Cultural Trivia

On Brian’s Education Blog, there’s a good write-up on school buses. There’s some really interesting stuff in the comments.



Why I’m not a lawyer

When I was seventeen someone gave a dinner for all of us who had earned our Eagle Scout award. The sponsor, maybe an insurance company, paired each of us boys with an adult who held a job we aspired to. That is, the boy who wanted to be a teacher was seated with a local teacher. On the invitation, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a lawyer, so they seated me with a local attorney.

My dinner companion was such an obnoxious jerk that I decided before dessert that I didn’t want to be like him no matter how much money he had. By the time the evening was over, I’d resolved to never wear a pinky ring. He complained that the steak wasn’t lobster, sneered at everyone he wasn’t trying to ingratiate himself with, spent the evening hustling for clients, and thankfully had very little to say to me. Based on that one incident, and without much reflection or planning, I enrolled the next year at state U. in electrical engineering.

After a year I switched to machanical engineering, then took a bunch of math electives, and read a lot of novels. After graduating in the top eighty percent of my class, I enlisted in the Army.

So far, I’m content with how things have turned out. There are very few ways things might have been better, and a great many ways they might have been worse. I might have flunked out of law school anyway, or I might be a successful attorney; Then again, I might be wearing a pinky ring.


  • A fool and his money are soon parted. Or at least that’s what the consultant told me.
  • If you don’t have a business model that sustains your costs, it sounds harsh, but that’s real life.
       Hilary Rosen
  • The term “politically correct” is no longer politically correct. The correct term is “socially sensitive.”
  • You can only drink 30 or 40 glasses of beer a day, no matter how rich you are.
       Colonel Adolphus Busch
  • If it was so, it might be; and it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.
       Lewis Carrol
  • Computers run on smoke. When the smoke comes out, they don’t work anymore.
  • If it moves, it WILL break. The more it moves, the sooner it will break.
  • “You’re a moren.”

Chicken Stock

I made this the other day:

  • 2 pounds of chicken wings
  • 1 sliced carrot
  • 1 chopped yellow onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon of parsley flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon of chopped garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns

Put everything in a large pot and cover completely with water. Slowly heat to just barely boiling, then reduce heat and simmer two hours covered. Then uncover and increase the heat, and simmer two hours more. Add water as necessary to keep everything completely covered.

Strain the stock into a large container (plan ahead) and let cool. Then refrigerate. The next morning, skim off and reserve the fat.

Of the stuff you strained out, after it cools pick out the chicken meat until you get tired of messing with it. Add the meat to soup or a casserole, or save it for later. Discard the rest.

I intend the chicken stock to be an ingredient in soups I’ll make later. Here’s an example:

Into one cup of the chicken stock I made, I cut up the white part of a leek. I added a cup of water, brought the pot to a boil, and simmered it for ten minutes. The result was not a bad dish, but it wasn’t really soup. It was leeks in broth. The broth was tasty enough, and the leeks were okay, but they didn’t really go together. Maybe they needed to simmer longer, although the leeks were quite soft. Some recipes I’ve seen involve adding cream or milk. Maybe that would act as a bridge between the leeks and the broth. Another possibility might be to add a thickening agent like cornstarch.

A Few Good Links

The tenth Storyblogging Carnival is up at Back of the Envelope. I really need to sit down and put together a review, or a personal ‘best of’ list, or something. For now, I’m just going to go read a few.

Doc Rampage hits the nail on the head as he writes about our natural ‘thirst for God’ and how different people try to satisfy it. Check out his short psychologists and priests.

A not-so-liberal reason for universal health care: In a good, thoughtful article that I don’t entirely agree with, Decrepit Old Fool writes that “We’re spending more on health care than anyone else and getting less for it. In short, we’re being ripped off.” This deserves a well-reasoned reply, but for now I’ll just say that I suspect we’re not being ripped off, we’re ripping ourselves off.

In a big tent, meaning is sacrificed for unity

UPDATE, 16 Jan 05

As Donald points out in the comment, I meant to say extreme pro-choice, not extreme pro-life. Thanks, Donald!

Donald Crankshaw at Back of the Envelope looks at the Democrats’ policy on abortion rights in “Big tent Democrats?” They are beginning to realize, he suggests, that if they “would relax their views on abortion, they’d have a decent chance at the moral values vote.” I think he’s right. Whether because of demographic shifts or changes in perception, the extreme pro-life extreme pro-choice platform has come to cost the Democrats more votes than it’s gaining them.

