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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rattzlefrap: Beauty and Leadership

Rattzlefrap: Beauty and Leadership
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 578

I receive tweets from a few people associated with the North Carolina General Assembly. Representative Tricia Cotham sends tweets as she can, and I find them quite illuminating. Laura Leslie covers the GA for North Carolina Public Radio. Her tweets are a delight, especially when she's restraining her inner snark, and Laura can snark with the best, which is another reason to love her and her work. Ian Palmquist also sends tweets as he listens to debate regarding the issues on which he lobbys. Ian's tweets, like Laura's, are generally factual and objective. However, there occasionally arises the moment in which we can tell Ian is drowning in disbelief over what he's seeing and hearing. His key word, taken from Charlie Brown, is “Good Grief.”

What this means is that I'm ahead of the news at the end of the day. In addition, if we need to call senators or representatives, it can happen immediately. With Twitter and FaceBook, important information becomes viral within minutes of the initial post. What can be done with 140 characters is amazing.

Today was a busy day in the GA, as evidenced by the bazillion tweets on my phone as text messages. Two dozen arrived while I was eating lunch. During the middle of the afternoon, Laura sends a tweet saying that Miss USA is in the GA speaking. Cool, though I had to wonder what was the compelling reason for Miss USA to be consuming valuable time in the session, aside from the protracted adolescence of some in the assembly membership.

A few minutes later, this tweet appears from Laura.

#NCGA Dalton says "I like to think of [being Miss USA] as the ultimate leadership job for women across the country--a spokeswoman."

I read that single line a half-dozen times, thinking that I was missing something or that Laura had missed a stitch. I wasn't, she hadn't, and I retweeted before posting the line to my FaceBook status with slight edits for the different venue.

I was without words. Do I go out and stand in traffic? Do I pound my skull on a cement wall? I shared the line with people at work. Our dental coverage will rise after it pays for all the restorative surgery from the dropped jaws.

Now in case you missed some recent history, Miss USA is also Miss North Carolina USA. Her name is Kristen Dalton, and she is no stranger to the Miss USA title. Her mother held it in 1982, and her sister won the teen version (Miss North Carolina Teen USA) in 2008. Ms. Dalton is also well-educated, holding degrees in Psychology and Spanish from East Carolina University.

With all that preparation behind her, what possessed her to speak with such ignorance and stupidity? Has she received special training? Was she standing too closely to the representative from Wake County, and his skills in the area rubbed off?

Did Ms. Dalton miss the news this morning that the nominee for Souter's seat on the Supreme Court is a woman? Did Ms. Dalton miss the appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State, and that Hillary gave Obama fits during the campaign? Did Ms. Dalton not notice the new governor of her home state, and how long has a woman represented NC in the US Senate?

Yet, I suppose those achievements pale when compared to the duties of Miss USA.

Review of the Handbook of Constructionist Research

Review of the Handbook of Constructionist Research
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1741

A version of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology some time in the next year.

Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. Handbook of Constructionist Research. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2008, 822, $125.00, Hardcover.


Review

Yes, 822 pages, which is also 3.44 pounds, of scholarly reference book intended for academicians, researchers, and graduate students. Two editors and 51 contributors produced a compendium of 40 chapters in six sections that seek to define constructionist research as it currently stands. They have succeeded.

Physically, the book is imposing, and I have yet to meet someone who found the cover art attractive. The authors selected the cover art because they found it telling and congruent with something they call the constructionist mosaic. However, one does not purchase such a book for the pretty pictures. Such books are purchased because they provide a substantially complete description of the field at a given time, and this handbook is no exception.

The physical layout of the Handbook presented no surprise. I opened it quickly to get away from the cover art, and found myself facing a substantial amount of text, black, on white, not glossy, paper. The chapters are presented in double columns per page, and I found the column width in conjunction with the font, pitch, and leading working quite well with my eye scan as I read along. A very few tables and graphs appear in the text, and I found no color used anywhere.

The Handbook is not available in electronic (e.g., Kindle) format. Given the imposing size of the book, I see merit in an electronic version. However, I suspect electronic books have not yet penetrated constructionist research sufficiently to be economically viable, though other academic titles are appearing in electronic form. Regardless, this title is a natural for a reader such as the Kindle because of the paucity of pictures, graphs, charts, and tables. However, I suspect a single column format would be better on a ebook. (My understanding is that the publisher is moving rapidly to make electronic versions of traditional publications available.)

The tone of the writing is academic, which comes as no surprise. Chapter endnotes and references to previous works abound. Having a ready source of already aggregated underlying references should make the Handbook an important reference in your library.

The Handbook presents constructionist research in a developmental framework. Following a brief overview by the editors, we have two chapters regarding philosophical foundations, historical development, and defining issues. The following nine chapters review the use of constructionism across disciplines. The disciplines are wide ranging. Not only do we have education, sociology, and anthropology represented, but we also have nursing research, management and organization, and science and technology, along with several other fields. It is apparent that the editors spent much time and effort to present the use of constructionist methods in many areas, some perhaps unexpected.

The third section of the Handbook presents the scope of constructionist inquiry. The topics of the six chapters include Foucauldian, discursive, narrative, and interactional constructionism among several other topics. One chapter involved claimsmaking, culture, and the media with on-going references to social networking on the internet. I was intrigued to find a reference to YouTube on page 335 with a discussion of viral video web sites. The speed with which information spreads now is astounding. I receive tweets from the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly. By the time the evening news arrives, there is little news for me in the broadcast, leaving me to consider the reconstructionism of the televised news.

Similarly when bad weather is in our area, my network of weather geeks sends tweets that keep me ahead of the local weather news with all it's radar. Am I any better off? That's a hard call. However, I am better informed, though some might question the importance of that information. (I would point out that local weather news now uses those tweets as unsubstantiated sources of information during the broadcasts. The times they are a'changing.)

A common criticism of handbooks such as this one is that the writing, if not the subject matter, is too far removed from human existence to be particularly applicable to anyone or anything outside the small cadre of academic researchers who study and work in that rarefied setting. That criticism is not valid in this instance. In addition to the aforementioned viral video, consider pages 256 and 257 of chapter 13, Foucauldian Constructionism, in which we find a discussion of recent research in surveillance and how such surveillance promotes docility in the population. Now consider how many times you were recorded on a video surveillance camera during the last 24 hours. How many times did you object? Have you flown lately? What do you see in the TSA screening line? Docility.

The editors and authors have defined constructionist research as it stands now, and they have done so using not only the tried and staid examples we would expect but also with examples drawn from today's world. I found these examples valuable as I worked to apply what the authors were describing and teaching to the world in which I live.

The fourth section, Strategies and Techniques, is six chapters involving strategies and techniques of constructionist research. The intersections of constructionism and fields such as ethnographic fieldwork, grounded theory, discourse analysis, the research interview, autoethnography, and documents, texts, and archives form the nexus for each chapter.

In particular, chapter 24 discusses documents, texts, and archives. How do we locate the documents we need? How do we decid which documents we need? Are the documents accurate? How do we thread together the many viewpoints represented in the documents we have? These are all important questions. What I found missing from this chapter was the discussion of these questions in the context of today's availability of electronic information. Google seeks to provide an electronic copy of every book on the planet. Amazon seeks to sell electronic versions of every book it sells in paper. FaceBook, Bebo, MySpace, and Twitter provide searchable information, sorted by keywords, on every topic under public discussion.

For example, I just now (5:35 PM EDT on 25 May 2009) searched the twitterverse for uses of “constructionism,” and I found some two dozen recent tweets applicable to the discussions in this handbook. I am without doubt that the public availability of information by electronic means is going to affect constructionist research, and it will do so much sooner than later. It probably already has, and while the omission is certainly not a deal breaker in the positioning of this handbook, the omission does represent something with which someone in constructionism will contend, and do so shortly.

The fifth section is eight chapters in which the object of social construction is defined and reviewed. In particular, we have the construction of body, emotion, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, medical knowledge, therapy, and national history. What is of interest to me here is the discussion that reveals that the ostensibly simplest of concepts is often the product of social construction, and what we see as simplicity is really nothing more than a thin veneer that precludes us from seeing the underlying complexity, if not the elements of underlying constructions.

Chapter 27, Constructing Gender, begins with a wonderful quote from W. B. Yeats (1951), “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” I've always defined art as the interaction of the viewer and the painting, which is how I respond to Yeats regarding dance. I don't make the distinction between the dancer and the dance, and it's not dance until I see it. Yes, I really shouldn't offer to start another world war here. Regardless, this chapter makes it very clear that so many overtly simple concepts are anything but simple.

