Messages to My Dog

by Robert Nagle on 8/10/2014

in Offbeat/Humor

I love my dog AJ, but I just wish for 5 minutes we could speak the same language so I can give him a piece of my mind. Here is a list of the things I would say:

  • Just because I am entering my kitchen does NOT mean I will be fetching you a dog treat.
  • Aluminum foil is NOT interesting!
  • Our primary reason for going out to a walk is for you to poo and pee, not so you can dig up chicken legs and find poo from other dogs.
  • I wouldn’t come close to stepping on you so often if you didn’t take naps 3 inches from my desk chair.
  • Please don’t lick my ears when I am doing pushups. They ruin my concentration.
  • The main reason I leave the house is 1)to buy food and 2)to earn money to buy food. I don’t like staying away from you any more than I do, but I do it because I have to….think of the extra bones and dog treats!
  • There is no need to drink from puddles outside. I got unlimited supplies of water at home!
  • I wish you’d bark at strangers coming into my house more. That’s the “good kind of barking.”
  • Thank you for not being a prima donna about the bathtub.
  • When we go on a walk, I don’t mind your eagerness to run around. But I do mind when you stubbornly refuse to go anywhere besides the direction you want.
  • If I thought I could hold you in my lap and still get work down on my computer, believe me, I’d let you stay there. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
  • I like meeting new dogs almost as much as you do.
  • Why do you not get excited when you meet other wiener dogs? You know you are a wiener dog …. don’t you?
  • I think about you all the time when I am away or at work.
  • Truthfully, I really enjoy bringing you to the dog sitter and not having to walk you all the time. I need a vacation too. But I’m glad that you don’t get sick of me.
  • I’m happy as hell that I don’t have fleas.
  • Humans won’t let you inside their home  unless they  invite you first!
  • I feel guilty for not taking you to the dog park more often, but frankly, it’s a relief when you are content to take a normal walk around the block.
  • I like surprising you.

Unfortunately, this tongue-in-cheek blog post  has a rather sad ending. Last September or October, my dog AJ hurt his back. I knew that wiener dogs had this tendency, so I took some preventative measures. Unfortunately, I should have taken even stricter measures. Initially the vet was hopeful that AJ could recover through rest and relaxation and limiting of his movement. It definitely worked for a while — even though AJ had his pain points which we had to be extremely careful about. (I was on the second floor and had to carry him up and down the stairs — which was hard for both of us).

After persistent begging to join me on my recliner chair, I finally relented and carried him into my lap, holding him tightly. The problem was not jumping up but jumping down, and after about 15 minutes of lying comfortably,  AJ unexpectedly leapt off the chair and fell in a really bad way. At first he seemed ok, but then his hind legs were utterly paralyzed, pretty much making him incapable of normal life. I ended up bringing  him to the vet on Monday and having him put to sleep. I knew it was for the best, but it was still very sad.

Besides being the perfect companion, AJ also enjoyed sitting on my lap while I watched TV.  It felt perfectly natural to both of us — and regrettably, this probably was a factor in facilitating his fatal injury. I didn’t feed him much people food, but I fairly often fed him leftover sweet potatoes and peas. He loved that, and so did I.

AJ enjoyed many human friends — almost more than other dogs sometimes. One of the great things about walking a dog is that you meet other dog owners and get to see which people are comfortable interacting with dogs. Dogs learn very quickly which humans are the most friendly.  For some reason in the last year or two AJ would cry with excitement whenever a recognizable human appeared. It was both amusing and touching. On Sunday before I put AJ to sleep, my neighbor visited my home to offer comfort. AJ had been suffering all day in silence, but when my neighbor and friend John appeared at the door, AJ started whining uncontrollably. This whining was a combination of things: it was genuine joy that John had come to see him, combined with a desire to make John aware of how much he was suffering and how helpless he felt before everything. At the vet the next day, my vet explained that for evolutionary reasons,  animals hid their pain very well to avoid being easy prey for a predator. But in this case, AJ was vocalizing his pain  to John because he knew John was part of his family.  Inside that apartment, we were three creatures who were joined by a common fear of mortality and a desire to help one another.

I thought back to this blog post and realized that I had an awful lot of things I wanted to say to him during those last 24 hours:

  • Sometimes I have to limit your activity not because I want to but because I have to. This is a burden for any parent or caregiver.
  • I feel your pain almost as much as you do.
  • Sickness and injury always seem incomprehensible and makes you feel helpless. It also makes people around you feel helpless as well.  Humans and money can’t solve all problems.
  • Our time on this planet is very short, and circumstances change more quickly than we ever thought possible.
  • The difference between pets and humans is that pets have to deal only with the here-and-now while humans must plan for the future and understand the long term implications of everything.
  • Even after you are gone, I think about how  the smallest things used to puzzle or frighten you.
  • I still wonder what you must think about normal human devices like the microwave, the telephone, the iPad.

One of AJ’s claim to fame is that in the first year I owned him, I entered him in a wiener dog race in Buda, Texas. I enrolled him as a joke (and as an outing for my nephews), but as luck would have it, AJ raced very fast. He won 3 races in a row, and out of 600+ dogs, he placed in the top 20. My nieces and nephews loved AJ and they loved to do pretend races. They would hold his leash while I walked 50 feet away. At the count of three, one of them would let go of his leash and AJ would rush towards me at the same time that one of my nephews tried to beat him. AJ always won. I’m sorry to say that he had gained a few pounds in his last year or two, but he still managed to win every race.

Here’s a video I took of AJ with his best doggie friend (whom he played with at the babysitter). I was all too aware that pets leave our lives pretty quickly and so tried to take as many pictures and videos as possible.   As a pet owner, you are aware that these memorials mean a lot more to the owner than to anybody else; a dog is just a dog (except to its owner).

Finally, I guess I really haven’t sketched my dog in very much detail. As a human who spent a lot of time with him, I got to notice a lot of his eccentricities, and he got to see mine. So how would I describe his personality?

AJ was very friendly, especially to children. He was a very calming presence at almost any time.  It was very rare that he growled or reacted negatively to anyone. I still can’t figure out why some dogs growl or act overly aggressive towards strangers. Perhaps it has to do with the way they were raised, but from the very beginning, AJ wanted nothing more than to find another friend.  I think it had to do with his small size and the fact that he didn’t bark. AJ was treated very well sometime. In my first apartment, I lived next to a giant park that was ideal for walking dogs. I would let him off his leash frequently, and he had a lot of freedom to roam around and occasionally socialize with other dogs. But he was always very human-focused; it was almost funny how he sometimes paid no attention to the other dog and instead try to get the attention of its owner. I didn’t actively try to train AJ — I just didn’t feel like it, although I saw how quickly AJ picked up some things about what was off limits and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, AJ didn’t like being in a crate — it was torture to him. I tried to use a bike trailer to bring AJ to a park which was a mile away. AJ thought it was bloody murder.4504699026_8a45ac95f1_z

AJ loved taking walks, but you couldn’t get much exercise while walking him. He smelled things carefully and deliberately. He had an amazing memory for smells. In apartment complexes the big danger was chicken bones all over the grounds. I suspect that squirrels and cats had dug them out of the garbage and were dropping them at random places. As a pet owner you were warned about not giving your dog chicken bones, and however much I tried, AJ always managed to find one before I could yank him away.  One night I walked him and steered him away from a chicken bone; the next day I had completely forgotten about the bone, but AJ darted right to it and snatched the bone too quickly for me to stop him.  Perhaps it was less memory than smell; the thing was, immediately when he started on the walk, he knew exactly where to dart — hundreds of feet before he would come close enough to smell anything.086

AJ and I watched a ton of TV together. During that time I was underemployed a lot and addicted to various TV shows coming available on Netflix. I think it was AJ’s definition of bliss to be lying on my lap while we watched TV.  I didn’t feed him human food, but every so often I would give him leftovers from my vegetables — sweet potatoes and peas. Occasionally AJ got into some food he shouldn’t have — for example, he never went into my trashcan, though he could have easily done so, but generally he respected boundaries between my food and his. Anything which fell on the ground was fair play though. When watching TV, I was really careful to avoid shows showing animals getting hurt, but to be honest, I doubt that AJ would have noticed it anyway. Sometimes I would try to direct his attention to a dog on the TV, but most of the time he didn’t notice or show any interest.

It was strange to sleep in a bed with a dog companion. I had some doggie steps which made it easy for him to get onto the bed. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t let him on my bed at all. First, he would scratch himself at strange hours and keep me awake sometimes. Second, when I later learned about the back problems, I realized how hard it would be to take away a privilege I had already given.  That said, sleeping with him wasn’t really a problem — even enjoyable at times. I always found it amusing how he liked to go under the covers. I really wished I could have set up a webcam while at work to see what he did to occupy the day; I’m sure it was nothing unusual, but still I would have liked to know.

AJ was somewhat fussy about bones, preferring the small rawhide bones to the larger meat bones. I think the most recent batch of rawhide must be sprayed with some kind of smell which dogs must love. Whenever I gave him one of these bones, for an hour or so AJ would stop paying attention to everything about the world and just focus on unraveling one of those rawhide bones. I enjoyed watching him when he was just being a dog.

I had a careful route for giving walks. AJ knew it, and yet would put all kinds of pressure to diverge from it. On the other side of the apartment was a fenced apartment community just like ours — there was nothing special about it really, and AJ absolutely wanted to go exploring over there. At first, I just refused, but once or twice I was able to sneak in when the gate was already open. As I said it was nothing special, but for AJ it was one of these forbidden thrills, and I enjoyed indulging him once in a while.  I lived in a dense neighborhood with lots of cars and very few sidewalks.  AJ just loved to go the longer path around the block; I generally avoided doing it because it was out of the way, but sometime I went along. In Houston we have a lot of heat even at night and you had to be very careful not to exert the dog too much. Sometimes he just couldn’t walk any more from exhaustion. Sometimes I would need to carry him or bring a supply of water.  So he could enthusiastically embark on a long trip, but he just lacked the energy to complete the journey.

AJ had doggie friends; I suspect he must have found the thought of  meeting the same dog every few days must have been relaxing and fun.

Dog owners who live in houses may not realize this, but you end up having to be physically present for every poop the dog takes. I couldn’t just open the door and let AJ do his business outside. As a result, my schedule seemed to revolve around his walking schedule. Often it meant not being able to stay late at a social function  or never being to bring home take out food (because I would need to factor in 30 minutes to walk AJ). Even if I had already walked him, being away from home  2 or 3 hours meant that AJ expected a walk immediately; he was restless and not just because of his bodily functions. AJ’s presence definitely calmed me down and distracted me and reminded me to take a nap (somebody once said that dogs functioned to remind their owners to take more naps!)  Naps are wonderful. Unfortunately AJ ruined the exercise regime which I had established pretty firmly in 2008 and 2009. On the other hand I was engaging in more low intensity activity and was out of doors  a lot more often (and soaking in that Vitamin  D). Also I got to know a lot of people, and not just the pet owners around the neighborhood. I was no longer that scary stranger — I was the man with the dog.

I was rather amused at how assiduously AJ avoided rainy weather. What a baby!  Sometimes if he so much as sniffed rain, he would refuse to go any further.

AJ passed away fairly early in his dog life; I still live with the guilt of it. On the other hand, I know I took care of him better than most dogs and certainly gave him lots of attention. I shall remember the days I spent with him as days of joy and amusement. 5212617067_1cec866eb0_z

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Over the past few months I have been pursuing  a teacher’s public school certification for Texas. One important step in that endeavor has been reading the latest books on education policy, curriculum and classroom management. I have been collecting lots of books and learning new things. I haven’t begun to finish these books, but I have skimmed a lot and learned a lot of important things.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. By Diane Ravitch . Eye-opening analysis of education reform by one of America's education experts. Ravitch makes the case that a test-centered approach to teaching and learning has done significant harm to students. Significantly Ravitch pins much of the blame on charter schools and the push by foundations (like Gates and others) to privatize learning. One of the most eye-opening facts was how performance of US students on NAEP (a fairly reliable test used for comparing education progress)has been steadily rising, belying the idea that public schools are "failing" the kids. At heart Ravitch believes that public schools are doing as good a job as they can under the circumstances and don't need private entrepreneurship to upend the system. Highly recommended.
Teach Like a Champion. Doug Lemov . This is a very impressive set of practices and guidelines for ensuring that learning actually takes place inside the classroom and that the classroom is managed properly. This is a very clever book and probably most new and experienced teachers could learn a thing or two from it. This helpful book also includes video excerpts on the enclosed DVD to illustrate the principles when put in practice. To my delight, I later learned that Lemov did some teacher training at HISD, and so this book is influencing schools already.
Lies My Teacher Told Me. James W. Loewen . This very famous and respected critique of high school history classes shows the danger of an approach to social studies which skims the surface of historical events. Lowen highlights some howlers which are nonetheless taught in class (and most of which I remember learning about). Although I applaud the aim of this book, in fact I think the process of producing and approving textbooks is what ensures its bland inoffensiveness. I'm guessing that a lot of these misperceptions are quickly dispelled in college history classes, so I have to wonder what Loewen wants here. Does he want history teachers to focus on less material in more depth. Or more class time in general? Also, I'm sure it would be ideal to have high school teachers who know some of these historical old wives' tales. I guess the book's reputation (and catchy title) ensures that all history teachers will have to read it and tailor their lessons accordingly.
Brain Gain. By Marc Prensky .
Power of Mindful Learning. By Ellen Langer .
Essential 55. By Ron Clark.
Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. (Website ).This book argues that schools harm children and family life by assigning too much homework. Most of the book consists of anecdotal evidence, quotes by psychology professors and harried parents. I'm sure there is a grain of truth here, but I felt that the case wasn't made fairly. For example, are some kinds of homework worse than others? What about long term project work rather than daily assignments? The book successfully conveys the fact that huge amounts of homework interferes with family life and participation in extracurriculars. That is certainly important. One Amazon commenter (and school administrator) mentioned that teachers often assign too much homework because they didn't have time to finish their lesson in class (or students didn't have the interest to do their work in class). Having too much homework might be a symptom of a dysfunctional classroom than a teacher with unreasonable expectations. Interesting to read, but I wish it went into more detail about what kinds of homework actually are worthwhile (other than throwaway advice for students to avoid doing more than 5 math problems a night).

Below are books I have been accumulating and haven’t read enough of to formulate an opinion about:

  • Teach like your hair is on fire. by Rafe Esquith.
  • Power of Poems by Margriet Ruurs.
  • Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner.
  • Activating the Desire to Learn. By Bob Sullo.
  • Art of Thinking by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero.
  • Strategies that work. By Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.
  • Myth of Laziness. By Mel Levine, MD
  • Dramatic Literacy: Using Drama and Literature to Teach Middle-Level Content.  By J. Lea Smith & J Daniel Herring.
  • Engaging Minds: Motivating & Learning in America’s Schools by David A. Goslin.
  • Anti-Education Era by James Paul Gee.
  • Unschooled Mind: How Children Learn and how schools should teach.  by Howard Gardener.
  • Live Wires: Neuro-Parenting to Ignite your teen’s brain. By Judith Widener Muir MD
  • Dramatic Literacy: Using Drama and Literature to Teach Middle-Level Content by J. Lea Smith & J. Daniel Herring.

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Cool new hair stylist in Houston

by Robert Nagle on 7/6/2014

in Texas/Regional

I just wanted to recommend a Houston hair stylist named Dori .  She lives and  works around the Houston area. She has done jobs on friends and yes even on my own hair. She performs a variety of personal services  and can even do these things in the privacy of your home. And yes, that is my photo on her home page!

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A very odd thing about me and Houston

by Robert Nagle on 7/2/2014

in Texas/Regional

While coming home I realized a very curious thing: in the 2000+ posts I have made here, next to none have been about Houston, the city where I live. I have lots of opinions about Houston and know a lot of people here from all wakes of life; how surprising that it would never occur to me to write about them!

In a way it is not surprising; I have always  viewed Houston as a generic kind of  city and besides this blog is better at recording random observations and cogitations. But perhaps that is not true at all. After all, a large metropolitan city can be viewed in millions of different ways. It is also always changing;  anything you say about the city will go almost immediately out of date. I know that photo-bloggers and arts critics often captured the spirit of a city better than the local newspapers do. Anyway, the depressing thing about the local paper (the Houston Chronicle) is that it is really an international media property (of which the Chronicle is one prize jewel).  I jokingly have threatened to write a screenplay to vent my rage about Houston, and I still vow to do so, though it is still officially a back burner project.

So I will try to write about the other Houston, the Houston that rarely makes it into the newspaper because it is simply the Houston that envelopes my life.

