March 02, 2001
Shaky in Seattle

Seattle experienced its first (and, likely, *only*) major snow of the season a week ago. People dialed into work from home on their computers, sending out e-mails and cancelling meetings. "Can't make it, too much snow, blah, blah, blah."

I *did* make it into work, and had a jolly good time poking fun at my colleagues. "Why, back where I come from, we wouldn't even close the public pools for this measly few inches of snow!"

Now the California transplants are making similar jokes about Wednesday's big event. "You call *this* an earthquake?" :-)

I actually found the recent earthquake in Seattle rather exhilarating. It came without warning, gave us all a helluva good ride for about fifteen seconds or so, and then left us to our own devices. When is the last time a tornado, hurricane, blizzard, flood, or other nasty weather-related imposition dropped in for a visit and then left so quickly? While I'm not a big fan of natural disasters, I have to say the weather-related ones have a much nastier tendency to hang around. Mr. Earthquake said "boo" and then left. It was shocking, thrilling, scary, and adrenalizing.

By and large, I think the folks of Seattle and the surrounding areas handled it all rather well, and it's even cooler to realize that, with all of the potential for calamity (it was, to be fair, a big 'un), there were few serious injuries and no directly related deaths. The same cannot be said for the Mardi Gras festivities in Seattle the night before, which had similarly resulted in a lot of property damage (on a smaller scale, to be sure) but, sadly, also cost many folks some time in the hospital and even one fellow his life.

Since many of you have dropped a line to ask how things are going or how they went, here's my Seattle earthquake experience in brief: I was in a meeting on the 7th floor of one of the new downtown office buildings when it hit. By a freak coincidence, my group had recently been the beneficiaries of some emergency-related training, and the whole situation unfolded for me in a surreal state of "No problem. Everything's under control." I heard one of the big metal beams start to twist, and my first thought was that the construction that had been going on in our area was getting out of hand again. (They are building a new stadium across the street, and their work often shakes our building.) A pause, and then another squealing sound from the building, and I began to think those construction workers were trying to break into our room. A rather funny thought, since the construction work was going on across the street, but that's pretty much how things played out. Someone said, "Is this an earthquake?"

Yours Truly, in "everything's under control" mode, told everyone to get under the table and grab onto the legs. (That's to keep your cover from getting away from you, don't you know.) With four of us in the room, and with the quick thinking on my part and the quick acting on their part, this meant that there was really no room under the table for me. :)

So, the building shook and rocked like a cruise ship that had just hit hard seas (been there, done that) and after a particularly nasty lurch, I suddenly felt the adrenaline hit. Wow. Then, the building began to settle into more routine shaking and rocking before it finally calmed down.

I had "sea legs" for the next hour or so.

Lots of rooms sustained lots of damage (bookshelves and monitors tipping, falling, breaking, bursting, etc.), but in the end, it was mostly superficial. There were the occasional "safety czars" giving us conflicting directions ("Get out of the building now!!!" "No! Stay in the building! It's unsafe out there with the transit tunnels!" Etc., etc.).

Everyone went to their cell phones. None of them worked because the circuits were overloaded instantly. I went to my office (after walking all the way down the stairs, and then walking all the way back up, following the various instructions I'd been given) and used the land line. Got in touch with Paulette. She was okay. Then, I made plans for getting over the lake to check on our house.

QED. End of story. No structural damage to our house that we can see, and not much in the way of disarray with the contents. A few picture frames askew, but that was about it. In fact, the class at the University was still on for that evening. Far out.

The corporate headquarters for my employer is closed for a couple of days while they repair *flood* damage caused by bursting sprinkler systems. My own building escaped that fate, so it was back to work and back to business as usual today. Just like that.

The quake did a lot of damage. Our building, like many others downtown, is still structurally sound, but it will nonetheless require a lot of repairs. Any good conspiracy theorist will tell you that this was all a plot arranged by the unions to make sure that there will be good jobs for construction workers even in the midst of the dot com bust that is leading to a decrease in demand for new buildings and houses. Thus, the local economy will continue to do well, taking money out of the insurance pools that it has been funding all these many years, and life will go on.

Unlike many of my peers here, I did not find this event to be life-changing. It was interesting; an experience worth having, certainly, and I highly recommend it as long as you can arrange to live through it unscathed, as most of us did on this particular occasion. It's pretty wild when terra firma becomes terra jello. Nonetheless it was, after all is said and done, just another interesting day in the already topsy-turvey world in which we live.

