Sunday, October 23, 2011

A tale of two congresscritters

Here's a story about something that happened this week.  I've omitted the names because I'm too lazy to look them up.  You can google for them if you want to.

A junior senator (one who also made the news recently for a Cosmo photoshoot he once did to pay his way through law school) wrote an autobiographical essay and posted it online.

Well, this week (or maybe the week before; again, I'm too lazy to look it up), an alert reader noticed some uncanny similarities between his bio and a biography published a few years ago, about a highly respected former senator (and a very classy lady) from a different state.

Not just uncanny similarities.  Some passages were identical.  It was a case of blatant plagiarism.  The reader, who happened to work for Atlantic Monthly, called him on it.  (Heh.  As if his Cosmo photos weren't "blatant" enough.)

The junior senator's office responded to the charges, saying that he wasn't responsible for the blog entry, because it was ghostwritten by a staff member.  The exact wording of the spokesperson was "a staff level oversight."  (This is where you can get all indignant and say that he should have known what other people were saying in his name.  And you'd be right.  But don't stop reading yet.)

Upon further investigation, it was determined (or at least highly suspected) that the section lifted from the senior senator's biography was not really her words.  It just sounded like something she would say.  Actually, it had been ghostwritten for her.

So the ghostwriter for one senator plagiarized content from the ghostwriter for another senator, and therefore it's nearly impossible to hold the first senator responsible for the misdeed.  And that, my children, is the way it's done in Washington, D.C.

(Well, if we can't hold him responsible, can we at least lump him in with the Idiot Ones?) 

A book to read

This isn't a recommendation for a new book.  I could recommend some, but that's not the point of this entry.

I want to ask you a question:  Which way do you prefer to read a book?
1) eBook - Kindle, Nook, iPad, computer, or other electronic device
2) audiobook - so you can listen to it in the car or whatever
3) paper and ink  - the old-fashioned way

I've actually been doing all three of them.  Right now, I'm working my way through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an eBook.  It goes slow, but the actual book is three heavy volumes, and this way I don't have to carry one of them around with me.  The most recent audiobook I "read" was Freakanomics (the Revised Edition).  It was great to listen to as I drove to and from work.  I actually "read" it twice.  I've also enjoyed Harry Potter and the Something Or Other and several fascinating nonfiction works in audio form.

And the most recent paper-and-ink book I read?  Well, it's been over ten years since I read The Lord of the Rings.  I recently revisited the entire trilogy.  I skipped The Hobbit.  I'll go back to it.  But there was stuff in LOTR that I'd forgotten because it's not in the movies, and I needed to read it all again.  The movies are rich, of course, but the books are many times richer.

For the record, although I will continue reading eBooks and audiobooks, I prefer paper and ink.  There's just something about the printed page that the electronic and audio formats just can't deliver.  You can't caress the pages; you can't savour the words.  You can't underline key passages, make annotations in the margins, dog-ear the pages or mark the page edges.  With an eBook, you can at least go back and reread your favorite parts, but they're not that easy to find, and besides, what's the use?  The words in an eBook are sanitized, denatured, squeezed dry of the flavor that paper and ink imparts to the writer's words.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A school's plan backfires, making things better instead of worse

A while ago I wrote about the case of the schoolteacher in eastern Pennsylvania who was suspended because she said some offensive, but true, things about her students on a blog that was supposed to be private but wasn't.  She was quietly reinstated in August 2011, but the school administration set her up to fail.  In direct violation of their own policies, they allowed any parent to "opt out" - to withdraw their student from this teacher's classes.  And in a move stinking of hypocrisy, shortsightedness, or just plain unfairness, they did not allow any parents to "opt in" - to sign up their student for one of her classes.

The administration's intentions were obvious.  By the end of the year, this teacher's classroom enrollment would be down to zero, and they would have a justification to eliminate her position and fire her - or at least remove her from the school.

Well, their plan backfired.  Instead of three classes of 30 students each, she ended up with classes of 12, 15 and 7 students.  Those 34 students are the luckiest students in the school.  They are receiving the kind of education that a student in a classroom of 30 can only wish for.  Not only that, but they are mostly self-selected "good students."  The troublemakers, the ones that this teacher wrote about in her blog, opted out of her class, leaving only the students who really wanted to learn.

