Monday, October 31, 2005

Credit Card Offers

Practically every day I get an offer in the mail from a credit card company. They usually try to entice me by offering zero interest for six months. I always wind up discarding their literature.

I'm getting sick of these banks trying to lure me into personal debt. If I get their card and start buying heavily with it but make only the minimum payment each month, everything is alright. But if I forget a payment, out come the late charges. If I lose my job and can't meet my obligations, my phone starts ringing off the hook as their collectors demand payment.

I figure that if you need credit you should ask for it rather than having it pushed on you.

If you're like me and are tired of receiving these offers in the mail here's what we can do. When credit card companies send out their offers they always send an accompanying postage paid envelope for the return of the acceptance form. Instead of discarding this envelope, send it back to them stuffed with a special letter that I've created and placed on my site. The letter is in pdf format, so you need an Adobe Acrobat reader to read and print it. If you don't have one, you can download it here.

You can view and print my letter from this url:


Friday, October 21, 2005

A Look At The History Of Halloween

Around this time everyone is interested in Halloween. For this post, I decided to use an article pblished by:

Halloween has become the second most anticipated holiday for children after Christmas and Chanukah. Although we celebrate it with candy and Halloween parties, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Halloween has its roots in pagan traditions dating all the way back to nearly the dawn of civilization. Is Halloween about God and the Saints, or Satan and his demons? How are witches involved, and what’s up with that carved pumpkin. Join me in look back to the beginning of Halloween.

"Halloween" is a relatively new word to describe our favorite holiday. It is a contracted form of the phrase “All Hallows Eve”, also known as “All Saints Day”, which is a Catholic religious holiday honoring all Saints. But historians believe that the Catholics concocted that Holiday in an effort to draw attention away from the pagan holiday which Ireland’s Celtic people called Samhain (sow-en).

Back in the 5th Century BC, Samhain fell on October 31 which was the last day of summer on the Celtic calendar. The people celebrated that day as we do New Year’s Day. The Catholics had a problem with the Celtic version of the holiday which taught that the spirits of the dead would return to possess the bodies of the living for just that one night. Not wanting to be possessed by spirits, people in the Celtic villages would dress up as ghouls and demons to keep the returning spirits at bay.

Around that time, the Romans came on to the scene and adopted the holiday of Samhain for themselves. They soon grew tired of celebrating a holiday that their own Gods had not invented, so Samhain celebrations were blended into the holiday celebrating the Goddess Pomona who had dominion over the fruits and treats. Her symbol was the apple, and it was considered good fortune if one were able to pluck an apple from a barrel of water using only their teeth on that special day.

As the centuries passed, Halloween began evolving towards what we know it to be today. In the 9th century AD, European Christians would go door-to-door on November 2nd, All Souls Day, asking for tasty morsels known as "soul cakes". The deal was, the “the more soul cakes you give me, the more prayers I’ll say for your dead relatives.” This was a fair trade because the belief then was that souls remained in Limbo until they atoned for their sins, but they could earn an “early release” if God received enough prayers from the living.

Gradual changes in the way the holiday was celebrated continued to occur over the centuries and now we find ourselves in 1840’s America. Irish immigrants are fleeing the potato famine by the boatload and they’re bringing their holidays and traditions with them. One of their most cherished traditions was sneaking out on October 31 to unlock their neighbors’ gates and tip over outhouses. One could avoid falling victim to these tricks if they left some treats outside for the pranksters to devourer.

In addition to introducing that little twist to the holiday, they are also credited with introducing the Jack-o-lantern. According to Irish folklore, a drunkard named “Jack” was able to trick Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then quickly carved a cross in the tree trunk and Satan was trapped. Jack cut a deal to free Satan in return for Satan’s promise never to tempt Jack again.

Things went fine for Jack until he died. St. Peter denied him entrance to Heaven, and Satan denied him entrance to hell. Satan was kind enough to give Jack one burning ember to light his way through the eternal darkness. Jack placed the ember inside of a hollowed-out turnip to protect it from the wind.

The Irish celebrated Jack’s heroic deeds by placing candles inside of turnips. Once the Irish arrived in America, they found turnips to be in short supply, but there were plenty of pumpkins!

And as far as the witches go, you can thank the people in Salem, Massachusetts for adding that footnote to a long line of tradition that ends with what we know today as Halloween.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Students in Private Colleges

Physics Instructor of the 20th Century

Until recently I have taught technology classes including networking, web programming, web design, and others at a private corporate run college. I prefer not to divulge the name at this time. You've probably seen their advertisements on national television, since they have many schools scattered all over the United States. My involvement was with their school situated in the Chicago area. This school was mainly filled with high school graduates from Chicago and its suburbs. I want to tell you about some of the problems I experienced with students at this school. Many of the instructors that I've worked with as well as others that I know from similar schools had comparable experiences.

