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Robert Niles

Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the author of How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online and Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Robert is a native of Los Angeles, and today lives in nearby Pasadena, California. He graduated from Northwestern University, where he majored in the school's program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences as well as in Political Science. He also holds a master's degree in journalism from another university.

Along the way, Robert has worked as a Pirate of the Caribbean (at Walt Disney World) as well as a reporter, editor and/or columnist for the (Bloomington, Indiana) Herald-Times, the Omaha World-Herald, the Rocky Mountain News, the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California.

Today, Robert Niles runs, and (with his wife, Laurie)

February 9, 2016

Rebooting Sensible Talk

Welcome back to Sensible Talk. Today, I am rebooting this blog, to share with you on a more frequent basis some "sensible" insights that I hope might help your understanding of, appreciation and even joy for the world around us.
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August 9, 2015

The Sin of Selfishness

Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena invited me back this summer to preach another sermon for the congregation. I'm not a minister by profession or by training, but I do enjoy public speaking... and getting to talk about issues such as social justice. Here is my sermon from this morning, along with a video of the presentation.

The most instructive part of any new job I've had isn't the formal training. It's all the stories that your new co-workers tell you about the job you're starting. When I began working at Walt Disney World -- many, many years ago -- one person told me what remains my favorite story about theme park visitors.

It's probably apocryphal, but I want it to be true, so I keep telling it. A group of employees are in the park on their day off, since they get in free. It's a busy day, and there are lines everywhere. As a joke, they decided to form a line in front of one of the fake doors on the colonial street facade around the corner from the Hall of Presidents show. Sure enough, within a minute, a family walks up to them.

"What are you in line for," the father asks.

"I don't know," the employee nearest the door responds. "But I'm first!"

So the family stops, and starts waiting behind them.
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May 11, 2015

Here's What a Community Can Do to Improve its Schools

What's the top factor determining how well kids do in school?

People who've read my blogs will know the answer: It's the parents. Kids who come from families with parents who have money and education outscore and outperform kids who don't. Period. Everything you read in newspapers and online that claim to report about the "quality" of various schools and districts ultimately just comes down to the demographics of the children in those schools. Have a lot of poor kids of undereducated parents, and your test scores and other indicators suffer. Fill the schools with rich kids whose parents went to college, and "oh my goodness, isn't it amazing" what those children can do?

So what can schools do? How can schools help students who are not blessed with wealthy, or even middle class, parents achieve as much as their classmates who do?

Here is the tough, tough answer: Not much.
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February 20, 2015

Who is Sandra Siraganian? Part 2

Earlier this month, I asked Who is Sandra Siraganian? Now, we're getting some additional answers, as Siraganian has sent out her first two campaign mailers. While the flyers are providing some additional information about this PUSD school board candidate and her beliefs, they should raise even more doubt about her fitness to serve.
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February 2, 2015

Who is Sandra Siraganian?

A school board race might not seem as important as races for higher profile offices such as Congress and the Legislature. But a school board can have a direct effect on the lives of thousands of community children and their families. When voter turnout is small, it's all too easy for candidates with extreme views and questionable interests to make their way on to the school board.

So who are these candidates running for school board? It turns out to be a very interesting question, in the case of District 6 in the Pasadena Unified School District, which includes Sierra Madre, East Pasadena, Chapman Woods, and my neighborhood, an area of unincorporated Los Angeles County between Pasadena and San Marino. Two candidates are running to replace the retiring Tom Selinske for our district's seat.

Larry Torres is National Board Certified Teacher with 29 years' experience teaching in public schools. He's served for 14 years on PUSD school site councils and holds a master's degree in education from Harvard. He has a campaign website and has appeared at multiple local candidate forums, providing district residents with plenty of opportunities to get to know him and his positions.

Torres' opponent is Sandra Siraganian, a Sierra Madre real estate agent. Siraganian doesn't have a campaign website, and she's not bothered to show up for any candidate forums yet, making it hard to get any sense of what she thinks about education or what kind of board member she would be. We do know that the Pasadena Foothills Association of Realtors has endorsed Torres for the seat. Why would Siraganian's own co-workers endorse her opponent?

When I was teaching journalism at USC, I told my students that the best way to get to know a candidate is to learn about the people donating money to that candidate. The City of Pasadena publishes campaign contribution reports from candidates for the PUSD board. It's still early, but Siraganian has submitted one contribution report already.

And it's a biggie — $1,000 from Frederick "Fritz" Hitchcock, who was listed with a Las Vegas address on the contribution report. Despite the Vegas address, Hitchcock is the chairman of California Chamber of Commerce and lives most of the year in the Ritz Carlton Residences at L.A. Live, according to an interview published on the chamber website. He's a major player in Republican politics, having contributed more than $142,000 to federal and California state candidates and campaign committees alone just last year.

Why is a high-roller GOP player from Vegas and downtown LA dropping a grand on a Pasadena school board candidate? Let's take a look at Siraganian's own campaign contributions to get a better picture of her political beliefs.
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January 21, 2015

There's No 'Standard' Solution to Improving Education

When I graduated high school in Indiana in the 1980s, there was no requirement to take a class in the arts. As someone who spent his elective classes in show choir, that wouldn't have been an issue for me. But my daughter faces many more requirements to get her high school diploma than people my age — and older — did. It's not just an arts class — it's exit exams, and extra classes in math, science, history, and other core subjects.

And we're still adding to the requirements. The Pasadena Unified School District has approved yet another increase in high school graduation requirements, one that follows state models to create multiple tracks for students to follow toward their diplomas. In most tracks, students are left with fewer electives as they must complete the additional track requirements.


I suspect that most people would agree without hesitation that tougher graduation requirements are a good thing. After all, the world is getting more competitive, and don't we want to prepare our young people to be able to compete?

As I just wrote, though, we've been raising requirements for years. We've been preparing more and better educated high school graduates than ever. Perhaps we should take a moment to ask ourselves: Has it worked?

Here is the answer, and it is one that none of us want to hear: No.
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August 28, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Work That Even God Cannot Do

The senior minister my church, the Rev. Jim Nelson at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, holds a "Preacher in You" class each year to teach church members how to write a sermon and conduct a church service. It's a fascinating look into another form of public speaking, so I took the class this year. And in the summer, the class participants run the service for a Sunday while the regular ministers are away. Here is my sermon from last Sunday.

I loved Jay Ward cartoons: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. How can you not love a show that name checks The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through a story about Bullwinkle the talking moose finding on the shore of a local pond a model boat encrusted with red jewels? That's right -- a ruby yacht. For a youngster struggling with his teachers' attempts to impose strange rules of grammar and syntax, I loved watching Jay Ward's characters gleefully blow up the conventions of language and of history and rearranging the debris for the sole purpose of making me laugh. I didn't understand most of the references. Heck, I was deep into my teens before I got that Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam joke. But I did learn an appreciation for the power of irreverence.
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