Nov 30, 2009

The Prodigal Fan

In case you doubted the inherent and insatiable sociality of the human species, or, at least, will cheer for anything: Improv Everywhere's Rob Lathan gets "lost" at a Knicks game.

Nov 29, 2009

Gomorrah: a cinematic emetic

If you've ever found yourself nauseated by your own attraction to cinema's morally abhorrent mob figures like Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano, then Gomorrah--freshly out on DVD--is your emetic of choice. It starts with the setting, as Scott Tobias explains:
The first and most striking impressions in Gomorrah are the locations: Bombed-out apartment slums, infested by roving bands of criminals and connected through a vast network of bridges and secret tunnels. Prosperity isn’t spread around; whatever financial gains a law-abiding citizen might make are skimmed away in protection money and nothing goes back into the community. Gomorrah takes place in a world where decency can’t take root and we can only watch in horror as crime overwhelms society’s most vulnerable— women, children, law-abiding citizens, and the conscientious few who want to get out of the game.
It's an urban wasteland as apocalyptic as that depicted in Children of Men. And, as commentator robozot argues, the multiple narrative strands--which only loosely tie together--keep us from sympathizing too deeply with the bad guys.
Scott says the film lacks a magnetic central figure - but it doesn't lack one, it rejects one. Without exception (tell me if I'm wrong) gangster stories have somewhere at their centre a charismatic hero, who remains attractive regardless of their personal morality - which is pretty much essential in order to make these stories palatable to a large paying audience, who expect one by convention.

That's essentially an invitation to the viewer to fantasise about a mode of behaviour, regardless of any consequences in the story world, realistic or not. Gomorrah's aesthetic is aimed at stripping away the male romance trappings of US gangster films, and it works brilliantly.
Early in the film, one of the young protagonists says--loosely translated--"If this is what the bosses are like, we could rule this place." As the we in question are impulsive, cowardly, and foolishly immature, his assessment is spot on.

Gomorrah is not the best film of 2009, but it might be the most essential.

Nov 24, 2009

the Siracusa Principles and compulsory immunization

For debaters creating a rights-based Negative for the immunization resolution, the UN's human rights jurisprudence is worth a serious look. In their study titled "Detention and the Evolving Threat of Tuberculosis: Evidence, Ethics, and Law," found in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 2007, Coker et al. note that the Siracusa Principles of the UN's Commission on Human Rights, published in 1984, offer a criterion for determining whether individual rights can be restricted in a public health emergency.

Summing up the Principles, the authors write,
The first of the principles is the notion of whether any proposed restriction on liberty is a legitimate objective of general concern... Is the restriction provided for and carried out in accordance with the law? Many democratic countries have legal structures in which coercive public health interventions are sanctioned.... A second principle questions whether available alternatives that are less intrusive and restrictive have been tried.... Another principle addresses the arbitrary, unreasonable or discriminatory manner in which a sanction might be imposed.
When we look to the Principles themselves, we can see specific language regarding public health as a justification for limiting individual rights:
Public health may be invoked as a ground for limiting certain rights in order to allow a State to take measures dealing with a serious threat to the health of the population or individual members of the population. These measures must be specifically aimed at preventing disease or injury or providing care for the sick and injured.
The question is, which "certain rights?" Or, more to the point, which rights cannot be infringed--or, in legal terms, are "nonderogable?"
No State party shall, even in time of emergency threatening the life of the nation, derogate from the Covenant's guarantees of the right to life; freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and from medical or scientific experimentation without free consent; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; the right not to be imprisoned for contractual debt; the right not to be convicted or sentenced to a heavier penalty by virtue of retroactive criminal legislation; the right to recognition as a person before the law; and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.These rights are not derogable under any conditions even for the asserted purpose of preserving the life of the nation.
The rights concerned are detailed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And note that last sentence, which is about as strong a statement in favor of the Neg as you are likely to see in international law.

standards-based grading in Spokane

Spokane's elementary schools will now employ a 4-point grading scale based on state standards, the local newspaper reports.
Most elementary students in Spokane Public Schools are seeing their new report cards for the first time this week; instead of A, B, C, D or F, it’s 4, 3, 2 or 1...