Posted by at 02:56 AM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits II
 March 08, 2001
A True Quaker

Just a quickie anecdote here.

I was talking to this dude regarding work stuff a few days ago, and he mentioned big snows where he was. I asked for his location, and he told me that he was in Valley Forge, PA. I mentioned that I used to live near there, and he correctly deduced I had gone to UPenn, which is his alma mater.

In a follow-up e-mail, he mentioned something about how cool it was to be dealing with a fellow Quaker. For those of you who don't know, the teams at Penn are called the Quakers, as in "The Fighting Quakers". Ha, ha. I don't think about being a "Quaker" much, as I have never had much affinity for my grad school days at Penn.

Nonetheless, after last week's 6.8-on-the-Richter-Scale event here, I guess I truly am a Quaker.

Posted by at 05:04 PM in the following Department(s): Humor , Tidbits
Accountability, pt. 1

So, I guess I should get mad here at ol' Rev. Jesse Jackson. He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar again; this time, for paying his mistress $120,000 as an employee of one of his non-profits and failing to declare her on the tax disclosure forms.

Whatever. Whether this "oversight" was intentional or unintentional is generally irrelevant... until Jesse spouts out with quotes like this:

"There is no evidence that there is any inconsistency or impropriety."

This kind of nonsense just pisses me off. The Rev. is not asserting innocence, but is claiming virtue by way of an alleged *lack* of evidence to the contrary. Not "I didn't do it," but "You can't prove I did it."

This is not a new tactic; Jesse did not invent the "There is no evidence, so there must be no crime" shtick. Everyone knows that Al Gore invented that (shortly after he invented the Internet).

I say that tongue-in-cheek, but let's acknowledge that when Al was caught taking bribes in Japan, he didn't protest that they weren't bribes. He said "there is no legal governing authority" that had jurisdiction in such a case. Ergo, no crime was committed, technically speaking.

President Clinton, likewise, used technicalities to obfuscate meaning when he claimed, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." When challenged later, he argued the definition of every word, even going so far as to say, "That depends upon what your definition of 'is' is."

Now, I realize I'm going off on a rant here, and it's taking me toward a generally recurring theme that you've seen on these pages before: the use of language to communicate meaning versus the use of language to obfuscate meaning.

This generation did not invent the use of language to confuse. Neither liberals nor conservatives; Democrats nor Republicans nor Socialists nor Communists; politicians nor citizens nor corporations nor academics nor lawyers -- none of these can lay claim to inventing or cornering the use of language to confuse. (Well, Al Gore can claim he invented it, but he'd be exaggerating.)

And, quite frankly, I don't think it's getting worse. Or better. But, it nonetheless rankles me. Just like crime rankles people in Detroit who nonetheless refuse to move.

But, just as the folks in Detroit may have recourse, of sorts, to try to at least curb the problem of crime (even if they can't eliminate it), there must certainly be *some* recourse to curb this doublespeak that is so steeped into our culture.

The first step, I believe, is to call bullshit where bullshit needs to be called. I am only one man; but, I can at least refuse the bullshit on a microsocietal level. So, here's my tiny public message to the Rev. Jesse Jackson:

"If the glove don't fit, I don't give a shit. Pay your taxes and shut up."

Posted by at 05:31 PM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits III
Accountability, pt. 2

In the aftermath of the recent shooting at Santana High School in Santee, CA, four students have been prohibited from returning to school.

The four students were friends or acquantances of the alleged shooter and had not taken him seriously when he boasted that he would take a gun to school to shoot kids who had been taunting him. Because the alleged shooter was known to be a bit of a joker, these acquaintances apparently assumed this, too, was a joke, and didn't warn anybody.

These four students were initially barred from the school because "the investigation is still on-going." Later news reports say that they're barred from the school "for their own protection." In a recent town meeting, residents said they blamed these individuals for what happened, because they should have told somebody.

So, I would just like to set the record straight, here. We all make judgement calls on a daily basis; we all do the best we can. These four kids, recognizing a pattern of behavior, assumed that what they saw fit into the pattern they had come to know.

But, when it comes to assessing blame, we get back to the same problem as the Columbine shooting and so many others like it. Don't blame the neighbors. The Friends. The music the shooters listend to. The books they read. Their parents. The movies they watched. The video games they played. Images in the media. The bullies who taunted them. The girls (or boys) who turned them down for dates. The internet. The bomb-making materials. The pistols.

