Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Night at the Space Opera

My thoughts turned to the Star Wars saga the other day. I reflected on how Lucas was heavily influenced by samurai movies and old 1930’s serials. Then it hit me: the race sequence in The Phantom Menace was a re-doing of the Little Rascals episode in which Our Gang runs a soapbox derby. Think about it: it all makes sense, doesn’t it? So what else influenced Mr. Lucas’ script?

Well, I did some research and found that in the late 1940s, Chico Marx had some gambling debts to pay off. He convinced his brothers to come out of movie retirement and make two movies with him, A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. This is all common knowledge. What is less well known is that Chico also proposed a science fiction movie to his brothers, which they turned down. The script for that project, however, survived. I found it after an internet search and was astounded to see the similarities between it and Star Wars. Is it possible that Lucas had access to this script when he set out to make his sci-fi epic?

The similarities are compelling. Imagine Groucho as Obi-Wan, Chico as C-3P0, Harpo as R2-D2, and some pie-eyed newcomer as Luke Skywalker. That would have been the core of actors in the film titled, appropriately enough for the Marx Brothers, A Night at the Space Opera. Reading over the script, it’s clear that the writer had a Marx vehicle in mind, with other actors filling roles in a catch-as-catch-can way. It’s quite possible Lucille Ball could have had the Princess Leia-equivalent part, given her comic turn in Room Service.

In the script, Groucho’s character is named Sir Jupitron, a former knight. Chico is Ricko the Robot – and would have appeared in a getup like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Harpo, also in a robot role, got to be Rusty the Robot. Had Zeppo been in the act, he would surely have been cast as the young hero Mike Mercury, but that role would have gone on to some new kid with a pretty face. Here’s a sample of the script:

SOLDIER: Say, buddy! Where you goin’ with those robots?

SIR JUPITRON: We were going nowhere fast, but it looks like you’ll slow us down.

SOLDIER: Do you own these things?

MIKE MERCURY: Yes, I do. They’ve been in the family for years.

SIR JUPITRON: Still good as new, as you can see. You wanna buy ’em?

RICKO THE ROBOT: Hey, why you try to a-sell a-me? Don’t you think I can-a do my own-a sales-a pitch?

RUSTY THE ROBOT: Honk.

SIR JUPITRON: It would take quite a wind-up to get a pitch that could sell the likes of you two.

RICKO THE ROBOT: At-sa what gets us goin’! A good wind-up every morning! That-a-way, we no run down.

SIR JUPITRON: You’re not run down? Say, that is an amazing pitch. The truth in advertising boys would have a field day with it.

RICKO THE ROBOT: Sure! You always wanna throw th’ pitch onna big-a field!

SIR JUPITRON: Well, I’m glad we got that all settled. You’re all free to go.

(The robots and Mike attempt to leave.)

SOLDIER: Just a minute, there! I’m not done with you yet!

SIR JUPITRON: Oh. You’re still here. Where were we… Ah, yes, we were going nowhere fast. I see you’re already there.

SOLDIER: We’re lookin’ for a couple of robots that look just like the ones you got there. (points to “Wanted” posters of Ricko and Rusty)

RICKO THE ROBOT: Say… (points at Rusty’s poster) that’s-a not me. (points at his own poster) And-a that’s-a not him. We ain’t the robots you’re lookin’ for.

SIR JUPITRON: He’s got a point there. They don’t look a thing like each other, so they can’t be somebody else. Well, I guess that settles it, we won’t keep you any longer. (makes ready to leave)

SOLDIER: Hold on, buddy. If these ain’t the robots I’m lookin’ for, how come this guy looks like that mug (points to Rusty and Rusty’s poster) and that guy looks like that mug? (points to Ricko and Ricko’s poster)

SIR JUPITRON: Well, it’s clearly a case of mistaken identity. Speaking personally, these two mistakes aren’t anyone I’d like to identify with.

RICKO THE ROBOT: Those mugs up there are a buncha like-a-looks.

