Sunday, September 30, 2007

Top 10 Advantages of 8-track Tapes

I’m sitting here in my favorite coffee shop on a Sunday morning in downtown Indianapolis listening to my favorite music mix on my mp3 player. Right now, Michael Bublé is singing.

In my mind, I’m reminiscing about how I used to listen to my portable music. I’m remembering back to around 1970 when listening to music became important to me as a teenager. I wasn’t a typical teenager, at least not when it came to my taste in music. I appreciate the sounds of CCR, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Beatles far more today than I ever did back then.

At any rate, the portable music device of choice back then was the relatively high-tech 8-track tape player. But you had to have a vehicle if you wanted to listen to your favorite music away from home. It wasn’t like you could strap it around your neck.

The new-fangled music device was meant to eventually replace the venerable vinyl disk, but the technology lasted less than 10 years in its heyday. Stereo cassette tapes wiped them out in the early 1980s. Then cassettes were eventually relegated to history by CDs, as was the vinyl disk.

The iPod and other mp3 players might eventually consign the CD to oblivion. They have huge advantages over all previous music media, including the 8-track player. However, the 8-track player did have a few positive points worth considering, in case you’re still trying to decide on which technology to go with. Here is my top-10 list of advantages that 8-track players had over mp3 players:

10. Your 8-track player was not as easy to lose or misplace because you would know immediately if it wasn’t in your pocket, given its size.

9. If you are into opera, the 8-track tapes had a lot of built-in vibrato.

8. You could get some interesting sound effects from your 8-track simply by applying a little upward pressure on the tape while it was playing.

7. The tape inside an 8-track cassette had a cool shiny piece of aluminum foil that told the player when to switch tracks.

6. It was much easier to make up your mind what song to play, since the 8-track tape could hold only about 11 or 12 songs.

5. Most commercial 8-track tapes had at least one song that faded out at the end of one track and faded back in after it switched to the next track. That made it much more convenient in case you needed a bathroom break while listening.

4. If you had a large collection of music, you needed a huge 8-track tape case, which you could use to impress your friends by its sheer size.

3. The 8-track player was the first portable music device that let you listen to actual stereo in your car.

2. It permitted you to recycle your plastic Dairy Queen spoons, because you needed them to wedge underneath the tape while it was playing to prevent the other tracks from bleeding over.

And the number one advantage that 8-track players had over the modern mp3 player: None of them came with rap music.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What if We All Believed the Earth was Flat?

There is a group of several thousand people in the United States who are members of an organization knows as the Flat Earth Society. They believe what the organization’s name suggests, that the earth is not a sphere, but that the surface is actually coin-shaped.

According to flat earthers, the North Pole is at the center of this disk and a high ice-covered mountain range surrounds the disk at its edge. Beyond the edge is just space.

The sun and moon are balls that behave as spotlights located 3,000 miles up. Each is 32 miles in diameter. The stars are just lights that are situated 1,000 miles above the sun and moon. The sun and moon circle the disk of the earth at the equator, which is a circle situated halfway between the north poll and the edge of the earth.

Earthquakes and volcanoes occur because the earth is a very thick disk, much like a cylinder. And the sensation of gravity is caused by a constant acceleration of the earth upward.

This whole idea sounds silly to most rational humans. It could represent the setting of a science fiction story. It might seem logical to a child. It certainly sounded plausible to early humans prior to the invention of flight. But even Eratosthenes, 5,000 years BCE used geometry to prove that the earth was a sphere. And, contrary to popular myth, the sailors on board Christopher Columbus’ ships already knew the earth was not flat.

But the members of the Flat Earth Society are serious. They have answers to all the round-earth “proofs.” Most of their answers, however, involve unproven nonsensical beliefs and government conspiracies.

Okham’s razor is a principle that’s been around since the fourteenth century. It states that the simplest explanation for any phenomenon, and the one that requires the fewest assumptions, is usually the one that is correct. Flat earth reasoning flies in the face of this principle, requiring conspiracies and unknown forces of nature.

Yet people still believe it. Why?

There is no real reason why people would find a need to believe something as tremendously outrageous as a flat earth, except that it started out in the nineteenth century as a way to reconcile everyday observations with one interpretation of the bible. After all, how could Jesus have stood on a high mountaintop while the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the earth unless the earth were flat and coin-shaped? This is but one example of the bible alluding to a flat earth.

Thankfully, the Flat Earth Society is limited to a few thousand crazy zealots who have no political power. And, although they would love to have their so-called theory taught in public schools, their numbers fall far short of what it would take to lobby for it.

