Thursday, May 21, 2009


Many years ago, I discovered that I had lost my taste for most science fiction. A huge collection amounting to thousands of books was sitting largely unread--and in fact, it was becoming a burden just to keep up with them. So I ended up selling off or giving away that collection in the early 1990s.

But as with any purging of a collection, there are always a few items that you realize you'd like to have back. So it was with the works of Robert A. Heinlein.

Few authors have influenced my worldview more than Heinlein. At his best, he surpassed all other SF writers. At his worst, he surpassed most other SF writers. He was a brilliant storyteller, a fascinating political theorist, and provocative social commentator, and an influential thinker.

For years, I let that desire to re-collect the Heinlein books fester... I'd forget about it for a while, then I'd get the urge to read Glory Road or Puppet Masters or some other work of classic Heinlein, and I'd remember that I no longer had them.

So when I heard that the Heinlein Society was assembling a limited edition leatherbound set of the complete works or Robert A. Heinlein, I was intrigued. For several months, I went back and forth. The price was a bit steep as a lump sum... but it really wasn't bad at all on a per-book basis, and it would enable me to get the complete works in a form endorsed and supported by his estate.

I finally gave in a couple of months ago and sent in my payment; I got the first set of 23 books a few weeks ago, and the remainder of the series should be published within the next year.

If, like me, you consider Heinlein one of the field's finest, you might want to check out the collection here. Tell 'em I sent you!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The House That Doc Built

I was pleasantly surprised to see Lester Dent's home recognized as a historic site by the town of La Plata, Missouri. Like Robert A. Heinlein's house, it was a technological marvel for its time--but it's amazing how quickly time can transform "state-of-the-art" to "quaint."

Even so, it's great to get a glimpse into the home life of a writer who gave me so much entertainment. I can almost imagine Lester Dent sitting in that home, pounding on the keyboard as the deadline approached, churning out page after page of prose in that distinctive style that made his Doc Savage tales so much better than anyone else's.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Societal Graffiti

See all those banners at the entrance of various neighborhoods congratulating high school graduates as if they've actually accomplished something?

I say, take 'em all down.

If you check out this article, you'll see that about 90% of all students eventually get a high school diploma. About 88% of them actually go through a graduation ceremony, and about 83% overall graduate on time.

We would better waste money on banners congratulating those who eat breakfast.

Sure, that sounds senseless--but there is actually a smaller percentage of people eating breakfast every day than the percentage of people who get a high school diploma.

We wouldn't think for a moment that it's worth wasting money on a banner congratulating people for doing something as basic as eating breakfast, but our society has decided to act like it's a big deal for students to do something that is virtually unavoidable: graduate from high school.

I taught school for more than quarter century. I can assure you that school has been reduced to a lowest common denominator; the requirement to graduate are so basic that one has to make an effort not to graduate by (1) being absent from school excessively and failing to make up work, (2) refusing to do assigned work, or (3) being a constant disciplinary problem.

Simply by attending school regularly and doing all assignments, a student is virtually guaranteed to graduate. I can honestly say that, in the 25+ years I taught, I never saw a single student who failed to graduate for reasons that didn't involve one or more of the three reasons listed above.

Parents act like the world should recognize their child's "achievement." They host big parties; they send out announcements in anticipation of gifts; they band together and print up those aforementioned neighborhood banners (on which they frequently misspell "congratulations").

But that diploma is not a measure of achievement--it's little more than a certificate of attendance.

Sure, there are some who genuinely achieve--those students who excel, those who take challenging courses, those who push themselves to learn as much as high school has to offer. Their parents have every reason to be proud, as do the students themselves--but the graduation ceremony doesn't really recognize that. It may allow the valedictorian a chance to make a speech, and it may even put a star next to the name of honor graduates, but those are minor additions to a meaningless ceremony. The superlative student, the true scholar graduates right alongside the minimal achiever, the socially promoted, and the slacker who graduates only because his parents create so many problems for the school that it's easier to graduate the student than to fight the good battle to deny the student the diploma he didn't really earn.

So am I saying that high school is worthless? Not at all. I have said more than once that high school gave me everything I truly needed to achieve whatever measure of success I have found in life. Whether I'm talking about teaching, writing, or running a business, all the skills I needed came from my high school experience. Sure, college gave me the degree necessary to teach, but none of the skills--and I took no classes in business management, in basic accounting, or in anything else that would have assisted me in the latter two. College offered me a chance to enjoy studying in a more scholarly atmosphere, and I loved the experience--but had I not gone to college at all, I could have done just as well in each of my three careers (had it been legal for me to teach without a college degree, of course).

High school's value comes not in graduating, but in realizing that the core skills and knowledge necessary for success can be gained there. Certainly, college and post-graduate studies can build on those skills--I don't deny that. But all the basics are there already, if one simply chooses to take advantage of all that high school has to offer.

How many of those graduates actually do that? Not so many--certainly not the majority. Far too many students shoot for a minimal level of achievement, and society endorses that by acting like the minimal achievement of graduating is the only goal worth achieving.. For most students, it's not--and for those who have truly accomplished something, there is no appropriate recognition... although there certainly should be.

Those banners? Societal graffiti, that's all...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Total Re-Call

Metro PCS gave me a surprise phone call this morning. They were concerned about my blog report, and wanted to try to make things right. I really hadn't expected to hear from them, so this was totally out of the blue. They offered two free months of service to evaluate and decide if I would like to continue my service with them. The rep was quite apologetic and a bit baffled; he couldn't figure out what went wrong since my credit card info for automatic billing was still in the system, just as it has been for years.

