2011

Good riddance.

The year could have gone better.

My shot at being the district’s Teacher of the Year ended when some district folks scheduled a classroom observation during district-mandated testing time.

The Bears blew not one, but two chances to end the Packers’ season in January.

DFJ3’s dad and my friend Allison died on the same day, both far too young.

I played my last soccer game for some time, until the injury heals.

I sold my iPhone only to realize a few weeks later that I hated my new phone.

A coworker resigned on the day of her AP exam and another coworker-slash-long-time-mentor retired.

Someone from long ago found my blog posts about her. I’ve hidden in undisclosed, rotating locations ever since.

Woodchuck changed the color of their Amber bottles from green to brown.

The US men’s team choked in the Gold Cup final against Mexico, and the US women’s team choked in the World Cup final against Japan.

We had to raise a lot of money to make the JV soccer season happen.

I watched a former coworker and friend, Lego, go insane and turn vicious and malicious as he did so.

I had a less-than-pleasant visit to the dentist to get some fillings– the novocaine didn’t work, and the dentist decided to keep going.

My mom’s dog died, and my dad’s dog died.

The Bears’ season collapsed after Cutler broke his thumb.

They gave the next Bond movie a stupid name.

I kept only a handful of my resolutions.

And worst of all, I broke two molars, and have to pay for a bone graft and implant, and worstest of all, the dentist specifically said the Tooth Fairy doesn’t pay for adult teeth.

Good riddance to this horrible, horrible year.

I’m looking forward to 2012. Poland and the Ukraine will jointly host the European championship in June. A new-albeit-poorly-named Bond movie and a new Batman movie are on the way. There’ll be a big primary battle in the spring, fledgling and floundering third-party campaigns in the summer, and a general election campaign in the fall. We’ll get to mock the morons who think the world will end in December. There’ll be new resolutions to keep and new adventures on which to sally forth.

Questionnaire 8.

I can’t sleep, so I write. Here’s another questionnaire.

This one comes from some French guy named Éric Poindron. Here’s what I think is his original post on the questionnaire, and here’s the post by Edward Gauvin that pointed me towards Poindron.

1. WRITE THE FIRST SENTENCE OF A NOVEL, SHORT STORY, OR BOOK OF THE WEIRD YET TO BE WRITTEN. “The real me probably died decades ago back on Earth.”

2. WITHOUT LOOKING AT YOUR WATCH: WHAT TIME IS IT? 12:45 AM.

3. LOOK AT YOUR WATCH. WHAT TIME IS IT? 12:26 AM.

4. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS– OR THESE– DISCREPANCY(IES) IN TIME? I guessed wrong.

5. DO YOU BELIEVE IN METEOROLOGICAL PREDICTIONS? I believe that the predictions exist. I suppose that they’re generally somewhat kind of accurate.

6. DO YOU BELIEVE IN ASTROLOGICAL PREDICITIONS? Again, I believe that they exist. I’m a Sagittarius. Here’s mine for Thursday, December 22nd, according to horoscope.com:

There’s aggressiveness to your emotions today. This feeling will command your attention and demand that you be stable and reasonable regarding all tasks you undertake. Be honest and understanding. No one will understand obscure metaphors unless they have some practical use. Water your plants and clean up your yard. The closer you can be to the earth today, the better.

Total hogwash. I don’t own any plants.

7. DO YOU GAZE AT THE SKY AND STARS BY NIGHT? That I do.

8. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SKY AND STARS BY NIGHT? I think I’d like to conquervisit them one day. The first time I went camping, around my 10th birthday, we were so far from the city and the night was so clear that the sky was almost white with stars. I remember that night more vividly than the night I saw Halley’s Comet, which was earlier that year.

9. WHAT WERE YOU LOOKING AT BEFORE STARTING THIS QUESTIONNAIRE? An old episode of Spaced. It was the one with the mock gunfights.