Accountability starts at home. It starts with the person who pulled the trigger.

Everyone who has ever been to high school -- anyone who has ever had a pulse -- has had to deal with bullshit. Has been taunted or teased or laughed at or disagreed with. Has had bad days. Has had things stolen. Has had problems with parents. Has been denied something. Has been surrounded by idiots with a different world view.

Shooting your fellow classmates (or co-workers, as in several other recent incidents) is not a legitimate form of expression. Accountability starts with the perp, first and foremost. If you must assess blame, blame the shooter.

Posted by at 05:59 PM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits III
 March 18, 2001
Quotable Presidents

Seems these days all I do is carp (karp?) about my job or politics. My plan today was to take a lighter subject write about "Quotable Underpants" (you'll see what I'm talking about when I get around to writing that essay), but a friend of mine called me twice this morning about what he saw on TV, and it brought me right back. I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in.

Seems that on this morning's "This Week with Sam Donaldson", Jeff Bezos came on and Sam grilled him about what it means to become "pro-forma profitable". My friend was incensed. "Where were theses guys last year? Why didn't they hold Jeff's feet to the fire last year instead of making him Time's Man of the Year?"

My reply: "Last year, the stock price was high and Amazon was still promising to *lose* money. As long as you promise to *lose* money, it's really not important which accounting method you use."

Anyway. I'll karp (carp?) more about work in another essay. My friend went back to watching TV, and then called me again a half an hour later. "George Will was just on. He says that Barlett's Familiar Quotations is coming out with a new edition, and it will contain only three quotes from Bill Clinton. Guess which three."

Now, this is a fun game. The first one was easy. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Miss Lewinski."

"Yup. Next?"

The second one was also easy. "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

"You're two for two. Next?"

I must confess that I had to think about it. It took me almost five seconds. But, I finally came up with, "I didn't inhale."

My friend told me that, indeed, those were the three Clinton quotes that made it into Bartlett's. He said that George Will then went on to compare these quotes to the many Kennedy quotes that appear in the book.

After our conversation, I thought about this. What are three memorable quotes from Bush? Reagan? Carter? Ford? Nixon? Let alone Kennedy and Johnson. I also realized that, truthfully, comparing Clinton to Kennedy is a little disingenuous... even though Clinton has long maintained that he wants to be considered the modern JFK. Observe:

The three quotes that come immediately to mind for George Bush are not all that wonderful.

"Read my lips: no new taxes." A broken promise.

"A thousand points of light." A vague campaign analogy.

"Voodoo economics." A slam against Reagan's proposed economic plan when the two man opposed each other for the Republican nomination in 1980.

(My copy of Barlett's does refer to all of these. It is a 1992 edition. Barlett's also reminded me of one that didn't make my initial three: "I want a kinder, gentler nation.")

If we grant Bush "kinder, gentler nation" and drop one of my other three, then I guess we get a mix of good intentions, but still not terribly strong stuff.

Well, I started having fun with this. Name the first three quotes that come to mind of a recent President, and see what Bartlett's recorded.

You may want to try this before you read what I came up with (and what my 1992 edition of Barlett's came up with). It's fun.

Reagan: I didn't have to think long at all to come up with three quotes from this man. First, there's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Interestingly, this doesn't appear in my copy of Bartlett's. I can only hope they add(ed) it in a later edition.

The second one that popped into my head was "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. They left me." This one also doesn't appear in my copy of Barlett's.

My third quote from Reagan (or, rather, the third one that came to my mind) was his reference to the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire." This one did make it into Bartlett's.

After I perused Bartlett's (there's a good one about "Government is like a big baby -- an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other."), I was reminded of another one that didn't make my initial list of three but should have, and which also isn't in Barlett's but should be. It was a gaffe; Reagan was performing a microphone test prior to a radio address, and someone had recorded his joke test message and sent it to the media. It caused quite a stir.

"I am pleased to announce that we have just passed legislation outlawing Russia. The bombs will be flying in ten minutes."

So. The quotes that come immediately to mind about Reagan convey power of conviction, if nothing else. Bush's echo with unfulfilled good intentions. Clinton's are defensive nonsense designed to confuse, not to clarify.

What about Carter? I'm sorry to say that the only quote that came to mind was from an interview when he admitted to having lusted after other women in his heart. This was hardly strong stuff, but Carter was a born-again Christian, so I guess it made waves in that context. (According to Barlett's, he said "I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do -- and I have done it -- and God forgives me for it.") There are other quotes attributed to Carter in Bartlett's, but none of them sound either familiar or important.

