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Friday, March 31, 2006

The Plot to Save Socrates

Just finished The Plot to Save Socrates, by Paul Levinson, an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying science-fiction novel. In many ways it’s in the classic time-travel genre, with the usual issues about preventing paradox and taking future knowledge back to an earlier time, but with an added dose of philosophy. What makes it intriguing — at least to me — is its premise, which is clearly indicated by the title of the book. Classical scholars from the 21st century (and elsewhen) return to ancient Greece; succeed in conversing with Socrates, Alcibiades, Heron, and so forth; and, unlike Crito, persuade Socrates to escape before drinking the hemlock. There’s a subplot involving clones that more-or-less makes all this plausible without violating the time-honored traditional that time travelers should never change history.

But the characterization is paper-thin, there are too many unanswered (and even unasked) questions, and too many actions are unmotivated by either psychology or physics. Nevertheless, I suppose I can live with T.M. Wagner’s review on sfreviews.net, which concludes with this paragraph:
For any other book, such shortcomings would likely lead to a harsher final analysis and lower rating than I’m settling on here. But I was sufficiently dazzled by the wealth of imagination and willingness to defy convention that Levinson displays that I just have to recommend the book to any and every SF reader looking for something truly original for a change. And if, like a good Socratic dialogue, it gets people arguing into the wee hours of the morning, so much the better.
Wagner is a bit more generous than I’m feeling, but it’s a legitimate point.

With my own interests in both mathematics and ancient Greek, I was fascinated by the extraordinary portrayal of Heron of Alexandria (often but erroneously called Hero — see the last paragraph of this post) and by the apparent ease with which modern scholars could communicate with ancient Greeks. I was fascinated, but I was also unconvinced. To math teachers, Heron is best known as the first person to discover, prove, and publish the formula for the area of a triangle given three sides. Many inventions are attributed to him, so why not time travel? Well, perhaps Levinson could have done more to make me willingly suspend my disbelief, but he did not provide the necessary scaffolding in this novel.

As for communication across the millennia, there are two major hurdles. One is just spoken fluency: I doubt that there are very many classicists who have conversed enough in ancient Greek to have developed the necessary conversational skills that speakers of modern languages can develop. The other is pronunciation: we don’t really know how ancient Greek was pronounced. Levinson jumps this hurdle by having his modern characters present themselves as speakers of non-Athenian dialects, and perhaps that would work. But I doubt it.
  • Finally, an aside on the name of Heron/Hero. Ever since the predominance of Latin in medieval and Renaissance Europe, it has been a tradition to latinize all Greek names. Occasionally we anglicize them (for example, changing Eukleides to Euclid, or Homeros to Homer), but they are more often latinized (Platon to Plato, Herakles to Hercules, Aiskhylos to Aeschylus). So I’ll have to admit that I’m being pedantic when I want to insist on the Greek form Heron rather than its latinization, Hero.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Who has time to read blogs?

“Who has time to read blogs?” asked one of my colleagues. She went on to guess that blogs can’t have very many readers, since no one has time to read them.

“Actually,” I replied, “some blogs have large numbers of readers. Not my blog, of course, but I’m sure I can find the stats. More to the point, it’s just not reasonable to question who has time to read blogs, when you don’t wonder who has time to watch television. The average American surely spends many hours a week watching TV, reading newspapers and magazines, visiting cnn.com, and so forth. Why shouldn’t you get some of your news and entertainment from blogs instead of from TV?”

