Saturday, April 28, 2012

Great Moments in Education

Probably nothing in education is original, every teacher is, consciously or not, repeating something he heard from one of his own teachers.  If our students do this, we call it plagiarism.  When we professors do it, we call it academia.  Usually, the system works just fine; I honestly believe that most of my lectures are my own creation.  Still, occasionally, even as I speak the words, I can hear in my mind a professor from thirty years ago saying the same thing.

A great example of this is the story of Victoriano Huerta, one of the many, many presidents of Mexico.  This was a man who was without a doubt, a whirling son-of-a-bitch—that is, a man who is a son-of-a-bitch no matter how you turn him.

Mexico suffered through a very long dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz, a man that ruled Mexico for so long that the peasants of Mexico began referring to him as Don Perpetuo.  Only after he was 80 years old did he finally start to lose his grip on the country, and the man who pushed him out of power was Francisco Madero, a genuinely good man.  Madero was not your typical Mexican hero: he was a vegetarian, believed in mysticism, and even stranger, he was elected in a free and fair election. 

In a lot of ways, poor Francisco Madero was the Mexican equivalent of John F. Kennedy.  Relatively young, he represented a dramatic change in the character of the office of the President, and sadly was assassinated before he could accomplish much while in office.  Madero was murdered by Huerta, who seized power and made himself the President of Mexico.  For our story, we needn’t bother with all the terrible things he did while in office, but the violence of what eventually became known as the Mexican Revolution was staggering.  Without a doubt, President Victoriano Huerta was evil incarnate.  Hell, look at the best two pictures we have of the man.  No one would have bought a used car from this guy.

After Huerta was run out of power (and Mexico) he eventually came to the United States.  He traveled by train to Texas, intending to sneak back into Mexico and restart the violent and bloody revolution, but was arrested and placed under house arrest on Fort Bliss, in El Paso.  Eventually, he died of liver disease.  (Did I mention that he was also a fall down drunk?)

Huerta was buried in Alameda cemetery in El Paso.  There was absolutely no way that the new Mexican government wanted the body back: it would have been like the United States asking for the return of the body of Benedict Arnold--not likely to ever happen.  So the former President of Mexico is buried in El Paso, Texas, where he is likely to stay until hell freezes over.

“If you want to visit the grave…,” said Professor Charles Harris to his class many years ago.  “…it is customary to take him a beer.  Be sure to run it through your system first,” I said to my classes many times over the years.

Obviously, I did as Professor Harris told me, and actually went to Huerta’s grave and appropriately warmed up the beer before I left it on his grave.  And I told all my students.  And one of my students now teaches high school in El Paso, and he told his students. 

And ten of those students were arrested last week for urinating on the grave of Victoriano Huerta.  Guys, if you are reading this, you should blame Professor Harris.

Oh, don’t bother looking for the grave of Benedict Arnold.  He was buried at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Battersea, London, England.  Coincidentally, his body was “accidentally” moved to an unmarked grave.  Probably saves them cleaning up a hell of a mess.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

We’re Upset At Photos?

The Army has been in the news this week, with the Pentagon condemning soldiers for taking pictures of dead insurgents in a manner that that is “disrespectful, politically incorrect, and potentially beneficial to the propaganda efforts of the Taliban.”

More than likely, I am once again proposing the nut point of view, but I disagree with all of this.  Taking those objections in reverse order, do the Taliban really need us to come up with ideas for their propaganda?  People who treat women as chattel and forbid them any form of education, allow honor killings, destroy a nation’s art works, and ban all forms of music do not exactly need inspiration from the US Army to come up with ideas for propaganda.  And why would we expect the Taliban to tell the truth?  Anyone who condones the stoning of rape victims might just be willing to lie.

And exactly what are we afraid of?  People who proudly film the decapitations of innocent civilians are hardly going to be shocked with US soldiers posing next to dead insurgents.

Pictures of both battle and the victims of battle are as old as photography.  Matthew Brady took hundreds of such photos.  We have pictures from the Crimean War, and every war where soldiers could take a camera.  There is nothing new about any of this.  Actually, these pictures have been recorded for thousands of years before cameras.  There must be thousands of paintings, sculptures, and engravings all proclaiming the same message; “They are dead and we are alive.” 

The Bayeux Tapestry is full of such scenes.  The image shown is the death of King Harold.  King William respected Harold and even stripped the knighthood from the soldier who decapitated Harold’s lifeless body.  Respect or not, the tapestry was produced to show the triumph of William.

