Some months this letter comes easier than in others. This is one of those months where a topic that compels me has not emerged. I might attribute it to all the writing and blogging I did earlier this month leaving me kind of an empty vessel at this time. It might be a more than full time teaching schedule that has me a bit stretched.
Whatever the case, when I find myself in this predicament I go back to the name of this letter that my friend Marilyn Zavidow helped me select: This Side of Fifty - A letter of musings and meanderings. At times like this, when the end of the mont is approaching and a compelling topic has not emerged, I simply decide to muse and meander. That is exactly what I will do this month.
First musing: Apple announced their new iPhone earlier this month. They actually announced two of them the iPhone 5s and 5c. I am not sure what the differences are between the two or why there are two models. The feel is more line extension and marketing tweaks than any new innovation. I have not really studied the new models enough to validate that last statement.
Even though I am due for an upgrade, I have no burning desire to upgrade from my iPhone 4s with which I am happy. In the same vein, I have no burning desire to replace my iPad 2 with any of the later versions either. This is a testimony to the quality and utility of Apple products. I am quite content with older versions and feel no need to upgrade when the latest and greatest is launched.
The thing I like the most about the new Apple products is the new operating system iOS 7. I loaded it on both my older devices: iPad and iPhone. I was not sure if I should because I heard comments from others that were less than complimentary.
At first, I thought the critics might be right. It was very different and I was pretty used to the old version and this was visually very different. Let's admit it, I am, age-wise, at the threshold where technological change starts to become more confusing than helpful. The whole look and feel of this operating system is different. It had a flatter look on screen, is less colorful, and more Microsoft-like as many folks had mentioned.
At first, I was not sure I liked it and thought that perhaps I had made a mistake installing it. As I am not savvy enough to uninstall it, if that is even possible, I was resolved to just having to get used to it. Getting used to it did not even take a day. I got used to it very quickly. Going from being wary of it to actually liking it happened at the same rate.
The most impressive part of the new operating system is that is cleaner and simpler. The design, in my view, is top notch. The evolution to cleaner and simpler is nothing new.
I remember when computers first went from monochrome screens to color. Everyone took advantage of color and customized their settings in rainbow bursts of colors. I did the same. Over time, designers moved back in the direction of monochrome with white pages and black text. As screen resolution improved, the letters became less robust and crisper at the same time. All of this made the displays easier to read. I did the same with my screen settings. After "personalizing" my settings with a variety of color schemes, I went back to the simpler and cleaner black text on a white background. Come to think of it, do any two colors provide better contrast?
The same thing happened with websites. Early on they were very busy. There were all kinds of colorful rotating .gifs simply because the technology was there and everyone wants to employ these innovations. Over time, again, website designs became cleaner and less cluttered and while still in color they are closer to black and white.
The same has happened with iOS. It is a good thing.
A meander: I drive twice a week into Chicago to teach a statistics course at North Park University. The class begins at 8 am but I like to leave by 6:15 to be there by 7. I do that for two reasons. The first is to have to time to prepare for class. More importantly, I like to beat the traffic. I take US 41 south that merges with I-94 which is the main North - South expressway through the city. It is often congested and at rush hour... forget about it. If I leave any later, I may not get to campus until 7:30 or later.
Earlier this month, i was about to turn right from Half Day Road onto US 41 going south. Just before the light turned green, I noticed a police car, which was coming in the other direction, turned left in front of me. i noticed the policeman but did not give it another thought.
Well before the 94 merge, traffic came to a standstill at the next traffic light which is Clavey Rd. We were backed up at least a quarter of mile before the light. Sitting in the right lane, I was just hoping this slow down was a local aberration and not the beginning of a back-up several miles in length. I noticed a person more nervous than me pass me on the shoulder. I thought the driver was most likely going to turn right on Clavey Rd and thus thought this was a perfectly valid thing to do. I disagreed and just shook my head. People always believe they are special when they do things like this.
I had forgotten about the policeman who was about five cars ahead of me. As soon as the car on the shoulder passed the police officer, the officer turned the flashers on and pulled the car over.
I smiled as I passed the driver who was going to get a ticket. I realized this is the first time that a police officer was actually there when I was thinking "where is a police officer when you need one."
A Second Muse: I spent a fair amount of time driving on September 26. I tend to listen to NPR when in the car and there were many stories this day that I could muse and meander over. One that perked my attention was about the Scholastic Aptitude Test more commonly known as the SATs. It seems the scores have been trending down the past few years.
