capital and that, therefore, is one that's worthy of emulation, uh uh, nope - according to this clever analyst you have to be a lover of scientology or a moonie before you can make a logical case for buying the stock and otherwise Costco's success has nothing to teach business in general.

The credo for Costco is "Take care of your customers and your employees and your success will take care of your investors." I like that thinking, and I didn't until now appreciate how radical that is. Wall St. doesn't care about customers, and it sure and heck doesn't give a rat's butt about employees; it wants the highest return on its investment that it can find, which means miserly wages and miniscule healthcare coverage, a la Sam's/Wal-Mart, and taking the customer as far in price as you can possibly get away with. What does Costco have to show for its credo? Going to this snippet from an article written by John Helyar and Ann Harrington that originally appeared in Fortune Magazine on November 24, 2003:

"Consider some figures. Sam's Club has 71% more U.S. stores than Costco (532 to 312), yet for the year ended Aug. 31, Costco had 5% more sales ($34.4 billion vs. an estimated $32.9 billion). The average Costco store generates nearly double the revenue of a Sam's Club ($112 million vs. $63 million). Costco is the U.S.'s biggest seller of fine wines ($600 million a year) and baster of poultry (55,000 rotisserie chickens a day). Last year it sold 45 million hot dogs at $1.50 each and 60,000 carats of diamonds at up to $100,000. Chef Julia Child buys meat at Costco. Yuppies seek the latest gadgets there. Even people who don't have to pinch pennies shop at Costco. "I like bargain securities," says Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger, a Costco shopper, investor, and director. "Why shouldn't I like bargain golf balls?"

Costco is beating out Sam's/Wal-Mart, but at the same time making the analysts on Wall St. unhappy because the investor isn't getting as much out of the store as they possibly could. Well, that's a problem I suppose, inasmuch as the investor is a capitalist and is investing to make money, and, therefore, should be expecting to get the most back on their investment. The fact that there's millions of happy customers and some tens of thousands of happy employees seems all a bit besides the point. Yep, that's how the system works, and it hits me that somehow there's something fundamentally not right with this. I suppose making money is important, but at what point does this outweigh whatever social responsibility there may be for providing people jobs with decent wages and the sort of healthcare that someone living in a country like the U.S. should come to expect? I don't know, I'm not sure, but I do know this bothers me. I also know something else:

Costco now has all my business when it comes to this kind of shopping - I now need to go and buy some of its stock and become a cult member.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Things You Think About in an Ob/Gyn Clinic

First, the good news: I have the job definitively, contractually, and any other way one could have a job. Heck, I even have keys to the classroom at this point. That's good, but then figuring out what insurance plan I want, whether I want my paycheck in 21 installments or 26, and the list goes on, that's bending my brain a little bit. I'll get over it.

Thursday I got to go with my darling wife to her first obstetrician's appointment. Given that this was the first one I wasn't invited in and sat out in the waiting room; that was interesting. Being the first visit it was longer than a regular visit might otherwise be so I got to spend a lot of time in the waiting area. That is not a problem for me as I always come with some sort of reading material to keep myself occupied and this was no exception, having arrived with a magazine and something I printed out before I left the house. But this is a waiting room in a clinic where by and large the patients are women who are pregnant or often with child in tow. The pregnant women didn't give me much to think about; the kids, though, did.

One pregnant woman came in with her sister and her young daughter. The little girl was about 3 and adorable. She's clearly going to turn into a very lovely young woman. She wanted out of the stroller as soon as her mother parked herself in a seat. Given her freedom she began to wonder around the waiting area, while her aunt took up tracking duty, making sure the little girl didn't get into anything she shouldn't. The girl was clearly very accustomed to getting her way as her responsiveness to both her mother and her aunt wasn't what you'd call very prompt or attentive. She basically ignored what was said until she was pulled away from what she was told not to do, and at that point she'd make her displeasure known in anything but a cute way, in fact she was decidedly irritating to anyone who had to listen to her.

Now this was balanced by a family that had come in, which included mom, dad, and three children. Mom was called in for her appointment and dad took charge, but not in anything like an obvious way inasmuch as his kids seemed to be very well-behaved. He, too, had a daughter, though she was closer to about 8 years old. She will also be a pretty young woman, and a person with a good heart it seems. The younger girl came in and immediately wanted to play with a toy that was near the older girl, which her brother, closer to her age than the 3 year old, had been playing with. The older girl, unasked by anyone, picked up the game and brought it closer to the new arrival so she could play with it.

There was nothing about any of this that especially caught my attention. It's not really fair to compare an 8 year old to a 3 year old, they're both in two different worlds of development and self and "other" awareness. What tripped me over into thinking about what I would do were I the parent of the little girl was something that occurred just as the she was leaving with her mom. Another woman was sitting down a few seats away from me. The little girl was waiting to leave as her mother and aunt were in the process of getting their things together. I could hear the woman rustling some cellophane paper, apparently taking out a candy and unwrapping it to eat. The little girl made a bee line to the woman, having heard what I had and making the association with candy. Her mother saw this and immediately told her daughter, "No, come back here, we're leaving." The little girl didn't listen, and brazenly (for as much as a three year old can be legitimately brazen) stood in front of the candy un-wrapper, looking straight at her, while mom in the background is saying "No." The little girl stayed in place for a good 15 seconds or so and the woman, being like most of us, gave in, handing over whatever it was that she had unwrapped. The mother and the aunt both thanked the women profusely, with what I would imagine was some measure of embarrassment, and scooped up the little girl and headed out the door.

