Mar 31, 2007

a Plague of doubt

Just over a week ago I finished Narcissus and Goldmund. It wasn't my favorite novel, but I found its depiction of the Plague particularly terrifying. Now, in another bit of synchronicity, last night I watched Children of Men for the second time, and then read a Richard Nokes' fantastic piece on teaching The Decameron this morning.
By the time this exercise is finished, students have a tiny, thought-experiment taste of the trauma of the plague. Suddenly, the idea that you might need to tell stories to reconstruct your life doesn't seem all that absurd. The opening story of The Decameron, about Ser Cepperello, transforms from a story about esoteric questions about grace and faith into a more pointed story about the questions that must have confronted Europeans after these plagues -- Did my loved ones who were not especially faithful go to Heaven? Has God abandoned us? If we had just prayed for intercession to a different saint, would God have spared us?

You've got to be careful about these sorts of exercises. It would be easy for sadistic personalities to use them as an excuse to psychologically torment students. If every class is an emotional spectacle, the effect can be dulled by over-use. Still, I've found it is one way to help students connect with the book on a deeper level. It never seems frivolous to them again.
I haven't read The Decameron--a gap in my education I hope Dr. Nokes will forgive--but will soon. I have a hunch that, much like Children of Men and Narcissus and Goldmund, its lasting value isn't in the answers it seeks, but in the questions it raises.

mmmmore miraculin

Radley Balko updates the "miracle fruit" story I noticed in February, and includes a link to purchasing the strangest of experiences.

when in doubt, throw it out

When you keep dabbing from the same cosmetics, and a horrific rash blooms on your face meat, don't come crying to me.
Microbe growth in makeup can cause skin irritations and infections, explains Paula Begoun, the author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me." The worst offenders are liquid cosmetics, which build up bacteria more quickly. Keep mascara for a maximum of three months; other liquids and creams (eyeliner, foundation) for no more than a year. Powders (eye shadow, blush) can be used safely for up to two years.
Click through to learn when to junk mattresses, pillows, perfumes, fire extinguishers and more.

obligatory NCAA bracket blogging IX

Two games today, but I'm going to miss both thanks to a marathon of manly movies. (Reviews up tomorrow.)

Since sports pundits require the short term memory of Lenonard in Memento, here are today's guaranteed predictions, forgetting the past and forging boldly into the future.

Georgetown v. Ohio State
Ohio State might outmatch the Hoyas in sheer athleticism, talent, strategy, endurance, media savvy, fan base, mascot accessibility, pep squad buoyancy, and waterboy efficiency, but after the UNC collapse late in regulation and overtime, is there any doubt that Georgetown is divinely favored?

Georgetown 70, OSU 66

Florida v. UCLA
Re-match. Re-match. Re-match. Re-match.

UCLA takes it. This is just not Florida's year, and this is a much better UCLA squad. The Bruins aren't just gunning for revenge, but respect, for themselves and for the Pac 10.

Re-spect. Re-spect. Re-spect. Re-spect.

UCLA 74, Florida 71

Mar 30, 2007

don't ask me to change your grade

Especially if you're a principal, superintendent, or board member in Louisiana. For that matter, don't harass or intimidate me when too many students flunk my class--or I'll walk away with $1.4 million.
The jury of four men and five women deliberated almost four hours before finding that the school board, superintendent and the principal at West Feliciana High School had harassed Paula Payne, violated her First Amendment rights and retaliated against her.
The backstory, from an earlier piece:
In court Wednesday, and on the stand, was the West Feliciana principal Michael Thornhill. Thornhill testified that he asked his English teachers to, quote, "adjust" the scores of the students, 70% of which failed a standardized test back in 2004. Payne maintains in her civil suit that changing the grades is illegal and she was fired for refusing to do so.
Obviously, something's horribly wrong when 70% of a class fails a subject. But accountability isn't just a buzzword or a mask for lower expectations. Kudos to Payne for sticking it out and ultimately proving to the federal courts that teachers, like students, don't doff their rights at the schoolhouse door.

even more random questions--58, actually

Compliments of my students.

1. Why do you have to use No. 2 pencils on tests?
2. Chicken or beef?
3. Does your opinion really matter in the world?
4. Which hair color really has the most fun?
5. Why is there so much hate in the world?
6. What is the best kind of dessert?
7. How many roads must a man walk down?
8. How did humans evolve?
9. If school was optional, would you attend?
10. Who is the best superhero?
11. Is it better to be right or to be happy?
12. Why is chocolate so yummy?
13. Has technology gotten to the point where humans are destroying themselves?
14. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
15. What is the purpose of shoes?
16. What's the best pizza topping?
17. Are colorblind people really colorblind, or is everyone else?
18. Why do rabbits have long ears?
19. Why are we so obsessed with celebrities?
20. Who's the best baseball player of all time?
21. Did OJ do it?
22. What's the purpose of mosquitoes?
23. Why do people walk on two feet?
24. What's the best instrument ever created?
25. Why don't dogs see color?
26. Why are almost all babies born with blue eyes?
27. Why can't we have wings?
28. If you could live anywhere, where would that be?
29. What makes someone a good person?
30. Is destiny real?
31. Can you choose who you love?
32. What does Vitamin A do?
33. What is progress?
34. Why are there six hours of school?
35. What's your opinion of our environmental situation?
36. Why is there life?
37. What if the world had less gravity?
38. What is education?
39. Should trans fat be legal?
40. Why do people procrastinate?
41. If you could swim in a tub of anything, what would it be?
42. How's your life right now?
43. How would you solve the national debt?
44. Which is better: gummy bears, or gummy worms?
45. Which U.S. state is best?
46. Is Bigfoot real?
47. What were you in a past life?
48. What is the best candy in the world?
49. Why do people bite their nails?
50. Gatorade or water?
51. Will we ever find a cure for AIDS?
52. What is beauty?
53. Is there a way to be in two places at once?
54. What is the best piece of clothing?
55. How do you describe color?
56. Which brand of computers is best?
57. Who should win the presidency in 2008?
58. What is love?

Mar 29, 2007

Dennis Kucinich coming to Olympia

One of America's most consistent quixotic candidates is coming to Olympia tomorrow.
His local stop is at 4:30 p.m. at Traditions Café, 300 Fifth Ave., S.W., Olympia.

“We might have an overflow crowd,” said Todd Iverson, whose America In Solidarity worker-rights group organized Kucinich’s visit to Washington.

Kucinich, an Ohio congressman who advocated U.S. withdrawal from Iraq during his 2004 presidential campaign, will have stops earlier in the day in Seattle and Tacoma.

He also will speak at 7:30 p.m. at Grays Harbor College’s Bishop Center, and Sunday he will be at the Seattle Labor Temple, 2800 First Ave.
The short story: Kucinich is unelectable, but, unlike Ralph Nader, steers the debate leftward without detracting votes. See Kucinich's take on the issues here.

flying solo

In a matter of hours, the jet lands in Madrid, with my heart on board. My wife is spending ten weeks in Spain, studying language and culture and history in Ubeda. (Ella no puede Inglés durante los estudios--y por eso, estoy practicando mi Español.)

The distance isn't infinite: ten weeks of phone cards, Skype, instant messaging, email, blogging, letters, postcards, telepathy. If I complain, a denizen of the twentieth century is near enough to retort, "In my day..." They're right. It's not as bad as it could be. But it's still pretty damn bad.

Miss you already, Melissa. Come back soon.

Update: She arrived safely today, which in the context of this post means tomorrow. I am resisting the temptation to start counting the days.

Karl Rove: national disgrace

Sartre would call it nausea. We call it Karl Rove rapping.

an open letter to Washington legislators

Dear folks in charge,

As a fairly new high school teacher, I thought I was wise to choose Washington above other states, knowing that the lower salary was balanced out by decent health benefits, a dependable retirement plan, and, above all, the most incredible landscape in the country. With salaries falling further behind other states, with health care costs rising, and with the threat of a gainsharing repeal, will Washington's only incentive be its snow-capped peaks?

This state has enough trouble recruiting quality teachers. Let's not make things more difficult by repealing gainsharing.




