Saturday, October 28, 2006


The October 2 issue of Sports Illustrated included a column about Rauschenberg, who intends to run a marathon every weekend for a year. Rauschenberg currently lives in Arlington, VA-- he's a Titusville native and a Penn State grad, and he's continuing to work his day job during the week.

It's a quest that caught even the Ripley's staff's attention, and it will lead right back to Venangoland-- nobody anywhere had a marathon for him to enter at Christmastime, so he set up his own. The first annual Drake Well marathon will be run on December 23 and will be 105.5 laps of the THS track.

Registration info for that historic event, as well as further information about Rauschenberg's quest can be found here at his website .

Friday, October 27, 2006


(News-Herald, October 26) I used to get ear infections as a child. If you’re a member of the ear infection club, you know how awful they can be—a sort of unending icepick in the side of the head that never relents, and when you try to sleep starts to throb like a pounding toothache connected directly to your skull. I hated those a lot.
My ears haven’t been assaulted like that in decades, but a few weeks back the creeping crud invaded my ear and would not leave, not even for antibiotics. I was relieved that it didn’t hurt. But it did turn me temporarily mostly-deaf on one side.
Now, I don’t want to insult those people who have real, serious hearing issues by comparing some illness-induced impairment to true hearing loss. But my 9-10 days of audio dis-enhancement made me think about the real thing.
I’ve known a few hearing-impaired persons, and they’ve told me some of this. But as is often the case with these things, I heard it, but I didn’t really get it.
Short answer—hearing impairment stinks.
It is not, as some unimpaired hearers imagine, like having the volume turned down on the big stereo of life. Instead, someone is messing around with the tone knobs and the equalizer. Some sounds come through as clearly as ever, some are completely missing, and some come through in a garbled or muffled form.
In large groups, picking out voices is nearly hopeless. I was surprised to realize that if my mild hearing loss had turned out somehow to be permanent, I would definitely have started to avoid any kind of largish social gathering. And I’m not sure that I could have continued to teach.
Even one on one, listening was hard. Again—it’s not that the sound of the voice is just fainter, but instead it’s broken up, like words on a page where random letters and bits of letters have been erased. You can hear the talking. You can tell that there are words, sentences. You just can’t tell what they are. It’s like being in a country where they speak a foreign language.
You miss lots. You don’t always hear the little verbal cues that let you know what’s coming, that set up the context for the next statement. If you are not looking right at the person, you may miss the beginning of the whole business. You don’t just feel as if you have trouble hearing; you feel as if you’ve turned slightly stupid.
It’s funny how quickly you can feel cut off from things. Blind people look blind. Physical disabilities are clearly seen. But a hearing disability is invisible. No one can look at you and tell that you’re having trouble hearing. At best, you just look like you’re having trouble understanding.
It takes a lot of concentration, a lot of intense paying attention to follow what’s going on. I found several on-line articles that suggest that hard-of-hearing students can be mistaken for ADD. Didn’t hear my instructions? Weren’t you listening? Can’t you pay attention?? After just a week, I often felt the temptation to just nod and smile and make a wild guess what the person had just asked me (if it was, in fact, a question).
My Grandmother Binmore had hearing issues her whole life. When I was little she still had one of those hearing aids, about the size and shape of an old cigarette lighter. It hung around her neck, and when things weren’t working just right, it squealed. It was annoying and sometimes she would just turn it off. I wonder what it’s like to have to choose between cutting yourself off from the people around you or becoming an irritant to them.
We made deaf jokes in the family. “Oh, about quarter past three,” could be inserted randomly into the middle of any conversation. As she got older, the hearing aid technology improved, but she still needed a rig in her apartment to make the lamps flash when the phone rang.
My grandmother was always a little eccentric, given to random tangents. I wonder now how much her hearing issues were related to who she was. Don’t get me wrong—she was a loving, goodhearted, wonderful lady, and I wouldn’t have changed her for the world. But I do wonder what she would have been like with perfect hearing her whole life.
I’m lucky. The doctor gave me some swell drugs, and as I write this, my hearing is mostly back. They have days when people pretend to be blind or wheelchair bound to get a real feeling for how it changes the world. I’m thinking giving everyone a day with some earplugs might be a good exercise as well.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