I remember thinking to myself: The mother is going to have a bad life with this kid. The child's behavior to begin with was not in keeping with an example of a well-disciplined child, but then often times something like that can be chalked up to crankiness of whatever. The candy incident though, that to me was telling. If it were my mother the second she said "No" that would have been it, and had I continued to stand there I'd have gotten a bottom slap for doing so, and if indeed the woman had made the effort to pass me a piece of candy it would have been returned immediately, regardless of any protestations from the candy-giver.

In my day, and in all honesty I think it's still an excellent rule of thumb, I was taught that no is no, you listen to what you're told and you do what you're told when you hear it, and you certainly never expect to get away with being selective about what you, and your mother, darn well know you heard. The lesson this mother taught to her daughter was that no doesn't always mean no, that you don't have to necessarily pay attention to your mother when she tells you something you don't want to hear, and if you're brazen enough you'll often get what you want. The last lesson isn't necessarily a bad one, but in combination with the first two it will make for a far more difficult older child and I don't want to even think what sort of teenager and adult can come out of this.

Now in all fairness I've not seen this mother and daughter interact but this one time. But then maybe that's as much as you need to see sometimes. If nothing else it sure and heck got me to thinking --- my guess is that I'll have plenty of opportunity for reflections on child rearing as I sit in the Ob-Gyn waiting room; who'd have thought? I'm feeling enlightened --- actually, between the new job, figuring out where the money's going to go, what needs to be bought, life insurance, saving for college, and on and on, I think I'm feeling something a bit more heavy than enlightenment. Hey, that Navy training will carry me through, but let me tell you, this is some crazy times and I'm paying attention to kids far more than I ever did before.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Iraq: What You're Likely to Get for Your Blood And Tax DollarsIraq.gif

Two very good articles out this week. The first by Seymour Hersh, Get Out the Vote: Did Washington Try to Manipulate Iraq's Election? Hersh takes us back to the much vaunted election back in January of this year and lays out how it would seem to appear that we managed to spill a lot of money into the election process specifically to sway an outcome that we wanted. Well, really, it would indeed be embarrassing to find that we didn't get what we wanted after all that effort, but what's really ironic is even after all that money was spent we still didn't get a result that was favorable to us --- a Kurdish prime minister elect was not in the cards. Hersh's main point is that we went in to bring freedom and democracy, but we really didn't want true democracy as that wouldn't work out in our favor, which is why we were trying to sway the vote. Hersh touches on the fact that more and more of Iraq is moving in the direction of Iran; now who would have thought THAT could occur? Well, I suppose any political science undergraduate with a smattering of Middle Eastern history under his/her belt would, but I digress ...

Then there's Peter W. Galbraith's article in the New York Review of Books, Iraq: Bush's Islamic Republic. Galbraith deals much more specifically with where things are going in Iraq vis-a-vis the Iranians. Basically it would seem it's all a matter of time before the Iranians have a new little brother to the west. Already the Iraqi government has apologized for the Iran-Iraq war, which, as Galbraith points out, on the whole may well be historically correct --- though the Iranians have the war years '82 through '88 to take the blame for --- but the Sunni minority were infuriated that an apology was made; the Iraqi government recently established a defense agreement with the Iranians; and there's recently been an agreement to run an Iraqi oil pipeline through Iranian territory into the Persian Gulf, something inconceivable during Sadaam's time. Lastly, but no less significantly, there's now talk about the new Iraqi constitution curbing women's rights and restricting certain freedoms (NY Times - Iraqi Constitution May Curb Women's Rights.)

In addition two Sunnis involved in writing the new Iraqi Constitution were recently gunned down (NY Times - 2 Sunnis at Work on Constitution Are Shot Dead in Car in Baghdad). The Sunnis were the more secular of the participants in Constitution building, with a greater inclination to sustain the secularism that dominanted Iraqi life during the time of Sadaam. The Shiites, on the opposite hand, are inclined to build a Constitution that is based on Sharia, or Islamic law, which would make Iraq's government very similar to Iran's.

So what's our blood and money, not to mention Iraqi blood and money, likely to buy when the final bill of goods is laid out for all to see? Here's what I prognosticate:

1. A country that at best will be divided three ways, with Shiites (about 55% of the population) in the south with 80% of the Iraqi oil reserves. The Shiites have no love for the U.S. - as far as they're concerned out invasion this time made up for the one we didn't do back during Gulf War I, and for which they were killed in large numbers when they believed that Bush I was going to support them when they rose up against Sadaam. Iran, though, has consistently been their friend and supported them when it was possible to do so; who do you think they'll be getting cozy with in the coming years?

The Kurds (about 20% of the population) will take over the north of Iraq, with 20% of the countries oil reserves going to them. Ultimately they will likely try to form their own country, but for the short term they'll be happy with semi-autonomy. They, too, have no great love for the U.S., for reasons similar to the Shiites, but they've been pissed on by so many in the world for so long they don't hold as much of a grudge as the Shiites do.The Sunnis (about 20% of the population) will continue to occupy the middle of the country, and continue fueling the insurgency against the U.S. and the Shiites. In the end it's not clear what they'll be left with, but their fortunes will likely be dramatically different from when they had it good under Sadaam.

2. Iran will be in a much stronger position in the world with a friend to its west that is largely populated by co-religionists who have some measure of gratitude in their hearts for the support the Iranians provided them. They, along with a good part of the Iraqis, will wait until the indigenous Iraqi government is strong enough to survive the insurgents, and a new node of power in the Middle East will arise as the Americans will be asked to leave.

3. If the Bush administration and the Pentagon strenuously take exception with the inclinations of the Iraqi government, or more aptly the majority of the Iraqi people, and Iran, we might well see another war in Iraq. This time, though, the insurgents we'd be fighting would not be solely Sunnis, but well-armed and trained Shiites, and quite possibly equally well-armed and even better trained Kurds as well. If you think we're having a hard time of it up to now, what's going on now would be a side show to what could potentially happen later.

