Cell Phone Hell

My cell phone croaked. Actually, the cell phone is not to blame. For some reason, water doesn’t show on our new granite counter top and, without realizing what I was doing, I put the phone down in the middle of a puddle–perhaps from a piece of melted ice.

So I went through cell phone abandonment anxiety. I kept opening the thing to check the time, forgetting each time that it was dead. That meant I had to use the land line; we have one of those antique wireless phones (that you used while wandering around the house). But of course, it didn’t work because it hadn’t been charged in a month of Sundays. So I charged it. Frustrating.

Then I went to the AT&T store to get a new cell and felt guilty about that because AT&T gives money to incredibly conservative causes and thinks global warming is a fantasy. But honestly I was just too tired to think about getting a politically correct phone. So, as I said, I went to the AT&T store and asked for a phone like the one I had for the last four years, the one I stupidly put in the puddle.

Of course, they did not have that phone; they have “upgraded” way past that. Still, the guy pointed to one that looked simple and cheap too, only 29.95. That’s what the sign said. But that was not the reality. It was 29.95 if I renewed our contract with them for two years, and if I mailed in a thing for a rebate. If I didn’t do these things, the phone would cost 200.

The kid pitching the phone was pleasant. But the false advertising sort of pissed me off. Like what McDonalds is doing right now, advertising you have a chance to win a million dollars everyday if you play some game they have got going. They make it seem like it’s possible to win a million dollars everyday. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think you have a chance everyday to get into the lottery for the million dollars–that is not handed out everyday–but sometime in the future.

To get the rebate, I have to cut the end off the box the phone came in, supply proof of purchase, fill out a form, and mail the whole damn thing to get a Visa debit card. Now why the hell would I want a Visa debit card. I don’t use Visa. I don’t like their commercials. I am a Master Card guy. Damn it. So not only do they make it hard to get the rebate (when the hell will I get to a post office) but they are screwing with my consumer identity.

Just a second ago my new phone started talking to me in my pocket. It said I should use voice recognition.

I told it to go to hell.

I wonder if it recognizes swear words.

The “Quarterlife Crisis”???

I had my students meet in a computer lab so they could start poking around on the web for a possible research topic. I looked over one young woman’s shoulder, and she was reading about something called “the quarterlife crisis.” She was wondering if this quarterlife crisis thing might have something to do with the consumer society. I said I wasn’t sure since I didn’t know what the quarterlife crisis was.

So she explained it was sort of about the agony of being twentysomething. She, for example, was working and just taking a couple of classes to finish up and living in a house with three other young women, just out or soon to be out of college, and she said they didn’t know really what they were doing and where they were going. My student was paying for her own education and was trying to find a job that paid more, but in the meantime she still has to rely on her parents for rent, and really she isn’t all that happy about that.

Turns out, I guess, I did know something about this crisis, which, it appears, started getting press around 2000. I had just missed the term, but not the obvious. Ten or twenty years ago, when students dared to complain about life in college, I would go on a rant and say, just you wait, just you wait till you get in your twenties, that’s when the hell really starts. First you can’t find a job, then you do, but it’s the wrong one, so you go back to school for another degree, and by the time you get it, the market is glutted. And you get so depressed about this that your partner in life, just pray you aren’t married, gets fed up with you and leaves town to take a job elsewhere. Meanwhile, you slip up and get the herpes.

After a bit, I stopped delivering this rant. Sometimes the students–maybe it was just the mention of “the herpes”(that a teacher should mention such a thing) –looked stunned, even a bit ashen. I tried to soften the blow by saying, hey, not to worry. You have all of your twenties to figure it out. Adolescence has just been extended. If you hit thirty and don’t have the semblance of a life you could be in trouble.

