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.

Make Love Not War?

This week’s headlines brought a story to warm the cockles of any capitalist’s heart.  It’s so bizarre it’s probably a hoax.  An Olympic athlete has opened a brothel to raise money to fund his bid to make it to the Olympics in 2012.  Up until now, his parents have been providing a big part of the cost but he wants to ease the burden on them.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s funny.  Plus, I thought you just had to be very good to make the Olympic team.  Apparently you need a lot of capital as well.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has told him he can’t do that and if he doesn’t stop they will ‘take legal action.’

They claim that “Based on the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect, we would place your actions as totally inconsistent with these values.” 

The athlete claims that prostitution is legal in New Zealand (he’s right, they even have a trade union called the Prostitutes’ Collective) and that no one is being coerced or manipulated and that it’s really no different than if he had a lemonade stand.  He might also have challenged the NZOC’s comment that his brothel was inconsistent with the value of ‘excellence.’  The article I read didn’t say.

I probably spent a lot more time thinking about this issue that I should have.  But that’s because I was a little put off by the hypocrisy of the Olympic people.  I did some research.

First, what are these Olympic principles?  I looked up the Olympic Charter and it looks like the lawyers are going to have a good time.  It contains phrases such as “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”  Let’s see them define that! 

Further, “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”  Call me cynical, but they don’t seem to have made much progress on that one. 

My point is not to debate whether raising money for an Olympic bid with a brothel is right or wrong.  My issue is that if the Olympic Committee doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, it shouldn’t let the Olympics be all about money, which unfortunately is the way it is now.

A couple of other points.  First, the athlete in question is competing in tae kwon do.  One might ask where that sport fits on the continuum of ‘universal fundamental ethical principles,” “peace,” and “dignity.”

This is tae kwon do:





 In Korea, where the sport originated, ‘tae kwon do’ means “the way of foot and fist” or “the way of kicking and punching,” depending on who you talk to.

So if funding a visit to the Olympics to celebrate kicking and punching with brothel proceeds is inappropriate, what is acceptable? 

If you have a look at the Olympics’ Official Sponsors, you’ll see names like McDonalds and Coca Cola.  I guess high fat food and high sugar drinks are OK.  Less high profile, but equally up there in terms of fostering peace and human dignity is Smith & Wesson.  They are supplying Walther SP22 M4 pistols (i.e., handguns) to the National Junior Olympics Shooting Championship.  Admittedly, it’s not the real Olympics, but in patting itself on the back, S&W calls the Junior Olympics ‘an essential element for young shooters seeking an introduction to Olympic Shooting.’

So there you have it.  Unhealthy food that kills millions a year is OK.  Handguns, which cause untold misery and damage are OK.  Sex between consenting adults is not OK. 

It’s probably just as well that the NZOC is making an issue of this now, however.  It would be a lot worse if the guy went to the Olympics and got a gold medal and only then did his funding sources become public.  He may have to join the queue of Olympians forced to give up their medals.  After all, who knows what sort of performance enhancing drugs a brothel operator might have access to?

Worse, even if he slips by that scrutiny, what if, as an Olympic gold medal winner he gets a set-for-life advertising contract with McDonalds, Coke or Smith & Wesson?  Wouldn’t it be an embarrassment if only later they found out that he had gotten to the Olympics because of brothel money?   

After all, it could hurt their brand.

You’re Not Going To Believe This

I live in an OECD country that has a fairly respectable standard of living and reasonably respected educational system.  I also have an eight year old nephew who told me something that really got me wondering about all that.

For a school assignment, he had to prepare a two minute speech on something that he was passionate about.  It is a testament to the quality of our educational system that eight year olds are encouraged to embrace causes with passion.  The topic he chose, which is alarming in itself, is the deplorable state of the restrooms in his school.  He may be passionate about clean toilets, but was even more passionate about his speech going well and he therefore has taken every opportunity to rehearse it in front of attentive and supportive family audiences. 

The speech is very entertaining but also rather horrifying if one looks at the subtextual issues being explored.  Even allowing for a bit of youthful hyperbole, the state of the toilets in the school must be shocking.  And it’s not some sort of institutional problem, like Dickensian management not providing amenities such as toilet paper or nightly cleaning.  The problem is that the little dears who use the toilets behave most indecorously. 

I’ll spare you the details, but if you’ve ever been to a sporting event or rock concert in which the facilities are taxed to the utmost, you will get some idea of what these school toilets are like at the end of the day.  Worse, however, is that a lot of the problem is self-inflicted—graffiti, toilet paper wads on the ceiling, and, get this, painting of the walls with excrement.

In the speech, my nephew stated that the problem was people “wiping the wall with used toilet paper.”  I told him flatly that I didn’t believe that could happen.  Why would anyone do that?  What possible point is there to such behaviour?  In a tone that implied that he thought he was answering my not so rhetorical questions, he said, “Actually, I don’t think they used toilet paper.  I think it was a ‘butt skid.’” 

“A butt skid?”


To put it delicately, a butt skid involves sliding one’s bottom across the wall while defecating.  My “no way” was countered with round eyed nods from both him and his six year old brother who goes to the same school.

So here you have kids attending a school where they are learning things.  And that is one of the things they are learning.  And it is so common, so quotidian, that it has actually been given a name. 

There are a number of questions that come to mind, and all of them center on the question of why.  I can’t think of a single answer that fills me with anything like comfort.  Why in a world of paranoia over head lice, swine flu and repetitive motion problems would someone do something so antithetical to the concepts of good hygiene?  Why in a world of Sesame Street, Barney,  Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine where decorum and good manners and being polite are drummed into the audience would someone do something so antisocial?  Why in a world of video games, flat screen TV, the internet and cell phones where these kids supposedly channel so much energy would someone still have the motivation to rub their butt on the wall while crapping?

Who is to blame for this?  I don’t know.  I fervently hope that they don’t learn this behavior at home.  Maybe it’s the fault of the toilet paper companies.  Based on their commercials, you would never guess what their product is really intended to do.  Maybe they are responsible for this gap in our kids’ knowledge.

Anyway, next week is the kids’ school program and we have been invited.  I might  venture into the restrooms to see conditions for myself.  Or maybe I won’t drink or eat anything for a few days before just to make sure I don’t have to use them.