Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This is my 1000th post

An arbitrary milestone, but a cool one.

To be honest, when I gave my very first post, I didn't think this would last. It has...over four years and now 4 digits worth of posting. I've really enjoyed this, and I thank anyone who has read.

I have probably 20 loyal readers, and a good number of others who stumble by because they don't want to be Catholic anymore, they need a Pleasantville essay to plagiarize, they want to see Sue Bird's bare feet, they're curious as to Diana Taurasi's sexuality, they want to know whether the book or the movie Yes Man is better, they are curious as to the longest sentence that can be typed with only the left hand, or they have a John Denver lyric stuck in their head.

Every one of you: thank you and welcome.

To celebrate, I'll do the same thing I did when I reached 500 a couple of years back. I have selected the top ten posts out of the last 500. It was a surprise how many I liked. On another day, I may have picked ten different ones, but these, when combined with the ten I picked the first go-round, give you 20 posts that sort of show the kind of writing I'm proud of.

You keep coming, and I'll keep 'em coming.

Posts I like:

The best ten posts from the first 500

8/7/2006: "Some Observations from the Red States"
9/1/2006: "Buying my grandmother candy"
4/12/2007: "The best laid plans..."
5/9/2007: "RIP, Howard"
8/30/2007: "The Mariners Make Me Homicidal"
9/23/2007: "My party has lost the moral upper hand"
12/29/2007: "A public letter to the drug purchasers of the greater Vancovuer, WA area"
9/29/2008: "Classroom Management Challenge"
10/19/2008: "Who's real in an election? Who's fake?"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thanks, J.J., for the macro

I now have an updated post on football predictions below. Turns out a random-number generator picked playoff teams more accurately than I did.

Math geeks: see if you can answer the question I posed at the end.

Advice from a cousin

I had a wonderful chat with my 6-year-old niece the other day.

She has 8 cousins, mostly male, and she's the youngest. Has been (obviously) for her whole life. I told her that, when Hedgehog is born, she won't be the youngest cousin anymore. She's pretty excited about that.

I then asked her what advice she would pass on to Hedgehog about being the youngest cousin. What does he/she need to know?

She paused and thought, then gave some really good advice:

You have to learn how to say "STOP IT!!!!"

Monday, December 29, 2008

2009 Blogging Experiment: The State Writing Project

This all started with my buddy Brian.

Brian was the guy I student-taught with waaay back in 1998/99. Quite simply, a great man. Incredibly, we have begun a correspondence using the U.S. Postal Service. In this age of email, Facebook, and attachments, I can say without doubt and from experience that there is still something unmatchably satisfying about getting a real-live letter in the mail. The correspondence began in June when I sent him a Mariner ticket. I didn't want to just have the ticket in the envelope. Too impersonal. So I wrote him a letter--and he responded. We've gone back and forth with our letters since then...18 each way and counting.

Anyway, this blog project stems from a conversation we had at the ballpark before the game. I'm not sure how we got there. I think that Brian talked about something that had happened to him in Wyoming, paused, and said "That's my best Wyoming memory."

I thought. "Wow. I've never really thought of that. We could do a best memory in each state."

He challenged me. "Really. What's your best Wyoming memory?"

I paused, thought, and told him.

"That sounds like it was a great time."

"Yeah. But some of these can get difficult. For instance, what's your best Indiana memory?"

I knew Brian had grown up in Indiana, and had spent more time there than in any other state, so it'd be a challenge for him to zero in on one memory.

"I've got one."

"Okay. What is it?"

"Well...it's sexual."

"Oh. I don't want to hear that." I paused and considered that my best memory in a good number of states would probably be sexual too. "What's your best non-sexual memory in Indiana?"

He paused, then gave me the story centered around a high school teacher he loved.

"What about you? What about Ohio?"

Ah! He's playing dirty. He knows that I have many great, treasured college memories. But my best memory from Ohio isn't from my Kenyon days, but from a ways after. It all started at a friend's house in Mount Vernon, when we were looking at a struggling singer's website...