That’s the fact. Along with the general extension of life goes the extension of adolescence. If you read Rousseau’s Emile (not that I recommend it) you will find that he thought adolescence (the trouble teens) lasted about six weeks. Now we have billion dollar industries catering to the malaise of the teenager; teens are now a social institution. But this is mostly a middle class thing. As Barbara Barbara Ehrenreich argues somewhere, the middle class loves to exploit its young. They are consigned to immaturity because they can’t lay their hands on adult responsibilities. Instead, they have to go college forever, while acquiring massive debt, to get into their profession of choice, and then they are required to serve extended and low paying apprenticeship before they can really get a “career” and with that the stability that might make for longer term commitments on the personal relations front.

I am not without sympathy for the firstquarter crisis; I am going through the lastquarter crisis being, as I am, a sixtiessomething. But going through the firstquarter crisis might appear something of a luxury to a working class kid who has life, whether it be adultlike or not, more or less thrust upon him or her by the force of economic circumstance. 

Retirement: Who Knows?

I am 63, going on 64. I had thought I would retire at about 65.5. But who knows.

I received a email with the subject heading: Post-Employment Benefits Local Forum.

Just the phrasing scares me. What the hell are Post-Employment Benefits? Is that some attempt to change the definition of “retirement.” Because that’s what they will be talking about “retirement” benefits.

Apparently the UC Pension plan is in significant trouble; and I am of course concerned that these troubles may affect me significantly. That I may have to work longer than anticipated, and that even if I do, I may received reduced benefits, in terms of money and medical.

But something is afoot and it is hard to know what to think, or plan or feel.

This language appeared in the email:

The University’s long-term liability for retiree health benefits for current and future retirees is also projected to increase, from $13 billion today to nearly $26 billion by 2018. In other words, the liability is increasing at a rate of more than $1.5 billion per year. Governmental accounting regulations now require UC and other employers to include this liability in their financial statements. Such a significant liability could affect UC’s credit rating when borrowing money for campus buildings, hospitals and other projects.

If in fact the liability associated with the pension fund might inhibit
the University’s power to build buildings, support hospitals, as well
as unnamed other projects, whatever those might be, then they may do
something drastic. One does not have to look far to get some sense of
how businesses treat their employees these days, and more it more it
appears the University is a business.

Radiation Overdose and Nobody Looking

I am flummoxed.

How did 207 people, over an 18 month period, receive, at Cedar-Sinai hospital, a CT brain perfusion scan, at 8 times the correct dose of radiation?

Apparently, there is a readout, each time a scan is done, that indicates the level of radiation. Maybe, I thought, the information panel for the CT scan is really complicated, and maybe the information on the dose is hidden in a corner. That would be stupid, but still possible. But no; one person said, “It’s right there in front of your face.”

So how did the technicians miss it; and how did the doctors who read the scans miss the level of radiation dosage printed on each scan.

Expert opinion proves not very helpful. One such expert says, “It’s pretty mystifying to me.”

Well, you bet, it’s mystifying and even a bit terrifying.

I could understand once or twice perhaps….maybe…but this happened 207 times over an 18 month period.

During this time, patients called to tell their doctors that, after the scan, their hair fell out.

Finally, somebody put two and two together–the scan and the hair falling out–and the flaw in the machine was finally noted and fixed.

One person tried to find a silver lining to the whole thing, saying that the people who received this scan were mostly old and in bad shape anyway and would probably die of something else before they died of a brain tumor produced by the excess radiation, since these are generally slow growing. I find this odd and slightly offensive reasoning. I would, were I one of the persons scanned, take small comfort in knowing I would die of something else before I died of brain tumor resulting from gross incompetence.


Is this another case of dependence on the machine? I don’t know and don’t want to be flip. I think this episode is worthy of some serious sociological research, and some soul searching on the part of the medical profession. 

