Saturday, March 28, 2015

Finland, Finland, Finland

"The country where I quite want to be
pony trekking or camping, 
or just watching TV." - Monty Python
Oh yes, there are so many things that I could pine for about Finland: Helsinki Square, its beautiful archipelagos, the overabundance of vowels, their majestic moose. And now, I can be a fan of their excruciatingly progressive education system.
Aside from having to teach their children how to use all those phonemes, teachers are now being asked to teach their classes "topics" rather than "subjects." The Finns already have an education system that is not driven by standardized tests,  That doesn't mean they don't get assessed. To the contrary. They are tested regularly by their teachers. In their classrooms. On the topics which they are covering. Topics. What does this mean?
It means that Finland is going to try and prepare their kids for "real life." This should help them become more prepared to enter the workforce, as well as enable them to be more available for the tasks they will encounter in their future. It also help them decipher the meaning of those phrases found between quotation marks. What is "real life?"
Well, in real life, experiences don't come in bite-size subject-specific chunks. Instead, they come tumbling at us all in a flurry of interrelated disciplines and skills. Working in a bank does not require just math, but language and communication as well. Vocations of all kinds will require more an more technology, so even a cafeteria services course would have computers in it, as well as a heavy dose of interpersonal relationship and management training. 
This makes some teachers, even those in Finland, uncomfortable. What good is being the world's foremost authority on eighth grade social studies when it will only be a tiny slice of what we want our kids to know? Well, that Master's Degree could come in handy, since most Finnish teachers have them, and they get paid like they do. According to a report in New RepublicFinnish teachers earn one hundred two percent of what their fellow university graduates make in salary, contrasted with the sixty-five percent pay American teachers receive compared to college graduates in other professions. Totally worth learning all those extra vowel sounds. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

I've Got A Bad Feeling About This

In the summer of 1978, as I eagerly awaited the sequel to George Lucas' "Star Wars," I read Alan Dean Foster's "Splinter In The Mind's Eye." This was before the Empire struck back, and before we learned that "Star Wars" was really "Episode IV: A New Hope." It was about the time that it became clear that there would be sequels to Star Wars, and the word "trilogy' started to get bandied about. Three movies? That sounded like a great deal, and by the summer of 1978, there was plenty of speculation about what direction the story of Luke and his galaxy pals might be headed. A cottage industry sprang up: telling the stories that may or not be part of the official canon of Mister Lucas' intent. Mister Foster just happened to be at the right place at the right time, setting up his tent at the center of what would become, well, an Empire unto itself.
Now, nearly forty years down the track, we are bracing for a third iteration of the saga. Where once we were going forward from the middle, now we are back from the past and heading into the future. For those of you who didn't spend their adolescence in line waiting for the next episode in the story of the Skywalker clan, this refers to the way the trilogies have been mounted. The first three movies told the story of how Luke became the savior of the rebellion. The second three movies backed up and told us how Luke's father, spoiler alert, got to be the biggest, baddest, hardest breathing man in show biz. Now we are faced with the proposition of finding out what happened to Luke and his pals after he gave his father a Viking funeral of sorts. Do I really want to know what happened to Mark Hammill after "Corvette Summer?"
Well, the word on the street is that once again, Emperor Lucas has pushed the reset button. Just as he and his buddy Steve Spielberg are always mucking about with their finished works, adding digital this and taking out analog that, now there will be a new endorsed and enforced version of events as they all went down a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Splinter in the mind's eye is just figment of someone else's imagination now as the star-wars-making machinery gears up for its final assault on your wallet. This new Expanded Universe is built to thrive on as many platforms as possible and will essentially squash any of those old fan-generated notions about what Palpatine was really like as a child or why Ewoks don't grow up to be Wookies, they just get old and fat. Don't bother making up anything new. J.J. Abrams will do that for you. For now, just relax and enjoy the ride. Question nothing. It will all be just fine. If it's not, just wait for the digitally altered remix.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ted Talk

“So this afternoon President Obama has invited the Senate Republicans to the White House. So after leaving here, I’m going to be going to the White House. I will make a request. if I’m never seen again, please send a search and rescue team. I very much hope by tomorrow morning I don’t wake up amidst the Syrian rebels.”
 “The media wants America to give up and allow this country to keep sliding off the edge of the cliff.”
 “This is an administration that seems bound and determined to violate every single one of our bill of rights. I don’t know that they have yet violated the Third Amendment, but I expect them to start quartering soldiers in peoples’ homes soon.”
 “Is anybody left at OFA headquarters? I’m actually glad that the president’s whole political staff is here instead of actually doing mischief in the country."
“It would seem that President Obama’s paid political operatives are out in force. The men and women in this room scare the living daylights out of them.”
 “How scared is the President? What a statement of fear, what a statement of fear. Oh, they don’t want the truth to be heard. They definitely don’t want the truth to be heard.”
“Our foreign policy is detente, which I’m pretty sure is French for surrender.”
"'Net Neutrality' is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government."
"The last fifteen years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last fifteen years. It hasn't happened."

