Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Days, Four States, Three Universities: 866 Miles

Karen, Colleen and I took a road trip this weekend and visited universities in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Christina stayed with a school chum with whom she was completing a project.

Karen had a half-day in-service on Friday. I took a half-day of vacation and she drove from Lewes to Dover (39.3 miles) to pick me up after lunch. We then drove to Wilmington Friends School for Colleen's lacrosse game. We had to detour around a traffic mess on I-95; 295 had had to be closed for emergency repairs and that backed-up 95 and parts of SR 1. Luckily I was able to call my friend Kim, who lives up there. She navigated us around the mess, but it added to the drive (56.6 miles).

We got to meet the head of the Wilmington Friends Upper School. Rob Lake is a very nice young man, knowledgeable about lacrosse and popular with his students. We enjoyed our short chat.

It was a great game. The Sussex Tech girls led for much of the game, but Friends came back late and won it 11 to 10. It was a tough loss, but I think the team learned a lot.

After the game, we headed south on I-95 through Baltimore, past Washington DC and Richmond to Colonial Heights, Virginia (243 miles). It was a tough drive. it rained from south of Washington all the way down Virginia. Quite hard, at times. We reached our hotel in Colonial Heights at about midnight and crashed.

We were up early Saturday morning and headed south on I-85 to Durham, North Carolina (138 miles). We reached Duke University in plenty of time before a 10:00 a.m. information session. We followed that with a campus tour.

Duke is a cool school. We spent most of our time on the side of campus with Gothic architecture. Another part is Georgian. It's a beautiful place, even on a grey, wet day. We were particularly impressed with the chapel at the center of things; it is impressive outside and in, and surrounded by charming walks. I liked Duke. If Colleen wants to apply there, that would be fine.

Saturday afternoon, we drove down to a Holiday Inn near the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill (9.9 miles). This morning we drove around the UNC campus. It was a quiet time; I assume most students were either at church or sleeping off their Saturday nights. We drove across to Raleigh (25.8 miles) where we also drove around the campus of North Carolina State.

From Raleigh, we drove back to Lewes by way of Norfolk, Virginia, the Bay Bridge Tunnel, and long empty stretches of Virginia and Maryland (354 miles).

It was a long weekend, but fun in its own way. And we got to see a few more campuses and think about where Colleen might go to school.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This is What An Apology Should Look Like

Cape Henlopen School Board member Nobel Prettyman has a letter of apology in the Cape Gazette newspaper today. It refers to an incident recently in which Mr. Prettyman lost his cool and spoke his emotions more than his mind. The politics of the District, and the details of that incident, are not what interests me here. I wanted to highlight the following letter because it is, I think, what an apology from an elected official, or any leader, should look like.

I've taken the unusual step of posting the whole thing here, rather than just linking to the Gazette's letters page, because that page is not a persistent link; letters cycle off the page week to week.
Prettyman: “My behavior was totally unacceptable.”

I am a Cape Henlopen school board member because I desire for our young scholars to receive the best education possible. I have always voted with the best interests of the young scholars in mind. I am passionate about the issues before the school board.

Recently, my behavior has not lived up to the high standards at which I wish to serve. I speak specifically to the events that took place at the March 3 owners meeting. Not only was my behavior not of a high standard, but by any reasonable evaluation, my behavior was totally unacceptable. I wish I could take my offensive words back.

Unfortunately, I cannot. All I can do is apologize for my behavior and pledge not to repeat it.

When I read the article in the Cape Gazette, I cringe at the way my words must appear to the readers. I cannot blame anyone if, after reading this article, they made judgments about me. However, please do not draw any conclusions about my character based solely on a news report. A news article cannot convey my intent. In my heart of hearts I did not intend for my remarks to be taken in a racial manner. Furthermore, I did not intend for them to pit one part of the Cape community against another. I truly and deeply do apologize if my actions and words have offended anyone. I will take all the steps necessary to ensure this behavior is not repeated.

If my words were hurtful to any board members, I apologize to them for any pain I caused. I would be willing to take any training available to board members to help establish a better working relationship with my fellow board members. Since I am an elected official, I apologize to my fellow board members, district employees, citizens, parents and most especially to the young scholars.

I, Noble Prettyman, Cape board member, deeply regret that my words have distracted the district from the important business of educating our young scholars. In the future, I pledge to have the high standards expected of a Cape board member. As usual, I am available to any member of the community for input and discussion by email to or at 302-684-2658.

