Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Facebook Rant

[EXPLICIT] This post includes explicit language. I was in a Mood.

Mom's Scoping the Business
Mom's Scoping the Business
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I am not a great fan of Facebook. Its user interface lacks elegance, and Zuckerberg's machiavellian approach to privacy is profoundly annoying. It is, however, the AOL of its time. All the people we want to know, all the people with whom we are interact, they live on Facebook. We are, in a word, stuck.

Stuck with the fat ads. Those assholes. I have never in my life clicked an ad for botox, a fad diet, or magical ways to get rid of belly fat. Nevertheless, the pricks that wrote the algorithm on Facebook insist that because I am a woman of a certain age with children, these are my Must See adverts. I imagine a pimply faced, sun-deprived graduate of the Stanford comp sci department sitting in a cubicle in Silicon Valley tweaking the selection algorithm to prioritize diet ads above every other possible option for all self-avowed females who also admit that they eat. I have down-voted these ads countless times. In vain, I once attempted to up-vote a series of "Have Sex with this Russian Beauty" ads that somehow slipped through Facebook's no-porn policy. I figure if I'm having sex with Russian beauties with enormous tits, I am clearly comfortable with my extra tonnage and don't need any further assistance. My next foray will be to up-vote anything having to do with a penis. Penile implant surgery on my non-existent manly appendage would be vastly more appealing to me than a magically surprising way involving eggs and a tire to resize the waistline.

Stuck with the crazy as chick who I vaguely remember from high school who posts semi-nude photos of herself, the one probably also clicking those belly fat ads. How the hell do these make it into my feed, anyway? I mean, yeah… at one point I was stupid enough to agree to join the group devoted exclusively to my fellow high school alumni. I was a problem child. As I had zero social life in high school, loathed most of those people at the time, and abandoned my hometown with no regrets nearly 20 years ago never to return, I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking. I just spent the last 5 years utterly sabotaging the usual geek's revenge of owning the companies where my former class mates work as well as sporting a better hair cut, gorgeous eye candy husband, and fantastically higher standard of income. I suspect that no one 'back home' is going to be impressed with the fact that DrC and I dropped out as it rings eerily familiar to so many of them. I have no interest in their lives or their children, and I am utterly convinced that the feeling is profoundly mutual. So I unsubscribed or declicked or unchecked or something which was another completely pointless exercise. Once a relationship lives on Facebook it is like a stain on a white fiberglass boat deck and remains forever to remind you of the error of your ways. 

Stuck with requests to take this or that poll, join this or that cause, or participate in this or that quiz. I believe that Facebook proves we are all monkeys banging away at the keyboard attempting to produce Shakespeare and instead generating enough demographic data to keep a football stadium full of marketing executives cumming in their boots till they all pass out in brand awareness nirvana. What these clicks do not do is make a damn bit of difference in the greater scheme of things. There are ways that social media is a force for change. Facebook is not a participant in any of them. 

That Steep, Really...
That Steep, Really...
Uploaded by toastfloats
I think the only thing more annoying than a Facebook friend who plays Farmville, participates in every poll, and feels compelled to Share every link in their feed, is a relative who insists that Facebook is the anti-christ, refuses to check their pages, and then whines that they have no idea what's going on in your life because you "don't write any more." Wake up and smell the bits, people. The letter is dead. Frankly, so is the phone. If you want to know what I had for lunch, by all means look it up. I have absolutely no privacy any more, but don't expect me to spoon feed you. This is a pull economy. If you want it, pull it down; I will never send it to you again. You should be thanking me for not filling your life with a monthly, landfill-worthy missive detailing the size of the growth on my nose and the length of the seaweed on Don Quixote's transom. It is so much easier to avoid my drivel now than it ever was before. Just get Facebook to stop displaying it. Oh wait… good luck with that.

