Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Formation of Elite Public Schools

Recent polls show that one in four Americans can name all five animated Simpson family members and more than half of all Americans can name at least two Simpsons, while fewer than one in 1,000 can name all five Freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment. Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five Freedoms (usually Freedom of Speech). One in five Americans thought that the right to own a pet was protected, and 38% thought that the right against self-incrimination (commonly known as “Taking the Fifth”) was part of the First Amendment (That’s like answering “What color was General Washington’s white horse?” incorrectly!) Only 20% of Americans know how many Senators there are, only 25% know how long the term of a Senator is, and only 40% can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of all Americans know who dropped the first nuclear weapon in war. Only 35% know that Congress can override a Presidential veto. Half of the people believe the President can suspend the Constitution, and 60% believe he can appoint judges to the federal courts without Senate approval.

In a recent simple test of general knowledge, only 5% of Americans could answer three-fourths of the questions on economics, 11% on the questions of domestic issues, 14% on foreign affairs, and only 10% on questions of geography.

In addition, one in five Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, one in four believe in astrology, 27% believe in reincarnation and are convinced they were once another person, 28% believe in witches, 40% believe in ghosts, one-third believe in UFOs, 2% of women and 6% of men believe in vampires (that’s about 12 million people!)

The county is in a major discriminatory mode against high quality education. Karl Rove, the voice of the Republican party, criticizes Barack Obama as an elitist, presumably becuase Obama is a Harvard law grad. This negative thinking has percolated through the entire country over the recent past. My favorite statistic, which depresses the hell out of me, is that 46% of our citizens do not understand the concept of evolution sufficiently to properly evalute its role in our very being. Without trying to appear uppity, lack of an understanding of evolution means, quite simply, that such a person can never attain any type of scientific expertise sufficient to function in modern society. The fallout from this ignorance is horrific. The United States faces a crisis in public education at the present. Recent information suggests that public education has stagnated for the last thirty years and is failing to develop sufficient quantities of highly, or perhaps better put, sufficiently educated youngsters to allow the United States to compete in the international scene against other countries that have promoted education and learning as major goals. Perhaps the best example is the influx of foreign doctors into our society. The opportunity for bright American kids to become doctors has been so severely limited that we import sufficient talent to maintaining a somewhat questionable level of medical care. The same mechanism is applicable throughout the American economy although less visible than with medicine. Note that my issue here is not education for all, but education for those within the system that demonstrate particular enthusiasm and talent and brains for advanced work. There is merit in developing an educational system that allows those at the bottom of the educable ladder to obtain a good education, but it is important to state that there is nothing more damaging that providing mediocre, standardized learning opportunities to truly gifted kids who fall by the wayside as a result of the sheer boredom of their schooling experience.

There is a high school in the inner city of Detroit which has churned out leading artists, entertainers and young scientists for decades with nary a thought that government is being discriminatory against individuals or groups of individuals by providing a few select students a high class, quality education. That school is Cass Technical High School. Cass Tech serves as an excellent example of how and why this should be done. Kids that have the aptitude should be pushed to their limits in terms of education. They should not be kept in regular classrooms where the lowest common denominator-type thinking applies. It does a bright kid absolutely no good to sit through an educational experience where the only measure of success is whether or not 70% of the class can pass a remedial math quiz or read at an eighth grade level. Education in America has become only average. The major league baseball team that performs at the average level of the league finishes the season, by definition, in the middle of the pack. We need to establish specific schools, not just individual classes, which attract and support high performing kids to regain our status as the world's leader in innovation. We are on our way to becoming a second class society if we fail to do so.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Abject Lesson

