Friday, November 25, 2011

The Turkey That Ate St. Louis

I received this email from a colleague on Thanksgiving eve, and I thought it'd be worth re-sharing this holiday season.

 This seems to be an auspicious occasion on which to introduce the first years (and perhaps others) to one of the department's greatest artistic achievements-- Seth Shostak and Bob O'Connell's searing masterpiece ``The Turkey that Ate St. Louis''. (Unfortunately, only the trailer was completed.) The actors were mainly graduate students in radio astronomy [at Caltech]-- except for Jesse Greenstein who plays Walter Cronkite. The locations were OVRO, Lake Street, and the Caltech Campus. Seth was already obsessed by movies when he came to Caltech. However, his first major effort ``The Teenage Monster Blob from Outer Space, Which I Was'' (1967) was neither a critical or a commercial success. In fact after its first and only showing, O'Connell remarked ``Gee, Seth that sure was a Turkey''. It was this chance observation that inspired Shostak's greatest accomplishment in the world of film:


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Caltech Wins Home Opener!

I attended the Caltech men's basketball home opener last night in historic Braun gymnasium, a.k.a. the Beaver Lodge. Okay, it's not also known as that. At least not yet. Prof. Geoff Blake and I made it up while watching the first half.

The Beavers had an amazing first 10 minutes against Pacifica College, with Mike Edwards and Frosh point guard Bryan Joel raining threes as if shooting free throws. The problem was that Pacifica kept hitting layups. I have no idea how a team composed entirely of guards was able to work the ball into the paint so often and easily, but I'm pretty sure Pacifica made it the entire first half without hitting a jumper.

To be sure, their guards were bigger than Caltech's guards. And faster. And generally more athletic. In fact, to be perfectly honest, only a few of the Caltech players look like basketball players at all, at least in the strictest sense. However, the Beavers have no want for hustle and heart, and watching them progress through their offensive sets makes it clear how well Coach Eslinger and his staff prepare the players each week. If you like team ball, fundamentals and...suspense, the Beavers are your team!

Speaking of suspense, with 1:30 to go, Pacifica ball, the game was tied at 60-60. As Prof. Blake noted, one-possession games were the Beavers' downfall all last season. Bryan Joel stole the ball, took off on a fast break, and got fouled on the layup attempt. Joel went to the line for the Beavers' first free throw attempts of the game (!), missed the first and hit the second. Pacifica then worked the ball in low, with their point guard hitting a running bank shot to put Pacifica up 62-61 with 0:40 to go. Caltech worked the ball in low to Alex Runkel, who backed into the post, and...oh crap!...lost the ball.

The ball started rolling between his legs and out of bounds, he reached and grabbed it, tried to call timeout and then all hell broke loose. I don't know what happened, but a very angry Pacifica player was pulled out of a pile of 5-6 players and restrained by his team mates, while Alex walked away to the other side of the court. After 5 long minutes of deliberation, the refs called an unidentified non-shooting foul (I think), giving Tech the ball out of bounds under their hoop, with 6 seconds on the shot clock, 16 seconds on the game clock.

The ball went in to Alex. He passed it to Ethan Boroson. Ethan?! the crowd seemed to gasp and ask in that brief second of time. He had zero shot attempts all game. I groaned. Alex, why'd you pass? But Ethan calmly banked the ball in from 6 feet with no time left on the shot clock. I can still see the calm look on his face as if he were just shooting around alone in the gym. The packed crowd went berserk. Geoff and I were jumping up and down like a couple of kids. But wait, there were 10 seconds left on the clock.

Pacifica's point guard, #1, quickly advanced the ball to mid court. However, the well-coached Beavers were waiting for him and his team mates, overloading the court to his favored right side. He crossed over, dribbled right to the baseline, elevated to shoot and...was blocked! Caltech recovered the blocked shot. Beavers win! Beavers win!

