Sunday, November 30, 2008

Being Thankful for the "Mute" Button.

This Thanksgiving, having labored hard in the Honeybaked Ham line to get dinner, and making my Eagle Brand Pie, and licking the bowl (good stuff. :) ), I resorted to what the traditional Thanksgiving activities are for most people who have no propensity for excercising... watching TV. Namely, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the myriads of football games that are on following (for I'd rather watch other people get hurt, than to do so myself.) And since I was doubled up on Prozac (for staying at home is such a wonderfully uplifting thing to do), and sleep kept bobbing in and out (for that's what too much turkey will do), I became witness to the total breakdown of media and entertainment. It all bugged me, and I became immensely thankful for the "Mute" button on my TV remote (or at least, thankful for the House Marathon on USA so I could get away from the cacophony of sounds on the other channels.)

But first things first...the parade. Much better this year than last, mainly because NBC decided it wasn't necessary to feature every Broadway play currently on and off, but of course that didn't matter, because I watched CBS, which would rather have showed interviews with this CBS show and that, with the cameras on the floats, which is what is most important anyway. Thanksgiving just ins't Thanksgiving without seeing Tom the Turkey wheeling down the middle of NYC. The main thing that made me switch to CBS was the pre-written drivel made for Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, who seemingly couldn't narrate the parade without cute sayings and cheesy segways. It reduced the broadcasters to clowns, and insulted the intelligence of the audience by assuming we needed to be pandered to.

Afterwards, I watched while warming up dinner, what would pass for football games at some Pop Warner league. The games were pathetic, hardly worth watching, except in March I'm sure any game would be preferable. And on top of the attempts at playing football, I had to listen to people attempting to sing. First off, both games featured singers (whose names I don't recall) mangling as best they could the Star Spangled Banner. There was no semblance of melody, of chord progression, of breath control. They were shouting into the microphones. It was amazing that they ended on the right note, or that they even sung the right words. The patriotism was lost on these supposedly Grammy award winning singers belting out the Anthem in a way that makes you grab for the remote to find something else on, and insults those that the song is sung for.

Next up, the brilliance of the campaign surrounding half-time. The United Way and the NFL Play 60 programs, each brought the biggest of youth pop stars out to sing away in hopes that ratings would improve and people might donate time and money to the worthwhile projects (which they are, by the way.) So the first game had Jesse McCartney singing from his latest album, which was nothing but cheesy ballads and dance tunes that are so far from what he is capable of. His days with Dream Street being long gone, and his singing career in decline, he really needs to focus on the acting career, since he might have decent longevity with, as long as the CW network can stay afloat.

Finally, the second game brought on the Jonas Brothers. A pop sensation much more than what Hanson ever was, and fueled by the machine that is Disney, they got up on stage and rasped out what passed for songs. Cuteness means nothing when actually using talent (which they have little of.) But tell that to the screaming teenage girls around the stage. Awful...simply awful...

I wonder what has made music these days seem so bad. Probably the same thing that created "Music Appreciation" classes in College. As if people don't know how to appreciate music. Well, it might be that they can't. I was listening to a Christmas album, Sufjan Stevens' Songs for Christmas in the car on the way to work today, and the song that came on was a classic hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and what made me really like it was that it was played in a slow 6/8 time signature. Counting the beats to six was cool, since most songs nowadays are in 4/4. And it's obvious that diaphragm control, tonality, chord progression...etc... are all foreign when it comes to singing and dancing and simulating sex on stage. Art has been swept away, leaving only lust in its place.

So for this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for my Mute Button, and for all the music teachers out there that really try to make a difference in reducing noise pollution that radiates from every speaker and headphone that exists. I don't know if Don McClean could pinpoint the day the music died, but I'm sure it's already happened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dreams Deferred: Ranting about Education.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" Langston Hughes had it right so many years ago, that dreams and goals might languish and die, or explode, if not given the chance to be fulfilled. I was thinking about my friends, about Lee and his sister in Milledgeville, and about how such potential, such intelligence, might be left like the belongings in the homes they leave behind. When does it become too much? When does the strength give in because breaking is so much easier to do? When do the dreams die because there is no use in wishing for them, as someone will knock them down?

And I would say to them, "But if you don't make good grades, you won't be able to go to college!" And then I would think about the people in their lives that have gone to college, and I think, "What's the point?" I could have done so much more than working at a bookstore, and some of their other acquaintances have multiple degrees, but are still living off the government's roles, and caring little about the dreams that they once had. What difference does going to college make in their lives, other than the opportunity to live out the lives of college students, complete with the socializing, fraternizing, and other joys that are experienced and left way too soon for the cold world of reality.

