Friday, July 31, 2009

Web Stuff Friday: Geeking Out

WolframAlpha is simply amazing. Check out this video overview from Stephen Wolfram himself. People with whom I work view this tool with a mixture of fear (kids will cheat) and awe (we and our students will be able to do so much with this amazing tool).

Geeky Computer Part Art has some interesting art.

A Gallery of Geeky Galleries has some very cool images.

Speaking of geeky stuff, this is a great T-shirt:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Arguments for Year-Round School

I know I'm tilting at windmills, but.... Ever since I was a teacher, I have wished we had year-round school. When I taught, my main reason was so that I could have a decent snow skiing vacation, but now I have more reasons. I was reminded of the benefits of year-round school when I read Year-Round School? My Kids Love It. Yours Will Too by Brigid Schulte.

I know our traditional school schedule has little hope of changing on a broad scale any time soon, but there are some really good reasons it should:

Less forgetting time: Our summers are too darn long. Kids forget so much over the summer that every school year starts with refreshing kids' memories after the long break. I am not guessing here. There is real research to back this up. For instance, Harris Cooper's paper: Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions. Here is one snippet:
... summer learning loss equaled at least one month of instruction as measured by grade level equivalents on standardized test scores-on average, children's tests scores were at least one month lower when they returned to school in fall than scores were when students left in spring.
A continuous culture of learning: As it is now, kids learn from September to May and play from June to August. Yes, I have excluded June from the "learning" side of this equation because by June, many kids and teachers are so burned out that they have lost energy. There is also a cost at the beginning of the school year. Aside from reminding kids about what they learned, teachers also have to get the kids back into the habit of learning. The gear shift from a long summer to the beginning of the nine-month journey through school can be a jarring one.

More opportunities for help: If a kid is struggling at the end of the first quarter of Algebra, the kid is probably doomed to three quarters of unhappiness. Courses that are progressive in nature (e.g., math, reading, and some sciences) can be miserable for any student who struggles at the beginning. With a year-round schedule, a kid who is struggling at the end of the term has time between terms in which he can catch up and prepare for the next term. There is less need for repeat summer school when kids can be given help along the way.

I have no doubt that year-round school is more expensive than our current agrarian model, but if we are serious about improving education, I think it's a smart investment.

Besides, I want to be able to take my kids to Breckenridge for a week of skiing in March.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Affirmative Action Still Relevant?

In a recent opinion piece in the Post, Shelby Steele posits that Affirmative Action Is Just a Distraction. His post-racial position is interesting, but I don't completely buy it.
We blacks know oppression well, but today it is our inexperience with freedom that holds us back almost as relentlessly as oppression once did.
Some who read the piece might think that Steele believes that discrimination no longer exists. I would like to believe this, but I simply can't. I agree that discrimination is not the dominant problem facing black America, but I am quite sure that discrimination exists as well. Oppression held back our forefathers, but we still don't live in a world without discrimination.

On the other hand, Steel says:
Today's "black" problem is underdevelopment, not discrimination.
Amen, brother. Discrimination still exists, but I don't think it is what holds us back. For instance, It's sad that the black New Haven fire fighters didn't score higher on the test, but why did they score so more poorly than their white counterparts? Could there be differences in preparation? Educational level? What about the test?

Could there be racial bias in the test? I suppose so, but what does that look like? I'd like to see an item analysis of the test. What is it that the blacks and Hispanics missed? Were there questions about NASCAR? Was there a swimming component to the test? Were there questions about how to maintain a Prius? In this day and age, I am genuinely interested in what racial bias looks like on a test in a way that is not class/socioeconomic bias. If the only result of Ricci v. DeStefano is for blacks and Hispanics to collectively sigh "oh well, racism is alive and well," then we have all missed an opportunity to learn from a failure. We all need to dig down and figure out the real causes of our squandered opportunities.

Blacks in America have lots of soul-searching to do. What's holding us back? In general, it is not overt racism, but what subtle racism holds us back? How can we help ourselves move forward? Now that the overt racism has faded, I think we need to keep an eye out for more subtle bias, but mostly we have to take the ball and run with it. I am not saying that there is no such thing as racism. I am saying that we need to move forward and take responsibility for our own development. Today's blacks need to seize the opportunities for which our parents and grandparents fought.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Health Care Pessimism

As I hear about Obama and Congress's plans for health care reform, I am encouraged by the fact that people seem interested in discussing these important issues, but remain pessimistic that the most important issues will be addressed. I was ruminating on this recently when I read a piece in the Washington Post: Focus on Health Savings Obscures Other Issues.

It seems to me that there are three major parts to our health care issues:

Coverage: Obama's efforts seem focused on coverage. Small government Republicans will probably resist any single-payer or pay-to-play efforts that give government more control over how coverage happens. From the administration's perspective, the upside to selling this sort of reform is that it doesn't impact the entire health care industry. It simply changes how the bills are being paid.

Inefficiency: We pay more than any other nation for health care, but do not get the best health care in return. I call this lack of correlation "inefficiency." The fact that other countries are getting more bang for their health care bucks implies that we should be able to decrease our spending and improve our results at the same time. Improving the efficiency of the system seems like an obvious goal, but the problem is that many corporations are making money from this inefficiency. Inefficiencies do not result in money floating off into space. Inefficiencies result in more people having unnecessary jobs. Inefficiencies also result in more executives and managers having fancy cars, houses, boats, and vacations than they should have. Improving efficiency is not difficult because it is hard to identify strategies. It is hard because the people who benefit from inefficiency like their jobs, cars, homes, and vacations.

