May 31, 2005

Form is the way   {Comments: 5}

Stanley Fish crows about his writing curriculum, and he's probably right to. He's getting students to really engage the analytical inner workings of language, which as got to be the best way to teach sentence-to-sentence writing skill (and he's right to marginalize the rest of writing, which can and should be handled elsewhere in a college education).

What struck me about his piece though was the extent to which these same skills are implicitly taught in a foreign language class. This is probably obvious, since foreign language -- albeit an invented one -- is the very pedagogical tool he's using; and yet Fish never takes that next step to look at where foreign language education can fit into the picture, pick up some of the slack. Learn one or two foreign languages, even at a relatively low level, and your English analytics go off the chart. It's true that foreign language classes don't confront this problem as directly or as elegantly as Fish's programme, and of course they require a significant commitment, but given that foreign language education is already institutionalized, why not call for its natural extension? I wonder if this is a careful compromise on Fish's part, calculated to favor Americans' xenophobia.

Questions of travel   {Comments: 2}

1. The latest edition of my sister Jackie's travel magazine The Long Trip Home has just come out; it includes (among other worthy travel pieces) some photos I took in Rome, and some great photos of Panama by my good friend David Sasso. You, by the way, can submit travel writing to The Long Trip Home -- the magazine doesn't pay, but it's both selective and established, so a published clip might have real value for an aspiring freelancer.

2. Ever since I saw this article last week about Aymaran hip hop, I've been trolling the web looking for mp3s, but no luck. I've contacted the folks listed on this page, so we'll see how that goes -- but if anybody has any idea where to find Wayna Rap online, well, I'd be prepared to offer a handsome reward for information leading to its capture.

3. This is almost a month late, but Gates of the Mountains has a very reasonable-looking recipe for mole up. My own experiences making mole have been guided by Rick Bayless, who is meticulous and authentic, but often impractical. Gates's recipe includes most of the same ingredients, but a lot of the peculiar prep is omitted, and I'm guessing it will go a lot faster.

May 23, 2005

Left behind   {Comments: 2}

I don't talk much about my work here, but here's an article that presents essentially the same story about preschool that we're trying to advance with the research I'm involved in. The idea is that more and more preschool has been about cognitive readiness (ie letter naming, counting, vocabulary) rather than social and emotional readiness. This circumstance is thanks in large part to the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates academic testing at various educational levels. For preschoolers it's not high-stakes testing, in the sense that the individual students never get held back based on their performance on the test; however, the results do affect the preschools themselves, particularly in the area of funding. This pressures teachers to teach to the test, likely at the expense of whatever they were teaching before NCLB came along. And in preschool this means social and self-regulatory skills -- skills that (according to the article) are vital for later academic success.

The project I work on puts mental health consultants in the classrooms, not only to work directly with kids on their self-regulation skills, but also to work with teachers and administrators on developing strategies for teaching these kinds of skills. My job is on the research side, managing various data collection efforts and doing the analysis to see what the effects are.

MORE: Allison makes the point that pushy parents might be partly responsible for overstressing academics and cognitive skills with young kids. This seems reasonable enough, but I'm guessing those kids who have parents who push them academically already have a lot of the social and self-regulatory skills the article is talking about (since, after all, they have supportive and engaged parents). I should have mentioned before that the research I do is only with disadvantaged kids in some inner-city Chicago neighborhoods -- kids whose parents are less likely to be supportive and engaged, for whatever reason. My sense is that these are the kids the article is talking about -- kids who might not be getting those preliminary behavioral skills at home, but are nevertheless pushed to perform academically so that their Head Start can keep its funding.

May 19, 2005

The index   {Comments: 0}

Caleb McDaniel (via Paul Musgrave) has an eye-opening post on Google Print and what it means for scholarship. I hadn't given it a serious look until now, but the quantity of information available on some of the more obscure searches I could conjure was impressive. My one question about it is organization -- Caleb emphasizes the skill needed to devise an intelligent search, but the presentation of results is a far less subtle point that could dramatically improve we read and interpret all this information. Right now it seems to operate with on old-style keyword relevance, rather than any kind of imputed authority (a la PageRank). This arrangement might work for scholars, but the information hardly seems accessible if it come in a disorganized avalanche.