RUSTY THE ROBOT: Honk (produces a wooden rectangle)

RICKO THE ROBOT: I agree. It’s a frame-up.

(Rusty produces a stool)

SIR JUPITRON: What’s that for?

RICKO THE ROBOT: When the crows come home to roost, we’ll use that to catch-a the stool pigeon.

SIR JUPITRON: (to Soldier) There you have it. They’ve been framed up, and I’ve been set up. And frankly, that was one of the worst punch lines ever. It didn’t deliver.

RICKO THE ROBOT: Well, don’t blame the joke. You didn’t-a pay the delivery charge.

SIR JUPITRON: (to Soldier) You know anything about a delivery charge?

SOLDIER: Uh, no…

SIR JUPITRON: So there’s no charge?

SOLDIER: I guess not.

SIR JUPITRON: Well, happy day! There’s no charge! Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…

SOLDIER: Just a minute! Are you guys up to anything funny here?

SIR JUPITRON: Not with these jokes, we’re not. We’re as corny as Kansas in summer.

SOLDIER: I still say these robots are the ones we’re lookin’ for.

SIR JUPITRON: (pause, warms up the fast talk) Well. You’re looking for a look-a-like that looks like these two lookers here, but it looks like they only look like the look-a-likes that you’re looking for and from the looks of things, the likelihood of the look-a-likes turning up looks less likely now that their likenesses are everywhere for one and all to look at, like it or not. I don’t like it, but look at it this way: look-a-likes don’t like looking like like-a-looks and… and…

(Soldier becomes impatient)

(Beautiful woman walks by, entering from the left and exiting to the right)

SIR JUPITRON: Wow! Whatta looker!

(Soldier is distracted, while he’s distracted, Rusty and Ricko draw mustaches on their wanted posters)

SIR JUPITRON: So you can clearly see, these aren’t the robots you’re looking for.

SOLDIER: (confused, trying to make sense of what’s going on) Wait, I… I guess they’re not the robots I’m looking for.

SIR JUPITRON: We can go about our business, now.

SOLDIER: (still confused) Yeah, you guys can scram outta here.

SIR JUPITRON: Move along, boys.

(All exit to the right, except Rusty the Robot, who runs off right)

(Offscreen, we hear a woman scream)

RUSTY THE ROBOT: (offscreen) Honk! Honk!

RICKO THE ROBOT: (offscreen) Hey! Rusty! Knock it off!

(Rusty runs up to Soldier)

RUSTY THE ROBOT: Honk

SOLDIER: Hey! (makes ready to apprehend Rusty)

(Rusty the Robot grabs a bucket and dumps it on the Soldier’s head, then runs off to the right)

rant003.txt

America is supposed to be a land where any genius can have an amazing idea, dare to dream big, and make a fortune. He can make multiple fortunes, should he dare to dream appropriately large. Why is it that the dream always seems to involve big sacks of money? Why do we always seem to insist that a person of talent should use those talents to place himself in a part of the population that dominates the economy without giving back as much as it received?

I remember when I first wanted to be a teacher. It was in ninth grade. I had had some amazing teachers in my life and they were beginning to have an effect on me. I knew I was smart and that I could be an amazing teacher. I dreamed of teaching, not money.

I even tried not teaching in my life not once, but twice. In college, I started out majoring in chemical engineering. I kept the major for a year, but I never really had my heart in it. After teaching for five years, I quit because I couldn’t stand the Dallas ISD administration’s corruption and went into the IT sector. All the time I was making great money fixing computers, I wished I was teaching. In 2002, I took a 40% pay cut and kissed my $0 copay insurance good-bye and returned to teaching.

We’ve had some hard times financially in my family since then and every now and then I ask my wife if I should quit teaching and go back to IT. She tells me no. The money is not as important as the work I do. I’ve got a chance to live my dream, and I’m so thankful that she supports me.

I wish I could say the same for my nation.

