Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Day the Python Pooped

Here is another story that I told seventh-grade students in science class. It is among many other stories that are found in my book, Four on the Floor.

One of our esteemed science teachers at the high school has a pet in his class room. It is a huge snake. It is a python named Monty, of course. I suppose Monty must be around twelve to fifteen feet long and he is big through the middle, at least six inches wide. That means he would wear a belt about a foot and a half long.

Years ago, Monty would stay very quiet until the bell rang, and then he would look around excitedly when a new class would come in. He was younger and smaller in those days, and the boys and girls would take him out of his cage and would pet him during class. He liked that. But now, he is too big and too strong and heavy to put back into his cage, so he seldom gets out unless his teacher takes him out for a “stroll.”

Nowadays Monty just dreams away the hours, with a kind of smile on his face as though he has just eaten a third-grader.


Speaking of eating, I guess you know pythons eat about once a month. And I guess you also know what else they do? That’s right. They poop once a month, too.

Well, It was my luck to have to go into Monty’s classroom the day he had pooped. I was his substitute teacher. It was a cool day and all doors and windows in the place were tightly shut. Thus, the smell from Monty’s cage was rather dreadful and it filled up every corner of the large laboratory. It would bring tears to the eyes of a strong man. There were dead bugs on the floor all around the cage where Monty’s aroma had slain them.

What else could I do? I opened all the doors and windows and turned on the fan to suck out as much of the perfume as possible. Of course, that made the room cold. When students came in, they noticed the cold. They rubbed their arms to reduce the size of their goose bumps. It didn’t take long for them to figure out what was going on.

As the boys and girls filed in, they asked if they had to sit next to Monty. I told them to find tables in the back where they would be more comfortable, and they wasted no time doing it. When class began, I checked attendance sheets and explained that Monty needed a change of underwear. But they knew that.

Then I offered to close the doors and windows if the students were too cold. They said it would be fine to leave everything as open as possible. Some of them were snacking on food they had brought into the room. From this small sample of 150 students, I scientifically concluded it was just about impossible to damage the appetites of high school students.

It was quiz day. People put their minds to their tests and forgot about the odor. After the quiz the first students to finish began to chat among themselves. In response to the noise, I held up a scoop I found in the front of the room and told them the noisiest talker would have to clean out Monty’s cage. It was very quiet after that.

Now why did I mention Monty Python and the problems he caused? It is to illustrate a point. You see, most of the science and math we deal with comes from nice, neat textbooks. Experiments have to be simple so that a teacher can get them cleaned up for the next class. Therefore, we become used to the “neatness” of textbook subjects.

But that is not the way of the real world. Real science and real math consist of “python” problems. Quite often the “python poops” in the world outside of our classrooms. This is the case where math problems are impossible to solve, where nothing comes out even, where our exploratory cave into an ancient tomb collapses, and where our experimental rats die of pneumonia when they are being tested for resistance to cancer cells.

That is the way life is. If everything went well, on the other hand, we would know all the answers that were important, and there would be no jobs for us when we graduate. The only reason jobs will be waiting for us in the future is because the “python poops” when you least expect it. Science and Math are really quite messy and unmanageable. That is the awful truth but also the fun of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

We Swim in a Sea of Dogma

Charles F. Kettering invented the first self-starting mechanism for automobiles and the first electrical ignition system, among many other important advances for cars and diesel engines. He liked to tell about how he had to drive to Detroit to go to work. He didn’t live in Detroit, but in a city in Ohio.

One day he bet a man he could get to Detroit in a relatively short time. And he won the bet. After he explained how he did it the other man exclaimed, ”Well, no wonder!” You didn’t stay on Route 25!”

Route 25 was dogma to Kettering, and he didn’t care much for dogma in driving or engineering or many other areas of life.

Dogma is a belief or doctrine held by any organization to be authoritative. Proof may or may not be available. Ostensibly, the word “dogma” belongs to religion. However, one finds dogma in many disciplines, including science. One should hesitate to think about the future of the educational scientist who hopes for tenure and does not accept the conventional scientific and political wisdom (dogma) of the scientific community.

There is a story making the rounds in the news media (as this is being written) about a graduate student in education who dared to suggest that corporal punishment of children might be useful in some cases. For this transgression against dogma he was excluded from classes in his university.

We seem to live in a sea of dogma that most do not think of as dogma at all. Here are a few examples, some of which are very dear to us but until convincing proof becomes available, are still dogma.