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about Wikipedia. He has some reservations about it because of the way it relies on the passion of those who write the entries; this is a problem for him first of all because some topics (those with no enthuisiasts) are left out while others are emphasized, but also because passion poisons objectivity. What's interesting about this though is that it works -- passion turns out to be a successful organizing principle, because it's a good surrogate for authority. It's not perfect, obviously, but the information certainly isn't random -- rather it's carefully structured, at least as much so as in Encyclopaedia Britannica, even if the guiding principles are different.

I'm not suggesting that this particular scheme be adopted for Google Print; but keyword relevance is antiquated, and there might be more opportunity for innovation here than just on the dimensions of library size and access speed. Does this mean I'm unsatisfied with the way information is presented in libraries now? Absolutely -- call it laziness on my part, but in every sense besides the actual access to print-published content, the searchable internet is organizationally superior to any library. Now that we're putting these print publications on line, why can't we adapt our organizational advances to the new (!) resource?

May 16, 2005

Uncurtaining the night   {Comments: 1}

So, I'll probably be writing considerably less here over the next few weeks. There are plenty of reasons for this. We're in the process of finding a new home, which is a more taxing process than I expected. Work is getting busier as the school year nears its end. And then there's the fact that my writing here has felt really forced and uncreative lately... blogging less frequently will help with that, as will concentrating more on one or two of the creative projects this blog has kept me away from. Don't worry, I'll still be posting -- just not with the kind of day-to-day discipline I've tried to maintain here for the past several months.

May 14, 2005

You and I   {Comments: 0}

You rely on what I say about you (as do I).
You use me for my purposes I'm ignorant of.
You are given to utter what I must intimate.
You are the Urtext: I have done the illustrations.
You are the ultramarine in which I am enisled.
You are the ultimate: I'm intermediate, and so
If you are Ithaca then I must be Ulysses;
I roam indiscriminately toward your urgent shore,
I learn inductively what is understood for you.
I improvise over your recurring undersong.
In and out my mind moves while you have your ups and downs.
I illuminate the darkness that you usher in.
I am a bad liar; you are as good as your word.

--John Hollander, from Powers of Thirteen (see also here and here)

Munificently beneficent   {Comments: 0}

Via 3quarksdaily, The Economist has a good article about various ways the environment's occasional contribution to industry's bottom line is starting to be protected. The area around the Panama Canal is privately (but collectively) being reforested; wetlands are being valued as water processing facilities. This sea change isn't attributed to a newfound recognizition of the economic value the functioning environment can provide, but rather to new valuation techniques. Putting a dollar value on the ecological services rendered by the environment makes it possible 1) to decide whether they're worth protecting and 2) to make someone pay.

The big problem with these efforts is not the striking practicality of their valuations (although that's what will probably offend most people), it's that they don't go far enough. In particular, there is almost certainly value being missed in this calculations, because they focus exclusively on the direct economic impact on industry. But what the economic impact on individuals or society from the standpoint of entertainment, aesthetics, or ecological morality (ie conservation)? These are notoriously difficult figures to calculate, but not including them means undervaluing the revelant environmental good -- which, from an economic standpoint, means the system is inefficient. So: keep tinkering with valuation, but look also for ways to include values that aren't directly economic.

MORE: I should explain further what I mean by the environmental value that's being missed here. Within a purely economic context, you have the value of something to people who use it. So in Chicago, some residents might go swimming in the lake, and you can quantify the lake's value to them for instance by seeing how much they'll pay to swim, including the opportunity cost of swimming etc -- the cost of a day at the beach. But there might also be value just in knowing that one can go to the beach -- there might even be Chicago residents who never go swimming who nevertheless like living in a city where it's possible to go swimming (as opposed to, say, Erie PA). This could be true on the scale of the whole country as well -- so, there might be some value to me in knowing that there isn't a mountain anywhere in this country that's filled with nuclear waste, even if I don't actually go to all the mountains in the country.