There were two major theories for this. The first theory was that K-12 education in this country is not doing its job. The second was that the SAT is a test that favors students of privilege compared to the ACT which is now more popular than the SATs and, per this theory, less biased across socio-economic classes.
While both theories were valid, the first resonated more with me simply because it is something that I am dealing with every Monday and Wednesday evenings this semester. I am teaching Math 106 - Intermediated Algebra at the College of Lake County (CLC). It is one of four or five remedial or developmental course offered by CLC. What that basically means is that these courses cover material that should have been learned in high school. The students have to pay the full four or five credit hours based on the course but actually get no college credit for the class. The students who have to take these courses, and they have to take one to three of them depending on their placement scores, before they are ready to take the college level course or courses that is required of their major.
I have taught this kind of course before. The number of students that do not pass or drop-out of the course is high... way too high. This sad statistic is for all professors. It is just hard for the students. They have not taken math for too long. They do not know how to study for math. They have math phobias. They do not easily see the underlying sameness and structure in similar classes of problems. All of these, in various combinations prevent many students from being able to grasp the material. Furthermore, at the college level, these courses cover the the material at twice the rate of a similar high school class i.e. We cover in one sixteen week semester what they take a full year to cover in high school.
I have always told the students in these courses how fast the material will be covered. I advise them to tell anyone they know, brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends still in high school to take and master the material there. It is flat out much easier.
This semester I have taken another point of view. I told them that their being in my remedial class is not their fault. The education system let them down. How? Over the years we have become lax in the high schools. We have drastically cut back on the math requirements and the students take advantage of that. Students love that. I have heard young people say, "Thank God I am done with math." There is a large class of students that are simply delighted when they real take their last of the minimally required courses in high school. Students take the least amount needed to get through high school and they are happy. They are happy until a few years later when confronted with the math they need to take to realize their college major and career goals. By this time the students are rusty, reluctant, and a bit scared. As a result, the college courses are hard for them. It is no surprise that the fail and drop-out raise is so high.
I tell my students these courses are like language courses. What we cover today, we assume the students will know the next time the course meets. Doing lots of problems will certainly help. Doing lots of problems with increasing frequency of doing them right is better. There will be moments of pain. They have to fight through that and break through to a new level of mathematical vision and clarity.
As a society and culture we have to do much better at preparing our young people for college and careers. That, to me, means increasing the level of math knowledge coming out of high school.
Meandering some more: For the third or fourth time the past few years, we find ourselves as a country at the brink of shutting down the federal government. It is simply because of partisan politics in the congress. The word cooperation is long out the window as is compromise. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem concerned for the greater good or actually making democracy work.
This time around the Republicans are holding raising the debt ceiling hostage to delay or repeal Obama care. Obama care was passed by duly elected congressmen like it or not. Some hate it, others are looking forward to it. If those who hate it have the votes, then they should delay or repeal it. They do not. Holding another important piece of legislation hostage just does not make any sense even if it is legal.
I do believe the Republicans are looking like they do not want to get along here. This does not bode well for the next election. Younger people who do not have insurance and are already down on the Republicans are going to get an even sourer taste for the Grand Old Party. Losing the young, women, and minority vote is not a sound strategy for the party. They are being held hostage by the hard-line conservatives in the party. That rhetoric is not resonating any longer with the voting public.
The same thing happened to the Democrats years ago. The party was led by extreme die-hard liberals. That rhetoric wore thin on voters back then and the Republicans, at that time, offered a more centrist and sane alternative. With Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, the party had the White House and often a majority one or both houses of Congress. With that leadership, the party drifted more and more to the right. I want to say that most of that was under the influence of VP Dick Cheney during the George W presidency.
They people want government that can steer a steady central course and balance all the various issues we face. The Republicans seem to be losing ground to Democrats in this regard. Instead of finding a better way to build a platform that moves things in that general direction by appealing to voters, they seem to entrench more in the hard line conservative dogma. As a result, the party is losing ground and at the same time stagnating the legislature.
Many will take exception with my cursory analysis. But, this is the way I see it. I am tired of partisan politics without compromise. We have serious issues like:
- The economy that has not recovered for everyone
- A fully functioning and funded government without taxing us all to death
- Fixing health care... a topic for a letter all in itself.
- Deciding if we should continue being policeman to the world
- Fixing education as mused about in this letter
- Immigration, minimum wage, and so many other issues.
We will not make any meaningful progress without a legislature that wants to work together to get meaningful and reasonable actions that will have an impact. That requires a dedicated and cooperative legislature that understands compromise for the greater good. We do not have that today.
I have mused and meandered enough...