All men are created equal

Rape is not about sex but about power

Love conquers all

All politics is local

Behavior is organic

Matter creates itself

Illegal immigrants more than pay their way in the U.S. economy

You can't legislate morality

So it isn't just a religion that uses dogma. Many disciplines seem to be involved with dogmas to some extent for a variety of reasons. Dogma is useful for transmitting comfortable ideas from one group or individual to another. At least, on Route 25 we won't get lost.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Junk Government Sponsors Junk Mail

After one particularly bad day, when I pulled from my mailbox a handful of cheap advertisements and not the letter I was expecting, I decided to install a waste can next to my mailbox. My postal deliverer was a nice guy. I was going to ask him to drop all that junk mail into the waste can after he put first class mail in my mailbox. It made sense to me.

“Oh, no! We’re not allowed to do that,” the delivery man told me. “We have to put all items in your mail box, including third class mail.” Junk mail to me was third class to him. He told me I could talk to the manager of the local Post Office, if I wanted.

So I did interview the local, very courteous Postal Service manager. I didn’t get him to agree to dump third class mail, but I learned something about it.

“It is officially called third class mail,” the manager began. He just smiled when I called it junk mail (I think he secretly agreed with me). And during our discussion he also said, in effect, that the Postal Service was the force behind junk mail. It needed extra revenue, so it offered to deliver advertisements to everyone’s door for a fee less than first class rates, as long as the ads were bundled and pre-sorted. The Service was going to each house anyway, so it sought to add a few cents of revenue per house for very little cost.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of trees have to be destroyed each time a third class mailing takes place and that dumps are filling up is no concern to the Postal Service. They are in a financial bind and want more revenue.

Why is the Postal Service in a financial bind? Congress is stingy about raising mail rates. So is the public stingy with the number of first class mailings it makes. As the price of a stamp rises, so do alternate methods of sending information. The fax machine dealt the Postal Service a mean blow. Then emails have been even rougher competition. Long ago the number of private emails per year passed the number of first class mailings per year. Now, many of us are being billed electronically and we are paying our bills electronically. Another large chunk of first class mail has disappeared.

The Postal Service does not lay off its employees easily. So it is stuck with too many employees, union rules that make efficiencies difficult and declining numbers of mailings. It raises rates which result in even fewer items mailed. Thus, revenues are declining and show no indication of returning to needed levels. The future of the Postal Service looks bleak. The only useful playing card in its hand is that Congress has given it a monopoly on the handling of first class mail. It is just another example of Government being years behind in technology.

Maybe someone, somewhere, in the Postal Service will come up with an idea that will allow the Service to improve revenues and possibly break even. Until then, expect lots of junk mail. It is your government at work.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Managing Yourself So You Can Manage People

Having spent a good deal of my career as a professional manager in medium and high volume manufacturing environments, I have come to enjoy a few rough-cut management maxims that both amuse and assist people who are trying to kill themselves the way I did. I entertained students with these observations when I was a college instructor of graduates and undergraduates. That is, when there was time I could take from rattling on about the useless dogmas of management. Here are a few:

Aiming for a desirable position: Have you ever seen the important person who has all the keys on his belt? Well, you should not want to be that person. You should set your sights on being the person who points to a door and says, “Open that!”

On electronic gadgets: Pagers and telephones are nothing but leashes that your people annoyingly pull on to get your attention. You need to set up your organization and to delegate so well that you do not need those things. Also, from your viewpoint, they are forms of control. You need to let go, let people develop.

Controlling your time: A wonderful boss once told me, “Don’t try to do everything. Pick out one problem every few months and solve it. Your people will think you are omniscient.” His advice worked like a charm.

Feedback: Management gets what it inspects, not what it expects. Before you make an assignment, you should ask yourself, “How will I know when this job is done? What visible signals will be present?” Both the assignee and the assignor need to know the answers to these questions. If they do, the organization can run in a crisp, orderly fashion, provided that you openly go over the results with the assignee.

The competition: Good management is a scarce commodity. Chances are that competing companies you face have mediocre management skills. Watch these companies for problems, and capitalize when they do unbelievably stupid things.

The higher, the longer: The higher you go in an organization, the longer-term your projects should be. That is, measurement takes longer. A sweeper is low on the totem pole. You can measure his output of clean floors every hour. You can measure a maintenance person by how well his department runs in a week or month. But you may not be able to measure the output of a top manager for a year or two. His or her projects probably will take that long to come to fruition.

There are many more topics than these few, and for each topic there is a story to illustrate why it is important. That is why there are college courses to convey all this information. On this page you get just the essentials. On the other hand, you do not have to try to digest all the peripherals such as all that industrial psychology B.S. that college professors feel it important to discuss for hours on end. It isn’t of much use. A business is not a social laboratory.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Boy Scoutus Horribilus

There are some very vocal people who have a deep dislike for the Boy Scouts. Their concerns seem to be based on two points. One is that they say the Scouts are religious organization, and the other is that they say Scouts are biased against gays. (Another concern for a smaller number is that the Scouts are patriotic, which is a bad attitude.)

