Friday, December 20, 2013

Target, Certegy, and a Catch-22

I did some shopping today at Target. So that my wife would not see the payment on our joint account, I wrote a check off of an investment account I have. Imagine my surprise and embarrassment when the clerk said my check was not accepted by the Target system. I went ahead and paid with my debit card so as to not anger the customers behind me in line. The clerk handed me a piece of paper with a telephone number for a company called Certegy and said I could call them to see why the check was not accepted. Yes, there is plenty of money in the account.

So I call this Certegy. After about 15 minutes of holding and waiting and talking to machines, I finally get a pre-recorded message that said the decision cannot be reversed and is based on information related to my driver's license number.  With the recent hacking of customer information at Target, I was worried to say the least.

I called the store manager and actually got a person who was helpful. He explained to me that, once you write a check at Target, their system associates your driver's license number with that checking account  (again, kind of scary in light of the recent hacking event). Since I was using a different checking account, this Certegy company rejected my check.

I guess I understand that, but it must be possible to change checking accounts or use multiple accounts. The person with whom I spoke at Target explained it this way. You have to make a purchase of less than $100 on the new account and then it is associated with your driver's license number. Well, the investment account I was using requires checks to be a minimum of $200. I guess this is a classic, modern catch-22.

Target, you make it difficult to do business with you. Guess I'll have to bring cash next time (if there is a next time).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My 2013 Hammacher Schlemmer Christmas Wish-List

Just in time for your shopping convenience (and to ensure that my gifts arrive on time for Christmas), I hereby provide my annual Hammacher Schlemmer wish-list.

#10 The One-Year Smartphone Battery Backup for $49.95

#9  The Call Me Gloves for $79.95

#8  The Inductive iPad Charging System for $349.95

#7  Pen-Sized Scanner  for $124.95

#6  The Best Digital Coin Sorter for $189.95

#5  The Hand Crank Emergency Cell Phone Charger for $59.95

#4  The Productivity-Boosting Nap Pod for $16,000

#3 (tie)  The Hot Tub Boat for $42,000 and The Pedal Pub for $40,000 (can they combine these two?

#2  The Barbecue Dining Boat for $50,000

and my #1 item for this year's list:
The Flying Hovercraft for only $190,000

Thanks to my wife's shoe-shopping, FedEx and UPS have us on their regular delivery routes and probably will give a generous delivery discount.

Monday, November 18, 2013

License Plates: Out With The Old! In With The New!

The State of Texas hath determined and decreed that license plates shall be replaced every seven years. So, today was a sad day for me as I had to replace the original license plates I got with my F150 in Deceember 2006.  The new plates have seven-digit letter/number possibilities while the old plates had only six-digit combinations.

The new plates are pretty boring, just black and white, but at least there is a lone star, an outline of the Great State of Texas, and the motto "The Lone Star State." Still, kinda boring imho.

The old plates had a few colors, a picture of the space shuttle, seven stars commemorating the seven Challenger astronauts, a crescent moon, a Texas flag in the shape of Texas, a cowboy on horseback, some yucca plants, and a couple of oil derricks.

In my opinion, I think my old plates would have lasted a few more years, but what do I know.

If you're from a SOTT (state other than Texas), what are the rules where you live? Do you have pretty license plates?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Astrodome Solution

I have fond memories from my childhood (I think I was seven years old when the Dome was opened for business) when we all piled into our car and drove to the brand-new Houston Astrodome, the Eighth Wonder of the World,  from Brookshire for a tour. The tour was amazing, the Dome amenities were state-of-the-art, and I was overwhelmed that people could build such a fantastic building.  I returned many times for baseball games, football games (including a Texas Aggie game that started late one Saturday night and didn't end until the wee hours of Sunday morning), rodeos, and concerts.

Fast forward to today.

Harris County voters (of which I am not one) have sealed the fate of the Astrodome. My suggestion is late, but I'll give it a chance anyway.

Strip away the sides, fill in the field to ground level, but leave the support columns and the entire roof.  When complete, sell "Shadow of the Dome" premium parking. This would preserve the iconic dome while giving the city of Houston what is wants and desperately needs: more places to park!

I guess it's too late for me to weigh in on the preservation of AstroWorld . . . . .

Monday, November 4, 2013

What LAX Lacks: My Terminal 1 Departure Story

My wife flew to LA via LAX on October 27th to attend a conference. I flew out on Thursday so we could have a long weekend get-away in Laguna Beach at Casa Laguna Inn and Spa. I flew into LAX Terminal 1 on Southwest Airlines on Halloween. Since I decided not to check any luggage, I quickly and easily made my way to my wife who was waiting for me with a rental car. My impression of LAX at this point was, "Wow, what is it about this airport that people complain about?"

Fortunately, I didn't fly in on Friday when some lunatic decided to take a rifle to LAX and start shooting TSA employees.