Techies know Facebook is crap, hate the cascading absurdity of Facebook's privacy setting changes, and would like to put a gun to head of every Zynga developer and executive while forcibly requiring them to grow strawberries on a real farm surrounded in singing and dancing middle school students dressed as badly drawn mange characters. Nevertheless, it is foolish for us to believe it is going to go away or that we can convince our family and friends of the superiority of any other social network. What we need is time. In the list of great where are they now social sites, we have Orbit, LiveJournal, AOL, and -- perhaps most memorably -- MySpace whose decline and fall signals in my opinion one of the greater triumphs of form and function over sheer numeric dominance. Like Rome, the British Empire, and American Hegemony, Facebook will ultimately fail to be replaced by something even yet more inane and intrusive. 

As long as it includes a heads up display and lets me down vote the bitch who cut me off on the highway this morning, I'll be there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

School Just Isn't

Mera Goes to High School
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It is time to close the Don Quixote Academy. Homeschool for the Conger family is over. There are two major reasons for making this move: social and financial. While we have met many great homeschooled teenagers, there are definitely some advantages to socializing your children with the great unwashed in the soup which is public high school. Every bit of frustration and mediocrity and pettiness they experience in a big institution will go towards thickening the skin in preparation for leaving home and heading out into the much more challenging working environment. Also, good high schools have opportunities for sport, performance, and hands on science which are almost impossible to replicate in the homeschool environment.

Then there are the financial and professional motivations. We have drained the cruising kitty bone dry. College and/or trade schools loom on the near horizon with almost literally nothing in the bank to fund them. Don Quixote herself needs some expensive upgrades and maintenance. While DrC’s salary is good and we live simply and small, saving is slow with one income. Two would be considerably faster. Moreover, I want to work. I’ve been on sabbatical for a very long time. Even with the contracting, getting back into the professional world will be a difficult and slow process. Women who off-ramp to raise children are inevitably penalized, professional careers damaged sometimes beyond repair. The longer I go without full time work, the less likely I will ever be able to obtain the kinds of responsible management positions which are my favourite way to earn a living.

So, long ago we made the decision to close our homeschool and send the girls to public school on returning to New Zealand. On our arrival, we immediately went to the local schools to enrol the girls only to come up against a number of obstacles. First, it is near the end of the school year. For kids Jaime’s age, exams were about to start. No one saw any point in Jaime attending school for a week and then stopping. Second, the intermediate school refused to enrol Aeron. They said she was too young and must attend primary. Aeron just isn’t primary school material – she’s bigger, more mature, and academically near mid-high school.

This leaves us with only Mera. Mera started school two weeks ago. She attends Takapuna Grammar School as a Year 9 student. Year 9 in New Zealand is roughly equivalent to 8th Grade in the United States except kids in Year 9 attend with all the high school kids. Secondary school as a result is 5 years long – Y9 to Y13. Takapuna Grammar is a high decile school which basically says that we live in a posh neighbourhood with a lot of families who are well-educated and send their kids to university.

While it isn’t a sure bet, high decile schools in New Zealand are generally thought to provide a better quality education as well. Active, engaged, educated, and wealthy parents are highly correlated with good schools. Apocryphally, there are statistics, damn statistics, and reality. While Takapuna is a high decile school, it is still a public high school. There are a lot of children, few teachers, and an insane amount of aerosolized human hormone. While there are lots of really smart kids and probably some fantastic teachers, the pill sorter process which dumped Mera into classes during the final weeks of the school year has ensured that my daughter doesn’t get to see these academic pearls. Mainstreamed into the general school horde, Mera is largely unimpressed.

Part of the problem is that we run a rather strict homeschool. When it is time to study, we try to keep quiet, listen to each other, focus on our work. In the classes Mera attends, students speak out of turn, the teachers yell to little affect, and there appears to be a complete and utter disregard for the learning process. Another issue is the incredibly poor quality of the course materials. Mera mastered the subjects covered in her year 9 textbooks years ago. In fact, the entire tone and level of the books seems grossly dumbed down. I would swear we’ve been using age appropriate texts to teach the girls, but you would never know it comparing the materials used in Don Quixote Academy with those used at Takapuna Grammar. I would be hard pressed to find a lesson in either the science or math books that Aeron has not already mastered long ago, let alone Mera.