It was an exhilarating finish to a well-played game. Sure the Beavers had too many turnovers, too few free throws, and gave up too many layups to 6-foot-few guards. But they executed a well-orchestrated offense, rebounded the ball well, and won their first nail biter of the season.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy UC and Police Brutality and Hope

In case you missed it, students at UC Davis recently held a nonviolent protest in solidarity with students at UC Berkeley, as inspired by the Occupy movements nationwide. At both campuses students erected tent cities, and in both cases the police, fully clad in riot outfits, came in to forcibly clear the tents and arrest the protesters. Here's the sad, sickening video of UC Davis college students getting pepper sprayed by a callous, abusive cop:

These are students exercising their First Amendment rights. These are not trouble-makers. They are not threatening anyone's safety. They are US citizens, or at least here legally to earn an education. Many of them take U.S. history classes that teach them about our constitutional rights, and about how wonderful and free our country is.

As I watched this video, a few questions come to mind:
  1. Who ordered the police onto campus in riot gear? No matter who made the call, the chancellor is ultimately responsible for this act. A brave, junior professor recently wrote an open letter to Chancellor Linda Katehi calling for her resignation. It's hard to argue with his reasoning. A snippet is pasted below. I honestly don't know if I'd be this brave if such an incident occurred on my campus. I hope I could be...
    On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”
    I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”
  2. Where are the libertarians? Where are the anti-tax, constitution-worshiping, tea-partying, "true" Americans? Why weren't they standing around brandishing their constitutionally guaranteed firearms, keeping the police at bay? Or is only one amendment important?
  3. Where are the Christians? I'm sure there are followers of Christ interspersed among the OWS protesters, but where are the mega churches? Why haven't they mobilized in defense of the poor and the oppressed? Why is it that they come out in droves to deny law-abiding citizens the right to marry, but they sit on their hands (or SUVs) when it comes to economic injustice or the oppression of the rights of others? Or is this sort of thing less important than this sort of thing? Again, I'm sure that there are many individual Christians are sympathetic to the plight of the poor. But where are Rick Warren and his thousands of followers? (Here's a Google search of his website for "Occupy Wall Street.")
  4. I really wonder what those cops must have been thinking with the chants of "Shame On You" rising all around them. I'm sure most of them justify it in their minds somehow. But, still, I wonder how many of them really felt shame. For those of them who did, I feel sorry for them. What other job options might they have during these times? What else could they do but follow orders and clock in for work the next day? I'd really hate to be one of them trying to look my kid or my wife in the eye at night. But at the same time, wouldn't I be happy to have a job?
  5. This response by the students at UC Davis is amazing, encouraging, and somehow exhilarating. Could this have played out any more dramatically and appropriately if it had been written into a movie script?

Over the past year I've found myself extremely pessimistic about our country when I think in national terms. We live in a time of endless wars against abstractions such as drugs and terrorism. Funding for education, social services and science continues to drop nation wide while our country's leadership searches for new countries to bomb and invade. Three weeks of war in Afganistan would cover California's deficit and provide for its public schools, public works, and social services for the poor; a little over 2 weeks would pay for the James Webb Space Telescope. We live in a country in which the amount of taxes avoided annually by a single corporation would fund NASA's science division (the corporation in question got a refund instead). We have a congress completely ill suited to deal with our country's economic problems because they have been purchased by the same people who wrecked our economy while escaping prosecution.

However, I'm deeply encouraged once again when I think locally about my family, my neighbors, my colleagues, the students in my department and their heart for education and outreach. Somehow people on scales of dozens can be good in the truest sense of the word. Yet when gathered by the millions, peaceful protesters get pepper sprayed and arrested for peacefully protesting economic injustices. Wars are waged, both externally and internally. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the first national movement that I've felt hopeful about. It's the first to take the goodness of my local surroundings and focus it on a large, effective scale. I'm also encouraged by its aims: to bring attention to the extreme income inequality in the U.S. To bring attention to the fact that the American Dream is an abstraction. As sad as that first video is, the fact that the students linked their arms even tighter and stood in the face of such brutality fast gives me hope. They truly believe in what they are doing. I wonder if I could be that courageous.

