Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Proßt Neu Jahr 2009!

Herzliche Freunden, wir wunschen Ihnen ein Gutes Neues Jahr. --that's how the Viennese say it. As it it almost midnight in Wien even now, I suggest you go dig up your copy of the Blue Danube and prepare to waltz.

Closer to home, Family Mojo will be observing a quiet, more modest (in keeping with the times) passing of the old year. Pup-pup is esconced at the vet's so we don't have to worry about loud boom-booms upsetting her (and tempting her to make a jailbreak exit from the yard). We will probably watch Maazel conduct the New York Philharmonic, then make a mad dash to buy fireworks (legal in my front yard b/c I live in an unincorporated area).

Remember to stock up on black-eyed peas and cabbage BEFORE you head out tonight. Few things are as awkward as trying to find an open grocery store on New Year's Day, only to find that they are out-of-stock on such items.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Hazards of Underground Poker

Short version: I was at one of my "haunts" last night and we got hijacked. Which is to say, two men forced their way into the room and pulled pistols and made off with all the available cash. No shots were fired and no one was seriously hurt --the door-minder got two scraped knees from wrestling at the entrance with the intruders. This is why I rarely carry cash to the games; if I lose, I go to the ATM at the end of the evening (never alone) and settle accounts post-haste. I lost no money personally.

Disturbing aspect: poker room robberies are never random acts. Someone knew that there was a game in that location, at that time. (As the holidays approach, some games shut down for lack of players.) As the game had only started very late and had tentatively broken up early in the evening, it had to be someone who had called in during the evening to see if a game was going on. Which means: someone everyone knows acted as a "scout" for these two gangsta clowns. I have my suspicions.

Cardinal Rule No. 1 of Underground Games: don't let in people you don't recognize.

Cardinal Rule No. 2 of Underground Games: see Cardinal Rule No. 1.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A serious question from a not-so-serious-but-very-intelligent atheist

Penn Jillette; slouching toward Bethlehem --not that I always agree with ol' Penn, but there's a money line in here:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that?” [emphasis added]

Words to ponder in the season celebrated as the Advent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

15 questions 9/11 ‘truthers’ now need to answer -

15 questions 9/11 ‘truthers’ now need to answer - some good ammo to throw at your conspiracy enthusiasts.

The Leidenfrost Effect

Hurray for the Leidenfrost Effect: I have Been There and Done That. Sometimes it's good to be an absentminded professor...

I don't know what's more disheartening

Grade 'H'?! More Schools Flunk the 'F' in which we read of the Grand Rapids schools doing away with the "F". I don't know what's more disheartening: that the Grand Rapids superintendent actually believes the fertilizer that's being spread, or that so many comments on the thread agree with him.

"Oh there are lots of intelligent people who don't get good grades." Yes, they're called exceptions to the rule.

We need to do more to signal the students that we care." It's called tough love. Telling the students that they can never fail makes them believe that theirs are lives of entitlement, e.g., "I deserve to pass because I'm a student."

For the record I hate incompletes, which is the functional equivalent of the "H". In my experience only a few of the students bother to follow through with the work. I dread to think of the pressure public school administrators will put on teachers to let students "make up" the work. Most students are bright enough to do the work, they just need to be held accountable from an early age. By the time they get to high school, however, many have indeed fallen through the cracks and have become so thoroughly conditioned that they won't work or make an effort. Don't get me wrong: any good teacher will recognize a student who wants to learn and will do whatever it takes to record the fact that the student did learn, including (on the college level) incompletes. What Grand Rapids proposes is the short path to making it the status quo and not the exception. Therein lies the road to perdition.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What I do over Christmas Break

Plagiarism strikes, I strike back!

It happened again: I busted a student for plagiarism this semester. I looked at the essay for the second exam and I thought, "Geez, this is obviously straight out of Wikipedia," so I did a text search and came up with the essay, word-for-word. Yet generosity and magnanimity overtook me, and I merely awarded zero points for that portion of the exam and wrote some straightforward comments to the student on what had happened. You'd think that the student would either drop the class or beg mercy --at which point I would've made the student rewrite the entire entry in the student's own words.

But no, the student did nothing. Worse than nothing: on the very next exam, the student committed even more blatant plagiarism! This time I wrote in the comments, "This is the second time you've plagiarized; didn't you bother reading what I wrote when I caught you the first time?!? Don't bother coming back to class, you've already earned an automatic 'F' for the course." And the student disappeared from sight without even bothering to cause a scene.

