Supreme Court Sides With Texas Death-Row Inmate Who Claims Intellectual Disability

The above was a headline to a story in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

I can’t wait for the day when two words would no longer appear in such a headline – “death-row”.

In a 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that executing intellectually disabled convicts violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

From my perspective, it’s cruel and unusual punishment to execute anyone, period.

The courts have not done a good job providing guidance on how to measure intellectual disability, and have allowed states to come up with their own approaches.

But I have a simple test, one that would bring consistency across all states and would avoid the need for lengthy court cases (the case noted in the headline has been going on since 1980).

The test is just one question – “Is the defendant a member of the human race?”

If the answer is yes, then the person is automatically exempt from death row.

Such an approach would enable us to get to the type of society Justice Ginsburg we should all be striving towards:

 “To enforce the Constitution’s protection of human dignity, we look to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” 

My simple one-question test would protect human dignity and would certainly be a sign of progress.

I’ve always thought that convicting someone to death for killing someone else made no sense. If the jury thinks that killing someone is such a heinous crime (and it certainly is) why would that jury then go ahead and make the decision to take someone else’s life? It seems quite inconsistent.

By this logic, it seems that if you get in a car accident, you should be allowed to drive your car into the other person’s to make up for the damage to your car. Doesn’t make sense, does it?

It also seems, from the little I’ve read, that the death penalty does little, if anything, to reduce crime.

Finally, keeping someone on death row can be quite expensive, so it seems like money could be saved if the death penalty were eliminated.

So three cheers to the Supreme Court for such a wise decision.

Now let’s just eliminate the death penalty (and life sentences while we are at it).

Doing so would make raise the level of decency of the human race, of which we are all part.

If you would like to read some facts about he death penalty, here is a useful site.

Scratch and Play, the MIT Way

Fred Wilson, of fame, published a blog today where he gave a shout out to Scratcha visual programming language that makes building software as easy as building a Lego project.

Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. With Scratch, you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community. Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century. I’m thinking about using it next year as part of a course that briefly talks about programming.

As Fred points out, it Scratch is also a community, free for everyone to use, now more than 70 million members, where the software creators share what they made with others and let others reuse and remake what they made.

I thought I’d give Scratch a quick try, and I was able to create a very simple video game in about five minutes. Below is a two-minute video where I explain the basic steps that went into making the game, and then below that is an embedded copy of the game that you can play right from my web site.

To start the game, just click the green flag in the top right corner of the game. To play the game, just move your mouse around to hit the ball before it touches the red line at the bottom of the screen.

Warning – it’s no Pac-Man, but it was fun and incredibly easy to make this game, taking only about 20 minutes from start to finish. When I get some free time, I plan to add some more bells and whistles.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy it.

Wanted: Hardworking, Personable, Honest, and Curious Person; No College Required

If someone came along that had these qualities, and no college degree, it seems to me that such a person would still be fully capable of handling the demands of many jobs.

However, such individuals are often not given the opportunity to pursue such jobs becuase many employers require applicants to have a college degree.

As pointed out in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, some 70% of the employers surveyed by the Rockefeller Foundation and Edelman Intelligence, a division of the public-relations firm, indicated that they screen entry-level applicants’ resumes for bachelor’s degrees. Meantime, 40% of companies complained that high employee turnover is the result of workers feeling overqualified for their beginning roles. Most of the recent college grads confirmed that their jobs tapped skills they picked up outside of school.

In other words, employers often list a college degree as a requirement for many jobs that the employees believe do not require such a degree.

Employers rely on college degrees because they often signal applicants possess so-called soft skills, like dedication or resilience—attributes that can be harder for employers to measure than technical skills, according to Matt Sigelman, chief executive of Burning Glass Technology, a labor-market analysis firm. Sigelman suggests that personality tests may be more effective in evaluating ones’ ability to do a job than simply having a college degree.

Matthew Bidwell, a management researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says employers may be “up-credentialing” job requirements in places like large metropolitan areas and university towns to control the number of applicants. There is some data to back up such an assertion.

In a report by the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia and Atlanta,  economists found that employers’ education preferences often vary by region for the same job. Job listings for online customer support staffers in Atlanta were 22% more likely to ask applicants for bachelor’s degrees than postings in Charleston, South Carolina, according to the research.

Requiring a college degree is a way of narrowing the number of applicants, but it’s also a great way to get a lot of overqualified people for a position, which leads to turnover.

Requiring a degree is also a way of preventing some highly capable individuals of even getting their foot in the door.

So what we need are for employers to be more honest and more realistic in what the actual job requirements are for all of their job openings. If they find someone who has the requirements noted in the title of this blog (Hardworking, Personable, Honest, and Curious), then that person should be given the opportunity, regardless of whether that individual has a college degree or not.

