Friday, November 14, 2014

Learn Something New Every Day If You're Not Careful

I volunteered to give a guest lecture in a friend’s class later this month.

I’m actually looking forward to it.  We’ve worked together many times in the past – we actually team-teach a class together, whenever we can convince Home Campus to let us do so, and I’ve given guest lectures in other classes he’s taught as well.  And this lecture is on something I do know a fair bit about, as it is something that I cover in both my American and Western Civ classes.

But my friend is a philosopher by trade, not a historian.  And every time I venture into his discipline I end up profoundly grateful to be in my own.

Philosophy makes my head hurt.

I am perfectly willing to concede that this may well be a shortcoming in my own psyche rather than a failure of his discipline, but that neither prevents nor lessens my pain. 

This is especially so when I have to do the assigned reading.  I’ve read all of the things he’s assigned in our team-taught class and most of them just leave me thinking that either I missed something very important or these authors are just bags of hot wind.  I suppose it is entirely possible that both of these are true at the same time, which is disheartening, really.  If the fault is entirely my own then there exists the possibility that I might one day overcome it and learn to see what I am currently missing.  But if I’m actually right about the general nature of these works, then the prospects of my future improvement become very slim indeed.

I’m supposed to speak on the subject of the Industrial Revolution, at a level of detail wherein I can cover most of the main points – where it came from, its general outlines, its impact on the world of work, and the list of winners and losers – and still have time for questions in a 75-minute period.  So fairly broad strokes, in other words.  I can handle that.  Hell, I’ve taught a class that quite literally covers everything from the Neolithic period to Christopher Columbus.  I’ve taught it twice, in fact.  Broad strokes I can do.

But I also have to do the assigned reading, so I know what the students have in front of them. 

Yes, this assumes that the students have done the reading too.  I am aware of that.  As a professor, one lives in hope.

This particular reading is one chapter out of a book on the philosophy of technology.  They’re short chapters, though, so – as the professional nerd that I am – I decided that I would read the entire book.  It’s less than 200 pages long.  I can burrow through dense historical monographs twice that long in a couple of days.  How hard can this one be?

One of the many rules of life that I have developed over the years is that you should never ask a question that you really don’t want to know the answer to.  It turns out that reading works of philosophy is exponentially more time consuming than reading anything else, even works of economic theory (in part, one must admit, because about halfway through any book on economic theory the rational mind shrieks in protest and skips to the end to see if there are any twists or surprises, such as a paragraph that does not require a plumber’s snake to unclog or a lurid description of the author's strangulation by his own pet theory, which for certain authors I would pay real money to see even if I am not especially proud to admit this).

So I’ve been slogging along with this for a week now.  It’s slow going.  But I’ve learned a few things, and so – in a spirit of educational opportunity for all – I will share them with you now.  You’re welcome.  First drink’s on the house.

Arranged by the actual chapter headings, here are the lessons that have been imparted by this book:

Chapter 1: Can We Define “Technology”?

Answer: No.  

N.B. - The fact that the central term under discussion is hereby declared to be undefined does sort of imply that whatever follows from this point on may well be hot wind, but no matter.

Chapter 2: Does Technology Control Us?

Answer: No.

Chapter 3: Is Technology Predictable?

Answer: No.

Chapter 4: How do Historians Understand Technology?

Answer: Not very well.

Chapter 5: Cultural Uniformity, or Diversity?

Answer: Yes.

Chapter 6: Sustainable Abundance, or Ecological Crisis?

Answer: Yes, depending.

Chapter 7: Work: More, or Less?  Better, or Worse?

Answer: It varies by location.

Chapter 8: Should “the Market” Select Technology?

Answer: Kind of.

Chapter 9: More Security, or Escalating Dangers?

Answer:  Yes.

Chapter 10: Expanding Consciousness, or Encapsulation?

Answer: This is unclear, at least to me.

Chapter 11: Not Just One Future

In which it is pointed out that predicting the future is hard.

So I don’t know about you, but I feel that I have learned a great deal from reading this particular bit of scholarship, most of it being along the lines of “if you’d done something else with your time you probably wouldn’t have a headache now,” which is still a form of learning after all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Look Over the Horizon

I may have passed over the Bagel Event Horizon.

