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Introduction to the Thesaurus

thesauri rule.

Pretty busy – needed a laugh [courtesy of Toothpaste for Dinner].

Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Yes and No, Part II

Ivory Tower vs. Plaster of Paris Tower

This is a continuation of Part I, a reaction to Paul Graham’s essay on the value of a top-tier degree.

Picking up where we left off:

I’m not saying, of course, that elite colleges have evolved to prey upon the weaknesses of large organizations the way enterprise software companies have. But they work as if they had. In addition to the power of the brand name, graduates of elite colleges have two critical qualities that plug right into the way large organizations work. They’re good at doing what they’re asked, since that’s what it takes to please the adults who judge you at seventeen. And having been to an elite college makes them more confident.

I’m not certain that graduates of elite colleges are any more controllable than graduates from a third-tier school. A cynic could suggest that to be accepted to an elite school and complete a degree requires extra commitment to diligence and obedience, but there’s no evidence to support that. In contrast, some elite institutions are quite easy on their students – after all, if they’re accepted to _____ they must be brilliant and the reins are loosened.

Students are increasingly treated as consumers who direct their own education rather than lucky souls who are given a wonderful opportunity to work the will of the grisly gang in the Ivory Tower. Suggesting that success at such a school is largely a result of committing to the party line is a baseless oversimplification of higher education.

And, yes, graduating from an elite college gives one confidence because, on average, they’re far better prepared than fourth-tier graduates. That confidence is justified.

Back in the days when people might spend their whole career at one big company, these qualities must have been very valuable. Graduates of elite colleges would have been capable, yet amenable to authority. And since individual performance is so hard to measure in large organizations, their own confidence would have been the starting point for their reputation.

I would argue that responsible diligence and obedience, along with appropriate confidence in one’s abilities, are still valuable. If I were a university president, I’d hate to pump out graduates who were missing any of those qualities.

I’m a bit confused here with Graham’s logic – he bemoans a worker who is ‘amenable to authority,’ then discounts using that worker’s own judgment [his confidence] to evaluate performance. If he doesn’t listen to his boss and his self-evaluation isn’t accurate, who’s steering his ship?

Things are very different in the new world of startups. We couldn’t save someone from the market’s judgement [sic] even if we wanted to. And being charming and confident counts for nothing with users. All users care about is whether you make something they like. If you don’t, you’re dead.

The market is an excellent judge of the product – the market doesn’t judge the process. But we need a process to get a product.

I have a feeling that Graham is saying that the obedience with process is less important than in the past. Cherry-picking elements of process and product to prove the point is intellectually irresponsible. Users of Yahoo.com don’t care about the charm and confidence exhibited by the minds behind the website [product], but that doesn’t mean that those attributes aren’t important to the process that resulted in the service.

Knowing that test is coming makes us work a lot harder to get the right answers than anyone would if they were merely hiring people. We can’t afford to have any illusions about the predictors of success. And what we’ve found is that the variation between schools is so much smaller than the variation between individuals that it’s negligible by comparison. We can learn more about someone in the first minute of talking to them than by knowing where they went to school.

Essentially, Graham is advocating a streamlined process that focuses on delivering a valuable result. This isn’t new; it’s not only good business, it’s likely a major reason why Graham’s ventures [and those he's funded] have largely been successful. It’s how we all need to work.

Graham touches on the point of variation – and that really should be the meat of his argument.

50 years ago, there were marked differences between an Ivy and, for example, the average state agricultural college. That gap has been closed by an intellectual flattening, broadening and the expansion of higher education.

Consider the following points:

Narrow to broad curricula. Generations ago, even larger universities didn’t offer 1,000 different degree programs and an overwhelming array of classes. A degree from a solid institution certified a body of knowledge not only because of a school’s reputation for quality, but also because there were few opportunities to stray significantly from that prescribed body of knowledge. Human Resources at a given company knew that a degree in business from a reputable institution certified mastery of the principles of business as well as familiarity with all elements of a liberal arts education and the basic skills it cultivates.

Now, a student graduating from a college or university generally has anywhere from 1/4 – 1/2 their curriculum mandated [with obvious variations depending on one's track] – a paltry portion compared to the prescribed curricula of yesteryear. The important point is that standard curricula have ceased to dominate higher education; we simply can’t view a degree as a certification of knowledge or abilities because of this variation.

