Saturday, December 29, 2012

The End of Facebook

Sooner or later, it seems, every form of communication eventually comes to the end to its usefulness.  Frequently the end is caused by abuse.  When I was a child, my extended family communicated by mail:  postcards and letters.  I still receive mail every day, but these days I routinely sort the collection at the trash dumpster.  There are two mail events I can no longer remember--the last day I did not receive any mail and the last time there was a real letter mixed with the daily flood of junk mail and catalogs from Barn Outlet and Pottery Gluck.

There was a long period when the telephone was the primary means of communications.  I can remember when a long distant phone call (now an obsolete term) was a special event.  A little over four years ago, I received so many phone calls advising me how to vote in the upcoming election that I wandered around the house ripping phones out of the wall.  Now, four years later, I have never gotten around to reattaching those phones.  Without phones, the house has been so much more peaceful that I'm contemplating chopping down the mailbox, too.

The fax machine at work is scheduled to be disconnected.  In the last year, we have received hundreds of offers for cruises, a few unsolicited restaurant menus, and no worthwhile messages whatsoever.  We probably should have unplugged the device years ago, it is inconceivable that there is still a business with a fax machine that doesn't also receive email.

Speaking of email, of course I still use it--I must get a hundred messages from students every single damn day.  While there is an occasional useful message, the vast majority of these are from a recently awakened student asking me about something that is clearly stated in the syllabus.  Between student emails and spam, it is getting harder and harder to find my important business offers from Nigerian widows.

And then, Facebook was born.  And I am beginning to wish it had been aborted.  Not only has Facebook detracted from the true reason for the internet (the endless sharing of cat photos) but it seems to have all but replaced all other forms of family communication.  There has been a noticeable drop in phone calls and email since Facebook has become a part of our lives.

Facebook was a useful form of communication between friends and family for a while, but now, sadly Facebook too, has become so overwhelmed with abuse that it is easy to predict its inevitable demise.  The two topics that every intelligent person is never supposed to bring up in polite conversation--religion and politics--now seem to dominate Facebook.

I get endless posts concerning gun control from people who have never owned guns, posts about abortion from people who can't get laid, and way too many posts about Social Security from people on it.   The latter seem to believe that despite their generation supporting a government that spent like drunken sailors, the only important task left for society is to support them in their interminable declining years.  If the World War II generation was the Greatest Generation, then Ours is the Grating (on my nerves) Generation.

Frankly, the endless public sharing of private opinions is getting tiresome.  People who normally pride themselves on a political philosophy too sophisticated to fit on a bumper sticker will, on Facebook, trivialize profound problems by posting a dozen word opinion that could only be the result of either inbreeding or a higher education.  This rudeness is slowly destroying social media.

Naturally, I have a solution.  The only salvation for social media is anti-social media.  We need a forum reserved exclusively for political and religious rudeness.  I propose that we call the new social media service Septic Tank.  We can reserve Facebook for polite messages between family and friends, reserving the new service for the opinions we would not espouse at a cocktail party.  Then, every time you feel the need to share some profound insight from your imaginary friend--religious or political--you can just drop it in your Septic Tank.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Closed Shop Church

Dateline Chicago

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today stripped the tax-exempt status from 1600 churches that participated in the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" last November.  The pastors deliberately violated the provisions of the tax code commonly called “The Johnson Amendment” that prohibits tax exempt non-profit organizations operating under 501(c)(3) of the tax code from engaging in political activities.  The churches had sought to challenge the constitutionality of the regulations--specifically those provisions that forbid the churches from endorsing political candidates.

On November 3, the pastors of the 1600 churches deliberately endorsed political candidates in the upcoming election, thus setting the stage for a court challenge to the provision that the churches claimed illegally stripped religious organizations of their freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Today, the Circuit Court disagreed and removed the tax-exempt status of the offending churches.  Lawyers for the churches said there would be no appeal of the decision.  According to one of the lawyers, “The churches have decided to appeal to a higher authority.”

In a surprising move, the 1600 churches today dissolved their 501(c)(3) status and immediately re-filed applications with the Internal Revenue Service as members of  501(c)(5) organizations, i.e. as labor unions.

"In this way," said Reverend Bill Clark, the new shop steward of the First Baptist Union of Chicago, "We will be able to continue to our political activities and retain our tax-exempt status.  This union can promise better long-term benefits than any other union!"

According to one of the attorneys acting for the churches, the move could very well be profitable for the newly formed religious unions.  "Remember," said the lawyer.  "Illinois is a closed shop state.  Everyone working in the state will be required to be a member, and their union dues will be automatically deducted from their paychecks.”

