2010

“I’m laughing at the superior intellect.”

Going through some boxes tonight, I found an old scrap of paper on which I’d drawn a diagram. Hold on to your hats, folks, this one’s about chess.

Once upon a time in Clemson, some friends of mine owned a coffee shop called the Wired Café. It was an internet cafe, but by the time this story took place the university’s computers and connections were far faster than the ones at the Wired, so they had to rely on the drinks, food, camaraderie and ambiance to attract customers. It didn’t last long.

One of the many things one could do at the Wired, aside from drink coffee, use the obsolete computers, or meet the girl who would transform you into a source of perpetually renewable bitterness, was play chess. There was usually someone around who was up for a game, either an owner, or a barista, or one of the regulars. Over time the games became more competitive, skill-wise and pride-wise. It was always loads of fun.

Well, late one night–and the date was recorded on the scrap of paper but I care not to relate it here–late one night, a stranger, called himself “Rhett,” found his way up the steps of the Wired. He was clearly drunk and probably a little bit high. He had straggly, mussed hair and wore flannel that suggested he hadn’t been told that Seattle grunge had been passé for a good five years.

Anyhow, Rhett wandered into the big room where the chess games usually took place. He saw some people playing, and called winner. The winner was a regular, a decent player, and Rhett beat him so quickly that we assumed the regular had made a silly mistake early in the game from which he could not recover.

Next up was a somewhat stronger player, a computer graphics major, who had improved dramatically as a player over the brief course of the Wired’s existence. He’d beaten me more than a few times, and Rhett, still drunk and now getting a little bit talkative, beat him almost as quickly as he beat the first guy. The CG major was gracious and humble about it, but he was gracious about everything.

Third in line was a girl who eventually married one of the owners. She was a math major, incredibly intelligent, and a bit more prickly than the CG major. I watched this game with great interest, because she was going to put up more of a fight than the CG major had, and she’d fire right back at Rhett if he annoyed her. Well, he annoyed her, partly because he was beating her despite not-quite-having-sobered-up yet, and partly because while beating her, he was waxing eloquent about matters she held quite dear. She might not have been offended by his opinions, but she was certainly pissed off that he was philosophizing and pontificating while beating her so handily.

Rhett finished her off, and he asked me if I was up for a game. I said sure. He went to the front to get a fresh cup of coffee and the math major turned to me and said, “Please beat him.” I said I’d see what I could do. Rhett returned with his coffee, and we began. He played white, I played black.

I will admit that I was nervous. This guy had drunkenly stumbled into our abode and beaten three players, each one stronger than the last, all while carrying on deep discussions. And now, now that he was about to play me, he was sobering up. I’d have to remain calm and collected, and pray that he screwed up.

My dad taught me to play chess many years ago. He often smoked a pipe when we were playing, and if the pipe smoke ended up in my face and distracted me, then so be it. If memory serves, I didn’t beat him until after he stopped smoking.

I don’t smoke now, and I didn’t smoke then, but beating Rhett would require a little gamesmanship. I took my sweet time and didn’t rush any moves. I was thinking as far ahead as I could, sometimes deciding on a move quickly and waiting for Rhett to show signs of impatience before making the move. When he talked–and he did talk, but the only thing I specifically remember him discussing was the possibility that the Magi were Zoroastrians–I would barely respond with a bored “That’s interesting” or a “Hm.” I could tell without looking directly at him that my refusal to banter was frustrating him.

Aside from that, I really did feel like it was the best I’d ever played. I was thinking further ahead than ever before. I didn’t fall into the traps that he set. I didn’t capture his pieces just because I could. I moved pieces into seemingly unguarded positions, knowing that if he took them I could set up some pretty strong pins and forks.

But Rhett was beating me anyway. He didn’t take those pieces that I left out to dry. He moved pieces into seemingly unguarded positions, and I hesitated to take them for fear of a trap. His pronouncements were becoming more thought-provoking and more eloquent. He was taking an awful lot of my pieces and not losing very many of his own. I was playing the game of my life, and he was still beating me.

Eventually we got to a point in the game where I knew I was beaten. Below is a version of the diagram I drew on the aforementioned scrap of paper. I’m showing it from my point of view, black at the bottom, with A1 in the top right corner and H8 in the bottom left.

Needless to say, I was in a lot of trouble. [Note: I just found a chess simulator online, set up this position, and had the computer play black. It resigned immediately.] He had an extra knight and four extra pawns, including one just two moves from promotion.

I saw no way to win… except for one extremely fluky possibility that would rely entirely on Rhett failing to notice something. I was almost embarrassed to think about even trying it, because if he noticed it, my defeat would turn from “hard-fought” into “humiliating” pretty durned quick. If he saw my ploy, I’d resign.

