Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Great Spam Message

The spam filter on Blogger catches most of the spam messages posted to the comments, but I do get an emailed copy to see if they are real and should be posted. This one is certainly spam, but it's just too good to keep to myself. Check it out. In fact, read it out loud. It's like some brilliant nonsense poem. Paige's response: "Is that pro-piracy or against it?" I don't know. Maybe it's not really about piracy at all. Any interpretations?

"Resource, they fundamental to be taught that filing lawsuits is not the run to a precise piracy. Measure than, it's to develop something mastery than piracy. Like ingenuousness of use. It's even-handedly a fortuity easier to rush down the twist iTunes than to search the Internet with jeopardize of malware and then crappy sublimity, but if people are expected to a trough loads and linger yon seeing that ages, it's not paper money to work. They a guy be subjected to a low-lying on without note down unpropitious on people beget software and Springe sites that interchange it ridiculously fragile to picaroon, and up the quality. If that happens, then there in particular be no stopping piracy. But they're too prudent and appalled of losing. Risks fasten to be bewitched!"

Yes, that's an excellent reminder to us all; risks do, in fact, fasten to be bewitched.

Being Fair to Fair and Balanced Fox News

I was first exposed to the findings of a recent study about how Fox News viewers are more misinformed than those who get their news from other sources here. Obviously, the source,, a site advertising itself as "The Internet's Chronicle of Media Decay," might have reason to be biased against Fox, so I clicked on the link to the study itself (read about it here, complete with links to the whole study and its methodology, if you're interested). This was more balanced, in the sense that it paints a clearer picture of political bias based on party affiliation. Democrats were inclined to believe certain falsehoods, and Republicans were inclined to believe different ones. Still, the verdict on Fox News is not good. While other news sources believed things that were questionable, like the notion that the US Chamber of Commerce spent millions collected from foreigners on Republican candidates (something that's unknowable since donors identities are secret), viewers of Fox News believed a host of falsehoods at higher rates. Now, one can certainly quibble about which of these falsehoods is more significant. I was tempted to rush headlong into those tall weeds. But then I thought about my own motivation, and took a step back. Why does it bother me so much that people of both parties are willing to accept misinformation as fact? Is this intentional on the part of the media outlets, or is it a byproduct of telling one side of the story and letting people's biased imaginations fill in the gaps? And why should I spend my energy, at Christmas time no less, blasting a particular news outlet with whom I disagree.

Today I came across this piece from the LA Times (which had been published back on the 17th of December) and it answered one of my questions. Is the deception on the part of Fox intentional? Yes. As the article points out, a leaked memo from Fox's Washington editor, Bill Sammon, instructed his talking heads, not just the pundits but the reporters, to always refer to the "public option" as the "government option" or "government-run health insurance". Is that just spin in the opposite direction? Arguably so. But then he also sent this one: "We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." Now, that's not spin. As the Times piece points out, scientists and, well, any layman on the street or pundit behind a news desk, can dispute the interpretation of this data. Some can say it's part of a natural warming period unrelated to human action, and then try to explain why they know better than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Panel, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the 32 national science academies of various countries that have all concluded that the warming is real and is the product of human action. Sure, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists eventually came around to the same conclusion, and no scientific body of national or international standing now disputes this, but there are still individual scientists who do. Maybe all the big scientific organizations are wrong. It is possible. A person can dispute that. Of course, people have the right to stick their fingers in their ears and scream that the Earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese, the sky is purple with green polka-dots, and the government of Kenya is so advanced that they identified one newborn baby as super-human and sent him to Hawaii, complete with two false birth announcements in local papers, because they knew he would grow up to be the president of the Harvard Law Review, a dismal failure as a Congressional candidate, then a U.S. Senator, and then a secret spy who'd been elected President of the United States. People can choose to believe whatever the hell they want, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary. But if a source of news is going to intentionally misrepresent hard data rather than its interpretation, it should put that fingers-in-ears nutter on screen and call itself Batsh-t Crazy Network, or Intentionally Lying Network. But then, if it was the Intentionally Lying Network, it could call itself anything it wanted, right? It could call itself Fox News. And if people want to watch that, why should that bother me?

Of course, the pat answer is that those people vote, and their decisions affect me and the people I care about. Trite but true. I thought about railing in just that vein about the danger of a democracy in which a large percentage of the people choose to be willfully misinformed. But it was Christmas, a holiday amalgamated from the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule by Christians who couldn't stamp out all the pagan reveling, so they slapped their new name on it and called it theirs. And it's great. Not only do millions upon millions of Americans not know that the holiday is placed in the calendar out of cold, cynical calculation, or that the Bible never mentions 3 Kings from the Orient, not only do they not know why they have a tree inside their houses, or socks above their fireplaces, or a magical old man completely unrelated to the ostensible rationale for the holiday, but they don't care. And when I see my son's face as he reads the tag on the gift from Santa Clause on Christmas morning, I can't blame them at all. Christmas is wonderful.

And that brings me to my conclusion about Fox News: If people want to be deceived, if thinking about things as dour as Global Warming is too depressing, while feeling rage at the location of a Mosque in New York puts a special spring in their step, who am I to say they shouldn't be allowed that? We all have our delusions, and they help us get through the day. One of my favorite quotes comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, "If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." That is to say, I cannot say I currently believe something which I know to be false. But I could say I choose to watch Fox News and believe what I hear there, and it seems that's the same thing. Now, that's not to my taste for political reasons. Perhaps if there were a true alternative, a network which deceived me into thinking there is a brilliant and evil cabal making a coordinated effort to cause all the things I believe to be wrong in the world, and a countervailing band of equally brilliant but struggling grass-roots heroes who are fending off all the things that go bump in the night, perhaps I would choose to watch that. I love novels about great heroes standing up to the seemingly unassailable forces of evil, and I choose to read my politics into those just as I'm sure the other half of my fellow Americans read the opposite politics into them. And I pat myself on the back for really "getting it" just as they do. If the book is popular enough, both right and left can join together to create a great thwacking round of applause for ourselves. But to generate a similar sound in the genre of fake news we need different networks, and, despite missteps reported by the study, it's clear that the left has really failed in that it's taken to criticizing the right for factual errors, thus eliminating the possibility of truly competing in the field of fantasy journalism.

Let's be fair to Fox; they have figured out something the left just doesn't seem to get. People are not motivated by data. It does not get them to vote a certain way, to turn on a particular station, or to sit through a commercial. When I watch the news (which is increasingly rarely) or go to my computer to read it, I admit that I do it not because I want to find information, but because I want to feel informed. Those are not the same thing. I also want to find data to solve problems (or have the information to form opinions no one cares about but me, but that's the same motivation with a diminished result). News, if done properly, can fulfill these goals. But if I wanted to be scared? If I wanted to be angry? I could turn to the tepid network newscasts, with their own biases (NBC is owned by the world's largest arms manufacturer for godsakes, and ABC is owned by Disney) and be told that everything is basically fine as long as we keep buying more guns and going to Disneyland. How disappointing. Or I could turn to Fox News, learn about the vast left-wing conspiracy to make us all atheist cogs in a communist machine, and get really pissed off and have the bejeezus scared out of me.

Sure, it's partisan, but I don't think that's the end game. Back when I used to watch Fox News in an attempt to achieve some mythical balance in my viewing, one thing that struck me was how often Bill O'Reilly made explicit mention of his ratings. He didn't mention the number of Republicans in Congress, or the number of red states, or the statistics on church attendance half as often. Fox News, more than anything, is devoted to making people watch Fox News. They are very smart people, and know that calling yourself "Fair and Balanced" helps promote that goal, while actually being fair or balanced (which are not the same thing) would undermine it. And really, can you blame them? I'm not a big fan of romance novels, but I seriously doubt that, moments before the stud with the gleaming pects rips open the heroine's bodice, he addresses the reader with a reminder that the book is just a fantasy. Fantasy is the point.

So here's a Christmas toast to Fox News: Keep up the good work, liars. You make those of us who want to get our novels published jealous of your ability to peddle in fiction. Kudos. But stop leaking those memos. It's ruining the illusion.

And here's to those who purport to be real journalists: I see why you have been so tepid in your response to the dissembling on Fox News. Nobody likes the guy who sits in the dark theater during the horror movie and whispers, "It's not real, you know." But at some point the lie is a part of the story, and you have a responsibility to cover that, too, even if people find it boring at first. Because repetition works. Just ask Fox News. And at some point, people will start to get angry when any serious person quotes Fox News. And anger works. Just ask Fox News. In fact, I'll bet people would even sit through your commercials for luxury cars and Viagra just to see a really thorough, data-driven, "fair and balanced" smack-down of Fox. Or you could just put your fingers in your ears and scream that Fox News isn't actually deceiving anyone. Hell, that works for them. But if you decide to stay mum regarding the deceptions over at Fox News, don't let that memo leak out. It's embarrassing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, Everybody!