The Passive and Dependent Consumer

One persistent criticism of consumer society is that it makes individuals passive and dependent. Christopher Lasch says we have become overly reliant on “externally produced goods,” and, on top of that, when it comes especially to our electronic gadgets, most of the time we don’t have the faintest idea about how these “goods” work. Once upon a time, back in the 60’s, while my knowledge was far from complete, I had a general idea how a car worked. I could fix the brakes, and replace the head gasket; I could rebuild a carburetor. But now, since fuel injection, I don’t believe cars have carburetors. I believe they have computers, though I have no idea where these might be located. Additionally, I have no idea how a computer works.

I have heard that one type of car no longer has a dipstick. I mean how is one even to pretend that one knows something about a car if one cannot pop the hood and look knowingly at the dipstick.

A horrible instance of this dependence (and its attendant lack of understanding) is the recent story of the run away Lexus. This car was driven by a man in law enforcement; he knew something about driving cars. Still he was unable to stop his car when it reached 125 miles per hour. The car crashed and all four persons inside died.

When people can no longer make their car’s engine stop, something has gone hay-wire.

Apparently, this version of the Lexus has no key. Instead one has a fob. One pushes a button on the fob and then one pushes another button in the car and the car starts. I guess I still don’t understand exactly what happened. Why couldn’t the driver have pushed the button in the car to get the engine to stop. I feel helpless even thinking about it.

According to an expert, a driver of such a Lexus might have been able to stop the car if he or she had pushed the button on the fob. But if he or she repeatedly and quickly pushed the button on the fob, it wouldn’t work. One has to push the button on the fob for three seconds steadily. But in the manual for the car one was warned not to do this since one would lose power steering and power brakes.

The first car I drove did not have a manual. Now, an expert says that truly to inform car owners about the features of their cars, the manual would have to be a thousand pages long.

I have had it. I will not be able to make the next techno-step, whatever it might be. I simply refuse to read a 1000 page manual on how a car works. If I ever have to buy a new car, I will make sure it has a key that turns the car engine both on and off. I will also insist on a dipstick.

Still, perhaps the argument is all wrong. Back in the olden days, people didn’t know how a cow worked either, and they were plenty happy for the milk.

But then they had magic to explain everything. 

Oddball Weather Events

Oddball weather week here in Goleta, right next door to Santa Barbara.

We had a weather event, as they call it, on Tuesday. More specifically a rain event. I don’t know why everything has become an “event.” One expects to hear trumpets or something announcing the coming “weather event.”

So the event occurred as predicted. Rain Tuesday night, slacking off in the morning, and coming back much more heavily in the afternoon and early evening. But the strange thing about the event was that the high for the day was 63 degrees and so was the low. In other words, it was 63 all day long.

I don’t remember when that last happened. I think having the same temperature all day long qualifies perhaps as an event, but a pretty uneventful one. Really.

Oh the rain event was attended also by a wind event. Though the wind event was not as intense as predicted.

There was also the possibility of landslide events because of previous fire events that had burned the vegetation off the hills. But that didn’t happened.

And then today out of nowhere we have a heat event. They were predicting 77 degrees for today but instead we hit 93. I don’t know if this heat event is connected or not with the weather event previously described.

For no known reason I began to think about phytoplankton and their role in cloud event formation. Apparently these tiny creatures emit a a chemical of some kind that goes up in the air and sort of serves as seeds for clouds. This particular contribution of the microbial kingdom to the functioning of the weather cycle was not and still is not completely understood.

Why I should think of this and where I learned it, I am not sure, though I think I heard it in lectures I used to attended in biology when I was teaching the research paper to biology students. I learned many things then most of which I have forgotten. I learned about diatoms for example. I am pretty sure they also play a significant role in the weather cycle.

I remain 98% water.

The Dumbest Generation

Trying to get my head around the affect of the digital age upon young people, I picked up The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future by Mark Bauerlein, a Professor of English at Emory. Based on my calculations the students I am teaching at this moment–born in1989, 90, or 91–are on the cutting edge–if that’s the right phrase–of Bauerlein’s dumbest. For every one kid you might read about in the Ivy League who studies him or herself into a stupor or constant panic attacks, Bauerlein argues, there are thousands who don’t study at all and don’t know diddly.

