Saturday, September 24, 2011

Teaching the Obvious

During World War II, the Army Air Corps trained navigators in San Antonio, Texas.  There was a critical shortage of classrooms, so a local movie theater was used for some of the instruction.  On the first day of training, the students were taken into the auditorium where a large globe was situated in the middle of the room.  While the students watched, an instructor with a long pointer indicated the lines of longitude and explained that every 15 degrees represented roughly an hour’s difference in time zones and that once you crossed the international date line, it was a different day.

Up in the balcony, another instructor was watching this whole process.  After 15 minutes of observation, he carefully watched the face of each student.  If he spied a student who appeared to be confused, a checkmark was made on a clipboard next to the student’s name.  Later that day, these students were dropped from the program and sent to an alternate training program.

The reason for this action was that after many classes, the Army had learned that the very idea of time zones and lines of longitude was a concept that students either learned in the first 15 minutes of instruction, or never really understood at all.   Any continued effort was generally fruitless and a waste of precious time. 

Here at Enema U, I sincerely wish that the same system were used in the various employee training programs for faculty and staff.  No matter what the subject, sooner or later the entire class is halted while someone, (probably a professor of Home Economics--or whatever they call it this week), has to be taught how to use a mouse.  Frankly, I wonder why we need these meetings at all.  The university is absolutely committed to teaching all academic subjects online, but somehow every time it decides to teach the faculty and staff how to fill out a simple form, this must be done in person.  Even the classes on how to teach online are taught in person….  Evidently, the administration doesn’t actually believe in online instruction, either.

On the other hand, could this be some form of advanced pedagogical technique?  Perhaps, making the class as long and boring as possible actually insures that the student will never forget the experience.  I’ve never tried this in my classroom, at least not deliberately, but I’m willing to experiment.  Here are my guidelines for the perfect boring training session.

1.      Make the training session mandatory, especially if the procedure you are teaching has not changed since the last mandatory meeting.  As you start the program, (a minimum of 15 minutes late), remind the class how important the training is.    Repeat this, but this time stress that it is very, very important.

2.      Use exactly the same jokes as last year.  This puts the audience at ease and makes them feel at home.  Then, as an ice breaker, make every single person in the room introduce himself to the room.  While pointless, it will let everyone know how valuable you consider their time.  People enjoy hearing total strangers mumbling incoherently about themselves, and--who knows--months from now, if you happen to run into the Senior Vice-President of Urinal Cake Rotation, you will know not to shake hands with him.

3.      No meeting is complete without PowerPoint--and be sure to give everyone a complete set of printed slides.  In this way, the audience can follow along with you as you carefully (and slowly) read every damn slide.  Everyone appreciates redundancy.  Everyone appreciates redundancy.  Of course, you could have just emailed this information, but group reading is so much more educational.  Besides, some of the attendees might be from the Education Department and may need help with the big words.

4.       Read slowly.  Not only will this insure that ten minutes of material will last an entire hour, but It practically guarantees that no one will actually pay much attention.  If you happen to have some tiny morsel of new information, it can be presented at this point to be certain that no one actually hears it.

5.      Have lengthy question and answer periods.  Everyone in the room will appreciate staying in the room while you explain (again) some minor point to the Professor of Home Economics who has her mouse upside down.

At this point, in any rational world, someone would come into the classroom and remove the Professor of Home Economics.  Her 15 minutes are more than up, and she will never understand the concept.  The rest of the class should be allowed to escape.   Until next year.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Litter Box Is Here To Stay

The Doc and I are empty nesters.  Almost.  When I met my wife, she was pre-doc, and for a while we had only cats, then we had children and cats, then the children left and we have only cats again.  Maybe the only permanent things in our lives are the cats, uh… and each other.  The people come and go and the cats are with us in perpetuity.

This wouldn’t be so bad, but the cats are always weird.  When I met the Doc, she had a cat named HP.  Supposedly, this stood for Honey Pie, but from the way this cat acted, it was usually more along the lines of Horney Pot followed by Hugely Pregnant.  And it didn’t help matters that the cat was insane.  The Doc had found the cat in a cage in the Psychology Department of our university and the poor thing was liberated and smuggled to safety inside the roomy pockets of an army surplus field jacket. 

Unfortunately, it was soon apparent that the cat had been rescued after the experiments had been concluded.  This was a wild-eyed escape artist that seemingly could walk through walls.  Once, she pulled the screen off the kitchen vent and made her way into the neighboring apartment.  When the neighbors woke up, they promptly threw her out the front door.  And she just as promptly got pregnant.

