Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Great Spaghetti Harvest

On April 1, 1957, BBC broadcast the story of the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. Due to the magic of YouTube, you can watch the actual broadcast at the link below:

the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland

Since spaghetti wasn’t popular in England at the time, BBC received a number of calls from its viewers asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. Decades later, CNN called the spaghetti harvest story “the biggest hoax that any reputable establishment ever pulled”.

The origin of the spaghetti harvest story goes all the way back to 1700, when pranksters in England first popularized the annual tradition of playing practical jokes on each other on April 1, but some elements of the merry making extend back to the times of the Roman Empire.

Virtually no one is immune to April 1 jokes, as evidenced by the Time magazine cover of April 1, 2012:

Although it looks pretty authentic, you need to be aware of the fact that Time magazine didn’t actually PUBLISH an issue on April 1. Their cover of April SECOND looked like this:

If you’d like to see more work by the cover’s creators, just click on the link below:


Whatever you do, though, be careful tomorrow. After all, you don’t want to get fooled again.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The most trusted man in America, part 2

I graduated from college in 1969, right at the end of one of the most turbulent decades in our country’s history. During a time when authority figures of all kinds were being challenged, one man (above all others) was considered to be the most trusted man in America:

When I last wrote about Mr. Cronkite,the man who was considered to be the most trusted man in American in today’s world was Jon Stewart, whose “news” is broadcast on Comedy Central.

As a society, we’ve become increasingly cynical over time. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, our “believability ratings” of 13 news organizations (national newspapers, cable news outlets, broadcast TV networks, and NPR) has declined dramatically in the last 10 years. Significantly, there’s a marked difference by politically party affiliation, since Republicans are much more cynical about the news they receive than Democrats. By itself, that may help to explain why Congress currently has the lowest approval rating it has held in the last 40 years.

Since fame is fleeting, you may be interested to know that Jon Stewart is no longer the most trusted man in America, even though his wit and insight on current topics is still dead on. In 2013, the title of “the most trusted person in America” is held by the man pictured below:

His speech at the Democratic National Convention last September was viewed favorably by most people (with the exception of die hard Republicans), but there are a number of other factors that have contributed to his enhanced status with the American public:

1) his willingness not to hate those who tried to destroy him, and thus involve former enemies in his causes

2) his ability to mobilize scholars and funders from around the world to tackle serious problems as part of the Clinton Global Initiative

3) his ability to convey complex matters in language people can understand

4) the “halo effect” due to Hillary’s work as Secretary of State

5) the political right has become even more extreme since the days when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, and has far less credibility than it did 20 years ago

If you’ve got the time, reading Clinton’s 2004 autobiography (“My Life”) will give you a better understanding of the man. However, since even the paperback edition of the book is 969 pages long, it will be a formidable task for most people.

It’s more than a little telling that Ken Starr, in 2004, expressed regret for his politically motivated investigations of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s also significant that Clinton’s nemesis in Congress, Newt Gingrich, is now considered to be the most disliked politician in America.

You may or may not agree that Bill Clinton is the most trusted person in America, but his life story confirms the fact that all of us can achieve amazing things in life if we don’t let life’s inevitable setbacks get us down. Somewhere, over the rainbow, our dreams CAN come true.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Blame it on the teachers

One of the mysteries of online publishing is that an article that I published months, or even years, ago will occasionally come to the attention of somebody someplace in the world. I’m still not quite sure how that happens, and I continue to be fascinated by the reach of the internet. To date, I’ve “traveled” to more than 100 countries, a few of which I’ve never heard of.A few days ago, I was in Fiji, which is probably the ONLY way that I’ll ever get to that little group of islands in the South Pacific.

The article that popped up the other day was originally published in December of 2011, and it was titled “What if the world were run by nine year olds?”. The subject of the story was a teacher in Virginia named John Hunter, and his story can be found at the link below:

here’s Johnny

More that a decade before I became a full time college professor in China, I worked for the Insurance School in Chicago for seven years as a part-time college level insurance teacher. As a result, I’ve long had a “soft spot” for teachers, and I recently went back to work again (part time) for the Flagstaff Unified School District.

Teaching is not an easy occupation. As Calvin and Hobbes reminded us nearly 20 years ago, teachers are often blamed for the failings of their students, if spite of their best efforts to educate them.

A recent mass email that I had received (titled “the best email of the year’) again highlighted the difficulty of being a teacher, using the pretense of an imaginary interview. In case you missed it, here’s the story:

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said,

“Let me see if I’ve got this right.