The reason we're at this point? The hubris of the Bush administration, specifically with regard to a complete lack of understanding regarding what it was getting itself into and what it was going to need to do to extricate itself and actually leave something behind that was functional
and friendly to this country (note: I'm not in the least bit sure we could have gone in and left something functional and friendly to this country.) This is additionally exacerbated by a policy of deliberate belligerence to Iran --- indeed, Iran has its problems, as do we, and making nice nice after all these years would have taken some effort, but it's an effort that hasn't extended past our giving the Europeans a nod to use an invitation to the Iranians to join the WTO if they curtailed their nuclear efforts. This is unacceptable, and so shortsighted and fundamentally
idiotic it begs one to question what sort of ding-a-lings are running this show. Hold it, hold it,
maybe the same ones that went into Iraq thinking that they'd dump some democracy on the country and we'd all live happily ever after --- major "duh" epiphany here! To think that we'd take a major incursion next door to Iran, into a country where 60% of the people are co-religionists to the Iranians (you see, that's the other part of the problem here, in this country we don't seem to get the fact that religion drives things in this part of the world), and not expect the Iranians to actively working in their own interests, and then not try to make peace with Iran so maybe we could all meet somewhere in the middle, is totally mind blowing. But here's the hubris part in spades: We're more clever than the Iranians, we're more powerful, of course we'll have our way; who cares that the Iranians have been playing games in this part of the world for over 2,000 years.

The Iranians tried for 8 years to get to Sadaam --- we did it for them. The Iranians wanted an apology from Iraq (badly, I mean they REALLY wanted an apology, you'd be surprised to what degree Iranians and their seeing themselves wronged in the war with Iraq is such a factor in relations here) --- thanks to us and a newly elected Kurdish prime minister, they have one. The
Iranians wanted to feel safe along their border with Iraq --- when we're gone, and thanks to us, they will be. The Iranians want to spread the Islamic Revolution begun with Khomeini throughout the region --- thanks to us they now have their foot in the door in Iraq. The Iranians wanted unfettered access to their holy cities in Najaf and Karballa --- thanks to us they do. The Irony of it all is that they have G.W. Bush, the man who held them up as member number 2 in the axis of evil, to thank for all of this, as well as you and me, the American taxpayer, and our sons, daughters, husbands, and wives who are spilling their blood in the effort for "Iraqi Freedom and Democracy".

Thursday, July 21, 2005



My sister rises from our bed hours before dawn.
I smell her first cigarette and fall back asleep
until she sits on the foot of the bed to pull
on her boots. I shouldn't look, but I do,
knowing she's still naked from the waist up.
She sees me looking and smiles, musses my hair,
whispers something secret into my ear, something
I can't tell anyone because it makes no sense.
Hours later I waken in an empty room
smelling of no yesterdays. The sunlight streams
across the foot of the bed, and for a moment
I actually think it's Saturday, and I'm free.
Let me be frank about this: my older sister
is not smart. I answer all her mail for her,
and on Sundays I even make dinner because
the one cookbook confuses her, although
it claims to be the way to a man's heart.
She wants to learn the way, she wants
a husband, she tells me, but at twenty-six she's
beginning to wonder. She makes good money
doing piece work, assembling the cups that cap
the four ends of a cross of a universal joint.
I've seen her at work, her face cut with slashes
of grease while with tweezers she positions
the tiny rods faster than you or I could ever,
her eyes fixed behind tiny goggles, her mind God
knows where, roaming over all the errors
she thinks make her life. She doesn't know why
her men aren't good to her. I've rubbed
hand cream into the bruises on her shoulders,
I've seen what they've done, I've even cried
along with her. By now I believe I know
exactly what you're thinking. Although I don't
get home until after one, we sleep
in the same bed every night, unless she's
not home. If you're thinking there's no way
we wouldn't be driven to each other, no way
we could resist, no way someone as wronged
as my beautiful sister could have a choice
about something so basic, then you're
the one who's wrong. You haven't heard a word.

Philip Levine

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ya Gotta Have a Plan, or a Good Back Up Story.


I myself think talking point #4 carries the day --- those tricky liberals from the media will get those innocent Republicans every time!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I'm Gonna Be a Daddy!


The very first picture of Chaneeca! I made up that name, if it's a boy he becomes Chaneeco; when he/she is born they'll get an appropriate Farsi first name.

I'm still a bit in awe about this ... way cool.

Which Way to Go --- III

Thank God, the pay and benefits got better by 1980.

We last left our blogger being told by his recruiter, as they walked out of the ASVAB test center, that he was eligible for the Navy's officer program and, moreover, someone would be waiting at the recruiting station to talk to him about this option. Our blogger, being ignorant of officer candidate school, was intrigued and excited as he headed back to the recruiting station, located at the junction of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse, in a not-so-beautiful section of the Bronx.

I was genuinely surprised that I was a potential candidate for the Navy's officer program. It didn't take me long to figure out that given the two options in front of me, which were: 1. going into the Navy as an enlisted man, or 2. going in as an officer, that the latter would likely be far more challenging, interesting, and far more likely lead to something interesting after I completed my four year obligation. So I was primed for this officer thing, though not at all
familiar with what was going to be required of me. I was also somewhat surprised that the system kicked over the way it did, i.e. the recruiter I had been dealing with had a sure thing in taking me into the nuclear power program as an enlisted recruit so it didn't seem to me that he gained anything by pushing me up to the officer program. In fact he didn't gain anything, unless he officer recruiter in question slipped him something for his time and trouble (later, after having to go through being an officer recruiter for a year, I found that this was a common practice --- it was often the only way the enlisted recruiter got anything out pushing someone over to the officer side of the house.) There are two possibilities here:

1. The recruiter himself felt it was the right thing to do and called an officer recruiter with the particulars on me. That's not outside the realm of possibility as I later did see recruiters do that. That said, for some recruiters making their monthly goal was what concerned them, as far as the potential recruit was concerned Caveat Emptor.

