Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Classroom Oops!

My teaching career has come to an end.  From now on, my lectures will be confined to this blog and my to long-suffering wife, The Doc.  This brings my career full circle, since when I started teaching history, my first classes were two and a half hour sessions on Saturday.  To practice, i used to try out these lectures on the birds in the back yard or on The Doc.  As I remember it, the birds did not flee as rapidly as my wife did.

In total, I think my teaching career was pretty good.  All my classes “made," my evaluations were pretty good, and, in over two decades, I did not miss one single class due to illness.  In that time, I taught 29 course titles—everything from the History of Technology, to the History of Naval Warfare.  Over half of those classes were taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  It was a hell of a lot of fun, and in every class, I learned far more than my students did.  Frankly, if I had known how much more you learn preparing to stand at the front of a classroom—as opposed to sitting in one of the desks—I would have skipped the student phase of my education and just started as a professor.

Still, not everything that happened in those classrooms went as planned.  There were days that I just could not get things to go right, and, here, I’m not talking about power failures, or fire drills during exams, or similar accidents.  I mean the times when I—all by myself—totally screwed up a lecture. 

For years, I taught the same, exact class, twice a day.  For reasons that escaped me, the university preferred to have two classes of 35 students instead of one class of 70 students.  Usually, before every class, I would spend about an hour reviewing my lecture notes, making certain that the PowerPoint slides—if any—were synced with the lecture, and generally making sure I was ready.  You would think that giving the same lecture twice in a row would be a no-brainer and, at the very least, the second class would be a home run; it should go flawlessly.

Nope—It rarely seemed to work out that way.  Usually, both classes would go well, but not always.  Sometimes, despite having a well-prepared lecture, it felt like I was speaking an unknown language:  I simply could not reach the students (And it seemed to happen in the second class about as often as in the first).  I’m still not sure what went wrong in those classes.

Then there were classes where the problem was obvious and the fault was clearly mine.  On an exam, I once wrote a question that asked the students to explain the dichotomy involving the Aztecs' fascination with poetry or delicate, beautiful art, and their incredibly violent religious sacrifices and their methods of fighting wars.  Unfortunately, the test answers did not reveal the students' knowledge of the Aztec empire, as I had intended.  What the test answers did reveal was that the students believed that the word, ‘dichotomy,’ was the first step in a male-to-female sex change.  Several students even graphically described this gruesome form of religious sacrifice!

In total, I’ve given about 5,000 history lectures, and while I’m sure a lot of them were examples of deathless prose, I’m also sure that a few of them were, well….total shit.  While talking about the Greek Hoplite Phalanx, I described how the front ranks of soldiers held their spears horizontally as they moved forward.  The rear ranks however, held their spears vertically and as they moved forward, would drive their spears down into the bodies of fallen enemies to finish them off.  The rear ends of their spears had brass pointed butt spikes designed for this purpose.  Well, that’s what I should have said.  What I actually said was:  “As the phalanx moved forward over the bodies of their enemies, with all their might, the hoplites drove their spears downward, each spear equipped with a butt plug…”

Boy, those Greeks were mean…

I’m not the only professor whose mouth has operated faster than his brain.  A friend of mine has told me about a few of his "verbal adventures" in class.  He once told an auditorium full of students that “the Jurassic Period was a long period noted for their giant orgasms.”  He meant to say, “giant organisms”, but I’m sure the students preferred the former.

This same professor, during a lecture on climatology, once accidentally substituted “giant warm wet air mass” with “giant warm wet hairy ass”.  Only now are we beginning to recognize the true dangers of global warming.

One of my favorite students came to me just before class started one day and asked if his father, who was visiting from Australia, could observe my class.  Of course, I said "yes" and proceeded to give my lecture on Argentina's Juan Peron.  Only after class was over did my students tell me that for the entire lecture, my brain had never once come up with the word “Argentina” but had substituted “Australia” at least a dozen times.  The students hadn’t said anything, because “we knew what you meant.”  Somewhere there is one father who wishes he hadn’t paid so much tuition to send his child to a school where they think Buenos Aires is located in Australia.

While discussing the Mexican underground newspapers during the Mexican Revolution, I could tell that several students were unfamiliar with the term.  “Underground newspapers are unofficial papers that the authorities frown on and would like to suppress.”  I explained.  “This campus, for example usually has one or more unofficial newspapers that are critical of the administration.  I’ve lost track, what is the name of the current underground paper?”