After dropping the rental car off on Sunday, my wife and I rode the shuttle to Terminal 1. There was an obvious increased police presence at the main road entrance to the airport.

We each did have luggage to check for the return flight to Houston, so we entered Terminal 1 where we came face-to-face with a huge mass of humanity. We finally found what we were pretty sure was the line to get to the check-in agents. To their credit, a Southwest Airlines employee did walk by telling us to go to a different line since we already had boarding passes. When we got to the new line to enter check-in, we had to convince a different employee that someone told us to move to this line.  Fortunately, this employee allowed us to pass. The line for baggage check-in was not too long, perhaps a 10-minute wait.

When we got our luggage tags, instead of the agent taking our bags, we were instructed to carry our bags back out of the check-in area and deliver them to the TSA Baggage X-Ray Screening area. When we got to this area, there were no TSA employees to tell anyone what to do, so we just slid our luggage under a velvet rope and hoped that we would one day be reunited with our bags, clothing, and personal hygiene products.

So far, not too bad. Next stop, security screening.

We were instructed to go back outside the terminal building and join a very long line of people waiting on the sidewalk to re-enter the terminal for security check-in. This line moved fairly quickly, adding about 10 more minutes to our experience.

Once we re-entered the terminal, we went through one of those rat-mazes of velvet ropes just to get to the stairs.  Small groups were being allowed to walk up the stairs toward what we assumed to be the security screening area.

Once it was our turn to ascend the stairs, we encountered a second set of velvet rope rat-mazes.  However, we were instructed to climb a different set of stairs to go to a different security screening area. At the top of these stairs, we then walked down a long corridor until we reached a small room with four chutes. At last, we see two TSA agents actually doing security screening!

After passing the ID and boarding pass check, we entered an area with the metal detectors and whole-body scanners. As luck would have it, these TSA agents were in good spirits and we passed back into the area from which we had detoured earlier at the top of the stairs.

This whole process, from being dropped off by the car rental shuttle to actually entering the departure area of the terminal, took almost one hour. We (wisely) had decided to arrive at the airport three hours before our flight. So far, we were in good shape. We relaxed with an adult beverage and watched part of the Dallas Cowboys vs Minnesota Vikings game.

About an hour before our departure time, we picked up some deli sandwiches and made our way to the gate area. This was a sight to behold. There were so many people in this small terminal area you could barely walk through.  We found our departure gate at last, and began our wait for departure.

A different departing flight was scheduled for our gate at 1:40 pm.  Our departure time from the same gate was 2:00 pm.  It was going to be interesting to see how this was going to work.  At the same time, at a gate entrance about 10 feet away from our gate entrance, another flight was boarding. People were packed into every space available so that arriving passengers had to push their way through.  At last, these flights boarded and left, and our plane, which was waiting on the tarmac all this time, pulled up to the gate.

Our boarding process was surprisingly quick and efficient. By now, the terminal area had quite a bit fewer people in it.  We left only about 20 minutes behind schedule. Amazing!

We arrived at Houston Hobby about 20 minutes behind schedule.  

The final insult:  It took our luggage almost an hour to appear so we could go home.

It's good to be home!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Death of math: My Response to Gary Rubinstein's Recent Blog Post

At the recommendation of twitter-friend Justen Eason (@MisterEason), I read the following blog post by Gary Rubinstein (@garyrubinstein): The Death of math. Justen issued the "What say you?" challenge, so here is my response (it will probably make more sense if you read Gary's blog post first).

Gary says, "Few people love Mathematics more than I do." I feel the same way about science and Mathematics. As a science teacher I tried (and even now, as an Educational Technology Specialist, I try), to exhibit and model my love for science every day. For many students, this enthusiasm is enough for them to at least try to understand the concepts. I did notice, however, as the years went by, as more emphasis was being placed on high-stakes testing, and as my class sizes grew, more and more of my students were not affected by the "love of science" approach.

As a Chemistry and Physics teacher, I understood inherently the value of Mathematics as the language of these two sciences, but it became more and more difficult to get students to share my love of science when they were deficient in their math skills. I have always aspired to being a polymath, but I quickly learned that few others share that aspiration.  "Just prepare us for the test" became a common student mantra.

I think the vast majority of teachers today have a genuine love for their respective disciplines, but we have to realize that many students will never share that same love of the discipline. The trick is to get them to find relevance through some discipline for which they already have a budding or maturing passion.

When I first started teaching Physics back in the mid-1990s, my dream was to write a science curriculum that taught science concepts from a historical perspective by introducing both noted and obscure scientists, and the related scientific and mathematical concepts and discoveries, as they actually came into existence. I could think of no better way to teach science than in an interdisciplinary context with history and social studies while reinforcing Mathematics, reading, writing, and grammar along the way.  Thanks to a never-ending parade of standardized tests and ever-more-rigid curriculum and scope-and-sequences, my dream remains unfulfilled.

