Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tipping Point

My wife said she was intrigued to find out that "they don't tip in Italy." The question of who "they" are and who "we" are starts to get a little blurred here, but pronoun trouble aside, we discover that it is a widely held belief that leaving a gratuity is unnecessary in certain parts of the world. Italy would be one of those places, if you are to believe the Internet posted wisdom of world travelers. Then again, some have suggested that though it is not required, it is encouraged, especially when service is exceptional. This is a little confusing, since I thought that was the purpose of tipping in the first place.
Or not. I am generally a pretty soft touch when it comes to leaving a tip. I have, on occasion, been overly generous or comparatively stingy in my own gratuitousness. This has been primarily because of poor math skills and lack of concentration at that moment of truth: putting an amount on that little line or laying down the proper number of bills and coins. Math is hard. The principles of tipping are not. Leaving an extra bit of money as a reward for someone doing you a service is completely accepted in certain countries and many venues. Before I got married, I never tipped a Skycap because I was pretty much a one-bag-carry-on-customer. I wasn't in the habit of tipping maids in hotels because I didn't ever see them. They were simply part of the door hanger signaling system for which I had specific focus on the "Do Not Disturb" part.
And yes, part of me was consumed with the notion of just who deserves a tip and who does not. Waitrons do. Maids and hair stylists do. Generally speaking, if someone is touching you or your stuff, you probably want to tip them. But I don't tip my dentist. He's got his hands in my mouth and I trust him with all of my teeth and that he washed before he set about poking and prodding. But I don't leave a couple bucks on the instrument tray on the way out. I tip the guy who parks my car at a fancy restaurant, but I don't push a five in the hand of the kid who hands me my burger and fries. Maybe I should, considering the kind of business I do with kids who hand me burgers and fries.
It's what I wonder about: Who deserves to put a tip jar on their counter? On their desk? At their work station? But don't ask Mr. Pink. We already know how he feels about the subject.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Do You Think They Call It "Dope?"

Whoever said "Cheaters never prosper" didn't know Lance Armstrong. Mister Livestrong  made a career out of it. And while a good portion of the rest of the globe awaits the next installment of the unfolding drama that is "Deflategate," Lance took the opportunity to show up and remind us all what real cheating looks like. 
In case you've forgotten, Lance Armstrong was once the winner of the Tour de France seven times. In a row. It was an awesome accomplishment made possible, we find out later, by cheating. Through a series of injections and transfusions and chemicals we now call "PEDs," Lance and his team of altered supermen took the biking world by storm in the late twentieth century and into the new millennium. It took nearly a decade, but eventually this house of cards came tumbling down. Lance Armstrong is now the winner of nothing much more than a public shaming by Oprah Winfrey. At least James Frey showed a little humility when he got caught lying to the most powerful woman with her own magazine. Lance? Not so much. 
"If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive, I would probably do it again. People don’t like to hear that." In this case, "it" would be doping and the "I" stands for Lance. You might argue that there is no "I" in Lance, but I would counter by saying that that is the only thing there is in Lance Armstrong. It is truly a shame that this person that was once held up as a standard for living, nay surviving, should have been brought so very low. Now he's just a poster child for arrogant cheats. Speaking of himself in a mix of tenses and persons, Lance Armstrong continued: "I would want to change the man that did those things, maybe not the decision, but the way he acted," he said. "The way he treated people, the way he couldn't stop fighting. It was unacceptable, inexcusable." 
And his tires were probably underinflated too. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015


My son downloaded and installed Windows 10 on his machine. He did this after he heard that it was available on one of the corners of social medial which he hangs. The good news is that it worked very well, and it has done everything that has been asked of it. So far. Do I know if this will last? If it doesn't, will he come to me, looking for a solution? I'm not sure what to tell him if he does.
Updates are a vital and ever-present part of the circle of cyber life. I tend to ignore most calls from my task bar to check this or that program. I believe that, for the most part I should dance with the one what brung me. If that sounds a little backwards and country, that may explain a lot about my approach to technology. I am the guy who tells his students about the punch cards he had to make in order to use the one computer at his high school. The one that was only available after school, and if you got a card wrong or out of sequence, you missed your turn and you had to wait until there was another clear hour of computing time. I don't know why I tell kids this. Probably for the same reason I feel compelled to use the word "brung" in order to sound more colloquial. Nevertheless, I am expressly familiar with the history of computers, having played a tiny part in the inception of the age. I programmed in Basic, and learned DOS prompts in order to make the terminals function at the video store I ran back in college. The idea that there was something other than an operating system was foreign to me. That's about the time the Macs started showing up.
They were so very cute and likable. They talked to you in ways that didn't seem like robot overlords. I didn't own one, since the idea of a "personal computer" seemed too incredibly space age for me. I stuck with my electric typewriter for at least another five years after Commodore 64s and the like began to become pervasive. I did not own a PC until I moved to California. That seems very odd to say now: "I did not own PC until I moved to California." When I needed to use a computer, I went to my mother's house, where I found a big, strong DELL that she used for her accounting business. I typed my little stories in there, played a game of Captain Comic, and I was on my merry way. I didn't concern myself with the maintenance of her machine. Every so often I dropped by and moved something to or from floppy disc so that I could pretend to be computer literate, but I was faking. Big time.
By the time I started teaching technology to kids, I had been the proud owner of exactly one computer. I nursed it through hard drive evolutions that eventually put it through the change from Windows 3 to Windows 98. From XP to Windows 7, neatly bypassing the reviled and stinky Vista. It was right around this time that my son began to get his fingers in the porridge. He happily engaged in all the pointing and flipping required of a touchscreen tablet running Windows 8. I watched in wonder. Somewhere in the background you could hear my wife cursing under her breath of the latest jungle cat to be stuck with the name of a Mac OS: Ocelot. Caracal. At some point over the course of any given week, one member of our family is busily replacing and/or repairing the operating system of their computer. Not because it needs to be, but because we were told to. We wouldn't want to miss out on the newest feature. Or bug. Or the opportunity to reset the clock once again to prepare to make the next step in the unending series of making things ever easier to play Tetris.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It's How You Play The Game