Instead of one letter grade for a whole topic, the numbers correlate to specific elements of learning within that topic. Instead of a grade for “writing,” for example, a student might receive separate grades for “writes in complete sentences” and “understands punctuation and capitalization.”
Spokane tested the grading scheme for three years before implementing it district-wide, a smart move.

I hope someday high schools adopt a similar scheme--one that translates directly into a grade point average, rather than the percentage-based adjustments we use now.

Nov 23, 2009

36 arguments, 37 disappointments

If each of the 36 arguments for God's existence is underwhelming, well, that's disappointment enough. But there's an additional letdown: the book subjecting all 36 to scrutiny is a mildly comic novel--and a very badly written one at that.
It's not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his empty bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum had brought with her when she moved in with him at the end of June. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that's the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he's become a begrudging believer in Lucinda's comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he'd forsake his bed for this no-man's stretch of frigid night....

Lucinda's away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that's presently crystallizing into ice. She's in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on "Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games." Among these equilibria is one that's called the "Mandelbaum Equilibrium," and it's Cass's ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.
"Cass Seltzer" and "Lucinda Mandelbaum" and "impregnation with aloe vera" are trying too hard. "Bleak week" isn't trying hard enough. And the present tense is simply wrong.

the next Maddux?

Zach Greinke: not just a pitcher's pitcher, but a stathead. Ever since Greg Maddux retired, we've needed a bellwether nerd on the mound. Thank goodness for Zach Greinke.

Nov 22, 2009

on the dubious 98.5% statistic

At a tournament this weekend, judging LD rounds on the immunization resolution, I heard one number over and over and over again: 98.5%.

A number of Negative cases argued that volunteerism is sufficient to reach herd immunity, even at high thresholds. Why? Because, in a "TV Washington survey," "98.5 percent of people said they were willing to be / have their children vaccinated."

Remarkably, out of the 6-7 times I heard this dubious statistic mentioned, at all three levels of LD, only one Affirmative challenged it: the eventual Novice champion.

Here's what I wanted Affs to do in CX.
Aff: Let's talk about that 98.5% statistic. What's the source?
Neg: TV Washington.
Aff: And how was the question worded, exactly?
Neg: Uh... I don't know.
Aff: The 98.5%... what sort of people were surveyed? Parents? College students? Middle schoolers? Hard-core gamers?
Neg: Uh... I don't know.
Aff: And what about the CDC's report that only 76% of American infants currently receive the full recommended series of life-saving vaccinations?
Neg: Uh...
Aff: That's what I thought.
As the old saying goes, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh sometimes recoils at the thought of being jabbed by a needle bearing a vaccine." Actions always speak louder than surveys.

Even if 98.5% of people really are willing to vaccinate their children, a substantial portion don't. Some ultimately refuse, some can't find the time, some forget. And some can't afford it:
Coverage for most vaccines remained lower for children living below poverty than children living at or above poverty.
Regardless of the reasons, actual vaccination rates don't reach 98.5%; most are in the 90s, but the DTaP rate comes in at 84.6%. (The overall rate is so low because different individuals miss out on different vaccinations.) Which leads the CDC to argue:
Sustaining high coverage levels and finding effective methods of reducing disparities across states/local areas and income groups remains a priority to fully protect children and limit the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States.
And about those 90%+ coverage rates: the American experience, if not outright compulsory, is hardly purely voluntary. Parents know that their children can't attend public school without the proper vaccinations and boosters. If they forgo private school or homeschooling and take an exemption--which requires filling out government paperwork--their child can be forced to stay home in the event of an outbreak. (Some states, like Washington, are working to make this process more stringent, requiring philosophically-based objectors to have a conversation with a health care practitioner to be informed of the risks of refusing immunization.)

In fact, as Donya Khalili and Arthur Kaplan write in "Off the Grid: Vaccinations Among Homeschooled Children," found in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Fall 2007:
In states where immunization is obligatory officially but unmonitored, vaccinations could be required through enforcing child neglect, delinquency, and child labor statutes, as suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Bioethics. While health care professionals do not advocate its usage outside of emergency situations, they can contact state child protective services agencies if concerned about medical neglect.
So let's stop claiming that volunteerism works by relying on an obviously dubious statistic and a blithely simplistic view of American vaccination policy.