Yet, Mera insists that the best thing is to remain at the school in the mainstream classes. Tests for accelerate courses are given later this year, and she has already spoken with the dean to ensure her opportunity to take the placement exams. During the short time before school adjourns for summer, Mera intends to concentrate on learning about the school and making friends. She believes that were she to transfer classes, her efforts to fit in would be seriously hampered.

Rescuing Discovery -- Again
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Fair enough. Mera’s probably correct. We don’t really care if she learns much academically during this next month or two anyway. While she may be light years ahead in history, social science and English, she still hasn’t grasped even the basics of being a teenager. Example? Jaime nearly despaired of Mera ever passing Cell Phone 101 after we discovered that my middle daughter had left the thing in the car on a trip to the mall. So it is a very constructive use of her time just meeting people and figuring out how such strange and perverse creatures as high school teens function. For Mera it is an immersive, foreign language experience.

After all these years of worrying if we were “keeping up with the Jones,” it is clear that we drastically overshot the mark. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way. The girls don’t seem abnormally smart or clever. They are bright, healthy kids with reasonably good study habits. It makes sticking to our “close homeschool” plan extremely difficult. It is hard to know if we are doing them any favours enroling them in schools which hardly appear capable of understanding my girls, let alone educating them. Can any amount of socialization balance the fact that they will effectively be treading water intellectually for years until their peer group catches up? There really is no way of knowing.

I do know that I never thought when we started homeschooling that one of the hardest bits would be stopping.

*Update: Another article written during the November push for NaNoWriMo (which again I completely failed to get anywhere near 50K). Mera is out for the summer, accepted into the Y10 accelerate classes for next year. We'll see.

Monday, December 12, 2011

French Class

Our Little Girls
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Aeron and I walk hand and hand down the street past a bake house, dollar stores, and hair cutteries. We have many errands to run. The priority is to get new printer cartridges so that we can print our passport photos, but it would also be nice if we could swing by the hardware store for a bunch DrC requests, the little art shop for felt, and into a dollar store for fold up umbrellas.

However, we are both brought to a halt by a glorious odor wafting across the street. Noses go up, eyes brighten, tails wag. The Conger girls have the scent.

Aeron is the first on point, “Over there!” Arm up, finger out, the baying begins.




Getting closer, the tone of the call changes, “Pastry!!!”

“Ooo…. French pastry. It’s FRENCH!”

Now we are both on point, every fibre of our bodies vibrating in tune to the scent. This isn’t just any bread shop. This is advertising itself as an Authentic French Patisserie. Aeron and I stand quivering on the threshold. We are not allowed in. The rules are that we are not allowed in. The Rules say that we can find places like this but to both reduce expenditure and the probability that we both balloon into fin whales, we are to refrain from patronizing stores of this sort unless the entire family is out on parade together.

So now the rationalization begins. It is an authentic French pastry shop. I spot the signs in front of the pastries. “Aeron, c’est une patisserie.”

Aeron is wise to my ways. She looks up and nods thoughtfully. “Wee, mam on. Ill yah dez bag its.”

I repeat correctly, “Oui, il ya des baguettes.”

Aeron tugs my hands. She doesn’t like to speak French in front of people. It’s obvious, however, that she wants to practice her French in the shop.

I ask, “Aeron, parlez-vous francaise?”

She frowns, “Oui. Je parle francaise.”

Heh, now we have a path to yes. I allow her to drag me into the shop. Pointing to the placard in front of one of the glorious pastries I tell her the New Rules, “Translate the names of these pastries, and we can have one. Translate at least three.”

She starts with the obvious, “Éclair is an éclair.” Of course, it is.

“Bien!” I’ll take it. At this point, I will take anything. The aroma in the shop is an intoxicating blend of fresh bread, sweet French pastry, and newly ground coffee.

Aeron peers at another – the pasty in question looks like a double-decker cream puff drizzled in fudge – and sounds it out, “Rel-ig-eh-ah-sit-ee choclat.” She ponders this for a moment before the light dawns, “Religious chocolate!”

We both laugh in delight. She has not only translated a second placard taking us that much closer to heaven, but we might also have found our treat. What could possibly taste better than religious chocolate?

