The rules of life

You’ve probably seen in the press lately that a high school kid wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom and was promptly ridiculed and abused for cultural appropriation.  This, in turn, led to counter-abuse claiming that she has the right to wear whatever she wants and that anybody who feels differently is acting like a PC crybaby.

After looking at this case and many others like it, I’ve concluded that the main issue is that nobody has any manners or common sense.  Because it seems like both of these would be useful things to have, I’m going to explicitly write out the rules for life that will cause everybody to get along.  Here goes:

Rule 1:  Don’t intentionally make other people feel bad.

If you do something that you know will upset somebody, you’re a jerk.  Before you do something that will affect other people, ask yourself the following question:  “Is it likely, based on what a reasonable person knows, that this will make somebody else feel bad?”  If the answer is yes, then don’t do it.

Applications:  Name-calling, ad hominem attacks, lies, etc.

Rule 2:  Try not to take everything personally.

If somebody does something that makes you feel bad, ask yourself the following question:  “Did they try to make me feel bad by doing this?”  If the answer is “yes”, then feel free to get angry and open up a can of whoop-ass on them.  If the answer is “no” – even if you’ve been terribly offended – you’re not right to be mad at them.  Instead, you should focus on letting them know why you’re offended and how they can avoid it in the future.  If you’re speaking to somebody who follows rule 1, that should fix it.

Rule 3:  Always act in a polite and mannered way, even when other people don’t.

I heard something on NPR that describes this perfectly:  The speaker was talking about how Republicans in Congress had unfairly blocked legislation during the Obama administration, so she was going to give them a taste of their own medicine by doing the same.  This doesn’t make sense.  If you think that somebody is behaving badly, you’re not allowed to behave badly in response.  The only people who are allowed to behave like this are second graders and Kardashians.  For God’s sake, be polite.

Rule 4:  People should be called whatever they want to be called

If you want to shut down any future dialogue with somebody, call them a name that they find offensive or demeaning.  Pro-choicers, do you really think that you’re helping establish a dialogue by calling your opponents “anti-choice”?  Pro-lifers, do you really think that calling your opponents “baby killers” will spark a healthy conversation?  Those of us who are older have trouble figuring out what a transgendered person is, or what a cis- person is, or any of those other confusing and scary terms.  Being a good person means that it’s our job to figure this out and refer to people in whatever way they wish.  Sure, we may screw up, but as long as we don’t do it intentionally, we can fix the problem without too much trouble.

Rule 5:  Remember that people who don’t agree with you aren’t evil

People generally believe things because they have what seems to them to be a good reason for doing so.  Whether it actually is a good reason or not depends on the belief, with some being better than others.  However, it’s rare to find people who believe things simply because they wish to hurt somebody else.  Consider this when you disagree with somebody about something important.  Some examples:

  • Gun control:  People who like guns aren’t baby killers – they’re people who wish to defend their homes and/or hunt.  People who like gun control aren’t trying to destroy this country – they’re trying to keep people from being shot.
  • Abortion:  People who are pro-life don’t hate women – they simply believe the fetus is the moral equivalent to the mother.  People who are pro-choice aren’t indifferent to human life – they simply believe that women should have the right how to handle an issue that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
  • Politics:  People who like Donald Trump aren’t stupid – they voted for a guy who promised to change how things are done in Washington and he’s doing that.  People who hate Donald Trump don’t hate America – they just believe that the President is steering the country in the wrong direction.

Every issue is the same.  Even the vilest people believe that they are in the right, so if you want to engage them, you have to be respectful of their beliefs.  It’s only when you engage with them that you can change their minds.

 

I hope that these rules make your life better in every way.  Feel free to share them with your friends and family and to use them to improve the world.

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That “Oh crap” moment

Most of you know that “oh crap” feeling you get when something has gone terribly wrong.  That feeling when the floor drops out from under you and you realize that your fears for how lousy life can get will be exceeded.  Usually this feeling is accompanied by enough information that you know you’re doomed, but not enough information that you really understand what kind of trouble you’re in.