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 32,000,000 Americans are blog readers:
8 million American adults say they have created blogs; blog readership jumped 58% in 2004 and now stands at 27% of internet users; 5% of internet users say they use RSS aggregators or XML readers to get the news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites as it is posted online; and 12% of internet users have posted comments or other material on blogs. Still, 62% of internet users do not know what a blog is.
It turns out to be very difficult to discover the most popular blogs. It’s easy to find out how many sites link to a specific blog — although even then we find that lists aren’t comprehensive — but it’s not so easy to count eyeballs. The data source that seems closest to being reliable is The Truth Laid Bear, which cites the following as the top ten:
  1. Drew Curtis' FARK.com 1064063 visits/day
  2. Daily Kos: Diaries 540623 visits/day
  3. Daily Kos: State of the Nation 507170 visits/day
  4. Overheard in the UK 457291 visits/day
  5. Gizmodo, The Gadget Blog 348256 visits/day
  6. Gawker, Manhattan Media News and Gossip 283158 visits/day
  7. Defamer, the L.A. Gossip Rag 194872 visits/day
  8. Eschaton 139789 visits/day
  9. Instapundit.com 133498 visits/day
  10. Pink Is The New Blog | Fingers Firmly On The Pulse
So apparently there’s no blog that gets more than 3% of those 32 million blog readers, but a couple of million eyeballs for a single blog is still pretty impressive!

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A student speaks out on MCAS

Michael Bendetson [real name used by permission] is a sophomore in my Algebra II class. Today he emerged from the first of many MCAS sessions with the observation that MCAS is supposed to promote education, and yet his math class had to be canceled in order for students to take this test. A couple of hours later, after the second MCAS session of the day, Michael pointed out that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is pouring a great deal of money into constructing, administering, and grading all those MCAS tests, and wouldn’t that money be better spent if we could simply give it to schools that need it?

Yes, indeed. It’s too bad that the No Child Left Behind Act requires standardized testing every year now.

See also my post of March 25.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Homework: punishment or reward?

More than 400 students at Weston High School are participating in the Relay for Life, a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society. Everyone is justifiably enthusiastic about this, since it’s a community effort supporting an excellent cause.

But that’s not actually what this post is about. This post is about the decision to reward each member of the team that raises the most money by giving them “free homework passes.”

What a bad idea! At least, if homework is what it should be, then it’s a truly bad idea. As I explained to a couple of my students, no matter how they perceive homework, it’s not a punishment. Eliminating it isn’t a reward. In fact, eliminating it is actually a punishment. For example, as I pointed out, suppose I tell you that you can skip an assignment without penalty, and then there’s a question on tomorrow’s quiz that’s based on something you would have learned if you had done that assignment. You do poorly on the quiz, so the so-called reward turns out not to have been a reward at all.

Homework isn’t busy work, at least not when I assign it. If a problem is on the homework, that’s because you’ll learn something important by doing it, or at least you’ll be doing some necessary practice. Of course there’s the rare student who can do well on tests and quizzes without doing homework, but “rare” is the operative word here — and even that rare student almost always gets B’s when he could be getting A’s. (I say “he” advisedly, since it’s always a boy who thinks he can get away with this.)

Anything that sends a message that homework is a punishment is sending the wrong message — or else there’s something very wrong with the homework. If I don’t have something important to assign, then I’m not going to assign anything at all. No one should give homework just for the sake of giving homework. No one should give homework just to fill in that blank space in the assignment list.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Birkenstocks

According to movie director Jason Reitman:
Nothing says “I want to tell you how to live your life” more than Birkenstocks.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Campaign for the education of the whole child

Schools must ensure every child has access to a rich array of subjects, including social studies, world languages, science, art, music, physical education, and recess, as well as reading and math... [T]he state must provide adequate resources to ensure that every child has access to the fundamentals that have consistently been shown to improve educational outcomes: small class size; quality early childhood education and early intervention programs; suitable facilities; teacher mentoring and development programs; up-to-date libraries; and desegregated schools.
Doesn’t sound very controversial, does it?

But it flies in the face of MCAS, No Child Left Behind, and other government-imposed high-stakes testing. Check out the source of the quotation: the Campaign for the education of the whole child.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Getting help from tutors and parents

“Everyone in Weston has a math tutor,” says my neighbor in Dorchester. “Kids in Weston do well in math because they all get help from their parents. And they all take math courses outside of school.”