Having been a Boy Scout in the late 1940’s an early 1950’s, I can speak with some experience about that organization. Good scholarship, fair play, personal honor, achievement in Scouting activities, “doing a good deed daily,” and “being prepared” were some of the goals of Scouts. It is hard to argue with them. They have served me well.

The Boy Scouts that I remember were, on the whole, definitely not religious. Some boys were religious, while most were not. There was a religious path that Scouts could follow that was not mandatory. But the Scouts were not anti-religious, either. “Do my duty to God and my country,” was a motto or maybe, an oath, that was a non-specific generalization which covered most religious backgrounds. It was a reflection of the statements of our nation’s founding fathers and their documents. If parents in the 1940’s and 1950’s didn’t care for the “God” stuff, they probably saw value in the rest of the program. I am sure parents of gay kids saw the value.

While gay Scoutmasters are not acceptable to the Scout program for obvious reasons, there are now and have been in the past, gay Scouts. Probably more than anyone knows.

I was a tenderfoot Scout in 1944. One by one, I saw the older boys in my troop leave for military service. Some were killed in action, some survived. They were my heroes. My association with these young men helped me in more ways than I can ever list. As I grew in Scouting, I became a leader who replaced them (reluctantly, because my ideal was Daniel Boone, a loner in the forests of Kentucky).

One of the Scouts in my patrol was very likely gay. I can still remember the day Marvin’s dad showed up with his son, asking that we include the boy in our troop. Marvin’s dad was concerned because Marvin was not “manly” enough. Marvin was a nice kid, but drew unwanted attention to himself through his sometimes strange behavior. Some of the other boys made fun of him.

Did we throw Marvin out of the troop? No, we all tried, from the Scoutmaster down to the patrol leader, to provide a supportive growth experience for Marvin and we tried to set a good example for him to follow. My job as a young leader was to make sure everyone was treated fairly, and I tried to keep pressure off this boy. I think our acceptance of Marvin helped him accept himself. I do not think Marvin changed his nature at all. But he eventually learned to conduct himself appropriately.

Conduct was always a factor for good standing in the Scouts, and if a boy had no self control, he was asked to leave. But that seldom happened. A boy may have been criticized for swearing or for cheating during games, but that was just about the extent of his discipline. We thought that good conduct leads to good citizenship.

Scouts learn all kinds of things that can lead to a responsible, self-reliant adult life. Among these things is a healthy dose of good citizenship. You don’t find that topic taught in most places, these days.

Later, I was to find through research for a book I was writing, that as our military grew from some 125,000 officers and men to over 8,000,000 during WWII, a huge number of soldiers came from two sources: the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the Boy Scouts. These young people believed in their country and in what they were doing. The Scouts were an early asset, because they were already self-reliant and used to leadership, living outdoors and first aid techniques.

When I was in boot camp in the U.S. Navy, I found that my Scout training was especially useful. There were some would-be sailors who were terrified weepers who could not handle weapons. They appeared to have no Scout training. Later in life, when I did not go along with the crowd, someone would say to me in a sneering way, “You’re too much of a Boy Scout.” I learned to smile at them and say, “Thanks to Troop Nineteen.” I am proud of my Scout training and hardly a day goes by, some sixty years later, that I do not use some part of it.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Twenty-Nine Dimensions for the Twenty-Ninth Time

Having descended from a tribe of Edwards people, I am one who has claim on a very valuable parcel of land in the heart of New York City. The claim is real and has been in effect since the late 1700’s, but the boundary lines of the land are so vague that the claim is not enforceable. Nevertheless, every twenty-five years or so, new interest in the land claim springs up. That is, a new generation decides to get a piece of the action.

The Edwards claim is not the only generational idea I have run across lately. Psychological testing is another. A company is advertising a matchmaking business on the radio and television stations. It seems to be saying it can find a perfect mate for you. At its heart, the company is promoting a psychological test with “twenty-nine dimensions” of compatibility.

What in the world is a “dimension”? It sounds mathematical and precise, whatever it is. And this company has twenty-nine of them on one set of papers. Is there no limit to this company’s precision?

This matchmaking scam appears to be like the old hiring tests that personnel offices used to administer, or send you to psychologists so they could administer them. Come to think of it, what is the difference between hiring a new member of the firm and hiring a new husband or wife? Not much. In both cases one hopes for a long-time match.

Years ago courts made psychological companies reign their testing and promises because questions on the tests had nothing to do with the open position (what does your feeling about your father have to do with installing hood ornaments on an assembly line?). Also, the best the tests could do, was be right about 50% of the time. A savvy personnel interviewer does that well, and so does the flip of a coin.

Well, what were these tests good for? They could rule out the obvious rejects. Thanks to such testing, there are no one-legged running backs on the St. Louis Ram football team. And no blind bus drivers in Los Angeles. No doubt the twenty-nine dimensional tests will keep Beauty from marrying Jack the Ripper.