Nov 19, 2009

"bleak" isn't bleak enough

Ryan liveblogs the state revenue forecast, estimated at a 2.6 billion deficit.

the digital is the actual

I'm not sure I'm really sold on the idea that augmenting one's own reality makes one less of a machine. And I'm not sure the world needs more visual clutter as random folks project their desktops onto office windows and subway walls (tip for oblivious passersby: don't stare into the blinding beam). And don't we need a space where we can escape the noise for a time? ("Tell that idiot to quit watching YouTube on that cliff face already.")

But the idea of taking one's computation out of a plastic tower and into the wider world is otherwise pretty darn cool.

Nov 17, 2009

how bleak is it?

Last night's Legislative Forum had a theme: the future is bleak.

How bleak?

Check out The Olympian's article about Gregoire's decision to not call a special session.
She said the gap is huge, and puts unprotected programs at serious risk of cuts – including any discretionary programs fully funded by state dollars. Examples include the Basic Health Plan, which after budget cuts this year is projected to give subsidized health insurance to about 65,000 low-income working adults.

Another program facing threats of cuts is the General Assistance Unemployable program that gives cash stipends of about $339 a month and health care to people who are disabled or in some way unable to work. That program has been retooled into a managed-care health-delivery system; however, that is supposed to save $40 million in the next 18 months, unless it is scrapped.

Financial aid to college students is also at serious risk.
All that echoes exactly what our local legislators said yesterday. It's going to be a painful 2010. With Brendan Williams being the only one keen to discuss raising taxes, and with 2010 being an election year, you can pretty much count on steep cuts to the existing budget.

Nov 16, 2009

liveblogging the WEA Chinook Legislative Forum

4:56 p.m.
Why am I at the WEA Chinook Legislative Forum?
a. To hear legislators talk about the issues.
b. To grab my local representatives by the collective earlobes.
c. To avoid the deluge outside.
d. All of the above.

Oh. I guess it was snacks and chit-chat until 5:30. Guess I could've rolled in a half hour later. Gary Gerst emcees, asking folks to "keep it rolling."

In attendance: Brendan Williams (22nd), Sam Hunt (22nd), and Kathy Haigh (35th). Gary Alexander is rumored to be on the way. (And he showed up.)

A question: what should we expect in the upcoming session?

Kathy Haigh: "I think it's going to be short." "Another $2 billion down, and no significant funding coming from the feds.... It's going to be significant cuts.... We should all be keeping a close eye on [the] health care issue." If the feds stepped in to fund our "Apple" health care for kids, that'd help. ECAP is the "absolute wrong place" to cut from. I-728, 732 are (still) at risk. Levy equalization funds won't be touched. Higher Ed--expect another tuition increase, even letting schools set their own tuition rates.

Brendan Williams: "At the risk of sounding like a liberal Democrat..." The legislature could have raised taxes, but "the votes were bought to keep that from occurring." "I did not vote for [728 and 732] to be suspended." Cutting programs from K-12 education is "the pricetag for political careerism." "It's time to meaningfully distinguish ourselves, with all due respect, from the opposition."

Gary Alexander: "Unlike my friend to the left, I think our first challenge is to see what we can do to reduce the budget. Government will not pull us out of the recession." "We can't continue to cut around the edges... We have to go back and talk about what our priorities are: public health, public safety, and public education.... This may mean the elimination of entire services... that can be replaced by the private sector." "We have to basically produce results that will be sustainable on a long-term basis." I'm not going to vote for a policy that doesn't have any funding."

Sam Hunt: For years this state has kept the crazy old aunt in the closet... our broken tax system.... We have a "crazy tax system." "The sales go down and the caseloads go up every damn time you look at it... We've cut all the edges, we've cut all the low-hanging fruit." "I have some hope that the feds will help with Title I, and health care."

Question for Gary Alexander: Where do we cut?
Things that aren't basic public health, safety, or education: Public health care assistance that isn't matched by federal dollars. Privatize state liquor control board, state printing operations. (Question: Is that enough to find $2 billion? Answer: I don't know.)