As predicted, at this point in the year, this otherwise atrocious tie has been declared "not that tacky."

ketchup to the Skeptics' Circle

Variety #57. (Horrible, awful, terrible pun, I know. I'll apologize when I'm good and ready.)

least realistic movie about gangs spurs attempt to reduce real gang violence

Mere moments after the debut of The Onion News Network, it's obsolete, completely overtaken by stupidism in the real world.
Anna Laszlo, wife of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, said the idea to use "West Side Story" to ignite discussions about youth violence hit her last year while watching the 1961 film version of the musical. She told Kerlikowske and approached top officials at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where Laszlo, a criminal-justice consultant, is a board member. She said her husband and top administrators at the theater helped make her idea happen....

The teens who attend the workshop will watch scenes from the film before talking about gang prevention, cultural diversity and youth interaction with police, Bogucki said. The final workshop will include Seattle police officers doing a role reversal with teenage participants.
I hope and pray that nascent gang members find the prancing and dancing so disarming that their brains fall out. Otherwise, we'll be overwhelmed by an epidemic of finger-snapping violence. God help us all.

Mar 28, 2007

testing the limits of speciesism

My brother asks:
Two perhaps unrelated questions, though, for the naturalists who read this blog: is the difference between animals and humans a difference of kind, or a difference of degree? What, if any, ramifications does this have for ethics?
I don't have a good answer for the first question, but the ramifications of its second option--a difference of degree--are currently being tested by an Austrian court.
Paula Stibbe, a British woman, has applied to the court to be named Hiasl's legal guardian, saying it deserves the same rights as a human. So the chimp – which shares 96% of its DNA with humans – is having its personhood debated.

Primatologists and legal experts have spoken up in support of Hiasl having human legal status. Volker Sommer, a primatologist at London University, says chimps are not just one of the homo genus - he believes they should be considered as the same species as contemporary humans.

The judge will decide, with potential repercussions for Austria's zoos, and chimp-based research.
More later, if I get the time.

Mar 27, 2007

The Dead Talk Back, and they won't lay off

The wife and I just watched the MST3K riff on The Dead Talk Back, which would be funny enough on its own. A woman is pinned to a door jamb with a curtain rod fired from a crossbow, and a paranormal investigator is called in to crack the case. Lusty apartment dwellers, furious itinerant preachers, dull-witted flatfoots, and jazz musicians all make an appearance. The dead may sass, but the living get the sassiest comeback: "Shut up, you potentate of righteousness!"

Long before White Noise, The Dead Talk Back made EVP the radio wave of the future. One of the five worst films ever made. Highly recommended.

ahead of the curve: Olympia School District technology proposal

Changing the paradigm, one proposal at a time:
A recent survey found that 88 percent of Olympia teachers use technology at the most basic level, primarily to increase their productivity through e-mail and word processing.

At least 75 percent of teachers would use technology in more advanced ways to engage students under Olympia's proposed 2007-10 technology plan.
As one of those rarefied 12 percenters, let me just say this: it's time. There are just too many amazing tools out there--wikis, blogs, podcasts, smart boards, you name 'em--to go unused.

However, even as a technophile, I don't believe in mandating the use of any particular technology in a given classroom. What I see the district offering is the flexibility to apply the tools needed for a specific task, in a specific environment, in a way that a teacher can adopt without fear. (Look at the district strategies here.)

The plan includes provisions for support and maintenance, but no specifics. Will we hire more staff to handle the inevitable influx of issues? The more we depend on technology, the more we depend on those who manage it.

poor Senator Sheldon

Mason County's "Republican incognito" is no longer the swing vote, the axis of action in the senate.
Sheldon said he worries the new supermajorities in the House and Senate will lead to bad public policy, because the Democrats can push things through with little debate.

And while he sometimes misses the leverage he once held, he said he isn't bitter.

"It's the price you pay for being independent and not tied to a particular party," Sheldon said.
Not tied to a particular party? So much for running as a Diet Rite Democrat all these years.

Mar 26, 2007

nature is always weirder than you think

First movement: Peter Wall distinguishes between intuiting design and detecting design.
Nobody has yet come up with a convincing “Field Guide to Discerning Intelligence in the World,” but that did not stop my professor from insisting that I have no basis for failing to see intelligence in “natural” phenomena. Apparently it did not occur to him that since he (via Cicero, or vice versa) was making the proposition that “Intelligence is evident in natural phenomena,” it was up to him to explain why exactly that proposition should be accepted, not up to me to demonstrate why it is incorrect.
Second movement: Kerry Howley notes that twins can come from single human ova chimerically fused with two sperm.
Could our "hook-up culture" have led anywhere else? Blame gay marriage!

post-weekend update

1. I just won an OSPI scholarship that covers half the cost of National Board certification. Thank you, legislature, for making the process much more manageable. And thank you, OSPI, for your generosity with government funds. My future students will thank you as well.

2. Speaking of students: a freshfolk, after drinking a soda, peeled off the label and announced, "Hey, I just won a snack wrap!" I started a slow clap, which built into requisite applause. Then I wrote "snack wrap slow clap" on the board, and we tried it out as a tongue twister. It works pretty well.

3. I have a senior who can do this almost perfectly.

4. That describes how I feel right now. Just when I'm finally in control of the new trimester, my wife is preparing to study in Spain for ten weeks. Such excitement, such sadness. I'm not ready to re-bachelor.

Mar 25, 2007

imagining the impossible: mice seeing color

Some impossible things are easy to imagine. They aren't logically impossible, like a square circle or a trustworthy Canadian, but empirically doubtful, like a yeti or a K-Fed comeback. If we can write them into a coherent narrative, an alternate universe, then they're at least conceptualizable.

The most difficult things to imagine are those that go beyond the possibilities of sensation. Try, for example, to dream up a new hue, a new slice of the color pie. What would it look like?

Recently, mice have been genetically engineered to see in color.
Researchers then exposed the mutant, female mice to a light-discrimination test involving three colored panels—two of similar hues and the other differing in brightness or shading. After a significant training period—the researchers conducted well over 10,000 trials, rewarding mice who singled out the odd panel with a drop of soy-milk—three mice with the full complement of photo receptors were able to correctly finger the different panel 80 percent of the time. Normal mice, on the other hand, were only successful about one third of the time, a percentage equivalent to just randomly guessing.

Jacobs points out that not all of the mutant mice were able to successfully complete the color discrimination test, which he says could indicate how species deal with newly introduced abilities during evolution. He adds that the next step will be to determine how the brain incorporates the new color signals and makes the comparisons necessary to distinguish between different shades. "What this shows is that not only can you expand the range in which animals can sense stimuli," he asserts," but they can derive a new dimension of sensory experience."
It's the closest experimental analogue to Frank Jackson's "Mary" hypothetical, or to Pleasantville, without the existential crisis--not because mice are incapable of such things, but because the mutants are born with the ability, so their new power isn't new to them.

And yet the empirical potential to open up a new avenue of color sensation doesn't make the imagining any easier. If there is a whole world of colors beyond our ken, to echo Thomas Nagel and paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it's a world of unknowable unknowns.

For now.

Mar 24, 2007

some people: or, while we're on the subject of eternal life

Some people read the comics... religiously.

Some people just aren't twisted enough. I mean, is being eternally deprived of five senses really the worst kind of hell imaginable?

Hmm... maybe we should ask William Dembski. When it comes to twisted, he never disappoints.

eternal life for Second Life

Reaching the unreached, wherever they may be found.

obligatory NCAA bracket blogging VIII

So much for upsets: all the remaining teams are 1, 2, and 3 seeds. In fact, only one 3 seed, Oregon, made it. (Wisconsin choked, busting my bracket.)

On to the predictions, then. Rhyming couplets!

Memphis v. Ohio State
Sacrificing a chestnut tree to Woden,
The Tigers conquer a bedraggled Oden.
Update: wrong! (Shoulda trusted my bracket.)

UCLA v. Kansas
Fortune smiles not on the pancake state;
Afflalo and the boys leave 'em back in the eight.
Update: right!

Oregon v. Florida
For the national champs there'll be no repeat,
Going down to the Ducks in an epic defeat.
Update: wrong!

Georgetown v. UNC
Huzzah for the Hoyas, who this psychic feels
Have the chutzpah required to take down the Heels.
Update: Right, and in a big way. I have the Hoyas as my national champs. They sure look like it right now.