(March 2002) Given all the furor over corporate finances and ethically impaired big businessmen, now seems a good time to revisit a man who, in many ways, may be the most important to ever come out of Venango County.
We all have a vague impression of a “trust” being some sort of Bad Thing, highly illegal, somehow related to monopolies. But the legal construct of a Trust was invented by Franklin native S C T Dodd.
His backwoodsman grandfather built his cabin 12 miles from the nearest neighbor; he didn’t want his garden disturbed by his neighbor’s chickens. SCT’s father was born in 1799 and eventually settled in Venango County, taking up carpentry. He served in the militia, was a school director, and helped found the Presbyterian Sunday School (with Rev. Timothy Alden, a founder of Allegheny College).
Samuel C. T. Dodd was born on February 20, 1836. He learned the printing trade early on, but also pursued formal education, graduating from Washington and Jefferson College with honors in 1857. He came back to Franklin, studied law with James K. Kerr, and joined the bar in 1859.
Dodd had a gift for writing; he was an amateur poet and participated in the framing of the Pennsylvania constitution in 1872, where he spoke against the collusion of oil and railroad companies.
When acting as lawyer for both sides in an 1878 dispute between refiners and the United Pipe Lines company, he learned that the pipeline company was secretly owned by Standard Oil. This led to his first meeting with John D. Rockefeller. “Do you often act for both sides in a case?” asked Rockefeller.
“Not often… but I am always ready to do so when both sides want an honest lawyer,” replied Dodd. Rockefeller hired him the following year.
Going to work for Standard Oil did not make Dodd any new friends in this county. But he made other new friends soon enough.
It was Dodd who figured out how to unite a wide web of businesses in a technically legal unit. The corporations themselves could not be combined. But if their stockholders handed their stocks over to trustees in return for trust shares, no law was broken. The Standard Oil trust agreement was set up January 2, 1882, creating a board of nine men who didn’t have the authority to sign contracts, hire or fire, but who in effect owned the complex of businesses worth $70 million dollars and controlling 90% of the entire oil business.
When this set-up was revealed six years later, Dodd was called on often to defend it, which he did in person and in print. The crux of his argument seems to have been that trusts were not bad because they did not squeeze the customers, but created a more efficient industry. He wrote that the men who possessed the great integrity and knowledge to be entrusted with great wealth of capital would be the first to realize “that the policy that succeeds is that which accords fair treatment to all.”
The Sherman Anti-trust Act passed in 1890 left Standard Oil shaken, but not hurt (and only made illegal trust-making a misdemeanor).
All of this would lead you to imagine SCT as a slick 19th century shark, but he was anything but. He’s described as “rotund,” “genial,” and “roly-poly.” In a memoir that he wrote for his descendants, he is charming and pleasant, and devotes considerable space to explaining his ideas about faith and God. In an 1874 address to the Presbyterian Sunday School, he shows flashes of humor, saying of his father, “He emigrated to Mercer County, Pa, some two months after [his birth]. It may be proper to state his parents accompanied him.”
After he moved to New York in 1881 (the same year Levi died) his neighbors presumed that he was rich. He was not. Despite Rockefeller’s insistence, he never accepted any Standard Oil stock or a seat on any Standard Oil board, saying that such a stake in the company might cloud his legal judgment. He reportedly made only around $25,000 annually for serving as chief counsel for the richest business in the country.
In his final months, Dodd suffered from “decay of the nerves”. He died in January of 1907. The Franklin newspaper spoke of his stainless character, unfailing generosity and pure and kind heart. Rockefeller later said, “A more just man never lived…He was a lovable, loyal man.” Dodd never lived to see the Supreme Court dismantle Standard Oil in 1911. In 1920, Standard Oil of California built a tanker named the SCT Dodd. All in all, not bad for a small town boy.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