Stay tuned. And p.s. don’t eat tortillas which are made of both flour and corn. What a monstrosity to the tastebuds!

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(About my uncle who passed away earlier this year).

Boy, Uncle Thomas was  the world’s greatest uncle!

While growing up in Houston, Texas, I didn’t get to see him except on special occasions.    Uncle Thomas was  good about visiting our family in Houston, but it’s hard (and expensive!) to keep in touch over such long distances.  While I was growing up,  my dad told me stories about Thomas and Ginnie and Eileen; it was clear that my dad and Thomas had a deep  and caring relationship and had been through a lot together.   As someone who grew up as the oldest among 4 kids, I guess I can appreciate the everchanging dynamics of  a household with 4 children.  To borrow an image from my dad’s imagination, I could imagine all four  Nagle siblings on opposite corners  of a boxing ring  at Madison Square Garden. At the bell, Aunt Ginnie rushes forward to get the first punch but ends up  tripping over her feet;  Aunt Eileen resolutely  stays in her corner  to protest the rules; My dad comes out “dancing like a butterfly’ but fakes being knocked out in order to win a bet, and Uncle Thomas tries valiantly to play referee and convince everyone to end the fight until Ginnie swings a wild punch at him and brings him down good.  Now that’s an  event I’d pay good money to see.

As luck would have it, I ended up visiting New York a lot during the 90s. For the first two times, it was for work-related reasons, but later I took multiple trips overseas and made it a point to stay an extra 2 days or so in NY so I could visit  Uncle Thomas and Aunt Eileen.

Uncle Thomas, me on Uncle Bill’s boat on Long Island (Uncle Bill is in the back). 1998

The first trip was in 1993. I had no idea what to expect, but Uncle Thomas met me at the train stop and went out of his way to take me around town.  We did the usual touristy stuff –  visiting the Cloisters, the Brooklyn Zoo  and the Empire State Building and taking the ferry around the island (I’m sure that was not the first time for him!).  Thomas also made sure to show me the neighborhood where he and my dad grew up and other important landmarks. We visited  St Patrick’s Cathedral (where my dad proposed to my mom, for example). Thomas  talked about  their youthful  summers and Uncle Curley and the  practical jokes the kids played on one another. Of course, my dad had told stories with the same cast of characters, but Uncle Thomas had different stories and a memory which seemed inexhaustible.

Surprisingly, I learned from him  that my grandfather was an excellent cook. In contrast my dad could hardly cook anything except steak and hamburgers –  Uncle Thomas never seemed to  cook either; he struck me as the type who would rather invite invite someone over for sandwiches or have seafood at a nearby restaurant. But I was certainly a good cook, and my brother Tommy was an outstanding cook, so this led me to speculate that the  Nagle cooking gene must always skip a generation in the males.

Donald Nagle (my dad) and Thomas Nagle, San Antonio, TX Donald Nagle (my dad) and Thomas Nagle, San Antonio, TX, 2005

Both my dad and Uncle Thomas were great at telling stories, but their styles couldn’t have been different.  My  dad liked to be outrageous and embellish at the edges –anything for a laugh.  Uncle Thomas told stories earnestly and almost as if he were under oath. At the same time, Thomas always felt compelled to tell everybody’s backstory, causing some of the stories to go on and on.  But I never minded. My dad talked about wacko  clients from his law practice, while Thomas  talked about crazy things which King Kullen workers were trying to pull behind management’s back.   Thomas’s stories   were  funny too, but there would usually  be an insight or lesson at the end.

Like Uncle Thomas  I spent a lot of time at supermarkets.   Having worked as a supermarket cashier  for seven years during school, I regarded supermarkets as familiar territory. Every time  Thomas visited Houston, he made sure to visit the same supermarket I worked at — partly for professional reasons, but also just to walk around  and talk with people and find out how people  did things in Texas.  For some reason, I’ve shared this fascination with supermarkets and often thought that you can tell a lot about a society by what goes on inside its supermarkets.  When I travel anywhere, I always enjoy visiting the local supermarkets to get a feel for what the people were like. I’m sure Thomas would approve.

Before I started visiting New York,  dad and Uncle Thomas once visited me in Baltimore for graduation ceremonies. That was 1989.   I was never really  into sports, but that year my school (Johns Hopkins) had a phenomenal men’s lacrosse team. I suggested that we go see the finals (which was in College Park, Maryland, about an hour away). Dad and I took one car, while Uncle Thomas tagged along in his rental car. This was in the days before cell phones and GPS;  as  luck would have it, I took a wrong turn on the freeway, and it took about 45 minutes to recover from that mistake (mainly because we had to make sure that Uncle Thomas was following us when we retraced our steps). As a result, the rest of the ride was hellish.  Dad was furious and berated me nonstop  for not paying attention to road signs.  For dad, being late to  a sporting event  was like being late to church.  But once we arrived at the stadium, I remember Uncle Thomas’ expression; he was actually chuckling at my dad for giving me such a hard time over something so trivial. There is no more welcome sight to a young man being yelled at by his dad than the eyes of a sympathetic uncle.

(By the way, the lacrosse finals were great. My school’s team won, and we all had a great time).

One of the more memorable NY  visits came when I returned from Peace Corps in 1997. My country Albania  had actually experienced a kind of civil war, and so all the volunteers had to return home in a rush.    When Uncle Thomas met me at the airport, I was still in shock. I had lost most of my belongings and barely had more than the clothes on my back.  After that misadventure,  Uncle Thomas was literally the first recognizable face I saw in the United States.  The first thing he  did was bring me to a department store to buy me socks and underwear and maybe an extra shirt. “Just go ahead,” he said, “Buy anything you want.”  Later he brought me to an Italian restaurant for a sumptuous dinner.  It was so surreal. One day I was living in a country threatened by anarchy and civil war; the next I was wearing awesome American underwear and eating delicious fettuccine with my fantastic uncle. At such a moment, I felt  on top of the world.

During this and subsequent visits,  Uncle Thomas and I  did other touristy things. We visited a Dr. Seuss art exhibit,  saw a great Broadway musical, did dim sum in Chinatown  and visited the TV & Radio museum. All great and fun things. But what insanity!   For an out-of-towner it seemed incredibly stressful and expensive.  The signs,  the traffic,  the noise!  Perhaps these things might be less likely to bother a native New Yorker, but Uncle Thomas had a knack for going with the flow — refusing to be bothered by  $12 an hour parking  or waiters who took forever to bring your sodas or traffic lanes which inexplicably   closed.

Even though I was born in New York and my spent half his life there, ironically all of my New York memories were spent with Uncle Thomas rather than my dad.   Perhaps it would have been better to visit New York with my own  dad; my dad would have shown me all his personal landmarks, as well as any important place which had  importance in baseball or boxing history. But as we all know, my dad moved to Texas, while Uncle Thomas stayed put. One Nagle brother wanted a change of scenery (and profession), so he moved to a place where Yankees were vilified.  Don’t get me wrong, Dad was a proud Yankee — he never touched a jalapeno or went to a rodeo of his own free will. But Uncle Thomas became for me a symbol of a man who was content to stay in one geographic area and soak up its rich history and culture. Uncle Thomas certainly loved to go places — and it’s good he had multiple opportunities to do so over his many years. Certainly having children …. and grandchildren … gave him plenty of excuses. But  I always got the sense that Uncle Thomas was perfectly happy retiring in the same place he grew up in, close to his family, surrounded by great  sports teams, phenomenal bagels and supermarket chains which almost seemed like home.

 

Mildred Nagle (grandma) with her two boys Donald and Thomas, 1934-5? Mildred Nagle (grandma) with her two boys Donald and Thomas, 1934-5? Teresa and Donald Nagle, Bill Farrell and Eileen Farrell, Thomas Nagle, 2005. San Antonio Teresa and Donald Nagle, Bill Farrell and Eileen (Nagle) Farrell, Thomas Nagle, 2005. San Antonio

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From the official obituary:

GUILDERLAND – The family of Thomas F. Nagle issued the following information following his passing on January 31, 2014. As a business executive and community leader, Nagle’s work touched the lives of many and his contributions left a positive mark.

Thomas F. Nagle was born in Brooklyn in 1928, raised in Jamaica, Queens and spent most of his life in Hicksville, until he moved to Guilderland in October 2012. He graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1951. Nagle enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1950, was drafted in 1952 and completed his training on Parris Island, distinguishing himself as an Expert Marksman. He served in Nara, Japan during the Korean War. Nagle moved to a Levitt home on Blueberry Lane, Hicksville with his wife and infant daughter in December 1954. Nagle welcomed four more children, two girls and two boys, later becoming a grandfather nine times and a great-grandfather twice. He was a leader in the community. His life ended on January 31 in Guilderland, New York at age 85. He was preceded by his parents Thomas W. E. and Mildred, his brother Donald and sister Virginia. He leaves behind his sister Eileen Farrell (William) and sister-in-law, Terry Nagle, five children:Norine Nagle (Kerry Johnson) Roberta Spinosa (Dan), Ellen Hughes (James), Steve Nagle, Michael Nagle (Diane); nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews and their children.

Nagle had polio as a child and was not expected to live, but in typical fashion, he beat the odds and his slightly weaker leg never slowed him down. He competed on organized football and bowling teams, and was always up for a pick-up game of basketball. Even after he stopped playing sports, he continued as a fan. He would bring his children and grandkids to Mets games, and despite their dismal history, he remained a fan. Watching a game with him at home made you feel like you were at the ballpark cheering the Mets, and learned about his insights on the players.

Nagle worked in supermarkets. He started as a store manager for First National Stores (Finast) in 1956 and worked his way up to Director of Labor Relations in the late 1960s. He eventually left Finast to return to King Kullen Supermarkets, in 1979 as Director of Personnel and Labor Relations. King Kullen was where he had his first job at 16 that had continued through his college years. He retired in 2004 and continued to consult and advise for a few more years.

Nagle remained committed to giving back to his community. He was first elected to the Hicksville School Board in 1968 and served for two decades in various capacities until the mid-1980s. In 1969, he helped found H.A.D. – Help-Aid-Direction, Inc. – a program committed to educating Hicksville residents about drug abuse and helping those with problems. He was an active member of Holy Family Church (Hicksville) where he volunteered as a church usher, lector, and member of the booster club. Within the church, Nagle was involved with the Nocturnal Adoration Society, Legion of Mary, and Holy Name Society. He was also a member of the Holy Family School Board.

A phrase you could always hear him say was, “You meet the same people on your way down that you meet on your way up.” It was truly the phrase which defined his life. He treated others with respect and dignity no matter their walk in life, and looked for ways to quietly help others. He never wanted accolades, and worked to make the lives of others better, a true reflection of the Jesuit values he held. Without a doubt, Nagle’s kindness, generosity, and hard work left a mark on the world. He will be dearly missed by his family, friends, and neighbors.

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A few years ago I was on a  panel at a conference, and someone asked how  I ought to be introduced. “Just say I am a Houston writer.”

I wasn’t being coy; I genuinely hate introductions – giving them, receiving them and having to sit through them. They are as annoying as the warnings at the front of DVDs.

There are many reasons to hate introductions. They are  too long.  They mention unnecessary details. In this Internet age, most of us could look this information up if interested. In many instances, the biographical sketch is already on the program or  panel description, so you are simply repeating  well-known information.

A less important complaint is that these introductions dwell on accomplishments and pedigrees. At one point in my life  I found it interesting that someone got a degree  from Harvard or Stanford, but now I no longer do.  Going through a prestigious academic  program makes it more likely that the speaker has been exposed to the latest research; on the other hand, it also means that the person has probably absorbed certain ideas about education and entitlement and probably had little difficulty pursuing an academic career. Successful academics got tenure because they  already received these distinctions.  When you attend a lecture, you don’t need to be persuaded that the speaker will be interesting or important  — you are already there!

Other people have started businesses or charities, written books, started Internet trends, written  new web applications. I don’t mean to dismiss those kinds of accomplishments. They seem to point to external signs of success or  external validation. To be honest, I have no way of knowing whether these accomplishments are truly impressive or just routine milestones along a certain career path. Most of the time, I don’t care because  the only thing important to me is what will be said during the talk.  Even if I did care about these accomplishments, I want to hear the speaker describe them in his own words.  The talk is all that matters.

I work in writing and publishing; I am aware of how many perfectly interesting and gifted people are ignored or overlooked because of happenstance (indeed, I count myself in that category). Perhaps I haven’t achieved my “true” potential (whatever that means), but I have embarked on some interesting projects. Some of these projects  have succeeded; some have failed; some are ongoing or deferred, so there is no way to judge the value of these projects right now.  There are some projects which I never fully realize for practical reasons. Either I lacked the time or money to execute it or was distracted by another project or some personal crisis  prevented me from dedicating the necessary time to it. Sometimes in the middle of doing something, I realize that the project was not worth finishing; perhaps someone had already done it (and done it better), or perhaps some part of the project was outside my level of talent or interest.  The biggest constraint for a writer is time and money; how do you work on your projects without bankrupting yourself in the process?  How do you balance the day job with the outside projects? Logically, it makes sense to work on projects one at a time, but practically  that almost never happens – especially if you keep stumbling on new subjects of interest.  Alas, nobody said the writer’s life was going to be easy.

It’s hard for many to pretend that social position doesn’t matter when it comes to exchanging ideas. A few years ago I attended a TED talk in Houston. It wasn’t awful or anything, but the speakers were profoundly unexciting. The speakers were  competent academics, most of whom had boring and predictable (but well-researched) ideas. One was a medical researcher pontificating about science.  I wouldn’t say his presentation was awful, but it really didn’t go anywhere; the audience applauded wildly (I have never seen this kind of fervor  for a speaker). It reminded me of the phenomenon where people who normally have no love for classical music suddenly fall in love with a movie about classical music. In that case, you don’t really love classical music; you are simply expressing appreciation for the idea of  classical music by saying you like the movie. All the speakers were applauded by the audience not for the content of their presentation, but because they had achieved some level of distinction in  their field.   It is basically the celebration of academic success.  Horray, success!

I’ve run a few panels and given a few talks; though I’ve given some good ones, I’m always surprised at how many  remarkable people turn up in  the audience — some of whom never manage to ask a question.  Some of the unconference techniques are better at facilitating the exchange and dissemination of ideas among these types.  I attended an energy conference two years ago; the  best part was a catered lunch  where everyone sat at the round table and had a chance to ask questions of 2 experts assigned to that table.   Attendees could just float from one table to another and discover on their own who was talking about subjects they found interesting. Sure, sometimes it is necessary or even ideal  to sit through an hour long talk because of the subject matter; for some subjects, you need almost 30 or 40 minutes just to lay the foundation for what you are about to talk about.    In that case, the introduction just further delays the main point of a talk.

For various reasons, I have stopped attending workshops or panels in person. Instead, I  watch a lot of lectures on Youtube or listen to  podcasts.  I’ve always found it easy to skip speaker introductions — just cue Youtube to the right place. One of the most mind-blowing lectures I have ever seen was a one hour talk about climate change solutions by  atmospheric scientist Marc Jacobson.  (I must have watched it three times).  Unfortunately before he speaks,  Jacobson is given 18 minutes of introduction by two people who are dull speakers and have practically nothing interesting to say. But who needs people to prepare you for what Professor Jacobson has to say?

Yesterday, at an environmental justice conference, the introducer to an well-known investigative journalist departed from routine by relating a charming anecdote about being arrested together with this same journalist at an environmental protest.  I love offbeat and personal introductions; writers and artists often do such things.  Something 3 to 5 minutes is perfectly adequate — the shorter, the better.

At the same environmental  conference,  the keynote speaker received a long and adulatory introduction from one of his department underlings.  That isn’t necessarily a problem,  but unfortunately the underling (a noted scholar himself) went into excruciating detail about this speaker’s accomplishments and bibliography — all of which could easily be found on wikipedia. In fact, the keynote speaker gave an outstanding talk — he surely deserved those  accolades — but ultimately what mattered was not  that Book X  won an award or that the speaker met Bill Clinton but that his presentation had compelling points to make.

I mentioned elsewhere that panels can have a  more interesting dynamic than single-person lectures.  You are exposed to multiple  perspectives,  and  audience members  are less deferential to a panel than to  a single speaker. If you think about it, a single speaker wields way too much power; he towers behind the podium and determines with the clicker which Power Point bullet points will be seared into  everybody’s  retinas. Sure, with panels you have people jostling to make remarks and that is frustrating, but rowdiness can be part of the fun.   Often after a talk, I chase down an  audience member  who said  something unusual or  ask a panel member a follow up. I   find such encounters enormously  rewarding — note that I did not  need a  formal introduction to decide that a particular audience member  was interesting or worth listening to.