These kinds of values aren't caught by the valuation schemes in the article, and yet they are (arguably) quantifiable and presumably quite large in the aggregate. And of course there are other values that are more complicated yet to quantifiy -- moral value, whether it has to do with some kind of spiritual outlook on the part of millions or just ecological respect.

May 12, 2005

Cluster solutions   {Comments: 3}

In re this new study (via Political Wire) can anybody shed some light on this?

A statistical cluster analysis was used to sort the remaining respondents into relatively homogeneous groups based on the nine value scales, party identification, and self reported ideology. Several different cluster solutions were evaluated for their effectiveness in producing cohesive groups that are distinct from one another, large enough in size to be analytically practical, and substantively meaningful. The final solution selected to produce the new political typology was judged to be strongest on a statistical basis and to be most persuasive from a substantive point of view.
In particular I'd like to know what exactly their statistical methodology is for creating these clusters. It sounds a lot like the confirmatory factor analysis we use in the educational research I do, in that the goal is to confirm a preexisting theory about the relationship between factors. But I guess cluster analysis is about creating taxonomies rather than illuminating causal relationships (even if the stated goal of the technique is to "organize observed data into meaningful structures" -- what exactly does meaningful mean in this context?).

Anyway, no surprise I was classified as a liberal.

May 11, 2005

Some heavenly music   {Comments: 0}

One reader is furious with the article on Shakespeare I linked to yesterday for its spotty scholarship, and in particular for this sweeping idea, which is apparently an extension of Coleridge, but with a new historical tint:

[H]is plays at their most powerful are out of sync with both Shakespeare's epoch and ours, and so can't be explained fully in terms of the past they sprang from or the present in which we encounter them. What drives his drama is the dream of a dispensation whose advent we still await, the prospect of a future free from the division and domination that crippled Shakespeare's world and continues to cripple ours.
And I agree that this idea isn't all that compelling on Shakespeare's universality -- why introduce an ideal (this dream of a future) against which to measure the most universal literature we have? It complicates matters needlessly. The best of Shakespeare needs no external ideals; in fact, it sets them aside in favor of something more human. Harold Bloom, in his big book on Shakespeare, is closer to the mark:
The idea of Western character, of the self as a moral agent, has many sources: Homer and Plato, Ariustotle and Sophocles, the Bible and St. Augustine, Dante and Kant, and all you might care to add. Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness. Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and Hamlet, and of all the other persons who throng Shakespeare's theatre of what might be called the colors of the spirit.
This is typical Bloom, probably also overreaching, but still getting at the powerful idea that Shakespeare helped define our sense of what it means to be a person in the first place -- and that he didn't need any external ideal to do it.
May 10, 2005

Overt grammatical subjects   {Comments: 1}

Languagehat links to a hilarious and yet oh-so-informative essay that's primarily about the use of the word fuck -- and it makes me wonder whether there's (more) serious scholarship on this sort of thing. "Bad words" have got to be one of the most functional, versatile, and creative areas of language, and here we have a fascinating essay -- but hidden behind weird pseudonyms and apparently published on somebody's personal website. It's not that I don't find these deceptive pleasures entertaining or ironic; but they make it too easy not to take this sort of thing seriously. Maybe there's a literature on this that I just don't know about?

UPDATE: A reader points out that the Quang Phuc Dong piece above is from the late 60s, which probably makes my musings above a bit moot... but of course it's still worth taking a look at the piece itself.

It takes a camera   {Comments: 2}

1. It turns out real estate agents do significantly better on average when they're selling their own homes. This is too bad (we're in the process of selling our condo through a realtor right now) but it's hardly surprising that realtors do better with bigger incentives. An analysis of how realtors selling their own homes do versus other non-realtor owners doing the same would be at least as revealing, I'm guessing.

2. Barrett of TMC reviews Alinea, the new Grant Achatz restaurant here in Chicago that some previewers suggested might be the best news restaurant in the country. Barrett asks (and answers, more or less) the question on everybody's mind: "Is Alinea better than its city rivals Charlie Trotter's and Tru?" (UPDATE: That should read "the best new restaurant in the country" -- although from the sounds of it cooking the news wouldn't be that far afield at Alinea.)

3. In trying to explain just what makes Shakespeare unique, this book review ends up sounding a lot like this aticle I linked to last week.