Ford? Again, I come up short. There's only one that sticks in my mind: "Our long national nightmare is over." (This was in his first address to the nation after Nixon resigned.)

Barlett's also includes "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln" and a gaffe from a debate with Carter. It does not mention his "Whip Inflation Now" slogan. Okay, so that's two I came up with.

Nixon? Ha!

"I am not a crook." (in Bartlett's)
"Peace without dishonor." (not in Bartlett's -- I'm thinking that he said something along these lines with regard to pulling out of Vietnam)
"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore..." (this one is in Bartlett's)

Nixon also coined the phrase "silent majority", which is a great term. I'd forgotten that was him. But, I *did* remember the famous Checkers speech, in which he successfully deflected accusations of an illicit slush fund by saying that the only potentially inappropriate contribution he'd received was a puppy named Checkers, and by golly, he and his family were going to keep that puppy.

I'm going to skip to Kennedy now. Each of the above mentioned Presidents only has a few quotations listed in Bartlett's. Kennedy has a couple dozen. I don't necessarily recognize each of these allegedly familiar quotations, and I don't think the man was any more quotable than Reagan, but I'll let that go for the moment. Kennedy certainly resonated for a generation in a manner that no President has since.

Here's my top three for Kennedy (all of which appear in Bartlett's):

"Ich bin ein Berliner." (Barlett's points out, correctly, that this translates literally to "I am a jelly donut." But, it also notes, correctly, that the Germans understood the point he was trying to make... even if it did raise a few chuckles at the same time.)

"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." (Bartlett's also notes that this sentiment appears in speeches by three other prominent statesmen: Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1884, LeBaron Russell Briggs in 1904, and Warren G. Harding in 1916. Bartlett's further notes that Kennedy had been dwelling upon this idea for some time; a quote from Rousseau appears in his early private papers that expresses the same sentiment.)

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." (I needed Barlett's help in getting that one exactly right, but I've always linked this famous sentiment to Kennedy.)

Kennedy's familiar quotations are about goals; about getting off our collective butts and accomplishing something. Even if you disagree with his statist positions ("ask not what your country can do for you..." at first sounds like a repudiation of the welfare state, but then "but what you can do for your country" keeps the state firmly at the center of individuals' lives...), there is a motivational and unambiguous quality to Kennedy's familiar quotes. In this regard, I think that he and Reagan are particularly similar. Reagan vocally advocated a space-based defense initiative; he proclaimed that the United States would never yeild to terrorism; he stood up to the "evil empire" and then boldly negotiated nuclear arms reductions with the Soviet Union.

Most who admire one of these Presidents tend to find many faults with the other, but I think the case can be made that both were men of action who spoke of goals and of attaining those goals. Ford and Bush also spoke of goals, but were vague about how to attain them. Ultimately, they proved to be ineffective.

And, Clinton? If you look at his familiar quotations, he comes across as most similar to Nixon -- a man who also would have been impeached, had he not stepped down. Their most familiar quotes center upon the self: "I'm not a crook" and "I didn't inhale." Their most famous speeches concern defending themselves against accusations of impropriety.

Both men were obviously smart. Both men were obviously quite capable. But, both men also were blind to their own fallibilities, and they blamed the media and the public for the problems they brought upon themselves.

Clinton expressed many brilliant thoughts; he also expressed many terrible ideas. This is true of any man to hold the office of President. Nonetheless, when we look at *familiar quotations* of these men, we come to the inevitable conclusion that Kennedy (involuntarily) and Reagan left the office in such a way so as to allow us to remember the bright and powerful things they said. Clinton, like Nixon, managed to leave the office in such a way so as to only remind us of his terrible foibles and his wasted potential.

Posted by at 04:39 PM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits III | Comments (1)
 March 20, 2001
Update on The Do Over (mid-March 2001)

So, after all of the trimming I did (cutting out the scenes that were originally intended for Act III but are now relegated to some possible sequel or some other novel) and rewriting of the first chapter, my novel shrunk in size considerably. For a little while. Now, I'm back up to 79,000 words and growing. I'm filling holes that have required filling, and fleshing out some arcs in ways that have surprised me. Certain story elements are coming together in interesting ways that are solving problems that I've been dreading to face.