Today I had one of those OC moments.  I was taking a nap in when my wife called and told me something about how I should check my email and PayPal was acting up and the bank was doing something and did I know that we just lost $20,000?  That’s the essence of the OC moment – knowledge that things have gone very wrong in an unpredictable way and that it may or may not be able to be fixed.

After much time on the phone with the bank, it turns out that this was a fixable OC moment.  Yes, we had lost $23,000, but because it was blatant fraud we could get it back.  Which is nice, because I’m having surgery in a couple of weeks and could really use the money.  Though I suppose that they could just take out a kidney while they’re in there and sell it on the black market.

The strange thing about the “oh, crap” moment is that it’s always lurking somewhere in the background.  The vague worries that keep you up at night probably involve a fear that something Very Bad will happen unexpectedly, and you can also probably relate to the feeling you get when you realize that Things Just Got Real.

I was curious about how other people experienced this sudden disastrous instant, so I went on the Internet to see what they had to say.  These OC moments tended to be far more interesting than mine, as they frequently involved being sent to jail, being publicly humiliated, or otherwise having one’s life destroyed.  None of these have happened to me yet, but the nature of the OC moment is that you never know when it will happen.  Perhaps one day the police will find out that a fast food napkin flew out of my car window when I was driving and send me up the river.  Until then, I’ll just relax and assume everything is fine.

A mile in somebody else’s shoes

Hi everybody!  You’ll notice that it’s been a very long time since I’ve updated the blog.  There are two reasons for this:  I’m lazy, and I’ve been having some health problems of late.  Sitting flat on my back has given me a lot of time to contemplate the important things in life, such as the movie Tropic Thunder.  Plus about a million other Netflix movies.  Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel:  Back surgery on May 14th.  Hooray?

Which leads to the meat of this post.  In between sessions of binge-watching Metalocalypse, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on the main issues that the really sick have to deal with on a regular basis:  pain.  Actually, that’s just one issue, but it feels like a lot more than that when you’re going through it.  As things stand right now, I’m in severe enough pain that I frequently find myself crawling from my bed to the couch, and from the couch to the bathroom, and so forth.  Not very dignified.  This has led me to reconsider my beliefs about several issues regarding medical care for those in a lot of pain.

Now, I don’t want to say for even a moment that what I’m experiencing is equivalent in any way to what the chronically and/or terminally ill deal with on a regular basis.  I can’t sit up or walk, but when I lie flat on my back I’m mostly pain-free.  Better yet, I know that in a month or so I’ll be feeling a lot better due to the magic of Medical Science (TM).  Still, I’ve gained some perspective about two big healthcare issues.  Namely:

1)  Medical marijuana should be legal

For the record, I have not used medical marijuana.  It’s not legal where I live, and I couldn’t use it for religious reasons even if it was.  However, there’s a lot of evidence out there that marijuana use can help with pain from chronic conditions such as MS, ALS, Huntington’s, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, and those dealing with cancer and chemotherapy.  Personally, I don’t care much if people smoke marijuana recreationally (again, not my thing), but even if you do, it makes sense to me that the negatives associated with casual marijuana use are outweighed by the positive benefit of preventing all of this suffering.  Honestly, if medical marijuana were legal and if I could use it, I probably would have done so by now to get rid of my back pain.  Living with pain is an awful thing to deal with for three months – to do so for the rest of your life when there’s something that can treat it is outrageous.  Which leads to my next realization:

2)  Assisted suicide should be legal

When my back pain is at its worst, I curl up in a ball on the bed and wait it out.  Sometimes the pain goes away in ten minutes, sometimes in a couple of hours.  It’s a terrible feeling, but I know that, no matter what happens, the pain will finally go away.

This got me thinking, however – what if I knew the pain would never go away?  I’m 46 years old, and can reasonably expect to live another 35 years.  I can deal with curling into a ball when I know that I’ll have surgery on May 14 – almost any pain is endurable when you know that it’ll end.  However, what would happen if I knew that I’d have to feel that kind of pain for the next 35 years?  What kind of hopeless, miserable life would that be?  A life where any joy you feel is small when compared to the pain you always feel isn’t a life at all.

