Rhapsody in Balut

[Flipping a coin to choose between "ducks" and "clowns."]

Joey: Ducks is "Heads", because ducks have heads.
[a long beat]
Chandler: What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?

Friends, “The One With the Baby on the Bus” (11/2/95)

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Today I had a surprise adventure!

RambutanThe school in which I work has several Filipino teachers, and they know that I once had a roommate with Filipino roots, and that I enjoyed some of the food she made, and so every now and again when they make something traditional, they’ll bring some to me to try. So we’ve had Adobo together (no relation to the seasoning you can get from Goya), Pancit, a noodle dish whose name escapes me, and a few exotic fruits, including one called Rambutan, which you can see in the picture to the left. “Rambutan” literally means “hairy”, which refers to the coarse“hairs” that grow from the fruit. To eat a Rambutan, you hold it in both hands and, with your thumbs, you squeeze down and pull apart at the same time. The skin just splits open, leaving this white fruit inside. It’s got the approximate taste and texture of a grape, but beware the huge seed inside. Anyway, it’s tasty, although I like them chilled, which will brown the hairs a little bit.

So a couple of years ago we were talking about some of the foods I’d heard of, and some I hadn’t, and one of them brought up Balut. They were surprised to learn that I’d actually heard of it, but the only reason I knew anything about it at all was because I’d seen them eating it on Survivor. Balut is basically a working-class street food in the Phillipines, and I’m told that it’s most often sold in the evening from roadside stands. It’s basically a hard-boiled, fertilized and incubated duck egg.

Wha-a-a-t?

You read that correctly. Duck eggs are fertilized and then incubated, so that a duck embryo begins to form inside. The longer the egg is incubated, the more formed the baby duck will be. However, Balut is always eaten while the bones are still soft enough to be eaten whole. You can buy the eggs based on how long they’ve been incubated. The most popular eggs are about 16-18 days old. The egg is then hard-boiled for about thirty minutes and finally plunged into ice water to stop the cooking. The eggs are served cool, or lightly warmed, and usually with beer.

So there we were, chatting about Balut and I’d said something about how I’d heard of it and I thought it would be a cool thing to try. They thought this would be pretty hilarious, and set their plans to get me some Balut. As it happened, their first attempt fell through, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. We were at a staff function and they didn’t realize that I had to leave early. It seemed like the matter was largely dropped. Until…

…this afternoon! One of the teachers came in and said, “By the way, I brought some Balut today, if you still want to try it.” Are you kidding? This is going to be wild! What a break in my otherwise routine day! She went back to her classroom and came back with two eggs, saying we needed a container to warm them up. I broke out my soup mug and we put the eggs into it, then covered them with water and microwaved them to get them warmed up a little. Then I took the cup out to the water fountain and drained off the water. In the meantime, a couple of my officemates gathered to watch the hijinks. The photos, incidentally, were taken by the co-worker who brought in the Baluts.

Eggs in cupCup O’ Baluts.

I had done a little research on how you’re supposed to eat a Balut, and so I had an intellectual idea of what was supposed to happen. The first thing is that you take the egg, which is just a little larger than a typical chicken egg, and turn it “blunt” side up. There’s a little space in there, between the egg’s shell and the top of the cooked embryo. You break out the top of the egg, and there’s supposed to be some broth inside, floating on top.

Tapping it open

If you watch videos of people eating Balut for the first time, they usually just sip it out of the top. And they usually say it tastes just like chicken broth. So here I am in the photo at left, carefully tapping the end off the egg with a fork so I can expose the broth. By the way, my hair is a complete wreck because I just ran a wet brush through it this morning without using any stuff to hold it in place.
No broth inside

Unfortunately, and it’s tough to see in this picture, there wasn’t any broth in the top of the egg. Sad for me, but I was told that that’s not atypical.

Peeling away some more shell So I started peeling away the shell. Inside was essentially textured like a hard-boiled egg, except instead of white albumen, I was treated to a grayish-tan color with blue lines shot through it (proto-veins?), mottled with yellow in spots. I was being careful about removing the shell, and my assistant asked me if I was delaying on purpose. I said, “Yeah, a little.”
About to bite So in this pic the egg is pretty much peeled and I’m about to take my first bite.

One of the reasons I was a little hesitant was that, while I knew intellectually that the egg had been boiled, I somehow hadn’t counted on the egg being so much like a hard-boiled egg. And while I do like eggs, I don’t much like hard-boiled eggs. Ah, well.

One down One bite gone. So far it just tastes like hard-boiled egg. So at this point I opt to add a little salt and pepper to it.
That's duck in there Another bite or two down. See that dark spot in there, the brown area near my thumb? That’s the baby duck. It doesn’t look like much of anything, though.

It’s at this point that my co-worker scrutinized my egg and opined that my egg was roughly 11-12 days into the incubation process.

Jones can't deal My assistant just can’t deal with this. She thinks the whole idea is gross.

Starting to fall apart

At this point there’s maybe one or two bites left, but the different components are also separating, so the whole thing is falling apart. Now the flavor is like boiled egg, but with a definite poultry overtone, too.
One bite left At this point, the only reason I’m struggling with this is because I just don’t dig the hard-boiled egg thing, but I’m determined to finish it. The Balut tastes fine, but the texture of the egg put me off. My assistant gets me a can of Coca-Cola so I can wash it all down (because it’s a little dry, after all).  

I finally take what’s left and shove it into my mouth.

Achievement Unlocked!

So I finally got to try Balut, and that was cool fun. Have you had any weird food adventures?

Why I Was Late to Work Today

Leslie Knope: George, I notice you’re wearing glasses; yet, on the day in question, I don’t recall you wearing glasses. Could it be because you WEREN’T wearing glasses?
George: I never wear ’em on the job.
Leslie Knope: Can you take your glasses off please
[George removes his glasses]
Leslie Knope: and-and read this for us?
George: [George reads the paper in Leslie’s hand] "I could read this…
[Leslie moves the paper away, George reads louder]
George: …if I weren’t so blind!"
Leslie Knope: Well, well, that went terribly.