2. Talking to the chief at "oh dark thirty" on the day of the ASVAB may have swayed the decision to get in touch with the officer recruiters. He did show surprise at my background and he may have told the recruiter to get in touch with the officer recruiters as this would likely happen at some point along the way anyway.

Whatever the reason, the fickle finger of fate had turned in my direction and at this point there was no reason to question why. We arrived at the recruiting station and sure enough, there are
two guys waiting to talk to me. Both of them were in dress whites, one of them an officer, a Lieutenant (LT), the other a relatively senior (a yeoman first class, or E-6 --- the military's enlisted system goes from E-1, the lowest rank, to E-9) enlisted man who was a number of years older than the LT. It was close to noon so the LT offers to buy me a hot dog for lunch and recommends we go for a walk to discuss my options.

LT basically worked on selling me on the idea that the officer program was the better option for me to take. At this point selling me on the officer program didn't take much selling; I had made my mind up about a minute after I realized that these guys wanted me. Next I'm told that I should come down to the officer recruiting office at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan to take the officer test, which wasn't a problem as far as I was concerned given how many tests I had taken to this point. So I scheduled to go down the next day.

Taking the test the next morning wasn't at "oh dark thirty", thankfully. I found myself working through two tests, a generalized officer qualification test and one for pilots that basically tested spatial abilities. They took a total of about an hour and a half to do, and the results were determined within ten minutes of my completing them. I was good to go as far as the testing was concerned, to include being eligible for the aviation programs though I was later to find out, and it came as no surprise, that my vision had to be corrected to 20/20 which therefore meant that I couldn't be a pilot.

With having tested myself in the LT's attitude toward me became very serious, and the first thing he wants to push is my going into the officer nuclear power program. This I was very leery about doing. Admiral Rickover still ran the program and I knew enough to know that all nuclear candidates culminated their entrance process with an interview with Rickover, a man who didn't exactly have a positive reputation when it came to conducting interviews. I figured I could survive that, but I wasn't sure if I could sufficiently bone up on my physics and math prior to the other interviews and testing that happened before getting to Rickover. My problem with this was that I was never a natural when it came to physics and math, and the idea of having to bone up on both, when I was in this process vice at graduate school because I was fed up with studying, didn't hold very many positive possibilities in my mind. The LT recommended I take a two-day trip to Groton where potential candidates see the sub base there, go through the facilities, meet some nuclear-trained officers, basically get a two-day dog and pony show to try and induce them into joining the program.

The trip to Groton was interesting inasmuch as this was the first time I had ever been on a naval base, much less one dedicated to submarines. Groton at this point was pretty much the east coast's center for nuclear attack submarines. Such submarines were to be found in Norfolk and Portsmouth, NH, but nowhere near in the numbers found at Groton. I can't remember too terribly much about the visit to the base, though I do remember going through the damage control trainer used to teach submariners to deal with various types of casualties that they might see at sea. There are basically three issues of note when it comes to catastrophes at sea: explosions, fire, and flooding. This trainer taught sailors how to patch pipes that were ruptured in some way, either at the flange or due to a hole of some sort unexpectedly developing in the pipe. The experience is memorable because you're soaking wet from head to toe when it's all done, and you have some idea of how terrifying dealing with something like this must be when you're hundreds of feet below the ocean.

The Groton trip was interesting, and on some level fun, but I walked away from it telling myself that I'd never cut the things I needed to do to get into the program, especially the extra time the whole process would eat up; I wanted to get started, and the thought of having to work through extra studying to get going didn't appeal to me. So I opted for the general unrestricted line program, which in my case meant I'd be going in as a surface line officer, those daunting and glamorous few who work on surface ships - ok, a bit of hyperbole, the thing for me at this point was a four year job and an opportunity to see things I hadn't seen before; I'd get all that and more in my time ahead.

For a number of years after I made my decision I often asked myself if I had shortchanged myself on this, should I have pushed myself into the nuclear power program? There's a definite mystique and even glamour for me when it comes to submarines and the idea of harnessing nuclear power to move around the world. But I'm pretty sure I didn't have the right mindset to go into this --- I was definitely a school burn out by the time I left college and I barely had the patience to make it through the schooling at OCS, I can't imagine how I would have chaffed and likely under-performed in the nuclear power training pipeline which is, without a doubt, quite rigorous. On the whole I look at it now consider it just one of those things you look back and chalk up to one of life's roads not traveled; there are only so many choices you can make, and all you can do is make the best of those you do make.

Monday, July 18, 2005

All The News That's Fit To Print

I remember when I first encountered the acronym MSM - for those not familiar, "Main Stream Media". I was perusing blogs, having stared from the right of the political spectrum for some odd reason. I've since stopped deliberately going to right wing blogs, in particular the military blogs, as I often found myself taking exception with some point or another, commenting on it, and finding myself getting absolutely nowhere in the bargain. This certainly shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but I suppose some lessons in life have to be re-learned a few times before they sink in.

The big complaint from the righties had to do with how the MSM has nothing better to do than bad mouth the war, the current administration, and the man leading it all. I suppose at the time the silliness of this didn't quite sink in, I just shrugged it off in an unthinking sort of way, but I have recently found myself drawn back to this issue after finishing Michael Massing's Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq:

Massing wrote a few pieces for the NY Review of Books which have been compiled into this book, with an excellent preface by Orville Schell tacked on. Massing makes the point that the MSM, by and large, supported the Bush administration and all parties concerned as they brought this country into the war in Iraq. The exemplar of liberal east coast MSM, the one most excoriated by the right wing, the NY Times, was pretty much running at the head of the pack when it came to buying the administration's line on Iraq, etc., and ignoring naysayers who weren't comfortable with the spin they were expected to kowtow to coming out of Bush and his minions. On the whole the MSM wasn't asking the hard questions, and fundamentally wasn't being nearly as skeptical as one would expect based on its ostensible function in our society.