On a more festive note, here's the video Noah made today for his grandparents in Cincinnati. He did a pretty great job, I think. His dad, on the other hand, didn't figure out the settings on the camera until AFTER the video was completed, edited, and posted to YouTube, so you'll notice his amazing ability to read backwards, and you can practice by reading his shirt. Here's wishing you all a Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule, Solstice, Festivus, or whatever holiday you are enjoying around this time of year.

Teaching to the Test

Since it's Christmas break, I've had the luxury of embroiling myself in a couple minor online skirmishes regarding the state of public education. One friend wrote, "And don't get me started on teaching to the test!" I've written before about my ambivalence regarding testing. Tests are not all bad. They are a useful mechanism for a teacher to learn where his/her students are at regarding specific content. They are less effective at measuring the teachers of a large group of students, or of a whole school, or of an education system in general; you can only test what you can clearly define, and since we haven't agreed upon a succinct and measurable definition of "successful teacher" or "successful school" or "successful education system," all a test tells us is that kids did well on the test. The more pressure we put on that circular definition, the more we'll push teachers to become "successful" by getting kids to do well on the tests that define "successful".
It would be like me assigning you an 8 out of 10.
"I've tested you, and you scored an 8 out of 10. Not bad," I'd announce.
"At what?" you'd say.
"At getting an 8 out of 10."
"Well, I guess that's better than a 7 but not as good as a 9."
"Yes. You should work really hard at being a 9 out of 10."
"Okay, but at what?" you'd ask.
"At being a 9 out of 10."
"This seems a bit arbitrary."
"Just wait until I make your paycheck dependent on being a 9 out of 10 or better."
"At what?" you'd scream. But you'd work hard to get ready for that test, regardless of your thoughts about its validity, wouldn't you?

Christmas Break has also allowed me to step away from my classroom and think a bit more deeply about some other things I teach. I think about these while I play with action figures with my six-year-old. We've also been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies, which make me think of other books and movies, as you'll see. I find myself hoping his teachers do not limit themselves to the material on the tests. But then, how would I know? If their ratings are published, as the ratings of the teachers in the L.A. Unified School District were this last year, I'd only know how his teachers rated based on test scores. I thought about what he might miss if I could shunt him off to the teachers with the best ratings in such a system. This poem is my first draft of a conclusion:

Teaching to the Test

I am supposed to teach to a test
But I keep losing my way
And teaching other things.
I suppose I am the reason that public education is failing so miserably.
What if my poor students face lives filled only
With choices ranging between a,b,c, and d
And I’ve filled their heads with lessons like these?

Don’t read books just to find the right answers.
And don’t watch movies to find out what the books say.
That’s like a seventh grader asking out a girl
By passing a note to her best friend.
Movies often get the books wrong,
But books sometimes get life wrong
So make both and see if you can do better.

Fall in love.
It will hurt sometimes.
Maybe so much you’ll curse the stars.
But do it anyway.
Chance meetings can be the starts of great romances.
Of course, they can be the beginnings of horror stories, too.
That guy might be perfect for you
Or he might be a hundred-year-old pedophile with skin as cold as ice and a burning desire to drink your blood
Or maybe just knock you up on the honeymoon when you’re just eighteen.
That’s why you need to learn to read people as carefully as you read books.

Don’t shoot Mockingbirds
Or destroy innocence for no good reason.
If you see a mob with torches and pitchforks, don’t join in; you’ll regret it later.
Sometimes witches have the answers you need
If you have some leverage.
And others are beautiful women who want to keep you on their islands and pamper you for a while.
You should let them.
When you see a piece of cake and a note that says, “Eat me,”
You should.
But don’t break in and steal food from bears.
It’s unwise.

Rich people aren’t all evil and greedy.
Poor people aren’t all stupid and lazy.
Women are not weak, and if there is an alien on your spaceship you’d better be one.
Snap decisions and stereotypes kept our caveman ancestors safe from saber tooth tigers
But now, that categorical thinking mostly makes people look ignorant or worse.
Skin color doesn’t really tell you much about a person
But culture and religion and family history are important.
If you ignore them or disrespect them, you might end up
Getting crushed by a Golem
Or accidentally marrying your own mother.

Also, not all step-parents are evil
And if you obsess about them, it can turn out very badly
Especially if you are a prince in Denmark.

If you are the extremely jealous type
Or have a weak ankle
Or are missing one scale of your impenetrable hide
Don’t be too arrogant, because someone will figure out a way to exploit your weaknesses.

One king sacrificed his daughter in exchange for a safe journey
And his wife killed him when he got home.
More often, people sacrifice their marriages while they are away.
It can have the same result, so be careful.

You cannot love your children too much
Even if it means protecting them when it seems the world is a pointless place
So hold them close in the darkness
And keep them safe, even if you can’t see where you’re going.
But you can love them the wrong way
So don’t make their girlfriends sleep on 13 mattresses
And certainly don’t send their boyfriends on quests to get the Golden Fleece
Or any other twelve crazy tests
Because that will end very badly for you.

Sometimes the world will seem simply absurd.
Learn to laugh about it.
That way, when the world is about to be destroyed
You’ll know how to hitch a ride on a passing spaceship
Or at least have grace to say, “So it goes.”

You will face battles that seem insurmountable.
Sometimes the opposing army will be so great in number that you believe there is no hope
Or the evil you confront will seem too powerful to contend with
But if you draw your sword
Or wand
Or fill your sling with small stones from the riverbank
You may just find that your friends are better than you thought
Or that you have a strength that you didn’t know you possessed
Or you are raised up on the wings of eagles
Or the Dark Lord of the Sith is really your father
And used to be played by a far less intimidating actor
And can be redeemed in the end.
People can be redeemed in the end.
But there are times when your world will be filled with every kind of misery
And it’s best to clap down the lid on false hope and hide it in the jar you’ve been given
Because, in the last battle between the gods and the Frost Giants
The gods may lose.

You can leave home
And reinvent yourself
And despite what some people say, you can come home again.
But be careful what you become while you’re away
Because you could become your enemy
Or a sad, broken man staring across a lake at a green light
Or the ruler of a powerful empire
Whispering the name of a childhood toy.
So think about the way you want your story to end,
Revise your life story. Revise, revise, revise,
Pay attention to the way that it’s told,
And care for the other characters you include.
Because, whether you go away or not
There is a sea that can only be crossed once
And an undiscovered country
That cannot be mapped by any test.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Wall-E or 1984

What does this remind you of more: something out of Wall-E or 1984?

I'd ask if it's more absurd or tragic, but the clear answer is: Both.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Feeling a Bit Hopeless Today

After finishing Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Year of the Flood, I find myself running a bit low on hope.

Imagine a cult which has, for the sake of argument, 1000 members. These thousand people have come to believe that the world is going to end on December 6th of 2011, and their great Master Examplicon will call them all home to paradise in the form of poisonous kool-aid falling from the sky. They also believe that there will be signs which point to the coming of Examplicon, chief among which will be people getting hit by city buses. This happens rarely, but they take each instance as a proof. Then, as the date draws near, they decide that too few people are being hit by buses, so they take to jumping in front of them on a regular basis. Some 50 of their members die in this way. At this point, it becomes a hazard to everyone. We, as a society, not only decide they are a bunch of loonies, but that they are a danger to themselves and others. But they are firm in their faith, and go underground, waiting for the day. As a few more continue to pop up in front of buses, we try to convince them that they are crazy.

“Examplicon is not making this happen,” we say. “You are!”

“Prove it,” they say. “Only, don’t use science, as the Great Examplicon teaches us that science is a fraud. And don’t use logic, since we believe the supernatural trumps logic.”

“Don’t you see that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy?” we say.

“You are elitists who think you know better than we do because you went to fancy colleges.”

“But we didn’t. We went to colleges you’ve never even heard of. We didn’t get the highest SAT scores. We’re not super-scientists or world leaders. We’re just normal people who want you to stop jumping in front of our buses.”

“You are condescending. You think you know better than we do.”

We stare at our feet. “It’s not very flattering, but yes, we do think not jumping in front of buses is preferable to jumping in front of them.”

“You’ve just been duped by the liberal media, which paints our unusually high death rate by bus as some kind of fault in our religion.”

“No, they show you jumping in front of buses. We’re the ones who think that’s a bad idea.”

“See?” they cry. “They’ve tricked you and you don’t even know it.”