Loopholes are discussed. Sam Hunt notes that it was the Lieutenant Governor's move to declare closing a loophole a "tax increase" that shut down debate at the outset. Kathy Haigh notes that we can't necessarily bank on a tax increase that won't take effect until after passing a plebiscite next November.

What about the recommendation to close the Maple Lane juvenile school?

Sam Hunt: It was unfair to put the option, Do we close Green Hill or Maple Lane? "I was very happy to see that the consultants' study recommended closing neither one; there was no cost savings to closing either one."

There's some further crosstalk on this issue, but I'm not an expert in these matters.

What's going to happen to the last remaining LID day?


David Johnston, OEA, discusses HB 2261, which broadened the definition of basic education--but without any attached funding. (It's the bill Alexander referred to earlier, having voted against it because of its precipitous ratio of expectations to appropriations.) Now that we're "living under it," what will the Legislature do to fund it--or will they repeal it?

Kathy Haigh: if we fund it, it has to be prioritized. Funding will come out of GAU and healthcare for those in poverty, some of the places in the budget where we have the "least accountability."

Brendan Williams: I doubt it'll be funded by its target date, 2018. "I'll bet your PAC $500" that it won't.

There's a discussion about Physical Education and obesity. I'm sitting in a chair clickety-clacking at a keyboard, so I'm not going to opine, simply out of fear of hypocrisy.

Kathy Haigh: "Everybody should do the Thriller dance at 8:05."

Sam Hunt talks about the "Core 24" provision, another unfunded mandate. Teachers aren't thrilled by it. He then answers a question about income tax--talking about a potentially more equitable tax system, a chance to reform a structure that hasn't been seriously debated since Booth Gardner was in office.

A few questions and comments came up after that, but my laptop battery decided it was done.

I may post some concluding thoughts in a while. That is, if the gale outside hasn't made mincemeat of the grid.

Nov 14, 2009

visualize data, visualize success

Blog-neighbor The Science Goddess, who is leading the charge in Washington state toward standards-based grading, shares some of her research-based data visualization practices. The upshot:
When I look at this with my teacher eyes, I see so much more of a story appearing about each student. It is no longer a sea of numbers. Now, these fancy-dancy charts won't help me know what to do next (e.g. If students are still below standard, what should the intervention be?), but it may be a better start for identifying issues.
Absolutely. I'll go one step further:

Have students visualize their own data.

Google Docs offers a basic spreadsheet program with enough chart-generating bells and whistles to make it effective for student use, provided enough teacher input. Here's how I set it up: first, I create a spreadsheet with a title row, formulas, and a blank chart inserted. Then I make copies, renaming each after its intended student, and share that copy with that student.

Then, with a little guidance, I have them input data that they've recorded on paper--gotta have a backup!--and the chart appears as if by magic.

It ends up looking like this:

I'll report back at the end of the semester as to whether it's an effective strategy for tracking progress in reading fluency. My gut says it's working, but then, my gut also thinks bacon is a food group.

Update: The Science Goddess adds Part II, with a sample report card.

LD weekend open thread

My squad had a practice tournament this weekend: 4 rounds of LD, 3 of PuFo, and an obligatory round of Impromptu. It was fun, but I spent the whole time running Tab, so I didn't get my usual view from the ground of the latest and greatest/worst in LD arguments.

No matter: that's what you, the reader, are for, right? Regarding the immunization resolution, what worked for you this weekend? What didn't? What stumped you? What would you like help with? The comments are yours. Fire away....

Nov 12, 2009

Federal Way lawsuit fails

In a 9-0 decision, the State Supreme Court reversed a lower court's ruling and rejected the Federal Way School District's suit against the state for, among other things, failure to equitably and amply provide funding. The Washington State Constitution provides for a "general and uniform" public school system, which, in practice, is anything but. However, the Court argued that disparities have lessened, and that Federal Way is a victim of its own success, since its higher test scores (relative to lower-funded neighbors) are evidence that its funding is adequate.

Today's loss is a practical disappointment, but a legal inevitability. It remains to be seen whether a similar lawsuit in King County, to which the Olympia School District is a party, will fare any better.

best television of the Oughts

The AV Club, steadily unveiling its best of the '00s, has generated a massive list for the best TV series. There are no runners-up, only winners.