Mar 23, 2007

Comics Curmudgeon hits 1,000

Posts, that is. Head over to congratulate. Thanks to his tireless blogging, the comics are now so meaningful, so terrifying, so funny.

your Darwinian moral license has expired

Reviewing some of the points of contention of a drawn-out discussion, my brother writes,
3) The erudite Falk made this excellent comment:
The basis of Darwinian evolution is natural selection, not manual selection. This distinction is important because eugenics concerns only the latter and not the former. Darwinian evolution cannot be intelligently used as support for eugenics.
It is an excellent distinction. But not one, I think, that saves Darwinian evolution from lending itself to eugenics. If “human nature” is not a fixed entity, if it subject to continual development and “progress” (contra Biblical or Aristotelian notions of human nature), then it seems refashioning human nature, and the human race, is morally permissible.

I’m holding this very tentatively, because it is obviously disputable and am still considering the issues.
To that end, I hold up some issues for consideration.

First, continual development is not "progress."

Second, development makes progress possible in the same way that gravity makes defenestration possible. Newton's theory of gravity, though, doesn't make throwing someone out a window "morally permissible," nor does it "lend itself" to defenestration in any morally significant way.

Warren Falk is right: trying to monkey with evolution--it was irresistible, sorry--will always have to be done for a reason outside of evolutionary theory, without its "permission." It simply has no permission to give.

didn't see this one coming

The WASL's been attacked from just about every conceivable angle, now including a charge of ethnic stereotyping:
A story depicting Mexican immigrant children picking strawberries for less than $1 an hour will be removed from a statewide test after an outcry from Latino leaders and test opponents.

Terry Bergeson, Washington state's top public education official, said Thursday the book excerpt should not have been used without an explanation that the scenes were from the 1950s, and not the present.

Opponents of the high-stakes statewide test and a national Latino group said they were not satisfied.

"This is not over. It's just getting started," said Maria Salazar, a regional vice president for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
It was true a while ago, and it's still true: no end of WASL controversy in sight.

Mar 22, 2007


Let loose your inner orchid. Or whatever those plants are.

when a tumor provides moral consistency

In a finding that's sure to set the world of moral philosophy ablaze, scientists report that it takes brain damage to make a perfect utilitarian:
The researchers presented participants with various scenarios... and asked them to make decisions based on the information provided. Some of the situations involved moral decision-making. For example, subjects had to say whether they would throw a person in front of a train if doing so would stop the train from barrelling into five workmen, killing all five.

In such a situation, most people would find it morally unacceptable to push someone to his or her death – even if doing so would save the lives of others. And this was the reaction of the healthy participants or those that had injury to brain regions excluding the VMPC. But people with damage to the VMPC showed a willingness to take this type of "utilitarian" action.

"You have one group that is ready to endorse what we would regard as an overly utilitarian judgment and the other far less" willing to do so, explains Damasio. He notes that the patients with VMPC damage generally made the same decisions as their control counterparts when it came to non-moral scenarios.
Damasio's other work has already demonstrated that "emotion" and "reason" aren't opposites, but necessary components of moral judgment. His classic example is that of a judge who had difficulty deciding cases after similar brain damage.

Also, in "normal" subjects, there's a big difference between throwing someone in front of a train to save five lives (generally seen as immoral) and switching the train to a different track to kill one instead of five (generally seen as moral), where no other alternatives exist. The method makes all the difference--and the difference is in our affect.

on the wisdom of not reading books all the way through

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested," said Francis Bacon. Lennard J. Davis gives you permission to skip the second course.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I've never read all of War and Peace. I picked it up in sixth grade, finding the war parts good enough but the peace insufferable.

what I learned today

1. No one can resist the power of the Nanaimo bar. Especially not the staff at the school library.

2. Some students have no ability to distinguish public and private. When it involves a parking lot, trouble ensues.

3. Situps are a big hurking waste of time. Now I don't feel bad for never doing 'em.

4. Anthony Hopkins has aged rather well.

5. Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, despite its salacious status as a classic, is boring. Or maybe it's just bad translation. Or the Nietszchean preachiness. Or the Jungian overtones. Regardless: never again.

6. Exhaustion comes in many forms. All of them suck.

Mar 21, 2007

here there be dragons

Imported direct from Shanghai via an old college buddy. They don't have tariff on tacky.

(And, of course, cross-posted.)

give a hoot

Oh, Woodsy the Owl. Whatever became of ye? And what of thy friend and companion in the war to save the woodlands, Smokey Bear? Josh Levin's slideshow explains, blaming deregulation (public service ads are now voluntary) and, ironically, the mascots' own ubiquity. Overexposure hastened their descent into cliché.

The commercial on the last slide is perhaps the creepiest bit of television you'll ever see.

Levin would probably enjoy checking out the Christian classic Character Sketches, which held up Is as a guide to Ought long before we knew that geese can be gay.

Mar 20, 2007

hope blossoms in the desert

The Mariners: will they fail to disappoint? Larry Stone, after extensive hand-wringing, declares, "Maybe."

duct tape vs. plantar warts: it really works

Once again a poorly designed study tests the duct tape cure and finds it lacking:
The patients were instructed to wear the bandage for a week, remove it after the seventh day and then, on the eighth day, soak the wart in water, and lightly scrape it with an emory board. They repeated the treatment for two months or until the wart disappeared. It was the same regimen as in the 2002 study.

Duct tape showed paltry success in the new study. Eight of the 39 patients (21 percent) who got the duct tape treatment saw their warts disappear. Nine of the 41 patients (22 percent) who got only moleskin saw their warts vanish. There was no significant difference between the two groups.
The study failed to observe necessary protocols.

1. You have to soak your foot for at least fifteen minutes, significantly softening the skin.
2. You have to use a pumice stone. An emory board simply won't remove enough dead tissue. You have to be aggressive. (Wash your hands thoroughly when done, and spray the pumice stone with Lysol. Spray the insides of your shoes, too.)
3. You have to use "real" duct tape, not transparent duct tape.
4. You have to stick with it, replacing the tape whenever it comes off. (This means obsessively carrying duct tape wherever you go.)

The result: cheap, effective, and painless. No more plantar warts.

knowing knots

Jason Kuznicki points to a lovely if sad article on the state of knot knowledge. An excerpt:
Knots, of course, have order. But the T square and the triangle aren't much use in discerning it. Classical geometers, regarding knots as squishy, pretty much ignored them. To investigate the complicated patterns wound into the knot takes freer modes of thought.

Knot theory got started in the 19th century when the Victorian scientist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) had the beautiful idea, beautiful but wrong, that atoms were tiny knots tied in the omnipresent ether that pervades all space. There isn't any ether, but before its absence was determined Victorian mathematicians had begun to study knots.

By 1877, P.G. Tait had classified all knots with seven or fewer crossings. Knot theory since then has blossomed like a garden.

The Fields Medal, mathematics' highest honor, was won in 1990 by Vaughan Jones, a Californian windsurfer, for his "Jones Polynomial," an unexpectedly powerful and entirely abstract mathematical tool for distinguishing between knots.

Knots in Washington, a conference on knot theory, has been held every year since 1995 at George Washington University, with Jozef H. Przytycki and Yongwu Rong the topologists in charge. "Quandles -- their homology and applications" was the subject on the table the last time the conference met.
Remarkably, an article that mentions "knot theory" has nothing to say about its contemporary equivalent, string theory.

Kuznicki muses,
It’s remarkable testimony to the unexpected uses of knowledge in an advanced civilization, complete with the tradeoffs, the costs and benefits, that each of us face.
It's just like Asimov's lament for the loss of "clockwise," or Emerson's complaint that we can no longer steer by the stars. How much--and how little--we know.

the March madness of standardized tests

Blogging neighbor Mark Olson takes on standardized tests, raising some interesting points.

First, Olson argues against "curricular dogma," noting that schools test to a limited knowledge set, when instead they should test whether students can memorize, persevere, reason, and be diligent--in other words, be "studious." Now, I'm not completely sold on the "critical thinking" line that students can largely do without a common curriculum--I'm reading Hirsch's The Knowledge Deficit, and finding it convincing in parts--but I would agree that the skills a standardized test measures are narrow indeed, and, even worse, leading districts to adopt corporate-driven national curriculum, a prelude to what I've called the Frenchification of education.

Second, Olson explains why his proposal won't get too far in the present climate: he blames unions and bureaucrats for perpetuating into the status quo.