I attended Boston University – it’s a very large research university with plenty of funding. I made sure that I studied with the best – Nobel Laureates, authorities in respective fields, etc. – but I didn’t have to. I could have taken 18+ of my 32 classes in everything from ballet studies to coaching theory and, in the end, I would’ve had exactly the same degree as I have now. Unless someone analyzed my transcript, they wouldn’t have any idea what knowledge I possessed beyond what was required to satisfy the minimum liberal arts requirement and the necessary classes for my major.

In 1908, HR didn’t have to wonder whether a Harvard graduate chose to take rhetoric or basketweaving.

Expansion of higher education. The last 40 years has seen an explosion in higher ed, from state research universities to small liberal arts colleges to a vast network of community colleges. There’s simply more to choose from [as well as the curricular expansion I just noted].

Not all of these options are created equal, but this proliferation has nearly eliminated the monopoly excellent education that was held by the Ivies and its counterparts west of the Mississippi. The emergence of other viable options has diminished the certainty with which we regard a particular degree’s value. It’s not just the Ivies anymore.

And the student population has exploded, too. As colleges and universities expand – offering an education to far larger student bodies than in the past – our ability to assign characteristics to individuals who graduate from a particular institution diminishes. The larger a population, the more difficult it is to generalize accurately.

There are several other important factors that contribute to a flattening of reputations that are beyond the scope of this article – the two points above are meant only to be a conceptual start.

And can we know more by talking to someone for a minute than evaluating their degree? Now, usually we can – generations ago, not necessarily, as there were far fewer criteria associated with their certifications. I think Graham would agree that at this point, anyone who attempts to evaluate one based solely on credentials is hiring/admitting sub-optimally. The consequences of this shift on both HR and academics are numerous and marked.

It seems obvious when you put it that way. Look at the individual, not where they went to college. But that’s a weaker statement than the idea I began with, that it doesn’t matter much where a given individual goes to college. Don’t you learn things at the best schools that you wouldn’t learn at lesser places?

This depends a great deal on what one is measuring and the applicant’s course of study.

A liberal arts education – and really, any bachelors-level degree program – equips a student with the basic, transferable skills that are required for any pursuit. This proposition would offend most students, especially the ones who are passionate about their niche discipline, but undergraduate education is about rudimentary skills: reading, writing, thinking and communicating the results of those efforts. One acquires those skills, theoretically, in any discipline and uses them in any job they’ll ever have.

These skills, as I’ve said, are wholly transferable – I didn’t study business or education formally, but I’m competent in both sectors because I’ve mastered those basic skills. This is no different than the signaling methods a venture capitalist might use to identify potentially-successful entrepreneurs regardless of their specific credentials. Those transferable skills are taught properly at many institutions in many disciplines.

But some degree programs are more vocational than others. For example, a hard science researcher acquires not just transferable skills, but also methodology and practices specific to the performance of research in his discipline. Some schools/departments simply provide better training [for a variety of reasons such as availability of resources, partnerships, faculty quality, etc.]. In this case, you leave an elite school equipped with hard skills that you’d miss at a fourth-tier institution.

Graham’s business – entrepreneurship – depends more on transferable skills than on vocational skills. For his purposes, he can choose a graduate of Harvard or Hartwick with relative indifference if they’ve mastered the transferable skills necessary for successful entrepreneurship. HR for NASA’s research labs is more likely to base a decision on hard skills, or at least factor those vocational attributes more heavily.

Apparently not. Obviously you can’t prove this in the case of a single individual, but you can tell from aggregate evidence: you can’t, without asking them, distinguish people who went to one school from those who went to another three times as far down the US News list. Try it and see.

Again, Graham fails to delineate between transferable skills and vocational skills. If I ask two examinees to write a 750-word essay [not unlike a statement of purpose on an application] about why they want to go to law school, it would be virtually impossible to tell with any degree of certainty the examinee’s background – unless, of course, he described it in the essay.

If I ask two candidates for a fellowship about a particular facet of researching the effectiveness of g-protein coupled receptors and influential RGS proteins responsible for treating symptoms of epilepsy, I’m likely to take their answer and separate with confidence the University of Phoenix graduate from the MIT alum.