Of course this is an exaggeration, but by how much? I figured I would collect a little data — not a scientific study, no randomness, no stratified sample, but data nonetheless. On an anonymous questionnaire filled out by all of my math students, I included several questions about tutors and parental help. These were sophomores and juniors in college-prep Algebra II and honors precalculus (our only math levels are honors and college-prep); I excluded my computer science class, and a couple of kids were absent, so the survey polled 65 students altogether.

The results were revealing:
  • Only 29% had ever had a math tutor. Only 9% of the college-prep students and 17% of the honors have a math tutor this year.

  • Only 4% of college-prep students and 19% of honors had ever taken a math course outside of school.

  • 30% of college-prep students and 24% of honors ever get math help from their parents:

    Get help from...College-prepHonors
    Just mother13%2%
    Just father17%14%
    Both0%7%

  • On a separate note, 24% of the honors group rank themselves as being in the top 10% of Honors Math IV, and a whopping 52% of the college-prep students rank themselves as being in the top 10% of their Algebra II section. Similarly, not a single student in each group ranks herself or himself in the bottom 10% in algebra skills. And we are confirmed in the general impression that Weston is Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average: 92% of the college-prep group rank themselves in the top 50% of their group in algebra skills.

    Self-confidence is a good thing, I guess. But realistic self-assessments might be even better.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Toast

Just finished reading Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast. Don’t bother.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Two kinds of skepticism

As I mentioned in my post of March 11, some interesting issues were raised on the unfortunate March 10 episode of Numb3rs. There was no explicit mention of the dispute between two kinds of skepticism, but that was actually the underlying theme of the episode.

The premise behind the show was that a soi-disant psychic was helping the FBI. Charlie was of course dismissive of the whole thing, pointing out that psychics are charlatans. But Larry, the physicist, claimed that a skeptic should maintain an open mind about paranormal phenomena even though there has never been any scientific evidence for it. Therein lies the dispute: if you have no evidence on either side — no evidence for and no evidence against a phenomenon — how do you decide whether to believe in the possibility of its occurrence?

As I said in that March 11 post, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or at least some evidence. If Griselda claims that she had pizza for dinner on Monday, I have no reason to doubt her. I may also have no evidence for her claim, but the response of a proper skeptic is to ask what toppings she had, not to challenge the claim and say that I can’t possibly believe that she had pizza on Monday unless I have some hard evidence to support this hypothesis. That’s because Griselda’s statement isn’t an extraordinary claim.

But if she says that she ate flamingo tongues on Monday, I will doubt her. I will not merely take a neutral position — no evidence for, no evidence against. Because this is an extraordinary claim, the burden of proof shifts to her side, and the properly skeptical view is to say that I don’t believe it.

One of my students reports that another teacher claims that some extraordinary amount of Internet traffic — 76% maybe, I just don’t remember — consists of pornography. If the claim had been 10%, I might have looked for evidence to support it, but with an outrageous claim I feel no such compulsion. The burden of proof is in the other teacher’s court, not mine.

So how does all this relate to people who claim psychic ability? I know perfectly well that there has never been a shred of scientific evidence behind such claims, so my appropriate response is not neutrality but outright doubt. Despite his name, Larry is wrong. Charlie is right.

And how does this relate to two kinds of skepticism? In the Numb3rs episode, Larry was the moderate skeptic, Charlie the radical skeptic. Moderate skepticism preaches keeping an open mind about everything that has not been explicitly disproved, even if it’s an extraordinary claim for which there isn’t any evidence despite a great many advocates. Radical skepticism is what I have been describing above and is best represented by the popular magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer. Radical skepticism is often derided by its opponents as “scientism,” and indeed its meta-principles often seem like a religion. But it’s what belongs in a scientific framework, unlikely the wishy-washy moderate skepticism that leads to travesties like “intelligent design,” which would be fine in a religious school but not in a science classroom. For the same reason, a show that features the benefits and uses of mathematical thinking should never have stooped to sensationalistic pandering by making ESP seem plausible.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Taking the mission seriously

Earlier this year I tried to figure out whether I had a common mission in all the math classes that I teach. Here’s what I eventually came up with:
To empower all students to represent the world quantitatively and to reason about it logically in order to solve problems.
I’m not 100% satisfied with this, as it short-changes the important theoretical abstractions of mathematics, but I think it’s a good first cut. Comments are welcome.

