Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fact check

Just lately I've found myself drafting little essays on significant issues, like divorce or welfare reform, only to find that I'm citing trends or "facts" for which I don't have immediate corroboration. They are probably factoids I picked up from books by people smarter and more footnote laden than I.

In previous times I might have been able to get away with bold assertions or casual references without fear of immediate discovery . . . but the existence of Google and Wikipedia are changing that. I know that anyone who reads my blog will be able to find out my errors in less than a minute if I don't bother to check them myself. Though many pundits malign the web for its profusion of false information, it is still remarkably good at ferreting out blatent errors.

I never completely realized how uninformed my opinions are . . . or, I should say, how little I remember of the facts that originally formed my opinions. I hope I'm not merely wallowing in my own blind prejudices, but until you have a discipline to expose your thinking to scrutiny, you don't really appreciate it.

My friend Kenny had a good way of illustrating this dearth of information. He would ask people: "Are we spending enough on education?" And most people would say, "No, we're not." And he would ask, "Well, how much should we spend?" And most people would give blank stares. "Ok, well tell me this," Kenny would continue, "how much are we spending now?" And, ninety-nine times out of hundred, most people would have to admit they had no idea how much actually did get spent on education, or where it went, or how much it compares to other countries . . . nor could they really quantify how much more money was required, or make an intelligent case about why more money would necessarily solve the problem. So . . . how did all these people get the opinion we weren't spending enough? If they dug back far enough, I suspect they would find they were repeating the opinions of others that they had heard, and (for whatever reason) accepted.

So . . . ask yourself, next time you're sounding off at a party or chat room . . . "how much do I really know?"

A more critical appraisal of the Wikipedia

The New Yorker Magazine ran a story about the Wikipedia this week. It was, on the whole, a much more critical appraisal of the online contributor-run encyclopedia than I was used to encountering. Usually the criticism of the Wikipedia is either of the light-hearted variety (witness the recent headline in the Onion: "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence") or of the blatantly self-important and self-interested kind (like Britannica's visceral response to a study in the journal Nature that favorably compared Wikipedia to Britannica.) This was the first time I found an even remotely even-handed, thoughtful attempt to recognize both the virtues and the limitations of the Wikipedia.

I think some of the criticisms were deserved, especially concerning the stylistic limitations of the Wikipedia articles. The articles might be surprisingly accurate, but they are not always well-written, often lacking conciseness or even a consistent tone. But, to be fair, that is also consistent with the way people read material on the web in general. As most good web designers know, people don't read the web so much as scan it. The Wikipedia lacks style, not so much because the writers aren't capable of it, but because they really don't care that much about it.

The New Yorker article also spent quite a bit of time focusing on the Wikipedians' vehement disregard for expertise -- nobody's opinion is held in higher esteem because they are "an expert" in the particular field, which no doubt cheeses off the experts at every turn. I have yet to meet an expert who had positive things to say about any treatment of their field in popular media; there are almost no scholastic philosophers who enjoyed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Part of that is just the subtlety of their understanding; the "errors" that they find most galling not only could not be understood by most people, but even if they did understand them they wouldn't even know why the expert cared so much about it. I am very sympathetic to that point of view -- most intelligent people feel like they are constantly beset by idiots. But I also hear the rumblings of an entrenched intelligentsia that feels its legitimacy being challenged. And, on the whole, I am more sympathetic to the other side: intelligent, knowledgeable people sick and tired of scholastic condescension.

The best analogy I have for the Wikipedia is the stock market. The stock market is often wrong, often manipulated or deceived, with certain biases built into its estimation of companies . . . and yet, the open market is vastly superior to finding accurate valuations than any other centralized system you could imagine.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Deja Vu All Over Again

The Onion ran a story: "Non-Profit Fights Poverty with Poverty".
The big shock came to me in the picture: it looks, I swear to God, exactly like the Self Knowledge Symposium kids. If you told me this was a picture of the new SKS office, I would believe you.