Exasperated, we feel guilty, especially the liberals among us, who would prefer to think of ourselves as open minded and tolerant of other people’s religions. But people keep getting injured when buses slam on their breaks, and people are traumatized when they see the cult members smashed bodies lying in the street. Not to mention the effects on the cult members themselves. It’s a bad situation. And it’s getting worse.

As the day approaches, the membership in the cult has dwindled, but not much, since all the victims on TV have convinced some new converts that these folks are really on to something. After all, they say more and more people will get hit by buses, and it sure seems to be the case if you watch the news.

Then, on the night of December 6th, 2011, the cult members come out of hiding and throw a big party in the ballroom of a hotel. The leader puts poisoned kool-aid in the sprinkler system, and when it rains down on the people, in the last minutes of their lives, they are certain that Examplicon has come for them, just like they’ve been told.

Now, what would you think of these people when you heard the story the next day on the TV, or read a long expose about it in Time Magazine? Be honest. Would you think they were crazy? Stupid? Deceived?

But what if the cult didn’t have 1000 members? What if it had a hundred million? And instead of jumping in front of buses, they believed plagues, famines, and natural disasters were the signs of the coming apocalypse? When a massive oil spill fills the gulf of Mexico, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When ice caps dry up, leaving people without fresh water, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When modern agriculture forces too many animals too close together near populated areas, creating new pandemics, they say, “See, that’s one of those plagues we’ve been warning you about.”

And even though scientists tell them these things are all the products of human activities, they say, “We don’t believe you.”

Or, imagine that, instead of believing the end of the world is coming in the form of poisoned kool-aid, they believe that democracy is coming to an end and the American government will fall. So they consistently vote for people who share this view, and those politicians actively work to make sure the government doesn’t get anything done. When popular legislation comes up for a vote, they filibuster it into oblivion, or load it up with so much pork it buries the country in debt. Then, these people say, “See? The federal government is bloated and ineffectual.”

“But the party you keep voting for is responsible for most of the pork, most of the corruption, and most of the inactivity of government.”

“Oh,” they say, “you’re just accepting that liberal media bias.”

“No,” we protest, “the candidate himself said he would vote against everything except tax cuts, higher defense spending, and pork for his district. That simply can’t be sustained. He kept quoting that Reagan line about government being the problem, and that Grover Norquist line about shrinking it until he drown it in a bathtub. He had no intention of governing wisely or well. And now the government is in shambles.”

“See? The federal government doesn’t work,” they say. “And, by the way, you’re a socialist.”

Like the cult members, there will be no moment of realization. When the devastation caused by global warming gets to be too great, in whatever form it ultimately takes, they’ll say, “People dying because of droughts or plagues or natural disasters… but it’s cold out today, so it’s not a global warming problem. You’re wrong. It’s just the end times.”

Or (who knows which will come first) when the Californication of the federal government is beyond repair, and the government can’t offer basic services because it refuses to tax the wealthy and can’t squeeze any more out of the poor, they’ll say, “See? This is what happens when you let a bunch of socialists have say in government and ignore the Constitution.”

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people lose their unemployment insurance, then their health care, then their social security, then their public schools, then their local fire fighters and police officers.

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people die in massive storms, or from a lack of fresh water, or in new wars over dwindling resources.

“I told you so” won’t make me feel any better, and besides, these people self-identify as deniers. They will refuse to see it anyway.

But I will be the old man who breaks a hip when the bus slams on its breaks. My son will be the young man who goes sliding up the aisle. And I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Performing School Reform Backwards

An anonymous poster has challenged my defense of school unions (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) in three separate posts, ad his/her arguments are worthy of a serious response. He/she has no qualms about calling me "whining" and "greedy", so I think it's a good thing the posts were anonymous, so I can avoid the temptation to return fire in kind. The poster makes some claims which I can agree with, some which need to be refuted, and poses a larger question that should be addressed.

First off, the poster claims that because teachers are fired at a much lower rate than other professionals, this proves teachers unions are an impediment to getting rid of bad teachers. This simply doesn't follow. I don't know about the situation where the poster lives, and I can't defend New York's infamous "rubber room" model, but where I teach the process to fire a teacher is pretty straight-forward. A teacher would need to be identified as under-performing by an administrator. This doesn't differ from the model in the private business world, where a boss would do an evaluation and tell an employee they need to improve to maintain their employment. Then, they would be put on what is called a "plan of assistance", in which the areas of improvement would be identified, and the teacher would have a chance to show that they have improved. If the teacher failed to improve, they would be fired. The union negotiates the mechanism by which this is to be done, but does not try to prevent it from being implemented. Teachers know we have under-performing teachers in our midst, and we know they make our jobs harder. Teachers compose the teachers unions. We want bad teachers out. The problem is that identifying bad teachers takes time. A round of bad test scores does not show that a teacher is ineffective. Perhaps the class had low skills to begin with. Just as in the private sector, a real performance review would have to be done to see if a firing would make the organization more efficient, or if it would just be a reaction to a hiccup in the market which has nothing to do with a particular employee and would thus make the whole school or company, less effective because of the loss of talent. But administrators rarely use this mechanism. Why not? Partly, it's because it takes so much time and energy. That's not the union's fault. Identifying the effectiveness of employees takes a lot of time and energy for private sector companies, too. But they do it, or they fail. So why don't administrators? I have a theory.

But before we get to that, the poster also defends our current grading system by saying that colleges need it, and regardless of the fact that grades might be inflated, grades show who the high performers in a class were. The problem with this is that it's simply not true. It might work, if all grades were inflated equally, but when they aren't, a college can't tell if one school's valedictorian will be as successful as another school's. The grades don't tell colleges or employers what a student is capable of doing. The poster challenges me to propose a better system. I can't claim to have thought of this myself, but I'm a firm believer in what is called proficiency based grading. Imagine a college (or the student's teacher the following year) looking at his or her B grade. That might mean 1) the student did 80% of the paperwork, regardless of how meaningful the work was, or 2) the student scored 80% on tests which are different from the tests given elsewhere or 3) the teacher liked the student, but not as much as the kid who got an A, or 4) the teacher had a recurring illness and the substitute gave everyone a B, or 5) something else which might be equally arbitrary. Proficiency based grading produces a report card that looks very different. It identifies specific skills. Then, the teacher assigns a score to each one (something along the lines of Exceeds, Meets, Not Yet Met). The list of skills is long and can be scaled up to match expectations determined by the state or even across the nation. Now the college or next teacher has a concrete idea of what that student can actually do. This certainly is more time consuming for teachers, but it also saves a lot of time in the beginning of instruction, when teachers have to figure out what kids are capable of doing again each year. What is the impediment to this system? If you give that long report card to parents, by and large they ignore all the skills their students have mastered, and all the ones they lack, and ask the teacher for a letter grade. Colleges, similarly, want a GPA, regardless of its meaninglessness, rather than discrete knowledge of specific skills. Identifying what kids can and can't do needs to be a serious part of any discussion about school reform. But blaming teachers unions is a lot easier.

The poster also makes reference to the tenure system. This is a common misconception, and comes from a confusion about teachers and college professors. Public school teachers, at least in Oregon, don't have anything called "tenure". For the first three years or employment, a teacher can be fired without any reason or explanation at all. That's called the probationary period. After that time, a teacher can be fired after going through that process I described above. Or they can be fired for doing something unethical. Those firings can take place whether a teacher has been teaching for four years or thirty-five. There is a lot of good research that shows that experience makes a huge difference in teacher quality. I can tell you, anecdotally, that I'm a hell of a lot better teacher now than I was during my probationary period. But the length of my service provides me no added protection if I were to slack off and stop providing my students with high quality instruction.

One area where the poster and I agree is that "teaching is extraordinarily difficult and there are lower barriers to entry." This is caused by a simple supply and demand problem. We need lots and lots of people to do something that we both recognize as extraordinarily difficult. But the poster is also opposed to paying teachers more money (we are "greedy", after all). So, what is the solution? We could raise the barriers to entry. I had to get a masters degree to get into teaching. I paid a ridiculous amount for that degree (much of which is my own stupid fault for believing that the quality of the degree and its corresponding respect from potential employers would be affected by the reputation of the extremely expensive private university I attended). I had to take expensive tests to get my license. And yet, there's good research that is leading some school reformers to believe that, after a certain point, a teacher's educational level and test scores have little bearing on their actual performance in the classroom. So if we can't adequately predict who will make a good teacher based on test scores or education, how can we put up higher barriers to entry? These barriers would keep good teachers out as well as bad ones, according to the current research, but would prevent us from meeting the needed supply. I don't have a magic bullet on this one. Free marketers would claim that more money would solve the problem, but clearly our economy cannot bear the weight of paying teachers like hedge-fund managers. So, how can we encourage our best and brightest to go into teaching? Some countries do this by making the profession highly respected. I'm not sure if that would work, and it would certainly take a while to make such a cultural change, but if we can agree that it's at least cheaper than trying to price good teachers into meeting the supply needs so that we can more easily afford to fire the bad ones, then blaming the problems of public education on teachers unions (teachers) is a really bad way to encourage anyone to go into the field.