One of the seniors promptly said, “Lately, it’s called Random Thoughts by Mark Milliorn.”

In spite of our best efforts, it sometimes hits us hard that we certainly can’t reach every student.  When I started teaching, I was assigned lots of survey courses.  These are introductory history classes usually taken by freshmen and sophomores with the average class size between 75 and 100 students.  It was final exam time, and a student came to my office practically in tears because he had overslept and missed the exam.  I agreed to let him take the test, but he couldn’t remember the course number of his class.

“No problem,” I said.  “If the course was about Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, you are in Western Civilization.  If the course was about Pilgrims, George Washington, and the Revolutionary War, you are in Early American History.”

“The Egyptians,” he said and I handed him the appropriate test. 
An hour later, he handed the test back to me, and I was a little surprised to see that he had scored phenomenally low.  The reason, of course, was that it turned out he was actually enrolled in the American History class.  After thinking about this situation for a while, I finally gave him a failing grade in both classes.

The above examples are bad enough, but without a doubt, the worst verbal adventure that ever happened in my classroom was done by a student.  We were in an American Military History class, and the class was deep in discussion about the French and Indian War.  Several students were passionate about their point of view and defending it vigorously.  One non-traditional student (that’s educational code for an older student—probably retired) suddenly referred to the war with such an obscene and racist label that it stunned the class into absolute silence.  Luckily the class was about over and I let the students escape so they (and I) could recover our sensibilities.

However, that was neither the end of it nor was that the truly horrible part of the problem:  the phrase the student had used had branded itself into my brain!  Now this was a phrase so vile and so hateful, that I wouldn’t run five miles out into the desert and whisper it to a jackrabbit.  Simply speaking these words out loud would end anyone’s career immediately.  If some poor soul on the International Space Station muttered it in his sleep, he would probably never be permitted to land on Earth again. 

But I knew the phrase, it was in my head and refused to leave.  I was terrified that at some point, those words might escape.  I discussed the problem with a colleague who laughed at me initially, but a week later told me he was having nightmares where he had used the phrase in one of his classes.  To this day, he cannot get the words out of his brain.   For years, I still lectured about the French and Indian War, but I always spoke very carefully...and slowly.

Now that my teaching career is over, I can probably relax.  And my friend has announced his imminent retirement, so he is probably safe as well.  I’m fairly sure the curse will die with us, unless….I receive a certain amount of hate mail each week.  Maybe I should email each of those senders back.  (At least one of them has to be a teacher.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Star Spangled Banner

Historians are often accused of being the most boring people on earth.  Either we are telling you what you already know, or are telling you something you don’t want to know.  Today, I will probably do both.  Everyone knows "The Star Spangled Banner", but few people listen to it.  It is a story about a battle and it is also a history lesson in song.

So now let me tell you how it came to be written.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the United States was caught in a battle between the two great countries of Europe: Great Britain and France.  The primary issues were freedom of the seas and free trade.  A new and inexperienced government was no match for the schemes and plans of the two larger, much older countries.

In particular, British ships were stopping American ships and “pressing” our sailors into serving on their ships.  Relatively few men volunteered to serve on British ships, so this form of kidnapping into what amounted to slavery was common.  British military ships rarely even docked for fear that the crew would escape.

This led the United States to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, even though militarily, America was absolutely no match for the powerful country.  Surprisingly, for the first two years of the war, the new American country did fairly well, in that if it hadn’t won the war, it hadn’t lost, either.

Great Britain didn’t have time to worry about the United States because she was busy fighting for her life with Napoleon's army.  Even as the Americans began mobilizing, Napoleon invaded Russia.  Most military experts expected the diminutive emperor to be successful, and soon in control all of Europe, which would have left Great Britain isolated.  

For a while, America held its own, with small naval victories, such as Oliver Hazard Perry's defeat of the British on Lake Erie.  He sent an electrifying message to his country, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  It was only a matter of time, however, before the large British Navy would be successful.

Nor was the new nation completely unified in its resolve to fight the war.  Some state militias refused to fight outside of their native states.  New England, hard hit by the economic boycott placed on Great Britain, threatened to secede from the Union.  Many merchants ignored the boycott and continued to trade with their country’s enemy.

Before the United States could really prepare for war, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and forced to withdraw.  Shortly afterward, he was forced to abdicate.  Now, Great Britain was able to focus on winning the war against the United States and move its vast military assets from Europe to North America.  A three-pronged attack was planned, to divide the United States and force its surrender. 

