Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Where textbooks come from

File under: Those Who Can't, When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:51 am.

When I was a kid, my father told me about a strange phenomenon, which was later explained to him, that he’d observed while eating on airplanes. Back in the seventies and early eighties, Dad travelled a lot on business, and he noticed that the slices of hard-boiled eggs he received never included any ends. Each egg slice that made its way onto his tray consisted of yellow and white concentric circles - and, even more curiously, they all appeared to be congruent. At first, my father chalked this up to coincidence - maybe he just always happened to get the middles of the eggs? - but soon, he noticed that his seatmates also received only egg middles. It was nearly a statistical impossibility that such a large random sample of egg slices would never contain the end pieces. Were the airline chefs throwing out the yolkless ends? It didn’t make any sense.

Dad’s question was answered some time later, when he had the opportunity to watch a video on the production of airline food. Included was a segment specifically devoted to the preparation of eggs. At last, a chance to settle this question!

The documentary showed a huge, industrial-sized kitchen, where several chefs were diligently cracking eggs, separating the whites from the yolks. One large mixer processed hundreds of egg yolks; a second contained the whites. The chefs then poured the yolks into a long, hollow tube, where they were boiled. Then they formed the whites into a sheet half an inch or so thick, where they were hardened just enough to be moved without collapsing. Then, the whites were positioned to surround the stick of yolk. The entire apparatus was cooked one final time, resulting in a symmetric, several-foot-long cylinder of hard-boiled egg - which a machine then sliced into the discs that would be served to airline passengers.

This is why my father never got the ends of eggs.

In related news, friend and reader oxeador sent me a link to The Muddle Machine, a textbook editor’s firsthand account of why elementary and high school texts used in the United States are bland, incoherent, expensive, and updated with every new phase of the moon - even as they offer little new content with each edition. Tamim Ansary has written an appalling exposition of how a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of money, a lot of politics, and hardly any pedagogical or subject expertise has given rise to books that serve their creators and their financial backers rather than the students and teachers that use them.

I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, “The books are done and we still don’t have an author! I must sign someone today!”

Every time a friend with kids in school tells me textbooks are too generic, I think back to that moment. “Who writes these things?” people ask me. I have to tell them, without a hint of irony, “No one.”

Last year, I did some contract work writing and editing a textbook - elementary school math for college students, more or less. “Writing” and “editing” such a text consists of taking perfectly functional texts and guidelines, and processing them in a manner that is disturbingly similar to the way that our airline chefs of yore mass-produced hard-boiled egg slices. My result, arrived at after hours of poring through specs and sources, differed from the existing texts about as substantially as the egg tube different from its (hard-boiled) constituent parts. Ansary’s experience is similar:

[A]t each grade level, the editors distill their notes into detailed outlines…[later], they divide the outline into theoretically manageable parts and assign these to writers to flesh into sentences.

What comes back isn’t even close to being the book. The first project I worked on was at this stage when I arrived. My assignment was to reduce a stack of pages 17 inches high, supplied by 40 writers, to a 3-inch stack that would sound as if it had all come from one source. The original text was just ore. A few of the original words survived, I suppose, but no whole sentences.

To avoid the unwelcome appearance of originality at this stage, editors send their writers voluminous guidelines. I am one of these writers, and this summer I wrote a 10-page story for a reading program. The guideline for the assignment, delivered to me in a three-ring binder, was 300 pages long.

There’s so little I can add to this piece; it’s a bit long, but it’s an easy read. And Asmary does provide some constructive suggestions at the end, the second of which I especially support:

Reduce basals to reference books — slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.

Sounds a lot better than the current state of affairs, where politicians and lobbyists play those roles.

[Related article that I’ve linked before: Underwood Dudley’s “review” of a calculus textbook.]


Somebody is going to regret this

File under: When We Were Young, Know Thyself, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:25 pm.

“Applicant must be willing to travel”, read the job ad, and they weren’t kidding: I’ve got five trips scheduled this quarter alone, and they range in purpose from the interesting to the Dilbertesque. Next month, for example, I am to attend a conference that will teach me the ins and outs of effectively managing one’s employees, and I leave the taxonomy of that one as an exercise to the reader.

I’ll give the reader a hint: I do not, myself, have any employees. I am the managee in this relationship, not the manager.

