Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frost flowers

This is about something magical, something that I've never seen before.

While we read with concern about the ice storms and terrible weather in the Maritime Provinces and the northeastern U.S., here in Colorado we love the snow we received and we're enjoying our -20 degF (-29 degC) nights and our -5 degF (-20 degC) days. Truly.

Of course, we dress like polar explorers before we go outside to enjoy the weather.

The last couple of nights I've donned my polar-explorer garb, taken the dog out for his evening constitutional, and found something new and wonderful in the frosty night.

Scattered on the sidewalk were what looked like little blossoms of frost, about the size and shape of clover blossoms. They caught the light from the street lamps and sparkled in the dark. I stopped to get a closer look at them.

Each frost flower, or frost blossom, grew where there was some snow, or a light coating of frost, on the sidewalk. It appeared that the blossom needed the water molecules already on the ground to grow, because I didn't see any blossoms growing on bare concrete or asphalt. And each blossom needed a nucleation site, a place to start growing. Any bump or protrusion on the sidewalk would do, even a pebble of snow or ice left by the shoveling crew. The blossoms grew not from water freezing out of the air, but from water molecules migrating through the snow and ice into the crystal structure.

Wherever there was a supply of ice, and a place to start growing, a blossom would begin to take shape. First one petal would start, no bigger than a pencil eraser, but then quickly growing to the size of a quarter (or a euro or a loony) and looking, on close examination, like an arm of a snowflake. If the dog was patient enough, I could squat under a street lamp and watch the petal grow, the dendrites on the edge adding to themselves, lengthening and forming branches before my eyes. Eventually another petal would start, and then another, until the flower was fully formed, each petal like part of a giant snowflake, reflecting the light from the street lamp in a different direction.

The frost flowers covered the sidewalk like wildflowers in a mountain meadow. I didn't want to tread on them, for fear of breaking them and destroying the magic. I'll try to get pictures of them tonight and post them here.

UPDATE, DEC 17: Unfortunately, the warm weather (20 degrees above zero instead of 20 below) has returned, and the frost blossoms have disappeared. The next time they appear, I'll go home and get the camera for sure.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

American automakers think we're stupid

Okay, the American economy is in meltdown. After 12 months, the experts finally decided to call it a "recession." Maybe this time next year they will have decided that it's not a recession, it's a depression. Those of us who are out of work must be smarter than those experts, because we already know it.

Credit is hard to get right now, because most of it is tied up in those "toxic securities" -- secret code for "bad mortgages," which the lenders and investors might as well write off and forget about, and start over.

The domestic automobile industry, at least that overweight segment of it known as The Big Three, has been in Washington D.C. twice begging for money to "bail them out," because they're too incompetent to bail themselves out of the mess they created. For years now they've been ignoring the signs of the times, the writing on the wall, the metaphor of your choice for the consumers who abandoned the Big Three in favor of Toyota, Honda and other Japanese (and Korean!) brands.

Detroit ceded the market for medium, small and subcompact sedans to Japan without a fight, choosing instead to concentrate on "luxury" cars, muscle cars, SUVs and manly pickup trucks. When gasoline jumped to $4 per gallon this summer and Americans suddenly stopped buying all those thirsty Detroit products, the Big Three's collective income fell far below their outgo, and they started losing money fast.

What Detroit should have done is instantly change their product mix and convert factories from making trucks and SUVs to making the smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. They should have noticed all the Priuses and Civic hybrids on the road and rushed to get their own hybrids into production. But they didn't have any smaller, leaner cars, and they didn't have any domestic hybrid options.

Actually, that's not strictly true. They didn't have any smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. What they offered for smaller cars was ugly and poorly put together. What they offered for hybrids got worse gas mileage than the Japanese non-hybrid alternatives, and again, they were poorly put together.

Our senators and representatives in Congress, bless 'em, were persuaded that giving Detroit zero dollars, while it would have been a bold and courageous move, might not be the right thing to do, but they were able to see past the Big Three CEOs' self-serving arguments and pare down their request to something more, um, realistic. I'd still like to see Congress try something bold and courageous for a change. But at least they got it down from over $30 billion to under $15 billion before the proposal got snagged on a tree branch.

In the meantime, while the car companies are crying to the government about all the money they're losing, Dodge aired a TV commercial this evening that makes one slap one's forehead and cry, "What in the world are you thinking?"

This was an advertisement for what Dodge called a "luxury truck": a dual-cab monstrosity with leather seats, built-in WiFi, a backup camera, built-in toolboxes, a really thirsty engine and a suspension that would do the Army proud.

Hey! Dodge! Which Americans are you trying to sell these air haulers to? Haven't you been listening to the majority of the American public? We don't want luxury trucks! We want vehicles that take less gasoline (or diesel), or no gasoline (or diesel) at all! These ain't them!

Dodge wants to push this "luxury truck" for one reason only: because of the profit margin. They make more money per sale on "luxury trucks" than on more sensible vehicles. I guess they don't expect people who need car loans to buy these things, do they? Because, according to the news and the CEOs themselves, car loans are hard to come by right now, so the buyers of these beasts will need cash.