It’s the difference between transferable skill available at any quality institution and hard, vocational skill that may or may not be a part of a specific curriculum.

Part III will address the final points in Graham’s essay.

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College Application Overview for Homeschoolers: Recommendations

In the first part of this series, I outlined the five major components of the homeschooler’s college application. We’ve looked at both the official transcript and the school profile; now it’s time to examine recommendations.

Colleges ask for recommendations for obvious reasons – they want to hear about your strengths and weaknesses from those who know you in an academic setting. Schools have varying requirements on recs; some require one math/science, one social studies/English, one of your choice, while others give you the freedom to choose. It’s important to check with a college’s admissions office or website to determine with certainty which particular recommendations they ask for. You can always give them a call and ask how those requirements apply to a homeschooled applicant.

The homeschooler faces a few main challenges with recommendations:

Lack of teachers. Relative to a public school student who has had upwards of 20 different high school teachers by the time they apply to college, a homeschooled student may have just one or two teachers.

Sincerity. A homeschooled student has to contend with a parent recommendation being seen as a “note from Mom” that may be biased.

Non-traditional language. Admissions officers are often taught to focus on key phrases from teachers who have had hundreds of students, such as, “one of the best students I have ever taught,” or “in the top 10%.” These phrases don’t apply to a homeschooled student.

As with the other parts of the application, these hurdles can be turned easily into opportunities to strengthen your child’s candidacy.

You can and should:

Be honest. Be honest, be honest, be honest. Your child has strengths and weaknesses; take advantage of your insight as both an educator and parent and give them both. You’ve got a unique perspective – take advantage of that in a way that demonstrates sincerity and adds value to the application.

No one is perfect and no one is perfectly awful. A good, honest recommendation recognizes this. Maybe your child is a better ‘starter’ than a ‘finisher.’ Maybe he too often tackles projects that are too large. Whatever it is, be honest about it – and usually you can present these difficulties in a way that doesn’t reflect negatively on your child.

Be specific. You’re intimately familiar with your child and his curriculum, so you can add detail that describes your child’s abilities and accomplishments to a higher degree than most recommendations.

Consider the following two sample portions of a recommendation.

From a public school teacher: “Rebecca was one of the most interested students during the poetry unit. Although it is one of the more challenging units in our Honors English class, she was able to handle the material and led classroom discussion on most days. I have no doubt that she will be able to handle the challenging curriculum required for an English major.”

Compare that to a homeschool parent/teacher: ““Rebecca has a keen interest in Emily Dickinson’s poetry and has passionately explored Dickinson’s works. Rebecca has exceeded all expectations, reading two additional books not required by her curriculum as well as corresponding with a local college literature professor for further Dickinson analysis. Her commitment and dedication to literature will serve her well as an English Major in college.”

The public school teacher knows Rebecca’s abilities and judges her favorably, but she’s presented within the context of her class. Unfortunately for Rebecca, her class isn’t applying to college – she is.

The homeschool parent/teacher is able to describe very specific achievements and gauge her dedication in a way that the average teacher wouldn’t be able to do with believable authority. Make these details a strength of your recommendation.

Find a community member or outside instructor who has observed your student’s intellectual capabilities or mastery of a challenging situation and ask them to write a recommendation. It is imperative to find additional support for the admissions application outside of the family constructs. If these interactions and relationships aren’t already built into your curricula, put them in.

You want a recommendation that is specific, honest and relevant – just like yours – that can build on or support your child’s application. That means the recommendation has to say more than, “Will is a good, smart kid and I like him.” Rich recommendations come from real relationships. Think about the relationships your child has [or needs to have] and decide accordingly.

In summary: Be honest, be specific and find others who can do the same.

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Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Yes and No, Part I

Ivory Tower vs. Plaster of Paris Tower

Paul Graham is a true polymath. He’s a leader in web technology with 15 years of high-profile accomplishments, one of which became the Yahoo! Store software that serves countless small businesses. He’s a well-known venture capitalist who funds startups via Y Combinator. In short, he’s an expert on most all things business and societal and how they can and do work with technology [and from what I understand, he's a fine artist as well].

It’s no surprise that Mr. Graham’s essay on the value of a college education has been widely-read and regarded as a sound, sensible contrarian take on one of the most important questions in education: Does it really matter where you go to college?

