Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Life Report--What David Brooks Didn't Publish

In October 2011, N.Y Times columnist David Brooks asked readers over 70 to evaluate their lives including lessons learned, failures, accomplishments etc. Although he did not publish my contribution, here it is anyway, warts and all. As Elizabeth Taylor said to her seventh husband, "I won't keep you long!" I grew up in Montana and went to high school there on the Crow Indian Reservation. Although I would classify my accomplishments as modest, when I consider the economic and social conditions from which I came (with no indoor plumbing until I was well into high school and being a Caucasian minority in a not particularly hospitable environment), as I look back on it, I think I was surprising successful—particularly for someone who never had a life plan. Now at nearly 72, I suspect like most my age, I can not believe how fast time has gone by and it is difficult to contemplate that I have had many more yesterdays than I will have tomorrows. Perhaps had I known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself. After high school, I obtained a B.S. and Ph.D. degree and subsequently was a professor at a state university for 34 years during which time I received numerous teaching awards. These were very meaningful for me particularly to achieve them at a university that valued research contributions more than teaching competence. In fact, I almost was a victim of the “publish or perish” phenomenon, but I survived by assuming additional roles in the college that no one else wanted to do—important roles in administration for example, but which most often only received attention if you screwed up and things didn’t go as planned. The lesson here is to try to put yourself in a position where you are irreplaceable—that is, cheerfully do those things that others don’t want to do. Many times since I have retired I have thought how it might have been more fulfilling to have been a carpenter or a bricklayer, so that I could go back after 40 years and see something that I helped construct. As an educator, mostly all you have are memories and nothing concrete that represents your toil. I am reminded of the fellow who wets his pants while wearing a tuxedo—he gets a nice warm feeling and nobody knows he’s done anything. That’s what I thought until this month when I received a letter (not an e-mail, an actual full page letter!) from one of my students of 20 years ago, expressing the impact I had had on his life and that he had recently won a teaching award, he felt largely due to the example I had set for him. Suddenly, I am glad I wasn’t a bricklayer after all. After my early retirement from the university, I spent four years in the Washington D.C. area, one of which was as a Congressional Fellow in the U. S. Senate. Even though I passed through the Pentagon on the Metro on 9/11, was in the Hart Building the day the anthrax was discovered and lived nearby where one of the victims in the D.C. sniper shooting occurred, overall it was a marvelous experience. And it would not have happened had I not, on a whim, applied for a position outside of my expertise, but not outside my interest. Similarly, years ago I complained to a professional organization regarding a publication that I felt mislead students. There response was, “Why don’t you join us?” I did, and as a result still enjoy a satisfying professional relationship more than 30 years later. The lesson here is, not surprisingly, that sometimes seemingly insignificant actions can have meaningful consequences. Unfortunately, I have met few people in my career who were really happy in their work. Contrary to most everything found in the self-help books, my advice is to forget about loving your job (it is after all called a job), but find a position in a location where, when you are not working, you can enjoy what you love to do. That might be considered “settling,” but in my experience it is a better alternative than frequent job-hopping in a vain attempt to achieve perfection. The lesson here is that it is not a sign of failure to set your sights a little lower. After all, you are one of seven billion people and if you live in the U.S., better off by far than most of them, so why continue to frustrate yourself by searching for the mostly unattainable? In my late 30s for reasons that are not at all clear, I started running. Best of all, I kept a log of how far and where I ran. It has become a diary of sorts, and I can look back and see what city I was or what race I ran in a given year. So I have my remembrances of the New York Marathon and many other road races with friends. Although I no longer run, I walk about five miles a day, and my log is up to about 45,000 miles and counting. I am not sure that the lesson is that one should keep a diary, but I would suggest that it can be meaningful to keep a record of your hobby and how you pursued it. On a more personal level, I have been married and divorced more than once. I do not have any biological children, but I did adopt two boys years ago. That was a good choice as was divorcing their mother some years later. Although I have some regrets and made some mistakes, this was one arena in which I didn’t “settle.” It has been playful noted that if one-half of marriages end in divorce, think about what caused the end of the other half? Just because a relationship ends for a reason other than one partner dying, doesn’t mean the relationship was necessarily a failure. Although I admire those who have stayed married for 50 or more years, most of the couples that I know that have achieved that milestone “settled” years ago. And finally through all of the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, as a fallen away Unitarian, I have not been able to find any comfort in organized religion. Sometimes I envy those who have and who benefit from it, but if they are looking for salvation, I think they are fooling themselves. So, as Blood, Sweat, and Tears would put it, I “swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell, But I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell.” In the meantime, in retirement every day is Saturday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Organic" Food--Are You "Myth-taken?"