My wife has always had a thing for rescuing cats.  Right now, we have Dust Bunny, a gray Siamese so cross-eyed that each eye is staring into the opposite ear.  My wife had to have this cat; we had to rescue him from the pound before the silly cat was put to sleep.  Eventually, I gave in to the inevitable and brought the pathetic thing home.  It didn’t take half an hour to discover why the cat was in the pound.  He’s not exactly blind, but evidently he can’t focus on anything.  He sees the whole world as full of large, blurry, weird, and frightening shapes.  As a consequence, the cat is terrified of everything.  He got his name because he spends the vast majority of every day hiding under the furniture with the real dust bunnies, the color of which resembles his fur.  Frankly, he has pretty much the same personality.

While the Doc was in medical school, we rented a three bedroom house where the pets greatly outnumbered us.  Besides a large collection of cats, (mostly the descendants of HP), we had a growing collection of tortoises that had been rescued crossing the highway.  These critters were about the size of a hard hat, and just about as lively.  Occasionally, we would bring one in from outside and let it terrorize the cats, who would refuse to get within a foot of the tortoise.

Once, for about a week, we had a rabbit.  Driving to work one day, I saw a large, fat rabbit hopping along the sidewalk.  Since I knew it was someone’s pet, and I knew it would get run over, I stopped the car to rescue it.  Why not--if we never found the owner, it would make great stew.  I had to chase that rabbit, finally catching it just before it tried to disappear under someone’s garage door that had been left open about 5 inches.  I took the bunny home and let it loose in the house.  As far as the cats were concerned, it was just an ugly cat with long ears.  I can’t say the rabbit made any friends, but there were no fights, either.  Eventually, I asked enough neighbors to discover the rabbit’s home.  Remember that garage door?  That’s where the rabbit lived--I had rabbitnapped him just inches away from his own home.  His owner let him run free and the bunny always returned.  

Shortly after Thanksgiving one year, one of the cats figured out how to overpower the magnets on the refrigerator door, in order to steal the remains of the duck we had cooked for the holidays.  Evidently, the remains of that bird were used in a soccer tournament as the cats played all over that house.  By the time we got home, the hard wood floors were pretty evenly coated with duck grease.  The Doc and I cleaned, scrubbed, and eventually buffed what was left of the duck into a shine on those hardwood floors.  It took a whole weekend, but eventually, we had a beautiful shine on that floor that no paste wax had ever given us. 

About a week later, the Doc and I were in bed about midnight, reading, when we heard a strange noise in the hall outside our bedroom.

Thump!  There was definitely a footstep in the hall leading to our bedroom.  We looked at each other wide-eyed and Karen reached for the phone on the nightstand.  Though the door was slightly ajar, nothing could be seen in the dark hallway.

Thump!  Whoever it was out there was getting closer.  I reached over to my nightstand and took out a gun.  This was obviously a home invasion, and I was ready to defend us.

THUMP!  This was impossible, the hall wasn’t that long!  Someone was playing with us, but the sound of the footsteps was still getting closer.  I held the gun in both hands, doing the best Weaver grip I could manage while sitting up in bed.

THUMP!  Finally, the door slowly--terribly slowly--opened up…  and opened up… to finally reveal that damn tortoise we had forgotten to put back outside.  Every time that tortoise took a step, his feet splayed out in all four directions, slamming the bottom of his shell into the floor.  That duck fat floor was not only shiny, but a little slippery.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Keys to the Problem

It has been thirty years so I can safely tell the story--I think the guy in question is probably either dead or in jail by now.  In any case, I doubt if he could read.  And Hurricane Ike dealt a death blow to the hotel and now it’s completely torn down.

Thirty years ago, my wife was in a surgical residency in Galveston, Texas.  While Galveston is a beautiful place to visit—well, we didn’t really want to live there, but we had no choice if the Doc was going to complete her medical training.  There were very few jobs for a computer guy on a small island whose economy centered on the tourist trade.  Eventually, I was employed as the resident manager of the Flagship Hotel.

The Flagship was unique: a large hotel built on a pier extending over the Gulf of Mexico.  The entire hotel was, quite literally, on the water--actually over the water, with an ocean view for every room.  The Flagship was a great, old, weird hotel with a past that stretched way back into the days when the mafia ran the town, when prostitution and gambling were ignored, and when untaxed liquor ran about as hard and fast as the pounding surf under the hotel.
Those days had been the wild youth of the hotel, but when I ran her when she was a genteel and mature lady whose clientele were families and honeymooners.  About the only evidence remaining of her uninhibited youth was a trap door in my office where one of my predecessors could quickly dispose of the gambling paraphernalia in the event of a raid.  I never had to throw any poker chips down that trap door, but I did occasionally open the door for the view while I did paper work.