Here are three reasons why introductions can be so appalling.

First, intros often feel compelled to acknowledge their funding source.  This lecture was made possible by a grant from the Blubbertibubb Foundations, with hotel accommodations at the Hilton Hotel. It is part of a Distinguished Visiting Curmudgeon Lecture series which was created in 2002 under the auspices of the Archeology department in conjunction with the American Society for Jugglers under the leadership of department chair William H. Tralfaz who came up the idea for the series during a university-wide inititiative to have more stuffy eggheads visit this  campus. Who cares! Who cares! Who cares! Who Cares!

I realize that sometimes an introduction needs to contain something about the funding source (especially if the benefactor is a 90 year old philanthropist sitting in the front row of the lecture hall).  Hey, it’s ok to give the occasional shout-out — as long as it’s no more than 10 words long! You can easily convey this same information on promotional flyers, handouts and even the opening slide.

I mentioned this in another piece that ” If you cause 100 people to wait an extra five minutes, that means you are destroying 500 minutes of human time.” Every minute of the talk better count, and unfortunately intros never do.  Think about it — how many times do you reminisce about a gloriously long-winded introduction to  a talk  and not the talk itself?  My guess is you never do — although maybe you recall the annoying sensation of having to wait for the speaker actually to start speaking.

Second, for high-profile speakers, often the dean (or even the university president!) will  insist on sharing the stage. My general rule is that almost anything that a university president has to say as an introduction is  ceremonial and mainly geared towards providing a good photo-op for  students and parents. Let me rewrite every single introductory speech so that it accomplishes that purpose in as painless manner as possible:

Hi, I’m President Nagle of Pendelton State University. I can’t wait to hear this talk. It’s gonna be great! I asked  PSU prof Vincent Strudwick to say some  words before the talk begins. See ya!

The Dean can give a variation of the same speech. Here’s another idea. If you’re sitting onstage just for the sake of appearances, try to have enough courage to refrain from talking.   Making an appearance does NOT mean you are obligated to make a speech.

Third, another rationalization for making long intros is  that it reduces the need for the featured speaker to spend time  plugging his books.   Presumably it seems gauche for the featured speaker to do a sales pitch, and so the person making the  introduction can take care of the crassly commercial sales pitches.  As  sympathetic as I am  to this motive, good speakers already know how to insert casual and non-irritating  mentions of their latest books. Yes, I as an audience member probably would like to hear the title of the speaker’s latest (or most important) book, but often it suffices  to see the title listed on a slide.   Actually, if  a speaker is engaging enough,  I’m probably going to look up his books anyway.

Finally, I want to express admiration for what is called the “cold open” in show business. It can work tremendously well. My favorite example of this was a joint presentation by Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at 2002 South by Southwest (summarized here).  My memory of the event may be a little foggy (and I sat in the back of the room), but remember no intros at all — two  cool and well-informed people just started jabbering  away on topics of interest. It blew my mind because 1)both guys were talking fast and extemporizing, 2)clearly their thoughts were original and interesting (and well-thought out), and 3)neither person seemed to care about selling their personal  brand or pimping their book-like projects. They were just having fun.  And the audience was having fun too.

I wish more people would do that. Imagine that Socrates were going to speak at your university. Which kind of opening would engage you more:

OPTION 1: INTRODUCER

Socrates is a controversial philosopher who has been gaining a lot of fame in intellectual circles. The Athens Times wrote that “Socrates is a bold and impressive thinker who has devised a new method for testing the validity of philosophical ideas” and the oracle at Delphi said there was no man who was wiser than Socrates. But Socrates is best known for being portrayed satirically in the comic  plays of Aristophanes.  Recognized for his heroism in saving the life of Alcibiades, Socrates is also a war hero and  is best known for a philosophic method of inquiry called  the “Socratic method.”  Socrates has a reputation for asking unusual questions and has been in heavy demand as a speaker and teacher.  Indeed he has already attracted a lot of intellectual disciples and has at times been accused of corrupting the youth. So far, Socrates has not written any books, but books are already being written about him.  Thinker, rabble-rouser, provocateur or buffoon — you can decide. So now I present to you….Socrates — making his first appearance at Pendelton State University.

 

Or maybe we can skip the formalities and let Socrates do a cold open:

OPTION 2: SOCRATES

“Is it always better to tell the truth to someone close to you even if you know it causes pain?”

 

So I ask you: Which kind of beginning    would engage you more?

 

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It may not be as evident on my blog, but people who follow me on Facebook and Google Plus already know that I post lots of climate change links. I keep up with the latest policy debates and to a lesser extent, the science. But it is hard to reference a G+ post and harder still to find it. Therefore, I am keeping this page of G+ posts as a reference. I’ll try to include dates for everything and put the most important quotes/articles on the top of each section. You will note that I often link to the partisan Climateprogress site. The reason I feel comfortable doing that is that climateprogress usually reports the research accurately and often it puts the study in the appropriate context. Climate change studies have been coming out frequently, so sometimes being as much as 6 months behind  on the scholarship can prevent you from using persuasive evidence. Note: Because I’m using this page mainly as a reference, I won’t accept comments on this page unless they pertain to the sources mentioned here or contain better/more-to-date research. PS, I tend to include a lot of articles by Joe Romm. He’s very partisan and advocacy-oriented, but he also has a deep understanding of current science and policy research. Most of the listed articles by Joe Romm are simply Romm citing/summarizing the latest research. You can disagree with his analysis or the policy implications, but at least he can report  scientific research accurately and put it in the proper context.

My old posts about climate change (may be out of date)

  • Let’s Not Have a Pity Party for Oil Companies (April 2014). Less of a science piece than a discussion of climate change and social justice.
  • Natural Gas is Not Lobster (April 2012, plus updates).  I stopped updating this a year ago, but its basic conclusions on natural gas are basically sound — only we now have better data.
  • Books on Climate Change, Energy and Economics (2012).  I haven’t updated it in a while (mainly because I hadn’t read any books about the subject in 2013 or 2014), but the books I mentioned are still excellent and generally relevant. Now that I have remembered it, I will start keeping it up-to-date again.
  • How to Choose a Texas  Electric Provider the Wrong Way. (Feb 2012)  Here’s an amazing stat from 2011 data: Electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2  as electric plants in the COMBINED states of   New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million)

Calculations about natural gas and methane emissions

  • NOAA Study (June 2014) estimates that globally methane leaks  are in the range of 2-4%.. That is enough to negate the climate benefits of gas over coal in the next two decades, the studies find.
  • Latest estimates (April 2014) on methane leaks in Pennsylvania suggests that leaks are 100-1000 higher than what EPA estimates. “Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows. Using a plane that was specially equipped to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the air, scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second…. The researchers determined that the wells leaking the most methane were in the drilling phase, a period that has not been known for high emissions. Experts had thought that methane was more likely to be released during subsequent phases of production, including hydraulic fracturing, well completion or transport through pipelines.”
  • JOE ROMM SUMMARIZES THE STANFORD STUDY (below) AND OTHERS (Feb 2014)  “Replacing coal plants with gas plants would be worse for the climate for more than 6 decades. And again, in the real world, NG doesn’t just displace coal, it also displaces nuclear power, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. So it appears quite safe to say that natural gas simply has no net climate benefit whatsoever in any timescale that matters to humanity. Perhaps it is time to stop squandering tens of billions of dollars — and rendering billions of gallons of water unfit for human consumption — on a fossil fuel source that probably has no meaningful net climate benefit in the real world and may well do considerable harm.”
  • In a June 2014 post, Romm does the math: After discussing the matter with the lead author, Stanford’s Adam Brandt, I wrote that given the risks to humanity from climate change, it seems conservative to take the middle of the range, 5.4%. That’s particularly conservative given that 3 separate studies by NOAA found leakage rates just from NG production of 4%, 17%, and 6-12%!…If one were to use 3 percent as the leakage rate, LNG-fueled power plants would be worse than coal from a climate perspective for decades. If you use 5.4 percent, then Figure 6.8 makes clear LNG-fueled power plants are worse than coal for a century!… Contrary to the implication of NETL’s analysis, natural gas doesn’t just displace coal — it also displaces carbon-free sources of power such as renewable energy, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. A recent analysis finds that effect has been large enough recently to wipe out almost the entire climate benefit from increasing natural gas use in the U.S. utility sector if the leakage rate is only 1.2 percent.
  • This milestone Stanford  study (Feb 2014) summarizes current research that tries to estimate methane leakage from extraction and distribution of natural gas. So far there have been widely divergent estimates about methane leakage. QUOTE: “Reducing easily avoidable methane leaks from the natural gas system is important for domestic energy security,” said Robert Harriss, a methane researcher at the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the analysis. “As Americans, none of us should be content to stand idly by and let this important resource be wasted through fugitive emissions and unnecessary venting.” One possible reason leaks in the gas industry have been underestimated is that emission rates for wells and processing plants were based on operators participating voluntarily. One EPA study asked 30 gas companies to cooperate, but only six allowed the EPA on site. “It’s impossible to take direct measurements of emissions from sources without site access,” said Garvin Heath, a senior scientist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the new analysis. “But self-selection bias may be contributing to why inventories suggest emission levels that are systematically lower than what we sense in the atmosphere.”
    MY OPINION: This is important research because it forces the natural gas industries to scrutinize their own methane leaks and adopt better leak reduction solutions. Personally, I’m guessing that the natural gas industry will never be able to reduce leakage to 3% or below (the magical threshhold needed for natural gas extraction provide a GHG advantage over coal), but developing better tools to identify and fix these leaks could bring dramatic reductions in GHG. Just arriving at useful metrics and methodologies for measuring these things could bring dramatic improvements.
  • IEA REPORT: (Jan 2014) “An increased share of natural gas in the global energy mix alone will not put the world on a carbon emissions path consistent with an average global temperature rise of no more than 2 [degrees Celsius] ….  Natural gas displaces coal and to a lesser extent oil, driving down emissions, but it also displaces some nuclear power, pushing up emissions. This puts emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at around 650 parts per million CO2 equivalent, suggesting a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5 [degrees Celsius].”

 

Climate Sensitivity

  • Quote: “Greenhouse gases contributed a global mean surface warming likely to be in the range of 0.5°C to 1.3°C over the period 1951 to 2010, with the contributions from other anthropogenic forcings, including the cooling effect of aerosols, likely to be in the range of −0.6°C to 0.1°C. The contribution from natural forcings is likely to be in the range of −0.1°C to 0.1°C, and from natural internal variability is likely to be in the range of −0.1°C to 0.1°C. Together these assessed contributions are consistent with the observed warming of approximately 0.6°C to 0.7°C over this period.” (IPCC 5, SUMMARY FOR POLICYMAKERS, 2013, p15 — PDF)
    Noteworthy here is the magnitude of the difference between manmade forcings (fossil fuels, land use, etc) and natural forcings and internal variability. Also: the range of uncertainty in the cooling effect of aerosols (loosely defined as dust/pollution/soot/volcanic ash)
  • Computer  models have had lots of difficulty modeling clouds when estimating climate sensitivity. A new paper tries to address this. (Jan 2014)”When water evaporates from the oceans, the vapour can rise over nine miles to form rain clouds that reflect sunlight; or it may rise just a few miles and drift back down without forming clouds. In reality, both processes occur, and climate models encompassing this complexity predicted significantly higher future temperatures than those only including the nine-mile-high clouds. ‘Climate sceptics like to criticise climate models for getting things wrong, and we are the first to admit they are not perfect,’ said (the study’s author) Sherwood. ‘But what we are finding is that the mistakes are being made by the models which predict less warming, not those that predict more.’”Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt comment dryly: “there is a great asymmetry in risk between the high and low end estimates. Uncertainty cuts both ways and is not our friend.”

Climate Models and Prediction of Physical Consequences under Various Scenarios

 

How Agriculture/Land Use contributes to Warming

  •  UMBRA (1/2014) : “Livestock, on the other hand, are four-legged methane factories. That includes buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, but cattle are the primary offenders. A cow’s natural digestive processes produce lots of methane through burps and, yes, flatulence, to the tune of 200 to 400 pounds per year for the average bovine. And cow manure kicks in its fair share, too, when stored in lagoons or holding tanks. How bad is it?  Here in the U.S., cow burps (a.k.a. enteric fermentation) and manure management account for 30 percent of the country’s methane tab. Globally, livestock emissions make up a full 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas production.””

US Production of Fossil Fuels ( and  Subsidies)

  • BILL MCKIBBEN: “By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.”  McKibben is right to shift the focus from the “American lifestyle” to the “American way of doing business.” Selling fossil fuels used to be something  which only developing countries did; now it seems that the US is embracing this economic model. This seems to conflict with what Americans think of themselves as forward-thinking innovators.
  • Elizabeth Kolbert: (March 2014)  “According to the IMF, the U.S. is the world’s largest single source of fossil-fuel subsidies; the I.M.F. has estimated that eliminating such subsidies worldwide could cut carbon emissions by thirteen per cent. Meanwhile, the tax credit responsible for much of the recent growth in wind generation in the U.S. has been allowed to lapse.”

 

Climate Change and Texas

  • Texas Climate Scientists (Oct 2013): Of the dozens of atmospheric scientists in Texas, approximately ZERO of them are skeptical of this mainstream view of climate science. Every single  UT & A&M climate science prof signed off on these 4 statements:  1. It is virtually certain that the climate is warming, and that it has warmed by about 0.7 deg. C over the last 100 years. 2. It is very likely that humans are responsible for most of the recent warming. 3. If we do nothing to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, future warming will likely be at least two degrees Celsius over the next century. 4. Such a climate change brings with it a risk of serious adverse impacts on our environment and society.
  • Here’s a long profile of Port Arthur, probably the most polluted place in the US. (Sept 2013). “Cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for the average Texan. Shockingly, the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher. And cancer is only part of the story. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of Port Arthur were four times more likely than people just 100 miles upwind to report suffering from heart and respiratory conditions; nervous system and skin disorders; headaches and muscle aches; and ear, nose, and throat ailments.”
    QUOTE 2: “When you’re used to presenting versions of the classic David-versus-Goliath tale, what do you do when the Davids have become so dispirited that they’ve all but given up the fight? Today, Carver Terrace specifically—and Port Arthur more generally—are so far gone, so forsaken, that there’s almost no need for industry officials to deceive, or to issue craftily worded denials, or to vow halfheartedly to reduce their refineries’ environmental impact. The industry abides by the letter of the law, dutifully documenting thousands of emissions events, knowing that, in the end, practically no one cares.”
  • 2012 DOE REPORT: (May 2014)Texas has one of the highest potentials for solar capacity — including rooftop arrays, utility-scale arrays, and concentrated solar power — of any state in the country. But with just 201 megawatts of solar as of 2013, Texas ranks 13th among the states for total installed capacity — and it’s using a minuscule 0.7 percent of its potential. Compare that to California, which boasts 5,660 megawatts of installed capacity, which takes up over six percent of its reported potential, and ranks the state first in the nation.
  • TEXAS A&M PROFESSOR LARRY MCKINNEY:    (May 2014) “The recent reports of an accelerated disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet have implications for the Gulf of Mexico and especially Texas where sea level rise is a significant issue, especially along the Upper Coast.Regardless of the cause, we may have reached a tipping point where we will see a rise in sea level more quickly than anticipated. It adds urgency to the need for the long-range planning to adapt to a changing world-scape and in our case, Gulf-scape.”

Green Stuff and Houston

China

  • AIR POLLUTION MORTALITY (Oct 2013). “Currently, China consumes almost twice as much coal as the rest of the world combined….Earlier this year, a study found air pollution has reduced life expectancy in northern China by five and a half years.
  •  CHINESE SCIENCE STUDY: (Jan 2014)  “coal burning, industrial pollution and secondary inorganic aerosols — the result of the reactions between different pollutants in the air–– are responsible for 18 percent, 25 percent and 26 percent of Beijing’s  air pollution respectively.” Interestingly, trash burning and car pollution are responsible for a combined total of only 4%.  That suggests that China’s temporary measures of reducing car usage on high pollution days is unlikely to make much of a difference and that more systematic changes are needed.

International Treaties

 

Which places are affected the most?