Grocery shopping is my responsibility, and I rather enjoy it.  I like being surrounded by all that food, and it’s always fun to see what’s there.  And sometimes I run into people I like while doing so, people I don’t ordinarily see in my daily running about between campuses (campii?).

We learned a long time ago that it works best if I have a list when I go, as otherwise I end up with a pile of random things – and in a supermarket the size of the one in Our Little Town (roughly a third of the square footage of the entire community, or thereabouts), this can get fairly random indeed.  In order to have such a list, one must first prepare a menu for the upcoming week.  This also stops the daily 4:45pm “I don’t know, what do you want to have for dinner?” phone call that was once a regular feature of my day, and that’s all to the good.  So every week either Kim or I will prepare a menu for the week, and then I’ll write this up into a shopping list and off I go.

But not everything makes it onto the list, of course.  There are the usual staples that one always gets – things that find their way into the cart every week without fail, such as butter – and sometimes I write those down and sometimes I don’t.

Bagels are in that category.

I live in a region of the country that is distressingly dominated by goyim.  There is no place anywhere in the county where you can pick up a dozen fresh hot bagels that are any good – midwestern bagels have a tendency to be steamed rather than boiled, which turns them into toroidal muffins rather than actual bagels.  That’s great if you want a cranberry-raisin bagel-shaped object, but if I wanted a cranberry-raisin muffin shaped like a donut I’d just get one and be done with it.  And forget about a decent poppyseed bagel.  Oy.

I grew up in an area where excellent bagels were just assumed as part of the natural order of things.  There was a little shop just across the Philadelphia city line where crowds of us goyim would sometimes head after church on Sundays to pick up a dozen or so, and when I go back east I often head down to that shop on that same mission.  They’re nut free, chewy, and heavenly with cream cheese.  What’s not to like?

If I want anything approaching a decent bagel here in Our Little Town, however, I have to get them frozen.  There’s a Madison brand that’s not bad, and I always like to have some on hand for breakfasts or quick lunches.

But I don’t often write them down on the list, because they’re something I usually buy anyway.

Except that sometimes we eat them all the time around my house, and sometimes we eat other things for a while, so the bagel supply in our freezer varies according to demand.

All of this means that I often find myself standing there in the frozen foods section, wondering if I should buy more bagels.  And the thing is that these are frozen bagels.  They’re essentially immortal, and fairly inexpensive.  There is, in other words, almost no penalty for buying more than I need – they’ll keep until I need them – but there is a substantial penalty for running out midweek. 

Hell hath no fury like a man without his morning bagel, particularly if it is a self-inflicted wound.

This means that most of the time I just throw a couple of bags of bagels into the cart, certain that they will get eaten eventually.  And when I do this for a few weeks in a row during a downturn in demand, well.  They pile up a bit.  They get shoved to the back of the freezer, to be discovered only when other things are removed, which can take a while.

We’ve got a lot of bagels now.

If I buy more bagels without eating the ones we have, I fear that they will compress into some kind of Kosher critical mass.  There will be a radioactive blue and white glow from the freezer followed by some kind of implosive whoomping noise and suddenly I will have ringlets and start speaking in Yiddish, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world but which might make my classes harder for my students to understand.

Once you pass over the Bagel Event Horizon, things are different.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Roll On

So apparently Pumpkin Spice Oreos are a thing.

They’re not a bad thing, it must be said.  They taste pretty much like the kind of spice cookies that were standard around this time of year, once upon a time, even if they do have “creme" in the middle.  But you can’t call things “spice” anymore.  It has to be “pumpkin spice,” as if it was poured out of a latte mug and into your cookie batter.  There are pumpkin spice everythings these days, so I suppose Pumpkin Spice Oreos are reasonable by that standard.

Life is so much easier when you set your standards low.

The Pumpkin Spice Oreos were voted number one among the weird Oreo flavors yesterday by Lauren and her friends, beating out Peanut Butter, Birthday Cake, and Limeade (which I admit I rather liked as it reminded me of those old summer cookies that you used to get – the shortbread ones with the powdered sugar/lime flavoring on top).

Yesterday was Lauren’s birthday party, the official celebration of the fact that she turned twelve on Halloween.  It was the usual mayhem and merriment, a festival of not-quite-planning and good times.

