Monday, October 27, 2008

The Formation of a Fiend

This is based on an original short story by DrummerBoy. The original was dashed off in 40 minutes for a middle-school writing competition last year. (Students are given a short prompt such as "transformation" and have to write a story in 40 minutes based on that prompt.) I could not resist taking a couple of hours to fine-tune things, give the tale just a little more punch. But although many of the words below are mine, it's still his story. Enjoy.


The blade loose in my hand, I approach the operating table. It is draped in absorbent, disposable paper. The paper is dry now, but soon it will be soaked and stained. Spread out nearby, an assortment of shining instruments; each with its own edge, its own point, its own purpose, its own part to play in tonight's work.

Grim work, yes. Grisly work, certainly. But needful work, oh yes. Most needful. Tonight a Fiend must be summoned. And that summoning requires a sacrifice.

Immobile on the table, round and ruddy, turgid with new life, she awaits. I selected her carefully from her among her sisters, chose her especially. My free hand gently caresses her gravid curves. I examine her closely on all sides, seeking imperfections, irregularities, sources of inspiration. Ah, here… So. Mmm, there… Yes.

I pick up a marking pen and begin tracing lines on the smooth skin. The dark ink will guide my bright knives. I smile in anticipation as the shape of the Fiend emerges onto her flesh.

Now, the plan complete, I lift the knife to make the first cut. There must be no hesitation. No trepidation. No doubt. No pity. I place the point of the knife on the mark and plunge it down. There is no scream of terror, just a vaguely wet sound as the blade sinks in. I work the serrated edge up and down, around the curve, following the inked line in a circle. Within moments I have freed a section the size of my palm. I lift it, revealing the hollow space beneath.

The sight that greets me could turn the strongest stomach. The orange cavity is filled with stringy flesh, slick with juices. Pale encapsulated embryos cling to the fibrous strands. A rich, sickly-sweet aroma fills the air. It is not the smell of death and decay, though that will come as surely as the first frost of winter.

I lift a shining, curved tool that could be a large spoon, were it in a kitchen. The sharp edge loosens the clinging strands from the interior cavity as I work it around. I scoop out the loosened flesh, plopping it wetly into a basin to be discarded.

My work is grim, but it is not without purpose. Tonight, the veil between this world and the next becomes thin. When night falls, my oh-so-normal neighbors will be transformed into hideous creatures, prowling the streets in search of plunder, mischief, or worse. Spirits, demons, monsters, and darker things will emerge from the shadows. Even the children – especially the children – will be taken up in the madness. This Fiend, carved by my hand from living tissue, is the only possible protection for my home and loved ones. As the sky begins to darken, I hurry to finish.

My arm is weary from the labor of emptying the thick-walled womb. Finally it is left a hollow shell. Taking up a small knife, I begin to shape the face of my Fiend. Tracing the marks, I alternately slice, shave, and saw. I lay my tools down and assess my work. The eyes have no trace of humanity, no pity. The mouth – a leering, fanged slit – threatens to open wide and devour anyone who approaches too closely. It is not perfect, but then, no work of Man ever is. My prayer is that it is good enough. It must be, for the sun has slipped below the horizon.

One last, critical step remains. To bring the Fiend to life and enable it to guard my keep this night, I must invoke the First Power of the Ancients – that discovery that first set Man apart from the rest of Creation. Where my previous labors had borne with them the risk of shedding my blood, now I must take care lest my flesh be seared.

I take the Fiend outside into the gathering gloom. I position it carefully so that it can be clearly seen from a distance. (While many Guardians do their best work unseen, the Fiend is useless unless the foe can see – and fear – its glowing eyes.) Already I hear the mobs, assaulting my neighbor's homes, demanding tribute. No more time!

Quickly I kindle the ancient flame and plunge the burning brand into the belly of the fiend, where a prepared wick awaits. The flame leaps up and threatens my fingers. No matter. The consequences of failure are far worse than a few blisters. The wick sputters, then ignites.

The Fiend springs to life, its eyes casting an eerie glow across the night, defending my domicile against the ravening hordes that even now approach my door as I sit back, safety now assured. Warily they approach to the edge of the Fiend's light, creatures of nightmare, refugees from Faerie, half-imagined horrors bearing sacks already bulging with sweet plunder. In ragged unison they raise their shrill voices.

"Trick or treat!"