To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. To win a Super Bowl, you might have to deflate a few footballs. Over the the past week or two, we have heard quite a lot about how the New England Patriots may or may not have taken air out of more than just their opponents' hopes to play in the championship game. At issue are a number of footballs that were manipulated so as to give the home team a distinct advantage in case of inclement weather. It's easier to catch a ball in the wind and rain when it's not quite so full of air.
That's the stuff we get to talk about for the two weeks between the semi-finals and the finals. That, and the lingering questions about the relative merits of French Onion dip versus Guacamole. Cooler in the kitchen, or ice bucket in the living room? Carrot sticks and celery, or just bag after bag of chips? Should we flip over to the Puppy Bowl at halftime, or record the whole thing? So many choices, so little time.
Well, actually, there's a lot of time. That's kind of the thing that is working against the whole Bill Belichick/Tom Brady legacy deal. What if it turns out that, aside from winning Super Bowls, the thing these guys are really good at is manipulating the football realities. We call these "rules." If you happen to be one of the red, white and blue clad Foxboro fans, you probably see things a little differently. "Everybody uses whatever advantages they can," or more simply, "Everybody cheats." Remember "The Tuck Rule?" The Patriots used a rule that barely existed to get themselves into position to win an AFC championship, and eventually a Super Bowl. They lost a bunch of money and draft picks for using communications and surveillance outside the generally accepted framework called "the rules." They called that one "Spygate." Since then, the Patriots have not won another Super Bowl.
Now we've got "Deflategate," and this one has all the earmarks of being a world class distraction before the world class spectacle of the most watched sporting event on our corner of the globe. When it's all over, win or lose, the New England Patriots will go back to the business they know best: attempting to win games. In the meantime, the Seattle Seahawks have a player who has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for his conduct on and off the field. He was most recently asked by the NFL to pay twenty thousand dollars for grabbing his crotch after scoring a touchdown in what was a furious come from behind victory that put his team into the Super Bowl. This is approximately twenty thousand dollars more than any Patriot player, coach or equipment manager has been fined by anyone for anything. Mister Lynch was celebrating his play on the field. It should also be pointed out that he was grabbing his own crotch, not anyone else's. All the people he hit were opposing players on the way to the end zone. What he did was deemed obscene by the powers that be. This was the decision made by the National Football League. What I'm pretty sure of is this: I don't think I want them deciding the snack menu for my Super Bowl party. They probably won't suggest sausages.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tick, Tick, Tick

Remember the Doomsday clock? I do. When I was a kid, it was the stuff of nightmares for me. In my mind, it was a great big thing in a room full of scientists busily working day and night, looking up anxiously at regular intervals to see the hands moving steadily toward midnight. That was the big fear: midnight meant it was over. We were over. Civilization was finished. As a child of the sixties, the Cold War kept things pretty stressful, but the clock was actually set back in those days. When it was first put into operation back in 1947, the Atomic Scientists who made up this odd chronometer set it at seven minutes til midnight. Two years later, it moved closer when the Soviet Union (the bad guys in "Red Dawn") tested their first nuclear weapon. It got still closer when America (the good guys in "Red Dawn") decided to go ahead and build a hydrogen bomb.
And so it went. Back a few ticks. Forward a couple more. In 1991, when the Cold War was over and we had to start blaming those "breakaway republics" for the bad things that happened in the world, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to seventeen minutes to midnight. Russia began to dismantle their nuclear arsenal, and flowers began to grow in what used to be missile silos. Peace in our time. The sun shone down on us all and we sang "Kumbaya." Seventeen minutes? We were all going to live forever.
India and Pakistan started to blow up atoms in 1998, and suddenly we were back inside of ten minutes. Cue ominous music. Those flowers in the missile silo began to wilt. By 2002, we had a bigger concern than angry countries with nuclear weapons: radical factions within those angry countries with their own nuclear weapons. North Korea bumps it up still further with all their stiff-legged marching about and their willingness to blow things up underground. This was a dangerous place.
In 2010, Moscow and the United States started making noises like maybe they would just give up this whole mutually assured destruction business. That didn't last long. Two years later, tensions grew and these "Atomic Scientists" decided to extend their influence by adding in the specter of global warming. For some, this counts as science. Now, in 2015, the Doomsday Clock is as close to the end as it has been since it was set in motion nearly seventy years ago. "The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization." That's what the scientists say. The science fiction writer says: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Now if we could only close that wisdom gap. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Pushers

