Friday, October 30, 2009

Nearly Scary

(News-Herald, October 29) It’s that time again.
I don’t mean election time. This round of elections reeks of dullness. In Franklin most races were settled in primary season, except for the city council contest. We have two candidates running for three seats, which means the field is ripe for some sort of write-in campaign. I’m not sure if the seat is for a particular ward or an at-large, but I’m going to suggest we all write in “Christian Marshall” for councilman, because I think we could at least count on him to make council meetings more entertaining.
But, no. I mean that it’s Halloween time again.
There are lots of things not to like about Halloween, starting with its newfound role as the kick-off holiday for the Christmas season. When Tim Burton put Christmas and Halloween together for The Nightmare before Christmas, the result was one of the best movies ever. When retailers put creepy plastic skeletons next to fake Christmas tree displays, the result is just disturbing.
But for people-watching, Halloween can’t be beaten. Get a big vat of candy, sit on your porch, and the parade comes to you.
Incredibly Cute Children are the bread and butter of Halloween, and there is something pleasantly heartwarming about how they are usually part of a family field trip. I appreciate the ambition of families who spend the night piling in and out of the car after cruising for the next street filled with burning porch lights. And I’m always encouraged by the large number of parents who gently remind their children to practice basic courtesy. Most of the customers actually say, “Thank you.”
Of course, that’s only the customers who can actually speak. There’s something vaguely unethical about using around a trick-or-treater who can’t walk, talk or chew as a Halloween prop. I wait apprehensively for the year that someone comes carrying a stuffed or inflatable child as an excuse to gather sweets.
Halloween has lost a certain amount of its brand identity. Theoretically, it’s the holiday to be scary, but costumes both in the stores and on the streets don’t stick to the theme very closely. There are certainly many traditionalists who trot out the fake blood and creepy faces, but in many cases it takes extra effort to scan for scariness.
Small children generally stick with cuteness. Little boys dress up as super heroes, which is not at all scary, while little girls frequently turn themselves into princesses. The princess thing will eventually be scary to those super-heroes, but not for another couple of decades.
Grown men are encouraged to simply give in to our worst fashion instincts. Plenty of costumes look suspiciously like the clothes that many of us wore on purpose decades ago. I freely agree that lots of that is plenty scary, but somehow I can’t quite associate vampires with disco and tie-dyed vests.
Grown women—well, in the costume section of any store, you can see a certain pattern emerge as you walk down the aisle: sexy nurse, sexy maid, sexy raggedy ann, sexy nun, sexy grandma, sexy cable repairwoman, and sexy sexpot. Any character you can think of in the pop culture world exists in a “sexy” version for women; as God is my witness, a woman can buy a sexy Spongebob Squarepants costume this year if she wishes, and I have to admit—that is a little bit scary.
The tough costume demographic remains the teenaged crowd. Of course, many prefer the traditional ski-mask and dark clothes ensemble. (Question for grocery store managers—are more eggs sold just before Easter, or just before Halloween?) For those who hope to grab a little treat with their egg-flinging trickery, the choice is usually a little face paint plus A) something ugly, B) something torn, or C) the same sports jersey that you usually wear on game day.
Occasionally one finds teens who will commit to looking fully ridiculous, but most are torn by the tricky issue of trying to beg for treats while still maintaining their dignity. It’s a useful skill that many will need later in life; I suppose that’s a bit scary, too.
Perhaps Halloween has become a time to just sort of let loose and act a little silly. I can’t argue with that. It can be scary to get out of your box, but sometimes when you do the really scary things, you get the biggest rewards.
And that’s why I’ll be writing in “Christian Marshall” for city councilman in Franklin.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