"I was disappointed that Bruce Willis was not available to be a fifth witness on the panel. There probably is no doubt that actually Hollywood has done more to focus attention on this issue than perhaps a thousand congressional hearings could do."

And those, ladies and gentlemen, are the words of our first declared candidate for President of the United States: Ted Cruz. He probably won't be the last. Enjoy the sunshine while you can, Ted. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fan Mail

I'm a big fan of White Arrows. The music group, not the roadway markers. I saw them at San Francisco's Warfield last week. It was a Saturday night show and my family went out together. This alone would make this band important in my life, since the opportunities to go do something as a family sometimes eludes us. And we met friends, who went to the show with us. It was a night out. With the White Arrows!
Okay, so it wasn't the White Stripes, which for my son would have put us into contention for Parents of the Year. Still, we were out on the town, having a little dinner and taking in a rock show at one of the Bay Area's legendary music venues. We were there to see White Arrows! Okay. We weren't there to precisely to see them. We were there to see OK Go. White Arrows was the opening act. When the lights went down and the stage was dark, and then the spotlight came on the lead singer and guitar player whose name I can't recall right now, there was polite applause. This Los Angeles-based quartet powered through a set of psychedelic power pop that kept the crowd distracted, at least those down front. The rest of us were milling about, looking at the T-shirt stands, checking out the ridiculous prices at the bar. Five dollars for a bottle of water? I'll watch the opening band instead, thanks. And participate in that ritual in which I have been involved for the past forty years: making fun of the opening band. These were the young men who may someday be the next big thing, much in the same way that OK Go was the next big thing some fifteen years ago. Back before they were the darlings of the Internet set with their clever YouTubes.
Now, OK Go is a headliner. They show up with trucks full of equipment and dozens of roadies whose job it is to prepare the stage for the artists while the members of White Arrows hastily grabbed up their equipment to make way for the featured attraction. The featured attraction which was already in evidence via the racks of guitars and the six pillars of robotic lights and projection screen in front of which White Arrows played their quick set of introductory rock and roll. They didn't have a lot of fancy lights or special effects. They didn't have the use of the confetti cannons located on either side of the stage which OK Go had loaded and ready to go. These confetti cannons which turned out to be a source of wry stage banter by the headliners who joked about their potential over-reliance on confetti cannons.
OK Go put on a heck of a show. Fun, funny, and loud with costume and scenery changes that went on for hours. And more confetti. And the reason I like White Arrows? They did it all first. Without confetti. I may never buy a White Arrows CD or T-Shirt, but they won my respect. Without confetti.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Taste For It

Just about every morning that I drag myself out of bed and my feet hit the cold linoleum of the bathroom floor I have this waking thought: "Gee, it's great to be an American." This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it isn't every country in the world that provides cold linoleum upon which its citizens can place their feet to have such morning epiphanies, but also because each new day brings with it a slew of new awakenings and revelations as to exactly why we live in this best of all possible countries in this best of all possible worlds. Today's eye opener? Taco Bell.
First and foremost, it should be noted that their slogan, "Make a run for the border," is perhaps the most amusingly ironic catchphrase in American advertising. Whoever decided to make a point of how we should all make a run toward the very boundary which so many people would have us run from or wall off completely shows us all that Don Draper may not be a made up person at all. His spirit lives on. And on.
Taco Bell can be congratulated for the invention, or at least the pat off registering of the Fourth Meal. No longer should we feel constrained, as Americans, to the simple rules of three square meals. If we, as Americans, need to have any permutation of cheese, ground beef, and tortillas smothered in more melted cheese, we don't have to wait until the following morning to stand in line to peer hazily up at that value menu. We are encouraged, at most hours of the night and day, to find a path that takes us to the counter which will serve as the metaphorical between what tastes good and good taste. Sorry, Charlie, no tuna tacos here. But they do have breakfast, and their innovative one handed taste sensation allows the hipsters in all of us to eat with one hand and post selfies of ourselves eating that same meaty-cheesy treat with the other. Genius.
And just when you thought the well was empty, the lifestyle contourists at Taco Bell are going to start adding Fritos to your "Mexican food." This will be the thing that keeps us all from ever fully equating the cuisine offered up at that metaphorical border to be anything but Gringo food. Food for Americans. And fiercely proud of it. Amen.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Body Count

