Saturday, September 26, 2009

When Pigs Fly

Is it just my university or is everyone going crazy over the H1N1 flu? All this while the Center for Disease Control tells us that this particular flu may not be as bad as the regular flu. So why are we close to a panic?

Isn’t it possible that people with mundane lives are desperately seeking some drama. It’s either that, are the world as we know it is half way down the storm drains of hell. I think some people would prefer a little catastrophic disaster than continue their boring lives.

So, the university has published disaster plans, flu advisories, H1N1 warning letters, and my personal favorite; an email that tells us to develop a three-deep roster in case key personnel become ill.

This is several impossible things. First, that a university strapped for cash would have three people capable of doing the same job. Second, if there were two people in the department that could do my job, I’d admit it. And probably most important, if this flu season turns out to be so bad that the first two people on the roster were sick, the third listed person would be willing to come to work.

If that many of the faculty are out sick, the remaining healthy ones will be hiding under their beds with a pair of panty hose over their heads in lieu of surgical masks.

Still I want to do my part.  I have two work study students; the Munchkins. One works in the lab in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Today, at lunch, while the two Munchkins overlapped, I called them into my office and explained our departmental health safety plan.

“If you think you might have any of the symptoms of the flu,” I said, “you still need to come to work. Just place a plastic bag over your head and secure it firmly around your neck with duct tape. Be sure the bag is clear, the university has told me several times they believe in transparency.”

Then, in case either of them actually got the flu, I gave them both a short list of the faculty office doorknobs I wanted them to spit on. No one can say that I am not prepared.

These plans won’t work and I know it. You probably cannot count on the average Munchkin to do her patriotic duty to prevent the flu from spreading. I’ll bet you anything they won’t wear a bag. I wonder how long they can hold their breath.

If there is a flu epidemic, the faculty are doomed. Each and every student, at least in my opinion, carries more germs than an open trench sewer in Belize. And they all sit there; mouths open, staring at their instructors. Each of those mouths is a virus cannon just waiting for a cough to fire their deadly salvo at the innocent instructor standing helplessly at the front of the room. We need body armor.

While I won’t get body armor, the university has plans to place large bottles of hand sanitizer at strategic locations. I am sure that someone, besides me, has already thought of sabotaging those bottles by adding a little super glue. That would almost make the entire epidemic worth while.

And you can count on me to believe this nonsense just as soon as pigs fly. Or in this case, swine flew.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

21st Century Technology with 18th Century People

Have you noticed that the world we live in has changed dramatically? The future is now; all around us we have the technology that 20 years ago was only available in science fiction. This technology would be fantastic if it wasn’t being used by cavemen. We have Version 2.0 gadgets with Version 1.0 people.

It’s not a lack of education; the people around me have the kind of crazy ideas that could only be the result of higher education. These are people with a great engine under the hood, but it’s a real shame they don’t have their hands on the steering wheel. How else can you explain why a colleague of mine was recently found standing in front of the copier "creating" blank paper by copying his last remaining blank page?

Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology sufficiently advanced was indistinguishable from magic. For my colleague, the copier must have been the supernatural.

Email has to be the best example of good technology used badly. Sure, I get a few good emails every day. When you consider that Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he couldn’t send a message 15 miles, it is remarkable that I can receive messages from around the world almost instantaneously. Somewhere along the line, however, we over did it. I get hundreds of ridiculous emails every week, and I’m not even talking about the spam.

At one time, I used to believe the least democratic device ever invented was a jukebox. A room full of people could be enjoying some peace and quiet only to have interrupted by a moron with a quarter. The musical taste of the biggest jackass in the room could override the desires of everyone as long as the jackass had two bits. I realize now that email is worse; one person can send 200 people an email asking the bureaucratic equivalent of where your lap goes when you stand up. And each and every one of us has no choice except to answer. There is not enough time in the day to answer every email. Email is not work, but has sure as hell replaced it.

