Friday, February 20, 2009

129. Grade inflation hides true worth

The University of Southern California (USC) Law School recently considered making the average grade a B-plus, moving the grading curve .1 from 3.2 to 3.3. The dean felt that their students were at a disadvantage in competing for jobs with other schools that had a higher average grade. Meanwhile, compare that to Harvard and Stanford who are all considering, or have, changed their grading system to simply "Pass/Fail," though there will be distinctions of "honors pass" and "low pass."

The question is what does it matter? It was interesting reading the responses from law students in response to this story and it appears that grading is all over the map. In my law school, a 60 is a C minus and an 80 is an A minus. Multiple choice and essay exams are very difficult, unlike any other program I have participated in, and most students end up in the B to C range.

Students from other law schools, however, claimed that they received an A just for showing up (probably an exaggeration. law school is difficult), and most seemed pretty disgusted with the whole system. Of course, for those wanting to practice law, the great equalizer is the bar exam.

But clearly grades should matter, and those that work harder in school should be rewarded with better opportunities. But does it? When was the last time you heard someone ask a lawyer how he or she did in law school? They passed the bar exam, and except for the most prestigious positions, that is all that legally matters. There is even a saying in law school, "C= J.D."

So how do we compare one attorney that was graded on a pass/fail system and another that had a B minus average at another law school? And if it doesn't matter, why does it matter-to the point that USC would change their grading system by .1?

It's not just law school. My Master's of Business Administration (MBA) program was predominately projects and written papers/reports. Many of the projects took place in groups, in which some people worked really hard, and, unfortunately, others did very little. Unlike law school, there is no exam to give someone the right to practice as an MBA. Certainly, there are those people benefitting from a degree they did not earn.

I have written before that I feel as though colleges have watered down their work loads and grading standards. I spoke to one professor who gave "bonus" points for turning in a paper in time. I asked if he was kidding, he said "no," that he received too many complaints for taking away points from late papers. Students complain, make excuses and think nothing of appealing their grades to department heads.

In some circumstances, it seems that a number of professors are afraid to challenge their students. It is easier to keep everyone happy by dividing them into three categories- A, B or F. That is probably also an exaggeration, and oversimplification, but what happened to the grading curve, in which the best students received As, most received Cs and others did not pass? Does it still exist?

I fear we are moving in the same direction as kid's sports, where we do not keep score and everyone gets an award just for showing up. And if we do not get our award, we complain and threaten the authorities until we do get it. I believe in equal opportunity, not equal reward. It is not win at all cost; it is that not everyone wins. Some people have learned to exchange hard work with good excuses. School and sports should teach us that it takes hard work to be successful, that there are few short cuts, and that results do matter-as does process, respect and integrity.

The diversity now seen in colleges is a positive reflection of our time. There are young students, old students, on-line courses, weekend classes, career centers and traditional campuses. The evaluating of factors and programs is becoming more difficult, particularly when an 80 is a B- in one school and an A- in another. The proof is in the job offers, and colleges like USC understand this. They want to attract students by stating, "Attend our school, and you'll get a great job."

It becomes more difficult, however, evaluating a young student from a notoriously challenging traditional program, with no responsibility except for school, with a single mom of two, working two jobs, and attending school part-time on weekends at a perhaps less demanding career center. Following graduation, what factors, in addition to grades, will be considered in hiring?

Today the competing environment for jobs is escalating; there are fewer jobs and intense competition. Everything matters. Applicants in most fields need to be well-rounded-education, work and volunteer experience, character (and it still does not hurt to know someone!). But education will always be a significant factor, and colleges, despite their need to attract and keep students, need to provide a challenging environment, one that adequately prepares a student for the "real" world. A world that does most certainly keep score-in dollars and cents.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

128. True cost of burger not on menu

Ever wonder how they do it? Ever wonder how McDonald's and other companies can sell their double cheeseburgers for one dollar. When I was in college, and struggling to make ends meets, I nearly lived on one dollar double cheeseburgers. Where else could I get a meal of two burgers, fries and soft drink for fewer than five dollars? It carried me through several semesters, and, secretly, I always feared that what I thought was a temporary promotion would end.

