Saturday, August 28, 2010

Elect Me! I'm Not Them!

Every four years the state of New Mexico selects a new governor. Unfortunately, it is that time of year again. No one in the state will receive any peace until this election is over. The way the two candidates are acting, you would almost suspect that someone in this state cared.

Is it just my imagination or has our current governor, Bill Richardson, set a new record for being out of the state during his term? For a while he was campaigning for the presidency, but ever since he lost in the 2008 presidential primaries you get the general impression the governor has become bored with us. As I write this, Governor Richardson is in Cuba on a trade mission. Since I have no idea what this trade mission could possibly be, let me make a wild guess. New Mexico will trade green chili for pineapple, the cargo ships can sail up the Rio Grande.

It really doesn’t matter why our governor is gone, what really matters is that if the state can get along without a governor during all the time Wandering Bill has spent out of the state, I question whether the state really needs a governor at all.

Richardson is constitutionally barred from running again, so we have two new candidates. Frankly, I’m not happy with either. While both are probably very nice people, and undoubtedly mean well, I’m already tired of both of them. And I’m very tired of their advertising campaigns.

The Republican candidate seems to be claiming that the secret identity of our current Lt. Governor is actually Bill Richardson. This appears to be unlikely since I have actually seen the two of them together. Not to mention that the governor and the Lt. Governor don’t really seem to like each other. Meanwhile, our Lt. Governor, a Democrat, seems to be suggesting that every problem in the state can be solved by giving our public schools more money. While I generally support public education (I are an edjaKator!), I think giving public schools more money is about as dangerous as giving a wino a $100 bill. That much booze all at once could kill him.

I have previously suggested an alternative method of selecting elected officials, and while I still believe my idea was brilliant, the only result was that I received an even larger volume of hate mail than normal. Evidently, we will just have to have an election, and since it seems inevitable, can we please, please elect someone else?

Would any of you like to be our next governor? I volunteer to be your campaign manager. I’m serious; I have a foolproof, and utterly brilliant, plan to elect someone, anyone, governor. All we have to do is legally change your name to “None of the Above.”

Can you imagine the campaign slogans? “Who can solve our state’s financial problems? None of the Above! Who can bring more jobs to New Mexico? None of the Above!” The irony of this advertising is that it is both effective and still strangely truthful.

As your campaign manager, I will take out ads in newspapers all over the state: “None of the Above will be coming to your town to campaign for Governor.” The beauty of this idea is that not only do you not actually have to go anywhere or actually do anything, but if one of your political opponents goes anywhere, they can be accused of breaking a campaign promise.

Similarly, it is almost impossible for a newspaper to make a negative comment about your qualifications for the job. What could they print? That None of the Above is unqualified to be governor? That doesn’t even sound like they are talking about you.

This should be the easiest campaign in New Mexico history. Since far fewer than half of the registered voters ever show up at the polls, any statistician would conclude that the majority of the voters support None of the Above. And as for financing the election, how hard can it be to get someone to promise to send money to None of the Above?

If you’re ready to be our next governor, I’m ready to hear from None of the Above.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Proudly Geek

Yesterday, two computer science majors were walking across the university campus when one said, "Where did you get such a great bike?"

The other computer geek replied, "Well, I was walking along yesterday, minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike, threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, "Take what you want."

The first geek nodded approvingly and said, "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit you anyway."

Alright, I’m lying; no woman has ever said anything like that to a computer geek. I can tell this joke because I’m a computer geek, too. Besides teaching history, I still work with computers and before I went to work at the university, I ran computer stores for a living.

I have lost track of one of the strangest men I have ever known, and I would really like to know what happened to him. Almost 30 years ago, I had a computer store just off the beach in Galveston, Texas. This is a great place to have a store for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the constant traffic roller skating or walking back and forth along the seawall.