The Democrats aren’t a political party anymore; they’re an electoral coalition. If, by saying the moon is made of green cheese, they could attract one hundred voters for every ninety-nine they’d repel, they’d introduce legislation to send the shuttle up to bring back a load. And when it failed, there’d be congressional hearing, and calls for an independent investigation. The raison d’etre of the Democratic party is to elect Democrats. From that point of view, abortion rights are a means to an end.

Donald notes that NARAL (which is a political party) will be up in arms; That’s certainly true. Also, the Palestinians will be angry, the activists will be outraged, and the Times will explain how women and children will be hurt the most.

During the campaign there was this meme to the effect that abortions had gone up because of President Bush’s supposedly-benighted social policies. A vote for the pro-choice candidate could be rationalized as a vote for policies that would actually reduce the number of abortions. Maybe we’re now seeing the flip side of this casuistry; that the Democrats’ support for abortion on demand is costing them elections, and thereby jeopardizing abortion rights. By moderating their position on abortion, so the reasoning goes, the Democrats would be working to preserve a woman’s right to choose.

Yes, this will be on the test

One of my students wondered about the importance of learning the associative, commutative, and distributive laws. The additive and multiplicative inverses were also as unpopular as ever. Actually, they weren’t especially unpopular until I told them yes, they did have to know them from memory, without a handout, on the test. For a grade.

In fact, the student’s question was articulate and not unreasonable, and that’s always a plus. Honestly, I need to find a better way of motivating them; explaining why they should learn things that aren’t obviously useful.

So, why do we have to learn a bunch of arcane terminology and useless theory?

  1. These are the basic rules of algebra. The Real Numbers aren’t a natural thing. They’re really kind of peculiar in a lot of ways. The (very informal, at this level) derivation of the Real Numbers from the counting numbers seems to me pretty important. Having understood that, what’s otherwise a confusing maze of arbitrary rules should (best case) come to be seen as a complex but understandable structure to be explored.
  2. Contrary to what math seems to be today, it’s not all about symbol manipulation. It’s a human endeavor, and I think it’s important to be able to talk with people about it. Much of the basics of math can be discussed in English. If I were teaching college students to play chess, I’d name the piece a knight, not a horsey.
  3. Understanding these concepts encourages abstraction. Algebra’s useful in a narrow utilitarian sense, but a general faculty of abstraction, the ability to go from special cases to general rules and back again, is far more valuable. If my students could gain the ability to see things in ‘clumps’ and then see clumps as composed of parts, they would have gained a lot. It wouldn’t be the secret of the universe; and certainly reductionism gets pushed too far in America today. But this is intermediate algebra; please God they’ll push something too far, and then be drawn back to a reasoned center.
  4. Half the mistakes in simple algebra come from misunderstanding the fundamentals. Over-enthusiastic cancelling, factoring out something that isn’t there, etc. The other half come from mis-translating the word problem into the algebra problem. The students who learn these thoroughly now will make fewer mistakes later.
  5. And finally, because it’ll be on the test. In fact, it’ll be on every test for the next two months. Part of the reason it’ll be on the test is to provide some short-term artificial utility. At least the knowledge will get you a few points.

Just above, I wrote that students who learn this will make fewer mistakes later. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? That is, the good students will learn the commutative law, just like they read the text book, do the homework, and ask questions in class. But does learning the this have anything to do with their subsequent performance? I guess ultimately it’s a judgement call.

“Il y a moins bien, mais c’est plus cher.”

I had a boss, a good guy, who drove beaters. He would buy some five-hundred-dollar piece of rust, drive it till something serious went wrong, then get rid of it and get another. Of course, this lead to the occasional breakdown by the side of the road. He would call the office, and apologetically ask his boss if he’d come and pick him up. After this happened a couple of times, I suggested that I or another of the engineers who worked for him wouldn’t mind coming to get him. He said no, he didn’t want to put us in that position. He was asking a personnel favor, and didn’t want us to feel like we had to do it. Like I said, a good guy. And I guess good at his job too, because his boss always went to get him.

My car strategy is different. I keep them for years and years, and get them fixed when they break. My rational is that I’d rather pay a mechanic than a salesman. When they’re really beat up and no longer worth fixing, I keep them for a couple more years. Then I have the hulk towed away and get a new car. I dress like I drive. I wear the clothes I have until there are actually holes in them, and then I wear them a while longer.

I do a lot of my shopping at the local thrift store, but I can’t get any pants there. There are plenty of sport coats, but almost no pants. Looking at what’s sold there, I see things that are old, simple, and durable. I’ve been trying to understand what these things have in common. Maybe ‘residual value.’ Stuff that outlasts it’s owner. Take stainless steel silverware; Grandma passes away, and leaves a kitchen drawer full. Everyone already has some, except for young people who are setting up their first house. None of them came to the yard sale, so the silverware goes to the thrift shop. There’s a bin full. Occasionally people come in and buy some cheap. It’s not like it wears out.