Before I really get into the nitty-gritty, I have to address this claim, too: The poster thinks I'm "complaining about being paid more than your private sector counterparts for working 3/4 as much time (plus 2 fewer hours a day, at least) and having the opportunity to make even more working over the summer." This shows a wildly inaccurate conception of a teacher's hours. I was complaining that some ignorant people believe that teachers get lots of paid vacation, when, in fact, we are not paid for the summers or breaks during the year. I didn't say we didn't work during those times. Nor did I say we work two fewer hours per day than our private sector counterparts. I'm not sure where the poster is from, but I don't work forty hours a week, and just because I don't get paid during the summers or holidays doesn't mean I'm not working. For example, this summer I spent that time the poster believes I could have been working taking 9 graduate credits of continuing education. Taking graduate courses is required to maintain my license. When I wasn't in class, I was developing curriculum for my own courses. During the year, I spend exorbitant amounts of time grading after school and during "breaks". In fact, last year, while our school was under construction, I stepped out of my classroom on Christmas Eve and saw that the welders were hard at work on the beams that hold up the high school's new roof. For a moment, I took comfort that I wasn't the only one working at school on Christmas Eve. Then I realized that those guys were not only being paid, but were probably getting time and a half, maybe even double time. I was not being paid at all. Now, despite what some might think, I'm actually not whining. I used to work for Merril Lynch, selling stocks and bonds. I made a lot more money and worked a lot fewer hours in the private sector. And I hated it. I chose this profession, and I do it because I enjoy it, and I'm good at it. But please, please, don't believe for a minute that teachers work from the start of the school day to the end and that's it. In fact (speaking of low barriers of entry) the only person who dropped out of my masters cohort was the guy who realized just how many more hours he'd have to work to be successful in teaching than his job as a bank loan officer (where he made more money). One of the reasons teachers unions try so hard to negotiate for more pay is not because we're greedy, but because we want to be paid a fair hourly wage that corresponds to that of our private sector peers who work many fewer hours than we do. My first year (and the first year of teaching is, admittedly, and outlier because it's so difficult) I was working twelve hours a day almost every day, and when I calculated my hourly rate of pay it came to around eleven bucks an hour. Tell me a private sector employee with a masters degree putting in twelve hour days for eleven bucks an hour wouldn't be asking his boss for a raise.

Okay, now to the grand unifying theory that explains why teachers (good or bad) don't get fired, why we can't come up with a magic bullet for falling test scores and increasing drop out rates, why school reform is stuck in an intractable blame game: We don't know what we want teachers to accomplish. I can't take credit for this theory. It comes from a friend who teaches teachers at a Willamette University. In fact, I wouldn't be completely surprised if he didn't post the anonymous comments, playing up their aggressive tone and repeating arguments he knows to be baseless just to bait me into responding. Fine, Neil, I'll repeat your theory: We can't figure out how to fix our schools because we can't agree on what they're supposed to do. We can't determine which teachers are "good" or "bad" because we can't even agree on what they are supposed to do. The poster brings up the successes of students in India (an example I frequently cite in my classes to remind my students who they will be competing against). Is it my job to make my students as motivated as Indian students are when they walk through the door? Is it my job to make sure the students are as pressured by their parents as those Indian students, perhaps by calling parents and harassing them somehow? Should I focus all my energy on making sure my students can fill in the right bubbles on multiple choice tests which may have little or no relation to the kinds of tasks they will face in college or in the workforce? Should I teach them to be critical thinkers who refuse to evaluate themselves based on numbers handed down from the government? Should I make sure they can get into a prestigious university? Should I prepare them to be successful in blue collar jobs which might be vanishing before they graduate? Should I teach them my politics, my culture, or my religious preference? If not, am I inculcating them with my political, cultural, or religious values when I tell them that education is the key to success, or that work should be done on time, or that they should follow school rules? Should I teach them to respect authority by running my classroom in an authoritarian fashion, or should I adopt the "coaching" model and allow students to direct their own learning so that they learn autonomy? Should I teach them that money is how work is measured in our society and model this by leaving school when the contract day ends and refusing to work in the evenings or during the summer, or should I teach them that money and work are disconnected and undermine these future drivers of our capitalist system? Should I prepare them to take a U.S. history test written in Massachusetts or in Texas? Should I teach them to produce the kind of writing that actually gets printed, or to write in the formulaic way that gets a high score when it's graded by a computer program?

Without answers to these questions, we can't easily distinguish good teachers from bad ones, successful schools from failing ones, or even evaluate the success of the system as a whole. The poster argues that the "law of large numbers ensures that with appropriate statistical analysis it is entirely possible to measure the performance of individual teachers." This reminds me of the scene in The Hitckhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the universe's most advanced computer is asked the meaning to life, the universe, and everything, and responds with the answer "42". We could use statistical analysis if we understood the question, but there is no numerical measure for "good" or "bad", "successful" or "failing", when we can't even agree on what these terms mean.

So, dear poster, before you claim teachers (and you'll understand when I take that personally) have "failed America's students" and are responsible for "how much damage they have done to America's future due to their intransigent profligacy," I would expect that you have a bullet-proof and universally acceptable answer to the question of what we should be doing differently.

But if your answer is "Work harder for less and shut up," I hope you will reveal your name and some details I can use to personalize my next (far less polite) response.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shaving for the Play

I have a little part in our high school's winter musical (Ebeneezer), and I need to be clean shaven. So, goodbye goatee:


Before Shaving

At least I looked a bit like Megamind:



During Shaving

The Mess:

Shaving Mess

And After:

Clean Shaven

I'm back to looking like a cross between Gollum:


and Chameleon from the Spider-Man comics:


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Which Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel is better?

In my creative writing class, I have the students choose novels to read from a handful of my favorites. My process in choosing the books was pretty subjective and selfish. I made a list of my favorite books, then chose the ones that I find to be the best examples of good writing, for different reasons. The students read these novels and then break into roles, some examining word choice, some syntax, some plot, some character, some setting, etc., then report on what the book has taught them about being a writer.

One of the books on the list is Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. I love Zafon's rich, vibrant prose and descriptions of setting most of all, but the guy can certainly tell a great story. Because I teach high school, and in a relatively conservative community, I didn't choose Zafon's next novel, the prequel to The Shadows of the Wind, called The Angel's Game. In a way it would be a far more appropriate book for a creative writing class. While Shadow is all about being a reader and lover of books, Angel's is about being a writer. Unfortunately, it's also about how being a writer can be a kind of torture that can drive you to madness and murder, and if that weren't enough to raise the hackles of some parents, the protagonist may or may not have made a deal with the devil himself. Still, as I sit here and think about it, it might be the better book. I'm interested to know, from folks who've read both, which is the better of the two in your opinion? You can vote in a simple poll below, but I'd also like to hear some explanation in the comments. Of course, it's likely that no one who comes across this page will have read both books, but if you can't vote here, take that as a sign that you have one or two books to run out and buy. Zafon is a master craftsmen at the very least, so get yourself a copy of each of these novels and give the pair to some friends at Christmas, too. They will thank you profusely.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sent from my iPod at 3:45 in the morning

Tonight, as I am about to climb into bed, I have a song in my head.

It's Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" which I heard today while watching The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on TV. In the darkness, as I change clothes, I listen to this mental background music and my son's slight asthmatic wheeze. He's in our bed because we have house guests, and they're in his room. I don't realize that my wife has moved to the floor. My son must have been tossing and turning quite a bit to take over the queen-sized while I wrote downstairs, his revenge for being displaced. His tossing and turning won't have any effect on me once I reach my usual near-coma state of sleep.

Before I climb in next to him , I suddenly realize I've unconsciously replaced the word "Peace" with "Sleep".

Yes, I'm climbing on the sleep train.

Sounds nice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tennessee's Free-Market Utopia Fire

If you haven't heard the story yet, some firefighters in Tennessee showed up to a burning house, found that the owner hadn't paid the annual $75 fee for fire protection, and watched as his house burned to the ground. Besides all the family's belongings, there were three puppies inside.

I don't fault the firefighters. They were following procedure, and under that kind of system, if they put out fires for people who didn't pay, no one would. But that's the problem. It's a thoroughly crappy system. I'll bet more than one of those firefighters was thinking the very same thing as they stood there and watched a house burn down.

