Monday, November 23, 2015

bay leaves

I took a couple of branches from my bay tree when I left Texas. I planted my bay tree late in the first year we were there in my front yard. I didn't think it would make it for about the first two years. Then eventually it started to grow and send up more shoots. When we left four years later, it seemed like it had turned a corner and was going strong. It is probably the one thing I miss about my old house. I know I can't grow a bay tree here - it's too cold.

The leaves are well dried now and tonight I was picking them off the branches and putting them in a container so I can use them when I make sauce. It will be sad when they are all gone.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

teaching undergrads - an evolution

One of the common misunderstandings of evolutionary fitness is that it is about strength. The strongest survive; evolution culls the weak. But this isn't really true. If evolution rewarded strength, the dinosaurs would still be running around, and they would be even bigger than they were before they went extinct. Fitness isn't about strength, it's about fit. Big and strong is not a good fit when food is scarce and hard to find. Small and weak might actually be a better fit. Evolutionary survival is about being the right mix of traits for the current environment.

As with physical characteristics, it's a mistake to assume that if you are successful in one environment that the skills you believe you have will generalize automatically to another environment. This applies as a leader, technician, or even teacher.

In my military career I worked in a number of different kinds of organizations - I spent most of my career in hospitals, but I also worked in combat units at different levels, and several training organizations. The kind of skills and leadership that would make you successful in one environment did not necessarily generalize to the others. Combat units required comfort with a more directive style, hospitals a more collaborative one. Both had "politics", but the political competition had different rules.

I'm having to re-learn this lesson with my teaching. Teaching undergrads looks the same as teaching grad students, but it's actually quite different. It's not just the motivation. I had lazy grad students who were just trying to get by. It's the fact that most of the undergrads haven't been in a real professional organization yet. They've spent their whole lives in classrooms. Any work experience they've had has likely been some minimum wage service job. This creates different expectations on their part about their relationship to the professor. When I taught grad students in the past, I thought of them (mostly) as junior colleagues: my goal was to help them prepare to ramp up to more senior management roles. I spoke to them that way, and expected them to behave that way. Undergrads, in particular those who show up for a class that is meant to fulfil a general education requirement, do not perceive themselves that way, nor do they perceive the course as fulfilling a step in that direction. The class, and by extension the professor, is an obstacle to be circumvented if possible, and overcome if necessary. Somewhere in there it's the professor's job to try to change their minds about the value of the material and the class time.

After having reviewed the mid-semester critiques I requested from my undergrad students I realized I had both over- and under-estimated their commitment and interest. The approach that had made me successful in my old environment was not a good fit for my new environment. I needed to evolve or die. I chose to evolve. I've brought into the classroom some interactive technologies that allow the students to respond to questions anonymously using their cell phones, and I'm ramping up the use of videos and adding in more material from outside of the text. I'm excited about the changes - it's more fun for me.

I suspect my evals for this course won't be great, but I've learned some valuable information about the new environment. I'm using that information to rethink my approach. Next time will be much stronger.

a bit of optimism about the presidential race

I've been pretty vocal about my dislike of Hillary Clinton, and in case it's not clear, none of the other candidates inspire me, either.

But here's a bit of optimism: who ever wins, I think our ecnoomy will do better under them.

Obama was an amateur. He had no experience that made him worthy of being president. He was handsome and part-black, and the stars aligned, and McCain was dumb enough to select Sarah Palin as a running mate, and Obama won. His team was good at campaigning, I will grant him that. But that didn't translate into good governance.

But now it is likely that Hillary Clinton will be our next president. It is her election to lose; she doesn't really have to win.

Hillary is an old school elite; a political robber baron; a "one percenter" through and through.

A Clinton Redux in the White House will be good for the economy, though. Unlike Obama, Hillary is not an amateur. She knows how to pull the levers of power. She will pander a bit to her leftist supporters, but I suspect an H. Clinton presidency will be relatively centrist, just like her husband's was. It will be centrist because she is in bed with Wall Street and all the mega wealthy movers and shakers. And those people like centrist policies. They don't like uncertainty, which has been the central theme of the Obama administration's rule. We never knew what was coming next because Obama didn't know what was coming next because Obama didn't know what he was doing. H. knows what she is doing, and she is in bed with big business (including big unions, too - the most hypocritical element of our society). She'll probably do something that has a lot of flash and smoke that will make her leftist supporters feel good and pisses off social conservatives - but it will be something on the social front that has no impact on the economy or national security.

Economies work well when the leaders are vested in the broad success of all industries. When a leader is too tied to one industry, they will favor that industry and create distortions. My hope is H. is beholden to as many diverse elites as possible. This will force her to be centrist because her supporters will counter balance each other. This is not the H. of 1994 who tried to pass Hillary Care. The H. of 1994 was the same as the Obama of 2009 - an amateur. Not any more.

I am not taking Trump seriously. Trump's rising is the direct result of all the liberal establishment elitism that gets pumped out through the media. The other Republican candidates are all establishment characters. They would also be good for the economy. They are already bought by the establishment, just like Hillary.