Noble Prettyman
Agree with Mr. Prettyman on the issues, or disagree, but the bottom line is that this is how a leader should conduct himself when in the wrong. I hope that I have the courage to conduct myself this way if and when the need arises.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Good Day in Delaware

Delaware's General Assembly made me proud today; they stood up for equality. At least some of them. A little.

First, the State Senate beat back an attempt to enshrine homophobia in the state constitution. They voted down a bill that would have added language outlawing gay marriage (already banned in the Delaware Code, unfortunately) to the state's constitution. It would have been the first part of a several-step process to amend the constitution.

Later, the State House approved a bill to add sexual orientation to the list of things for which you cannot be discriminated against. (I think I wrote that correctly). Similar legislation has passed the State House in the past and died in the Senate, but there's a new feeling around and maybe this time it will pass there as well.

There was a rally outside Legislative Hall this afternoon of people in support of banning gay marriage and against outlawing discrimination against gays. It rained on them.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Second Golf Game of 2009

I played another practice round at Midway Par-3 this afternoon. Unlike last time, I didn't keep score. This is simply because I forgot to grab a score card after paying my greens fees. I tried to keep track of where I was, relative to par from hole to hole, but I was again playing two balls on each hole and by the 8th I was confused.

I was not as happy with my iron play today, and my putting is still pretty bad. But I had a few pars and at least one birdie. And I hit a few wedge and nine-iron shots that looked just right.

Midway Par-3 is a very egalitarian place. It's not the most well-kept course, but it is a pleasant 18 holes and it's great to see couples and families and kids out learning the game. And it was warmish today, with buds starting to add just a touch of green to the trees.

All things considered, it was a nice way to spend a part of the afternoon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Remembering a Grandparent's Adventures

volcanic eruptionThere was an undersea volcanic eruption in the western Pacific, near Tonga, this week. The Boston Globe's The Big Picture offered a set of fascinating photographs of an island being born from the eruption. The image at right is from that collection.

Scrolling through these pictures brought my mind back to a series of letters written by my Grandmother in which she described a similar eruption that sprang up in the Galapagos Islands, in the eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America, in the spring of 1925.

My grandmother, Isabel Cooper, was an artist. Starting in 1917, she made seven voyages with the naturalist William Beebe to Central and South America, and surrounding equatorial seas, to study animals and plants.

This was in the days before color photography. My grandmother, as the expeditions' “scientific artist,” produced detailed color paintings of the flora and fauna of the Amazonian jungle, the Galapagos Islands, and the open ocean. The image at left is from The Arcturus adventure: an account of the New York Zoological Society's first oceanographic expedition (1926, Putnum). It shows my grandmother at work on the Arcturus, painting a live fish.

During the 1925 voyage, she wrote a series of letters to my grandfather, Charles Mahaffie, who she had met the previous winter and with whom she would carry on a nearly three and a half year courtship – mostly by letter. We are lucky to have these letters in a collection edited by my father.

On Easter Sunday (April 12) of 1925, she wrote from the Arcturus:
I have put in some peculiar Easters: fire at sea five years ago; shooting rapids of the Mazaruni River last year; etc. But this time is the prize. What do you suppose has gone and happened out here in this “ash heap of the world?” Blooming volcano has broken loose, erupting all over the place. Rather decent of it to pick just this time to do it, as we are probably the only people anywhere around for a few hundred miles to observe it.
They had been anchored in Darwin Bay, at Tower Island (now Isla Genovesa), when “the night watch noticed a faint glow in the direction of Albemarle Island [Isla Isabela], about sixty miles away.” When morning came they began a voyage of a day and night, across the span of the Galapagos Islands, to reach the volcano.
We got to the scene of the eruption early this morning, after the wildest possible night. You couldn't sleep. It was too exciting, steaming slowly toward the first active volcano that any of us had seen.
They watched the eruption from off-shore. I think it differed from this week's eruption in that it was on an existing island and featured less explosive activity, but perhaps more lava flow. A small group went ashore and trekked close to the crater. That was probably a foolish thing to do, as she describes their return “in very bad shape.”
Legs full of cramps, from walking on hot lava, I suppose. And all symptoms of bad thirst, tongues swollen, etc. They finished their canteens in the first mile. They ran into some pretty poisonous gases, which they couldn't smell, but which made them sick.
In spite of this, she had wanted to go ashore, if only at the edge of the island, but was not allowed. And she wanted to try to capture what she was seeing:
I tried to make a sketch of the thing: memory sketch of the red clouds and generally hellish aspect at night, as well as the really beautiful colors of the craters by daylight, but have arrived at the conclusion that it can't be painted. Usually takes a good whang on the head to convince me that I can't accomplish something that appeals to me to do, but this time I give up.
They watched the volcano through Easter night and into the following Monday morning before returning to their work. At midnight she wrote:
We have spent the whole evening looking at the crater – flames popping up here and there and most incredible clouds rising out of it and turning all kinds of red. The moon is just about two days past the full, but enormously bright, and adds to the general strange effect.
It's a large world we live on. We in the internet age are used to seeing images instantly from around the globe. We have become used to what in earlier generations would have been strange, fascinating, and special.