My syllabus is quite explicit: cheating (including plagiarism) will result in an automatic course grade of "F" and possible expulsion from school. And I include a rather specific definition of plagiarism as "taking someone else's words and presenting them as your own." (Courtesy of James Madison University.) So there was absolutely no doubt about things. But the sad truth is that the "F" is probably going to be the worst thing. Few colleges (especially two-year programs) willingly expel students for cheating anymore, unless it's part of a widespread plot. It's far more lucrative instructive to the learning community to make the student retake the course.

Obviously, I am not going to identify the specific individual involved, and here is why. But it does give me fresh material for next semester's orientation.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comparing the Election of 2008 to ...1828

I've skipped a few elections along the way as being less-than optimal for comparison purposes. Also, 1828 is a significant election, as it marks the first election wherein a majority of the electors were chosen by "the people," i.e., state legislatures apportioned electoral votes according to popular vote tallies.

Unpopular incumbent. John Quincy Adams, the incumbent President, had managed to lose a significant amount of popularity by 1828. His vision of expanded federal exercise of power (particularly his ideas for creating a national university and astronomical observatory) had offended those who favored a more limited view of government. He was noted for being largely ineffective as a public speaker when addressing Congress. And, it should be noted, many felt his election was at the least tainted by the so-called "Corrupt Bargain" that gave Henry Clay the position of Secretary of State (then an important stepping-stone to the Presidency [HRC take note!]). Many of the same points could be about G.W. Bush in the recent election; the key point of difference here is that GWB was not running for re-election (claims of "McSame = 3rd Bush Term" notwithstanding) and JQA was standing for a second term.

Economic crisis. Both Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama benefitted from the appearance of a financial crisis at the time of the election. . JQA's decline in popularity (in particular his alienation of key Northern supporters such as Martin Van Buren) stemmed in part to his clueless handling of the debate over what was later termed the Tariff of Abominations. He had agreed to sign the tariff before the details were finalized; his opponents then tried to amend it to death, thus guaranteeing that there would be something in the final version to offend everyone (except for certain New England manufacturers). Jackson's people laid the blame for the ensuing rise in prices at JQA's feet. There may be a distinct parallel here to the subprime mortgage crisis, which some are blaming on Democratic legislators' efforts at pressuring banks into lending to "sub-optimal" clients, then blaming the Republican administration for failing to regulate the markets. (NB Jackson also blamed economic uncertainties on the existence of the Bank of the United States and excessive circulation of paper money, but those issues would not predominate until the 1832 campaign.)

Regional appeal. Jackson was a candidate of the fast-growing West and South. However, he was only able to win the election with the support of the Ohio Valley states and Pennsylvania --plus a majority of the then-proportionately-assigned New York electoral votes. Obama's regionalities have already been noted.

"Modern" campaign tactics. Jackson had spent the previous four years in the wilderness, letting his allies lay the groundwork for his 1828 attempt. John Eaton spent hours writing "anonymous" letters to friendly newspapers, calling Jackson the Washington of the West. Martin Van Buren (whom JQA had alienated) brought the tactics of internecine New York state politics to the national level, including the use of what Jackson would later call "rotation in office" --the spoils system. Jackson waged one of the most advanced campaigns of the antebellum era; JQA was at a disadvantage from the start. Jackson's people recognized the importance of mobilizing voter turnout. Obama spent years preparing to run and out-gunned all of his opponents in voter mobilization, particularly in the registration of new voters. Both candidates also were sure to use the endorsement of a former well-loved President to their advantage: Jackson's people used letters written by Jefferson in the early 1820s to bolster their case, while Obama's people --after the elimination of Hillary Clinton as a rival-- took pains to seem to court the opinion of Bill Clinton and use him in a more-or-less active campaign capacity (though not too active, lest he overshadow the current nominee).

Both candidates positioned themselves as the "people's candidate". For Jackson, this was especially significant in 1828, when for the first time a majority of white males over 21 were not only eligible to vote but had a direct role in choosing a state's electors. Jackson's margin of victory was 56% - 43%, a bit more than Obama's.

--Very busy of late. Had the house interior repainted to cover up the hurricane damage. Many arguments with the insurance company, then with Citimortgage over disbursement issues. Sick baby. Sick mommy. Sick Kaiser. Finals. Courses for next semester. Whiny students. All this and no duck hunting to balance my soul. Ugh ugh ugh.