Can you imagine if Steve Jobs went to apply for a job at Apple today in new product development? Such a position might require at a minimum bachelor’s degree, but preferably a master’s degree.

And what if Bill Gates tried to join Microsoft  as a programmer, without any degree? Once again, Bill may have been shut out in the first round of interviews.

I admit there are several jobs that truly do require a college degree, but that number is much smaller than employers would like to admit.

So I ask employers to open their doors to all those individuals who may be capable of performing a job at a high level, despite a lack of a college degree.

Who knows, that person could be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.

Or just another hardworking,personable, honest, and curious person who can make a difference at your firm.

This Place Opens Doors to Bright Futures

Tonight I was lucky enough to attend Montgomery County Community College (Montco)’s annual “Salute to Excellence” reception. The event recognizes the academic dedication shown by scholarship recipients, who often must sacrifice and balance studies with work and family obligations in order to realize their dreams. At the event, students share their stories and get to thank donors directly.

The reception is also an opportunity to commend donors for their generosity. Many alumni — many of whom received scholarship aid as students here — establish scholarships as a way of “paying it forward,” while corporate and community organizations do so as a way to invest in the future.

Sitting our table were three students who were scholarship recipients, and they all noted how critical such financial aid was in enabling them to attend Montco. One of the students was a young woman with a three-year old at home, working at the college, and pursuing a degree in radiography. She indicated that the scholarships, along with all the other support she has received while at Montco, is what keeps her going.

The other two students at our table were young men who were finishing up their associates’ degrees this semester, and then pursuing engineering degrees at four year colleges next year.

In all, there were over 200 scholarship recipients at the reception tonight; each with their own story as to how and why they came to enroll at Montco, and each thankful for the opportunity that the many donors present had provided to them through these scholarships.

The event was just further confirmation of why I am such a big fan of community colleges.

Montco’s foundation recently put out a booklet that offered some powerful facts about the power of investing in education:

  • private dollars that enable an education – including gifts from donors establishing scholarships – more than quadruple our graduates’ lifetime earnings potential
  • the scholarships created through the Foundation’s activities can open the doors to 500 more students each year; without such support, these students must put their dreams on hold, ending up as one of the missing faces in the collage above
  • 90% of Montco’s students hold a job, and 60% have a family to support; these scholarships play a key role in helping these individuals attend school.

Here’s a great video that offers a glimpse at the lives of a few of the students who benefited from the generosity of donors to pursue their dream of achieving a college degree, knowing such a degree would open doors to a brighter future.

So congratulations to all the scholarship recipients; you are an inspiration to all of us, and I wish you continued success.

And thank you to all the donors for their generosity. You are making a difference in the lives of all of these students, and are there many rewards greater than that?

Do Money and Guns Bring Out the Worst in People?

Despite my strong feelings in favor of gun  control, I usually don’t like to use isolated gun shooting incidents to support my position. I’d rather use the numerous research studies that utilize far more data and statistical analyses compared to one highly publicized shooting to back my beliefs.

However, I’m going to make an exception in this case.

This situation involved a laundromat owner in Philadelphia who was robbed at knife-point of approximately $2,000. When the robber left the store, the owner of the laundromat chased the robber out the door, but not before grabbing his handgun (which he had a license to carry).

The owner chased the robber down the street, and at one point the robber just threw the $2,000 cash in the air, but the owner decided to shoot him anyway.

Police say the suspect, a 40-year-old man, was shot twice in the chest. According to investigators, the suspect turned and raised his hand while being chased by the owner, and the owner feared the man had either a knife or a gun, so he opened fire.

In addition, an innocent 52-year old woman was shot twice in the hand during the chase. As of this writing, the suspect was reported to be in critical condition, while the bystander was said to be in stable condition.

Here is a video that captured part of the incident:

You’ll notice a couple of things in the video.

First, the robber is running away; not sure how this justifies the owner shooting at him. Second, the money is all scooped up in a matter of seconds by people in the area.

Apparently this laundromat owner was willing to possibly kill someone over $2,000. And several people were willing to sell their integrity for a few dollars they found on the street, likely knowing where the money had come from.

I can’t describe in words how despicable I find the actions of the laundromat owner. If I ran the world, this laundromat owner would be in jail for attempted murder.  My guess is that the gun gave the owner a sense of bravado, and he thought he could use it to take the law into his own hands to get his money back.

If he had simply called 911 immediately, things might have worked out better for everyone. Two people would not have been shot, and multiple people would not be walking around with money that is not theirs. In a way, that doesn’t make them much different than the robber.

So there’s lots of examples of the worst of humanity here – the robber, the owner, and the money thieves. But at the top of my list for bad behavior, I’d have to put the laundromat owner.