For the second year running she chose to have her party down at the roller rink in the next town over, since there isn’t one here in Our Little Town anymore.  She invited her group of friends – the Five Musketeers, as I tend to call them – and most of them met us here in the morning.  One of the joys of the new minivan is that we can take them all down in one vehicle.

Of course, it wasn’t just one vehicle going.  Grandma and Grandpa brought down some of the younger cousins for the party, and since this was also the first weekend of curling I ended up bringing Tabitha and her friend down slightly later.  So there were three vehicles.  But still.

There was a fair amount of roller skating, which was good.  That’s what they were there for.  None of it showed up well in any of the pictures I took, but then that happens.  Then there was pizza, and a fair assault on the multitudinous cupcakes that Kim made that morning.  And presents, lots of presents.

When we got home we thought that was pretty much it, but we underestimated the staying power of a 12-year-old’s birthday party.  One friend had to go home directly from the skating rink and we assumed that two of the remaining three would leave from our house.  And they did, but not until all of the remaining three (as opposed to the one we had expected) had spent the night.

There were games.  There were Oreos.  There was the season finale of Doctor Who, which not everyone was interested in but which we were going to watch anyway, party or no party.

Is it just me or is the Master one of the most seriously annoying characters in the entire Doctor Who universe?  I keep hoping that someone will squash him (or in this incarnation, her, making her the Mistress, I suppose) like a bug and we can move on to things that are more fun.  Maybe it’s just me.  Who knows.


We got our house back sometime this morning, and now it is time for the usual frantic activity of the weekend – grading, prep, and all of the things that teachers come to expect on weekends, plus groceries and laundry and so on.  But for a time there was a party, and wasn’t that a time?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

News and Updates

1. My children are now old enough to trick-or-treat without me.  They got themselves dolled up into their costumes – Lauren as a lion, Tabitha as a vampire – and with their various friends they set off into the night to shake down the neighbors for candy.  If it hadn’t been so cold out – it did, in fact, snow a bit earlier in the day – they’d probably still be out there.  As it was they came back within the allotted time, chilled to the bone and weighed down with the full diabetes starter kit.

2. You have not fully experienced the wonders of cutthroat capitalism until you have watched four heavily laden trick-or-treaters wheel and deal in after-hours trading session.  Call the NYSE – I’ve found your next group of brokers.

3. Naturally that night was also the night our refrigerator decided to leak all over the kitchen floor.  On the one hand, it appears to be something involving the water line into the icemaker, which means that the basic mechanics of the appliance are probably still okay.  On the other hand, finding this out meant moving the thing away from the wall, which is a job for Hercules’ bigger, dumber, considerably younger and more fit cousin. 

4. I spent the week being evaluated by my peers, over at Mid-Range Campus.  It’s been a long time since anyone from the History Department has sat in on my classes, and I suppose they’re making up for lost time by having two different people do that in two different classes.  I actually like it when they do this, though.  I’m confident enough in my teaching that I regard it as a chance to demonstrate why I should be in their employ, preferably full-time and long-term, and it’s a whole new audience to aim for – like many introverts, I enjoy performing set-piece theater.  I only got a chance to speak with one of the reviewers afterward and he seemed to like what he saw, so that’s a good sign.  I’ll try to catch up to the other one next week.

5. Last week was also Parent-Teacher Conference night at both Mighty Clever Guy Middle School and Local Businessman High School.  In some ways MCGMS has the better system – you actually make an appointment, so you don’t have to wander in and randomly hope that your child’s teachers are available the way you do at LBHS, where the teachers are arrayed one to a table in the lunch area, grouped by subject matter – but on the other hand that appointment is with your child’s homeroom teacher, arguably the teacher who knows the least possible amount about your child’s actual academic situation, so if you actually want to speak to the teachers who deal with substantive educational matters related to your child you have to wander around and squeeze yourself in between appointments.  And thus the circle of life is preserved.  But the evening went well for all concerned. 

At MCGMS we got to speak to most of Lauren’s teachers, who were all uniformly pleased with her performance so far and the one teacher whose report was worrisome to Lauren calmed her fears about the grade in question, which appears to have been a computer error.  Plus Tabitha got to visit with some of her old teachers and there was a book fair at which both girls managed to find a book they wanted, so it was just full of Win all around.