 Economic Projections/ Cost of Taking Action

  • Cost of Delay. IEA: “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.” Also: “The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.”
  • The most recent estimates say that emission targets — if agreed to today, would reduce the world’s economic growth rate by 0.6% per year.  But waiting as little as 10 years will end up tripling  the annual costs in order to reach  the exact same emission target.
  • IEA Report:  (May 2014): “The $44 trillion additional investment needed to decarbonise the energy system in line with the 2 degree scenario (2DS)  by 2050 is more than offset by over $115 trillion in fuel savings – resulting in net savings of $71 trillion….” The 44 trillion number is a revision from the 36 trillion estimate given in 2012. “Some of the increase is due to accounting changes, but the calculations show that the cost of decarbonising the energy system – in real terms – is about 10% higher than it was two years ago. In part, this illustrates something the IEA has been saying for some time: the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes to transform our energy system.”
  • Lower carbon alternatives to Bitcoin (Dec 2013)

Economic Effects of Climate Change

  • SKI JOURNALIST:  (Feb 2014) “Europe has lost half of its Alpine glacial ice since the 1850s, and if climate change is not reined in, two-thirds of European ski resorts will be likely to close by 2100. The same could happen in the United States, where in the Northeast, more than half of the 103 ski resorts may no longer be viable in 30 years because of warmer winters. As far for the Western part of the country, it will lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen.”

Impact on Ecosystem

  • Elizabeth Kolbert: “(Feb 2014): There have been moments in the past where the earth has experienced very swift, extreme changes—in a geological sense. And right now, we are in one of those moments. We are causing changes so fast that in the span of a human lifetime or a couple of human lifetimes, you can watch them happening. So part of the question for who will survive and who won’t is how fast generations are produced. If you are a microbe, you might do a lot better than an insect, which may do a lot better than a mammal. Big mammals are in serious trouble.”
  • Joe Romm (March 2013)  covers what’s new and interesting about the latest IPCC report. He faults the report for not discussing the impacts of 3-5 degree C temperature increase, which seems to be the path we’re currently headed down. The consequences of 3+ degree temperature increases are harder to project even though it seems more likely to happen.

Green Report Cards

Ice, Glaciers and Sea Level

  • 2 Separate Studies suggest that a significant part of the melting West Antartic ice sheet  has already crossed an irreversible threshhold and cannot be prevented from causing 10 feet of sea level rise within a couple of centuries. (The current estimate for this century is 3-6 feet of sea level rise because of global warming). We’ll have to wait for confirmation of these results, but the conclusion has a shocking finality to it. There is evidence that increasing CO2 has contributed to reaching this threshold, but unlike the predicted melting of Greenland or the Arctic (which the link is pretty clear), the Antartic threshold seems to be a result of several factors — including ozone depletion and natural variability… > Even if the warm water now eating away at the ice were to dissipate, it would be “too little, too late to stabilize the ice sheet,” Dr. Joughin said. “There’s no stabilization mechanism.” ….  Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the new research but has studied the polar ice sheets for decades, said he found the new papers compelling. Though he had long feared the possibility of ice-sheet collapse, when he learned of the new findings, “it shook me a little bit,” Dr. Alley said. He added that while a large rise of the sea may now be inevitable from West Antarctica, continued release of greenhouse gases will almost certainly make the situation worse. The heat-trapping gases could destabilize other parts of Antarctica as well as the Greenland ice sheet, potentially causing enough sea-level rise that many of the world’s coastal cities would eventually have to be abandoned. “If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Dr. Alley said. “But there’s a bunch more fuses, and there’s a bunch more matches, and we have a decision now: Do we light those?” (May 2014)
  • Joe Romm discusses the Antarctica research in the broader context of glacier research.  ” In 2012, the National Science Foundation reported on paleoclimate research that examined “rock and soil cores taken in Virginia, New Zealand and the Eniwetok Atoll in the north Pacific Ocean.” Lead author Kenneth Miller of Rutgers University said: “The natural state of the Earth with present carbon dioxide levels is one with sea levels about 70 feet higher than now.” (Romm adds, “So the “good” news is that it might take 1000 years (or longer) to raise sea levels several tens of feet, and the choices we make now can affect the rate of rise and whether we ultimately blow past 69 feet to beyond 200 feet.”)
  • Jason Box: (2013, as reported by Chris Mooney).  “Box also provided a large-scale perspective on how much sea level rise humanity has already probably set in motion from the burning of fossil fuels. The answer is staggering: 69 feet, including water from both Greenland and Antarctica, as well as other glaciers based on land from around the world.”

Green Computing

  • 2014 Greenpeace Report on Data Centers: The US uses the most power to run data centers, followed by Japan, the UK and Germany, according to the Greenpeace report. Stefansson noted that less than 20% of the electricity used by most of the cloud computing service providers globally come from renewable sources. (PDF of actual report is here).

 

Chevron Lawsuit

Climate Change and Proposed Laws

Viability of Renewable Energy

  • Wind Farms also reduce the impact of hurricanes.  Mark Z. Jacobsen:  Installing offshore wind farms would not only increase energy output, it can partially offset storm surges of hurricanes. QUOTE: “They concluded that the wind turbines could have sapped Katrina of so much energy that wind speeds would have been reduced by up to 50 percent at landfall and the hurricane’s storm surge could have been reduced by about 72 percent.”

Transportation Issue and Electric Cars

Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

  • A shocking report  about transporting oil by train. From 2008 to 2012, oil transported by trains inside the US  have increased 900% nationally. Last week  the DOT issued an emergency order   about the unsafe design of train cars for transporting oil. (Canada has banned these cars — which are still being used to transport about 70% of oil inside US by train).   Unfortunately, unless Obama issues an emergency order, it will probably take a year or more to implement a new safety standard — which surely will be opposed by the fossil fuel industry. In Houston, I live a few miles away from a train track, so I guess I have a personal interest in ensuring that oil is transported safely.  (May 2014)
  • Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said May 4 2014, “We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly,””There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed.” … “One of the most fundamental questions that cuts across everything in crude oil by rail is how it is classified,” (Secretary of Transportation Anthony) Foxx said. “If it is not classified correctly at the beginning, then it is not packaged correctly and the emergency response needs aren’t understood by the communities through which this material is moving.” (Source).

 

Climate Change, Literature, Movies and TV

Basic Science/Reference

  • How long does CO2 stay in the air?  (2012) “The lifetime in the air of CO2, the most significant man-made greenhouse gas, is probably the most difficult to determine, because there are several processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Between 65% and 80% of CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The rest is removed by slower processes that take up to several hundreds of thousands of years, including chemical weathering and rock formation. This means that once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide can continue to affect climate for thousands of years.”

Attribution to Humans (IPCC, etc)

  • IPCC 5 Summary for Policymakers:  “It is extremely likely (i.e.,more than 95% probability)  that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”

Political Rhetoric/Analyzing Media Coverage

  • “Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources.”

Climate Change and Historical Analysis

  • One paper suggests that the doubling of carbon in the PETM period caused rapid temperature increase of  5 degrees in 13 years. The jury is still out about whether this admittedly worst case scenario applies to the CO2 doubling of the current era.

“Carbon Bubble” (Disinvestment Campaigns)

  • AL GORE:  (Oct 2013)“We have a carbon bubble…Bubbles by definition involve a lot of asset owners and investors who don’t see what in retrospect becomes blindingly obvious. And this carbon bubble is going to burst.”
    Specifically, Gore cites the estimated $7 trillion in carbon assets on the books of multinational energy companies. “The valuation of those companies and their assets is now based on the assumption that all of those carbon assets will be sold and burned,” he says. “They are not going to be burned. They cannot be burned and will not be burned. No more than one-third can ever possibly be burned without destroying the future.”

Air Pollution and Harm (Not  Climate Change)

Best Reference Websites for Looking Up Skeptical Arguments

Carbon Neutral Lifestyle

  • Carbon Calculator. (Jan 2014).  Much better than previous ones. My total annual footprint is 5.8 tons CO2 per year, with 2.5 coming from diet. Admittedly, my own lifestyle is a bit extreme.

Government Reports/Docs

Stupid US Energy Policy

  • Stupid Ethanol Policy. (Oct 2013). This groundbreaking article about ethanol reveals the follies and the environmental destruction caused by ethanol. Started by George W. Bush and continued under Obama, few politicians have the courage to cease this madness

 

 Worst Case Scenarios

  •  Scary  9/2013 video (with quotes from scientists) about how warming of 6 degrees C or higher could trigger another Permian-like extinction. Caveats: it can take as long as 100 years for CO2 to “translate” into global warming, so we’re talking late 2200s or 2300s. Also, this assumes that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) turns out to be higher than current estimates AND that  the current Business as Usual (BAU) trajectory of carbon emissions will continue much  longer than most people expect.  Both scenarios are certainly within the realm of possibility.

Cool diagrams and graphs

Carbon-T-F

STUDY (PDF Dec 2013). AmericanCarbon

IiB CO2 graphic v3

cost-projections-climatepolicy

Some IPCC 5 Graphs. Mitigation Reports/Policymaker  graphics and graphics from the full report.   Below (Figure 8-15)  is a graphic from the full report which  compares natural forcings with manmade forcings and the uncertainty surrounding aerosols. Aerosols is a broad category of forcings — mainly dealing with manmade emissions that change the amount of heat being reflected.  That includes sulfates, etc, but it also includes volcanic dust. A NASA site says, “Models estimate that aerosols have had a cooling effect that has counteracted about half of the warming caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases since the 1880s. However, unlike many greenhouse gases, aerosols are not distributed evenly around the planet, so their impacts are most strongly felt on a regional scale.”

WGI_AR5_Fig8-15

 

 

 

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If an industry’s  business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the  next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and  already have a good idea about how  to do it right.

Carbon-T-F

Should we have a PITY PARTY for those  who have been profiting  from the permanent harm being done to the human habitat?  No. Instead we should  provide a humane way for EVERYONE   to transition to a cleaner and less destructive economic model. This can be done by changing the incentive structure, so that each person can be rewarded for decarbonizing their lifestyle in a way he or she finds to be the most  suitable. But now the financial incentive structures in the US are designed precisely to do the opposite — to reward bad behavior.    Perversely, last year fossil fuel companies in the US received   $500 billion in subsidies so they could extract and sell even more polluting energy.  Eliminating tax breaks for fossil fuel  companies would go a long way to improve this perverse  incentive structure.

Many people who have become rich from this destructive business model will claim — FALSELY by the way — that “carbon pricing” will translate to higher taxes for everybody. Sure, carbon prices does increase the price on bad behavior — that indeed is the point. But most carbon pricing plans actually refund 100% of carbon taxes to consumers — indeed, taxpayers who decarbonize faster than everyone else can end up making a nice profit.

Sometimes people who understand the dangers of climate change  worry about the costs of making the transition. Actually though, it is relatively easy for individuals and organizations to transition to clean solutions if they have enough lead time. If  carbon reductions were gradually phased in over 10 years, that would minimize the economic disruptions. If you knew you had 10 years to transition to a carbon-free lifestyle, you would have adequate  time to  replace your vehicles, appliances and energy provider without needing to spend a lot of money. On the other hand, if Americans keep putting off agreeing  to an emission target, that will only reduce the time they have to prepare for the transition — and end up forcing them to incur additional costs associated with a rapid transition.  Worldwide, the IEA estimates that every year of delaying a climate policy costs the world $500 billion more in infrastructure costs.  That’s a reason  for enacting an emission target plan sooner rather than later — you have more time to spread out the cost. The most recent estimates say that emission targets — if agreed to today, would reduce the world’s economic growth rate by 0.6% per year.  But waiting as little as 10 years will end up tripling  the annual costs in order to reach  the exact same emission target.

cost-projections-climatepolicy

Actually though, this projected 0.6%  reduction in GDP  does NOT take into account the health and economic benefits which will accrue as a result of an emission policy. Decarbonizing brings huge health and economic benefits. Every year air pollution from fossil fuels causes 200,000 premature deaths in the US. Lowering these medical costs would improve the size and efficiency of the workforce  and therefore the country’s economic health. Economists usually say that decarbonizing produces a net increase of jobs. Maybe this surprises you because you constantly hear fossil fuel companies touting the jobs produced by their industry.  In fact, fossil fuel industries are NOTORIOUSLY BAD at generating jobs. One  study found that 1 million dollars invested in clean energy companies produces THREE TIMES  the number of jobs than if you invested that million in a fossil fuel company. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy  noted that historically when countries have significantly  decarbonized their economy, they  almost  always experience an instant economic boom immediately afterwards.

Some have said that it’s futile to set emission targets in the US because China emits more. It’s true that China’s emissions now exceeds that of the US. But China is already in the process of adopting carbon pricing and transitioning to a cleaner economy  at a faster rate than we are.  The reason we don’t see this decline in the data is that China is still growing  3 to 4 times faster than the US economy — and it’s making up for decades of lost growth — having  started at a baseline so low that modernization itself is causing a rapid increase in  energy consumption. As soon as China’s growth rate becomes comparable to other nations, China’s substantial efforts to transition to a clean economy should be reflected in the data.  Keep in mind also that  a significant percent of China’s emissions come from factories which export products to the west. In fact, the typical Chinese per capita  emissions are still relatively low when compared to Europe and the US.  When the US agrees on an emission target, hopefully that will also cause American consumers to buy greener products — and put pressure on Chinese factories to manufacture greener products as well.

We already know that fossil fuels are causing PERMANENT HARM to the livable world of all future humans.  The sad thing is that the people who will suffer the most from global warming also happen to be the people least responsible for causing it in the first place. A  12 year old girl living today in Bangladesh did almost nothing to cause climate change. Most likely she does not own an iPhone or has ever ridden in a Hummer.   Neither did her family or friends or previous generations of Bengalis. Compared to the typical American, the typical Bengali  has an almost trivial carbon footprint.  Yet according to several  environmental reports,  Bangladesh is the country most likely to experience the most devastating effects of climate change. Food supplies will be disrupted; flooding and sea level rise will render large portions of its coastal regions to be uninhabitable. Most likely the effects of climate change will trigger several waves of climate refugees from Bangladesh into nearby countries, aggravating the region’s economic and political tensions  as well.

Imagine that this 12 year old Bengali girl spoke perfect English and could skype you directly. Imagine her question: “Your  scientists had been telling you for over 20 years that fossil fuels had been causing permanent  harm to the planet and especially  countries like my own; why on earth haven’t you done anything yet ?  Do you really think my life and my country are so unimportant? Do you  really believe that I have less of a right to grow up and make a living in my own country than you did when you were born?  Why have your people been so unwilling to take even modest steps to reduce the harms of climate change being done on countries which never caused it in the first place? Is this what human civilization boils down to — allowing entire states  to collapse in order to preserve one nation’s  precious right to drive gas guzzlers  and blow up mountains to sell coal?

—————–

See also: My response to the usual complaints by libertarians about climate change.

Update #1. I am not naive about China’s escalating CO2 emissions (or India’s); indeed,  any observer will observe that the dangers from China’s dangerous air pollution is a much more urgent national emergency than climate change. But at least China has a climate policy (albeit a top down one). In a conference about carbon pricing, Bill McKibben acknowledged the China/US problem in pricing carbon at the border, but made the point that setting a domestic climate policy is the necessary  first step to negotiating a viable bilateral or multilateral agreement. Other countries will not take America seriously about climate change unless it first  demonstrates an ability to adopt a domestic climate policy. Thefore, the US  should  try to lead by example. Unfortunately, our leverage in persuading others to enter into a global agreement is diminishing with every passing year. Five or ten years ago, the economic power of the United States still overshadowed China’s; but as the years go by, our leverage decreases just as China has been increasing.

At the same time, China’s energy profile has always been different from ours; Western countries are indirectly responsible for a sizable portion of China’s emissions because American companies are exporting the dirty manufacturing processes to there. It’s conceivable that multinational companies and global consumers can demand better safety and production standards for the products they use. Again, it’s all a matter of having the right financial incentives in place. Given the national emergency in China and the widespread support in China’s leadership for better environmental policies, perhaps domestic pressure will be sufficient to reduce the carbon intensity of manufacturing processes in China.

Update #2. At the bottom is a great chart illustrating the consequences of various emission scenarios.

IiB CO2 graphic v3

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This is just a test to see if I have broken wordpress. Fingers crossed that I didn’t totally break it.

Update: With sorrow I report that my wordpress is broken in ways I will not disclose here. All I will say is: I’m 95% sure that the problem lies with an incompatibility between my Thesis wordpress theme and the latest version of wordpress.  It doesn’t affect what the reader sees, but only what the content producer sees. But it’s a really awful thing even if it’s non-urgent. Assuming that it’s a theme problem — and not a db problem or a WP problem, I have several options to try out. But we’re talking about a good half day of work — if I’m lucky!