Being trained as an organic chemist I suppose is the reason that I am offended by the term "organic" food because, of course, all food is organic. Nonetheless, over the years the term in the dictionary has come to mean, in addition to its original meaning, "of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides."
Purportedly, the individual responsible for the term "organic food" was Jerome Rodale who started the myth that "organically" raised food was the key to health rather than that raised using other means. Even though Rodale had no scientific training (originally he was a federal tax auditor and then co-owner of an electrical equipment business), he was very successful in perpetuating his ideas and was the founder of Rodale Press and Prevention magazine. Consider some of the other beliefs of Rodale as documented by Dr. Edward H. Rynearson's article in the July 1974 edition of Nutrition Reviews in an article entitled, "Americans Love Hogwash":
  • He believed that people do not get enough electricity from the atmosphere, owing to the presence of steel girders, and he would sit for 10-20 minutes a day under a machine that gave off short wave radio waves, which he believed beneficially boosted his body's supply of electricity.
  • He took 70 food-supplement tablets a day as "extra protection" against pollution and to "restore nutrients lost in the kitchen processing of food."
  • He believed that the cure for prostatic disease was to eat pumpkin seeds and stated that if he were to get prostate cancer he would have chiropractic adjustments.
  • Reportedly he believed that "wheat is terrible for people, can make them overly aggressive or daffy, and that sugar is worse," and that he would live to 100 "unless I'm run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." (Actually at age 72, while taping a talk show with Dick Cavett he died suddenly--of natural causes, no doubt!).
  • He believed that milk was bad for people, except for babies and he denounced vegetarianism because he believed that "people need the zest of a good piece of meat."
  • When asked why "organic" fertilizer was preferable to "chemical" fertilizer he responded, "We feel that in organically grown food you have things you don't even know exist."
Indeed, that idea that "organic" food has some mystical powers and that it is preferable nutritionally to conventionally grown food is commonly believed. However, studies have shown that there is little evidence to support this assertion. Not only is it doubtful that organically grown food is significantly superior, importantly, is the use of so-called "organic" farming economically practical and sustainable particularly in feeding a burgeoning world population?

Consider for a moment the contributions to agriculture of the late Dr. Norman Borlaug  and his view of the organic food movement. Borlaug is one of only five people in history (and the only scientist) to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others were Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

It has been estimated that Borlaug's contribution to agriculture though gene manipulation (a no-no to the high priests of organic agriculture) and use of inorganic fertilizer have improved crop yields, resulting in saving the lives of one billion human beings. Consider the following from Jonathan Alter's column in the 7/30/07 issue of Newsweek:

"Borlaug scoffs at the mania for organic food, which he proves with calm logic is unsuited to fight global hunger. (Dung, for instance, is an inefficient source of nitrogen.) And while he encourages energy-conscious people to 'use all the organic you can, especially on high-end crops like vegetables,' he's convinced that paying more for organic is 'a lot of nonsense.' There's 'no evidence the food is any different than that produced by chemical fertilizer.'"