I'm not so certain that teachers' unions would be opposed to smarter tests that measured real learning, though. Most of the criticism coming out of the NEA is that the current standardized tests miss out on real merit, take ungodly amounts of time and money, encourage data fudging if not outright cheating, cheapen local control of curriculum, and place unfair burdens on teachers who teach in troubled schools.

Perseverance: our students just survived five sessions of the WASL, and have four more before they can prove their graduation-worthiness. When it comes to standardized tests, bureaucrats and testmakers have the perseverance of Sisyphus.

Sidebar: for a different teacher's take, go here.

Mar 19, 2007

a structure with 248 dimensions

Mathematicians have mapped it, and discovered that Willy Wonka was there first. One of the most complicated mathematical artifacts is a hyperdimensional everlasting gobstopper.

Mar 18, 2007

the rise of blogs

The LA Times, discussing the blogosphere, is neither alarmist nor triumphalist, neither fawning nor condescending. Not bad.

[via AL Daily]

hope for cinema

Overall, receipts are up over last year. And, according to Noel Murray, major directors are busy, busy, busy.

Meanwhile, those who loved Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee should check out Barats and Bereta's Just Wonderful, a less preachy take on the the pinnacle of nerditude.

[latter two links via Josh, who has the free time I can only covet]

the day my bracket died

Was when Wisconsin lost in the second round. Today, if you haven't been watching.

Good call on the USC thing, Josh.

At least my champion, Georgetown, is still in there, and I'm still in the top 10%. Competence. I'm aiming for competence.

Hate, thankfully, is a renewable resource. There's always next year.

marathon Student Congress; rules changes in works

Why blogging has been light recently: the state Debate and Student Congress tournament at UPS, where four CHS students competed over two days. Yesterday's Congress session started at 9:00, went 'til 11:00, broke for lunch, resumed at 1:00 for the Super Session with all the top speakers, and did not get out until 7:00.

It was the first time that I can remember Congress taking longer than Debate, which finished before 5:00.

No more.

After two days of debate, politicking, rising for points of personal privilege, and sitting in uncomfortable chairs, a six-hour final session is not only tedious, but torturous, and disrespectful to those who have lives outside of forensics, who have made plans dependent on Congress ending at a reasonable hour.

Thus, for next year, I'm proposing several changes.

First, limiting preliminary rounds to the first day, as is done in Debate.

Second, establishing an efficient, clear, and consistent way to elect presiding officers. The process took 45 minutes in the Super Session. My method: write all the candidates' names on the board. Vote by paper ballot, and eliminate the bottom half (rounding up if the number is odd, say, 4 out of 7), and voting again for those who remain, removing the bottom half again until a clear winner is chosen. In case of tie, the parliamentarian decides.

Third, limiting each P.O. to an hour of work, and making the parliamentarian the P.O. in any deliberation time exceeding two hours. This way the debate could last three hours instead of four--no need to worry about scoring 1.5-hour P.O.-ing.

If you have any suggestions from experience, or better ideas than mine, please comment. I'll be taking these recommendations to the spring coaches' meeting. Congress has improved mightily over the past several years, but it still needs fixing.

Vashon Island student journalists show need for HB 1307

What counts as a substantial disruption to the educational process? In Vashon Island, it takes only a few phone calls.
“I’m very frustrated,” Amanda Zheutlin, one of three co-editors of the Riptide, said in an interview this week. “I don’t think they made the decision because the article was illegal or bad. I think it was controversial and they don’t want controversy.”

The Riptide is a district-supported newspaper and by district policy the principal may review the contents before the paper goes to print. Officials can prohibit publication if there is evidence indicating it could cause a substantial disruption of school, such as a riot or a walkout.

Vashon High School Principal Susan Hanson, in a letter to the student editors written after consulting with district Superintendent Marguerite Walker, said that the newspaper is not “an appropriate vehicle for airing concerns, complaints and criticisms of District staff.”

Hanson also raised concerns about “the fairness and open-mindedness of the article and possible defamation claims.”

Students said they met with Walker and she contended the coach story would disrupt school operations by generating phone calls to her, Hanson and the athletic director.
The article was reviewed by the Student Press Law Center and found to be fair to its subject, despite Hanson's objection. (Defamation can be claimed only if an allegation is false.)

HB 1307 would place liability squarely on the students writing the piece, forcing them to take the utmost caution with inflammatory facts. It would allow the charges to be discussed in an open forum, rather than remaining the stuff of innuendo and rumor. And, mostly, it would respect the right of student journalists to promote truth in the public interest.

Mar 17, 2007

spam blogs aren't exactly new

PCWorld catches up to spam blogs:
Google's is being hijacked to spread malware through fake blogs, a security vendor has warned.

According to Fortinet, Genuine-looking blogs on topics as wide-ranging as "Star Wars, school, furniture, Christmas, cars and girlfriends" are now being created to host a variety of script-initiated malware. It would be impossible for visitors to spot the danger of these sites, which now number in the hundreds, the company said. Although they look genuine, it appears that all the sites have been specially crafted to fool visitors.
This is ancient news in the blogosphere. I first noticed the phenomenon last May.


Calorie: the basic unit of taste.

all's fair

Ah, so that's how it works. And by "it," I mean Fox's "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?"
Contestants try to answer questions from elementary school textbooks while real fifth-graders stand by to offer help. Unless you're an accountant, the math is the most frightening: On one show, the pint-size experts easily got the answer when host Jeff Foxworthy asked how many sides are there in a trapezoid.
In adults' defense, the last time they had to think about trapezoids was roughly 10th grade. Let's make it fair and have a show where fifth graders have to fill out a tax form, negotiate for a higher salary, challenge a traffic ticket, choose the optimal route to the nearest fast food restaurant in a van of screaming kids, or even pass a simple driving test.

Keep trying to reach those pedals, shorty. Keep trying.

obligatory NCAA bracket blogging VII

Yesterday my bright prospects dimmed only slightly. I went 11-for-16, ending up with 27 correct first round predictions, and, more important, kept my Sweet Sixteen intact. Where I failed: not hating enough, as Creighton and Notre Dame went out one round earlier than I expected. I easily could've had 29 correct predictions.

Out of millions of brackets, only 62 got all 32 games right. Lucky bums.

Update: After 42 games there's only one perfect ESPN bracket--and probably not for long. At least I'm still in the top ten percent.

Mar 16, 2007

TimesSelect for teachers

I have a .edu email address. Should I be overjoyed?

[via Ann Althouse.]

who controls meaning? testing the limits of free speech

This is a subject that might interest just my brother and me, but oh well. The facts:
After he unfurled his 14-foot "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner on a Juneau, Alaska, street one winter morning in 2002, Frederick got a 10-day school suspension. Five years later, he has a date Monday at the Supreme Court in what is shaping up as an important test of constitutional rights....

Frederick had previous run-ins with school administrators before the banner dispute. He said he first saw the slogan on a snowboard and thought it would make a good test of his rights because, though meaningless, it sounds provocative.

He chose to display the banner during a school-sanctioned event to watch the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Juneau on its way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Morse saw the banner, confronted Frederick and suspended him. Frederick said she doubled the suspension to 10 days when he quoted Thomas Jefferson on free speech.

...Among the factors that could weigh in the decision, Frederick was standing on public property, not school grounds when he displayed the banner. The school said students were allowed to leave class to see the torch pass by, making the event school-sanctioned. Frederick, however, never made it to school that day before the event.
While academics might posit that meaning is a function of the text, or of the author's intent, or of a transaction between author and reader mediated via text, when it comes to this case, school administrators are essentially reader response theorists. What matters isn't what Frederick wrote, so much as what effect it would have on its readers, no matter how nonsensical the message. (If "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" promotes anything, it's Rastafarianism. Frederick's safe on other First Amendment grounds.)

So, who really controls meaning? Maybe we're all tacit postmodernists, and the answer is whoever's in charge.

here, there, and back again

While philosophy geeks spar over modus tollens, and jocks battle it out on the court, I'll be with the LD and Student Congress nerds for the better part of the day. Hopefully, a full report will arrive before the sun sets. Ciao.

Mar 15, 2007

some ties have all the luck

For one magical night, at least.

once more about the pledge

A teen in Monroe has allegedly caught flack from a teacher for refusing to stand during the pledge.
When the rest of his classmates stood during fifth period for the Pledge of Allegiance, King stayed seated. A few teachers questioned him, he said, but until this year, none challenged his right to sit quietly.