While I think Bauerlein is aiming for something deeper than a mere information deficit model of dumbness, he starts with that exactly: look at all the stupid things these kids don’t know. Like, as aired on the Jay Leno show, “Where does the Pope live?” And the young person doesn’t know. Or what was the last book you read, and the young person doesn’t know and seems even confused about what a book might is. I have taken these sorts of how-dumb-are-you-quizzes myself and I always miss a couple of them even though I do have a Ph.D. and am pretty well educated. I can’t remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics to save my ass, and I assume it’s a pretty important law. Though not as important as the First, which I also don’t know.

OK, so this is a defense of my own lousy education, but I don’t think knowing the “facts” is all that important. What does it take to know the facts–well, first you have to be around people who know the facts, or in a situation where facts appear, and usually you have to repeat a fact a couple of times to remember it, and that gets to the core of it. Information dumbness or smartness involves the old gray matter only at the level of memory. A very, very important thing–no doubt–but not the stuff of intellect (one might say). I grew up with guys who knew the name of every damn part of a car engine (because they lived for cars) and who could give a damn who John Adams was.

And this gets to another point. Who the heck gets to decide which facts are important (as an indication that one is educated). The educated? I don’t know but this seems sort of like a circular reasoning or a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s pretty easy for the educated to dream up a raft of questions that the uneducated don’t know the answers to. And really who is to say that what the “uneducated” do know is not as important as what the educated know. This is simple “classism, and let’s face it education–and whether one gets some of it–has a lot to do with which class a person is in.

Once I taught a writing class that tied to a political science class. The Professor on the first day quizzed the students about what countries belonged to the EU. After, a student came up to me, with alarm written all over her face who said she thought she should drop the class because she thought Europe was a country. OK, so how does one get to be 19 years old and not know that Europe isn’t a country. But what the heck. No big deal, I said. Don’t drop the class. Now that you know Europe is not a country, tell me the names, I said, of some of the countries in Europe. And then she named off a whole pack of them.

Facts are easy. I am not about to conclude on the basis of those that my students belong to the dumbest generation.

The New Communications

I was born in 1945 and spent my first decade in the rural south. We did not have an indoor toilet much less a TV set. I now teach and have taught writing at a California Research University for 30 years. The young people I teach right now were born in 1989 or 90; they grew up in a world vastly removed from the world of my childhood. Some of them have not seen a live chicken. I cannot and probably will never learn to text-message.

I don’t understand my students and their lives in fundamental way. I try to use the distance between us as a teaching point. Look, I say, we are different, and I would like to learn in class conversation and through what you write how you look at the your lives and experience the things around you. I really would like to know because the fact is, given my age, students are my eyes into a future I will not live to see. Although I don’t put it to my students in this way. It sounds a bit morose.

So I asked them to read a chapter from Suzuki’s book “The Big Picture.” There he writes, for example:

Without perspective, being constantly online and plugged in (a phrase meant to evoke the modern computer era, but already outdated) becomes the normal state of being. But being connected electronically is not the same as being connected physically. In fact, paradoxically, being electronically connected all the time has actually made us less social and less community oriented.

This is what Suzuki says. I am having a hard time finding decent articles on the digital communications and their deep down affect on human relationships. I would be happy to be turned on to something better. But at least he writes clearly, which cannot be said for a lot of writing on digital communication. Of course, he is saying nothing new or that hasn’t appeared or been echoed in a thousand places.

But is it true? I don’t know partly because I don’t have any experience to draw on. I have barely adapted to the cell phone; and I don’t have a hand held, like an iPhone.

I brought up these issues in one class and they just took off–and discussed the matter for an hour and fifteen minutes straight. I had other things planned, but as I said, they took off and I let it go.