Keep track of the amount of time it takes you to read this post. It should count as part of your screen time for the day. It should count against your daily allowance of one hour. You read that right: one hour. That is what pundits in the business of deciding how much of everything is good for us have decided is the duration of combined peering at screens each day. Of any size. This comes to us via a "healthy kids" initiative, but who really pays attention to that kind of stuff?
In a word: Teachers. When we get fliers or assemblies that tell our kids to eat five servings of fruit each day, we go out and find a basket of oranges to drag back to our room and hand them out. When the NFL tells us that kids need sixty minutes of exercise every day, we take them out on the playground and run them until they drop. Or they need to go to the bathroom. Or get a drink of water because they are DIE-ing. When we are told that kids should limit their screen time to one hour a day, we look at them and say, "What century are you speaking from?" I ask this from the twenty-first century, not just as a teacher, but as the Computer Teacher.
Every week, I sit kids down in front of screens for fifty minutes at a time. When they're finished in my room, that leaves them with ten minutes left on their allotment for the day. Then some other clever teacher sticks a tablet or a laptop in front of them and suddenly they are over the limit. How do they expect us to find clever ways to insert learning junk into kids heads without screens?
Okay, maybe I'm hyperbolizing just a little bit. What the powers that be would like is for there to a limit on the bad things that get into our kids' heads. Video games, for example. Not the ones we play in the computer lab, where we try to match the vowel sounds with the correct letter for which we are rewarded with a song about "Backpack bear," Sometimes they get to go up to a new level, which sounds exciting until the kids begin to figure out this is just another way to trick them into learning. "When do we get to the real games?" Sorry, we won't be playing Black Ops in school.
The good news is that elementary school kids, for the most part, are still fascinated by the variety of educational software I have to offer them. This is more a credit to them than to the very patient and creative folks who are designing fresh new ways to teach kids math facts and the alphabet by pointing and clicking. They know that the really cool graphics and achievables aren't going to be found in the computer lab. They're at home in their PS4 and XBox1. They're waiting me out while we continue to encourage them to go outside and play and read books. I know the standard third grader is spending way more than one hour in front of a screen every day. So is your standard computer teacher. But every so often, I get a win: Like when that kid stops me on the way out of my room and asks, "Mister Caven, how do I get to that typing web site at home?" I write down the web address, and tell him to ask him mother before he goes online. And to eat plenty of vegetables and read a book first.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Home Away From Home

I will be finishing my eighteenth year at the same school this June. The first time I visited the campus, I ran here with my infant son in the jogging stroller just so I could have a sense of how far away it was. By the time I had pushed that stroller, as advanced and aerodynamic as it was, up the hill back to my house, I was exhausted. I have felt that way, off and on, for nearly two decades, but that isn't the only constant. For the past eighteen years, this has been the place I go for the majority of my weekdays. And the occasional weekend. It is a place where I hang my hat.
As such, I have become quite comfortable with the architecture and the layout, to the point where I know where most everything can be found, even if I don't have a key to get to it. Quite often, I get requests like, "Do you know where there is an extra desk?" I understand that I am being asked if I have an awareness of our furniture inventory as well as my willingness to help secure said desk for the classroom in question. This is sometimes a more confounding question that it might seem from the outside, since we have such a very transient student body. Almost every teacher, over the course of the year so far, has lost and then gained a student or two. Just when we thought we were operating at a desk surplus, along comes a new family with three kids filling in for the two kids who just left. That's when we find out that the only spare desk we have is in a first grade classroom and it is far too tiny to keep a growing fourth grade girl comfortable for any period of time. That's when my experience with modular furniture comes in handy.
When that fourth grader needs a taller desk, I raise it. After a month or two, when suddenly the call goes out for more first grade furniture, I might find that recently adjusted fourth grade desk empty, which means I take my screwdriver to those same legs and put them right back where they were before. It's what is known in the furniture business as job security. It reminds me of the way I used to be dispatched with a crew to the IBM plant back in the day when office furniture was my living. We would go into the customer service center and raise a workstation for an employee who had decided they wanted to be able to stand as they took calls. When we were done rolling in the tall stool on which they would perch, we knew that we would be back in a few weeks when the staff was shuffled yet again to move the work station back to standard height. There was wild talk about keeping a couple of us on site a few days a week just to be sure the comfort of the customer service group was insured. That never happened, primarily because I moved out to California and became a married guy with a teaching credential. Happily, all those mad modular furniture skills were never allowed to atrophy. Sometimes I get the urge to switch out the drawers in my desk or move the pencil tray from one side to the other, but it doesn't last long. That's because somebody always needs a new desk.