4. This Wired News piece (via Gapers Block) gives some great police-perspective background on Chicago's surveillance fetish (see also here and here). I have to admit that since I've started working on the west side of Chicago, my attitude toward those flashing cameras has improved somewhat -- they do seem to be reducing crime in the targeted areas, and I usually feel safer around them. But I still don't know how that benefit stacks up against the psychological effect of having to grow up underneath an anti-crime camera.

5. And via Metafilter, here's a cool java applet on the history of sampling that lets you explore the relationships between different albums over the past 50 years or so.

May 9, 2005

Big lie   {Comments: 0}

Last Thursday night the image of Mary under the Kennedy Expressway (aka Our Lady of the Underpass) here in Chicago was defaced by a true believer with shoe polish. The man responsible has since been charged with "criminal damage to state supported property":

Gonzalez, 37, told relatives he believed visitors were worshipping a graven image in violation of the Second Commandment, said Mandy Gonzalez, who identified herself as Gonzalez's niece.

On Friday, Chicago police directed transportation workers to paint over the image with brown paint for safety reasons.

Painting over the whole thing with brown paint seems bizarre, unless maybe it's the standard procedure for dealing with graffiti on city property. But if that's the case, I don't understand what safety had to do with it. Maybe the idea was that the graffiti might make those who believe in the image angry -- but then isn't covering it with paint throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

As the last article explains, the shoe polish and brown paint have since been removed by a couple of big-hearted carwash employees. I suppose this is great for all the believers out there, but doesn't taking down that brown paint also constitute "criminal damage to state supported property"?

You could blow?   {Comments: 2}

Just wanted to take a sec to link to Arianna's new effort, which looks to be amusing at the very least -- are the Saudi oil rigs really rigged to blow? And is it really a good idea to launch your new blog with a post about self-destruct mechanisms? One has to wonder if Arianna has her own escape route planned...

The best thing Arianna's done is include so many different bloggers -- with so many folks blogging, there will always be something new on the site, and something of interest (since all the bloggers have some celebrity). A constant stream of new content is part of the reason group blogs are so successful.

But: in its current configuration I wonder whether the blog will build any kind of community ethos a la MetaFilter or some of the other massive blogs that can be the only real models in terms of size. Because she doesn't allow comments (for reasons I sympathize with: don't these folks bave enough exposure already?) it's a lot harder to respond to what other people are writing or (obviously) have anything resembling a conversation. This is not to say it's impossible to have community, nor that the site will necessarily fail if it's not a community site. I'm just wondering whether the attraction will be anything more than the usual American fascination with celebrity.

May 5, 2005

A different business model   {Comments: 0}

Here's a great piece on why rampant piracy doesn't have to be the end of the music industry, with insights drawn from the Chinese experience. It's a vision for digital music that I support completely, but there are still some interesting questions.

The biggest is this: music, thanks to its nature as a performance art, has built-in subsidiary value associated with widespread distribution -- that is, making promotional recordings available might well support a career in live performance for some artists. But how does this new conception of intellectual property deal with other arts, where there might not be any subsidiary value? Can a digital photographer find related work by allowing the free distribution of her photographs? A poet? Of course, poetry and even digital photography don't seem to be experiencing the same piracy crisis as music right now. But there's plenty of piracy when it comes to movies, and it's hard to see how releasing movies for free online will bring movie creators sustainable related work.

MORE: This will probably horrify a lot of people, but I don't know why government subsidy isn't on the table for dealing with digitization and piracy. What I mean is: if we can collectively decide that a particular art is a public good and allow it to be freely distributed, its production could be subsidized by the government instead of left to the market. This makes some sense, because technology is turning the production of some of these arts into a classic collective action problem -- nobody's willing to pay for them anymore, even though everyone wants them. Obviously deciding which artists and even which arts get the subsidy could be a problem, but there are ways of dealing with this (I'm thinking now about some kind of basic popularity threshhold). And I'm willing to bet moving to subsidies would actually cost less than the growing efficiency losses to piracy (including some soon-to-be drugwar-esque costs of enforcement) that we're facing under the current system.

