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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Lump in the Python: From School to Work

The lump in the python is me- slowly getting pushed through the long gut of life. Although I am comfortably poor, I am unhappy with the way my education and career have turned out so far. This essay explores the reasons why. I had initially planned on writing a more general essay full of facts and figures about the various flaws in the US public school system. Later, I decided it would more interesting to talk about the few ups and many downs I had with it. Plus it would be less work for me. My hope is that I prevent others from ending up in the same hole.

The mouth of the python was preschool, which I was in from about age 4 to 5. I don't remember learning anything, although I vaguely remember some lessons about colors and shapes. I have yet to figure out why exactly this needs to be taught. Plenty of people never went to preschool and learned that stuff just fine. It's not like it takes a lot of work, even for a 4 year old, to understand what "blue" means. But it was fun to play with the toys. Even at that young age, I disliked school. I caused a commotion one day when I managed to escape and walk all the way home without the teacher noticing. I can understand why my parents put me there. They both had to work, so someone had to watch me and my siblings. And as for the poor teacher, I hope I did not traumatize too badly with my disappearing act. 

Next came kindergarten. I remember being taught about letters, numbers, and the calendar, but it wasn't new for me. I was mostly literate before kindergarten because my parents read to me. Thanks Mom and Dad! I am convinced that early reading is the foundation of successful learning.

And then 1st grade came. This is when it really became a grind- literally. My hand was cramped from practicing the letters and I wore out countless erasers. I had and still have bad handwriting. It used to be so bad that the teacher thought something was wrong with my brain. Others agree with that diagnosis for reasons unrelated to fine motor skills. But the teacher was very nice and saw that I had a good memory and vocabulary. This eventually got me put into the "gifted & talented" classes- more on that later. 

2nd and 3rd grade were kind of a blur. This was when I began using computers regularly. It's good that schools do this, although the computers were basically just toys for us students. This was also about the time I started lugging around text books. Boring, heavy, text books. I am always amazed when I look into a typical textbook and see that it has dozens of co-authors. I would think one educated adult could write a book explaining arithmetic, which hasn't changed a whole lot in the past few hundred years. And yet, every few years there's a new edition written by a committee of teachers.
How many teachers does it take to change a light bulb? 

I remember we spent 2 weeks or so learning about dinosaurs, which I was already an expert on. It's good that there are so many books about dinosaurs. They're a great way to get kids to read. I brought in a model of a dinosaur skeleton and the teacher used the the shadows of the pieces to make a much bigger version. That was really cool. The other kids helped paint and assemble it. We took a vote for the name. My suggestion was "Red Claw" and it won the vote. 

I will take a brief detour to talk a little about the other school- Sunday School. From what I can gather, parents make their kids go in the hope they will acquire good morals. I cannot see what forced singing and weird stories have to do with morals. People learn how to act by watching the others around them. If you want your kids to have good morals, show by example. No amount of Sunday School will fix the damage from bad role models. I never liked it and was very happy when I no longer had to go. 

Starting in 3rd grade, I got placed in the special enrichment class. I have complained about school being a one-size-fits-all straight jacket, but I must give credit to the teachers and administrators who tried tailor-fit something for me. It was way better than regular class. We did a lot of puzzles and games. I remember we read Homer's Odyssey and acted out some of the scenes. That was much more fun than long division. That lasted until the end of 6th grade about. I was placed because I got a high score on an IQ test. I don't know what it was nor do I care. I don't think IQ is very important. What is important is being good at something that you can make a job of. And if you enjoy too, that is the best of all. 

My Achilles heel became apparent around 4th grade. I started having trouble with math. I think the problem was I got so used to giving quick answers from memory that I tried to do the same thing with math problems. It took me a few years to figure out that math is a process and that to get the right answer, you must break it into steps. I was lucky that my teachers didn't let me skate by with it. One teacher in particular rather bluntly told me that my math skills were awful and that I was smart enough to get better. That's the key to good coaching- point out a true weakness, then offer encouragement. I took his advice and greatly improved. I improved so much that I was later able to get a free ride to college and got my engineering degree in 4 years flat. More on that later.

I had 2 main after school activities: scouting & karate. I did scouting from age 7 to 18. I liked the camping trips and learning various practical things. Earning badges and such was fun at first, but later it just seemed like a distraction. Ditto for the uniforms. And always with the signatures- do these things, get a signature, get a badge. Gets a bit dull after 100 times. In retrospect, I would have preferred to just do stuff rather than try to track everything. 