I note with pride and a little sadness that I have seen, in their entirety, half of the acclaimed shows, including 8 of the top 10. (I let my wife carry the Lost burden, and The Shield is on my queue.)

Of course, there's no spoiler in noting that The Wire is #1.

Nov 8, 2009

Capital High School football update

If you've been following the Capital Cougar football team, you already know that Tyler Sundberg has been ridiculous this year, running for--count 'em--31 touchdowns. But he's not the only vector in a multidimensional attack, as Enumclaw discovered yesterday.
Alex Everson, Capital’s junior quarterback who moved into the starting lineup this season, made sure of that. He ran for two touchdowns, passed for another and ran the option to perfection.

“They were biting on the fakes a lot,” Everson said. “It’s worked before, but that was the best it’s worked all season.”

Coming into the game, Everson had run for four touchdowns and passed for another 14. Against an Enumclaw defense that was giving up just 16.2 points a game, Everson completed 7 of 9 passes for 108 yards and rushed for 44 yards on five carries.
While the offense tends to get most of the attention in a 42-7 win, it's important to note that Capital's defense has been stifling all year long. Looking at the 3A rankings, this is a team that nearly knocked off Times-ranked #7 Timberline and #5 O'Dea (and, in the Spaghetti Bowl, exposed the weaknesses in the recently eliminated 4A Olympia squad.)

Capital rolls on to State to face #4 Union next.

I should also mention that Capital's girls cross country team finished 14th at state. Meanwhile, the volleyball team faces Holy Names next weekend in Kennewick.

Nov 1, 2009

of one Accord

The wife and I have been car shopping. Because it was for "my" car, I'd estimate I had about 70% of the say in the final decision. Here's how I convinced myself--and my wife--that I should drive a Honda.

For the last six years, I've driven a Malibu, a cheap V6. Despite its numerous flaws, I've apparently gotten too used to having the extra horses in the barn when I need them, too used to the feel of a midsize sedan. Goodbye, Elantra Touring. Goodbye, Honda Civic. Goodbye, Mazda5. Six cylinders in a flying V.

In the end, I was torn between a Sonata ('09 Limited) and an Accord ('07 LX). Torn because of the crazy features available on the Sonata, but because I really liked driving the Accord--and I got a great price on a high-demand model.

The Accord won.


Responsiveness. The Hyundai's stability control, touted as a safety feature, made me feel like it wanted to go where it wanted. Steering and handling felt mushy. The Honda, on the other hand, would do whatever I wanted it to, whether that meant cornering, accelerating on a short onramp, passing uphill, or navigating a parking spot. (The salesman pumped the Accord's "grade logic," but I didn't really notice it too much--our steepest grades are hills, not mountains. But it might be nice for road trips to see the folks in Wyoming.)

Reliability. Hyundai has vastly improved in this regard, but the car in my price range, the '09, was the first of a redesign, whereas the '07 Honda was the last. Hyundai has released 14 service bulletins for the '09 Sonata, versus 5 for the Accord (in two more years). Honda also offered the Certified Used program, with a powertrain warranty out to 7/100,000, while Hyundai clipped short its normal powertrain warranty, from 7/100,000 down to 5/60,0000 on a used Sonata.

Resale value. The edge here goes to Honda, and my informal assessment of the glut of '09 Sonatas on the lot, in 4- and 6-cylinder editions, versus the hard-to-find Accords with higher MSRPs, is that this trend will continue.

It wasn't a huge factor, but styling went to the Accord. I actually prefer the '07 edition to the '08 redesign, which looks chunkier. The Sonata is clean, but bland. Trim, even in the Limited, looked and felt cheaper. (One car I initially considered, the Camry, really surprised me with its cheap plastic components. And the nose on that thing--looks like it swallowed a warthog.)

I spent about 1900 less on the '07 than the best price on the Sonata, opting for cloth over leather and fewer powered accessories. (The more knickknacks, the more potential longterm failures.) I pressed hard for the Hyundai dealer to make a better offer, but they wouldn't budge, and I have a feeling they're going to regret it in a month, when the '11s roll in and the V6 is still sitting on the lot.

If I'm wrong, no matter. I'm a happy Honda owner, and glad to put the ol' Malibu behind me for good.