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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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Pat Buchanan is an idiot

Sorry for being so obvious.  But I’ve read his latest ill-informed anti-immigrant screed and couldn’t stay quiet.

Buchanan’s thesis is that we were once a unified country but now since 1960, we’ve been in decline.  First off, it’s a little suspicious that the magic time was exactly when Pat Buchanan (born in 1938) had just reached majority age.  Nearly everyone looks back on their twenties as the halcyon days.  It’s the moment you first achieve independence from your parents, when you come into your own agency, and when you (most likely) start paying attention to the world around you as if you were a part of you.  That is, how the world is becomes your frame of reference for how the world should be.  But really that’s just the drug of nostalgia, and it’s no different than Homer Simpson declaring that “rock attained perfection in 1974 — it’s a scientific fact”

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Buchanan then pivots to alerting us to the existential threat to America poised by unaccompanied children fleeing violence.  He of course invokes sainted Ronald Reagan of blessed memory: “For, as Ronald Reagan said, a nation that cannot control its borders isn’t really a nation anymore.”  I’m not exactly sure how he squares that with the open borders of the Roman Empire, or the British one, or indeed, most of US history.  But whatever.

Buchanan also invokes the Federalist papers and John Jay’s comment that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people – a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. … ”  This might have made good propaganda, but I’m fairly sure that Jay’s words would have irked the already-numerous German, Scottish, Irish, Danish immigrants who had fought in the Revolutionary War to help establish this nation.

Buchanan asserts “We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789″, which is just laughable.  Heck, Andrew Hamilton — another of the authors of the Federalist Papers — was an immigrant to these shores.  While many of the colonists were born in America, many had travelled here.  And above all of that, you might want to ask a Native American, who might remind you that all the White guys were immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.

Buchanan also says “The republic of the founders for whom Jay spoke did not give a fig for diversity. They cherished our unity, commonality and sameness of ancestry, culture, faith and traditions.”  This certainly makes one wonder about the long, drawn-out, sometimes-vicious fights in the Continental Congress between (usually) the New England and the Deep South contingents.   Oh, also all that time and effort spent trying to square the circle on the South’s “peculiar institution”.

This brings up the largest hole in Buchanan’s argument.  We used to be all one happy, unified, uniform family?  What drugs is he on?  Look at the treatment of any minority population in the US (and, hey, we do actually have some and always had): the Native Americans, the Blacks, the Chinese.  Heck, look at how the Irish were treated.  It’s a little hard to swallow that we were a unified culture.  Instead, we had the in-power culture (more or less the WASPs), who then simply declared that other cultures were backward, uncivilized, and plain old irrelevant.  Buchanan’s reasoning boils down to “There was only one culture — as long as you ignore all the other ones.”

It is nice that Buchanan admits, obliquely, that maybe not everything was rainbows and unicorns:  “And though the civil rights movement had just begun, nowhere did black peoples enjoy the freedom and prosperity of African-Americans.”  That’s right, in the magic year of 1960, White culture finally started to grudgingly offer some semblance of fairness to the Black population, a mere century after the bloodiest war in American history and the abolition of outright slavery.

Quibbling with Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that America is “a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago,” Buchanan laments that nonetheless “We are no longer one unique people ‘descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion’.”  But the fact of the matter is, we never were.  You can only pretend that we were by ignoring the reality, twisting the history, and unlearning the lessons.  You can only pretend we were when you define “real America” as “exactly and only the small patch of ground I grew up on”.

As evidence of how far we’ve fallen, Buchanan lists a bunch of things:

We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.

We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays.

But he says these like they’re bad things, whereas I think they speak to the enduring strength of this nation, to adapt, persevere, and improve itself — to strive always to become a “more perfect Union”.  For someone who sings of “American exceptionalism”, Buchanan misses what makes us exceptional:  Not the fortuitous vast natural resources, or the particular spot of earth on which we stand, or the world’s oldest free trade zone or the world’s oldest constitutional republic, not a fictitious single language or single culture.  We are a nation of peoples, a weird and wonderful dream bringing together cultures, and languages, and experiences, and hopes and aspirations from all that humanity has to offer.  America the nation is an idea, not a place or a people.  And that is largely unprecedented and ambitious.

 

A final comment:  One of the things that so disturbs Buchanan is that “Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon”.  And I say, Yea! to this, and good riddance.  The triumph of the American spirit is that we can finally reject these traitorous and seditious, fundamentally dishonorable men who abandoned the United States and its Constitution, not to mention their own sworn oaths, in a parochial construction of duty to defend a heinous state founded on the noxious principle that some humans have, as a divine right, the right and even obligation to own other human beings.  (If you’re one of the revisionists who want to argue that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery”, I suggest you read the ordinances of secession, or indeed, the Constitution of the Confederate States.   See also an analysis of slavery in the Confederate constitution, or a similar analysis.)