Karate was fun and good exercise. I don't think it's very good for actual defense. It's way easier and a lot smarter to avoid fights, and when they're unavoidable, it's better just to have a weapon. Also, injuries are common in karate- you risk hurting yourself while trying to learn how not to get hurt. I gave it up after a moderate injury. Nonetheless, I don't regret the time I spent on it. 

In 5th grade, I started playing the trumpet. I got pretty good at it and kept it up for a few years. Unfortunately, it was one of the many, many things I learned that did nothing for my career. There is a philosophy that children should be exposed to many things in school so they can become "well-rounded". I disagree strongly with this. There is not much benefit in being mediocre at anything. It's fine to try many things, but the focus should always be on what you enjoy and have talent for. You have to try many things to find what you like. And once you find them, you need to drop the other stuff. 

In 6th grade, I played Scrooge in theatrical version of "A Christmas Carol". That was fun and it was neat to see how the class worked together to make it happen. Some students made the sets, props, and costumes; others were actors or stage hands. I had the most lines to memorize and it was a lot of work to get it all down. In school, I took countless quizzes and tests and filled out forests of notebook paper and forgot it all. But things like being in a play are what I remember.  

Speaking of useless things, I spent absurd amounts of time in school memorizing trivia. The most outrageous example was in 7th grade when we had to memorize the 57 prepositions in alphabetical order. What could possibly be the use in memorizing a list of words I already know? I've been on a dozen job interviews and there was never a single question about prepositions. In fact, in many of the places I've worked, people don't know how to use apostrophes. And don't even get my started about diagramming sentences. I had whole classes that were wastes of time. I remember my state history class consisted of little except memorizing the names of the counties, trivia about them, and their location on a map. I challenge the teachers the world to name a single activity in the life of a typical adult that bears the slightest resemblance to filling in a map from memory. School work is supposed to be preparation for life, not a contest to see who can dream up the most insane way to keep children busy.  The only upshot was that I won a free trip to the state capital and some cool trinkets because of my talent for cramming trivia. I also received the title of Knight of the Golden Horseshoe. I have been sorely tempted to put that on my resume. 

Another tangent: reading assignments. It is a sad fact that many people do not like to read and school is a big reason why. Teaching a child to hate reading by assigning boring books is nearly a form of child abuse. I cannot think of a single example of someone who became a man of letters as a result of being punished with lots of reading. 

Grades 7 through 10 were pretty meh overall. I was part of an after school club about creative problem solving in 8th grade, I had some fun with that. The only parts of school I enjoyed were the projects that had some kind of product at the end- a big dinosaur skeleton, a play, etc. Everything else was read/memorize something, regurgitate it, get a paper back with a number on it, throw the paper in the garbage. Repeat 10,000 times. I am hard-pressed to think of a single example in my job history that resembles the typical cycle of school work. 

Speaking of jobs, I got my first one in 11th grade. I was a bus boy. Fun fact: there are no good jobs whose titles contain the word "boy". Over the next 6 years, I also did odd jobs on a farm, did grunt work at Wal-Mart, more grunt work in a factory and a loading dock, and a work-study program with a professor. That one was the most interesting, although the subject matter was mostly over my head. After that, I decided I did not want to get a PhD. 

I was not very excited about college. I went because I had a free ride and couldn't think of anything better to do. It was a practical move and it has kept a roof over my head, so I don't regret it too much.
I studied chemical engineering because I liked chemistry in high school and there will always be a need for engineers. Unfortunately, I have no particular passion for engineering and the engineering jobs I've managed to get have little to do with chemistry. And there it is in a nutshell. I spent all this time studying all these things, and I've only ever used a small fraction of it in my various jobs. For me, it was just far too much time to spend on something that hasn't been that important for me. 

And as for the argument that children must go to school to be socialized, I say the social skills you learn in school are very similar to the ones people learn in prison. It is depressing to think of all the ways school and prison are alike: it is an involuntary confinement in a government building that lasts for many years. I remember being asked by a school psychiatrist in 7th grade what I would change about school. My answer was "mandatory attendance". If had been able to only go to school when I felt like it and do only the things I wanted, I would have loved school.