My grandmother's time was modern, of course; the voyages of the Arcturus were transmitted by radio (The “wireless”) and reported in the newspapers in New York. But these were just the “when” and “where” details and brief descriptions. The bright colors and fantastic shapes of alien plants, animals and fish needed the work of artists to be brought back to the home-bound public.

So as we page through yet another collection of photos from the other side of the world, or watch a YouTube video from some far frontier, we should try to remember that, at one time, even the other end of our nation was an expedition away.

What we see as “a small world, after all” is really a vast place deserving of respect and wonder. We should not let the ease of access we have inherited blind us to the size and diversity of our planet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sometimes I Wonder If I Really Understand This Internet Thing

I took this photo on Sunday evening as I was finishing preparation of our dinner. I had put together a stir-fry of chicken and peppers and zucchini (with as much garlic as I felt I could get away with). I cooked it just lightly in olive oil with a dash of beer. In this photo, it is ready to put over brown rice.

I took the picture because I liked the collection of colors on the stove. I posted it to flickr and pretty much forgot about it.

Until this evening (Tuesday), when I poked my head into my flickr account and found that this little photo has been viewed 149 times in the last two days. That
is an unusually large number of views in such a short time for a picture of mine. More surprising is the fact that all of those views apparently were on Monday.

I've had popular shots before, but usually they are the sorts of things that you would expect to attract attention (the Hooters billboard that fell-over in a high wind, for example).

Why this one? I have no idea.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Reality Check" Report

I went to Milford this evening to attend what may have been the last "Reality Check" budget presentation of the season. These are the sessions in which Governor Markell, or his top folks, present the hard truth about Delaware's budget situation to us, the people of the state, and ask for our ideas.

Governor Markell was not able to attend this evening. He's still sitting shiva for his father, who passed away a few days ago. Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee filled in, and was joined by the Milford area's State Senator Gary Simpson and State Representatives George Carey and Bob Walls. Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson was there, and I am fairly sure there was some Milford School District officials as well.

There wasn't really new news from this evening. We're all well aware of how dire our situation has gotten. We face a large budget deficit in the current fiscal year and a huge hole next year. And those holes are only getting deeper according to reports from today's meeting of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, which officially estimates how much revenue we'll have to work with.

I wanted to attend at least one of these so that I could hear the reactions of people in the room to the news, and hear the ideas of those people. Here's some of what I heard:
  • "All taxes are on the table, except for a sales tax." That was Sec. Kee paraphrasing the Governor when asked about adding a sales tax in Delaware. Some of the elected folks offered light-hearted reminisces about being told to "sit down and shut up" when they broached sales taxes years ago. They also noted, more seriously, the risk that a sales tax would pose to Delaware retailers, who now depend on shoppers taking a break from the sales taxes in surrounding states.
  • Delaware's "Rainy Day Fund," the small part of each budget that is required to be held in reserve, won't really help. It is only $180 million -- a small part of the hole -- and would have to be repaid, by law, within a year.
  • One gent's prepared list of ideas:
    - Close the toll by-pass at the canal bridge
    - Privatize grass cutting along the highways
    - Privatize the Indian River Marina
    - Privatize the state hospitals

  • Another gent called for an expansion of the use of retired professionals in volunteer projects such as mentoring small businesses.
  • One fellow said that he has a home in New Hampshire, near water, for which he pays a property tax of around $10,000 a year and that that tax has not driven him away. He suggested we look to how New Hampshire manages to do that.
  • The (pre-today's-DEFAC) hole estimate for next year comes out to about $2,000 household. It was suggested that many of us might be willing to "write that check." Or, maybe we can find 100 rich people to donate a million each.
  • That led to memories of WWII and war bonds. "Why not sell savings bonds?"
As things wrapped up, Senator Simpson and Representative Carey, both Republicans, made a point of praising Governor Markell, a Democrat, for his bipartisan approach to the budget problem and openness to working together. They pointed out that Sec. Kee is one of several republicans in the Markell cabinet.