But my immediate issue isn’t the necessary fine-tuning of the statement; it’s the problem of how to take it seriously. Like all mission statements, it suffers from an overload of buzzwords and seems destined to be put away on the shelf. Do you recall George Orwell’s comments in his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language”? (If you haven’t read it, do so ASAP! If you have read it, read it again when you get the chance.) Orwell makes this observation:
...modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy... If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
The abstract writing of most mission statements leads them to be ignored. This is the problem that we have with Weston High School’s Statement of Purpose; almost everyone likes it, but nobody does anything about it. Here’s what it says:
The mission of Weston High School is to challenge all students to excellence, promote a climate of respect and support, and encourage and facilitate the growth, abilities, and talents of students, so they will live healthy lives characterized by reflection, responsibility, wonder, daring, and enthusiasm for life-long learning.
And then there are the twelve “Expectations for Student Learning”:
All Weston High School students will...
  1. Think critically
  2. Communicate effectively
  3. Respect themselves and the school community
  4. Act responsibly
  5. Work collaboratively
  6. Use current technologies
  7. Maintain a global perspective
  8. Contribute positively
  9. Accept challenges
  10. Value learning
  11. Strive for excellence
  12. Discover joy
It’s hard to argue with all of that (although it’s surprising how controversial #12 turned out to be). But have we done anything systematic to try to implement the purpose statement and the twelve expectations? Not that I can see.

So that’s the real problem that I have with my own mission. How do I take it seriously? Not in the abstract, but in my actions. In the press of every day’s immediate demands, how do I keep my eyes on the point of the whole thing?

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Turning back the clock

One of the many virtues of writing in a wiki is that previous versions of a document are always readily available. I’m still trying to get used to this.

Want to turn the clock back to the way your document was last week — either just to look at or as a replacement for the new version? Piece o’ cake. How about the very first version of your document? Just as easy. And clearly useful.

So why does it feel so strange?

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Murder Room

Just finished listening to the audio CD version of The Murder Room, by P.D. James. It makes an interesting contrast to the Greg Bear novel that I discussed in yesterday’s post. (No, I don’t find it confusing to listen to one work of fiction during the day and then read a different one the same evening, except in the rare cases where the two are set in the same milieu.) This typically long P.D. James novel (432 pages in the hardback version) is representative of her work in all other respects as well: nominally a mystery, it’s more of a police procedural, and still more of a mainstream novel rather than a genre piece. Characterization and psychology matter more than plot. Descriptions are loving expounded in detail. There are numerous conflicts other than whodunit. As with other novels by the now-83-year-old James, it’s not exactly light reading — or light listening in this case. If the attention flags, you miss something important, usually about a person, not a plot point.

An Audio File review of the audio CD edition quoted on Amazon says this:
Charles Keating is expert with both the narration and the wide range of characters. He is particularly talented at creating accents and speech patterns that illuminate personalities. While he is generally better with male voices than female ones, that is true for many male narrators and isn't a serious quibble. An utterly involving listen.
I couldn’t agree more. The characters definitely come alive, especially the male ones: it feels more like watching a play than listening to someone tell a story.

And I suppose I have to quote an excerpt from the review in the Independent, also found on Amazon:
In a sense, James is the last of the great Golden Age crime writers. She has an instinctive grasp of narrative: despite the leisurely prose, the shocks are beautifully handled. The plot purrs along like a well-designed and well-maintained engine. James writes with rare authority about the civil service, the police and the justice system. She also does an exceptionally good corpse — she never cheapens the physical appearance of death, but describes it with both respect and clinical attention to detail.
I’d rather write my own review, but I can’t top that.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Darwin's Children

I’m currently reading the last chapter of Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children, the sequel to Darwin’s Radio, which I read last month. I wish I liked this one better than I do. You know how sometimes you have the experience of watching a movie or reading a book or listening to a music of music that you want to like but just don’t actually like? That’s the way I feel here.