One of my favorite customers was Mike R., who was the perfect example of a computer geek. Mike was about as wide as he was tall, and maybe the most slovenly person I have ever met until I raised a couple of teenage boys. He wore the same three piece suit every day and chain smoked cigarettes. I vividly remember Mike digging around in the pockets of his suit until he finally produced a wrinkled and wadded ball that vaguely resembled a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. Mike would pound the pack flat on a table and pull out a cigarette about as twisted and crooked as a politician’s conscience.

Mike, of course, was usually covered with ashes, flakes of tobacco and the remains of his last several meals, but he was immaculate compared to his car. I cannot remember what make of car it was but I do know it was a four door and the back window was missing. The entire back seat was filled level with trash, mainly empty cigarette packs, Styrofoam boxes from McDonald’s and Twinky wrappers. As Mike drove down the street, some of the trash freely flowed out the back window.

Okay, Mike was never featured in GQ magazine, but in the world of computers he was a Greek God. The only man I have ever known who could just sit down and write Z-80 assembly code as simply as an ordinary mortal could produce a grocery list. Mike was a genius, and regularly, and without cost, solved some of our most complex computer problems.

One summer day, Mike was in the store playing with the new Fortune 32:16 Unix Computer we had on display while about a half dozen geeks-in-training were comparing the Atari 400 to the Commodore Pet. Most computer stores back then were exclusively male clubhouses and mine was no exception, at least until the door opened and an extraordinarily attractive young woman came in. She was tall, made even taller by her roller skates, and was wearing what I think may have been a self-knitted bikini.

“Can one of you help me with my camera?” she asked. She was holding a camera, and no, it was not a digital camera. Remember, this is almost 30 years ago.

“Sure.” Mike said as he walked over. Actually, as I remember it, he was the only one of who answered her. Or moved. The rest of us watched, intently, but no one else did anything constructive for the next 10 minutes as Mike removed the batteries, cleaned the oxidized contacts, and reinserted the batteries. Now that the camera worked again, the young lady thanked him and skated out the door and down the boardwalk.

I walked over to Mike and said, “Wow, Mike, you don’t see something like that every day.”

“No,” he answered. “That was a neat camera.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Students Are Coming! The Students Are Coming!

The fall semester is about to start-- the signs are all about me: increased traffic around town, the parking lots are getting busier, and every now and then someone shows up at my door wanting permission to take a course that is full. And if the students are like swallows returning to Capistrano, then the only appropriate tired old metaphor for the faculty would be a dog returning to its vomit.

Welcoming back old students is fun, and meeting the freshmen even more so. Every year, it seems like you are meeting students who are completely different from you, but by the end of the year, they seem perfectly normal. Consider the following:

  • The freshmen today are about the same age as Harry Potter.
  • They have never known a world without a GPS system, Seinfeld, or Windows.
  • Clarence Thomas has always been on the Supreme Court.
  • They have always had caller ID on their cell phone.
  • They watch TV, but usually not on a TV.
  • Jay Leno has always been on the Tonight Show.
Of course, in a lot of ways, they are just like students have always been. They sign up for early classes they will sleep through despite their best intentions. They buy all their textbooks, then put them under their bed and hope they can absorb the knowledge within by radiation instead of actually reading. And they gripe about the parking.

Has anyone ever gone to a school and not complained about the parking? And when they did complain, invariably someone will answer, “If you think the parking is bad here, you should have seen what it was like at the University of Old Fart; we paid twice as much to park three times as far, and we were glad to do it.”

What an idiotic argument. The administration tells us to respect the needs of our students while simultaneously treating them like a resource to strip mine. Admin, here is a hint for you: if you really want to treat students like customers, then you should realize two rules. First, if your customer thinks something is a problem, it is a problem. Secondly, no one ever won an argument with a customer.

We overcharge for food, parking, books, and fees. Since the tuition money pays for my salary, I firmly believe we are undercharging, or at the very least giving the student a hell of a bargain. As a whole, the university doesn’t seem to take the student very seriously, in this the students help by being as passive and non-complaining as church mice. They get angry, but they rarely complain.