At a time when a big chunk of the nation’s best and brightest were doing complicated mathematics to rip off millions of home buyers and investors, I taught in a classroom. The ripoff kings and queens were hailed on the news for giving new life to the American Dream, and I taught in a classroom. As the wealth flowed uphill from the poor to the rich and the rich found new and clever ways to not pay taxes, I taught in a classroom. As the crooks and cons paid for Senators and Congressmen, keeping themselves out of jail with intact bonuses, I taught in a classroom. As the people in the fancy suits plunged the nation into an economic state that truly warrants comparison to past economic collapses, I taught in a classroom.

Now the same people that ruined my nation are telling me there isn’t enough money to be found to provide for the poor in health care and education. What they call the American Dream was actually a disguise for their Old World rapacity.

We need to redefine the American Dream. It should not be winning the lottery. It should not be selfish. It should not be acquiring endlessly, consuming eternally. It should not be where, in the pursuit of money, we forget our humanity and souls.

The American Dream should be where, first and foremost, we help each other out of the goodness of our hearts. There will always be crooks that cheat their way to the top. We can’t stop them. But we don’t have to sing their praises, either. We may not be able to deny them their ill-gotten gains, but we can deny them the one thing they crave at the end of the day: legitimacy. Success is not found in a bank account. It is found in the guest list at one’s funeral. It is found in the hearts of people one has freely helped over the years. It is found in places far, far away from conference rooms and country clubs.

Although I reach at most a few hundred students each year, I know I have done much more to make my nation great than the CEO of Lehman Brothers. Even though I have made mistakes in my career, I have caused less ruin than the CEO of AIG – even though I have not been as handsomely compensated for my mistakes as that chap. When I encourage my students to do something, I am not as the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who had his company take up market positions that would profit when his clients went bankrupt. No, when I tell my students to do something, success is not found in a cashier’s check or stock price uptick. Success is found in the smiles of their little victories.

The American Dream needs to encourage service, not profits. Only then will we gain a truer perspective of how we should live and conduct our affairs as a people. Only then will our corporate and national morals be every bit as firm and fit as our personal morals. Otherwise, the American Dream will be unfit for reality.

rant002.txt

I just awoke from a dream in which I was at some sort of hipster hangout with wi-fi. While I sat there, sipping a hot chocolate and enjoying a respite from the chill outside, I overheard a discussion between four people. Two were atheists and the other two were religious and both were making the sad mistake of trying to convince each other through arguments.

I could tolerate the discussion passably enough as they quoted Hitchens this and Augustine that, but when one of the religionists tried to use Karen Armstrong’s views to defend his position, I had to say something. Personally, I find Armstrong’s defenses of faith to be equivalent to a court restraining order: not very solid and easy to brush aside. I’m sorry, but I would prefer a theist whose views don’t seem so close to appending the prefix a- to one’s position.

It being my dream, I could expound at length on my ideas.

“Look, all of you, quit trying to use proof from philosophical arguments. It won’t convince the atheists because they have their own arguments and they will cause doubt, rather than true enlightenment among those who believe. Argument and doubt are both injurious, and what’s the point in hurting each other?

“Here’s my proof. Yes, proof. God is love. Love is God. If you’ve ever loved, you’ve experienced God’s influence in your life. There’s the proof, with all the implications for behavior with it. Ignore it if you want, because you’re free to do so, but you’ll still know deep inside that I’m right and that love is the key to what we need to do here.

“And as for the Old Testament, here’s the key to understanding that book and reconciling it with the New Testament. Nowhere is it written that the Hebrews were righteous as they left Egypt. In fact, Moses says quite the opposite. The acts they perform are not those of the righteous, but of the wicked sent to destroy the wicked. The good never destroy the wicked: they always flee from it. Abraham was righteous – he left where it was wicked. Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife rather than contend with her. Elijah sequestered himself from the wicked Israelites. They were righteous, in contrast to most of the rest of the people around them.

