Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Suppose They Would Be Easier To Dust

One of the great reasons to read, study, or go to school is that moment of epiphany. For those of you who were education majors, an epiphany is that moment when you suddenly understand something, when a difficult concept suddenly makes sense for the first time. When Archimedes stepped into a bathtub of water, he suddenly understood that the volume of water he displaced was equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. Archimedes was so excited that he yelled “Eureka” (Ancient Greek for “I have found it.”) and ran through the streets of Syracuse in search of someone to share his discovery. Since he was naked at the time, I’m sure that a few of the citizens of Syracuse might have been confused as to what he had discovered.

Archimedes understood that an epiphany is the second biggest thrill in life. If you don’t what the first is, you probably shouldn’t read my blog.

Perhaps the pursuit of that epiphany is the reason I love teaching so much. I’m positive it is one of the reasons I love books. I can picture my students reading a book I assigned-when they suddenly understand the message the author was trying to pass on. I cannot imagine this scene if they are holding a Kindle instead of a real book.

If the electronic book reader catches on, it will probably change the way novels are written. Computers quickly become addictive due to their ability to instantly reward the user. You win a game, something works, or you search for something, and you are instantly rewarded. The user is constantly receiving positive feedback from the computer. Will readers who are used to such instant gratification read patiently through several chapters of plot development? I doubt it. It is probably not a coincidence that graphic novels, essentially nothing more than flat-chested comic books wearing a pushup bra, are suddenly popular. If, somehow, a book written exclusively for an Ereader was actually good, would you call it a real page clicker?

A co-worker here at Enema-U was bragging about her new E-Book reader. “It will hold 3,500 books,” she proudly said. Somehow, I sincerely doubt that she has read 35 books in her lifetime.

Does it matter how many books this device can hold? Theoretically, these things can hold a whole library of books the owner has read. And theoretically you could use my pocket knife to perform a heart transplant. What are the odds of either happening? Pricing this out online at Amazon, I can buy their Kindle for $139. For another $42,000 I can fill it to capacity. I probably have that many books in my home, and they are insured. I wonder what my insurance agent would say about insuring a virtual library.

I have accidentally hurt a few books. I have dropped a few in the bathtub, spilled coffee on a few, and occasionally torn a page. I lost a book once; this was in the third grade and it still bothers me. Several decades later, I was in Washington DC and visited the Library of Congress. I was delighted to find, and finish, “Binkie’s Billions” by Lee Wyndham. I felt better for having finally finished the book, but I am still a little upset for having lost it. What would I do if I dropped a whole library into a bathtub?

I love the feel of a well-made book. I like old leather-covered books-anything published by Folio Press-and I love the feel of good paper and a strong binding. Buying a book that contains a built in ribbon for the reader to use as a bookmark is almost thrilling. Just recently, I bought a first edition of the first Zorro story. The book, almost as old as my father, is printed on thick acid impregnated paper that is yellowing and smells of dusty bookstores. It is the perfect book to read about Don Diego and the plight of the Californian peasants. How in the world could a beeping (and bleeping) battery operated gizmo compete?

I have searched bookstores in a dozen countries. There was a marvelous half-timbered bookstore in Worcester that also sold 70 year old fountain pens. There is a great bookstore in Chicago near Wrigley Field that is home to a large cat who pushes books off the top shelves, so they will land on the customers. Evidently he disapproves of people taking away ‘his’ books.

I own autographed books, and books with comments written in the margins, and books with flowers pressed between the pages. I have a book by Lewis Carroll, that I bought the day I became an uncle, and I wrote a long passage on the flyleaf to my nephew, Matt. Have you ever bought a used book and found inside the cover a bookplate from the book’s first owner? Have you ever wondered, or perhaps even known, who that person was? What you might have in common?

Books are more than a collection of letters and words; they are an art form that cannot be replaced by a mere collection of electrons stored on a chip. I suppose that you could just as well store thousands of images of the collected paintings of the grand masters. Even if they call it the iGallery, it won’t be an art museum.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Please Send Bail Money

There is an oft repeated old story about President Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. It seems that Hoover liked to keep files of private and scintillating gossip about celebrities: which politician was sleeping with movie stars, who was gay, and which senators had drinking problems. These secret files were occasionally sent over to the White House for the amusement of the president-a little private bedside reading about private bedsides.

Suddenly, I discover that pretty much the same activity occurs here at Enema U. The campus chief of police evidently sends copies of police reports over to one of the administrators in the Office Of Moose and Squirrel. Unfortunately, the police reports are not written in simple words with a large red crayon, so they must be a little tough to read-pictures would probably help.