I made one pretty good move decision after college. That was joining the Peace Corps. I served as math teacher in Tanzania. I liked teaching and was pretty good at it. The downside was that Tanzanian schools are even more prison-like than US schools. I didn't like the authoritarian nature of it, but I was glad that I was able to help my students. I thought about teaching in the US, but there are so many hoops to jump through, I got discouraged. In between engineering jobs, I did manage to make a fair amount of money as a tutor. Unfortunately, it was not enough to live on.

I also tried stand-up comedy, which I did as a hobby for about 4 years. Much as in music, a lot of people try to make careers out of comedy, but very few succeed. 

I got my first engineering job about 10 months after returning from the Peace Corps. It was a manufacturing job for a company that made a special kind of glass. I took it because it was the first offer I got and I figured any job is better than no job. 

I used to have a nice head of dark brown hair. After 2 years of working in manufacturing, it was streaked with white. All this before I turned 30. If you enjoy working with pushy, excitable people who freak out at the drop of a hat, manufacturing is the perfect place for you. I can barely stand such people: balding, overweight, middle-age men with their hands perched on their hips; constantly jabbering about the "verbage" of the "action items" and "red flags" and people being run over by buses at the end of the day. It's torture.

My laid back attitude doesn't help either. Every engineering boss I've had will remark within days of me being on the job that I look "tired and unhappy" or am "dragging" my feet. I think the problem is much as I try to be polite, I can't help but see them as annoying, nervous idiots. And they pick up on that. Even though I get good results, my bosses have always cared much more about my attitude.

And then the work itself is super boring. Make a few calls, send some emails, crunch some numbers, and that's about it. I doubt very much I spend much more than 2 hours actually working in a typical day. The rest is meetings, which are almost always a complete waste of time and waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. Waiting for parts to arrive. Waiting for a technician to show up. Waiting for a meeting to start. And the worst part is that while waiting, I have to pretend to be busy. I would rather chop fire wood all day.

The good news is I think I found something I enjoy and I have talent for: writing. I wrote a science book in the Peace Corps and got a lot of satisfaction out of that. Lately, I've been published many times in the letters to the editor section of my local paper. So the only piece that I still need to find is someone who will pay me to write.

I think I'll wrap up with some advice. First, try many things. Then stick only with the things you enjoy and are good at. Don't worry about the other stuff. As Shakespeare said, "study what you most affect". Listen to criticism to find out what you are good at. Let your heart be a compass and your head be a map. Your emotions will tell you the direction and your intelligence will show the path.

Good luck. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'll respect the police when they deserve it

A recent letter expressed concern about the negative attention police across the country have been receiving lately. To that I say, it's about time the police get some negative attention. 

Police abuse is not rare. In Chicago, where I used to live, the city has paid out around $50 million a year in compensation for police brutality incidents. Not a dime of that came from the police- it was the taxpayers who were forced to pay. And only in cases of exceptional incompetence are cops ever fired. A Chicago cop was fired recently for shooting a dog in front of its 6-year old owner. The police had been called to help return the dog home. 

In Hawaii, undercover police officers petitioned lawmakers to keep an exemption that allows them to legally have sex with prostitutes. Apparently the only way to prevent people from having sex with prostitutes is for the police to have sex with them first.

In Georgia, a recent SWAT raid left a toddler with severe burns after the police accidentally tossed a flash bang grenade in his crib. All this just to catch a low-level drug dealer. No drugs were found and the suspect was not even at home. None of the cops involved in raid were charged with a crime. At least one of the deputies involved in the raid had the decency to resign.

In Michigan, homicide detective Alex Vinson was caught wearing a watch taken from a murder victim. He was suspended, but will most likely keep his job. In the unlikely event he is fired, he will most likely be free to work for another police department. 

In California during the Dorner manhunt last year, police shot at a truck with 2 innocent people over a 100 times. 25 minutes later, another group of police shot up another car without warning. Neither vehicle matched the suspect's. The injured people were paid a $4.2 million settlement by the city of Los Angeles. The police chief said he would discipline the cops, but gave no more details. 

Nationwide, the police kill over 5,000 dogs a year, despite the fact that no cop has been killed by a dog in 50 years. In fact, garbage collectors are more likely to die on the job than cops. Somehow mail carriers, pizza delivery drivers, and others manage to do their jobs without killing dogs. 