Now, you're expecting me to write that this isolated (and admittedly strange) incident points to a larger issue. I won't disappoint. Because this not only points to a larger issue, but specifically refutes a whole line of argument used by anti-tax activists. When people talk about cutting taxes, without fail, they say "waste, fraud, and abuse". The line is used so much that, at the O'Donnell vs. Coons debate for the Delaware senate seat, Wolf Blitzer asked Christine O'Donnell what she'd cut from federal spending and specifically added, "And don't just say waste, fraud and abuse, because everybody says that." (She said she'd cut "waste, fraud, and abuse.")

People like me say, "Be specific. Do you consider public education waste, fraud, or abuse? What about police protection? What about firefighters?"

"No, of course not," we're told. "I mean those other things. The carpet in the statehouse was too expensive. And over here is a guy who is cheating the system to get disability when he seems fine to me. And that public education campaign got one billboard more than was necessary. It all adds up, you know."

And it does. But never to the total these folks want to cut taxes. For example, letting the Bush tax cuts expire would add 3 trillion dollars to the annual budget of the federal government. That's 3,000,000,000,000. 3 million millions. That's $3258 per man, woman, and child. Mostly paid by the top 2% who would still be paying less than they paid under that Robin Hood socialist Ronald Reagan. It would take a lot of cheap carpet, eliminated billboards, and prosecuted fraudulent disability recipients to acquire that amount of money. But it could sure teach a lot of kids, put a lot more cops on the streets, and put out a lot of fires in rural Tennessee.

The Tennesee example shows that the anti-tax jihadists aren't really interested in balancing the budget. That's a red herring. If they were, you'd see Tea Party candidates talking about cutting military spending, Medicare, and Social Security. According to the non-partisan CBO, that's the only way to balance the budget. You could cut all non-discretionary spending and only leave those three programs, and we'd be in the red forever. Read that again. Forever. There just isn't enough coming in to cover the costs of our military and our aging (and increasingly long-lived and medically treated) population. But how many Tea Party candidates will acknowledged this? None. Zip. Rand Paul did before he got out of the primaries. Then the sacred cows became sacred again. But the most holy of holies, the desire to cut taxes for the rich, remains intact, too. And mathematical reality cannot kill either one.

So if these folks aren't really serious about balancing the budget, what do they really want? They'd be the first to tell you that "utopianism" is a bad thing, the origin of progressivism and socialism and all their favorite boogie-men. But if you dangle the notion of a free-market utopia, they salivate. This was one of the dreams of the Bush team: When Saddam was gone, they'd have a sandbox in which to play out this free-market utopia fantasy. It would be great. Adam Smith's invisible hand would rule this new nation, and it would do the work of bringing about democracy and the rule of law because Iraqis would see that these things were in their financial best interest. Paul Bremer's "de-Baathification" program, which was ostensibly designed to get all Saddam loyalists out of the government, was directly connected to turning all kinds of government programs over to private (mostly foreign) companies. Sure, these disaffected former civil servants would run off to join the insurgency and wage a war that would cost U.S. taxpayers over 750 billion dollars (that's a thousand millions, or over $2,400 per man, woman, and child in the U.S.), but a lot of private businesses would make billions in return, and that would eventually sort itself out in the wash. The bloody, bloody wash. And if, in the end, the 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and 4425 U.S. service members think the cost is too high, well, there's a guy in rural Tennessee who can tell you that you'd better figure out how to pay for a free-market utopia or about half this country will tell you it's your own damned fault.

But why stop at Iraq? Please, please, pick yourself up a copy of Max Berry's novel "Jennifer Government". It's a truly great book, entertaining, funny, fast paced and full of memorable characters and lots of action. It's also the haunting picture of a true free-market utopia. In it, the Nike company decides the best way to get some street cred for their newest shoe line is to hire a mercenary to shoot up some kids waiting in line to buy them. The protagonist, who, like everyone else, takes on the last name of the private company for whom she is currently working, is Jennifer Government. Of course, the privatized government can't just offer an FBI investigation for free using tax payer funds. It's a private company with a bottom line now, too. So Jennifer has to go to the parents of the victims and ask them to pay for her investigation. If she successfully find the killers they will be able to sue them in civil court and may be able to recoup their costs. If not, well, them's the breaks in a free-market utopia. I haven't ruined anything. In fact, I could tell you that her investigation will ultimately lead to a full-on war between Burger King and McDonald's, using the privatized mercenary forces of the U.S. Army and the NRA to wage their war in the streets of the U.S., and I still won't have ruined the book.

Buy a copy.

Enjoy it.

And then tell me it doesn't make you think twice about a strange case of fee-for-service fire protection in rural Tennessee.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Strange Sunday of Marathons and Existential Dread

Today has been a strange day. Strange in that it does not cohere, does not congeal into a narrative the way we like our days to behave. Most days are well behaved. Our routine makes them so. We wake, we dress, we look at the clock four times more than is necessary to see that we are not running late. Those of you lucky enough to have hair are unlucky enough to have to brush it. Then we commute, we work, we commute again. A spouse or parent or child thoughtfully asks us for the story of our day and we tell the abridged version prematurely. Then the next third or half of the day begins. Perhaps you, like my wife, change clothes again. Or maybe, like me, you loosen your tie, un-tuck your shirt, and affect a style that is the mullet of the middle aged professional: We work hard, and we play hard, it says. Only we don't, most of us. We watch our news or cartoons or game shows according to our predetermined age and demographic. At some point we eat, maybe with family at a dinette table, maybe on the couch, maybe standing in the kitchen as close to the microwave and sink full of dirty dishes as possible. At some point we realize that the story of our day needs a climax, and if it isn't provided by a favorite prime time show we check the internet for some email that isn't spam or call a distant friend or look for someone closer to kiss goodnight. And then the story resolves into sleep, with perhaps that epilogue of a bad dream or an anxious waking to double check the alarm clock before it wakes us and calls for our attention four more times the next morning. That is the plot of the day. That is a day that has behaved.

But today has been unruly. First of all, it had the temerity to start on a Sunday. That makes me immediately uncomfortable because I stopped going to church over a year ago and haven't figured out a defined routine for professed agnostics. I usually try to avoid this discomfort by writing until three or four in the morning (my worship, confession, and communion hour, I suppose), then sleeping as late as my wife and son will allow. But today was the Portland Marathon, and we had friends and family running, so we woke early, dressed for the predictable Portland rain (it didn't disappoint), an drove an hour and a half before I usually wake up. We made it in time to cheer on one of my best friends. When I shouted his name he was so focused, and I was so bundled in a coat, a sweatshirt, and a stocking cap, that he looked at me with utter incomprehension that verged on anger. It was a look that said, “Who the f*&% is this idiot?” He quickly recovered and apologized for not recognizing me while still on the run, which was above and beyond the call of duty, but that look was unsettling and fit the tone of the day.

We cheered on our other friend, then met up with my brother-in-law and nephews to cheer for my sister-in-law. The enormity of these runners’ accomplishment was both impressive and humbling. Not only can I not do what they were doing, but I honestly don’t believe I ever could. Sure, my body is capable of training for it, and I have the time and means, but I don’t have the necessary willpower to adopt that kind of discipline. It’s just not in me. Realizing that is a bit depressing. Stupid Sunday.

We came home after lunch with the family. On the way up we’d listened to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and on the way back we listened to The Bugle, two of my favorite podcasts which tap into my preferred vein of humor: irreverence at the current state of the world. These are the kinds of shows that I tell my students about only if they are knowledgeable about current events. Still, while the shows lighten my mood, in the context of the realization about my own lack of willpower they made me feel guilty about my cynicism. I can’t even train to run a marathon. What right do I have to laugh at the world?

When we got home I took a long nap. Apparently I can be exhausted just by watching a marathon. When I awoke I took care of some household business, and then we put my son to bed. We’re past the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but my son interrupted tonight’s reading of the story’s denouement to ask about one of the character’s deaths, and where people go when they die. This was a tricky moment for two parents, one of whom is a Christian and one an agnostic. I tried to explain that our bodies are buried, but some people think we go to heaven, and some people think we just cease to be. I told him that I’m just not sure, and asked him what he believed. This dichotomy was complicated by the fact that the character, Cedric, returns as a kind of ghost. My son announced first that he wants to go to “Jesus-land”, which I told him was great, because it sounded like an amusement park. He wondered if, because we would both be old when we die, I would be his age. I told him that could be, or maybe we could choose our ages and he’d be older than me. He preferred the idea that we’d both be kids of the same age, so we could play together, and I said I liked that idea a lot. My wife told him that she was particularly excited about the chance that he’d get to meet her grandfather, who passed away before my son was born and who was, truly, a wonderful man. Then my son changed his mind. “Maybe I’ll be a ghost. I would come back to my home and my video games. And I’d play pranks!” My wife and I had a good laugh at his delivery of these lines; he used a drooping voice that hit its lowest notes on “home” and “video games”.