"That sounds like it was hilarious!"

Since then, we've been sending a state memory back and forth with every letter. I'm going alphabetically, he's going reverse alphabetically.

In my friend's letters, I have a unique oral history...part travelogue, part diary, part sense-of-where-we've-been-and-what-we've-done. And I've taken to thinking a few states ahead, trying to pick between several Massachusetts contenders, for instance, or the very few things I have ever done in Maryland. I've learned that I value companionship. I've done a fair amount of traveling alone, mostly to ballparks...but very few solo moments make the cut. I guess I'm social after all. (Of course, because so much of my travel involves ballgames, a disproportionate number of my state memories involve ballparks. Consider that just a TRP quirk.)

I've even started asking people for their state memories, especially my dad. Dad chalked up his 50th state on an October jaunt to Hawaii, so he should have something cool in every state. He insists he has nothing to share, but then goes off on really awesome stories about a frat prank on spring break in Florida in 1959 or the feeling of African-American drivers pulling over to the shoulder to make way for his family on a Southern trip sometime around 1950. And then, in the next sentence, he'll say "But there's nothing interesting about any of this." Bullcrap, Dad. I'll set you up the blog if you write this. But do it! So few have been to all 50...give it a shot.

What I like a lot about this project is how much I'm learning from it...both about Brian and about me. I think that the memories that stay with us are the ones we most value. To be sure, there are big life moments included in these. But small-ones-that-are-sort-of-big or funny-stuff-of-family-lore tends to slip in as we travel. I've learned about how Brian felt about the first time he heard his dad cuss, on a family trip in Virginia. It made me realize that the first time I heard MY dad cuss was also on a family trip, at a Missouri gas station in 1979 as we were on our way to my grandfather's funeral. These sorts of things don't really belong in full-on memoirs, but are quite interesting and revealing about the writer.

And that last sentence is sort of what blogging is about, isn't it?

So, in 2009, I will blog one state memory per week. Every Sunday.

I've been to 48 states...all except for Maine and New Hampshire. I've spent somewhere between an hour and 21 years in each of them. And I will write about one important, vivid, or indelible memory from each. I will try to hold myself to the following rules:

1. No sex.
2. The memory can't be "a two-week trip I took with my family." The memory has to be shorter than that...I'll say no more than a few hours in length. Remembering "we took a trip through there" isn't really a memory. Remembering "Even though there was not a soul in the place, the guy at Stuckey's made us take a number. He then shouted out '49!!!! 49!!! 49!!!' repeatedly at nobody before calling 50, our number"...well, that's a memory. Vivid. Specific. Interesting. So it has to be an event. I'd say a 3-hour max, although I anticipate bending this rule.
3. I'm going to keep these short. They're vignettes. When I type them to Brian, I require they be limited to a page. I'll honor that limit on the blog as well.
4. I will include the American non-states of DC and Puerto Rico, with which I will close out the year.
5. When necessary, I'll change a name or two, but otherwise, I will be as true as possible to the memory. No poetic license or changing what happened for effect.

And now, the big invitation:

I really, really want you guys to do this too. And your friends. Anyone you know who writes.

One memory per state. One state per week. From Sunday to the end of 2009.

Seriously, give it a shot. It's a nice, fun way to sort of reflect on yourself and where you've been, both literally and metaphorically. If you just want to put your own memories in the comments of my entries, that's cool. But in a perfect world, all my friends would do this, and some of their friends too, and in the process we'd learn a bit about each other.

It's an invitation. Let me know if you have questions about it. And I'll be starting on Sunday with Alabama.

TRP's Quite Fearful 2008 NFL Picks and a Request for Computer Programming Help

UPDATE: J.J. has given me a macro. See the random results below.
*

A lesser man would hope you've forgotten my NFL picks for the year.

Let's talk about how bad they were.

While my preseason Super Bowl pick of San Diego is still alive, they're almost the only one. I only predicted four of the 12 playoff teams. Only 2 of the 8 division champs.