And another: preparation for said conference involved taking a personality test, which revealed such things as - try to contain your shock - “subject is highly independent”, “subject is task-oriented” and “subject scored in the lowest decile on the ‘cooperation’ scale”; in other words, subject is the sort of person for whom it would be in everyone’s best interest if subject were just left to do her bloody job, as opposed to, say, attend a conference on managing one’s employees. Oh, and subject is a pain in the ass to manage.

And, a little anecdote that I know full well does not constitute a reliable statistic, BUT STILL: during my tenure as a college math instructor, every single one of my most difficult and manipulative students, to an individual, was a psych major. For whatever reason, these students were really interested in human behaviour.

And, just for good measure, a story from my childhood: when I was five years old, my mom had this childhood development book called Your Five Year Old. Not included in the book: anything about the five-year-old who was so precocious, and so antagonistic, that she would pry the book off of the shelf while her pregnant mother napped, and say to herself, “The child may be extremely bold one minute and shy the next? Nuh-uh, Mom, I’m afraid it’s going to be just a little more difficult to predict my behaviour.”

I tend to be brutally straightforward and impatient in any sort of team setting: I tell people explicitly what I want, and they don’t deliver, I do it myself. I perceive - uncharitably, to be sure - anything else as manipulation, which is why I’d be a crappy manager and have no overwhelming desire to be one. And I am hyperalert to any hint that I am being manipulated by, for instance, a superior who is choosing his words in such a way as to elicit a certain sort of response that he would not get if he were being more direct. And when I sense that someone is trying to manipulate me, I am quick to respond in kind. Skillfully.

And here I am, not only being led into temptation, but collecting Air Miles for the trip.


Ruminations on the value of a dollar

File under: When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:50 pm.

One day this past summer, a camper of mine, bored, threw herself onto an armchair and demanded that I tell her a story.

A story? I said. What kind of a story?

Y’know, she replied, one of those stories you always tell.

Recognition dawned instantly. You mean one of my bitter childhood memories?

Her eyes lit up. Yeah, one of those.

And all this talk about Christmas, I must say, is putting me in the mood for a bitter childhood memory.

This one began when I was ten years old and decided that I wanted a pet bird. Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this one began some years before that, when I decided that I wanted a pet dog, a request that was summarily denied on the grounds that everyone in my family, especially me, was allergic to pet hair. Somehow this was no longer a consideration some years later when my brother, unopposed, brought home Tulip the Guinea Pig, who shed half her weight in fur every day - but that’s beside the point. The point is that when I was ten years old, I decided that I wanted a pet bird.

My mother agreed provisionally: I could have a pet bird. But the pet bird would be my responsibility, not hers. Okay, Mom. Which meant that I had to convince her that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one properly. Of course, Mom. And that I would take care of it. Sure, Mom. And that I had to pay for it and its cage and its toys and its food and its vet bills myself. You bet, Mom. And that if I convinced her that I could take care of a pet bird, then we’d go buy one at the end of the summer, after we’d returned from my grandparents’ cottage house. Cool, thanks Mom!

I hurried to the library to borrow a handful of books about pet birds and devoured them immediately. Within a few weeks’ time, I became a walking encyclopedia on the subject: name any species of parrot, and I could tell you its diet, longevity, nesting habits, and Latin name. My mother became convinced that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one responsibly.

That left money. I had never been much of a spender as a child, and during my eleventh year more than any other, I hoarded every penny I got, including an entire year’s worth of allowance: one dollar per week. And this was the eighties, not the fifties, when you could buy a quarter with a nickel. In the eighties you could buy approximately one and a half chocolate bars with a dollar - more than you could buy today, sure, but still not much. I’d need a year’s worth of allowances, plus a year’s worth of birthday and holiday presents, to buy my bird and supplies.

My savings account grew that year, and in the summer I accompanied my family to the cottage with the assurance that we could go pick out a budgie when we returned.

We spent a week at the cottage. Late one morning my brother, age six, was sitting in front of the television in his pyjamas, watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever it was that he watched in the late eighties. My father didn’t want my brother, age six, to sit in front of the television in his pyjamas watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thereby setting the scene for the rising conflict part of this story. I sat in an armchair opposite my brother, watching the argument unfold.

Get dressed. It’s a quarter to twelve. You’re not going to sit around all day watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I’ll get dressed after this one finishes.