PSSA, PVAAS and More Nifty Help from the State

(News-Herald, October 22) This week I was schooled by the state about more awesomeness that is Pennsylvania’s System of School Assessment (the PSSA tests). This latest big vat of coolaid was served up, ironically, in the Hemlock Room at IU6. When the state lowers itself to send consultants to instruct the poor hicks who toil in local school districts, there is always lots to learn.
For those of you still following the PSSA’s, we are down to the crunch. Remember, No Child Left Behind mandates that in four years, every single American school child will test above average. Since this is only slightly more likely than pigs flying out of Ed Rendell’s nose, the ever-benevolent state has leapt to the rescue with—more statistical tools!
The number crunching is called the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System. “Value Added” is a useful term from the manufacturing world. Simple explanation: If I take a ten cent piece of sheet metal and turn it into a two dollar widget, I’ve added a buck ninety’s worth of value.
What that principle has to do with testing or educating students is not clear, unless the state means to suggest that students are the same as sheet metal and widgets. I was prepared to argue that point, but it turns out that the state’s meaning is something else; words mean whatever they want them to. And I can call my bicycle a stealth bomber.
PVAAS uses a thousand points of data to project the test results for students. This is a highly complex model that three well-paid consultants could not clearly explain to seven college-educated adults, but there were lots of bars and graphs, so you know it’s really good. I searched for a comparison and first tried “sophisticated guess;” the consultant quickly corrected me—“sophisticated prediction.” I tried again—was it like a weather report, developed by comparing thousands of instances of similar conditions to predict the probability of what will happen next? Yes, I was told. That was exactly right. This makes me feel much better about PVAAS, because weather reports are the height of perfect prediction.
It was hard not to well up with that sort of sarcasm during the indoctrination. We were there to copy numbers from websites onto papers, as if the zillions of tax dollars had suddenly crumped out before the developers could add the capability of printing reports. The consultant veered between trying to bludgeon us with jargon-filled gobbledegook and patronizing us with explanations of words like “excelling” and “improving.” And assurances that if we just taught what the state wants us to, everything will be great.
The fallacy at the heart of the PSSA remains. A bunch of multiple choice questions are a lousy measure of the reading skills of live humans. (The PSSA, we were told, is not a standardized test. Okay. I’ll think about that while I pedal my stealth bomber to the store.) You can run numbers through statistical models all day, but if the numbers are near-meaningless to start with, a massage doesn’t improve them.
The intent of the state has not changed much since they first launched the PSSA’s—Harrisburg wants to write the curriculum for every district in the state. What has changed is their tone. Ten years ago they were still trying to gently con us; now their contempt for local districts is beginning to shine through. They are really tired of talking to all these yokels; they would just as soon simply roll right over us and whip us into shape.
So prepare next for the proposed Keystone Exams. Students currently in 7th grade may face ten exit exams in order to graduate. And because the state wants to wield a big hammer, the exams will count for a full third of students’ final grades.
The process remains a two-handed slap in teachers’ faces. On the one hand, we’re treated as if we are the problem and that schools need to be rescued from us by brave bureaucrats and consultants. On the other hand, we are pushed to do things that we know are professionally unsound. Imagine suits going into hospitals and telling doctors, “You are making all these people sick. Stop using pointy scalpels and start operating with shovels.” High stakes multiple choice tests are bad education.
And the final indignity is that after these sorts of sessions, one on one in the hall, many of these consultants will freely admit that they’re selling poisoned punch, but hey, they’re well paid and they’ve gotten used to the taste.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Bad Managers

