A Call to Action

I have been thinking a lot lately. I suppose I am a fairly contemplative guy most of the time. I try to glean meaning from the things that I observe in the world around me. I have been struggling with that of late. I just don’t understand why the people that are the nastiest rise to the top. I understand that we are living in a world where we have more access to news than has been the case in the entire history of the world. We know more about what is going on in Europe than our ancestors knew about what was going on in the next state.

Is this a good thing? I think so. It depends on how reliable the information is. If we don’t trust the information it is worthless. If someone manipulates the news, filters it, slants it, it becomes propaganda. When I was growing up propaganda was an emotionally charged word. It was what America’s enemies, the Communists, told their people to hide the atrocities they were committing. It never occurred to us that our own government was guilty of similar cover ups.

In the modern world the problem has evolved somewhat. Sure, governments still spin their news releases but the big culprits are the rich. Corporations hire armies of public relations staff to craft the story that puts them in the best light and then see that it is delivered as written. For the most part, our news channels have become entertainment channels that are more concerned with delivering eyeballs to advertisers than reporting the truth.

And we, the consumers of this mislabeled drivel are not free from blame. We don’t think critically about anything any more. We were schooled by an educational system that has been on a downward spiral for at least fifty years. Educational standards were adjusted to fit the bell curve of the performance of the classes instead of holding them to absolute standards of achievement. Then, when those students were turned out as the teachers of the next generation, they let the standards slip further.

We have tried several strategies to address this problem, with little success. We mandate universal testing only to find that the students are not being taught the fundamental principles of their subjects but rather how to pass the standardized tests on them. Such rote learning does not engender the kind of critical thinking necessary for a democracy.

Then there is the fact that we are so bombarded by information and entertainment we have become complacent. It’s too much trouble to go to the local city council meeting and take an active role in the community. I might miss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or Survivor. That is clearly more important than first hand civic involvement.

It is easy to point out what is wrong. It is hard, and becoming harder, to come up with viable solutions to these problems. Again the problem is, we haven’t been taught critical thinking skills. And those of us that have developed them are typically using them in a narrow scope, namely our professional endeavors.

I feel like the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids, “You kids stay off of my lawn!” I doubt that anyone will listen or if they do that they will do anything about it. I know that I haven’t done anything myself other than write this indictment. It isn’t that these problems haven’t been pointed out repeatedly over the years. It’s just that we still haven’t done anything about it.

Here’s my proposal. Everybody pick one thing that bothers them about the world. Think of some way that you can help make it better. And then do it. If it helps, good for you! But if it doesn’t immediately help, think of something else that you can try. Because in the final analysis, we’ve got to all pitch in and keep trying or just give up and lay down and die.

Expectations

I am a little upset by all the negative press that the nay sayers have been giving the iPad. I haven’t even gotten my iPad yet (I waited for a 3G model) and already I’m being told that it is only a toy. It is not as good as a netbook and much more expensive. I’ll give it to Sign543, he has managed to review the iPad withoug dampening my enthusiasm with his comments, not that they were all positive.

I must say, this feels like when I was a teenager and all my guitar playing friends were getting electric guitars and I was given a classical guitar with a ceramic pickup in it. By the time I actually got a real electric guitar, some of my enthusiasm had been dampened. I ended up being enthusiastic about the guitar anyway because it was so cool. But some of the social coolness of it was squashed by poor timing. I suppose much the same thing will be true with the iPad. After all, many of my friends on the Mac discussion list at work have decided to wait for the 3G version as well.

I have been very busy lately so I haven’t spent as much time studying up on iPad/iPhone development as I was for a while there. I will get back into it but I’ve got so many other responsibilities making demands on my time that it is frustrating. I did find a great resource on iTunes University. It is the complete video lectures from the Stanford University class CS193P on iPhone development.

The Erosion of Educational Standards

The tone of this blog has always been conversational. It seems less pretentious to structure the posts like a conversation, albeit one sided, rather than use the stilted formalism that is advocated by most English teachers. It is not that they are wrong; learning to write within traditional formal constraints is good discipline. At one time, it sent the message that the author was educated.

These days it seems that most writers, particularly technical writers, paid little attention in English class. Or maybe it can be explained by a process of slowly eroding standards. Each new generation of teachers held their students to a more lax standard than that to which they were held.

Another factor is the lack of respect that English receives in the public school system. Science, math, history, all seem to have more direct relevance to success in a modern world that values technological prowess over rhetorical skills. You get the behavior that you reward.