When you take the records that I predicted for the teams and compare them to their actual record, I was 108 games off for the 32 teams.

Do the math. I was an average of over three games off! Seriously. There's a hell of a difference between 7-9 and 10-6, and that difference is on the low end of my picking abilities this preseason.

For the sake of comparison, I hunted down Mike and Mike's preseason picks, mostly because they, like me, predict records and not just standings. It confirmed that I was very off.

Golic was 89 games off...an average of just short of 3 per team. Greenberg was the best at 82 games off, a shade over 2.5 per team. Golic had half the playoff teams; Greenberg had 9 of the 12.

Better than me...but 2.5 per team is still awfully far off. How do I know?

If one of us had simply predicted every team would go 8-8, we'd have beaten us all. He/she would have been a total of 77 wins off, which is under 2.5 per team.

To be fair, nobody--and I mean nobody in the whole world, including their mothers--had Miami or Atlanta in the playoffs this year.

But I still feel like I must be better than a random number generator. So I'm wondering if one of you computer programming types could do me a favor.

I need a quick and dirty computer program that will give me 32 random integers between 0 and 16, with a catch: the total of those integers must be 256 (such that it all adds up to the proper number of wins in the NFL in a year). When I crank out those numbers, then assign them randomly to teams, will I do better than that? Surely, I think, I would have. But I leave it to one of you to manufacture and send me the program.

(I'll owe you an ice cream for your troubles.)

UPDATE: I owe J.J. an ice cream for his kick-ass Excel macro. The random computer program picked 4 undefeated teams this year. Man, that'd have been AWESOME! In part because of that, the random-wins-generator was off by more than me, Mike, Mike, or everybody's-eight-and-eight. It averaged nearly 5 wins off per team.

HOWEVER, the random wins generator picked six of the 12 playoff teams! Better than me, and the same as Golic.

That's pretty scary.

I used to know how to write an equation to figure out what the odds are of getting a certain number of these teams right. 16 teams in a conference, 6 go to the playoffs. If I pick randomly, what are the odds of getting exactly none of them? Probably pretty slim. The odds of randomly picking all? Probably even slimmer. What are the highest odds that a random picker can luck into?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The best laid plans...

I'm about to (attempt to) assemble my baby's crib. I hope it works out okay, and with minimal profanity. After that, I'll go for painting the room, probably Wednesday or Thursday.

The crib I'm assembling is called a Million Dollar Baby crib. Friends of ours hand-stained it, and loved it dearly through their two daughters. They have passed it on to us! It's gorgeous.

But I'll have to keep the name from my mind. I don't want Hillary Swank falling on a stool or Clint Eastwood visiting her in the hospital to be the primary image in my mind when I rock my baby.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It's a Wonderful Life

Believe it or not, I'd never seen it until tonight.

Yeah, it was sentimental. But I kinda bought it because it played out the what-would-have-happened-if-I-were-never-here fantasy that everybody indulges in at low points. And it's strangely different watching it in the light of recent loans and bank problems...

But hey. I liked it. But I don't think I'll have to watch it annually.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Noel

Just did Christmas with my family. Everyone made an hors d'ouerve. (Which I probably misspelled, by the way.) It was wonderful to see everyone, awesome to see my nephews and niece respond well to the gifts. The world is good.

After slogging down I-5 to get back here...well, there's more snow forecast for overnight. So the in-laws, who were going to get us on Christmas Day, have asked to postpone until the weekend. We agreed.

So it's snuggle time for the holidays. Me, wife, and Hedgehog. Can't ask for more than that! (Although we will exchange gifts this year nonetheless.)

Hope all is well wherever you are...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Yes Man movie vs. Yes Man book

Again, guys, read the book, which is one of my all-time favorites. In refreshing my memory about it tonight, I laughed more in about 40 pages than I did in the entire Jim Carrey vehicle tonight.

Spoilers follow (for both book and movie).