Massing offers the following explanation to explain why the American press came off so lamely:

"And why, he might have added, didn't the Post and the other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration's manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration's skill at controlling the flow of news. "Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I've seen," Knight Ridder's John Walcott observed [Blogger's note: Massingly cites Knight Ridder for actually getting the coverage reasonably on the mark, but there are no Knight Ridder papers in New York or Washington, DC, thereby limiting whatever exposure this different take on things would or should have gotten.] "They've made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work." That management could take both positive forms --- rewarding sympathetic reporters with leads, background interviews, and seats on official flights --- and negative ones --- freezing out reporters who didn't play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.

"Such sanctions were reinforced by the national political climate. With a popular president promoting war, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. This deprived reporters of opposition voices to quote, and of hearings to cover. Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President
[Blogger's note: I think I visited some of their blogs.] Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, "We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question." Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard, among others, all stood ready to pounce on journalists who strayed, branding them liberals or traitors - labels that could permanently damage a career. Gradually journalists began to muzzle themselves."

So the Fourth Estate was running scared at losing its access to information, in spite of the fact that the information it was relying on was tainted by faith-based reality, and there was a reluctance to be labeled a traitor by virtue of doing one's job. Of course you have to ask how close to the truth Massing has it, but then what we can pretty clearly see is that news coverage going into the war was pretty squarely behind the administration and the sort of hard questions that should have been asked weren't. Why that was I don't know, but it's pretty clear what did or didn't happen.

Now there's Judith Miller. She's the reporter that went to jail for not revealing her source regarding the CIA agent exposed by someone, apparently, within the Bush administration. Of course Miller, a veteran reporter for the NY Times, never wrote a story about Valerie Plame, the CIA agent in question, unlike Robert Novak who did and who talked to the source in person but for some reason isn't sitting in a prison cell. It does seem that Miller's something of a victim of an overly zealous Department of Justice prosecutor with too much time and money on his hands. That said, there's also the issue of to what degree any reporter in this situation is entitled to protection. I am one of those who's not sure that Miller was entitled to blow off a subpoena to testify before a grand jury when what she's protecting is someone within the administration using the press to forward a personal agenda. Now were the issue one of protecting a bonafide whistle blower I'd be a bit more conflicted by this, and would indeed be behind Miller. This is just to set the stage, my following point with regard to Miller and the Times is not to do with the freedom of the press.

While Miller may well be the victim of an overreaching prosecutor, there's one thing you can be sure and that's that this is NOT the administration's way of going after Miller for negative reporting, not at all. Massing makes the case that if anyone was a cheerleader for the Bush effort, if anyone was uncritically sucking up the information tripe spewing out of the government and questionable Iraqi defectors, and presenting to the readers of the Times poorly evaluated source information, it was Miller. So you can be sure that Judith Miller is not sitting in a prison cell because she torqued off someone, or a group of someones, within the administration as she was far more their friend than anything else when it came to selling this lovely war we now find ourselves mucking our way through. But there's irony here, no doubt, and maybe some twinge of poetic justice to boot - though, alas, there are many more people involved in the Iraq war fiasco who are FAR more deserving of poetic justice.

Massing's point is that the American MSM, in spite of what the right would have us believe, allowed itself to be cowed into being uncritical about the administration and what brought us to the war, and to this day sustains a myopia on how the war's being executed and the effects it's having on the people in the region. There are some, the Economist is one, that make the argument that many in the MSM, not the least being the NY Times, that are presently circling the White House with the scent of blood in their nostrils regarding Carl Rove or whomever it was that specifically blew the identity of Valerie Plame, are so zealous in their pursuit of this matter due to a desire to get even for their treatment by the administration leading up into the Iraq war; likely nothing is that simple, but then basic truths sometimes are wrapped in odd paper.

In this country the idea of the fourth estate was to provide an independent source for the illumination of the truth, as a tool to help ensure that politicians and government officials wouldn't lie, steal, or cheat and if they managed to do these things that eventually they'd be exposed doing so. But these days it seems that the MSM is only good in this role when the
situation it reports on is egregious, i.e. it's so obvious a thing that a first year journalism student would have a hard time getting the story wrong. This administration and how it works has brought us to this point, though the MSM enabled the process by virtue of it not having adequately done its job, and we all should be concerned about this. We may not always like the press, in fact many times we may deservedly despise it, but when it's so easily manipulated
ultimately we the people are the ones that are set up to be manipulated, and led into things that a more comprehensive and honest appraisal may well have caused us not to indulge or allow.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Quest For a Teaching Job

A Teacher and his Pupil by Claude Lefebvre

I'm still amazed at this process of getting the job that "unofficially" I now have. Well, let me try to explain this as finding a teaching job in the public school arena is unlike anything I've experienced anywhere else before. So what follows is my experience with getting a teaching job in the Rhode Island area, though my guess is that what I write about here is not unlike what you'd find in many other school districts throughout the country.

First you have to go through the process of applying for the job. I actually got quite good at this as I was able to process an application in about 30 to 60 mins so long as I wasn't being asked for odd things (more to follow) --- mostly everyone wanted the same documents, and you soon find yourself putting together files with those things in them to quickly extract items when required. From there it's a simple matter of fine tuning your cover letter which with Word shouldn't take more than 15 mins. I'd quickly scan the resume to be sure it's copasetic, and bingo, stuff it all into a large mailer and truck it down to the P.O. the next day (actually in a few cases that same day.) The first one was the hardest to get together, after that it was a piece of cake.