While waiting for me to move, Rhett was looking back and forth between his queen and the big scrum of pieces in the bottom left corner. I needed him to keep focused on my half of the board and forget about his own half. I stared intently at the pieces on my side of the board, and eventually looked over at the two pawns on the right as if I were thinking about taking them out.

After a few minutes, I moved my queen to A4…

…and crossed my fingers. It was like he hadn’t even noticed my move, or wasn’t concerned at all about his pawns. He was still locked on the pieces bunched around my king. I leaned in close to those pieces, hoping he’d think I was focusing on them, too, and hoping that’d cause him to stay focused on them. I’d just weakened my defense, and he did not want to screw up this opportunity. He was probably thinking about taking out my rook and checkmating me in two moves when he slid his queen to E7:

I took a moment to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. They weren’t. My Hail Mary worked. I calmly picked up my queen and placed it on C2:

He looked like he thought it was a silly, desperate move as the smug little bastard went to take my queen with his king. Just as he picked up my queen, I said, “Checkmate.”

Rhett blinked. He put the queen back down and looked puzzled. Then he noticed my bishop, which was protecting her majesty from capture.

That sobered him up. He was stunned. I was stunned, but I was happily stunned. I had beaten the best player I’d ever faced and defended the Café’s honor. True, it was through guile and sheer luck, but sometimes–and this was one of those times–that tastes a little sweeter than winning through superior ability.

Rhett stood up, said “Good game,” and looked ruefully at the board before he walked out. He knew he had it won, and should have won, and let me off the hook. I didn’t mind.

Merry Christmas 2010!

Merry Christmas! Here’s hoping that your day is full of whatever weather you wish for, or at least whatever weather you can bear!

This evening at dinner we discussed when we learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real (or, more precisely, that the real Santa died in the 4th century AD). It came up because this is the first Christmas that a particular cousin of mine no longer believes in Santa Claus. I’m told she was devastated when she finally figured it out. Hopefully this will cause no more strum und drang than is usual for a teenager.

I deduced there was no Santa Claus when my older sister, who already knew The Truth, told me that Santa was real. As best as I can recall, her inflection suggested that she was lying to me. I remained calm, knowing that there’d be gifts under the tree for me regardless (this was before adopting my anti-gifting policy).

It hasn’t really snown (that’s right, snown) here since 1989, at least not as far as I can remember. There’s been a little bit here and there, but never enough to stick on the ground. Anyhow, snow and ice had formed on my folks’ car door handles, and my friends and I went around lifting the handles to make the ice pop up in the air. It turned out that may have broken all the handles on my mom’s station wagon; it’s also entirely possible that they broke on their own at precisely the same time by coincidence or divine action. I concede nothing.

One Christmas, I would like to wake up and look outside and see a carpet of snow here in Florida. Not a dusting that’d melt a few hours after impact, not so much that you have to hike your knees up to trudge through it. Just a couple of inches, enough to last a couple of days. Enough to scare the drivers around here off the roads, and the milk and bread off grocery store shelves. Just enough to dampen city sounds and to crunch underfoot, to blanket the grass and the pavement and bushes and tree branches and roofs, to scrape together a few decent snowballs, to leave meaningful footprints and snow angels and hearts with lovers’ initials. Maybe next year.

Takes all kinds.

Once upon a time, one of my friends allowed a group of door-to-door missionaries into his home, and let them evangelize. He even let them arrange a series of follow-up appointments, and each time they’d bring more books, more pamphlets, and more missionaries than the time before. After the fourth of six scheduled meetings, they finally realized that my friend knew far more about their religion than they did (partly because he was a voracious student of theology), and that he was screwing with them (though he’d never admit that).

I was reminded of this yesterday. Whilst driving about, I happened across a truck with a decal advertising rapid-response paranormal investigations. I briefly thought about concocting some wild story about an apparition haunting my fireplace (or microwave, or ecto-containment grid, or whatever) just so I’d have the opportunity to see them at work. This thought was muscled aside by the thought of having con artists or lunatics–or worse, con lunatics–in my home.

It occurs to me upon editing this that it sounds like I’m equating religious missionaries with these paranormal investigators. That is not my intention. The missionaries generally aren’t charlatans trying to sell me something they know to be bovine scatology.

Not having eaten at a Waffle House in ages, I had a late lunch at one on the Far, Far West Side yesterday. There were two patrons sitting at the counter. Both were wearing NASCAR ball caps, but only the younger one wore an eyepatch. The elderly waitress who took my order had a leathery face and was missing her right arm below the elbow. I felt like I was on a hidden camera show and the producers were going to keep throwing stereotypes at me.

The waitress, in exactly the sort of Southern twang you’re imagining right this second, greeted me. I tried to be pleasant and asked, “How are you doing?” My accent was clearly out of place; she gave me a look that suggested my voice reminded her of them yankee boys that burned her great-grandpappy’s farm in the Late Unpleasantness. No other response.