I manage many surveys in the run of a year. A very common demographic question to ask on these surveys is “What is your gender?” Sometimes, we use sex instead of gender. It's at this point that I turn to my focus group to ask what would be the acceptable responses. I get a puzzled look, and we invariably find ourselves using male and female, but in that brief moment, we have on the table that gender, or sex if you will, is not so simple as we generally think, and very few things are.

Chapter 28 exchanges gender for sex and sexuality, heading directly to the social construction of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) sexualities. (Later in the chapter, the acronym becomes LGBTQ, where the Q indicates Queer.) What I like in the framing of this chapter is the insistence that the study of a focal group is also the study of the reference group, and the chapter left me with additional framework for a question that has bothered me for a very long time, that question being why an expression of love in the one group produces an expression of hate in the other group.

As if sex, gender, and sexuality were not complicated enough, chapter 29 takes on race and ethnicity. If you've ever built a survey that included a question about race or ethnicity, you are likely aware of just how complicated the question is, especially once you penetrate the superficial veneer of skin color. Of course, the study of this chapter is not going to resolve your problems regarding how to ask the question and how to construct the responses, but it will leave you with a greater understanding of why people can become so hot and bothered once in a while. Yet again, our simple constructs fail to reflect rich diversity that is the human population.

The Handbook concludes with eight chapters regarding continuing challenges. (Think recommendations for further research in a journal article.) These chapters involve authors looking forward with particular questions in mind. Can constructionism be critical? Feminism and constructionism. You get the drift. I found these chapters interesting but not compelling. Be that as it may, I did find a certain comfort in the glide path provided by the final chapters. This handbook ends in a calm manner that is respectful to the reader. Again, it is readily apparent that the editors crafted this text from the beginning to the end with a definite design in mind.

References

Yeats, W.B. (1951). Among school children. In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (p. 214). New York: Macmillan.

Review of Outliers: The Story of Success

Review of Outliers: The Story of Success
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1006

An edited version of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology at some point in the next year.

Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. Somewhere: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008, 320, $27.99, Hardcover.


Review

A short while back, I was reading the Washington Post on a Kindle. Outliers was the object of a review, and I downloaded the book immediately. The Kindle edition cost $9.99, arrived a minute later, and added no discernible weight to my carry-on luggage. All in all, I made a good decision. This little book is well worth the few evenings you'll spend in the reading, and it'll lead you to the thinking you need to address a few nagging questions you've carried for a very long time. However, you do need to be discerning in your takeaways because the author picks convenient exemplars.

Have you ever wondered why it's Bill Gates and Microsoft? Surely, there were other geeks with equally good ideas, and we know other PC operating systems (e.g., TRS-DOS, CPM) were sufficiently equivalent to MS-DOS such that with some positioning they would have evolved into the operating system we would see on our machines today, but they didn't. Why? Probably, it's because of a series of events and decisions, which when considered independently were fairly insignificant, that left Microsoft poised to become the giant it is today. (Gates was programming in real time in 1968! I didn't get there until 1971. Yes, I had to wait until the crops were all in.)

To this end, the recurring theme in Outliers is that some decisions and rule structures have unintended consequences. The manner in which Canadian children engage hockey leads to the selection of professional players who are more likely to be born in the first months of the year. If you were born in December, you probably couldn't compete with the fellow born in January because of the early childhood development that makes a year's growth quite substantial when you're five. How many excellent hockey players have the Canadians missed because they don't have a second season?

What this means is that Outliers is not so much about outliers, at least not in the statistical sense. It's more about the sequence of minor events and decisions that sets in place a situation that favors one outcome over another, producing at some point an outlier, and it's right here that makes this book an important read for those who would be effective leaders. If you are a leader, you probably often find yourself working within a structure that might or might not be effective. More insidiously, the structure might have the appearance of effectiveness, but be self-limiting, and be so in ways that are not self-evident. Therein is your challenge as a leader.

Can you step back and ask the simple but hard questions. Why is it this way, and what are the consequences? Consider you find yourself working in an organization where face-to-face communications are valued and preferred nearly to the exclusion of other forms of communication. However, the work involves a great deal of travel, which precludes face-to-face communication on a daily basis. Although you know the value of personal communication among coworkers, you recognize that the work would be more streamlined if the people learned to take advantage of other forms of communication (e.g., phone, email, fax, text, IM). How do you bring about that change in communications such that the effectiveness of the organization is improved?

However, Gladwell's premise regarding the potential effect of otherwise minor events and decisions is not a new idea. Mart Twain visited this premise in his Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (p. 34) when he described Edward J. Billings, a tailor from Tennessee, whose ability with poetry exceeded that of both Homer and Shakespeare. Circumstance, however, precluded the world from ever knowing of Billings' work.

There are at least two caveats here. For one, Gladwell offers very little empirical evidence to support his suppositions. How would he? We would not permit such experimentation. Consider the ten-thousand-hour rule. Where did that come from? The general idea that a lot of practice makes us good at what we do works for me. The question is how much practice. For example, how much time would I need to practice the piano before people paid $100 a head to hear me play? I have no idea, but it does seem reasonable to think that with sufficient practice such a time would come. The question is would I live that long.

Secondly, you have to be content with a lot of inference. Gladwell makes the case for why our Asian colleagues are so good with math with a series of tenuous inferences. (Mind you, I work with a gifted artist, Asian, who considers herself poor with math.) In addition, you have to contend with cultural inference that suggests that a particular plane crash was the result of cultural learning that precluded an accurate and important exchange of information between pilots and air traffic controllers. Bear in mind that Gladwell makes sense as he presents these circumstances. My problem is that it's so easy to say yes, yes, and follow along.

This leaves us with the need to make careful and informed decisions. Gladwell offers no recipe. The advice he offers seems sound, and that is just the problem. So many things seem sound. Consider zero tolerance rules. They make perfect sense, at lest on the surface. Yet with implementation, we find ourselves with the Supreme Court considering the case of a young girl who was strip-searched at school for a tablet of OTC NSAID.

However, Gladwell's been around. He's seen more than most of us. We should take his advice with a substantial grain of salt, apply our own learnings, think with our dipsticks, Jimmy, and make decisions to move our organizations forward in the best manner we can identify.


References

Twain, M. (2000). Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven and Is Shakespeare Dead? Charleston, SC, USA: Booksurge Publishing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Solving the Gitmo Detainee Problem

Solving the Gitmo Detainee Problem
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word Count: 153

There appears to be a paucity of clear thinking regarding the detainees at Guantanamo. If we let them go, they might do something naughty. If we keep them without due process, are we any better than those we fight?

People, we've already answered the question. We have been worse than those we fight, and we need to step up and take a higher road.

Let those people go. Yes, they might foment retaliation one day. Frankly, I wouldn't blame them if they did, and even more frankly, we deserve it. However, the gospel truth is that they have friends who already are fomenting. Give the detainees a free one-way first class ticket to wherever they want to go, a pocket full of money, and let them do what they will.

Take away learning for the next time: Do not take prisoners.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sometimes I get lucky: A review of NEG UB2

Sometimes I get lucky: A review of NEG UB2
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1248

Occasionally I have a modest streak of luck. Nothing substantially life changing, mind you, just a little something to remind me that it's not a continual hell in which I dwell, though some days I wonder.

At some point last week, I posted a comment of decidedly double entendre on a blog post regarding the recent publication of Rick R. Reed's latest novella, NEG UB2, by the Amber Quill Press. A few days later, I received notification indicating I had won. Go figure. Shortly thereafter, I received an email with the file attached. The novella had been published in electronic format.

Here's my chance to test Amazon's ability to push a file to the Kindle. Rather than open the HTML file and export it in Word, I copied the text from the body of the email, and then pasted it to a Word screen, which I then saved. Yahoo! email occasionally replicates the contents of an attachment, placing it in the body of the email, which it did this time. I don't know why.

I'm moving fast for so early in the morning, and I did nothing to clean up the formatting of the text in the Word file. I just saved it, and emailed it to my Kindle address. Two minutes and fifteen cents later, the transformed file appeared on the Kindle, and I'm left wondering why anyone would ever bother to publish on paper again when electronic publishing is so trivial. The only anomaly I found was that the first screen on the Kindle version was blank. With a little effort, I could have fixed that, but I saw no reason because the second page picked up perfectly with the cover art.

I saved the novella for my Saturday afternoon at the lake where I intended to bake out some stress while losing myself in the reading, and that's exactly how it worked out.

NEG UB2 is shorthand for “I am HIV negative. You should be too.” This shorthand is commonly used in the messages posted on hook up sites such as the M4M pages on Craig's List. There are many more such sites, and there is very little the various state attorneys general will ever be able to do about that regardless of the press releases they produce. There's also many more shorthand expressions used on such sites. I'd list them here, but if you don't know them already, I doubt you're all that interested in knowing, and if you're really interested, you probably already know them all.

