Saturday, October 30, 2010

Academic Hoax or Creative History?

Dateline: College Town, New Mexico

The local university campus was rocked today when several members of the History Department admitted to perpetrating a giant hoax on the academic community. Earlier this week it was discovered that several members of the department had invented a wild story involving an imaginary politician, Benjamin Harrison, supposedly President of the United States from 1889 to 1893.

“Oh, come on!” said Dr. Holland, a member of the department. “How could anyone take this crap seriously? It was just a joke that got out of hand; nobody in their right mind would believe a president in between the two terms of President Cleveland. Don’t you people read?”

According to grad student Brian Riley, the story of the fictitious presidency has made its way into several textbooks, including those used by many high schools in the nation. The university has promised to investigate the matter.

One member of the department, speaking off the record, tried to explain how the hoax began. “We were at the local brew club with some grad students. You understand, out here in the high desert, you can get thirsty. One thing led to another, and we started teasing the grad students trying to see how much nonsense we could get them to believe. We almost convinced them the South won the Civil War, but one student didn’t think that ending jived with his recollection of the movie Gone With the Wind. Then someone mentioned Ben Harrison and the whole story took on a life of its own.”

According to Dr. Holland, “We took a president that no one really remembered, Grover Cleveland, split his term in half and shoved this joker in between. It was just a local departmental joke until one of the students decided to post it on Wikipedia, then it seemed to just snowball throughout academia. People all over the world kept adding details, frequently something outlandish, such as being the grandson of a previous president! Like that could ever happen!”

When asked about the various photographs of the alleged president, Dr. Holland explained, “My daughter did that. She used Photoshop and just sort of made him up. She used Taft’s body and Grant’s head. I think the beard came from Santa Claus.”

Though none of the faculty would comment on the record, it appears that at least one member of the department, Dr. Black, was granted tenure after writing a biography of the fictitious president. Clearly upset, one member of the department grumbled, “Writing is not very difficult when you make up all your research.”

When asked about the many textbooks already in circulation that include the fictitious presiden, Dr. Holland replied, “Don’t blame us, we didn’t do it. Those publishers were just copying material off of Wikipedia. As soon as Texas put it in a textbook, they all did it. God knows, those morons on Texas school boards will believe anything.”

While several professors admitted to being involved in the scandal, at least one privately confessed to having based an entire course on the fictitious president. “It was just so easy, no lectures to write, no research, just show up in class and talk nonsense. For two whole weeks I told the students about my drunken uncle Steve and the little bastards just sat there and took notes. Hilarious.”

Since this was homecoming weekend for the university, the timing of the scandals release was a bit problematic for the university administration, but they promised to investigate the incident fully. According to one official, while the administration is currently busy investigating how a million dollars of research money found its way into the athletic budget, the administration has promised to investigate the History Department as soon as possible.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bang! You’re Dead! (Or Not.)

My wife, the Doc, and I recently went to see the new Bruce Willis movie, RED. The movie has an incredible cast that includes Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Dreyfuss. It’s hard to make a bad movie with a cast like that. They succeeded, but it must have been hard.

Mind you, on at least one level, I enjoyed the movie; but there is no denying that the plot was weak, the actors appeared to be embarrassed with the dialogue, and the conclusion was obvious. The movie has very few moments without an explosion, a car chase, or someone firing a gun. Last time I checked, I was still male, so I enjoyed the movie. Enjoying movie violence is probably hardwired into the Y chromosome. Personally, I think the perfect movie would be a remake of The Longest Day with an all nude female cast. The paratrooper scenes alone would be worth the price of admission. If the director could figure out some way to add a chase scene using tanks, the movie would be Oscar material!

I think America needs a new law, perhaps a new constitutional amendment; call it the Schwarzenegger Rule. Whenever 50 or more bullets are fired at anyone in a movie, the character must die. Immediately. If this rule had been used in RED, the movie would have lasted about 5 minutes. Less if you don’t count the credits.