So, it was a little surprising Thursday, when I arrived at work, and was immediately questioned about my recent arrest for the possession of an illicit substance so rare that it can only be found on the grounds of every school yard in America (and damn near everywhere else). This was especially surprising since I hadn’t been arrested. At the time of my supposed arrest, I think I was actually in class.

Hell, it’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m so square that my wife, the Doc, laughs at me. Other than an occasional dose of medicinal grain alcohol, I don’t even take things as mild as aspirin. The last time I tried a funny cigarette, I still carried a draft card and Nixon was president. As soon as I figured out that Scotch was both cheaper and legal, I never looked back.

How did a mild mannered history professor get mistaken for a convicted criminal drug user?

It seems that the Assistant Chief Rodent at the Office of Moose and Squirrel had trouble with the big words while reading her copy of the police report and missed several small details. She had the wrong name, the wrong department, the wrong building, and somehow inflated a citation for a petty misdemeanor into an arrest for possession. Maybe I should be grateful that the story didn’t circulate that I had resisted arrest with an Uzi. Someone should see what is the drug of choice inside the administration building.

Armed with this interesting (though completely inaccurate) information the Assistant Chief Rodent apparently made several phone calls. First, she called my dean, informing her of my supposed incarceration. Then, the High Holy Inquisitor in the Office of Inhuman Resources was notified and a highly confidential meeting was scheduled. Evidently, I was about to be put on double secret probation and have dog poop thrown on my shoes. Or something equivalent-I’m not sure, since I was not invited to the meeting and its very existence was kept so secret that, within an hour of its scheduling, only two people called and told me about it.  Within 24 hours, students were asking me about this secret and private affair.

Luckily, my dean is not one of the administration’s flying squirrels and simply didn’t believe any of this nonsense. Nor did she believe that the university should begin a trial only after the hangman’s rope was being taken down from the scaffold. And, most likely, she didn’t think that a meeting about me could last a whole hour unless I was invited to come and talk about myself. I am forced to admit that the dean is a class act.

It is an interesting dichotomy that this university is both a bastion of liberal thought, diversity and individual expression, and yet still capable of holding a kangaroo court over the possession of a trivial amount of marijuana.  Maybe I should check my wallet for my old draft card.  Is Nixon still president?

The rest of the week was fairly uneventful. People who had done nothing wrong came to my office and apologized profusely for the idiocies committed by the people who did commit them, but would not apologize. Another, and somewhat smaller group, stopped by and wanted to know if I would sell them a dime bag. I’m going to start selling small bags of oregano as soon as I can figure out the going rate.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Because I Say So

A thousand years ago, King Canute ruled England. A Dane, he was a pretty good king and must have been a great warrior, for when he attacked England with 10,000 troops, King Ethelred the Unready promptly had a heart attack and died. This was the original “shock and awe.”

Once the faint of heart were literally out of the way, the new Danish King set about transforming England into a modern state, and it turned out he was a pretty good administrator. He divided England up into territories under lords who reported to the king, and established a legal system that lasted until the reign of the Tudors. He eliminated the danegeld, an annual extortion paid to Danish lords, to prevent their invasion and wanton destruction. And best of all, he established a uniform system of coinage, with the weights of the various precious metals matching those of the Scandihoovian countries. This encouraged international trade.

This was all pretty good administration, especially when you consider that it was all done without congressional committees, focus groups, or an advertising budget. King Canute was hot stuff, or at least his ministers thought so, and who could blame them? Anyone who could pacify a wild kingdom by scaring his enemies to death deserves more than a little respect.

King Canute eventually found all this fawning attention a little tiring, so he decided to teach his ministers that even the power of a king is limited. He had his ministers carry his throne down to the edge of the sea just as the tide began to come in. King Canute sat in his throne, waved his scepter and commanded the waters to stay back-for the tide to recede. By the time King Canute was about ass deep in sea water, even his ministers understood that there are limits to all power.

An alternative historical interpretation is that King Canute was trying to save the beaches from early climate change. If true, Al Gore owes King Canute a Nobel Prize.

The lesson of King Canute has been on my mind this week as the administration of Enema U has issued several new rules, a few of which seem to fail the test of King Canute.

From now on, anyone who is planning anything new at the university must submit a “pre-planning” form, seeking permission for said planning. This new document, the Compulsory-Mother-May-I (COMMI) form, will be submitted prior to actually beginning to plan. So, if you are planning to start a new project that might require planning… no wait… you have to submit the planning form before you can plan on planning a new project… But, if you submit the form before you begin planning on a new project, how did you know you needed to submit the form? Perhaps the entire faculty needs to submit a form just in case we might decide to start a project that might require planning. I would say that would be a good plan, but I haven’t submitted a form yet.