But recently, King said, a music teacher told him he was required to stand with the other students. He said the teacher, in front of a class of about 30 students, also challenged his patriotism, his loyalty and his religious beliefs.

Now the Monroe School District is investigating whether the teacher exceeded her authority in insisting that he stand for the daily flag salute.

"It's never right to call a student out for their beliefs. That's not what public school is about," said Rosemary O'Neil, spokeswoman for the Monroe schools.

The teacher, Katie Lenoue, said she'd be in "a lot of trouble with the district" if she commented.
I'll wait for all the facts before rushing to judge Lenoue. I would like to point out, though, that O'Neil is only partly right: students who sit during the pledge are visually "called out" by their refusal to stand. There's already enough social pressure to rise and mumble with the rest of the class. A teacher who goes further and publicly dresses down a student is a boor, and ignorant, too.

herbertsmithite and string-net liquids

The most intriguing green crystal in the universe can't stop Superman, but it could be as debilitating as kryptonite to modern physics.
"Wen and Levin's theory is really beautiful stuff," says Michael Freedman, 1986 winner of the Fields medal, the highest prize in mathematics, and a quantum computing specialist at Microsoft Station Q at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "I admire their approach, which is to be suspicious of anything - electrons, photons, Maxwell's equations - that everyone else accepts as fundamental."

Other theories that try to explain the same phenomena abound, of course; Wen and Levin realise that the burden of proof is on them. It may not be far off. Their model predicts specific arrangements of atoms in the new state of matter, which they dub the "string-net liquid", and Joel Helton's group at MIT might have found it.

Helton was aware of Wen's work and decided to look for such materials. Trawling through geology journals, his team spotted a candidate - a dark green crystal that geologists stumbled across in the mountains of Chile in 1972. "The geologists named it after a mineralogist they really admired, Herbert Smith, labelled it and put it to one side," says team member Young Lee. "They didn't realise the potential herbertsmithite would have for physicists years later."

Herbertsmithite (pictured) is unusual because its electrons are arranged in a triangular lattice. Normally, electrons prefer to line up so that their spins are in the opposite direction to that of their immediate neighbours, but in a triangle this is impossible - there will always be neighbouring electrons spinning in the same direction. Wen and Levin's model shows that such a system would be a string-net liquid.

Although herbertsmithite exists in nature, the mineral contains impurities that disrupt any string-net signatures, says Lee. So Helton's team made a pure sample in the lab. "It was painstaking," says Lee. "It took us a full year to prepare it and another year to analyse it."
They were quite surprised with the results. You'll have to click through to find out why.

"Paradigm shift" is too twentieth century. Ready for a phase change?

top of the world, Ma

Let it be known that for at least one brief moment of infamy I was first among millions. (Tied for first, sure. But first nonetheless.) And 'twas hate that brought me there.

Update, 7:57 PST: Thanks to VCU's nice comebacker versus apathetic Duke, hate is 12-for-12.

Update, 9:43 PST: In my hate bracket, I predicted all 16 tonight. Tomorrow I may lose every game, but nothing will take away the satisfaction of having out-prognosticated Nostradamus.

it's NCAA bracket time!

Time to fill out the brackets that I will not wager any actual cash on. It's not about the money: the sheer joy of statisticism justifies the exclamation.

I'll fill out however many brackets ESPN will allow, based on several criteria. I'll post links to them here when I'm finished. Meanwhile, a trained monkey--they're always trained, aren't they?--will crank out a bracket of his (her?) own as a control, and we'll see who's better at prognostication.

1. Control Bracket: "Anderson trained monkeys."
A coin flip determines this one.

Winner: UNLV. (Really.) Bugs on ESPN's site are ire-rousing.

2. The streaking bracket: "Anderson momentum bracket."
The team with the best record in the past 10 games wins (in the first two rounds). In case of a tie, the better seed wins. After the second round, anything goes.

Winner: Kansas over Memphis.

3. The random number bracket: "Anderson random number."
Using the trp's system described below, where a random number is matched with past odds. (Up next: the goose entrails bracket.)

Winner: North Carolina over Oregon.

4. The goose entrails bracket: "Anderson mascot battle."
If you're going to divinate, might as well use mascots. These cartoonish walking metaphors visibly represent their teams' chances: Gator devours Irishman. Longhorn tramples Cougar. How to choose between two opposing Wildcats, though? Or Cardinals versus Cardinal?

Winner: Memphis over UCLA.

Coming soon... the hate bracket.

The hate bracket: "Anderson loathing."
Took my cues from the Slate article linked above.

1. Duke goes down in the first round.
2. Eastern Kentucky, too.
3. Texas A&M (non Corpus Christi) bows out in the second.
4. Oral Roberts doesn't have a prayer. Out in the first.
5. Buh-bye, Indiana.
6. Same to you, Wright State.
7. New Mexico State collapses early.
8. Florida chokes in the Elite Eight--cry a river, Mr. Noah.
9. Pennsylvania 6-5-0-0-ohfer.
10. Notre Dame enjoys an early victory, only to taste defeat in the second round.
11. Creighton loses in the second round, too. Cinderella turns into a pumpkin.
12. Tennessee is the 5-12 upset. On the 5 end.
13. WhoAlbany? Gone.

Actually, this could shape up to be a good bracket.

Winner: Georgetown over Wisconsin.

It could happen.

Update: Think you understand the bracket? Read this article (via trp), and remind yourself: don't bet on sports.

Mar 14, 2007

a delayed tacky tie

Spent all day yesterday in Student Congress. Too tired to post. Here's your fix.

other ways to get students speaking

Every teacher should have some version of "um speeches" available as the need arises. A twist on the previous activity, this one focuses on "um," "uh," "like," "y'know," and all the other filler words.

Four students go up to the front. (This minimizes the "I'm up there alone" factor.)

The first student speaks by answering a question drawn by the teacher. The moment the student utters a filler word, they're "out," and tag someone else to join the four. The next in line has to continue the thread, or try a different answer to the question. They're also "out" if they successfully answer with some sort of reason and clarity.

You can modify this for different purposes:

Intro / main points / conclusion, one per student (four or five up front, depending on the number of points).

Point / counterpoint.

One delivers good content in a monotone, while the second says the same thing with an exaggerated, histrionic delivery. The third says the same thing "just right."

Having more than one student up there makes a big difference. Rotating through gets everyone involved--and even the reluctant speakers will go and succeed, as long as you have "set the tone" and given them previous practice speaking to smaller groups.

HB 1307 passes, overcomes major hurdle

So points out Jeff Nusser. It's not over, though:
The bill still must be passed by the state Senate and signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire before it will take effect....

What next? The process starts all over again. You can contact your legislative district's senator and urge them to support the bill. It will need to go through another pair of committees before potentially coming up for another vote. Also, a number of student publications have written editorials supporting the bill, another excellent form of showing support for the bill -- especially when clipped and sent to your senator.

Find your legislator here. You can also urge support of this bill through the legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000.
Congrats to Nusser and to all who have strongly and consistently advocated for student rights. They even convinced me that first amendment issues were clear, and that fears of blowback were exaggerated. I regret only that it took me so long to leave the dark side.

I learned it in Student Congress: part III

Yesterday's round was largely smooth and ineffectual--as all Congress should be--at least until the last fifteen minutes when everything turned stupid. (This is a function of time, hunger, a stuffy room, impatience, and the 2nd law of thermodynamics.)

Along the way, though, several "aha moments" arose, and I was truly enlightened.

Pravda means truth, or something about the United States I did not know
"When we left Afghanistan at the end of the cold war, we left it in chaos."

not all states are created equal
"Who likes Tennessee? Country singers?"

be sure to cover all the bases
"As many of you might or might not know..."

a picturesque metaphor is worth a thousand words
"That would be 1000 pounds... a couple of you big guys."

neologism is the spice of life
"Sexism is a form of discriminization."

" it a higher awesomeness above nuclear power."

"It would take more energy than the giveoff it would make for energy."

I have a thicker skin than I thought
"Isn't it offensive to our hardworking teachers to call school a 'daycare?'"
--"It may be, but that doesn't change the fact."

I thought it was the prom
"Drinking is a fundamental part of being a teenager... Should we take away something that is a part of so many kids' lives?"