(News-Herald, October 15) Show me a chronically bad employee, and I will show a big neon sign pointing toward a bad manager.
Please note—nothing that I’m about to say removes one iota of responsibility from employees. An employee who is not doing the job should be making improvements, not excuses.
But if I am looking at the big picture and I see an organization with employee performance problems, the blame lies with the managers in the system.
In the widget factory, managers are the guys who do not actually work on widgets. Managers are not in any way directly involved in the primary mission of the company, which is to manufacture widgets.
Instead, managers have one primary function, and that is to get the best very best performance out of the people who work for them. That’s their entire job. And the performance of their employees is the most important measure of whether they are good managers or not.
Most bad managers have forgotten this principle. It’s not that they choose bad methods to get the best work out of their people. It’s that they have forgotten that getting that best work is the manager’s job.
They believe, for instance, that effort is a measure of their own job performance. But if the dikes are collapsing, it’s pointless to claim that you plugged some of the holes and you were going to plug some more but it was difficult to figure out how and actually plugging those holes would have been hard. The fact that you tried as hard as you felt like trying is irrelevant when the waters are up around your armpits.
Management is like most jobs in that the job is not done when you’re tired of working; the job is done when you’ve achieved the results you need to achieve.
Many bad managers have their favorite techniques, Management by bullying. Management by email. Management by think-I’ll-hide-in-my-office-and-hope-it-goes-away. None of these get any useful results, other than to set up the moment when the bad manager tells his boss, “Hey, I managed the heck out of that situation. If it didn’t get any better, it must be a hopeless employee or sunspots or drugs in the water. It certainly isn’t my fault.”
This is a dumb career move for the bad manager. If he’s announcing that he can’t actually manage employees, which is in fact the very job he was hired to do, his boss should be wondering why the organization is still paying him. Well, unless his boss is also a bad manager.
Bad managers will also protest that their techniques of choice Should Have Worked. But “should have” means nothing. When your car stalls, you can kick the tires and kiss your St. Christopher medal, then get back behind the wheel and claim that the car “should be” running—but you will still be going nowhere.
There is no doubt that some employees are a challenge. Most come with some particular quirk that, under the wrong circumstances, can invite disaster and chaos. Getting the best possible work out of them can require skill, talent and diligence. And that’s why the widget plant managers get paid more than the widget builders.
If an employee needs help and direction, it’s the manager’s job to see that it’s provided. If the employee can’t be salvaged, it’s the manager’s job to replace the employee.
Of course, a manager who wants to replace employees because he doesn’t have the wit to manage them will not exactly inspire loyalty or optimism in the employees. That’s why it’s useful to have a variety of techniques with which to salvage problem employees.
An entire cluster of employee problems, hostility and poor performance is a sure sign that bad management is loose in the workplace. Part of insuring that you get the best work from your people is helping them work well together. Bad morale, infighting, and widespread non-performance are sure signs that a manager either can’t do his job or just doesn’t want to.
None of this excuses employee bad behavior. Every employee should be responsible enough to stay on track, behave himself, and do what he needs to do without being reminded. In a perfect world all employees would be self-directed professionals, responsible and selflessly working together to fulfill the organization’s purpose every hour of the day. And in that world the managers would all be out of work because there would be no use for them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What Do You Want

(News-Herald, October 8) It seems like the easiest thing in the world to know what you want. And yet the world is filled with people who aren’t certain, don’t know, can’t decide. Even when we tell ourselves that we know what we want, our actions can suggest that we don’t really know what we’re talking about.
The grown-up dating world, for instance, is filled with people who “really want to be in a relationship.” Except that if you watch their behavior, their choices, the way they spend their time, it becomes obvious there are a hundred things more important to them than finding a mate.
Or parents who say that they want their children to grow up strong and independent, but who don’t allow their children five minutes of independent thought or action in a week.
Sometimes people grab what they don’t want and hold tight, because if their hands were free, they would have to risk reaching for what they do want. They might fail. They might drop it. Full hands keep their hearts safe.
Successful people say they want something and then behave as if they actually mean it. The Secret of Success isn’t much more complicated than that. Most of the people who are muddled and just getting by have missed some part of that formula.
They may “want” something only because they think they are supposed to. Shortly after college graduation the landscape is littered with couples getting married because they’re pretty sure that’s what they’re supposed to do next. It does not occur to them that they may not WANT to get married. Or rather, it doesn’t occur to them at that point—it often comes up later.
Some people discover that behaving as if they actually want what they want is hard. It may require hard work. It may require giving up things that, supposedly, one wants less than the Big Goal. Goals cost, and if you want them you have to pay. “I want a Lexus and I want to pay $1.50,” is no use. “I want this person as long as I don’t have to give up these others,” doesn’t buy you a functional relationship.
Some people are way too vague about what they want. “I want a better life” doesn’t really give you direction. It could mean a higher paying job or better hair.
Sometimes people want things they can’t have. It’s positively un-American to say, but people have limits and those limits affect what they can accomplish. If your IQ is 50 and you want to become the world’s top rocket scientist, you are destined for disappointment. A shlumpy, middle-aged guy will never become an NBA starter.
Some people want things that can’t go together. Then they have to decide which they want most. This can lead to whiplash-inducing waffling. It’s not just confusion; met needs do not motivate. You can be really driven by hunger, until you eat. You’re at the beach and you want to sunbathe and you want to swim in the water. While you’re in the water, you’ll really want to go lie on the sand. While you’re lying on the sand, you’ll really want to go dash into the waves.
Sometimes what you want comes in an unexpected package; if you’re not clear and alert, you may miss it. You may even reject it because you don’t like the wrapper. That’s why you need to know what you want—so that you can recognize it no matter what shape it comes in. “I want chocolate,” you declare. But if you only recognize chocolate when it’s bar-shaped, you’ll miss a tasty chocolate bunny while gnawing on a chocolate-colored bar of soap.
In Venangoland, we find lots of people who say they want economic resurgence. And yet. Some of them don’t want it badly enough to actually do anything about it. Some of them want it to happen by a rebirth of industries that aren’t going to be reborn here or anywhere else. Some want the region to somehow get “better.” Some want the region to get what it needs as long as they don’t have to sacrifice anything they want.
Too many people are more concerned about the package and not the actual economic improvement. Pushing economic development around here would work better if folks really wanted it—without a long list of Only If’s attached. The rule for regional success is no different than that for personal success. Know what you want, and then act like you really want it.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Applefest '09