But even then I wondered: How was it profitable, except of course from the money made off of all other products like the soft drinks, to sell a double cheeseburger so cheaply? Consider all of the people that need to be compensated to make a double cheeseburger. There is the farmer that raises the cow, and all of his overhead-such as feed, water, antibiotics, equipment. There are the people in the slaughterhouse that must kill the cow and process the meat. The meat must then be packaged and sent to McDonald's (or their suppliers) who certainly does their thing to it-such as apportion, season and freeze it in preparation to send it to its outlets. Then the meat must be transported to those outlets, which assumes all of the costs of McDonald's management and transportation. Next, after getting to McDonald's, the meat must be cooked and served, so we need to toss in the overhead of running a McDonald's and the salaries of their employees. I am sure I missed a few steps, and I know there are economies of scale when it comes to a corporation as large as McDonald's, but it seems like one dollar is a heck of a deal.

I might be slow, but I figured it out, and it comes down to a single word: Corn. Michael Polland's book, entitled The Omnivore's Dilemma, has a shocking and insightful section on the agricultural background and economic influence of America's largest crop. Inspired by the book, some filmmakers developed the idea in a documentary entitled "King Corn," in which they grew an acre of Iowa corn and followed its process from beginning to end. Here is just a bit of the story.

Corn cannot be grown profitably by most farmers and in order to encourage its development, it is subsidized by the federal government. The days of the small ranch in which farmers grew corn in their fields and raised animals in their pastures are long gone. It is a business in which the only criterion is profit. Welcome to factory farming.

Much of the corn grown is not readily edible, it must be processed-and the truth is that a large percentage of it is grown strictly for feed. Farmers grow more and more corn, and enhanced by technology and fertilizer, and unhindered by a demand curve, the amount of corn grown far exceeds its consumption. The technological breakthrough has come largely in developing strains of corn that can be grown very closely together-yet maintain its military-like posture. Today, 30,000 plants can grow per acre whereas one generation ago it was closer to 8,000. It is a genetically-engineered hybrid whose offspring are not nearly as productive-which means that seeds must be purchased new each year.

This cheap corn, and here is what those that sell cheap hamburgers are interested in, is sold as feed to cattle-in differing capacities and blends, including the addition of antibiotics. If you know your cows, you are probably thinking, I thought cows ate grass. Well not much anymore, we have forced-fed cows corn in order to grow them more quickly. That is where the antibiotics come in. Cows did not evolve to eat corn and the large amounts fed to them give their stomachs painful ulcers-acidosis. If they were not taken to slaughter at such a young age, their diet would kill them. Another problem is bloat, which is the fermentation in the rumen that produces "copious amounts of gas." And when the diet contains too much starch and not enough roughage, the rumen can trap the gas, pressing against the animal's lungs and suffocate the animal.

Polland notes, "Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us-at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters-to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories and the great pile (of corn) must be consumed." It gets worse, and the truth is not only do the cattle gorge on corn, they also, as Pollan reports, eat other cattle, "The FDA ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants makes an exception for blood products and fat, (the cattle) will probably dine on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse they're headed to."

One farmer noted that on his grandfather's farm, where cattle were still permitted to graze, it took four to five years to get to slaughter. In the fifties it was two to three years. Today, cattle are slaughtered in fourteen to sixteen months going from 80 pounds to 1,100 in that time. One farmer in the "King Corn" documentary noted in part that that is why they are not permitted to move around-it would burn off calories and take longer to reach slaughter weight. It is sick manipulation of economics and science-all to feed Americans more inexpensively than any other time in history. Any suggestion of a "happy cow" is a bold face lie.

That's not the end of the corn story-not even close. Some of the corn that does not end up as cattle food is then processed into high-fructose corn syrup-a dirty word these days. This corn syrup, which was developed in the 1970s, is in much of our food and beverages, including the soft drinks at McDonald's. That, however, is a story for another day.

The American diet is out of control and as the 20-something year-old film makers note, their generation might be the first to have a life expectancy less than their parents.

I recently visited McDonald's. I still love their Big Macs, though now I replace their hamburgers with a veggie patty, making a tasty "Veggie Mac." On my last trip, I got the meat on the sides for my dogs (something I should not, and only rarely, do). However, I now look at the small hamburger patties as a disgusting blend of meat and fat-grown on corn, to the detriment of every moral value I endorse.