AND: stAllio! has more about one of the organizations mentioned in the article.

The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message   {Comments: 0}

A man in terror of impotence
or infertility, not knowing the difference
a man trying to tell somthing
howling from the climacteric
music of the entirely
isolated soul
yelling at Joy from the tunnel of the ego
music without the ghost
of another person in it, music
trying to tell something the man
does not want out, would keep if he could
gagged and bound and flogged with chords of Joy
where everything is silence and the beating
of a bloody fist upon
a splintered table

--Adrienne Rich, 1972

May 4, 2005

Change vs more of the same   {Comments: 8}

Sorry for the lack of content around here. Things have been heating up at work, just at the same time we're about to put our condo on the market, so I've been pretty busy.

Meanwhile today I've been working on various changes to this site. Most of what I've done so far (there's more coming) has been pretty subtle, but there are two things I should definitely mention. The first is that I've expanded the blogroll considerably, mainly to jog my memory when I'm away from my bookmarks. A happy side effect of this is that the list now more accurately communicates the list of blogs (and other sites) I actually read and like.

The other major change is the merciless removal of timestamps from every dark corner of the site. This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time, just to make it a tiny bit harder for those who might care about such things to reconstruct my posting schedule. I don't know if it will have an effect on when I actually post or not.

May 3, 2005

Much that is apocryphal   {Comments: 1}

1. Here's yet another condescending fluff piece about Wikipedia. It's interesting that the internet as a whole seems to be accepted now, despite its lack of an editing authority -- responsibility has shifted to users. Is it really such a big leap to expect the same shift with Wikipedia? [via Explananda]

2. Raffi Melkonian defends the president's latest Social Security plan by telling us more about the practical-minded man behind it, Robert Pozen. What Raffi's defense misses is that Social Security's success and longevity has a lot to do with its initial political formulation -- reframing it as a redistributive program, regardless of the policy reality, would be a fundamental (and likely scuttling) change.

3. Lenka of farkleberries isn't happy about the moves to put RFID chips in American passports, although it seems that the State Department is at least somewhat open to implementing a privacy solution.

4. If only you could do this with English muffins!

5. Charles Curran, a prominent Catholic theologian whose critiques of "noninfallible church teaching" led to conflict with John Paul II and Ratzinger, speaks out about the experience and what the new pope means for the church.

6. And here's a great piece on Einstein's annus mirabilis, 100 years ago this year. The article seems especially appropriate in light of this latest discovery. [via 3quarksdaily]

May 1, 2005

Bush doubles down   {Comments: 0}

It would seem to be a safe bet that Democrats won't be lured in by Bush's (ostensibly) new approach to Social Security reform -- so what's he trying to accomplish?

First of all, everyone seems to be laboring (!) under the illusion that Social Security doesn't have a strong welfare component now. Actually, the status quo benefit calculation is highly progressive -- workers with low lifetime earnings get a much higher percentage of their month-to-month income replaced than those with high lifetime earnings. There are monthly income brackets -- Social Security calls them bendpoints -- just like in the income tax code: the lowest lifetime earners see 90% of their average monthly income replaced, while the highest earners end up with about 35% of their marginal average monthly income dollar.

But the perception has never been that Social Security is a welfare program, probably because the architects of the program knew that a welfare program wouldn't have the same political longevity. So, and individual's Social Security taxes are refered to as contributions, and those contributions end at a certain point each year for high wage workers (so the diminishing returns aren't too conspicuous). This is also why the benefits are tied to a tax on wages instead of pulled from general revenue, even though the disctinction is blurred by a labyrinthine intra-government borrowing arrangement.

Bush's recent repositioning on this issue is provocative. By emphasizing the progressive configuration of the benefits cuts he proposes, Bush seems to be reaching out to Democrats. At the same time though, he's starting to unravel the rhetoric of contributions and accounts, so that the focus of the Social Security program becomes the welfare of the elderly poor. Eventually (ie if his new rubric catches on) this will stand in stark contrast to Bush's own plan for private accounts, which will end up having the same stated purpose as Social Security did at its inception. Essentially, it's an attempt by Bush to destroy Social Security in the long term by altering its rhetorical/ideological underpinnings.