I take some comfort from the fact that all small non-profits (and not merely my own personal favorite) struggle to do big things with small budgets.

A Priori Proofs for a Five-Year-Old

"Dad, is God real?"
"Yes, of course God is real."
"But how do you know God is real when you can't see him?"
"Well, there are lots of things that are real that you can't see . . . you can't see the air, but you can feel it's there."
"Can you feel God?"
"Yes, I can."
"How? Show me show me show me. Show me how to feel God."
"Well . . . it's kind of hard to explain."
"Show me show me show me."
"Well, you can only find God inside yourself."
"But I thought God was in heaven, and everywhere else too."
"Well, yes, he is . . . but you can only feel him inside yourself."
"Well . . . you know that you're Aidan. Right now, you know that you are."
"I don't like the name Aidan. I wish I could change my name."
"Ok, so don't even think about the name. Don't think, 'I am Aidan.' Just think 'I am', and know that it's true. That part of you, the part that knows 'I am', is little part of God inside of you."
"There's a little part of God in me?" (excited)
"And God helps me?"
"Er . . . yes."
"All of God, or just the little part?"
"I don't know. God is pretty mysterious that way. I don't know if he helps you only on the inside or on the outside too."
. . .
"Why is Hera so mean to Hercules?"
"Now that's really hard to explain."
"Aww, c'mon. I understood the stuff about feeling God . . . "

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Normal and the Good

I was reading in the Wall Street Journal today about the No Child Left Behind Act, and the way the statistics for "passing rates" were being manipulated to make it appear that the white-black gap in performance was decreasing, when in fact the only thing that was moving was the "passing" standard.

Politics aside, it calls out a problem with evaluating education . . . or evaluating anything, for that matter. We can measure the statistical performance of a group of people, and find the mean or median value, and call that "normal". It is "normal" for children in the eighth grade to read at such-and-such a level. But what does that tell us about how well the should be reading? Not much. Should, the normative standard, is not something you can determine from statistical distribution. No matter how you slice it, all children cannot be above average.

So . . . what should we expect our schools to do? The spirit of "no child left behind" would suggest that there is some minimal standard that nearly everyone, except the most recalcitrant and/or stupid, could readily pass. (Oops. I said it. I said that some people are stupid, or lazy, or otherwise incapable of being educated. Is that really possible? Well, of course it is. The only question is, how many? And can we do something about it?)

So . . . what's going to be our baseline level of high school education? College-readiness? Hardly -- college is not for everyone, and while we want to be sure a certain substantial number of kids are ready to go to college after high school, it's not the standard we apply to everyone.

I think the common-sense expectations most people have for public education are:
  • You should be able to read. That is, read a story from a newspaper or a manual, and be able to answer questions about what it said and what it means. Not literature, not poetry, not even political invective. Just read something basic and factual. And know how to look up words in a dictionary if you don't know them. I would stock the testing rooms with dictionaries.
  • You should be able to write. Again, nothing too complicated here, not even a five-section essay. You should be able to write directions on how to do something that you are familiar with. I don't care if it's instructions on how to sell crack; it's just got to be understandable and reproducible. Spelling would count -- you should be able to spell any word you use in ordinary speech -- but there would be absolutely no penalty for using simple language.
  • You should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide. You should understand fractions and decimals. No algebra, no trig, no geometry or calculus is required. Just enough to make change, split a check, make a budget.
  • You should be able to use a map. You don't have to pick out countries on a map that isn't labeled -- you just need to be able to look at a map, find a location when asked, and be able to describe a path to get there.
  • History, science, social studies: no requirements. That's all gravy. It's also acquirable if you have the aforementioned skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and maps.