I liked the first novel in the series well enough to start reading the second, and I liked the second well enough to finish it, but... Darwin’s Children just doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t engage me — either intellectually or emotionally. As with most other science fiction novels, the ideas here are more important than the character development — but that fact doesn’t in and of itself bother me, since I enjoy science fiction despite the typical lack of fully fledged characters. So I’m having trouble articulating just what it is that’s bothering me. Maybe it’s that this sequel to Darwin’s Radio just isn’t very interesting. When I don’t particularly care about what happens to the characters, when I don’t particularly care about what happens next in the world being described, then I can’t very well recommend the book.

But I’m still trying to figure out why this book doesn’t feel like good science fiction. The science is convincing, and the author writes well enough, so what’s wrong? I am driven to the question, “What is science fiction all about?” Let’s see what a half dozen of the experts say:
“Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science).” — Brian Aldiss

“Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology...” — Kingsley Amis

“Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.” — Isaac Asimov

“That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” — also Isaac Asimov

“The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along...” — John W. Campbell, Jr.

“A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” — Theodore Sturgeon

“Science fiction is that branch of fantasy, which, while not true to present-day knowledge, is rendered plausible by the reader's recognition of the scientific possibilities of it being possible at some future date or at some uncertain point in the past.” — Donald A. Wollheim
I can live with all these definitions. I don’t disagree with any of them. So Bear definitely succeeded in writing a science fiction novel. I just wish he had written a better one.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Not surprised by model railroading

One of my students was surprised — not to mention perplexed and amused — to hear that one of my hobbies was model railroading.

“Why are you surprised?” asked one of his classmates. “He’s a math and computer science teacher — of course he’s into model railroading!”

Statistically speaking, the second student is surely wrong, since not very many math teachers are also model railroaders; but in principle he’s right on target. Indeed it’s not surprising if somebody interested in math is also interested in model railroading. Model railroading is all about scale, it’s all about representation of the real world, in short it’s all about models — and to a large extent that’s what math is all about.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

If the IRS had discovered the quadratic formula

As you’re sitting there figuring out your taxes, take a look at what the quadratic formula would look like if the IRS had discovered it.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A billion is a substantial number

According to an Associated Press article, dated yesterday, “a billion is a substantial number.” I don’t think we can disagree with that.

But the context is, shall we say, a bit implausible:
Federal authorities investigating a man who smuggled money into the country have seized 250 counterfeit bank notes in billion-dollar denominations... The 250 bogus Federal Reserve notes had 1934 issue dates and were stained to make them look old, but no such currency exists, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
Really?

But the article continues:
Scam artists typically sell phony government bank notes at a discounted value or use them as collateral to secure loans or make purchases. “A billion is a substantial number. We want to ensure that no one was duped or fleeced by the passing of these documents,” Kice said.
So you walk into your local Target and hand them a billion-dollar bill... no, wait — that’s a different story....

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pi Day

Today, of course, was Pi Day. One of my mathematically devoted students not only baked brownies decorated with the digits of pi — only a small fraction of them, alas :-) — but also brought in a CD of “Mathematical Pi” for the class to listen to (at 1:59, of course).

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Monday, March 13, 2006

George Bush, student of English

One of my students is having great difficulty understanding the abstract ideas of additive and multiplicative inverses and identities, especially in the context of matrix algebra. Finally he’s so frustrated that he exclaims, “I feel like George Bush in an English class!”

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wiki values & learning curves

Why am I finding it so difficult to get used to be a writer on a wiki, not merely a reader? There’s something about the whole process that still feels alien to me. Somehow the learning curve seems unnecessarily steep. Just a thought for now — more later.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Skepticism is a virtue

One of my tenth-graders gleefully tells me about a CS professor at the University of Wisconsin who held a contest in which he challenged others to “hack” into his Mac, and someone did so in 30 minutes.