Cell phones have to be just about as bad. Do we really have to be in constant contact with each other? The first time I got a phone call while rabbit hunting, I damn near shot my phone. Why do I pay to carry a box that delivers a steady stream of bad news and intrudes on my privacy wherever I go? Why do we want to stay in touch 24 hours a day, when we obviously have so little to say? I can text, twitter, instant message, facebook, email, and call my wife. And presumably tell her the great events that have transpired in the two hours since I left the house. News so monumental that it could not wait the 8 hours until I return?

Back when I sold computers for a living, my service technicians used to be amused by how infrequently they actually had to work on anything when they went on a service call. This was called the “No Screwdriver Required” call. The two biggest complaints were “It don’t Print” and “It don’t work.” We had codes for this on the service tickets: IDP and IDW. Usually IDW meant the electrical cord was not plugged in while IDP meant the printer was not online. Privately, we called these “Operator Headspace Errors” or if we could be overheard, ID-10-T malfunctions.

All of this is probably not anyone’s fault. No one understands the machines we all own. We all have thermostats, Ipods, and home entertainment systems that would baffle a NASA engineer. Why did my newest computer come without a manual but my new blender has an operators instruction booklet 70 pages long? My oven has features Julia Child never dreamed of and probably wouldn’t want.

There is probably no real solution for any of this. I doubt we will start school courses in beginning technology in elementary school, if for no other reason than a lack of teachers who understand the subject. This brings us back to Arthur C. Clarke and his quote about advanced technology being magic. Have you noticed that the people we used to call “geeks”’ are now called “wizards” on a regular basis?

I think my university should just run with this idea. Change the name of the engineering school to “Hogwarts School of Industrial Magic.” Enrollment would go up. Issue every student a new wand/screwdriver. At least we would have more wizards around. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why is the Grass Greener?

Michael Pollan once described Nature as a war between grass and trees. Agriculture was man’s enlisting in that war on the side of grass. It’s a brilliant concept, but in this war, my family has always been collaborators.

I don’t mean we love trees, though without a doubt we do. My parents once put a house on a lot at a strange angle just to avoid cutting down a few small trees. My wife and I have a fairly running battle about cutting a few limbs off trees in our yard. No, by collaboration, I mean my family has a constant love/hate affair with our lawn.

My father loved a great big lawn, partly because he loved croquet, and partly because he never had to mow the damn grass. The only part of this chore my father enjoyed was the lawnmower. He loved to find them, buy them, and then kill them. Dad only bought used mowers, a collection as large as his made new mowers impossible. He would read the want ads carefully, looking for a great bargain, then drag the new machine home in his pickup.

Dad would not stop shopping just because we already had several mowers; we needed a fairly constant supply of new mowers. There was always a wide assortment and not a single damn one of them could be counted on to run. For the life of me, I cannot understand how the same man who maintained four engine bombers during the war could not keep a two cycle lawnmower running long enough to last a summer. If the Army Air Corps had maintained their planes in this same manner, this blog would be written in Japanese.

New, or mostly new, lawnmowers arrived on a regular basis; healthy, vigorous, and sturdy. Within a few weeks, they would begin to cough, smoke, and shake. Obviously, they had caught the disease. Unfortunately, the disease was uniformly fatal, none recovered. All too soon, they would join the elephant’s graveyard collection behind the garage.

Still, there was always at least one working mower. I was never lucky enough to escape the mind numbingly boring and useless task of giving our yard a haircut. How many hours have been wasted by men going around and around in a circle just to make grass a little shorter? My father had a very large, and mostly square, field with trees around the edges. That large empty area took me hours to mow while I baked in the sun.

One day, I had a sudden inspiration. At the time, the working mower was self propelled. I laid the mower on its side, and then carefully measured the width of the blade. Then I drove four stakes into the ground as close to the middle of the field as I could. This part has to be done carefully; the circumference of the four stakes needs to be about 2 inches less than the width of the blade. I tied one end of a long rope to one of the stakes, the other end I tied to an eyebolt I put through the front right corner of the lawnmower chasis. Then I started the mower and let go of it.

The beauty and simplicity of the idea! It went round and round the stakes all by itself! Each rotation brought it closer and closer to the middle of the field as the ropes wound around the stakes. It was doing my work, without me! I was the first twelve year old boy ready to receive the Nobel Prize in lawn mowing.

