Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike

Among the other things to do, such as grade papers and blog about "retention of knowledge" (prompted by Dean Dad) and physics education (prompted by the gatekeeping article by Chad, and others he links to, as well some engineering education videos that an unrelated comment by Alice Pawley led me to), is the need to comment on today's news.

John Updike died today.

And I was somewhere between shocked and dismayed when Katie Couric said something to the effect that most Americans will think of "Witches of Eastwick" when they hear his name. Not me. To me, there is only "Rabbit, Run". (And his many essays in the New Yorker, which will undoubtedly have quite a tribute in the near future.) Rabbit is, indeed, finally At Rest.

It isn't quite like that book changed my life or made me a writer, far from it, but it has spoken to me in many different ways over the past decades. I'll explain.

I first read "Rabbit, Run" in high school, long after it had been published. It was a great story, with a voyeuristic look at the 'cool' life of a rather irresponsible fellow going through a post-high-school early life crisis. It was, like other books assigned in the best class I remember from high school, radically different from anything assigned in any of my previous lit classes. What interested me then was the look at the underside of the Protestant middle class, as that BBC article puts it.

I picked up "Rabbit Redux" in paperback, about a year after it was originally published in hard cover. I was in college at the time. (I can be pretty sure about when I bought it because the bookmark is a punched card loading the APL library.) I didn't like it, and stopped part way through out of boredom.

This did not stop me from buying "Rabbit is Rich" (again in paperback) when it came out a decade later. For some reason, I decided I should attack the trilogy from the start, since it had been so long since I read "Rabbit, Run".

I was stunned. Viewed from adulthood, now older than Rabbit was at the time, "Rabbit, Run" was a completely different book. Completely different. Part of it was my age, and a longer view at the era Rabbit had lived in, but part of it was that I now actually knew Rabbit! I'll leave it at that. That was an eye opener. I then enjoyed "Rabbit Redux", which I now see I could not appreciate because I had nothing to connect with in the book back when I was in college. It was easy to connect to the Rabbit of 1960, not long out of high school, but not so easy for the one approaching middle age.

There was no looking back, then, but in some ways I dreaded reading "Rabbit at Rest". Someone I knew was facing what we would all face - and what my friend faced, may God rest his soul, some years later. I imagine that, today, all of those books will carry additional meaning that I could not appreciate back when I first (or second) read them.

Maybe I'll read them all this summer.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Obama said he was the 44th person to take the oath as President.


He is the 44th President, but the 43rd person to take the oath of office.

Grover Cleveland served twice as President, in two non-consecutive terms, and the system used to make Bush #43 and Obama #44 counts him twice.

Yes, this is nit picking ... but if I can split the atom I can also split hairs.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Today and Tomorrow

Today has been an interesting day for reflection, if one can get a quiet moment amongst all of the blather of the talking heads. I was struck the most by some comments by Peggy Noonan (Reagan's main speech writer for you younger folks), who sounded at times like she actually voted for Obama. To paraphrase, she seemed to say that the excitement level in Washington matched that of the conservatives at parties during the 1980 Reagan inaugural, except this time it was regular people in the streets who were happy. Regular people, not just the wealthy power brokers. That does seem to capture the essence of what is happening.

What I want to say is that this is a day I have been waiting for ever since I shook Bobby Kennedy's hand in 1968, and that Obama is turning out to be much more than even RFK might have been. I say this because there is a real difference between a self-made man who had to work to pay off his college loans, and one whose big brother appointed him Attorney General of the U.S. Not in capability, but in symbolism. And not just symbolism, but reality. The reality that hard work and competence once again counts for something in America, like it used to. Or, at least, like the Horatio Alger myth said it used to, and the way it worked for my immigrant family. Yes, I am extremely excited by it.

And I am hoping that I might get a glimpse of a former student, one who came to me from inner city Baltimore via the US Marine Corps and is now an engineer working inside the Beltway, somewhere in those crowds tomorrow - but I will be in class teaching the next ones who want to tread down that path. I am excited, but I won't cancel class precisely because so more students can follow his path from the worst this country has to offer to the kind of success it has to offer.

Some commenter over in a thread about the inauguration over on Chad's blog took exception to my thoughts about the relative importance of hearing a speech live (a speech that will be available in unedited glory on CSPAN the same day and on YouTube forever) versus learning the physics needed to become an engineer or physicist. Do I lack perspective? Hardly. I've seen the ugly face of racism. I've seen the national chain gasoline stations that had a special design down south, a design with a third bathroom for "coloreds", that did not exist up north. I've attended school with black students who lived in their own upscale subdivision because the banks would not lend money to buy a house in a whiter subdivision, this in a state that had no segregated schools or legal limits on where people could live or work.

A good friend of my wife's was shot dead on the street for having the wrong color skin for that particular street. Or maybe it was for having good friends whose skin color was OK for that street.

No, I don't lack perspective on just how significant this event is in the history of the United States. But the event means nothing unless my students are prepared to carry that banner into the future.

You see, I also don't lack perspective on the difference between the "plantationist" approach of LBJ, giving things to people because you didn't think they could achieve on their own, and the "homesteader" approach that worked for many of the successful immigrant populations in the United States. (I don't see much difference between the concept of Cabrini-Green in Chicago and the approach of a powerful local lawyer who let his household help live rent-free in a shack not suitable for habitation until it fell down, then moved them to another one. I do see a difference between that and being "given" land if you live on it and work it for a number of years, investing your sweat and blood in it.)