At this moment of my life, I have absolutely no time to mess around with WordPress — maybe in a month or two I’ll be able to get around to it. At the same time, I have an item  on my To Do list to look into making various improvements on my blog (hopefully which I can do all at once). That includes using WordPress to store social media posts, making it more mobile-friendly and other SEO stuff. In the meantime, feel free to browse through to Robert’s Ultimate Guide to all 24 hours of Happy (the Pharrell Williams dance video).   This page is a work-in-progress (and probably requiring 2 months more work), but already it’s getting more traffic than most of my other web pages combined.

Update 2. After switching out the theme, I have determined that the fault lies solely  with the Thesis theme.  So this bug is relatively minor and easy (though time-consuming) to fix. Horray!

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I have reached a  critical juncture in my life: it’s now time to pass some teacher certifications.

I have always loved teaching and had been meaning to drift back to it midcareer. In my twenties I held out  hope that there was a path to teaching at universities.  My thinking at the time was that  fiction writers became professors by publishing a few recognized books and parlaying that into a full time teaching job. What caught me offguard in the early 90s was that 1)getting published was a lot harder than I expected it to be (and boy, I had already expected to be hard!) and 2)even the lower rungs of academia seemed too high to grab onto.  With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see both phenomenon pointed to unstoppable  long term trends.  There were way too many candidates with PhDs competing for fewer jobs, and writing was becoming so commercialized that it was quickly becoming standard wisdom that you’d have to publish a few books before you were noticed even by the literary/academic crowd. I could deal with that somewhat, but the bigger barrier seemed to be the glacial pace of the acceptance process. It took months just to have a small literary magazine send you a rejection slip, and I envisioned that it could take at least 10 years just to find a willing publisher.   That seemed way too long to wait.

At 30 I joined Peace Corps and taught for 3 years at universities in Albania and Ukraine (which I loved). When I returned stateside, I discovered that higher education offered no easy prospects — often adjuncts would work for years at low pay  without ever advancing up the career ladder. It seemed like insanity to continue down the  higher education path.  At the same time, I found my interests shifting to IT and technology. I did that for about ten years, but  realized in 2013 that the labor market had changed pretty drastically. First, there were fewer overall jobs for technical writers, and second the few remaining jobs  seemed to last for only a month or two.  Often they ended prematurely and unexpectedly or would involve horrendous commutes.  In Houston, I discovered that the lion’s share of technical writing jobs were in oil and gas, a field which is very hard for a ecologically-minded person to feel comfortable working for. I tried to stay consistent to my principles, but I kept returning to the same question: why should I give my labor to a company whose very business model depends on destabilizing the world’s climate for future generations?

Perhaps if I lived in another city, it might be possible to stay in technical writing, but in Houston the career opportunities are very limited to those wishing to avoid fossil fuel companies.

So teaching seems to be the best  career path for me, and one I have dearly missed.  I will still  pursue my ebook publishing opportunities fairly vigorously (and indeed, I am almost embarrassed at having delayed publishing my own writing as ebooks).  But suddenly I face a new set of challenges and professional realities. Suddenly I want to read certain books and focus on certain social issues.

I am now enrolled in an alternative certification program with TexasTeachers. For the record,  with my master’s degree in English, I am already “highly qualified” to teach high school English. For the next month, I will be studying for two content exams: Social Studies 7-12 (232) and Special Education EC-12 (161). If all goes well, I should be ready to interview for teaching jobs by the end of May.

The Social Studies test is a broad composite test which allows you to teach high school geography, world history, US history, government and economics. I would greatly enjoy teaching any of those subjects. As someone who is well-read and interested in politics,  I have a good background for this — although I should certainly read up on Texas history and world history and geography. Observations:

  • Testprep guides for these tests are ridiculously expensive and not particularly good. At the same time, there’s a lot of testprep material for student  AP placement exams which are cheap and easy to find.  Essentially the AP test prep guides cover the same material as the teaching guides — indeed, because you’ll be teaching these same  subjects, you might as well start with  the student learning guides!  (Alas, when a teacher teaches, he needs to know enough background about a subject to make it compelling for students,  but my immediate goal  is simply passing the exam).  So I’ll be relying on these study guides to pass the content tests. Indeed, one unusual purchase I’ll be making is for flashcards for US History and World History. To buy the flashcards specifically  for the teacher certifications costs about $50. To buy essentially the same flashcards for the student AP exams costs about $10.  (For the no-budget alternative, there are  online flashcard sites for free which have questions specific to the certification exams).
  • Looking over the ETS practice exams for the certifications, I am reminded of how much I dislike standardized tests in general.  At the same time I know how to prepare for them and take them.  Generally I scorn high on these exams,   but I remember how much pointless  hair-splitting is involved in many of the reading  questions. Sometimes this hair-splitting reveals interesting distinctions, but more often the hair-splitting involves using  intentionally vague or broad statements and asking the test-taker to figure out which generalization is the  least wrong. (Often the best strategy is simply to pick the answer which is the most cautious and least assertive even if it happens to sound vapid and devoid of any meaning).
  • Strangely, there is not yet a StackExchange on teaching subjects — although they already have an Academic exchange for college teachers (which is overly fixated on career issues like Why are salaries for adjuncts so low?  )This  is kind of bizarre because the pedagogical aspects of higher education is fairly straight forward whiles the ones for public school are broader, more diverse and more interesting.  The best forum at the moment seems to be A to Z Teacher Stuff. Also the TexasTeachers online study community seems to have lots of great information about studying for exams.

Although I certainly intend to devote a lot of time and energy to passing these exams, I recognize that there are certain deficiencies I wish to plug.  While teaching English as a foreign language  overseas and later taking two graduate classes in Instructional System Design,  I was really on top of teacher methodologies and learning theories. 10+ plus years later, I recognize that his knowledge might be a little stale and no longer relevant to the kinds of subjects I will be teaching.  (Plus I forget things easily!)  Also, I really need to revisit the basics of teaching — the why’s, the social aspects, the implications of being a teacher.

I fully expect that I’ll learn a lot of things by doing after being hired, but for the next few months at least, I’ll use this blog to record some interesting discoveries in the field of teaching (articles, books, videos, etc). I actually used to post a lot on educational topics in the early 200s on my blog,  so in a way, I’ll be returning to my roots.

Off the top of my head, here’s a list of  books on teaching  I have already  found memorable or interesting:

  • I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Alitt. Great book by a distinguished professor of history about his interactions with his students over a single semester for a single class.
  • What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. A concise summary of best practices for higher education.
  • Digital Game-Based Learning. By Mark Prensky. Ground-breaking book about using games for teaching. (I wrote a lengthy and well-received book review about it  for Slashdot.org).  (P.S. I see that he has written a sequel called Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom).
  • Visual Thinking by Rudulph Arnheim.  A philosophical discussion about the relationship between language and imagery.  I guess, I ought to include in the same breath Ed Tufte’s books on effectively using visual aids as well as Dan Roam’s books on doodling (Back of the Napkin, etc).
  • Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner.  (I see that Gardner has published quite a number of other books which I probably should pick up, with the latest being the App Generation).
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James  Paul Gee. (Actually I may need to reread this as well as his later volumes like Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning ).
  • Hoop Dreams (Movie!)  A controversial and complex documentary about basketball which provides  food for thought for educators and parents.
  • Bureaucracy by James Q. Wilson. A great tome which analyzes how the incentive structure and organizations for public agencies differ from comparable ones in the private sector.
  • Hackers and Painters. by Paul Graham. Ground-breaking book about DIY education.
  • Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins. (also other books on the same topic — funny how tenured professors tend to do this)

Books on my long-term reading list (feel free to suggest titles!). These are more about the fundamentals of educational and the broader social ramifications. Actually I would be happy to include some “bag of tricks” books if only I know of some!

  • Teachers as Intellectuals by Henry Giroux. (Actually Giroux has written a lot of stuff about critical pedagogy which I should get to).
  • Different Kind of Teacher by John Taylor Gatto. (also, the later Weapons of mass instruction : a school teacher’s journey through the dark world of compulsory schooling)
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere. This was the inspiration for Giroux, so I probably should read this one as well.
  • Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter. How metaphors and analogies  are used to convey ideas and aid in cognitive development.  I picked this very heavy book at a book sale. I ended up selling it online  for $20 because I needed the money, but read enough that I knew it was worth revisiting.
  • Probably something by Richard Hofstader. (I read the American Political Tradition already, probably should read Anti-Intellectualism in Public Life or Paranoid Style in American Politics).
  • People’s History of the US  by Howard Zinn. (On my reading list forever).
  • Some mainstream academic book about governance or political science.
  • A book on classroom flipping. Yes, I realize that this approach to teaching can be summarized in a single sentence, but maybe one book might cover implementation details better than I can figure out on my own.
  • Maybe some book about the new literacy/media literacy, etc.  (I’m trying to avoid reading the fashionable net authors — the Clay Shirkys and Jared Laniers — , but I’m sure there’s some practical book rattling out there by one of the  techno-utopians which is actually useful for teachers).
  • It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd. I’ve generally found that Boyd is pretty good at explaining things which are already obvious, but I remain hopeful (seriously!)   that her latest book has some research relevant to digital immigrant teachers.
  • Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I’ll try to look into at least one general  book about ludology at some point.

I’ve been rearranging some of my online classes to coincide with my teaching goals. Here are classes I have taken and will be taking (found mainly  from the Open Culture blog):

Finally, I wish to pose an unsettling question: Given that  students now have unprecedented access to video classes and documentaries  by some of the world’s leading minds, what role does the public school teacher still have to play?

Obviously, the teacher has to teach to state-mandated tests and give feedback and grades, but I think it goes even deeper than that. The teacher ought to help the student to learn that learning book stuff is still interesting and relevant. The teacher also ought to give the student confidence (through scaffolding and other methods) that understanding our shared  culture is not beyond a single  student’s comprehension. The teacher can  provide  hints for embarking on a self-directed exploration into learning. Finally the teacher needs to know how to moderate a group of young people in a way that focuses them on a single task in a social setting.

Finally, to reiterate what I said before, I’ll be blogging more regularly about educational topics for the next few months. Stay tuned!

Fun Update:  Turns out the World History class (video above) by Richard Bullitt is by the man who directed the writing of the nation’s leading world history textbook. The Earth and Its Peoples (in 2 volumes) In the first class, he deconstructs the very notion of World History, calling it purely a construct of the ETS AP World History exam…. Colleges almost never taught it, and the only reason he was doing so was to explain the politics behind the writing of the textbook! (The first 30 minutes of Class 1 is pretty wild!) To show off my book-buying prowess,  even though the list price for the 2 volume book is about $150, I obtained a low-cost edition of the 5th edition for a total cost of $5 (and that includes shipping!) Apparently this cheaper edition  has fewer graphics and colors, but it contains the full text for both volumes.

Two other reference books which I found for a song and a dance were:  Disunion : Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation (a collection of columns from a history blog hosted on NYT)  and Lone Star : A History of Texas and the Texans by T. R. Fehrenbach (which is apparently the only decent Texas history survey around).

Fun Update 2: I have been reading a ton of books about teaching and education — way beyond what is listed here. I have decided to review many of these books on a separate page. Stay tuned!

Fun Update 3. I have shifted gears, focused on teaching at the middle schools and therefore more on classroom management and teenage psychology.  So my reading priorities have changed somewhat…

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Text messages — who needs them?  Although I’ve always been an early adopter, I find that I almost never send text messages. More generally, I haven’t yet gotten a smartphone and don’t really feel like I’m missing out.  It’s funny. A lot of people get into sending clever text messages or participating in a threaded chat on their iphones,  but I’ll have none of that.

Here are the only text messages that I have sent or ever will send:

  • Arrived home.
  • The panel will be at  Ballroom B. (This actually is the first text I ever sent).
  • Ok/thanks.
  • Meeting has been changed to 9:45 AM
  • Still alive.
  • Class is cancelled.
  • Running late. Expect to arrive at 2:25.
  • Please order me the Kung Pao Chicken
  • Feel like talking?
  • Feel like playing tennis?
  • Yes, I’ll attend.
  • Call me.
  • Call me  ASAP.
  • Do you have a stapler?
  • Address is 6121 Winsome Apt 7B.
  • Can you pick up the kids?
  • Do you already own this (include photo of product at store)
  • I’ll remain here until 11:00 PM.
  • Don’t forget to feed the dog.
  • Joanna isn’t here yet and not answering her phone. What’s up?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Gotta go.  Too Busy.

You’ll notice that the text messages listed above have a single purpose and impart usually one fact.  Texters should stick to these kind of task-oriented messages. The shorter you make  the text, the more likely people can misunderstand or take something the wrong way. You can’t express feelings except in a stereotypical way — you might as well just send an emoticon.  Also because text messages have a tendency to pile up, you can miss one message and totally miss out on the texter’s intentions.  True communication shouldn’t be this confusing and unwieldy.

I used to do chat via yahoo and skype. I still do occasionally, but for the most part, I find that it is a time-consuming and grueling way to conduct a conversation. Probably the most common text I send via skype is “Do you want to talk by telephone?” Typing and waiting for other people to type replies requires a lot of effort and patience. And I speak as someone who is perfectly comfortable typing thoughts rather than saying them.

Actually, skype is good when crossing time zones and doing brief technical interviews. The interview subject or technical support person can drop links into a chat window and paste troubleshooting information. That’s a situation where it works.

Before the Internet became big and affordable, web chat allowed you to communicate in real time with people far away.  Sure, it was fun. I enjoyed chatting with former students in Eastern Europe. Sometimes we had in-depth conversations via web chat. But that was on a computer and back in the days that Internet phone calls still weren’t practical. I won’t deny that text chat sometimes brought web conversations in unintended directions, but for a the most part it was nothing more than a lousy substitute for voice chat.

Text messages can help in certain contexts, especially situations where there is no free wifi access or where the noise level is too loud.  The ability to share photos and start group threads on texting platforms is helpful. But phones are an inferior device for typing and reading  (and storing) texts. Maybe it’s ok for making plans, but a phone call can resolve a lot of the details much faster than  text messages can.  Also, texting isn’t an appropriate way to have a deep  conversation or  communicate anger or love.  I debated whether I would include two other messages on my list: “I love you” and “I’ll pray for you.”  I understand that some people may prefer using these kinds of phrases often, but for me it is way too perfunctory a context to  make these expressions. If you love somebody, dammit there are better ways to express it than by  a text message. (If I recall correctly, a driver  in the famous anti-texting video who texted before causing a fatal car crash had been sending his girlfriend the text,  “I love you.”)

You will notice that most of these text messages I listed here require only one or two followups (if that much!)  You want to receive text messages only when you think there is a time-sensitive reason to be interrupted from your job or nap. Interruptions are not really good things.  The bell or beep announcing the arrival of a text message might seem inconsequential and not really distracting, but to have any kind of extended chat means having to sit through a parade of unending beeps that announce yet another uninteresting message.  Sure, if both parties are in different places and have time to kill, then it’s a pleasant diversion.

Text messages might be part of a successful dating/courtship ritual — although I’m way past high school and college dating situations where I might experience this phenomenon first hand.   I’m not talking about sexy poses or lewd messages. I’m talking about photos or videos or the occasional joking remark.  I once had an ill-fated long distance relationship before the time of webcams and camera phones. Phone calls were still extraordinarily expensive; I’m not saying that anything could have saved the situation (probably not), but photos and video  might have given things more immediacy. It might have given one  person better insight into the other person’s thought processes. Instead, she and I were talking to one another on a 35 cent per minute international phone line even though  I’m not sure we were really   communicating.  But compared to a bland text message, a voice conversation is practically a psychotherapy session.  A phone call can convey attitude and emotional level.

I’m all in favor of people having several different tools to help them communicate. The more, the merrier. My problem with texting is that it’s a last resort method of communication which nowadays people are starting to use as  a first resort.  The historical curiosity about text messages is that they grew independently  from email and web chat because phone providers refused to make them interoperable. They started out as single platform and only later became interoperable with other phone platforms (but generally not web-based ones).   Texting is also  used as a bonus promotional feature to encourage people to buy more expensive cell phone plans.  Texting — like snapchat — is designed for ephemeral conversations. I doubt people would want to save their phone chat sessions or that phone providers would make this easy.  Sure, there are privacy reasons why you might want texting sessions to disappear, but the user should always have this  option to save.  I have a hard time believing that most  texting sessions are interesting enough even to be worth saving. And if something is not interesting enough to save, why bother doing it at all?