Parks and Recreation, “The Trial of Leslie Knope” (12/1/11)

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For most of my life, including when I first moved to Baltimore, I had some pretty good vision going on. In fact, I had some pretty great distance vision.

Then, around 2003, I was getting an eye exam and the doctor noted that I was having some trouble seeing smaller print. It was his opinion that I needed glasses to read.

“I’ve had great vision my whole life,” I protested. “What happened?”

He said, “You turned forty, that’s what happened.”

So that’s pretty much the way it goes, it turns out. Around age 40, the lenses in your eyes start to harden—specifically, they become less flexible—and it affects your vision. You need more light to see well, but you’re also more susceptible to glare. And, of course, smaller type becomes a big problem, you should excuse the expression.

Over the 13 years since then, my vision has really deteriorated, to the point where if I’m not wearing glasses, absolutely nothing in my field of vision is clear. I’m pretty sure that if a person with normal vision were to put on my glasses, they could actually see the future.

So this morning I was on my way out of the house, when I heard a loud rumbling nearby. I realized that it was the garbage truck making its rounds, and I realized that I had time to grab the trash I’d neglected to put out last night and get it to the curb. So I tossed my stuff into the car and grabbed the trash bin.

Just as I passed the car, the bin bumped into the front end of the car. I took a stumble and, as I gesticulated wildly to regain my balance (one-handed; I was still holding on to the bin), I accidentally knocked my glasses off my own face. They went flying off; I saw that much. But because of that nearby truck, I couldn’t hear them when they landed, so my echolocation skills weren’t going to help me. Despite this, I figured that if they’d hit the sidewalk I probably would have heard some clattering, and I hadn’t. So I started searching the immediate area. They wouldn’t be behind me because my car was there, plus my head would have been in that pathway. But ahead of me was some sidewalk, to the left, more sidewalk and several potted plants, and to the right was a garden that Wife had put in a few years ago. I started looking through the potted plants, the most likely suspects. Nothing. I looked in the garden. Nothing. I looked (carefully) around the sidewalk and, just for completeness’ sake, under my car. And again I came up empty. Another factor working against me is that it was overcast to the point of being about to rain, so the sun wasn’t shining down and reflecting off the glasses.

At this point I’d been looking for over ten minutes, so I said “To hell with it” and went back in the house to put in my contact lenses. The lenses will get the job done in that I’m able to read most print and drive safely, but a lot of stuff still just isn’t sharp. I wear them to social events and such, but it’s a lot of strain if I try to do computer-based work with them. So now, armed with better vision, I went back outside and looked again for the glasses.

Nothing. What the hell is going on here? How far could they have gone?

I finally had to decide that this was a mystery to solve later on, as I’d been doing this for about twenty-five minutes and I was definitely late for work. So, off to work I went. Fortunately it was not a computer-intensive day.

When I got home, I parked the car on the street rather than in the driveway, and I began searching anew for my glasses. The sun had broken through a little bit, so even though it was now on the other side of the house, it was still brighter out than it had been in the morning. Potted plants? Nope, not in there. On the sidewalk? Nope. On the ground near the potted plants? Nope, even moved them around. In the garden? Appears not.

Damn…Could they have flown across the sidewalk and into the lawn? I started to look that way but gave up quickly, then I came back…

…and there they were, in the garden.

20160901_183000

To the left is the view from where I’d been standing as I did most of my searching. 20160901_183011See my glasses?

Of course not. I know where they are, and I can’t even see them. Now, to the right is the opposite-direction view, taken from about the sidewalk meets the edge of the left-hand photo. Even from this angle, they’re pretty tough to see, but there they are, upside-down in the upper-right quadrant of the picture. You can’t even see the whole thing from that side.

But there they were, and there is where they spent the better part of the day, before I finally located them, almost accidentally.

And as for me, I spent the better part of the day trying to adjust glasses that weren’t there, which meant that I appeared to be saluting a lot.

The Hooker, The Grifters, and Me

Leon Tao: It's not technically a crime to scam a scammer!

Person of Interest, “All In” (3/20/13)

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This has happened to me at least three times while traveling along the I-95 corridor:

I’m in a rest area, usually on my way to or from the rest room, when someone approaches me. Not Pictured: The guy's actual tank gauge. He (it’s always a guy, so far) tells me a story about getting a job up north (usually Pennsylvania is the culprit), and the job didn’t work out, and now he’s on his way back home to Florida/South Carolina/Georgia (it’s always the next state south—even the time I was approached while northbound), and of course they’re short on cash and the car is Running On Fumes (every single one of these cars is Running On Fumes), and could I spare a couple of bucks for gas money?

And because their story is always the same, my response is also always the same: “Well, I don’t carry any cash on me, but if you want to follow me to the next exit, I’m happy to put a few bucks worth of gas into your car.”

Now, the first time this happened, we were in the Georgia Welcome Center headed south. The guy actually said to me, “OK, well ya know, I could do that but I’m afraid that the car’s going to run out of gas before we get there.”

I told him, “If that’s the case then giving you money isn’t going to do you any good, because there’s no gas pump in this rest area. Either way you’re taking that chance, right?” He muttered some noncommital reply and so I said “OK, I guess I can’t help you, then.”

The next time around was in South Carolina, so the guy needed to get to Georgia. It was late at night and I was kind of tired, so I wasn’t really concentrating on what he had to say to me. I do remember that in this variation he was with his wife “in the car way over at the other end.” I gave him the same response and again ended with “Can’t help you, I suppose.” Because there were only a few vehicles in the rest area, I was able to see which car he moved to next, so I pointed him out to an attendant who was passing by: “Hey, you know there’s a guy over there trying to scam money out of people?”