I would have thought that the application process would be pretty much standard from district to district in the state --- wrong, hardly is that the case at all. In fact there's so much that isn't standard it stretches the mind. I'm inclined to believe that were there more standardization that some significant money could be saved, but instead the application process is simply a maze for prospective teachers to make their way through as one deals with the nuanced, and some not so nuanced, differences/requirements laid out by the various school districts. I already howled a bit about the application process in Providence way back in May. To get your application into the Providence school system so as to have them deign to look at it, you'll spend anywhere from $50 to $100 depending on whether you've paid for state and national background checks before (and they're within the time frame Providence is asking for), had a TB test, a test for hepatitis, and then the usual stuff with "official" transcripts (most school districts will take copies, figuring that if they need "official" anything you'll be able to produce them readily enough), references, etc. I'm not sure why Providence is so concerned about TB and hepatitis carriers BEFORE they offer a job (maybe to protect the interview committee? I hadn't thought of that --- how progressive!), but you're out big bucks just to get your application in the door.

Every school I was interviewed at started off wanting my copies, vice "official" copies, of what I had, no one asked for any medical information (note: to do student teaching you have to have had a TB test, and in all honesty I have no clue yet what will be expected of me before I start actually working), and some had an official application to fill in (usually about four pages in length) or simply wanted a letter of introduction from me to accompany the packet I sent in. Needless to say I didn't bother to apply to the Providence school district as my reaction to their ridiculous requirements was, "If they're making it that hard just for me to get my application in the door, how hard will they make my life in general as a teacher? No, I don't need this, not when I can apply for a job next to free in most other places in the state." Yes, Providence pays you more to work there, though that is actually more a gauge of how much more aggravation you can expect to incur for the privilege than it is their doing you the honor of recognizing and rewarding you for the difficulties inherent with your profession. Mind you, I could afford to be selective, I'm teaching chemistry and I've found that I'm a limited commodity, thank God.

Once past the application submission you're hopefully at some point called in for an interview, which will be with some form of school committee. At this point I've gone through six of these so I've some experience to pull from that I can report on. The "committee" composition is anyone's guess, though it's to be expected that at a minimum you'll be talking to the department head for the subject you'll be teaching. One exception to that in my case, in fact my very first interview for a job which easily turned into the most unusual one, was at a charter school where the only person I talked to was the "co-principal". Let me linger on this experience a bit.

There were many interesting things about the charter school, being interviewed by a co-principal merely started the ball rolling. Prior to this I had some volunteer experience at a charter school in Providence. That school was run much like any other school I had visited during my training as a teacher, though there certainly seemed to be more discipline and follow-up directed at the students, in addition to the fact that all the students had to wear uniforms. This school was in an underprivileged part of the city and many of the kids there had failed in more traditional learning venues. As it turns out the school I was interviewing at and the one where I volunteered were serving very similar clienteles. On the whole, though, there was nothing about the school that I volunteered at that made me think I was off in another universe, in fact it seemed very much like the Catholic school I went to when I was a boy.

I assumed that being interviewed at a charter school would open me up for an interesting adventure in education; I wasn't to be disappointed. What took my breath away was being informed that there are times when teachers may find themselves taking students to doctor appointments because otherwise the students would have no other way of getting to them. Oh, I forgot, sometimes teachers will use their own cars to chauffeur the students to those appointments. Let me tell you, if there's one thing I've been consistently warned of it's keeping a professional distance between yourself and your students, never (except in emergency situations and then do so with extreme caution) introducing them into your "personal space" (i.e. your car, home, or anything else that would be deemed "personal"), and surely you don't ever put yourself in the situation of acting as their surrogate parent, to wit: going with them to a doctor's appointment. The co-principal noted the look of surprise on my face and proceeded to give a very reasoned and logical reason for why this sort of thing is necessary, while avoiding addressing the potentially substantial risks doing this could put on the teacher --- the possibilities are mind bending, but let's just take something relatively easy, like explaining to your insurance company how you got into a fender bender where the student was hurt while shuttling him/her in your car to the doctor. I was told that it wasn't a mandatory thing, but somehow it seemed to me that if you're working at a place where the head of the school thinks this is fine, and apparently had done this themselves, not doing it would likely not sit well with your colleagues who thought this was just part of the learning experience and service for all concerned.

If impromptu chauffeuring responsibilities hadn't done in any desire I had for the privilege of teaching in a non-union charter school, then being shown the fenced-in and abandoned oil storage tanks located behind the school was the coup de grace. The tanks had something of a lurid history as this was recently where a rather significant mercury spill had occurred, with the story making it into the local paper in a big way. The clean up was no small thing and apparently cost the local taxpayers a pretty penny. That by itself didn't necessarily attract my dismay, rather being informed by the co-principal that the area surrounding the tanks involved a recent school community project involving students scampering over the property to determine what sort of hazard the tanks presented to the river located below it - THIS got my attention. Now I think community projects are great, honestly I do, but I always thought that they should be the kind that don't potentially endanger students AND for which the students and the teacher-in-charge have some measure of expertise. But this is charter school land, what the heck do I know?

Ok, the charter school interview was a unique experience, the other interviews were pretty much straight forward and similar. Everywhere else I found myself interviewed by the head of the department, usually one other teacher from the department, and the vice principal, though once a principal sat in (this was at an interview where there was a physics and history teacher, the head of the department, the school librarian, AND the principal), and in the other case I was interviewed by the head of the department and the school's guidance counselor --- this latter interview, primarily because I was interviewed by the guidance counselor, put me a bit off as I sat there wondering what guidance counselors know about chemistry and why should this be a committee of just two, the smallest I'd experienced at that point other than at the charter school.

