Saturday, May 26, 2012

Public Transportation?

In a time so long ago that there were three television networks, most Americans trusted their president, and I traveled exclusively in the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile, I remember standing up in the back seat of that car and playing the “License Plate Game” with my brother.  We would look for out of state plates and the very rare foreign car—while we had not yet heard of Toyota or Nissan, occasionally we would see a Volkswagen.  And I remember seeing lots of government vehicles.

Government vehicles came in two flavors: either they were olive colored Army Jeeps and huge 4x6 trucks or Chrysler sedans for what we still quaintly called civil servants.  Those Chrysler sedans were modestly inexpensive, and plain.  Hell, they rarely had air conditioners and almost all of them were either hospital green or khaki brown.  I asked my dad why the government bought all their cars from Chrysler.  “Because they last forever,” he said.  “They rarely break down, and they are easy to repair.”   I can remember wondering why we owned an Oldsmobile if Chryslers were so good.

Actually, for the time, those Chryslers weren’t bad cars.  The only real quirk with them was the weird lug nuts on the right-hand wheels.  Chrysler reasoned that since the right-hand wheels were rotating in the same direction as the threads on the lug nuts, eventually, the vibration would loosen the nuts and the wheel might fall off.  So, Chrysler reversed the threads on the nuts on the right side of the car.  In the case of a flat tire, if you didn’t know this, you could heave on that tire wrench until your vision turned black and your intestines were lying on the side of the road, but that nut wouldn’t budge.  Tens of thousands of people learned this bit of automotive trivia the hard way.  (One of those was my son, What’s-His-Name, not The-Other-One.  I bought him an old Jeep when he was 16.  While trying to do a brake job, the poor kid worked half an hour trying to remove a wheel before I suddenly remembered to tell him about those reverse threads.)

Eventually, Chrysler noticed that Fords and Chevrolets weren’t littering the ditches of every highway in America and stopped manufacturing those reverse thread nuts and bolts.  Then for years, tens of thousands of people gave themselves a rupture because they hadn’t learned that Chrysler had made the change.  It’s a wonder that Chrysler isn’t a slang word for hernia.

Still, for government vehicles, those Jeeps and Chrysler sedans were wonderful.  They didn’t cost much, were built tough, economical, and easy to repair.  A mechanic with a screwdriver and a half-inch wrench could disassemble the entire engine.  I think the only nut under the hood bigger than a half inch was the engine mount.  I’m not a mechanical genius, but even I could rebuild the transmission on a Jeep—just stack the gears so the biggest ones are on the bottom and the little ones are on top.

Unfortunately, this is not the way our government buys vehicles today.  Now, I could be wrong (there’s always a first time for everything), but it seems to me that the average federal vehicle today is a four wheel drive Suburban being driven by a petite woman.  Where the hell is she going that she needs to drive a three ton truck with seats for 8?  And if you see them get out of this massive four wheel drive truck at a gas station—this land yacht drinks gasoline faster than grad students quaff beer—she is invariably wearing high heels.  I would be willing to bet this woman has never driven off road in her life.

In the last few weeks, I have noticed a new trend: the federal government has started to buy Jeeps again.  Not for the Army--they use incredibly expensive Humvees that evidently aren’t suitable for combat.  Why this is an improvement is probably a military top secret.  No, for the transportation needs of the office-bound bureaucrat, the government is now purchasing those new 4-door Jeeps that look like giant station wagons.  While the original Jeep was small, versatile, and cheap, the new 4-door version is an expensive boxy car suitable for soccer moms who couldn’t quite afford a Lexus.  These vehicles are big, heavy, and designed for the rugged challenges of a slightly muddy mall parking lot.

Government vehicles aren’t cheap anymore, either to purchase or operate--and I don’t see many old government vehicles on the road.  They all seem to be built in the last few years and to have cost more than the average civilian vehicle.

When did our civil servants become our public masters?  Does cost no longer matter to anyone but the poor taxpayer?  Even as our masters drive to work in air-conditioned luxury, they are busily designing public transportation systems for every community larger than a highway truck stop.  Even my home town has a shiny new public bus system.  Every day, I see the buses driving around town with about a maximum load of 5 passengers.  There is no way that bus system is earning enough money to pay for the fuel they use, much less the cost of running a fleet of modern buses.

I have a small suggestion.  Let’s take the name of every poor taxpayer riding around in those nearly empty buses and give them one of those government Suburbans and 4-door Jeeps.  The reduced cost of maintenance and operation will be enormous.

Then force the bureaucrats to ride the bus system.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Semester Ends With Student Distress

There is an old and probably apocryphal story about a professor addressing his class.  “Your final exam is scheduled for tomorrow at 9:00 AM.  All of you must attend.  There is absolutely no possible excuse for missing the test.”

From the back of the auditorium, a student asked, “What about sexual exhaustion?”

The professor answered, “In that case, you could still take the test with your other hand.”

The semester is over at Enema U.  In many ways, this is a relief.  I like my students, I love my classes, but you have no idea how peaceful the town has become.  With umpty thousand students having left for home, the average age of the town has probably doubled.  Listen!  I don’t hear a single car driving down the street at twice the speed limit--and it will stay that way until the next batch of donuts comes out of the fryer and the local cops race to Dunkin’ Donuts.