The story of NEG UB2 relates the fortnight following the afternoon in which a 40-something man receives the news from his doctor that his HIV blood test came back positive.

For those of you who do not live in this world, let me explain how this works. Last December, I had blood work done in preparation for my annual physical. Being an old fart and a bitter old queen, they check for a lot of stuff, not the least of which are sexually transmitted cooties.

Now, you sit and wait. You compartmentalize. You don't think about it. If you go down that path of what if, you're gonna be one useless individual for the duration. Yet, the knowing and not knowing take a toll, and very likely, few or none in your social network know why you're so jumpy.

At some point, the phone rings. My call goes to my cell phone because that's the only phone I have. I could also be anywhere doing anything when that call comes in. Last December, I was sitting on the couch writing a technical report, and yes, the caller ID tells me it's the doc's office. I answer with a cheerful voice, or so I hope I construct, and the technician introduces herself. The pleasantries are brief because time is money in her office. The structure of the next sentence will tell the tale. If she asks me to come in for a follow-up, I know the results are positive. If she gives me technical information, I know the results are negative.

Notice how I fixate on the HIV test, even though they did a dozen or more tests. Do I really care about the cholesterol, which is far more likely to kill me? Not one bit, and I might have some celebratory bacon with negative results.

The thing is that HIV is imminently treatable now, if you can afford the treatment, and if you're not the one in 10,000 who doesn't respond. The positive gentlemen whom I know live lives that exude more vitality in a day than I exude in a month. I often envy their life force. I suspect this up close and personal introduction to their own mortality pushes them to seize every moment while I noodle on whining about sore feet and cluster migraine headaches, the latter of which I have going right now.

How would I respond, especially when I know that a positive status is the result of three independent tests, which means that the likelihood of a false positive, while not zero, is too remote to consider? Knowing me, there would be a period of serious introspection. Oh yeah, I'd be off-planet for a while. Where did I screw up? We all know I have a demonstrated talent for screwing up. However, my sex life is on the order of Mother Teresa's, not Don Juan's, just like the lead character in the novella, and we know HIV is not transmitted by mosquitoes yet.

I would also be far more thoughtful at work. I won't say no more, but I will say far fewer outbursts. Why is that? That is because the health benefit just became worth $2000 a month. Then again, perhaps that brush with perceived mortality would only serve to make me more high strung.

NEG UB2 also discusses the unintentional offense that the term presents. I hear this often from my poz buds. They meet a man, and the relationship builds until it's time for more intimacy. These are all good men, and they feel they need to be truthful, which more often than not leads to the end of the relationship. Just last month, my shoulder was damp from the tears of a young man who had been rejected by his intended upon the revelation of his HIV status.

What goes around comes around, and I know that one day, sooner than later, that fellow who crushed my friend's heart will find his own comeuppance. It's just that a piece of me would like to deliver that comeuppance through an ax handle.

Finally, there is the stupidity of the request. The men using such sites are not likely to be much aware of any status they might have. You think you can look in the mirror and discern your HIV status? That one comes under the heading of flying pigs.

Reed has done it again, and I wish I had a hundredth of his facility with the language and story telling. For a couple or three hours, I was transported to a realm I know well, not because I've been there and done that, but because the author, by exquisite word choice and sublime sentence construction, took me by the hand and led me down the path, telling his story such that, for the afternoon, it became my own.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mama speaks her mind in Wendy's

Mama speaks her mind in Wendy's
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 905

So I'm working at home today to clear a few deliverables off my desk. Toward mid-morning, I text the bro to see if he's having lunch with Granny and Buck. He is, and he invites me to come along. That was my plan all along.

They were eating at 1, and I left at 11:30. It takes some 30 to 45 minutes to get back home, and I wanted to step into the Food Lion for some wine and flowers before going to the Wendy's. At 12:45, I was paying for the yellow roses with red tips, along with five liters of wine.

Bro and I walk across the parking lot from the Food Lion to the Wendy's. We stop by our cars. I don't know what he needed, but I needed to put the wine in the truck lest Granny see it, as the follow-on discussion would be unpleasant.

Walking on, we see that Granny's car is empty. They've already gone in. We step in, find them, and I hand the flowers to Granny who is coming to grips with our entrance. It's not like she inhales and exclaims her surprise anymore.

Bro takes his seat to eat what he didn't order. He wants a fish sandwich, but usually finds a burger of some sort. I am unexpected, which means I must step up to the counter. It's past lunch, and I don't have to wait long. Bear in mind that the Wendy's at Highway 210 and I-40 might be about the poorest Wendy's there is, at least in terms of timely service. However, today is a blessed exception, and I am grateful.

I get a tater, burger, and a drink, and head back to the table. Apparently, people are eating in silence. I loathe eating with family in silence. I loathe eating with anyone in silence. We do not gather JUST to share a meal. We gathered to eat together, and to also share some portions of our lives. Finally, we're talking a little about the weather. Well, that's a start. Yeah, I just split an infinitive. Get over it.

Bro announces a need to visit the facilities. He stays there a while. Granny begins to ask if I've seen him lately. I send Bro a text message to ask if he needs help. He responds that he's sick, but otherwise OK, and he'll be back in a minute. That minute was actually about ten minutes. Welcome to GST, Gay Standard Time, not that Granny would ever get that reference. Besides, I could come out to her daily, and it'd be new each time, but that would be cruel.

Somewhere along the way, the son of the man beside whom I sat when I sang in the church choir some three million years ago. Think late 60s and early 70s. The fellow is not a small man, and Granny exclaims that he's as big as all three of us put together. She's not far from wrong, but it's not really the kind of thing we say out loud, or at least within earshot of the person.

We wave as the gentleman enters the restaurant, steps into the line, and begins to order his food.

In a very few minutes with Bro still in the crapper, a man with his son appears. The son is a Down's child. They need lunch also. They have their food, and they're getting straws, napkins, and such when Granny announces that the boy is not all there. That, or he's not acting like it. She says this very out loud.

I'm thinking that some militant minority will be next, and I'm going to be fighting our way out of there. Meanwhile, Granny continues to hold the roses, yellow with red tips, very close. AT one time, they were close to her faves.

Finally, Bro returns. Granny tries to get him to finish her burger. The thing is that Buck ate her leftover burger. She's speaking of the burger Bro left when he dashed to the bathroom with an upset tum. He ate less than half. He also left some fries.

After the third mention of the burger from Granny, I say that I'll take care of the burger, and I wrap it up as though I plan to take it with me. It hits the trash as I'm on the way out later.

On the way out, Granny begins to wonder what to do with the flowers. Should Bro take them to Samo? Should I take them to the daughters? Yes, she used daughter in the plural. I suggest that she put them on her kitchen table. That seemed to work, and she took my arm as we walked back to the car. I am to call her and Buck if I have any trouble and need them.

I shake Buck's hand, thank him (for bringing Granny out), and I manage to get Granny into the Jeep with her flowers. She does not fasten her seat belt, and as they drive away without waving, I notice the belt is still unused.

Bro and I walk back to his truck where he has a couple of smokes. I stopped at the first of the year. If I have one, I'll have 60 before the day ends. We bemoan our loss of a mother, but this is how life goes.

We lose the ones we love, no matter what.

Review of Methods in Psychological Research

Review of Methods in Psychological Research
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1514

A revision of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology in late 2009.

Evans, Annabel N., & Rooney, Bryan F. Methods in Psychological Research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008, 387, $64.95, Paperback.

Review

This text was written for use with undergraduate psychology students in a research methods class. Students who have previously taken an introductory course or two in statistics will be happier, and likely more successful, than those who have not.

The authors developed this text from their accumulated lecture notes, responding to their personal discomfort with existing texts, which is a common reason for writing a text. The writing style and tone generally reflect the source from which the authors wrote. The text is written in a conversational tone, using the first person plural and second person singular frequently. The paragraphs are generally short, and I could easily imagine the voices of the authors as I read along.

However, there are some exceptions to the personal style and tone, especially regarding paragraph length, that left me lurching unexpectedly, while reading and otherwise playing the role of a student in the class. In these few instances, additional topic sentences were clearly available to break the long paragraph into several shorter pieces, and I found myself wondering what happened there. Nonetheless, those exceptions should not present any serious obstacles to students; the subject matter itself will take care of that.

The chapters are laid out in a developmental manner. Sections within the chapters are usually short and well indicated with various forms of bolding, shading, and indentation. The learning steps are small and predictable, especially if you’ve taught such a class. The use of color is limited to curious shades of a brown-orange (e.g., taupe, burnt umber, Hermes orange). The rest of the text is black print on white, but not glossy, paper. There is plenty of white space in which to record notes, a point particularly useful in a textbook.