These next couple of weeks will be a bit topsy turvey for me (ie, I don't expect to make as much progress on the writing front), but I'll be hitting the ground running again in early April. My next big goal by mid-April, in addition to having another four new scenes written, is to polish Chapter 2. I'm expecting from that point on to manage polishing one chapter per week. At least, that's the plan.

In the meantime, I've also managed to put together two completely new short stories (one at 5,000 words, the other at 3,000 words), which is exciting. I'm preparing for a summer of intensive short story writing. My application to Clarion West went in last week, and I've already received confirmation that the materials arrived. The odds are that I'll hear from them by mid-April, one way or the other.

Not much else to report. I'll be writing another scene tomorrow, which wraps up a thread I've been working on for the last three weeks. Woo-hoo!

Posted by at 01:20 AM in the following Department(s): Novel-in-Progress
 March 26, 2001
Technical difficulties

So, I wrote this place-holder essay called "rewarding idiocy" which I posted to the site. I decided shortly afterward that it needed a lot of work, and I rewrote it. Then, my computer crashed hard just as I was writing the last sentence. I lost the entire essay. Too bad, too, because it was better than what now appears on the site.

After a while, I tried again, and the computer again crashed hard (even though I was using a different combination of apps to accomplish my goal). Turns out that I am having a hardware problem with this computer.

Anyway, the version of the essay I finally posted is close to what I had in mind, but it's missing a lot from my first "full length" version. After three re-writes, one gets a little eager to just get the job done and posted. Sorry about that.

I think I've figured out how to avoid the crashing for the time being. If you don't see me post for a while, you'll know that I haven't.

More soon. I hope. :-)


Posted by at 03:03 AM in the following Department(s):
 March 27, 2001
Rewarding Idiocy

There's no shortage of news like this throughout the country these days, but I'm amazed at this news item, nonetheless. In Buffalo, NY, the Powers That Be (read: the idiot lawmakers) have decided to try an education experiment that will be funded with federal money.

They are going to pay students $5.00 per hour to attend summer school who require the summer session in order to advance from 8th to 9th grade. That's right: students who are not meeting the state minimum requirements to be admitted into high school are going to be paid to attend summer school.

What are these nitwits thinking? The are going to financially reward students for failing to meet statewide minimum standards. This is as perverse a system of educational incentives as any I've ever heard.

In school districts around the country (including the one in which I briefly taught eighth grade math), honors and "advanced" classes are being scrapped for fear that their very existence might hurt the self esteem of those students who are not selected. Being ahead of the intelligence curve (or, simply applying one's brain at all) is not being encouraged or fostered. That's already bad.

But rewarding sub-par performance? This is somehow going to improve the "outcome-based" results of public education?

I guess the theory behind the new program is that requiring students to attend summer school is not enough, and we should provide added incentives for them to attend. I, for one, am in favor of a more traditional incentive: let's *really* not let them into the high school until they have legitimately fulfilled the requirements of entry. (There are another few essays in me regarding why students are promoted without having met the minimum requirements, but those will have to wait for another day.)

There is an old -- and rather ironic -- Russian phrase that says "people will get the government that they deserve." While we may agree or disagree with this sentiment, the fact is that when the government engages in social engineering -- and any and every policy regarding the education of its citizenry or future citizenry is, by definition, a social engineering project -- the government does end up with the citizenry it deserves.

We have seen numerous examples of how, when the population is rewarded for bad behavior, the result is an increase in the undesirable results. The welfare system in New York State (and other states, as it so happens) that rewards pregnancy and punishes marriage has resulted in a disproportionate number of unwed mothers among the poor in New York State. This, in turn, has resulted in a number of societal ills: single-parent families in poverty are more likely to stay in poverty than two-parent families; children in single-parent families are more likely to be abused; children in single-parent families are more likely to engage in drug use, crime, and the like.

What, then, can we expect of a system that pays our society's children to perform poorly? What can we expect of any system that reinforces any behavior? We can expect to see an increase in that behavior over time, until it is endemic. In this case, we can expect to see a stellar increase in poor performance.

Let's not reinforce poor educational practices. Let us, instead, reward excellent performance. Let's recognize those who do well, and give children across the board unequivocal incentive to excel.

As for Buffalo; if they enact this policy as they are currently planning, the performance of its children will decline significantly in the coming years. And that is a crying shame.

Posted by at 12:25 AM in the following Department(s): Essays , Teaching , Tidbits III

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