Why do the movies show us such nonsensical use of guns? Remember the original 1977 Star Wars? I sat through most of that movie thinking that the entire Imperial army could have been annihilated by a twelve year old girl with fifteen minutes of instruction on a break open single-shot squirrel gun. What was the use of rapid firing ray guns that never hit anything? The Rebels didn’t need the force, they needed target practice.

I have some advice for Hollywood. These are just a few simple suggestions about firearms that you would think that anyone short of livestock would know. Since scripts in Hollywood are evidently written by Moose and Squirrel, let me help you.

1. People do not fly through the air when they are shot. Even if the gun is a shotgun, people do not fly backwards 10 feet. Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion? For every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. If the person being shot is thrown up against a wall, so would the person doing the shooting. So unless the gun is a 12 inch Napoleon cannon from the Civil War…

2. Quit putting silencers on revolvers. You can put a silencer on an automatic, but never, never, never on a revolver. The gap between the cylinder and the barrel will let the gas, and thus the sound, escape.

3. People in Westerns always carry the Model 1892 Winchester. It is a beautiful gun, with an easy to operate lever action. Cowboys loved it so much that they, at least in the movies, carried it decades before it was invented. In some movies, soldiers in the Civil War carried them.

4. How many times have you seen someone in the movie fire several rounds from an automatic during a gunfight, then take careful aim, pull the trigger and hear the gun go “Click!” but not shoot because the gun is supposedly empty? This is impossible. When you fire the last round from an automatic, the slide stays back so you can reload the gun.

5. I have lost track of how many movies have the hero exhausted, wounded, and damn near hopeless after a long gun battle. He is down to his last bullet, his last chance to save the day. He takes careful aim and… misses. No! That never happens, the hero always wins. If this old chestnut didn’t always work, John McClane would have died in Die Hard 1 and not lived to have used it again in Die Hard 3.

6. In almost any of the Lethal Weapon movies, Mel Gibson empties his automatic, shoves in a new clip, empties it again, reloads, then shoves the gun inside his pants and chases down the enemy. Obviously, Mel has asbestos underwear because that gun would be hot enough to burn off his manhood.

7. Machine guns cannot shoot forever. If for no other reason, there is the matter of ammo. Let’s use the M60 machine gun from Rambo. This gun fires 600 rounds a minute. Rambo shoots it for about 5 minutes, by which time the barrel would have melted and even Rambo would have been tired from carrying over 200 pounds of ammunition.

8. Why do bad guys throw away their guns when they run out of ammo? Guns aren’t free: somewhere in the world there might be more ammo, and your fingerprints are all over the gun, so why would you throw it away? And why does anyone empty his gun at Superman, see every bullet bounce off his chest, and then try to stop him by throwing the gun at him? This is a bad idea if for no other reason than the fear of where Superman might shove the gun. And why does Superman always duck when they throw the gun?

9. No one can hit anything shooting a rifle from the hip. If you could, guns wouldn’t have sights and God only knows what shape the stock would have.

10. Bullets rarely spark when they hit buildings, sidewalks, and cars. They never spark when hitting trees, bushes, and wooden walls. Bullets are not stopped by sheetrock walls and normal doors. Bullets do not ricochet 15 times and then kill people. When thrown into a fire, cartridges do not make a loud firing noise and then kill someone. And they do not make cars flip over and explode.

Yes, I make rude comments in the movie theater when I see these mistakes. And yes, my wife hates it when do this. But you should hear the Doc bitch about every medical show. According to her, Dr. House holds every X-Ray upside down and/or backwards.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Meeting Will Come to Disorder

Every so often at the university, we actually have to do some work. Thankfully it’s not very often; work is something for which faculty are not well prepared. At a university, when there is a new problem, we need a new committee. And the golden rule about committees is that they are composed of professors who individually can do nothing but as a group inevitably decide that nothing can be done.

There are some universally accepted rules about committee participation:

• Never arrive on time, or you will be stamped a beginner.

• Don't say anything until the meeting is half over; this stamps you as being wise.

• Be as vague as possible; this prevents irritating the others.

• When in doubt, suggest that a subcommittee be appointed.

• Appear very interested in the minutes of the last meeting, suggest corrections and insist that the minutes be accurate. This will help hide the fact that the minutes contain nothing useful.