Gary says, "The biggest problem with math education is that there are way too many topics that teachers are required to teach."  There is no denying that there is a considerable amount of sequential learning that has to take place in Mathematics in order for students to be successful at the higher levels. Perhaps a survey of Mathematics concepts in middle school or junior high school could lay the foundation for students to make decisions about potential focus areas in Mathematics later in the process.

It has been my experience that teachers of Mathematics have been most affected by the standardized, high-stakes testing mania. I see many Mathematics teachers who are no longer passionate about Mathematics as a discipline because they are forced to focus on specific areas to the exclusion of others.  This lack of Mathematics breadth shows up in the higher science disciplines and hampers the ultimate success of students in both areas of study.

Gary's "first thing I'd do to 'fix' math" is this: "Greatly reduce the number of required topics, and expand the topics that remained so they can be covered more deeply with thought-provoking lessons and activities."  I think this is a good idea, but to implement, it will require educators to step up and take control of the politics of public education. Current dictates flow almost exclusively from non-educators and wealthy self-appointed "experts" who think they know what is best for all of us.  Educators must take back the entire business of education.  In our current environment of testing in an environment of fear and intimidation, this is not likely to happen any time soon.

Gary's second idea for the reform of the teaching of Mathematics is, "make Mathematics, beyond the eighth grade, into electives."  I have mixed feelings about this idea, but I certainly see the necessity of this approach given limited resources in our schools.  While certain topics and concepts could be advanced to a much higher level with this approach, I feel that a lot of the color and beauty of Mathematics would be lost by this approach.  Perhaps an interdisciplinary approach similar to the idea of teaching science via historical individuals would help here. The emergence of these disciplines through history is a logical sequence in which to learn the concepts, and I believe knowing the historical context of these concepts' development would give the information more of an opportunity to stick with students. In addition, think of the crossover possibilities with this approach with Mathematics AND science, perhaps simultaneously!

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a few sessions of an SAT test-prep program. The audience was high-achievers with the idea that, with this program, they could squeeze out a few more precious points on their SAT scores. The Mathematics review piqued my interest the most. While there was no discounting that a firm foundation in Mathematics fundamentals is essential, the slight tricks and reminders that were given out would help all students, not just the chosen elite. Why weren't these simple yet effective tricks and tips not shared with all students? Of the simple tools I saw, I can only imagine the large number of students who would benefit from them.

Gary's example of number patterns and perfect squares was an "aha" moment for me. In all my years, I have never seen this "proof without words" before. How handy and helpful this would have been if I had been exposed to this earlier in my life!  All students deserve exposure to these types of simple truths, which is why I have a little trouble with the idea of making post-eighth grade Mathematics classes electives.  But what do I know? I've always loved Mathematics.

I really like Gary's distinction between "math" and "Mathematics."  I often feel the same way about "science" and "Science."

Perhaps the solution is to turn students into life-long learners instead of for-the-test learners.  I was blessed with parents who lived and breathed education. I benefited from a new set of World Book encyclopedias in our home at an early age. I have many pleasant memories from my childhood when I would just sit in a chair and leaf through page after shiny page of the Word Book encyclopedia. My dad let me dissect a frog when I was five years old, and he was always making toys for me out of various scraps he found around our house. Of course I had "real" toys, too, but I think the handmade ones were the best. As a result of my early childhood experiences, learning seemed a natural part of daily life. I say a little prayer of thanksgiving every day for being blessed with the parents I had.

Love of learning has to be instilled at an early age and constantly reinforced.  Perhaps my ideas of studying science and Mathematics through history and Gary's two ideas to "fix" Mathematics should start much earlier than either of us proposes. All parents and educators should make "going to school" an enjoyable activity that is yearned for with great enthusiasm instead of a necessary evil that must be endured to get to the next stage of life.

When I was in the classroom, I would tell my students that, if I ever won the lottery, I would go back to a university (most likely Texas A&M again) and take random classes that I found interesting, just for fun. Most of my students thought I was crazy.  I am hopeful that my comment inspired at least a few of my students to become life-long learners.  I cannot imagine going through a day without learning something new, and I make a point of thanking people who teach me new things, especially if it is a student!

Gary ends his blog post with this paragraph:

"In my title, I was very deliberate to write 'math' with a lowercase 'm' rather than 'Mathematics' with a capital one.  The 'math' that clutters up textbooks nowadays is not, generally, worthwhile 'Mathematics.'  So maybe an unintended consequence of the common core standards will be, as I wrote in my title 'The Death of math,' But maybe it will also be the rebirth of Mathematics."

For a long while, I have felt that we cannot "evolve" our educational system to a better place. A complete revolution must take place. Perhaps the "Death of math (and science)" is necessary and proper so that we may all chant, "Long Live Mathematics (and Science)!"

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mobile Blogging

Just installed the mobile blogger app on my smartphone. Just a post to test it out.