(News-Herald, October 19) We’ve been hitting all sorts of demographic marks lately. First, we’ve apparently turned a family corner, with unmarried citizens now the slight majority over married folks.
That’s right. It’s now normal to be single. Pundits are already rushing to explain the causes and significance of this. Could be that aging boomer spouses are now dying and leaving widows and widowers behind. Could be that divorce is the most likely outcome of marriage. Could be that people simply choose not to get married again, or at all.
What does it mean to society? Hard to say. These milestones are often noted with breathless fanfare, but in fact they represent an arbitrary point chosen on a long steady slide. The unmarried have been gaining on the married for decades; it’s hard to know what it means that we’ve finally caught up.
There are folks who bemoan this shift, saying it somehow devalues marriage and marks a retreat from that traditional family value. They have a point, but at the same time, I think the new statistic actually gives marriage a little more value.
After all, there was a time when marriage was taken for granted. Of course everybody got married, and of course everybody stayed married. Well, maybe it’s better to view it as a real achievement, as something that not just any shmoe can fall into. If successful marriages are more rare, perhaps that will help us see them as more valuable. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Our other demographic milestone is even more significant. The numbers crunchers figure that this week, US population passes the 300 million mark.
The size of our increase is not quite so amazing as the speed.
Thomas Jefferson was the President of fewer American citizens than now live in the five boroughs of New York City. The nation only hit the 100 million mark around 1915. We hit 200 million in 1967. So for those of us who are middle-aged or older, there have been 100 million citizens added in our lifetime. If some of us live to a full, ripe old age, we will see the country’s population double in our own lifetime.
Of course, no one is really doing an exact head count—that’s just a statistical best guess. Statisticians say we have a new birth every seven seconds and a death every thirteen. On top of that, another immigrant enters the country every thirty-one seconds.
Some census bean counters estimate that about half of those 100 million American newbies are immigrants, legal or otherwise.
The population continues its big shift to the South and the West, which may explain why we haven’t seen a particularly large share of those 100 million newbies here in Venangoland. North Dakota is actually losing people.
There are good and bad parts to this shift. 100 million new citizens is a heck of a boost to the work force. Many other front-line nations (for example, Japan) are showing no-growth or shrinking populations, and anticipate labor shortages in years ahead.
As our population ages and retires and demands their old-age benefits and social security and other goodies, we’re going to need plenty of wage-earning workers to help foot the bill.
At the same time, since many of the 100 million are immigrants with no elderly relatives here, the question of why young workers should be picking up the enormous boomer tab is liable to be a political hot potato. And the Southwest is facing enormous strain on resources as basic as clean water.
A recent report suggests that our own region has a demand for electricity that is running far ahead of production capacities. And while it has been common to complain about oil company greed over the past year, it’s worth noting that 100 million more people added in just thirty-nine years is a heck of a jump in the demand for transportation. Since the days of Henry Ford’s Model T, the population of the country has tripled.
The mushrooming of US population is one of the great undiscussed issues of our age, an issue that has direct impact on energy, health care, education, employment and the economic well-being of the country. Too bad our leaders are busy with partisan squabbling over senatorial misbehavior and finding ways to spin the crisis in Iraq. It’s nice to know that we are still an attractive destination to so many folks in the world. I just wish we had a better idea of what to do with them once they arrived.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


(News-Herald, October 12) So how should schools improve their teaching staffs?
Yes, there are some people who believe in a world where there are no bad teachers. Presumably this world is flat and balances on the back of a giant turtle. The world the rest of us live in includes bad teachers.
Fixing teachers and education is a growth industry lately. Any shlubb with an email address and a dream can hire himself out as an education consultant with solutions to peddle.
Some solutions aren’t going to happen. My dream solution is to have college teacher programs completely gutted, taken away from college professors, and run entirely by working classroom teachers. I’ve proposed teaching schools for educators modeled after teaching hospitals for doctors. And I would love to see bureaucrats, politicians, and armchair theoreticians have their fingers pried off the neck of the teaching profession. It’s never going to happen.
But hey—let’s set fantasy aside, and let me propose some steps that real school districts could actually take to improve the quality of their teaching staffs.
First, we could fire really bad teachers.
This is not impossible. It is difficult to fire ugly or obnoxious teachers. But flat-out bad ones—not impossible. Within the first few years, a new untenured teacher can be shown the door pretty easily. It is not in a district’s best interest to cut loose someone who has potential, but there are some people who make it abundantly clear early on that they have no business anywhere inside a school.
As for tenured teachers—well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on the whole tenure thing. But tenure protects teachers from arbitrary firing for any random complaint. Tenure doesn’t have to save a bad teacher’s job—it just forces administrators to do their homework. If someone’s doing an awful job, do your homework and can him.
But cutting the deadest wood is not a complete answer. There are people who salivate over the prospect of firing teachers, as if they can easily fill the jobs with one of the many Really Great Teachers just waiting to be hired.
But the fact is, there isn’t a school district in the region making any kind of concerted effort to recruit the best available teachers for their schools. Cranberry, for example, could use its newfound commercial tax base to make itself so attractive that the other districts would have to make do with hiring from among the leftovers. But they aren’t.
Currently, the biggest factor that decides the quality of a school’s teaching staff is simple dumb luck. We hope that a good candidate happens to be among the people who happen to apply for a job and that whoever does the hiring happens to spot that best person. Then we toss the new hire into a classroom and hope that she happens to fall in with some people who help her get off to a good start professionally. If our luck (and hers) holds out, somewhere down the road we end up with a pretty good teacher.
We can fix some of this. First, we need a job description. Everybody has a picture of a good teacher, but everybody’s picture is different. It will take time, but at some point, a selected group of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and citizens should sit down and come up with a job description, so that every teacher can be told, clearly, “This what we expect from you.”
Then, beyond the usual vague official evaluation form that all teachers get, teachers could also be measured against what the district says it wants. This could provide the information that a good job evaluation is supposed to provide, namely an answer to the question “How am I doing?”
But you don’t just provide the information. You provide help meeting the expectations. The state requires districts to provide mentors, but only for the first year of a teacher’s career. Mentoring needs to be longer, and the type of mentoring needs to be tied to how well the teacher is doing. Some will need assistance; some will need remediation. If the remedial attempt to meet the district’s expectations fails, well, there’s now a well-documented reason to replace that teacher.
Yes, there are wonderful teachers and horrible teachers. But, particularly in the first five-to-seven years of a career, there’s mostly lots of pretty good teachers trying to find their way. Districts need to provide fledgling teachers with the tools to become really good, and not just cast them loose and hope for good luck. The bonus to the district is a better teaching staff; the bonus to teachers is a better career.
I can show you how to do it. I have a dream. Just contact me at the email below.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