This makes for a perfect classroom environment.  And that makes her, probably, the luckiest teacher in the school.  With a student-to-teacher ratio below 20, she can give each student some real one-on-one time.  She can concentrate on the ones who need help.  She can take time to give the high flyers an extra boost.  She can phone or email all the students' parents regularly, without having to stay up late at night grading papers and preparing lesson plans.

The other teachers may be a bit envious of her. They still have 30 students per class, 3 classes per day.  They still have the whiners, the rude ones, and the slackers.  They may have students who need help, but they can't help them, because they're so busy dealing with the whiners, the slackers, and the inertia of the average.

I really hope they don't end up resenting her.  Any resentment they may feel should be directed at the administration, not at her.

The administration set out to punish her, or to make her fail. Instead, the punishment has turned into a reward, and when the standardized test scores are published next summer, their intended failure will show itself as a big success.  Her students' scores will average higher than those of the other students - not necessarily because she's a better teacher, but because she and her students had a better shot at teaching and learning.

So what are the rest of the students at this high school doing?  They're still whining and complaining. And her unlikely defender continues to fight the good fight.  I say more power to both of them.

You can read about this delightful turn of events on her blog.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The call Robert Jeffress has been waiting his whole life for

"Reverend Jeffress, I have some good news and some bad news."

"Okay, what's the good news?"

"Jesus has returned, like he said he would, and he wants to talk to you!"

"COOL! Okay, after that, I can take any bad news you've got. What is it?"

"He's calling collect, from Salt Lake City."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why is it ...

Why is it that
When we are young, we look ahead to the future,
When we are in our prime, we live for the present,
And when we are old, we reach for the past?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Honor of Steve Jobs

Better writers than me have written better eulogies than this for Steve Jobs in the past 24 hours. I recommend the ones at Wired and NPR. I'm sure Time will have something worthwhile to read. Since I don't have anything new or exclusive to add, this entry will be short.

Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday, October 5, 2011. He was 56 years old. He left behind a wife and four children, whom he loved and whom he carefully kept out of the spotlight during his very public career. He also left behind a vibrant computer company, one that in its own way (and in his own way) defined consumer computing, leading the way for Microsoft and IBM, and later for Google, Motorola and all the other "me-too" companies.

What did he do?  Well, an automobile is a complex piece of machinery, and yet every single automobile in the world is controlled in exactly the same way, with a steering wheel, a gear shift, and two pedals.  Jobs did the same thing for computers and computing.  Outside of what he has left for his family, that may be his greatest legacy.

With the iPhone, he also reinvented the mobile telephone.  And with Pixar, he reinvented animated, feature-length, family movies.

 He is named as inventor or co-inventor on over 300 patents, covering computers, telephones, music, and more.  Steven Levy, in his eulogy in Wired, named Jobs' six biggest technical and business accomplishments:
  • the Apple II computer
  • the Macintosh computer
  • Pixar Studios
  • the iPod
  • the iPhone
  • the iPad
In the NPR story, Robert McNamee, a venture capitalist, called Jobs a modern-day "Thomas Edison."  Moviemaker Steven Spielberg (what is it with all these Stevens today?) echoed that sentiment.

Whether you own an Apple product or not, Steve Jobs has had a profound and lasting effect on your life.

Edit:  I added the picture.  Not sure what the original source was; I swiped it from FB.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

They picked on the wrong victim

Once upon a time, a high school teacher in eastern Pennsylvania started a blog, as a way to keep in touch with her friends and family.  She kept her personal information to a minimum, but she used her real first name and a real picture of herself.  I imagine that she did that so that it would be more personal than the blogs that were just a bunch of words.  She didn't publicize the blog, or intend it to be read by the general public, but, being a bit na├»ve in the ways of the Internet, she didn't make it private, either.

As with most teachers today, she encountered a lot of frustration in her job.  Many (not all) of the students were whiny, lazy, rude, obscene - even jerks.  Many of these students' parents facilitated this behavior, or even modeled it themselves.  And she didn't get a lot of support from the administration in dealing with these students.