The commercial, naturally, emphasizes the manliness of the truck, and appeals to the buyer's need to feel manly. The commercial goes over the top in an attempt to get the buyer's insecurity (or need to compensate for perceived deficiencies elsewhere) to override his caution and the frugal attitude so vital in this economic climate.

This truck is the reason why the majority of Americans don't want to give the Big Three one red cent of their money. It's symbolic of everything that's wrong with Detroit right now.

The first thing the Car Czar should do, once he's appointed and the Big Three get their bailout money, is fire the sorry idiots at Chrysler who approved the design and construction of the "luxury truck," and the sorry idiots who approved this advertising campaign, and the sorry idiots who signed the contract with the advertising company, and the advertising company itself.

After that, it wouldn't be a bad idea to go after the associated idiots responsible for the Cadillac Escalade, the Ford Excursion and supertrucks, and the Hummer product family.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where my teaching skills came from

My father turns 75 on December 21. My sister, Susan, is throwing a 75th birthday party for him, and we six kids are supposed to write a memory of Dad and read it aloud at his party. We're supposed to keep it to one page in length.

Hmm. I tried to think of the most significant memory of my father, something I can write a full page about. I decided to start by writing down all the significant memories I could think of, and ended up with a full page of ideas. I still don't know what to write about.
However, one thing stood out from the list. Check out these memories:
  • sitting in the car in the grocery store parking lot, waiting for my mother, and him teaching me how to to tie a square knot.
  • teaching me how to ride a bicycle - and a horse
  • teaching my brothers and me how to make scrambled eggs
  • teaching us how to make red onion sandwiches on toast
  • teaching me how to make bread pudding from the crusts we trimmed off the sacrament bread
  • teaching me how to drive a stick shift
  • taking advantage of everyday "teaching moments" to teach a wide variety of unforgettable lessons
  • lamenting, as I prepared to go to college, that he had spent 17 years trying to teach me to work hard, and that once I finally learned the principle, I left home
  • teaching me how to teach
Um, do you see a theme there? And then see how the theme wraps around on itself in that last point? Yeah. I always thought that I learned how to teach from Boyd K. Packer, one of the best professional teachers I've ever known. But as I squint and look at things more closely, I find that all of the skills and talents that have made me a great teacher originated with my father. Who knew?

Dan Fogelberg, a native Colorado musician, wrote a song about his father, also a musician. The chorus ends with these words:
My life has been a poor attempt
to imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy
to the leader of the band.
If you talk about teaching instead of music, that's me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dear Congressperson or Senator: Say NO to the Big Three

I just wrote to my senators and congresspeople. I also wrote to the Speaker of the House, but I don' t think that she will read or heed my letter. Here's what I told them:

I have been watching the hearings in the Senate and the House. I want to ask you again to vote AGAINST the automotive bailout. As you have seen from the polls, the majority of Americans feel the same way I do.

1. Product line revisions -- too late. 2012?2013? That's three and four years down the road. And all that will do is put the automakers where Toyota and Honda were two years ago. There's an entrepreneur in San Jose CA already building full-sized electric cars, today. Why not give him the money instead?

2. Continued emphasis on trucks. We don't want trucks anymore. The F-150 pickup, which Ford boasts as the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. today, sold fine until June, I think, and sales have dropped to near-zero since then. WE DON'T WANT TRUCKS, and they ALL keep trying to sell trucks.

3. If these companies are too big to fail, then they're too big. NO corporation should have that much power in this country. Congress has stood up to oil, railroads and telecommunications in the past. Now it's time to stand up to the automakers. If they want to stay in business, then PLEASE cut them up, and turn them from the Big Three into the Little Nine or whatever. If it worked for AT&T, it can work for GM.

4. Utter lack of humility. I saw arrogance from Mr. Gettelfinger, and "strictly business" attitudes from the three CEOs. What they said in front of the Congressional panels mirrors what they say to all Americans. If you watch the automobile commercials on TV, you will see that they're just as arrogant and superior, appealing to Americans' egos and greed, as they've always been.

5. Economic impact. I don't deny the economic impact of the Big 3 going out of business, HOWEVER: the parts mfrs. also make parts for Toyota, Honda and Nissan, so although the parts mfrs. might be downsized, they won't go out of business. As for economic impact, today is my last day on the job. I am currently underemployed, and on Monday I will be unemployed. That has nothing to do with the Big 3, and their going under will not affect me one whit.

Please stick to your guns, honor the will of the American people, and vote AGAINST the bailout.

Ray Depew

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Praise of Civility (or, Just be Nice)

I called a wrong number this morning. It made my day.

The wrong number must have been someone's cellular phone. I didn't realize it was a wrong number, because their voicemail greeting was a canned message saying, "Please enjoy this on-hold music while you wait for your party to answer." I waited for about 30 seconds, then hung up, intending to call again later.