In a case like this, where the rest of one’s life will be spent in hideous pain without hope of relief, it makes sense to me to give the sufferer the choice to end the pain in whatever way is available.  If drugs and surgery don’t work, then perhaps the way to do this is to end it all.  I’m not going to say that I think it should be easy to partake of this option, or that I think people should do this before exhausting all other options – only that it should be something to consider when all else fails.

Some of you are horrified by this for religious reasons.  Frankly, I’m horrified by this for religious reasons.  I believe, as many of you do, that our lives are given to us by God and that only God can take it from us.  However, there are a lot of people out there that don’t believe this, and it’s wrong to make them live according to my personal beliefs.  As with all decisions in life, assisted suicide would be the choice of the individual, and the individual will ultimately have to answer for having made this choice.  I don’t presume to know what God is thinking, and have to admit that I have no scientific evidence that God exists at all.  To think that perhaps God would show mercy toward the terminally-ill for the decisions they make doesn’t seem too out of character, based on the Books I’ve read.

Plus, after 20 years of endless suffering, that option might start to look good for anybody.

What does the above demonstrate to us?  Let’s break it down into a bulleted list:

  • Things look different when you’re in a lot of pain.  It’s easy to make moral decisions about something when you don’t have any skin in the game.  It’s something we should try to consider.
  • We don’t have to agree with people to respect their decisions.  I don’t like marijuana and I don’t like assisted suicide.  However, if somebody with MS smokes marijuana to relieve the pain, it doesn’t make my life worse, and if somebody with incurable cancer decides on assisted suicide, it doesn’t harm me.
  • Don’t judge others.  Just don’t.

 

 

Gun

It’s been a week since 17 people were killed at Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.  In that time there have been funerals, tears, and grieving.  You know, the usual sort of thing that happens when over a dozen people are slaughtered by a lunatic in a school.

What’s not usual, however, is that the students of Douglas High School seem to be getting annoyingly vocal in expressing themselves about the matter.  After past shootings, the survivors have generally been shown on TV as Grieving Victims (TM), which provides nice ratings for the evening news channels.  These survivors, on the other hand, are getting annoying by actually speaking out against gun violence.  Some have even started their own anti-gun violence charity, called “Never Again MSD.”  It’s really quite inconvenient for the talking heads and politicians.

Some pundits, fortunately, have shown the courage to stand up for the second amendment.  Dinesh D’Souza has been quoted by the Washington Post as calling this “politically-orchestrated grief.”  Similarly, when these kids were shocked after the Florida state legislature decided not to even discuss anti-gun legislation, the same pundit said that it must have been the “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.”

So, here’s the big question:  What gives these kids the right to speak out against gun violence?  After all, it’s self-evident that policymakers have studied the issue a lot longer than they have, and have far more experience in crafting legislation.  What could possibly make them reasonable voices for gun control?

  • The first amendment.  The second amendment says that Americans have the right to bear arms.  The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech.  It’s ridiculous to try to defend the second amendment by denying the first.
  • The first amendment (part 2):  I read somewhere online that since many of these kids are younger than 18, they don’t enjoy the same right to speech under the constitution that adults do.  Sorry, but that’s not true.  No matter how old you are, you enjoy the same constitutional freedoms.
  • They’re not overreaching.  It is completely unreasonable that anybody would claim to understand the workings of gun legislation within the span of a week.  Fortunately, these kids aren’t pretending to completely understand anything.  They haven’t made any concrete policy statements – instead, they’re simply asking people to consider doing something about gun violence.  I don’t think this is too much to ask.
  • They’ve been shot at.  When students go to school, they should expect to get homework, lousy lunch food, and the occasional embarrassing interaction in the hall.  What they shouldn’t expect is to have 62 grains of 5.56×45 full metal jacketed goodness launched toward them at over 3,000 feet per second.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students who have experienced this to say inconvenient things like “What can we do to avoid having 62 grains of 5.56×45 full metal jacketed goodness launched toward us at over 3,000 feet per second in the future?”
  • They have the responsibility to act.  OK… I’ll admit it, they don’t have any unusual responsibility to act against gun violence.  Nope – we all have the responsibility to discuss this issue.  Even yelling at each other is better than the non-interactions we seem to be fond of.