What I like best about the book is the utter unpredictability of surrendering one's life to Yes. Sure, it does have some of the positive consequences given in the book, particularly around the main characters' careers and (to an extent) love lives.

But Danny's non-fiction account of his Yes experiment is so much more interesting than the film. It didn't have to be that way, but it was.

I understand that the filmmakers didn't have time to follow every bizarre tangent that Danny necessarily followed as he pursued yes. The bizarreness of answering a Nigerian scam email and following it to solve the mystery behind it, the strangeness of joining a number of fringe social groups, the surprise of purchasing a plane ticket from Australia to England for a girl he likes but doesn't know that well...in the book, I spent much of my time saying "Shit, I can't fucking believe the dude actually did this!"

In the movie--and here's where the film goes wrong--in the movie, nothing bad happens to the main character as a result of his yeses. Only good things EVER happen. The worst he has to endure is sitting through an unwanted Harry Potter movie. Oh, and to fire some people. The whole terrorism accusation thing is a strange and unneeded movie twist. But the film doesn't go into any of the difficulties or Yes.

To put it another way, there's no conflict in a movie which consists of Jim Carrey only saying yes to a series of fun suggestions.

They took Wallace's complex, interesting, and nuanced look at what it means to have control and cede control of one's life and managed to reduce it to something formulaic. It's not surprising that a Hollywood flick would do this, of course, but it is still annoying.

I don't blame Danny Wallace for this, by the way. I hope he makes loads of money off of the film. The book was so good that I want him to be rewarded any way possible for it. (Rereading parts of it tonight solidified that for me.)

I'll say it again: read the book, read the book, read the book.

You can even see the movie first if you want, because the book and movie are not even remotely related to each other. (The credit line "Based on a book by Danny Wallace" stretches the definition of "based on" nearly to its limits. In my lifetime of seeing movies and books, only Fever Pitch is less recognizable in movie form.)

By the way, I was probably the only guy in the Pacific Northwest who played the "Spot Danny Wallace's cameo" game. And won, by the way. Not even Swankette would have seen him without my help.

But I'm not kidding. This is one of my most enjoyable reading experiences of the last decade. Get it. Seriously. Ignore Jim Carrey. Just get the book.

Cover me! I'm going in!

Although I know I'll hate it, I'm seeing Yes Man tonight.

(I mean, why not? This is my second snow-day-with-no-snow in three days. I've gotta get out of the house!)

I'll probably be bitching about it in this space but a few hours hence. That's enough time for you to get the book. Seriously. Buy it and read it. Then see the movie if you'd like to. But only then.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The headline pretty well says it all

Seattle Paralyzed by Chance of Snow

The same could be said of the Portland area.

Everything has shut down because of a freakin' FORECAST. Now, if we were talking about a hurricane or something, I'd be okay with that. But I'm pissed off to be sitting here at home, wasting a snow day, looking out at the not-snow.

Grow a pair, Pacific Northwest. Make the default position that we can handle work. Then adjust from there. Not vice versa.

Those of us who grew up in places with real winters are collectively aghast by the weather culture up here, from the media on down through the massive closures.

Bye-bye, J.J.

(Meant to post this last week when it happened...and I posted it on the wrong blog. My bad!)

I tend to trust the U.S.S. Mariner guys' evaluation of talent, and they are giving a qualified thumbs-up to the massive deal that sent J.J. Putz, Luis Valbuena, Sean Green, and Jeremy Reed away in exchange for Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez, Aaron Heilman, and Mike Carp.

Putz ran into trouble this year, and while I'm not expert at stuff like this, the list of formerly-untouchable closers who were never quite their old selves after injury is long enough that I'm glad we got two starters for him. USSM is mourning Valbuena, who they think will be a starting second baseman for a while, but he's not that much younger than Jose Lopez, who I'd like to see get it together (although I'm low on patience). Also, closers are overvalued, and it's more common than one would think to get a washed-up minor-league starter and find he can fireball for an inning or two.