I liked the Flagship.  She was a fine hotel, but if there was any one single recurring problem, (other than the occasional hurricanes that eventually claimed her) it was the fact that the hotel was large while the pier it rested on was small.  To be specific, we only had enough parking for 90% of the guests.  And this was a large problem, since parking off the pier along Seawall Boulevard was absolutely impossible.
While the mob was long gone (mostly) from Galveston, there were no shortage of thugs.  A group of which had gotten together and bought a small lot on the main tourist drag just yards away from the entrance to the hotel.  Though the lot was paved and striped for parking, there were signs warning that no parking was allowed, and that violators would have their cars towed away!  Actually, that was the whole point since the lot was owned and operated by Five Thugs Towing, Inc.  At least, I think that was the name.  These gentlemen would tow your car to the far end of the island, and then charge you $85 for the return of your car.    Remember, this is thirty years ago, and back then that was however much money it was back then.  Roughly the price of a three bedroom house.  Or something like that-- my memory is a little fuzzy.  Whatever, it was too damn much money just to ransom your own car. 

This was legal, but about as ethical as putting a tiger trap in a school yard just to collect the used clothes.  And the five thugs who ran this operation were soundly hated by every businessman for blocks around.
When the hotel was full, we asked customers who could not find a parking space on the pier to leave their car keys at the front desk and we would double park their car at the end of the pier (keeping their keys so we could move the car if necessary to allow a blocked vehicle to escape).  This was a real pain, as the bellboys spent a lot of time moving cars around all night long.

One Sunday morning, after several guests had checked out and driven away, I gave a set of keys to a bellboy and told him to move the guest’s double parked car, a Camaro, into one of the empty parking spaces.  After a while, the bellboy came back and said there was not a single Camaro on the pier.  I didn’t believe him, so I double checked.  We did an exhaustive search--no Camaro.  I had a premonition that I knew what had happened, but I checked anyway.  The bellboy who had parked the car the previous night was new, and when I called him at his home, he remembered the Camaro.  He had found “a really nice place to park it in an empty parking lot across the street.”
I made the phone call, and sure enough, it had been towed by the Five Thugs.  The guy at the impound lot was laughing his ass off; I could have the car for $85.  There was no choice--the hotel was going to have to pay the fine, and hopefully bring the car back to the hotel before the owner found out about the  boneheaded mistake.  I got one of the bellboys to drive me to the impound lot in the hotel courtesy car.

The impound lot was damn near in the swamp at the west end of the island.  It was a large lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence containing dozens of cars, tow trucks, and one very angry guard dog.  Just outside the fenced lot were a small shack with a single tow truck sitting in front of it.  Inside the shack was a soulless cretin with his feet up on a desk, grinning like a drunken raccoon.  I ignored his laughing, paid him the extortion, handed him the keys to the Camaro and asked for the car.
The wrecker driver slowly stood up and picked up a huge loop of keys.  A piece of rope about three feet long with a hook at each end held dozens of key rings.  There must have been two hundred keys on that loop.  The driver escorted me out of the shack, locking it behind him, then went to the gate, unlocked it and drove the Camaro out, stopping to close the gate again, locking the guard dog and all the cars and trucks inside the lot.  Finally, he drove the car over to where I stood waiting.

“Here ya’ are, boy,” he said.  “Sure nice doing business with ya.” 
I got behind the wheel, shut the door and began driving back to the hotel.  Within a block, I heard a horn and a quick glance at the rearview mirror revealed that my thug was right behind me in the tow truck I had seen parked in front of the shack.  This wrecker driver seemed really upset, waving his arms, flashing his lights, and honking constantly.  There was no way in the world I was going to stop for this asshole, so I floored the gas pedal on that Chevy.

Have you ever driven a Camaro?  They’re nice.  That tow truck had a lot of power, but the Camaro ran like a stabbed rat.  It was a damn good thing this race was on a Sunday morning!  The streets were deserted with no pedestrians in the crosswalks.  That guy behind me was determined, and we tore across the island running the lights and ignoring the speed limit.  I beat him back to the hotel with just enough time to yell out the window to the guard at the hotel entrance for him to call the front desk and have the security guards and the bellboys out in front immediately.
As I braked to a stop in front of the hotel, a few of my employees were waiting for me (thankfully, for the wrecker driver skidded to a stop right behind me).  I got out of the car, left the door open and stood on the sidewalk beside the car.  The wrecker driver leaped out of his truck, ran to the car and jumped inside.