And I don’t care if the police have decided not to pursue charges against the owner; perhaps legally they didn’t have enough evidence to go on. But morally, there’s no way the owner can justify such actions.

And I can’t help but wonder – what if the owner didn’t have access to a gun.


I Must Be Ready for Retirement – I’m Starting to Think Like a Retiree

The New York Times had a story recently, “The Future of Retirement Communities: Walkable and Urban“, and that describes exactly the kind of place I’d like to live when I retire.

So when I checked to see what the most walkable cities were, I came across the list you see at the top of this blog. While they may be walkable, none of those cities appeal to me for retirement.

So I decided to check the top city on my list (right now) for possible retirement, Sarasota. The city of Sarasota itself only scored a 52, an average walkability score. However, the allows you to dig deeper, and check the walkability of neighborhoods within a city,

Here’s what I found as the top five most walkable neighborhoods in Sarasota:


So those scores look much more appealing.

I may have mentioned this before, but here is what I would like to have within walking distance of our residence (whatever that may be, single family home, townhouse, condo). having such a list helps us figure out what things will be important to us as we look for our retirement spot.

  • a great grocery store, like Moms Organic or Whole Foods
  • a great public library
  • a great bookstore
  • a YMCA/gym
  • a coffeeshop
  • local brew pub
  • a beach
  • movie theater
  • a performing arts center for plays, concerts, etc.
  • a farmers’ market
  • a variety of restaurants
  • public transit
  • volunteer opportunities

and within 5-10 minutes, by car:

  • great medical facilities
  • a college

within 30 minutes, by car

  • an airport

From what I can tell, Sarasota meets all of these requirements (plus one of our most basic ones, which is a warm climate).

Hopefully we’ll get to check it out soon, and see if reality lives up to my expectations.

By the way, parts of Santa Barbara also look like great places, at least from a walkability perspective:


The problem is that California is a little far from my Philly roots, plus there’s no Wawas out there. Score one more point for Sarasota.

P.S. I’m still a good six years away from retiring…

The Power of Volunteering

I had a chance to be part of two events this weekend that opened my eyes to the power of volunteering.

The background of the people and the setting for each meeting could not have been more different.

Last night I attended a meeting of Reconstruction, Inc., an organization committed to fighting for prison reform as well as helping ease the path back into society for ex-offenders. The meeting took place in North Philadelphia, a neighborhood afflicted by high poverty, and all the problems associated with such a condition. The purpose of the meeting was to get everyone up-to-date on all the various initiatives of the organization, as well the chance to ask questions and air grievances. I was unaware of how upset people were with some of the issues that had been going on behind the scenes. But it seemed to be healthy to get such issues out in the open.

Today I attended an event at Villanova University, run by students, designed to help young adults with special needs to learn some life skills. The meeting took place on the Main Line, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, and most of the people at the event were from upper-middle class families. Today’s topic was math and money skills, and the Villanova students designed three stations to allow students to develop certain of these skills. One station had a series of taste tests between name-brand and store brand products to show the young adults the value of store brand products. Another station taught students how to budget for a night out, and a third station focused on the difference between wants and needs. The stations were quite clever, and the young adults seemed to enjoy them.

As I said, the backgrounds and participants of the two meetings were quite different, but there was also a good deal in common.

One item in particular that struck me was that everyone involved at each meeting was a volunteer. And while there are certain benefits one gets from this type of volunteering, what really struck me is that sometimes the benefits can be life changing.

One person at the Reconstruction meeting last night was talking about how as the time got closer and closer for his release from prison, all he and his fellow prisoners would talk about was how they couldn’t wait to do something productive once they got out. However, he learned that it was not easy for an ex-offender to find a job. So he just started volunteering, joining as many organizations as he could so that he could not only help others, buthimself as well. Volunteering was giving him the opportunity to start putting his life back together again as well. It never struck me until hearing his story that volunteering could be so powerful, and the importance of making such opportunities available.

I’ve written before about how great the Villanova students are with volunteering and providing service to the local community and beyond. And for many, such service is a chance for the students to share their time and talent with those less fortunate than themselves. But every once in a while you meet a student whose life path is changed dramatically because of the volunteering they have done. It could be choosing a different career that is directly related to their volunteer work, or becoming a lifelong advocate for the  poor, or those with physical or mental disabilities, and others they have met through their volunteering. In addition to the Villanova students benefiting from the experience, the young adults did as well. They loved being on campus, interacting with people close to their age, and the opportunity to learn some new skills. A win-win for all those involved.

This revelation about the power of volunteering to change lives was eye-opening, and has made me want to more actively look for such opportunities, and at the same time, think of ways to make such opportunities available to more people.

So thank you to the members of Reconstruction and Villanova for the good work that you do; you really do have the power to change the world.