Mar 12, 2007

the WASL must go on

Neither fires nor smashed-in computers shall delay the WASL:
Police say surveillance video is helping investigators look for suspects in the arson and vandalism at Port Angeles High School.
Weekend intruders set a dozen small fires and smashed computers and T-Vs.

School is open today, and officials say the WASL (WAH'-sul) exam scheduled for tomorrow will go ahead as planned.
I wonder what a T-V is.

Just in case you didn't know how to pronounce "WASL," now you do. Rhymes with "fossil." Is anything but.

we are... Sparta

300 has snagged the third-highest R-rated movie debut after The Matrix: Retreaded and The Flaying of the Christ.
"The violence doesn't bother anybody because it's done in a way that's not offensive," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. head of distribution. "People love the movie, they love the originality. The best thing you can have for a film is great word of mouth. When the public is selling the movie for you, that's when you have a real success."
The way my juniors are talking about it, this is going to be this year's Lord of the Hobbits.

today's news in fifteen seconds

Babies shouldn't have to fill out paperwork. TJ Johnson has committed a misdemeanor befitting an Olympia councilman. Who doesn't like slot machines? UW finally gets its due: Ov-er-ra-ted. We eat too much because we eat too much at a time.

take a trip without leaving the computer

It takes about twenty seconds. Warning: read the warning.

[Via Omni Brain]

Mar 11, 2007

it is still possible to be original

Let Google be your guide. Coin a phrase or recast an old coin, Google it to make sure it's fresh, and then share it with the world. Why, just today I thought of two: "crusade against monogamy" and "going to hell in a frybasket."

Be original. Emerson gives you hope, and I give you permission.

congrats in order

I forgot to mention that one of my regular readers, teacher, writer, activist, Coug fan and all around good guy Jeff Nusser, is a new papa. Try not to make goo-goo noises when you click through.

teacher wearing blue jeans and a tie

First, the rule: never. Never wear jeans and a neck tie. Not ever.

Second, the operating assumption: the tie is being worn in the standard fashion, not as a belt. (If a teacher is wearing "Stuff by Hillary Duff," there is no hope for humanity.) Also, let's rule out bolo ties and bow ties. The former are classy; the latter, charitable.

There may have been times when I have flouted the rule and dressed like a hipster at a nerd convention, but no more. (See Orlando Bloom, right.) Those were youthful mistakes, and in my wisdom, I now understand that ties are acceptable only when accompanied by dress slacks or khakis.

Third, the rare exception: unless you're a teacher at the School of Punk. And no, faux punk doesn't count. (See Avril Lavigne, left.)

If it's casual Wednesday, jeans are fine. If it's any given school day, a necktie is grand. But never, never, never blend denim and neckties.

Thank you.

[135th in a series]

everybody's taking the WASL

Sophomores, of course. It's required. Juniors, for sure. Quite a few didn't pass it last time. And freshfolks. Gotta get a jump.
Almost 9,600 students in the class of 2008 signed up to take a WASL test this spring. But the state has distributed enough WASL booklets to local school districts to accommodate any 11th-grader who failed one or more sections. That means the number tested could be higher, said Molly O’Connor, a spokeswoman in the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In addition to this year’s sophomores, about 14,000 ninth-graders voluntarily signed up to take the 10th-grade WASL, or more than double the 6,100 freshmen who took it last year.
Buried in the article is an interesting new strategy:
Timberline High School juniors in teacher Kristina Wilkinson’s U.S. history class say they're feeling prepared to take the writing WASL. They’ve been using a Vantage Learning computer program called “MY Access” to practice their expository and persuasive-writing skills.

After students finish responding to a writing prompt, the program gives them an instant score in six areas, including content, focus and organization.

“It’s so much more feedback than I could give with 30 students in a class,” Wilkinson said. “It frees me up to be able to walk around and provide individual attention.”

The program also offers suggestions on how to improve.
It certainly does:
To score essays, IntelliMetric is "trained" with a set of responses with known scores as determined by experts. These papers are used as a basis for the system to "learn" the rubric and infer the pooled judgments of the human scorers. The IntelliMetric system internalizes the characteristics of the responses associated with each score point and applies this intelligence to score essays with unknown scores.

IntelliMetric analyzes more than 400 semantic, syntactic and discourse level features to form a sense of meaning.
Ironically, sophisticated algorithms lead to recommendations that are generic, crappy (Exclamation points! They're okay!), banal, and, ultimately, totally in line with what the WASL demands. There's no criterion on the WASL for truly good writing.

I'm not yet obsolete.

where I was yesterday

Explained nicely by The News-Tribune:
Anderson was one of 350 students from 56 high school speech and debate teams vying for honors Saturday in the Washington State Individual Events Tournament.

The students faced off in eight speaking categories, including dramatic and humorous interpretation and impromptu and extemporaneous speaking.

Next Friday and Saturday, students will compete at UPS for the Washington State Debate Tournament. Both events are sponsored by the Washington State Forensics Association.
The Anderson cited is no relation. Capital sent three students, two coming back with trophies. Congrats to Forrest Rice (2nd, 3A expository) and Erik Luetkehans (finalist, 3A humorous interpretation).

I'd say that the state debate tournament is up next, but we have a qualifier for NFL Student Congress this Tuesday. Which means more goodness to come.

Mar 10, 2007

Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick Watch: March 10

Morrison and the 'Cats lost to Memphis in a battle of the big losers, 115 to 107. Morrison stunk. Charlotte is now 0-8 without big man Emeka Okafor.

Orlando spent the day trying to recover from last Thursday's drubbing by Chicago. Redick played 16 minutes and scored 3, not accomplishing much--but then, neither did his teammates, putting up only 76 points. Orlando's playoff hopes are sinking like a dead lobster.

Update 3/11: With a big loss to Houston, the lobster plows toward the Marianas trench.

why you should never be good at something

When you're good at Somethinging, you'll be asked to Something all the time, because you and they know that anyone else might screw it up, which will lead you to be the Somethinger for the conceivable future due to your wilting power to refuse in the face of obligation, even if you find the Something obnoxious and dull. Oh, if only you were bad at it. But you can't be: you have standards.

With great mediocrity comes little responsibility. Remember that. Live it.

Washington Learns rec's pass, as does agency shop fees revision

A flurry of education bills passed on Friday.
"We should be proud of the work we have done tonight. We have really made some hallmark moves to improve education in our schools," said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, chairwoman of the Senate's Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, on the Senate floor.
(The math bill was included.)

The pre-emptive agency shop fee bill passed as well.
The measure passed Friday night deals with co-mingling of funds, and the measure says that that when labor organizations are making political campaign contributions, the contribution is not considered to be using agency shop fees when the organization's general treasury has enough money to cover the contributions from other revenue sources.

So by clarifying the statute, the unions would be able to spend money on political action and not have to show that it isn't using agency shop fees.

McDermott said that because union dues and "agency fees" from nonmembers are co-mingled, there's no way to see which is agency shop fees and which is union dues, and that the measure just clarifies that the money can only be spent on political action once nonmembers have been refunded the money after their dollars go to collective bargaining.

"Unions have to account for this and refund the difference," he said. "There is no way for the unions to clearly account for how to do that. The legislation before us provides clarity."
My take on this legislation is here.

Now they're all in Gregoire's court.

where to dine in Lacey: Speedway Brewing Co.

Don't like meat? Leave. Like meat? Leave happy.

That's the word we got from our amiable server, referring to The Olympian's recent review complaining about the lack of vegetarian options. Despite the overall thumbs-up and the passage of time, our man was still steamed. "You wouldn't go to a vegan restaurant and ask for a steak," he declared, and I pretty much have to agree.

Since we were early, we ordered pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, opting for baked beans and potato salad. The Coke came cold in a plastic bottle, the meals on paper plates, no messin' around. The meat was done just right, and the sides were a perfect complement of sweet and savory. At under ten dollars a plate, a full belly won't empty your wallet. (The lunch specials are right reasonable, too.)

Try the hot barbecue sauce, in the bottle with the red stripe. It's not overly spicy, but adds a nice twang. Word is the beer is pretty good, too. Maybe next time, when we're not in a hurry.

So, if you like Texas-style barbecue, where the beef is tender and the sauce is bold, head over to Speedway. Just don't ask for ribs before 5:00--and don't dare ask for a tofu appetizer.

Mar 9, 2007

maths all around

See? Math really is fun.