You may think that this was just her point of view, or a direct result of her own bad attitude.  If you think that, then you don't know enough teachers.  Most students are delightful people, and The Future of Our Country - and their parents are great people, too.  But there are an awful lot of The Other Kind.  Public school administrators are a mixed bag, too.  Some are great, and some aren't - just like the management ranks in industry and everywhere else.

So this teacher, whom we'll call "Natalie" just to pick a name out of the air, vented her frustrations on her blog.  It wasn't every blog entry - only 24 out of 84, by her count.  She was very careful to never call anybody by name.  She never even identified the school or the location she was writing about.  Granted, she did use profanity and some non-PC language - but remember, her intended audience was her friends and family.

Well, she didn't know that somebody was eavesdropping.  Some of her students found her blog, and they read what she was saying about them - even though she never called them out by name, they recognized themselves from her descriptions of their behavior.

They could have reacted in many different ways.  What they chose to do was this:  the students publicized her blog, told their parents about it, and set up a number of hate pages on Facebook.  They and other students proceeded to dogpile on this teacher on those FB pages.  The parents, in their turn, encouraged (or tacitly approved of) their children's behavior, and also protested to the school administration.  The school and the administration, rather than stand behind their teacher, as they should have done, took the cowardly way out and suspended her.  All of this happened in a very short time, in February 2011.

Her suspension coincided nicely with the maternity leave she had previously scheduled.  Still, she knew what the administrators were doing.  Somehow the whole affair went "viral," as they say, and it hit the fan - er, the national news.

(Interjection:  she was quietly reinstated in August 2011 - again, the cowardly way out, since she had been so publicly suspended.  Not only that, but the administrators set things up at the school so that she cannot succeed this year, and then they hope they will have cause to fire her.  It's all explained in the two blogs referenced below.)

What happened next could not have been predicted by anybody.  Someone on Facebook saw what these schoolkids were doing to the teacher (basically, they were acting worse than anything she had accused them of), and he spoke up in her defense.  He got pasted just like she did.  Even worse, after he created a support page on FB to counter all the hate pages, many of the teacher's opponents, parents and students alike, piled onto the support page and continued vilifying the teacher - and her supporter.  They got ugly - uglier than anything they'd done so far.  But they didn't know who they were up against.

Most people, faced with this kind of opposition, would simply have shut down the support page and walked away from it.  Not this guy - he fought back.  The kids were dumb enough to use their real identities on FB, so he looked up their phone numbers, called their parents, and told them what their kids were doing.  He called the school and district administration and told them what the kids were doing.  He notified the colleges and universities these kids were applying to, and told them what the kids were doing.  When the local school administrators responded in a cowardly and hypocritical fashion, he called them out on it.  And he started a blog, where he documented every bit of this battle.

The battle has gotten ugly.  The kids keep escalating, and some of them have crossed the legal line, engaging in mail fraud and identity theft.  He has reported this to the authorities, and he continues to document everything on his blog.

Now, you may not agree with his tactics.  You may wonder, as so many other people do, why he doesn't just drop it and get on with his life.  But look at where he's coming from.  He saw someone getting bullied, he spoke up in their defense, he himself became a victim of the bullies, and now he's fighting back.  I'm not saying he's Charles Bronson, but he does take his Avenging Angel duty seriously.

The easiest way to end this battle would be for the students and parents to back down, apologize, and admit they were wrong.  That's all he wants.  But I'm afraid it's gone beyond that.  It's fascinating to watch it play out, albeit somewhat gruesome - like watching a wasp and a spider duel to the death.  It's definitely not G-rated.  If you're interested, here are links to the two non-Facebook blogs:
The teacher
The defender

Here are links to the news story:

If you want to see the FB pages, you'll have to find them yourself.

Warning warning warning!  If you feel inclined to contribute to the discussion, resist that inclination.  You will viewed as a combatant, not merely a contributor, and you will instantly be drawn into the conflict.  And they're not fighting with just guns and knives.  It's better to stay behind the glass and just observe.

If you just can't hold back, and you have to say something, don't give your real name.  This is one case where it's acceptable to post as Anonymous.

UPDATE: For an update on this situation, read my new blog entry here . Basically, the school's plan to get rid of her backfired. Big time.