Saturday, February 23, 2008

Photos of (brooklyn) today

Yesterday's theme was urban, but today we're just doing normal Saturday stuff around Brooklyn. It may surprise you to learn that we have a few hills and trees here in the big city and that kids go sledding.

It may really surprise you to see that they still deliver seltzer in those old fashioned bottles. I've seen them in antique stores for $40 apiece. In my neighborhood, I see cases of empties on front porches waiting to be swapped for full ones.

In many ways, I've found, Brooklyn today has more in common with small midwestern towns in the 60's than small midwestern towns of today do. In addition to sledding and home delivery, we've got mom and pop groceries all over the place, know most of our neighbors, and can't go anywhere without bumping into acquaintances or meeting people who know people we know.

Doesn't gel with Conservative narrative, I know, but such is life.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Photos of today

Slideshow here. Click on first pic. Goes better with your favorite music.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cleansing the tongue

In a stunning innovation in Newsspeak, I mean lingusitic cleansing, the New York Times redefined blatant corruption as "confidence in one's integrity" to describe their allegation that John McCain has been fucking his lobbyist and doing her political favors for sex and money.

Note that "political favors" is so ingrained as Newsspeak that it has become almost totally disassociated with its meaning. Poor "corruption's" harshly interrogated letter structure as been linguistically cleansed and now resides in a relocation camp somewhere in the Mideast.

But that triumph of the journalism is not enough for the world's greatest newspaper! Today we get a twofer!

Not content to merely use the word integrity in place of corruption, the Times also officially ordained the term "draw sharp contrast" as official Newsspeak for "go negative." In order to not be repetitive, the style manual allows "draw tough contrasts" as an acceptable euphemism for "slime your opponent" as well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Computational anxiety

Today's Washington Post reports that parents are rising up like peasants with pitchforks against a new approach to math being used in elementary education across the land.

In Prince William and elsewhere in the country, a math textbook series has fomented upheaval among some parents and teachers who say its methods are convoluted and fail to help children master basic math skills and facts. Educators who favor the series say it helps young students learn math in a deeper way as they prepare for the rigors of algebra...

The program de-emphasizes memorization and drills and pushes students to use more creative ways to find answers, such as drawing pictures, playing games and using objects.

Sounds like my kid's math class, only much more structured.

On the positive side, according to the Post, the new math program raises test scores and prepares children to learn algebra later on. On the negative side -- gasp -- children do not always get the correct answer without having to think about it for awhile. The article doesn't say it, but sometimes they won't get the correct answer at all. My kid's teacher mentioned that in passing at the recent parent/teacher conference. The important thing at this stage (3rd grade), she said, is that they think.

The post gives an example: "There are 28 desks in the classroom. The teacher puts them in groups of four. How many groups of desks are in the classroom?"

I got that right away by dividing 28 by four so I can see how parents could think that it is more important for children to memorize the multiplication tables than to struggle to find their own methods for solving elementary math problems. But at what stage of development did I learn that I could use the multiplication tables to solve a problem like that?

The point is that once you have the thinking skills, the computational skills are easy. Not the other way around.

And my kid's teacher made another good point, which the Post article neglects to mention, when a parent asked her how kids are supposed to do computation if they're not drilled in it? Just like you or I or any mathematician does computation these days, she said, they'll use a calculator.


Update: On the other hand, those of you who wonder how kids who aren't taught computational skills in school still manage to succeed, I noticed my wife drilling poor little John Bob on the multiplication tables last night. Probably a lot of that going around.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Photo of today

Reading lesson

George Orwell had some small amount of respect for Rudyard Kipling, therefore George W. Bush is a hero and the Democrats are unfit to govern. This is so because in 100 years everyone will remember the name “George W. Bush” while Denis Kucinich and his lot will be forgotten. It’s right there in Orwell’s essay. You can read it yourself. Trust me on that. And btw, Orwell says Kipling’s not a Fascist so neither are today's Conservatives. Thus goes the “logic” of William Kristol.

Of course Kristol regularly finds evidence that the Democrats are fools, knaves or traitors in the cooing of pigeons or the honking of taxi’s or the pitter patter of raindrops on the windowsill, and more likely than not pulls some dead white guy out of his ass to agree with his reading of the portents, so neither his conclusions nor his “logic” are remarkable. But Orwell was an interesting writer and it’s usually a hoot when a Conservative pulls poor dead Orwell out of his ass to justify some kind of policy that normal readers would recognize as an “Orwellian Nightmare,” so I looked up the good George’s little essay on Kipling to see what it really said and how it actually relates to our current political climate. It’s yet another example of the “intellectual” somersaults Conservatives will turn in order to pretend that the Fascist looking back it them in the mirror is Winston Churchill. Kristol’s attempt to use Orwell’s “defense” of Kipling gives great insight into the mind this particular Conservative pissant, and Conservative pissants in general.

Let’s start with Orwell’s description of Kipling:

It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct--on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.