The last two weeks were somewhat painful for some students as they tried desperately to finish a term paper, assigned months ago, that was shortly due.  It is incredibly painful when you start the term paper 24 hours before it is due.  One of my students even documented the pain on Facebook.

An exchange like the one shown must make a lot of students rethink the whole idea of “friending” their professor.

I cannot tell you how many emails I have from students wanting to know why they got a C in my class.  Most of them say something along the lines of, “I did the math, and my grades average out to an ‘A-.  Why did you give me a C-in your history class?”

Usually, I write back with something along the lines of, “While you obviously deserve a C- in Math, I only teach History.”

My favorite anxiety story this semester involves a student who sent me an urgent email two hours  before the final exam.

Dear Professor

I am in your 343 History class and I will be taking your test this morning at 8am.  I’m assuming the spicy salsa I ate from the school cafeteria is responsible for my frequent burning bowel movements.  With that being said I was wondering if one of those movements are to occur during the test would I be allowed to leave the classroom?  What should I do?  Signed, distressed student.

It just so happened that I was awake and reading my email.  I immediately answered.

Dear Distressed:

This, too, shall pass.  You, however, may not, if you miss the final.  Sit by the door and do what you have to do.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

America: The Home of the Tree and the Land of the Nailed

My brother tells me he is reading a new book about trees, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow.  He is reading it on his Ipad, which I guess saves a few trees.  I doubt if I will ever read this particular book, though it does look interesting.  One of the nice things about being a historian is the incredible number of great books that are given to you.  Students, friends, and publishers (hoping you will require their book in a class of 100 students)—everybody gives me books.  And while I love it, I freely admit that I am slightly behind in my reading.  Say… about eight decades.

I’m not reading about trees right now, but I have been thinking about them since my brother told me about that book.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about trees and American history.  As Americans, we have always been influenced by our trees; trees made Americans different from the very start.

First, we had an abundance of wood.  By the time the first colonists came to North America, Europe was running low on trees, and had been for centuries.  European houses used masonry, cut stone, and large timbers.  Construction with these materials required huge amounts of skilled labor.  The way the timbers were used required precision cuts, with pieces fitting together with complex dovetailed joints that needed skilled carpenters.

The first colonists didn’t have enough skilled craftsmen and labor was precious.  Food production was far more important than construction.  A successful pioneer was a jack-of-all-trades, and while he might have lacked skills, he had abundant wood to use.  At first, some pioneers tried to copy stone construction using wood, sometimes even cutting chunks of wood to resemple large stones.  Look at some of the drawings of those early houses.  You find what should be stone tops of columns, cornices, and mantels all imitated in wood.  You'd even find some chimneys made from wood daubed with clay.

As Americans, we used wood at a rate that would've been impossible in deforested Europe. That meant we also needed nails.  These were still the rough cut square nails that man had been using for roughly 3000 years.  We made them in impossible quantities even though they were difficult to make, and so valuable that they could be used as a primitive form of money.  Thomas Jefferson used to make nails for profit when his soil was too depleted to plant crops; he even bought a nail cutting machine from France to help him make nails more efficiently.

Nails were so valuable that when early colonialists moved westward, they used to burn their houses to recover the nails in them.  They were sure to find more wood wherever they moved.  Have you ever heard the expression, “Dead as a door nail?”  Door frames took such a physical pounding every time the door was opened or closed that these rough pioneers would bend the nail over after they drove them through the frame.  This bending made the nails useless for any future use.

And we made more and more nails.  From 1776 to 1851, we cut the cost of nails again and again.  Eventually, America could make a nail for less than the tax alone on European nails.  Then the United States started producing wire nails, and the world changed again:  it was the “nail revolution”.  Today, we make about 2 billion pounds of nails a year.

About the time we started making wire nails, Chicago sprouted as our new gateway to the west. In 1833, Augustine Taylor built St. Mary's church in nearby Fort Dearborn. He managed to put up a 36’ by 24’ church for the incredibly low price of $400, using only unskilled carpenters.

What Taylor did was to eliminate the old mortised beams and fittings. He replaced them with light 2x4s and 2x6s set close together. He used studs and cross-members. He held the whole thing together with nails -- no joints. Regular carpenters swore it would blow away in a high wind.  They were wrong.

Old-timers called this "balloon construction" because the finished building seemed as light and insubstantial as a balloon.  Experienced carpenters spoke of these new buildings with contempt, but the term stuck. These buildings were like balloons, or maybe more like woven baskets. They were light, flexible, and tough. Structural stresses were spread throughout the structure.

So the first baptism at the new St. Mary's church was disturbed by the sound of hammering next door: Taylor's idea had caught on.  And Americans began cutting up trees in record numbers.  Living in your own home became a cornerstone (wood carved of course) of the American Dream.