“The wicked destroy the wicked, the good depart when they cannot help the wicked become good. It is true among so many faiths, not just Christianity, because it’s a law of the universe. Mohammed left Mecca and its wickedness. Gandhi would not lift a finger in violence, but prayed for his enemies to recover their senses. Jesus spoke his words and then, being done with his work, died. It is the same with anyone else that initiates a great change in the world: Gandhi died after bringing independence to India. Mohammed died after cleansing Mecca and instituting the faith he believed in. In my own faith, Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood, but only after he had established the faith he believed in. So it is with anyone truly seeking after perfect love that creates a new way.

“For those that follow in those ways, we do not argue. We testify of the truth of our ways and then provide instruction on how to better live with them. Take it or leave it, but it’s the right thing to do. Discovering love is discovering truth. Science teaches us that we do not ignore truth, but we bend or abandon whatever preconceived notions we have in order to accept that truth and everything it implies. When I discovered truth, I accepted it and changed my life to live with more love in my life. I could have done otherwise, but I would not be living in harmony with the laws of the universe.

“Did you learn nothing from Lao Tzu? Did you learn nothing from the Bhagavad-Gita? If you did not read them, then do so, for they have much to offer us. Lao Tzu teaches us to seek harmony with the universe. The Gita teaches us to abandon our passions and inertia and live our lives in doing our duty – in so doing, we find harmony with the universe.

“When we love each other, we are discovering what it is like to let God help us in our lives. When we surrender our imperfections and seek to love more perfectly, we approach greater harmony with the universe, which is what all true religion teaches us to do. Where there is destruction, there is wickedness. Where there is peace, there is God, meaning there is love.”

Having finished what I had to say, I awoke, leaving their world. Therefore, I gave the people of some world created from my dreams a new way to live. May it help them to find true love and harmony with their universe.

What Would Pontius Pilate Do?

Rick Perry claims that he won’t be laying off any teachers in Texas. That’ll be a local decision, not his. He’s just going to preside over gutting the system, refusing help for it at every turn, and then stepping back while the carnage ensues. He just won’t be responsible for it, in his view of things.

Perry’s Christian affiliation is never in question. He banks on it. He uses it for electoral boosts from religious-minded voters. He wants religious ideas taught in schools, sponsored by the state. And, yet, for all the voter magic bestowed upon him by his Christian convictions, they seem to vanish when it comes time to actually use them to help someone else.

Jesus was never recorded as having gone to a poor person, saying, “Go thy way, and be poor no more.” He is on record as saying humanity has a responsibility to care for those that are poor, sick, in prison, aged, or very young. He was especially concerned about children, saying that in the grand scheme of things, a sudden, violent death by drowning would be preferable to leading a child astray with bad teaching.

Oops, looks like Perry needs to look into getting a tie with a millstone attached before he makes his next visit to Galveston.

Jesus is also on record telling rich people to go their way and to be rich no more. Time and again, he told followers to use worldly resources to help everyone. He never said one should amass them in mass quantities to support a life of leisure. He never told rich people to use their wealth and power to subvert a government to skew the way things were being run to favor the rich. Heck, he said it was a duty to pay taxes, not evade them.

So, to sum things up: Jesus, the spiritual source of all Christianity whose word that all other Christians defer to as being superior to their own or to some preacher’s comments, the Man Himself, said:

1. Rich people should use all their money to help others. Not part. All.
2. Paying taxes is a duty.
3. Taking care of children through proper teaching is vital, one of the most important things we can do.

Rick Perry, on the other hand, is using his position to protect the privileges rich people have paid for through campaign and other contributions, helping them evade taxes, and presiding over a budget that wrecks the teaching of children. 0 for 3.

If we look to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, we find a different sort of character. Although convinced of the innocence of Jesus of all charges brought against him, he nevertheless caved in to the demands of the local elites and gave them everything they wanted. They had money and power, who was he to refuse them? He pardoned a politically well-connected murderer and gave them permission to crucify Jesus. He even had his soldiers torture Jesus in advance of handing him over, like a cherry on top of a pandering sundae. Pilate then said he wasn’t responsible for whatever happened, even though he really could have stopped it.