This essay is entitled an abject lesson for a very good reason; the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. What has triggered this discourse is a quote from Gen. David Petraeus this week. He was asked by one of the media flock accompanying Obama on his mid east trip "Why aren't there more Democrats in the military?" Petraeus replied with a sly grin "There are more than you think." Reading this made my mind flash back to the 2002-2004 time frame during which time there was nary a person to be found who would admit to being against the war, or express alarm or concern about what was being done by our government in violation of our Constitution. Now that the cards are on the table, although most of them are not yet face up, with regard to the past few years, it does become an abject lesson for all American citizens to realize just how important the principles set forth in that Constitution must be restored if America is to regain its role as the moral barometer of the world's societies. The willingness of nearly the entire collective of our citizenry to keep quiet about the steady erosion of our system of values during this past few years offers the best case in point. Perhaps the most basic of our fundamental rights under our system of government is freedom of speech and expression. It is at all times utterly and distinctly American to stand up and be heard upon topics of importance to the preservation of our system of government. Yet in the first few years of this war, our 'leaders' characterized such efforts as unpatriotic, unAmerican and traitorous. Disssent is healthy and vitally important. The stifling of dissent is unpatriotic. The abject lesson here is to observe the near destruction of this fundamental principle under the guise of a phony 'war on terror' such as to turn our country into the equivalent of a banana republic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jeff - More From My Grandson

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beijing, China

Today is a red-letter day. Some days seem to go right? Days where five minutes before your alarm you lie wide awake in bed savoring the last moments of warm sheets. Days where friends call at the right times and dropped pies land right-side-up. Imagine one of those days lining up with your golden birthday, something that has about the same probability of Pluto not being a planet. That is how my day has gone. My Internet which has been out for two weeks today miraculously works, letters sent by friends were in my mailbox, emails poured in, happy birthday was sung in four languages.

On every birthday that I can remember my parents have spanned my door with a banner wishing me happy birthday; this year is no exception. My parents sent me a care package a few weeks ago containing a banner that I did not open until this morning to hang above my bed. It's almost as good as home. At lunch in the cafeteria I was asked to stand up and had Happy Birthday, in varying degrees of intelligibility, sung to me. My roommate is making dinner, and there are 10+ people that are going to eat and celebrate here. Chinese tradition is to eat long noodles as they are a metaphor of a long life. Dang, 21 sounds so old. After this, the next milestone is either the age where I can rent a car (varies by location) or 35, when I can run for president and take over the world's remaining old fields (if there are any left.)

Thank you to all of you that have made my birthday special.


The weather for the past week has been surprisingly auspicious, blue skies every day with a few scattered showers to make us second guess China's changing fortune. Is it coincidence or have they actually managed to control the weather? We shall see as we weather the last of the rainy season (terrible, I know) and the Olympics start.

It has also been hot, which does not bother me. The only complaint I have is a cultural one, I cannot acclimate to drinking boiling-hot tea in non-air-conditioned restaurants when outside it is over 90ºF. Sorry China. Pop (soda(-pop)) always has tasted so good after being outside on a hot day, but the pop here is not the same as in its birthplace. Take a two-liter of warm soda and shake it viciously until you are sure it will explode, open it and leave it out for a week. Then re-carbonate it. That is what the pop here tastes like, old, warm and re-carbonated. How hard could it be to make the same product? Their TANG though, is a masterpiece, sugary, cold, and thirst-quenching, it never disappoints.

I'm hungry, so this all seems to return to the food theme: I have fallen into a routine when it comes to eating. I have fallen in love with two more foods, wanzi, (fried meatballs with green peppers and garlic) and fried, canned dace, a small fish similar to a sardine. There is a small restaurant around the corner that has wanzi for 4 dollars, and every time I go I order them. The waitress now knows my preferences, and all I have to do is sit down and she knows what I will order. As for the fried dace, they have taken it off the shelves in the US because of some cancer causing substance that is found within its tin confines; I believe that contraband substance to be the most delicious flavor in the world. I don't believe in mercury poisoning.

The subway is a good hike away, so after a long day of exploring the city, I often take the subway back only to have a 20+ minute walk ahead of me. To make it more bearable (I have to justify my greedy consumer streak somehow) I have made a habit of buying 2 lamb kabobs and a mango ice bubble tea which I eat at a small-dog walking park a few minutes from my school. Total cost: $1.32.