At least that was this student’s claim.

But he got the story slightly wrong. The truth was, well, ever-so-slightly different. The person who “broke in” already had an account on the machine, so he just used his regular username and password.

Oh.

Here’s what really happened:
A university systems engineer who presented a "hack-my-Mac" contest closed down his own challenge on Tuesday, saying that even after 4,000 log-in attempts and two denial-of-service attacks, his Mac mini remained untouched... Schroeder said the system drew attention and lots of traffic, with 4,000 attempts logged. The Mac withstood two denial-of-service attacks, brute-force SSH dictionary attacks, numerous Web exploit scripts, and uncounted probes by scanning tools.
So what’s the important point of this story? The minor point is that Mac OS X is far more secure than Windows. But the major point is that a really smart and well-educated high-school student could get the story so wrong. Apparently he naively believed an unsubstantiated and inaccurate report that this guy (who already had a password) had “hacked into” a Mac. Now of course my student wanted to believe the false report, just as I wanted to disbelieve it. I told him (and his class) afterwards that they need to be skeptical of accounts that make implausible claims: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or at least some evidence!

The moral is to be skeptical of what you read.

Related issues on yesterday’s episode of Numb3rs — more thoughts later on this subject, along with remarks about the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The Nobel Laureate

We got to hear a lecture by a Nobel Laureate today: Dr. Frank Wilczek, co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Physics. He came to speak to all Honors and AP science students at Weston, as well as interested faculty. The experience was definitely worthwhile, even though a majority of the talk itself was incomprehensible. But at least he used Keynote on an iBook, and we enjoyed his video and slides of the Nobel ceremony.

Interestingly enough, the talk became slightly more understandable when I attempted to tell others about it. And it’s not every day that one gets to hear a Nobel laureate and shake his hand.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

The exam compromise

We’ve reached a compromise — of sorts — about the exam issue. We’re going to have a dedicated exam week, so that’s a major victory. But only the Math Department wanted to hold all its exams at the same time! It’s incomprehensible to me, but the other departments (not just English) wanted them held by section. That means that if a teacher has two sections of a course, one A Block and one H Block, the students will be taking the identical exam three and a half days apart! Sounds to me like a recipe for trouble. The parochial response is that it isn’t our problem, since the math exams will all be given simultaneously, but I predict wide-scale problems. One problem is that there will be a huge amount of cheating, since there’s no way to prevent it. A second is that parents and students will (justifiably) complain, because some students will have two or even more days longer to study for the same exam. How is this fair?

(Also, it sounds like a nightmare for correcting.)

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Black History Month Assembly

Interesting Black History Month assembly this morning. (I know, Black History Month was last month, but we’re a little behind the clock here.) Usually these assemblies consist of performances and readings by Weston students, but this year it was different: the Jubilee Singers from Newton North High School performed several spirituals and gospel numbers, and then we all watched “Far From Home,” an excellent documentary about one of our former Metco students.

Interesting contrasts between Boston and Weston in both contexts. Two examples:
  • the director of the Jubilee Singers attempting to extract enthusiastic non-Weston-like responses from the cool audience

  • a comment in the film about how Weston kids have tutors, evoking a knowing laugh from the audience

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Problems in integrating programming into math

A month ago, I posted an entry that included the following bullet item:
We’ve made a valiant effort in our project of integrating computer programming into the regular math curriculum, but we still have far to go. In particular, programming is not integrated into enough units; it’s too scattered, and as a result a student may go a whole year without doing any. Last June, three of us delivered a paper at the TeachScheme Tenth Anniversary Workshop, in which we made the point that programming should be a regularly available tool at a student’s fingertips. But no one will develop enough facility to make this possible unless programming is a regular, not sporadic, part of the curriculum.
That’s the problem; recently I’ve been pondering the solution.

The incremental solution is to hold another summer workshop, in which we follow up last summer’s workshop with a sequel that involves more teachers for more days. If it’s funded, that would allow us to create additional modules. More important, it would give us time to identify and steal appropriate modules already written by teachers in other schools. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if suitable modules have already been written and posted for public use.