After the stress of combat, soldiers need a catharsis, a release of tension, a dramatic statement that they are still alive.  It has been this way since the beginning of time--history records enumerable examples.

In 1916, a young Lt. Patton survived a gun battle at a farm house in Mexico.  He tied the body of one of Pancho Villa’s officers across the hood of his Ford Model T and drove it back to General Pershing.  In normal circumstances, this would not be considered rational behavior, but Patton had just shot the officer in a desperate gun fight that was reminiscent of a Wild West shootout.  

There are stories of soldiers urinating into rivers that mark the boundaries of enemy territory.  Epic stories of soldiers on wild drunken leaves after long periods of battle, and endless stories of eccentric behavior from soldiers stationed for long periods of time on the front lines.  A group of American fighter pilots in World War I actually kept a lion for a pet. 

This kind of behavior is the norm, not the exception.  As a country, if we want to spend time thinking about politically incorrect behavior, we should be thinking about the war, not the behavior of young men after a battle.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bad Luck to Cheat Tourists

In 1986, I cleverly managed to break my left leg.  I had a little help in the form of a nice shiny Buick, but after it ran away, I was left lying on the ground in the alley behind my store.  I had absolutely no doubt that the damn leg was broken, my foot was pointing in the wrong direction.  Eventually, I managed to attract a little attention and someone called for an ambulance.

My wife, the Doc, finally caught up with me in the emergency room.  I will never forget the kind and loving words she spoke to me as I lay in agony, waiting for an operation.  “I guess this means our trip to China is off,” she said.  This was not exactly the kind of bedside manner that I had been hoping to receive--I think this is a special version she reserves for family. 

Yes, we had reservations to travel to Hong Kong and China, and yes, it was our first vacation in quite a while.  As I lay on that gurney, I knew we were still going to China, even if I had to send that busted leg as checked baggage.  And we did go to China; I limped along with a cane, hurrying to keep up with my wife the best I could.  Having a bum leg wasn’t that bad in some ways--at least we got to pre-board all the flights.

In other ways, having a busted leg was extremely difficult.  While in China, we were taken on a tour of a traditional farming village, and they had huge piles of rice drying on the roads we walked down.  Weeks later, when that cast was finally cut off, they found some of that raw rice under it.  And walking through the crowded streets of Hong Kong was painful as the crowds pushed and rushed all around us.  Crossing the street at the intersections was a nightmare.  Cars don’t stop at red lights; instead, drivers speed up and honk their horns while the pedestrians run for it.  I did my best.

Maybe this traffic explains why the people of Hong Kong are incredibly superstitious.  Many of the stores and shops we visited sold good luck charms and amulets.  A news story in the city at the time told of someone who had spent over a million dollars to purchase a custom license plate for his car with the single lucky number “8.”  Looking at the traffic in those streets, I was almost ready to buy my own good luck charm.

The Doc and I had been warned that the only places to change money safely was at banks and the hotel, but eventually, on our last day in Hong Kong, my wife and I forgot about this chore before we left the hotel, remembering just as we had managed to cross the street safely.  Neither of us wanted to take the time to cross back to the hotel, and we were standing directly in front of a money changing shop--exactly the kind of store that we had been warned to stay away from.

“What the hell,” I said to the Doc.  “We’re not going to change much money, and even if they do charge a little more, it’s worth it not to cross that damn street.”   Wrong!  Wrong!  Wrong!

The shop was exactly the size of a single car garage (it even had one of those roll down metal doors that covered the glass windows and doors).  Inside was a single desk, a few file cabinets and a man eager to wait on us.  The price he quoted really wasn’t bad: it was almost the same as the rate the hotel gave us.  I asked a lot of questions, but he assured us we had the exchange rate correct, so I began signing American Express Travelers checks. 

As the money changer started counting out the bills, it was immediately apparent that the pile of currency was short…a lot.  I will skip most of the conversation for the next few minutes.  He wanted to charge us a “tax” and we knew that Hong Kong was famous for not having taxes.  The conversation got very loud, very angry, and eventually ended when I grabbed my travelers’ checks back and used my cane to rake everything off the money changers desk.  Not speaking Chinese, we probably could not fully appreciate the screamed insults as the Doc and I left the store.  Judging by the faces of the people gathered on the sidewalk around the store’s entrance, we were missing a masterful performance.

