Friday, November 29, 2013

Charis T. Hutchinson

My sister, Charis is named after my father's aunt Charis (pronounced Kare-iss). Great-aunt Charis.

She was born in the last year of the 19th century and died in 1983, spending almost her entire life on Long Island, NY. She attended Smith College but didn't find any men at Yale or Harvard or Brown to marry. She undoubtedly met a few but she remained single, spending her whole life living with her father until he died in 1946. At that point she and her stepmother moved to Port Washington in Nassau County. (Aunt Charis' biological mother died when she was a teenager)

She had two brothers, one of whom was my grandfather. Her other brother, Harold was exposed to poisonous gas during World War I and along with a lifelong smoking habit, died at around age 50. Neither he nor Charis ever had any children. But they all got together at holidays and aunt Charis doted on her niece, nephew and eventually the grand-nieces and grand nephews.

Out of curiosity I once asked my aunt Ruth if there was ever a man in Charis' life and she said she thought she had heard something about some guy once when she was young. I asked if she'd heard it from her father (Charis' brother) and she said, "Oh, no. He never talked about things like that."

Charis worked for the State of New York in Manhattan and commuted by the Long Island Railroad everyday. When he was a young man, my father would visit them and he and aunt Charis had a system whereby each Friday she would walk on the train station platform to the last car where my teenaged father sometimes met and rode with her.

If I had to say something about Charis Tuthill Hutchinson it is that she was an interesting lady, probably due to the fact that she was college educated (a rarity for a woman in 1915-1920) and that the absence of children undoubtedly freed her to pursue a lot of extra-curriculars that most parents are unable to find time for.

The old saying, "The only interesting people are interested people," certainly applied to my great aunt Charis.

Close Captioning's Beginnings

The deaf have benefited greatly from the close captioning of television. I wrote previously about the use of television in a deaf household prior to the 1980s and the limited amount of programming they found worth watching.

For many years the deaf have been able to rent films and although they were American productions and the actors spoke English, they were sub-titled like foreign films so the hearing impaired could enjoy them. Several nonprofit organizations including public libraries rented not only films but projectors and screens for the enjoyment of schools, clubs and deaf individuals.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Animal Eradication and Ecology

We humans have gone to war with certain animals since prehistoric times. Over the millenia, the targets have changed, but for each generation there has been a widespread belief that things would be better if we could wipe out one or another animal species that is bothering us, interfering with our well-being or otherwise preventing us from doing what we please. Simply controlling the population of the bothersome creature was probably a less desirable outcome than complete elimination so as to put the problem to rest. Also changing over time was the type and proximity of the animal we have sought to rid ourselves of.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Allocation of Housing

Many people today see an unfair distribution of wealth and income more easily than ever before. According to most statistics, wealth has not been this polarized in the U.S. since 1929.

I don't know if the average American can suggest a reasonable remedy, though. Simple confiscation of wealth from the top 1% of income earners and redistributing it to the rest of us is just not going to be practical. Even if we taxed the highest incomes at 90%, the revenue from those increased tax receipts would not be divided equitably, we can assume.

I'm afraid that although people have a legitimate gripe in the disparities in wealth, we all have bought into this system of distribution at least in part. For example, almost none of us believe that there should be an absolute cap on income. That is, a law saying that all income above $XXX,000 will be confiscated by the government will not be popular when personal liberty is concerned.

One piece of evidence to support this buy-in to the current system of wealth distribution is housing. The U.S. (and any metropolitan area) has a large stock of housing--some of it desirable and some not very desirable. In the Washington, D.C. metro area, for example, there are beautiful homes along the Potomac river in Great Falls, Virginia, Georgetown in Washington or in the neighborhood called Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland. These homes often cost upwards of several million dollars.

By contrast there are homes in poorer sections of the metro area which sell for less than $100,000. Some might be in a neighborhood with a lot of foreclosures or boarded up properties, or an area with poor schools, crime and litter.