When my grandfather was a teacher back in the first half of the twentieth century, he advocated teaching to mastery. In other words, the student did not move on to new material until they completely mastered the material at hand. There were no such thing as “social” promotions. This resulted in extremely well educated students.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that everyone that puts in the time should be able to get a diploma. This is a bad idea. It cheapens the achievement of those who work hard and master the curriculum to relax our standards and certify those who haven’t earned it. It engenders an attitude of entitlement.

It is also a bad idea for another reason. It has reduced the stature of American secondary education. Students from other countries are still held to traditional academic standards. Consequently, they out perform American students on standardized tests. This isn’t an indictment of the American students’ abilities, rather an indication that they were never challenged to meet their potential. My dad often said, “Always expect the best from your students and they will rarely disappoint you.”

The third and most important factor in the decline of American secondary education is that we refuse to pay for quality educators. Our teachers are so poorly paid that most of the teachers that we end up with are those that can’t get a better paying job in industry. There are some teachers that teach for the love of teaching; those whose salary is a second income or that are independently wealthy. But it is hard to make a living as a secondary teacher most places in America. We are trusting these people with our children. Why aren’t they the best paid professionals in our society?

There has been a movement to hold educators accountable for the education of our children. While I agree with the concept I think it has been poorly thought out and executed. By putting the emphasis on performance on standardized tests, we are forcing teachers to teach students to pass the standardized tests rather than to master the material. By threatening teachers with penalties including loss of their jobs if the students don’t pass the standardized tests we are creating fearful school environments that are actually detrimental to learning.

If we want to reclaim our world supremacy, we must start by paying the right kind of attention to our public school system. Better pay for teachers, less emphasis on numbers, more emphasis on qualitative analysis of student achievements are all part of this right kind of attention.

Aha!

So after watching the reality distortion field (the video of Steve Jobs announcing the iPad), and sleeping on it, I think I may have a solution. I can afford an iPad if I replace my MacBook with a 21.5″ iMac and use the difference between the price of that and the price of a 15″ MacBook Pro and a 24″ Viewsonic external display to buy a 32GB iPad!

I’ve noticed a bunch of people nay saying the iPad today. One person that agrees with me is Steven Fry. I knew he was an Apple fan boy but I was surprised at how astute he was. I think the key fact here is not that the iPad is the best tablet there could ever be. It’s just that it is the first one to “get” what sets a tablet aside from a laptop. It has certainly captured my imagination.

There. I think I’ve got it out of my system now. And now back to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

In which: We explore the author’s obsession with tablet computers

The internet was on the blink last night at our house. Thus, no blog post. This morning, I thought I knew what I wanted to blog about but somehow throughout the day so much happened that I decided to put that topic off for another day. I had forgotten that it was the day that Apple announced their new product. You know, the one that everyone has been talking about for years, the iPad.

I have wanted a tablet computer ever since I read Alan Kay’s description of the dynabook. I wanted one. Later, I read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and the flames of my passion were stoked even higher. I couldn’t afford a Newton but it became obvious that it wasn’t the holy grail after all. I owned 3 different Palm Pilots. They never quite filled the bill.

I’ve been waiting for the Apple tablet, the iPad, for years now. Today, I found out that I can have one, … in 60 to 90 days. Now I’ve got to decide whether I want one enough to pay the Apple premium. I am very intrigued. But it won’t be a laptop replacement. It was never intended to be that. I have been planning to buy a MacBook Pro to replace my aging MacBook. I can’t justify buying both a MacBook Pro and an iPad. Therein lies my quandary.

Of course, the rational side of my brain says it is better to wait and see how things play out. After all you should never buy version one of anything. But it is so damn sexy! I wants it. My precious.

Okay, so I buy the 16GB wifi version. That’s only $500 bucks. But for $600 bucks, I could have the 32GB version and for $700 bucks, I could have the 64GB version. And for $830 bucks I could have the 64GB 3G version. I can’t afford $830 bucks. Lets start over again.

No, let’s not. Once again I will be a responsible adult and buy the MacBook Pro. I’ll wait and see how things pan out. It may be a flash in the pan like the AppleTV. I don’t believe it for a minute but time will tell. Maybe by the time it is actually shipping I’ll change my mind. Even better, maybe I’ll think of a creative way to finance one; write an article; sell a program; get a moonlighting consulting gig. Only time will tell.