“Oh, he is, is he?” said the attendant. Guy took it pretty personally and headed right over there. I didn’t stick around to find out what happened next because I had to pee (I was in the rest area for a reason, duh).

The third time around was in the Maryland Welcome Center, which, curiously enough, is 36 miles deep into the state. I guess you really have to commit before you’re welcomed in. Night had just fallen, and I was returning to my car from the rest room/vending zone. And the guy came up and gave me essentially the same story with the job, and the returning home, and needing money, and I gave him my stock response. However, this time around he clearly hadn’t encountered that kind of answer before, because he just stood there, looking stupid and stammering for a reply. “Er…ah, um…” I stopped him and, perhaps to help him save face a little bit, said, “You know what? That’s what everybody says when I give them that answer.” He just shrugged and walked away.

So flash-forward to the present, or the near-past, anyway: this past Friday, the weather was supposed to be bad, so nearly everyone in the school left only a few minutes after the students did. As a result, I was one of the last people to leave the building, but not THE last (for a change).

There’s a back door to my school that opens out to the parking lot, and this was the door I used to exit the building. The building has a bit of an L shape to it, and my car was around the bend, so I couldn’t see it. What I could see, though, was a large white pickup truck. And standing next to the truck was a skinny African-American woman, looking at herself in the mirror.

My path out of the building made it look at first as though I was headed for the truck, and she suddenly jumped, telling me that she was just getting a look at herself. She started to walk toward the stairs up to the sidewalk, which was the general area where my car, and a couple of others, were parked.

Kia didn't look as good as this. She told me her name was Nita, and she was going to come into some money in the next couple of weeks, but “in the meantime I do all kinds of odd jobs, you know, clean houses, I paint, I date…anyway, I have to get to [I forget where] down on Patapsco Avenue and I’m a little short on the bus fare, can you spare any change?”

Now, I did catch the code word in that sentence, “date”, which means she’s a prostitute. I’d accidentally picked up a prostitute once before (I thought I’d told that story in this space but I can’t find the relevant post), but that was 13 years ago and I’ve picked up on some of the nuances in that time. So, just for a lark I said to her, “You’re going to Patapsco? I’m headed that way; I’m happy to give you a ride.” (A lie, but I knew where this was going.)

Nita seemed delighted by this, but as we got closer to my car she asked me, “Do you date?” I smiled and shook my head. “Noooo,” I said. “That’s not really my style.”

Go figure; that’s the point where her tune changed. She “suddenly” realized that she had to go up the block to collect her mail; could I wait until she got back? “You mean US Mail? Postal mail?” I asked. She replied in the affirmative, and I told her that I was sorry, but I was already running late and if she wanted the ride we had to leave right away. She thanked me and headed up the steps and on her way.

In retrospect, here’s the weird thing: I actually respect Nita a little bit more than the out-of-gas guys in the rest area. At least she was offering up some kind of service in exchange for the money/ride. The rest area guys had nothing for me.

Escape from a Baltimore City School

Homer Simpson: Cure me! Cure me!
Brother Faith: Brother, I sense you are feeling trapped and desperate.
Homer Simpson: Yeeeah… and I gotta bucket on my head.

The Simpsons, “Faith Off” (1/16/2000)

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(Note: because I don’t use TypePad’s software to write my posts, it wasn’t until I published this post that I realized I’d written the one below. So you can probably skip the first few paragraphs, since it’s the same story and they’re therefore just preamble.)

You’d think one or the other of us would learn our lesson, but no.

I took this picture while hanging halfway out of my car window while parked catercorner from the building. I nearly got my head knocked off by a truck. When I first joined my current school in August, the office I took over was a consummate mess. Slowly I took on the task of straightening it out and triaging the messes within. I’m still not really done, but the worst of it is gone, I think. However, whipping that office into shape AND doing my regular job meant that I put in a lot of extra time. More often than not, I stayed in the building until someone called over the PA system that the building was closing for the night and we had five minutes to high-tail it out. That usually happened somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00.

One fine evening in October, I was working hard, I was on a roll. At 5:30 I started keeping my ears open but just kept on working till the 5 minute warning came. The problem was…

…it never came. I was so buried in what I was doing that I didn’t have a lot of awareness of time going by. Next time I looked up, it was nearly 7:00. I looked out of my office, through the anteroom and into the hallway, which was dark. I, being ridiculously clever, thought “Ooh, this could be a problem.” Sure enough, I went downstairs and that level was dark as well. I walked over to the alarm panel and sure enough, the system was armed.

Not pictured: a timely arrivalBack up to my office, where I turned my computer back on and looked up the number for the School Police dispatcher. I gave her a call and let her know what happened. She, being the consummate professional, replied, “You what?” She promised to contact a sergeant and get back to me, telling me to stay by the phone.

Sitting by the phone wasn’t really a problem, I reasoned, since I’m in my office. But as time went by and the phone didn’t ring, it suddenly occurred to me that unless the call is coming directly to that phone, it doesn’t ring. The display next to the phone button will flash, but it’s not obvious and the phone itself doesn’t ring unless it’s transferred to my line. I called again and they said someone was on the way. I told them I’d be waiting near the front door.

So I get my stuff and I head downstairs and into the school’s atrium. To get there you have to pass through an open set of double doors. From that point you can go in three directions: to the left is the gym, to the right is the auditorium, and directly in front of you is the front doors. They can close the double doors during an “event” to keep people from wandering around the building. As I step into the atrium I hear a beep. But it’s not just a beep. It’s a long, continuous beeeeeeeeeeeeep kind of beep, the kind that says something’s about to happen. I stepped back over to the alarm panel and sure enough: I’d tripped a motion detector that was in the atrium. Well, that’s it, says I. All hell is about to break loose.

About 90 seconds later I could hear an alarm horn going off, very softly. I thought, Great. I’m disturbing the entire neighborhood with this. However, listening more closely I realized that it was actually playing through the PA system and was quite muted. A few minutes after that, a School Police officer showed up at the door. I let him in and then he re-set the alarm, and we left together.

