Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lacking motivation

I caught a little article in the Tribune (still clinging on to the sinking ship) about a slightly controversial payout of bonuses to executives despite the decline in revenues (or whatever it was) of about 30%. The justification, we are told, is that these executives need the bonuses as motivation to save the company in its current dire straits. The inference we draw from this is that without these lavish bonuses the executives will lack the desire to do their jobs, for which, I am perhaps naively assuming, they are already being paid a salary, likely of some appreciable magnitude.

From the rarefied air of the boardrooms hermetically sealed off from the tawdry squalor of the working classes, this bonus argument is not uncommon. Have we not heard this from Wall Street in the wake of giant bonuses being handed out to all those cuff link flicking bankers who, in their collective creative genius, had led their various firms to the financial abyss, only to be rescued by the average Joe's taxes. The financial world is evidently resistant to any kind of compensation restraint on the pretext that it would then be unable to attract the sorts of bright young things that it needs to succeed.

I might be inclined to greater sympathy for these executives and their precious bonuses if the same kind of thinking was extended to the ranks of the workers. Why am I not surprised that it does not. While these poor executives are unable to function without the bonus carrot dangling before their noses, the workers (the ones that actually do the work) are subjected to pay freezes or are simply discarded as being an unnecessary expense. The workers, it seems, should be grateful for the slightest crumb that is tossed their way. Methinks the executives could benefit from the same treatment. If they don't want to, I am totally convinced that there are plenty of others equally capable of performing the job for a normal salary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reviews are in

The first reviews of Oppression Bitter are in and are favourable. I have been offered actual money for more. Proved acceptable to someone who doesn't normally drink beer. Not too.bitter but with interesting flavour. Can't complain about that.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Living in community

You could say that the community college image took a bit of a pasting this week from the combination of a new commedy, Community, on NBC and a lengthy expose of its students struggling with remedial classes in the Tribune. Although the TV show was less about the college than its clueless, venal inhabitants, the producers would never have set the show in a "real" college, although they could find some, Chicago State comes to mind, that would easily qualify. Within the opening minute, the community college's students are identified as losers, drop-outs, divorcees and old people; the lone faculty member in the show (English as it happens) is a drunken wastrel (at least I don't keep open wine bottles on the desk), seemingly prepared to trade exam answers for a decent car - there's a thought... It was quite funny at points, though overall it appeared to have been written in a bit of a rush by teenagers.

The community college shares something in common with the Catholic church's view of the afterlife in that both have purgatory. In the latter, as I divined from reading Dante's book on the subject (Incidentally, I found the books to be increasingly less interesting as one progressed from the Inferno to Paradiso.) the soul spends an apparently unlimited amount of time having the sins purged away using methods unlikely to be found at a spa or even a rehab clinic.

The community college version of purgatory is the more earthly nightmare known as remedial math. In remedial classes, the students have their ambitions agonizingly licked away by the flames of the hot coals of the math placement test. For some, this experience may last an eternity; falling short consigns one to the dustbin of the remedial math classes that do not generate any college credit. For many, the razor blade must seem like a tempting alternative. The article in the paper showed a tearful student celebrating her passing the placement test after hiring a tutor and all-night cramming. Wait a minute: the student's name is Stacey Wolf and she was in my chemistry class in fall 2005! Four years on she was still bashing away trying to pass this math test in order to begin the nursing program. I remember Stacey. I would characterize her as a bright student, cheerful, hard-working and enthusiastic, not by any stretch of the imagination the "loser" that the image generated by struggling with math at community college engenders.

Two questions come to mind. Is the vast army of shades clanking their chains in the 156 sections (that's about 4,000 people give or take) of the various remedial math classes on offer at COD the fault of the community college? Secondly, is too much emphasis placed on the need to pass these math classes in the first place? The second may sound sacrilegious, particularly coming from a practitioner of the physical sciences.

