Monthly Archives: October 2009

Do I Care? Should I?

Here’s a topic guaranteed to polarize people according to age—the demise of handwriting skills.  I read an article the other day saying that fewer and fewer kids were actually learning longhand writing.  They do learn to print, but rather than ‘waste’ time learning cursive writing, they learn other things. 

In my formative school years, all of my classrooms always had all of the letters of the alphabet on big cards along one wall.  For the first couple of years they were printed letters—capitals and lower case.  For the next few years they were those fancy cursive letters—the ones that are only used on wedding invitations.  Do you know anyone who makes a “Q” like a “2?”

So kids aren’t learning that and apparently it is creating the usual amount of righteous indignation on both sides of the argument.  One side says that by practicing penmanship kids learn valuable eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills.  The other side says that they get enough of that playing Grand Theft Auto and texting and should spend their time learning more important skills like being passionate about things.

I must admit that while reading the article my first reaction was to shake my head and to consider the loss of handwriting skills as yet one more example of the de-evolution of the human race that Generation Z represents. 

But then I thought about it.  Next to algebra and dealing with the opposite sex, handwriting probably caused me more anxiety than anything else at school.  The older the teacher, the more artistic her writing was and the higher her standards of proper penmanship.  We used to get two grades on essays.  One for neatness.  Bad writing didn’t mean misplaced modifiers, it meant sloppy handwriting.  Clear thinking only counted for half.  Improperly formed loops and humps were prima facie evidence of carelessness, a substandard mind, diffuse personality deficiencies and unpreparedness for participation in the human race.  Their words, not mine.

There was perfect correlation between neat writing and the teacher’s opinion of you.  Because it was physically impossible for left handed people to reproduce the letters on the wall, they were universally deemed to be slovenly underachievers.

But the question remains, is the loss of handwriting skills something we should mourn?  Is it as bad as the extinction of the snail darter?  Will some important part of our brains atrophy?  I’m having a hard time becoming, excuse the expression, passionate about it.

In fact, maybe I feel pretty good about it.  Perhaps it’s an element of schadenfreude as I think of the smug condescension of the girls in elementary school whose essays were always held up as examples of how a “good” student wrote.  I remember the young ladies cringing as the teacher handed back my essays, smudged with erasures and dripping with the red ink of condemnation.  They were afraid to look at my work for fear that the condition might be contagious.  Even the teacher seemed to want to handle it as little as possible.

Where are they now?  Their claim to superiority rendered null and void by the homogeneity of Times New Roman, Book Antiqua and Arial.  Looks like I was ahead of the curve with my sans serif, huh?

But I gloat. 

The more I think about it, I’m convinced that loss of handwriting skills may in fact be a legitimate change in human behaviour brought about by technology.  And believe me, not all changes in human behaviour brought about by technology are legitimate.   I’m sure that cursive writing was invented as a kind of shorthand because printing was too slow to process large amounts of data.  Penmanship was invented by spinster schoolteachers as a means to torment the male sex. 

So there you have it.  As long as you know how to print so that you can make your “X” if the power is out and you can’t do a digital signature, you should be just fine.

Shocking But True

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that we are working on a project to replant an old dairy farm with native trees.  People ask me questions about the process all the time, but they never ask the most interesting question. 

Specifically, how does it feel to get zapped by an electric fence?

That is probably because they don’t immediately equate tree planting with electric fences.  But because we can only plant so much of the property at a time, a large part of it is still pasture and there’s no way I’m going to mow the lawn.  We use cows to control the grass, and the electric fences are to keep the cows away from the trees, which as far as the cows are concerned look like a mixed green salad.

You may be wondering why we need to electrify the fences.  After all, it’s not exactly Jurassic Park.  They tell me that although cows are docile, they are also single minded.  So if a cow is at point A and sees something it wants at point B, nothing will stop it.  They will just patiently and peacefully push against whatever obstacle is in their way.  Eventually even a well constructed fence will give way.

So the fences are electrified.  With about 2,000 volts.  The cows respect it and you should too. 

To answer the question du jour, hitting an electric fence isn’t like touching a bug zapper where it’s all over in a flash, literally and figuratively.

It’s more diabolical.  The idea is that you don’t want to punish the cows for accidentally brushing the fence, you want to discourage them from leaning or pushing against it.  So at first nothing happens.  A casual touch won’t do much of anything.  But if you are foolish enough to grab a wire because you thought the power was off, or if you are sure you can climb the fence without any part of your body contacting the hot wires and are wrong, you get the works. 

Believe me, I know.

One time I was cutting across a paddock and came upon a fence that I thought wasn’t on the power grid.  I decided to climb over it.  I put one foot on a wire, and grabbed another wire, intending to vault over the fence.

At first I just felt this sensation.  I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t quite place it.  I just felt funny.  Seconds later, I felt this sort of energy pulsing around me.  Like a force field or something.  I looked around to see if there was a UFO hovering nearby.  And then I realized that this isolated stretch of fence was in fact on the grid.

Worse, I also realized what was about to happen. 

That’s right.  My soon to be short circuited central nervous system actually had time to figure out what was coming.  But not enough time to take evasive action.  A nanosecond later I heard, or felt, I’m not sure which, this massive POW! 

Several nanoseconds after that, my cognitive processes started slowly rebooting.  I was on my back, on the wrong side of the fence, facing the wrong direction and wondering how I got there.  The sun was shining into my face and I expected to hear one of my dear departed tell me to walk toward the light.

But I knew that I was alive because my heart was beating at about 1,000 beats per minute.  I really wanted it to slow down, but not all the way.  I was absolutely convinced that I’d done something life threatening.  I finally knew I was OK when all I could think was please don’t let me have landed on a cow pie.

I staggered to my feet, giving the fence a wide berth and swearing that from now on I would switch off the power at the source before venturing out.    

Even so, I’ve had this joyous experience a second time.  Familiarity breeds carelessness and bravado.  Just recently, after a hard day’s planting we were getting ready to leave.  One of the volunteers realized he had left his spade behind.  I didn’t feel like walking all the way back to the shed to turn off the power.  I figured I had a fool proof way of climbing over without making contact with the hot wires.

Yeah, right.

I was astride the fence.  Riding it, as it were, like the bucking bronco it would all too soon become.  Everything was going according to plan.  I was cool in every sense of the term. 

Suddenly there it was.  That awful sensation.  What is so weird about it is that I maintained total lucidity through the process, and while fighting panic I was also rationally analysing what had gone wrong.  It was the worst of all possible scenarios.  I hadn’t noticed that one of the hot wires had been twisted around a terminal and about six inches of extra wire was sticking out into space.  My leg had caught it as I swung over the fence.  To be more specific, the extreme upper part of my leg.  On the inside.  You get the idea.  I looked up, hoping for a UFO.  Nothing the aliens could do to me in their lab could be worse than the zap I was about to get.

Fortunately, blue jean material must have some sort of insulating properties because I survived intact and am not singing soprano.

Of course the follow up question, at least among men, is what would happen if you were to accidentally hit a hot wire while relieving yourself.  My truthful answer to that is that I don’t know and I don’t want to know.  There was a Mythbusters show in which they used a squirt gun to find out.  The results indicated that nothing would happen. 

But even if I believe that intellectually, there is no way I’m going to test their hypothesis.