• Be the first to move for adjournment; this will make you popular - it's what everyone is waiting for.

Committees as a group rarely accomplish much. If the original task is to dig a hole, committees do not move much dirt. They can talk about a hole forever, but what is needed is for someone to grab a shovel and actually move some dirt.

There is an old story about the man driving through the country. As he went around a long curve, a deer was standing in the middle of the road. The man frantically swerved the car, missing the deer by only a few inches. Unfortunately, in the process the car ended up in a ditch, stuck deeply in the mud.

Nearby, the man saw a light from a farmhouse. He walked up the driveway and knocked on the door, which was soon answered by a kindly looking farmer. The man explained his situation to the farmer, who said, “Don’t worry, Old Buck can fix you up.”

The farmer led him to the barn and he watched as the farmer attached a harness to a large mule. Then the two men led the mule back to the car and the farmer attached a chain from the mule’s harness to the frame of the car.

“Yaa, Buck! Yaa, Pete! Pull, Bob! Yaa, Sam! Gee there, Buck! Yaa, Bob!” yelled the farmer. And slowly the car was pulled smoothly out of the mud.

The man thanked the farmer and then he asked, “Why did you call out commands to four different mules? There was only Old Buck pulling the car.”

“Well, Old Buck is kinda old and is mostly blind,” explained the farmer. “But he don’t mind pulling as long as he thinks he’s part of a team.”

I thought of this old story a lot this week as I sat in committee meetings at the university. Big jobs don’t seem as if they can be handled by a single person, so from necessity a committee is formed and many people are appointed to it. In the long run however, most of the real work is actually being done by a single person. And if you are that person, the only person actually working on a committee, chances are you’re a jackass.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Old Professors Never Die, They Just...

The university, experiencing severe budget shortages, has started offering senior faculty a form of “Get Out of Jail Free” cards in the form of retirement buyouts. Recognizing the true worth of senior faculty possessing decades of teaching experience and advanced research, the university has offered many of the aging baby boomers incentives to retire early. Most of the incentive is in the form of glass beads and shiny trinkets. Naturally, many of the faculty are accepting the offer.

Strange, I always thought it would be the students who would run off the baby boomers first. I can just picture a student, exasperated about hearing about Woodstock, the sexual revolution, and The Summer of Love finally snapping. “Mention the Beatles one more time, Grandpa, and I’ll give your Depends a wedgie!”

It would be easy to imagine the state, pushed by rising retirement and Medicaid costs, legalizing the hunting down of senior citizens. A new sport, with a limited season. You could shoot two a season, but it would probably be illegal to hunt within 500 yards of a cafeteria or a pharmacy. I expected this, so I was a little surprised when it was the administration that decided to thin the herd.

Senior faculty, highly prized for their wisdom and experience, received letters marked “Voluntary Final Exit” and were told that those that accepted the early retirement would be honored with a “separation party” hosted by the university. Not surprisingly, many of my colleagues accepted the offer.

I just came from the separation party, and it was a grand affair, held in one of the largest ballrooms in the student center. Real cloth napkins!  The very best plastic forks.  Well, the food wasn’t that great, since it came from the student cafeteria, but the speeches were good. One after another, the members of the senior administration stood at a podium decorated with the university motto- Veni, Vidi, Velcro (I came, I saw, I stuck around) and told the audience of the great things the retiring faculty had accomplished when they were younger and cheaper. And the administration promised to eventually replace the retiring faculty, though not necessarily in the same department, the same field, or anytime soon. It was generally understood that while academics would remain a top priority, the immediate need of the university was to complete the new high rise sports chalet at the North end of the football field.

Several students attended the farewell ceremony, mostly for the free food, but a few spoke meaningfully about how they had always enjoyed sleeping through a particular professor’s class or how they had never realized how important their major was until they had changed it to a field in which there was absolutely no chance of actually gaining employment. It was a deeply moving experience.