Last Saturday I went to the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It's right in the middle of the city, behind Tienanmen Square. It housed the emperors if its time with 3000 of his servants and concubines, and was where he held important meetings etc. The bricks under the city, in order to prevent people from digging in are interlocking and 15 layers thick. It is surrounded by tall walls, and the emperor's sleeping quarters have multiple beds so the would-be assassin would not know where to strike. Nine was considered lucky so the palace has 9999.5 rooms (a room has 4 pillars, ½ of a room as 2), and the emperor had 72 concubines (7+2=9). The buildings are raised above the surrounding area, and were thus susceptible to lightning strikes. According to feng shui, placing water around the grounds would prevent fires. It didn't work, and many buildings have been rebuilt multiple times due to fire damage. Along the north gate stands the temple to the water God, the only building that has never caught fire.

I know this because we hired a guide. Total cost: 30 dollars split 6 ways for 2 hours of a private guide.

A short update today, but I have a birthday party I must attend.

Until next week,

Jeff Vredenburg

吴杰 (Wú Jié)


P.S. I have not posted pictures lately because I have not had Internet, now that it is back up I hope to get some pictures up soon.

P.P.S. The Chinese phrase for cramming (study method) is 填鸭式 , "tian ya shi" and translates as "force feeding duck style."

Fois gras or an A+, the world may never know.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sticking to Real Issues

A brouhaha has developed among a group of friends regarding the sending of e-mails the nature of which can only be said to be racist. This country needs more than a five cent cigar. It needs the infusion of young blood that can cut across barriers unconsciously erected in the minds of old white guys who have spent their entire lives hating anything and everything different. I recognize this hatred. It is the hatred of my father and his generation. It is the hatred that fueled my upbringing as a Protestant Irish kid living in a predominantly Italian and Polish Catholic neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. "Dago" and "Polock" as well as the "n" word were an established part of my vocabulary by the time I was ten years old. It is my opinion that all of this hatred was based on fear; fear of something different. Some of us have been unwilling, or unable, to let go of these fears, particularly when it comes to race.

Now the United States is at a historical moment. A black man is running for the office of the president of the United States. He is not only running for this office, but he is likely to be elected. It is no accident that Obama's campaign is led by the energy of young people who do not experience this fear, but this is a word of caution. There are real issues between John McCain and Barack Obama that should not be decided on simply because Obama is black. The blueprint of our society is constantly violated in a thousand different ways by older white guys in blue suits who will do anything to keep this black man from being elected. Karl Rove, the neo-nazi and apparently self-designated keeper of the white faith, has taken it upon himself to label Obama a "country club elitist" in a sinister attempt to plant seeds of discontent about the character of this man without overtly appealing to racism. If you don't think so, ask yourself why Rove doesn't stick to the issues which are real. This bunch of old white guys is used to doing this sort of thing. They did it to McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000 by intimating that McCain's black daughter was fathered by him in an illegitmate relationship. It is an old trial lawyer's maxim that if one throws enough mud, some of it will stick. I have written about a constant barrage of anti-black e-mails in past blogs and the intensity has increased as of late. The bottom line is this and is directed at young people. Keep at it. Don't surrender your enthusiasm. Change is good. Hating anything different without assessing the truth is just plain dumb.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It Is All About the Oil

It is all about the oil. There. I've said it, again. There are several things that have changed since the last time I said it, during the run up to the bombing of Iraq under the guise of whatever false reasons were being advanced at the time. That was five years ago when to say "it's about oil" was viewed as unpatriotic. Anyone who voiced opposition to the war was viewed as a traitor, most particularly if one was crass enough to suggest that oil was the major consideration. Such views from abroad brought us such things as "Freedom Fries". Now we finally find out that the current administration has negotiated a sweetheart deal for four major oil companies, plus a few smaller ones, that gives them a carte blanche no-bid interest in making money, lots of money. The first clue occurred after the initial bombing in Iraq when rioting and looting broke out among the ungrateful Iraqi population for being liberated by America. While national treasures were looted, such as those in the National Museum, our troops were ordered to guard only one institutional entity. the Oil Ministry. Gee, what a surprise! Remember when He who would Be King told us that Iraqi oil would help defray the costs of the war? He was telling us the truth because he was talking about his real constituency, the only one that really matters for him, the oil industry. The horror of American sons and daughters dying for this economic venture makes one weep with anguish over their loss.