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Recently I was watching “Mud,”  a well done movie about the South.  It featured  quirky characters,  regional color, dangerous problems and loss of innocence. Good old-fashioned Americana.  On an isolated island, two  teenage boys stumble upon a stranger  who turns out to be a fugitive. But the stranger is not really a bad guy, just someone wounded by romantic delusions. The details of this stranger’s alleged crime are  muddled by the fact that the man the stranger killed probably   deserved to die anyway and  the bounty hunters now chasing the stranger  down are probably bad guys too. Suddenly the boys realize that the issues aren’t so black and white.

All in all, a fine movie, and I enjoyed it.

But the ending really botched things. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much to say that  there’s a gun-induced bloodbath at the climax.  Sigh.  Everything was going so well up to that point.  I expected the end to have some kind of showdown, but I didn’t expect it to be as extreme as the movie portrayed it.  I don’t watch violent movies often (not even  movies with the cartoon kind), but when I do, I find myself asking, “Would this movie or TV show have still  worked with only 50% of the gunshots?”   Actually, a  single  bullet is enough to make a tragedy. I once was robbed at gunpoint, and I remember thinking that this idiot who was holding me up had only to fire one bullet to change the nature of the crime.

In this movie, guns precipitate the conflict, aggravate the conflict and end the conflict (in a ridiculously violent way).  Guns in movies leak bullets as promiscuously as tears.

I shoot people; therefore I  am achieving justice.   Justice is the end, and guns are the primary way to achieve this end (and so justice without the presence of guns must be flimsy and worthless).  Guns fire up the audience’s  emotions; guns coerce one person’s conception of justice; never mind that there is always the risk of blowback or friendly fire losses.  Guns elevate subjective  wishy-washy feelings to the exclusion of everything else;  it doesn’t matter if the person standing before me is actually a threat. What matters is that I feel it’s a threat. Where I live,  it’s reasonably  certain that a police officer would arrive at my car within 5-10 minutes of a 911 phone call. Yet, for the gun-anxious  Texan, that is simply inadequate. Many Texans believe themselves to be seconds away  from annihilation.  Quite apart from the policy question, I don’t see how Houstonians can live with that constant kind of stress. How on earth do   paranoid  gun-owning people have the  mental composure  to let themselves take  the occasional nap?

I don’t deny that using guns has a certain romanticism to it, the romanticism of  desiccated limbs, punctured internal organs and   collapsed breaths.   There is virtually no stigma associated with firing a gun because society has generally accepted that individuals who feel threatened will occasionally require  the right   to extinguish the life of another.  Never mind that firing a gun at someone is usually  a serious felony – the threat of unseen marauders  is so real-seeming that some people cannot imagine life without it.   Many of my friends have guns  — not for any practical reason, but just the vague emotional sense that “I want it to be there when I really need it.”

In movie reality, the main adrenalin pusher seems to be guns and people who possess them and threaten you.  You have the cops and robbers of course, but of course the true protagonist is the cache of guns. Guns remain  the true heroes; humans are simply pawns of the inevitable storms of violence.   Elmer-Fudd-Shoots-Daffy-Duck

Nonlethal weapons like tasers might be an alternative – except it actually involves touching the perpetrator. That of course is absurd. Americans overwhelmingly prefer to shoot humans as they shoot photographs – far away enough to take in  the spectacular view.  Not only do Americans enjoy the thrill of being able to point at objects and fire, they also revel in the loud sounds of shots and agonized cries  as body parts are ripped apart. If I were to suggest a nonlethal alternative, I would  devise some kind of melodramatic vomit spray  — accompanied by noisy pop pop pops of firecrackers (to notify and impress the neighbors).

The problem with gun ownership (in movies or life) is that it  never really  partakes of consequences. We never read of hospital costs or orphaned parents or the constant guilt that snuffing the life of another inevitably entails.  We never speak of the psychological intimidation or the accidental casualties (be it suicide or simply the  innocent result of kids playing  around with guns they shouldn’t be handling).

The Hilarity of Law Enforcement

Today I watched a clever and hilarious movie “The Heat” which sticks to the   “police buddy” formula, but with female buddies out to nab an evil drug lord.  Predictable plot,  punchy dialogue and  stupid male cops getting in the way.  Unsurprisingly there are several gun battles and constant waving around of guns.

The first problem I have of course is plausibility. Do cops and FBI agents wave their guns around  so often on a typical workday? Last I read, FBI spends most of their time investigating white collar crime, so they probably just spend most of their time looking at a computer screen and interviewing people.  In one funny scene,  the first  female cop showing off to the second  her private weapon cache which she stores in the refrigerator.  Melissa-McCarthy-Sandra-Bullock-Hollywood-movie

I guess I  accept the premise that female cops would find showing off one’s gun arsenal to a partner to  be a bonding experience.  In movies,  the primary determinant in who prevails in which side has  the best cache of guns.  But wait — as soon as you let your guard down, another man with a gun has snuck up behind you  — defeating your short-lived tactical advantage.

Police in these movies are always grasping  their guns –  stumbling into confrontations  which seem to be won or lost by which side has the biggest firepower.     Nobody likes violence in  movies; of course not.  But dangerous criminals in movies always seem to be  armed and making threats;  it is inconceivable that a person with a gun could be shopping for groceries or waiting. Conversely movie expectations dictate that bad guys will all have guns and be willing to use one  as cold-heartedly as possible.

When apprehending dangerous criminals, I suspect the hardest part will not be winning the gunfight but simply figuring out the perpetrator’s whereabouts  and the optimal time to confront him. Police officers, I suspect, are trained very well on these things.  A gun might be helpful in establishing authority initially, but it is not the key  element. If the criminal is rational, he will give up when faced with an officer who has both initiative and backup. If the criminal is not-rational, then maybe the criminal would start firing (assuming that his gun is within arm’s reach).   But then a real-life  police officer probably selected a context for confrontation to  minimize this possibility.

Movie criminals are more typically portrayed as loud and confrontational, rarely worrying about being  caught and always ready to use their guns. Conveniently, their movie henchman have a tendency to magically appear behind anyone who tries to arrest them. But real criminals probably worry a lot about being caught.  They try hard to  blend in with normal life.  They  go  to the supermarket, buy gas, eat at a restaurant,  go to the concert or sports game.  These are public outings where there they can easily be surrounded and overcome. So  there really isn’t a need for police officers to go creeping  around empty warehouses with guns in hand. All the police officer needs to do is to wait for the criminal to pump his gas.

Portraying movie criminals unrealistically also means that you portray police unrealistically as well.  Everyone is on hair-trigger alert; even the slightest sound causes  movie  police to grab their guns.   For the viewer, the inevitable gun battle becomes a source of suspense and indeed, the climax of the movie; Guns become the building blocks for great dramas filled with great men. And great man are those brave enough to use deadly force to stop the violent rampage of  lawless people. In other words, because bad guys use guns to commit their crimes, good guys must use guns to commit their good deeds.

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Who is the good guy?

When we watch movies laced with violence, we are left thanking goodness that real life is not so violent — never pausing to wonder  whether the criminals in real life are really like that.     One underlying theme in these  violence-prone movies is that — heck, some days you just can’t avoid shooting up a few people.  Drats that the criminals  have to die — obviously! –  but  killings in movies are a shortcut for restoring the moral balance to the world — even if our gun-toting hero does it in the heat of the moment or without legal sanction. As long as this balance is restored in the movie, the viewer expects that the sympathetic  protagonist will win some kind of reprieve.  Sure, the good gun-toting protagonist may eventually have to face the wrath of the law, but a good person’s good motives will be an exonerating factor.

Over the years I’ve grown  intolerant about  narratives  which attempt to legitimate  the  use  of deadly force against people  who you believe  wronged you.  These cinematic narratives can seem to quench your emotional desire for justice, but then,  in the realm of true crime, we are presented with more ambiguous events.   The man in the movie theatre was threatening me….or maybe he was just throwing popcorn.  The cops barge into a house and shoot dead a drug dealer who fires at them … or is the man an armed and respected veteran who kept the safety lock on?  A man follows a teenager around believing him to be a criminal and  fires at him at close range when the teen  resists.  Or is the teenager  just picking up candy  at the store and scared by a stalker? Sometimes it’s hard to tell in real life who is the bad guy and who is the good guy.    In retrospect, the violent response against these “bad guys” never was so clear.    Instead we have weeping mothers, astronomical medical bills, people in shock and lives ruined. I genuinely feel sorry for George Zimmerman for  killing innocent teenager Trayvon Martin. In Zimmerman’s  limited and almost paranoid vision of the world, teenagers who loiter pose a threat, so it’s best to have your gun ready.  Although eventually acquitted  because of Florida’s lax gun laws,  Zimmerman has to pay a price of personal guilt for the rest of his life. Similarly, certain gun owners must feel the guilt of the deaths or suicides committed by family members who used the gun without permission. Police officers must live with the guilt of killing bystanders or even the perpetrator who nonetheless didn’t deserve to die but was the victim of an officer’s faulty calculation.jesus_thread

Some people  may feel genuinely threatened by the world around them.  Sometimes a specific individual may know of a potential threat by a specific person, and for the short term at least, it might make sense to keep a gun. But it does not follow that owning a gun makes that individual safer. Even  law-abiding and otherwise rational gun owners have unrealistic expectations about  whether gun ownership  reduces crime and threats. They trust their crappy intuition, and that is the tragedy.   Once  you buy a gun, you have invested in a gun’s talismanic ability  to ward off threats. Also, the act of buying or owning a gun is long-term.  Few people buy a gun, keep it for a few years and then get rid of it.  Like getting married and being Christian, owning a gun is a long term commitment. To actually reap the safety advantage,  you always need to keep the gun  within reach.   You not only need to be on the lookout for crime-fighting situations, you always need to keep an eye out for your gun — must not lose it!  Keeping that gun around  exerts a steady burden on the  psychic  life of a person. Perhaps for actual crime victims, it is reassuring to have some weapon around while recovering from a recent trauma. But why not just take a pill instead?

Guns vs. Swimming Pools

A common refrain from enthuasiastic gun owners is that swimming pools kill more kids each year than guns do; But because it is ludicrous for someone to suggest abolishing swimming pools, it is also ludicrous to abolish guns.

I’m afraid it  misses the point. Nobody is suggesting abolishing anything. Instead, I ask:  are you protecting your kids better by owning a gun or by not owning a gun? While I’m at it, I might also wonder aloud whether a parent protects a child better by having a backyard swimming pool than by not having one?(See Note at bottom **)

First, a little data from the LA Times:

Victims ages 15 to 19 made up 84% of the children brought to the hospital with gunshot wounds, and two-thirds of those injuries were attributed to assault. Among these older children, roughly 24% of the cases were considered unintentional. Suicide attempts accounted for 239 of 4,143 of those firearm-related hospitalizations.

Among younger children, accidental firearm injuries were most common. Of the 378 children under 10 brought to the hospital in connection with a firearm injury, roughly three-quarters were considered victims of an accidental or unintended shooting. Thirty-one children younger than 5 and 47 ages 5 to 9 were injured in gun-related assaults in 2009.

Among Latino youths, firearm-related injuries were three times higher than among white children, the data show. And African American girls were more than six times as likely as their white counterparts to be injured by gunfire.

Unfortunately this raw data doesn’t tell us much.   Who is assaulting children and teens? Where are children being assaulted? My guess it that they are being assaulted on the way home from school or at social outings — certainly not at home, where a gun may safely be kept.  Just as avoiding swimming pools is a way to avoid being drowned, teens have some ability to limit  risk by staying away from dangerous places.  But children are not going to stop swimming, and we can’t expect teens to avoid  all social situations where they could be assaulted. But would gun ownership protect teens? If  these assaults happen outside their residence,  having a gun at home  won’t matter.  Should teenagers be allowed to keep guns? Many parents would say that teens can’t be relied upon to use guns effectively or responsibly. Teenagers are ruled by emotions and hormones; they blow things out of proportion and assert themselves too much. Also, they have more time than adults to loiter and socialize. Giving more guns to minors seems a recipe for certain disaster; is it desirable for a parent or a society to take steps to limit teenager’s access to guns? Does possession of a gun in the house make it easier for irresponsible teens to use them?

Some teenagers are assaulted. That is a sad part of growing up. Teens start out feeling invulnerable and then they realize how powerless they really are. This realization is powerful (and traumatic!) and yet essential for mental and emotional growth. What is the best way for teenagers to make this realization? Is it by giving them a gun to carry around or teaching them to avoid risky situations and people?

The Great Thing about Being a Chicken

The great thing about being a chicken is that people laugh at you and maybe pick on you — but rarely kill you — especially if you run away fast enough.  Give a teenager a gun and then you provide him with  a combination of security and power — better reason to stick around and fight.  Fighting — that’s what the real tough guys do — and that’s how you resist bullies, but it’s also very risky.  Taking the law into your own hands carries the risk that after later  people will fail to understand or appreciate why you felt compelled to respond with deadly force.

To understand the value of guns, you need to understand the criminal mind. The criminal typically  wants the transgression  to be as quick and   smooth a transaction as possible.  Criminals mostly  want to dominate the situation to get what they want and  get the hell out of there.  Some criminals have defective (and even sadistic)  personalities, but for the most part shooting someone messes up the criminal transaction.  The criminal doesn’t want his actions to make the evening news,  and shooting someone virtually assures it. Criminals may forget these concerns  in the heat of the moment,  but the individual crime victim needs to weigh the potential risks of assuming the worst in the criminal  vs. the risks of  leaving the criminal no choice but to use deadly force.    It sounds superficially appealing to say you want to “prepare for the worst,”  but nobody can plan for everything. Sometimes, in fact, overpreparing  fuels a counterproductive paranoia.

Watching the movie Boyz ‘n the Hood, I am reminded of how guns can be used in social situations  for illicit purposes. These situations are about dominance — not merely committing a crime.   The two gangs in Boyz n the Hood weren’t killing one another because they were robbing people. They were just trying to intimidate.  How do you intimidate? With guns.  The proposed response  to gun threats — to bring your own gun — doesn’t address whether this strategy actually works.  Will the presence of another gun usually lead to a friendly stalemate, or will it aggravate  tensions and cause  one side  to  make a pre-emptive move? With  Boyz in the Hood gang violence,  whipping  out a gun to respond to a threat doesn’t eliminate the threat; it merely continues the cycle of violence and intimidation. The central theme  of the movie (“At what point do you walk away?”) depends primarily on the level of  economic and social desperation. The protagonist can walk away because he has something to live for — a good home life, economic opportunity, a general optimism — while the unemployed brother Dough Boy lacks the social anchors to restrain his desire for retribution.boyz-n-the-hood-1-620x300

But Boyz n the Hood  presents  false choices here. If  police are always  ruthless and incompetent  and if teenagers are unwilling to go to  them, of course gun-equipped young people  will  take the law into their own hands.  But even in the Compton ghettoes, it seems unlikely that angry teenagers would spurn  police if they could identify the people who committed the blow-by shooting. Perhaps these witnesses  have a legitimate fear of retribution or  legitimately  believe that the police are ineffectual.   But all police departments have anonymous tip hotlines. It just doesn’t make sense to me that in  gang-related violence, the victimized gang wouldn’t let  the police do their thing if there is plenty of evidence to convict somebody.

Perhaps I am naive. Or perhaps movies are just dramatized  revenge fantasies (for which police are just an unfortunate prop). All this is fine, but how does it  influence the individual’s decision  to own or  use  a gun?  Movies evince  a self-justifying mythology for buying and using a gun. Of course our  mundane lives aren’t  replete with  armed threats (or pretty female sidekicks).  Crime is less ostentatious; it may pounce on you when you least expect it — and then it’s gone before you  knew what hit you. Most of the time it is completely invisible – siphoning money from your bank accounts, stealing your car when you’re asleep, grabbing your purse when you’re not looking.  For those things guns are completely useless.  People who buy guns entertain grand notions of being able to fight back, but after it  becomes clear  it is mostly useless for doing that, it begins to dawn on the gun owner  that the only things guns are good for are threatening family members and blowing one’s own brains out.

FBI and CDC data on people who used a firearm to kill themselves or to kill a felon (Olga Khazan ) FBI and CDC data on people who used a firearm to kill themselves or to kill a felon (Olga Khazan )

To Be Raped or Not to be Raped

I remain surprised at how many liberal-minded females in Texas nonetheless own guns. Often they are single and concerned about their personal safety. By that, I mean they worry about  being raped.  A rape scenario seems to be a clear case where a brandishing  of  a gun would seem to be a legitimate use of force. Sexual violence is terrifying to contemplate — with one of the worst parts being this feeling of helplessness while it takes place.

But let’s consider this topic  for a moment — despite the unpleasantness.