Every day I see students who were failed by their schools and by their families and their friends, but have managed to move beyond that and achieve something. Every day I go to "work" with them in mind. I smile when I overhear students complain that some prof is too easy, and is not preparing them for what lies ahead. I wish, somehow, that this word would get back to their brothers and sisters attending a school where social promotion still rules. The message of this administration is not that people are owed a high-rise slum to make up for slavery, but that you are owed the right to work hard and succeed based on the "content of your character". There is a reason some in the black community didn't like his message, and some seeming "conservatives" are taking a different look at his message.

Many people remember the sound bite from the Kennedy inaugural speech, and not the challenge it gave the nation. The idea is perhaps clearest in the short speech he gave at the University of Michigan in October 1960, reflecting what was said in his July acceptance speech: "The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them." (That message got lost when LBJ pushed his plan through Congress.)

I also find it interesting that, in his speech at Michigan, JFK referred to the 1960 election as being as important as the 1933 election had been.

This past election was probably even more important than 1960, but only time will tell. I celebrate it with joy, by teaching my students the basics of mechanics and electricity they will need to reach the same level of success that Obama did, but the same path. The path of hard work, the work needed to prove you are better than anyone you have to compete with.

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Pepsi ...

... re-did their logo to resemble the Obama O?

Sure looks like it, particularly given that they appear to be launching their new ad campaign today (rather than during the Super Bowl) featuring lots of "O" words like HOPE and JOY.

Ah, corporate America, how we have underestimated your ability to snap up any new trend and exploit it for every bit of marketing value it might have.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Definitely Worth the Drive

It required a fair bit of planning and effort, but this is what we saw this morning:

Yes, we saw Whooping Cranes flying behind an ultralight aircraft to their winter residence, courtesy of Operation Migration. Unforgettable.

Vehicle we saw that traveled the furthest: Washington state. Birders are nuts. Count us among them.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

And so the year begins

Ah the joys of the start of a new semester.

Actually, I can't complain all that much. I had 100% attendance in my Physics 2 class. Seriously. Perfect attendance. Now I have to figure out how to integrate the new kids into the cult that is our learning community. Better yet, our folks in charge of the Physical Plant did not do anything odd to save money and I had nice warm dry air in the classroom when doing electrostatics demos. They worked perfectly. I mean perfectly. I was able to clearly demonstrate that there are two different kinds of charge and that like charges attract and unlike charges repel.

Elsewhere ...

Some rocket scientist used a dry erase marker to write on the Smartboard in one of my classrooms. Hint: those things do not erase when used on a Smartboard instead of a whiteboard. (I should probably try to read what is there to figure out who the guilty party might be.)

And I had a kid enrolled in my Physics 1 class (which requires calculus) whose information sheet said he was taking trig. Yep, right out of Becky Hirta's playbook when teaching the Calculus Circus at a school without any computer pre-req checks. I looked at his transcript and he was taking trig. Turns out that some other rocket scientist, a newly hired "student centered" counselor, pushed past the computer protections and put him in my class because it is required for his major. Close, but no cigar. His major requires PASSING my class, not simply taking it, and you aren't going to pass my class if you haven't already passed trig. In fact, they often don't pass my class if all they managed to do was scrape by with a C in trig.

But I also have students who started on their computer-based homework even before the first class met. I am not worthy, but I try.

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Yesterday's Not-Really-News Historic News

Hat tip to Matt to go look for this.

Overshadowed a bit by all of the economic news, particularly Sen. Obama's plan to put a bigger push behind the economy, and the fact that this result has been pretty clear since about two months ago, this is actually THE moment when Sen. Obama is officially elected and becomes President Elect Obama. And, as Matt emphasized (from what I understand to be the other side of the political aisle), it is indicative of the way power is transferred peacefully in this country.

The calendar this year holds a rather interesting bit of irony: Monday, January 19, is the Martin Luther King Jr Day Holiday. Tuesday, January 20, is Barack Hussein Obama's inauguration day.

And one side comment on the economy, after today's news about unemployment:

We, like many states, continue to struggle with state support of education in the face of this economy. I caught a bit of Cramer on CNBC tonight, and he spoke a bit of truth that the media and politicians have avoided. We are probably in a depression, not a recession. Politicians and the media are probably correct to avoid using that word because, as professional communicators, they probably know that the vast majority of the American people are too poorly educated to have been taught that the term Great Depression was used because it was uniquely different from the depressions that had taken place periodically in United States history. I went to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of the one that followed the Civil War (the Panic of 1873) and also found the Panic of 1837. It is interesting, but not surprising, that banking irresponsibility and speculative bubbles played a role in each of these. The railroad boom in the 1870s sounds a lot like the real estate boom we recently had. One wonders if the Madoff securities scandal of 2008 will rank up there with Jay Gould trying to corner the gold market in 1869.

If you can trust Wikipedia (and, increasing, I find that I can trust it in technical areas where politics does not play too big of a role), the other reason might be that there is no official technical definition of a depression. The prominent mention of the role of deflation (currency devaluation) in a depression should make clear why the Fed has taken such an agressive role in fighting deflation without regard to the risk of future inflation. The balancing act is to "catch" any surge in inflation of the pump priming gets out of hand.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

News from Apple!

This 'news' story was all the rage among the Mac users at work today:

Check out the new MacBook Wheel!

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

It is definitely revolutionary (pun intended).

And definitely LOL funny.

Pay close attention to the captions and the other stories in the crawl.

Now if you want a real laugh, follow this link to a Youtube version and read the comments. There are a lot of gullible people out there ...

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Terror Threat for the New Year

funny pictures of cats with captions
more Icanhascheezburger animals

We have enough trouble with the tree rats without that!

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