All good things may come to an end, but you can sometimes revisit them

Today (2014 May 23) is the 20th anniversary of the airing of “All Good Things…”, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It cannot be denied that this series is directly responsible for the resurgence of American sci-fi on television – without the Enterprise-D, there would have been no Babylon 5, no Stargate, no reimagined Battlestar Galactica.  Without the evidence that “geek culture” could make real money, there might well have been no Dark Night, no Lord of the Rings (movies), no Game of Thrones (series), no Avengers assembled.

Watching it again, I was surprised how well this episode holds up as a capstone to an amazing series.  Sure, there are glitches – the anomaly grows larger in the past, except when it doesn’t, after being created by tachyon pulses emitted by three Enterprises except one of them was the Pasteur.  But that’s just nitpicking.  The key to Trek has never been the technobabble.  It’s been the intricate interplay between sharply-drawn characters who wear their humanity on their sleeve, and the ineffable possibilities of existence itself.  And ST:TNG still had that ineluctable optimism that characterized the original.  It had hope in the stars and hope in us.   As much as I enjoy the grittier fare we generally get these days, I will admit to missing that simple faith in the future.

Happy Tax Day!

And I mean that non-ironically.  I don’t like paying taxes, but I am proud to do it.  Taxes are not only necessary to maintain the way of life we value.  They are a direct investment in the very concept of civilization.   Taxes are the explicit statement that we are a community and we have a communal responsibility to each other.  They are also the explicit recognition that no one is in this alone, that no one is solely responsible for his or her own success, and that we are, to some measure, dependent on each other.

Yes, I inveigle against waste and fraud, just like everyone else.  Perhaps even more so, because they are a violation of this trust, that the communal burden be fairly borne and communally valuable — that no individual benefit unduly.  But the current fetish on minimizing taxes (even at the cost of undermining society) boggles my mind.  It reeks of hubris and solipsism.

Taxes are a burden but  not all burdens are bad.  Jingoists like to lecture us “Freedom isn’t free” — and indeed, it isn’t.  Part of the cost — not the lion’s share, but not a negligible one — is directly an economic one: The taxes we pay.  You cannot defend a nation, or provide speedy justice, or protect the innocent, for free.  You cannot offer hope and opportunity, or discover new cures, or build a better future, for free.  The American project, whatever that turns out to be, is bigger than any one person or any one group.  Taxes are part of the sinew that binds us into one nation.

Taxes help make clear: We are all in this together.

So again, I say, Happy Tax Day!

(For your amusement, here’s a link to the original income tax forms.)

2014-03-15 21.29.45

Lunacon 2014 (2e): Magic and Religion

Saturday 3 PM.

Panelists: Carole Ann Moleti; Michael F. Flynn, Raymond Feist, Jane Sibley

Interesting tidbit: religion = re+ligio = a rebinding of society (to join again).  Religion has always had a social purpose, to increase community and tie society together.

The panelists offered a definition of magic as “a belief that mundane objects have hidden powers”, whereas religion is generally more abstract and removed.  For example, if a stick brings forth water when banged against rock, it’s magic.  If banging the stick against rock brings forth water because God intervenes, it’s religion.  Religious talismans and symbols (and prayers, I guess) work by evoking the higher power, not through themselves.  I’m not sure I entirely buy this distinction but it’s worthy of thought.

Cities are often centers of “high” religion whereas villages and rural areas are typically bastions of household religions.  You could see this clearly in ancient Greece and Rome, where the myths we learn in school are in fact the high tradition of the citied elite.

It was inordinately fun to watch Raymond Feist shut down Michael Flynn at every turn, casually squashing his gambits and shooting down his points, without even ever seeming to notice he was doing it.

During the panel there were escalating background noises — renovation work down the hall, a panel on electronic synthesizers going on next door — which make the whole thing a little bit like a Muppets sketch.

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Lunacon 2014 (2d): Gamification in Education

Saturday 2 PM

I sort of felt obligated to go to this panel (and the one on The Future of Education), seeing that I am a teacher and all.

It was OK.  The title proved to be inaccurate: This was more about the use of existing games in a school setting.  Gamification usually refers to adopting the tropes of gameplay — varying difficulty, badges and other rewards, etc. — for use in education.   Instead, the panelists related how they had used games to advance their classes.  Two of the three panelists work (at least part time) for companies that make educational games, so that wasn’t too surprising.

While sitting there I thought up a game I might use in covering diffusion:

  • Start with a grid grouped into larger boxes (I’m thinking a 21×21 grid, divided into 3×3 boxes).
  • In some of the boxes, place pennies to represent molecules of gas.
  • Every turn, for every penny, roll 1d8 and move accordingly along a cardinal direction.
    • If the target square is occupied, the moving penny stops and does not enter.  Instead, the other penny moves in the direction indicated.
    • Pennies that hit the edge of the grid bounce back.
    • As a variant, give the pennies two speeds, based on the heads/tails status.
      • heads = moving; tails = stopped
      • A moving penny hitting a stopped penny itself stops.  The hit penny moves off.
      • A moving penny hitting a moving penny bounces back (in the opposite direction) and is stopped.  The hit penny is also stopped.
    • Using the larger boxes allows you to compute density variations.

