Monday, September 27, 2010

China Got Something Right

Background: In 1999, there was a fad for counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the start of the year 2000. Along these lines, for Christmas 1998 someone bought me a "Countdown to the New Millennium" clock that counted down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the beginning of 2000. For 372 days, it ran smoothly. Once 1/1/2000 arrived, it could be converted into a typical clock.

Apparently some capitalist (whether American or Chinese, I know not) realized that people were amused by these and repurposed them into "Countdown to Retirement" clocks after the year 2000 had arrived. Someone bought my father one during 2000; at that time, he had almost six years to go. It kept time smoothly until the date he set in 2006. He actually waited several months longer to retire, but after he did, he gave the clock to me, figuring that as the oldest child, I might actually retire first.

As of today, the clock reads 10,000 days. Tomorrow, it will read 9,999...and so forth.

The surprising thing is that both these clocks are still running after over a decade of use...on the same batteries! Neither one has had the batteries changed since they were purchased. Both of them say "Made in China" on the back.

So what we have here is a Chinese-made product of a high level of quality. Incredible.

Penn State's Big Ten Football Schedule

Now that Penn State has opened with a 3-1 record, here is the Big Ten portion of their upcoming schedule:

Oct. 2 at Iowa
Oct. 9 Illinois
Oct. 16 Open
Oct. 23 at Minnesota
Oct. 30 Michigan
Nov. 6 Northwestern
Nov. 13 at Ohio State
Nov. 20 at Indiana (Landover, Md.)
Nov. 27 Michigan State

Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 Schedule

The Steelers have three games behind them now; here's a look at the rest of their schedule:

Sunday, Oct. 3, 1 p.m.: Baltimore
Sunday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m.: Cleveland
Sunday, Oct. 24, 1 p.m.: @Miami
Sunday, Oct. 31, 8:20 p.m.: @New Orleans (NBC)
Monday, Nov. 8, 8:30 p.m.: @Cincinnati (ESPN)
Sunday, Nov. 14, 8:20 p.m.: New England (NBC)
Sunday, Nov. 21, 1 p.m.: Oakland
Sunday, Nov. 28, 1 p.m.: @Buffalo
Sunday, Dec. 5, 8:20 p.m.: @Baltimore (NBC)
Sunday, Dec. 12, 1 p.m.: Cincinnati
Sunday, Dec. 19, 4:15 p.m.: New York Jets
Thursday, Dec. 23, 8:20 p.m.: Carolina (NFL)
Sunday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m.: @Cleveland

Games are on CBS unless indicated otherwise.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The IRS Gets Something Right, But....

One of the obscure benefits of being a tax preparer is getting regular e-mails and news releases from the IRS. At least 90% of them are irrelevant to me or repeat things I already know well, but Friday saw the arrival of some important news. Here is the quote:

Individuals and business taxpayers will no longer receive paper income tax packages in the mail from the IRS. These tax packages contained the forms, schedules and instructions for filing a paper income tax return.

The IRS is taking this step because of the continued growth in electronic filing and the availability of free options to taxpayers, as well as to help reduce costs. In early October, the IRS will send a postcard to individuals who filed paper returns last year and did not use a tax preparer or tax software. The information will explain how to get the tax forms and instructions they need for filing their tax year 2010 return. The forms and instructions will be available in early January 2011.
This will probably save the IRS—in other words, the taxpayers—tens of millions of dollars, and for this I applaud them. The IRS is also making a similar change for businesses, although relatively few businesses use paper returns. Of course, nearly all tax forms and their (sometimes voluminous) instructions are available on the website, further reducing the need for paper forms to be mailed.