So it's a win-win for the economy in '16. We should see a return to policy stability. There won't be another policy disaster like the ACA. There's no serious amateur contender this time around. Everyone is pre-bought. They are all one-percenters. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

After Rain

Nearly everything that dies in the fall has died now. The trees have released all but the last of their leaves. The grasses are brown.

We had rain last night. I walked around the yard this morning trying to appreciate the changes. Everything looks different from just a month ago.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

looking for

for the week 47 theme "looking for". I'm only about 6 weeks behind right now, but I am trying to catch up so I can finish on time.

I almost gave up on my photography this year. Making the transition from the Army to civilian life, the transtion from teaching in a graduate school to teaching undergraduates, the transition from a teaching/service position to a position that is primarily judged on research productivity - all of it has weighed on me, and has squeezed out much of the other energy I have had. And it has not just been me making that transitoin, but my family as well. All of that has squeezed my energy and availability. And so the thing that went was my commitment to my photography. I actually let my contract with the web site provider that I use for my formal photography expire about six weeks ago. And that was going to be that. I would get back to it sooner or later. Or maybe not.

And then my friend D. messaged me on Facebook concerned that she couldn't get access to a video I had made using pictures I had taken at an event she had asked me to photograph for her. She had wanted to share it to commemorate the anniversary of the event. And that's when I realized even if I hadn't accomplished the level of success I had hoped to accomplish with my photography, I had done something meaningful with it. What I had done had mattered to someone other than me. That was enough to get me to pony up the money to bring the web site back on line and start thinking about looking to do some work.

Things sometimes come when you don't expect them. When you are not looking for them. A little boost just to keep going.

First blog post back on my photography web site in a while:

It was a picture I took a week or two ago, but hadn't developed until today. Making images requires looking for moments, as well as preparing yourself for those moments.

Photo above is a phone shot of the trees in front of the Last Homely House. All bare now. Winter is really coming. Dark at four. I am looking forward to the turning back of the night.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Matka Boska

My sister, out of the blue sent me a note that she had found the translation for a Polish phrase my grandmother used to spout out at moments when I might curse. Turns out, Gramma was, too.

She used to say, "Matka boska!" when ever we would creep up on her and startle her, or when she was really angry. It means, Mother of God, in Polish. I never knew that.

When I got the e-mail from my sister with the translation, it made me sentimental and miss my grandmother in a way I had not for a long time. My grandmother was a difficult person, to say the least. For someone who was 4'10", she was a figurative bull in the china shop of our lives. And yet she loved me in a way that I think few people in my life have. She was family.

She loved to gamble, and she taught me to play simple card games before I could read.

She made amazing apple pies.

And she made stuffed cabbage she called "gawumpki" (my spelling), though I think it is more commonly spelled golobki or something like that. Gawumpki was one of my favorite foods growing up. I don't have the patience to make it myself, so I don't. But a student gave me a recipe for what she called cheating stuffed cabbage -

I made some tonight, thinking of my Gramma, gone some 13 years now.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Adam Smith on Paris v. Beirut

The monstrous ISIS attack on Paris yesterday followed a partially successful attack the day before in Beirut. I was among the vast majority of Westerners who were ignorant of the tragedy that happened the day before.

This NYT article captures the disbelief from Lebanon about the contrasting reaction:
“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in THOSE parts of the world.”
more here:

I consider myself a reasonably educated person, and I do try to understand the ongoing drama of the world. But I also have limits as to what I can follow and what I can learn. But I also confess, as an American, I am much more informed about Europe than I am about the Middle East. I identify with Europe and European history. I know relatively little about Islam and Islamic history, or the history of the area around Lebanon. When something terrible happens in Europe, it seems much closer to me than when something happens in another part of the world. My emotions are triggered more. Likewise, when something happens in New Hampshire, I care more than when something happens in California. When something bad happens to a colleague, friend, or family member, I care far more than when something happens to a stranger. And of course when something bad happens to me, it's hard for me to think about much of anything else. We live in concentric circles of caring, with ourselves at the center. It is neither possible nor healthy to care equally about strangers half a world away as it is to care about yourself and those close to you. This is not to say that we should be indifferent.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote eloquently about this way back in the 1750's.
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants,
was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of
humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would
be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine,
first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people,
he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life,
and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment.
He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings
concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of
Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine
philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly
expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his
diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened.
The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real
disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to–morrow, he would not sleep to–night;
but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over
the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense
multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune
of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of
humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren,
provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought,
and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain
as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our
passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our
active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so
much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever
concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and
the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?
read more here:

The book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is free to download. It is a phenomenal treatise on human nature and should be more widely read. Russ Roberts wrote an excellent book about The Theory - you can find it here:

Should we care more about Beirut? Probably. Our general ignorance in the West of the history and culture of the Middle East has probably led to our general support of highly ill-informed adventurism there. The people of the Middle East may be strangers to most Americans, but our ignorance invites ever more disaster. They are simly people who are trying to do their best with the system they find themselves in, just as we Americans are. We are simply lucky that we have a government that is relatively non-predatory and somewhat limited, and an elite that is as a result somewhat tempered.