Each chapter begins with a set of learning objectives and ends with a summary that follows the order of the learning objectives but that also includes some expansion and key word bolding that is reflective of the material presented in the chapter. Those who’re familiar with some forms of military training, if not basic educational theory, know this as (1) Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, (2) Tell’em, and (3) Tell’em what you told’em. Ausubel (1960) would be proud; the advance organizers are done well.

Embedded in the chapters are conceptual exercises and FYIs used to illustrate, illuminate, and expand the points being made. The conceptual exercises appear designed to promote discussion in the classroom, though in a few instances they call for a simple decision (e.g., appropriate statistical test). Suggested answers to these exercises are given at the chapter ends.

Some students will find these exercises useful. Other students, those probably not particularly ready for such a course, will find these questions maddening in that the answers are rarely pat. Instead, the answers are generally broad, and appropriately so, because the questions are generally broad, with multiple correct answers possible, depending on how one choose to frame the given problem. Regardless, these answers are written in a conversational tone and voice (e.g., beginning with “Hmmm”) that makes it clear that many equally valid solutions can exist.

The FYIs are used to present ancillary information that would likely be given as an aside in a lecture. For example, the FYI on page 30 presents notable exceptions to the supposed “no ads in journals” rule. On page 32, the FYI discusses, briefly, how statistical packages refer to independent variables. Personally, I found the FYIs interesting, as though the authors were whispering in my ear.

Included at the end of each chapter is an FAQ, along with exercises, projects, and references. The FAQs typically pose an overarching question that a student might ask in class, or that a teacher might wish a student would ask in class. For example, at the end of chapter four on page 93, the FAQ section begins with “Why do we need inferential statistics?” Occasionally, a chapter includes an appendix when additional ancillary information is necessary.

Frankly, some of the FAQs would make good questions for a PhD qualifying examination, though I would expect the PhD candidate to answer in more than a single paragraph. (They usually do so even when they shouldn’t.) Although it’s important for the candidate to exhibit master of whatever research area is involved, I have always found it equally important for the candidate to know that clear answers to simple questions are also important. More than once, I’ve watched measurement candidates give substantial pause when asked about the effect of addition and multiplication on the mean, variance, and standard deviation of a distribution. Yes, I’m evil that way.

The chapter exercises are exactly what you’d expect, that being the questions the student should be able to answer after covering the chapter. For example, the first question at the end of chapter 7 on page 156 is “What are the main reasons for doing experiments.” The second question at the end of chapter 12 on page 269 is “How are ethical concerns more salient in evaluation research?” There is very little that is surprising here.

I found it intriguing that the questions were usually open-ended, precluding the student from turning to a given page and copying the answer. If you’re prone to taking up homework and grading it, bear in mind that you’re going to have some substantial reading to do, and it is not likely to be interesting reading. I would probably post answers to the questions publically to avoid the ongoing weekly assessments, which are probably better left to the periodic examinations.

However, these students are undergraduates, and they often require frequent and focused feedback, if not physical threats by burly individuals. In my own classroom, I employed a “stand and deliver” technique, but without the standing, that not only motivated the students to be prepared but also gave them experience explaining a point and commenting on the points made by others. No, they did not like it, but it usually worked to their advantage, and their displeasure with being held publically accountable arose in the course evaluations, which the dean and I always considered and sometimes ignored.

The chapter projects can be pithy, and although I like them, their use as assignments is something I would consider judiciously because of (1) the time involved for students to complete such assignments, and (2) my time to assess the students’ work. For example, the chapter projects at the end of chapter 3 on page 75 involve the review of “ethics gone wrong.” A notable example is Milgram (1974), which has kept more than one reviewer occupied for a very long time.

Finally, if were I teaching this class, would I use this text? I don’t know the answer to that question because the decision would have to be predicated on the program in which I was teaching and the texts being used in preceding and following courses. However, I see nothing fundamentally wrong with this text. It covers all the requisite topics, it does so at a reasonable depth and breadth, and it is readily apparent that the authors have thought long and hard about teaching this material.

The text is obviously designed to be as engaging as possible to undergraduates as encountered today. For example, the first chapter on page 3 uses a hypothetical, but perfectly appropriate, example of dialogue regarding belief that is not supported by evidence. The dialogue begins with “Same sex couples do not make good parents.” Readers, that topic appeared on today’s (11 December 2008) CNN Headline News. The authors have gone out of their way to provide exemplars that are relevant to today’s undergraduates.

Of course, I do have some complaints. (I’m a psychometrician; what else might you expect?) For example, in chapter 5 on page 101, Likert scales (Likert, 1932), as though the plural were appropriate, are presented as a general polytomous form of measurement where the scale range is apparently unbounded. As a point in fact, Likert’s original work used a 5-point scale, which later became known as the Likert scale. All the other scales that we use so often are Likert-style, or Likert-type, scales.

However, this point and all the others I flagged as I made my way through the text are relatively minor in the grand scheme of undergraduate education in general and undergraduate psychology education in specific. The text is perfectly reasonable for it’s intended purpose. If the book fits your need and style, it’ll serve you quite well, at least until you can slow down and write your own.

References

Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.

Likert, Rensis. (1932). A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes, Archives of Psychology, 140, 1–55.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper and Row.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review of IM

Review of IM
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 566

IM, written by Rick R. Reed, was published by Quest in 2007. It is available in paperback (256 pages) at Amazon for $17.95. The Kindle version will set you back $4.79, and you'll have it in a single minute instead of waiting a week.

Trust me, you do not want to wait for this one.

However, be judicious regarding when you plan to start reading this title. You want to be sure you have no substantial responsibilities for the time it'll take you to read those 256 pages. That is because you are unlikely to put it down until you finish, and let me warn you now, the last 30 pages will leave you breathless with tears streaming. Have the tissues handy.

IM is the story of a serial killer in Chicago who specializes in the brutal murder of gay men who use a particular web site to arrange hook-ups. That is all I'm going to tell you about the story because it's a whodunit, and the more I tell you, the more I take from you the thrill of riding this roller coaster. Besides, there is no way I'm going to do Reed justice in my retelling of his tale. Do yourself a favor and hear it from the horse's mouth.

Although the story in and of itself is worth the price of admission, and it's telling is a study in how to do tell a story, neither was my real take-away from this compelling read. No, the story and it's telling were just the icing on the cake. The cake was the underlying analysis of the dysfunctionality in the gay community that makes it difficult to establish, and damned near impossible to maintain, loving relationships.

Mind you, I'm not sure this theme would be visible to the straight reader.

In particular, we have what I call the filters, which are the requirements one man places on the other men to exclude them from social contact. Too hairy. Too smooth. Too tall. Too fat. Not enough time in gay church, aka the gym. Style of clothing not quite on target. Check the M4M side of Craig's List, while it lasts, and see it for yourself. The list is freakin' endless, and it drives me ber-T-zerk! We pile on requirements for particular physical attributes until if there is an man who meets specifications, he's probably time zones away and unlikely to ever cross your shadow.

Is there any wonder we spend so much of our lives alone?

While presenting all this nonsense, and yes, he does snortle at it all, Reed asks the important question, doing so in a manner that left me processing the question in the background as I continued to race through his prose. And he knows the answer, just as I know the answer, just as every thinking gay man knows the answer, but he leaves it for you to find, which is the real genius lurking just under this delightful and rending story. You can miss it, and you'll still have your excellent read. You can catch it, and now you have your story, and you also have your take-away.

Why are we so screwed up, and how do we get over it? That's another question for another day, but IM and Reed are all over it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review of What Would Google Do

Review of What Would Google Do
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1433

An edited version of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology at some point in the next 12 months.

The object of this review is

Jarvis, J. What Would Google Do? New York, NY: Collins Business, Inc., 2009, 272, $26.99, Hardcover.


Review

OK, so I read a book review in the Washington Post. Jeff Jarvis, had written a book called What Would Google Do? The review was interesting, though I cannot now recall the citation in the Post, much less the reviewer. Or was it the Irish Times? The thing is, I read the Post on my Kindle, the eBook reader from Amazon, and because the review tripped a trigger in my old psychometric brain, I went to the Kindle bookstore, found the book, bought it with my 1-click, and started reading one minute later, my credit card some $14.84 lighter

Perhaps we have here a harbinger of what Jarvis describes in his book.