       The northern prong was to attack south from Canada and seize the vital ports of New England.
       The southern prong was to take New Orleans and sail up the Mississippi, effectively cutting off the west.
       The central prong was to attack and burn Washington, DC, and then seize Baltimore which was the largest port south of New York.  Since the vast majority of Americans still lived close to the coast, if Baltimore was taken, the country would be effectively split in two.

The outcome of the war and the fate of the new nation depended on the success or failure of this central prong.

As the British forces neared Washington on August 24, 1814, most of the defending militia fled.  President Madison frantically rode on horseback throughout the night, trying unsuccessfully to rally some form of defense.  The British troops easily moved into the city, burning most of the government buildings.  When they arrived at the White House, they found the dining room set for a fancy dinner.  After they toasted the King with the president's wine, they set fire to the building.

As the British moved toward Baltimore, they found a thousand men blocking the path into Fort McHenry.  Even today, you can look at the satellite photos and see how the fort commands the harbor.  For the British plan to be successful, the fort had to be taken.

As the British moved through Maryland, they had arrested William Beanes, an elderly physician.  His lawyer, Francis Scott Key had boarded the British ship where Beanes was imprisoned to plead for his release.  The British captain agreed to release the physician, but only after the battle for the fort was over, so two Americans witnessed the entire battle from the unique perspective of a British ship.

The attack on the fort began the evening of September 13, two hundred and two years ago this week.

As the twilight deepened, the two Americans could see the American flag flying over Fort McHenry.  But after the sun set, all they could see were the red trails of the British Congreves rockets and the exploding rounds of the British shells.  As long as the fight continued, the two men knew that the fort was still fighting.  A few hours before dawn, the fighting stopped.  Had the fort surrendered?...Or had the British quit their attack?

The only way for the two men to discover who had won the battle was to wait for the sun to rise and see if an American or a British flag flew over the fort.  It must have been a very long night.

We can only imagine the tension the two men must have felt as they waited for the sun to rise.  Over and over, the two men must have asked each other, “Can you see the flag?  How about now, can you make out the flag?”

After the battle, Key wrote a poem recounting the night of the battle.  Originally called “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, the poem was published by newspapers across the nation.  Later, he took the poem to a music publisher adapted the it to fit the tune “To Anacreon In Heaven”, a British tune usually associated with drinking.  This was the second time that Key had used the tune to turn one of his poems into a song.  Interestingly, the earlier song had also alluded to a ‘Star Spangled flag”.

"Anacreon In Heaven" is a slightly different tune than the national anthem we know today.  You can listen to it here, to compare:

By the time of the Mexican-American War, the song had already become an unofficial de facto national anthem, but did not receive official recognition until Congress based a bill designating it as such in 1931.

Now that I have explained the background, let’s actually look at the words.  The first verse is usually the only verse that most people know, and it only tells part of the story.  As the song starts, it is Doctor Beanes asking the question.  Here are the words, and you can sing them to yourself.

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The ramparts mentioned are the thick walls of Fort McHenry.  Now it is a shame that this is the only stanza that is commonly sung for it leaves us with an unanswered question.  Is the flag still standing.  The second stanza gives an answer, an answer that most Americans have never heard.

On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep.
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

"The towering steep" is again, the protective walls of the fort. The answer, of course, is that the attack has failed and the fort is still in American hands.  The grand strategy of the British has failed and all they can do is sail back down the Chesapeake and withdraw.

The third stanza shows Key, utterly victorious, gloating over the British defeat.  We can be fairly sure that the two men did not act this way while on the British ship, or they might never have been released.  This verse is decidedly anti-British, understandably so at the time, but after the two World Wars, when the British were our allies, this verse stopped being sung, but here are the words: 

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution. 

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Of course, the reference to hireling and slave refers to the fact that Americans fought as volunteers to a country they owned.  Neither mercenaries, nor men serving their master the king, but they fought as independent men.  In the United States, men were not shanghaied or pressed to serve in ships, but voluntarily joined crews.  Prospective crew members could even inspect a ship and talk to other crew members before enlisting.  Nor were captains of ships afraid to dock their ships lest a crew escape.

When Key wrote these words, the only country in the world with a volunteer military was the United States.  Our soldiers and sailors fought because they wanted to, because they believed in the causes their country was fighting for—not because they were subjects to a monarch who owned them and their country.

