Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Music Industry's Biggest Threat?

Perhaps I'm showing my age, or perhaps I'm displaying a certain unwillingness to adapt to new technologies, but I am one who still likes to have a physical copy of music albums I purchase. I like to look at the insert, read the acknowledgments and have a copy of the lyrics. I also like to see who wrote the songs, since so many artists today don't write their own. You can learn a lot about the artist if you know which songs they wrote themselves.

That's not to say I don't digitize the music once I buy it; the first thing I do is put the CD into my computer and upload it into iTunes and then upload it to my iPod. Still, I like to know that if my hard drive crashes, as they so often do, that I still have all of my music in a physical library which I can access at my whim.

What I DON'T like is the way CD's are packaged. The plastic wrap is easy enough to remove, but once you get the wrap off there is an evil entity that must still be conquered.

You know what I'm talking about - I'm sure you've all had your bouts with this most pernicious of enemies, as well. The plastic sticker that holds over the top of every new CD is the one thing that makes me consider never buying a physical copy of an album ever again. I spend more time trying to get it off than I do listening to the album the first time through.

In once asked a clerk in a music store why in the heck music companies had to add this extra layer of frustration, and I was told that the reason is because people in the warehouse have been known to use razor blades to slice through the plastic wrap and remove the CD's before they ship. The sticker was added as a means to dissuade such activity.


A razor blade will slice right through the plastic wrap, but the plastic sticker . . .it's a real razor stopper, huh?

That explanation sounded completely idiotic to me, the answer I might expect from a minimum wage worker in today's world of useless customer service.

Then again, what other reason makes sense?

The sticker has the name of the artist and the name of the album, information which is also available on the spine and on the cover of the CD. It doesn't have a bar code, either, as that's on the back of the CD. There really is absolutely no conceivable reason for there to be a sticker with redundant information on the top of a CD, especially since the sticker is all but unremovable.

Maybe the entire purpose putting an impenetrable sticker on the tops of CD's is precisely to inspire people to give up the practice of buying them? I'm sure the day is coming when CD's will not be produced, and every album that comes out will only be available via electronic download. But maybe these stickers are a way of trying to expedite the process? Music companies would much prefer we all buy electronic music so they don't have to encode, mass produce and ship physical CD's. Perhaps the stickers are a means to an end. If we get frustrated enough we'll just give up.

I am not so easily assuaged, but I will say this: if any record company execs run across this blog I would like to point out that the razor blade I use to open the plastic wrap around my new CD's also cuts right through the "super-security" sticker. You could save a lot of money by not printing them in the first place.

And you would stop feeding the anal side of my nature that has to go to the trouble of removing the entire sticker, right down to the ever-present adhesive . . .even if I am mentally cussing the whole time.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Failure SHOULD BE An Option

Any given motivational speaker, military commander, coach or public school teacher is likely to utter the words "failure is not an option," but No Child Left Behind took the meaning of the statement to new extremes.

Literally . . .failure is NOT an option.

While I was building my basketball brand I spent more than a decade working in and around public schools, specifically as a special education teacher. I had the "bad" kids, which really just means I had the kids everyone had given up on. They were the ones carrying labels like ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or even the dreaded ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and essentially it was my job to just keep them out of sight and out of the office.

Ironically, it wasn't my kids who were having the real problems . . .it was the "normal" kids.

A big part of my job was to help the behaviorally-challenged students try to integrate into mainstream classes, and as such I spent a great deal of time in regular high school classrooms with the regular high school kids. I saw the way teachers were being forced to teach to the end-of-the-year test, and I heard stories about how they weren't allowed to fail students except under extreme circumstances.

That's right - no matter how poorly a student performed (or how seldom they showed up to class), failure was simply not allowed. I even had one friend, a very good Algebra teacher, who was ultimately fired because she refused to pass a group of students who didn't deserve to pass. And trust me, they didn't deserve to pass.

Something has happened to public school kids since the time I was in school. Back in my day - which really wasn't THAT long ago - the very idea of calling a teacher a name or even threatening a teacher was absolutely unheard of. What's more, if I had ever dared to do such a thing my parents would have put me so far under ground I would never have been heard from again. Disrespecting teachers simply was not something I could have ever gotten away with.

Now it's practically commonplace. And don't bother send the offending student to the office because they'll be right back in your classroom 10 minutes later with a satisfied smirk on his/her face, ready to repeat the offense because there really was no consequence for doing it the first time.

But attitude problems are really only the beginning of the issue. Many of today's students simply won't do the work, to an extent that the principal of the school where I worked actually made a rule that teachers were not allowed to count homework for a grade. You see, so few kids were doing their homework that it was bringing down the school's collective GPA.

One might think that the solution was a stricter homework policy, but no, in today's public schools we take the path of least resistance. All homework should be considered optional, and never taken for a grade.