But then he became more serious. “But what if there really is nothing?”

“Well then,” I said, “it would be like sleeping with no dreams. Very peaceful.”

“Like a nap that goes on for a thousand years and forever?”

“Whatever happens after we die, it goes on forever, but maybe we go to heaven and maybe we sleep. I don’t know.”

“I hope it’s Jesus-land,” he said.

“I hope so, too,” I told him.

When my wife went to sleep, I decided to go for a run. Partly, this was because I was inspired by my runner friends. Partly it was because a colleague, Tom, has encouraged me to compete with him to see who can run the most miles, and I’m more motivated by a fear of embarrassment than by anything else. I loaded a new audio book onto my ipod and headed out. The Circle K is two and a half miles from my house, so I took my credit card and ID and planned to buy one of those tiny orange juices that come in the barely translucent, cheap plastic containers with the orange milk jug lids. I thought I’d down one of those halfway through a five mile run and be healthy. Instead, I found that they don’t sell those (they might not even make them anymore, for all I know), and Kool-Aid in squeeze bottles hardly sounded like the healthy drink I was hoping for. I bought a kiwi-strawberry Snapple. I misread the label and only when I was at the counter did I realize it’s a “juice drink”, which means it could be roughly anything. Back on the road and listening to my book, War Dances by Sherman Alexie (excellent so far), I got to a story where the protagonist finds a dead cockroach in the bottom of a carry-on bag and wonders if, in its last minutes, it felt existential dread. I realized that was precisely what my son had been expressing.

“But what if there really is nothing?” he’d asked.

So I took out my ipod touch and started writing this while walking in the dark. This is less dangerous than it sounds, though I did walk off the sidewalk once and stuck a foot into some very wet grass. It also served to remind me that, though some writers might also be runners, I will always be one and not the other, as I instantly chose my preferred hobby over my reluctant obligation.

So here I am, walking through the darkness on a silent road at 11 at night, thinking about the plot of our days and existential dread. Tomorrow I will be teaching my Creative Writing students about plot. I’ll tell them about rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But I think I’ll also point out that these things are like grammar. We need grammar to make sense of our writing just as we need plot to make sense of the stories of our lives, but the most interesting writing plays with grammar, upends it in carefully selected ways. Our lives have plots within plots, but they do not behave as Aristotle said stories should. Perhaps we do not come to a marvelous conclusion about existential dread and how to cope with it, or how to protect our children from it. Perhaps we write in the darkness. Perhaps we stumble into the street and get run over before there’s been any climax to our stories. And then maybe we go to Jesus-land.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Correction to Myth of the Evil Teacher Union

Back in March and April, I wrote a six part series on the Myth of the Evil Teacher Union (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI), and in the sixth part I tried to explain that the reason the Democratic party gets money from the dues of teacher unions is simply because the Dems court the teacher unions with policies that are friendlier to public schools. If you'll forgive me for quoting myself, I wrote "That’s not because the NEA, or our state branch, the OEA, or our local branch, the CEA, is in bed with the Democratic Party. It’s because the party wants our votes more and is willing to side with us in order to garner those votes. We’re not in bed together. The union is single and dating, and the Dems keep asking us out." I stand by that part of the argument.

But my initial premise was flawed. It seems I, too, had been duped by those peddling this particular myth about teacher unions. My teacher union doesn't give any of my dues money to support political candidates, Democrat, Republican, or otherwise. As the past-president of my local chapter, Carol Phillips, pointed out to me, money that supports candidates only comes out of the OEA-PIE, a separate political action committee. If teachers want to make donations to that fund, they can. If not, it does not affect their union membership. That contribution is above and beyond the dues we pay. So union members concerned about the political leaders who tend to be favored by the majority of the union can see to it that not a single red cent of their money goes to a candidate they don't like. They can prevent that by simply not making that contribution (and the contribution is opt-in rather than opt-out, to minimize any pressure to donate). Personally, I do make the contribution. I trust the delegates who run the political action committee (Carol Phillips is one of them) to choose to support candidates who advocate its stated goals. They seek to:

» Support recommended candidates and issues that are critical to children and public education.

» Work for adequate and stable school funding.

» Give [members] a voice in the future of education.

» Allow [members] active involvement in education decision making.

Those things are all important to me. To return to my original point, I don't think any of those goals should be particularly partisan. If a Republican candidate shows they will work harder for stable school funding, or for making sure that educators are involved in crafting education policy, they will get the support of the OEA-PIE. I expect most teachers would not only be satisfied with that, but would be pleased to have both parties trying to one-up one another to claim the mantle of the most pro-public education. If the myth persists that the Democratic Party receives too much support from the teacher unions, that's not the fault of the Democratic Party, or of the teacher unions, but of the individual Republican candidates who haven't been vocal enough in their support of public schools to steal some of that support away. If, on the other hand, the myth is that the financial support comes from member's dues, then some of the fault for that misconception belongs to me for repeating the lie. I acknowledge my error.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mea Culpa

Yesterday I posted a clip from The Daily Show on my Facebook page. The clip showed Jon Stewart mocking the half-logic of various media figures, mostly from Fox News, first saying the cultural center in Manhattan is no big deal, then flipping and saying it’s a terrible idea because it’s insensitive. The clip was funny in the usual Daily Show way. It’s always nice to see media figures hoisted on their own petard by their own words caught by their own television networks. But the part of the clip that struck me most was the ending. Jon Stewart showed a clip of Charleton Heston defending the right of the NRA to hold their convention in Colorado Springs right after the Columbine High School tragedy. And then Stewart admitted the he’d made fun of Heston for that, and that he, Stewart, was wrong. He pulled the classic Daily Show gag on himself, and it wasn’t just funny (though he did his best to make it so). It also made Stewart’s point better than all the usual clip-a-thons could. But that couldn’t have made it easy. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. It’s always hard. It’s easier when it’s about something unimportant. Oddly, I think it’s also easier when one’s error is so patently obvious, so overwhelmingly clear, that you can hardly help it. That’s where I find myself.

I was wrong. Sure, I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Admitting that one is a sinner, or only human, or even a bafoon, is pretty easy when it’s done in the abstract. But I’ve been wrong in a very specific way. I feel compelled to confess.

Last night I read SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I couldn’t put it down. At 4:30am I had to force myself, and when I woke up this morning I went right back to it. I loved Freakonomics, but SuperFreakonomics is better, or at least it affected me more, because the points made in Freakonomics were smaller and safer. I found them fascinating, but even having some of my “conventional wisdom” upended was pretty comfortable. SuperFreakonomics was less so, and all the more powerful for it. The book made me re-examine assumptions I’ve made about the safety of car seats, the danger of Global warming, and even the nature of human altruism. But the point that hit me hardest wasn’t something I didn’t know, but something I’ve actively chosen to forget.

I’ve argued that one of my chief issues with conservatism is that it’s regressive, dependent on a mythic view of the past as a halcyon time when people had “values” and everything was hunky-dory. I’ve pointed out that this is patently, demonstrably false; that we are, in every measurable way, living in the best time to be alive in human history. I’ve reminded people that the news media has no incentive to portray the world as safe, happy, and healthy. That doesn’t bleed, so it doesn’t lead. But, as an avid consumer of media (especially news media), I’ve fallen victim to the very fears I derided in conservatives. Only, because I tend to read liberals less critically than conservatives (I try to read both, but admit that I don’t read them the same way) I acknowledged that the present is a lot better than the past, but bought into the notion lots of people are peddling, on both the right and the left, that even though things are good, they are about to get a lot worse. Terribly worse. Apocalyptically worse.

Now, it’s fine to believe that as a tenant of a religion. You can say that your scripture or your prophet tells you that the end times are coming, and that’s enough. But I wasn’t doing that. I was accepting, and even preaching, that some kind of horrible dystopia was on its way, and that since this horror would come from some human source rather than a super-natural one, I could believe in it based on evidence.

But Dubner and Levitt reminded me that I didn’t find that evidence myself, or even read it from authoritative sources. I read it, largely, from people trying to sell newspapers, or heard it from people trying to glue my eyes to TV stations or even Oscar winning documentaries. But Dubner and Levitt are just trying to sell books too, right? True, but they are selling books with a different message. Their message is that we should look at the numbers, so their incentive is to find examples wherein the data conflicts with conventional wisdom. If the conventional wisdom said that the world is safe and improving, they would find examples that show that the data doesn’t back that up. But that’s not what the conventional wisdom shows, so those contrarian examples aren’t the examples they put on display. It’s not that they are apologists for a particular view of the future. They are advocates for the numbers themselves, and for the economist’s view that we should trust the numbers even when they go against what we believe.