10. WHAT DO CATHEDRALS, CHURCHES, MOSQUES, SHRINES, SYNAGOGUES, AND OTHER RELIGIOUS MONUMENTS INSPIRE IN YOU? First, frankly, boredom and sleepyheadedness. Second, if the building in question is really ornate, then I think that though we do want to revere the divine, we might better do so by spending our time, money, and effort on helping God’s children.

11. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE “SEEN” HAD YOU BEEN BLIND? Not sure how to answer this question… here goes: Let’s pretend that I was blinded shortly after my earliest visual memory, which would make that the only thing I’d seen. Oddly enough, it was getting poked in the eye by my big sister.

12. WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO SEE IF YOU WERE BLIND? Aside from people’s faces, I think I’d want to see the Sun and the Moon.

13. ARE YOU AFRAID? On occasion.

14. WHAT OF? Losing a child.

15. WHAT IS THE LAST WEIRD FILM YOU’VE SEEN? Inland Empire. I like Lynch’s movies, but one gets the impression he just decided to film two or three hours of goofing off and slap some title cards on it.

16. WHOM ARE YOU AFRAID OF? No one.

17. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN LOST? Yes. A poor sense of direction combined with a faulty GPS on a cloudy day will do that.

18. DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS? No.

19. WHAT IS A GHOST? A dead person’s spirit that has somehow become apparent to the living, usually by wearing a white sheet and moaning.

20. AT THIS VERY MOMENT, WHAT SOUND(S) CAN YOU HEAR, APART FROM THE COMPUTER? The air conditioner. The blades of the fan. Some old 80s music.

21. WHAT IS THE MOST TERRIFYING SOUND YOU’VE EVER EHARD– FOR EXAMPLE, “THE NIGHT WAS LIKE THE CRY OF A WOLF”? Genuine hysterical panic in someone’s voice. I don’t want to describe it.

22. HAVE YOU DONE SOMETHING WEIRD TODAY OR IN THE LAST FEW DAYS? Yes.

23. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO CONFESSION? No.

24. YOU’RE AT CONFESSION, SO CONFESS THE UNSPEAKABLE. I was Kim Jong Il’s puppet-master.

25. WITHOUT CHEATING: WHAT IS A “CABINET OF CURIOSITIES”? I assume it is something analogous to a “junk drawer.”

26. DO YOU BELIEVE IN REDEMPTION? Yes. People do redeem themselves.

27. HAVE YOU DREAMED TONIGHT? Not yet, I haven’t gone to sleep. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes, though.

28. DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR DREAMS? More often than most people do.

29. WHAT WAS YOUR LAST DREAM? Unprintable in this august journal.

30. WHAT DOES FOG MAKE YOU THINK OF? London Fog jackets, The Mist, the Fog Bowl, playing in thick fog, lakes on cool nights.

31. DO YOU BELIEVE IN ANIMALS THAT DON’T EXIST? If I stipulate that they don’t exist, how can I believe in them?

32. WHAT DO YOU SEE ON THE WALLS OF THE ROOM WHERE YOU ARE? A framed Sandburg poem about Chicago that I gave to my grandmother and then inherited. A ceramic sculpture that my little sister made. A framed wooden nativity scene from my other grandmother. A small painting of a nature scene. Shadows from the ceiling fan blades amid arc-like patterns from the ceiling lights. Maybe I do need more on these walls.

33. IF YOU BECAME A MAGICIAN, WHAT WOULD BE THE FIRST THING YOU’D DO? People seem to like card tricks, so… card tricks.

34. WHAT IS A MADMAN? Here’s my imprecise definition: a madman is one who either can’t tell right from wrong, or who can but elects not to.

35. ARE YOU MAD? No.

36. DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE EXISTENCE OF SECRET SOCIETIES? Yes. Any of consequence? No.

37. WHAT WAS THE LAST WEIRD BOOK YOU READ? We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Early dystopian fiction. Imagine the latest common ancestor of Brave New World, Anthem, 1984, THX-1138, and the Jetsons.

38. WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE IN A CASTLE? I probably wouldn’t enjoy living in a castle. There’d be too much unused space.

39. HAVE YOU SEEN SOMETHING WEIRD TODAY? The bone graft in my jaw.

40. WHAT IS THE WEIRDEST FILM YOU’VE EVER SEEN? Primer was pretty weird because of the timelines, but I’m gonna go with Inland Empire again. I like weird movies, but this was so weird that I was incapable of enjoying it. Or maybe it was incapable of being enjoyed.

41. WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE IN AN ABANDONED TRAIN STATION? No.

42. CAN YOU SEE THE FUTURE? Let’s just say that I guess right a lot.

43. HAVE YOU CONSIDERED LIVING ABROAD? Yes.

44. WHERE? Italy, Mexico, Russia, Turkey.

45. WHY? Italy: to keep an eye on my brother and rip him off if he ever became a rich calciatore. Mexico/Russia/Turkey: there was a girl who loved all three places, and a boy who loved her. A very foolish boy.

46. WHAT IS THE WEIRDEST FILM YOU’VE EVER OWNED? Probably Fire Walk With Me.

47. WOULD YOU LIKED TO HAVE LIVED IN A VICARAGE? Dunno. I don’t want a big, fancy house just for its own sake. Would I have had a big enough family or enough stuff to warrant having such a home?

48. WHAT IS THE WEIRDEST BOOK YOU’VE EVER READ? Tough call. I might go with Blood Meridian.

49. WHICH DO YOU LIKE BETTER, GLOBES OR HOURGLASSES? That’s not a very subtle question.

50. WHICH DO YOU LIKE BETTER, ANTIQUE MAGNIFYING GLASSES OR BLADED WEAPONS? Bladed weapons.

51. WHAT, IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, LIES IN THE DEPTHS OF LOCH NESS? Nothing. Nessie’s an honest girl.

52. DO YOU LIKE TAXIDERMIED ANIMALS? I’ve never given it much thought. I’ll have to buy one and try it out for a while.

53. DO YOU LIKE WALKING IN THE RAIN? Generally, no. But sometimes the mood and the moment match, and it’s calming and almost empowering to walk through the rain while others are carrying umbrellas, or waiting under canopies, or running in awkward, hunched-over gaits.

54. WHAT DOES ON IN TUNNELS? Driving with no radio reception.

55. WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT WHEN YOU LOOK AWAY FROM THIS QUESTIONNAIRE? An empty rocking chair.

56. WHAT DOES THIS FAMOUS LINE INSPIRE IN YOU: “AND WHEN HE HAD CROSSED THE BRIDGE, THE PHANTOMS CAME TO MEET HIM.”? It makes me think the ghosts/phantoms are on his side, at his beck and call.

57. WITHOUT CHEATING: WHERE IS THAT FAMOUS LINE FROM? I’m going to guess Lord of the Rings. Let me check….

Nope.

58. DO YOU LIKE WALKING IN GRAVEYARDS OR THE WOODS BY NIGHT? No. It’s dark, and I don’t like bumping into stuff. I actually used to live next to a graveyard, and walked through it at night a few times while on the way to work or to a buddy’s apartment. No big deal.

58. WRITE THE LAST LINE OF A NOVEL, SHORT STORY, OR BOOK OF THE WEIRD YET TO BE WRITTEN. “I’m glad I got to see what became of mes.”

By the way, why are there two Question 58s?

59. WITHOUT LOOKING AT YOUR WARCH: WHAT TIME IS IT? 1:30 AM.

60. LOOK AT YOUR WATCH. WHAT TIME IS IT? 1:36 AM.

A way with people, part three.

The following gem was born of great frustration with some of my AP Government seniors who, as usual, weren’t doing homework, taking notes, reading the book, or paying attention during the lecture:

***BEGIN TRANSCRIPT

VDV: You know what really bothers me about this? It isn’t the fact that you’re going to be working at McDonald’s or Wendy’s in five years.

STUDENT: Then what is it?