After 15 or 20 minutes, my phone rang, and a pleasant voice asked, "Did you just call this number?" I said I had, and asked for the person whom I'd been calling. The voice answered, rather apologetically, that this wasn't their number and that she didn't know anyone by that name.

I apologized myself, since it was my fault, and she gently assured me that it was no problem. I thanked her for her time, wished her a good day and told her to enjoy the snow. She responded in a similar fashion, and we hung up.

Now, that's the way to handle a wrong number. Somebody has taught their children well.

* * *

It seems like getting Americans to be civil in their interactions with each other is a constant battle, one that must be fought over and over again, not just from generation to generation, but from year to year. People who have been taught to be courteous seem to forget, and have to be reminded.

Here are three more typical wrong number scenarios:

1) You call a wrong number. The person at the other end has caller ID, doesn't recognize your name or number, and answers with a rude grunt: "Hello."

You immediately realize your mistake (because the person you intended to call is never that rude), and so you politely say, "I'm sorry, it sounds like I've reached a wrong number. Is this 555-1234?"

If it isn't 555-1234, then the respondent acts as if you've committed a crime worthy of death, or ruined their wedding, or something. You get a rude, and often profane, response. You start to say, "Oh, I'm so sorry," but the respondent hangs up before you can finish.

If it is 555-1234, then the respondent acts as though you have illegally hacked into their unlisted number at their hidden retreat. You say, "I'm sorry, I was trying to reach John Doe. Obviously I have the wrong number." The respondent's reply calls into question your IQ, your upbringing and your ancestry, usually with four-letter words delivered in an angry tone. Once again, the respondent hangs up before you can finish your apology.

2) This situation happens on the other end of the line: you're enjoying an evening at home, when the phone rings. You don't recognize the caller's name or number, but you take a chance and answer anyway. The caller, not recognizing your voice, pauses for a moment, and then barks, "Is John there?"

You say, politely, "No, I'm sorry, there's no John here. I'm afraid you've dialed a wrong number." The caller makes an angry comment -- as if it was your fault that he dialed the wrong number, maybe throws a four-letter word at you, and abruptly hangs up.

3) This last situation has only started happening since caller ID was invented. You dial a number, realize it's the wrong number, and hang up before the other person answers. A few minutes (or hours) later, your phone rings, and the voice on the other end demands, "Did you call this number?"

Whatever your response is, they then bark at you, "Why?"

No matter what your explanation is, they follow up with some sort of rude comment, and then hang up, leaving you to wonder, "Why did they waste their breath and a few seconds of their life to call me and say that? Why couldn't they just let it go?"

* * *
Indeed. Wrong numbers happen. We were all taught, either by our parents or our first-grade teachers, how to handle wrong numbers, from both ends. There's no need to be rude about it. All rudeness does is prove that the rude person is a jerk, and although the anonymity of a telephone line can hide your identity, it cannot hide your uncultured rudeness.

Just be nice, people. If you call a wrong number, apologize for disturbing the person on the other end. If you're the recipient of a call to a wrong number, recognize that the other person might be under pressure or confused, and be gentle with them. If someone calls you and hangs up before you can answer, let it go. If it's important, they'll call again, and then you can be gentle with them.

Thank you, Ashley, for a very pleasant conversation this morning. The snow is fresh and powdery today, and because of you, I really will enjoy it.

Friday, November 28, 2008


It's the day after the Thanksgiving feast, and I had a turkey sandwich on a crescent roll for lunch. On the side, I had some mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cheesy corn. Ah, leftovers: the food of the gods.

It was a modest feast. Only Lori and Chris joined us for the feast yesterday, so we got a small turkey - about half the size we've gotten in the past. Not to worry, we still had lots of leftovers. We had three pies, and Koy & Becky joined us for pie later in the evening.

We changed tradition a bit this year, and passed around the Thankful Bag while we waited for the turkey to get to the "done" stage. And once again we realized that we have an awful lot to be thankful for. If you're reading this blog and you know who I am, then there's a good chance that you were mentioned in the Thankful bag.

My latest contract comes to an end next week, and I'll be spending a few months finding another contract or a Real Job (TM). I'm thankful for the contracts that I've had this year, and for everything I've learned from them. I'm thankful to God for taking care of my family this past year, and I pray that He does it again this next year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Thankful Bag

When our children were small, we wanted to find a way to teach them what Thanksgiving was all about, and to teach them about gratitude. What we did turned into a family tradition that has continued for over 20 years.

Every year, on one of the first Mondays in November, we make a "Thankful Bag." Essentially a "Thankful Bag" is a paper bag covered with turkeys and filled with small pieces of paper. Yeah. Read on:

To start, every member of the family traces their hand on a piece of paper, and then uses crayons, colored pencils or markers to turn the hand into a turkey, and then to decorate the turkey. (Get it? The thumb is the head, the fingers are the tail feathers, and you add feet, a beak, and so on.) The first year we did it, we had some pretty interesting turkeys. The second year they looked a little more normal. Then the third year we started drawing funny turkeys: turkeys dressed as Pilgrims, turkeys wearing doctor's scrubs, turkeys wearing hippie clothes, a turkey carrying an axe, funny stuff like that. We've been doing this for over 20 years now, and we've had some pretty imaginative turkeys.