The last verse—the most beautiful of the four verses—is a sincere hope for the future.  Though rarely sung, when it is, it is usually sung slightly slower than the other verses, as if it was a prayer.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n - rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto—"In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Once again, the song stresses that the Americans are freemen who are fighting for a cause they both understand and believe in.

Now that you know what the song means, I hope you will listen to it with more respect the next time you hear it.  It should mean a lot more to us than simply being a preamble to “Play Ball!”

Note.  Like many of my blog posts, this started out as a lecture for a history class.  Much of the original idea and quite a lot of the material, came from several writings of Isaac Asimov.  After twenty years of giving this lecture, I no longer know who wrote what.  If you liked part of it, it was probably his. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Voter Fraud

Voter fraud is in the news again.  It seems that several models of electronic voting machines are susceptible to being hacked, perhaps throwing the election to the other unqualified and much despised candidate.  While this is not really the topic that I want to discuss, I do have a suggestion:  Unplug the machines from the internet and manually add up the reports from each machine.   Tallying the final results will take longer, but trust me, this is not an election where anybody is desperate to hear the results. 

There is all kinds of voter fraud.  In 2004, Florida determined that at least 100,000 of its registered voters were also registered to vote in other states (chiefly the states of New York and Georgia).  While it proved impossible to get an exact number, the states cooperated and determined that some voters had indeed registered in both states.  And for decades, the number of registered voters in Mississippi exceeded the state’s population.  Today, it is estimated that 1.8 million deceased people are registered to vote in the upcoming election.

And just a few minutes ago, I heard of a new—and weird—form of voter fraud.   Several states have such a lengthy early voting period, that by the time this blog post is online, voting will have already started in several states.  The problem is that--regardless of when you vote--you must be alive on Election Day for your vote to be valid.  And with an early voting period of two months, there are a predictable number of people who won’t still be around on Election Day.

Personally, I don’t think that any of this adds up to a significant number, and I’m not worried about it.  When you get right down to it, I’m not worried about any form of voter fraud: I just do not believe that it is a significant problem.  This is a leap of faith for a Texan;  in the Lone Star State, as I was growing up, I was heavily steeped in the lore of “Landslide Lyndon” and a few of his friends.  El Paso once had an election in which the number of votes cast was three times the number of registered voters!

While I am sure there are still isolated cases of voter fraud, they probably do not favor any one political party, but rather, statistically cancel each other out.  (Of course, if it is done well, you will never know the voter fraud occurred.)

The problem is that quite a few people are convinced that voter fraud actually is a problem.  There is not much in the way of proof available, but that is not the problem.  If people actually believe that American elections are in any way corrupted, then we do indeed have a problem. 

Every American should have the right to believe that his vote is important and that his vote matters.  Today, the issued that probably upsets the most voters, however, is not how much voter fraud might be occurring, but the issue of voter identification.

Somehow, this issue has deeply divided this country.  While you have to show an ID to board a plane, check out a library book, or buy pain or cold medication from a pharmacy, in almost half the states of the US, no identification is necessary at the polls. 

I understand the arguments against voter ID, and at least part of me agrees.  I don’t like showing an ID, and perhaps getting an ID might put a hardship on some people, but I thought I might share a little information on the subject that I found surprising.

Mexico has required a government-issued ID card since the 1990’s.  And Mexico adopted the cards for a simple reason:  their citizens no longer believed their elections were fair and honest.  Mexico had a long tradition of electoral crooks known as Mapaches, or raccoons, who went about stuffing and stealing ballot boxes.  The new ID has been widely accepted by the citizens and helped foster a feeling that democracy works in the country.

Interestingly, several Latin American countries started using voter ID as a means of insuring that the votes of minorities were included.  This view is polar opposite of what many who oppose voter ID in the United States believe.

As far as I have checked, every country in North and South America requires an ID of some form, with a photo.  The only country that does not is the United States, where thirty-three states have some form of identification requirement.  The laws in five of these states are being challenged in federal court.

In several countries, Argentina is an example, voting is mandatory.  When you vote, a notation is made on your ID card.  If a policeman examines your card and notices that you did not vote, you can be fined.  The system is not perfect, especially in poorer countries.  The poor in countries like Bolivia have a difficult time establishing their identity, but the country is making progress in fixing this problem.

Not only does all of Europe require an identification card to vote, but it seems to be true all over the world.  In the entire world, the only country I can find, other than the United States, that does not require an identification card before you can vote is the Philippines.   If you are voting there, you do not have to show an ID, unless an election official asks to see it.