Though I am now a vegetarian, my diet still leaves a lot to be desired, so I am not necessarily the right person to lecture people on what they eat. However, I have spent some time recently learning about how our food is processed and the increased danger of the American diet-not only its effects on our bodies, but also our economy, environment and ethics. It is truly in a pitiful state, and Americans need to learn more about where our food comes from.

My vegetarian diet is kinder to the animals, healthier and more eco-friendly. Even as I struggle with my own fitness, from the damage done by the years in which I ate fast foods, I have a moral and ethical sense of contentment that I am doing the right thing. Michael Pollan sums it up perfectly in his book, "To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of the industrial food chain, without a thought in the world."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

127. Pete is dumb, but he's lovable

They say that Bulldogs are one of the least intelligent dog breeds. Pete, our American Bulldog mix, sure seems to be as advertised. To say this kindly, he is a very simple dog. He wants to eat, chase things and be with you every moment of the day. While my other dogs were quick to learn "tricks," Pete barely knows how to shake hands. Easton, a beagle mix, meanwhile, has the full repertoire-learning to "roll over" in about ten minutes. He also will jump into my arms when I ask, turning as he leaps, landing nearly shoulder high. He did this by accident once and thinking that it was pretty cool we immediately rewarded him. Now, he does it just to show off.

Pete loves food. Really loves food. We often wonder not if he would eat an entire bag of food if left to it, but how fast he would eat it. You would think that he would be easily trained, since the food reward matters so much to him. Actually, he is too fixated on the food, and just offers his paw repeatedly. I am sure that a dog trainer could train him to be more focused, but our relationship is neither benefited nor enhanced by whether he can speak or rollover.

Pete also loves to explore, and has the not-to-be deterred resilience that is common to his breed. We occasionally have rabbits and other critters visiting under our shed. The prospect of catching a critter delights Pete to no end, and he would spend hours if left unattended looking for the animal. His process is simple: Look under the near end of the shed and then run to the other side and look under the far end of the shed. I can just hear his optimistic thought process, "No animal here, better check the other side." The success rate of this method of attack, thus far, is exactly zero.

Pete, however, has indeed caught one animal, though it was by complete accident. My wife went screaming outside to get Pete when she realized that he had run across a baby rabbit in the grass. The rabbit was a cute fur ball, small enough to sit in the palm of my hands. What did Pete do to this animal, one that would make a nice snack and easily fit within his large jaws? He licked it, over and over. Maybe he was just tasting it, but, actually, I think he loved him and wanted to keep it as his pet.

Perhaps unfairly, we give Pete, in a primal anthropomorphic way, a "Neanderthal" voice. This is typically a two word sentence, with a third person self-reference, such as, "Pete hungry," "Pete tired," or "Pete cold." He is remarkably raw, and surprisingly kind and loving considering his strength. Our little Shea, older and now fragile, still keeps him in line. Nibbling at his ears when he "breaks the rules," he either ignores her or tries to play with her-completely missing the point.

Pete has learned, often from the other dogs, how to behave-well at least sometimes. He now waits patiently at the dinner table for us to finish, makes room for us in the bed (he used to get quite upset at the idea that he was being removed to the floor for the night), and has learned his boundaries within the invisible fence. But there is certainly room to grow. The house training thing has only been a marginal success, he still paces the room if there is an unconsumed morsel of food remaining on a plate after dinner, and he gets bored quickly-seeking attention through an annoying and loud exchange of playful growls and barks.

I think, most of all, Pete wants to be part of the family. He seems to appreciate his rescue from an unsheltered mud pit that he previously called home. His past might be responsible for his separation anxiety, I do not know. But I do know that he wants to be with us all the time, a loyal and patient friend that follows us from room to room, inside and outside.

He carefully watches our house, and when something a little too unusual is happening outside, he runs to me, stops barking and stares me straight in the eyes, as to say, "Boss, you better check this out." I trust him to protect us, however, I do remember one late night when I came downstairs to check on a noise I had heard. He followed closely behind me, step by step down the stairs, looking up as to say, "Pete thinks someone breaking in." I thought, you are the tough guy, run down there and find out!

At the end of "Marley and Me," the most perfect words are narrated, "A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, clever or dumb. ... Give him your heart and he'll give you his." Truth is, Pete has our hearts, and we care not whether he is clever or dumb, behaves or misbehaves or even if he follows behind me down the stairs.

I think he is smart enough to know that.