Representative Walls, a Democrat, added this: "I am not for Democrats or Republicans; we have got to work together."


Sunday, March 15, 2009


I had a call the other day from a local government PR guy. He had decided to add local bloggers to his news release e-mail list and wanted my e-mail address and my thoughts (I used to be in that business, many years back).

I had the sense that he made the change only grudgingly. Local bloggers, here as elsewhere, enjoy criticizing government and have become something of a source for the public. Rather than ignore them, or fight them, he had decided to offer his employer's point of view directly to them. I think that's a good idea.

But this new relationship won't be the same as that between PR folk and the traditional media. The difference is the activity of reporters. Reporters are trained in researching and questioning what they get from the PR folks. And they bring a cultural proclivity towards balance and objectivity to their work. At least, we hope all these things are true of reporters. Most bloggers tend to come from other traditions and start with a clearly subjective point of view, one that is not usually threatened by much research or questioning. (Yes, I know, there are expectations)

I was reminded of this as I read a fascinating piece by writer and internet-thinker Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, which examines the issue of "The Death of Newspapers" that is so much discussed these days (and seems to cry out for capitalization). In it, Shirky explores the idea that we are now (and will be for a while) between the end of one era (ad-supported paper publication of news) and the maturity of another (we have no idea what it will be, but it is starting now).

And he makes this statement, which I think is true:

Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

There's nothing wrong with bloggers, or the roles that we play. We should criticise and cajole government, industry, and the public, from our own subjective standpoints. We should explore and discuss the world around us. But we cannot, and should not, replace reporters and the work that they do.

In fact, for blogging to work well, we depend on reporters to do what Shirky calls "society’s heavy journalistic lifting."
...from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case.
When we bloggers attempt to comment on what we call "the news" through our own direct experience, we run a large risk of getting things wrong -- missing minor details that bring the big picture into focus -- or missing things altogether. But when we have the work of journalists to build on and react to, we can fill a valuable roles as commentators.

So my friend in government PR should send his news out to the bloggers. It can't hurt and may help spread word on stories deemed too small by the newspapers or TV stations. But he shouldn't -- and won't -- expect bloggers to take-over the role now filled by reporters working for shaky "old media" institutions. We still need them, even if we're not as willing to subsidize their work.

This will make for an interesting period of time as we transition from the old model to a new model that we may not yet be able to imagine.
...there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
Should be fun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Short Report from a Delaware Education Workshop

Karen and I drove up to Dover this evening for a workshop with Delaware Education Secretary Lillian Lowery and Chad Robinson, a legislative advisor from Lt. Governor Matt Denn's Office.

This was one of the Back to School Briefings set up to get input on the reform plan for Delaware's schools. Tonight's meeting was focused on the proposal to replace the Delaware State Testing Program (the hated DSTP) with a new test that better measures individual student progress.

There were about 20 people there. They included parents, teachers, school administrators, teacher's union staff, Department of Education staff, and legislators. There was also a young man in the sixth grade, a scout who came with his father as part of his effort to win a merit badge in Government. And there was a college student who had been through Delaware's school system. I give great credit to both Secretary Lowery and Mr. Robinson for their including both of these students in the conversation and for asking, and really wanting to hear, their opinions.

As I understand it, the idea is to have a more flexible test that students take at the start and end of the school year. This would be a test that can be "tuned" to individual students, find their individual starting point at the beginning of the year and measure their progress through the year. It could be used to help guide instruction instead of as a simple flat-line measure of whether or not the student has learned what is required in the standard.

That's the framework. The workshops that are now under way are meant to gain input on the idea and guide the drafting, over time, of the new program. There was good conversation for two hours. The discussion got a little education-wonky; there were some leaders in the teaching professions in the room. But everyone had something to contribute and we covered a lot of ground. It was a very positive session.

I like this approach; it's the same sort of thing Governor Markell has been doing on the budget issue. It is taking the discussion to the people and honestly seeking input.