You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love of learning.

You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of anti social behavior, and make sure they pass their final exams.

You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish, or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter and report card.

You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

You want me to do all this, and then you tell me …


Admittedly, the story above is a bit of a stretch - but not my much. In addition to all of the above, legislators in a number of states around the country (including Arizona) want to have teachers carry firearms, further adding to their responsibilities.

In his book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, Thomas Friedman pointed out that there are TWO main factors that led to a high standard of living in the countries of the world:

1) the degree to which the countries were “wired” (measured in megabytes per capita) and

2) the countries that have the highest percentage of high school graduates, and spent the highest amount of GDP on teachers salaries, had the highest standard of living.

That same reasoning also applies to the states in America as well. To a very large degree, the states that spent the highest amount per student (which would include investments in both computers and teacher salaries) invariably had the highest per capita income.

The chart below shows the per pupil expenditures by state, as of 2009:

how’s YOUR state doing?

The top dozen (after adjusting for regional cast differences) are as follows:

Wyoming $18,068

Vermont $17, 847

Alaska $16, 174

D.C. $16,034

New York $15, 863

New Jersey $15,116

Rhode Island $14,567

Connecticut $13,959

Massachusetts $13,361

Hawaii $13,090

Maryland $12,703

Louisiana $12, 253

United States $11,665

Virginia $10,095

Arizona is 4th from the bottom, at $8655 per student

Mississippi is 10th from the bottom, at $9708 per student

Money alone, though, isn't the entire solution. Unless we make significant structural changes in our education system, we will continue to lag far behind countries like South Korea, Finland, and Singapore.

The link below will let you compare per capita income by state:

how well off are you, really?

How does that list match up with expenditures per pupil?

Let’s take a look:

Wyoming 17th

Vermont 19th

Alaska 8th

D.C. 1st

New York 7th

New Jersey 2nd

Rhode Island 16th

Connecticut tied for 1st

Massachusetts 4th

Hawaii 14th

Maryland 3rd

Louisiana 42nd

United States 20th

Virginia 5th

Arizona 26th

Mississippi 50th

As you can see, it’s not a perfect match, but 7 of the top 12 in spending per student are also in the top 12 for per capita income, and 3 more weren‘t far behind. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on education. Unfortunately, however, there too many “right wing” governors in this country who don’t understand the difference between spending and investment. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is one of those.

In case you haven’t heard, Governor Walker is a good friend of the Koch brothers.

During his inaugural address in January of 2011, he attacked the teachers union, and in March of 2011, he signed Act 10 into law, which severely limited teachers and local workers from bargaining over health benefits, pensions, and workplace safety. Although a Dane Country judge repealed most of the provisions of the law in the fall of 2012, it remains in force for state employees. City, county, and school employees have now regained the rights that they had prior to March of 2011.

Although Governor Walker doesn’t trust teachers on bargaining rights, he DOES trust them with guns. On December 19, he said that giving guns to teachers should be “part of the discussion” on school safety. He also is of the opinion that assault weapons should NOT be banned, and he does not feel that there should be a limit on the size of magazines that can be used. As a result, it shouldn’t shock you to learn that the NRA contributed $815,000 to help Walker win his recall election last June, in large part due to his A+ rating with them.

The group also awarded Walker with the Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award in April of 2012.

Scott Walker’s attack on teachers and other state employees led to wide spread protests at the Capital in Madison, and caused 14 Democrats in the legislature to flee to Illinois in February of 2011 so that the Senate would not have a quorum to vote on the Republican plan to cut salaries, health insurance, pensions, and bargaining rights for state employees.

His actions also led to the recall campaign that occurred in the summer of 2011. Due to a huge influx of money from outside groups, Walker survived the recall campaign by a margin of 54% to 45%. Walker’s supporters spent $45.6 million to keep him in office, which dwarfed the $17.9 million spent by his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett.

What Scott Walker, and people like him, fail to understand is that teachers don’t start their careers because they want to make a lot of money. There are PLENTY of other jobs in the corporate world that would pay more for comparable years of service.

The clip below, of a soon-to-be-retired teacher in Rhode Island will tell you more about what teaching is REALLY about than any handbook that you’ve ever read about teaching:

I quit!

So, Governor, you’re free to blame whoever you want for what you claim was a state operating deficit of $3.6 billion in Wisconsin.

Just don’t blame the teachers.