Another category is old stuff that was ‘too’ well made. I’ve picked up a few IBM model M keyboards that are built like tanks. The cord is replaceable; These were built to last. In the early eighties a PC cost as much as a car. Who would pay that much for something that felt flimsy? And the price left room for high-quality components.

Possibly related is the phenomenon of appliances that aren’t economically repairable. A service call on a three-year-old washing machine is easily a hundred dollars, maybe twice that, and you’ll still just have a three-year-old washer. Or you can have a new one for two hundred fifty, on sale. What’s up with that? Well for one thing, it suggests that repairman’s wages have gone up faster than the cost of appliances, which is good. But it also means that the dump is overflowing.

Cars cost more today, but they’re also more durable than they used to be. Is that good for mechanics? or car salesmen?

I tend to keep stuff (cars, computers, pants) in service as long as it’s functional. I think this is reasonable, but a shorter upgrade cycle might be better. If I upgrade a computer while I can still sell the parts, I get a little money and keep something out of the landfill. If I buy pants when they’re on sale, I can give the thrift shop my old (but still intact) pants.

I don’t know the answer, or even what the question is, but here are some points:

  1. I need to not hoard stuff. I should get rid of everything I don’t want before it becomes useless. Everything that isn’t presently used and useful should probably go.
  2. Rational profit maximization isn’t everything.
  3. The thrift shop has some great deals.

Soup, and Quotes

Today’s soup:

In a big pot, I browned a half-pound of bulk sausage, then added four cups of water and a package of Knorr Mediterranean Style Minestrone Soup Mix. I brought this to a boil, then simmered it for five minutes, in accordance with the package directions. Then I stirred in a fifteen-ounce can of black beans with their liquid. I noticed some black-bean residue in the can, so I rinsed the can with half a cup of water, and added that as well. I ate some almost immediately, and it was pretty good. An unbiased judge might say it had too many beans. It was like chili in consistency. If I’d had any tomato juice, I might have thrown some in; maybe next time. There’s plenty left, so I’ll be working my way through it until further notice.

Friday Quotes:

  • Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.
      Law of Software Envelopment, jwz edition []
  • The plural of anecdote is not data.
      Roger Brinner
    (Isn’t it?)
  • The paradox is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.
      Richard Feynman
  • If a thing is not diminished by being shared, it is not rightly owned if it is only owned and not shared.
      St. Augustine

Be careful what you wish for

I read on that of the high school graduates in 2005 who go on to college, half will fail to earn a degree of any kind. So says Lee Colvin. If you follow the LA times link, be prepared for pop-ups and registration; or use Firefox with adblock, and Bugmenot.

In the LA Times, Colvin wrote:

Early College High Schools, a $120-million initiative underwritten by a consortium of donors led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to nurture small, hybrid institutions affiliated with community colleges. These schools, several of which will spring up in California, are designed to simultaneously address students’ skill deficits and engage them in college-level work. In five years students earn both a high school diploma and a two-year associate’s degree, putting a bachelor’s degree within reach if they stick college out for two more years.

Another tactic would have all students take the equivalent of a college-prep curriculum, something no state requires, according to Washington-based Education Trust and Achieve Inc., which was set up by business leaders and the National Governors Assn. Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, has proposed something similar.

(Okay, this is the LA Times. Presumably they know about HTML. Can we loose the annoying in-text citation? Use a link, then the reader can follow it up.)

…the system that served us well is a failure, producing only two bachelor degrees for every 10 students who start high school.

So says Colvin, and he makes some good general points. But I’m not so sure that what he describes constitutes failure. I’m dubious about the increasingly common idea that everybody ought to go to college. I suspect ninety percent of the people who should get a Bachelor’s degree already do. I’ll grant that many students would do better to complete a two-year associate’s than fail to complete a four-year bachelor’s. That way they establish a record of success, earn some legitimate self-confidence, and learn a thing or two. They wouldn’t have quit, which can become a habit, and they could go back later to earn an advanced degree.

Certainly we should always be working to improve education. Making everyone take the college-preparatory classes seems like a really bad idea to me. Early College High Schools might have potential, and not just for at-risk students. But the easy way to get more college graduates is to water down the degree. If we demand a higher rate of college graduation, we might get just that. The risk is that instead of more well-educated graduates, we just get more (people with a) BS.