Protestant churches are busily reorganizing under the The American Federation of Churches (AFC).  In Boston, the former Archbishop Michael O’Malley--now union president,--announced that the local dioceses would be reorganizing under The Congress of Coordinated Catholic Parishes (CCCP).   

When Reverend Bill Clark was asked if the former churches’ parishioners would support the move to unionization, the new shop steward replied, “Why not?  This state has always supported unions, and this union can promise better longer long-term benefits than any other.  Besides, you can be a member of this union even while you are unemployed.  Hell, you can belong to this union even after you’re dead!”

Union President (Archbishop) O’Malley explained, “After all, all of us work for the same Boss.  We just haven’t met Him yet.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

If This Is A Test—Someone Flunked

It is final exam week at Enema U.  This event produces some mixed emotions from me.  On the one hand, the population of the town drops by some ten thousand students.  This means I can drive to work next week without some hormone enraged student driving so close behind my truck that it looks like he is trying to become my own personal and private proctologist.  For a few weeks, the town is very quiet.

The downside to exam week is all of the exam papers I have to grade.  All semester long, I can delude myself that I am God’s gift to education.  Then I grade the papers and realize that I am just some old fool at the front of the room.  This year is certainly no different.  Please don’t misunderstand me; the majority of my students work very hard and learn despite the meager abilities of the professor they have to endure.  A few, every semester, however turn in tests that indicate they spent most of the semester pursuing interests other than academic.

Students have given me quite a few original answers over the years.  According to one student, the son of Charlemagne was ‘Louie the Slugger’ and Minie Balls (the Civil War era bullet) was the name of a woman pretending to be a man during the war.  I also have been told that the first man to walk on the moon was Walter Cronkite and that Santa Ana was the patron saint of Texas.

A good student under the pressure of the exam suffered a total mental block while trying to remember the word ‘bayonet’.  While writing a stirring account of Joshua Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top, her otherwise brilliant essay had a slight comedic touch when she explained how his men counterattacked down the hill with their “long stabby things”.

Years ago, I had two different students who each wrote essentially the same wild story about the cause of the Spanish American War.  I knew they hadn’t copied each other--they were sitting too far apart--yet each of them had written a crazy story about how Spanish pirates sinking the Bismarck had started the war.  I just had to know how this had happened and had both students come to my office, where they admitted they had studied together for the exam the night before.

“Well, you see, we had your study guide, but neither one of us had a copy of the textbook” one of the students explained.  “So we asked my father and he told us how the war started.”

“By any chance,” I asked, “had your father been drinking?”

“Yes,” the student admitted.

“Then tell your father he flunked, too.”

I have never been able to explain an error that seems to come up every year.  Some student will explain in great detail how the military victories of Robert E. Lee were due to his brilliant tactic of hiding his army up among the branches of tall trees and waiting until the Union army was passing below.  Then—without warning—the Confederates would leap out of the trees, down on the unsuspecting Blue Coats.

I cannot explain how this peculiar answer seems to reappear annually.  I have carefully searched all my lecture notes on the Civil War, and while I do mention trees occasionally (fighting in forests, etc.) not once do I have a single soldier climb any tree.  Is there a movie or a television show that depicts something like this?  I am open to suggestions.

Research papers are not much better: using the wrong word is a frequent problem for students.  For two of the more commonly confused words, I have the world's smallest PowerPoint presentation.  The first slide shows a photo of a soldier  in a black silk uniform, a member of the Viet Minh, commonly called the Viet Cong.  Underneath the photo is the caption:  Guerrilla Warfare.  The second, and last slide shows a still from the movie Planet of the Apes, a gorilla on horseback carrying a rifle.  The caption is:  Gorilla Warfare.  Unfortunately, my students seem to use both phrases interchangeably.

This semester, I co-taught a course with Professor Holland.  One of the students had a vocabulary problem that Professor Holland corrected artistically.  Sadly, the student never picked up his corrected paper.  Maybe he will read this blog. 

For years, I have included a cartoon on the bottom of my final exams--usually a single panel ridiculing either education in general or something dealing loosely with the subject the class has studied.  What I intended to be something of an ice breaker, turned out to be the actual test for one student.  The student (I’ll call her Lisa because that was her name) wrote for two hours and filled an entire ‘blue book’ about the cartoon.  She actually din not answer a single question on the test!

Unfortunately, this semester was no different than previous ones.  Somewhere in New Mexico is a student who believes that an ‘ironclad’ is not an armored vessel from the Civil War but the type of shield used by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. 

