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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Peabody Square on Chronicle

It was great to see my neighborhood featured on Channel 5’s Chronicle this evening! And no, it wasn’t because of crime, but because of diversity and the new transit-oriented development near Ashmont Station. The episode, called “Happenin’ Hoods,” included a segment on a “Boston neighborhood that combines the best of the old and the new”: Peabody Square, Dorchester. What came across was a neighborhood with lots of elegant old housing stock, an excellent restaurant, new condos and rental apartments, and — most importantly — a rich diversity in racial groups, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and income levels. In this part of Dorchester nobody blinks at an interracial gay couple, and that’s how we like it.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In the Woods

It had to come to an end at some point. The experience of listening to the audiobook version of In the Woods, by Tana French, was a constant delight that enveloped me for 21 hours over a period of more than two weeks. Much of the credit has to go to narrator Steven Crossley, who brings the entire narrative to life, including an array of a dozen major characters who all sound distinct and true-to-life in Crossley’s reading. It’s a total pleasure to listen to him.

It’s also a total pleasure to be captivated by the gorgeously poetic language of Tana French, whom I don’t otherwise know as an author. The heightened intensity of her words couldn’t possibly continue for 21 hours, and of course it doesn’t, but quite a number of passages read more like poetry than prose. All of this occurs in the context of a novel that looks like a police procedural but isn’t really. It’s actually a psychological novel about introspection, the effect of early experiences, and interactions among well-developed characters. Some reviews have missed the point and have criticized French for not following all the conventions of the mystery genre. But it’s unfair to criticize her for not writing a different book! In the Woods doesn’t follow the mystery genre because it’s not a genre novel. Like a number of other examples of serious literature, it adopts the framework of a police procedural but has an entirely different program. I don’t want to reveal any of the details other than to say that the narrative takes place within a homicide squad of a modern Irish police department. Definitely read it — but don’t expect everything to be nicely tied up at the end as you would anticipate in a conventional mystery!

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Salt of the earth

Barbara and I went to Sel de la Terre to celebrate her birthday yesterday. As always, the food and service were excellent, though I found the entire experience a bit pricey: $200 in total, including wine (one of the least expensive bottles on the wine list!), tax, and tip. And then there was the parking, an astonishing $34 for anything over 80 minutes at the garage (which is shared by the Aquarium, an Emack & Bolio’s, and a Legal Seafoods restaurant). We hadn’t realized that valet parking would have been a bit cheaper, although the expected tip would eat up most of the difference. Maybe this won’t be an issue once Sel de la Terre moves to the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. But anyway...back to the food...

For our first course, Barbara had giant white prawns, which came with spinach, creamy polenta, bacon, and greens. She reports that it was all delicious, as long as she could ignore the fact that the prawns came with their heads on. I had flatbread pizza with caramelized onions, spinach, lamb bacon (!), Comté cheese, fried capers, and créme fraiche. It sounds overly elaborate, but all the flavors melted seamlessly together to create an excellent dish.

Barbara then had steak frites with asparagus, cooked perfectly and very French. My main dish was described as follows on the menu:
Braised lamb shank with spring bean cassoulet, merguez, caramelized rhubarb and sweet onion compote.
I’m not sure how much merguez there was, but everything else was there in perfect balance — a great combination.

The service was wonderful. Perfect, you might say. The waitress was friendly without being intrusive, knowledgeable but never pretentious, and attentive without hovering.

Not surprisingly, we had no room for dessert and both of us even had leftovers to take home. I suppose it was worth the $200 for a once-a-year (or perhaps twice-a-year) experience.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Boston Trolley Meet

Just got back from the Boston Trolley Meet (actually held in Somerville, not Boston). This event, sponsored by the Boston Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, offered a combination of layouts, dealer tables, and field trips. The actual exhibit provided a good balance between “real” trolleys (mostly historical material on the prototype) and model trolleys (mostly layouts and rolling stock). Unfortunately the layouts focused almost entirely on the trolleys themselves, with very little in the way of scenery or structures, and the rolling stock was almost all very expensive, so I didn’t buy any. (I’m not in the market for a $300 trolley car.) It will still useful — and fun — to look through the various books, posters, maps, and DVDs, and to see how the various layouts presented working models of trolleys in tight spaces.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Technology in school

No, this isn’t another one of those essays about the usefulness of technology in teaching math. This is a response to a fascinating post in Heather’s Comparative Childhood blog, in response to a newsletter from her daughter’s middle school. Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:
Cell Phones, I-Pods, MP3 players, any other electronic devices are not permitted for student use at any point during the school day. If these items are seen or heard during school hours, they will be confiscated and a parent will have to pick up the device from your child’s house office.
This seems pretty reasonable, especially since the careful wording doesn’t prohibit possession of such devices, merely their use or visibility during the school day. And, of course, it is a middle school.

Heather’s post includes the following observations:
Is there ever a circumstance in which the presence and use of an iPod (or cell phone or MP3 player or digital camera or gameboy or fill-in-your-electronic-device-of-choice-here) is justifiable in a school setting? I guess I’m taking the perspective of the teacher on this one. There is nothing more annoying than someone’s cell phone going off during a lecture. And there is nothing more rampant in university settings than “creative” new ways to cheat during examinations. I can’t believe that the use of electronics for cheating begins at the college level.

My understanding on the ban of cell phones in public schools was that it was originally put in place to prevent drug deals going down on the school premises. But now cell phones could be used for anything from covertly cheating by sending text messages to voyeuristic photography in the ladies room to remotely setting off bombs. I won’t waste my space here, but we need only use of imagination to think of the ills of other electronics in the school settings. Nintendo DS’s create their own network within a local range.
These are eminently reasonable comments, but I need to take a different point of view, even though Heather is trying to take the perspective of the teacher. Of course she’s absolutely right that it is annoying and disruptive for a cell phone to ring during class, and she is also absolutely right that they need to be prohibited during tests, as they can be used for cheating (as Weston students know all too well). But there are also too many valuable uses of these electronic devices for them to be banned entirely in school — at least in high school, and I suspect in middle school as well. At Weston High School we ban cell phone use (or even visibility) in the classroom, but not in the cafeteria or outdoor areas; iPod use is left to the discretion of the teacher. Cell phones are a valuable way for students and parents to get in touch with each other, so students should be allowed to use them outside of the classrooom. And MP3 players may help many kids concentrate in noisy situations or just when taking a test; while I certainly don’t allow kids to shut out the world during a class discussion or lecture, I think it can be valuable to do so when trying to concentrate on individual work. I admit that there’s a small chance that a student may use an iPod for cheating, but that’s a lot harder than texting on a cell phone, which is currently the preferred method among high-school students and Boston firefighters. Of course a variant of the method used by the firefighters would be very difficult to prevent in school settings:
...a group of Boston firefighters took turns going into a men’s room at the Quincy middle school and sent answers via text message on their cellphones to colleagues in the testing room.
We can easily prevent this precise method of cheating in school by allowing only one student at a time to go to the bathroom and by banning cell phone use in the classroom during the test, but how do we prevent texting between a student who goes to the bathroom during the test and a classmate who has already taken the test and is currently in the cafeteria during a free period? Temporarily confiscating cell phones at the beginning of the test is the method preferred by some teachers. That works well...except for kids who have a second cell phone hidden away.

And while I’m looking at Heather’s blog, let me recommend several of her recent posts, especially the ones entitled “Wow” and “What would Jesus do, indeed”.

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