While Perry is constitutionally prohibited from granting a sweeping pardon to convicted corrupt politician Tom DeLay, it didn’t stop Texas Republicans from exploring such a move. Perry has given in to the demands of people with money and power to keep them from paying taxes that would support the education of the children of the state of Texas. He’s even said that the carnage that follows won’t be his fault, even though he really can stop it.

Perry is free to believe that he’s a Christian. I won’t take that away from him. I just find it ironic that he’s taking his Biblical cues for personal behavior not from the guy that put Christ in Christian, but from the guy that claimed no responsibilities for forever attaching the crucifix to that denomination.

Class Size Counts… in Prison!

“We found that both the inmate-to-staff ratio and the rate of crowding at an institution (the number of inmates relative to the institution’s rated capacity) are important factors that affect the rate of serious inmate assaults.

Our analysis revealed that a one percentage point increase in a facility’s inmate population over its rated capacity corresponds with an increase in the prison’s annual serious assault rate by 4.09 per 5,000 inmates; and an increase of one inmate in an institution’s inmate-to-custody-staff ratio increases the prison’s annual serious assault rate by approximately 4.5 per 5,000 inmates. The results demonstrate through sound empirical research that there is a direct, statistically significant relationship between resources (bed space and staffing) and institution safety.” — Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2005

So why is it that increased inmate:staff ratios at prisons result in more violence and chaos, while teachers are supposed to be fine with more kids per room? It’s because politicians know that nobody cares about prisoners, so they only have to lie about education.

Let me re-state the conclusion above for emphasis: “There is a direct, statistically significant relationship between resources… and institution safety.” Perry, by reducing teacher staffing levels by 1 out of every 3 teachers – a death rate not seen since the Black Plague of the 1300s – you are directly endangering every single remaining teacher and student.

Did I hear someone out there cry out that students aren’t prisoners? Let me enlighten you. The general population of students includes a significant number of persons on probation and parole. There are a significant number of children that go to juvenile correctional facilities and then return to the general student population. We’ve got kids with severe behavioral problems walking side-by-side with kids high on drugs – and kids trying to sell them. We’ve got inmate hazing bad enough to make some kids want to kill their tormentors. Essentially, we’ve got actual students mixed in with a significant number of persons with criminal experience and/or correctional facility experience.

Quite a few students really are prisoners. Now, at minimum security facilities, the inmate:guard ratio is around 20:1. Fights still happen there when things are overcrowded. Now, one should disclose that the 20:1 ratio doesn’t mean there really is that one guard every 20 inmates. It means there’s one guard working there for every 20 inmates. Most of the time, there’s one guard overseeing 40-60 in a yard – and he’s not teaching. He’s just trying to make sure nobody gets shivved.

Is that what Rick Perry wants for Texas education?

“An Efficient System of Public Free Schools”

“ARTICLE 7: EDUCATION
Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” – Texas Constitution

Governor Perry is big on the death penalty, but I’m going to do my bit to try and keep him from killing the dreams of Texas students any more so than he’s already done. And for class size notes, the Texas state capitol requires one adult per 10 children on tour. I guess student-teacher ratios DO matter.

A Terrible Price for Freedom

Helping Libya’s rebels condemns Saudi Arabia’s angry youth. That’s the pinch of the latest article from Robert Fisk. If the Saudis will help the USA ship arms to Libya’s rebels, then the USA pretty much must turn a blind eye to the planned Shi’a Muslim “day of rage” in the East of Saudi Arabia this coming Friday. The USA may well have to turn a blind eye to protests in Saudi Arabia to keep a lid on oil prices, so the ball is in Saudi Arabia’s court: do they support the Libyan rebels for greater US complicity in crushing their dissent, or do they turn down the Libyan rebels so their own people won’t have that much to hope for as their dissent is crushed some time after the news in the USA runs footage of the action in Libya?

Meanwhile, the USA is finding ways to get itself entangled in this mess that will guaranteed make more enemies for the nation, no matter who it supports or which side wins.

Quick word of advice for all young persons seeking a military career: buy an Arabic phrasebook and look into acquiring a stash of sand repellent.