If the school systems would care about the individual, and teach and mold each of the minds of the students into works of art. If they would hown them into sharp minds, sharp blades that would be as skilled as any tool, then there would be something to contribute to the world. But unfortunately, the role of the public school system looks more like the cowboy, driving herds of cattle toward some unknown destination. Would that it looked more like Plato and Aristotle's classes in the days of the Academy in Athens, or the schooling that Henry David Thoreau did as a teacher in the town of Concord, Mass.

I don't blame them for low grades, for dropping out, for giving up. Society lays out for children paths that are easy to follow, but are ultimately useless. They don't allow for the specialization of education and the different needs of the students. I've said over and over again, that I had students in my teaching days that didn't do any of their homework, or care about the lessons they were forced to learn, but they could take apart and put together auto parts and lawn mowers expertly. I found myself agreeing with them. Why should you learn how to conjugate verbs and the meter of poems and how a plant creates photosynthesis? If, instead, they could have learned how to put together automobiles expertly, they would contribute a valuable service to society. Or better yet, teach them how to construct computers, and work their way up to the space shuttle...etc... Or even better, I was listening to Clark Howard, who was talking about conversion kits that would allow a standard gasoline engine to run on electricity, with no dependence on oil coming from the Middle East. What would have happened if all these students that were tacitly proficient, could have been taught to assimilate cars into environmentally and fiscally conservative ones? It would help solve the dependence on foreign oil issue in a matter of months or years, instead of decades. But now where are these students? They have quit school, and although some are working in Automobile shops, others took the negative paths and have gotten in trouble (drugs, crime...etc...) and are now languishing in prison.

This all comes from a certain basic assumption that has gone back to the founding of the country. Namely, that all the citizens of the US have a right to a free, basic education, and that if all men are created equal, the education they receive must be made as such. This was compounded upon in the 1950's by the civil rights movement, which, while their achievements were necessary and critical for the social healing of our nation, the idea of everyone receiving an equal education is certainly flawed. For people are not created equal. Some people have intelligences that go toward math, or science, or technology, or art, ...etc.... And these intelligences go untrained in an education program that only emphasizes core learning. Frankly, it's time for the 19th century idea of public education to wake up, get into the 21st century, and specialize teaching to individual students. They're not training current students to solve the world's problems, but rather herding children towards menial jobs that will do nothing but pay credit card bills from the results of a consumerist society (see previous blogs).

I realize that the previous statements are generalized and definitely do not apply to everyone. There are wonderful teachers out there, and students that will one day change everything. I get discouraged, however, by witnessing the teenagers that come through the mall everyday, languishing as they do (my word for the day), and doing nothing to further themselves. And I've seen friends, who, because of life circumstances, and the coldness of reality, and people who care nothing but greed and power and self-serving interests, are beaten down to the point where a thorough education means little. If a child is struggling for the basics in Maslow's pyramid, how can they hope to achieve self-actualization, to care about learning when they are needing shelter, food, love, happiness?

I guess these are two separate issues, but they blend together easily enough. There is such a magic about what teaching could be, if in an ideal society, where the individual needs of the students, all needs, are met, then they can grow and flourish. But, alas, this does not happen here.

One last thought. It seems to me that the program started by the Bush administration, "No Child Left Behind," is aptly named, but not for what was intended. Looking at the education system as a whole, the program has worked, because no child has been left behind...they curtailed the front-runners so that everyone is in the same place. This is done by reducing expectations, teaching to tests that are created to manipulate numbers to insure passage (and therefore continued funding of programs). And I've experienced this first hand. When I was student teaching at NW High in Macon, the principal at the time gathered all the teachers together for a pre-first day pep talk. And the most important goal was....and of course, I thought there would be some lofty ideal of education and help students achieve their dreams... But no, it was... to teach to the test. So they would continue getting funding and the teachers would get good reviews. The fate of those students were sealed before the year began. The NAACP has a saying, "A good mind is a terrible thing to waste." How true that is.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Three Needles: A parable

A man is led into a room. Inside the room, is a table with three needles on it. He must choose one of the needles and inject himself with it:

Needle 1 contains Testosterone. It will make him feel strong, happy, and probably horny as well. Only positive things will happen with this needle.

Needle 2 contains a nasty form of the Stomach Virus. It'll be two days of agony, muscle pain, and general yuckiness. But afterwards, it'll be okay.

Needle 3 contains a nasty form of TB, or Ebola, or whatever illness you want to put here. The illness is hard to cure, and is usually fatal.