Why make such a list? Am I trying to dumb down the standards? Is this "the soft bigotry of low expectations?" Nothing of the kind. The problem is that many of the public schools can't even achieve this modest level of education for most of their students. And I think the skills I've described should not take an eternity of standardized testing to deduce. Any employer can figure out in a matter of five or ten minutes whether someone possesses these basic skills. Surely, somewhere in the course of twelve years, someone could apply the same common-sensical tests for an individual student. Once you passed the test, you would never be tested again. If someone didn't agree with the outcome of a ten-minute test, they could appeal to take a more extensive written standardized test. But the majority of good-performing students would not have the continual burden of testing-testing-testing.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if there was a free market in the public education system. If people could decide where to send their kids, and choose better performing schools over poorer ones, then no standardized tests would be needed at all. The parents can figure out for themselves which schools are better or worse. That would be the most rigorous test of all.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ant versus Grasshopper

Remember the parable of the ant and the grasshopper? The ant toiled away in the summertime while the grasshopper played . . . but then in the winter the grasshopper perished, because he had made no provisions for the future, while the ant was snug and (probably) smug. Which just goes to show: history is written by the survivors. There's not a lot of subtlty to it: deferral of gratification is good, enjoyment is suspect and probably bad, and security trumps all other concerns.

I internalized this Protestant work ethic, this gospel-of-wealth attitude, very early on, and now it seems that most of my philosophic quandries are devolving into a basic Ant vs. Grasshopper debate. I used to think that Work was Everything. The only really virtuous enjoyment was the enjoyment of work. When I was miserable, I could comfort myself that those happy fools will not Amount to Much.

But Jesus didn't necessarily come down on the side of the Ants. Martha, the queen of the ants, didn't get the nod she was expecting. Work is good, but Love is better, and they aren't always on the same side.

The problem with ant-thinking is that it is very much stuck in time. It's hard to be in the moment when you're only thinking about next winter. And while the hardened-righteous ants are laying up their treasure in heavan (presumably) , there is a whole world of life that they are missing.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


There are some movies you can't properly enjoy with your spouse. Now, Janet and I have a very high degree of compatibility on the popular culture front, since I have a high tolerance for dramatic chick flicks, and she can watch action films like Batman Begins and still have a good time. But there are limits to that tolerance . . . on both sides. Janet had suggested The Ice Storm, based on reviews, and it had arrived from NetFlix. But now Janet was out of town for the next few days . . . I flipped through the scenes on the DVD, and watched just enough to see that it was going to be one of those aren't-human-relationships-fucked-up movies with too much sex and too few characters worth caring about. So . . . with no wife and nothing else to watch, I did what any self-respecting geek would do.

I rented anime.

Now, I'm not goofy about the minimalist style of japanimation. But grew up on Marine Boy and Speed Racer, which was enough to enoculate me to the peculiarities of the style. And then when I went off to high school, the co-ed lounge was populated with a cultish following of Star Blazers and other epic mech-laden series. So space anime has a nostalgic pull for me. And wandering through the Blockbuster, I saw the name of the one and only mech manga I had ever actually read: Appleseed.

It turned out to be suprisingly good. It was well-plotted, with a good mix of straight action, political intrigue, and interpersonal tensions. It avoided the primary sin of trying to douse the audience with too much exposition . . . at least until we had seen enough to get interested. The movie opens in media res with a fight in a ruined cathedral that was on par with The Matrix for cool choreography. Now, it used to be that the soundtrack anime fights were a long, monotonous series of grunts and yells ("Unhh! GGGGGGRRR! Ahhhh!"), but since the Matrix movies that seems to have been replaced with an unending, deafening barrage of machine-gun fire. No matter . . . the hardware is sexy and even the heroine is sexy. (How is it that anime women . . . ALL anime women . . . have chests out to here, and yet never so much as bounce? They must make titanium brassieres in the future.) The trademark immobility of faces is still there, and someone distracting, but I still enjoyed the character. There's something about young superhuman women, with big watchful dark shadowy brooding boyfriends. Maybe I'm enjoying Deunan and Briareos . . . or maybe I'm just missing Buffy and Angel.