When A Letter-Writing Campaign Goes Terribly Wrong

Sometimes you wonder about what kind of schooling American kids are getting.

Here’s a recent example. The New York Post wrote an article about a high school — the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers — in which the curriculum appeared to be less than rigorous. The school, miffed by the unflattering article, encouraged students to write letters to the Post to complain about the piece.

Unfortunately for the school, some students did — and their letters confirm that they apparently have only the most dim comprehension of grammar, spelling, and other basics of the English language.

I know there are large, looming issues about public schools, and private schools, and charter schools, and how we can best prepare our young people for the future in a hyper-competitive global economy. It’s incredibly sad, however, that high school students not only would write letters that are so filled with errors, but also that they lack the basic self-awareness to understand that they are bordering on functional illiteracy and are exposing that fact whenever they put pen to paper. We are failing these kids.

Egon Sadly Gone

I was very saddened today to read of the death of Harold Ramis.

Ramis was a titanic yet nevertheless underappreciated cultural figure who played a large role in many hugely popular, clever, often brilliant movies — like Animal House, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and Caddyshack — and who dazzled in some small roles that helped to make good films, like As Good as It Gets and Knocked Up, even better. Anyone who could write Animal House, direct Groundhog Day, and bring a poignancy and warmth to the role of Ben’s Dad in Knocked Up has more talent that most people could even fathom.

I’d like to focus specifically, though, on Ramis’ depiction of Egon Spengler, the genius who created the hard-scientific core of the spirit-catching team in Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler is arguably the greatest depiction of a true scientific nerd ever to grace the silver screen. Ramis captured every element of the character, from the Eraserhead-like hairdo to the lack of awareness of normal social behavior to the immediate knowledge of every page of obscure spirit guides and ghostly treatises to the willingness to create catastrophically dangerous ghost-catching devices without a second thought. We knew the Bill Murray was the clown and Dan Aykroyd was the rumpled everyman, but Egon Spengler and his protonic inventions is the one who allowed the Ghostbusters to match up with Gozer and could explain the extraordinary danger in it all by using a Twinkie as a illustration.

Ghostbusters is a great movie — one of the first “high-concept” blockbusters, where the gist of the plot could be captured in a single sentence — and Egon Spengler is what really made the movie work. The Spengler character made the Ghostbusters concept plausible, and Ramis had to sell that brainy, socially oblivious character as someone who could design ghost-catching traps and understand cross-dimensional portals. He did it brilliantly and hilariously . . . and, equally important for the nerds among us, in the process he somehow made being the nerdy scientific geek kind of cool.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other modern figures who had the impact on popular culture of Harold Ramis. He was only 69, and these days you can fairly say that people who die at 69 die much too young. He will be missed.

Dogs, And Human Rights

Recently I stumbled across an interesting article, now several months old, about dogs and efforts to determine how their brains work. The article summarized the research and reached a provocative conclusion.

Determining how dogs think is not an easy task. (Insert joke here.) The problem, of course, is that they cannot communicate in the conventional sense.

IMG_0909The research involved training dogs to sit quietly so that their brain activity could be evaluated through operation of an MRI. The results focused an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is found in both dogs and humans. In humans, the caudate nucleus shows activity https://webnerhouse.wordpress.com/?p=31933&preview=truewhen people are exposed to things they enjoy, like food, music, and love. The MRI testing showed caudate activity in dogs when dogs smelled their human companions or saw signals indicating that food was on the way.

The researchers think this indicates that dogs have emotions. It’s hard to imagine that research is needed to confirm that fact, which is pretty obvious to any dog lover. We know that our dogs can experience emotions — we see it in their eyes, in their wagging tails, and in their happy behavior when a loved one returns home. Come over to our house to see the reception Kish gets from Penny and Kasey if you don’t believe me.

The provocative conclusion of the author of the article is that, from a legal standpoint, dogs or any other creature that shows “neurobiological evidence of positive emotions” should be treated like people rather than property. Laws against abuse of animals isn’t enough; “limited personhood,” the author reasons, would better protect dogs from exploitation in puppy mills, dog racing, and other activities that interfere with the right of self-determination.

I’m as troubled by anyone by the mistreatment of dogs, and I think people who are cruel and abusive to dogs should be punished. But conferring “limited personhood” rights on dogs — and other animals that display emotions — starts us down a slippery slope where line-drawing becomes extremely difficult. How do you deal with the difficult decisions when a dog reaches the end of life? Would society be obligated to provide shelter and food for dogs that have none? Would dogs need to give consent before they could be neutered?

Penny and Kasey are part of our family and are treated as such — but they aren’t people.