The biggest surprise though was a student who completely misunderstood the test.  Ignoring the review session, verbal instructions, and even the written instructions, one of my students surprised me with a unique solution to the first section of the test.

While the student did use eight terms in his impromptu matching, and I am impressed by his unique-though ineffective—method of problem solving, I was shocked to learn that Oliver Perry suffered from such an obscure medical condition.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Paris of the Prairies

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting Fort Worth, I got a chance to visit the old stockyards.  When I was a child, the city was nicknamed Cowtown and was the major source of beef for a large portion of the nation.  The holding pens were full of steers, the area hotels were packed with purchasing agents and ranchers, and the cowboys in the local bars drank Lone Star Beer and made million dollar deals.  Well, to be honest, the area had another quality—a certain smell—but the locals knew it was a natural by-product of four-legged gold.

Actually, Fort Worth had a lot of nicknames, and most of them were somewhat colorful.  In the 1870’s, a blue norther ripped through Texas and damn near froze ever last steer in the state.  (For the Yankees among the readers, that is pure Texan and translates to “A blizzard froze the cattle.”) Within months the town was in such a bad way that a Dallas newspaper published a story about a panther taking a nap on Main Street in front of the court house.  If the paper thought the town would take offense, it was wrong.  The townspeople adopted the moniker “Panther City” with a certain amount of pride.  To this day, the local police have a panther on their badges and the panther icon can be seen on local business signs.

When the railroad extended its tracks to the town, businesses flourished and mills, factories, and meat packing plants came to Fort Worth.  It was a fast growing community and was quickly called the “Queen City of the Prairies”. 

This success, however, brought with it a few problems.  Within twenty years, Fort Worth was celebrated for its stock yards—and equally famous for what was called “Hell’s Half Acre”, a red light district just outside the rail head that had been established for the cattlemen.  The Half Acre was infamous for saloons, gambling parlors, cut-rate hotels, and other assorted adult playgrounds designed to efficiently separate a cowboy from his wages.  To the cowboys, the Half Acre was heaven, but to just about everyone else, the town itself was called the “Paris of the Prairies”. 

A newcomer to the town could stand on a street corner of Hell’s Half Acre—now about five times larger than its name indicated—and watch infamous gunfighters, local courtesans, card sharps, cattle barons, railroad tycoons, and buffalo hunters all walk past in just about the time it took to have his pocket picked.  Pick the right day, and you could have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wander by after they had their photo taken.

The town had more than its share of share of colorful—though violent—characters.  The locals tried to clean the town up, so they hired Fort Worth’s first marshal, a notorious lawman named ‘Longhair’ Courtright.  Courtright did a great job, sometimes arresting up to 30 men in one night.  Unfortunately, the town quickly found that fighting crime also hurt business and so they fired Courtright.  Within a few years, Courtright--now turned to crime--crossed paths with Luke Short and the Half Acre became the location for one of the most famous gunfights of the Old West.

Short, a close friend with such infamous gunfighters as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holiday, had sold his interest in the Long Branch Saloon of Dodge City fame, and moved to Fort Worth to become a partner in the White Elephant Saloon.  When Courtright tried to extort protection money from Short, a confrontation was inevitable.  The two met on Main Street and Courtright drew first, but he was slowed down when his gun got caught on his watch chain.  Short fired first, blowing the thumb off Courtright’s gun hand, making it impossible for the man to cock his single action revolver.  Courtright then executed a trick shot maneuver known as the “border shift”, tossing his gun from his right hand to his left.  (I’ve seen this trick done successfully on television quite a few times.)  By the time the gun got to Courtright’s left hand, Short had shot him in the chest four times.

But that was the old Fort Worth.  I visited the new city, and while I personally would have enjoyed seeing Luke “King of the Gamblers” Short shoot someone on Main Street, it probably would have been bad for the local business. The area around the old Stockyards is beautiful.  Now the saloons are great restaurants, the old hotels are trendy establishments for tourists, and what used to be adult pleasure palaces are upscale antique stores.  I was impressed.

I guess the only thing that really surprised me was the almost total lack of livestock left in the stockyards.  In a stockyard where there were once thousands of steers, now there was one lonely longhorn—but he had a job.  For $5, you could sit on him for about 15 seconds while you had your picture taken.  And you had to use your own camera.  There was a long line waiting to sit on that steer.

What a business plan--no overhead, no operating expenses, and only a single employee who works for grass.  And that steer earns a larger salary than most tenured professors at Enema U.  And while he is just as full of BS as the average professor, at least he has an excuse.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Warren Burnett, A Texas Original

Thirty years ago, I was working quietly one Friday afternoon on a new Unix computer network in my store in Galveston.  It was such a beautiful day that the entire town had found something to do other than work--on an island in the summer, weekends start early.  We hadn't had a customer in the store for over an hour, so it was a great time to spend a little time learning something new.  The Fortune 32:16 System was state-of-the-art, and my two technicians and I needed a little peace and quiet to learn the peculiarities of a new system.