Yes, yes, Kristol seems to be saying, we Conservatives are jingo imperialists, morally rotten, and aesthetically disgusting, but like Kipling according to Orwell, we are not Fascists. And the left, well, Orwell nails them:
But because he (Kipling, read Kristol) identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which 'enlightened' people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases.

So you see. We don't dislike Bush because he is an imbecilic piece of shit and his policies have proven disastrous. We dislike him because he's a paragon of responsibility. That and because we are hypocrits. Both left and right want the same material things and in order to get them we have to exploit the poor folk at home and abroad. The only real difference between left and right is that the right take responsibility for their actions while the left live in a fantasy land. That’s why the right must govern, however incompetently, and the left can only whine in opposition.

Fortunately, Orwell’s argument that freedom for me requires slavery for thee and thou is just so 19th century. With education, democracy and rule of law, we can overcome the master/slave economic relationship that requires the poor of one country to slave eighteen hours a day to make shoes for the poor of another country. The history of the United States offers strong evidence that rule of law and intelligent economic management can balance regional differences. The European Union’s unwieldy march toward freedom and economic justice provides a current example of how that fight can be won. It’s really not that difficult to figure out intellectually. Pulling it off politically is quite another matter.

And here, Orwell nails Kristol and his empire-building buddies. You know, the realists, the responsibility-takers:
Kipling (read Kristol, Conservatives in general) spent the later part of his life in sulking, and no doubt it was political disappointment rather than literary vanity that account for this. Somehow history had not gone according to plan. After the greatest victory she had ever known, Britain was a lesser world power than before, and Kipling was quite acute enough to see this. The virtue had gone out of the classes he idealized, the young were hedonistic or disaffected, the desire to paint the map red had evaporated. He could not understand what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion. It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed 'natives', and then you establish 'the Law', which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it.

Yea, I’m sure it’s satisfying for a Conservative like Kristol to pull a dead white guy of Orwell’s stature out of his ass to tell him how superhumanly responsible he and his fucked up warmongering, torturing economy destroying, American hating buddies are, but it requires a lot of skimming or he’s likely to find Orwell’s up his ass in a sense that’s not so pleasant.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Photo of today

More than words

Eric Hirsch Jr. published an informative article on the failure of the No Child Left Behind law in yesterday's Washington Post. He points out that reading scores have shown gains in fourth grade but have not been maintained in higher grades when reading comprehension matters so much more.

I'm sure it won't surprise anyone who follows these education brouhahas that schools are increasingly teaching to the test rather than teaching actual subjects.

...this causes schools, as many complain, to teach to reading tests rather than educate children. But intensive test preparation by schools has resulted in lower reading test scores in later grades. "Teaching to the test" does not effectively teach to the test after all.

But this inability of so many older students to comprehend what they read, despite so many hours studying reading comprehension, is not as mysterious as it may sound.
In light of the relevant science, an analysis of the textbooks and methods used to teach reading and language arts -- for three hours a day in many places -- indicates some of the reasons for the disappointing later results. These test-prep materials are constructed on the mistaken view that reading comprehension is a skill that can be perfected by practice, as typing can be. This how-to conception of reading has caused schools to spend a lot of unproductive time on trivial content and on drills such as "finding the main idea" and less time on history, science and the arts.

Yes, history, science and the arts. Who needs em? Humans, apparently:
Studies of reading comprehension show that knowing something of the topic you're reading about is the most important variable in comprehension. After a child learns to sound out words, comprehension is mostly knowledge. Many technical studies support the assertion that after students can fluently sound out words, relevant knowledge is the crucial difference between students who are good or poor readers.

In other words, a person who knows nothing whatsoever about a subject can understand every word in a paragraph and still have no idea what the pargraph means.

But what can be done? Isn't reading comprehension one of those questions for which there are not answers? Well, no.
Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline. Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth-graders reading at the "proficient" or "advanced" levels: Massachusetts now has the largest percentage of students reading at that higher level, and it is No. 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.

Well, duh, you'd think. So how is it that so many experts somehow manage to miss the obvious. You won't be surprised the George W. Bush and the Republicans played their usual role in fucking things up for money. This time in the form of Reid Lyon:
So, again, a tutor of George W. Bush developed a program/policy that imposed a structure on America’s public schools that further complicated the practice of educating children, while funneling federal funds to the profit margins of... friends of George W. Bush.

Whether by design or due to a series of accidents related to the hubris and incompetence of trust fund babies like Bush, vast swathes of our education system no longer teach children in a way that enables them to understand history, social studies, science, or the arts -- essentially the basics necessary for a functional democracy.

As with any great crime, its rarely a bad idea to follow the money and see who profits, in this case by the demise of democracy in the United States and you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that it's the politicians of the one dominant party and so many of the corporations that profit most from a widespread lack of reading and reading comprehension. Unfortunately, those who would profit most from a better an educated commonweal don't know what the words mean and if they do can't adequately distinguish between the constitution, the bible, and the words coming at them from the tv.