At LBHS we were similarly lucky with Tabitha’s teachers, most of whom we managed to catch and all of those so caught reported back how well she was adapting to the high school curriculum and environment.  On top of this, a fortuitous meeting with her academic advisor led to a 20-minute meeting with the Guidance Office, which in turn led to a new chemistry teacher to replace the one who was boring her to tears and leaching out the interest in the subject that Kim had so painstakingly instilled over the years.  We actually spoke to him too – a very nice man, clearly conscientious about his job and concerned for his students, who nearly put me to sleep in a four-minute conversation, so I can see the issue Tabitha was having in his class.  But starting Monday there will be a new class with a teacher she already likes, who seems very good at her job too.  More Win, everywhere you look.

6. I am very much liking the Peter Capaldi version of Doctor Who.  He plays the character much more darkly than Matt Smith or David Tennant did, and is far more alien in affect than Christopher Eccleston’s version.  I hope he sticks around for a while, though I am not optimistic about that – the various websites and memes that concern themselves with such things seem to be leaning toward him being a one-season act.  That would be a shame, I think.  For a show that can get awfully twee at times it is often saved by its darker and more serious ethical core, and Capaldi taps into that fairly well.  Plus the writing has gotten better, and that never hurts.

7. Lauren’s birthday is being spread around the calendar, as our birthday seasons tend to do in this family.  We didn’t do a whole lot on her actual birthday, as it was Halloween and all that, but yesterday we had the official Birthday Supper of her choice (build-your-own hoagies, butternut squash, and dilly-beans) and today we’re slowly working on the birthday cupcakes that nobody had the room for after dinner.  Next week will be the actual party for her friends.  If she keeps this up, she might be able to spread this out until her next birthday.

8. I will be so, so glad to see the back end of this election.  Not that I expect anything to change, but at least I won’t be harassed by the forces of evil every time I turn on the television or log into the internet (seriously, Facebook?  Why do you force-feed me campaign ads from far-right extremists?).  From all evidence it appears that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is running scared.  This is the only reason I can think of why his puppetmasters have plastered the state with duplicitous signage from one end to the other – seriously, there are so many signs praising his glorious leadership that you begin to think you’re in North Korea, which in many ways has proven to be not all that far from the truth here in Teabagistan.  I sincerely doubt the election will change anything – to be honest, even if the voters choose to throw him out (a vanishingly remote possibility, given the level of obtuseness and bull-headed reactionary anger on full display every time one points out the obvious damage that man has done to this state) the fact is that the GOP counts the votes in Wisconsin and their math has proven to be incredibly suspect since Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came to power.  Look for an announced margin of victory within 0.5% of the declared victory in his recall election, and then look for a blisteringly vicious campaign of slander and lies should anyone dare to challenge it.  Because MURCA!

9. With any luck we will have our bathroom back by tomorrow.  The old tub is gone, the new shower stall is mostly in, and soon we will be presentable for company once again.  With any luck the cat will then stop freaking out and come down from the ceiling where she has been stuck ever since our old neighbor Adam – our go-to guy for projects like this when we want them done right, as opposed to having me do them – fired up the Sawzall.  Maybe we should have trimmed her claws before this project started.  Oh well.  Hindsight.

Friday, October 31, 2014


And so we reach an even dozen.

Lauren loves her birthday.  Loves it with the heat of a thousand suns.  She looks forward to it all year, and as soon as it is over she starts looking forward to the next one.

This is a difficult thing in a family that by and large tends to glide right by birthdays without noticing too much.  I’ve forgotten my own birthday more often than not over the last couple of decades.

This year she has reached the point in her life where friends and events are beginning to take over, and she asked us to celebrate it next weekend when she had more time.  So there will be a party then, with the usual sorts of things, and we will have a good time.  Tonight however there will be costumes and friends and trick-or-treating, and there is only so much you can do at once really.

But it is her birthday today, our Halloween girl.  And she is right – it should be celebrated.

Happy birthday, Lauren.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Look at All Those Zeros

My car hit 100,000 miles last night.

It had been approaching this milestone for a while now, as I drove back and forth to Mid-Range Campus, and even just the usual day in and day out running around that one does added far more miles than I would have ever thought possible if I weren’t already used to it.  I am consistently amazed at how much I drive just to run errands around town.  Sometimes I think that all I really need out of life is a comfortable mattress and a decent car, as I spend about half my time in one or the other of those places.