The next day, I learned that the principal hadn’t heard about what happened, so I told her. She actually thought it was a little bit funny, and even by that point, some twelve hours later, I had to admit that it was kind of funny after all. Later in the day I talked to the custodian who usually closed the building. It turned out that before making the announcement he usually looked into the parking lot to see if there were any cars that weren’t his own out there. Because I’d parked in the street in front of the school and not in the parking lot, he didn’t see my car and therefore he thought I was out of the building.

So a few things happened since that day: first, the custodian paged the building every day to give the five-minute warning, things settled down in the office, and perhaps most importantly, Wife’s father became gravely ill. This really affected my schedule, as I had to get Wee One from school more frequently, and many times I actually left school no more than a half-hour after most of the students do. In the meantime, other teachers were staying later and later, as the Seniors needed to work on projects to get themselves completed with their outstanding school work so that they would get to to all the cool Senior activities like Prom and Overnight Trip and maybe even a little thing called Commencement Exercises. This happened a lot in recent weeks especially because of all the snow days we’ve had this year, which means that time is getting short for them that much faster. Some weeks, the school is even open on Saturday mornings for students who want to come in and work on stuff.

My father-in-law died last week, and I wound up missing several days’ work as a result. Consequently I was a little behind the 8-ball, work-wise. So I’ve been putting in some extra time each day. On Friday afternoon, I pondered coming in on Saturday morning, but Wife reminded me of plans that made that tough to manage. So I stayed late and printed out a bunch of stuff that would help me get work done over the weekend.

armedAt one point I looked out into the hall and noticed that it was dark, but shortly thereafter I heard the principal paging someone, so I figured someone just jumped the gun about turning off the second-floor lights. Finally, around 6 I was done. Still early-ish, but not so much that the “building’s closing” page had happened yet. I packed up my stuff and headed downstairs to the first f
loor…

…which was also dark. Son of a bitch. I’d been locked in again.

This time, I went into the main office and sat down at one of the desks. I fired up a computer and looked up the number of School Police. The first time I called, the dispatcher had to put me on hold. After several minutes of waiting, I hung up. A few minutes later I called again. the dispatcher was apologetic and noted that she was the only one on duty. I told her my predicament and she promised to get someone out to the building. I told her I’d be in the main office (no Atrium for me this time, thanks) and sat at the desk surfing the web.

Maybe 35 minutes later, I called her back. This time around, she noted that something was going on and it could be awhile. She suggested I just exit the building, make sure the door is secure and they’d respond to the alarm whenever they can. No problem, says I, and I told her which door I’d be using.

And somehow I managed to trip the motion sensor anyway. The panel was beeping as I left the building. Oh, well.

Ring My Bell

Sue Sylvester: Sandy, how is it that you manage to sneak into this school without setting off all of the fire alarms?

Glee, “A Night of Neglect” (4/19/11)

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I’ve been working in a new school this year, and it’s been a ton of effort on my part.

My office looked approximately like this when I started. The short version is, my predecessor either wasn’t very good at her job, or she mentally checked out sometime around April. Or, perhaps (and more likely) both. Consequently I walked in on both a literal and figurative mess. The office consists of four rooms: a larger anteroom with a conference table surrounded by file cabinets. This is where the students’ Special Ed meetings took place; the file cabinets were filled with records going back to at least 2006. Atop the cabinets were cases of files from before 2006, awaiting destruction. Then there is an office which was commandeered by the Assistant Principal; I don’t know what it was used for last year. The other two rooms were taken up by my predecessor and her assistant. They had separate rooms to work in. Spacious! Except for the fact that all three of the rooms given over to my department were a huge mess. I was clearly going to be working late for several weeks. This doesn’t really bother me; I’m more productive between 3:00 and 5:00 PM than I am the whole rest of the day. And the other upside is that Wee One is a cheerleader in her high school now, so her practices wrap up just a short time after I’m officially booted out of the building by the custodians.

Most schools have two custodial shifts. The first one comes in early, opens the building, makes some rounds, etc. and just ensures that the place is ready to go when everyone else arrives. Then there’s another shift that starts a couple of hours later and is usually responsible for some cleanup stuff that can only be done when nobody else is in the building. The two shifts have a lot of overlap but that’s usually how they go. There are variations of this, of course, but that’s the basic model.

These were the custodians in my high school when I was a student. It was a big building. In my school, the second shift usually ends around 6 PM. Sometimes it’s earlier, like around 5:30, and sometimes a little bit later but not usually by much. When the custodian is ready to go, he gets on the PA system and says, “Attention teachers: the building is now closed.” Click. End of announcement. That’s pretty much my five-minute warning to get my act together and get out. Usually I’m on a bit of a roll at that point but that’s the way the ball bounces. In this respect I’d be happier in a building that closes at 8:00. More often than not, I’m the only person left in the building, although a couple of times I’ve found myself leaving with another teacher.

So tonight I found myself on a bit of a hot streak. I was preparing mailings to go home to parents and I was printing notices on one printer, printing cover letters on another, loading the printer with envelopes and printing the addresses directly on those…I was on a roll, and it was going to be cut short, I just knew it. At some point that announcement was going to happen, and I was going to have to stop, dammit. I started prioritizing the pieces so that the most important ones would be done first.

And then…a little while later…I was done. Done! I’d done them all! I can go home and it’s only…

 

7 o clock

…oh, that can’t be right. Unless maybe the custodian is working late tonight. I looked through the anteroom out into the hallway and realized Hey, that hall’s pretty dark. This might be a problem. So I went downstairs to the first floor and located the school’s alarm panel.

Sure enough, the system was armed. I’d been locked into the building and I couldn’t leave without setting off the alarm.

Fortunately, I’m not the panicky type. I got on the phone and called the School Police. (Yes, Baltimore City Schools has its own police force.)