So that’s what I call the incremental solution: we gradually add more and more modules, and eventually we reach a critical mass. But it probably isn’t the right solution, and it almost certainly isn’t the most effective one. For it implies that the mere existence of a sufficient number of materials will result in the desired curriculum reform. And that won’t happen, since too many teachers are too busy and their curricula are too full: “If I’m going to add this, what am I going to cut out, and when am I going to learn the material thoroughly enough so I’ll be comfortable using it?”

So how will we change teachers’ mindsets? How will they become willing to drop or condense some topics? Or see the programming material as another approach to learning the existing topics (not as something extra)? And have the time to become comfortable with materials? We need something more than the incremental solution.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

A revised scenario

A follow-up to my post of Saturday, 3/4:

How’s this for a (slightly) revised course scenario?
You are a Special Agent of the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) assigned to a new group set up jointly with the FSA (Federal Security Agency). The group is called the K Gang Task Force.

Your job is to investigate and decode secret telephone calls and email messages that are being sent between members of the K Gang, a group of criminals and spies who are suspected of committing the following six acts over and over again:

  1. Taking drugs out of Freedonia.
  2. Smuggling them into the United States.
  3. Selling them here.
  4. Using the profits to buy important documents from dishonest low-level officials in various government departments.
  5. Selling those documents to BGG (Bad Guys Brigade).
  6. Using the profits to buy more drugs.
And so on...

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Wikipedia and epistemology

There’s a fascinating article about Wikipedia in The Village Voice:
... Larry Sanger, a philosophy grad student at Ohio State University, ... acknowledges that the site is “very cool.” But as a philosophy professor with a specialty in epistemology, he is concerned about the way it is seen in academic circles. The problem, he writes, isn’t that Wikipedia is unreliable. It’s that librarians, teachers, and professors will always perceive it as unreliable. It’s too open to “trolls and fools.”...
Read the whole piece!

And speaking of epistemology, do people in different disciplines perceive the nature of truth, credentials, and interpretation in significantly different ways?

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Is the real world too scary for kids?

To what extent do fifth-graders need to be protected from the so-called “real world”? At The Saturday Course I teach a cryptology class to public-school fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who have been identified as gifted and talented. There is some concern that the fictional premise behind this class — called “Codes, Criminals, and Spies” — may actually be too real, that the kids’ parents may consider it too scary for tender young minds. Here’s the premise:
You are an FBI Special Agent assigned to a new group set up jointly with the National Security Agency (NSA). The group is called the K Gang Task Force.

The NSA has been intercepting secret telephone calls and email messages that they believe are being sent between members of the K Gang. Your job is to investigate and decode them. These criminals and spies are suspected of committing the following six acts over and over again:

  1. Taking drugs out of Afghanistan.
  2. Smuggling them into the United States.
  3. Selling them here.
  4. Using the profits to buy important documents from dishonest low-level officials in various government departments.
  5. Selling those documents to Al Qaeda.
  6. Using the profits to buy more drugs.
And so on...

I originally designed the course back in July. When one of the the first batch of students (in September) asked me whether the NSA would need a warrant to intercept phone calls and email messages, I assured them that of course it would.

I guess that’s why the story is fiction.

But the question is whether I should replace Afghanistan with Freedonia, and Al Qaeda with some other made-up name. What do you think?

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Friday, March 03, 2006

What's the matter with kids today?

Those of us of a certain age recall a song from the musical Bye Bye Birdie (originally a Broadway show starting in 1959, subsequently a movie): “What’s the matter with kids today?” The song was written 48 years ago, but of course the lyrics still work in 2006. Its impact in the late ’50s and early ’60s came about in part from its timelessness: while our parents might be uttering this complaint about their baby-boomer children, we knew perfectly well that their parents must have had similar complaints about them.