VDV: It’s that you’re not going to be any good at it. You’re going to screw up my order. You’ll forget to take off the tomato, or you’ll give me diet instead of regular.

***END TRANSCRIPT

They are nice kids, but good Lord, they are lazy and they are bombing a relatively easy AP class.

Yesterday, one of my juniors said something like, “Come on, Mr. V., You know you’ve never had a student like me.”

I said, “Yes I have. No offense, but none of you are unique. One way or another, I’ve had all of you in class before.”

I hoped it was tongue-in-cheek enough that nobody took it too seriously– after all, everyone is exactly alike and completely different. Nonetheless, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say out loud to kids who actually do take notes. At least I didn’t say it until after they gave me Christmas and Hanukkah candy.

Anyhow, a kid in the back of the room piped in: “What about me?”

“What about you, what?”

“Who have you had like me?”

It was a student whose identical twin was in my first period class, and whose big brother took my class three years ago. Suddenly I regretted nothing.

It occurs to me I’ve probably been using the word “redux” incorrectly. I may have to revisit some old post titles.

How to Make Everything Perfect Forever, Part Five.

Many moons ago, I was assigned to read Steven Landsburg’s The Armchair Economist, in which he makes some “modest proposals” about law and government. One such proposal (which he credited to Alan Stockman) was that politicians be allowed to make legally binding promises. For instance, if you’d care to re-create Papa Bush’s “Read My Lips” pledge, you’d have the opportunity to make it legally enforceable. If you do, then the public has something to hold over your head. If you don’t, then you’re all talk and the public will take that into consideration when voting.

I love this ideer. We’d have to iron out the details of how to make these promises legally binding. Maybe we could develop a type of contract under federal law such that violation would constitute a “high crime and misdemeanor” and would therefore be impeachable. States could develop laws that would keep those who break these promises off all future ballots. A political party could make its nominees and officeholders sign contracts such that violation would mean no support from the party in the upcoming election. The point is that we’d have one more way to hold politicians responsible for broken promises, incorrect predictions, and falsehoods instead of having to wait for the next election to make them suffer.

Landsburg’s proposal came to mind because of the $10,000 bet that Mitt Romney offered Rick Perry in yesterday’s debate. Maybe the bet was a rhetorical flourish, as the Romney camp is claiming today. Maybe it shows that Romney’s out of touch with average Iowans, as the Perry camp is claiming today. Maybe they’re both idiots, as the Democrats are claiming today. These very real possibilities are entirely beside the point.

Why not let these guys make this sort of bet? Why not encourage them to make this sort of bet? Wouldn’t it be one more way to keep them honest? Wouldn’t it put pressure on them to be more precise and accurate with their statements? I think that at the very least, they’d become less grandiose and more realistic in their pronouncements, and they’d be more careful about sliming their opponents.

Besides, wouldn’t the gambling angle draw more attention to debates, campaigns, lawmaking, etc.? Pundits, professors, and politicians often chastise Americans for not paying enough attention to matters of state– well, I assure you that moving the debates to casinos and allowing bookies in the hallowed chambers of Congress will fix that. Heck, we can even find a way to incorporate these bets into state and regional lotteries. That‘ll get folks paying attention to the campaigns, and holding politicians’ feet to the fire.

The Bears did not get Tebowed today. They got Barbered. They got Barbered badly enough that I was reminded of Felipe Melo’s meltdown against Holland last summer.

That’s two out of the last three games where the Backup Bears hurt the team with clock management issues. Stupid coaching or stupid players?

A brief moment of panic.

A recent dream:

I am working on a laptop. Several windows are open, the topmost of which is a letter of resignation. Clicking on another window reveals a website for an apartment rental agency in some faraway place. Clicking on another another window reveals a listing of full- and part-time night jobs in the same faraway place. Clicking on yet another window reveals the online registration page for a university nestled in the hills of the same faraway place.