Friday, October 17, 2008

Plumbing the Numbers on Obama's Tax Hike

Senator Obama told Joe the Plumber that if Joe made more than $250,000, his taxes would go up by 3%. That money would then be redistributed to folks with lower incomes in the interest of "fairness." For the moment let's leave aside the "fairness" of the government taking money from people who are willing to work longer and harder than most in order to give it to people who perhaps aren't. (Yes, I know there are folks who work their tails off and just can't seem to get a break, just as there are folks who were in the right place at the right time and stumbled into a gold mine. Set that aside for now.)

What bugs me is this: if Obama is going to raise taxes on JUST the top 5% and give the money to the poor, how far will that really go? Will it really make a difference?

Being a lazy blogger unwilling to find undisputable, authoritative data via Google and Wikipedia, I'm gonna SWAG some numbers: There are about 300 million people in the US. Given the large number of kids and retirees, let's say that 1/3 of them earn income. (It keeps the math simple.) Obama is going to raise taxes by 3% on the top 5%, those making more than $250,000 a year. That's 5% of 100 million, or five million "rich" people who get to pay more taxes. (Note that this is Obama's definition of rich, not McCain's.)

Five million business owners and successful investors will get their taxes raised by 3%. What will that cost them? Well, obviously, it depends on how much they earn. But we want to keep this simple. We know that the very, very rich - the people who earn billions - manage to shelter and hide most if not all of this income from the taxman. And let's face it, there are darned few of them. The vast majority of those five million are small and medium sized businesses who have a handful to a few dozen employees. So let's pick a number, say, $500,000 to represent the average income for this group.
Obama's going to take an extra 3% from each of them. For every hundred bucks they earn, he takes $3. For every $100,000, he takes $3,000. So (taking an average) Obama is going to collect $15,000 a year from each of five million small business owners.

What will that cost them?
$15,000 is a year's wages for a person earning $7.50 an hour.
It's half the starting salary of a college-educated professional employee.
It's the cost of an advertising campaign that keeps a several marketing professionals employed for a month, and feeds business to printers, bulk-mailing service providers, newspapers, radio and TV stations, and so on.
It's two years' depreciation on a piece of capital equipment that will help a manufacturer compete against offshore companies with lower labor costs.
It's the cost of a year of college for their kid - or themselves.
$15,000 taken out of their pocket.


What will that cost our economy?

But, but, but! Obama says. The money that the government takes will be used to Do Good! It will be redistibuted to the less-fortunate, to those who are unable (not to say unwilling) to earn those Richie-Rich (or upper-middle-class) incomes.


I'm all for a social safety net. Again, leaving aside the "fairness" of the Robin Hood mentality, HOW MUCH GOOD WILL IT DO?

Five million taxpayers involuntarily contribute $15,000 each. That's $75 billion. Seventy-five billion dollars taken out of taxpayers pockets to be redistributed. $75 billion taken out of the economy.

How far will it go? Let's say that 10% of all Americans live below the line that Obama will draw. So ten percent of 300 million, or thirty million people, will get checks drawn on the Bank of the Upper Middle Class. Thirty million people will share $75 billion (this assumes zero cost to administer the program). (75*10^9)/(30*10^6) = (75/30)*(10^(9-6)) = 2.5*10^3.

Thirty million people get $2,500 each.

What can you do with $2500?

If you are a fiscally-responsible individual, you might spend it on...
Several months' rent in an apartment.
A couple of mortgage payments.
A couple of months of child care.
A few month's worth of groceries.
A semester or two of community college.
Downpayment on a halfway-decent used car, or cash for a "beater".

These are well and good things, but will they really make a fundamental change in someone's life? Yes, it'll help in the short run. And for some this would provide enough breathing room to get their legs under them. But for most folks living on the ragged edge, it's not really a game-changer. (I know; I've been there. It astonishing how far a thousand bucks doesn't go.)

However. I really hate to say this, because I know how it's gonna come across, but...

I've known folks who tend to make poor financial decisions (and therefore will never get into the middle of the middle class, much less the top). So I know that a good percentage of that thirty million will also decide that $2500 buys:

A hi-def TV
A good dirt bike
A killer stereo and light package for the car
Several months' worth of beer and smokes
A stack of lottery tickets
A "blow-the-wad" trip to the local casino

Call me classist if you wish, but I've LIVED with folks who make these sorts of buying decisions with much smaller windfalls. Folks who let the water or gas get turned off, but they pay the cable bill and keep the beer fridge full.