Truancy is also a growing problem, with kids often missing so many days of class that they couldn't even be gifted a passing grade. Still, failure is not an option. No, to deal with that little issue our school district came up with a little thing called Credit Recovery, where students can pay $10 per class at the end of the semester and sit in the cafeteria after school for three hours and have their missing credits magically restored. What's really great is that they are not allowed to talk, interact with anyone, or even work on the classwork they missed during that time. It was a great money-maker for the school, but had absolutely no redemptive quality as far as recovering the information that was lost.

So Joe Truant skips boring old Algebra I for a semester, shows up at the end and pays his $10, and now he has credit for first semester Algebra I. He is now assigned second semester Algebra II . . .and you can see where we're going. Math builds on itself, so a student who didn't bother to show up for Algebra I has no prayer of passing Algebra II, but don't worry - the teacher will either be required to pass the student anyway or, if enough classes are missed, he can always show up and pay for credit recovery again in the Spring.

And the cycle repeats.

So my question is this: At what point did failure become a bad thing?

When I was in second grade there was a girl in my class who was supposed to be in third grade, but she had failed and was sentenced to repeat. That made an impression on me, I can tell you. I was never allowed to get a failing grade, mind you, or even a C, really, but if my parents weren't motivation enough seeing that girl get held back was more than enough for me to get the picture. I didn't want to see all my friends move on while I sat back in the dunce chair.

That failure taught my friend a lesson, but it also taught everyone around her a lesson. She never failed again, and wound up graduating the same year I did. Lesson learned.

No one wants to see a child fail a grade. It's embarrassing, as much as anything else. But it's a far worse offense to pass a child who hasn't earned the passing grades, as doing so creates a permanent welfare case for the public schools. Why work when you have figured out that it's not necessary?

Where's the logic behind this change in public education? What is the end result? At no time in Joe Truant's life is he going to get something for nothing. If he is late for work, he gets fired. If he goes to college, no professor is going to give a passing grade to a student who never does the work. In short, we're handicapping kids . . .possibly for life.

Failure should never be encouraged, and everyone involved - students, teachers, parents and even administrators - should work hard to try and avoid that outcome. Still, if, at the end of the day, despite everyone's best efforts, a student simply earns a failing grade . . .the only outcome that's in the best interest of the student is to receive the grade they have earned.

Failure should be an option once again.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Care!

America had one of its prouder moments this week as it cast aside the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented openly gay men and women from serving in the military. The demise of the policy, which was a bald-faced example of discrimination in its purist form, is a victory for equality and a breath of fresh air from a government that has grown stuffy in its defense of the indefensible.

This issue brings up a larger question, though, one that I've had in the back of my mind for years:

Why are Americans so consumed by what goes on in the privacy of someone else's home?

This is a consistent theme in America, one that seems to grow with each passing day. We seem to be dying to not only know what others are doing, but also to judge them and, if possible, persecute them.

Our politicians are all too happy to perpetuate the problem, making issues like gay marriage, gays in the military and gays adopting children part of the national discourse. This is not because mainstream America drives the discussion - mainstream America, I firmly believe, could really care less.

No rational person believes that allowing two people who are in love to get married and share off the rights and privileges that come from that union is any way harmful to marriage. But that doesn't stop a small segment of America, often identified as the Tea Party from spending lots of money getting weak-minded politicians to do what they call "defending marriage."

Defense of marriage is really nothing of the kind. Who really believes that a man marries a woman for no other reason than because it's illegal to marry another man. That's insane. If Texas suddenly made gay marriage legal the first thing I would do - after I picked myself up off the floor - would be to divorce my wife to marry a man? That's ludicrous. The real intent behind the Defense Of Marriage propaganda is a way that right-wing politicians pander to Christian extremists, thus garnering the millions of dollars those folks have to spend on politicians who will at least say they are willing to advance the extreme-right agenda.

They don't even to seem to notice the hypocrisy in play when they evoke the name of Jesus Christ - the world's most progressive Progresssive - to hate, judge, and even, in some cases, murder.

Here's what Jesus had to say about homosexuality:


Not one word. It was a non-issue to Christ, as it has been a non-issue to civilized society for the vast majority of the existence of civilization. Sure, the Old Testament book of Leviticus makes one vague reference to man not lying down with man, but that book also lists wearing clothes made of more than one type of material as an unpardonable sin, and lays out the guidelines through which a father can sell his daughter into slavery. Is this really the moral compass for Christianity today?

Finally, we're overlooking the trump card of all religious arguments against gays. If God is the creator of all and God is infallible, why would he create people who are flawed? I mean, is God flawless, or isn't she?

If we need a religious context, it's easy enough to say that a perfect god is incapable of creating something by accident, so gay people are just as "good" in God's sight as the birds, the bees, and everything else. If we take it a step further and involve Jesus of Nazareth in the discussion, he didn't say a word about it. If you want to extend something else he said to cover homosexuality, it can be done. Jesus spoke very clearly about when it's OK to just others . . .he said DON'T. Love your neighbor as yourself. That was it. Love your neighbor whether he's gay, straight, or whatever else she might be.