There is a paper version of the book, and that it exists seems to run counter to the thesis of the book, which we'll get to in a moment. One might wonder why Jarvis didn't just post the book to his blog, and let everyone link to it. I do not know the answer to this question, but I can hypothesize, and my guess is one of exposure. What Jarvis is presenting is ahead of the curve, so to speak. Perhaps in another generation, publication will be as simple as posting a book on a blog, and even though one could easily do that now, I'm not sure the electronic readership would be large enough to have the necessary effect.

I also doubt Google's AdSense would generate sufficient revenue to meet the author's needs, especially when compared to print media. This world just isn't there yet.

Two hours later, I realized I was reading a glimpse of the future.

What we have is a straightforward application of the question, “What would Google do?” applied to the less than straightforward thorn bush that is the corporate boardroom of the 21st century. A very few hours later in a fit of insomnia, I sent email to the CEO of the company that writes my biweekly paycheck that this book is a must-read if he ever wants our little company to step, rather than stumble, into it's future.

Here, a month later, I'm still on the payroll. Go figure. (I can also report that he bought the book directly after reading the email. He bought the paper copy, but he made the purchase online.)

The book opens with a sentence positing that apparently no company, agency, board, or individual knows how to survive and prosper in the Internet age except Google. Well, that's quite the supposition, as I thought myself to be doing quite well. Of course, I'm just me, and not many, if any, give a rat's behind about that. But the sun did rise this morning, as it's done for quite a few years without Google, so what is Jarvis talking about? I put down the Kindle for a glass of Chardonnay. It was a good move.

I also did that with From Good to Great, in which the opening sentence left me breathless. The rest of the book left me disappointed, and I hoped Jarvis wouldn't do that. He didn't.

After a few evenings' reading, I decided that Jarvis, as well as Google, has figured it out. The plan for the future in black and white, if not in black and gray for me, was directly in front of us. How many readers will rise to the occasion and grasp the opportunity before them? A few will, many will not, and an alarming number will do something they think is correct, but they will experience an epic fail, all the while wondering what happened. I suspect it'll require another generation, if not two, to cull the old-school-closed-door-meeting-I've-got-a-secret men from the ranks.

So just what does Jarvis say that Google would do? With some risk of over-simplification on my part, Jarvis says that Google, when presented with a problem simplifies, organizes, and makes it all transparent. Jarvis points out, without saying as much, that Google applies Occam's Razor when solving problems, the most direct evidence of Google's on-going pursuit of simplicity being the Google homepage, which stands as the model for a simultaneously utterly simple and completely appropriate design for the purpose.

From this simple homepage, people find information that Google previously organized and now reorganizes using information derived from search patterns to make the next search more successful. In addition, Google continually searches the Internet for new information. Just moments after I post a new entry on my blog at Blogspot.com, I can go to the Google homepage, search for my name and a keyword from the new post, and the first entry in the search results is usually the new post. We know Google owns Blogspot.com, but it simply astounds me that the post appears in search results within a matter of minutes.

Finally, Google simplifies and organizes with overarching transparency. It is no secret that Google scours the web continually, organizes what it finds, making it available for the next search request, and then reorganizes what it knows using analyses of search requests and any new information it finds. If you've posted something on FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, or any of the myriad other sites on the web, Google knows about it, has archived the information, and will offer it up to the next person who searches with the necessary keywords. It's likely prudent to perform such searches now and again just to stay abreast of what the rest of the world can learn about you.

The importance of a focus on organization and simplicity have long been self-evident to me and probably most others, though we often talk ourselves into more complicated solutions for the wrong reasons; it is transparency that fascinates me, and yes, I see this one equally important to organization and simplicity. We benefit tremendously from the enforcement of sunshine laws in government, and I have long held that corporate bodies would benefit as well.

Let's take a simplistic example: employee carping over salaries. I've never worked in an organization but what someone at some point would start complaining about money. During lunch a long time back, someone made the simple suggestion that such carping would end post haste if salary information were freely available. The simultaneous inhalations and follow-up gasps nearly destroyed the windows in the room.

However, the moment left me with a crystal-like clarity. With the public disclosure of salary, there would be no doubt regarding the inequities hypothesized to exist, and if the hypothesis were true, management would be motivated to make corrections, likely before the information became public. Similarly, if no inequities were found, the carping could move on to something more productive.

After making his case for what makes Google Google, Jarvis proceeds to consider a Googlier world. His word, not mine. If Google ran a newspaper, how would it work. Yes, Jarvis wrote this well before we started seeing the large newspaper companies in serious financial distress. (I do not know that Amazon with the Kindle will be the salvation of the newspaper industry, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoy getting up and knowing the paper is waiting for me. It's even better knowing that I won't have inky fingers or additional trash, much less that cold walk down the driveway.)

Jarvis continues with the speculation of how Google would manage some twenty enterprises, and although he does become somewhat tedious towards the bottom of the list (perhaps a dozen examples would have served the purpose better), his points are well-taken, and those who seek to lead organizations into a successful future would do well to reflect on the application of Google's model to their enterprises.

Will we see this Googlier world anytime soon? We will, at least in some manner, sooner than later. We already see elements of it before us. Remember, I read the book on a Kindle. Will all companies benefit from becoming Googlier? I think they would, in some manner and in some degree, though I do not believe many companies have the leadership necessary to evolve their Googliness. Taking that step towards simplicity and organization is one thing, but that step toward transparency is gonna be downright scary for a lot of existing management.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review of Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things

This post is the initial draft of a review that will be published in shortly in Personnel Psychology. The editted review will appear on pages 250 through 252 of Vol. 62, No. 1, Spring, 2009.

The object of the review is:

Hodock, Calvin L. Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things: Avoiding Eight Common Mistakes in New Product Development. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, 357, $25.95, Hardcover.


Review

This books sits on the shelf with the many others of it’s genre, including The Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen, 2003), Good to Great (Collins, 2001), and Blink (Gladwell, 2005), all of which seek to explain what’s wrong with American business and how to fix it, and doing so in about 300 pages of large font, lots of leading, and little substantive evidence. I’ve long thought that The Zombie Survival Guide (Brooks, 2003) contained more metaphor for professional development and business success than all the aforementioned books put together, the difference being the task of having to interpret the metaphor of the one and staying awake in the others while slogging through the endless elaboration of an already sufficient opening sentence such as “Good is the enemy of great” (Collins, 2001).

Nonetheless, this book makes an interesting read over a couple of afternoons at the beach. (Yes, I was able to put it down.) What held my attention the most was not so much the topic, but rather, the stroll through the garden of marketing success and failures, each framed by the author’s hypotheses gleaned through his work as a professor and business consultant. It was a source of fascination to me to see the history of successful products and their evolution, especially in the context of concurrent failed knock-offs and original developments that, while consuming the GNP of a small oil producing nation, resulted in career changes for those involved and the reduced tax liability, if not bankruptcy, of the sponsor.

To this end, Hodock provides a thoughtful review of the American market of the past three decades. Although I doubt he will be credited with the recreation of American enterprise, he does give a worthwhile history lesson regarding the foibles of product development and marketing. However, if even a few suits in positions of authority spend a cross-country flight reading this book and bring the learning to their work, there will be some happy investors out there. The challenge of those few will be to penetrate the miasma inherent in the leadership required to set the stage for a successful enterprise (McCauley & van Velsor, 2004).

The author organizes this book using what he has identified as the eight common mistakes associated with failed innovation. These are (1) marketing misjudgment, (2) position poisoning, (3) dead-on-arrival product, (4) competitive delusion, (5) defective marketing research, (6) fatality in frugality, (7) timetable tyranny, and (8) marketing dishonesty. A single chapter provides the opening framework for the eight chapters to follow, each of which focuses on a common mistake. Many examples are included in each, and some of the examples are threaded through the chapters. It was the examples of success and failures that intrigued me the most. The final four chapters provide a summary and suggestions for how to avoid the listed mistakes.

Although I found myself generally concurring with the conclusions of the author, my concurrence was more likely the result of the author’s presentation of material than it was any of any empirical or qualitative reasoning. Strong empirical evidence is sparse in this arena, and it is unlikely that any experimental framework could ever be applied to validate the author’s hypotheses. Instead, what we have is the author taking over twenty years of experience, applying the gleanings to business publications selected over nearly thirty years, and building a qualitative case to support his platform of eight planks that he feels should guide product development and marketing. With all that said, it is usually wise to listen to, and perhaps to learn from, someone like Hodock who has been there and done that.

I found in my reflections after reading this text two points that stood out above the others. Perhaps I stuck on these two points because of my personal experiences in academe, non-profit, and for-profit work. Perhaps these are the primary two points made in the text. I’ll likely never know, but other readers will agree, or more likely, find their own learning.