(News-Herald, October 1) This week I’d like to talk about a guaranteed path to true love and peace for all the people of the world.
Ha! Just kidding. The only thing I could possibly be writing about this week is the 473rd Applefest in Franklin. Crowds may not top one million, though a large turn-out is anticipated for the launch of a moon rocket containing the bones of Col. Drake, followed by the Beatles reunion concert.
Okay, still just kidding. Generally the only way to say something new about Applefest is to make stuff up. As a pretend journalist I’m certainly not above that, but I am reluctant to do so when 100,000 fact-checkers are expected. (Disclaimer: the above details were exaggerated for effect. The Beatles will not be at Applefest, as far as I know.)
Every Applefest brings small variations on past festivals, mild mutations that have allowed the original small celebration to evolve into a sprawling monstrosity in the same way that single-cell organisms eventually led to more complicated structures capable of sitting on a couch, eating pizza and hollering Jeopardy answers at the tv.
So, yes, there are some new wrinkles. There’s the wedding, some new musical offerings, probably some new tchotchke shops. But let’s be honest. If you wanted new things at Applefest, you’d start your festing by first visiting all the stuff you never got to last year.
Applefest is festival comfort food. There is something pleasant in the consistency. We look forward to the music, the pancake breakfast, the race, the show at the Barrow, the cars, our favorite shops, the carved stumps and the seashells painted with Jesus and Elvis—it’s so much like visiting with old friends that visiting with actual old friends seem perfectly suited to the occasion.
However, if you are a mildly wild soul looking to spice things up just a bit, let me offer some suggestions for new Applefestian adventure.
Franklin Pizza Challenge: Next to churches and bars, we have more pizza sellers than Dunkin’ has donut holes (and why can’t we have one of those again, huh?). So—can you eat pizza from every pizza place in town before the weekend is over? (Disclaimer: note that I asked “can you”—the question of whether you should is one I’m not going to raise. The moral, ethical and dietary issues of the pizza challenge are ones that every person can only answer for him/her-self.)
Create Marketing Ideas: The Chamber needs ways to market Applefest like I need hair ribbons. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good ideas out there. For instance, Pittsburgh folks might be interested to know that Applefest is going to be way more fun than the G-20 summit. No demonstrators terrorizing local businesses and citizens, no local police terrorizing demonstrators. “Applefest: No Tear Gas Here” may not seem like a natural slogan, but I bet once it’s on a few t-shirts it will grow on people.
Cell Phone Games: Years ago, I suggested cell phone tag. To play that game, you call your pursuer and give hints for finding you. Back then, cell phones were mostly for talking. Now, of course, cell phones can be used for texting, photographing, and performing minor surgery.
So, for modified cell phone tag:
Team I starts by picking a location and taking their picture there. The picture location can be easy (by the fountain) or hard (by the roof slates painted with pictures of fish). Send that picture to Team II, who now have to find the location and take their own picture there and send it. Then Team II picks a new location and sends a picture to Team I. Rinse and repeat until it’s time to eat another funnel cake (approximately 30 minutes). Time stamps on the phone and math skills will tell you who found the locations fastest. Winners pick the place to eat supper; losers buy.
Cell phone teams may also compete to collect the largest set of pictures of incredible Applefest sights, from the above-mentioned Jesus seas shells to a ferret on a leash. Each special sight can only be claimed once—first team to send a picture to other teams gets the point.
(Disclaimer: If you don’t know what I’ve been talking about for the last two paragraphs, you should not attempt to play these games. Instead, just move along the sidewalk at a leisurely pace and when you see someone using a cell phone, shake your head and mutter, “Kids these days!” Then go get some pizza.)

From my Flickr