At least until my father came home for lunch. I was sitting under a tree reading a book, occasionally glancing up at the mower working all by itself, rarely since then have I felt more contented and happy. My father was of a different mind. Simply put, he was furious.

I was committing a cardinal sin, I was not working. No part of work included sitting in the shade idly reading a book, I was violating a deeply buried legacy of the Puritan Work Ethic; working effectively meant you had to suffer. And didn’t I know how dangerous this was? That mower could have cut its own rope, escaped and gone rampaging through the neighborhood. The mower moved about as fast as a crippled hearse horse and I would have had to fill the tank a few times to reach the nearest neighbor, but still… My father obviously rescued Austin from being mowed to death.

I dismantled my invention and went back to mowing in the sun. Somewhere during the countless hours of standing behind that mower I undoubtedly came to the conclusion that someday I would earn my living reading books and not working in the sun.

I was only half right. Today, I don’t have to sit under a tree to read. My office is air conditioned. And I make my two sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One mow the yard.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Recently, I asked one of my classes if they knew what Juneteenth was. I was fairly happy to learn that no one had any idea what the date commemorated. This is New Mexico, not Texas, but the state border is not that far away. At long last, the event is beginning to leave our public consciousness.

Normally, I’m not thrilled when gross examples of public stupidity are on display. Jay Leno used to do a bit called Jay Walking where he would walk down a public street and ask people the kind of questions a hamster on crack should be able to answer. It’s a funny bit on television, but it is too much like my job. I’ve had more than one student ask, “Which side was the Confederacy? The North or the South?”

Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. The Civil War was over and the day before, General Granger and several thousand Federal troops had arrived to take possession of the state. While the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863, no one told the slaves. Cruelly, no one told them even after the war was over until General Granger showed up. I imagine a few newly freed slaves may have been a little unhappy with their former owners.

“What do you mean? You forgot to tell me?!”

And for many years, Juneteenth turned into a celebration sometimes called Emancipation Day. While 31 states officially recognize the holiday, it has been pretty much forgotten.

In 1962, it was a little different. My family lived in a small town where if there were racial tensions, they were certainly invisible to a 9 year old boy. Frankly, I rarely saw black people, few lived in our town. I can’t remember anyone ever mentioning them. Then one day, my parents had some sort of business in Ft. Worth. I begged and begged and finally was allowed to accompany them. Even better, I was to be dropped at the Ft. Worth Zoo while they took care of their business.

I loved the Ft. Worth Zoo. This was my favorite place on earth. ELEPHANTS! MONKEYS! LIONS! I can still get excited just thinking about the place, if I shut my eyes, I can still smell it. And the Ft. Worth Zoo had an amazing device. In front of each cage was a small box that looked just like a drive-in movie speaker. For $.75, you could buy a small plastic elephant that was actually a key. You inserted the elephant’s trunk into the speaker and it would activate a recording that told you all about the animal in front of you. I think my love of technology started right then. I still have that key.

This was an innocent age, my parents thought nothing of dropping me off at the zoo while they went downtown on business. What could happen to a small child in a public place? Nothing but fun, lots of fun. I ate popcorn and put my elephant key in every speaker box at least twice. And with my trusty Timex watch, I met my parents at the entrance hours later. What a great day.

When my parents picked me up, I could tell they were a little apprehensive. Had I had a good time? Did anything happen? Was I okay? My parents had forgotten the date. When they got downtown, they saw almost no white people, and only then did they remember it was Juneteenth. In Texas, in 1962, black people still celebrated the day. This was the segregated South that I didn’t really live in, knew very little about.

On Juneteenth, Blacks could go to movie theatre and not have to sit in the balcony. They went to parks and had picnics. And they went to the zoo. Evidently, by contrast, whites stayed home and hid under their beds. I had sort of noticed that I was the only white kid at the zoo. It really didn’t concern me much, there were a lot of black people around, but they weren’t nearly as interesting as elephants.

Today, I think it is a date that needs to be remembered for what it was, and I’m happy that It is no longer needed to be celebrated for what it is.