In answer to the first, the fault, if fault it is, lies not with the college but with the high school system that sends its charges out into the college world woefully unprepared to succeed. We can say the same about the high school's preparation for any of the sciences; the standards are just not up to snuff. They say it is not the raw material; students enter the high school system with the same abilities as those from other parts of the civilized globe. They leave it trailing by some margin. What transpired (or not) during those four years to cause the deficiency? Perhaps it has something to do with the teachers? Here is rich irony: I am qualified to teach the teachers, but unqualified to teach the high-school students. In terms of technical content, a person may become a "science" teacher by taking one term of an introductory level community college chemistry class. That seems somehow amiss.

Maybe there is something wrong with the premises that everyone can succeed in math and that everyone must go to college these days. While doubtless a university degree is a good preparation for a successful career, surely it cannot be that this is the future for everyone. For many, their successful career will revolve around relatively unskilled jobs for which no university education is required. Is there not a little disingenuity in establishing unncessarily elevated qualifications for jobs these days (BS in business management to serve at McDonalds for instance)? So why encourage people who are fundamentally unsuited to the task to waste their time in the fruitless pursuit of university education? Is this not driven, at least in part, by the slightly underhand urge of institutions to boost their enrollments and grow in importance?

At least in Illinois, part of the problem is the need to pass a college-level algebra class in order to meet the general education requirements of even just an associate's degree in the arts. Is this justified? I am quite confident that millions of people are leading meaningful, successful, fulfilling careers who could not begin to solve a pair of simultaneous equations; people who would be reduced to gibbering ruins at the very mention of the dreaded letters "x" and "y." I am one of the lucky ones that delights in all manifestation of the simultaneous equation; I have never had a fear of it. I admit to falling short in appreciating fully how x's and y's spell death to many. Yet I know someone who does. Quite well in fact. In all other aspects she is intelligent and accomplished. Yet to her, the math placement test imbues greater foreboding than the prospect of childbirth; it looms as an insurmountable barrier to the completion of a degree. Even to a math lover this doesn't seem entirely right. Meanwhile the college corridors groan with the sound of remedial math students' suffering; and the bookstore shelves bend under the weight of piles of expensive math books. A tidy profit for some.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Butter to the bread

Saturday was a busy day at Ragged Hand brewery, as the brewing crew, known locally as Dulcie and Aylwin, nimbly shuttled between the bottling plant and the labelling plant, dealing with their first two production batches. In truth, it must be stated that the bottling and labelling plants are about two feet apart in a small corner of the Raintree kitchen. Nonetheless they were as busy as bees in bringing forth their own nectar. The Oppression Bitter had finished its two-week carbonation stint in bottle. One was nervously cracked (there are so many things one can worry about in brewing that make it a perfect hobby for a hypochondriac) with a satisfying exhalation indicating that, indeed, carbonation had been successful. The taste was pleasingly similar to that of an English bitter and, if I had been offered the same in a boozer, I would not have been disappointed. The second batch, a weightier, hoppier double IPA style is now doing its stint in the bottle. A sneak preview from the residue in the bottling bucket was, frankly, of aphrodisiacal proportion. Maybe this brewing thing isn't that hard after all.

It is that time of year, with the sun all-too-quickly lowering in the west when it is once again to venture forth to the cinema to catch a moving picture show. We generally eschew those fancy megaplexes, where it is necessary to park about half a mile from the entrance and navigate one's way through pullulating crowds of disaffected youth, in favour of the homely, downtown familiarity of The Glen, Glen Ellyn's sole contribution to culture. It may well have the worst projection system, the creakiest seats and the stickiest floors, but it is welcoming and intimate, and one can park easily on Glen Ellyn's deserted streets, which are reminiscent of what Naperville once was before it was turned into an outdoor shopping mall. Is there some happy medium to be achieved between those extremes of commercial success and failure? What of it, The Glen lives on, and we enjoyed watching Julie and Julia there on Saturday night.