Now, the rules are thus. If he picks needles 2 or 3, he'll have to inject those into himself, and live (or not) with the consequences. If he picks needle 1, someone will bring in a wheel. The wheel contains 100 spaces (sortof like Wheel of Fortune), with 3 spaces being Needle 1, 47 being needle 2, and 50 being needle 3.) You spin the wheel, and it chooses for you.

Which Needle do you choose?


One of my friends on Facebook posted that he refused to vote for either party because he believed that a vote for either Mccain or Obama would be endorsing the wrong or evil things that they stood for (as he believed). And the sentiment is a sound one. There are times when standing up for what you believe in, even in these situations, would be the right thing to do. McCain, in my opinion, should have voted "no" on the bailout, as the other Republicans did. Socrates, instead of taking the easy way out, accepted the sentence of the corrupt trial, and drunk his hemlock.

But there also are times when choosing the lesser of two evils is the best thing to do (notice I did not say "right," for at this point, we're not talking about ideals, but about reality. If I was to vote according to my beliefs, I would have voted for Barr (or some other third party candidate that had similar views, for not even Barr shares all of my views) If I had done that, I would have achieved nothing, for the chances of Barr winning would have been about the same as hitting one of those three spaces.) (too many parantheses here). This is the paradox the Libertarians face every election time, because no candidate is going to fully embrace the ideal views of Libertarianism. And if they do, the media and the public will gravitate immediately to legalizing drugs, prostitution...etc..., stances which are not always the most popular, and shows the Lib. candidate to be slightly off their rocker . So we have to decide whether to vote for someone that is closer to what we believe in, but has no chance of winning, or someone that believes part of it, but has a greater chance. The lesser of available evils.

It comes down, then, to choosing the needle that would do the least amount of harm to the body. Sure, it's not ideal. It might not even be right, but in the world of reality, it's necessary. I think that sometimes, Libertarians (and other strong-minded people) are so willing to stand up for their beliefs, no matter what, that a solution that would bring about a portion of what they want goes unfounded, and the opposite becomes reality. In other words, by voting Republican, I at least increased the chance that a government that is not as invasive and regulatory might come into power. That would achieve some of what I believe in. It would have done the least harm. That this didn't happen, is another story all together.

However, because those who are reading this might having differing views, I will leave it up to you to decide who Needles 2 and 3 represent. I have my opinions, and you have yours.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


As I was creating Christmas displays at Borders, a song popped into my head, and it's stayed with me, cause it's message is so very fitting to what happened on Wednesday.

Billy Joel's "Souvenir"

A picture postcard, A folded stub
A program of the play.
File away your photographs
Of your holiday.

And your mementos will turn to dust
But that's the price you pay
For every year's a souvenir
That slowly fades away.

Every call I got on Wednesday was someone eagerly wanting a NYTimes or an AJC or the new edition of Time or Newsweek, all special election editions with Obama on the front cover. Anything with a picture. If Obama was on Tiger Beat, they would have bought it. Basking in the afterglow of the election victory, the Democrats turned to find something to remember it by. And, as our free market system works, we are only to happy to oblige. It makes sense, from selling pieces of Yankee Stadium, to parts of the Berlin Wall, papers and magazines of various events. My grandfather kept editions of the Daily Oklahoman where JFK was shot, Eisenhower into office, and we have them down in our basement, rotting away.

And that's just the point. The need to have a piece of history, to hold something tangible of a memory, fades as the thought does. New events come up, new layers of geologic time that stacks up in our brains, pressing it into layers soon forgotten. Yes, a momento will bring up that memory, digging it up as some precious fossil. But even those decay. Photographs fade and yellow, as do newspapers. What once was thought to be an important milestone in the history of mankind turns out to be little more than a speedbump. What happened to all the '96 Olympic pins and accessories, that were once displayed proudly in every store window? They are now in drawers, shelves, in cabinets and boxes, filed away with the rest of the souvenirs we pick up in life. What makes anyone think that the election of Obama would not be the same thing.

I would say the same thing if McCain were elected or for any other major event. Sure, I've bought mementos in my life. The death of Reagan, the last episode of Johnny Carson, the release of Star Wars, Episode 1. But I couldn't tell you where any of those things are. Even the photographs I have, as I look back at them, were just of places, and not of people. The few of people I have I've shared with them.