A generation has passed since psychological testing and its gee-whiz terms have faded. But now they are back, and the makers of the tests are hoping we have all forgotten why we don’t use such tests anymore.

Next, the ad men will be bringing back the image of a little dog listening to a recording device, with the title “His Master’s Voice.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Choosing One's Writing Tools Carefully

It ain’t easy.

Writing a history of part of WWII is really putting together a collection of endnotes, citations, and index items. A novel is much easier. You just string chapters together. But when writing a history with MSWord, you have to become proficient in several areas.

For one thing, if you install endnotes after every chapter and then string the chapters together, the endnotes tend to flow to the last chapter, not the one they are associated with. It is hell to get them to go where they are needed, and make them stay there.

For another thing, constructing an index is not for the faint-hearted. Only the writer who has an urgent message that will save the world should attempt indexing. All others should retire in fear and trembling. Life is too short for indexing or for cheap wine.

The wonderful writer Wendell Berry once told me that a computer would not help him write any better (than he does now). It wouldn’t help him index anything he wrote, either. Now I know why he writes poetry, essays and novels exclusively. Those works require no indexes.

I know two textbook writers. So when I came to the point in my history-writing exercise where I needed to assemble my book, I consulted with them. They did use a computer but didn’t use MSWord, so they were no help. Indexing was a mystery to them as well. I suppose they hired someone to do the indexing for them. But they wanted me to tell them how I assembled the chapters and indexed the book as soon as I found out.

Now I don’t know whether to give the information to them or to sell it. I don’t want to be a salesman. I don’t want to be an MSWord technician, either. All I want to do was write.

I wonder if Wendell were understating the case? A computer might not help me to write better. In fact, computers use so much of my time that there isn’t much left for writing.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Homemade Kneecap Surgery

The following is a true story. It is one I told to seventh graders in public school, but it will strike a familiar chord with parents as well.

Not all the stories about my daughter Holly include a trip to the emergency room. There actually was a time when she had accidents but just plain didn’t want to see another doctor or emergency room as long as she lived. If you had had a needle in your foot, two arms and three elbows, an emergency appendectomy, eyes crossed, and your fingertips crushed off, you would also think twice about seeing more doctors. For instance, one day when Holly was in the eighth grade at Pioneer Middle School in Upland, California, she was playing softball during P.E. class. The coach saw that a certain small batter was up at bat, so he told the outfielders to play in closer. That was a bad strategy.

Holly was in left field on that bright, sunshiny day, and she crept in closer to the third baseman as the pitcher wound up for his first pitch. It was poorly thrown and barely got to the plate. “Ball One!” was the cry of the guest umpire, a girl who had been hurt at home and had an excuse from heavy-duty exercise.

The outfielders relaxed and looked around, expecting a rather slow day. Finally, the pitcher got the ball over the plate. It was a feeble strike.

On the next pitch the ball came closer to the batter. “Wham!” the bat shouted as it met the ball for the first time. The small batter, from whom everyone expected so little, had hit a hard line drive toward third.

Quick to get into the catching position, Holly leaned into the ball as if flew toward her, straight and fast. She didn’t have long to wait as the batter tossed her bat aside and headed for first base.

The speed of the ball unnerved Holly a bit as it drove right at her. Somehow she miscalculated and the ball missed her glove. It passed by her outstretched hand and bounced off her knee, heading for the centerfielder. The batter headed for second base as Holly’s teammates groaned.


Holly also groaned. The ball had hit her on the edge of her kneecap. It transferred some of its energy to the bone before bouncing off at some thirty degrees. Holly’s kneecap suddenly found a new position almost to the side of her leg.

It hurt! A dislocated kneecap is painful. A scene flashed through Holly’s mind--of ambulances, more hospitals, more doctors, more shots and more crutches. She said to herself, “I’ve had enough!” So she took the heel of her hand and hit the edge of the dislocated kneecap bone. That did it. The force of the blow drove the kneecap back into position. It did not stop aching, but the obvious damage was gone. She tried to move her leg and it actually did what it was told!

“Maybe,’ she thought, “I won’t have to go to the hospital if I can make the leg move just enough to finish this game.”

Holly tried various moves. Some of them worked, some did not. But she grimly decided to hang on until the end of the game. She knew that if she didn’t tell anyone, she could avoid all kinds of unwanted attention from medical practitioners. So that is what she did.

Fortunately, it was not long until the game was over and it was time to dress. Holly limped off the field that day, an unsung heroine. She did not even tell her parents. It was a long time before I even heard about it.

Well, you know what I would have done. I would have been so concerned that I would have insisted that Holly go to a doctor for X-rays and so on, just to make sure she was all right. You would have done the same thing.

But Holly toughed it out.

Sometimes, you have to fight your own battles. It is a sign that you are growing up.