The film must rank as one of the most feel-good American films of recent vintage and beautifully void of vulgarity, special effects, loudness and all the other nastiness that commercial film makers seem to think are essential components of modern entertainment. It contains the stories set apart by decades of one iconic foodie (Julia) whose restless energy in her postwar life as the wife of a diplomat drove into cooking and a modern blogger (Julie) who is inspired by the former. Julia was driven to write a book that would teach American women how to cook French food, which was something of an unknown quantity back then. For all the abuse the English take from the Yanks regarding the quality of their cuisine, I am quite confident that American cuisine is just as bad, only in larger quantities. Tater-tot casserole anyone? Julia's part of the film maps out the legendary book's lengthy conception. Decades later, Julie takes on the challenge of repeating all the recipes in the book in 365 days and blogs about them setting up one of the many contrasts between life back then and now. As both an aspiring author and (occasional) blogger I found resonance with both characters. Although the characters are given about equal weight in the film, on an absolute scale of importance, Julia towers above Julie. Julie wonders, as I wonder, as should every blogger with any sense of self-appraisal wonder, if what she is doing really matters.

There is of course no such doubt about the importance of Julia's book. Of course, for most women today, it would do little more than feature as a piece of decoration carefully placed in the vast unused wasteland of their "gourmet" kitchen. For many, the inability to cook is worn as a badge of honour, as if the noble art is somehow beneath them, something that poor people have to do to survive. Dulcie should know form having to deal with them in the building of their nauseatingly excessive residences. Gordon Ramsay in one of the "F" word series includes the theme of getting women back in the kitchen; it received some stick for being chauvinistic. Fortunately, Dulcie knows, as Aylwin all-too-well appreciates, that a well-prepared meal ranks as the highest token of love. Pity the idiots, another Julie, that don't get it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Latin hysteria

It's F1, it's Monza, it's Fisi in a Ferrari. Dreams can still come true in motor racing. It's closing the curtain on the European season. My last Sunday breakfast with But, Vet, Alo and co. These are the things occupying the SSCP's mind of a Friday. Must not forget to go to class.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crackberry blogger

I have learned that I can compose posts using my Crackberry. If only I had something to say...
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Summer break

So I checked in recently to see with astonishment that no posts were forthcoming in the entire month of August. I suppose if F1 can take four weeks off during the summer then the SSCP can be so excused. It is not as if nothing was happening or no ideas were coming to mind. Far from it. But for whatever reason they never quite translated into the written word. I think I have observed previously how some are seemingly capable of daily rants on almost any topic; and in many cases one really rather wishes they weren't. Perhaps with the coming and going of Labor Day and the lengthening of the evening, my hand will turn once more to the keyboard and the entertainment of my legion followers.

This summer was quite a bit different from last in many ways. How quickly issues come and go. Casting one's mind back to Dulcie and Aylwin's Big Beer Adventure across the endless, sweeping vistas of the west, following on the heels of Lewis and Clark and learning more of their epic adventure and complex characters, the central issue was the energy "crisis." The steepling price of petrol, we were told, was a result of mushrooming demand for energy in China and other emerging economies. Cufflink-flashing investment gurus confidently predicted the price of oil would continue its skyward arc. Speculation had nothing to do with it of course. The energy crisis was closely followed by the food crisis and soon pictures of the starving populace holding empty bowls were making the front pages. All this, we were told, was due to the unreasonable demands for biofuels pushing up the prices of grain. It had nothing to do with speculation of course. Almost before I had time to design the wind turbine to mount on the Raintree roof, the crises evaporated amidst the spectacular disintegration of the financial markets - which had nothing to do with speculation of course.

Barely a squeak has been heard about energy or off-shore drilling since; the starving millions must have their food again; the $200 barrel of oil got closer to $20. On top of that, the unusually mild summer in many parts may have many wondering if this global warming thing is real after all. More on that down the road perhaps.

The issue du jour this summer has been healthcare reform. I have my opinions on that, as any Super Savvy Cyber Professor should. As I await the return of my computer from the grave, I may share them.