So the IRS got one right. They also got one wrong. Included in the same e-mail news was the following:
Publication 4845, Key Points about Residential Energy Credits, is now available in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Russian. The flyer highlights key points about the Nonbusiness Energy Property Credit and the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit.
So our tax dollars were spent writing a document in languages which it need not be written in. This also gives immigrants (legal and otherwise) one less incentive to learn the English language and better assimilate into our culture. Of course, if English were the official language, this would be much less of an issue.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Decline of the Christian School Movement

I was reminiscing with someone earlier this week. Fifteen years ago, as a young math teacher with just two years' experience, I was looking for a different Christian school at which to teach. Even though I had only listed my name with my alma mater's placement office—and had done very little active searching beyond that—the contacts from schools were frequent. For a season, it seemed like I heard from another new school every day or two. The maxim that "Math teachers are always in high demand" never seemed more true.

By 2010, as a much more experienced teacher with a far more impressive resume, the opportunities were few, and generally so low-paying as to not be options at all. Now I work at BJU Press (which, I hasten to say, I enjoy very much), possibly having left Christian school teaching behind for good.

In the 1980's and 1990's, Christian schools were often growing. Today, few are.* Why is this? I would like to offer several key reasons that I have seen from my own vantage points.

Parents: Sadly, fewer and fewer parents view the financial sacrifice of Christian education as worthwhile for their children. While the next two points below may have something to do with that, even those parents with good Christian school options in their area are often passing up the opportunity.

Many of my parents' generation decided that, no matter what, their children would not receive the humanistic worldview and education found in the typical public school classroom. They wanted a better education, one centered on the Bible and free of the politically correct and godless brainwashing so prevalent in public education. Today's parents are more convinced that they can somehow counter what their kids absorb in public education.

Parents also have a responsibility to instill a desire for excellence and a love of learning into their children, and to model such things in their own lives. This seems to be less common than it was when I was a kid.

Lowering of Standards, both academic and otherwise: This, quite frankly, is a terrible shame. A Christian education should—must—be both thoroughly Christian and academically excellent.

Some Christian schools have bought into the idea that if they stop teaching about certain potentially controversial Bible principles, or if they open up their admissions policies to accept students from families that do not have similar beliefs, or if they lower their dress and behavioral standards so that carnal fashions and behaviors aren't rebuked, they will retain students and/or grow. Decades of observations seem to tell us the opposite: You can't have much of a Christian school [as defined for this post] by doing so. Furthermore, you certainly can't expect God's blessing on it.

The lowering of academic standards is shameful. Just because we live in an age where parents will howl if their precious little one doesn't get the honor roll grades they feel they so richly deserve [when, in fact, they are not deserved] does not mean we need to make it possible for all kids to find their names on the honor roll. Christian schools should be trying to provide quality faculty with a desire to shape young minds both spiritually and academically—and then making sure that academic quality is a part of the picture. Christian schools may brag that their test scores are better than the public schools' scores, but this is a bogus comparison. They ought to be far and away better than the public schools, first because they are not accepting every kid in the district, but primarily because the quality of the education is high.

What parent is going to sacrifice for a Christian education if the "Christian" is diluted and the "education" isn't strong?

Mismanagement: The majority of Christian schools have not been run well. In many cases, they are (a) led by pastors with somewhat autocratic authority, who have no training or experience in running a school and usually don't supervise its day-to-day operations anyway; (b) run by school boards comprised either of parents [who, in most cases, cater to the whims of the students, wanting to "keep them happy"] or of a generally uninvolved group of church leaders; or (c) led by administrators who are not trained in school administration. The number of Christian school administrators/principals who got the job simply because they were a relative or friend of the pastor or another church leader is an absolute outrage.

Furthermore, it seems that too much administrative effort has been put into placating parents and pleasing students, and too little put into improving the academic and spiritual climate of the school.

Christian schools would do well to figure out who they are, and then strive to do what they do better. Their leaders should ask, "Is this what we believe the Bible teaches? Is this the kind of education we want to provide?" Once those sorts of questions are answered, then stick with it, and quit trying to pleasing everyone.