This is about the most cogent thought I can muster at the moment. I don't have all my thoughts worked out yet. Part of me wonders how novel my fear of the degradation of our rights is, and how much it resembles some 35-year-old living in 1960, or 1901, or 1870. But another part of me just can't rest easily with what's happened in our country since 9/11. I dunno. I'll keep thinking on it...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Erin's adventures in Community Service

Three months ago, after a great deal of beating around the bush, I pulled my resume together, wrote a mission statement and threw my hat in the ring for the Class of 2012 for an organization called Leadership Pasadena.  While the decision to do so was fueled by encouragement of friends and family, the desire to step out of my comfort zone (being a stay-at-home-mom)was certainly lacking. Boy, has stepping out of that comfort zone been empowering!

Leadership Pasadena was started in the early 1990s by a group of community members who wanted to address the issue of gang violence in Old Town (which was quite different than the Old Town of today). In examining the issue, this group recognized the need to address critical and often controversial issues in the greater community of Pasadena.  I am now one of 14 members of the Class of LP12.  Our collective passion is a desire for facilitating community connections.  My passion is creating an excellent educational experience for my children and for ALL children in my community.

Deciding to put the boys in public school in Pasadena was and is a choice.  A choice that John and I made as adults, parents, friends, and professionals who value equal access to education for all.  In the last two years, we have been challenged in even very casual conversations to defend this decision, because it is not a conventional one in our community.  Today, forty percent (40%!) of school aged children in Pasadena go to non-public schools (private, parochial, charter, homeschool).  Many families never set foot in a public school or even consider doing so because in Pasadena, "the public schools are bad".  A number of real estate agents will encourage their clients to consider buying only in choice neighborhoods because of a particular school.  Other agents have made statements to individuals like myself to "look in South Pasadena or La Canada, where the schools are better" or further "avoid buying a home in Pasadena because the resale value of your home won't hold due to the poor public schools in Pasadena".  Even friends without children looking at property here have had similar experiences.

What does this say about our community?
What does this say about our city?
What does it say about the children who ARE in public schools in Pasadena?
What does it say about community definitions based on race and class?

I'm asking myself and you, readers, all of these questions so that together we can work to change things. I know that PUSD schools can be great.  Public will to allow ALL children in Pasadena access to the vast resources within our community is the only thing keeping them from greatness.

It's tough for middle class families to consider stepping out of their comfort zones and surrounding their children by a diverse set of peers.  As I've personally learned, again & again, no great good comes without risk.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Owen: Reading Machine

Modern day pen-pals, I guess. Owen's first grade Dual Language Immersion class often communicates with other classes around our country.  Only they don't write letters and send them by snail mail like we used to.  His class uses skype!  Today, Owen had the honor of reading Book Fiesta to a class of fourth graders in Michigan who has just started taking Spanish one day a week, so Owen's class got to show off their bilingual skills today.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Over dinner tonight, Erin recounted the following Mar conversations (Marversations):

Conversation 1
Mar: Mom, you can't stand up to go pee. Only me and Owen can. You can't stand up to pee because you don't have a penis. Moms don't have penises. But i know a mom who does have a penis

Erin: Really?!

Mar: Yeah, really.

Erin: Who?!

Mar: His name is Clarence Simmons and he is a good guy and he is a mom. For real.

(We don't know anyone named Clarence or Simmons.)

Conversation 2
Mar, Owen and their friend Mila are jumping on the trampoline.

Owen: Mila, are you allergic to peanut butter?
Mila: No
Owen: Okay, then you can have a peanut butter sandwich, too!
Mar: But no. I don't want one. I'm allergic to sharing.

(This is, indeed, a fact. Mar is allergic to sharing...and quite often allergic to manners, too)