I think of this as the start of "Delaware 2.0".

Sunday, March 8, 2009

First Golf Game of 2009

I played my first golf of the year this afternoon. It was a practice round at the local par-3. I hadn't even been to the driving range yet, so this was a cold start.

I played at Midway Par 3, which is an older course and not as well-kept as it might be. But it is inexpensive and relaxed and nearby. It was the first course I tried when I started to play this game as an adult, and it is a nice place to try out the swing at the start of the season.

I played two balls on each hole. Playing two let me try different different swings and clubs and approaches. I also kept two scores; my good ball score and my bad ball score. Neither score was great.

My best-ball score was 65. The bad score was 81. This is a par-54 course, so there's no bragging here. still, for a first time out on the season, I was pretty happy with my short-iron play. I still need to learn to judge which club for which distance better; this sort of practice round can help with that.

What was not good was my putting. I need to slow down on the greens and think about putts before I try them. I have a tendency to rush this part of my game. It's not a good approach.

It's wild to think that a week ago we were watching the start of the season's largest snow-fall. Today I walked a round of golf in shorts and a polo shirt.

This posting of scorecards on-line is a new thing, by the way. I'm not sure whether or not to continue the practice during this year's golf season. It is the transparent thing to do, but it may become painful. Also, I can't tell how any golf partners I may play with will like the idea.

We'll see.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What the Hell Do They Think That Word Means, Anyway?

A TV ad in the other room has just reminded me of an abuse of the language that has bugged me for years. Whoever it was, they were promising, I think to investors (and I wouldn't trust them, whoever they were), "personalized, objective advice."

Just what the hell do they mean by "personalized" advice. Taken literally, doesn't that mean that they will give you their standard advice, but will make it personal? Won' they just take their usual sales pitch, and personalize it by adding, I don't know, your name?
Well, (insert name of client here), I think we can make great progress for you and (insert name of client's spouse, SO, kid, or pet) if we marginalize the hamifranistration index and purdleplast the frostimatriculation scale.

Now, I know you are a careful and thoughtful investor
(insert name of client here), but I think it's time for us to grab the...
I keep hearing that word in TV and radio ads. I suppose they mean "personal service." But "personalized" just bugs me.

And so I have posted this rant.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow Day (At Last)

The mid-Atlantic states have joined the south in a coating of snow this morning. Our neighbors to the north are getting hit as well with a snow-laden late-winter northeaster.

We went to bed to a dusting last night and awoke to find several inches have fallen and more coming down and blowing around. There was also a period of sleet and freezing rain and so the roads are reportedly pretty rough. This is particularly true here where people are not as used to driving on snow.

Schools are shut and state workers advised to stay home. I poked my lens out the door for a moment this morning to catch a few early shots. I'll get out later for more photos and some snow-shoveling. For the moment I'm tracking the storm on-line.

A note to my conservative friends: the jokes about global warming, every time the temperature dips, are getting old. "Warming" is not the point; climate-change is the point. And this winter's roller-coastering from warm to wintry and back again illustrates that point. The forecast for the coming week-end? Sixty degrees.

But enough of grumpiness. We have a day of snow to enjoy.

It's something of a shame that I made my crock-pot stew yesterday. This would also have been a great day to slow-cook. We've plenty of fire-wood, though. And blankets and sleepy cats. We should be just fine.

What a Great Problem to Have

The Washington Post this morning reports that the Obama White House is having difficulty reaching its goal of an open and transparent White House web site that serves as a clear channel for communication between the president and the people (Web-Savvy Obama Team Hits Unexpected Bumps). The fast, light team that took full advantage of the web as a central part of the Obama campaign has bogged-down in a mess of old technologies and is having to cut its way through the internet age version of red tape. But they are trying.

Wherever this experiment leads, what's certain is that, in the same way Franklin D. Roosevelt harnessed the power of radio and John F. Kennedy leveraged the reach of television to directly communicate with the public, the BlackBerry-carrying Obama wants to use the Internet to redefine the relationship between the presidency and the people.

The Washington Post article does a great job of outlining the problems the Obama team has had. They have had too dial-back expectations, for now, and are learning the patience that all newcomers to government seems to have to learn.

But what a great problem to have. Here we have a White House that is straining against the bonds of tradition to try to establish a new form of openness. I plan to watch, and cheer them on, and participate where I can.

After all, it is my government.