Ever-ready with a new product, Chicago supplied western settlers with pre-fabricated balloon-frame structures. The Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago, with three warehouses in the heart of the lumber district, sold buildings of "any style, size, or number" on "short notice" to western settlers. Shipped by rail, the building kits contained milled lumber, building plans, roofing shingles, window frames, doors, hardware, and chimneys. The smallest, one-room house measured ten by twelve feet, while the largest home had two stories with eight rooms, pantry, china closet, hall, bathroom, and four closets. Prices ranged from $175 for the one-room house to $3,500 for the eight-room model.

Yes, I remembered of all this during the last week.  I also remembered as a child a baffling mystery I had about trees.  And now, we are back to books.  When I was in the third grade, my mother gave me a copy of Captains Courageous.  I read that book in a fevered rush.  I am still reading about tall ships and the men who sailed on the oceans. 

I can remember reading about those tall, tall masts.  Then I would go outside and stare at the twisted gnarly live oak trees of Texas.  Why didn’t the books explain what kind of machine they used to straighten those trees?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

News From Enema U

It has been a busy month at Enema U.  As the semester ends almost as slowly as a faculty meeting, the Administration has waited until the last few weeks to make several important announcements.  All year long, the powers-That-Be are about as impetuous as a stalagtite, then at the end of the school year, they suddenly wake up.  This is the safest time of the year to make such announcements as most of the faculty is too busy meeting with frantic students answering their desperate questions:

Q.  What do I have to do to get an ‘A’ in this course?

A.   Pray your professor develops amnesia.

Q.  Will the book be on the test?

A.   No.  Unfortunately, none of the textbooks I wanted was available on Kindle, so no one actually bought them.

Q.  What do I have to do to get an ‘A’ in this course?

A.   Invent a time machine, go back about 25 years and introduce your mother to smarter men.

Q.   You teach Mexican history; can you tell me what Cinco de Mayo is all about?

A.   Many years ago, in Mexico City, the Cananea Consolidated Condiment Company exploited the poor Mexican workers, forcing them to labor long hours for small pay.  Every day, the workers would earnestly pray that God would smite the evil Yanqui-owned company.  One day, following a violent earthquake, a giant hole in the ground opened up and swallowed the company’s warehouse.  Even today, tourists gather to stare down into the mayonnaise-filled sinkhole.

Q.   Why did you give me an ‘F’?

A.   I don’t give grades, you earn them.  If I had grades to give away, I would reserve them for the living.

STOP.  Enema U has reached the ultimate in “Distance Education” with the announcement of STOP, a new “Self-Taught Online Program”.  As we all know, the real obstacle to learning is always the professor.  It was bad enough in the old days, when a student was actually required to attend class, attempt to sleep at uncomfortable classroom desks, try to find at least one book in the library that had not been previously colored in by the football team, and ignore the pedantic old fool at the front of the room droning on about something so boring it couldn’t even make YouTube. 

You would think that online classes would have been better, but unfortunately, the professors still posted lectures, notes, and PowerPoint slides—BORING!  Obviously, the problem was still the professor.  Now, with the new STOP system, after the student’s tuition check clears the bank, the Registrar’s office will email each student a specially prepared list of study topics for the student to Google. 

The STOP system has several related benefits.  For every ten professors eliminated from the faculty, Enema U will be able to hire an additional basketball coach.  All of the janitorial staff agrees that the buildings are much easier to keep clean now that no one goes into them.  Several classroom buildings are being remodeled to handle the expected increase in administration personnel.

WIC.  Enema U’s athletic program has decided to remain in the Western Idiotic Conference, even though with the recent departure of the Olympian College of Cosmetology the only remaining member of the conference is the Idaho Academy of Sheep Rustlers.  Only a few years ago, we ponied up several million dollars to join this conference, and have transferred over $4 million dollars every year from academics to athletics since we joined.  Now we find ourselves pretty much alone at the party.  And our date is ugly.

Wait!  There is a method to this madness.  Enema U has worked out a deal with the Sheep Rustlers whereby we will each win the football conference every other year.  In the off years, we will each win the basketball conference.

Even in the years where we don’t win the title, we can still tell the alumni that we came in second while the Sheep Rustlers came in next to last.  Alumni will believe anything and still give money.

SALARY RAISES.  The state legislature has generously given the university faculty and staff their first pay raise in almost 5 years.  Exactly how much of an increase was a difficult decision for the state legislature, but they finally granted us a 2% raise.  Then they raised the tuition on the students and told them it was to pay for the faculty raises.  I don’t think the students believe this, since their tuition goes up every year, but it’s nice to know the administration wants the students to think of us from time to time.

Everyone is getting a cost of living increase of 1%.  The administration has already used up all the other bigger numbers raising our parking fees, retirement contributions, and insurance premiums.  (We still get a special price on season tickets for sporting events—it’s only slightly higher than season tickets for the general public.)

The other 1% will be divided up among the faculty and staff.  While several plans were discussed, eventually it was decided that the most equitable method of distribution was by Scavenger Hunt.  All the employees will be divided into teams and given a list of items to locate.  First successful group back gets the raise.

Unfortunately, here is the list:

  •    A graduating football player
  •    An academic department that can recite from memory its mission statement
  •    A best-selling academic publication
  •    An edible cafeteria meal (food from the athletic dining room not allowed)
  •    A graduating Liberal Arts student who has found a job in his major