“School Police Dispatch, this is ______.”

“Good evening, _________, this is Claude at School #NNN. How are you this evening?”

“Oh, I’m fine, sir. How are you?”

(Yes, we really did exchange pleasantries first.)

“I’m well, but I have a problem. It appears that the custodian has locked me in the building and set the alarm. I can’t get out.”

“Oh, my!” she said. “What number are you calling from?” I gave her the number. She then said, “Someone will get to you.”

I asked, “OK, should I go to the lobby of the building then?”

She said, “If you want,” then thought better of her answer and said, “You should stay by the phone.” We hung up and I started packing my stuff.

A few minutes later, it occurred to me that, if the phone should ring, I won’t hear it. The phone in my office doesn’t ring unless a call is being transferred to me. I called the School Police again.

“Hi, it’s Claude, the guy in School #NNN? It just occurred to me that—” the officer who answered the phone immediately handed me off to someone else. For whatever reason I had to explain my predicament again. This time he said “OK, someone’s enroute, they should be there in a couple of minutes.”

“OK,” I said, “I’ll be in the building’s lobby.”

My school has a lobby that can be closed off from the rest of the building by a pair of double doors. This way, you can enter the building and turn right, into the Gym, or left, into the Auditorium, and not enter any other part of the school. The doors are typically open at all hours unless there’s an after-school event in one of those spaces. I went back to the first floor, with my stuff in my hands, and walked past the alarm panel and through the doorway for the double doors.

BEEP!

Uh-oh. I’d forgotten about the possibility of there being motion sensors in the entryway. I’d set off the alarm, and now the panel was waiting for me to enter the code to clear it, which I didn’t know, of course. Every ten seconds the panel would change, telling me how much time I had left to enter the code. You know, when you’re just staring at the panel and waiting for all hell to break loose, sixty seconds can be a long time.

Or maybe this happened. At the end of the minute, I heard a warbling tone, but it wasn’t especially loud. Funny, I thought. I guess the alarm horns are only on the outside of the building. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was actually coming from the PA speakers overhead. For whatever reason, the alarm rang very softly through the PA system. Well, at least I’d called before I tripped the alarm.

Several minutes went by, and still no sign of the School Police. I called them a third time. “Look, I guess there’s a motion sensor down here because I don’t know if you’re aware of this—and judging by the response, you’re NOT—I’ve already tripped the alarm. Can I just leave the building anyway?”

The School Police officer is at the building,  I was told. Just sit tight.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard the sounds of a key in the front door. My hero! I told him what had happened and he cleared the alarm, then re-set it. Then we both had to beat it out of there. How this will play with my principal in the morning, I have no idea. Stay tuned.

Deep In The Heart

C.J. Cregg: USA Today asks you why you didn’t spend more time campaigning in Texas and you say it’s cause you don’t look good in funny hats.
Sam Seaborn: It was "big hats".

The West Wing, “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (9/29/99)

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A couple of weeks ago, my school flew most of the teachers out to a conference located in Salado, Texas.

Salado is about an hour north of Austin and about ten miles past the middle of nowhere. The reason we went there instead of bringing the conference to Baltimore is that the total costs were nearly identical, so why not make it a combination conference and retreat?

Naturally, this kind of event took a whole lot of planning. And the first step was to get us all into Salado. This turned out to be more complicated than anyone suspected, since there aren’t very many flights (if any) that go directly from Baltimore Washington International Airport to Austin Bergstrom Airport. Everyone in our group had to take two planes to get there. And since you’re talking about something like 30 people, we’re also talking about multiple itineraries. And, as it happened, my itinerary (and that of seven others) was one of the less direct ones.

The first leg of our flight was from BWI to Newark Airport. This was the plane we took to Newark:

Plane shown slightly larger than actual size.

I was pretty sure that we were going to see Indiana Jones in one of the seats on this thing. However, the flight—which got off a little late—made really good time and actually got into Newark a few minutes earlier than scheduled. It really wasn’t a bad flight, especially considering that I was in an exit row seat on the aisle, with an Air Marshall sitting next to me. It is, however, a little disconcerting watching the propellers spin up, and later on spinning down again. Also, on this plane you can SEE the wheels retracting.

The flight from Newark was also delayed, as were all westbound flights out of Newark. We were never told why but guessed it was weather-related, given all the storms we flew over. Thunderstorms are pretty cool to see when you’re over them. Once we landed in Austin (12:20 local time), we met up with some folks coming in from another flight and we all got on a shuttle bus to Salado. Where, of course, our driver got lost.

OK, that was kind of mean. That’s not quite what happened. What did happen, however, is that the exit he expected to take was closed because of construction. Out there, it’s a bigger deal than it is here: if you miss an exit, or it’s , the next exit is usually no more than a mile or two and the detour is easy. In that part of the world, the exits are between five and ten miles apart, so we’re losing about 20-30 minutes on the detour. And it’s already 1:30 in the morning (2:30 in our East Coast heads). So the driver took the next exit, drove for a little bit, then had to stop briefly to consult a map and make sure he was on the right track (which he was), then continued to the conference center.

The conference was called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, and it was held at a retreat/conference center called Summer’s Mill. We were even greeted by the sign:

Most of us agreed that

We never saw the scrapbookers; who knows if they were even there.

The whole property consisted of a couple of buildings for meetings and such. The one we were using was open 24 hours and had the best wi-fi signal. There was a kitchen in there that was fully stocked with several different soft drinks (and please, help yourself): Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, regular and Diet Dr Pepper and something called Big Red.  Big Red is, indeed, red in color, but it tastes like what happens when you pour Sprite into your Cream soda. Some of us loved it; others found it to be pretty nasty. I was in the second camp. The conference area itself had an elevated platform for presenters, and the podium area had easy-to-use touchscreen controls for the projectors (there were two, slaved together so far as I could tell, so they both showed the same image), the microphones (up to three), a couple of other inputs (e.g CD, DVD, cassette), and lighting controls. With this last we could turn the fluorescent lights on and off, and run the incandescent lights at any one of four intensity levels. This all came in handy for us later on.