I placed my order: ribeye medium, eggs scrambled, hash browns well-scattered (which the cook interpreted as scattered and well-done, i.e., nearly cremated), and hot tea. I listened as the other patrons, the waitress, and the cook complained about the recent cold weather (it’s been in the 40s here) and the possibility of putting chains on tires for driving in the snow. They kept looking over at me, possibly because I wasn’t a regular, possibly because my accent led them to expect I had something to say about driving in the snow. I didn’t; there’s not much to say aside from “slow down a little bit.”

Then the guy with the eyepatch changed the subject. He said he’d recently found a job, and was afraid of having to go back on unemployment because the price of groceries had gone up faster than unemployment insurance benefits had. It was now cheaper, he claimed, to eat out at the right restaurants every night of the week than to buy groceries. I thought that was a bit of a stretch, but at least it was a topic that piqued my interest.

The waitress responded that Social Security benefits hadn’t risen because inflation was flat, and there might’ve even been deflation, so there would be no cost-of-living adjustment this year. There might not even be one next year. Was he sure that prices had risen that much?

Eyepatch replied that there may have been no inflation according to SS, but grocery prices had risen. So had fuel prices, by more than a dollar on average in the last two years. And then (please believe me because I’m not making this up) he said that core inflation excluded food and fuel prices, so by some traditional measures like CPI, sure, it would look like there was no inflation. However, when he was on unemployment, the same-sized check bought less and less fuel and fewer and fewer groceries over time–hence, there was inflation that CPI didn’t register.

My jaw would’ve dropped if it weren’t busy chewing. This would’ve been the ideal time for the hidden cameras to pop out, and for Eyepatch to rip off his mask, revealing that he was in fact my thesis advisor, Dr. Shannon, who had faked his death years ago just to set me up for this moment.

No hidden cameras. Just thoughtful people having a thoughtful discussion, and me getting caught judging books by their covers. I finished my meal, paid, tipped, and left.

Non sequitur.

A not-too-recent dream:

It is late in the movie. I am dying of something that was presumably revealed earlier.

I sit in an office writing a letter of resignation, trying to get everything taken care of before it’s too late. I realize that this is doing nothing to prolong my days, and that someone else can take care of my paperwork after I’m gone. I leave the office.

I walk through a park on a perfect day. The only cloud in the sky is right in front of the sun. It is bright but not too bright. It’s wear-anything weather. A cartoonish airship lands in the park. It looks like an ornate gondola, covered in gold. This doesn’t strike me as the least bit odd.

Several people, drawn like cartoon and video game characters, get out of the ship. A leader emerges: a diminutive handyman just different enough from Mario to avoid any pesky copyright-infringement lawsuits. He says they want to visit and pay tribute to the newly-minted mother and her newborn.

I take them to the hospital. We move quickly because I don’t want to get slowed down by people giving me their sympathies and their well-wishes; there’s too much left to do.

We get to the maternity ward. I bring Not-Mario in and leave the others in the hallway. The mother is glowing with pride and cradling her sleeping newborn daughter. I step back and watch as Not-Mario bows and speaks with great reverence to the mother and heralds the arrival of the baby.

I turn and see my girlfriend standing in the doorway. She looks confused and panicked, and she asks if the baby is mine, if I am seeing this other woman. I tell her that it’s not my child, that I’m not seeing the woman, but that my job was to protect them. She is not assured.

Not-Mario invites the other cartoons into the room. I tell my girlfriend that I’ve told her the truth and that there’s nothing more I can do and I can’t stay. I leave her in the doorway and Not-Mario and his people at the mother’s bedside.

I wander back into the park feeling like the movie is coming to a blissful end. Crowds are leaving the park and heading towards the hospital to greet the newborn.

I see that the villain, vanquished earlier, has tried to escape in his aircraft, but he is shot down in the far-away sky. I expect a massive mushroom cloud upon impact, but it never comes. Maybe he escaped after all. I don’t worry about it.

I look for Not-Mario’s gondola, which is now somehow parked near a bar. To get to it I walk past a tree that seems to have a face that might be smiling. I tell the tree that the mother and baby are fine. Now the tree is definitely smiling.

I worry for a moment about my family and friends. And then I think to myself, they’ll be fine. I climb into the gondola and it launches.

As I fly away, music rises in the background. The music reminds me a little bit of “Tempted” by the Squeeze, but more upbeat, with more triumphant lyrics, and with more horns. The credits roll. Rough sketches of the movie’s cartoon characters appear in the margins alongside the autographs and self-portraits of the artists.