Then we get a big brown paper grocery bag, cut out the turkeys, and glue the turkeys to the outside of the bag. This is our Thankful Bag. Every day until Thanksgiving, anybody can take a piece of paper, write on it something they're thankful for, fold it up and drop it in the bag.

When it's time for Thanksgiving dinner, we pass the Thankful Bag around the table. Everybody reaches in and grabs a handful of papers, unfolds them, and reads them aloud. There are no writers' names, just things (and people) that we are thankful for. It really makes you think about all the blessings God has given you in this life.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bailing out the Big Three automakers

You know, I don't think it's too much to ask that a car company build the kind of car we want to buy, instead of the kind of car they want to sell us. An AP wire service article in today's paper started with this paragraph: "Ford Motor Co.'s F-150 pickup is the top-selling vehicle in the United States this year, with more than 432,000 purchased through October. But when people stop buying the F-150, it's not just Ford and its workers that suffer." The article goes on to list all the suppliers whose products go into the Ford F-150 pickup truck, who will have to lay off workers and maybe declare bankruptcy if you don't buy a Ford F-150.

If you reread the article, you'll see that it's a thinly veiled attempt to make you feel guilty about not buying a Ford F-150 pickup truck, "the top-selling vehicle in the United States this year." Now there's a new strategy from the automakers: guilt as a selling tactic. Here's what they're really saying: "If you don't buy our truck, we'll go out of business before Christmas, and so will our suppliers, and it will all be your fault."

Do you feel guilty about not buying an American-made car? Let me tell you: earlier this year, we went shopping for a new car for my daughter. (For the record, we ended up buying American. We bought a used Saturn, built back in the days when Saturn still built high-quality vehicles.) We concentrated our search on high-quality, low-maintenance, well-built, compact models. That meant that we concentrated mostly on selected Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Saturn models.

At one dealership, the salesman talked us into taking a non-Saturn, American model for a test drive. Okay, it was used, but it was less than a year old. The dashboard was cracked in several places. The seats were uncomfortable. Several of the little plastic screw covers were missing. The brakes were mushy. The steering was imprecise and unresponsive. The car was noisy, even at low speeds. The fuel economy on this model was much worse than on its Japanese and Korean competitors. And the Consumer Reports maintenance rating on this model was Very Bad.

I think that he was being a typical used car salesman, simply trying to push a lemon off his lot. But the experience reinforced our opinions about American cars. It's the latest in a long line of experiences that make me not feel guilty about not buying American.

For over 20 years, American automakers have ignored all of their former customers who have abandoned American cars for Japanese and German cars. If they had been wise and just a teensy bit humble, they could have asked us why we were buying Accords and Avalons instead of Aspires and Aspens, Camrys and Civics instead of Cavaliers, and then they could have redirected their engineering efforts to create cars that competed directly, point for point, with those Japanese models. Instead, they chose three different responses:

1) Ignoring or belittling the foreign car builders and their customers.
2) Blindly insisting that the Aspires and Cavaliers were competitive, continuing to build them with doors so heavy that they sagged after a couple of years, interior trim that rattled at high speed from Day One, and suspensions that transmitted all high-speed road noise right into the center of the occupants' skulls -- not to mention mechanical assemblies with known design defects and a propensity to break down frequently and in expensive ways.
3) Changing the focus by convincing the American consumer (and doing a frighteningly good job of it) that he really didn't want a small car, what he wanted was a large SUV or pickup truck, and the larger the better.

This is what they've been doing for 20 years. Hey, the writing was on the wall 20 -- no, 27 years ago. The Honda Accord started taking over its market segment in 1981. The Toyota Camry joined it a couple of years later, and Detroit followed the three strategies I described above in responding to the challenge posed by these two Japanese success stories.

It's gotten worse since then. The Big Three had two radical successes in the intervening years, but in typical Detroit style they fumbled both successes.

One was Geo, a joint operation between GM and Toyota. At one point, the Geo Prizm, Chevy Nova and Toyota Corolla were all the same car, with minor styling and badging differences. They were good cars. We bought a 1990 Geo Prizm when it was 9 years old, and it's still running today. I think it's been in the shop twice in all those years. You can't buy a new Geo anymore, and the Chevy Nova has been discontinued.

The other was Saturn. Saturn started as an autonomous division of GM, with a mandate to do things their own way, and to do them in a new and different way. The early Saturn vehicles had radical (but appealing) styling, and their construction quality was top-notch. Their cars got consistently high ratings from Consumer Reports. At one time our extended famly owned four or five Saturns. Then GM killed the goose that laid the golden egg. They took away the division's autonomy, put in too many old-time GMers to run things the old GM way, and destroyed the mark's reputation for inventive styling and for quality. Today, Consumer Reports rates Saturn quality as just as bad as any other American car.