Let’s make a list of rape scenarios involving strangers:  being jumped on in a park, in a parking lot, in one’s own apartment, while walking home, being carjacked, in one’s dorm. Try to imagine how a gun might be used to avert these scenarios. In many of these cases, the stranger has jumped you and caught you by surprise. Would  you really have enough time and composure to gather a weapon to scare off the perpetrator off?  Maybe if you were taking a long walk home and were gripping your gun tightly all the while, it might be effective (but so would mace). Suppose somebody were barging in on you, assuming you had 10-15 seconds to react, owning a gun might make a difference. But how many rape  scenarios give you that much time?

But what if there were two perpetrators? That decreases even further the likelihood that your  gun could ward off an attack. What if one perpetrator already had a gun? If you owned a gun too, that might even up the score,  but how do we know that this will bring a stalemate and not an escalation of violence?  I can think of  scenarios where having a gun would actually avert a rape, but I can think of many more stranger scenarios where the gun is inaccessible or improperly used or just not an effective response.  It’s true that when you hold a gun in your hand,  for a few moments at least guns can make you feel invulnerable to any attacker. But it is not a permanent or  lasting solution.

Up to now we have been talking about rapists who are strangers. But what about the familiar rapist — the angry spouse or ex, the frat boy? This constitutes about 2/3 of all rapes  The situations where these might take place would be ones where one might normally not have a gun.  For many of these situations having a gun is unlikely to help, and in fact, batterers have shown a tendency to own more guns than non-batterers.  Finally, there are many risk avoidance strategies you can take that can be just as effective if not more.  This doesn’t prevent every single scenario, and I’m not suggesting that guns are bad for every person in every scenario. But getting a gun just doesn’t seem to make anybody’s Top 10 list of risk mitigation strategies.

Better than Guns:  Ordinary Prudent Measures

A secret: up until recently I have never locked my doors in my apartment when I am at home. I sometimes would forget my car doors too.  It seemed silly or pointless. Since writing this essay, I have changed my mind. Many burglaries occur in late morning, and that typically is when I am home. I wouldn’t want anybody barging accidentally into my house and feeling compelled to dominate the confrontation.  Many burglars knock on the door before they break into your house.  A locked door won’t prevent all wrongdoing, but it poses an initial obstacle — and often that is enough.

When I was robbed at gunpoint a few years ago, I realized that I was living in a dangerous apartment complex and wouldn’t be able to move away soon. So I had to cope with the risk. I avoided taking out the trash late at night. I minimized  driving at night, and I was much more aware of my surroundings on the nights  I  arrived home late. It’s true that I still had to walk my dog — and that was a risk, but often when you are walking on familiar territory you can anticipate risk and even see it ahead of you.

I’m not saying that I avoid strangers, but I avoid situations with strangers where I am isolated and don’t have the ability to extricate myself easily. All of these things sound so easy and obvious; why not just do it?  These measures can’t work miracles, but they are relatively cheap and  pain-free and don’t impose unnecessary risks.  An individual could also resort to countermeasures ranging from cheap to very expensive:  security systems, nonlethal weapons and noisemakers. If you are genuinely interested in reducing risk (instead of simply asserting power), you would probably find that defensive nonlethal countermeasures are cheaper, more effective and offer more peace of mind.

Where does paranoia come from?

Conservative political scientist David From wrote:

Should you own a gun? In some few cases, the answer to that question of wisdom is probably yes.

But most of the time, gun owners are frightening themselves irrationally. They have conjured in their own imaginations a much more terrifying environment than genuinely exists — and they are living a fantasy about the security their guns will bestow. And to the extent that they are right — to the extent that the American environment is indeed more dangerous than the Australian or Canadian or German or French environment — the dangers gun owners face are traceable to the prevalence of the very guns from which they so tragically mistakenly expect to gain safety.

Noting that overall crime has declined and violent crime has declined significantly, From mentions that people’s perception of the crime rate is much different:

 What force on earth could convince Americans that down is up? The most powerful force of all: television.

TV news — and especially local TV news — is dominated by news of violent crime, the more spectacular and murderous the better. TV news creates a false picture of a country under attack by rampaging criminals, and especially nonwhite criminals. The people who watch the most TV news, Americans older than 50, also happen to be the group most likely to own a gun.

Only one-fifth of young Americans own a gun; one-third of over-50 Americans do. Republicans are twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats. Maybe not so coincidentally, Republicans are more likely to watch the scariest news channel of them all: Fox. Whites are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhites…

Proponents of gun control are baffled that horrific massacres such as the one in Aurora, Colorado, do not lead to stricter gun control. They have their causation backward.

The more terrifyingly criminal the world looks, the more ineffective law enforcement seems, the more Americans demand the right to deadly weapons with which to defend themselves. It is local TV programming directors, not the National Rifle Association, who are tirelessly persuading Americans that they need to strap a gun to their legs before heading to the mall.

And what will change those attitudes is not more atrocity stories, but instead the reassuring truth: The United States is safe and getting safer, safer than ever before in its history.

The police can protect you, and will, and do. And a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security — it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.

Amen to everything From says here, but I have to wonder if the condensed and visually-oriented format of local news is the only thing contributing to this overemphasis of grotesque crime. Also,  TV and movie depictions of crimes and violence may be more fantasy than reality, but we have to ask ourselves why guns-and-violence seems to be such a successful and profitable Hollywood formula.  Instead of ritualistic and cathartic bloodletting onscreen, what ever happened to movies depicting an ordinary American’s hopes and dreams?local-crime

I can’t point to any unique  historical trend here — except that perhaps the general magnitude of Hollywood violence tends to track the trend towards greater budgets.  Shoot-em-up videos have been popular from the very beginning; at the same time murder rates and rapes have trended downward as porn and violent movies proliferate.  Sticking with onscreen violence for a moment, perhaps formula movies and shows just have more sex and violence than “ordinary” movies and shows.  Maybe when we bemoan too much sex and violence on TV we are simply bemoaning the increase of  cookie-cutter cultural products.

Social forces may be  indirectly contributing to the problem. In America, people are less likely to know their neighbors, more likely to be single and less likely to have an extended network of friends and family nearby. Maybe it’s just that cities contain more people and hence more strangers, contributing to this unease.  Cars may aggravate this situation, enabling cities to be more spread out, making an individual’s “neighborhood” encompass a wider swath of people than in previous times. Perhaps the visible and vocal presence of (potentially threatening)  gun-owners contribute to this uneasy need to “keep up with the Joneses.”  Or perhaps the advancing power and reach of mass media make it easier for ordinary people to hear about grisly crimes several time zones away. Decades ago,  people bought guns to protect themselves from crazy people in the neighborhood, but now perhaps they do it to protect themselves from  the crazy axe-murderer in Florida (who — let’s face it — could simply hop in a car, drive 70 mph  and be on our doorsteps within 24 hours).

Perhaps the real enemy is not guns but the federal highway system.

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**One critic pointed out the difference here. Kids usually spend much longer amounts of time at the swimming pool than they do handling guns. You can be sure that if kids spent as much time handling guns as they did swimming, the casualty numbers would be different.

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Here’s a running list of the Happy Dancers in the Pharrell Williams official 24 Hours of Happy video. At the very bottom of this web page is a list of everybody’s names, and I’m beginning to cross-index their dance times.  I’m not going to try to rate these dance vids too harshly; the main purpose of this page is just to list the dances and identify the people. Asking people to do impromptu dances on a city street is hard enough. So everybody receives 1 star unless there’s something highly unusual about it (with 3 stars being the best).

The Fastcocreate article about the filming said that filming took 11 days and 2 separate days for Pharrell’s stuff.

Those chosen by audition had the advantage of getting the song in advance, allowing them to rehearse their moves. But on the day itself, everyone got just one take, including Pharrell. “That’s what accounts for the charm,” says Valdes. “Everyone knew they had one shot–this was their moment to go all out, and we love that.” “The video’s imperfections, the funny bloopers and mess-ups, are what give it character,” says Pharell, whose own performances alternated between what he calls “semi-choreographed” (see the bowling alley at 11:00 p.m.) and improvisation. “I’m not interested in perfection. It’s boring. Some of my favorite moments are accidental. There’s one where I’m underground. I was turning a corner just as a train was coming in our direction, and it stopped right on cue! It was weird. The universe gave us great moments that day.”  … WAFLA chose to shoot in Los Angeles, … starting at sunrise in Downtown L.A., moving to LAX, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Hollywood, among other places, ultimately circling back to Downtown.

Says a crew member:

I was lucky enough to be a part of this as the location manager. It was a rough one. Not sure how Jon (Beattie)  did it. We did 12-15 hour days. There was a crew of 15-20 people with us at all times. Sometimes when we where shooting, we would have to make a u-turn to head back the other way. So all of a sudden, this mob of people would have to stand behind the camera, and do a 180 in sync. It was madness. There would also be times when we had to make a quick decision on which way to go. We would scout ahead and find out that the street was blocked, so at the last second, we changed the route. We also had fun with the talent. We would find someone walking down the street, and invite them to be a part of the video. It turned out amazing.

Says another:

The biggest obstacle was the fact that we were walking backwards through non-locked off streets and side walks. I ran into many a telephone pole and street sign, and on several occasions had to crawl under John to stay out of the picture. It was a lot of fun to work on, and I think the 4 minute edited version looks great.

Background about the Video: 2 Minute Behind-the-Scenes Video and interview with the directors, Fastcocreate profile of the production process, A video production blog describes the lens, filming process, etc.

Other articles with lots of photos and snarkinessWe Watched Pharrell Williams 24 Hours Happy Video so you didn’t have to , Pitchfork’s 5 Best Things about the Happy Video, Christopher Grant Harris expanded account of dancers (with generous screenshots); Wikipedia page for the Pharrell Williams Happy song (it doesn’t yet have a separate page).

My favorites so far are:  Happy Hair! 3:32AM,  Bollywood-style dancer Monica Moskatow  7:56AM, Elegant Blonde Girl in Street 9:56 AM (just magical!),  Jiggly guy with a fan 11:28AM,  Preteen Acrobatic Girl 12:28 PM, Asian Gene Kelley 1:28 PM,  2 Asian guys in tuxes in front of a Star Bucks 2:20pm,  Girl in Polka Dotted Dress 7:16PM (unbelievably good!) Man on Stilts at 7:36 PM,  Amazing & Speedy Guy at 10:44 PM (Amazing Choreography!), 2 Cute & Entertaining Girls at the Bowling Alley 11:08PM,  Hula Hoop Girl 11:40 PM  (but seriously I’m only getting started)

How to Help:  If you know the name of any of the dancers, mention it in the comment section. (If you were one of the dancers who participated, drop me a line — I’d love to do a brief interview!). I’d also like to identify the buildings and neighborhoods if you know it. (I will probably look through Youtube comments for help, but give me time!) .  April 2 Update: I’m currently gathering information about places where everything was shot. I hope to have a nice map showing landmarks and dance paths fairly soon.  Stay tuned. I definitely appreciate everybody who identifies the dancer’s name. By the way, I’m behind on doing my screenshots and commentary, but the index of all the actors (at bottom) is updated every day.

Disclaimer: I am aware that the  video project was part of a world-wide social media campaign for the movie. I am a willing pawn here. But I think the 24 hour dance project is interesting for its own sake and really transcends the song or the movie it’s trying to pimp. It’s a great way to document a city and  the fashions and decor of the time.  I shall write more about that later.

This page will be extremely long and is definitely a work in progress. A lot is still incomplete.  I’ll fill in all the dances and hours eventually, but for now I’ll be just skipping around, giving first preference to non-celebrities. As an aside, let me say how tricky it is getting a good non-blurry screenshot from youtube on a Linux PC when the dancers are moving so swiftly (and often in the dark!)

Tangential Aside #1: You may already have heard about the fatal car accident of Courtney Ann Sanford, caused by the Facebook update she posted while driving, “The Happy Song makes me fell so happy.”  What a tragedy! I do not condone texting while driving (and certainly don’t believe the song deserves any blame here), but this page needs to acknowledge that a song about being happy is just a song — ephemeral, distracting and even a bit escapist. All humans need a little bit of happy  in their lives, but we also need to recognize that happiness — like life itself — is a fragile commodity. Ultimately this dance video (and this page) is precisely a celebration of this ephemerality — while we still have time. Tangential Aside #2: You knew it was going to happen: some repressive regime was going to ban the song “Happy” or arrest the people who made the dance clip.  Seems like Iran couldn’t resist the opportunity to steal the thunder.  (Read more) This seems to come straight out of a Kundera novel.

Postscript 1: While clicking the links from this page to the youtube video from an iPad, I noticed that the link doesn’t cue to the right time on the hour. I also noticed that youtube feeds too many commercials.  Shucks!  I guess I’m going to start changing the URLs to the 24hoursofhappy.com domain so you don’t have to sit through unnecessary commercials. This will take a while for me to do.

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Below is  a short tribute I wrote for Colleen Grissom’s 80th birthday. Grissom is  a literature teacher I had at college. Besides being a great teacher, she was also just hilariousgrissom-thumb all the time. (Even the lecture on the youtube link shows her being very fast and sharp.  Her sense of humor was sometimes terrifying, but utterly disarming too.  Below is the first

 True story — I secretly signed up for Grissom’s Continental Fiction class after persuading a half-dozen friends to sign up for Stoessinger/Sherry’s  political novel class being taught at the same time. Then, at the bookstore the day before class, I realized that Grissom’s reading list was far  more interesting: Silone? Tin Drum? Anna Karenina? My friends were mad at me for switching classes,  and honestly I still wonder what would have happened if I had stayed…. Heck, life’s a bunch  of choices, and I  certainly had a great time tackling  the Grissomesque path. I  owe a lot of things to those classes — including overcoming my snobbery about the “superiority” of “European fiction”. Grissom opened my eyes to the great things American writers have been doing — pop culture references notwithstanding.   As someone now immersed in literary publishing, I don’t have much time or opportunity to hang around readers in meatspace. I have fond memories about that year in an actual classroom with Grissom and her students, hearing a cross-section of young and thoughtful flesh-and-blood people approach great books without preconceptions. I always liked how Grissom stepped back and let students do the talking, gently nudging us ahead only when absolutely necessary. Often  I thought that I had appreciated and understood a story — only to discover during class that others had glommed onto  different things and found all kinds of insights I was completely oblivious  to. Every day after class, I felt so stupid! — But it was a good, satisfying kind of stupid….

Here’s another bloggy tribute I made to her classes a few years ago:

Often when asked to describe the courses that had the greatest impact upon me, I would have to say Death & Dying, 2 Asian Studies courses and –amazingly — a PC repair course (saved me hours and dollars). I also took an excellent 2 semester Western Civ course (called “Human Quest”) teamtaught by some rising academic stars at Trinity, as well as 2 semesters of literature courses taught by the Dean of Students, Colleen Grissom. Anybody going to Trinity during the Grissom decades found her inspiring both as a teacher and as Dean of Students. She was smart-witted and taught with a passion for her subject. Classes would be broken up into two parts: an introductory biographical lecture followed by student-led discussions. I can’t say her classes went into depth of criticism or literary analysis; they were less about criticism than about students giving fresh (and often ill-informed) opinions about what they were reading. Still, it was great fun, and the fact that Grissom had taught the same class for decades meant that her remarks were polished and full of insights. I could rave about the books I discovered there (John Updike, Anne Tyler, Gunter Grass and Ignacio Silone come to mind), but truthfully, I would have probably come across them anyway. The main revelation from this class was that Chicks Really Dig Novels (which came as a bit of a shock to me, having attended an all boys high school). This may be an obvious point, but I also learned that the most interesting thoughts about a literary work can come from those you least expect; even people who only half-read a work and might not even appreciate its literary value can bring interesting ideas to the table.

Another obvious point from Dean Grissom’s class. The class approached literature in a naive way, eschewing secondary sources and criticism. Later, I recognized that reading secondary material often just messes with your mind; in high school and college I wrote a lot about Kafka, reading loads of criticisms, each with their unique theoretical perspective. Interesting, but irrelevant to the lover of literature. One Amazon.com commenter about an Iris Murdoch book complained about the introductory essay by Martha Nussbaum, saying his students tended to gulp down her analysis as truth without trying to formulate opinions on their own. Far be it from me to complain about having too much literary criticism in the world, but I know what this commenter meant. Does one really need to read brilliant highfalutin remarks about literary works to have interesting opinions? Do we really need to know what other brilliant people think about something you’ve just read? Sure, reading a book or watching a film without reading critical remarks by others results in misunderstandings or interpretations that are way offbase. But maybe there is value in reading Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing the exact parallels with Homer’s epic. In fact, not knowing can cause us to notice new aspects of a text others have so far ignored.