So while I'll miss J.J., I can live with the deal--two-thirds of a starting outfield to go with Ichiro isn't a bad haul. And I'm glad that the new GM is shaking things up so completely. The previous status quo was so very bad that just about any change is good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Never, ever, ever

assume there will be no school tomorrow. Always assume you're going in.

I've got my requisite grading done tonight. In fact, I've done MORE than the requisite grading, since my basketball games were canceled.

The forecast calls for snow to begin at about 6AM and to continue into the afternoon, when it will change to rain. Then, it'll drop to freezing overnight.

So will there be school tomorrow? I'd wager no school on Thursday, but tomorrow? It's uncertain.

There have been days where I'm so uncertain about whether there will be school or not that I actually wake up in the middle of the night and go to the window to look for snow or ice. When I reported this to my kiddoes today, a couple responded by saying "Yes! I did that all night last night!"

I tried to teach them from my sadder-but-wiser perspective...don't count on a snow day. Prepare for school. This way, you get to spend your might either pleasantly surprised or cautiously optimistic.

It was actually a really great school day. I made our little freshman LD debater, who has a tendency to cry whenever even slightly stressed (tears for her=sweat for the rest of us), up against a tough, sophisticated, aggressive senior boy. She didn't cry. In fact, she had him on the run in CX. He only won because he put together a great 2AR (saying "Human rights are more important than Constitutional rights. Genocide is more important than double jeopardy.") Without that, she pulls off the big upset. I think she was really, really happy and proud, as I was of her. Her response to all that pride?

She cried, of course.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shoe toss

I'm sure that this guy doesn't represent all Iraqis. And I'm also sure that past presidents have been mercilessly heckled in foreign lands, and that Obama will be too.

But it seems to me that this attack with a shoe--the shoe chosen to show the maximum disrespect to Bush--is the perfect punctuation mark on the end of the Iraq situation before Obama starts bringing us home.

How's that "we will be greeted as liberators" assumption going, Mr. President?

I've said it before (a couple of times) and I'll keep saying it: if the criterion is a comparison of where our country is at the start of a Presidency versus where it is at the end, Bush is easily--by quite a distance--the worst president in U.S. history.

Don't let the door hit you, Mr. President.

Coming attractions

I have a 2009 blog-writing project I'll announce between Christmas and New Year's. It's a game anyone can play...not exactly a meme, but a cool writing topic that will let me get to know some of you a little better. Join me.

Details to come.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Things I learned watching debaters yesterday

1. "According to Thomas Friedman's book Hot, Flat, and Sweaty..."

2. --"We should not bail out the car companies because then up-and-coming US car companies will be able to do things better."
--[opponent question] "Can you name one up-and-coming US car company?"
--"[long, desperate pause]...Um...Honda. No--wait...I meant Hyundai."

And, perhaps worst of all...

3. "Felons should be a part of society because sometimes their ideas are important. For instance, after Martin Luther King's supporters would beat up policemen and would go to jail for felonies, they still were able to get their message out."

When challenged and told that MLK stood for non-violence, the debater replied: "Of course Martin Luther King himself didn't commit any acts of violence. But some of his followers did."

(It's worth noting that the first two came from Public debate--sometimes called Parli--and the last from an LD round. My Public Forum rounds were actually OK yesterday. It's a small sample size, but yay PuFo.)

I had to stifle giggles all day imagining Friedman writing Hot, Flat, and Sweaty.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

When your favorite college professor

writes you note of thanks because you threw a few ducats towards a building that will feature his name,

and the guy is a brilliant man and a breathtakingly graceful writer,

and he writes a paragraph-long conceit about how his cup is running over so much from your choice to participate in honoring him,

it actually can make you cry.

You're a great man, Professor G.

Zero grade for zero work

Big discussion in today's department meeting.

Faced with the statistics of our embarrassingly-high failure rate, our chair (who I soon will be replacing) asked for our input on the problem, be they causes, solutions, or simply observations.

I've been around a year and a half now. My time to lay low is over.