First, I was struck by the frequency with which companies engage a fallacious and pell-mell rush to a non-existent market with a faulty product. Were we able to tap even a fraction of the resources consumed in these bankrupting efforts, we could have reliable alternative energy sources and the distribution thereof early next week. Moreover, one does not have to look far to find new and creative examples of these fruitless and expensive endeavors. Use Google to search for business opportunities in China. At the time of this writing, such a search produced 7,410,000 hits. The apparent potential for business profit in China is seemingly endless, and it doesn’t take long to make the illusory case for untold riches in that delightful country. However, if you dig further into those 7.4 million hits, you’ll quickly discover that for every one foreign organization that found success in China, seeming countless others failed, and did so with alarming consequences for the mislead investors who bought into the pipedream of sudden and unending riches. Frankly, the ROI on the lottery is likely greater than the composite returns of such enterprises.

The second theme that stuck with me was the on-going misunderstanding of creativity, especially in American business, and this misunderstanding is not restricted to the corporate boardroom. Academe abounds with examples, such as the researcher who appears at the statistician’s office to get some creative statistical assistance to answer a question after the survey is complete, or the new course offering that seems so logical yet attracts so few students. I cannot count the number of afternoons that I have been called to an ad hoc gathering of management to provide creative insight into the solution of a thorny problem and to do so by the COB, all the while completing the other tasks already scheduled for the day.

Creativity doesn’t work that way unless Serendipity is having a very good day, and this point is clearly made in every book that shares the shelf with this one. Creativity doesn’t work 9-to-5, and it certainly doesn’t turn on like the office lights in the morning. Creativity comes in like the fog on little cat’s feet, as Sandburg described, or it leaps unsuspected from a dream, a shower, a walk around the block, or a double espresso. Without a dream and a glass of wine by a cold evening’s fire, we would be lacking the lucrative commercial enterprise based on DNA research. Creativity is slowly nurtured and developed, and the people involved in creative pursuits are not often overly attendant to matters of dress codes and work schedules. Many corporate endeavors make a big deal regarding their creative solutions, but very few that I have noticed do more than sponsor the development of a little glitz for old product. (My grandfather would mutter something about lipstick and pigs about now.)


References


Brooks, M. (2003). The Zombie Survival Guide. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Christensen, C. M. (2003). The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. New York: Harper Collins.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. New York: Harper Collins.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

McCauley, C. D. & van Velsor, E. (2004). The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Longest Mother's Day

The Longest Mother's Day
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1453

The Players: Mama (also known as Granny), Buck, Bro, Samo, and me. Samo is Bro's daughter. Buck is my step-dad.

Bro called me Saturday morning, yesterday. He had lunch with Mama and Buck Friday, but Mama had been somewhat addled, and Bro had not been able to confirm Sunday dinner, Mother's Day dinner, with Buck. Buck had asked that we not mention these plans in front of Mama because she somehow manages to remember them, and she becomes agitated the hours before as she's afraid she'll be late and make problems for everyone.

Bear in mind that Mama cannot carry on a conversation because she cannot remember the thread, unless of course the conversation is with people who died years, if not decades, ago.

Bro asked me to call Buck Saturday afternoon about the plans, and I did from the lake where I was letting the warmer than usual sun bake away a few worries while I read a murder mystery. I asked Buck if he thought it'd be better if we had dinner at their house or at Bro's. Buck didn't think it would matter, and I chose Bro's house. Bro lives in the house Mama built with Daddy, and when she returns, she seems to do better for a while, or so we've noticed, or at least hope we've noticed.

Sunday morning, the dread and guilt begin to grow. I need a solid day to recover from an hour I spend with Mama. The woman who brought me into this world, who loved me when no one else would, who represented a strength that I never questioned, now walks in darkness. When tragedy strikes, and a child dies, we often hear that there is nothing worse for a parent that to bury a child. I believe, and Bro concurs, that burying Mama would be a far less burden than seeing her as she now is, having to be reminded of her sons when they approach, lest she fear the strange man walking toward her.

Strap that thinking on for a while, and we'll talk about guilt.

Shortly before three, I receive two text messages, one from Samo, the other from Bro. Bro wants me to stop by the Food Lion where he works to get the flowers. Samo wants me to be there by 4:30 because she does not want to be alone with Buck and Granny. I am not sure why she's uncomfortable being alone with them, though I suspect it's her resident shyness coming through, not to mention the confusion that spins from the series of disjointed questions and statements that constitutes conversation with Granny. Regardless, Samo rose to the occasion and took care of her granny a year ago when Buck was hospitalized in the middle of the night.

Samo possesses a strength she does not yet recognize.

I left my apartment at three, and drove to the Smithfield's BBQ at the intersection of I-40 and Highway 42, also known as the Old Drug Store because of a business that stood there 100 years ago. Twenty years ago, this chunk of sand grew sassafras and mostly served to only hold the earth together. It had no intrinsic value except and perhaps on the opening of dove season. Now it's some of the hottest real estate in the area. It's also the least regulated, and the traffic patterns show it.

Fifteen minutes later, I depart with three pints each of BBQ, coleslaw, potato salad, and baked beans. I also have $52 less available on my credit card.

I drove to the Food Lion at the intersection of I-40 and Highway 210 to get flowers. However, the Food Lion was out of cut flowers, and the best we could do there were wilted hanging baskets. Salisbury should really have the peeps water the plants once in a while.

I wanted roses, and I drove back towards Garner to the Lowes. This store is a touch more upscale, and I hoped there would be some semblance of selection in the cut flowers section. There was a selection, but not one that included roses, and I wound up paying eight bucks for two bunches of lily-like flowers.

I made it to Bro's house at 4:30 on the dot, and Samo and I watched America's Next Top Model until Bro arrived home concurrently with Buck and Granny.

The gravel crunched under the Jeep and truck tires directly at 5. I went outside while Samo changed the TV channel to News 14. I had already cleared the path of cat food and other stuff. I approached the Jeep slowly to give Granny time to adjust. The strategy appeared to work. I helped her out of the car, got a hug and a kiss, and we all walked back to the house.

I need to be careful here. Hugging Granny is not what it was. I doubt she weighs 80 pounds now. If I hugged her as I wish I could, she would crumble.

Buck is full of a story regarding a wreck that occurred Friday morning. For over thirty minutes, we hear the endless details, and I do mean details without end, right down to the manner in which the car slide, spun, and came to rest in the pasture, as well as the height of the power wires over the road after the car clipped the pole. People drive too fast on that road, but we can't figure why they don't end up in the creek.

It's time to eat. The paper plates are passed out. Bro goes first, and retires to his desk in the living room. Samo tries to get Granny to go, but Granny just ate lunch some four hours earlier, and her tummy is full and hurting a bit. Granny takes a glass of ice water, retiring to the couch, and Samo fills her paper plate and heads to a recliner. That leaves me and Buck, and I defer to let Buck go before me. Buck retires to the couch by Granny. I retire to one of the recliners. We are arranged as we always are arranged.

Buck says grace, and we start to eat, except for Granny, each of us, except for Bro, holding the doubled paper plates, curved in our hands. Bro has his plates on the desk.

At this point, we could as easily eat in silence as in conversation. Generally, I prefer the conversation, which this time takes the form of Sham Wow and Slap Chop discussion, in addition to some chat about the weather. Samo mentions that everything costs $19.95 on TV.

Granny asks if I've seen Ina Ruth lately, and then mentions that she has not seen Ina in ages. Ina is my other mother, a designation adopted during the summers I spent more time working on their farm than I did living at home. I told Mama it had been about a month since I'd seen Ina.

Insert more chat about the weather. When Mama's present, you had better be prepared to managed multiple independent conversations.

About a minute later, Mama asks if I'd seen Ina Ruth lately, again telling me that it had been ages. I repeated my earlier response. Insert more conversation regarding the weather during which I opine that the Carolina News 14 guys have about about the most boring job in the world because we just don't often have 24/7's worth of news or weather.

Maybe during a hurricane it's better.

Shortly following the ever so brief discussion of recorded broadcasts, Mama asks me, oh yes, if I'd seen Ina Ruth lately, but this time she adds that she spoke with Ina just last week. I responded that it had been a long while since I saw Ina.

That all happened in under ten minutes.

After some 30 minutes, we are finished eating. Samo takes our plates, and then proceeds to clean up. Within 15 minutes, Mama is ready to go. It's getting late here at 6-ish. It takes about 30 more minutes to get Granny in the car. I get three goodbye hugs and kisses. Buck remembers additional details about the wreck that I must know.

Please remember that this might be Buck's only conversation with a sane mind this week.

Finally, they are gone. Bro and I dispatch Samo for beer. We need medicine. When she's gone, we scream in the yard, as Klingons over a dead warrior. We discuss possibilities. Buck dies first. Mama dies first.