I found a few countries that would allow provisional voting without an ID, giving you time later to prove citizenship.  And several countries would allow two or more citizens with proper identification to sign an affidavit testifying citizenship for a third party.  But, I found no country that would allow people to vote without a form of identification.

Other than United States.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Observations From a Bench

For obvious reasons, my doctors have me walking a lot more than I used to.  Walking without a destination is boring, yet when I actually walk somewhere, everyone yells at me.  The other day, I walked to the local mall, but was too tired to walk home.  When I called The Doc, my wife, for a ride home, for a little while it looked like I was going to have to live at the mall.

“Are you trying to die?”, she asked.  “Why are you pushing it?”  Actually, it took a while before she said this, for most of the trip home she wouldn’t talk to me.

Of course I’m trying to die early.  That’s why I have spent the last ten years eating what I call "the goat puke diet".  If fish and chicken are honorary vegetables—and I believe they are—then I have been a vegetarian for a decade.  In a desperate attempt to lower my cholesterol, I no longer can remember what steak or milk taste like.  In the end, it didn’t matter, genetics won out over a diet that was better suited for a compost pile than my digestive system.

So, I’m walking a lot.  Actually, it is only a little, unless you too have had a bypass.  If you have had one, then you know what it's like to climb Mount Everest--at least if you laid it on its side.  (And flattened it a little).  While it might be strange for a person who lives in a mountainous state to say this, I currently believe that hills should be made illegal.

I have learned the exact location of every bus stop bench within two miles of my house.  As far as I can tell, there are far too many buses and far too few benches.  I have yet to see a bus drive by with more than four passengers, so it is rather obvious that the town is running a transit system at a huge loss.  Naturally, I have a suggestion:  For the next month, they should take the names of all the bus passengers, then sell the buses and just buy those few riders who actually use the service their own cars.  With the balance of the savings, the city should purchase more benches.

Actually, I have not yet encountered anyone sitting at one of the benches who was actually waiting for a bus.  The benches are being used by joggers, by skate boarders, and by a whole gaggle of elderly people who have been sent out to walk in the hot New Mexico sun.  People like me. 

Sitting on a bench alongside a busy street is a surprisingly good place to pass the time while thinking deep thoughts.  Deep Thoughts.  It is also a great place to wheeze and try to cough up a lung from the exertion of having walked a whole block. 

Evidently, the economy in southern New Mexico is slowly improving.  John D. MacDonald, the prolific author, once postulated that the best way to gauge the economy of an area was to plant yourself and observe traffic.  Count the number of cars that need body work or obvious repair.  I don’t remember what a passing score was, but in my decidedly non-scientific experiment, I only saw one car in need of serious body work, and it belonged to the local police department.

I’ve also observed that no one knows what bike lanes are for.  My walk was in the middle of the day, so this may explain why I saw absolutely no one riding a bike.  Bike lanes were used by people as a turn lanes, by the phone company for parking, and by that dented police car's occupant to give some poor soul a ticket.  If you actually tried to ride a bike in the "Bike Lane", you’d probably get run over.

Nor would I try to use any of the marked crosswalks.  One of those is directly in front of my house, and in the thirty years that I have lived there, I think I have seen someone stop for a pedestrian in it twice.  If someone did actually stop, most likely it would be to lure someone out so they could run over them.  Several of the cars seem named for this kind of violence:  Dodge, Probe, Ram, Diablo, and Fury.  Then again, if car names indicated how they would be used, the Hummer would have been a lot more popular.

Why are most of the people who are out walking "for their health" smoking cigarettes?  And why do they invariably flick the butts into other people’s front yards?  Are they mad at the people who don’t smoke?  I personally think that if you catch someone flicking a cigarette butt into your yard, you should be allowed to run over them with your car (but I might be a tad anti-social because of the lack of oxygen to my brain from walking too far).

By now, you must be wondering exactly why I have spent so much time sitting on this bench when I am supposed to be exercising.   Shortly before I decided I needed a long rest, that dented police car stopped in the bicycle lane and the policeman inside got out to talk to me.  He was very nice, very polite, and quite obviously thought I was very drunk.  It seems that I had not been walking too straight a line down the sidewalk.  It didn’t take very long to convince him that I was just stupid and not drunk, however.

He didn’t offer me a ride home, unfortunately!