If you bring Pepsi into the room, it's like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. In addition to having free run of the meeting area, there was a game room which was outfitted with a counter and sink, a couple of tables for playing games (provided in the cabinets under the counter), a ping-pong table and an air hockey table. And, as you can see in the picture, the whole thing was decorated in a Coca-Cola motif. Why? We don’t know. Either Coke was sponsoring the space, or someone in charge just liked having Coca-Cola memorabilia. In fact, just out of camera range to the right there was an old, nonfunctioning vending machine that used to serve up bottles of Coke. Off that room was an exercise room, with a pretty good assortment of equipment if you wanted to get a workout. My big complaint about the workout room was that someone had yanked the emergency stop key out of the treadmill, and nobody could figure out how to get it back in place, so that never worked while we were there. The weight room and the game room were also available to us on a 24-hour basis.

Touch the hangers and we'll punch you in the throat. Our rooms looked like motel efficiencies. There were two queen-size beds in each room, a full bathroom with tub, and most rooms had a kitchenette area with a small fridge, microwave and sink. But here’s the kicker: the closets in the rooms had the hotel-style security hangers, the ones with the tops that are permanently attached to the closet rod and a b
ottom part that’s useless anywhere but inside the closet.

Got that? The implicit message of this place is: “Want to use the conference center? By all means, be our guest. Have all the soda you want. Big ice machine, too. Take tons of ice. Fill the tub and steal someone’s kidneys if you like. Use our wi-fi to your heart’s delight. Play any one of dozens of games we’ve provided, anytime of the day or night. Want to work out? Use the weight room, 24 hours a day. Oh! We have bicycles you can borrow if you want to ride around the grounds or maybe explore the area a little bit. Go right ahead, they’re on the rack over there. Of course they’re not chained up.

“But we will be DAMNED if you think we’re going to let you take our hangers.”

So we flew in Monday night and we got right to work on Tuesday morning. Capturing Kids’ Hearts is part staff development and part group therapy, but it’s a pretty cool philosophy and, having seen bits of it in action last year, I’m eager to put the whole thing into action this year.

On Tuesday night, we tried to get a cab to take us into a nearby (= 10 miles) town so that we could lay in a supply of adult beverages, but the cab couldn’t find us, so we were out of luck. We had to socialize in a more-or-less sober state.

This reminds me: you always hear the jokes about how it’s 100 degrees out there, “but it’s a dry heat”. You know what? That’s not bullshit. When I left Maryland it was 95 degrees and just too swampy for anyone to endure; you went outside and all you could think about was going back in. In Texas it was 105 degrees but it took maybe an hour before we were uncomfortable enough to go inside. And one day, I woke up late and went from my room, to breakfast, to the first work session. When we took a break, I went into the bathroom and saw that my hair was a disaster. So I ran back to my room (about 100 yards’ distance) and stuck my head under the sink. Then I hit it quick with the towel to stop the dripping and brushed it. My hair was still plenty wet when I left the room. But when I got back to the conference center, it was bone-dry. Nobody knew that I’d completely wet my head, but everyone noticed that my hair looked much better. Now, THAT’S high heat with low humidity.

On Wednesday, they gave us an “on your own” lunch break and offered us a shuttle into town. This is what the “town” part of Salado looked like:

We see you hiding behind that sign.

Maybe it's a warning to other bikes that might come  along?The cars are parked in front of some stores, but this is about as urban-looking as it got.

The other thing we saw in several places was bicycles, mounted to fences like you see in the picture to the right. We never did find out why that’s a thing in the Belton/Salado area, but apparently it’s a thing. Something we did learn, however, is that there were no adult beverages in this area: it’s a dry town. No liquor, no beer.

What’s that, you say? Could there be a loophole? Indeed there was. Wine was permitted. We found a wine shop connected to a local winery (Salado Creek Winery & Vineyard) and bought about 2/3 of a case, including something they called Lone Star Lemon. It’s like Mike’s Hard Lemonade but it doesn’t taste shitty. In fact, it’s quite the refreshing little wine. And because on paper we were at a “dry” event, the owner was kind enough to mark our box as being full of Live Snakes rather than contraband. Thus, “Snake Juice” became the code word of the day. I’m still not sure who really cared about whether we had any alcohol to drink, but okay.

Wednesday night, therefore, was a little bit of a better-lubricated evening for all of us and a lot of fun was had by nearly everyone. Nobody got sloppy drunk (wasn’t enough to do that), and after some playing of ping-pong and such, we all went back to the conference center for some Karaoke, courtesy of my laptop and the presentation system in the room. People would give me requests, I’d look them up on YouTube and we’d roll the video. Fun!

Thursday was our last day of the conference, and while we’d had a great time and learned a huge deal, we were all pretty much ready to head back home. Once again, there were no direct flights, so after the shuttle dropped us off at Austin Bergstrom Airport, we had to fly to Houston and then to Baltimore. Both flights were on-time and problem-free (see, United can get the job done from time to time), and we were back on the ground at BWI shortly after midnight. 

Next week, it’s Back to School for us, and the kids start on the 27th. For a summer where I wasn’t working, it’s been pretty quick.

Today

Although the truncated school day meant that many people I needed to speak to weren’t available, I still managed to make progress with helping out several schools today.

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Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. The force of character is cumulative. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

If ‘the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tracks,’ then it is more genuine to be present today than to recount yesterdays. How would you describe today using only one sentence?

Hello, Pot? This is Kettle.