And this is, really, at the heart of the work I do. Much of my approach to higher education is echoed in Graham’s essay. It’s a broad topic and it’s a seminal topic; it’s difficult to address all the relevant facets of the question in less than a book.

Before writing a final copy of my take on if-and-how-much a particular college matters, I want to parse Graham’s essay and work through a discussion on this site and others. Too often we read give-and-take final products without knowing how one arrived at that end; it’s rare that readers can contrast the thought processes of two very different perspectives.

Graham does an excellent job giving context to his thoughts and describing well the hows and whys of his argument. I wanted to treat my reaction as a conversation and have responded to his points as if we were across a table discussing the matter [and Mr. Graham, why don't we do just that?].

Here’s Part I of “Yes and No.” I’ve decided to split this up into two parts because: a) there are too many points to address otherwise – the discussion would be stifled; and b) between quoting parts of Mr. Graham’s essay and adding my own comments, it works out to around 4,000+ words – that’s too much for one sitting.

I recommend reading Graham’s full text [~1,900 words] before proceeding, but it isn’t entirely necessary because I quote his piece liberally.

A few weeks ago I had a thought so heretical that it really surprised me. It may not matter all that much where you go to college.

For me, as for a lot of middle class kids, getting into a good college was more or less the meaning of life when I was growing up. What was I? A student. To do that well meant to get good grades. Why did one have to get good grades? To get into a good college. And why did one want to do that? There seemed to be several reasons: you’d learn more, get better jobs, make more money. But it didn’t matter exactly what the benefits would be. College was a bottleneck through which all your future prospects passed; everything would be better if you went to a better college.

Heretical to the average college graduate and to the fear-mongering New York Times, yes – but there are plenty of educators, public and private, who don’t assign value to a degree alone. The benefits of a solid post-secondary education are one thing that most all of us agree on: knowing more and using that knowledge in work and beyond.

What first set me thinking about this was the new trend of worrying obsessively about what kindergarten your kids go to. It seemed to me this couldn’t possibly matter. Either it won’t help your kid get into Harvard, or if it does, getting into Harvard won’t mean much anymore. And then I thought: how much does it mean even now?

I can’t empathize with those parents or kids who worry about college for 13+ years before they even set foot in a lecture hall [for many reasons beyond the scope of this article]. But getting into Harvard or an Ivy means less than it used to mean – I’d like to see where Graham is going with this.

It turns out I have a lot of data about that. My three partners and I run a seed stage investment firm called Y Combinator. We invest when the company is just a couple guys and an idea. The idea doesn’t matter much; it will change anyway. Most of our decision is based on the founders. The average founder is three years out of college. Many have just graduated; a few are still in school. So we’re in much the same position as a graduate program, or a company hiring people right out of college. Except our choices are immediately and visibly tested. There are two possible outcomes for a startup: success or failure—and usually you know within a year which it will be.

The test applied to a startup is among the purest of real world tests. A startup succeeds or fails depending almost entirely on the efforts of the founders. Success is decided by the market: you only succeed if users like what you’ve built. And users don’t care where you went to college.

And here is the rich explanation of Graham’s perspective. It’s important to note that he’s in a relatively unique position; there are few sectors that rely routinely – and so wholly – on such measurable results, and describing a startup as “among the purest of real world tests” is quite appropriate. As Boris Johnson pointed out weeks ago, the market is often as pure a decider as we can find. Rightly or wrongly, it’s reality.

As well as having precisely measurable results, we have a lot of them. Instead of doing a small number of large deals like a traditional venture capital fund, we do a large number of small ones. We currently fund about 40 companies a year, selected from about 900 applications representing a total of about 2000 people.

Between the volume of people we judge and the rapid, unequivocal test that’s applied to our choices, Y Combinator has been an unprecedented opportunity for learning how to pick winners. One of the most surprising things we’ve learned is how little it matters where people went to college.

I thought I’d already been cured of caring about that. There’s nothing like going to grad school at Harvard to cure you of any illusions you might have about the average Harvard undergrad. And yet Y Combinator showed us we were still overestimating people who’d been to elite colleges. We’d interview people from MIT or Harvard or Stanford and sometimes find ourselves thinking: they must be smarter than they seem. It took us a few iterations to learn to trust our senses.