One thing that I hadn't expected, in fact no one ever warned me about this one, came from the interview with the principal, et al. We were done with the interview and as near as I could tell things had gone well - the verdict is still out on this interview as far as the job is concerned inasmuch as I haven't heard back from them yet, but it's only been a week. Anyway, all's done, I'm getting ready to head home and the principal says, "Oh, there's one more thing I need, a writing sample." A writing sample? That was interesting. She took me to a room with a computer in it, brought up Word, and handed me a piece of paper with a part of the school's mission statement on it. She wanted me to write something about that detailed how I would work to make what was written on the paper a part of the learning experience for the students in my classes.

Questions from the school committee don't tend to be surprising, at least they shouldn't be. I was hit with mostly situational questions, like: What would you do if you were near two students starting to get into a fight with each other? How would you deal with different learning styles in the classroom? What sort of metrics do you use to evaluate your students? How would you deal with parents? General questions: What makes you the best candidate for this job? What from your life experiences can you bring to this job? What sort of extracurricular activities are you interested in being involved in? What do you think of teacher participation in dances and field trips? It was actually an interesting experience as I learned to go slow (not too slow, just slow enough to gather my thoughts) in answering questions lobbed at me, remembering to look at the person who asked the question as much as possible and otherwise periodically scanning everyone else as I answered, and always working to hook whatever I was answering to some "larger" educational concept/issue --- throw into the response something about standards, metrics, No Child Left Behind, differentiated learning/instruction, inquiry-based learning, or technology in the classroom and invariably you got a positive nod and slight smile; enough nods you pretty soon had a good idea how well the interview was going. I should also state that at no time, with any of the schools, was I ever asked a question that I thought was inappropriate or otherwise out of line.

In spite of being warned (the "warnings" I allude to here and below were all ones I had heard while in the certification program I was in --- we heard this from teachers and guest lecturers, like superintendents, who came in to talk to us) that I should have my teacher portfolio with me during my interviews; no one asked for it or even so much as mentioned it at the school committee level. For those not in the know, you compile a portfolio of the things you did during your teacher certification process. These "things" meet specific new teacher standards laid out by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), and after two years (I'd assume this is about the average time for certification in this state) you can imagine how much "stuff" accumulates in your portfolio --- in my case it filled two three-ring binders. I got smart, thankfully my lovely wife had bought me a multi-function printer which included a scanner, so ALL of my portfolio "stuff" is on a CD, taking up some 300 plus Mb of disk space.

If you're approved by the school committee you're about 90% of the way in the door; it's not a sure thing yet. You don't find out that day if they want you, it will likely be a week or more before you do and in some cases you may find yourself being asked to come work for the school after someone else declined or was otherwise unsuitable for the job. Unsuitable turns out to be anything from problems with a background check or something amiss in the credentials of the prospective teacher. A flat out decline is more likely to be the case as no prospective teacher in the job search process is being interviewed by just one school, and if the teacher has their act together they're not apt to put themselves up for a job where they're going to have a problem with credentials.

Next is your interview with the school principal. Here my experience is reduced to one as I've only allowed this process to go this far with just one school (so long as you don't count the interview with the "co-principal" and where the principal sat in to with the school committee.) Mind you, I didn't stop interviewing as I thought this was the smart thing to do if for any reason the job I was "offered" indeed didn't pan out, or otherwise something outstanding happened to come my way before I signed a contract (though it's anyone's guess what I would do if something great came my way after signing a contract --- frankly I hope not to have to deal with this dilemma and the truth is I pretty much feel that I have a pretty good deal in front of me right now.) I indeed was offered another job after I was offered the one where I now expect/hope to work. It turned out that the school that offered me the second job moved a lot faster (basically in 2 days) than I'd ever seen any school move before, so this took me by surprise and I had to turn them down.

For the interview with the principal here, too, I was warned to bring my portfolio. Again the trusty CD was with me; once again, a wasted effort. Oh well ... that's fine, the portfolio is not that exciting to look at and frankly far too much of it in my mind is hardly germane to anything a school would be interested in seeing (by the by, do you think that may be the reason why no one asks for it? God, maybe there is some common sense lingering in this world somewhere? One can but hope ...) At this point it's a general chitchat with the principal, though in my case I also happened to have the new vice-principal on hand. He was new to the school, but as it turned out not new to me --- he was the vice principal at the high school I student taught at the previous semester and we got along well enough (actually I don't think we ever said ten words to each other, but all he knew was that I wasn't sending bus loads of students to his door to deal with for one reason or another and in his book that must have meant we got along --- if I have no complaints, and I don't, and he didn't, we got along as far as I'm concerned.) Bottom line, I suspect that this is more for the principal to know your face than anything else as we didn't get into anywhere near the depth I found myself wallowing through with the school committee interview. Frankly in my view this is how it should be, i.e. the principal should be able to trust his teachers, who'll have to work with this new person, to pick what they feel is the best candidate and as far as he/she is concerned his part of the interview process should be, "Ok, let me make sure I know what this person looks like" sort of meeting. In this case when he nodded his head yes after about ten minutes he informed me that the next step is to be interviewed by the school superintendent, and from there I'm voted on by the school district committee.

So next is the superintendent meeting, and once again I've been warned that I should bring the portfolio with me. Piece of cake, but I can't help but wonder about all those poor souls who don't have scanners, which were it not for the generosity (it's really a nice gizmo all in all) of a wonderful wife included yours truly until last Christmas, and who're out there lugging two large three ring binders with them in the July heat, unless of course they're asking in advance, "Do you want to see this?" As for the interview, I showed up 15 minutes early, the superintendent was just finishing up a meeting which included my soon-to-be principal and some others, and 5 mins later we're in his office. By 10:30, the scheduled time for the interview, I was in my car and on the way home with the words, "The school district will be voting on this next Wednesday, I don't see a problem, this is a good time for you to be at this school, welcome on board" ringing in my ears. Bottom line, I'll know by Thursday morning whether I'll have a job as, thankfully, my presence at the school committee meeting is not required.