Similar stories could be told about Ford and Chrysler, who each had a turn at the top of the heap and blew it, Chrysler with their minivans, and Ford with, um, their minivans! And the T-bird and Mustang revivals. (In 2007, Toyota sold more Priuses than Ford sold Mustangs. Ford didn't take the hint.)

In the past five years, all auto makers have realized the awesome profit margins that could be realized by building and selling pickup trucks and SUVs (and their bastard offspring, crossover SUVs). SUVs got bigger and bigger, and more expensive, culminating in the Hummer H2, Cadillac Escalade, and Ford Excursion. I'm still trying to figure out how they fooled the American public into rushing to buy these gas-guzzling monstrosities, but they did. Their marketing campaigns were basically, "Forget the small cars. Buy one of these instead." Those marketing campaigns were so successful that the Big Three turned off the small-car spigot. They converted engineering groups, assembly lines and entire factories from small cars to trucks and SUVs. In parts of Colorado, 5 out of 6 vehicles on the road were pickup trucks or SUVs.

The Big Three marketing departments expressed their contempt for the urban truck/SUV owner in the term they used to describe these vehicles. While comedians called them "urban assault vehicles," Detroit called them "air haulers."

A lot of people still wanted to buy the small cars, though. Too bad Detroit didn't have any to sell. I walked through local Chevy, Ford and Chrysler showrooms several times in the last few years, inquiring about small cars. The showrooms and the front rows of the lots were full of "air haulers." If you didn't want an "air hauler," then the second and third rows held Camaros, Mustangs, Sebrings and other macho muscle-car wannabes. The small cars, the only things that could answer to the Accord, Civic, Camry, or Corolla, were way in the back. The dealer had only invested in five or six of them, and since the profit margin on them was so much lower, he didn't push them at all.

Okay, back to this year. This summer, crude oil prices skyrocketed, and gasoline prices jumped accordingly. Suddenly it was expensive to drive an "air hauler," and they magically started disappearing from the roads. Consumers were selling their SUVs, or at least putting them in the garage, and buying economical cars to replace them. And what cars did they have to choose from? That's right! The Japanese ones! Detroit had ignored that market segment for so long that the American consumers in that market segment were now ignoring Detroit.

(I don't really mean to ignore European models here. It's just that the European cars are not even a force in the market anymore. In 2007, Toyota not only sold more Priuses in the U.S. than Ford sold Mustangs; Toyota sold more Priuses in the U.S. than Volkswagen sold cars, period.)

Some of you may respond by giving me the model names of Detroit's contributions to the small-car market. And it's true, I've even seen some of them on the road. But they're more of an oddity, an American exception bobbing up and down in the sea of Japan. And once again, go driving past a Big Three dealership, and see how many of those small cars are in the front rows on the lot or featured in the showroom -- that's right, not very many.

Finally, I need to point out that you don't need to fall for the "buy American" guilt tactic, either. "Buy American" doesn't mean "Buy Detroit." All of the Hondas, and most of the Toyotas, on the road are really American cars -- that is, they're made in Ohio, Kentucky, California, or Tennessee, and many of the parts inside them are made in the U.S.A., in the same factories that (used to) make parts for Detroit. That means that when you buy a Honda Accord, you're supporting that parts supplier after all, the one who used to make parts for the Ford F-150.

The first comment to this posting will be a letter I sent to my incumbent and newly-elected Senators and Representatives, and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Your mama is sooooo cool...

This is a reprint of a letter I sent to my children last week.
Hi kids,

I'm going to take some time out from news this week and tell you how much I admire my sweet wife.

We had lived for 22 years in a one-income family, where Dad worked and Mom stayed home and raised the kids. (See http://ray.datech-net.com/mothers_day.html ) When I got laid off in 2003, Valerie decided she needed to go out and find a job. She didn't want to, and I would have preferred to get another job myself. But we knew that would take a while, and engineering jobs were scarce, so she took her college degree and went out to find a job.

Nobody would hire her as a teacher at first, so she took a job as a para (that's "paraeducator", basically a babysitter for the NCLB kids) in the Poudre School District, and kept looking for a teaching job while working as a para. Her persistence paid off when she got hired to replace the C&FS teacher at Erwin Middle School.

The previous teacher was just coasting, waiting until it was time to retire, so the C&FS program was rather a mess. Valerie put her organizing skills to work cleaning up the program and turning it into something useful. She had to overcome a lot of inertia from the 7th and 8th graders, who had been there with the old teacher and were expecting the class to be an easy A like it had been. She turned it back into a serious class, where the kids were expected to earn their grades and to learn stuff. (Imagine, having to learn stuff at school. The very nerve of the teacher!)