Two quips about using games:

  • Magic: The Gathering is a good introduction to business strategy and resource management.
  • AD&D is “hours of improv comedy with an algebra test in the middle”.  :-D

Games mentioned

  • Compounded: A game about the periodic table
  • Phylomon: a Pokemon-type collectible card game about ecology
  • Bio Blitz
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Lunacon 2014 (2c): Reading by Merav Hoffman

Saturday 12 Noon

Panelist: Merav Hoffman (duh)

I don’t attend a lot of readings, because I generally prefer reading things at my own pace.  I don’t find the timbre of the author all that engaging.  On the other hand, Merav was a very welcoming presence at my first Lunacon and I wanted to make sure I at least caught her to say Hi, and this seemed a good time to do so.

I came in at the tail end of someone else’s reading, and I can’t really comment on it.  Then, after a few minutes’ break, Merav asked us “Dogs or elephants?”  Apparently she writes childrens’ stories and had two ready to go.  The common consensus was, dogs.

Ironically, she  then read a story of hers called (I think) “Circus”, but it wasn’t about a circus, it was about a dog named Circus. (It did also have acrobats in it.)  It was sweet and simple, and flowed really smoothly.  I was reminded of the Bard writing group at Hun, back when that was a going concern.  (Part of me wonders if it would be worth reviving in some form.)

After “Circus”, she also read a reinterpretation of Rapunzel, or rather, a sequel of sorts.  Almost as an aside, Merav mentioned that the origin of Cinderella lies in a story from China, which I had never heard.

A propos of nothing, I also have to comment on the surreality of the con: While Merav was reading about Rapunzel, a troop of Star Wars stormtroopers loped past the open door.

 

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Lunacon 2014 (2a): Altering Time and Perception

Saturday 11 AM Odelle

Panelists: Walter Hunt, David Sklar

This was not especially well-attended: at first, just the panelists and me.  By the end, another 6 or so people had shown up.  First panel on a Saturday is probably a dead zone.

There were really two topics to be discussed:

  1. How is a story paced?
  2. How do you elide the unnecessary details while avoiding info-dumps?

As an example of an author messing with time sense well, one panelist offered up Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  The other came back with Slaghterhouse Five.  I thought of Catch 22.  

My personal observation: We are very much a cinematically-informed people now.  How can you evoke the equivalent of time-lapse photography or bullet-time effects?

  • Interestingly, to convey speed, it’s important to avoid detail.
    • You might plot out every intricate movement in the sword fight, but long paragraphs slow down the reader’s time sense.
    • Short but evocative phrases can heighten tension.
    • Creative use of punctuation can control time-sense too.
  • Indicating jumps in time without explicit title-carding is possible but tough.
    • For longer jumps, you can use subliminal clues, such as mentioning that a city is inaccessible except by boat in one period, then commenting on the new railroad opening in another.
    • Sometimes you can use fashion or manners to indicate the discontinuity.
    • It can be helpful to encounter the older versions of characters from earlier in the timeline.
  • How do you ensure the reader doesn’t get lost?  Or how do you lose them constructively, if that’s the point?

How do you signal (to editors or readers) that you’re making a stylistic choice and not just being lazy?

2014-03-15 21.29.45

Lunacon 2014 (2b): Write What You Don’t Know

Saturday 12 noon

Panelists: Walter H. Hunt, Laura Anne Gilman, KT Pinto

Sadly, this was not (imho) a very successful panel.  The panelists talked around the topic but never addressed head-on how to avoid the pitfalls of writing about things you haven’t experienced.  Walter Hunt mentioned that he’s spent a lot of time volunteering at a living farm and so sees a way of living most of us can hardly imagine.  The panelists bemoaned the writers who treat horses as simply breathing automobiles.

One thing I hadn’t thought about was, how do you write likeable characters from an unlikeable time?   Historical fiction set in 1802 New Orleans can’t really avoid the whole slave question, and indeed, your hero is likely to know slaveowners or be one himself.  It’s unsatisfying and a little flat to make all your protagonists be modern, liberal, open-minded people who happen to be centuries ahead of their time.  Unfortunately, the panel didn’t really offer any insight into what to do about it.

A different, related difficulty is, how do you avoid having your readers think that you, the author, agree with the objectionable mores of the era in which you set your book?  If your hero does not inveigle against slavery (possibly because he grew up a plantation owner’s son), some might see that as tacit approval on your part.  The published authors seemed to agree, there is no way to avoid this completely.  It just comes with the territory.

I made a personal discovery, to wit, once someone mentions the vampire story they wrote, I just tune them out.  It isn’t fair but I just don’t respect that genre.  In my defense, every single instance it occurred during this Lunacon, my disdain ended up being justified.

Thoughts on teaching, politics, life in general