Grissom has started the task of transferring her lecture notes to books. I looked at her recent book A Novel Approach to Life.  It was a hodgepodge of stuff — all fun and witty with occasional insights into reading and education. From a similar talk she gave a few years ago (audio here) here’s another favorite passage:

One should make reading an integral part of one’s life. One should do this in spite of all joys, challenges, distractions and attractions of tempting television and  films, plays, cocktail parties,  athletic competitions, ipods and interactive computers. Reading offers much stimulation on many levels, an important one of which  is that it is a solitary process and can teach you the pleasures and rewards of aloneness in a world in which noise (even Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and togetherness seem the norm. I recommend occasional solitude for your personal growth and rejuvenation

 

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I often wonder if anything I say or think or write is original. Sometimes I will think of an allegedly great idea, but before I get too excited, I google a few keywords nervously — to see who beat me to it.  Google is  the ultimate humbler of humanity.

Today, though, I think I will blog about a subject, and I sincerely believe I am the first to do. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)   And yet what I am about to write about is so familiar and prosaic to each of us that no one would bother to.

This morning I was taking a quick shower — and not thinking about chocolate –  and when I stepped onto the bathroom floor, I dried myself thoroughly  and began to assemble the necessary tools for shaving. But I happened to brush my hand against my head — only for a millisecond, mind you — but long enough to surmise  that I hadn’t completely  rinsed the  shampoo suds from my hair. I immediately felt  the gooey mess and heard the wrinkly sound of lather. Yes, it was true, my hair was only half-rinsed; so now I would need to return to the shower to finish the job.

It was only somewhat annoying, a slight detour in my day. It meant that drying myself would no longer be as satisfying as the first time, and the cool sensation of leaving a shower refreshed would be tempered by the paranoia that maybe my head of hair is not completely rinsed. (It has happened a few times; I return to the shower a second time and think that I rinsed everything out, and then to my horror discover that I had omitted one of the sides from this second cautionary rinse).

As I started to shave, I began calculating. I probably commit this kind of washing miscalculation once every 10 or 15 days (that’s 25 times a year!) I would say I have a good 70 years of 1750 washing miscalculations for my lifetime (assuming 1 shower a day).  Out of the 7.1 billion people on this earth, let’s guess conservatively that they commit this same washing miscalculation 20 times a year. Let me see: that equals:

140 billion times in a year that people are stepping out of the shower without realizing that they have forgotten to rinse their hair.

That’s a really big number.  Think about it: despite the fact that everyone is doing it, there doesn’t appear to be any web pages by or about people who have made this mistake. Don’t believe me? Try here or here. (Actually here or here does produce something relevant though not particularly meaningful or lasting). The event is so mundane that it has never occurred to anyone to write a separate article about this phenomenon.

One way to look at the thing is to say that this experience is something so vague that a search engine couldn’t possibly help you to find people’s descriptions of it. A friend and I were remarking at how useful search engines are for looking up and verifying facts. Sure. But that doesn’t imply that Google is actually useful. It’s like the paradox of not being able to verify the spelling of a word because you need to spell it correctly to look it up. Many of life’s questions are so  vague and imprecise that search algorithms are practically useless. Even our proper names are no longer unique enough  to find what we need. I’m sure AI and natural language processing will improve, but so will the amount of  random garbage on the Internet, and so will the challenge of sifting through things. Many are alarmed by the NSA and the Echelon System that it might not occur to ask whether the NSA is actually equipped to sort through all the noise.

Decline of the Search Paradigm

In 2009 I attended  an education panel hosted by 4 undergraduates  attending elite institutions.  It was ironic, because the audience was packed with probably about 100 teachers or geeks. Most of the audience members  felt that we had a good grasp of reality and Internet reality, but we still were curious about how college students were learning in this Internet-addled age. The students on the panel  talked about collaboration, how they used social networking tools and how Internet changed the way they learned. It was fascinating; several talked about how it was changing the study of literature;  another talked about the awesomeness of getting help from someone thousands of miles away.

During the talk one student mentioned how useful the Internet was in giving them suggestions about books to read and references to consult, I called out rather indecorously, “How do each of you find new authors to read?”

The students, slightly annoyed at my interruption, but willing to answer, said, “I just google it.” The other three students chimed in with the same answer,  “Just google it” –  and then they continued their prepared remarks.

10 minutes later was question time, and I jumped up to the front of the line to ask a follow up.  “You said that google helps you to find out about new authors or musicians or artists. Can you explain?”

All four of them looked at me as though I were a crank. “Well, it’s not too hard really. Just go to the search box and type something. Then follow the links.”

“Excuse me, but what exactly do you type in the search box?”

“The name of the author.”

“And how do you know what name to type?”

The panellists shrugged. “Just follow any web page.””

I understand that the Internet can help you locate more information about a topic, but only when you know what you want. But how do you know what you want?

Being adept at devising a search term   (such as “best American author” or “recommend a 20th century novel” + American) will  get you only so far.  But lately I’ve noticed that even google’s sturdy algorithm is being weakened by dictionary sites, spam sites and commercial interests. When every company is trying to optimize for search results, then it is possible to programmatically manipulate the results. Some kinds of inquiries don’t yield anything meaningful; it’s not always easy to think of a unique combination of words and phrases to get the results you need. With facebook, stackexchange, quora  and other social media, you can receive lots of tips; but then again, people are responding to your questions; you are not finding these things out on your own, but relying on a certain number of people hanging out at these places who would be willing to provide some scaffolding for the edifice of your education.

Perhaps it’s an obvious point, but the type of topics which occupy most people’s attention are not necessarily the most helpful. Several of my conservative friends link to superficially optimistic articles about climate change, but who would seriously think that the URL most likely to appear on top of search results  (presumably from search-optimized CNN or NYT) would  also be the most authoritative  or accurate?  Even if we discount outright propaganda, the things displayed  by search engines may be neither relevant or important. Remember: there are probably more websites about the Gilligan’s Island TV  series  than the movies of  Ingmar Bergman.

It’s ironic that the things pressing for our attention at any given moment can also be the most transitory.  Let’s see, current events today  talk about the LAX shooting, the final day of the Virginia governor’s race, the abortion lawsuits, the new Hyundai, refinancing with lending tree, What does the fox say?, the Obamacare website, the new Netflix titles. All screaming for your attention today, and then 10 years from now will disappear.  Perhaps this is a loss for  us all, but  the lesson to be learned here is that the things which appear to us so urgent today can easily disappear without a trace.

It’s commonly assumed that search engines are good at looking up names and titles and dates. But suppose I wanted to find the name of a novel whose title and author escaped me.  One of my favorite novels was Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.” But what if I forgot the name of the author and title and tried to google it using some keywords? I remember the novel used a lot of footnotes, wasn’t particularly long, was clever, had a scene about drying one’s hands in the bathroom, had another scene about shoelaces and had a long series of digressions and ruminations about mundane things. If I typed “novella  literary hand dryer clever mundane  digress American  bathroom shoelace ruminate footnotes” into google and bing and wolfram alpha, one might feel confident that someone somewhere has used many of these words to describe  Nicholson Baker’s  novel.  My search query may be overlong, but it contains lots of distinctive words; even if a single web page is unlikely to contain ALL of these words, a good search engine should be able to compute the web page which is likely to be most relevant to these words.

So here’s the search results for that query.

search-google-mezannine

Bing results are similar;
bing-mezannine

I don’t expect Google or Bing to get it exactly right, but we’re not even coming close. The search engines just provide awful and misleading results (and I’m not even including the ads).  Although shortening the list of keywords does  bring more interesting results, it is still nowhere close to the answer.

I will admit that my search term isn’t exactly the best. To vary my approach a bit, I chose a more generic search term  Best American novel in the 1980s, and received decent relevance in results (although not THAT good).

recommend-good-novella80s

When I recited those  same keywords for the Nicholson Baker book over the phone  to a literary friend,  he  correctly guessed the author (though not the book itself). If you were in a classroom with 20 well-read people, I suspect you would get better answers. If you asked on a site like Goodreads to name the book where a lot of people would see it, I suspect you’d get  the right answer. This question seems esoteric, but for a moderately erudite  audience, it is not esoteric at all.

But search engines are not particularly good at these fuzzy  kinds of questions. Even in cases where a search engine can match a fuzzy question with an answer, the ordering and prominence is determined by how well the site was optimized for search engines — and also whether the company paid for ad placement.  If anything, Google can find pages where the wording of your question appears prominently — like a forum or a stack exchange site. But if the way you phrase the question doesn’t parrot the way other people do, you are out of luck. In other words, in 2014 the ability to get useful search results depends mainly on how good a Family Feud contestant you are. 409px-Richard_Dawson_Family_Feud_1976

We used to believe Google was so amazing because 1)back then there were significantly fewer web pages and  2)Google presented lots of results. Do you remember when you could set Google to display 100 results on a single page? Even if Google didn’t bring the answer to your query, it nonetheless provided up to 100 different paths you could explore to find it.  Perhaps at one time those Ivy league students on the panel could pick a random link in search results  and follow things. But whenever I start from a search result, I have this uneasy feeling that it’s all one huge conspiracy to trap you inside a gigantic and self-contained  network of advertising and promotion. On mobile devices it’s even worse — it becomes harder to tell the difference between ads and organic search results. Human laziness will make you choose whatever pops up in the first three results, no matter how commercial it seems.

Comparatively speaking, searching for proper nouns is  easier than searching for concepts or abstract phrases.  (That is why I end up going to wikipedia more times than not… I want to find some neutral site that doesn’t have a secret agenda to destroy someone’s reputation and laud him as a captain of the industry.  But wikipedia waters down everything.  It almost seems proud of the fact that nothing on the site is original or insightful).

I remember once  talking to a translator in Albania. We had a delightful conversation, but he playfully scolded me for simplifying my language when talking to him.  “Why is that bad?” I asked him. “Isn’t accurate communication the goal of teaching?”

“Not really,” he replied.  “The thing which most interests the translator are those  hard-to-translate or untranslatable expressions. These “untranslatables” are the most valuable part of the language and  often the key to the cultural peculiarities of the people who speak it.”

I’m not sure I agree. But surely whatever is  hard-to-express inside a language  has value .. and certainly those linguistic qualities which make a web page easy for a search engine to parse also make it less interesting.  It’s clear to me that search engines fail to provide relevant results fairly often — for various commercial and linguistic reasons. Perhaps human vanity fools us into thinking that our experiences are unique — rather than the more likely fact that Google isn’t providing  an accurate picture of the world’s experiences and thoughts. Instead of expressing wonder at the ability of Google to turn up interesting results, we should be lamenting the fact that Google continues to lead us down well-known paths of stupidity.

Notes

I am less excited by the fact that search engines have given special prominence to Wikipedia because of its commitment to the  “neutral point of view.” (NPOV) Enshrining the NPOV means that wikipedia page will exclude a lot of  analyses and points of view; it shudders towards the obvious and noncontroversial. Even if that is better than commercial search engines, I can’t help but wonder wikipedia just helps to flee from one watered down path to another.

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I am keenly aware of how over the past few years my blog posts have decreased while at the same time my posts on Facebook and Google Plus have soared.  It’s an odd situation — about 90% of my posts now  are AWAY FROM THIS BLOG.

The reason is simple: there are significantly more readers on these general social media networks than on my blog. Also, sharing on both platforms brings significant payoffs and Google Plus posts tend to be ranked high on search results.

Now  — mainly for lack of time — my blog is housing  infrequent long form content, while my social media posts houses my short content (which admittedly has a tendency to become long form). This is not an ideal situation.

A few months ago I made the transition from Facebook to Google Plus (for reasons I discuss in detail here).  That is mainly a lateral move and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

It is technically possible — through IFTTT recipes and WordPress plugins — to repost wordpress posts into social media platforms (though not entirely to my satisfaction — for example — how do you make sure that certain WordPress posts aren’t broadcast onto social media?) However, beneath that is another looming problem.  How do you create a blog  landing page which displays long form content with short form content without seeming to  drown a  blog in triviality?  How do you make sure that WordPress posts are formatted in a way optimized for the social media networks? How do you deal with perishable Youtube content which displays great on social media but takes up way too much real estate on a blog?

I’m sure there are WordPress themes which have implemented solutions to the problem, but I haven’t tried them out yet. (I will point out that as a matter of principle I try not to rely on plugins to solve my web design problems, but using themes to solve these problems  seems doable).   A separate issue which I have not yet addressed is choosing a theme suitable for both mobile and desktop browsers. I’m still happy with the WordPress platform, although I’m still experimenting with drupal for other projects.

As retro as it seems, I still love the style of making the blog home page a single long page.

For various reasons (mainly personal), I don’t normally link to my blog posts on Facebook or Google Plus. (Maybe I do 50% of the time).  This might seem strange to the typical blogger (who might view social media platforms as simply another opportunity for cross-promotion). But I pay attention to what kind of posts work for what audience; I often think that my WordPress posts are meant mainly for other bloggers (who are more comfortable with RSS readers) and people who are more interested in Robert the writer/geek than Robert the humorist/guy with an opinion about everything. Also, given that my type of work tends to be  contract/short term,  I don’t want my personal blog to feature anything which looks unpolished or controversial or off-color. A programmer/blogger friend of friend once used to make a lot of political posts on his blog until he became aware that an employer mentioned it in an interview — indicating some discomfort. My friend  quickly removed all the political posts and now posts exclusively about programming.

I probably wouldn’t go that far  (it is a writer’s job to be absolutely fearless and  let loose on occasion), but I’d like to do it knowingly and skillfully.  A public post which is opinionated does not worry me — as long  as it is well-thought out and contains good grammar. Accomplishing that is a lot harder than you might think — especially when your standards for what constitutes a “good post” rises over time.  Ten years ago, I would think aloud about any darn thing for a paragraph or two  and not think twice. But at this stage in my life I  worry less about how much I have covered  than whether  I have covered Topic X fully enough. Any verbose and prolific blogger  will inevitably find that spelling and grammar are everywhere — and each new post gives him more territory which he needs to police.  (I regularly correct grammar and style mistakes on old posts as a matter of habit).

To summarize: Now  it’s not a priority   to figure out a blog-to-social-media solution, but it’s definitely on my mind.  Perhaps I ought to make a blog post about it (Oops, I just did!)

Postscript: Someone needs to invent a WordPress plugin which auto-corrects your spelling of the word WordPress in posts. That’s one I would definitely install!

Afterward

I’m surprised that I didn’t mention a point which now seems obvious.

When you  use Facebook or Google Plus, you are basically handing over your content to a third party which exerts a lot of indirect control and derives benefits from hosting it. Obviously neither Facebook or Google Plus make a copyright claim over your content, but the content you post there becomes a draw for other people to use their services as well (which leads to more ad dollars and premium services, etc). I don’t really believe that either company has nefarious motives (other than simply wanting to make money), but ultimately a free service has no real obligation to restore content which may have been lost through no fault of your own. Sure, these companies perform customer service actions as a courtesy because it makes business sense. But what if it no longer makes business sense to do so?

I won’t deny that hosting your posts offloads a lot of the burden of trying to do so on your own. That is certainly a valuable service. Also Google’s embrace of  “data liberation”  is reassuring. But it matters a lot where the content creator creates something originally. In the ideal world, wouldn’t it be better to create  posts in your own  garden and then syndicate it elsewhere   than to create them in a remote garden and then somehow devise some way to export it back to your own garden? First, there is the matter of time. Manually cross-posting things adds time, and so does having to customize an  export process.

I’m starting to believe that this question of growing things first in your personal garden is more important than I originally believed. Perhaps it’s asking way too much for  WordPress — as good as an all-purpose tool as you can get — to export cleanly  and beautifully to all platforms.

After doing my research, I see that more recent versions of WordPress have started using “post formats” to differentiate between different kinds of posts. They even have custom fields to help you even further customize content.  That’s not quite at content types, but it’s very close.

But then again, a WP theme doesn’t need to display all published content on the front page. It could accept all kinds of content types, but only publish bloggy content on the blog. There’s no reason you couldn’t create content in a centralized CMS, publishing some content on the blog, some on the social network, etc…. I think Pressbooks came up with the idea of using WordPress not only as a publishing platform but for a storage platform.

Perhaps a company like WordPress or Google could be capable of handling and syndicating any kind of content, letting you decide easily where and how it ought to be published. If that is so, a financial relationship between content creator and company needs to exist where the individual’s identity is verified and the company has provided some service level agreement for backing up and retrieving data. That’s a service I would certainly pay for.

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