The Tidal Wave: Health care costs are going to increasingly grab a huge share of GDP and the federal budget. Note that these are two separate issues. One (the GDP side) is tied to efficiency in general, while the other (the health care share of the federal budget) is tied to entitlements. The entitlement issue is a tough one: As the government works to increase coverage, that will put upward pressure on The Wave, while efficiency efforts will put downward pressure on The Wave. Ultimately, it seems to me that the only hope is to find ways to increase efficiency so much that increased coverage is more than paid for.

Note also that increased coverage (if done smartly) can drive efficiency up. For instance, providing better prenatal care could prevent costly post-natal issues. Providing better services to decrease obesity could prevent costly diabetes, back, and heart issues. Preventive care is efficient and makes sense, so why hasn't it been done more? Jobs, cars, homes, and vacations. We need to find ways to incent organizations (governments, hospitals, doctors, and corporations) to innovate in ways that drive efficiency up.

Addressing all these issues will be tough, but improving our health care system is a moral imperative that cannot be ignored.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Music Monday: TED Talks, Volume 5

Here is another installment of great talks from TED. These are talks and musical performances that are intertwined.

Evelyn Glennie: How to listen
She is a remarkable percussionist, who has the amazing aim to "teach the world to listen." The fact that she has been deaf since she was about 12 years old makes her even more remarkable.

Benjamin Zander: Music and Passion
Passion like this is quite infectious.

Pamelia Kurstin: Plays the Theremin
This woman has mad theremin skills.

Raul Midon: All the Answers and Tembererana
I saw this guy on a show hosted by Jules Holland. Quite remarkable.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Was OK With It Until I Saw the Hypocrisy

The recent scandal involving South Carolina's Governor Sanford caught my attention. At first, I thought "His private life should be private. If he's a solid politician, then that's all that matters." Frankly, I have often respected his resolve and his willingness to hold unpopular positions. Sleeping on a cot in his office was great. Refusing the federal stimulus money was kinda crazy, but I respected it.

Then, I read these quotes:
The bottom line, though, is I am sure there will be a lot of legalistic explanations pointing out that [he] lied under oath. His situation was not under oath. The bottom line, though, is he still lied. He lied under a different oath, and that is the oath to his wife. So it’s got to be taken very, very seriously.

I think it would be much better for the country and for him personally (to resign). I come from the business side. If you had a chairman or president in the business world facing these allegations, he’d be gone.

The issue of lying is probably the biggest harm, if you will, to the system of Democratic government, representatives government, because it undermines trust. And if you undermine trust in our system, you undermine everything.

We ought to ask questions…rather than circle the wagons for one of our tribe.
All of these are quotes from Sanford himself. The first three are about Bill Clinton and the last is about how the GOP should react to marital infidelity scandals within their own party (I think Bob Livingston was the topic of the day for that one).

I am not a fan of people being sanctimonious, but when people who act holier than thou turn out to be equally susceptible to weakness, it strengthens my cynicism.

Anyway, I know this is old, old news, but I drafted this when it was still current, then left it for a long time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Number of the Counting

I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I remember watching it on my tiny black & white TV when I was in high school, then watching it in the Quartier Latin in Paris, then in college.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my favorite movies. I have fond memories (from tenth grade) of watching it on channel 26 through the UHF snow on a tiny black and white TV while in my bedroom.

Later, I saw it in a theater in Paris' Quartier Latin. It was extra funny because all the college students up front knew English and laughed when I did throughout the movie, while the rest of the audience consistently laughed a few seconds later after reading subtitles.

I saw it again when I went to college, so it became a favorite source of quotes for many of us.

Anyway, one of my favorite parts from any Monty Python movie is the scene in The Holy Grail when they bring out the holy hand grenade.

Here is the original Holy Hand Grenade scene.

When I was looking for that original version of the scene, I stumbled upon a bunch of anime versions of Holy Grail scenes:
There are others, but the novelty wears off after the first few (much sooner for anyone who isn't into anime or Monty Python).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Longer Life, but at a Cost ...

The husband of a friend and colleague was quoted in an LA Times article: Permanent Diet May Equal Longer Life.

Page 1 of the article is all about how eating less is a great idea, but my favorite part is the quote from my friend's husband:
When UCLA evolutionary biologist Jay Phelan put mice on caloric restriction, he got the distinct impression that they didn't appreciate it.

"They bit people and were more agitated," he said. In contrast, the mice who ate a normal diet "would just sit around and let you pick them up."
So, eating less could extend my life by a couple years, but I'd be irritable. The way I look at it: "I'd live longer if I never again ate ice cream, but is it a life worth living?" Moderation is good. Starving myself is bad.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music Monday: Acoustic Guitar Versions of Familiar Songs

Aztec Camera: Jump (originally by Van Halen)
This is the first song I can remember in this genre. It's still one of my favorites.

Mat Weddle: Hey Ya (originally by Outkast)
Nice acoustic version of a song I like.

Travis: Baby One More Time (originally by Britney Spears)
Nice acoustic version of a song I can't stand.

Gary Jules: Mad World (originally by Tears for Fears)
Cool video for this one. I like the soul he puts into this song.

A Thousand Miles From New York (three guys on a bed): Santeria (originally by Sublime) and Killing Me Softly (originally by Roberta Flack)
I want to party with these guys! Seriously. I want them to jam in my basement. I will supply all the beverages and munchies they want.

Note that I have not included the particular sub-genres of jazz covers of rock songs (The Bad Plus do a great job of this) or lounge versions of songs (a la Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine who rock in an incredibly groovy way).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reston Blogs

I stumbled upon some other Reston blogs. Actually, let me re-phrase that: I stumbled upon some Reston blogs. (This is a "Reston" Blog in name only.)
  • Restonian: News and notes from Reston (tm).
  • GoReston: Reston Virginia's Community Blog
If you are looking to get involved in Reston stuff or stay up on Reston news, these sites seem like good places to start.