I'm taking advantage of the two free months to evaluate whether we really need a store mobile phone. I've told everyone (except Julie, who's out of town right now) that we'll pick a week in the near future and just put the phone away so that we can see how well things run without a mobile phone. Then, when July gets here, we can make an informed decision.

Either way, MetroPCS gets some respect for actually following through--and for giving me a direct-call local phone number for customer service!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Yet a few days..."

I find it significant that almost all of us who have died for a brief time, as did I, have no further fear of death.

I hope that the permanent end of my life is far, far away; I have no wish to rush its arrival. But when it does arrive, whether it is tonight, another 3317 days from now (as that is how many days have passed since I first passed on for almost seven minutes), another 17,029 days (the count of my life up until that first brief death), or a number of days far more random and less coincidental... I will not fear its arrival.

Roger Ebert recently shared his thoughts on death in his Chicago Sun-Times journal entry "Go Gentle Into That Good Night," which you should read if the topic of death doesn't make you uncomfortable. It's a rambling, far-reaching, insightful piece that echoes some of the same sentiments that I have said and felt over the years. He even quotes one of my favorite snippets from the works of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Like Ebert and Whitman and probably you and me, my life is a series of contradictions. Each day is in itself marked by still more contradictions. I have come to accept that as my nature.

That doesn't mean I'm always happy with it. I would like nothing more than to be a source of happiness for others, but I know that my mercurial nature (shaded with what my friend Bob Wayne once described as an intense empathy that makes my own moods all too often reflective of the moods of those around me) sometimes produces results that do not inspire such. Being aware that this is my nature helps, but it doesn't allow me to overcome.

Ebert is 66. I am 55. The statistical odds are that I have lived more than half my life already--a great deal more than half. I may wish that I had done more with the portion I have lived, and I may dream of doing more with the portion yet to come, but I am also aware that I will not change the world, nor will it really notice the day of my passing.

Today, Susan bought a sampler stitched in 1839 by one Sarah Redhouse; this is not a replica or a recreation, but the very piece of cloth upon which those young hands labored for dozens of hours to meticulously stitch an intricate floral pattern that surrounded a bit of verse from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written on a Country Churchyard," one of my favorite poems.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Most of us live as flowers born to blush unseen, wasting our sweetness on the desert air. All of us, I suspect, at one time had a heart once pregnant with celestial fire... where did it go?

It's a provocative essay that Mr. Ebert has written, and a moving one. I hope that death takes its time in revisiting both Mr. Ebert and me, but I say this now so that everyone can recall it at the moment when it seems meaningful: I have no fear of death. It is calming and soothing and encompassing and relieving and far removed from anything that life can offer.

I am not religious in an organized or explainable way. I can offer fragmentary glimpses into my own metaphysical beliefs, but I cannot define them any more than they can define me.

I believe that there is something in us that exists beyond this body. I do not believe that the complexity of personality and psyche and intellect can be defined entirely in physical, measurable aspects.

I do not believe that death is merely the absence of life. I believe that it is something else in its own right.

I do not believe in a divine force of judgment that punishes us for our actions in life, any more than I believe a parent would punish a newborn baby for its actions in the womb.

I believe that whatever it is that defines us, whatever exists beyond the physical, continues to exist in some form or manner after the body has died. I do not, however, claim to know what that form is, or whether it remains fully conscious of the experiences that we call life.

I believe that our noblest purpose is to bring happiness to others.

I believe that memes not only exist, but that memes can be linked to aspects of our world in ways that we cannot understand. Memes tie themselves to places, to songs, to objects so that those things taken on special meanings to us. Those meanings are real, connected by memetic bonds we can't discern or measure.

And I believe many more things, which I will talk about as time allows and situations dictate.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Metro PCS = Pretty Crappy Service

Today MetroPCS turned off the store PCS phone service we have had through them for eight years.

This struck me as odd, since (a) they have a credit card number on file, (b) the credit card company said no attempt was made to bill our account on May 2nd, the normal day of the month for our Metro PCS charge to go through, and (c) we heard nothing about this from Metro PCS.

I tried to contact them and after 45 minutes began to understand why they are the worst-rated mobile provider in the metro Atlanta area. When they work, they work--but when things go wrong, they make no effort to remedy the problem.

Turned out that Metro PCS switched internal systems, and in doing so managed to delete the credit card info for a few thousand customers. Rather than contacting those customers, they chose to deactivate their service, figuring the customers would contact them when their phones quit working.

I insisted on speaking to a supervisor--but knowing that they'd probably manage to "accidentally" disconnect me, I made the rep take my home phone number and said, "If you disconnect me and I don't get a call back from a supervisor, I will leave this account cancelled. We don't have to have your phone service, so you're going to have to prove you're worth it."

Just as I suspected, the rep disconnected me when he said he was transferring me. The supervisor never called back. And I no longer will be giving MetroPCS almost $50 a month.

The funny thing? There's no way to contact executive customer support for Metro PCS. There's no email address. No phone number other than the one that took 45 minutes and 11 attempts to connect me.

This is a company that wants its customers to go away.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Happy Star Wars Day

May the fourth be with you!

(*dodges thrown objects*)