Then one by one, those retiring professors accepting Early Retirement And Separation of Employment (ERASE) got up and made a few brief remarks about their years at the university. Though none could remember a year when the football team was actually victorious, several elderly professors claimed to remember when the library subscribed to major journals, a parking permit cost $5, and freshmen could actually read. No one believed these stories, but they were entertaining.

Finally, at the end of the ceremony, the retirees, smiling and waving, were led out a rear door as the band played “The Baby Elephant Walk.” Everyone in the hall was deeply moved.

There was one strange moment: after the last retiree had disappeared, you could hear the muffled shuffling of feet. Then Dr. Grumbles, the German professor, suddenly reappeared at the doorway. As helping hands assisted him in exiting again, he yelled something unintelligible. I’m not sure, but I think it was, “Soylent Green is made of Professors!”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Thank You for Your Interest, Now Shut Up!

I saw a great example of the administrative “go away” letter this week. A faculty member had publicly asked for financial data concerning the university’s athletic program. In due course, the administration produced a letter that politely told the faculty member to go suck eggs.

“Thank you for your recent letter requesting to know exactly why the administration of this university continues to pound money down a rat hole while simultaneously selling off most of the library on Ebay. Rest assured that this complicated issue is being seriously studied by top men. Repeat, top men. In the meantime, we are conducting a profound investigation on all levels and a report will be made public in due time.”

By now, no doubt the report is finished. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, it is somewhere in the basement of the administration building “clearly posted in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the leopard.’”

This is not the best brush off I have ever read, but it comes in second. The all time prize winner was received by a friend of mine, Mabel.

Mabel had to go to California to visit her sister, and decided not to fly. Who can blame her? In today’s world, traveling by airline has all the attraction and charm as being sentenced to a weekend in the county jail. I apologize, that’s an exaggeration. We all know jails have better food.

Mabel checked on available flights and eventually decided to travel by train, something she had not done in well over 30 years. The very idea was exciting; it would turn an ordinary trip into an adventure. Mabel, obviously excited, could hardly wait.

Finally, the day of the trip arrived. Mabel boarded the train, and was promptly seated in a spacious and modern passenger car. Her seat was comfortable and the view of the countryside as she made her way to California was breathtaking. Absolutely happy, Mabel was truly enjoying herself when suddenly a small red bug began crawling up her leg. Naturally, she brushed it off and went back to enjoying the view out the window.

Within minutes however, she noticed another small red bug crawling across her seat. Soon, she began seeing the bugs almost everywhere; on the window ledge, the floor, her seat, and most upsetting, she found several crawling on her clothing. While the tiny bugs didn’t bite, sting, or even fly around, the sheer number of them made her miserable. For the entire trip, she was engaged in constantly looking for, finding, and brushing away the small red insects.

Naturally, her trip was ruined, she arrived in California a nervous wreck, and decided immediately that her return trip she would be by airline. A week later, safely back in New Mexico, she wrote a strongly worded, but still polite, letter of protest to the president of the railroad.

Two weeks later, Mabel went to her mailbox and found a large envelope from the railroad. Not even waiting to go back inside her house, Mabel eagerly tore open the envelope and removed a letter on embossed stationary.

Dear Mabel,

I was distressed to hear about your recent unfavorable experience on our railroad. As we make every possible effort to make our trains both professional and enjoyable, I took a personal interest in your case and had your incident thoroughly investigated.

The passenger car on which you rode had just come to New Mexico from the east coast. En route, the car was shunted to a siding in Alabama for two days while repairs were made to a nearby bridge. It is my opinion that during those two days your car inadvertently became infested with the insects that inconvenienced you on your trip.

Please rest assured that we have taken steps to ensure that this incident will not occur again. I have personally designed an inspection and extermination program for all passenger cars left on sidings for more than 8 hours.

While no apology can eliminate your unfortunate experience, I hope that you will at least find solace in this explanation.

Sincerely apologetic,
Benjamin Forest, President

Mabel was understandably touched by the personal attention shown by the railroad president. Her anger was completely forgotten as she folded the letter back into the envelope. As she did so, a small yellow post-it note fluttered to the ground. Mabel picked up the note and read:

Bob, send this bitch the bug letter.