Archive for June, 2003

Wheels up

Thursday, June 26th, 2003

Bob is disappointed that his car crash stories didn’t prompt the rest of us to post similar tales of our own. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but the reason I didn’t follow suit is that I only have one dramatic story about a car crash, and I already told it. The other collisions I’ve been involved in were all uninteresting fender benders, with one exception. And that one wasn’t dramatic or life-changing; in fact, it’s really kind of comical. But it does have some relevance to Bob’s stories, so if it will make him happy, I’ll describe it.
I usually begin this story by mentioning that I have never received a speeding ticket in my entire life, and then conceding that the truth of this statement depends on exactly how you define “speeding ticket.” To most people, the phrase means that you were driving faster than the posted limit, a cop saw you or detected you on radar, and you were pulled over and issued a citation. This has never happened to me, for the simple reason that I don’t speed. Okay, I do occasionally exceed the posted limit for a moment while passing, or to get out of the way of someone who’s trying to merge into my lane — in other words, when I think it would be more dangerous to rigidly adhere to the speed limit. But I don’t cruise along, mile after mile, at an illegally high speed.
However, I did receive a ticket in the summer of 1982 for “driving too fast for conditions.” The officer who issued the ticket did not actually observe me driving, or pick me up on his radar. In fact, he wasn’t even there when I allegedly did it; his inference was based entirely on his analysis of evidence at the scene. His most significant clue was probably the fact that the Domino’s Pizza delivery car I had been driving was upside down in a ditch.
What happened was this: I was returning from a delivery run on the outskirts of Rock Hill, headed back to the Domino’s store a few miles away. India Hook Road was a bit wet from a thunderstorm earlier in the day, but the storm had passed and the sun was shining. I was traveling at the posted speed of 35 miles per hour, which is actually quite conservative on what, at that time, was a lightly traveled two-lane road at the edge of town. That particular stretch of road is straight and level, so it wasn’t immediately obvious when I lost control of the car. When you’re driving in a straight line, hydroplaning doesn’t actually change things very much; it just means that if you decide you want to stop traveling in a straight line, you can’t.
Gradually, I became aware of two things: turning the steering wheel had no effect, and the car was slowly drifting off the road to the right. This was preferable to drifting left into the oncoming-traffic lane, but not much better — to the right of the road was an embankment that sloped up steeply. What would happen when the car’s front bumper hit the face of that embankment? I watched in a kind of surreal fascination as it loomed closer.
The result was probably the dullest and most anticlimactic car wreck in the history of transportation. The car slowly performed a counterclockwise half-roll and then slid to a stop on its roof. I found myself hanging upside down from my seat belt. After releasing it, I crawled out the driver’s side window. (If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have gone out the other side; the driver’s window was now on the right side, pressed up against the embankment, but I wriggled out anyhow.)
The first thing I saw, mere seconds after emerging from the overturned car, was a tow truck. It was pulling a boat — the owner of the towing service and his son were inside the truck, and they had been returning from a trip to the lake when they just happened to pass by the spot where I had flipped the car about thirty seconds earlier. (Either tow truck drivers have a sixth sense that draws them to where accidents are about to happen, or the gods of probability have a sense of humor.) He gave me a ride to the nearest phone (so I could report the accident to the police and my Domino’s store) and then found a place to park the boat so they could use the truck to tow the delivery car to a repair shop. Meanwhile, a cop arrived on the scene, took one look at the inverted vehicle, and wrote me a “driving too fast for conditions” ticket. I didn’t agree with this assessment, but saw no point in arguing.
As you might imagine, people who drive tow trucks for a living have a lot of experience with cars that are upside down in a ditch, and putting such a vehicle back on its wheels is no trouble at all for them. Since the car had not actually collided violently with anything, the damage was amazingly light. In fact, the repair shop determined that there was no damage to the frame at all, and only minor dents to the right front fender, which had actually run into the embankment. Even the roof was unharmed. All the oil had leaked out (through the fill opening and/or dipstick tube, I suppose) while the car was upside down, but after a quick refill, the car was perfectly drivable. It required no repairs at all. The Domino’s manager decided not to bother having the minor dents fixed, and we continued to use that car until I left to go back to college at the end of the summer.
I did warn you that this wasn’t a dramatic story. I’ll follow Bob’s example and close with a list of points worth noting.