The Shangri-La Hotel was very polite, even accepting the travelers’ checks despite the fact that they had not been signed in their presence.  We had lost a little time, but we eventually got to enjoy our last day in Hong Kong, a town where you could (and my wife did) buy anything.  I especially enjoyed my shopping.

Much later that night, I took my purchases back to the currency exchange shop.  While the shop was closed, the traffic on the sidewalk was fairly steady and I soon gathered a good sized crowd of laughing onlookers and advisors as I worked on that metal roll-down garage door.  Every single wheel was super-glued into the track on both sides of the door.  The locks on the bottom of the gate were filled with glue.  By the time I finished, that door would just barely rattle--I had used a dozen tubes of super glue.

The last bit of work actually required a lot of help from my happy onlookers.  While I had gotten someone in the hotel to write out the Chinese characters I wanted, it turned out that I had no skill in actually drawing them on the door with the black marker I had purchased.  But my impromptu helpers did the job for me.  In large letters, the door said, “IT IS BAD LUCK TO CHEAT TOURISTS.”

The Doc and I left the next morning by bus for the airport.  As we drove away from the hotel, that shop was the only store on the street still closed, despite the small army of workmen trying to raise the gate.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Book is Dead

My wife and I spent another fruitless evening searching through our house for a book—a book that I know we own—without any success.  There is nothing new about this; we haven’t been able to see the library for the books in the way for years.  I know we have reached critical mass; I can name several books of which I have purchased a second copy just because I can’t find the first copy.  Now, I doubt that I could find either of them.

I suppose that my wife and I could take a week or two off and spend that time sorting and shelving books.   That assumes that we could find enough shelf space for the books (an absurd impossibility).  There doesn’t seem to be any way to reduce the number of books.  Any book that I am willing to part with, my wife cherishes, and vice versa.  And if we take a load of books to the used bookstore, we usually return with about as many as we take.  When I jokingly suggested to my wife that we hire a librarian, she didn’t laugh, but looked pensive.  We finally decided any likely candidate would run away screaming.

And now, the books seem to arrive at our house on their own.  Not a week goes by without some publisher sending a history book to me at work, in the hopes that I will require my students to purchase it.  Or a colleague, desperate to clear his own office, gives me a book.  Even students give me books--I’ve actually had a student give me a book that I evidently had previously sold to the used bookstore here in town.   I used to be appreciative of these gifts, but I am beginning to understand that people are actually seeking me out as the last moron on the planet who actually prizes paper books.

Someone should have told me I was running a no-kill shelter for books.

Lately, I have discovered a new problem at my house.  Evidently, I have turned into a collector of book covers.  I love to read hardbacks--I love the feel and heft of a good hardback.  A well-crafted spine with a beautiful engraved cover is my favorite form of art work.   But I hate to read a book with a book cover on it.  I invariably take the paper cover off and put it somewhere safe while I read the book.  By the time I finish the last page of the book, I am already thinking about the next book I want to read and forget to put the cover back on the book.  The result of years of this is a massive collection of book covers that will wait in vain for all eternity to be reunited with their appropriate books.

This is a problem that may be slowly vanishing.  It is becoming apparent that the book—the traditional paper printed book—is dead.  On the news tonight, it was reported that the 1 in 5 Americans has not read a book in the last two years.  Couple this with the news that most books sold today are sold as eBooks, and it is obvious that the day of the printed page is over.  Someday, a video documentary will record that the last thing an American actually read off a piece of real paper was the number on a  lottery ticket.

Almost a third of Americans own an electronic form of reader.  It seems that eBooks are preferred by almost all categories of readers, and not just for school or business: a majority of people reading in bed prefer an eBook.  The number of people currently reading an eBook is 300% higher than just two years ago.  Penicillin didn’t catch on that fast.

Book stores are closing across the nation.  The only chain bookstore here in town (I don’t count the t-shirt shop that Enema U calls a bookstore) is mostly deserted except for the people standing at the Nook counter or drinking Starbucks.  At this rate, in a century or so, if you were to look up the word ‘library’ in Google Dictionary, the definition will probably be:  “Li-brar-y (n) warehouse of material not yet scanned.”

And I guess in my own way, I am slowly contributing.  My iPod has 45 audio books on it and 2 songs.  (If you are wondering, one is Rebel Rouser and the other one isn’t.)