I don’t know that I came away the wiser. Mostly they could not imagine living in a world without cell phones and hand helds and iPods. OK, I could have guessed that. They did talk about their feelings about the new technologies and these appeared to be a little mixed, though more positive than not. The more temperate advocated “moderation” when it came to the use of these technologies. OK, but I have read my Aristotle on moderation, so that didn’t help much.

One thing did pop up that seemed to me more concrete, something to try to get my head around. They said life with the cell was more “spontaneous.” One student said he did not like the idea of saying you would meet somebody say next week or tomorrow, and in the old days (without text messaging) one would actually have to be where one said one would be. But today with the cell, one could text and say, I won’t be there, and can we meet at another time or place. But then one student said, yea, this was true, but as it worked out in practice, what with people changing plans all the time, nobody ever seemed to meet up with anybody else, as if they were all sort of moving from one potential meeting place to another all the time. I didn’t quite understand what he meant.

This is something I need to think about–though I don’t know how to exactly–since it would seem to have concrete material implications for the way people behave (and even something to do with a different sense of time) in the era of new communications. 

Got to Have It

In his The Big Picture, David Suzuki starts his chapter on the effects of consumer society on the environment, “The True Cost of Gadgets,” with:

Imagine if you decided to throw away your cell phone, close down your Facebook account, disconnect your high speed internet modem, unplug your satellite television receiver, put away your Blackberry, shut down your iPod, turn off your DVD player and abandon your HDTV. Friends might think you’ve lost it. Family members might suggest counseling. “What’s wrong?” they would want to know.

And you could tell them you’re leading a completely modern life, circa 1995.

Boy, does time fly. I was alive in 1995 and can almost remember it. Was I still using dial-up, and wasn’t the big telephone thing what sort of clever or unclever message one put on one’s answering machine. And I would get those big old VHS things at the local video store (there were lots of those and not just one Blockbuster) and stick them in my machine. I thought at the time that was pretty cool, and didn’t feel, since I didn’t know what was coming, that I was missing anything.

Were those the good old days or what?

I had my students–most of them born in 1989 or 90–write about this passage.

A few of them waxed nostalgic, saying it might have been nice to live in simpler times.

Why is the past always a simpler time?

I don’t remember 1995 as having been any simpler than now.

I got my first “Personal Computer” or “PC,” as it came to be known, in 1984. We had a friend who worked with IBM, and they had a family plan where an IBMer could sell a PC to a family member for half price. Our friend claimed we were family and so we got an IBM for half price. It was just a little box that sat on you desk, you put your monitor on top of that tin box, and the screen was green with a little drop down menu. I used word perfect and I don’t think I knew anything about Windows or Microsoft at that time.

At half price the damn thing cost 3500 dollars (in 1984 dollars). Hard to believe I would pay that much for anything back then. Hard to believe I had that much money to spare. I just had to have it.

As my students claim, a cell phone is not something you want or desire as opposed to something you need. No, you absolutely need it. 

H1N1 Again

I have lots of coughing students.

We all got an email from the administration:

We have received reports that Student Health is getting inundated with students who are ill with the flu in search of written excuses for missing class. Please remind all faculty, lecturers, and instructors in your department that Student Health does not have enough staff to provide any written excuses for ill students; all faculty and instructors have been asked to not require a written medical excuse until further notice.
Thank you for your immediate assistance with this situation.

I don’t know what H1N1 is exactly, if I mean it is worse than your normal flu. But it surely seems to be hitting more people at once. I have never received an email of this kind before…not in 30 years; of course 30 years ago there was no email.

Meanwhile on the soccer front, the soccer team had to cancel practice yesterday because 10 people on the team were going to a Dance Concert downtown required for Carol’s classes. Carol has two lecture classes in Dance with a total of around 700 students with no TAs to help her out and no secretarial support.

Below students in Carol’s classes do a “Victory Dance” (African in origin) after one of them scored a goal in a recent soccer contest.

victory dance.jpg

And for streaming video of this goal.