In any case, almost all of us realize that the good, the average and the poor quality housing stock is distributed among the population according to certain circumstances--namely income. If you can afford it, you can buy a house in Georgetown. If not, you have to look elsewhere. Few of us dispute that--if we want to live in a million dollar home, we need to have a lot of money.

Utopians (and perhaps Communist hangers-on) might argue that this limited commodity (housing) should be shared equally among us and that perhaps residences should rotate among people, giving all of us a chance to live in Potomac or Great Falls while others are sent to public housing or blighted neighborhoods.

But even the poorest among us believes that the only reasonable way to move to Potomac is if you are rich. It is foolish to expect anyone to voluntarily give up that home (as none of us would do if we were the occupants) in the interest of sharing with our community.

So in that narrow sense, despite rising anger at disparity in wealth these days, few of us dispute that the most desirable homes should be distributed (or re-distributed) by anything but the ability to pay.

The King is born

I was born in 1961. That's also when Elvis Presley was at the height of his popularity.

To illustrate . . .

You may know that my parents were deaf and although they each had a usable voice, only those familiar with them could clearly understand them. That is, they could speak and be understood by their children, neighbors and some others who were close to them and communicated day-to-day with them. For most other times, they carried around pencil and paper (like most other deaf people back in the middle 20th century) to navigate and negotiate transactions with the hearing world.

Although I never confirmed this with them, I can only imagine that upon my birth they were visited in the hospital by someone from the D.C. department of vital records or something like that who asked for statistics like age and name of the parents, weight and race of the baby, etc. Presumably they passed a pad of paper back and forth in question-and-answer style so that this public health official could create a birth certificate.

After getting the statistics, he asked about a name and he asked my mother and father what they had decided on.

But instead of using pencil and paper, after they read his question they spoke in unison, "Elvis."

"How's that?" he asked. "Alvin?" and wrote down what he thought he heard.

At least that's what I'd like to think happened.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pickup Basketball and Street Prostitutes

I've said earlier that on the pickup basketball circuit, it is often the case that there are many more players than basketball courts to accommodate them, spawning rituals around rules of succession, calling the next game, and the many disputes that can erupt over who actually "called" next game. etc. This is an attempt to fairly distribute a scarce resource (time on the court). But occasionally the reverse is true where a perfectly good basketball court lacks enough players to run a full game. In this case the early birds at the park or playground can only wait around for others to show up and jump start a game. [This admittedly became more common in my later basketball-playing years, as I was up earlier on the weekends than the younger ball players.]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Math Scores Down. Is Teaching 'People Skills' to Blame?

The Washington Post reports that in one of the nation's best school systems (Montgomery County, Maryland) test scores in math are at their lowest point in a long time. And it appears that this is a nationwide trend

And of course the question is, Why?

Poor teaching? Poor discipline and study skills at home?

I wonder if this fall in numeracy isn't related to the teaching of soft skills in schools. Soft skills (or people skills) teach children about relationships, getting along, negotiation, conflict resolution, etc. all of which are worthy lessons for maintaining harmonious citizenry in our increasingly crowded and interconnected world.

But teaching and cultivating these interpersonal skills may undermine mathematics concepts and teaching. Math is a 'hard' discipline. By hard I don't mean 'difficult' but rather unforgiving. In mathematics, there is very often a right answer and none other. No flexibility is accounted for. The rules are hard and fast in contrast to the lessons we teach our children regarding navigating the unpredictable ways in which we relate to one another.

Another potential reason  for the noticeable drop in math scores also relates to soft-skills teaching and that is that there seems to be a "math gene" that science has identified in humans. This gene (as far as I have read) enables its bearer to better understand values, ratios and other concepts that seem to elude (despite formal training) those who lack the gene.