Without using my colorful term, I stated that the jack shit problem is the only thing worth discussing. Kids who show up with absolutely nothing poison the atmosphere for everyone. They hurt themselves, hinder their teachers (I feel brokenhearted every time a member of the jack shit club has done jack shit, and it's bad for my teaching both short-term and long-term), and harm their more-conscientious peers. I even suggested a jack shit room. But I made it clear that we need to make sure that it is no longer acceptable in our building's culture that students show up without work or refuse to work when the arrive in the building.

My department head had another suggestion.

She believes that we should eliminate the zero.

Here's the justification--they hurt kids' grades too much. It's too hard to recover from not doing a big paper to pass.

Case in point: A C student does three of the four major papers. Gets a 75, 75, 75, and skips the fourth. That adds up to 225. Divide that by four, and the kid is failing with a 55%. Too harsh a penalty for one missed paper, says my colleague.

She advocates giving every kid a 50 on every assignment whether they do it or not. 75, 75, 75, and 50 adds up to 275. Divide that by four, and the kid is passing (with a D+, actually...68.75%).

(See more here.)

I respect my colleague, but I passionately disagreed with her.

The main issue where I am is that kids think it's okay to show up without having done any work. Giving kids a 50 for skipping out on work actually makes us culpable advamcers our poisonous culture.

"You think you can show up, do nothing, and it's acceptable? So do we!"

I argued my point hard, and I think most of the department sided with me. Colleagues used the word "enabling" to describe the policy, which I appreciated. Another colleague said "I hope our goal is to change the culture, and not simply to pass more kids."

Amen! The goal is to get kids to work. Not to lower the bar to beneath the floor so that more of them can pass.

My colleague also said that if a student understands the material, than he or she is "an A student" and should get an A. She cited a positively brilliant kid--one of the best writers I've ever had in 12 years on the job--who got a C for me last year and is getting a C for her this year in AP. Why? She skips assignments. "But you've seen her writing," my colleague says. "She's an A student."

My response: "No. She has an A brain...but A students do the work. Therefore, she's not an A student."

We kicked around some possible alternatives: A 4-point system, where an A is worth four, a B three, a C two, a D 1, and an F zero. It penalizes kids less for screw-ups. (The aforementioned kid with 3 75s and a skip would get a C- under this system.)

I wouldn't buy into that either...it means that the kid who tried and struggled gets the same grade on a paper as the kid who played video games instead. That's unjust.

I might be persuaded to do a 5-point scale...an A is worth 5, an F is worth 1, and not doing it is worth zero. (The 3 75s kid: A low D. That, I believe, is the most just grade for this kid.)

The root question, which we never did come to a conclusion on, is whether a grade should measure just a kid's subject matter knowledge or a kid's work ethic. I think that, culturally, we have grown to understand that a grade is a mix of both, and I think that colleges and employers want it to be that way, since that mix is the cocktail that is the best determinant as to whether they'll make it after high school.

Like it or lump it, I don't merely teach kids to write, read, and think. I need to impart some sense of work ethic in them. If they barely do any work, and they pass, then I've failed. I'm not willing to give them something for just showing up (or, in the cases of chronic absentees, not even doing that).

Just another way that things are different on this side of the tracks.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Closing in on an in-class essay

Kids sometimes don't -like- Huck Finn much, but when you set up the questions just right, they can analyze it better than pretty well any book I've ever taught. I occasionally skip it in American Lit, but I think I'll keep it around for good. Maybe give The Crucible a rest next year in favor of something new. But I think I'll keep Huck around for a few more years. Haven't taught it in a while...glad to have it back.

I also now have my AP kids writing on a blog. I post an article every week, and they comment on it, then comment on somebody's comment. I'm stoked by the quality of stuff there.

But why is it when one thing goes wrong during a day, it finds its way to the forefront of my mind for the rest of the day?

A reffing buddy of mine once said it takes 20 "attaboys" to make up for one "oh shit." I wish it weren't true, because it'd make for more good days. But I fear it is true.