Harry: Yeah, I called her up. She gave me a bunch of crap about me not listening to her, or something. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

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Last week, most of the teachers in Baltimore City returned to work. They spent some time putting their classrooms back together (most rooms get taken completely apart during the summer for floor waxing and other maintenance), they began planning for putting together lessons, they took care of a hundred other details. nicked this from here: http://drb.lifestreamcenter.net/Lessons/process_maps Click on the picture to go there. And, in between all of that, there was professional development. The principals put together a few things that they’d like to concentrate on this year, and there were sessions based on those.  If, for instance, you have a youngster in Baltimore City schools this year, look for the word “rigor” to pop up a lot. Also, “attendance”. Schools all over the city took a beating on attendance last year, partly because of the H1N1 flu and partly because of the snow, but Baltimore also seems to have a culture on attendance not being that important. If for no other reasons than it could mean literally thousands of dollars that go directly to your child’s school, it’s very important.

In addition to the professional development sessions that the individual schools put together, there were also city-wide PD sessions that were created by the folks at the Puzzle Palace. I didn’t create one, but a few of my counterparts did, and I helped present it to special education teachers. All thirteen of us in the Networks office teamed up with someone from another office (most of them were from the Nonpublic office) to ensure that the overwhelming majority of special education teachers were given PD on the changes to special education policies and procedures in the wake of the consent decree’s ending, and a new initiative for writing IEP goals and objectives called “One Year Plus”.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of One Year Plus except to suggest that it’s really a common-sense kind of thing, in my head: if you have a boatload of details regarding a student’s current level of academic achievement and functional performance, then you should be able to write appropriate goals and objectives for that student. We all have boatloads of data; we just don’t always document that data. So the key to One Year Plus is documenting the data. This is at the heart of the PD session I presented last week.

I had four groups with which I worked over the two-day period. One of them was incredible: they were interested, they were dedicated, they were smart, and they were genuinely able to grasp the concept and see that there was a concerted effort to present this as a true city-wide initiative. The other three groups were a mixed bag. One woman actually fell asleep twice (TWICE), so there’s an interesting way of expressing your opinion.

Computer lab from Ajitdada Pawar College of Edu. That's what the website says, "Edu", not "Education". Go figure. Because part of my presentation was supposed to take place on-line (a little hands-on training session in using some software), I worked in a computer lab. The room looked much like the one to the right, but let me note that this is NOT the room I was in. However, it’s important to get a handle on the layout of the room before I can tell this little tale. So picture this room with two tables in the middle, several feet apart. Got it? Good. Now, because the room is lined with computers, naturally the early arrivals grab a terminal and want to check email or some such. And really, who am I to complain about that? As long as you’re engaged during the session, do as you like before it starts.

So one woman came in before a session and sat in a corner of the room. She broke out her own laptop, fired it up and then connected it to the City Schools network using her own cord and an available network jack. When we began working, however, she left the laptop in the corner with the lid open. Well…okay. So long as you’re with us.

The problem was, she didn’t stay with us. At one point, about a half-hour into the session, I asked the participants to read a passage and then discuss it in small groups. Instead of reading the piece, she abandoned it on the table and went to her laptop, and started to surf the web. Now, if you’re sitting in a corner of the room with your back to everyone else, all of whom are sitting by the tables in the center, that’s going to catch my attention sooner rather than later. This holds especially true if the entire group (not counting me and my partner) is composed of only nine people.

I walked up to her and stood behind/to the left of her, essentially reading over her shoulder. I didn’t say anything; I just waited for her to sense my presence. This took at least a full minute. Finally, she turned around and looked up at me. I said to her quietly, “You know…your school isn’t good enough that you can afford to be over here.”

“Huh?” she cleverly replied.

“You need to be over there,” I said to her.

“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and she moved to the table.

A moment later, I think what I’d said had finally sunk in. She called me back over to the table. “What was that about my school not being good enough?”

I said to her, “I’ve been to [School XYZ]; I know what kind of reputation they have.”

“Have you been there in the last three years?”

“Oh yeah. There’s been improvement, but there’s still a ways to go.”

Now, this was all done sotto voce; I wasn’t calling her out in a public fashion. Anyway, I’d already engaged this argument much longer than I’d intended to, so at this point I simply walked away to let them finish what they were working on. But she wasn’t done with it. She kept trying to call me back and I kept ignoring her, assisting the people who were working on what they were supposed to be doing. A minute later she broke out a “smart” phone and began furiously texting to someone. Meh, whatever.

I will say this: when she participated, she did a great job, so more’s the pity that she couldn’t let this go. She gave me the stink eye the rest of the session, even when I kept referring back to good points she’d made, and noting immediately when she’d said something that everyone else could benefit from. Nevertheless, when we got to the end of the session, and I handed out the evaluation forms, she couldn’t wait to get her hands on it.

Comments on these forms are rather rare; I’d say about 20-25% of the participants will write something on the forms unless things go especially well or especially poorly.
But needless to say, it was pretty easy to find hers. This is a paraphrasing but it’s pretty close: “He unprofessionally insulted me and the reputation of my school.”

Here’s the thing, though: she’s rather a trusting soul, given that she has to hand the completed form BACK TO ME, with the expectation that I’ll review it (or not) and then turn it in to the folks at the Puzzle Palace without A) destroying it, and/or B) replacing it. I did neither, but I did take the time to point it out to someone and give them the story behind it.

So if my calling her out on failing to pay attention and participate in this exercise was unprofessional of me, then how would she classify her own behavior? And, more importantly…

How does one “professionally” insult a person and the reputation of their school?

Robot Judges

Dr. Dick Solomon: This planet has crossed the line. Assemble the giant robot!
Sally Solomon: Um… we didn’t pack it. You wanted the room for your exercise bike.

–Third Rock From the Sun, “Assault With A Deadly Dick” (4/30/96)

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Recently, Wife and I were recruited to become judges at a robotics competition.

This is me, chatting with one of the students as part of our judging. My judging partner took the pictures.

