Happy Victory over the Confederacy Day

Lee Surrenders

On this day one hundred fifty years ago, a scruffy, scrappy, but determined general accepted the surrender of his well-born, well-dressed, and traitorous counterpart, effectively ending a vast sedition launched in the name of slavery, orchestrated by cowardly politicians, and fought — like most wars are — by poor men dying at the behest of rich men. There was no nobility in the losing side; there was no honor; there was only the proposition that one man might justly hold another as property, and that in support of that one twisted principle, oaths may be broken, loyalty suborned, and a great democracy threatened with sectarian dissolution.

Stragglers of the Confederate army fought on for a few more weeks. Their descendants, stragglers of history, fight on today. Their cause is equally dishonorable, equally seditious, and, thankfully, equally ultimately futile.

 

One sentence can pull you out of an entirely fine essay

By Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“.  We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training.  It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history.  Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects.  As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.

Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool.  In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly.  While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem.  STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking.  It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.

I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.

What explains the waning influence of research blaming black poverty on black culture

Vox has an article purporting to explore “The real reason research blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”.  And it’s fine so far as it goes, but it still dances around the reality.

Why has “blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”? Because the same dire straits and dead-end traits show up among the non-college-educated White population: increased parental absenteeism, increased substance abuse, socioeconomic lock. Since it would obviously be crazy to deduce that these problems are intrinsic to White culture, it’s no longer fashionable to assign a genetic driver to them. In reality of course, the actual lesson is: Take away good-paying jobs and educational opportunity, and — shocker! — families and communities feel stressed, leading to more disorder.

http://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8253495/moynihan-report-liberal-backlash

College Admissions Hunger Games

Today the NY Times published an Upshot op-ed called “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems“.  It’s one of those article that seems to say more than it does.  It doesn’t actually support the conclusion it asserts.  Saying that roughly the same percentage of “top students” still get admission to elite schools is almost self-evidently circular, and does nothing to dispute the notion that “college admissions has become a Hunger Games-like tournament”.  In the Hunger Games, the same number of winners happened each year — but the competition wasn’t always the same.  And what constitutes a “top student” could (and does!) vary from year to year without creating more of them.

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Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 7: “Kill the Moon”

Ugh.  This hasn’t been a great season, and this is far from the best.

Let’s begin with the very-overused flash forward.  It’s getting kind of old.  Used well, it can be very effective.  But Doctor Who isn’t using it very well.  They’ve used it as a cheap dramatic tool.  Actually the episode was full of cheap dramatic tools: The arbitrary countdown timer; the introduction of two characters whose sole purpose — almost literally — was to die to ratchet up the tension.

Perhaps the most telling flaw was the absolutely shameless theft of the idea behind Jack Williamson’s “Born of the Sun”, namely, that the solar system bodies were really eggs waiting to hatch.  That was awkward in the golden age of pulp, and here it’s just recycled pulp — and not even done as well!  The biology is ludicrous and the conclusion laughable.  And though I know Doctor Who is not hard sci-fi, I nearly choked on the idea that the egg was just gaining mass.  First of all, 1.5 billion tons would not be nearly enough to generate Earth-like gravity, much less world-ending tides.  Second, of course, an egg starts off with its full mass, which is merely converted by the embryo into, well, more embryo.  It doesn’t magically spawn new mass.  The not-quite-spiders are just icing on the screwed-up biology cake, of course, and hardly worth mentioning, since their only role was to pose a false threat and kill the hapless Mexican miners and the two men of the expedition.

Clara is faced with a terrible choice and attempts to punt.   (Turn off the lights?  Really? What about the half of the planet in daylight?  Who’s going to turn off the lights — individuals?  Electric companies? Governments?  How will it be waited, by population or by lumens?  Luckily, of course, every single human on Earth votes to kill the creature, so at least there’s no awkward need for balancing ayes and nays.)  She decides to kill it, then decides not to — and is then mad at the Doctor for making her decide.

“It was cheap, it was pathetic ; it was patronising.”  Here, at last, I can find something about Clara Oswald with which I agree.  Oh, wait, she wasn’t talking about herself.  I think her anger is incoherent and forced.  I think she sounds like a spoiled child who, as the Doctor says, hasn’t even taken the training wheels off yet.  The emotion of her fight doesn’t ring true to me, and I share the Doctor’s befuddlement if only in trying to understand why I should care that she’s upset.

Up until now, Clara has been meh.  Now she’s small.  The Christmas special really can’t get here soon enough.

Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1 “Deep Breath”

I finally got around to watching Season 8 Episode 1 (“Deep Breath”) of the revived Doctor Who.   It’s the first one with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  (What do we call him, anyway?  Is he the 12th Doctor, even though we know that Matt Smith‘s 11 was really the twelfth?)  So it’s probably worth a few words.

Warning: This will be rife with spoilers for which there will be no further apology.

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What is a library?

I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

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The persistence of “factory”-style schools

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute asksWhy Do ‘Anti-Corporatists’ Defend Factory-Style Leadership?”  There’s a lot in there I’d like to respond to; here’s my first swing at it.

It’s easy to blame hidebound educators for educational malaise, and some of the blame lands justly. But you cannot begin to understand the problem until you realize how strenuously parents resist any change that means their kids aren’t learning it the way they did. If education “looks different”, it is distrusted and undervalued. (Witness the growing backlash over Common Core.)

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