When it comes down to whether or not consumers wish to pay more for organic food, ultimately they should consider whom do they wish to believe, Jerome Rodale or Norman Borlaug.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Last Lecture

(Comments made at last college graduation which coincided with my retirement.) As I reminisce about my 34 years at the College, I would be lying if I said that it was all fun--I believe it is the first sign of senility to say things like, "I've enjoyed every minute of it." Besides, it is difficult to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything. But all in all it has been a good run. As I tell my colleagues, the work was all indoors and required no heavy lifting. But just as it is a truism that all good things must come to an end, so is it true that all pretty good things likewise must end. Now it is time to move on--to be repotted if you will. There were several clues that told me that it was time to do so. In fact, I have compiled the top 10 reasons that signify when it is time to retire from academia. 1. When the University will pay you to do. 2. When you spend more time reading the newspaper obituaries than the editorials. 3. When you start spelling your e-mail address as drool rather than droll. 4. When colleagues tell you it won't be the same around here without you, which is a code for saying that it won't be the same, but that doesn't mean it won't be better. 5. When you find out that the student who referred to you as a "model" teacher really meant that she considered you to be a "miniature of the real thing." 6. When it finally comes to you after 34 years that a substantial number of students will never understand acid-base theory or the Henderson-Hasselbach equation. 7. When the University initiates a seemingly unending string of mandated, feel-good initiatives that engender monumental expectations, while at the same time providing no allocation of resources to achieve the goals of the initiatives. 8.When you have recurring nightmares that manage to weave in aspects of all of the following: People Soft, mission-based management, sensitivity training, affirmative action and strategic planning, the latter complete with Mission, Vision and Values statements. 9.When daily activities have become more reminiscent of herding cats than of productive work. Another way of saying this is that, when you start to attribute to malice that which can just as easily be explained by incompetence, it is time to fold your tent. 10. And finally, when the thought of doing one more accreditation self-study evokes a physiologic response not unlike that achieved by breathing deeply while downwind of an incinerator accident at Dugway Proving Ground. I cannot end without expressing my appreciation to all those who are responsible for my award as Professor Emeritus. When I first learned that I would receive it, I threw myself into the task of preparing what I thought were appropriate remarks with great enthusiasm. Perhaps I did so with too much self-congratulatory zeal, for when I showed them to one of the more irreverent members of our faculty he suggested that my ego was showing and that I should instead open with the following: "I can clearly recall awaking to the sound of crunching straw and looking up from my cradle to see three magnificently attired gentlemen. They informed my mother that the star they had been following had settled over our stable." Another of my colleagues who was clearly envious suggested that awards are like the curl in a pig's tail--nice to look at, but they add nothing to the weight of the hog! Seriously, I feel not unlike the turtle who went to sleep and awoke to find himself atop a six foot fence post. He didn't know how he got there, but he knew he had a lot of help. I am not at all sure that I have accomplished anything particularly remarkable in my tenure here other than to display tenacity. I believe it was Woody Allen who said it best when he noted that, "80% of success is just showing up." On this graduation day, our primary focus should be on the graduates, their sacrifices and hard work and the sacrifices and hard work of their loved ones. The graduates and I share a common bond in that we are all moving on to other endeavors, where we will be repotted into a different milieu. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, I am struck more by the similarities of our mutual departures than I am by the differences. Given there is an obvious difference in our ages. Nonetheless, we all face an unknown future with both trepidation and anticipation. I am not particularly looking forward to the transition to the less halcyon days of the so-called golden years. However, I know that for all of us for every door that closes, another opens--given the new door may be a little narrower and we might need to go through it sideways, or it may be a little shorter requiring that we duck as we pass. Whatever opportunities and responsibilities do await our graduates, they will most certainly be accompanied with challenges. In meeting these challenges my gratuitous advice to them is to strive to maintain a modest ego, a healthy sense of perspective and a powerful sense of humor. I have already commented upon the dangers of an overactive ego. In regard to keeping a sense of perspective, you all have the opportunity to leave, as Longfellow said, "footprints in the sands of time." But time is limited and time is a thief, for though it it a great teacher it unfortunately kills all its pupils. It is a great leveler that favors no one--I take some comfort in the fact that not only does time heal all wounds, it ultimately also wounds all heels. As for humor, I always turn to Dave Berry who pointed out in his book Dave Berry Turns 50, "You should not confuse your career with your life." In closing, I am reminded of the short poem with which Aaron Lemonick, who served for 13 years as Princeton's Dean of Faculty, concluded his retirement swan song. It goes like this: "The tusks that clashed in might brawls Of mastodons, are billiard balls. The sword of Charlemagne the Just Is ferric oxide, know as rust. The grizzly bear whose potent hug Was feared by all, is now a rug Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf, And I don't feel so well myself!" Thank you for your attention.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Global Warming/Energy Independence