The Baltimore City Public School system got a Title I grant to provide some extra learning for some of our students. One of the programs that was developed from the grant was a robotics program, which was held at several middle schools and middle-level classes in K-8 schools throughout the city. At the end of the program, the students brought their creations to the State Fair grounds for a competition. There were two grades of prizes to be won: one for the competitions, and another batch of judges’ prizes, based on construction, innovation, a team’s willingness to support other teams, and so on. A couple of prizes were also given out to teachers whose participation was obvious and outstanding during the competition.

So for six weeks, inner-city kids who had probably never dreamed of doing something like this worked on designing, and building, their own robots for competition. Some students took it upon themselves (or the teacher went the extra mile to teach them) and actually did some programming of the robots. (Because six weeks is a relatively short period of time for something like this, they weren’t expected to program their own robots for this event.) Let me tell you, we were looking at some motivated, focused, enthusiastic kids.

IMG_5920

The robots were controlled by remotes each of which had about ten buttons and two joysticks on them, and every switch had some kind of purpose. In the picture here, you can see that the were supposed to pick up the plastic rings and place them over goal posts. They could also get points for hanging off the bars on the ladder in the middle of the playing field. If the robot could reach the green bar, extra points.

As the competition neared the end, students were expected to pair up with another team and their robot for the final showdowns. Consequently the students had to think about their robot’s capabilities and whether they meshed well with their selected partner’s robot. Some robots are good at offense (e.g. scooping up a ring and putting it on the post); others are good at defense (e.g. running interference or removing rings from posts, which is a legal move).

So over the two days, Wife and I (and about ten others) interviewed kids, interviewed teachers, watched the gameplay, then went to a separate building and deliberated for hours over the different prizes. Some of us were interviewed by the Baltimore Sun (I was one of them, but none of the judges’ quotes were used—although my picture did appear in the print edition), a few of us (not me) were interviewed by local TV reporters, and the final robot showdowns, and the awarding of prizes, were all aired on local cable TV (Channel 77, if you have Comcast and live within City Limits). Even Wee One got in on the action, volunteering as one of the people who would re-set one of the playing fields following a match.

It was exhausting, but incredibly fun and I’m hoping that we can do it again next year. My only regret is that none of the robots looked like this:

My micromechanism thanks you, my computer tapes thank you, and I thank you.

Because that? Would have been cool.

Where I Bleed For Baltimore City Schools

Hilda Jones: Everybody should donate to the blood bank. What type are you?
Melvin Jones: Oh, the quiet type. I go to bed at nine o’clock, see a movie now and then, read some books, play checkers…
Hilda Jones: No! I mean what kind of blood have you?
Melvin Jones: Red.

Sailor Beware (1952)

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Today, despite it being my last vacation day for the time being, I went to the Puzzle Palace to donate blood.

I’d made the appointment awhile back, not realizing that it was also going to be a day that I wouldn’t be at work. Ah well, what are you going to do. Fortunately I’d set the appointment as being first thing in the morning, so the rest of the day would be available to me (even if I was working).

I nicked this artwork from the Frederick Red Cross. If my blood drops all looked like that, it'd be pretty cool. Also pretty creepy. Donating blood is a goodness, it’s an act of kindness, it’s a mitzvah. And the Red Cross Blood Services people are glad to have you come by and make the donation. Some quick facts:

  • A single pint of blood can save three lives.
  • Every two seconds, someone needs a blood transfusion.
  • 5,000,000 patients need blood every year. That’s just in the United States.
  • Less than 38% of all people are eligible to donate blood. If you’re giving blood, you’re special!
  • Making you more special: only 3% of eligible donors actually give blood.
  • Despite what they say on that HBO Show, blood can’t be manufactured. It can only come from donors.

OK, lecture over. The bottom line is, they usually go to some effort to make you glad you came. However…

…I’m on a phone list somewhere, so if it’s been awhile since I’ve donated, the blood bank will call and ask me to come in and donate. There are blood donation centers all over the place, so location-wise they’ve always been pretty convenient to me. The bad news is, when I make an appointment over the phone, it’s rarely kept. I’m treated like any other walk-in. So my expected one hour “door-to-door” time is usually two hours, or occasionally even three, which is totally crazy. Therefore, when the call comes, the conversation usually goes like this:

Blood Bank: There’s a critical shortage and we need your help blah de blah…
Me: I’m happy to donate; find me a blood drive please.
BB: Oh—well, uh, there’s a donation center in White Marsh and they’re open—
Me: No no, you don’t understand. When I go to the donation center, they don’t keep the appointment. Find me a drive, please.

Some of them are surprised by this, but they do find a blood drive and I go wherever they send me, which is its own brand of fun.

Baltimore City Schools has a drive every few months, and unless there’s a good reason I can’t, I’m usually there to donate. Oftentimes there’s practically a welcoming committee there, and you’re shepherded through the process and generally pampered, where they bring the beverage to you while you’re still bleeding out into the tubes. And usually someone from Central Office is around to make sure all is well and to give out some random token goodies, like some pens, or Post-it notes, or some such. This would be in addition to whatever the Red Cross happens to be giving away to the donors that day. It’s not a big deal but it’s a touch of nice.

What's fun about this photo, to me, is that so many self-portraits on the Internet involve a truncated forearm looking back toward the face. This is the reverse angle. I'm SO artistic! Today, however, was a little different. When I got there, they were still setting up a little bit; that’s okay, it’s early. Then the computer they use to check people in and do the health survey got a little wonky with the person ahead of me, then there was some other weird wait and I wound up being the only guy in the actual donation area while a half-dozen people piled up behind me. And at the end, the person taking my blood ran through the usual perfunctory speech in a perfunctory manner and pointed the way to the table at the end of the room. So I sat there alone, munching the chocolate chip cookies and watching them get other people started on their donations. Beverage? There was none. Nobody offered me one, nobody told me where one could be found (I’m a big boy; I can get my own if you tell me where they are). And nobody from Central was on hand.

Which is fine, given that I am, after all, on vacation and don’t need to talk any more shop than I have to.