Let’s dial it back a bit.  17 kids died at Douglas High School, but an average of 102 people die on the roads every day.  Though terrible, isn’t this tragedy insignificant in the main scheme of things?

Well, I guess it depends.  If you’re looking at numbers alone, it’s true that we should be a lot more afraid of dying in a car crash than we should be do die in a school shooting.  However, in the past, we’ve taken lots of steps to make cars safer for the occupants.  Seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, and other measures have halved the per capita vehicle death rate since 1970.

What steps have we done to halve shooting deaths?  Until the answer is “everything we can,” these kids should keep talking.

Sexual Harassment in Schools (Part 1)

Part 1:  Employer/employee harassment in schools

As of this writing, Matt Lauer of the Today show and Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame have been accused of sexual harassment and been removed from the media.  This seems like a good response.

I’ve noticed that (as of this writing), there haven’t been women accused of the same sort of employer/employee sexual harassment.  In the most recent statistics I’ve been able to find (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_209.10.asp), more than 3/4 of all educators are women, but I’ve never heard of women harassing men in the schools.

When considering this, I came up with a few theories about why men harass women.  Let’s take a look:

Theory 1:  The biology of men is more likely to make them harass then the biology of women.

There’s no doubt that men and women are biologically different from one another.  However, is this difference in biology responsible for this different behavior?

My guess, based on the fact that neither male staff nor female school staff seem to be significantly harassing one another (at least, I haven’t found any statistics on the matter) would suggest that this isn’t the case.  There are incidents of harassment on both sides, but by the lack of good data I could find, it would seem that these numbers aren’t particularly high on either side.  Men and women are biologically-different, but it doesn’t appear that this has anything to do with biology.

Theory 2:  Men have always harassed women – the current harassment just reflects the way that society has always been.

I’m going to reject this theory straightaway.  I’m not going to deny that men have always harassed women, because it’s pretty clear that this is the case.  However, I’m looking more for the reason why men would harass women in the first place, and this theory seems to presuppose that there was a time when this didn’t happen.  Why did it start?

Theory 3:  Men abuse their power.  Women would do the same thing if given a chance.

I found it hard to find any very good data about whether men in positions of power are involved in sexual harassment more than women in similar positions.  If you Google this, you’ll see what I mean – most of the results asking about the rates of women harassing men lead to articles which have a “men are victims, too” message without supporting data.  This isn’t going to work.

Let’s take a look at the rates of sexual abuse of students by teachers.  Looking at the stats (https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/misconductreview/report.pdf) we can see that, while male teachers are responsible for a bit more of the abuse than female teachers – 57% vs 43%, there’s the confounding factor that there are far fewer male teachers than female teachers.  This suggests that male teachers are far more likely to harass female students than female students are.  My conclusion from this:  Given a power imbalance, males are more likely to commit sexual harassment than females are.

So, where does this leave us?

It looks like males harass women more than men, and that it probably has a lot to do with an imbalance of power between the abuser and abused.  Which is pretty much what people in the media have been saying.

How to handle this:

Given that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of colleague sexual harassment in the schools, you’d think that nothing needs to be done at all.  However, given that sexual harassment of anybody is so prevalent, we need to take reasonable steps to ensure that the harassment that does happen is dealt with quickly.  Some ideas:

  • Train people about sexual harassment.  Men need to realize what sexual harassment actually is.  Some men think that it’s OK to pat women on the butt, while other men think they’ll go to jail for telling a female coworker that the new haircut looks good.  Some women think that a pat on the butt isn’t that big a deal, while others feel threatened by less serious acts.  Let’s get everybody on the same page so we can agree about what we’re fighting against.
  • Encourage people to report harassment.  If suspected harassment happens, it should be reported.  It should be easy to report harassment and it should be emphasized that it won’t result in negative consequences.
  • Let everybody know that investigations are intended to find the truth.  I get the feeling from talking to women who have been harassed that many of them didn’t report it because they felt as if it were kind of a borderline issue and they didn’t want to ruin the man’s life if it turned out to be a misunderstanding.  If we explicitly make clear that these investigations are meant to simply find out what happened and not to destroy the accused, this might go a long way in removing this problem.
  • Let the punishment fit the crime.  If a man commits a violent sexual assault, prison is clearly the way to go.  However, if a man commits a lesser act of harassment (perhaps an older teacher makes casual sexually-derogatory statements about women in general), perhaps it’s more appropriate to educate them about why this isn’t right, or to move them to another workplace and keep a close eye on them.  Though I don’t have any stats to back it up, I suspect that some of the less extreme acts of sexual harassment are due to stupidity or insensitivity on the part of the harasser, rather than through a desire to victimize somebody.
  • Don’t let this be the flavor of the month:  In education, we tend to change what we do every 10 years, whether it needs changing or not (who remembers CBLs?)  Sexual harassment is not like this.  Training seminars today can’t be stopped when somebody decides there’s no problem.  There is a problem, and we need to continue addressing it.

Now that I’ve solved this problem, stand by for Part 2, which will discuss how to deal with harassment between teachers and students.

 

What to do about guns?

As most readers undoubtedly know, there was a mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday.  At this writing, 58 people lost their lives and over 500 people were injured.  This is a terrible, terrible tragedy.

Of course, immediately after the shooting there were politicians who started using this tragedy to advance their own political agendas.  Hillary Clinton tweeted the next day about how silencers should be banned, despite the fact that they would have had no impact on what happened.  Congressional Republicans have said that there’s no reason for a “knee-jerk” response to what happened (Chris Collins, R-NY; many others have echoed this sentiment).  Basically, the two parties have made up their minds and are advocating the following:

  • “It’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if any.” (Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  This viewpoint essentially says that it’s unreasonable to expect people to behave rationally in the immediate aftermath of a massive shooting.
  • “This must stop – we must stop this.” (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ).  This viewpoint believes that this shooting should be a call to action to gun control.

They’re both right.

The Republicans are correct in saying that we shouldn’t make important policy decisions when we’re emotional.  Emotional people behave irrationally, and irrational people have the tendency to make irrational decisions.  This helps nobody.

The Democrats are correct in saying that we need to do something.  People are talking about the role of guns in society, and to deny this fact is to deny reality.  Plus, does it really matter when a mass shooting happens?  Does the issue change in importance as time passes?

So, what do we do?

I propose the following solution:

  • Set up a firm date around the start of next year to discuss gun control in a definitive way.  We’ll make a commission, etc.
  • The commission should consist of people who are accepted as impartial by both parties.  When the commission has spoken, neither party will be able to claim that the vote was rigged.
  • Most importantly, the commission will consist of people who are kind of confused about the role guns should play in our culture.  We don’t want people who are rabidly pro-gun and we don’t want people who have spent their lives trying to ban them.  In short, we want people who aren’t sure where they stand and can be convinced by impartial evidence.

So, who are these commission members?  I nominate myself for the job.  I don’t know whether guns should be legal, and if so which guns should be legal.  My resume includes the following items:

  • I think guns are kind of fun:  If you’ve never held a gun in your hands and fired it at a range, you really don’t understand why gun owners have such an attachment to their guns.  It’s truly fun to put little holes in targets while making a lot of noise.  On the other hand, I don’t feel any particular need to make shooting a big hobby of mine.  It’s fun, but not really worth the money to do it.
  • I don’t own a gun:  I kind of want a gun, but my wife said I didn’t need one.  She’s right – I live in a safe neighborhood without armed marauders.  I don’t feel any need to go behind her back and get a gun, but if she changes her mind I’d be OK with it.
  • I think that a lot of the people arguing for and against gun control are missing the point:  The NRA wants to repeal the “Safe Students Act”, which designates schools as gun-free areas, while gun control activists try to avoid saying “second amendment” whenever possible.  Both groups have their agenda and neither is interested in trying to see the other’s side.

In short, we don’t need experts to decide what’s right.  We need people who are both smart and impartial to decide gun policy.

