Sunday, September 29, 2013

September 2013: Musing and Meandering Along



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...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Kharpert Country Club

This piece was first printed in the Armenian Weekly

At the Armenian Youth Federation Olympics this year in Washington DC, you may have seen fifteen or so people wearing navy blue polo shirts with an Armenian flag logo and the words: Kharpert Country Club.
photo 8 1024x768 The Kharpert Country Club
Back row:  Judy Gavoor, Armene Kapamajian, Violet Gavoor
Front row:  Mark Gavoor

These are all members of the Gavoor, Merian, and Mardoian Clan. Of course, there is a story behind these shirts.

The story begins in 1986. When our daughter Armené was baptized that year, we had the dinner at the Pine Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was a very lovely place and a warm gathering of family and friends. A good family friend, Vartan Agbabian, performed selections from Aram Khachaturian’s Album for Children on the piano. 

Everyone enjoyed themselves. At the end, I got up to say a few words, to thank everyone for coming and to reflect on the day. I decided to add a little levity by beginning with “Thank you everyone for coming to Armené’s baptism. It is a special day for our family and we are honored and delighted that you were able to share it with us. It is even more special that we are having the dinner here at the beautiful Pine Lake Country Club, because there is a long tradition in our family of having baptismal dinners at the Kharpert Country Club.” This comment got a few chuckles.

Then my maternal grandmother, well along the path of losing her hearing, blurted out to my mother loud enough for everyone to hear, “Vat he saying? Vee don’ have no country club in Kharpert!” Everyone cracked up.

Thanks to Azniv Merian, who we all called Grannie, the fictitious notion of the Kharpert Country Club became a real, well, concept in our family. At family gatherings we would bring up this story and someone would invariably quote Grannie, “Vee don’ have no country club in Kharpert!” We would all laugh like it just happened. We talked and joked about having golf shirts made with the name of this mythical country club.

We never made those shirts; until this year.
photo 7 300x225 The Kharpert Country Club
Our Shirt Logo

My parents Sonny and Violet Gavoor had the shirts made. There was no question where we would wear these shirts: The AYF Olympics. Grannie was the mother of an Olympic Queen, Suzanne Merian Arzoian, the grandmother of an Olympic Queen, Nancy Gavoor, and the mother in-law of an Olympic King, Sonny Gavoor. Sonny and Itchie met and married through the AYF as did their Judy and Mark Gavoor.

That is why we all wearing Kharpert Country Club Shirts at the games today. We are proudly remembering our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. We are honoring not only that we are Armenian but also Kharpertsi. 

We look forward to a day when we might actually be able to build and join the Kharpert Country Club in what Grannie always called “the old country.” Then, we can truly have all our baptism dinners there.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Siri, Oh Siri, Wherefore Art Thou?

On October 4, 2011, Apple launched the iPhone 4S.  In looking at this now, I realize that it was one day before the passing of Steve Jobs.  But that is not the point of this blog.  This piece is about Siri.

When the phone first came out, I wondered why it was not the iPhone 5 but rather the iPhone 4S.  It looked like they were introducing the iPhone 4.5.  What made the phone different from the 4?  There was a chipset, camera, and operating system upgrade.  What got the most buzz at the launch, however, was the S part of 4S.  The S stood for Siri which was dubbed and highly touted as a both a revolutionary and exclusive voice recognition personal assistant.  All one had to do was double click the main button, ask Siri a question, and a monotone female voice would answer your question or ask you more questions.  Siri seemed to be the voice interface we were all looking for since we were introduced to Hal in Stanley Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

Siri was downright revolutionary.  You ask it a question or give it a command and it calls people, looks up things on the internet, provides directions, etc. It seemed like a quantum leap forward and a game changer that would be in Apple’s favor.  The iPhone 4S sold 4 million units in the first four days it was offered.  It was very impressive.

Everyone was excited about Siri.  People that had the iPhone 4S would show people that didn't have the 4S just how Siri worked.  There were cool and kinda sassy answers Siri would give to lurid or risque questions.  Well, they were as cool and sassy as the monotone Siri would be.  It was a lot of fun and I looked forward to getting my first iPhone and was most definitely looking forward to using Siri… especially while driving.

I got my iPhone 4S in January of 2012.  It was indeed very cool.  It was very easy to get used to and it seemed to seamlessly integrate all my contacts and emails with two google apps accounts, a yahoo account, and another consulting company’s email.  I was impressed.  I used Siri  a lot for making calls.  She was not the best at understanding Armenian names though.  

It didn’t last.  I rarely use Siri these days and I never hear people talking about Siri.  Why?

Siri does not work that well.  She gets things wrong and confused often enough that I stopped using her as my personal assistant.  At first I thought it was my voice.  Perhaps I slurred words or had a lisp or something that I was not aware of.  I discounted that as I still use voice recognition regularly to dictate texts, emails, and the do searches using Google.  Hmmm….