No less confusing is a new requirement that all signatures on university documents must be legible. Sorry, my legal signature is not legible. But it is MY signature. If you want to redesign my signature, it will automatically turn into YOUR signature. And you will have misspelled your name. I’ve been married long enough to know there are very few things for which I am in charge. The main items on the list are bugs and busted plumbing, but somewhere on that incredibly short list, I am fairly sure I am still in charge of my own signature.

This vaguely reminds me of my running fight with the local city government. They insisted that I spray paint my street address on my driveway in large black numbers. So, I did, but I did it in Roman numerals; MMCXXXV to be exact. Someone from the city showed up, took pictures of this, then left. They did this serveral times a week for about a month.  Eventually, someone asked me if I didn’t think this might be dangerous as it might prevent emergency personnel from locating my house. It is my belief that anyone too stupid to read Roman numerals will probably not be of much use in an emergency. This issue is not yet settled as the city (while sure that I have done something wrong) cannot decide exactly what law I have broken.

The latest rule from the university is an extension of the rule on signatures. From now on, we must sign everything in blue ink. This rule will insure that everyone can ascertain whether they are dealing with original or duplicate copies. Thankfully, no one would ever think of using any of the half dozen color copiers located in just my building alone.

What are we signing that is so important? Most of my documents deal with make-up tests, recommendations for students, and pleas to textbook publishers for a review copy of a book I can’t afford. No one has asked me to initial our nation’s launch codes lately. Who exactly is going to check these documents for legibility and correct color? And before this policy was approved, was there an appropriate “Planning to Micro-Manage” form filed in triplicate?

President Canute (by a strange coincidence, that is the name of the President of Enema U), a few of your ministers did not understand your last demonstration. Perhaps this time you could put your throne at the fifty yard line of the stadium and command our team to win a game.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Woogie! Woogie!

All over the nation, it seems that we poor government employees are under attack. It seems that suddenly, almost everyone resents that teachers have recession-proof jobs that are fairly well paid and involve very little physical labor.

I don’t blame them-I love my job. Who wouldn’t? I am, basically, paid to read books and tell stories. All my work is indoors, with nothing heavier to lift than the occasional dictionary or atlas; and my office is located in what looks like a park. Hell, the library is only about 100 feet away. I’ve noticed that very few of my academic friends are especially religious.  For myself, I’m a practicing born-again pagan. Evidently, it is a little hard to sell the idea of an afterlife to those who already live in heaven.

I have no experience with other government jobs, but I suppose that most of them are pretty good, and all of us that are lucky enough to have one should be grateful. While the rest of the country has faced a recession, government employment has gone up; the federal government alone has hired over two hundred thousand new employees in the last two years. At this rate of increase, pretty soon, we will have to run a commuter train into Canada for the second shift.

One of the more common complaints about government employees is our pensions. In general, while they are much better than the private sector, we have been a little less lucky here in New Mexico. One of the state’s investment advisors spent some of our money on fancy homes, fast cars, and faster women. Bernie Madoff wasted the rest of the money. Still, our state pension plan is probably sound enough unless the popular protests of Wisconsin find their way south to New Mexico.

So, while I am not exactly worried, it seems only prudent to have an alternative plan. I toyed around with the idea of starting my own state, but it seems all the good places were taken. Since that first option is out, it would seem the only possibility left is losing your mind. Insanity as a retirement plan seems eminently sane

Mind you, I’m not going to use this plan myself, but I think it might work out fine for you. Should you need an Emergency Retirement, here’s what you do. Go to work, bright and early, and sit at your desk while you have a cup of coffee. When you are completely relaxed, take off all your clothes and leave them folded neatly on your desk. Carefully insert a pencil (eraser end first) up each nostril. Then run up and down the halls of your building yelling, “Woogie! Woogie!” Keep this up until you are physically restrained.

Once at the hospital, answer every question with either “It was in accordance with the prophesy” or “Would you like fries with that?” Refuse to answer to your own name, but insist that everyone call you King Shirley. While you will probably not be successful, it will undoubtedly enhance your performance if you occasionally attempt to lick your own eyebrows.

For your efforts, I figure you will get about a six week vacation at the local psychiatric ward. The food is not exactly great, but during group crafts you should be able to make key rings for all of your friends.

For some reason a disability retirement pays more than a regular retirement. This pay is not subject to income tax. And you immediately qualify for Social Security (which also pays more than a normal retirement). If word of this gets around, the halls at work might start to become rather interesting.