I typed this up in the last half-hour when I realized I hadn’t posted anything in almost a week, which would violate 2010 Resolution #5. In response to near-total brainlock and writer’s block, I dug through some old files and found my notes about this particular Roger Rabbit-ish dream from nearly three years ago. I’d almost forgotten about it, and would probably have been able to include more detail if I’d written about it in a more timely fashion. I still have no idea what could possibly have happened earlier in the dream/movie.

On accountability.

For the district-level TOTY competition, I had to send in an application packet that included responses to questions about public education and my own teaching practices. One of the questions was about accountability in public education:

Who should be accountable in public education and for what should they be held accountable? Please include how this/these should be measured and evaluated.

I’m not sure that I responded to the prompt the way they wanted. My original answer was longer and included numerous swear words and death threats, but I figured that out of respect for my coworkers (who voted for me) and my current and former students (who helped out with the application and recommendations), I should probably tone it down a bit. Here’s my response:

The people with the most accountability, whether they realize it or not, whether they want it or not, are the students. They are the most accountable in the sense that they will eventually leave the public education system, and they will either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of their education. Their parents, teachers, administrators, and school board officials can’t live their lives for them. But we can’t exactly fire the students, so let’s move up the ladder a bit.

Among education professionals, teachers are the most accountable because we have the most direct influence on the students—we are the ones who teach them about academic subjects. I think measuring and evaluating teacher performance should have an objective and subjective component. Principals and administrators need to be able to observe teachers in the classroom, monitor grades, talk to mentors about newer teachers, possibly even talk to students about teachers, in order to develop a subjective sense of the teacher’s performance. In doing so, principals and administrators must also take into account the circumstances of the teaching assignment: the available materials, the group of students being taught, whether students have been placed in classes they can reasonably be expected to succeed in, and so forth.

That said, teacher evaluation must also include an objective component—and here, I’m talking about standardized test results. Using test results as part of the evaluation process is not a very popular position among teachers, but when discussing the matter with others I use the following example. I am fortunate to have taught APUSH to International Baccalaureate (IB) students at my school for six years—they are, on average, the hardest-working and most intelligent students at my school. If my IB students do far worse on a standardized test (such as the APUSH exam) than the non-IB students do, then I think the principal and administrators have the right to take that into account when evaluating my performance. Conversely, if I had non-IB students, and my students did far better on a standardized test than IB students, I’d want the principal and administrators to take that into account if they ever have to decide whether to keep me or the IB teacher.

I don’t know what the proportion of subjective judgment to objective measurement should be, but I believe it’s appropriate to use both in evaluating teachers. Similarly, principals and administrators should be held accountable for the performance of their schools, and district personnel need to directly observe their performance often enough to blend a subjective judgment with the objective measurement of the school’s test scores. I think that laws mandating reassignment (if not firing) of administrators at low-performing schools are well-intentioned but inadequate to solving the problems at those schools. They may even serve to spare higher-level personnel the effort of direct observation and making subjective judgments, and perhaps permit these higher-level personnel to dodge whatever accountability they should bear for a schools’ poor performance.

I bring this up with a particular issue in mind: in this district, we seem to be forcing as many students as possible into as many college-level classes as possible with no consideration of their reading level, the coursework they’ve taken, or teacher recommendations. Too many students are forced into these classes unprepared and fail the year-end standardized tests such as the AP exams. Well, in the next few years, school evaluations will be based not simply on the number of AP exams taken, but also on the pass rates. When that happens, if we continue to place students in college-level courses without regard to their preparation, pass rates will remain low, teachers and administrators will be transferred or fired—and worst of all, students will have not learned as much as they could, or performed as well as they could. Using pass rates on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and administrators can be useful and productive as long as we are allowed to put students into courses that we can reasonably expect them to succeed in. Allow teachers to use students’ standardized reading and math scores, student performance in prerequisite courses, and teacher recommendations to determine student placement, and then test scores will be a much more reliable tool for evaluating teachers and holding them accountable.

I’d also like to address political accountability. I believe that elected officials at the national, state and local levels should only have as much power over education as they can be held accountable for. While there will always be arguments about how much power should be wielded by administrators or school boards or state departments of education, I think today’s greatest accountability concern lies at the federal level. It is difficult for the general public to hold federal official accountable for education because federal elections arise at best every two years, people tend to see education as a state and local issue that doesn’t translate well to national politics, and it is difficult for a voter to trace a path of accountability from a child’s performance in school directly to a congressman’s or President’s performance in office. Due to the difficulty of holding federal officials accountable for the educational system, I believe that there should be no federal funding of or control over public education beyond enforcing civil rights legislation. Funds currently distributed through the federal government should be returned to the states and school districts and should be used at the states’ and school districts’ discretion.

Pretty tame. I don’t think it’ll cause any hurt feelings or bruised egos. It’s a little choppy and a little sloppy because I had to fit this and my responses to several other questions into a 15-page packet, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on editing. But that was my answer, in eleven-point Times New Roman.