I knew what a body count was when I was twelve. I grew up with the Vietnam war in my living room. Not actually in my living room, but rather the reportage of that conflict. Keeping track of the dead and wounded was an everyday chore. The tally was kept, and whether points were being shaved in our favor was ultimately the question: Did we get more of theirs than they got of ours? Were the good guys winning? More importantly, were the bad guys losing? As it turns out, this is more like golf, where the lower score wins.
Final score: Us 282,000, Them 440,000. This is not including the 1,313,000 people in the stands, the civilians who made the mistake of getting in the way of all that periodically misdirected aggression and napalm. In other words, if you added together the body counts of both combatants, they would add up to about half as many civilian deaths. It may not be clear from those numbers exactly who won the war in Vietnam, but it's pretty obvious who lost.
Which brings me back to the future, where most of us will live the rest of our lives. Reading the news today? Oh boy. Seventy-seven dead in Yemen, the victims of a triple suicide bombing. It makes me hearken back to a time when suicide was a singular sport, and using plastic explosive would have seemed like, pardon the pun, overkill. Here in the United States, where the right to bear plastic explosive shall not be infringed, a crazed gunman went on a shooting rampage in Mesa, Arizona killing four. It should be noted that the phrases "crazed gunman" and "shooting rampage" can be found most any day on your U.S. News. I'm pretty sure that's in the Constitution too. Back across the pond, we've got that up and coming crazed militants who went on their own rampage, the Islamic State who shot twenty foreign tourists who made the mistake of going to a museum. The difference I have noted between crazed gunmen here in the United States and crazed militants in other parts of the world is that foreign crazies are generally pretty good about claiming responsibility for their heinous acts. Here in America? Not so much.
The trouble with trying to keep track of the body count presently is the lack of defined conflicts. Sure, it would be easy enough to make an accounting of the victims of the war on terror, or the war on drugs, or the war on Christmas. If there were more organized accounting, or if we could ask our crazed gunmen to announce their victims with more precision and wear color-coded uniforms, then it might start to make some sense.
Yeah. Right.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Must Do's And May Do's

In my classroom, I divide each class period up into "must-do's" and "may-do's." When kids come in and look at the board, they can see what assignment or challenge awaits, and what sort of experience can be theirs if they complete the task in front of them. Inevitably, this leads to a certain amount of whining and crying about skipping to the fun, avoiding the work completely. There are some standard replies I have generated over the years, many of which center on the "dessert before dinner" model. Yes, I know what that sounds like. It is also part of living in a world in which I routinely find kids walking onto our playground before the day begins, eating a bag of hot chips with no real intent of going into our cafeteria for the free breakfast program we have for half an hour before the school day begins. Breakfast is the must do. Hot chips are the may do. If that sounds a little like surrender, keep in mind that I do insist that kids take their flamin' hot Cheetos to the cafeteria and eat them instead of sprinkling toxic dust across the playground for seagulls, pigeons and other less flight-inclined vermin to come by later to clean up after them. You have to draw the line somewhere, right?
Sigh.

This is what came to mind when I heard that our President was in Cleveland this past week, floating the idea of mandatory voting for Americans. There are currently eleven countries in the world that require that their citizens vote. There are nearly twenty more that only "require" it by having a law on the books, like Egypt and Mexico, but they don't come drag you out of your house and force you into the voting booth if you forget. Or choose not to. Mandatory sounds like some sort of inoculation program, and I guess we all know how successful that is turning out to be. One of the amusing ironies of giving folks all this freedom is that it gives them the freedom not to participate. In the 2014 midterm elections, less than thirty-seven percent of the eligible voters found their way to their polling place to cast a ballot. This minority elected a Republican majority to the Senate. Isn't that interesting? Or inevitable? That could be why Mister Obama, wandering around the nation's midsection found time in his busy schedule to suggest, "If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country." But if you force people to vote, aren't you taking away their constitutionally guaranteed right to complain bitterly about something they know nothing about? What a fascist.