Just as important as the commission members is the questions they’ll have to answer in the course of their investigations:

  • How many people are killed or injured in an unjustified manner with firearms?  If somebody is breaking into your home and you shoot them, this would qualify as justified.  If you get mad at the guy who steals your paper and you shoot them, this would not.  you get the idea.
  • How many people are saved through the intervention of guns in the hands of private citizens?  How many violent crimes are prevented either through the use or threat of use of firearms?
  • What guns should be allowed?  Are rocket launchers OK?  How about .22 squirrel guns?  Or the .50 cal Desert Eagle?  Or suppressors?  Or hunting rifles?
  • How many guns should one person have?  One gun?  Five guns?  A gun collection?  A huge armory?
  • Who should be allowed to have guns?  Everyday people?  Convicted felons who have served their sentences?  Soldiers who have been treated for PTSD?  People with a history of mental illness?  People under the age of 21?
  • What effect would bans really have?  Let’s work under the assumption that a particular bit of legislation was passed.  If this were to happen, how would it affect the answers to the questions asked above and how would that change our feelings about gun ownership?

It’s pretty obvious that an impartial committee such as this will ever be formed.  For that to happen, people on both sides will have to admit that there’s room for compromise on this issue, and that some of their beliefs may not be right.  Doing so would probably cause politicians on both sides of the aisle to have huge heart attacks.  Unfortunately, I think we’re stuck for now with posturing over reason.

See you at the next mass shooting!

 

Flipped classrooms

I recently got an email about flipped classrooms:

After looking over your site and your lesson plans, you seem to do the normal lecture/lab during class time, with homework assignments to take home.  This is how I set up my classes right now as well and it seems to work well.
However, a math teacher in our school is going to be implementing a flipped classroom approach next year.  Just was curious what your thoughts are on the approach and the effectiveness of this in a science classroom?  I love how the approach creates more time for the students to have hands-on project time/lab time/discussions in class, and that it creates more student-based learning.  But I figured I would reach out to someone who has more experience, and probably a lot more interaction with other science teachers, before I implement anything too drastic in my classroom!

I’ll be totally honest:  I know very little about flipped classrooms.  I know a little bit about what they are, but I’ve never seen them used in practice and I’ve never used them with my own students.

When people are interested in trying something drastically new in their teaching, I like to have them ask themselves the following questions to figure out if it’s really a good idea:

  • Have you seen it work?  If you’ve never actually seen anybody teach using a particular method, I would suggest doing so before you try it out.  Though research™ may support one method over another, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.  When you see another teacher having success with the students in your area, then you know that it’s at least possible to use it well.
  • Are you unhappy with what you’re doing now?  If things are going swimmingly in your classes, then it makes no sense to switch to something else.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Is it possible to significantly improve?  If what you’re doing now works, then there may not be much room for your students to improve their understanding of the material. In a case like this, you may just want to tweak what you’re doing now.  On the other hand, if you’re just not reaching your students, it’s almost certainly the case that something needs to change.
  • Can you make the change?  When I read this question I asked myself a hard question:  Would I be able to change to this method if I was asked to?  Honestly, I think I wouldn’t be very successful.  While I like to think of myself as an innovative powerhouse, I’m not sure I could wrap my brain around such a drastic change.

The answer to your question, then, is “it depends.”  It depends on how you answer these questions and it depends on your own circumstances.

Ultimately, the whole thing boils down to the question “How do I want to teach?”  This is something that we’ve all experienced in our first few years teaching, where we tried something and it bombed, then we tried something else and it bombed… for a couple of years or so.  Eventually we found something that works and, with variations over time, that’s how we keep doing things.

However, people change and grow.  Personally, I am quite happy and comfortable with how I teach.  If you’ve grown into the type of teacher who wants a new challenge, or thinks that something new would energize you, then a change is certainly warranted. Just like your first years of teaching, it won’t be easy and sometimes it won’t be fun, but if it’s the right decision for you, it will ultimately be far more rewarding than continuing your current methods.

Personally, I wouldn’t pursue a flipped classroom.  However, the fact that you’re asking the question at all makes me think that it might be a good idea for you to give it a shot. That’s something you have to decide for yourself.