I am amused at the number of analysts, politicians and people in general who equate these two topics as being significantly related. First of all, the boondoggle of ethanol as fuel somehow having a significant impact on either of these problems is highly suspect.
As background, a little chemistry lesson. Any fuel containing carbon if completely oxidized results in carbon dioxide and water. This addition of oxygen to carbon is what results in energy production. Ethanol, containing two carbons and one oxygen, is already partially oxidized prior to its use as a fuel, as compared to a hydrocarbon that has no oxygen. Therefore, the oxidation of ethanol to carbon dioxide requires only three oxygens. To a rough approximation then, the amount of energy derived from ethanol is reduced by about one-fourth as compared to a hydrocarbon containing an equal number of carbon atoms. This is why the miles per gallon obtained using ethanol as a fuel is substantially less than from gasoline, meaning that you have to burn more ethanol to go the same distance--and you are producing roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide in the process.
The idea of energy "independence" is also a non-starter--perhaps we can have less dependence on foreign oil, but there is no reason to believe that we can ever be independent of our need for foreign oil anymore than we can be independent of toys made in China, furniture made in third world countries, or fruit from South America.
Assuming we can do something (e.g., increased use of nuclear power) to reduce our energy dependence on foreign oil, there is little evidence that to do so will have any impact on global warming. The fact is that global warming is here to stay and we need to embrace it rather than try to control it. As long as China, India etc continue to grow, anything the U.S. does is for all practical purposes inconsequential.--kind of like wetting your pants while wearing a tuxedo--you get a nice warm feeling, but no one notices that you have done anything.
If global warming is occurring, it is not going to happen over night--there is time to prepare for it and better use our scarce resources to deal with it rather than wrong-headed attempts to prevent it. We need to exploit some of the positives, such as increased crop production in northern climates, while at the same time doing what is necessary to keep coastal cities from flooding (although I can think of a couple of such spots that if flooded, arguably are not worth protecting!)
The take away points are that we need to concentrate our resources on mitigating the effects of global warming, not on preventing it; we will never become "energy independent;" and these two topics have very little to do with each other.
And as a final point which I may discuss in a future blog, the most logical action that could be taken to mitigate global warming in the long haul would be to reduce the world's population--you haven't heard any politician suggesting that have you?

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Pedagogue--Educating Montana

My name is David Roll. My father, Charley Roll, completed this book, "The Pedagogue--Educating Montana" in the early '80s, but never saw it published before he passed away. He taught in rural schools in Montana for over 40 years and I believe had some unique insights into education which I thought were worth sharing. He would undoubtedly be bemused and disappointed by some of the current trends in education. I made it my first task in retirement to substantially shorten, edit, and rewrite the manuscript. A brief description of the book is as follows: "To survive in rural Montana, an impoverished pedagogue is forced to live in two radically different worlds–one of thought and learning as a teacher, the other rough and vulgar, as a section hand working on the railroad. It is a compelling, ribald story–full of humor, pathos, hope, and educational challenges–some would say the rural counterpart to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man. The book is also a love story about a man who is moved by great poetry and conflicted by his passions, but who ultimately suppresses his more base desires and conforms to the norms of society." Those interested in reading the first chapter of the book (or even purchasing it!) can go to the following site: http://www.bbotw.com/product.aspx?ISBN=0-7414-3747-3.