[via L of random_speak]

a spelling bee story for our time

Kunah Sah is bound for Washington, D.C. for a chance to compete in the world's greatest nerd-off. (The National Spelling Bee. I ought to know.) His parents, though, have been deported to India, unable to secure a permanent visa because of this country's unfriendly immigration laws.
Ken and Sarita live in a kind of limbo, moving from the home of one relative to another, unable to start new lives with their son and businesses in America, and hoping against hope that some kind of miracle will lift them from desolation.

"You have millions of [undocumented] people who have broken the law, and no one is forcing them out [of the U.S.]," Ken says. "But I followed the law - and this is my reward for being honest."
They lived here legally for sixteen years. It took the U.S. that long to deny them asylum.

[via Obscure Store. special thanks to commentator Joe.]

the questions just keep on comin'

How appropriate: on PZ's 50th, one of the most popular posts on this blog turns fifty questions old. Oh, and what is silent turnip, anyway?

a villanelle for PZ Myers

Happy 50th to the most prolific, most entertaining, most vitriolic, most unapologetic blogging scientist.

Watch out for PZ Myers when he's pissed.
His words rev like a chainsaw belching fire.
You don't mess with a bearded scientist.

As long as dumb young-earthers still exist,
Slumming in pseudoscientific mire,
They'll watch for PZ Myers when he's pissed.

For every crank or loony solipsist
Too batty, too senescent to retire:
You don't mess with a bearded scientist.

You'll be dispatched, or disemvoweled, dismissed
To bawl your bawling in a different choir.
Watch out for PZ Myers when he's pissed.

If you're persistent, welcome to the list:
A place for all your blathering to expire.
You don't mess with a bearded scientist.

The truth is simple, not a single twist:
If you grow pale before volcanic ire,
Watch out for PZ Myers when he's pissed.
You don't mess with a bearded scientist.

Update: GrrlScientist has a round-up of natal felicitations.

Mar 8, 2007

David Damrosch on why you shouldn't write like a professor

David Damrosch discovers that good writing is good writing, even for college professors.
The lesson I would draw from my Goldilocks experience is that it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb our projects down when writing for a general audience. At the same time, we need to write quite differently when we want to reach beyond the comforting confines of our disciplinary coteries.... The trade market can bear an impressive degree of scholarly substance if we can teach ourselves to reach out to a substantial nonscholarly clientele.
Good advice. Learn how to write with vigor and grace, no matter your tenure status. (Or, you could always do the opposite.)

I hope Damrosch reaches for intentional irony when he writes, "Regularly mocked as purveyors of arcane topics in clotted prose, professors often display a reciprocal ambivalence toward the general public." You can't always practice what you posit.

a little calculus with your Camus: or, brush up your Schrödinger

Earlier this year another teacher and I were sent to the math department to show them how to incorporate reading and writing into math instruction, as per building initiative. Their response was gracious and witty: "So, when do we get to have math across the curriculum?"

Maybe soon.

Buried in Senate Bill 5955 [pdf] is this nifty proposal:
The professional educator standards board shall:
(a) By December 2007:
(i) Adopt new knowledge and skill standards that prepare all individuals seeking residency teacher certification to integrate mathematics across all content areas...
Rookie teachers would learn how to use logarithms in literature, phase shifts in phys ed, square roots in social studies, and bounded sets in biology.

You might think that as a literature teacher I'd be freaked, but I'm not. I'm quite fond of using math and science in my mini-lectures. Möbius strips, fractals, asymptotes, recursion, imaginary numbers--these are powerful metaphors that beg introduction into the English classroom. (Math is mind-bending.)

I am a bit skeptical, though, of any attempt to mandate such things from the top down--and that a plan to free rookies from math phobia can be pulled together in less than a year.

The bill, currently in committee, is pretty ambitious. There's much more about professional development, certification, and National Board stipends in there. Read it all, then contact your relevant legislator with your thoughts.

Mostly, though, learn to love math. It's fun.

reporters closer to shield; bloggers still brandishing dagger

By a 41-7 vote, the Senate passed a measure providing reporters--employees of news-gathering organizations, mostly--with specific confidentiality protection.
The bill would grant reporters absolute privilege for protecting confidential sources the same exemption from testifying in court that is granted to spouses, attorneys, clergy and police officers.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, the bill's main sponsor, said it was necessary to give the public "greater opportunity to know what's going on in this world, because somebody out there who may have some very sensitive information is now going to be more willing to come forward with it."
It'll get mashed into a form acceptable to the House, and then land on Gregoire's desk for a likely signature.

If the House version prevails, bloggers may have some protection. If the Senate version prevails, we'll be left out in the cold of the chilling effect.

these lifeless things

I met a traveler with an antique tie
Who said:--Two vast and dec'rous neckwear racks
Hang in a closet. When the dawn is nigh,
A teacher clad in long-sleeved shirt and slacks
Examines each with a discerning eye
And, choosing one, with simple binding knot
Secures the artificial to his frame--
The polyester that the world forgot--
Bold patterns, bolder colors both declare:
"My name is Anderson, ye fashion-lame;
Look on my tie collection and despair!"
Thus still, within a world where slow decay
With silk combines to choke and throttle flair,
One teacher's polyester braves the day.

[Apologies to Percy B. Shelley. Cross-posted at that emporium of Egyptology, Mr. A's world of tacky ties.]

moving at the speed of satire

It didn't take two years. As mediageek points out, it took two weeks for a study to appear condemning children's imagination as unsafe. The Onion has replaced the Weekly World News as the number one prophecy rag in the country.

Isaac Asimov, clocks, and the WASL

Isaac Asimov, in his classic essay "Dial Versus Digital," warns that digital watches threaten to eliminate an easy way to determine direction.
When something turns, it can turn in just one of two ways, clockwise or counterclockwise, and we all know which is which. Clockwise is the normal turning direction of the hands of a clock and counterclockwise is the opposite of that. Since we all stare at clocks (dial clocks, that is), we have no trouble following directions or descriptions that include those words. But if dial clocks disappear, so will the meaning of those words for anyone who has never stared at anything but digitals. There are no good substitutes for clockwise and counterclockwise. The nearest you can come is by a consideration of your hands. If you clench your fists with your thumbs pointing at your chest and then look at your fingers, you will see that the fingers of your right hand curve counterclockwise from knuckles to tips while the fingers of your left hand curve clockwise. You could then talk about a “right-hand twist” and a “left-hand twist,” but people don’t stare at their hands the way they stare at a clock, and this will never be an adequate replacement.
What spurred my memory of this piece was a sample math WASL prompt discussed by Linda Thomas. Thomas notes that 40% of students missed the question, but doesn't theorize why. First and foremost, students have to know the difference between "clockwise" and "counterclockwise." Admit it. You had to think, maybe even trace the movement with your finger, wasting valuable time remembering which was which. Even if the student is savvy enough to recognize that lines JE and LG are distractors (315-45 = 270 means it has to land on a perpendicular, no matter what), and remembers that a perpendicular line intersects another at 90 degrees, if they head in the wrong direction, they'll pick wrong answer B. (I'd like to see the breakdown, if B was the second pick.)

I'm not sure if "clockwise" is a mathematical concept that's explicitly taught in school. People who have grown up in an analog world might take it for granted. Asimov makes that prediction:
What shall we do about all this? I can think of nothing. There is an odd conservatism among people that will make them fight to the death against making time decimal and having a hundred minutes to the hour. And even if we do convert to decimal time, what will we do about “clockwise,” “counterclockwise,” and locating things at “eleven o’clock”? It will be a pretty problem for our descendants.
Make that a pretty WASL problem.

(Oh, and where did I find a copy of Asimov's essay? The place a student is most likely to find pithy writing these days. A standardized test.)

who says we won't teach to the test?

High-stakes testing is necessary to keep our math-based economy strong. For an example, look at how it's created work for Carnegie Learning, producers of a new WASL prep math curriculum.
Carnegie Learning, Inc., a leading publisher of math curricula for middle school, high school, and postsecondary students, today introduced Math Prep for the WASL, a new research-based course developed specifically to improve student performance on the 10th grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) state exit exam.