So while I’d dismissed conservative fears of a socialist take-over of the government, or the notion that President Obama is opposed to private gun ownership, or that he’s secretly a Kenyan-born secret Muslim secret Marxist secret Black Supremacist, all because these notions lack any evidence to back them up, I’d bought, hook line and sinker, some liberal friendly notions of the coming dystopia. Foremost among these is the notion that global warming is going to destroy the world, and that gasoline in cars is largely responsible for that global warming. Turns out the latter is demonstrably untrue, and the former is wildly unlikely in the foreseeable future. That’s not to say Global Warming is a myth, or that it isn’t a pressing problem. It’s just not at all the problem I thought it was. It’s far more distant in time, far less extreme in its effects, and far more easy to solve than I ever would have expected. I won’t completely explain all that I learned from the book here (read the book!), but suffice it to say that some very smart scientists (not crazy global warming deniers, but respected environmentalists) have come up with a fix that will cost about 50 million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to the 300 million that Al Gore’s group is using to try to “raise awareness” about the coming apocalypse, it’s pretty small change.

So, if I was wrong about global warming, what else have I been wrong about. Upon reflection, I realize I’ve been wrong to be so concerned about the fight for gay marriage. Yes, it’s a tragedy that it may take a while for gay marriage to become the law of the land, but if trends hold it’s an inevitability. That’s not much consolation for gay couples who want to get married now, but it does mean I should ratchet down my rhetoric. And what about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The human tolls are awful, and the consequences of the money wasted are only magnified when you think of all the lives that could have been saved with that money if it had been spent here on, say, better computer systems for hospitals to reduce human error, or on HIV medication in Africa. But I need to remember that, even with two wars going on, the rate of death by warfare is at nearly historic lows. In fact, so few people are killing each other in war that it’s realistic to believe that war itself could come to an end in the future, a notion that is still unimaginable for most people, despite the fact that our species got by for most of its history without anything we would call war. (For more on, check this out.)

Does this create for some fundamental shift in my politics? Yes and no. I’m still a “progressive”, a “liberal”,a “leftist”. But I don’t need to be a panicked one, and I need to remind myself that people who disagree with me aren’t woefully misinformed fools wandering headlong over a cliff. They may be right. And they may be wrong, but about things that aren’t nearly the big deal I was trying to make them.

Levitt and Dubner point out a bunch of ridiculous, inefficient government programs to illustrate that often the best of intentions lead to fixes that are worse than the problems they are designed to address. This doesn’t incline me to abandon progressivism. For one thing, I don’t buy the false dichotomy that conservatives all want a smaller government while progressives all want a bigger one. It seems to me there are a lot of conservatives who want the government to criminalize abortion, and, one would assume, enforce that criminalization, which is quite a government intrusion on private lives. Meanwhile, this progressive has always believed that it’s ridiculous that our country spends about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. If a conservative were to give up on their anti-abortion stance, that still wouldn’t cut nearly as much federal spending out of their vision of a better government as my cuts to defense would cut out of mine. I’m perfectly willing to admit that government is not good at some things, and that many of its solutions are bad ones. I also recognize that the public sector can be just as inefficient in some areas, and with more dangerous consequences when they aren’t accountable to anyone but a small number of shareholders. On a theoretical level, I trust the American people to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else, just like Churchill said. The same cannot be said for private companies. Furthermore, I still believe the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. I also believe that pluralism and inclusiveness are essential ingredients to our standard of living and our financial success, creating more economic benefits than deregulation or tax cuts for the wealthy could ever hope to achieve, because the educated, tolerant middle class drives the economy more than distant haves and have-nots. I believe that standing on the side of slowing change down has, historically, always meant standing up for bigotry, intolerance, or economic inefficiency in the face of technological change. I won’t stand on that side.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is the time in history when conservatism is correct, when we’ve gone too far and my grandkids will look back and say, “He supported gay marriage? He railed about U.S. torture policy? He thought taxes on the wealthy should go back up to the rates during Reagan or higher, and that a robust social safety net actually produced greater economic growth in the aggregate while diminishing human suffering during economic downturns? That guy was crazy!” Maybe gay marriage will have destroyed the social fabric of American society. Maybe a little more torture will have made us safer. Maybe “Voodoo Economics” will suddenly start to work. Maybe a society needs some people to starve to death or die from lack of basic health care in order to motivate everyone else to work hard. I could be wrong about all those things. Or maybe my grandkids will be living in bubble cities under the ocean due to massive sea level increases because I’m insufficiently alarmed about global warming. I just hope, when they look back, they are willing to make their decisions based on the best possible data, and when confronted with numbers that don’t fit their preconceived notions, they are willing to change their minds.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Best of OWP: Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. We were assigned to write an essay, and this was what, er, came out.

Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

Walk into any Burger King, and you’ll be drowned in a tsunami of images from the new movie Eclipse, the third part in the Twilight series. To say this is unappetizing is a wild understatement. However, the association with fast food is all too apt. I read Stephanie Meyer’s whole series, and it ran through me much as a Burger King Whopper might.

The series was recommended to me in the highest terms. My students loved it. My colleagues loved it. Like the Whopper, it was ubiquitous, and like Burger King’s advertising, it was pervasive. The marketing barrage was the literary world’s equivalent of a fast food ad campaign. Pundits for the industry were talking about the series as the next Harry Potter, the next savior sent from heaven to stave off the imminent death of reading. “Look at all these kids reading,” they said. “Any reading is good reading,” they said. Imagine a PR ad wherein the Burger King, complete with his creepy, fixed-grin plastic head, came riding through the sky, swinging from the cables carrying giant crates of Whoppers, airlifted and then dropped into the barren fields of some famine stricken African nation. Because all Whoppers is better than no Whoppers, right?

But I bought it. I picked up the first book, tore through it, and enjoyed the pure speed of it. I’d purchased a Whopper, and, sure enough, it had come to the counter still heat-lamp-hot in less than thirty seconds. Twilight recreated that regret I often feel right after buying a burger and forgetting to tell them to hold the mayo. The first portion revolved mostly around romance, which just isn’t my thing, but I recognize that reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of mayonnaise. Sure, I can make a reasonable argument against mayonnaise (it spoils quickly, it can carry salmonella, it looks remarkably like puss) but it’s just a condiment. Short of a localized disease outbreak or contributing to the national obesity epidemic, romance literature poses no social ills either. Twilight was a vampire story, and some measure of whipped up, possibly infectious, puss-filled romance is to be expected in such stories. Still, I like vampires for what their stories can tell us about; the dangers of forbidden love, the curse of immortality, the Faustian bargain of power for soul. It seemed Twilight might have some things to say about these dilemmas re-set in an American high school, with all its issues, and I thought that might be interesting.

Like the Whopper, it tasted pretty good at the time. The second book introduced werewolves, predictably, but then, much about a Whopper is predictable, too. No avocado or pineapple or gruyere cheese hiding between buns made of some strange, organic whole grain. A Whopper is what you expect, and New Moon followed the same path, complete with the vampire pretending to dump the girl in order to protect her from himself. Sometimes you might belch while eating your Whopper, and this kind of schmaltzy melancholy plot twist is the hint of nausea one expects.

By the time the beef is gone and you’re wrapping up that last bite of bun and American cheese in the wax paper, you start to wonder why you bought the Whopper in the first place, and by Eclipse I was realizing the same regret. The werewolves and vampires had fought which was the event I’d come for, and I should have stopped there. But at this point I was invested. The Whopper was mostly in my gullet, though the lack of development of Bella’s character stuck in my throat like a bit of that smooshed, dry bun. I had to swallow the rest and hope for the best.

And I did. I read Breaking Dawn, desperate to know how Meyer would resolve the story (down, damned Whopper, down! Settle!) all the while hating every plot twist. I can spoil the story for you here because, like a Whopper, you’ll forget that it’s an unpleasant experience and revisit the books in a moment of weakness. To summarize, Bella, the protagonist, has been begging to be turned into a vampire by her boyfriend, but he wants to abstain until marriage, so she marries him when she’s just turned 18, she gets knocked-up on the honeymoon, and then she gets super-mom powers that save the day.

At that point the Whopper was mostly only giving me indigestion. I could feel a gurgling in my gut because of what had been done to one of my favorite myths; dangerous creatures of the nights defanged and turned into morose, whining adolescents who can’t walk around in the daylight, not because it would turn them into piles of ash, but because their skin would sparkle in the sun like they rolled around in body glitter. And the werewolves can change at will and aren’t cursed by the full moon! I tried to remind myself that myths, like Whoppers, are made to order each time they’re retold. But I also remembered that one Whopper is often one too many.