Perhaps that's the answer to this. The memories that we have of events in our lives will fade, and the souvenirs that we have collected, weighing us down as if a house stood on a turtle's back, will be forgotten. It's the people we love that are important. The relationships of the people that are around us that is more important than the stuff we have. And I think, to some extent, we have forgotten that. The birthday present is not as important as the love that was put into it from the person that gave it. The letter written, the photo taken, the video captured. They are important only in the sense that behind them was (or is) a person that we cared about. Everything else is just souvenirs, that will slowly fade away.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Like Pigeons on a Statue (Falcons, Raiders game 11/02)

I had to work on Sunday, and so I probably missed the most unusual, most abyssmal NFL game ever played. The numbers for the game boggle my mind, as they reflect how truly awful the team is. The game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Oakland Raiders will probably go down as the lowest point in Raiders history, where the players finally decided not to play anymore (at least, the offensive players), and where the absurdity of firing the latest head coach is made plain. It wasn't the coach that was bad, it was the players.

At half-time, the score was Atlanta 24, Raiders 0. To give the Raiders credit, Atlanta didn't score the last half of the game, so the defense played well. Keep in mind that I'm not saying that Atlanta is the best team either (although much better than what the media believed in the pre-season, where it was predicted they would only win one game.) Atlanta's QB, Matt Ryan, has quickly become a leader in the lineup, and will probably be rookie of the year, for the simple reason that no really good rookie went to a team that has won many games (Lions, Raiders...etc.).

But back to Half-time. As of that point, the Raiders had racked up -2 total yards. Negative 2!! The same result could be achieved by snapping the ball, spiking it, and doing the same thing throughout the half. They basically stayed in one place and let the Falcons run around them. They got 3 first downs the whole game! All in the second half. The time of possession, for the whole game, was Atlanta 45 min, Raiders 15 min. Which is unheard of in most professional sports games. Maybe a high school game would be that lop-sided.

I dare say that Al Davis could go out, find 50 people working in the Oakland area, assemble a team, and in a short time, play a game with better results than that. And we're talking about a team with Darius McFadden (RB from Arkansas) on it, as well as the top pick in last years draft as well. It is a shame that one of the best teams in past years could have fallen this low. I think the NFL needs to consider a bailout for a team in jeopardy for humililating the game more than Pacman Jones or Mike Vick ever did.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Spore Revisited: Why Can’t we all just Get Along?

In the beginning (what a way to start a review about being God), Spore was supposed to be the next big thing in video gaming, hyped to no end as it was the creation of the Sims creator. For what he was trying to create, would have been completely wonderful. The problem is, that as of this review, with the updates that I had, the game is flawed by certain necessary and predictable assumptions that the designers made about the people that would be playing it.

When I left off last time, I had just finished the Animal stage. The feeling of truly being a part of this species of animal, as if they had somehow come from some part of my subconscious, held through the Tribal stage as well. In this part, I had the ability to sing and dance my way through negotiating peace with the other tribes. I tried, at all times, to be friendly to those around me, killing only those who wouldn't listen to my songs or be impressed by the rain showers or fireworks I had. Oh, and the epic monster I killed at the end because I wanted to. :)

Once I got to the Civilization mode (which is basically exactly like Civilization IV), I loved the idea of creating my own buildings, making them as I would want them, from some vague architectural design known only to the beings I had created. But then, as I started interacting with the other cities (which were of the same civilization as me), I found that there was no way of interacting with them except to take them over. As a peaceful tribe with the ability to make it rain, the computer gave me, as my only recourse, the role of a religious authoritarian society. I had gone from peaceful negotiator to Iranian dictatorship, and I didn't like it.

The assumption that they made was that the people playing the game would feel more satisfied by destroying people or taking them over than they would co-existing in a mutual world. Trade, conversations, etc... all were impossible to do with the programming that the designers had made. Sure, there are ways you could become that, if you had done certain things earlier in the game, but living a peaceful existence, and knowing certain acts of magic or faith, does not necessarily make the desire to take over other places with that faith. Well, and this brings up a certain irony, that most Christian faiths throughout history have thought exactly that, that religion only is justified when it is spread to as many people as possible. This goes to my Libertarian ideas of religion, where my beliefs, my relationship with God is my own, and it is not my responsibility to spread those beliefs to other people. We each travel our own roads.

But I digress... So the designers made what would be a remarkable game into a clone of Civilization or Warcraft 3, both of which I've played and become bored with because it makes it so that the only way you can survive is by killing and taking over your enemies. There's no story involved. And I can't create my own story (or History, as it were.) On Spore, it was almost that way, but the designers of the game took that away from me when they closed the openness of the game at the Civilization level. Perhaps one day I will return to play it, to see what the Space level is like, but for right now, I want to play something else where I can determine my fate without the guidance of trigger-happy programmers. I've got my eye on Fable, which has been out for a while, but I now have a computer that will run it. I think I'll be playing that next, as well as Ricochet and Bejeweled 2 Deluxe just for mind-numbing repetitiveness and visual stimulation. :)