The school had been given several thousand dollars and a mandate to use that money to install a new computer-based C&FS learning program. The money was supposed to pay for 8 computers, the software and the supplies, but not for training. Valerie insisted to the district administrators that the computers et cetera would be worthless if the teacher wasn't trained (and that they were short-sighted and a few other choice words for not being willing to spend $2500 on training after they had spent ten$ of thousand$ on the rest of the project), and she kept saying that to whoever would listen, until the district finally paid for her to spend a week in Michigan at a training class.

Then she came back to Colorado and supervised the installation and startup of the system -- the first one in all the school districts along the Front Range. She worked hand-in-hand with the vendor's tech support staff to resolve the startup problems that she encountered in the system's first year of operation, and became the "go-to girl" for the district and for neighboring districts, as people would call her about problems with installation, startup, and curriculum.

Sometimes Valerie would come home and tell me about a computer networking problem she had solved, and she would be using computer jargon that I never expected to hear coming out of her mouth. I would sit there with my mouth hanging open as she rattled it off, not realizing what she was doing. She became so good at computers and networks that someone at the school asked her if she wanted to take over part of the computer tech's job, when the computer tech was badly injured in an accident. (She declined. She doesn't think she's that good.)

Her first year at Erwin, she observed that the cooking options in the classroom were limited by the length of time of the class. Some kids had expressed a desire to cook things that took longer, so she started a cooking club, which would meet after school one day a week to do some of these more advanced recipes. Wildcat Cuisine is now in its fourth year, and has grown from 12-16 members to 40 members. An article (with photos!) was published in an alternative local paper. She has gotten offers of assistance from a state dietician (with an office at CSU), Applebee's, and other local businesses. And the benefits of the club go beyond just trying the fancier recipes. For the first time, some of those kids have something they're good at, something they can be proud of, and a positive group of peers, where they feel like they belong. Other kids have impressed their parents with their culinary skills, and a few have even taken over mealtime at their homes.

In Colorado, after three years of teaching, you become tenured. The state is serious about those "three years." The third year doesn't expire until the first day of school in your fourth year. So on the first day of school this year, Valerie walked into the building and became a tenured teacher. But I knew she was "in" last year. She is a fixture of the school, as far as both students and teachers are concerned. Kids come to her for advice. Teachers seek out her opinion, either confidentially or in meetings and group discussions. Her classes, though not the easy A, are very popular.

She has a reputation as a straight shooter. One day in October, during passing period, one of her students came into class fuming with anger, because the art teacher had written her up for a rather flagrant dress code violation. It was something like a too-short skirt, or spaghetti straps, or something like this. The girl's friends were also upset, and they all wanted to know why the dress code was such a big deal. Valerie could tell that they weren't in a mood to learn about the food pyramid or anything else that day. So she set aside her planned lesson and spent the whole time talking with the kids about immodest clothing and so on. Valerie got very frank with the kids, and by the time she was done, they understood everything about dress codes, immodest clothing and so on. Word got around during passing period, and her next class wanted to have the same lesson, so she obliged them. No other teacher or administrator had ever laid it on the line like that.

And she's earning a reputation as a straight shooter among the parents, too. She doesn't take any crap from them. When a student is a slacker and the parent tries to excuse the kid's behavior or blame it on someone else (especially on Mom or another teacher), Valerie finds out VERY quickly what the real story is, and then tells the parent exactly what's going on and what they, not she, need to do about it. She's still training the parents, but word will eventually get around that she can't be deceived or bullied.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, two things happened. First, Valerie realized that she'd be a lot better set up for her (future) retirement if she could get further up the wage curve, and second, she realized that a lot of her students have trouble learning because they cannot read. So she decided to get a Master's degree in literacy and reading, and morph from a C&FS teacher to a reading/literacy coach. You kids probably don't remember how hard I had to work to get that MSEE degree from Stanford when we lived in Corvallis -- but if you do, then Valerie's working just that hard on her degree. She's acquiring quite a reputation with her professors at UNC, and I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up with a published paper out of at least one of her classes.

What makes all of this even more impressive is that she started teaching at age 47, and many of her colleagues (and UNC classmates) are Jason's or Kellie's age, or even younger. She went to a conference with one of them (Cinnamon Garner) and told her, "I hope you don't feel like you're hanging around with your mother." Her colleague replied, "No, I think of you more as my fun-to-hang-around-with aunt."

She is looking forward to graduating from UNC so she can have more time to devote to being a mom, a mother-in-law, and a grandma. (I think Chris and I are looking forward to that, too.) You know, in 2003 she could have gotten a job as a waitress instead. But then none of this would have happened. She's too modest to acknowledge "greatness" in any of this, and she doesn't take praise very well. She's blown me off every time I've tried to tell her what I've told you. But she really is a great lady.

Dad/Ray/Brother Depew

Thursday, November 20, 2008

First Post

Actually, it's my third post. The other two posts couldn't wait.

Several people have encouraged me to write a blog in the past few months. I guess that some of my family letters turned into essays (or rants) that deserved a bigger audience.

Or something.