Last night was another one of those Performing Arts things that I supervise – a talk given by one of the Home Campus faculty members on the subject of Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies I have mostly never seen.  The only Hitchcock movie I’ve ever watched all the way through was The Birds, which I saw when I was about 8 over at my friend Nick’s house one Saturday afternoon.  It made an impression, let me tell you.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of Psycho, and I inherited from my grandmother a book of creepy short stories that was put out in the late 1960s under Hitchcock’s label (“The kind of rock Alfie digs always has a death date on it!”).  He wrote an introduction to it, and his picture is painted on the cover.  He’s riding a motorcycle with a gravestone in the sidecar, in case you didn’t catch the tagline the first time. 

The Sixties: you had to be there.

But as far as the movies go there is a reason why I was once described as “cinematically illiterate” and that reason is still valid.

I don’t have to do a whole lot for these talks – I show up early, straighten out the room, get the signs up so people know where to go, and then greet people when they come.  I also give a half-minute introduction letting people know what other things we’re doing, and then I sit back and enjoy.  Then I lock up when it’s over.  It was a nice talk, and I learned a few things.  So it was an evening well spent that way.

The odometer turned over just as I hit the driveway to Home Campus on the way in.  I got to watch it flip over, although that was kind of anticlimactic.  So many things are these days.  The digital odometers in the new cars change instantly rather than slowly rolling over the way the old analogue ones used to do – “Look, kids!  There go the 9s and here come the 0s!” – and they have a slot there for the 1 so it ends up saying “100,000” rather than “00000” like the old ones.  It’s not the fresh start that it once was.  Still, there you go.  Kind of cool anyway.

I don’t remember what we did when the station wagon hit that milestone a few years back.  I’m sure we did something, if nothing more than just saying, “Huh, there it goes.”  You can’t let that sort of thing pass completely unnoticed, after all.

The only one of these rollovers I recall clearly was the one in the 1964 Chevy that we got from my grandparents when I was a kid.  That was an ocean liner of a vehicle, with bench seats that could hold an entire baseball team and room for several concession stands in the trunk.  It was metallic turquoise and did not need a key to start – you just twisted the flanges surrounding the keyhole and it fired right up.  It was a great car for a family.

When it got right up on 100,000 miles we all piled into it and drove around until the 9s disappeared and the 0s took their place.

Things felt different somehow, after that.

I’m not really sure what’s going to happen now with my car.  New cars are much better engineered than they used to be so hitting this milestone is expected rather than surprising now.  And it should last about that long again, if all goes well.  So for all the 0s and talk of milestones, it’s pretty much just another day.

But with more zeros.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


We’re getting closer to Halloween, which means that Lauren is slowly reaching a boiling point.

It’s her birthday, after all, and Lauren takes her birthday very seriously.  “We should think of something special to do!” she’s been saying for weeks now.  “I will only turn twelve once in my lifetime!”  Which is true, as far as it goes, although the same could be said for any particular day.  She does not really appreciate me pointing this out, but that is what parents are for – to prepare children for the world.

Fortunately, she has decided that she would like to have her birthday a week after her actual birthday, as it gives her time to get all the planning done.  We’re good with that.

Now we can focus on Halloween.

And one of the traditions which the girls have happily taken over from us entirely these days is the carving of the pumpkin.  Or, pumpkins, as there are multiple girls and therefore there must be multiple pumpkins.

We were driving home from a family event yesterday when we passed one of those roadside pumpkin stands that one sees in rural areas – sixty or seventy thousand pumpkins (by my rough estimate) surrounding an honor box where you can deposit money when you’ve made your selections.  They chose a couple of likely looking pumpkins, we deposited the correct change, and away we went.

Today was carving day.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

They took their pumpkins out to the back and set about slicing, dicing, and conducting unauthorized medical experiments, most of which seemed to involve some kind of brain surgery.

Eventually designs emerged, and now the finished pumpkins are guarding our house – keeping away the evil spirits which lurk in our neighborhood trying to convince us to vote for various candidates.  Whose bright idea was it to put election day so close to Halloween anyway?

These are Tabitha’s.

And this one is Lauren’s.

I figure we’re safe now.