I'm not one who needs a religious context for everything. To me, it's a bit of a cop out. Let's defer to someone who was writing thousands of years ago instead of exercising our own modern wisdom and common sense when talking about modern issues. No, thanks. Not necessary.

The bottom line is, it's just none of my business. Most heterosexual marriages end in divorce, so who are we to inflict that particular value on those who prefer same-sex marriage? Are we jealous of their success rate?

The end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a victory for freedom, independence, and all those other values our forefathers fought the British to gain. It's another step away from bigotry and discrimination and towards that dream we dare to dream - that we all might be judged based on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, our sexual preferences, or any other random, hateful basis.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Obama's Andrew Shepherd Moment

In the movie The American President, Michael Douglas' President Andrew Shepherd wants to be the adult in the room. His Republican opponent Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss) and, by extension, the media are harassing him because he has a girlfriend, and Shepherd chooses not to engage.

"Nobody wins these fights; they go away," Shepherd told his best friend and chief of staff, played by Martin Sheen.

And so Shepherd turns a deaf ear as Dreyfuss' character drills him day after day leading up to the next election. Finally, with his polls numbers at an all-time low and a resulting inability to pass any legislation, Sheen's character gets Shepherd's attention.

"You fight the fights you can win? You fight the fights THAT NEED FIGHTING!"

That message sinks in, and Shepherd later interrupts a press conference to go on the offensive and call out his unworthy Republican opponent.

It's time for President Barack Obama to have such a moment.

Barack Obama is a  brilliant progressive thinker. If you don't believe it, just read his book, The Audacity of Hope.  After reading that book I bought a case and sent them to everyone I knew for Christmas. I also emailed his offices in Chicago to suggest that he had a higher calling . . .to run for President. He did so, of course, and rode a wave of popularity into office, popularity stemming from his message of hope and change in Washington.

Unfortunately, his arrival in Washington seems to have brought with it a certain amount of amnesia regarding the mandate that made him the first African-American to ever serve in that position.

Don't get me wrong, Obama has done some amazing things that helped America begin the recovery from eight years of disastrous George W. Bush policies. He's provided substantially better funding to care for veterans returning home, he helped provide health insurance for millions of previously uncovered children, restored federal funding for stem cell research, signed a treaty with Russia that eliminates a portion of stockpiled nuclear weapons, created a number of consumer protection policies, and the list goes on. For an exhaustive list, link here.

Of course, much of that was before the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Since then, governing has come to a standstill as Republicans have made it their stated goal to prevent Obama from accomplishing anything and therefore - they hope - to cost him his job in 2012.
After 2010 we did, indeed, see change from Obama - he changed into the same kind of political puppet that we were tired of in the first place. His economic policies are derived from Republican ideals and set in motion by former Wall Street and banking industry lobbyists who now make up Obama's cabinet. You'd think it would be a tip-off to the President when even the Republicans try to block their own ideas, but Obama keeps going back to the bargaining table to put more and more of the Progressive agenda in the trash.

Mr. President, you can't compromise with those who refuse to compromise, and when you try you can't afford to start on their side and then work even further right. You have to come in with a strong set of Progressive ideas and then find common ground. You're starting on the common ground and moving ever more to the right, only to be stabbed in the back at every turn by the very Republicans who set your current agenda.

The question is: when will Barack Obama have his tipping point? When will he finally realize it's time to stop pandering and start fighting for the people who put him in office?When will that Andrew Shepherd moment come?

As I write this, the billionaires who control the Republican party and their corporate-friendly media are preparing to spend millions upon millions of dollars to get an extremist elected President in 2012. Rick Perry is a money-hoarding, power-hungry Texan who has run his own state into the ground at the expense of infrastructure and public servants like teachers, police officers, fire fighters and forest rangers, and he is the current front runner. If ever there was a Bob Rumson - the devious, hateful character from The American President - this is the guy.

America can't afford another right-wing extremist from Texas, and if we're not careful that's exactly what we'll get.

It's time to take the gloves off, Mr. President. It's time to get back to your Progressive roots, to fight for the middle class and the poor, to stop pandering to those who only care about giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy. It's time to reclaim the language of politics - let Americans know that when Republicans talk about the corporate billionaires as job creators that they're talking about creating jobs in India, China, Vietnam, and Korea at the expense of American jobs.

You fight the fights that need fighting, Sir, and this one definitely needs to be fought. Americans voted you their President in a landslide election, so what does it tell you that your approval rating is now hovering in the upper 20's?

The time is now. You can do it. All of us who are actually paying attention want to be behind you, we want to believe in you like we did when we saw you speak at the 2006 Democratic Convention, like we did when you inspired in us the audacity to hope for a better country. We're here, Sir, waiting for the change, hanging on to our last ounces of hope.

"We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson [John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rick Perry] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. ... This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President."

Mr. President? Are you out there? The time for your Andrew Shepherd moment, if you have one in you, is now.


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