I'm not sure about all that but if it's true it might explain at least partially the drop in scores. That is, that the numerate (those with the math gene) tend to be more socially awkward than those who excel in the people (or soft) skills. Therefore the latter tend to marry earlier (or at all) and have children earlier and have larger families, thus passing on this mysterious "math gene." The geeks on the other hand, are more studious and delay marriage and childbearing (either by choice or by lack of opportunities, skills and/or abilities) and therefore produce fewer children with this gene.

Popular culture is also (and as usual) a willing participant. We've seen for years in movies, television, music and other entertainment media that geeky math geniuses are undesirable companions. Children who might otherwise excel in reason and logic (both core to mathematical achievement) are excluded from many peer groups enough to modify behavior so that some of them conform by feigning ignorance and distaste for numeracy.

And voila, in 10-15 years you've got a cohort of school-aged children with a large proportion of innumerate who tend to drive down test scores in math.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Top Draft Picks at Druid Hill Park

One of the rules in pickup basketball is first-come, first-play. That is, those who show up to the
basketball court first are the first to play. Generally there are a lot more players than there are courts to accommodate them, especially in urban areas so some method has to be arrived at to allocate the scarce resource.*

One day back in 1991 my friend, Don and I went to Druid Hill Park in Baltimore which had a reputation for some good basketball being played. We went on a Sunday just after lunch and the action hadn't really heated up yet. In fact, no games had started and that meant Don and I would get at least one game in. Had we shown up when there were games already in progress, the activity at Druid Hill Park is so heavy that it's likely we would have had to wait two or three games to get into one ourselves--if we succeeded at all.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

No Longer Newsworthy

A syndicated feature in many alternative newspapers for many years was called, "News of the Weird," (NOTW). It featured (as the title suggests) stories detailing freak occurrences or idiotic actions of common folk like you and I. Many considered it a welcome alternative to the mainstream stories which dealt with heads of state, business tycoons, wars or public policy decisions. Sometimes NOTW contained accounts of people caught or somehow trapped in compromising situations (on the toilet, having sex, etc.). Others might include extremely pampered pets, delusional beliefs in aliens leading to odd behavior or freak accidents resulting in deaths, etc.

Every so often the News of the Weird had to retire a certain type of story because it happened enough to make it no longer, "weird." One example was stories about would be crooks who, before holding up a store, would ask for a job application, fill it out and use their real name and address before carrying out the armed robbery. It seems to happened so much that the NOTW had to stop running that kind of story as odd.

Similarly a certain type of event is sometimes reported in the mainstream news with such frequency that it becomes no longer newsworthy. The one that comes most immediately to mind is stories of corruption in municipal governments. How many times have we read about a big city mayor or town council member that has been forced to resign or indicted by authorities for monetary impropriety, bribe-taking or skimming funds, etc.?

It happens so much that it is now found primarily among the news wire briefs rather than the headlines.

I would add to that genre the school test cheating stories that we've seen in recent years. This also relates to municipal governments, but it appears that standardized test cheating by both students, teachers and abetting by higher officials is so common that it barely attracts any attention anymore. 5-10 years ago it was quite a scandal to read about a school district where teachers were helping students or erasing answers on tests but more and more today it attracts little notice.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Foul Language and Deaf Parents

Being the child of deaf parents brings a different set of experiences than that of children of hearing parents. Learning American sign language, for example or taking on adult-like responsibilities gives the offspring of deaf adults a unique view of things compared to growing up in an all-hearing household.

One fairly common experience among the children of deaf adults (CODA) is the early and liberal use of foul language. With parents unable to catch and correct this bad habit, children repeat what they've heard from the older kids at school or the playground and there is almost no barrier to repeated utterances around the house.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Post Civil Rights Reflections

Occasionally I'll meet a person who went to Catholic school or otherwise had strictly religious parents and who now feels permanently harmed by the whole experience. They talk about being fearful of the nuns commands or of attending all manner of religious services and performing associated rituals, giving the impression that they've never been the same. And they now reject the whole experience and call it a scar on their past. A similar set of cultural baggage is associated with Jewish motherhood; certain people (mostly Jewish women) complain of the guilt or other emotional trauma associated with having a Jewish mother.