But what if their numbers grew to several million? In a hypothetical America where, say, 51 percent of Americans became flat-earth believers, science classes would be in trouble. After all, a majority does not the truth make, even if it happens to be a large majority. Hundreds of years ago, a large majority did believe the earth was flat. But they were wrong.

A recent Gallop poll showed that a slight majority of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.

We think of the ancient people who believed the earth to be flat as quaint and naive. In another thousand years, how quaint and naïve will we appear?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What Education Really Needs: Money

Back in the 1980s, during my first stint as a teacher, I remember watching a movie with Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch called “Teachers.” It wasn’t critically acclaimed, but I enjoyed the movie as I could relate to some of the characters, at least a little.

Most of the characters were caricatures. There was a teacher they simply called Ditto, because he continually hogged the copy machine. There was the obligatory jelly-spined whiner that couldn’t control his class. And there was the physical education coach whose hobby was getting students pregnant.

The movie was recently released on DVD so I felt compelled to watch it again. Although the movie reflected only a superficial resemblance to school life back in the ‘80s, I was struck by how much teaching has changed over the last two decades.

Back then, I could see how it might happen, despite the movie’s hyperbole. Today, it could easily be a satire.

My second career as a teacher began about four years ago. The students are different, because the environment is different. Instead of teaching average suburban kids in high school, I’m now teaching inner-city eighth graders. But I’ve taught eighth graders before, and there isn’t that much difference.

In the movie, the school is being sued by the parents of a student who graduated without the ability to read or write. He couldn’t even fill out a job application. The mentality of the administration, from the superintendent down to the assistant principal, was that the job of the school was to get as many kids through the system as possible, as quickly as possible, knowing full well that a good number of them would slip through the cracks.

The main goal of the administration was to appease the parents and keep any bad news out of the media. So instead of firing and prosecuting the perverted gym coach, they simply transferred him to a different school.

In the move, the education of the student body, if it occurred at all, was just a positive side effect of self-preservation.

Of course, today, schools and administrators are forced by the No Child Left behind Act into an opposite situation that may be just as detrimental to education. Theoretically, the kids come first with every decision made.

The unfortunate side effect of this policy, however, is that the vast majority of students who are most likely to benefit from a good education are being cheated by a mandatory focus on the underachievers and the incorrigible.

Schools are obliged by law to improve their students test scores and other indicators every year. It’s called Average Yearly Progress, or AYP. If a school fails at this for more than four years straight, the state can come in and take over the school. Schools try to avoid this as it could lead to a lot of jobs being lost.

But it is nearly impossible for some schools and school districts to meet AYP because there is no money to hire enough teachers, to fund needed programs, or to even buy enough basic supplies that teachers need, such as paper. Ditto, from the movie, couldn’t survive in today’s climate.

So, on the one hand, teachers are told they have to find ways to increase test scores and attendance. On the other hand, when a science class has 44 students on the roster in a classroom that was meant to hold 24, the learning environment becomes problematic at best.

If education really is a priority, as it should be, then the state and federal governments must make funding them a priority as well. Whatever it takes, more teachers must be hired to avoid the huge class sizes, science labs must be appropriately equipped, and the blame for poor test scores must be removed from the teachers, who are doing the best job they can under the circumstances, and placed where it belongs. The real blame is a severe lack of funding.

Some say throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. But if the money is used for the right stuff, I disagree with that assertion. Money, and lots of money, can make the biggest difference in the world. Just look at the success of schools that have it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Using Signs of the Weather

Weather is the condition of the atmosphere at a particular place and time. Lore is a traditional belief. From these two definitions, we get weather lore, which is a collection of proverbs and sayings that have been passed on from generation to generation over hundreds of years, generally in rhyme.

The purpose of weather lore was to instruct early farmers, sailors, herdsmen, and others on how to predict the weather. Its poetic nature made it easier to pass on to later generations. People who make their living outdoors depend on the weather. That has always been the case. Today, meteorologists make use of satellites, weather balloons, super computers, Doppler radar, and a complex communications network to produce reasonably accurate daily weather forecasts.

In earlier times, however, folks had to rely on other weather indicators to advise them on what kind of plans to make. Some of these indicators have a true correlation with factors that do affect the weather. Others have no relationship at all to the weather.

Many weather signs and sayings can really be used as a guide to how the weather is likely to develop 12 to 24 hours in the future. By making correct use of weather lore, you may find yourself with the ability to outguess the real weatherman with your own forecasts. At any rate, it may provide you with a greater appreciation of how the weather is interrelated with other elements of the natural environment.

An example of a saying that might hold some scientific validity concerns the house cat: “If the cat washes her face over the ear, it’s a sign the weather will be fine and clear.”