So, I was a little peeved when the old man showed up on a bicycle.  An island collects characters (hell, I was there) and this had all the signs of a drunk, a crackpot, or another schizophrenic homeless person.  The store had already semi-adopted one of the latter: Elijah.  Elijah lived on the street and ate out of the dumpsters he found on a regular route around the island’s business district.  He was harmless, but would not let anyone get within 20 feet of him.  At the same time, he had once been a respected CPA before he had some kind of mental break.  Elijah was capable of walking up to your car window while you were stopped at a traffic light and saying something like, “If you re-file your last quarterly return with the state, you should get a nice reduction on this quarter’s remittance.”  Then he would run off to look for chicken in the Colonel’s dumpster.

Obviously, Elijah had spent a little time in my dumpster reading my mail.  I liked Elijah, so we left cans of tuna fish and bottles of Coca Cola on the loading dock for him.  But, while I could tolerate Elijah, I had no intention of the store becoming the clubhouse for all the lost boys on the island—my business was to sell computers, not play Peter Pan.  So, I wasn't happy to see this new character ride up.

He was a short old man in khakis with a dirty t-shirt and a long-billed fisherman’s cap, and was riding a heavy 1950’s Schwinn bicycle with an enormous ice chest tied to the front basket.  He needed a shave and it was more than obvious that he had drunk his breakfast.  He parked the bike, came about 5 feet into the store, and then loudly counted the number of people in the store.

“One, two, three.  Yes, three.” he said.  Then he went back outside to the bike’s ice chest, removed 4 bottles of beer, and brought them into the store and gave each of us a bottle.  I was beginning to like the man a little better.  There are only two types of beer:  those I buy and OP (Other People’s).  I prefer OP.

He was friendly, and despite being a little drunk, he asked the same questions that most of my customers asked.  Which computer was the best, could it do word processing, which printer was the best, etc.  I humored him and showed him the kind of computer that I owned personally.  And when he asked how much it cost, I gave him a ball park figure of $4000.  He nodded his head and left, pedaling his ancient bicycle down the sidewalk.  The three of us went back to work on the Fortune computer.

The next afternoon, a very large car pulled up outside the store.  It was a Checker Cab that had been repainted an electric blue and converted for personal use.  While it was being driven by a young woman about 30, we were a lot more interested in the well-dressed man in the back seat: he was the drunk from the day before.  And when the man came into the store, he gave me a check for $4000 and asked when I could deliver his computer.

The man was Warren Burnett, the legendary West Texas defense lawyer--someone soon to be a good friend and one of my best customers.  I think I eventually sold him over a dozen computers--quite a few of which he had us deliver to people as gifts.

Warren was famous for his cars, his planes, his celebrated trials, and for the staggering amount of good whiskey he could consume.  When Warren was working, he didn't drink—but when he wasn't working he could put away an amazing amount of alcohol.  His main office in Odessa was a giant dome.  When Warren hired my company to install computers in his office (including one on his desk) I was amused to find that he had converted the knee well under his desk into a private wet bar.

I remember one of Warren’s pet peeves was that while drinking, he would watch late night television and fall victim to those middle of the night infomercials.  The next day, he wouldn't remember much of the night before, but in about two weeks the UPS truck would show up and deliver a dozen Ronco Pocket Fishermen or a case of Ginzu knives.  I visited his office one day and he had a pile of Buttoneers on his desk.  Warren always was generous to a fault: even while drunk he always bought enough toys to share with his friends.  He always claimed he was going to sue these companies for preying on late night drunks, but I guess he never found the right precedent.

In his early days, Warren had been a prosecuting attorney--one of the very last in Texas who got a jury to give the death penalty for the crime of rape.  Then Warren became a defense attorney handling high profile murder and drug cases.  His quick wit and sharp tongue could filet a district attorney and he was famous for winning the cases that could not be won.

Lesser known were the cases that Warren Burnett defended for free.  He also represented Mexican-Americans fighting for school integration in the Rio Grande Valley, the United Farm Workers Union in West Texas, and various liberal causes in Austin, the state capital

The tenth anniversary of his death was just a few weeks ago.  Warren Burnett died the way he had lived: he was sitting with friends, rocking on a Texas porch with a bottle of beer in his hand, when he had a heart attack.  I bet he finished the beer before he died.