You said you were going to get dressed after the last one finished. Get dressed now.


You’re not going to get dressed soon, are you? You’re just going to sit around in your pyjamas all day.


No you’re not.


No you won’t. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that you won’t be dressed by noon.

We all have our price. My brother’s price for getting dressed, as it happens, was a hundred dollars. Actually, I would wager that his price was considerably less than a hundred dollars, because when you’re six years old it’s not like you’re just going to up and go work for the other father who offers you a better price for getting your lazy ass off of the sofa and putting some clothes on. I have a feeling that my father could have gotten the desired effect if he’d instead offered my brother a fiver, which is still an awful lot of money when your main source of income is that cheapass the Tooth Fairy, who only offers a stinking quarter for each tooth, and you only have twenty teeth to lose, so you do the math. Or don’t. Anyway, this is called knowing your market, something that I’m sure that my father learned when he was EARNING HIS MASTER’S DEGREE IN ECONOMICS.

Anyway. At five minutes before noon, my brother emerged from his room with a t-shirt sitting awkwardly on his shoulders and his shoes untied. He stood triumphantly before our father, whose expression indicated clearly that my father was a man of his word. His stupid, stupid word.

A week later we went to the pet store, where I selected a blue budgie, cage, and accessories. My father paid for it, on the understanding that I’d make a visit to the bank and pay him back later.

I forget if we made one or two visits to the bank later that summer, my father and brother and I. This was in the days before ATM’s, and my brother stood in line fanning and collapsing his hand of twenties like a cocky poker player. He peered over the teller’s counter, presenting the deposit form he’d filled out in his six-year-old’s handwriting. “I have a hundred dollars!” he declared. “I won it in a bet with my dad.”

The teller raised an eyebrow and gave a half-smile at my father. “Is that so,” she said without a question mark.

My visit to the bank was to withdraw a lump sum, almost my entire savings from a year of hoarding allowance and birthday money: One hundred and three dollars and twenty-six cents.

I like this story. I tell it often. I tell it often to my parents, and my father always sighs, and asks if I’m ever going to get over this, for crying out loud, it was more than fifteen years ago, am I still bitter about that?

To the contrary, I assure him. I remind him that my brother withdrew his hundred dollars a few weeks after he deposited it, and blew it all on comics and candy, the latter of which he ate and the former of which he quickly grew tired.

I, on the other hand, was left with a story that will last me for the rest of my life.


Things that shouldn’t remind me of my adolescence

File under: When We Were Young, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:49 pm.

I didn’t date when I was fourteen. The main reason was the lack of prospects, to be fair, but on top of that I simply wasn’t interested in dating when I was fourteen. At fourteen, I gazed briefly into that abyss, it gazed back into me, and I turned away and didn’t look back until I was old enough to vote.

I didn’t date when I was fourteen, because the sorts of fourteen-year-olds who dated were kids like Jessica and Matt, and it takes a special kind of self-loathing to want to be like Jessica and Matt. Jessica was this cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girl who was ambitious in the way that cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girls often are. Her ambitions at fourteen, as prescribed by Seventeen and YM and other such tomes, included acquiring a boyfriend, and she did, in Matt. As for Matt…well, Matt was a nice guy, not particularly attractive or athletic or smart, but inoffensive enough that he was pretty well-liked, if not terribly popular. Matt didn’t talk much, but that wasn’t because he was boring. And it wasn’t because he was insecure, either. And it certainly wasn’t because he was a loser. He was just…thoughtful, you know? And sensitive. Thoughtful and sensitive.

I sat behind cute, perky, naïve, fourteen-year-old Jessica and her cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old friends in class, so I got to hear all about Matt’s shortcomings from the day that he and Jessica started dating until the day that she broke up with him two months later. An abridged list of infractions, as best I remember them lo these many years later: Matt didn’t seem to really be as into the relationship as she was. He didn’t make time to see her. He hadn’t remembered their one-month anniversary! And worst of all, he didn’t seem to want to talk about their problems and stuff. Which she totally didn’t get, because he was such a sensitive guy. But he was really starting to piss her off.