Blogs are versatile tools. Some of the best blogs are used to keep family members updated with news and pictures. Other really good blogs present an exposition or analysis of current events, either events that Big News picked up, or events that Big News missed (or ignored) but whose Story Still Needs To Be Told. Some of the worst blogs are poorly-written screeds, created by people who want to feed their egos but don't have what it takes to get published in a legitimate book or periodical.

I guess it's up to you, the reader, to decide where this blog belongs, on the continuum between family newsletters and ego feed screeds. This blog is long on words and short on pictures. If you want to see pictures, you can go to:

Even without pictures, I'll try to make this blog worth your time to read it. If you like what you see here, please tell your friends about it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Perception is NOT reality

One of the latest stupid catchphrases making the rounds is the phrase, "Perception is reality." I think that people repeat phrases like this in an attempt to sound wise, and it saves them the trouble of thinking about what they're going to say.

A rational person with two more brain cells than it takes to watch Friends will understand what that phrase is really trying to say, and also the fallacy that it presents. What "perception is reality" is trying to say is that many people (most people?) observe a person, a situation or an incident and, based on their knowledge and their life's experiences, try to arrive at some sort of conclusion or make some sort of judgement about it. In today's world, which seems to be spinning around faster and faster, it seems like a prudent and safe way to manage the world around us and make good decisions for ourselves and our families.

The fallacy that it presents is best illustrated by some absurd examples of erroneous perceptions that we all engage in, every day, and then some real-life examples of what happens when perception becomes reality.

Let me give you the absurd examples first:
  • A blonde girl or woman is an airhead.
  • Someone who sleeps a lot is lazy.
  • Someone who doesn't talk very much, and keeps to him/herself in a crowd, is a snob.
  • A person who takes care to dress well, in a situation where most people don't, is ... well, a snob again, or an elitist, or "uppity," or "putting on airs."
  • A girl or woman with an ample chest has loose morals.
  • A musclebound football player is a dumb jock.
  • Anybody going slower than the speed limit on I-25 is a selfish jerk and a poor driver.
  • Lawyers are crooked people on the same level as used-car salesmen, out to get your money, but useful in a pinch.
We make generalizations like these all the time. Now here are some specific people, real people, whom I offer as proof that the perceptions above are NOT reality:
  • The blonde is a college graduate and a captain in the army, and recently spent two years coordinating deliveries of medical supplies to outposts under fire in Afghanistan. The army thinks she's so smart that they're paying for her to study to become a physician's assistant. She probably knows more about the world than you do, as you would find out if you spent a few minutes talking to her.
  • The sleeper suffers from an undiagnosed medical condition that has him and his doctors baffled at the present time.
  • The quiet person has a stuttering problem which has made her painfully shy over the years. Your resentful or hostile attitude towards her only makes the shyness hurt more.
  • The well-dressed person is too poor to afford the currently fashionable "weathered look," "grunge look," or whatever it's called at A&F and The Gap, and instead buys the highest quality, sturdiest clothes he can find on the rack at the secondhand store. It's a good thing rich people get tired of their clothes before they wear them out.
  • The well-endowed woman is still a virgin at 25, intends to stay that way until she's married, and is getting really tired of the nasty looks and comments she's gotten from both men and women since she was 12 years old. She's still looking for a man who can see past her chest.
  • The musclebound football player is taking AP classes in high school, carrying a 4.0 GPA, and hopes to major in pre-medicine at Stanford University on an academic scholarship, doing undergrad research project in cancer prevention.
  • The slow driver has gotten enough speeding tickets that the next one will cause him to lose his license, and since his job and his family depend on his ability to drive, he's not taking any chances, so he stays in the right lane and goes faster than the posted minimum speed (45) and slower than the posted maximum speed (55, 65 or 75).
  • All of the lawyers I know personally are honest men, honored and respected in the community, trying hard to satisfy both their clients and the demands of the law, and working hard enough to earn every dollar they make. I am certain that there are crooked or sleazy ones out there, but I haven't met any yet.
Now, let's go on to the real-life examples that illustrate the consequences of mistaking perception for reality.

The first example: a cashier at a supermarket was observed violently twisting open the lids on all the jars and bottles in an elderly person's shopping cart, and then softly twisting the lids shut again. Another customer seeing this prank became concerned and, on behalf of the elderly customer, reported it to the store's manager. The manager disciplined the cashier accordingly, for tampering with the elderly customer's purchase which could potentially accelerate spoilage and cause other imaginary bad consequences. Any attempt by the cashier to explain himself was squelched, ignored or discounted (even though the manager repeatedly shouted "WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?" at the cashier, he didn't really want an answer). Nobody but the cashier had heard the elderly customer ask him to loosen the jar lids because the arthritis in her hands made it hard for her to do it herself, at home. Instead, "perception is reality" ensured that "no good deed goes unpunished."