Neither of us expect to see another Mother's day with Mama present.

Note: The first half of this post required 11 Kleenexes.

Parents against bad books in schools and the Bible

Parents against bad books in schools and the Bible
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1143

The other evening, I was searching for something with Google. I do not now recall what it was. Along the way, the website for an organization called Parents Against Bad Books In Schools (www.pabbis.com) appeared in my search results. Well, I'm against poor literature as much as the next reader, but I was pretty sure this group was not interested in providing well-written lit to students. They were more likely to be in the business of banning books from school classes and libraries because of content found to be objectionable, and after a brief look at the site, the latter proved true.

Probably every book ever written, at least of those worth reading, contains some material that someone will find objectionable. People object to Twain's portrayal of Jim. Catcher in the Rye routinely is cited as a problem. The Naked Ape, which was little more than an anthropological dissertation, was controversial because it discussed genitalia, right down to presenting the mean penis length, both flaccid and turgid, in the human population. The Sissy Duckling is 40 pages of wonderful reading for young children that finds itself a target of those who fear it promotes whatever the Homosexual Agenda is. Put And Tango Makes Three in the mix, and apoplexy will quickly become the norm response.

By the way, I have yet to receive my copy of the agenda. If you have a spare, please forward it to me.

The point is that as soon as a title made some hater group's banned list, I bought a copy. I wanted to know what the buzz was about, and I wanted to make my own decision. Interestingly, my parents never stopped me from reading such books, and I certainly never restricted what my own children could read. I can hear Lil's salty tongue now if I suggested she now read something she had chosen already.

PABBIS evaluates a book on several predictable dimensions, including (1) violence, (2) sex, (3) family life, (4) religious degradation, (5) foul language, (6) and a handful of other more minor points. Specific types of violence and sexual content are enumerated, and the evaluator is expected to quantify the degree of explicitness.

As I reflected on the formalization of such reviews designed explicitly to remove important writing from the lives of children, a rerun of a movie appeared on the science fiction channel. An important character in the movie was a young boy being home schooled by his working mother. In an early scene, the mother was telling the boy which chapters of the Bible to memorize that day.

This left me wondering how the Bible would fare in the PABBIS review.

It would fare poorly on violent and sexual content alone. Yet, I doubt anyone with PABBIS would ever suggest removing the Bible from the reach of children. I wouldn't either, no more than I'd remove the Torah, the Qur'an, or any other religious text, most of which, if not all, would very likely fail the PABBIS review.

It seems to me that rather than tell people, including children, what they may and may not read, study, and learn, we should consider a broader perspective, one in which children can learn to draw their own conclusions, and to do so on the basis of what they know, not what they have been told to believe.


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Here is the form PABBIS uses to evaluate a book before it is placed in a school's library. Use caution. This form is a bit licentious in places

SAMPLE BOOK REVIEW DOCUMENTATION FORM

Does the book contain any violent content? Y/N
If yes, check the type(s):
Fights
Beatings
War
Torture of people
Torture of animals
Hangings/executions
Other (describe)

For each type checked above indicate frequency of occurrences using following as a guide:
Few: 1 or 2 times
Some: 3 - 5 times
Many: more than 5 times

For each type checked above also indicate level of vividness/graphicness using the following as a general guide:
Basic (B): cut of his head
Graphic (G): cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor
Very graphic (VG): cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor, splattered on wall and head bounced on the floor
Extremely graphic (EG): cut off his head, blood gushed onto floor, splattered on wall and head bounced on the floor and his brains slowly oozed out onto the carpet in a purple gray mass

Does the book contain any sexual content? Y/N
If yes, check the type(s):
Kissing
Breast descriptions
Breast touching
Sex organ contact
Consensual
Non-consensual
Outside marriage
Within marriage
Sexual assault
Rape
Gang rape
Violence exciting someone sexually
Sadomasochist
Masturbation
Homosexual
Erections
Wet dreams
Bestiality
Pedophilia
Necrophilia
Oral sex
Anal sex
Other (describe)

For each type checked above indicate frequency of occurrences using following as a guide:
Few: 1 or 2 times
Some: 3 - 5 times
Many: more than 5 times

For each type checked above also indicate level of vividness/graphicness using the following as a general guide:
Basic (B): large breasts
Graphic (G): large, voluptuous bouncing breasts
Very graphic (VG):large, voluptuous bouncing breasts with hard nipples
Extremely graphic (EG): large, voluptuous bouncing breasts with hard nipples covered with glistening sweat and bite marks

Does the book contain any Family Life related content? Y/N
If yes describe any Family Life content not covered under sex or violence above (e.g. abortion, suicide, euthanasia, birth control, drugs, alcohol):

Does the book contain any religious degradation or slurs? Y/N
If yes provide brief description/summary:

Does the book contain any foul language? Y/N
If yes, provide summary of which words and frequency of use:

In addition to documenting the content, also document the regarding the book selection:
- What are the course/library objectives?
- Were any alternative books available and/or considered to achieve the course/library  objectives? If so, what were they?
-What sources were consulted in identifying potential alternative books to achieve the course/library objectives?
- If other books were available and/or considered why was this book selected and all other books rejected (censored)?
If less controversial books were considered and rejected (censored) explain why

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review of Bashed

Review of Bashed
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 617

I learned about Rick R. Reed on FaceBook. We were members of a writers' group, and we shared some friends. We still are and do. One day, FaceBook suggested I send him a friend request, and I did. He accepted. We are FaceBook friends. Do understand that I doubt I'd recognize him walking down the street, which is likely to never happen given there's a continent between us.

As a point of reference, Reed is often referred to as the gay Stephen King. I would rephrase that. King is the straight Reed. It works better for me that way.

Bashed was published by MLR Press in 2009, and it is available on Amazon for $13.49, as of this writing. I bought the Kindle edition for $4.79, and I have no regrets. However, I did not start reading one minute later as the ads suggest; I waited until I reached the lake. If you buy it in paper, there will be 212 pages, and you'll wait a few days to get it. I prefer electronic books because they weigh less, and it doesn't hurt that they're cheaper. The instant gratification doesn't hurt either.

Bashed is a very fast read, if you let it be. Had my schedule permitted, I would have finished it in a day. Instead, I finished it in two afternoons. This is not to suggest that Bashed is a trivial read. Oh, no, no. It's a compelling read. I found myself flipping the upper right corner of the Kindle to turn the page, which does not work. There is a button for that. In part, that's good testimony for the machine, but far more, it's tribute to Reed's ability to spin a web that transported me from a dreary reality through two afternoons. The man tells a good story.

Most gay people face hate-based violence at some point and in some manner. My last instance was the summer of 2008. There will be another all too soon. As Reed described the surroundings in Chicago, I found myself flashing back to my own parking lot. In my case, nothing happened other than I could not focus on work any further that afternoon. I also found myself remembering that I had walked the very street Reed described, and it gave me pause that I had never considered that haters would venture that deep into what is called Boy's Town. I can be so naive. Perhaps I will think twice the next time I seek dinner at my fave Mexican restaurant on Halsted, but I doubt it; the skirt steak there is too good to miss, and I like feeding the leftover chips to the sparrows on the street.

Bashed presents a story predicated on a horrific hate crime. From that single nexus that left me checking over my own shoulder, life continued, spinning threads of reality ostensibly unrelated, but in fact just loose, the intertwining not apparent to the richly multidimensional players on the stage. I found myself periodically pausing in the read, closing my eyes, and inhaling deeply to feel and absorb the scenes and characters.

Of course, the business with aluminum baseball bats is an entirely different matter that I'll leave for another day.

Will I read more of Reed's work? Oh, hell yeah! I downloaded two titles this morning. One is for my weekend recovery from food poisoning and sinus infection. The other is for another day when I'm feeling decadent, or at least indulgent. It is somewhat difficult to find good fiction in this genre, and now that I've found a source of decent story-telling, I intend to fill up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Naming Zooker

Naming Zooker
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 156

The following text is taken from my journal entry dated 09-Dec-1989. #1 Daughter was born in the previous August.

You have accumulated a large set of nicknames.

1.Zooker
2.Rosebud
3.Widdle Wiwwy
4.Pumpkin
5.Monkey
6.Muffin
7.Kitty Girl
8.Girl Squirrel
9.Squirrelly Girlie
10.Baby Doll
11.Baby Ness

I'm sure the list will grow. Your mom says that “Zooker” needs some explanation. When you were en utero, we followed your development in a book as well as a on a chart at the Birth Center. When we started, you were the size of a field pea, and we called you our little field pea. Then, it became Little One. Then a Cucumber, but not the burpless variety. Finally, we got to Zucchini, and that stuck. You never made it to our little watermelon.