(News-Herald, October 5)By the end of today, the Applefestian onslaught will be under way once again. As I write this on Tuesday evening, is predicting perfect Applefest weather—a bunch of sunshine and temperatures around 60 degrees (warm enough for comfort, cool enough to discourage bees). That means at least fifty bajillion people will be descending upon us shortly.
This will be the cue for many Venangoland residents to run for cover. There may be a good niche market opportunity there—Two Mile Run Park-like Area could offer an anti-applefest where folks get to drink a cup of coffee and read the paper in complete peace and quiet.
I can appreciate their reluctance to dip their toes in the apple-saturated ocean. I am not a big fan of crowds, hubbub, and congestion. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve bought a single tchotke or piece of “primitive” art or a doorknob hand-carved out of an abandoned barn in, well, ever.
Still, Applefest is kind of like a big box of chocolates.
It’s an opportunity for all sorts of pleasant surprises. If you’re driving, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to find a convenient parking place (“convenient” defined for Applefest purposes as “within a mile of the court house”). It is a measure of the Marketing Power of Applefest that downtown churches and businesses can enjoy an Applefest windfall selling space. Just space.
The cherry nougat of Applefest chocolates (I love the cherry nougat) is human surprises. At Applefest you can find all manner of interesting human life forms. First, the tourists. For every Bubba who ever gawked at a real tall building in the big city, there’s some urban hick at Applefest betraying his reverse rube-ness (“Look, Martha! They have actual trees here, right in the town, and I do believe those leaves are changing colors. Right in town!!”) True, some of them can be a bit too clueless (What—they don’t have one-way signs or no parking zones in Pittsburgh?!), but they are kind of cute nonetheless.
The best of the human surprise elements, at least for natives, are the familiar faces. Applefest is the de facto Homecoming for Franklin. Not only do folks come back, but they bring friends along to show off the old homestead. My daughter plans to coax some folks here from Penn State; one former student once brought along most of the Case-Western swim team. I have never spent time at the fest without running into someone I haven’t seen in a while. It can be frustrating, because there’s rarely enough time for a long conversation, but it’s still nice to see folks. And as someone who’s settled here, it’s nice to know that they like the place well enough to show it off.
Of course, not everything in the box of chocolates is a pleasant surprise. I feel both admiration and irritation for those people who, no matter how large the crowd, can behave as if they are the only people in the room, on the sidewalk, or in the park.
When I win the lottery, I’m going to buy a giant dirigible and float it over Applefest. Any time someone stops in the middle of the walkway to just sort of chat, do their hair, or contemplate the meaning of life, I will drop a giant claw (like the ones in those win-a-stuffed-doll machines), grab up the offending pedestrian, and transport them over to the 11th Street playground to start over.
And of course Applefest is like a box of chocolates because both make you fat. Just follow these dietary principles and you should be fine.
- Food has fewer calories if you eat it standing up. Calories can then pass straight through your body into the ground. If you sit down, the calories get stuck at the bend—hence the tendency of fat to gather at the rearal region.
- Food has fewer calories if you eat it with your hands. Metal utensils actually draw free-roaming calories out of the air and inject it into the food. Plastic doesn’t attract quite as many calories, but bare hands are best.
- Snacks have fewer calories than actual meals. An entrĂ©e by itself is not a meal; it’s just a snack. If you eat a dessert but not right after a main course, it’s not dessert; it’s just a snack.
- When you break food into pieces, the calories run out of the open parts. Eat all the funnel cake you want.
Note: These principles will only help with Applefest weight gain by allowing you to stay in denial till Monday. Until then, enjoy the weekend, whether you come to Franklin or just stay home with your own box of chocolates.

From my Flickr