The second example: an elected official had had a strong opinion about an issue that was dear to the hearts of America's voters. After holding that strong opinion for many years, he observed one case that caused him to question his position. Privately, he made inquiries and conducted quiet research into the lives of his constituents and other citizens, and after a long period of study, he publicly announced a change in his opinion. People are allowed to change their minds, aren't they? Especially when they decide that their opinion is wrong? Normally we call this "growth," or the acquisition of "wisdom." However, years later, this elected official ran for a national office. His opponents got a lot of mileage out of his change of opinion, calling it "flip-flopping," as if the ability to change his mind when confronted with additional information was a weakness that disqualified him from seeking public office. It's almost as though Americans prefer their politicians to be stubborn and dogmatic.

There's a hymn we sing at church that says, "In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can't see." We seldom know the motivations behind people's actions, and we're never in a position to accurately judge someone from their appearance alone. And yet the fallacy embodied in the phrase "perception is reality" guarantees that we will make wrong decisions about people, based on our perceptions, every single day. "Perception is reality" wraps us in a protective cloak of ignorance so that, if our decisions and resulting actions ruin someone's life, we can justify ourselves that we made the right decision based on the reality at the time.

Substituting perception for reality is one of the lamest, most mentally lazy exercises we do in the modern world. It saves us from having to really think about a situation, to look for the truth buried under the surface, and to challenge our assumptions. Challenging your assumptions is sometimes a painful exercise, and occasionally a dangerous one.

The next time someone tells me "Perception is reality," I'm going to look them in the eye and say with all the contempt I can muster, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

At least "Perception is reality" managed to displace the phrase, "It is what it is."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Call me a Luddite

I like tech toys. Normally, I'm a first adopter of the newest technologies. However, I have resisted a few tech toys, and will probably continue to resist them until I am forced to use them.

First: PDAs. I owned an HP100LX Palmtop PC way back in the late 1990s. It was a nice machine. I installed WordPerfect 5.1 and some other good DOS programs on it. I wrote and published a book using (mostly) the HP100LX. I replaced it with an HP Jornada, another so-called "palmtop PC." At one point, I totally replaced my paper day planner with the 100LX and the Jornada. After two and a half years, I went back to the paper day planner. I have steadfastly refused to own or use any of the palm/stylus/fingertip based products that have come and gone since then.

Why? Well, I can find names in a paper index faster than in an Address Book application on a PDA. I can see more information at a glance about an upcoming meeting, or past meeting notes, on paper than with a PDA. But most importantly, paper doesn't spontaneously reboot, abort memory, scramble memory, or run out of juice at critical times. And the ROI isn't there for a PDA, compared with the cost of paper refills, pens and other day planner supplies.

Second: Blackberries and other fancy cellular phones. I just use my mobile phone to talk with people. I don't text that much, I don't take very many pictures, and this latest cellphone wants me to pay to play a full game of Tetris. I admit that I do covet the Apple iPhone, and I would love to have one, but I would mostly use it as a classical telephone.

Third: MP3 players and iTunes. No, I don't want one. I can tell the difference between CD sound quality and MP3 sound quality. I prefer the CD sound, thank you -- or even a good, high quality cassette tape, played on a good player. I'm not such a Luddite as to say I prefer vinyl records (you know, the big black CDs that use a contact stylus) over CDs, because a well-mastered CD has sound quality equal or superior to the best vinyl record. But MP3s don't really do it for me.

Fourth: (until today) Blogs. I'm about four years late getting into the game. I've had my own website for a long time, but I've resisted setting up a blog until now. There are several reasons, and maybe I'll go into them another day.

So, you ask, why am I a Luddite?

I work with computers every day. I used to make computers and printers, or at least the components that went into them. I write video games. I'm an accomplished computer programmer. You'd think that I would be all for technology, as far as I can push it.

No. Why balance your checkbook electronically, when a paper one will do? Why buy special recipe management software, when a handwritten recipe book will do? Why buy an electric toothbrush, when a manual one will do? Why spend all that extra money buying an electronic anything, when you can save money and do just fine with the non-electronic, or non-electric, alternative?

I used to drive a 30-year-old Ford Mustang to work. There's something infinitely satisfying about controlling the car, and feeling it respond, through the mechanical linkages rather than through a central computer and electrical wiring. When I mashed down on the accelerator pedal, a jet on the carburetor squirted raw gasoline into the intake manifold and opened the carburetor's throat wide. When the cylinders got that raw gas and took a big gulp of air, the car jumped forward like a lion on the attack, with not even an instant's hesitation. With the new electronic cars, you have to wait for the central computer to intercept the motion of the accelerator pedal and decide what to do about it. And if today's car runs rough or has trouble starting, you can't open the hood and fix the problem with a big screwdriver and a pair of pliers.

I've always been a supporter of Project Gutenberg, and I've read several classic works as ebooks, downloaded from http://www.gutenberg.org/ . But I get eyestrain trying to read for too long from a computer screen. Paper still works better than electronic displays for long periods of reading. And there's nothing as satisfying in the tech world as curling up on the couch with a comforter, a mug of hot chocolate, and a good book.