Copyright: Educational versus Entertainment Content

Since the introduction and widespread use of digital media, many people have come to believe that copyright law needs to be amended. And while it may not be likely to happen, there are some things worth considering if the laws were updated. For example, it might be helpful to distinguish between types of content to balance commercial interest versus the greater good. Balancing the interests of the private sector (businesses) and the public good has after all engaged government since the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.

With regard to copyrighting publications in the academic world, it would help if the law at some point in the past had distinguished between material which is educational and that which is of entertainment value; this might have avoided much of what is called the Open Access (OA) movement. OA has been an effort by the scientific and research community to make as widely available as possible the publications resulting from research conducted at universities, laboratories and other not-for-profit facilities and which has very little commercial appeal outside of the university libraries which purchase it.

If the law had treated educational content more fairly it would allow for wider distribution and copying due to the general belief that education is a public good whether it takes place in a school or formal institution or on one's own. If material that is designed to inform rather than entertain was easily available and reusable, separate from (for example) feature films or popular music, we wouldn't have what Jim Neal of Columbia University called civil disobedience in copyright violations that take place today at universities among faculty and graduate students.

It is not helpful to subject use of an article on the evolution of reptile locomotion to the same restrictions as the use of a popular music release or a feature length Hollywood production.

This is one fairly easy call that copyright law amendment could address: is the work primarily educational or research in nature or is it purely entertainment. Undoubtedly there would be some debate over certain creative works, but recognizing the distinction would be a good framework for debate. Disputes could perhaps begin with the establishment of whether the work is mostly factual or mostly artistic. Again, a Beatles single is a creative, artistic work while an article detailing the morphology of bone marrow cancer cells is almost entirely factual.

[see my earlier post on other alternatives to rights in the entertainment realm]

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Alvin Award

After Larry Bird retired from basketball in 1992, I loudly declared to anyone who would listen, "The NBA will never name another white man its Most Valuable Player."

And boy was I wrong.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Chowder Head

I was in the staff cafeteria the other day and being that it was Friday, the soup was clam chowder. I normally don't like the soup there but I look forward to Fridays and clam chowder.

It reminded me of an incident when I was a young boy. It's really just a snippet of a memory but worth repeating for posterity.

A kid in our neighborhood--a bit older than me--used the term, "chowder head' to insult another kid. I suppose he was just repeating something he heard on a cartoon or some other television content. I don't remember much else except that at the time I thought it was the funniest thing I'd heard. You know how kids are: we get to giggling over something and just can't stop. I remember myself being doubled over in laughter for a long time

I repeated the phrase over and over and called as many people chowder head as I could get away with over the next day or two. Probably made an ass of myself but as I recall it sure was fun.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Consumer Behavior and Psychology

I heard a segment on the news this morning which talked about (among other things) why and when humans give charitably. It is worth noting that we tend to tip better when the waiter gives us a piece of candy along with our bill in a restaurant. Also mentioned were the rates of charitable giving when we receive unsolicited gifts such as return address labels with our name and address printed on them, or a small gift from Hare-Krishna members in the airport.

It reminds me of things I've heard and read about certain marketing practices designed to get a person to spend more, for example product display tricks such as putting the same product in two or three different size containers and pricing them in such a way as to influence which size we purchase.

I would like to believe that this inside information and the details of marketing ploys would one day have  some monetary value to me but that's not necessarily true. Despite knowing how retailers and other corporations try to change my purchasing behavior:
  • It is unlikely that I will take this information and profit from it by purchasing more wisely
  • Knowing the tricks of marketing or philanthropic organizations does not necessarily mean that I will anticipate and counter these devices
  • Nor do I harbor any idea that if I did outwit them, that I will get rich because of it
And most importantly, it goes without saying that even if I did save money--even a lot of it--this way, I wouldn't necessarily be any happier than I am right now.