Now comes the moment of truth, the challenge which actually makes this lesson a true educational experience. “Mille feuilles,” I say. It’s hard. It’s really hard. On the up side, she studied numbers last week and today we had read a short story about Clouchette (Tinkerbell) making a net out of feuilles cerne (oak leaves) and tigues bamboo (bamboo twigs). It’s possible she’ll get it.

Drinking Junk
Uploaded by toastfloats
Frowns, sighs, and frustrated little looks, however, throw doubt on the question. Aeron doesn’t look like she remembers any of the morning’s story. In the meantime, I am salivating, eyes glazing over as a Napoleon and mocha head off towards the back table. I can’t stand it and a hint pops out, “Mille is a number, remember?”

Aeron rapidly runs through all the easy number, “Un deux trois” then forges into the more challenging ones “vinght, trente…” before stumbling desperately. I intervene before disaster can strike, “Math… remember your math!!!” Please remember… And “Cent mille” trips off her tongue.

We are both hopping a little in place now. We can both feel it, victory just out of reach. The tension is high, the stakes higher. One word. One word! “I don’t know this one do I?” she asks me.

“You do,” I assure her. “You learned it this morning!”

A light dawns, her clever little wheels spin greased by the hint, “Not a twig. Not a net. Not a fish. Not a rock. It’s a leaf!... Leaves! Thousand leaves!”

Even, the ladies behind the counter cheer as I order our café au lait and religeuse chocolat. They speak French themselves and were delightfully aware of our bumbling attempts to justify our presence. The marchande leans across the counter as I pay and suggests, “Maybe she could write us a letter next time…”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Introducing Rugby to the Congers

Time to Become Kiwis
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Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand. Sure, they play many sports here. In fact, New Zealand as a country produces world class athletes in any number of sports, not to mention the fact that if a sport is bat shit crazy, it was probably invented here (e.g. bungee jumping, zorbing, jet boating, and jogging). But if you ask the average Kiwi, “What is the national sport?” I suspect most would say rugby.

Prior to coming here, my impression of rugby was a rough and tumble sport played by strapping young men in Ivy League prep schools on green fields in the Northeast. Like polo or lacrosse, it felt distant, not a sport for real people but rather something celebrated amongst old money families in tony locations not accessible to the rest of us. Of the rules or method of play, I knew next to nothing. If I thought about it, I might have speculated that the sport was something like a cross between soccer and smear the queer – a game whose offensively politically incorrect name provides the all the insight necessary into the basic rules. I liked the shirts, though. I remember my favourite purchase from the college clothing shop at Berkeley was a blue and gold rugby shirt emblazoned with a Cal Bear. That thing wore like iron and lasted forever.

Real rugby, the rugby played by everyone outside the United States, is nothing like what I thought. It’s something like proto-football crossed with soccer and spiced with a bit of WWF. The players are HUGE, incredibly fast, strong, and indestructible. The play is rapid and exciting. The rules are utterly baffling when they are not simply amusing: “Penalty: Not removing hand during maul.” Perhaps most importantly, many of the guys are drop-dead gorgeous and without all the padding of American football, you can actually see them.

Watching rugby requires first that you learn an entirely new vocabulary. Scrum, maul, lineout, knock on, ruck, sevens, try, set piece.,, There are so many terms that English as a Second Language sites often include a separate rugby word list. For Americans, it also requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, you must accept that no lawyers are ever going to have an opportunity to bring a suit in any court regarding any aspect of the game. Ever.

Because if the lawyers got involved, the game would cease to exist. Basically, you take a lot of very large, very muscular, very fast men, hand them an oblong ball, and say, “Go. Just… GO.” You can throw the ball (which is done a lot in underhanded tosses which look very odd to devotees of basketball or American football), run with the ball, or kick the ball (a risky manoeuvre due to its peculiar shape). You can jump on an opposing team member trip him, slam into him, and even grab him by the balls and twist hard (as long as no one is looking). Basically, the only thing you can’t do to the other guy is throw him in the air. The rules book is long, complicated, and even the most experienced commentators and players frequently look at the referees in blank incomprehension when a call is made.