Harvard undergrads – and undergrads at any elite school – are people. There’s generally the same standard distribution as anywhere else, just shifted to the right a bit. There are hideously intelligent students, the how-on-earth-did-you-get-in students and everything in between.

I remember having lunch with a Harvard student who was nearing graduation with a concentration in American Literature [I forgot her actual track, but her thesis was on Am. Lit.]. She was accepted to Teach for America and would start training that summer. At one point I brought up James Fenimore Cooper – America’s first real, popular novelist – and she said, “Who’s that?” The last drips and drops of elite-school illusions were wiped clean.

Graham has made clear that simply going to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the rest isn’t in itself good enough, but he hasn’t yet explained why.

Practically everyone thinks that someone who went to MIT or Harvard or Stanford must be smart. Even people who hate you for it believe it.

Agreed, but they hate you even more when they mention their alma mater, degree program or certification in a field and you react with almost total disinterest.

But when you think about what it means to have gone to an elite college, how could this be true? We’re talking about a decision made by admissions officers—basically, HR people—based on a cursory examination of a huge pile of depressingly similar applications submitted by seventeen year olds. And what do they have to go on? An easily gamed standardized test; a short essay telling you what the kid thinks you want to hear; an interview with a random alum; a high school record that’s largely an index of obedience. Who would rely on such a test?

It’s important to note at this point that the subject is getting broader. There’s a distinction between undergraduate programs and graduate programs and my answer to “Does it matter?” is quite different with the two.

Graham is oversimplifying the admissions process or, more accurately, describes a bad one. If an admissions officer relies too heavily on the easily gamed SAT/ACT, he’s evaluating candidates sub-optimally. If he can’t see through an insincere admissions essay, he’s not a terribly keen evaluator. If the alumni interview network is “random,” that’s not an effective use of the interview network. And, yes, high school GPA is generally a measure of duty and discipline.

Graham ignores the context that is woven with an application; separating its parts which, in and of themselves, are only indicators of an applicant’s abilities or performance, does a disservice to this topic. If HR or an admissions committee breaks apart this data to evaluate it, they’re not pulling the best of the applicant pool.

But this is how HR and admissions committees generally function. Admissions committees especially are hampered by logistics; it’s common knowledge that a pool of 20,000 applications allows for under 10 minutes of analysis for each applicant, qualified or not.

HR is generally populated with people who have worked in HR – they may or may not have enough knowledge and experience with certain aspects of the corporation to hire optimally. Admissions officers are from a similar pool – they’re often former students with little experience beyond the university, with senior officers’ CVs populated mostly by service to that school or others.

I’ve argued in the past that direct experience and credentialism aren’t foolproof measures of one’s abilities, but there’s no question that those who have experience generally are in a better position to evaluate candidates, policies, practices, etc. Some have a Blink-like talent for quick, accurate evaluation while others are largely clueless, experience or not.

In short, if HR or admissions rely on a school’s reputation or a degree track’s prestige, they’re playing it safe. They won’t accept too many stinkers, but they’ll miss out on a ton of talent.

And yet a lot of companies do [rely too much on these measures]. A lot of companies are very much influenced by where applicants went to college. How could they be? I think I know the answer to that.

There used to be a saying in the corporate world: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” You no longer hear this about IBM specifically, but the idea is very much alive; there is a whole category of “enterprise” software companies that exist to take advantage of it. People buying technology for large organizations don’t care if they pay a fortune for mediocre software. It’s not their money. They just want to buy from a supplier who seems safe—a company with an established name, confident salesmen, impressive offices, and software that conforms to all the current fashions. Not necessarily a company that will deliver so much as one that, if they do let you down, will still seem to have been a prudent choice. So companies have evolved to fill that niche.

I jumped the gun with my last comment – Graham agrees that safety is the issue.