As the Whopper proceeded through its journey, the experience got worse. The further I got from that Burger King, the more I regretted my choice to enter in the first place. Sure, the vampire community had a right to be pissed about the way they were depicted in the books, but I became more and more concerned with the messages the books sent to my young female students. I hesitate to even mention the word “diarrhea”. There’s just no mature way to discuss “the runs”. Maturity is expressed in our culture by refraining from discussing diarrhea above all else. But Whoppers can have a stool-softening effect, and Stephanie Meyer’s series was a Whopper that sat under the heat lamp just a little too long. Bella, the protagonist, begins by describing herself as perpetually klutzy, and throughout the series she always requires rescuing. In fact, her first meeting with Edward, her vampire love interest, is the occasion of her first rescue when she walks across a parking lot without paying attention to oncoming traffic. From then on, she’s being saved, and not just from cars, enemy vampires, out of control werewolves, and her boyfriend’s own dangerous passions. More than anything, Bella needs to be saved from herself. For every admirable thing she does, she makes three boneheaded decisions, fails to communicate openly and honestly with the people who care about her and can help her, and stumbles into life-threatening danger because she’s swooning about a boy. But the biggest danger of all, we’re told, is Bella’s own sexual desire. Sex is simultaneously represented by the metaphor of a vampire bite and by sex itself, and Bella wants both. While some might say it’s a kind of progress to depict a girl who wants sex, this is always presented as negative in that it’s life-threatening. If Bella gets her boyfriend too turned on, he’ll kill her. Luckily, she’s rescued from this by his strength of will. She’s found a boyfriend who will say no to a hot girl begging to have sex. This might be a fantasy of a particular kind of religious, conservative girl, but I would bet good money that girl will find a vampire before she finds a human boy with such restraint.

Of course, if abstinence is the real conflict, then marriage is the resolution, and when Bella gets married the danger of her sexual desire disappears. Now sex is the vehicle by which she can find satisfaction, right? Ha! She gets laid once. Once! Then she’s knocked up and… wait for it… her pregnancy is really dangerous. I wonder how Bella will pass through that danger. Oh yeah, she’ll be rescued, once again, by her husband.

And then she’s a mom, and since motherhood is the measure of a woman’s worth, she gets super-powers and saves the day. Yea.

If you aren’t sympathizing with the burning sensation yet, check this out: The boyfriend who keeps saving Bella from herself because he loves her so much is 87 years older than she is. That’s right, girls, if you want to find a nice guy who will protect you from your own sluttiness, make an honest woman out of you, and then give you the baby and super-powers deluxe package, just keep your eye out for the town pedophile.

Now those clever marketing guys in Hollywood know that it’s important to keep the Twilight films dribbling out just slowly enough that you can’t quite get off the toilet before the next wave hits. So here I am, still on the pot, my elbows propped on my knees for so long I’ll have bruises. But I’m over-analyzing the situation, you yell through the door. Why can’t you just enjoy it? I’ll tell you why. In the long run, the Whopper is generally not the pleasurable experience we’re told to expect. And Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series really chaps my hide.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Best of OWP: "Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. I wrote this one during one of our field trips at Willson Park on the west side of the Oregon State Capitol grounds.

Willson Park - Share on Ovi

Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum

I almost fall
Folded up into a broken bench.
Startled smoke from my cigarette
Wraps around my head
Before I can ground the butt under the ball of my foot.
The fountain shouts, “Shush!”
Or maybe “Shame on you!”

I don’t know if it’s talking to me
Or the noisy buses on the street
Or the gaggle of teens juggling
The hacky-sack with their skate shoes
Or the twin turbo prop cutting and clawing sky
Or the politicians in the capital building behind me
Who certainly don’t care what the fountain thinks.

Maybe it’s shushing the strange sculptures
Of dark metal animals
“Animals on Parade”
A beaver, ferrets, two alligators, a pair of frogs sharing stilts.
The parade needs no shushing because it doesn’t speak to me.

At least not as loudly
As the empty gazebo
That needs a paint job
And a purpose
Out of place in time in this park.

As the next cigarette catches fire
And holds it
The gutter-punk kids startle me
Toss a firecracker
Yellow and white sparks darting off
To high pitched popping and a tired, bored “woo.”

I remember an overheard
“Your self-portrait is way off.”
And I know that is possible.

Maybe everyone’s self image is
A decaying gazebo, a self-important fountain
A capital building without a dome
Metal animals in a motionless parade
A discarded firecracker interrupting the arc of a hacky-sack
A ring of fancy flagpoles
Holding up unintelligible fabric limp in no wind.

If so, I’m no exception.
I am Dr. Watson
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery of my self,
Feet buried three cigarettes deep
Falling ass-first
Through a broken park bench.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Best of OWP: "Grandpa's Ring"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

Grandpa’s Ring

His ring was very thin by the end.
The gold wore down
As he moved around the world
Did amazing things
Lived a life too unbelievably full for fiction.
When he was gone
My mother wanted me to have it.
We put two white-gold bands on either side.
I slid it on my finger on my wedding day
Twisting it over my knuckle.
Talismans skip a generation.
My parents own their objects of power.
I have mine because Mom gave me her father’s.
The ring cannot fit over my knuckle.
My son will not wear it while I am alive.
After I am gone
Will a grandchild carry my grandfather
To far away places
And take me along too?

Best of OWP: Dancing in Pink and Green

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, but due to a congenital lack of discipline it seems I'm posting them every other day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. For your Friday the 13th pleasure, a horrific visual image inspired by the prompt to write about dancing.

Dancing in Pink and Green

Dancing, for me, has so often been about a mixture of feelings, fun and self-consciousness, curiosity and a sense that I am out of place. I remember the sixth grade dance when I attended a school where I was an ethnic minority. My mom bought me the most awful outfit. I can’t remember now if it was pastel green pants, a pink shirt, and a pastel green tie, or the reverse, but she thought it was something out of Miami Vice and would be really cool. So here I was, one of the few white kids, dressed in the worst clothes I’ve ever worn in my life, trying to copy the dances of my peers who knew all these moves I’d never even seen before. That sense of awkwardness is the feeling I associate with being white, more than anything else. When my friends got tired of laughing at me, they made a project of teaching me these dance moves, the kid’n’play, the bone breaker, the butterfly, the pop-n-lock, the kid’n’play 2 (yes, a dance move from a movie sequel), and by the end of the event (I think it happened during the school day, come to think of it) I was having so much fun and felt so included that I can almost forget the discomfort of those first few minutes. At one point, my friend Darius even expressed some admiration for the way I performed some move, and I still remember that to this day, though now I realize he was probably being kind, or perhaps mocking me in a way that was too subtle for me to get. Still, it gave me the confidence to keep going to dances at schools where I was one of the only white kids, and it gave me a sense of freedom to know I could make a fool of myself and never look quite as awkward as I did in those terrible clothes my mom bought.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Best of OWP: A Rainy Night in Paris

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Then I went to a conference in Portland and immediately missed a day. So much for blogging discipline. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. This piece was a product of a prompt to create a "super-sentence". I've heard them described as "one sentence stories", but mine's more of a one sentence essay. We were provided with some titles to write to, and I chose "A Rainy Night in Paris" since it was the day after Bastille Day.

A Rainy Night in Paris

Last night I learned that, on the day of the storming of the Bastille, Louis the XVI wrote “Rien” in his diary, shorthand for “Nothing happened today”, which we might dismiss as the scribbling of an out-of-touch monarch, but that would be a mistake, because it illustrates the way the things we overlook, some poorly planned act of rebellion on a rainy night in Paris, or flipping-off the wrong person on the freeway, or writing a single strong sentence, can change the course of history.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Best of OWP: I Loved the Noise

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Some were already posted as I wrote them, and I won't republish them with their minor revisions. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

I Loved the Noise

I loved the belted-out answers
Students abandoning raised hands
The wide grins because their thinking was good
It was good!
And someone finally told them so.
I loved the side conversation
The speed of the cellphones whipped out and hidden again
when I scowled
The kid who wrote down things I said out-of-context
and read the list at the end of the year.
I loved the groans about reading Shakespeare
The laughter about the innuendo
The lust for violence
The heartbreak at all the right places
The gnashing of teeth when we had to close the book for the day.
I loved the writing
And the writing
And the begging for a little more time to write,
The desperation to share
The feigned reluctance to do so
Which, when overcome, melted like wax
Remolded into something obviously rehearsed
Beloved, approved of by all.
But mostly I loved the noise
The energy expressed in an increasing buzz of volume
And the challenge of giving directions
Without making that urge to noise
That will to think out loud
Go away completely.
“But” they said.

“Everyone seemed to be on task
Interested, engaged, invested

It was too loud in your class.”