The main reason I'm so opposed to our global corporate culture is because it sets man's primary goal as financial wealth but pretends that it is some common good. This is why the majority of students choose a private college. One of the school's sales staff convinces them that they'll make a lot of money upon graduation. They either may have a mild or no interest in what they need to study. Some have no prior skills in their field of choice. They are told they don't need to know anything, but they'll be taught every skill needed for their success. They can afford all this education by taking out a government backed financial loan. The college expects its instructors to open the heads of their students and fill them with knowledge.

Standardized tests in high schools give the average student the idea that the answer to a question is more important than understanding what the question is about. Students then refuse to be challenged. If the problem takes longer than five minutes to solve, they demand the answer. The words "You gotta give me the answer, cause I'm paying this school thirty-thousand dollars!" seem to echo throughout the halls of private colleges. No instructor has ever withheld an answer to an assignment. Instead the instructor first wants the student to attempt the solution by himself or herself. In so doing, the student develops the most useful part of the educational experience, the problem solving ability. Most of the time the instructor gives helpful hints as the student searches for the answer.

Students seem to ignore what they're expected to learn, but they're constantly concerned about their grade. It's nice to have a good grade point average, but it's even nicer to gain a good grasp of what is being taught.

It looks like TV has had a real effect on today's student. Because TV watching is a passive event, students expect their education to be passive as well. Students want to sit back and watch while their instructor amuses them. So what students really want is an entertainer instead of a teacher. If they were studying quantum physics, the students of today would prefer an instructor like Jay Leno rather than one like Albert Einstein. When dealing with history, politics, or literature it's easier for an instructor to develop an entertaining approach, but how can one make a programming class fun? Even if the subject of the program is humorous, the actual programming requires some thinking which today's students were conditioned to avoid.

Because students can't get deeply involved in what their supposed to be learning, they avoid studying and doing their homework as much as possible. In classrooms where computers are available, they use instant messaging to have on line conversations with their friends while the instructor is lecturing. They skip a lot of classes but remain in school so they can graduate and get that high paying job they were promised. To get the students to pass the class, a multiple choice test is given for which they are well rehearsed. Most pass with high marks, but some still fail.

If you know anything about education, you know that the majority of learning comes from a person's own efforts. You must do the studying while the school is there to help you as you evolve from confusion to understanding. A school can issue a degree validating that you've indeed learned the principles of your chosen field. In today's competitive world, it's very hard to find a job without some sort of degree or certificate. Sometimes the high tuition is worth it, if the expected knowledge is really attained.

Are there students going to private colleges that are highly motivated and are excellent learners? Of course there are. I've seen students that are every bit as good if not better than MIT students. But they are in the minority. Some of them did not go to US high schools but graduated from schools in countries like India or Poland.

American high school graduates are able to master some computer related subjects. Computer and Xbox game playing, instant messaging, email, web surfing, and blogging are their best subjects. Unfortunately, they're not part of the curriculum. Of the actual subjects taught, about half can do basic HTML and simple networking. Except for the gifted students, virtually no one can really program in any common compiled or scripting language. However, almost everyone passes these classes, sometimes even with high marks.

If you plan on starting a career in a computer related field here is some advice. Before going to a private college, ask yourself how much you know about what you intend to study. If you know nothing, then go to the internet and try reading about it and doing some tutorials. If this doesn't interest you, find something that does.

Invest in a good computer or two (if you want to study networking). Get a DSL or Cable internet connection. If you can't afford broadband or it's not available in your area, at least, get a dial-up connection. Look into open source software if proprietary software costs too much. I've encountered students taking web design who didn't have a computer or internet connection, so they couldn't practice what they were taught or do their assignments at home.

If you have a hard time learning the basics take some remedial courses at a community college. You might even consider a degree from there. Tuition at community colleges is a lot less than that of private colleges and often they teach the same material.

Get certification books in your field of interest and find similar material on the internet. If you study hard enough, you can get certified without any formal training. Certification tests usually cost around one hundred dollars. Make sure you're really prepared so you don't waste your money. Sometimes having a certification can land you an entry level job better than a degree from a private college.

Remember, if you want to launch an interesting career, there is no easy way to succeed. You simply have to work hard for it.