Hiring and admissions based on credentials is a matter of probability – and it’s difficult to fault a company or committee for going with the odds. With education, K-12 or beyond, there are a few important factors that determine a program’s value:

  • Instructor quality. The quality of professors and staff matter. The more impressive a faculty’s accomplishments and the more authority they hold in the relevant disciplines, the more a student is likely to benefit.
  • Resources. Better schools tend to have more resources – including money. Those resources lure the most talented researchers and professors.
  • Higher-quality peers. Better schools have, on average, more talented and accomplished peers. There’s plenty of research to show that at all levels of education, students perform/advance more effectively and efficiently when they’re surrounded with quality. If you want a simple example, consider the differences in a class discussion on literature comparing highly-literate, knowledgeable students to a class barely able to understand the text. One scenario clearly provides more valuable, insightful discussion than the other.

Schools such as the Ivies historically have had – and continue to have – these three important elements. When HR or admissions has to consider a candidate in under 10 minutes, they rely to some degree on these reputations. One would often lose if he argued constantly that these schools don’t expose the average student to high-quality instruction, surround them with talented students or make available adequate resources to make the most of one’s study.

A recruiter at a big company is in much the same position as someone buying technology for one. If someone went to Stanford and is not obviously insane, they’re probably a safe bet. And a safe bet is enough. No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down.

Yes, and that’s partly because it’s impossible to measure that type of opportunity cost.

Hiring/admissions based on credentials provides a safety net for judgment; it nearly ensures that the most basic standards are met. But I would argue that this performance is measured. We can’t do it with easily-gathered hard data, but HR/admissions that engage in optimal selection fare better in their respective sectors. Companies are more profitable and more productive, schools pump out graduates who lead their respective fields.

Does this mean that the most successful schools and the most successful companies go beyond simple reputations with acceptance? It would be nearly impossible to isolate that factor, but I’d say absolutely. Such rigidity can keep an institution from decline, but it won’t advance it optimally.

Part II will address the next section of Paul Graham’s essay.

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    Historical Memories of Otsego County: Harley Goodspeed, Edmeston

    Otsego County, NY

    Originally published in September, 1975, Historical Memories of Otsego County [New York] is a collection of “memories and reminisces” collected from the senior citizen clubs of the County.

    I found the book while going through a box in my cellar. I searched and came across just a single copy available for sale and instantly decided to archive/republish it because, really, if I don’t, it’s likely to be lost forever. I got permission to make the text available, scanned the book and – finally – have started editing. It’s a slow process.

    I’ll share on this site some stories regarding education/schools in the County starting with Mr. Harley Goodspeed of Edmeston, New York.

    Harley’s memories before enrolling in school:

    The first state road was between West Burlington and Edmeston was built as a test road approximately 71 years ago by labor imported from Italy. If you will note, there are very few stone walls around this section, but those that we have were brought in on stone boats by local people. The stones were broken up by sledge hammers and you will note today there are very few pot holes. This road really held up well. The Italians put up a large building which they used as living quarters. Their foreman was the only one who could speak English. I was 6 years old at the time, and the Italians, being away from home, took quite a liking to me. They invited me for supper at which they had a big pot of delicious stew. I asked the foreman what kind of meat was in it and he said robin’s legs! I nearly lost my supper! I found out that every Italian had a slingshot and could knock a bird off a post. They were happy-go-lucky people. Every night they would sing and play their accordians as there was nothing else to do.

    Remembering the Edmeston school:

    The reason I went to school so young is because my mother picked strawberries for Jerry Robinson, as we had a big family and times were hard. My teacher at school was Adrian Pierson who later on became the District Attorney of Otsego County. I attended the Edmeston school in a covered wagon with seats on each side where we sat. Riding on this bus were: May Saywer Patrick, Merle Sawyer Palmer, Bill and Jim Diamond, Harold Mack, and Lucille Welch. That is all I can remember. The school had Prof. Carpenter as principal, Mrs. Lee Lock as teacher of the high school, and Miss Costello and Anna Jeffery. The Palmer Method of penmanship was taught, and you will note today that we older people have very good penmanship. One instance that stands out in my mind quite vividly is that the bathrooms were downstairs in the school. On my way down, one day, I discovered a fire under the stairs. I had quite a time putting it out.

    Early Edmeston High baseball:

    Baseball? Yes, we had a baseball team, and had to furnish our own baseball suits. The catcher, pitcher, and first baseman were the only ones with gloves. I remember going to South New Berlin on the train. VanNess Robinson loaned me his baseball suit. I really thought I was some guy with that baseball suit on!

    I suppose it’s time to get a textbook for the Palmer Method.

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