So as I now see it this is a five step process:

1. Get an application and whatever associated extra documents are desired in.
2. Have the application, et al., favorably viewed.
3. Be interviewed by the school committee and successfully make it through that. An up check here and you're 90% of the way in.
4. Be positively interviewed by the principal. An up check here and you're 98 to 99% of the way in.
5. Be voted on by the district school committee. Once that happens it's all a matter of when you sign the contract.

How schools handle references and the miscellaneous paperwork associated with the application differs from school to school - you're surprised, right? To my knowledge only two schools called on references where I would have expected at least four of them to. The same goes for the "official" paperwork and the security checks. I'm assuming that this will even out right before I officially sign the paperwork, i.e. I'll have to produce pretty much what everyone expects at that point, but as of right now I don't know that. Regardless of how the schools handle it one needs to have these things handy, or ready to get them in short order (I didn't bother to order an official copy of my master's degree transcripts until I was offered a job, for example.) One's previous background may have something to do with what's expected as well, and in my case being a retired naval officer very likely doesn't hurt me and may provide me more latitude than would be rendered to the average person walking in off of the street.

That basically lays the whole thing out. I'm looking forward to getting this completed as I'd like
to get my feet wet at the school a bit in advance of the school year, which I should have more than ample opportunity to do. All in all an interesting process, one that thus far has given me a lot to think about and which, on the whole, has been something of a "growing" experience for me. Tune in later next week, I'll be sure to post whether I got the job or not as there's ALWAYS that small outside chance ... oh well, that's life.



Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Social Security Lie


Ok, yes, indeed, I appreciate how creepy a picture that is, but it does make the case about Bush in a very understandable way. For those not familiar with the term, "He speaks with a forked tongue", according to Wikpedia the term "forked tongue" means: to say one thing and mean another or, in more general terms, to act in a duplicitous manner. I suppose if I wanted to rail on I could get into all sorts of reasons for why I think Bush speaks with a forked tongue, but I'll just keep it on the subject of social security inasmuch as I just finished reading The Plot Against Social Security: How The Bush Administration Is Endangering Our Financial Future by Michael A. Hiltzik:

Overall it's a very readable book for anyone inclined to want to read about social security. Frankly I think nearly all of us should be up on social security, especially given what many people, in particular those in currently power, would like to do to the program. Hiltzik explains what the program is about, not all of which even at this point could I comfortably explain (this is genuinely a difficult topic to get your brain around), and why what you're seeing right now out of this administration on this subject is ideological and NOT good for you. The destruction of social security is the primary goal of libertarians and a large number of conservatives who feel people should have the freedom to save for their own future (in spite of the stark reality that unless forced to far too many people don't save for the future), and not be dependent on governmental "paternalism" --- how it's paternal in this situation escapes me exactly, but that's what they say.

Here are some of the lies dripping from the tongues of Bush and company:

- There is no trust fund, the government spent the money.

- The money won't be there for the next generation and may not be there for all of the baby boomers, and private accounts are the only way to fix this.

- The program itself is going to run out of money in either 2018 or 2042, you choose the year.

- You'll "own" your retirement (no, actually, your heirs will own it for as much as there may be anything left to bequeath.)

- Investing in the stock market will give you better returns than investing in social security [see below point regarding this.]

- African Americans are cheated out of their full returns from social security [it's true, male African Americans tend to die before their white counterparts, but in the way life has of evening things out, African Americans make up for this in benefits for widows and children, and in the social security disability provisions.]

I could go on and on. Bush has stacked the deck the committee that was to "look into what we should do with social security" --- first he gives the committee running orders that excludes any options besides privatization and the people he puts on the committee are ideologically inclined towards privatization. Can we guess what they're going to recommend? The fact is that this administration hasn't even given consideration to alternative social security solutions that they were not ideologically committed to --- facts and realities be damned. Well, heck, this IS a faith-based administration, after all.

Bush has spent a huge amount of money running around the country trying to scare people into believing that social security is going under and privatization is the only option we have to rescue something out of the sinking. He has people like Rick Santorum spewing the same lies. Fortunately, on the whole, they seem to have been unsuccessful. For whatever reason the American people aren't buying into this, and I just hope they stay the course, though at the same time I hope they're ready and willing to do what IS necessary to keep the program viable.

The fact is the only people that make out by privatizing social security are those who are well off to begin with (i.e. the rich) --- they're already invested in stocks and other vehicles to cover their retirement so privatization works out for them to be more of the same (though you'd think they'd want to have a sure thing on the side just in case.) In addition insurance companies (where, with the money in your privatized account, you'd buy your mandatory annuity when you finally retired), and investment companies who'd handle where you money went while you were accummulating that money in your privatized account, both do very good under privatization. Why, you may ask? Of course we'd have to include the costs associated with taking on that annuity (which can be up to as much as 20% of what you put in), and the cost of investment people handling your investments --- collectively this is no small thing and it can easily work out to be more expensive than any gain over what you'd have with social security that you might conceivably realize from privatizing (which has been the case in Chile, Britain, and Argentina, the three places thus far where this has been tried, so far not very successfully.)

Here's the take away message: Social security should be there for everyone, and certainly can be there if we were to make the adjustments to the program that would allow it to sustain itself as we now know it. But the options for this are not on the table as far as the Bush administration is concerned, which is fixed on privatization not because of fiscal reasons but solely due to ideology. Something needs to be done about social security, but privatization isn't it.