I follow a link to my transcripts. The records indicate that I matriculated at this university in recent years, but I am running low on time to complete my degree. My grades are embarrassingly low. The registration page is already filled out; apparently I am about to sign up for 15 credit hours in the Fall 2012 semester. The “SUBMIT?” button blinks.

I break into a cold sweat. Apparently I am on the verge of quitting my job, going back to a college I don’t remember attending to complete a degree I don’t remember beginning after getting horrific grades in classes that I don’t remember taking, living in a cheap apartment and working night jobs to pay for the whole thing.

Why don’t I remember any of this? What would make me even consider uprooting my life for such an ill-considered plan? And how on Earth were my grades so awful?

Then I remember that I have a great job. I have money. I can do whatever I want. A calm settles over me. I close all the windows and shut the laptop. I am at peace…

…until my cell phone beeps: it’s the President. Again. I get up, push through the oaken double doors of my office into a massive dining hall, where he’s hosting dozens of dignitaries and diplomats.

An attendant pulls my motorcycle around. I hop on it and tell Obama to text me the details later. I rev up the bike, jump it up on the hundred-foot long dining table, and speed towards the floor-to-ceiling window at the far end. Some of the guests scream, some fall backwards in their chairs, some are stunned with awe. Fine china and crystal fly everywhere. I blast through the glass unscathed, off to my next assignment.

Option #5 is my favorite.

Let’s assume that the Bears can get into the playoffs with just three more wins. They’d be the fifth or sixth seed since they can’t realistically catch Green Bay for the division title. Three more wins, then they’re in the playoffs, then Cutler comes back, then they rattle off four quick and easy wins, including a blowout victory in Super Bowl XLVI against whatever hapless opponent the AFC has the audacity to put in the game.

Unfortunately, the Bears are starting Caleb Hanie, which makes the aforementioned championship run that much less likely. Instead of helping the Bears win three of their last six games, he seems more interested in throwing lots of interceptions, being way too indecisive in the pocket, and committing incredibly stupid penalties that kill last-second drives. Yes, he made some plays, just like in the NFC title game last year, but an “attaboy loss” is still a loss, and the Bears need to win now. Hanie is not the solution.

That leaves five viable alternatives, assuming the Bears don’t just throw in the towel and work on improving their draft position.

#1. Start Nathan Enderle. I don’t know who he is, but he’s on the roster as a QB, so start him instead of Hanie.

#2. Start Josh McCown. This is who the Bears picked up because Orton got snapped up by Kansas City.

#3. Sign some other veteran free agent QB. Start him.

#4. Give Cutler a crash course in throwing left-handed. Start him.

#5. Play without a quarterback. Go with two tight ends. Line up Forte, Barber, and Bell in the backfield. Run the ball over and over again. “But wait,” you might say, “that’s only ten players. Who’s the eleventh?” Great question. Throw an extra lineman in the backfield for extra blocking. Split Hester or Knox out wide and have Forte toss them one every so often to keep the defense honest. Throw Podlesh back there on third down, make the D have to worry about a quick kick. Or throw Briggs or Urlacher back there, see if it confuses the defense. Or maybe you sub out Bell and put Podlesh and Gould out there at the same time– is it a run, a field goal attempt, or a punt? Who knows?

Better yet, who cares? Whatever keeps Hanie off the field.

On turning 35.

Today’s itinerary includes cake, then pizza, then more cake, then milk and cookies. Plus, I can finally publish a little something I’ve been working on for some time. Let me know what you think. Here goes:

My fellow Americans:

We live in troubled times. There are some who say America’s best days are behind her.

Twenty years ago, America looked to Bill Clinton for change. Twelve years ago, America looked to George W. Bush for leadership. Four years ago, America looked to Barack Obama for hope.

And these men let America down. But I say that America never needed them.

I say that America needs you.

And because America needs you, America needs me.

I am pleased today to announce my candidacy for the office of President of the United States.

Let me begin by telling you how I got to this point.