“Whar’ are my keys?” he roared.  “I know you didn’t throw ‘em out the window, I was right behind you.  You must have ‘em!”
Now it seems this poor schmuck had misplaced that big loop of keys.  The only keys he had in his pocket were the keys to the tow truck he had been driving while chasing me across the island.  Evidently, he believed that I had somehow stolen those keys.

“Gimme my keys!  You gotta’ have ‘em.  I can’t get back into the office.  I don’t have the keys to my house.  I can’t even feed my dawg!”  The voice was a little more pleading and a lot less demanding, but after several long minutes of searching, he knew those keys weren’t in the Camaro.  And he could see that I didn’t have them.  This was Texas in 1980.  I had on a white short-sleeved shirt and a pair of blue jeans so tight you could tell if the dime in my pocket was heads-side up.  I couldn’t have put a fraction of those keys in my pocket without that man seeing them.
It took several minutes for that driver to finally give up and drive away to look for those keys at the impound lot.  Maybe he had dropped them there.  He had searched the Camaro several times, and begged me to tell him if I had seen the keys.  Eventually, he even offered to give me back my money--all to no avail.  I just stood there, shaking my head.  Finally, at the gentle urging of the security guards, he drove away.

I stood there until he was out of sight.  Then, I slowly walked towards the railing at the end of the pier.  I had really enjoyed that race across the island, even though I had been a little busy.  As soon as I had gotten into that car, I had noticed that huge key ring lying on the seat.  As I drove off, I had taken out my pocket knife and cut that rope.
I could just barely walk across that pier, but when I finally got to the railing, I took off my cowboy boots and slowly poured all those keys into the ocean.  I’ll bet they are still down there, right on top of all those old poker chips.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

An Economic Choice

Someone asked me yesterday just what I thought I was doing in this blog.  Was I telling stories, spreading lies, or dispelling demons?  It was suggested that Texans just couldn’t answer a question without telling a story.  I suppose that I am guilty of this and I admit, that if the only way you can make a point is by telling a story, sometimes it seems like you have to go down three sides of the barn to get to the horse at the end of the rope in your hand.

Still, in my own mind, I like to think my stories have an educational point.  With that in mind, let me tell you about Bob.
Bob is no ordinary guy: he is an economist working for the government.  Working at the Treasury Department, Bob is used to making complex decisions that will affect the financial well-being of not only the United States, but the world.  Sometimes, Bob can see these problems looming on the horizon for weeks in advance, giving Bob the time necessary to make the correct decision.

At other times, a situation arises so quickly that, to paraphrase Rex Stout, Bob has to use his intelligence guided by experience and make a quick decision.  That’s why the government hires an expert like Bob--to make decisions on the spot for impossibly complex problems.
Bob was a little shocked yesterday when his wife called him and demanded that he come home immediately--there was a crisis at home.

Bob’s house is at the end of a circular drive at the bottom of a hill facing a golf course.  While his house is the lowest lot in the neighborhood, he has the best view.  That day, however, an otherwise perfect location led to a crisis.  The neighborhood sewage system uses a pump at a lift station to handle the difficult task of moving the liquid and solid waste uphill.  Yesterday, the pump suffered a catastrophic failure while in the open position.  Instead of moving the sewage up the hill, the system was reversed, draining raw sewage back to the lowest point in the neighborhood; unfortunately that point was Bob’s house.
When Bob arrived, his wife was hysterical.  Tens of thousands of gallons of horrible stinking sewage had backed into his house, flooding the first floor until the level of the waste was about 7 feet deep--just inches below the ceiling. 

Bob called the city utility and demanded immediate action.  Unfortunately, the people from the city said they had no idea how long it would take to fix the pump, and were not even sure how to begin.  As I am writing this, nothing of consequence has actually been done.
So what do you think Bob should do now?  Pump out the shit or raise the ceiling?

This is a difficult decision, for there are valuable programs, er… things in that house that might be lost if you just pump out the house.  Surely, if Bob just waits, the problem will stabilize.  After all, it’s never been a problem in the past.  On the other hand, almost anything of value in the house will be destroyed by the sewage and….
Oh to hell with it.  You can only stretch this metaphor so far before it breaks.  Congress raised the debt ceiling and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in just a few days.  To keep giving this government more money makes about as much sense as giving an endless supply of liquor and guns to a college fraternity.

According to Washington, if we don’t keep borrowing and spending money, the country will cease to function.  Will we know the difference?  If the country can’t find a way to stop spending, can we at least start charging the debt on a Discover Card?  We’ll still owe about the same, but the end of the year rebate might be enough to pay off the state of New Mexico’s debt.