Math Prep for the WASL incorporates content from multiple Carnegie Learning math curricula including Bridge to Algebra, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Math Prep for the WASL can be adapted for diverse implementations such as a full WASL-prep course, supplemental intervention program, or a diagnostic-prescriptive tool for identifying concepts and skills that require remediation. In addition to the Washington edition, Carnegie Learning Math Prep courses also include a National Edition and state editions customized for California, Florida, and Texas. Carnegie Learning releases additional Math Prep courses correlated to state-specific exams throughout the year.
Forget stem cell research or biofuels. The real way to boost American economic might is to develop non-stop assessment.

oh goody: proctor!

Once again, it's time to proctor the WASL. Pressure's on next week, when ambitious freshfolks, nervous sophomores, and begrudged juniors will demolish several forests of pencils and sweat out an ocean of perspiration, all in the hopes of being good enough, maybe just good enough for government approval.

OSPI is going all out for testing security, even more than years past. (Read this handy PowerPoint if interested in the details.) Most of the rules are commonsense: don't help students answer questions, don't change answers for them, don't let them txt msg their answers to buddies down the hall. One new rule, though, irks me.
Many students carry backpacks and purses. These must be placed a distance from the student so that items may not be retrieved without leaving the seat.
Now, instead of quietly unzipping a satchel to pull out Atlas Shrugged, my proto-libertarian has to get up and walk across the classroom, creating an even bigger distraction.

Maybe next year, after a flood of complaints, the OSPI will revisit this counterproductive policy.

All I hope is that no one has to barf.

please don't flow in Public Forum

As an update to a previous discussion, some advice:
I remembered the logical, backed, sensible stuff. Everything else faded into the background almost as soon as it was said.

I'll continue to flow LD forever. But I'm so happy with this experiment of not taking notes in Public Forum.

I hope others will join me. I think it will result in better PF Debate, and over the long haul better debates than the one I saw. Our sharp kids will hone their skills to communicate, rather than to laud silly cards like anybody cared.
I second that. Public Forum speeches are so brief that flowing isn't needed. Practice your listening, and they'll practice their speaking.

Mar 7, 2007

Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick Watch: March 7

Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa were too much for Morrison and Gerald Wallace, who both scored 22 as the 'Cats fell to the Suns in overtime. I get the feeling sometimes that next year, if they can stay healthy, the Bobcats are going to be fun to watch. They might even win a few games.

Redick hasn't made much of a splash lately. Orlando, though, is on the cusp of a do-or-die situation, starting with a game against hot-or-cold Chicago. The Magic are clinging to the 8th seed, a game back of Indiana and a half game ahead of New Jersey.

united we stand

Never in the history of mankind have the nations of the world reacted with such unanimity and cooperation. Tonight the lights will burn until dawn in the United Nations building as the leaders of the world map a course of action.
What could rouse the world's most deliberative organization to such urgency? The only tragedy that could render national sovereignty obsolete: the kidnapping of Santa Claus by Martians.

Scientific American takes advantage of interactive publishing

Missed this somehow: last month, Scientific American put up an advance copy of an article, asking readers to fire back with questions or comments. Stage two is now available, as Robert Shapiro appends his article with further info and sources.

I hope more science publications try this.

high school graduation poems

A quick and easy guide.

1. Poems should be read more often at high school graduation.

2. Poems written by the speaker should never be read, unless the speaker is Maya Angelou.

3. Poems that do not rhyme should be chosen above poems that do. Poems that rhyme in iambic pentameter, though, should be chosen above all other poems. Villanelles, in particular, make excellent selections.

4. Poems explicitly about high school graduation are forbidden.

5. Oh, The Places You'll Go! is anathema, and all who read it are consigned to the darkest, hottest corner of hell.

Update: 6. More hints, tips, and rules here.

[134th in a series]

a witch hunter if the witches are Communists

Adolphe Menjou, reincarnated as an elementary school principal:
"Once Mr. Albano had a change in his religion, he began to suspect Lauren Berrios was a practitioner of witchcraft," said attorney John Ray of Miller Place....

Tuesday, in an interview at Ray's office, Berrios said her fingernails, makeup and clothing apparently made her look like a witch in the principal's eyes.

Berrios, 37, who vehemently denies ever practicing witchcraft, said there was no reason her appearance at the school could have been mistaken for anything other than a prim and well-kept professional.

She sat in Ray's office sporting a sparkly silver sweater, French manicured nails and blonde hair neatly upswept as she recounted how rumors of witchcraft had led to her being denied tenure and eventually fired from the district.
Insert Monty Python reference here.

[via Obscure Store]

the war on coinage

The War on Christmas has opened up a new front, as the US Mint has seen fit to strike "In God We Trust" from batches of the new dollar coin. They claim it's a mistake, but we all know better.

for the tykes

What should Olympia's city council consider its "top priority above all?" The waterfront's imminent doom, featuring global warming? The plight of the homeless? The rebirth of the downtown?

If you guessed any of the above, or anything remotely as serious, you're wrong.
I suggest the city fathers set aside funds to provide shade for the playground, either a canopy or shade trees.

I see those little tykes playing heartily in the hot sun, with no protection whatsoever.
Shame on you, council, for completely disregarding your paramount duty.

Mar 6, 2007

the weather report: tacky with a slight chance of rain

Today temperatures rose into the upper sixties, peaking just above 70 in Seattle, making it almost too warm to wear a sweater.


Thanks to isolated pockets of cold air--my classroom, among others--I was able to go Ivy League.

[cross-posted, of course]

fortune cookies

"Bushels of gold coin are coming your way."

"You continue to take chances. Good will come of it."

Two fortune cookies, the requisite aperitif to a Panda Express feast. Timely, what with the record MegaMillions drawing and all. Each with one dollar to our wallet, my wife and I got in line at Albertson's and bought a ticket. The signs were too strong.

It is the only time in my life I have purchased lottery tickets, and it probably shows moral weakness, an irascible irrational streak, and deep-seated greed, but what the hell: $2 for a chance at $370 million, minus governmental appropriations. At over $14 million per annum for twenty-six annums, I could finally retire to blog full time.

(For what it's worth--$2--we lost. Damn fortune cookies.)

the free university

I remember reading about this a couple years ago, and wondering if it would make an impact. It has: colleges all over the country are offering course materials, lectures, notes, and other information online. For free.
MIT's pioneering "OpenCourseWare" program, which was launched in 2003, posts the syllabus and class notes for more than 1,500 courses online for anyone who wants them. By this November, it aims to publish materials from virtually all 1,800 of its courses across all its schools.

Starting last fall, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, began offering eight courses, from Introduction to Philosophy to African American History, and including everything from class plans, links to required readings, lecture notes and homework assignments. The school aims to increase the number of classes offered online to 30 courses over the next two years.

Yale University, meanwhile, has announced it will produce digital videos of undergraduate lecture classes and make them available free to the public. This academic year, it is taping seven classes--from Introduction to the Old Testament to Fundamentals of Physics--to be posted online this fall.

Some smaller liberal-arts schools are following suit. Bryn Mawr College, a women's school in Pennsylvania, is in the process of selecting course materials to post online, free to the public, beginning this summer. It plans to include classes ranging from psychology and physics to one on the history of Philadelphia.
You won't get the one-on-one interaction, and, more important, the prestigious piece of paper just from your electronic autodidacticism. But still, this form of open-source education is too, too cool.

an easy way for students to practice speaking to the class

Fun get-'em-speaking activity: hand each student two slips of paper, on which they're to write an open-ended question, any question (within the bounds of reason and school appropriateness). Collect the questions, shuffle, and redistribute, checking quickly to make sure each is good before handing out. (By originally giving two per student, you guarantee you'll be able to weed out a few with no real loss.) Sample questions, compliments of my freshfolks:
Why is the sky blue?
Why can't humans fly?
Is fate real?
Gorillas or bears?
If you were robot, would you take over the world?
What's your favorite pet, and why?
Which sport requires the most athleticism?
Then, have students write an answer to someone else's question. Collect the questions again.

Divide students into two teams. Say: "Team One, your question is..." and read a question. Team One sends up a student to answer the question, earning up to six points for speaking fluently (on topic) for sixty seconds.

In later rounds, you can have three students go up at once and use the "three-headed expert" technique, either where each is allowed to give one word as all three combine to answer, or where all have to say the same thing at the same time, watching each others' mouths and listening and struggling to get their minds together, for maximum hilarity.

Even students who are reluctant to speak in front of a whole class will go up in the later rounds, with their peers in tow. Use as practice for a larger, more intense preparation.