  • Water is evil, yes.
  • The laws of probability are definitely distorted in Rock Hill. Like Bob, I found that every single person I knew had driven by while I was standing on the side of the road in my Domino’s uniform next to an upside-down Domino’s delivery car. And they all said “That was you?” when I told them about it. Actually, maybe people in Rock Hill just say that whenever you tell them anything. Someone should look into this.
  • Does the music keep playing? Actually, the pizza car didn’t have a radio, so I have no idea.
  • When the court date for my ticket arrived, I went before the judge and pleaded nolo contendere rather than admit guilt. Well, okay, I said “no contest.” Using the Latin phrase in traffic court would have caused the judge to roll his eyes and throw the book at me.
  • The car came to rest just a few yards from a Rock Hill city limit sign, creating a bit of a jurisdictional dilemma. The Rock Hill police officer who was first on the scene had to call the sherriff’s department, because the incident was outside the city. What would have happened, I wonder, if the car had slid a bit farther and stopped right on top of the city limit? (I probably would have ended up pleading nolo contendere at the World Court in the Hague.)
  • I want to point out that although I flipped the Domino’s car, I did deliver the pizza on time.

Makes AdSense to me

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

Google AdSense is an advertising service that allows Web publishers to sell ad space on their Web sites. What’s interesting about it is that AdSense scans the content of your site and then guesses what sort of advertising is most relevant. And thanks to Google Weblog, you can find out what ads AdSense would place on your site — just enter your URL and click the Go button.
Of course I couldn’t resist trying this. I punched in the URL for this blog, and then reloaded the page several times to get a representative sample of the ads that AdSense thinks belong here. It came up with the following:

  • Star Trek stuff — books, games, items for sale on eBay, and Star Trek: The Experience.
  • Star Wars DVDs.
  • Dungeons & Dragons books and other D20 role-playing game products.
  • Movie posters.

Star Trek, Star Wars, eBay, D&D, and movies. That’s so accurate it’s scary. Perhaps AdSense bypasses your Web site and just reads your mind!

Chicken scratch

Saturday, June 14th, 2003

I agree with everything Bob says about the uselessness of cursive writing, but I have a few points of my own to add.
Although the real-world advantage of cursive is that it tends to save time by sacrificing legibility, that’s not what the teachers have in mind when they force students to learn it. If you look at the textbooks, handouts, and chalkboard examples in cursive class, what you’ll see is penmanship, the sort of elaborately ornate cursive that no one actually does because it takes far too much time. (It’s art disguised as writing, really — but if that’s what you want to do, why are you fooling around with a ballpoint pen? Buy a calligraphy set and learn how to do really ornamental writing.)
I believe these teachers are motivated by nostalgia for a bygone era when people wrote on parchment with quill pens, and the writing was elegant and beautiful because nobody could write except aristocrats, scholars, and clerics. The scholars and clerics had plenty of time for fancy writing because that was their job, basically. The aristocrats had plenty of time because their slaves did all the actual work, and they didn’t do their own writing anyway — they dictated their words to a scribe or secretary. In other words, the cursive fetish is motivated by a nauseating mixture of cluelessness, elitism, historical ignorance, and feckless longing for the Middle Ages.
I can testify from personal experience that these teachers are warping their students for life. When I taught freshman writing classes at the University of South Carolina, I told my students that they were welcome to turn in handwritten essays, but only if those essays were printed (for legibility) and written in pencil (so they could correct mistakes and make changes by erasing, not scratching out). They ignored me and wrote their essays in ink, using sloppy, unreadable cursive and scratching out their mistakes. I repeated my requirements with increasing vehemence, but my students paid no attention. It eventually dawned on me that it was impossible for them to do what I was asking. They had been indoctrinated for years with the notion that civilized, educated people (i.e., the landed gentry) always used cursive and wrote in ink. When I told them to do the exact opposite, I might as well have been asking them to come to class naked and sit on the ceiling. It was so alien a concept that they simply couldn’t grasp it.
Isaac Asimov once made the same point about Roman numerals that Bob does about cursive writing. The Arabic numbering system is vastly superior to the Roman one in every conceivable way, so why are we still wasting class time teaching kids how to use Roman numerals? What good are they? Roman numerals are still in use, but only when someone wants to be pompous, pretentious, and obscure. I think the motivation is the same as for cursive: elitist nostalgia.
And don’t even get me started about long division.
UPDATE: A few days after I posted this article, blogger Donald Sensing linked to it, referring to me as a college professor. I e-mailed him to explain that I was just a lowly graduate instructor when I taught English 101, but he never acknowledged the correction.