Yes, you could argue that the money is going back into the economy, stimulating "trickle-up" economic activity. But if we want to plow seventy five billion dollars into the economy, who do we want making the spending decision? People who have experience handling money? Or people who don't? People who are going to use it to pimp their ride, or to grow a business and create jobs?

Does it make sense to take $15,000 from a business owner and employer and divvy it up between six other people, none of whom have his business savvy, some of whom he wouldn't hire to sweep the floor? If YOU had $2500 just laying around to invest, would you rather give it to Trailer Park Tommy, or Joe the Plumber?

I dunno about you, but I'd go with the guy with the plunger.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Online calculus

A couple of profs in the Math department here are kicking around the idea of creating an online Calculus course.

When I took calculus (shortly after Newton invented it), it was taught in a huge lecture hall. The professor spent the period with his back to the class, writing equations on the chalkboard and saying things like, "It is therefore intuitively obvious that..." (Have I ever mentioned that Calculus was one of the reasons I switched majors from engineering to education?) That's not the way it's done here. Class sizes are small, and the profs really interact with their students on the fly.

That's one of the reasons that Calculus is one of the courses that students like to take at a community college. Still, we could reach more students if we could put the course online, or perhaps in a hybrid format.

One of the profs (call him Luke) is using Adesso CyberPads in his F2F classes. Students can hand-write their homework on paper using the special pen and the electronic pad. The CyberPad creates a digital image file that the student can then sent to the instructor. This is very handy for classes that meet once a week or Monday-Wednesday. If a student has a question on Wednesday night she doesn't have to wait until Monday.

Luke has proposed that we create an online Calculus course around this tool. He's got serious questions about how to structure the instructional content, because his teaching style is extremely hands-on. We hashed thing over during lunch last week with two other professors from the department. One of them (call him Vince) was vocal in his opposition to "canned" online courses that consist of nothing more than a publisher's Blackboard cartridge. yesterday he wrote:

It may have taken me a couple weeks, but here's my opposition to on-line courses as they are currently done at LCC. There's a TV in my classroom. What do you say if instead of me lecturing in Calculus, I just put in the DVDs that come with the book and we watch them as a class? What would people say about that kind of education? In many ways, it's better than on-line, isn't it? At least the students can pause the DVD and I can explain things to them. At least the learning is "synchronous" and they can interact with each other. Plus, I'm available during office hours and via e-mail. Somehow, I don't think people would think very highly of this kind of learning environment. I'm sure students would complain, and people like Jim would lose respect for me. Could I honestly say this is in the students' best interest? Would people honestly believe that this is academic freedom? Somehow, I don't think so. So, how is on-line, especially how it's done in our department, any better than this?

Valid issues. I asked him if I could open the discussion to the wider community (that's you) and he agreed. Here was my initial response:

Vince raises some very important issues.

There is currently no central authority regarding the content, format, or quality (however that is measured) of online courses at Lakeland. The quality of an online course is up to the instructor and the department. As a result, we see a wide variety of online coruses. Some instructors create their course sites entirely from scratch, including self-produced multimedia elements such as narrated powerpoint presentations, recorded lectures, or videos. Some departments have developed standard templates for high-enrollment courses, and instructors have little leeway in the way they facilitate the course. Some instructors use a publisher's course cartridge (which can vary in quality from abysmal to outstanding), and do little other than monitor students' progress. Others extensively modify and rearrange the pre-created content, putting their own spin on it, and use the online forums to facilitate deep, reflective, substantive class discussions.

Classroom teaching shows the same range. Some instructors read out of the book or off the powerpoint slides, some just work problems with their backs to the class, others are dynamic and engaging, responding to the students.

The online environment isn't any better or any worse than the classroom. It's just a different set of affordances and constraints. The question is, is it possible to leverage the affordances (and work around the constraints) in the particular knowledge/skill domain? What do we give up, and what do we gain? What CAN we give up? What must we NOT give up?

A common reaction is, "I can't give up the ability to respond in real-time to a student's question." But let's drill down - what's *really* at issue there? The root principle is that we want to identify the moment that a student gets lost, and at that moment, bring them back on track. But it's not always necessary to repeat information or give an alternate presentation. Sometimes the student just needs a little more time to work out how you got to Point B from Point A. Can we do that online? Sure. It's just a question of how we want to do it.

So - what do you folks think?