Educational Bailout?

When the USA faced a financial meltdown in 2008, the US government was swift to prop up the ailing banks, with executive bonuses nearly intact. Now, schools across the nation are facing a similar meltdown. Where’s their bailout? Back in the Great Depression, the USG came out with the Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration to get teachers back into classrooms, students back into schools, and schools back into repair. Just one quick question to every governor, legislator, Congressman, and president: which is more important, banks or children?

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Dear Mister Gates,

Bill Gates recently went on the educational offensive. He’s writing articles and appearing on national news and using his bully pulpit to make viral videos. He’s saying we need to do something about education. I agree. He says we need to educate our children or our nation will be in big trouble down the road. No argument here. He says we need to find the best teachers, pay them well, and give them more students.

Hold on there, Billy.

I’ve got a problem when a guy that doesn’t teach starts to spew out solutions for teaching. It’s bad enough we have state and national legislatures getting into the business of ruining our school system. We don’t need private industry getting into the game, as well. I’ve got an especial problem with a man that doesn’t practice what he preaches.

I know Microsoft will promote based on merit, but when you look into the Microsoft classrooms, you’ll see 20 people or less in them. They know all about class size impacting instructor efficiency, and they don’t let those classes get large, ever. Should someone in the class become unruly, that person leaves. These aren’t immature 7th graders, either. These are adults, mature and eager to learn in order to do their jobs… and he keeps them to no more than 20 per class with immediate ejection for discipline problems.

Nice work if you can get it.

Now, in my larger classroom – because I am a good teacher and Mr. Gates says I should have more students that will benefit from my teaching – I am going to have a hard time of things if I get the normal mix of students. Roughly 10% of any class will be first-rate troublemakers. In a class of 20, the teacher need only control two of them. In a class of 35 or 40, there are four. Those first-rate troublemakers will recruit from another 20% of the class that are followers with poor decision-making skills. In a class of 20, the two troublemakers are handled easily so the class never gets out of control. In the class of 35 or 40, there are always enough troublemakers to create a fuss to rally 7 or 8 more students to their banner, and the teacher finds that there’s now a revolt in her room and she won’t get anywhere.

Which students were you planning to add to my class, Mr. Gates? There are only so many gifted, obedient youths in the nation. Eventually, we have to start assigning the criminals to these classes. These are the very sort of person that Microsoft would never hire in the first place, let alone put in one of its 20-seat classrooms, but it’s who we have to teach. Believe me, if we could boot them out of school and into special day jails, I’d be all for that. We can’t. We have to teach them, whether or not they want to be taught.

Microsoft had a sort of “up or out” culture when I worked there. Long-time employees had to show their mettle against newcomers if they wanted their bonuses to be awarded intact. I hear a lot of school reformers talking about that philosophy for teachers – why not for the students? Why not mandate a 10% minimum failure rate in any course? Let’s weed out the weak-minded and get them out of our schools, if “up or out” is so good. Let the little blighters roam the streets and stay out of our hallowed schools and workplaces.

And this is where the communities cry out – stricter schools usually mean a spike in daytime home robberies. This reveals the role of a school as minimum security prison. A day jail, if you will. That’s why we have so many students in school that can’t succeed in school: they figured out they’re really in jail and they have no desire to be part of a system that incarcerates them, regardless of how good it is for them in the long run.

I think the best way to fix our schools is to have every politician and CEO spend a week teaching 7th Grade math in a school that is out of control. Don’t send them in as guest speakers with a full security detail. Drop them into that room with a teacher’s manual and wish them luck… then hold them accountable at the end of the week for what they were supposed to have covered.

Mr. Gates can start off with 6 classes of 40 in a 7-period day – or 7 classes of 35 out of 8 in a block schedule – since he seems to have a lot of answers. I know a junior high school just down the road that would be a perfect place for him to start, and it’s not even the worst one I’ve ever taught in. It’ll do, though. It’ll do. I guarantee he won’t be talking about increasing class sizes after that gem of an experience.