Now, like it or not, you are the Zooker. So mote it be.

P.S. I like it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Working in tomorrow

Working in tomorrow
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1010

I frequently work at home. Being able to telecommute is good for both me and the company. I don't have to waste as much time driving, much less getting all pretty, and the company gets more for it's money. It took management a very long time to realize this important fact.

When I'm working at home, I tend to keep two or three emails systems and FaceBook open. All that mess is generally on three machines depending on exactly what I'm doing. I don't run FaceBook much when I'm in the office because doing so tends to attract unwanted attention. Management and IT have not yet figured out just how many competitors and clients are on the social networks, and it'll be another good while before they figure out about Twitter. They really need to get with the program, but they're just people too, and one day, they'll catch up.

However, I don't have Big Brother managing my home network, or so I hope, unless Google counts, which means one of my machines is running FaceBook in Firefox, and I check for FaceBook updates periodically. Peers and above at work wonder about that, and I have explained that my reason is simple. As a telecommuter, I can easily become separated from social interactions. More to the point, the people in a work place will simply forget about you when you're missing for a week or two.

With FaceBook open, I can remind people that I exist through status updates, wall posts, and the occasional private message. It is also not unusual to receive a “call me” note from work on FaceBook. It really interests me that FaceBook was chosen over email or the phone for such communications.

Most people are clueless about the importance of social interactions in the workplace, and in my case, many of my colleagues are unidimensional communicators in that they rely on a particular form of communication. Specifically, they require face-to-face dialog. Notice that I said “many.” I did not say “all.” Email is the close second, especially among the introverts and those who do not fear the data trail. Those who fear the data trail want verbal, not recorded, communications.

That was me about nine years ago. I was Mr. Email, and then I started working at the Center for Creative Leadership. During my personnel review at the end of my first year, my supervisor and I were discussing communicating with others, especially those people from whom we needed information and action. She said, “Jim, we have to be smarter.” Of course, my memory includes “...than they are.” However, she does not recall the conversation at all, and I'll edit the memory to the less egotistical form.

Her point was that we need to adjust our communication to match the preference of the other person. It took me a few years to see this point clearly, but she was spot on accurate...as usual. Some people, you just have to see in person, though these people will often speak on the phone. Others need email, if not a paper letter. I have one client who used faxes exclusively until six months ago when he switched to email. I have another who used Yahoo! IM to reach me until last year when we discovered we were both heavy text message users. I have one client that started using FaceBook for professional purposes just last month.

The thing is that I took Ellen's advice to heart. I work to learn how the other person wants to communicate, and then I reflect that, whatever it is. Bear in mind that it's not just the style of communication. Oh no, it's also the substance of the communication. Some people need to discuss the weather a few minutes before we get down to business. Others start the business discussion directly after a hello. Some want bullet points. Others want illuminated text. Some are only interested in demonstrable facts. Others want to know what I suspect. Once I know what they want, that's what they get, as best I can provide it.

So where does FaceBook fit in all this? FaceBook provides one more form of communication. It helps me remind the people back in the office that I still exist. A client just last night used FaceBook to lot me know a peep had arrived in DC safely. Last month, an account manager used FaceBook to tell me that I needed to call someone in California. Last week, a peep was facilitating a meeting and using FaceBook to ask me questions regarding what direction to take in the meeting.

All of those people knew both my cell phone number and my email address. Yet, they used FaceBook. Why? I suspect because (1) they were sure I'd receive the message faster, and (2) it was easier. They were wrong about the speed of delivery, but I do not know about the ease. However, what I enjoyed was watching my boss roll his eyes as I described these instances as though it were business as usual.

That's because it was business as usual. This world changes. We can change with it, or we can crash and burn. Notice how I skirted around Twitter earlier? I love me some Twitter. I receive live updates from the North Carolina General Assembly using Twitter. They arrive as text messages on my cell phone. Some of those tweets are from representatives. I hear it from the horse's mouth long before any news organization has a chance to report. Yesterday during a storm alert, the local news was reporting on tweets! A colleague complained that this was not news. What makes news and the source of news is changing, especially the definition of a news source, and it will likely change even more and in ways we cannot expect.

Folks, it is not yesterday. It's a little before tomorrow. We can deal with it, or we can be left behind. I, for one, choose to move forward.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Our necessary future

Our necessary future
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 378

The lead article in today's Washington Post is about the Obama administration's proposal to transform the financial aid program for higher education. This one is of equal, if not greater, importance to health care, the wars, and whatever else presents in the daily news. For my own part, I rank higher education, or more specifically, paying for higher education, the biggest problem of the bunch. Yes, I'm an egghead that way.

The Obama initiative changes the Pell Grant program to an entitlement program similar to Medicare and Social Security. We are in no position to waste the talent of our youth, especially as an effort to economize in our present. At one time, we led the world in education, and I suspect we still do, almost, and I've seen countless foreign students come here, seeking something they could not find at home.

While all this progresses at all due state speed, I watch a gifted young man pursue his dream. He wants to be a pilot. Not just any pilot, but the pilot, the one who flies the space shuttle, whatever that is when he is of age. I'm thinking an episode or two from Star Trek.

He needs $200,000 to pay for the basic education he needs. And to think I nearly choked over the $10,000 I owed when I graduated. Either way, it's a house mortgage for the either of us, the only difference being some 40 years.

There is the question of government or private interest in the loans. I see no question here. This is not place for investor greed. The important question here is how we posit the country, if not the world, for the future, and such is not a matter of who made what return last quarter.

I see no greater wrong for a state to commit than the destruction of a young man's dream. All he wants is to fly, and he agrees to do so in the defense of my ability to shop at Food Lion. In return, all he expects is a fair living, and let's understand that his plane could go down and end my world at a moment's notice.

Our future, his life, is worth our investment.

So many idiots; so little time

So many idiots; so little time
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 488

CNN HLN (could they pack more acronym in there?) broadcasts a tale of woe this evening. Today, we have wars in abundance, virulent flu engulfing the land, sales of dust masks to prevent the flu setting fashion trends in the naive and easily deceived, and the CNN staffers find this other thing. You can even get it on a t-shirt at the CNN web site. Why one would want such a thing is a whole nother matter.

What is this something that rolls my eyes this evening? About three years a couple of people were fired for talking smack about their employer on MySpace. Just now, the case regarding freedom of speech is making the courts and the news.

There are several things here that disturb me.

First, does no one consider any longer where that paycheck comes from? Yes, I love all my clients. Some in their coming, and some in their going. The thing is that all the clients contribute to my income, even those who worry me, and for that reason, even the difficult clients get their respect.

Yes, our bosses make some dumbass decisions. You would too, and probably with even greater dumbassedness were you elevated to the boss-position. That mountain from which our vision should be clearer is often shrouded by clouds. The people who study leadership call it the “miasma of leadership.” Did you eve stop to think why the president of this fair land has so many advisors?

The naughty comments were protected from general view by passwords. Password protected text is generally protected by federal privacy laws and freedom of speech. However, I'd guess that the fired people logged onto the bitch-and-moan site while at work. Folks, freedom of speech does not exist at work. Yes, that irritates me too.

Yet, these are the minor points. There's a far greater learning here, but it will likely be lost. I'm not convinced that, as humans, we can function well enough to seize such moments for what they are.

What if the bosses involved had taken a deep breath, maybe cussed a little, and then met with the people to find solutions for the problems that were motivating the pissing and moaning? It is unlikely that those problems existed in isolation. With a few notable exceptions, problems that lead to employee carping as described are systemic to an organization.

Such an approach would have left the organization strengthened and the employees with a vested interest in further success. If the problem-solving failed, the employees would have separated from the company, likely with less animosity. Instead, we have court costs, attorney fees, lost wages, lost productivity, and surely continued and less than pleasant press coverage on the national news.

The time for old school, paternalistic, paranoid management has passed us. We can be smarter than this.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Let me remove all doubt

Let me remove all doubt
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 176

Just in case some of you weren't quiet sure, let me go ahead and remove all doubt: I am an idiot.

It wasn't enough that I systematically administered food poisoning to my own self. Oh no. I had more talent to display. Oh yeah, I cut my tongue on a pair of nail clippers.

Now just how might one accomplish that, you might be wondering. Well, here you go.

I had used the clippers in the normal manner to remove a small piece of cuticle, and the little sliver of me stuck to the inside of the nipper. No, it wouldn't shake off, and I went to puff it away. While puffing, I apparently released the lever a little, and it started to pinch my upper lip. That motivated me to pinch on the lever a little, and that closed the nipper jaws.

Right through the tip of my tongue.

That was Monday night, and now you understand screaming you heard off in the distance.