The King and I – a Timeless Tale

Another great show at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

This time it was the classic “The  King  and I”. I was vaguely familiar with  the story, and I certainly recognized  the song “Getting  to Know You.”

After the  play, I went to Wikipedia to read a bit  more  about the play and found out that it is based on a true story.

The King and I is the fifth musical by the team of composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II. It is based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which is in turn derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now known as Thailand) in the early 1860s. The musical’s plot relates the experiences of Anna, a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King’s drive to modernize his country. The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by conflict through much of the piece, as well as by a love to which neither can admit. The musical premiered on March 29, 1951, at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. It ran for nearly three years, making it the fourth longest-running Broadway musical in history at the time, and has had many tours and revivals.

There’s a good deal of reference to President Lincoln, since the play was set in that time period. It made me wonder how news traveled back then, and how long it took to get news from one side of the  world to the other. It’s something we take for granted today. I came away impressed that the King of Siam was interested in learning how to be an effective leader by knowing  as much as he could about the President of the United States.

It was  also interesting to realize that many of the issues that people had to deal with 150 years ago are still with us today, such as international aggression, women’s rights, and how hard it is to accept that the world is changing. It’s no wonder that the play  has stood the test of time.

So thank you once again to all the performers and those behind the scenes for providing the audience with a wonderful night of  entertainment.

Here’s  an interesting  clip of the rehearsal of “Getting to Know You”.

I Thought I Had at Least an Average Vocabulary; Wrong Again

I still remember the big day.

I was probably around 12 years old, and my parents were taking me out to get something I really wanted.

Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary.

It was THE dictionary.

It contained more than 450,000 entries, including more than 100,000 new entries.

The first print run had 2,726 pages, weighed 13½ lbs, and originally sold for $47.50 (about $350 in 2010 dollars).

Why would a sports and girl obsessed 12-year old boy want a dictionary?

Well, despite being obsessed with sports, I wasn’t very good at any of them.

And as for the girl thing, let’s just say the obsession was quite one-sided, and besides, I was more comfortable spending an hour with a book of brain teasers than a girl.

I was also studying for our school’s spelling bee, and a dictionary was the best study guide imaginable. (I had hoped to win our regional spelling bee to make it the National Finals in Washington, D.C., but unfortunately I never did.)

Anyway, I loved that dictionary, and despite my mediocre verbal SAT scores, I always thought that those years spent studying from it had helped to improve my vocabulary.

So when I came across an online vocabulary quiz, I thought it would be right up my alley.

This particular quiz was referred to as the “Slippery Words Quiz“, described as the following:

Many of the words we use have a meaning that is different from what it once was. Take the quiz below to see if you can guess the earliest meaning of some of the more slippery English words.

Well there were 11 words in the quiz, and as I found out after the test, the average score is a 6.

My score was a 3.

Looks like it’s time to bring a dictionary to bed with me again…

If you’d like to take the quiz, here is the link.

I Gave the Wrong Answer in Class Today, and the World Didn’t End…

Since high school, I’ve never been one to voluntarily participate in class.

I’m guessing the biggest reason was the fear of giving the wrong answer, and then feeling myself transform into Lobster Man in full view of the rest of the class.

Basically, I didn’t walk to be like Ivan Ackerman, as seen below.

This behavior continued all of the way through my PhD. I remember after one of my PhD seminars the professor asked me to stay after class and then he told me that I had to stop sitting in class like a “bump on a log.” I don’t recall my behavior changing too much despite his plea.

(As I’ve written about before, this type of behavior was not unique to the classroom. I tend to be the same way in other settings, whether it’s getting my hair cut or sitting in a department meeting; I just don’t have much to say.)

I was a little better when I went back to community college a few years ago to get a degree in Health and Fitness Promotion. Perhaps it was the nature of the courses or the teachers, but I found myself much more willing to both ask and answer questions.

But for the most part, I still tended to keep my thoughts to myself (except for when I’m blogging…)

Fast forward to my Calculus class. Slowly but surely, over the past semester and a half, I’ve gotten a little braver. I still sit in the very back of the room, but I’ve started asking a few questions and offering a few answers along the way, but only when I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

Well today the teacher asked a question, and no one seemed to be answering, so I thought I’d give it a shot, even thought I wasn’t quite sure of the answer.

You can tell by the title of the blog what happened, I gave the wrong answer. The teacher was kind enough to soften the blow and tell me I had given an answer to a different type of problem.

But I soon realized I was OK; I don’t think I turned red, I didn’t notice any of the students around me snickering, and the world didn’t end.

So I’m not sure if such an experience will suddenly turn me into someone who can’t stop talking (I seriously doubt it), but it did make me realize that it’s OK to be wrong, and I learned from my mistake.

I’ll now always know whether a p-series type function converges or diverges.