The university will probably get away with this attitude, after all, it’s not like there are several other universities in the state that our students could… Oh, crap!

There is something else the students frequently want this time of year: advising. For years, I used to give all students the same advise, “Sex and real estate. Get all you can while you’re young.” In today’s tough economy, however, I think more is needed, and like the very best teachers I will use a parable.

It was graduation day and four new alumnae were walking across the campus for the last time. Suddenly, they found a strange machine blocking their path. There were rotating gears, flashing lights, and a steady hum coming from the device. The first student, who had just received his degree in physics, walked up to the machine and said, “How does it work?

The second student, with a new degree in engineering, said, “What does it do?”

The student with a new accounting degree looked at the machine and asked, “How much does it cost?”

The last student, with a degree in history, looked at the other three students and said, “Would you like fries with that?”

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Is the Chevrolet Volt a Smart Car?

After billions of dollars in Federal subsidies, years of research, and enough media hype to sell the Brooklyn Bridge; this is the year of the electric car. Twenty years after the first announcement, Chevrolet is selling its first electric car; the Volt.

The Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that has such dramatically lower emissions that every single time you drive it, the number of baby seals in the world increases dramatically. The car can go forty miles on fully charged batteries, not bad when you consider that 75% of Americans have a daily commute of 33 miles or less.

Recognizing the future of electric cars, the New York Times stated that the electric car has long been recognized as "ideal" because it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars.

I need one of these cars. I live about 3 miles from the university, about 2 miles from the grocery store and the mall, and less than a mile from the university golf course. My average commute is so short that during the winter, I’m at my destination before the heater warms up. I’m not sure my car has been over 35 miles an hour this year. I’m not real sure about last year, either.

Hell, the Volt might be overkill; I could get to work on a golf cart. Or a Segway. I could even, shudder, walk.

Or maybe not. I drive a pickup, and in the last ten years, my poor little truck has been rear ended twice by students evidently learning to drive by crashing. One crash happened while I was stopped at a stop sign and the other time while I was stopped at a crosswalk. While neither crash was serious, they would have been if I had been driving anything much smaller.

As perfect as southern New Mexico weather is, in the last ten years, I have driven home in dust storms, high winds, (and even in the desert) the occasional rain. I’m not real sure that I want to do that in a golf cart, even if it helps baby seals. Occasionally, I do drive to the mountains, the lake, or the desert, all of which are more than 40 miles away.

And that is the real issue: practicality. I want to be green, I want to be responsible, I want all those things I read about on other people’s bumper stickers, but I also want to stay alive. To be honest, I don’t particularly like my truck--I’m willing to give it up, but only if everyone else does at the same time. I will drive the golf cart to work only if everyone else does. If I’m in the new Chevrolet Clown Car and the student three feet off my back bumper with a six month old drivers license is driving a Suburban while busily texting; I’m going to lose this contest.

No matter how politically correct, an electric car is not yet practical. They cost too much, and when you add in the cost of the eventual battery replacement, they are expensive to operate. They are under powered, too small, and overly impractical. And while I am being honest, I’ve never been politically correct, I’ll run my truck on pureed panda if I have to.

If a green vehicle is going to catch on, it’s going to have to be a little more practical than a Chevy Volt. How many people really want to drive a $41,000 car that is actually still powered by hydrocarbons? Yes, it’s an electric car, but most of America gets their electricity by burning oil, natural gas, or coal. Do I really want to pay that much money for a coal powered golf cart?

For $49,000, I can get a Mercedes E-Class with four doors, leather seats, and a sun roof. Let’s splurge, call it $50,000 and I can make a nice contribution to Greenpeace. If I have to spend that much money for a car, I’ll take the Mercedes.

Oh yeah, that quote about electric cars from the New York Times? They printed that in 1911. Almost a hundred years later, that technology is not quite ready.