For those just getting started, the two basic plays are “lateral the ball until you can find a break in the opposing line” followed by “slam into the other guy and then all pile on top of one another.” There is something like a drop kick which is used frequently to move the ball down to the other end of the field and something like a punt which somehow sometimes inexplicably results in a score. They also have this bizarre bit where the “don’t throw the other guy in the air” rule is suspended while players throw their own team members into the air to catch the ball coming into the field in what looks like a variation on a basketball jump ball.

Kau Laka! [Let's Parade!]
Uploaded by tokisioamerica
Never mind the rules, rugby is seriously fun to watch. We are completely hooked. DrC and I watched a few games during our first year in New Zealand, but we became real fans during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. On our arrival to Tonga, we were greeted by a sea of red and white clad cheering Tongan fans. Tonga played New Zealand for the opening game… in Auckland. With New Zealand hosting the World Cup this year, we were torn: root for our future home or for our present anchorage. This decision was made quickly when we discovered that the entire country essentially shut down for the day to decorate the streets, parade around, and hold massive, noisy parties absolutely everywhere. Prudence dictated that we wear the red and white of Tonga for the night. We watched the game with a bursting crowd of screaming Tongas, ex-pat Kiwis, and bewildered American cruisers at a bar on the water front where we drank beer and took in the Opening Ceremony. Tongans were so proud of their team yet so gracious as the All Blacks inevitably beat the crap out of the Tongan team.

After that, it was all rugby all the time. We caught the USA vs. Russia game during which we handed the Ruski’s their heads. Oh, yes… we too were surprised that the U.S. even fields a rugby team, let alone one capable of qualifying for the World Cup. We watched Tonga beat Canada and then were absolutely delighted to watch Tonga go on to beat France. Everyone should have a chance to beat the French at something. It’s good for morale. Not so good for our spirits was the depressing Australia vs. USA game during which we were reminded that all the big guys in the States gravitate to football leaving the rugby team about half the size of their Oz opponents.

We arrived in Auckland the day before the final game: New Zealand vs France. You have no idea how horrible it would have been for New Zealand to lose that game. The entire country has been in a fever of All Blacks All the Time for over a year, the tension building to an intensity that bordered on a psychosis. The game was a nail-biter, and in all honesty; The French won. They played better. The score, however, was in the All Blacks favour so the entire country stopped biting our nails, sat back, drank another Tui, and started arguing over whether or not Richie McCaw deserves a knighthood.

Now we have to pick a home team. Like everything else with rugby, we’re completely bewildered. There are rugby teams and leagues all over everywhere. Hard to know where to start, but I suspect we’ll try to find the AA version of rugby where we can afford the tickets and don’t have to go to far to watch a game. My Kiwi friends tell me it’s a better game when you can see what’s going on away from the cameras. And you can smell the blood…

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Guessing is Good

Wild Aeron
Uploaded by toastfloats
"The answer is two," Aeron informs me.

"Really?" I peer at the problem. "Are you sure? How do you know?"

"I guessed."

Aeron can appear the most guileless creature on earth. She widens her eyes, smiles at me, and hands me the mathematics book to sign off. She is ready to burst out of the room and into the spring sunshine.

Today is typical of this brief interlude in Bayswater between our arrival as cruisers and our future as liveaboards. By February, the entire family will be fully engaged in work or school. Right now, however, we were divided in our lifestyles. DrC is already hard at work doctoring, Jaime is in her first real job scrubbing the deck of a mega yacht, while Mera attends high school for a few weeks. Only Aeron remains in the Don Quixote Academy, only I remain as her teacher. After breakfast each morning, we move to the cruiser lounge hoping that the change of scenery and the smell of coffee from the vending machine will put us in the right frame of mind.

The solitude and singularity is hard on my youngest. Aeron is a very social creature. She talks, plays, listens, and sings. She has an extraordinary amount of empathy which extends beyond care of her family and to friends, fellow boaters, and now her new liveaboard neighbors. She wants more than anything else to spend the day with like-minded individuals in a state of sound and constant motion. Instead, I have to pin her down like bug to a board and force-feed her grammar, science, math, and French each morning. She struggles, pouts, and inevitably throws at least one attitude tantrum. These occasional storms of stubborn nastiness, infrequent features of our entire homeschooling life, have become a daily occurrence. My patience is fast vanishing, her love of learning is already gone. We merely tolerate each other these days.