Cat fur can build up static electric charges when it gets very dry. During times of low humidity and fair weather, especially in the winter time when it is very dry, a cat may lick its fur in order to moisten it. Moist fur will shed electric charge and prevent static discharges, which annoy the cat.

Or consider this one: “When sounds travel far and wide, a stormy day will betide.” Sound travels better in air that is heavily laden with moisture than it does in dry air.

Of course some sayings make no scientific sense at all and if they do predict the weather it is only by accident. For example, many people repeat the old adage that the darker the woolly worm in the fall, the more severe the winter. But there is no scientific evidence that woolly worms know what the winter will bring.

Although weather lore can still be fun, and in some cases even accurate, knowledge of how weather works is much more reliable. Knowing, for instance that weather systems generally move from west to east is helpful if you know what the weather is like to your west.

That knowledge is easy to come by in this day of instant communication via the Internet. The Weather Underground site at is one of several sites that can show you what the weather is like anywhere. It even lists dozens of live outdoor cameras that ordinary people share over the Internet so you can actually see what is happening in any part of the country. I have my own weather camera listed.

I’m still afraid of severe weather, mostly high winds. But I know as long as I stay indoors, lightning is not likely to be a threat. So it’s only high winds that bother me now. The rest of the weather still fascinates me after all these years.

For an extensive list of weather sayings, visit SkyWatch: Signs of the Weather.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Just Two Foods and a Drink Please

Kids are really great at playing make believe. It’s sort of what they do. But even as adults some of us like to imagine various “what if” scenarios. One of my favorites concerns food.

No, it’s not imagining what if I could eat all I wanted of anything without any ill effects on my weight or health. That’s fun to imagine, but it doesn’t involve much thought. A better question that I sometimes ask friends and family is, “If you could pick only two foods and one drink to consume for the rest of your life, what would they be?”

Ok, first some ground rules: Water is not a food product and we will assume, for the purpose of this exercise, that water will always be available. Secondly, condiments are not food products. We can use whatever condiments we wish to dress up our chosen foods. And finally, a food product cannot be an aggregate of several different food products. For example, you cannot select lasagna as one of your chosen foods because lasagna consists of pasta, beef, cheese, and tomatoes. That’s four separate food products.

Now, when I ask people this fun question, I get lots of various answers. Most often, though, people tend to select the foods they like best. My daughter chose chocolate and pasta as her foods with Coke as her drink.

But remember, the game rules state that you must survive on your choices for the rest of your life. That means you should pick items that you’re not likely to get tired of too quickly, that you can prepare in a variety of ways, and most importantly, that will actually sustain your existence.

When I reminded my daughter that neither chocolate nor pasta had any significant vitamins and that she would likely develop scurvy in short order, she had to rethink her choices.

Many people love potatoes. Potatoes can be prepared in myriad different ways, so there is not as much chance you will tire of them over time. You can have baked potatoes, home fires, french fries, mashed, scalloped (but only if your other food choice is cheese and your drink choice is milk), or potato chips. But it’s doubtful you could get the entire spectrum of nutrients from potatoes alone. Still, it might be a good choice, depending on what you pick for your other food and drink.

Pasta is another possibility because, again, it can be prepared in a number of ways. But, like potatoes, pasta is nutrient poor. A lot of the world’s population relies on rice as a staple, so you might think rice would be a perfect choice. But that’s only if you eat the long-grained brown rice, since all of rice’s nutrients are in the husk.

I’ve thought about it, and personally, I’ve decided on two foods that I enjoy eating but can be prepared in numerous ways and are also likely to sustain me for a long time, along with my drink of choice.

The first food I would select is cheese. There are all kinds of cheeses and they can be prepared in a lot of different ways in combination with my second food choice. That second food choice is the egg. I love eggs and I love cheese. So I can make scrambled eggs with cheese, boiled eggs, omelets, pepper jack eggs, and so on. Eggs are perfect protein foods. Cheese has a lot of calcium for my bones and teeth. Eggs have a nice supply of omega-3 fatty acids.

But what about my vitamins? That’s where my drink choice comes in. I love vegetable juice. I would pick V8. It has lots of vitamins and anti-oxidants. Plus I love it.

I had no problem picking cheese as my first food choice, because cheese is one of my favorite foods. But my second choice was a toss up between eggs or fish. I like them both, and fish is probably healthier, but eggs are more versatile. So the scales tipped in the direction of the incredible, edible egg.

Thankfully, though, back in the real world, nobody has to make those choices. I can eat both eggs and fish. But it’s sometimes fun to imagine.