Busy Times

I have gotten particularly busy since August. I noticed that I haven’t made a blog post in a very long time. I have had several ideas for blog posts but when I’m thinking them through (usually in the shower in the morning), I don’t have access to a computer. And, when I am sitting at a computer, there are a dozen other things that I am trying to accomplish. This is an attempt to break that pattern and post something, even if it is short and very self referential.

I have become somewhat disillusioned by the primary process of late. I have come to the conclusion that once again there are no good candidates and I’ll end up voting against the worse of two evils. That is very disappointing to me. I really had hoped that someone with principles that I agree with would run this time. Instead, no one with any principles is left in the race. Everyone who is running is owned, lock, stock and barrel by one special interest or another. Or more likely a consortia of special interests.

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Ramble on Writing and a Rant

I find myself in one of two situations a lot. Either I’m sitting here in front of an empty page trying to think of something that I want to write about or I just start typing about what ever comes to mind. In the first case nothing gets written. In the second, I get practice writing at the expense of rambling on about nothing in particular and boring myself and any reader that happens to stumble across my blog to death.

One of the things I like about YouTube is that when I watch a video, especially a vlog, and it inspires a comment, I can start a discussion with the vlogger. One of the things I don’t like about YouTube is the limit on the length of comments. I understand that it’s a free service and all those comments cost money to store. But videos cost money to store and comments take so much less storage. Maybe it’s the fact that it is so much easier to make a comment than it is to make a video which results in the volume of comments far exceeding the volume of video responses. Anyway, the point is I like the dialog.

I have yet to have a comment on this blog that wasn’t spam. I don’t think anybody reads it. I don’t know why I bother posting at all. I could just as easily write this stuff and store it on my computer. I guess it is a combination of hope that someone will read it and a kind of romanticism about contributing to the vast corpora of data available over the internet. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll write something that someone wants to read. That’s the idea behind writing here regularly.

I sure like my MacBook. It has changed my life. I can sit in any room in the house and read my email, write in my blog, watch YouTube or surf the web. I actually do many of the things that I couldn’t find time in front of the computer to do now that I don’t have to sit at my desk to do them. I can sit in front of the TV with Pam or take it to the bathroom with me in the morning. I can take it to bed with me. Let’s face it, I’m a computer junky.

Back on the musing about writing topic, I’m reminded of the essay that Paul Graham wrote that explained that essay writing is exploring ideas. Blogging is a kind of essay writing. If you have the discipline and take the time to edit a blog post it is an essay. If you’re lazy, like me, it is whatever flies off of your fingertips while you are thinking. It is more like the notebook that you use to capture the thoughts that you edit into an essay than it is the final essay itself. But I think it has value. It lets people see your train of thought as it evolves. This could be useful, especially if the train ever goes anywhere.

I’m doing better with the frequency of my posts. I haven’t found the place in my daily schedule that will turn this into a habit but I’m working on it. I am about sick of this theme. I’m either going to make up a theme of my own or more likely find another one on the WordPress site and change over to it. I might just hack on this one a bit. I like the colors, its the photograph that needs to change periodically. I need a new camera.

I need to be independently wealthy. I have so many expensive hobbies. Most of them aren’t that expensive once you get set up. I’ve got most of what I need to make videos now. I could use a microphone here and a mixer there and lights and a green screen and software upgrades. But the point is, I can make videos with what I have already. Those accessories would be nice but they aren’t necessary.

I recently upgraded my Amateur Radio license so that I have operating privileges in a bunch of new segments of the radio spectrum. I could build radios to operate in those segments from kits or from scratch. And, I intend to do that. Part of ham radio that I enjoy is homebrewing (building your own hardware). Currently though, I don’t have any working radios. Now radios aren’t that expensive but they are expensive enough that I can’t afford to just go out and buy one. Even a little general coverage receiver is going to cost somewhere around $100.

Right now, I’m struggling to pay my bills. Actually, I’m struggling to pay my bills because I’m helping my daughter get set up in business. So, I’m paying my bills and part of hers. I know this is a temporary situation but it is frustrating. And then there are the other things that come up like house maintenance, car maintenance, we need new furniture, we need newer cars as the ones we have get older and stay broken more frequently.

I know this has turned into a bitch session but it helps to get these things down where you can look at them. Then you can start working on ways to deal with them. Also, when you list all your problems like this, you get a feeling about their scope. In all fairness though, I need to do a blog about all my blessings to balance out this one a little.