And now, of course, in the ’00s we once again hear adults — parents, teachers, politicians, etc. — producing the same sentiment. But those who think that all teens today are irresponsible, selfish, and uncooperative should try being a fly on the wall at the meetings of our Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC), a committee of Weston High School administrators, faculty, and students. At this month’s PAC meeting, three separate groups of high-school students delivered proposals for different activities. The specific proposals don’t matter here; what matters is that the presenters and the student PAC members were so genuinely concerned, thoughtful, articulate, and responsible. Maybe they’re not typical, but listening to them would certainly restore one’s faith in “kids today.”

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

No driver's license? Something must be wrong!

In a tone of shock and amazement, one of my sophomores asked me, “Did you hear that our new principal doesn’t have a driver’s license?” Several of his classmates chipped in, in a similar tone. Apparently this was supposed to be some kind of scandal: how was it possible for someone not to have a license?

Had Anthony Parker done something wrong, for which he had lost his license? No, of course not: it simply turns out that he grew up in New York City and had never learned to drive. Perfectly normal in New York, but clearly unacceptable in Weston.

Stephanie V. Siek’s Boston Globe article that reported this issue was actually very reasonable. More than reasonable, in fact. Anthony Parker is currently learning to drive, but that wasn’t the thrust of this excellent piece, which recounted Parker’s journey to his present position. What’s most important is the last two sentences of the article:
Does Parker see a role for someone with his passion for social justice in one of the state's most privileged communities?

“Social justice is something that concerns all of us and makes us an activist wherever life has put us,” he said.
Right after I accepted my own job offer from Weston ten years ago, I checked into the possibility of getting there by T. Unlike our new principal, I’ve had a license for decades and am comfortable with driving. Like him, I prefer public transportation. Of course it turns out that public transportation is un-Westonian. Not only are the nearest commuter rail and Green Line stations pretty far from the high school, but there’s also the schedule to consider. The commuter rail is apparently meant only for the convenience of people who live in Weston and work in Boston, not for reverse commuters like me. The first train from Boston arrives in Weston long after school starts in the morning. Sigh.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The exam controversy continues

A month ago, almost to the day, I posted an entry entitled, “Can exams reduce stress and be otherwise helpful?” I cited the following advantages to a dedicated final exam period:
  1. On a given day, students can focus on one or two exams, without other obligations such as regular classes getting in the way. Stress is reduced, not increased.

  2. Students are prepared for the process of reviewing and connecting large amouns of material for an exam, which they will have to do in college.

  3. Students aren’t left with the artificial attempt to continue working in a course after they have taken a so-called “final” exam.

  4. Teachers have time to correct exams, since they’re not teaching classes at the same time.
At today’s faculty meeting we finally had the chance to respond to the fleshed-out details of such a proposal. Not surprisingly, there was more than a little opposition, though we may still have a majority in favor of the proposal. The opposition centered on an aspect of the proposal that I hadn’t even been thinking about: some teachers object to holding all the exams in a given department on the same day at the same time. In math we’ve been doing that for years, largely for the same reason that SATs, American Math Competitions, and MCAS are given on the same day at the same time across a school, across the state, and even across the nation: it promotes honesty and security by greatly reducing the opportunity to cheat. So why do some teachers object to this idea? Because they want to give an alternative assessment that they need to hold within their own class, rather than a multi-class exam that isn’t even proctored by a student’s own teacher.

Is it only in math that there are students who cheat? Somehow I doubt it.

Won’t kids need to be prepared for long, proctored exams in college, with a great many students in one room? Sure, in high school they prefer to have their own teacher in the room so they each can ask 42 questions, but is encouraging this opportunity any kind of preparation for college? Our returning alumni say no.

We have to hope that there is enough support among the faculty so that the administration will be comfortable with eliminating our current hybrid system (where we try to hold exams within normal class periods, while other subjects are attempting to teach regular classes). As long as students are surreptitiously studying for next period’s History exam while making a pretense of being in English class, they will be doing a disservice to the History exam, to the English class, and, most important, to themselves. A dedicated exam period is the way to go.

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