Homeschooling Movement: I have no problem with those who, out of conviction, choose to homeschool their children, thinking it to be the best way to educate their children, and doing so with all the skill they can muster. I have no respect for those who make it into a glorified form of truancy.

On the one hand, there are those who have taken their children out of good, solid Christian schools to homeschool them anyway. (I am not at all convinced that the majority of them have righteous motives for doing so. I'm thinking of writing a series of posts on problems with homeschooling, too.) Some feel that they can do a better job, but if the Christian school is providing the kind of quality education it should, that's a pretty tall order that most parents, toiling alone, cannot do.

On the other hand, there are those who have seen mismanagement and lowered standards and decided that they can indeed do a better job. Perhaps they can.

Whether or not the homeschool crowd is doing a good job is not the point in this post. The point is that students are being taken out of Christian schools to be homeschooled...and that's hurting Christian schools of various types and qualities.

*The definition of Christian schools, for the purposes of this post, is somewhat limited to those that openly and literally believe the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, that hire only teachers with similar doctrinal beliefs, and that seek only students from families and churches with similar doctrinal beliefs. "Christian schools" of a more ecumenical nature, which hold other doctrines, or have more "open" admission policies are not in this discussion.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

South Carolina DMV, Part 2. And Part 3.

Last Saturday saw my wife and I spending about an hour and a half just getting our shiny new SC driver's licenses, good for ten years, at a cost of $25 each. One afternoon this week, on an extended lunch break, we headed back to Greenville to get our license plates.

The trek did not start with the DMV. No, our first destination was the county building, where we had to pay our taxes on our cars. In SC, taxes are assessed based on the value of the car—which, thankfully, meant we didn't have to pay too much. [Comparison note: What we ended up paying by the end of the day was comparable to what we paid for the same cars in Michigan each year. However, it appears new/newer cars are taxed more severely in South Carolina.] But even this stop was not singular: We first had to have a tax bill for each car generated by one clerk, who then sent us to another room where we paid the bills.

The DMV is across the street from the county building, so we headed over there and took a number...and waited...and after sitting for about a half hour finally got to the counter. We chose the "In God We Trust" license plates [Note to other states: No additional charge] because the Bob Jones University license plates cost an extra $70—each. This choice meant waiting for another clerk. After being separated from more of our money, we left with license plates in hand. The total time spent: About another hour and a half.

Some final comparisons:

  1. When it comes to one-stop shopping, Michigan has South Carolina beat easily.
  2. Our costs were comparable to what we paid before in Michigan, but the time factor is won by Michigan.
  3. Michigan probably would win the cost comparison if we had a newer car(s).
Maybe next year I can re-register my cars by mail. I sure hope so.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MI Secretary of State Office: Something I Never Thought I Would Miss

This morning, a Saturday, I and my lovely wife went to the only South Carolina DMV office in the region that is open on Saturdays in order to get new driver's licenses. Once again we arrive from out of state, so a comparison is in order:

Michigan: Go to Secretary of State Office, with all appropriate documents in hand. When it's your turn, go to the counter and transact business to get MI driver's license, title, and car tags. Leave; put tags on car; wait for license to arrive in mail soon thereafter. Tags are renewed annually; driver's license is good for four years.

South Carolina: [Step 1] Go to SC DMV office with all appropriate documents in hand. Get in line in order to identify the type of business you have and get a number. Sit and wait (in our case, nearly an hour) while reading whatever literature you brought with you. When it's your turn, go to the counter and transact business to get your driver's license. Wait a few moments, claim your license, put it in your wallet, and depart. The driver's license is good for ten years.

[Step 2] Go to county office and pay taxes on your car (a task for next week).

[Step 3] Return to DMV with all appropriate documents in hand. Transact business to get SC titles and car tags (also a task for next week).

Now aside from the fact that my driver's license is good until 2020, I think I like the Michigan way better. Of course, I haven't learned how much $$ I will part with in Step 2 yet....