I turned to a Google search, asking a simple question “Does Siri work?”  I found a Slate.com article dated November 15, 2012 by Farhad Manjoo.  The title of the article is Siri Is a Gimmick and a Tease:  But Google Voice Search is getting close to fulfilling Apple’s broken promise.  Apparently so.  Per the article,

Siri let us down immediately. Her problems are manifold, but they all add up to something that would doom any assistant: She is profoundly unreliable. Yes, sometimes, depending on how you speak and what you ask, Siri will get exactly what you’re saying and deliver the correct answer. Those moments are delightful. They’re also rare.
I still like my iPhone 4S but it’s biggest advantage is simply that its battery lasts a lot longer than that of the iPhone 5.  Let’s see what the iPhone 6 brings to the table when it is launched next week.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On Attacking Syria

The US is about to attack Syria.

The impending attack is because the we believe the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people.  Per the BBC, the US has put the death toll on this chemical weapon attack at 1,429 including 426 children.  Per the same article, France only attributes 529 deaths to the same attack.  The US and France are both highly certain that this use of chemical weapons was conducted by the Syrian Army and any use of Syria’s vast reserves of such weapons must be approved by President Assad.

President Obama had warned Syria about using such weapons.  He told them if they crossed this line, this red line,  there would be severe consequences.  Now that such an attack has come and we are highly certain that Assad was behind it, we are cornered into backing up the red line threat our President made.  At first England and France were with us, but as support among their parliaments and people waned, they backed away.  The issue was brought up at the United Nations Security Council but Russia vetoed any action being taken.  So, if their is to be any military action, we stand alone.  

Today, September 4, both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been saying there was no Obama or US “red line.”  It was a global “red line.”  Two smart fellows named David, one a cousin and another a friend, are apparently as bewildered as I am.  They  posted the following on Facebook.
So, let me get this straight. We're going to go to war to defend the credibility of a comment Obama won't take responsibility for.

HIGH CONFIDENCE VS CERTAINTY: Is anyone else bothered by this Admin's very specific talking point that it has evidence which shows with "high confidence" (vs certainty) that Assad used chemical weapons? If it has certainty, I have no doubt that they would wouhave said so.

OBAMA MOMENTS AGO IN SWEDEN: "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line." Huh? Would you like me to roll the tape/video on your previous comments?

So launching missiles isn't going to war, huh? Half pregnant comes to mind…

I never realized how cool wars could be until Obama started them. (this was on a shared photo).

That awkward moment when a Nobel Peace Prize winner wants to bomb people that other world leaders want no part of. (this was also on a shared photo).
If the US attacks Syria, it will not be in accordance with the popular view.  A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted a few days before this blog posting showed that 58% of Americans are opposed to any military action, 38% are in favor of an attack, and about 3% are undecided.  This is different than a poll taken in December, the same question was raised.  Then the results were flip-flopped and about he same majority supported an attack.  At the time of that poll, there had not been a chemical attack, it was purely hypothetical.

Why are we doing this?  Why are we doing it when no other country is supporting participating?  What do we expect to gain from this attack?  Will anything change if we attack?  Will weakening the current regime lead to the success of the rebels?  Would a new government be any friendlier to us?  There are no good reasons that I can fathom for this.  Have we learned nothing from our recent, ineffective (in my view) wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  The vague answers to such questions bothers me a bit.

We have to stop being the policemen of the world.  We have to focus more on solving the many issues we have in this country in terms of commerce, jobs, deficits, and education.  I believe those battles are much more winnable than any foray in the Mideast.

There are articles, not so much in the mainstream, that suggest the rebels used chemical weapons making it look like it was the Syrian Army to provoke us to do exactly what we are planning to do.  Some of these articles also go so far as to say Saudi Arabia is behind it.  Maybe there are deals and alliances happening behind closed doors that we will never be privy too.

As of September 1, The Huffington Post reported that over 110,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict in March of 2011.  Of that number, over 40,000 are civilians of which 4,000 are women and 5,800 are children.  The remainder are combatants on both sides with the Syrian Army and pro-government militia being the largest part.

This is an abhorrent civil war.  Both sides are killing civilian men, women, and children.  Yet it wasn’t until chemical weapons were used that we think about intervening.  What makes children killed by chemical weapons worse than children killed by bullets and artillary?  This bothers me a bit.  

Rioting in Egypt a few weeks ago resulted in the burning and looting of churches and the killing of Christians.  Yet, barely a peep out of our government and certainly no line of any kind drawn nor any warnings to anyone.  This bothers me more than a bit.

There is something I learned in managing logistics suppliers.  When things seem bewildering and illogical.  There are things happening behind the scenes.  In logistics, the happenings are usually payments to individuals to get and retain the business.  I am not saying payoffs and bribes are involved in this case, but it would not surprise me to learn that discussions with both Saudi Arabia and Israel have influenced this desire to bomb Syria.  

Me? I would not get involved in Syria.   I would put whatever funds it is going to cost to attack them and put it towards solving a domestic issue.  Helping to transform Detroit would be an excellent use of those funds.