Yes, there are bad apples in every bunch. That is not the issue. The issue is that when the bad apples are police, they are rarely thrown out of the barrel.  That needs to change. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Difference Between Government & the Mafia

Certain irresponsible persons have compared the government to the mafia. This comparison is mistaken and insulting to the honorable, hard-working members of the mafia.

In the first place, unlike the government, the mafia usually makes a profit from its various schemes. This is because the mafia strives to provide goods and services that people actually want. The mafia understands business. They realize that if they take too much from you, they lose in the long run.

The differences don't end there. Unlike the government, when you pay protection money to the mafia, you actually get protection. The mafia will also sell you a gun if you want one, unlike the government which generally strives to disarm people.

The mafia are tolerant. They have no problem with drugs, alcohol, prostitution, or gambling. In fact, they happily provide many of these services. They also give loans to people with bad credit, although their loan default policies can be rather strict.

The mafia has a sense of honor. Mafia men who screw up are punished severely. They keep their promises. The mafia only kill as a last resort and they only kill those who cross them.

The difference is clear- all governments commit violence and theft on a massive scale while restricting freedom. The mafia does not.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Keynesian Klaptrap

John Maynard Keynes was the father of an economic theory which has been dominant in the US for over 70 years. The gist of his idea is that the government can promote prosperity by cutting taxes and increasing spending. He was so certain of this idea that in his book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" he wrote:

"If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is."

This quote goes a long way in explaining the US government's insane spending policies.. American politicians are following the advice of a man who literally said we should throw money in a hole.
Of course, politicians are smart enough not to quote that part, so instead they call for "stimulus", which is the Latin word for a stick used to drive an animal ahead.

Keynes believed the key to prosperity was maintaining consistent demand, but that is false. Prosperity is the result of saving and producing, not borrowing and spending. Improvements come from capital, capital comes from savings, savings come from under-consumption. If no one saves, there is no money to borrow in order to build something new or start a business.

Unfortunately, inflation means you lose money if you save it. The dollar has lost about half its value during my lifetime. The only cure for inflation is money backed by gold or silver. It is not a coincidence that there was very little inflation in the US  until Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971.

I agree with Keynes when he said that in the long run we are all dead. However, I would prefer not to die as a result of economic ruin. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Defunct Atlas Missile Silo near Vernon, Texas

The site is open to the public if you're willing to climb over a fence.

Latitude:    34-21-44
Longitude:    099-19-27

Satellite view:

Quonset hut

Silo doors

Entrance & gate

Friday, September 5, 2014

How to Understand the Middle East

For most Americans, the Middles East is an exotic and mysterious place. Like the Persian carpets made there, it is a complex weave of nations, tribes, languages, and religions. And like a Persian carpet, you can't pull on one thread without pulling on many others.

However, if you study the history of the region, certain patterns emerge. I studied the history and cultures of the region for many years until I had my eureka moment. I had discovered what I call the Grand Unified Theory of the Middle East. It is a unifying principle which explains every event there since the beginning of history. Once you learn this theory, you will instantly understand everything that happens there.

Here is my Grand Unified Theory of the Middle East: Everyone hates everyone.

The Arabs and Persians hate each other. The Turks and the Kurds hate each other.The Sunni and the Shia hat each other. The Bedouins and the Berbers hate each other. The Muslims and Christians hate each other. And all of them hate the Jews. The Jews, not wanting to be outdone in the hating game, boldly up the ante by hating both themselves and other Jews, mostly because they are either too Jewish or not Jewish enough.

Could this geopolitical dumpster fire possibly get any worse? Yes it can! Democracy in the Middle East, where it exists at all, tends to get into rut. Generally, there is a two-party system which is a fierce duel between the Islamic Party of Islam for Muslims against the Very Very Very Islamic Party. In such a situation, it is difficult to find common ground.

So what should the US do? I suggest treating the place like a nest of killer bees. The farther away you are, the less likely you are to get stung. And if you insist on getting close and throwing rocks at the hive, throw really big rocks. In 1982, Reagan withdrew US forces from Lebanon after a truck bomb killed 241 Marines. He said:

“Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle. Perhaps the idea of a suicide car bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry to Paradise was so foreign to our own values and consciousness that it did not create in us the concern for the marines’ safety that it should have."