I was born thirty-five years ago this very day in a little town in New Hampshire called Nashua, on the night of a Presidential debate in February 1980. That night, in the debate hall, shortly after Ronald Reagan famously told a newspaper editor that he had paid for a microphone, my mother went into labor. Bob Dole delivered me, with George H.W. Bush assisting. I was swaddled in copies of the Nashua Telegraph and the Manchester Union-Leader.

My father, a young economist from Kenya, and my mother, an unwed teenager from Kansas, weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.

I was named for my paternal grandfather, the son of Italian immigrants and an architect, and for the priest who married my parents. Rose Kennedy baptized me, the Reverend Jesse Jackson christened me, and Joe Lieberman… well, Joe rendered his services.

Years ago, as a farm boy sitting outdoors with my family on the ground in the middle of the night, gathered close around a radio connected to the automobile battery, eating peanuts and listening to the Democratic and Republican conventions in far-off cities, I was a long way from the selection process. I feel much closer to it tonight.

As a teenager I heard John Kennedy’s summons to citizenship. And then, as a student at Georgetown, I heard that call clarified by a professor I had, named Carroll Quigley, who said America was the greatest country in the history of the world because our people have always believed in two great ideas: first, that tomorrow can be better than today, and second, that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so.

I moved to Chicago over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of college; I knew no one in Chicago, was without money or family connections. But a group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for $13,000 a year. And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then by a single, simple, powerful idea– that I might play a small part in building a better America.

I’ve seen America from the stadium press box as a sportscaster, as an actor, officer of my labor union, soldier, officeholder and as both a Democrat and Republican. I’ve lived in America where those who often had too little to eat outnumbered those who had enough. There have been seven wars in my lifetime and I’ve seen our country face financial ruin in the Depression. I have also seen the great strength of this nation as it pulled itself up from that ruin to become the dominant force in the world.

I am a man who sees life in terms of missions– missions defined and missions completed. When I was a torpedo bomber pilot in World War II, they defined the mission for us. Before we took off we all understood that no matter what, you try to reach the target. There have been other missions for me– Congress, China, the CIA. But I am here tonight– and I am your candidate– because the most important work of my life is to complete the mission we started so many years ago. How do we complete it? We build it.

Much more than this, it is our aim to give to our country a program of progressive policies drawn from our finest conservative traditions; to unite us wherever we have been divided; to strengthen freedom wherever among us any group has been weakened; to build a sure foundation for sound prosperity for all here at home and for a just and sure peace throughout our world.

As President, I will adamantly defend every woman’s right to choose as well as every unborn child’s right to life.

As President, I will protect the Second Amendment and will protect national security and stop crime by getting rid of assault weapons and handguns.

As President, I will make Wal-Mart stop undercutting its competition by raising its prices, and make the gas companies stop gouging its consumers by lowering the price of gas.

As President, I will provide total financial and medical security to our senior citizens at no cost whatsoever to their children and grandchildren.

As President, I will eliminate the mortgage interest deduction, which has distorted housing markets, and replace it with a deduction for interest on mortgages, which will help make more Americans into homeowners.

One other thing I probably should tell you. A man down in Texas heard my wife on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, yesterday we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And my daughter– the six-year old– named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.

What I propose tonight is not new. It is as old as America, and as young as America, because America will never grow old.

You will remember when Thomas Jefferson said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself– nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that, “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House.”

And Woodrow Wilson said, “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

It’s time for us to change America. They have not led, we will. I still believe in a place called Hope, a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky, yielding only to morning again in America.

And read my lips: I will never lie to you.

I humbly ask for your vote.

I will do everything you’ve ever wanted your President to do.

Because I am you.

And together, we can be us again.

Thank you, and God bless America.

We accept unmarked, low-denomination cash only.

A study in peroxide.

I elect not to keep certain information in my brain because there is (presumably) only so much room in there. For instance, there are several procedures at work that we repeat annually, such as testing, orientation, stuffing end-of-year envelopes, voting on certain measures, etc. I won’t remember how we did certain procedures last year because it’s easier to remember that there’ll be a memo explaining the procedure for this year. Another example: I probably can’t tell you the relative locations of some of the towns near my alma mater, because it’s simpler to remember which major road leads to which town. It’s all about saving space on the hard drive.