I chew my lip. There are two options here. I agree with her guess or I don't. The first option leads me to the next phase of the day during which Aeron runs around like a wild animal in the parks near the marina while I slog away at boat chores and immigration paperwork. She is happy; I am happy. The second option is going to lead to a ripping argument between my daughter and myself as sure as poop stinks. So. Decisions decisions.

"Let's do the problem together," I say plucking the workbook out of her hands and setting it on the table. "You're probably right, but we need to know why."

"No we don't."

I look up at my daughter. She repeats, "No. We. Don't."

Mama Whale with Baby
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Good point. We really don't. The number of marbles required to make a cube translated into the number of bananas is not particularly helpful to anyone at any level. Yes, we are seeing here an outstanding attempt to introduce algebra painlessly to an 11 year old. On the other hand, define painless.

"Are you sure?" I make one last ditch attempt to be a responsible parent and teacher.

Aeron states positively, "I am absolutely sure. Guessing is good."

I nod thoughtfully. There is a time and a place for everything. And here, now, this is not the time or place to learn algebra. "Guessing is good."

Friday, December 02, 2011

Working for the Man

Ferried Around
Uploaded by Toastfloats
DrC started work last week.* It was a bit of a shock when he gave us all good bye kisses on his way to start the first day. For six months, we’ve rarely see him wear a shirt, let alone all the trappings of civilized society. He smelled delicious… all shaving cream, deodorant, and shampoo. However, he looked so peculiar in his dress shirt and slacks, leather shoes, and combed hair. We hardly recognized him.

The commute for the good doctor is a long one. He walks 100 feet to the ferry dock. There is a 10 minute ferry ride across the harbour to downtown Auckland. There he walks across the street and down the stairs to climb on to a commute train heading south. Unfortunately, this is where things slow down as the train ride is 45 minutes with another 15 minute walk at the other end. The trip takes an hour and a half each way.

I don’t like it. I don’t like that three hours of his day is ‘lost’ to commuting. I hated it when I had to make a similar journey myself, and I can’t imagine he enjoys it any better than I did. On the upside, we’ll have his iPad replaced by end of this week. With wireless available on the train, he should be able to do all his reading, email, and news while on the train. The commute also has the advantage of not requiring his attention at any time, e.g. at least he doesn’t have to drive.

Driving from here to anywhere is horrid. Bayswater and Devonport are on a narrow peninsula jutting south into Waitemata Harbour. The entire area is densely populated, wealthy, and ridiculously posh. It is served by a single narrow road from end to end. The commute hours of 7 – 9 am and 3 – 7 pm are an absolute nightmare along this route. Aeron and I decided during the first week that we run errands between 9 and 3 or we refuse to do them at all.

DrC’s absence has been hard on the SuperClinic. Combined with some illnesses and vacations, the clinic is way way behind. They had our captain doing surgery the first day. Every day since has been absolutely chock-o-block. He comes home looking completely beat by the commute and work day, grim, quiet, and exhausted. The back log at the clinic will clear over time. He will get used to the commute. Working will get easier. Right now, however, the long hours and hard work are hard on him. I sympathize, but inside I am selfishly cowering a bit in dread and fear. That picture of exhaustion will be me in a matter of weeks. After years of sabbatical and contract work, soon I too will be putting in those days, those hours, that effort. Poor me.

I started the job hunt process this week. Either I am looking at the listings differently or there are more opportunities this time. The job boards offer some promising options. I still haven’t completely committed myself to full time permanent or contract. I miss having a regular ‘crew’ of co-workers – colleagues with whom I can develop lasting relationships and staff who I can hire, train, and pass on to bigger and better things. On the other hand, contract work is so much more flexible, the time commitment less and allowing more opportunities for adventures with my girls and husband. It’s still a toss up. I suspect that the decision will have more to do with fate and opportunity. The best option to open up will be the one I leap on, wrassle to the ground, rope up and drag home.

* Actually, it's been several weeks now. NaNoWriMo got me way ahead on my writing.