Thursday, September 30, 2010

Deep (Freeze) Thought

Wow, if you split the Republican vote in half in Alaska, you still can't get a Democrat elected there this year. How did Begich ever win??

How Well Do You Know Religion?
Most Americans didn't do so well on this survey from the folks at the Pew Forum. Here's the results. I was 15 for 15, but got lucky. Flipped a coin for the last one. How about you?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

School Improvement: What's the Answer?
If only there was a single answer, right? Every year we get new approaches that seem to yield promising results, but that ultimately don't last, or don't translate from school school. Even more importantly, we don't have much agreement on the basics, like: What's the purpose of public education? and How do we measure progress and achievement?

The truth is, if there were *one simple structural thing* that need only be implemented to create a nation full of eager, well-educated, well-adjusted high school graduates, we would have figured it out, and everyone would be doing it. As it is, even trying to learn from the apparent successes of others seems difficult.

Still, I can't resist the occasional feel-good success story of a down-and-out school that, at the very least, experiences vast improvement. Yesterday's NYTimes tells of Brockton High School in Mass. At 4,100 students, Brockton is not only the largest in the state, it's one of the largest in the nation. With a high drop-out rate, and only a quarter of students passing the statewide exams 10 years ago, teachers and administrators - motivated mostly by shame - devised a new approach: reading and writing would be emphasized in each and every class.
The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.

Some teachers dragged their feet. Michael Thomas, now the district’s operations director but who led the school’s physical education department at the time, recalled that several of his teachers told him, “This is gym; we shouldn’t have to teach writing.” Mr. Thomas said he replied, “If you want to work at Brockton High, it’s your job.”
Read the whole thing. Gains sound substantial there (though they had a long way to go), and the pride taken in improvement seems to have propelled the entire school even further. Anything here that can be used by other struggling schools, or entire school systems?  Who knows.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Stanley Fish Right?
Today's column argues that the liberal instinct to make light of Tea Party candidates is bad politics. That has the ring of truth, which has me worried since, as you know, I'm big into ridicule.

Commentators who explain smugly that O’Donnell’s position on masturbation (that it is a selfish, solitary act) is contradicted by her Ayn Rand-like attack on collectivism, or who wax self-righteous about Paladino’s comparing Sheldon Silver to Hitler and promising to wield a baseball bat in Albany, or who laugh at Sharron Angle for being in favor of Scientology (she denies it) and against fluoridation and the Department of Education, are doing these candidates a huge favor. They are saying, in effect, these people are stupid, they’re jokes; and the implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that anyone who takes them the least bit seriously doesn’t get the joke and is stupid, too.
Once made fun of, Stanley concludes, marginal Tea Party sympathizers are lost forever to the Democratic point of view. Instead of backing down, they just dig in.

This time, he has it 60% right. We do need to be careful. Just because I have a hard time believing that these idiots nice Republicans with which I happen to disagree are winning doesn't mean they're going away. They are, in fact, winning, after all. Our arguments against should take them seriously in that regard.

Still, what else am I supposed to do in the face of a major party candidate for US Senate who views the world as Christine O'Donnell does? I mean, when you admit to dabbling in witchcraft and set as your agenda to get all of America to stop having sex, those are the sorts of things that really are supposed to end a political career in its tracks, aren't they?

Fish's argument here is mostly a practical one: ridicule is a counter-productive political strategy. Aimed at the voters, I agree. But wasn't it a pretty big factor though in driving down Palin's numbers, ultimately defeating McCain? In general, I don't think voters want to get behind a laughing stock, and if a campaign of ridicule can brand a candidate as one (see Sue Lowden in Nevada), isn't that a decent idea? What's the right balance? If we engage O'Donnell as a serious candidate, don't we validate and make legitimate her bizarre views?

Shouldn't a protest vote this November have to feel the complete embarassing weight of the fools they would send to Washington?
"An Original Manuscript Can Only Be in One Place at One Time"
The TrialThe NYTimes magazine explores a strange, depressing, riveting story - one in which the work of a masterful 20th Century author, an act of love/betrayal by his surprising best friend, the rantings of a reclusive 70-something cat enthusiast, and a bank vault in Israel all intertwine in a maze worthy of the writer's name.
While about two-thirds of the Kafka estate eventually found its way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the remainder — believed to comprise drawings, travel diaries, letters and drafts — stayed in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed to his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe’s death in late 2007, at age 101, the National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeaths the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library is claiming a right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will. The case has dragged on for more than two years. If the court finds in the sisters’ favor, they will be free to follow Eva’s stated plan to sell some or all of the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. They will also be free to keep whatever they don’t sell in their multiple Swiss and Israeli bank vaults and in the Tel Aviv apartment that Eva shares with an untold number of cats.
Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer who considers Kafka to be his greatest influence, ...(says) Kafka...might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Hard Day's Night (Remastered)Beatles Class Today
Today's topic is the album A Hard Day's Night

Question: Which songs have the strongest correlation between the music and lyrics? Which present the most conflict between the two?

What's the best song on the album?

Any takers?
Marry an Optometrist
Via Overcoming Bias, a recent study ranks occupations for their divorce rates, once other predictive factors are taken out of the equation. The top 6 divorce-prone jobs?
1. Massage Therapists
2. Bartenders
3. Dancers and Choreographers
4. Health Diagnosing Practitioners
5. Physicians and Surgeons
6. Gaming Services Workers
The bottom 6?
507. Optometrist
508. Clergy
509. Transit Police
510. Religious Education Directors
511. Agricultural Engineers
512. Communication Equipment Workers
Musicians, by the way, come in at 306. Post-secondary teachers, 351.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Transcript of Colbert Answering Questions
Video of his opening statement is in the post below, but some of the best moments were during questioning from the committee. Apparently nobody much believes in transcripts anymore (what happened while I was away?) Blue Wave News has transcribed the one moment when Colbert seemed to come out of character and explain to Rep. Chu why he cares so much about the issue of migrant workers. Here's a snippet:
You know, “whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,” and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.
Other favorite answers include telling Rep. Smith (R-TX) that being a farm worker for a day is pretty tough:
SMITH: Is that to say it's more work than you've ever done before?

COLBERT: It's certainly harder work than this.

SMITH: Is it harder work than the comedy show?

COLBERT: Absolutely harder than punditry.

SMITH: You don't want to return to it?

COLBERT: I don't even want to watch Green Acres any more.
Then explaining to Rep. King (R-IA) that he was indeed packing, not unloading, corn.
COLBERT: I was packing corn. I was a corn-packer. I packed it; I put it in the trucks and I iced it down to keep it at 38 degrees so it wouldn't go through the process where the sugar turns into starch and we got that corn out that day. I was a corn-packer. And I know that term is offensive to some people because corn-packer is a derogartory term for a gay Iowan and I hope I didn't offend anybody.
Watch those portions of the video here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stephen Colbert Testifies Before Congress
From the annals of great political ideas, Colbert was invited to speak before the House Judiciary Committee, in a hearing on immigration. Here's his opening statement.