Upon watching the BBC’s recent Sherlock series, I was pleased to learn that Arthur Conan Doyle, via Mr. Holmes, had articulated a similar belief. Holmes only keeps information in his noggin if it helps him do his job. Thus, he claims not to know the identity of the current Prime Minister or whether the Earth revolves around the Sun, as neither fact would help him solve crimes (though a bit of esoteric knowledge about a fictional supernova just happened to prove useful in a hostage situation). Great minds, me and Conan Doyle.

Then I recalled that another fictional character had made a similar observation about brain capacity, but I couldn’t remember what character. I remembered she had to prepare for something, and was trying to retain only the most relevant information à la Holmes. Did some digging around on Ye Olde Tyme Internet, and…

…it was Kelly Bundy from Married with Children. She had to cram for a quiz show about sports, and since her brain was already full, every new fact displaced an old fact. She lost on the final question.

That was a bit deflating. Great minds, me and Conan Doyle and… Kelly Bundy.

χ².

A tongue-in-cheek article by A. Barton Hinkle claims that “Now We Know Why Children Are Getting Dumber.” In essence, it’s because the volume of knowledge keeps expanding. There’s always more literature out there to be pored over, there’s always more scientific innovation and discovery to help explain the natural world, and there’s always more history being made. Hinkle writes:

Same for history: They just keep making more of it. For the WWII generation, the Great Depression wasn’t history, it was current events. They didn’t have to learn about the civil-rights movement or Vietnam or Watergate or Reaganomics because none of that had happened yet. Today’s pupils not only have to learn all that more recent history, they will soon be learning the history of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Obama administration. And the cohort after that? Good luck to them, because they’re going to need it.

Reading the article brought me back to a recent discussion with some coworkers. They said that high school math stays pretty much the same, although some of the higher-ups keep trying to change how it’s taught. They said that high school science remains relatively stable, but does make adjustments to curriculum when discovery warrants it. But history, they said, keeps growing at a relatively constant pace of roughly one year per year. More if you consider that with an expanding population, there’re more people out there to make history.

I pointed out that happily, history teachers have a way around this– at least in high school survey courses. The trick is that our courses don’t cover the whole shebang. They aren’t supposed to. As time goes on, we thin out the beginning, shift around the middle, and tack a little bit more onto the end. The coverage of history in survey classes, I said, looks like a chi-square distribution. To wit (click to embiggen):

A history text can’t cover anything after its publication (until we start teaching via Kindles and iPads, and then there’ll be semantic debates over what truly constitutes publication). Recent history, say the last decade or so, gets pretty thin coverage because it’s too close to being “current events.” Then the coverage gets heavier and heavier, until you get to a few hundred years back, and it starts to thin out again. In later editions, you add another chapter at the end and merge chapters at the beginning– those bindings can only hold so much paper.

I own my grandfather’s high school history textbook, which ends with discussion about whether America would enter “The Great War.” I’ll flip through it on occasion for the older perspective on certain events, and to compare it to the textbook I use in my classes. Grampa’s book is much heavier on the period from 1650 to 1750, going into much greater detail about the wars between France and Britain and how they played out in North America. It also spends over 100 pages on the Civil War, which had ended barely 50 years before publication.

Current textbooks understandably trim that 1650-1750 period down to maybe two chapters and spend maybe 40-50 pages on the Civil War, because you’ve got to add in 100 years of new stuff– the Roaring 20s, the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Elvis, etc. The last few pages of my 2002 edition of The American Pageant discuss the internet, David Mamet, 9/11, and the PATRIOT Act. The War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Red Sox, Obama and I are going to show up in the newer editions, and the 1600s will grow ever-thinner. But the shape of the curve will remain the same.

So there goes that excuse. Get to work.