Then why don’t you break up with him? I wanted to ask each and every time this topic came up, but I was never part of the conversation, so I stayed silent. That was the thing about cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girls when I was that age: they never included me in their discussions, but they didn’t seem to mind talking about all sorts of things when I was around. They probably assumed that I wasn’t listening. But of course I was listening, because what else was I going to do in the few minutes before science class started? Once when I was seventeen I made the mistake of indicating that I actually did listen to what my classmates were talking about, and I will go to my deathbed regretting that one, because that was the last time I ever heard about what Alyssa’s twenty-year-old boyfriend was like in the sack.

Anyway. That was Jessica’s side of the story. I never heard Matt’s, but I have a feeling that he didn’t really talk about their relationship to his friends. I suspect that sometimes his friends brought it up, in a teasing way, but mostly he’d try to change the subject, because the whole thing embarrassed him. The impression I got from Matt was that he thought - hoped - that if he ignored this relationship, it would go away. After all, he had never wanted a girlfriend. He didn’t know what to do with a girlfriend! For crying out loud, he was fourteen! But then Jessica had kinda latched onto him for awhile, and she was nice and all, and they sorta became friends, and then she said something about going out, and before he knew it she was saying that he was like her boyfriend, and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, you know? I mean, it wasn’t that he didn’t like her - he liked her a lot, and she was cute, cuter than he thought he deserved - but…they didn’t have much in common, you know? And now she kept acting all disappointed that he wasn’t doing stuff she liked, but he didn’t know where she had ever gotten the impression that he did that kind of stuff, because he’d never said he did. It was like she expected him to be cooler than he was, and seriously, that was getting really annoying. Oh, God, did that mean he wasn’t even cool enough to break up with her? How do you even break up with someone, anyway? He still wanted to be her friend and everything.

Why I am writing about this now? Because I think about Jessica’s fantastical expectations of her hapless boyfriend whenever I read the most recent report about how very disappointed Bono is in Paul Martin.

[Update: Oh, Lord, I wrote about this before? How embarrassing.]


Kids these days.

File under: Sound And Fury, Meta-Meta, When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:28 am.

Dear consummate lazy-ass who found my blog through Google,

When I was your age, we had to do mathematics the old-fashioned way. We memorized our times tables, we graphed functions by applying transformations to a small set of familiar ones…heck, I even remember computing square roots by hand. And you? Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, you don’t even need to use your brain when you do math - today, you can do all of this crap with a fucking graphing calculator.

The least you can do is sit up while you do it.


And Now, Some Name Dropping

File under: When We Were Young, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:58 am.

When I was ten, I was enrolled in some sort of an after-school drama class for kids. There were about a dozen-odd of us in the group, but the only ones whose names I remember were this girl from my school who was a really good artist, and Ben Mulroney, son of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The play we presented at the end of the class was some holiday schtick about a poor family that ends up almost missing Christmas but is then saved at the last minute by the generosity of…I don’t remember. Anyway, I played the mom, and Ben Mulroney played the dad. Unfortunately, Ben Mulroney came down with the flu just before the big day, so I ended up having to play the mom opposite one of the other drama students, a girl who wasn’t Ben Mulroney’s official understudy and who consequently had to read Ben Mulroney’s lines from the script onstage. The drama instructor assured us that this sort of thing happened all the time in real life, but I still felt cheated. It didn’t make a difference in the long run, though. Fifteen years later, Ben Mulroney had parlayed his acting experience into a successful career as the host of Canadian Idol, and, not to brag or anything, but let’s just say that no one ever made a negative remark about my posture or diction during any of the dozen-odd times I delivered that lesson on factoring trinomials.

The drama class was in the fall of 1988 - the fall during which Brian Mulroney was re-elected with a second majority government. A day later, my drama class met, and naturally the election was the main topic of conversation. Being ten years old, I didn’t know anything at all about the politics involved, aside from the fact that well, my parents didn’t vote for him, but I felt I needed to say something positive to Ben Mulroney, because it’s rude not to acknowledge things like your father getting a second mandate to govern the country. And so I said to Ben Mulroney - and, I’m warning you here, you should probably start cringing right now - I said, Tell your father congratulations from me.

And Ben Mulroney, bless his heart, smiled graciously and said something like, Thank you, I will, as opposed to Like he gives a shit what you think, which would also have been correct. Because Ben Mulroney, age twelve, was a perfect gentleman.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah: he sure didn’t get that from his father.

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